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Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences (Viking, 2005) is Alison Lurie's eleventh work of fiction. Of the preceding ten, I've read at least five, and on the strength of that acquaintance, for what it's worth, I'm going to pronounce Truth and Consequences the best of her novels. Its elegant construction and pitch-perfect writing make it a joy to read, and the romantic developments are as absorbing as diplomatic maneuvers on the eve of a war.

This quadrille for two couples is told, in odd-numbered chapters, for the point of view of Jane Mackenzie and, in the even-numbered ones, from that of her professor husband, Alan. The other couple, a much more rickety union, comprises writer Delia Delaney and free-lance editor Henry Hull. The four meet at the Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities at Corinth University. Jane is the Center's director, while Delia and Alan are, for the school year, Fellows. Henry appears at first to be Delia's personal assistant.

You may be muttering that all the elegance in the world couldn't save a comedy of manners stocked with such familiar tropes. Academic adultery has been cultivated for too long, and by too many novelists-in-residence, to promise fertile fiction. Truth and Consequences, however, takes place on the other side of cliché. Ms Lurie assumes that you know everything there is to know, fictionally, about goatish professors who are either in search of tenure or determined to deny it to someone else. We have none of that here. In fact, it might be useful to tick off the accoutrements of academic fiction that Ms Lurie has declined to take advantage of.

First of all, there are no attractive young people. Susie, Jane's assistant, is a ninny who can't take initiative. That's an important distinction. Even The Last Resort featured a babe of sorts. But just as no one is young, no one is Ms Lurie's age, either. About to be eighty herself, Ms Lurie has turned to Boomers for her characters. Jane is forty; Alan is fifty-two. Delia and Henry are somewhere in between. If I wanted to fault Truth and Consequences, and I don't, I might complain that none of the characters bears the stigmata of the sixties, not even Delia, who is a walking flower-child at fifty. She seems to have come by this naturally, from her Appalachian homeland. I could complain that the quartet of lovers are all members of the author's cohort, transposed down a generation for the purposes of realism. I could also make a rebuttal case, but the matter is unimportant. It is in any case the only remotely doubtful aspect of the novel that occurred to me, and I doubt that many readers are going to be struck by it. I certainly saw no mention of it in the reviews.

Second, this is not a story of wandering lust. Alan is in too much pain for lovemaking, and like most invalids he is too wrapped up in his ailment to pay attention to anybody else.  A back injury experienced during a game of volleyball in the spring of the previous year has proven impossible to heal, despite the ministrations of specialists medical and otherwise. It never crosses his mind that a fling with an adoring coed might be just the tonic he needs. If he desires anything, it is the energy to complete his book on ecclesiastical architecture in America, or to get on with his follies. An expert in eighteenth-century architecture, he has completed two follies - faked ruins - on his own property, and has drawings for more. Jane disapproves, and because she does not see the follies as art, she remains unaware that what she is disapproving is Alan's artistic potential. The Alan she married and loved for a dozen years was not an artist.

But Alan has become someone else. This is the third thing that Ms Lurie does without: the "Before" picture. We never get to know the old Alan. References to the past present him as a genial, mildly patriarchal figure. We might tease out a flaw in the marriage from their childlessness, but it seems heavy-handed to invoke the symbol, and in any case Ms Lurie has not been a writer to use children as guarantors of a happy marriage. What happened before Alan's injury is simply unimportant. Untested, he had no way of knowing how he would respond to pain. So, while the happy marriage that preceded Alan's injury is sketched for us, we don't see it directly. Nor, more tellingly, do we watch Alan's gradual transformation into a walking human sacrifice. At the beginning of Truth and Consequences, the Mackenzies' marriage is a thing of the past, a husk in which Alan is an invalid and Jane his dutiful caregiver. The novel begins with a passage that is bound to be much quoted.

On a hot midsummer morning, after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane Mackenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him.

She was in the garden picking lettuce when the sound of a car stopping on the road by the house made her look up. Someone was getting out of a taxi, paying the driver, and then starting slowly down the long driveway; an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest, and a protruding belly, leaving on a cane. The hazy sun was in her eyes and she couldn't see his face clearly, but there was something about him that made her feel uneasy and a little frightened. He reminded her of other unwelcome figures: a property tax inspector who had appeared at the door soon after they moved into the house; an FBI official who was investigating one of Alan's former students; and the scruffy-looking guy who one summer two years ago used to stand just down the road where the ramp to the highway began, waving at passing cars and asking for a lift downtown. If you agreed, before he got out he would lean over the seat the in a half-whiny, half-threatening way ask for the "loan" of a couple of dollars.

When she recognizes Alan, Jane is properly ashamed, but it is clear that the Humpty-Dumpty of her marriage has cracked irrevocably, and the more she falls back, in subsequent chapters, on duty, the more clearly we see that she and Alan are no longer good for each other.

Pain, according to the nineteenth-century novels that Jane's Aunt Nancy had loved as a child and presented to her at Christmas and birthdays, could be ennobling and inspiring. In What Katy Did and Jack and Hill, thoughtless young girls, injured in accidents at play (like Alan) had to lie in bed for months, during which time they matured wonderfully and their characters changed for the better.

