Robin Black's fiction and essays have appeared in such publications as One Story, The Southern Review, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol I (WW Norton 2007) and can be found in the Summer 2009 issue of Colorado Review. Her first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Random House in 2010.
Here on Isak, Black brings a writer's mind to her recent reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which was this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book is a collection of thirteen linked short stories.
By Robin Black
In the interest of not burying the headline, I’ll start by saying that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, quietly stunning, masterfully crafted, buoyed by wisdom, is one of the best books I have read in many a year. I finished it abuzz with the tell-tale jealousy response, the feeling as a writer that one might as well just give up because really, with other people producing books this good, what exactly is the point? It’s a feeling that if you’re lucky eventually transforms into a mix of gratitude that such books exist and determination to get there one day yourself--all still tinged with jealousy of course.
The book is so seamlessly excellent that it’s difficult to choose aspects for praise or even pull out distinct elements for analysis, but certainly part of what distinguishes Olive Kitteridge is the unassuming nature in which it cloaks its brilliance. It is decidedly not a flashy book. There is no odd eye-catching concept here and no high drama, really. One story, “A Different Road,” comes close to something like that, when in the opening lines the narrator discloses that “an awful thing” has happened to the book’s title character and her husband and that neither Kitteridge has been the same since. Not too surprisingly given the hints, the “awful thing” turns out to be that they were victims of a crime, and the assumption of the town folk is that the changes are the natural result of that. But the reader is quickly pulled back into the book’s accustomed world of quiet revelation with the understanding that it was not the high drama of being held at gunpoint that so deflated and saddened them both. It was the unspeakable--now spoken--things they said to one another while thinking that they might die.
With this wise little twist, Strout explicitly makes a point implicit throughout the entire book: it’s a mistake to assume that biggest, most evidently dramatic actions carry the greatest consequence. A marital spat gone awry can be more damaging--and more compelling--than an armed gunman any time. Real drama is to be found in what happens between us all, every day.
For those of us whose own fiction tends to run more in the direction of marital spats than hostage crises, it’s possible to read this story as something of a manifesto. We chroniclers of the quotidian struggle daily (in a quotidian kind of way) with the problem of how one crafts exceptional literature from unexceptional events. The dull marriage, the upsetting diagnosis, the disaffected child. Grief, love, self-pity. The marital affair. The sorrowing mistress. Tales of this sort are liable to run smack into a giant been-there-done-that response. The feeling is widespread enough that I recently heard an editor ask rhetorically, as though there could be no real debate, “Does the world really need another story about someone’s sister’s cancer?”
Yet here is Olive Kitteridge giving the lie to any thought that these subjects may be exhausted or that the supposed familiarity of one’s own material is any excuse for a failure of originality--or for a failure to write a brilliant book. Manifesto is perhaps too extreme a word for “A Different Road,” but undoubtedly there is a message between its lines: You want something a little more exciting than good old family life? The nuances of human relations? Fine, I’ll give you hostages and guns, the whole nine yards. But don’t let the flash of gun metal blind you to where the real drama is. That might be an interesting perspective no matter what the quality of the book, but in one this compelling it’s a message delivered with some oomph. Strout settles, for all time if there were logic to such things, the debate over whether everyday events of not particularly eventful lives can make for great literature.
You can’t read far into any review of Olive Kitteridge without learning that Olive herself is not your typical heroine. The common wisdom--which like most common wisdom is of questionable wisdom--is that one’s central character should be likeable. There are notable exceptions (Humbert Humbert is always prominent among them, though as is often pointed out at least he is charming) but still the expectation is that a central character will be someone with whom a reader can fairly quickly sympathize and even identify if only in a wishful thinking kind of way. The character may have flaws, but those tend to be nestled in among the ballast of likeable qualities.
But when Elizabeth Strout introduces her title character in the book’s first story “Pharmacy“ Olive is thoroughly dislikable--inhospitable, unkind, unsympathetic and uniformly unpleasant. There’s no question of Strout easing her reader into caring about Olive first by showcasing some of her more appealing aspects and then gradually revealing that she also has her flaws. No. Entirely unprotected by the machinations of her author, Olive makes so awful a first impression that the inevitable question one asks is how on earth can her husband--much less a reader--love her? Or even like her?
