Friday, January 04, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

I'm reading The Gathering, by Anne Enright. It won the Man Booker Prize for 2007. It's described as 'bleak'. Lots of reviews say 'bleak.' In fact, every review seems to say bleak.

There is something wonderful about death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest. And the girls will be picked up from school, and dropped off again in the morning. Your eldest daughter can remember her inhaler, and your youngest will take her gym kit with her, and it is just as you suspected -- most of the stuff you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy even to love you, even that, let alone find their own shoes under their own bed; people who turn and accuse you -- scream at you sometimes -- when they can find only one shoe.

Oh the pleasure of that, the pleasure of self-pity and the way it can give the illusion of release, that it is all right not to worry about the thousand tiny things of the day.

A good friend, a smart man, a writer, once told me that he had noticed that a lot of very smart women writers with apparently quite good lives wrote a kind of depressed fiction. This book is filled up to the brim with that. I am one of those women who write depressed fiction and I am actually trying to broaden my palate a little, and yet, what is it that made my friend feel that this was some sort of writerly pathology? Some sort of malady of the spirit that befell women?

I find that few books have fit me, have fit my psyche, my view of the world as well as The Gathering. Which isn't to say that it maps in well onto my life, either my day to day life or my inner life. The narrator of The Gathering, sleepless and grieving, is in the midst of dealing with her brother's death, and it has put her outside of her own life in a very precise way. But I find in this book a sensibility I resonate to. Sympathetic vibration, the way a struck tuning fork will set it's mate vibrating in sympathy.

I suppose there are people who find this sympathy, this vibration of voice with Dom Delillo, David Foster Wallace, or even Hunter S. Thompson. But much of literature has seemed to me admirable without feeling sympathetic. Not written to my frequency. There is a central conceit to The Gathering, that a single event can spiral outward through a whole life, shaping and more importantly, explaining everything, that I usually don't care for. Enright seems to be very smart about this. She compromises, and backsteps, and places doubts about the experience. But normally, that there even existed this central event would just put my teeth on edge--it's a hangover from Freud and the sort of pop culture belief that pathology arises out of childhood. Do childhood events sometimes damage? Yes but the whole experience of growing up is so chaotic that terrible events sometimes leave little scar, and the most apparently insignificant event can sometimes have devestating consequences. But I am so convinced by the voice that I do not care.


Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I am one of those relatively normal women who love to write depressing fiction and poetry. I also love angry and depressing music. It inspires me.I'm working up the nerve to put some of it on my blog. Some have thought me crazy. Thanks for a fantasttic essay. Diane

January 04, 2008 6:45 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

If the voice convinces, then all is well.

I am usually not in sympathy with the sort of book this seems to be. Reading =The Corrections= was like being trapped in a small closet with all the relatives I hate. (And I should point out that in actuality I =like= my relatives.) I don't deal well with protagonists who are stupid or who are into self-pity. I keep wanting to kick them, and then I get angry because I can't. I don't deal with anger well, so I avoid these sorts of books when I can.

Possibly this attitude has to do with my childhood (happy) and my adult life, in which children and housekeeping and cubicles do not feature largely.

The "traumatic childhood incident that once revealed informs the protagonist's failed relationships with everyone else" story is overused, but then so is "naive young person goes to the big city" and "starship crew runs into trouble on alien world."

If it's handled well, even "tired old gunfighter straps on his Colt one last time" is a delight.

January 04, 2008 8:21 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I found this on your Facebook and posted it there, then realized it was a feed from your blog. Oops! Would have commented here if I'd realized that! Here it is again:

You totally just gave voice to a very similar reading experience that I had with The Gathering. I love your last paragraph more than anything else right now. You should totally post this review on your blog, or Amazon, or wherever, if you haven't. I think it's the most succinct and precise reading experience of the book I've read so far. I had my initial worries about the single event shaping the entire life of the narrator, but the author did as you described, doubting if the event shaped her life or if she's chosen this event as the emblem of her life, which feels real. I do think some people will choose an event from the chaos of childhood memory, for whatever reason, latching on to one or two particular events as their formative experiences. I think in some ways I've done this myself. Does everyone? Is it the narrative process itself? To make meaning from the barrage of experiences we've had? In any case, the voice is what controls this novel, and the voice is amazing.

January 04, 2008 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like a lovely book, one that transforms that 'poor me, I had a painful childhood' genre into something greater, an exploration into the self. I am one of those memoirists who has tried to tease meaning from events, seeking in my childhood for a reason for awful events later. After reading my book, an English friend told me that Brits find Americans odd in our need to ascribe meaning to childhood, yet there it is, the need to figure out why.

Maureen, as always, it's a lovely essay.


January 05, 2008 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it have been nice if I'd included my whole name?

Janine Latus

January 05, 2008 11:16 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Janine! Good to see you again, even if virtually!

It's true that we need to ascribe meaning to childhood. I think it's odd not to ascribe SOME meaning to childhood. I just think it's hard to know what it means.

January 05, 2008 12:57 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

2 things: What I think I write isn't always what people read. I think most of my fiction examines despair. I wrote a story in which a young pregnant girl freaks out and mails herself to her boyfriend but when the package is intercepted ends up living for the rest of her life in the back rooms of the post office with shadow people who have become lost and found a home amidst the dead letter piles. People told me they thought this was all charming. I didn't mean for it to be so :)

I find that of the types of novel plots: the singular traumatic incident that drives the rest of the book–the parallel plots that come together at the end; the circular plot that ties things up and returns to the beginning; the non linear plot that defies easy explanation; etc. and everything I forgot–I'm less trusting of that single inciting incident as driving force sort of of story in novel form. I question the veracity less in the short form.

January 07, 2008 3:10 PM  
Blogger mary grimm said...

I vibrated to this book, too. But you know, I don't think it's bleak--too full, too insightful for that.

January 14, 2008 10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought The Gathering was deeply and beautifully written -- a novel of one woman wrenching meaning out of a traumatic childhood. Interestingly, a similar incident of abuse occurred in my own childhood family and through this book I re-examined the ramifications of that on our future lives. What I had overlooked before, became crystal clear. I don't think Veronica is whiny or self-pitying. This book is about her momentary journey into the past and the recovery of truth and honesty in her brother's and indeed, in her own life.

July 20, 2008 4:26 PM  
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March 24, 2009 2:52 AM  

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