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Valerie Martin's The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories

Short-story collections don't satisfy, as a rule, the cravings that I have for fiction. They're not roomy enough, and they count too heavily upon my ability to fill in, from a few hints, the social background. I don't want to fill in the background; I want to hear what a writer has to tell me about it. Every now and then, someone makes a success of stringing short stories together into something very like a novel, but the achievement is rare and, truth be told, fleeting. It's not uncommon for the chapters in a novel that I like to run longer than any short story. Let's face it: I'm not laconic by nature.

Valerie Martin's new collection, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories, took me by surprise. What they lack in wallpaper and layering they make up for with French-roast intelligence. From the opening story, "His Blue Period":

He never mentions, perhaps because he doesn't know, a detail I find most salient, which is that his painting actually was better then than it is now. Like so many famous artists, these days Anspach does an excellent imitation of Anspach. He's in control, nothing slips by him, he has spent the last twenty years attending to Anspach's painting, and he has no desire ever to attend to anything else. But when he was young, when he was with Maria, no one, including Anspach, had any idea what an Anspach was.

All the stories here are involve artists of one kind or another, and much of the excitement comes from feeling that one has wandered into a very intelligent - but not bitchy or "personal" - conversation on art and artists. The fame and the value of the work (often quite different things) are always being weighed against the worth of the artist, and the scale is never balanced.

The worth of the artist is, of course, expressed in terms of love. Or is it affection, loving kindness? Consider the musing of the young woman who narrates "Beethoven."  

This thought cast me down very low. I had left school because I wanted to live in the real world, and now I was doing just that and I didn't like it at all. My childish fantasy of an untroubled and companionable relationship with a man who valued me was clearly the worst sort of na´vetÚ, though oddly enough I'd gotten what I wanted. Phil was easy, kind, and I did not doubt that he cared for me. But in the gallery that day I had seen him unmanned by an unrequited and impossible passion for a woman who cared nothing for him. It wasn't his weakness that shocked me, it was the invincibility of his ardor, which clearly could brook no dissembling, even in public, even in front of me. To be either the subject or the objected of a humiliating, destructive force was not a condition I could ever tolerate. "There's just no future in it," I said to myself, purposefully vague about the pronoun reference. Was "it" my life with Phil? Or was "it" the whole catastrophic enterprise of romantic love?

The density of Ms Martin's scenes is thrilling because it captures parallel and competing lines of thought in all-but-overwhelmed human consciousnesses. From "The Open Door," here is stocky Edith, a famous poet, moments after seeing her future lover, Isabel, a dancer, for the first time.

Edith shivered. She had not hoped to meet anyone even mildly interesting at this party; she had certainly not expected to fall in love. She found it difficult to stop looking at Isabel. Michael Mellon, her fellow poet, a nonentity from nowhere, rushed up to her and confessed that he had been thrilled by the news of her prize because it was so rare these days for work one actually admired to receive any recognition at all. He felt positively vindicated. "In fact," he said, "Ellen told me to calm down. She said I was acting as if I'd won the prize myself!"

Edith accepted her colleague's praise at face value. The poor man had been instrumental in bringing her to the college, taught her book in his classes, and as she knew from various sources, had made an impassioned speech at her tenure review meeting, calling her one of the best poets of her generation. She did not doubt that he was the only person in the department who had not actually writhed in pain at the news of her selection. "What a generous man you are, Michael," she said. "Your friendship is as good as a prize to me." He blushed, and glanced about to see who was witnessing this acknowledgment of his worth. Edith followed his look and saw Isabel very near, her head tilted to listen to some pleasantry from Mabu, her eyes resting on Edith, the slyest of smiles lifting the corners of her mouth. I wonder what she looks like having an orgasm, Edith shocked herself by thinking. She returned her attention sharply to her well-wisher, who was asking her a question about a promising student whose honors thesis he was directing.

What a lot is going on there! What deft use, for example, is made of the unconscious psychological self-betrayal of Michael's "glancing about." The weakness of the glance marks his humanity - we don't need to know any more about him to make him three-dimensional. And as for Edith, being polite and yet wondering about the quality of Isabel's erotic surrender: we don't have to be told that her heart is racing or that she feels faint. Perhaps neither of these things is true; Edith has a stout constitution. But we know that she is falling hard: she is "shocked" in more ways than one.

The value of the work is generally a matter of hearsay; Ms Martin is wise not to risk substituting art criticism for fiction. But she can capture moments of discovery, and suggest reflect achievement in the face of an artist. Here is Sandra, a college drama teacher in "The Bower," watching the best student she's ever had reinvent Hamlet:

He is so gifted, Sandra thought, so incredibly gifted. Every now and then a student came along who impressed her, who was "a natural," but she had never seen anything like Carter Sorensen before. The other young men in the program despaired when they knew they would have to share a spotlight with him, though he was so mysteriously egoless and generous he brought out the best in them and they ended up surprising themselves. He had a revved up clairvoyance during rehearsal, his pale eyes darted a blue flame into the proceedings; the atmosphere simmered, a pot on the boil. Just last week, Rowina Murphy, a faculty warhorse who pulled inferior young actors through their lines as if she were harnessed to them, was completely flummoxed when Carter, sensing some visceral resistance as he yanked her about on the bed, said softly, "Mother, give in to me." Tears filled her eyes, her fleshy hand left the pillow and rested on the back of his neck; then, at her touch, Carter recoiled, betrayed, revolted, leaving her trembling with genuine shame. Sandras was so startled she sighed "Yes," and Jack, who was standing next to her, whispered, "Look at Rowina." He's killing her."

The young prince in the bower dropped his fingers from his temple, glanced down at the open book, and then, raising his troubled eyes, every line of his body proclaiming a state of excruciating indecision and torment, his voice pitched just above a whisper, though it could be heard as well in the back row as it could in the front, he enunciated the simple terms of his predicament. No one in the audience doubted that this was first time he had ever so irresistibly put the proposition to himself.

Now, that's acting. Trust me; I've seen it, and, lucky as I am to live in New York City, oftener than most. Reading this passage, I didn't know which grabbed me harder, the powerful evocation of what it's like to watch a great actor do something great, or the fact that Ms Martin's evocation was in fact so very powerful. That's writing!

I will leave two stories undiscussed. One of them, "The Change," seems experimental in contrast to the other five, and anyone who has read widely at this site will, having read it, see at once why I could never embrace it. The other, title story is the grandest in the collection, taking all of the tensions that I hope I've caught in this brief primer and turns them up to the breaking point. If I've done my job, "The Unfinished Novel" deserves no further recommendations, and you'll experience its artistic grand guignol with no sense of what to be afraid of.  (June 2006)

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