Martha King purports to be that troubling and rare thing, an honest writer. There are plenty of writers who claim to serve the cause of truth, but most of them, particularly the successful ones, achieve that end through dishonest dealings. How could it be otherwise, when dialogue that convinces on the page must be as far removed as possible from the interchanges of real human beings, when the people that stir us in our daily existence turn out flat as roadkill in fictional form, when any attempt to understand our own lives in a novel-esque structure must immediately be consigned to the wastepaper basket as the worst juvenilia?
King does not write bad dialogue, drippy stories of everyday heroes, or rambling autobiographical exercises, but she does make a frequent point of refusing to deceive. When she exploits stylization to achieve her ends, she shakes the card from her sleeve, so we have a chance to see the joker’s hat pointing out beneath her cuff. And when she is moved to sentiment, she gives way as is fitting. This combination of traits makes her an odd, impossible author, a homey/hokey postmodernist.
See, for example, ‘Weekend Accounts,’ from her short story collection North & South. That story alternates a straightforward account by an unhappy houseguest in an unhappy home with the narrator’s reservations and asides concerning her own molding of the experience. For example, from the story proper:
Now I’m Invited. And Nan is constrained to respect me, to flatter me, and to expect that I will not break any of the rules and treat her as Roger’s wife. I am expected to understand that she is not a wife…. She is expected to understand and she expects herself to understand that I am not a threat to her sexually and I am not a threat to Roger professionally. I am a colleague.
I had the eerie feeling she’d rehearsed these formulae to her bathroom mirror that morning, before my bus was due, while she combed her fine hair down and put it in place with that heavy silver barrette.
And from an interlude:
This story takes too long, piece by hourly piece. The vividness of it eludes me: Nan’s eager pale fine-boned face; the way her neck cords tense as she speaks. Ruth with the yellow color of sleepless nights, and puzzled seriousness.
I’m the writer of it and I’m bored.
Well, but. The interlude is seemingly meant to underscore the fact that, if the fictional form necessarily distorts the truth of the narrator’s experience, the narrator will not submit. She will tell the truth, even if she must break her form to do it.
But in the same breath that she announces the inadequacies of her form, she belies those inadequacies. ‘The vividness of it’ has not eluded her; she iterates that vividness immediately. So why does she break form? Or, if we admit that one hardly needs an excuse to toy with traditional structure these days, why does she present that act as occasioned by a deficiency that we can see does not exist? Is she using a pretence of honesty and transparency to deceive? As other writers use deception to tell the truth, does King use the truth to tell lies?
What King is really doing in ‘Weekend Accounts’ is cautioning us rather heavily against being taken in, particularly when honesty is the bait. It is in the interludes that are assigned the task of ‘transparency’ that she patently, deliberately deceives. ‘Are these explanations providing the speed I need here?’ the narrator asks, as with that question the story lurches to a confused crawl.
Are readers likely to be grateful for this low-key didacticism? Are King’s machinations so subtle that the warning is necessary? Do the interplays between surface and subtext and the upside-down implications of each make this a better story? Possibly all three questions can be answered in the negative. It’s comforting, all the same, to be confronted with a witch who’s given up on casting spells. Not that comfort is the quality most recommended for literature. But it can, sometimes, be nice, and also an awakening.
Another way to be honest is not to be embarrassed. In ‘Inheritance 1946,’ King is resolutely unabashed. The story contains a good deal of interesting historical detail about the legal attitude to the insane and weak-minded in Virginia in the 1940s, and some tenuous and less interesting parallels with the state’s Black population in the same era. The narrator is deeply moved by the inmates of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded, and is unembarrassed by her own emotion, although, as she makes clear, she knows readers will squirm at her insistence on displaying publicly her mawkish gush of fervor:
The program today is going to be inside — in a sunny school room with tall windows down the whole left side, with a raised dais at the back, doubling as a stage. But there are no curtains, no backstage, and I’m horribly embarrassed at the lack of the theatergoer’s bargain, all the decorum of in and out, off and on, that allows a person to put off regular life, stand up in public and perform; that allows the audience to believe in what is shown.
There is no protection in this plain assembly room. It’s as if they plan to undress in public. I’m red and hot inside my clothing, squirming; I keep my eyes fixed on my sandals….
The first act is a tall boy, with carefully combed brown hair, singing about a broom. He sweeps as he sings and he forgets the words.
I freeze. I can’t breathe.
Someone in the front row tells him his lines.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he grins winningly. And starts up again, with absolute ease. He’s playing to the assembly, and loving it. It’s mastery….
Here a feebleminded boy stands in a sunny classroom, simply connects to us, and entertains. I’ve never seen anything like it. I applaud until my palms are red.
Despite this onslaught of sentimentality, ‘Inheritance 1946’ is not quite a traditional story. Two voices operate in it, melting into each other without warning: one, the child narrator quoted above, and the other, an authoritative adult, a reciter of facts:
[The terms ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ and ‘moron’] weren’t simple insults. They were medical categories. Well before 1927, these categories had been linked to specific scores on the Stanford-Binet Test. The scoring was based on the quotient between chronological age and a normal mental age established by the same test. A moron was smarter than an imbecile. Morons topped out at the low-normal I.Q. of 80, called ‘dull.’ Imbeciles were in the middle, and idiots, at the bottom of the scale, were said to have a mental age of less than five.
