Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pamela Erens

Pamela Erens's novel, The Understory (Ironweed Press), released in Fall 2007, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her short fiction has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Review, Boston Review, The Literary Review,, Bellingham Review, Upstreet, Skidrow Penthouse and Redivider.

I recently asked Erens what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve just finished two novels that moved me deeply. The first was Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, written in 1959. I’d already read the sequel to this book, the longer Mr. Bridge, and I think Mrs. B is even better. The novel is constructed as a series of very short chapters about an upper-middle-class, Midwestern family between the 1920s and the early 1940s. The effect is that of a mosaic, although the progression is linear, beginning with Mrs. Bridge’s marriage, moving through the childhood and adolescence of her three children, and ending when everyone has flown the coop. What’s astonishing about the Bridge books is that the Bridges and their neighbors live such ordinary, even stultifying, lives, and yet reading about them is completely absorbing. Connell’s success here is partly due to his gift for compression, but it also has to do with his compassion for his characters, his sly humor, and his ability to plug into deep and universal currents of feeling that his characters can hardly name, much less freely acknowledge. The bewilderment and loneliness that Mrs. Bridge so often experiences in the midst of her very proper life is somehow also mine, living though I do decades later and within a completely different set of circumstances. I read this short book quickly and with delight but when I was done I felt a terrible grief.

The second novel was The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. It’s leisurely and dense where Mrs. Bridge is crystalline and swift. Transit is the story of two Australian sisters, orphans, who move to London when they are in their early twenties, for precisely the same reason that folks from Gary, Indiana move to New York City or L.A. — they hope to make something interesting of themselves. One becomes engaged to a well-born young man, and in his ancestral family home one summer the two sisters meet three other people with whom they will cross paths over the next twenty-odd years, the result each time being an alteration of at least one character’s fate. Transit contains elements of many different genres: romance novel, mystery novel, drawing-room comedy, philosophical essay. It’s nothing if not ambitious, and it probably goes unread by scores of people who would cherish it if they gave it a chance. The truth is that I was tempted to put it down after the first ten pages. The narrator is prone to pronouncements and aphorisms, and the language can at times be highly elaborate and abstract. But soon the richness of the character portraits and the powerful mood won me over, and Hazzard’s style came to seem perfectly and uniquely right. Transit is also a quietly tricky book: clues are dropped in the first pages that reveal their significance only hundreds of pages later. It’s easy to miss some of those clues. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why a central character had committed suicide (this is not a spoiler; the incident is foretold on page 12) until a friend pointed out a few words, buried forty pages before the ending, which made this act, and the book’s last paragraph, completely and shockingly clear.
Visit Pamela Erens's website to read more about The Understory and her short stories, essays, and journalism.

--Marshal Zeringue