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Starting Out in the Evening

by Brian Morton (Harvest, 1998, 2007)

One day last week, promiscuous book-purchaser that I've been lately, I picked up Brian Morton's Starting Out in the Evening, a novel, published in 1998, that recently appeared in film form, starring Frank Langella. The movie was in and out of the theatres in a New York minute (rather like one of my favorite films of 2007, The Walker), but some friends of mine saw it and liked it very much. The novel looked intelligent, but there must have been something about the book as an object that sang to me (I don't think it was the blotchy blues and greens of the cover art, but it may have been), because I was actually looking for something else (Patrick Hamilton, whose novels have recently been reissued by NYRB), and not really in the market for another novel. The piles already groan.

Here the resemblance to Of Human Bondage ends. I didn't just enjoy reading Starting Out in the Evening; I loved and adored reading it. This pleasure had little to do with the bare bones of the story. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if I did read a review of the novel when it came out I would have been put off it by the summary. A seventy-one year-old novelist with roots among the New York Intellectuals, a widower for the past twenty-odd years (his wife perished of smoke inhalation in a hotel fire), and the survivor of a recent heart attack that has transformed him from "vigorous" to "doddering" in the eyes of his thirty-nine year-old daughter, Ariel, Leonard Schiller toils chastely on the Upper West Side, working on his fifth and almost certainly final novel if he can finish it. None of his novels is currently in print, and his friends are either dead or dying. His apartment needs a really good airing. Then a graduate student from Brown, by the name of Heather Wolfe, not beautiful but lively and intelligent, makes him the subject of her dissertation. When they meet, Heather blows fresh color into Leonard's cheeks, and Leonard is soon daydreaming about more than color. Ariel, meanwhile, is looking for a man to be the father of her children before her biological clock ticks its last tock. A chance encounter reunites her with her steadiest flame from the past, a black but actually half-Jewish Columbia professor, Casey Davis. When last consulted, Casey was adamantly opposed to having more children; his one experiment in that area, producing the impenetrably hip William, was not satisfactory.

There you have the elements of what could have been a novel as tired and airless and grungily familiar to any New Yorker as Leonard's dreary apartment. Instead, Mr Morton invests his characters with the warm engagement of people you've never met but who are related to a dear old friend who, over the years, has been reporting on their antics in amazing letters that always break off too soon. So that when, for example, the novel's attention shifts from Leonard and Heather to Ariel and Casey, you think, ah, yes: what have those two been up to? Even though you'd have been perfectly happy to go on reading about the novelist and his maybe-amanuensis, you're keenly interested to hear about the daughter and her old boyfriend.

I enjoyed reading Starting Out in the Evening a little bit better when I was alone, not because the text is so demanding that my attention required the absence of distraction it's anything but! but because I suffered so, when my wife was in the room, from the longing to read the novel aloud to her. Not just the funny bits, but the whole thing. It was hard to believe, after all our years together, that she didn't know  who Leonard and Ariel were, or why Ariel and Casey broke up a few years ago. What was infinitely worse was her indifference. How could this be? All representational novels dabble in illusion, of course, but the strongest and strangest illusion in Starting Out in the Evening is that you have known Leonard Schiller since whenever. We read alone.

About those funny bits. It's possible that I'm the only person who noticed them. It's inconceivable to me that Brian Morton didn't realize that they were there, but I'm so sensitive about the idiosyncrasy of my sense of humor at the moment that I can't be sure. It's possible that the humor of this novel is like the familiarity of its characters, something that can't really be taken out of context. Nevertheless, I ask you. Consider the following passage, which comes about halfway through. Thinking about Heather all the time has infected Leonard with a special case of spring fever.

