Tuesday, November 8, 2016

White Mule – William Carlos Williams
Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” and Williams does, but without resorting to obscurity. He immediately put me on intimate footing with his characters, and that association never slackened. His straightforward prose relies heavily on the spoken word; in a single paragraph two or three characters talk (without one quotation mark getting in the way), but each voice is so distinctive there’s no difficulty in sorting them out. His subject matter is unique; on the first page an infant enters the world. The mother’s reaction to learning that it’s a girl: What? A girl. But I wanted a boy. Look again. It’s a girl, Mam. No! Take it away. I don’t want it. All this trouble for another girl. The father enters the room: Are you all right, Mama? Oh, leave me alone. What kind of man are you? As he didn’t exactly know what she meant he thought it better to close the door. So he did. If you’ve formed any preconceptions about the parents, they’ll prove to be wrong; as we follow Flossie in her first year, they’ll take good care of their sickly, underweight, squalling child. Williams, a pediatrician by profession, has a matter-of-fact attitude toward Flossie and every other character; he gives us a realism stripped bare of sentimentality. While Flossie struggles To Be (the title of the first chapter), the adults have to deal with practical matters. A major one is money. The novel is set in the early 1900s, a time of turbulent growth. Joe steadily emerges as a man whose intelligence and determination make him someone to reckon with. He’s reserved in his words and feelings; his wife, Gurlie, is his opposite; she’s emotionally volatile. In the book’s closing section she takes their two children to the mountains of Vermont to stay with an immigrant Norwegian family; they do this to get Flossie out of New York’s oppressive summertime heat. Gurlie is invigorated by the beauty and peace of nature, which she had last known in her childhood. As we see this dimension of her come to light, the novel is complete. Williams, a poet, wrote a book that contains no poetic language; but there’s a sort of poetry in the down-to-earth way he depicts human beings in the midst of life.

In the Money – William Carlos Williams
This second installment of the trilogy is more conventional in form than White Mule (I was disappointed when I saw the first quotation mark). And much of the plot concerns Joe’s efforts to get a contract to print government money orders. Though he submitted the low bid, the firm he had previously worked for is determined to beat him by whatever means necessary; they have a band of high paid lawyers and political connections. Williams is able to make this long struggle engrossing; he even builds tension, because we’re never sure whether Joe will prevail against the cutthroat tactics thrown at him. He does, and is “in the money.” But the stamina, the resolve – was it worth it? Is money that important? For Gurlie, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” She also believes that she should get credit for Joe’s success because it’s her ambition and drive that is pushing him forward. But she’s giving herself too much credit; Joe isn’t oblivious to her demands, but he remains his own man. The two have different values. When Gurlie is asked why she wants to be rich, she answers, “Why do I want to be rich for! What do you want to live for? Of course I’m not satisfied with what I’ve got. I want to go places. I want to see everything there is to see that I’m interested in.” She jerks her head at her husband. “He doesn’t want anything, that’s why he needs me. He’d be satisfied to walk around in the woods by himself, he never sees anything. What do you mean, why do I want to be rich?” Gurlie’s combativeness often turns abusive; Joe can handle her – in his quiet way he’s as tough as she is – but she’s taking on ominous dimensions. When her mother comes to stay with them the two are constantly at odds; their final fight turns venomous. During this argument Flossie begins to scream like she had never done before. The crying goes on and on, unstoppable. An odd old doctor (“I should have been a writer”) had given Gurlie a pamphlet in which he proposes that influences in the second year of a child’s life can determine their personality. Had the voices of her mother and grandmother, raised in such anger, shaken the foundations of Flossie’s security? Maybe we’ll see a darkness emerge in her, but for now she’s a cheerful child, eager to learn (language, in particular) and to do (such as to climb stairs like an adult, one step at a time). At the end of the book she and her sister Lottie return to the Vermont mountains, this time without their mother. They’re in the bosom of a family, in the embrace of nature; it’s clear, in these idyllic scenes, which way of life Williams values. But they return to New York, and what awaits them there?

The Build-Up – William Carlos Williams
This should have been called The Let-Down. Williams fails to bring a satisfying (or even coherent) close to his trilogy; worst of all, he abandons characters that I had come to care about. The book begins five years after the previous one, and we swiftly cover the next dozen years. Joe is hardly present; when he makes brief appearances he’s usually in a pissed-off mood. Gurlie is at the forefront, moving heaven and earth; she’s a swaggering bully getting her way. Lottie, the older child (who had been a shadowy figure) plays a major role; at age fourteen she goes to a conservatory in Leipzig to study to be a concert pianist. (Really? – I had no idea she had talent.) She comes across as a nasty, selfish person, and the attention paid to her was wasted on me. And then there’s Flossie, who entered the world on page one of White Mule. If you gathered together all the text devoted to her it might come to ten pages. She’s a vapid, colorless presence, and for Williams to present her like this amounts to a literary betrayal. If taken as a separate novel, without antecedents, The Build-Up has some good individual scenes, but there’s no overall structure; it’s meandering and full of loose ends. Why such a drop-off in quality? The publication dates may provide an answer. White Mule came out when Williams was fifty-four, In the Money three years later. Then there’s a span of twelve years before The Build-Up. In that interval the inspiration that produced the first novel was lost. Maybe the downward arc of this trilogy reflects a sad truth about life.

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