Friday, September 22, 2017

Anything is Possible – A blessing or a curse?

Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Anything is Possible, seems to me to be her bleakest offering yet.  I have written about her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, which I used to teach personality theory, and this book is structured like that one – every story has some tie – usually many of them – to a single character, but in Anything is Possible, Lucy Barton, about whom Strout has previously written a novel, does not shows up in every stand-alone chapter if only to breeze through as Olive did – in fact she only appears in person in one of them.  There are ties to her – and all of the other characters - in every chapter, though.  Sometimes the ties are are obscure and it is only when the chapter is almost over that we realize, “Oh, that’s the same Charlie who she talked about in the last chapter,” and sometimes we don’t even realize that the selfsame people are being referenced.  Some of the interconnections are so obscure that we are only likely to catch them on a second reading.

So the ghost who is at the center of this book and ties all of the short stories together is a novelist who grew up in the most psychologically and economically poor family in a small psychologically and economically impoverished farming community in Illinois.  She became an unbelievable success and now appears on talk shows and regularly churns out best sellers.  So, we have our first experience of “anything is possible”.  But I‘d like to start at the end of the book, where the phrase is actually used for the only time, to explore the phrase’s underside, which this books seems to explore over and over and over in a variety of ways and with subtle gradations, but with a consistent, haunting theme of decay and demise that belies its surface message of hope.

In the final chapter, one of the truly successful “graduates” of the next small town over, who is one of Lucy Barton’s cousins and used to eat garbage with her out of the dumpster when he would visit in the summer, is now living a comfortable life in suburban Chicago.  Abel Blaine is prosperous, running the heating and air conditioning company that he inherited from his father in law.  He is now a grandfather who has had a heart attack, and he is watching an annual production of A Christmas Carol that he has seen many times before with his family.  Scrooge is played by a bad actor who has been panned in the suburban news that morning and there is a power outage in the middle of the play.  Abel is hungry – he missed dinner because he was late from the office and when he gets home from the theater he wants to spend time with his granddaughter rather than eat, but then he discovers that his granddaughter has left her plastic pony at the theater.  He returns to the theater where the actor playing Scrooge is alone there, lets him in, and then corners him in a locked room, taunting him and decrying his own failures and acknowledging the he, Scrooge, turned off the power remotely in the middle of the performance to introduce chaos into the room.  Lucy’s cousin (and we) sees that Scrooge is unhinged just before Abel has another heart attack, which motivates Scrooge to call 911.  As the cousin is being carried away by the medics, he is struck that the interaction with the Scrooge character was a genuine interaction – and he imagines that, because of this genuineness, they are friends.  The novel then ends ambiguously, suggesting that he feels anything is possible – perhaps meaning that he can die and be free of life’s encumbrances or that he can live and look this man up and begin a relationship with him.

This book continues, in the wake of Lucy Barton, to be a meditation on the need for a writer, but more importantly a person, to be honest true and genuine and the complicated consequences of doing that.  Lucy Barton, the author in the book – and some kind of alter ego of Elizabeth Strout, the author of the book – continues to exhort people who watch her on TV to write truthful sentences.  This is, I think, a moral directive that was given to Lucy Barton by one of her revered writers when they had a chance meeting in a bookstore.  And the truth is that anything is possible – you can eat out of a dumpster when you are a kid (as Lucy and Abel did together), become fat and happy as an adult (as Abel has done – Lucy is lean and not happy but she is also successful), but also that you could then die hungry and lonely in a strange theater where you finally feel connected to someone – someone who appears to be unhinged.  And this comes in the wake of feeling, early in the conversation, that you are just saying the lines – as you felt the actors were doing in the play.  Then you begin to speak honestly – and so does Scrooge – and you are now in your own little Christmas Carol – seeing the past, the present, and, perhaps, the future. 

So, yes, anything is possible, but would you want the eventualities this would bring?  Those who postulate the existence of infinite universes caution that there is then, an infinite number of ways in which misery can be expressed.  But I think that Strout is proposing that to be the case within this one universe of ours, with its infinite possibilities, but also realities – realities that are harsh and lonely.  And, I think, she is proposing that the hope – and I think this is a very American Dream hope – that anything is possible – is a cruel hope – one that keeps us hanging in there, hoping against hope that the next relationship, the next job, the next moment, will bring happiness.   That hope is never quite realized, but we manage to squeeze enough juice out of it to keep us going – we realize that we don’t need happiness, perhaps all we need is hope, but that means that to honestly and directly articulate our experience as it actually is will deplete us of that hope and leave us withered and alone, as impoverished as Lucy Barton ever was in the worst moments of her childhood.

This feels to me to be an awful and cruel vision, but also, on some level, a true one.  We build dams against time, we accomplish a great deal, but in the end, we have also built dams between ourselves, we are isolated and alone, and what we cherish – what we hunger and yearn for, is not what we have invested ourselves in pursuing.  We have been distracted by shiny objects, we have worked to protect ourselves when protection wasn’t needed, and we have thus alienated those we love. 

As I have posted on Elizabeth’s books twice before, and the last time I did, a friend sent me an interview with Strout about her writing process.  Strout does not map out a book ahead of time.  She writes bits of it as they come to her, in longhand on pieces of paper and she arranges the pieces until the book has formed itself.  She writes from within her characters and allows herself to be distracted, when writing Lucy Barton, for instance, by Lucy’s acquaintances, and to write about them when they come to her, and by the time she has finished the one book, the other is almost written as well.  In that process, I think that Strout is searching for truthful sentences.  And she uses these as building blocks to write truthful stories. 

I think that we can sometimes write stories – and deceive ourselves in the process.  They have happy endings.  Don’t get me wrong.  Happy endings are a good and maybe even necessary thing.  In my profession, Dr. Karl Menninger exhorted us never to underestimate hope – the kind of hope that the phrase “anything is possible” engenders.  But I think we also have to be truthful.  I think that sometimes in these posts and sometimes in my work with my students, my patients and in my role as a parent and a spouse, I am less than truthful.  I want to believe that anything is possible.  And I think that Strout is pointing out the essential role that hope plays – but also that it can veil the truth of the thinness of the life we are living from us.  We can live for tomorrow – for the American Dream to play out – but in order to do that, as a recent spoken word artist pointed out in her performance – we have to be asleep.  And sleep walking through life creates holes where filled spots should be. 

In another part of the interview,  Strout maintains that this book is partly about the people who stay.  Most of them are women are she is writing about a time when women had to stay – when it was harder for them to leave.  And I think she may be talking about the things that help them stay – the ways in which they promise themselves that things will get better.  But she gets that this is not just the phenomenon of the woman – Abel has been making himself stay at his job and with his wife – though he does get moments of pure pleasure with his granddaughter – when he is doing what he wants – when he is feeding himself what he is truly hungry for.  But these moments are few and far between.  Because they are possible, we hang in there.  And even in our dying moments we hope for more of them and they end up being enough to sustain us – but, truth be told, there are times when that is all they do, sustain us – they keep us hanging on until we can find the next moment that will provide some sustenance – never enough to fully satisfy, but enough to keep us alive.

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I have previously posted about Strout's other books My Name is Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge.

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