Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Considering Ellen Gilchrist

From the author’s note to Ellen Gilchrist’s collection of short stories, “I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy,” specifically referring to the fact that her story, “Gotterdammerung, In Which Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood Confront Evil in a World They Never Made” was written a full year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “I wish evil did not happen in the world. I wish the world could be populated by people like Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood, fortunate, caring men and women, watched over by a writer who would never let them come to harm.”

I’d never thought it was the writer’s job to prevent her characters from coming to harm, so this point struck me as interesting. Now that I’ve finished about three weeks worth of lunches with Gilchrist stories (in addition to this collection, I read her previous “The Cabal and Other Stories”), I realize that she really does take this injunction seriously. Oh, bad things can happen to people, but there’s nothing they can’t deal with.

I read a few books by Gilchrist back in the 80s, and then I lost track of her until I picked up these two collections on a remainder table at a store that was having a half price sale because they were going out of business. I’m saying I got them cheap partially to emphasize my own guilt for forgetting how much I like Gilchrist, and partially to realize the value of picking up cheap books now and again, because they can point you in directions you may otherwise avoid.

I remember tales of Rhoda Manning, though I must confess to forgetting the details from so many years ago. “I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy” gives us five stories featuring this character whom Gilchrist obviously loves above all others. She returns to Manning again and again, but not in chronological order. Gilchrist has created a richly detailed universe of the extended Manning family, in which virtually any era can be explored without ever slipping in a contradictory detail. It’s a creation which is as fascinating as it is impressive.

Gilchrist characters, Manning or not, are mostly Southern, mostly well educated, mostly upper class, mostly interested in the arts if not literary or theatrical creators themselves, and mostly good. They are, however, full of facets and flaws. Gilchrist can say something revealing about a minor character with a beautiful sentence or two, which explains her ability to return to them at greater length in other stories. Here’s Rhoda in the 1970s watching her youngest son: “Teddy looked so cute, standing in front of my stereo listening to music and shuffling his feet. I wanted to give him a big hug and a kiss but he didn’t like to be interrupted when he had started something so I left him alone.”

Not much really happens in any given Gilchrist story – except possibly “Gotterdamerung,” a virtual thriller in Gilchrist world, albeit a thriller with some characters who strike me as living in the building of Frasier Crane if that were in New York – but the characters experience a lot. This is what she does so well, gets us into the heads and the hearts of real human beings, all of which Gilchrist loves.

Me, I found myself loving even more the bunch of folks populating “The Cabal,” a 132-page novelette. (Some of them also turn up in “The Sanguine Blood of Men” and “Hearts of Dixie” from the same book.) Here is the plot, a series of events with little purpose other than to reveal the characters around whom things happen. Caroline is returning to the South to teach literature at a small college. Her gay male friend introduces her to his local theatre group cronies, all of whom have at one time or another been on the couch of psychiatrist Jim Jaspers. Jaspers has flipped his lid, and everyone is worried about their secrets being exposed. That’s pretty much all that happens, but it happens with flair, with wild determination and vivid excitement, with passion and discovery.

It’s not that Gilchrist draws only characters who are likeable. Many of the folks in this town would drive me crazy in real life. But, Gilchrist does give each of them a chance to make their case for being in the world, and small kindnesses can intercut pompous declarations to soothe any anger from the reader. In “The Abortion,” Gilchrist gets inside the heads of characters from half a dozen distinct vantage points, and makes them all seem sympathetic, no easy task on such a subject.

I wonder how much Gilchrist sells. She’s got something like 18 books out, so she must do all right, but I also think I’ve seen many others on remainder tables in my time. Do they consistently print too many, hoping for another “Victory Over Japan,” her 80s respectable seller? I don’t understand the book business the way I understand the record industry. But I understand I’m not done reading the work of Ellen Gilchrist.

Now, as for whether you may wind up enjoying this stuff or not, I suppose it depends on your ability to be satisfied with the concluding sentences of “Light Shining Through a Honey Jar,” the final story in the “Rhoda Manning” book. “Of course she fell asleep in my arms. I covered her with a knit coverlet my aunt Lily made years ago in Boutte and then I tiptoed into their room to see what the twins were doing. They were asleep like spoons, side by side as they were in the womb. Such is love. Such are the moments of our lives. Breathe in, breathe out, go and watch a sunset.”


Blogger Aunt B said...

I love your book posts best, I think. You write about books with a kind of wide-eyed sense of discovery that tickles me.

Remainders do kind of suck, but usually, they aren't any comment on the worth of the author. It's more to do with poor planning on the part of the publisher. They do overprint, because of the whole stupid return situation. You don't know how many books are coming back and you want to make sure readers can find the book in bookstores.

Other times it has to do with misjudging how quickly a book will sell. For accounting purposes, you usually only want to have three to five years worth of inventory in your warehouse.

With the bigger publishers, who can get better schedules at the printers, it might be better for them to only keep a couple of years' worth of inventory.

As long as Gilchrist's books are still in print, remaindering is more a happy convergence between the needs of the publisher and the impulse of the reader than it is any indication of Gilchrist's worth.

Now, if you're finding books that just came out a few months ago on the remainder table... that's not good.

Books and music have the three "r"s in common--rights, royalties, and returns. So, if you know something about one, you know a little about the other.

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