The not so common wisdom Strout demonstrates, as Olive gradually emerges as a woman whom it is easy neither to love nor hate, is in understanding that a complex relationship is very often more powerful than a simple one. This applies to the relationships among her characters and also to that between those characters and the reader. Affection, easy enough to feel, is not the most passionate or meaningful form of engagement. Strout is perfectly capable of crafting characters evidently deserving of sympathy--Olive’s husband Henry Kitteridge is one such. But it seems that she doesn’t only want you to sympathize with Olive; she wants you to wonder why you do. She doesn’t only want you to observe the complicated natures of attachment and love; she wants you to experience them for yourself.
It is a measure of the book’s power that time and time again Olive Kitteridge forces our attention past what is most obvious. Don’t assume that you have nothing more to know about what may seem familiar. Don’t assume it’s always the guns that do the real damage. Don’t assume that you can’t care about the life of a woman you initially disliked.
Beyond Olive herself, the book is populated with a town’s worth of memorable people, many of them struggling with the manner in which life’s imperfect nature tends to rub off on all us. To the book’s great benefit, Strout seems more concerned with understanding their hearts than with defining them by their virtues or flaws. Unburdened by an author’s need to categorize her characters as either good or bad, they emerge with a kind of uncommon wholeness.
Olive Kitteridge is made up of thirteen short stories all linked by Olive’s sometimes central sometimes fleeting appearance in every one and by concern with the residents of Crosby, a small town in Maine. The stories also appear in chronological order, another aspect of their connection in a narrative scheme. The book is generally referred to as a novel-in-stories, a term often surrounded by the kind of quotation marks that call into question the existence of what they enclose. The form has gained greatly in popularity in recent years but even so it is apparently still notable enough to require explanation.
In an interview at the back of my edition, answering a question rarely if ever asked of novelists, Strout says: “I chose this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well.”
It’s quite striking that Strout doesn’t say that it seemed like the best way to tell a particular story. Instead, she talks about telling “the power of [a] character.” It’s an odd phrase and a goal not usually considered the central one of either short stories or novels. Sit in any fiction writing workshop long enough and you are likely to hear the term “portraiture” offered as a particularly damning negation of a narrative. More common wisdom, subject to the same caveat: portraits aren’t stories, not traditional ones anyway. They are too still, too static, too lacking in narrative tension. Entirely too unconcerned with the question: what happens next?
But with her use of a thirteen-piece collage structure for Olive Kitteridge, Strout turns the problem of portraiture on its ear. The book’s quite traditionally crafted tales with their tensions, their plots, and their resolutions, conspire to silence the central objection to “telling a character” rather than a story, which is that not enough happens. Each piece satisfies any appetite for event. But disjointedly related and so evidently parts of a larger whole, the stories also conspire to ensure that the portrait of Olive emerges as the heart of the book. She is after all the one element that carries through the whole work. And not even a particular issue of hers, not a central dilemma--except, arguably, the issue of her character, the dilemma of being her. So ultimately, in a quite amazing alchemy, it is a reader’s curiosity about Olive herself that creates the book’s suspense. As the reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “The book is a page-turner because of her.” Strout transforms the question “What happens next?” into the question “What will she do next?” or maybe more accurately “What more will I learn about her?” And in the end what you have is a novel-length portrait of an entirely original, complex and compelling woman.
It is notoriously difficult to craft a book solely concerned with the small daily struggles of ordinary people and have that work transcend the charge of familiarity. And it is no less difficult to center a book around a character who is thoroughly dislikable throughout much of it, and nonetheless engage the sympathy of readers; no less difficult to construct a novel-length work around crafting a portrait while providing enough forward momentum to ensure that a reader will actually turn the pages.
The definition of flashy is: sparkling or brilliant, especially in a superficial way or for the moment. As I said at the start, Olive Kitteridge is not a flashy book--but it surely is a brilliant one.