Saturday, January 4, 2014

More on "River," the Final Story in Olive Kitteridge; Anticipating Revisions of Forty Martyrs

Elizabeth Strout

For a few weeks I've been thinking about "River," the closing story in Elizabeth Strout(pictured above)'s wondrous novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge.  As noted before, my interest is self-interest -- trying to solve a problem in my own novel-in-stories tentatively titled Forty Martyrs..  I wrote my novel-in-stories over 25 years.  When I won the Flannery O'Connor Award, the series editor, the amazing and wonderful Charles East (RIP), recommended that my long story (40 pages) "Forty Martyrs" come out of the collection because it was the 12th story in the set and would have run the book to over 300 pages.  At that time, I thought "Forty Martyrs" was my best story ever (circa 1986), but we agreed it could serve as foundation for another book.  In 1994, eight years after its omission from Silent Retreats, the story appeared in the New England Review, thanks to acting editor of the NER David Huddle, and that year was listed in "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in the back of Best American Short Stories 1995, affirming, I thought then, that it was my best.  Still I've never regretted it being omitted from Silent Retreats.  I was, I thought then, banking it for the future.  It was the first story that included (in cameo) my second recurring character after the infamous Skidmore of Silent Retreats.  His name was Lowell Wagner, a clinical psychologist and college professor, and in a way it could be said that he is the Olive K. of Forty Martyrs, the glue holding the stories together.

I was a psych minor in undergraduate school, and I met regularly with Jim Kenny, chair of the psych department there, for four years.  I count my therapy in undergraduate school as 40% of my liberal arts education, and I embraced social psychology as my minor in my doctoral program at UVa.  I have a number of friends, including Jim Kenny of course, who are shrinks, psychologists, and MSWs with whom I check after writing something about Lowell, just to make sure I'm tracking with best practices and worst mistakes of professionals in the field.  I have most of the recent diagnostic manuals on my book shelf, well thumbed through and bristling with post-its.  The Lowell stories in FMS currently number seven, not counting the closing story "The Kopi" which was a pathological mess and didn't work at all.  The stories have all been published in good places.  Since publication they've been massaged to click with one another in that interesting way of novels-in-stories.  Don't laugh, but when I first started writing Forty Martyrs Suite, I thought I was inventing that form. I thought then that that was the form a short story writer should attempt when writing long work. I had many ideas about it all:

  • the stories could be read in any order because they weren't really set down in chronological (it turns out that it's best if they are read in the order in which they appear in the book);
  • the overall effect of the book would be a series of slices of life, which is how life is experienced (I thought back then);
  • if read out of order, no harm done except getting a peek at the book's future, what happens, which is of minor interest in a character driven novel;
  • the final story would not be saddled with the task of pulling things together because in real life nothing pulls everything together -- we just move on (I still think that);
  • the links between and among the stories are not plot links but character links (the action of the story in a novel-in-stories happens in the mind of the reader as she gets to know the characters and as the characters act).

Chapters in a novel-in-stories are called "stories."  The stories are self-standing, can be marketed to journals and magazines.  Published alone, they are not excerpts from the novel.  They are stories.  I pictured a thin vertical line between interconnected story collections and novels-in-stories.  My copy of Olive Kitteridge doesn't categorize the book as a novel or a collection.  It is, as they say, what it is.  Still, readers like a sense of direction in long work, so the publishers will say, but Olive Kitteridge has no sense of direction.  We don't actually follow Olive around Crosby watching what she does, nor does the plot thicken.  Each story is like a new beginning, and the point of view characters are frequently not Olive or Henry but someone else in the town and Olive just happens by.  What the reader can count on in the book, since the plot doesn't really ever tighten down or amp up the tension, is Olive being her rough-hewn, complex, outspoken, sometimes impossible self.  We get glee simply from "knowing" Olive and marveling at the consistency with which she behaves in the way we know she will.

The Book

At the opening of "River," we see this one more time.  She lives alone now, and has settled into routines and habitual thoughts, such as she doesn't mind dying but wants it to be quick.  She is, as usual, fast to judge others, usually uncharitably, negatively.  When Jack Kennison wanders into her path as she's backing up one day, she recognizes him and recalls how she and Henry thought Jack was an elitist idiot.  This is typical stuff from Olive, and Strout is letting us review her (Olive's) behaviors and malfunctions, all of which make us feel we really do know her as we approach the end of the book.  But we have also seen Olive be quite giving in the foregoing stories, how she attempted to counsel a starving girl, how she intervened when she encountered a former student who might have been a few minutes from shooting himself, how she stayed in touch with her husband for years while he lingered in a comprehensive care facility with no ability to communicate.

Midway, then, in "River," she comes upon Jack laying on the walking path where she takes her routine early morning walks. She hurries to his side and comes out with a prototypical Olive query.  She barks, "Are you dead?"  He's not.  He is recently widowed and depressed. While sitting on the bench he had fainted.  Jack is having intimations of mortality.  They are a mile from her car (and his), and when she says she's going for help, Jack says, "Don't leave me alone."  Just as Olive doesn't want to die slowly, Jack doesn't want to die alone.  Somehow she gets him up onto the bench, and she sits with him for a while until he's ready to walk back to the cars.  She takes him in her car to a doctor, and waits hours while the doctor runs tests to try to diagnose the problem.  Jack sends a nurse messenger to the waiting room to tell her he's worried about her sitting out there all that time, and Olive realizes she has a real purpose being there, and she likes having a purpose, she is more than willing to wait for him and to give him a ride back to his car.

This begins the soul connection between Olive and Jack.  After a couple of political arguments that end in a draw, they settle into each other.  Nothing we would have remotely expected from Olive.  In former years neither of them would have chosen the other, but at this time they do.  Olive figures a few things out about people, how for years she's been driving them off, and Jack's mood levels out.  Olive has changed on this journey.  The journey has changed her, in the nick of time. That is the reward of the book for the reader.   

What tendencies does Lowell have that we are concerned about, and what is the prognosis for him addressing these matters in his remaining years?  Is it feasible that there could be signs of his changing  in the last story; but first, is the reader really tracking Lowell's malfunctions or does the book design demonstrate them too quietly, like butter on toast spread too thin?  That is the puzzle for the revision, and for the last story in Forty Martyrs.  Not a capstone, not a pulling together of all the random plotlines.  Rather, simply some promise that the book knows what it is about and that there's hope for Lowell, my flawed protagonist.

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