But Alan hadn't needed to change for the better, Jane thought; he had been perfect as he was. So, logically, he had begun to change for the worse. His admirable evenness of temper, optimism and generosity of spirit had slowly begun to leak away. He had become overweight and unattractive, he had become self-centered and touchy.

Those books were wrong, Jane though. Pain is bad for the character, just as all misfortunes are: poverty and unemployment and loss of friends and family. It makes you tired and weak; it makes you depressed and anxious and fearful. Nobody says this, nobody is supposed to say it, but it is true. Even Jane herself, who was only forty and healthy and strong and attractive, would one day be old and tired and ugly and probably self-centered and touchy as well.

In the third chapter, we are introduced to Henry Hull, who visits the Center in order to make sure that Delia Delaney's office will suit her many needs. This almost operatic prefigurement assures us that Delia, when we meet her, is going to be a diva; not only is she finicky, but she obliges other people to make sure that she gets what she wants. It also creates a predisposition in Jane to dislike the woman who, beginning in the fourth chapter (told from Alan's point of view), will toy with her husband. Henry also manages to brush (and reawaken) Jane's erotic sensibility. The fourth chapter establishes the final element: Henry's suffering continues unabated when he's with Delia, but he can persevere through it. It becomes clear that Delia will cure Alan of his malady, not by resort to magic, but simply by persuading him to embrace pain as the source of artistry. In short, she will forces Alan to acknowledge the man that he has become because of his bad back, a man whom pain has rendered frightening and repellent to Jane.

Delia herself is a character designed so that readers will love to hate her but have trouble doing so. In more conventional hands, she would be a woman of great mystery, but the author presents her as a woman of caprice who is utterly frank (when in the right mood) about her motivations and her anxieties. A retailer of Southern Appalachian folk tales, Delia seems to surround herself with a gauzy haze, as if it is in her power to control the ambient lighting to flattering effect, but she is not in denial about aging. On the contrary, she's doing everything that she can to shore up her resources against its ravages, and if this makes her a cold-blooded opportunist, it's for the benefit of warm-blooded passions.

Delia suffers terrible migraines. In a brilliant parody of the teasing-temptress scene, after cajoling Alan into singing to her (their offices are across the hall), she traces the relationship between pain and creativity.

"When my aura starts, there's no way of knowing what will come. Sometimes there are visions, sometimes nightmares, sometimes just blackness, oblivion.

"There's times I could use some oblivion."

"Yes, but we can't choose. In the end you have to accept your affliction as a gift. You have to ask, what is it trying to tell you, to give you? What has it saved you from, what has it brought to you?"

"I hadn't thought of it like that," Alan said. It's brought me Delia Delaney, he thought suddenly. If my back were well, she wouldn't be speaking to me so intimately.

Alan "hadn't thought of it like that" because, in the world that he shares with Jane, such thinking is unacceptable and nonsensical. But while Delia's advice reeks of new-age tomfoolery, she herself rouses Alan to accept his suffering - to stop allowing it to prevent him from doing anything at all but suffering. And it is through Delia that Alan is taken up by an art gallery in New York. Thus the ordinary trajectory of the campus novel is inverted. Alan is set up to play the aging fool who loses a perfectly decent wife, but what's more interesting (to him and to the reader alike) is the takeoff of a new career that never would have begun without the encouragement of his seductress.

There is no need to feel sorry for Jane, either, because from the start Henry Hull has presented himself as her new knight, openly determined, from the ninth chapter on, to rescue her from the drudgery of caring for Alan and getting nothing in return. Jane resists until she catches her husband with Delia (a very droll scene), and even thereafter, during a period of believing that Alan has put Delia behind him, she keeps telling Henry that she can't see him again. It is Delia herself who disabuses Jane: their first and last big scene together.

"You mean it's not over now?" she said. "But Alan promised, weeks ago - "

Delia sighed. "Yes, I know," she said. "But men are so weak, don't you agree? It's hard for them to follow through on their promises. And how could I refuse, when he needed my encouragement and affection so desperately?" She had taken hold of the doorknob; now she pulled it open and began to push Jane out. "So you must forgive him, and stay with him and be kind to him," she murmured.

"Don't you tell me what to do!" Jane cried in a furious whisper. But she said it to the closed door; the only response was the sound of the bolt being shoved home.

Poor Jane? Don't be daft. From two pages later:

Still holding on to the cordless phone, Jane walked out into the hall. Her heart was still pounding. Everyone is lying to me, and telling me who I am and what I should do, she thought. Everyone except Henry.

Henry Hull is just right for Jane: he's a former artist, a poet of minimalist proclivity whose work finally consisted of empty pages. About the uncreative future of Henry and Jane, there is not a whisper of derision from Ms Lurie. Sure, Delia remarks that Henry and Jane are "boringly happy," but the author never suggests for a moment that decency is boring. It's just not right for artists - and in this regard it's important to note that the author presents Alan's success seriously. He makes a lot of money, he wins rich commissions; you might not think much of his follies or his installations, but if the author thinks that they're ridiculous (they are "follies," after all), she keeps her opinion well short of satire. I think that we're meant to accept that through pain and via Delia's mediation, Alan has positively grown.

Incapable of graceless writing, Alison Lurie has constructed a taut fable of afflicted marriage and narrated it at such a lively pace that the consummate craftsmanship is almost invisible.

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