King’s rationale in playing with her narrators in this way, is simple, even sentimental, but compelling. She needs both voices to give an honest perspective on her subject: the child, guileless, accepting, compassionate; and the adult, angry, with the facts at her fingertips, but with the circumstances at a distance. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make for a better story — neither narrator is fully formed, giving them the sense of being tools selected for a predefined purpose, rather than characters evolving organically out of an inner logic — but it maintains King’s unsullied integrity as a truth-teller.
To maintain unsullied the integrity of this review by sticking grimly to the predefined thesis of honesty in Martha King’s work would be a disservice amounting to deceit. Any just evaluation of North & South must take into consideration her ability to capture, with photographic accuracy, the feel of certain environments, and to posit, with delicate care, the effects of those environments on their inhabitants. Under the heading ‘environment’ must come not only state, city, neighborhood, home, income, over the many manifestations of which she ranges with casual authority, but also time of life, co-habitants, and all the detritus of memory that takes up more space than an eight-piece bedroom set.
King summons atmosphere, not with any particular innovation, but with an exactitude that satisfies. ‘The Scene in 1958,’ for example, is in large part about environment, not in a deterministic, sociological sense, but as an inescapable and tyrannical force, as an expression of the needs and abilities of those who create it physically, and as a changeable, damning mirror of the self. The narrator, Melissa, suffers from a perpetual dull panic, a needling anxiety, a repudiating shyness. Her visit to her Catholic-school friend Rita, now pregnant and an adulterer and living in the (through Melissa’s eyes) decrepit and grim Lower East Side, is a torment. The vileness of the city adds to Melissa’s disgust and envy of her friend, and is a reflection of those feelings.
The hall was very dark; the old door tinned over. Shouts in Spanish floated up the stair well. A hum of human habitation. Radio music….
Rita pursed her lips and pulled Melissa inside. She wedged beside her to re-lock the door, her bulging body plugging the narrow hallway….
Rita had got behind her, and was pushing her toward a narrow archway. Melissa craned her head around, smudging the elbows of her tweed coat on the powdery calcimined walls….
Rita lowered herself onto a red-covered mattress by the window. Melissa sat next to her. Through the whitewash, patches and cracks danced ghostly on the walls. The window was uncurtained. Three wooden crates and a smaller mattress covered in blue completed the furnishings.
Inside, then, claustrophobia does battle with emptiness. To Melissa, the lack of care is as evident as the lack of money. The house is unheated, and Melissa persists in feeling the freezing cold though Rita wraps her in a sweater. The kitchen shelves are ‘warped,’ the pans ‘blackened,’ and there’s no food. Melissa spends the night in a hammock that lets go from the ceiling while she is sleeping, vulnerable, and she wakes screaming.
Outside are maze-like streets, ‘subways that whooshed and clattered in god only knew which direction … toward second-hand addresses, the possible friend of a friend, the possible promise of a warm welcome, some idea of direction.’ The city is a projection of King’s character’s inner landscape; as Rita tells Melissa: ‘It’s like this everywhere.’
The internal-external parallel is consistently and acutely drawn, but more compelling than the meaning behind the environment is the environment itself: minute, careful, and crisp in its details. The ‘steaming windows and waffled steel walls’ of the deli. The ‘capped jar of tea bags,’ a tiny pinpoint of domesticity. The heat oozing from the open oven door.
However, King simply isn’t as interested in rehearsing her strengths as she is in toying with the building blocks of a story: testing their limits, their flexibility, in a workmanlike, unpretentious way. But because she has her points to make, things she really wants to say in each piece, meanings that must be conveyed to the reader, she can’t take her experiments too far.
Some of these stories toy with form (in which is included voice, structure, point of view, and all artifices of the writer) in order to communicate. Some communicate about form. Some alert us to the fact that they’re communicating in spite of form. In some the form is contrarian, subverting the content. In some the form is prismatic, a reflecting, diffracting multiplicity that, clumsily handled, can be unintentionally blinding: not the blinding light of divine revelation, but the glare on the windshield of the driver who wishes to remain on the road.
But, despite the spotlight on form, none of the pieces give form a free hand to do what it will, to dictate the terms. This means that, some of the time, the elaborations of form simply get in the way, and trip up the narrative, the characters, the emotion, the message, in some cases even the moral that King is always working toward. That gives the collection as a whole a feel of having run its race with gusto, and then having dug in its heels and refused to cross the finish line.
Nonetheless, the indications of authorial probity are convincing. The failures of some of the stories — their slightness, their unproductive self-commentary, their sometimes overly conclusive endings, which dollop on emotion or summary like a cherry on an ice-cream cone — may be the inevitable compromises made by a writer, an artist of deceit and coercion, who respects what she regards as her audience’s wish to remain free and independent.
Reading King is a little like watching a magic-picture show with the windows open and the sunlight and street sounds streaming in. Much better to draw the blackout curtains, lock the exits, snap off the lamps, and firmly press each willing prisoner into chairs specially selected for their angles to the screen, the deep hollow of their seats. That dark, seductive prison does justice to the magic. But a little fresh-air fanaticism, a vigorous spring cleaning of readers’ sophisticated expectations and delusional desires will after all do no harm, and may do some good.
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