The Perpetual Now of Life on the Margins
Comyns, Metcalf, Berlin: Learning From Literary Reissues
There’s an art to reissuing overlooked books that have fallen out of print. There are a number of publishers who have perfected the technique: an eye-catching cover, a perceptive introduction, a handful of quotes explaining exactly just why this particular work of fiction or nonfiction deserves a reader’s attention in an increasingly crowded literary world. Delving into a decades-old work in this day and age can sometimes be unintentionally hazardous. There’s nothing quite like reading an insightful, funny, or captivating passage, turning the page, and then discovering that the author held views on matters of race, gender, or sexuality that would be shunned today. It’s an occupational danger that can arise when reading, and it’s one that points to a larger question: why do we find reissused works so appealing?
A trio of recently reissued books points to some of the issues at the heart of this. New editions of Barbara Comyns’s semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Paul Metcalf’s Genoa are due out this summer and fall, along with a posthumous collection of short stories from Lucia Berlin, A Manual For Cleaning Women. Stylistically, these three books are worlds apart; thematically, they dovetail in fascinating ways—and make the case for their continued relevance.
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Barbara Comyns’s life is the stuff from which cult writers are made. She was self-taught, and moved amidst a host of artistic and intellectual circles throughout her life. This wasn’t always to her benefit—in her introduction to Virago’s UK edition of the novel, Celia Brayfield points out that Comyns and her husband left England for Spain due to her husband’s boss being infamous spy Kim Philby. “In the climate of the Cold War,” Brayfield writes, “a traitor was the worst kind of pariah.” In the United States, a handful of Comyns’s novels have been released in new editions. NYRB Classics reissued The Vet’s Daughter in 2003; it’s a novel that blends the low-key grittiness of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock with a more metaphysical turn. Dorothy, A Publishing Project released a new edition of her 1955 novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in 2011; the introduction here was by Brian Evenson, whose penchant for surreal, horrific fiction gives a good sense of what to expect from this particular work by Comyns. He points to one winning quality about this novel that might well apply to Comyns’s work as a whole:
…that marvelousness permeates the book, which seems as a whole to side with childlike wonder over grown-up viciousness. The novel possesses a remarkable sense of lightness (in Italo Calvino’s usage of the term) despite the floods and deaths and basic human pettinesses found therein.
In a recent piece on Comyns for Bookforum, Emily Gould (who also wrote the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics edition of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) approached her work from a different angle. “[H]er writing is so often antic and funny, full of odd little turns of phrase and words (‘squarked’), that it takes the reader some time to notice how awful her portraits of life really are,” Gould writes, and in so doing pinpoints the appeal and the wrenching sensation that reading Our Spoons Came From Woolworths can inspire. It’s a book that takes its largely optimistic and unflappable narrator through a series of challenges that would make Candide blanch.
That narrator, a young woman named Sophia, opens the novel with an account of a friend reacting badly to the story of her life. “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried,” goes the first sentence. Throughout, there’s an odd kind of distancing—terrible things happen, but the tone is jaunty, almost lightly comic. It’s structured as a retrospective look at a certain period of Sophia’s life—upon revisiting the first paragraph, it becomes clearer that she’s about to tell the story of a marriage and its failure, though the book’s scope is wider than that.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is, in part, about Sophia’s relationships, which often go deeply awry. From the first page, she recounts the story of her life with Charles, a young man from a well-to-do family making his living as an artist. They meet cute. “We were both carrying portfolios; that is what started us talking to each other.” Not long afterwards, they decide to marry—a decision which upsets Charles’s family tremendously, and makes the couple’s already-tenuous economic situation even more fragile. In a different writer’s hands, much of what follows could fall under the heading of rampant misery. Sophia and Charles contend with living in poverty; Sophia soon becomes pregnant, which adds to the gravity of their situation. Later in the book, Sophia ponders the logistics of another pregnancy: “Why should all these babies pick on me, and always at the most inconvenient times?”
This novel could very easily be read as making the case for the hazards of living in a society without adequate reproductive rights for women; Comyns balances Sophia’s love for her children with a sense of injustice at the circumstances under which they were born. Sophia’s marriage to Charles gradually disintegrates through a combination of factors, including an affair; towards the end of the book, the economic and parental tensions that bedevil her converge in a particularly bleak sequence. There’s also an adorable scene involving a fox cub, an appearance by a G.K. Chesterton look-alike, and plenty of discussions of art.