But why do you feel you have to impress her? He didn't know why, but he did. Often, when he was with her, he found that his desire to seem interesting took the form of an urge to make generalizations about himself. He didn't know why he thought generalizations would make him interesting he didn't think so, on a rational level, but on some deep subconscious plane he was obviously convinced that the way to a woman's heart was to make statements that began with phrases like "I am a man who ... " I am a man who works slowly. I am a man who has loved only a few people, but who has loved them deeply. He hadn't said any of these things, thank God, but he was always on the verge of saying them. Perhaps he wanted to prove how reliable he was, how consistent. But often the statements that came to his lips were merely ridiculous: two weeks ago he'd had to stop himself from telling her that he was a man who didn't like soup.

At "soup," I simply snorted the novel through my nostrils. I had to put the book down for a moment and catch my breath. "Soup" was so obviously the perfect word, the perfect choice among possibilities for ending this paragraph, that I was as exhilarated by Mr Morton's artistry as I was rocked by his adroit sense of the ridiculous. With "soup," the passage swerves violently from wry humor toward something closer to slapstick. "Soup" is a pie in somebody's face. Splat! And even though it's a surprise, it's not a shock; we've been set up nicely. Whether we know it or not, the paragraph brilliantly parodies the sort of reflection that burdens Saul Bellow's heroes only they have no sense of humor at all. (The deep humorlessness of Saul Bellow remains to be more generally discussed; it is not concealed by the occasional "funny" remark.) A man in a novel by Bellow would wonder, like Leonard, about the attraction of sentences beginning "I am a man who ...," but he would be earnest about it, in search of real understanding. It would not occur to him that the impulse is irredeemably fatuous, that it presupposes an almost monstrous self-importance. Schiller, hardly a retiring scholar, was an aggressively competitive male in his salad days, and he knows the moves. A certain amount of self-importance is required for securing the attention of desirable females, and, if you know what you're doing, self-important generalizations do actually work. That's how it is and it means nothing. But Schiller is also unconfortably aware that what worked when he was thirty or even forty might not work now. "I am a man who has just had a serious heart attack and can no longer cross Broadway on one traffic light" is the wonderfully unspoken generalization here, and it runs like a lump under the carpet of our consciousness until, at the very end, Mr Morton causes it to materialize in one-word form: "soup."

The current paperback edition of Starting Out in the Evening, which dates from last year, is loaded with testimonials: "astonishingly sensitive," "dignity, tenderness, and, above all, intelligence," "perfectly crafted," "captivating and lovingly rendered story," &c &c, but not one of them mentions the fun of the thing. Maybe the reviewers thought that they were reading Bellow light.

Toward the end of the novel, Schiller has a stroke, but the effect is anticlimactic. Heather, who happens to have had a date with him, gets the old man to the hospital, but she soon feels that Ariel and Casey don't want her in the waiting room. She leaves not only Schiller's bedside but the novel itself, and on a note of the clearest and most characteristic moment of self-consciousness and self-awareness combined.

She had an iced coffee and put on some lipstick, and her mood began to lift. For months she'd been burdened by the thought that she'd betrayed [Schiller]. But now it occurred to her that that might not be true. She had written about his work, after all, as seriously as she knew how. And wasn't that the highest word of praise in Schiller's vocabulary "seriousness"? The decision to write critically about his books hadn't been easy for her it might have been the hardest choice she'd ever had to make. If those characters in Schiller's early novels were heroes and heroines because of the difficult choices they'd made, she supposed she was a heroine too.

She thought it would have been nice if someone else had said this to her Sandra, perhaps, or Schiller himself. But on second thought, she decided that it was probably better that she had discovered it for herself.

In the film adaptation, does the camera pull back gently from this moment, bidding Heather adieu? I hope so. So she and Schiller don't improbably get together after all. (That's what "improbable" means.) Such plot resolution as Mr Morton cares to muster is confined to the story of Ariel and Casey, and even then nothing is very firmly settled. After a startlingly difficult scene in which Casey has to help Schiller with an emergency requiring a lavatory, the younger man appears to have come round to the idea of fatherhood after all. But: "The last few months had been very different from what he'd expected." So, in the end, is Starting Out in the Evening. For one thing, it's better. (February 2008)

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