A grim new example of fiction looking deeply into emptiness

On Books

January 16, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

For almost a decade, Alice Elliott Dark has been widely regarded as a promising writer. Now comes "In the Gloaming: Stories" (Simon & Schuster, 286 pages, $23). The title story was first published in the New Yorker. It was made into two films, one of them the 1997 HBO movie directed by Christopher Reeve and starring Glenn Close. It had been previously republished in two significant anthologies. Her "Naked to the Waist" collection was published in 1991 to admiring reviews.

Those credentials are powerful. Her new book demonstrates with consistent if not faultless craftsmanship that Dark is a disciplined, intelligent, accomplished writer. Nonetheless, it leaves me with a sense of disappointment that is close to anger; there is not enough of the real substance of life to make the characters into people I can -- or, I believe, morally should -- care about.

This work painfully dramatizes the most troubling conflict now at play in serious literature -- not only in America, but beyond it, too.

It's too simple to insist that all great literature and indeed other great art forms look outward instead of inward. But that distinction is a useful point of departure.

Even strong self-examining work (Proust, Joyce, Kafka) tends to look inside lives with rich or varied experience. By and large, literature that endures is filled with reportage. Its core consists of observations of an external world and of relations among people -- people in the cauldrons of events, real-world conflicts and turmoils.

That conviction (which I recognize is not universally accepted) is why I find increasingly appalling the flow of memoirs being published in America. Many -- perhaps most -- are narcissistic, vapid, without engaging substance. They have little if anything to impart in the way of unexpected insight, provocation, emotional nourishment -- the jobs I believe art exists in order to do.

(The exceptions, notably, come from people of courage and accomplishment -- Katherine Graham's extraordinary autobiography, John Bayley's profoundly loving memoirs of Iris Murdoch's, his wife's, decay into Alzheimer's.)

Catalogs from writers' schools and clinics and workshops and summer programs tout course after course devoted to just such exercises: encouragement to adolescents and recent post-adolescents to endlessly examine, on paper, their entrails and souls.

Into this debate come Dark's stories. The celebrated title tale is about a mother in love with her dying son. It's almost perfectly crafted, convincing, touching -- and very sad. The sadness is far less a matter of death than of the sadness of empty human beings. Every life in it is presented as having no expectation but to become emptier. This is powerful stuff, and Dark tends the material with deftness and respect.

And so go the rest of the stories. Lonely people, needy people, unhappy people. The third story, "Dreadful Language," is a long piece examining a young woman defined by hollowness. It's a rich tapestry of three generations of lives -- but no one in the story seems to have even the faintest capacity for courage or any appetite for sustained commitment.

Many of these pieces are set in a suburb called Wynnemoor, peopled by securely privileged, tribally self-certain, old-blood Anglo-Saxons. Their eccentricities tend toward excessive fondness for house pets and surreptitious, casual, almost meaningless adulteries. The characters are self-indulgent, self-afflicted -- with no apparent interest in anything but their immediate selves and the selfish exploitation of their children -- or parents.

All the marriages are vacuous, white-knuckled, hostile. The partners seem to have no expectation of finding personal meaning, least of all in each other.

"Close" is a story about ostensible grownups who are all in actuality pathetic juveniles. The central character is a man who thinks of his wife as his mother and thinks of his mistress as a junior high school cheerleader. At story's end, he has neither the wit nor the courage to think himself out of a tawdry trap -- nor the substance to make this reader care.

In a story titled "Triage," there's a passage that to me epitomized almost all of the people in these stories:

"She was tired from the baby, tired from her work, tired from living a life that was turning out to be as disappointing as her mother's, tired of trying to please her mother by leading a disappointing life, tired of justifying why she wasn't doing better. She used to read every night before she went to sleep, but now she turned out the lights the moment she got into bed and welcomed the languid slide into unconsciousness."

"The Jungle Lodge" has more substance than most of the others. It tells of a trip seen through the eyes of two adolescent sisters on a journey in the Amazon with their stepfather. These are troubled adolescents in troubling circumstances that overwhelm them, leaving them both defenseless and thoughtless.

This could be the stuff of great literary adventure. But the unrelenting shallowness of vantage points makes the story naive far beyond the usefulness of an intentionally naive narrative voice. And, in an uncharacteristic failing of craft, Dark's ending is so contrived as to trivialize the rest of it.

Dark is competent and industrious enough to do fine work. But these stories are locked in a vast mob-march of writers examining the empty meaninglessnesses of narcissistic lives.

It makes me yearn for the lost tradition of emerging writers whose biographies included truck driving, lobster fishing, steeple jacking, beet farming, tunnel dredging, cab driving in New York, slogging across the Gobi desert with nothing but a pocket knife -- and often a year or two in prison.

There was something there to chew on: A life and vitality.

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