Both author and narrator are deliberate storytellers here. Throughout the novel, Sophia comments on the literary nature of her endeavor, and occasionally contrasts it with what the theoretical reader must be expecting. This reaches its apex early on, when Sophia pauses the action and swaps in what she guesses might be a more traditional narrative.
This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:
“I am sure it is true” said Phyllida.
“I cannot agree with you,” answered Norman.
“Oh, but I know I am right,” she replied.
“I beg to differ,” said Norman sternly.
This is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books.
It’s charming; at the same time, it also points to the recurring theme of Sophia not quite fitting in. But if Sophia is concerned about her ability to tell a story, Barbara Comyns certainly shouldn’t be. This is the kind of metatextual playfulness that could swamp another work; here, it’s handled charmingly. It’s a confidently-told work as well; there’s a circular structure to the novel that only reveals itself in its final lines. It’s the kind of subtle craft that feels effortless, but is as precisely made as anything showier.
There are a few moments where the novel’s appeal falls short, including a moment where Sophia expresses fear that her newborn son “was either deformed or black.” But while scenes like this inspire more cringing than they did when the novel was first released in 1950, another aspect of it could be translated to the present moment with little changed. Comyns writes brilliantly about life on the economic margin—even more specifically, she writes brilliantly about the life of an artist on the economic margin. The scenes of Sophia and Charles endeavoring to live a happy life despite marginal accomodations, or those moments in which they must choose which utility or utilities to go without, remain powerfully resonant. In a recent essay for Jacobin, Miranda Campbell wrote about the “desire to raise awareness about artist livelihoods and draw attention to the contemporary challenges of earning a living from creative work.” In many ways, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths—whose very title is another nod to Sophia’s economic circumstances—both anticipates this argument and advances it.
A different sort of economic compromise entangles Michael Mills, the narrator of Paul Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, newly reissued in a 50th anniversary edition. In the novel’s fragmented prose, Michael lays out his own circumstances a few pages into the book:
Because my wife works. I don’t make enough money at General Motors to support the family—and it is this—this mystery, that my classmates at medical school are now making twenty, forty, fifty thousand a year, and I, possessing this same sheepskin, Doctor of Medicine, and with a school record better actually than most of theirs, but the sheepskin is furled, in the attic, and I am unshingled, I cannot, will not practice, and this is mysterious to me
Readers may note that “unshingled” can easily be misread as “unhinged,” and will quickly note Michael’s penchant for digression, for losing himself in his own meditations and musings on his own life, the horrific life of his brother Paul, the works of Herman Melville (Metcalf’s great-grandfather), and the life of Christopher Columbus. This is a narrative beset by anxieties and plagued by monsters, of whom a terrifying white whale is among the most benign.
The approach Metcalf takes in Genoa is a layered one, nestling a number of narratives within the larger context of Michael at home, running through memories and literature and history. There isn’t much that one can compare it to: in both its form and its incorporation of other works, Anne Carson comes to mind, but in broader strokes rather than more specific ones. In his introduction to this edition, Rick Moody argues that this novel anticipates works by the likes of Donald Barthelme and Ben Marcus—which gives a good sense of where, exactly, Metcalf’s work fits in. It’s telling that one of the most shocking moments in the novel comes when, late in the novel, Michael looks back over his family history and, for a few pages, we get nothing but uninterrupted stretches of naturalistic prose.
There’s also plenty of reflection to be found in Genoa on the works of Herman Melville, and a juxtaposition of Melville’s life with that of Christopher Columbus. It would be more accurate to say that Columbus is juxtaposed with both Melville and a number of Melville’s creations—notably Ahab, but also the depictions of the transatlantic slave trade featured in Benito Cereno. There are plenty of ominous figures here, not the least of whom is Michael’s brother Carl, whose mental instability and propensity for violence become more and more dominant as the narrative advances. Genoa is a slippery book, a literary collage that nonetheless advances with a startling momentum.
Some of that momentum may come from Metcalf’s juxtaposition of the intellectual and the physical. For all that Michael’s thoughts encompass subjects that he knows personally and subjects taken from books and history, he periodically brings the body back into it. Sometimes, this is through rumination on his own physical condition: “with each step I lean off balance, off center, and back again,” he notes at one point before delving into histories medical and cultural of clubfoot. Elsewhere, the motion of sperm is described—perhaps this novel’s most overt nod to masculinity as a whole. Though it should also be noted that, late in the book, Michael and Metcalf rigorously interrogate Melville’s attitudes towards race and gender.
Most striking of all of the bodily and familial mentions is an account of Michael’s brother Carl suffering from a series of strange ailments: stomach aches, strange marks on his stomach, and—most surreal of all—the appearance of a third set of teeth. The cause of this? “[T]he predatory conquest by Carl, at some very early prenatal stage, of an unfortunate, competitive twin.” Again, that blurring, this time of Carl’s brother who’s telling us the story and Carl’s nonexistent brother, who exists only in traces. All of these threads recur in the periodic reminders the reader is given of the presence of Michael’s children, a note which allows Metcalf to end this book—if not on a note of grace, then of a quotidian image that contains all that came before.
One of the more surreal moments encountered when reading Genoa is the incorporation of Herman Melville’s life. Michael Mills is not a thinly-veiled Paul Metcalf; and yet, during the handful of passages where Michael looks back at Melville’s descendants, one almost expects an appearance from Metcalf in passing. One can find the implied history of the book’s author, even if the author himself does not appear. In reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women, the line is somewhat clearer—though that can be ascribed in part to the introductions to this volume, which come from Lydia Davis and Stephen Emerson, and juxtapose Berlin’s life with enthusiastic testimonials about the quality of her work.
The stories in this volume are largely taken from the five collections of short stories that she had published in her lifetime. (She died in 2004.) That a few of them were published by Black Sparrow—and that Berlin writes semi-autobiographical stories that deal directly with alcoholism—might bring to mind Fante and Bukowski. Raymond Carver is another notable point of reference—and, when reading these stories, a reader may find themselves longing for a punk band to be inspired by Berlin’s work just as Bukowski and Carver’s influence can be seen in many a shouted or screamed lyric. There’s a timelessness to these stories, to the extent that occasional references to events or figures associated with a specific timeframe—Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, for instance—can be disorienting at first.
By all accounts, Berlin drew freely from her own life in these stories. And sometimes characters or images will recur: a narrator expelled from school as a child; violent episodes from a family history. That blurredness makes the case for Berlin as a kind of literary predecessor of Scott McClanahan, but that’s only one aspect of her work. She can also radically shift the tone of a story with a single sentence. The title story of A Manual for Cleaning Women at first seems to be a stylized account of one working-class life. And then, a few paragraphs in, we get this line: “All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day.” In that moment, both the stakes of the story and what we know about the narrator shift dramatically. It’s a device that Berlin uses repeatedly in her stories, often to great effect.
At times, Berlin will juxtapose scenes of pastoral beauty with a more jaded view of the world, as this passage from “Teenage Punk” demonstrates:
As the cranes drank upstream the silver water beneath them was shot into dozens of thin streamers. Then very quickly the birds left, in whiteness, with the sound of shuffling cards.
Berlin is good at reminding the reader of just how her characters are haunted. That “sound of shuffling cards” says as much about the characters perceiving that moment than it does anything else.
Given the density of Berlin’s stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women can be both enlightening and exhausting when taken as a whole. The unlikely connections that arise between certain stories can delight; the way that figures from the backgrounds of stories might pop back up, hundreds of pages later. In the story “Homing,” which closes the collection, the narrator looks back over her life and speculates about certain events having occurred differently. “My life would have ended up exactly as it has now,” she writes towards the end, though it seems said more of surprise than of anguish.
As with Comyns and Metcalf, Berlin’s ability to summon up the feelings of desperation that come when questions of family and economics collide is impressive. The narrator of “Tiger Bites” finds herself abandoned by the artist who’d fathered their child. “I’m almost four months pregnant. That was the last straw for Joe, me having another baby,” she tells her family. And while this character doesn’t have to wrangle with the same legal restrictions that Comyns’s Sophia does, the questions of money, of family, and of a complex emotional reaction to her pregnancy all come into play. Economic uncertainty, the complex bonds we have with family, and the struggles of artists to make ends meet in the world are all perennial questions that recur over the course of decades.
Barbara Comyns, Paul Metcalf, and Lucia Berlin are all skilled practitioners of their craft, but what lends their work an additional sting is the way that their characters navigate much of the same territory that their readers today are also likely encountering. It’s a harrowing thought that sits uneasily beside the lessons in style and substance that all three works offer, but it’s a clear sign of their continued vitality and relevance.