Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt. Grove. $24.00 256pp.
There is something of water and watercolors about Christine Schutt’s Prosperous Friends. Schutt’s latest is a collection of impressionistic, almost abstract sketches in a palette of dark, bruise colors. Her subjects are alienation, loneliness, and failure.
The fragmented, uncertain selves at the center of Prosperous Friends are Isabel and Ned Bourne, newlyweds and aspiring writers. Isabel is a fragile, frigid anorexic, a one-time “girl most promising” with a bit of money from her father. She’s pretty enough to have been an actress, but lacks the bravery. She doesn’t seem to enjoy sex, parties, food, or friends. Ned is Isabel’s equal in beauty (“handsomer than Rosetti”), but he’s “up for anything” and a man of appetite. He’s rich in friends and in energy for his writing, and though he tries mightily to bring Isabel into his world of pleasure and appetite, the pair seem deeply ill-suited from the start.
“Why this woman when there were so many others he might have amazed?” Ned thinks after another failed attempt to bring Isabel to orgasm, to get her to a party, to get her to have a drink. In this often beautifully written book, it’s a question that lingers troublingly and one Schutt never answers. Isabel and Ned seem preposterously mismatched—a pair unlikely to have a one-night stand, much less a marriage. That the novel never offers a single moment of happiness shared between them—a single blissful courtship scene—and thus never explains how such a marriage would’ve begun, is the work’s major flaw. Ultimately, it seemed less a novel about what role material and spiritual prosperity play in the thriving or collapse of marriages, than a portrait of Isabel Bourne in an extended and ultimately unresolved crisis.
Isabel is a well of sorrow and thwartedness. “I am not turning into the person I wanted to be,” Isabel confides to the kindly and capable wife of the lover she takes after her marriage to Ned begins to decay. Such phrases and sentiments form the novel’s emotional core:
From the girl most promising—no book, no significant publications either, and online didn’t count. She kept a journal; but she had not been a success, except perhaps outwardly in marriage. And now the marriage was over.
Isabel recoils from life at every turn and this it seems is one root of her failure. It’s not that she tries and fails; it’s that she doesn’t have the strength to try. When she becomes pregnant by Ned, she chooses to abort the child even as the idea of the child delights her. She explains to Ned, “I can’t . . . I haven’t become anything yet.”
It’s a crushing scene, but it’s no surprise: This is what Isabel does—she recoils from life—does things without conviction, not at all, too late. At a picnic at the mansion of wealthy friends (Ned’s sleeping with the wife, the woman he would have liked to marry), Isabel finds a pinkie, a hairless baby mouse, in the grass. She tries to save it, but fails—is destined to fail, Ned thinks: “Isabel was squeezing milk onto the pink knob’s face or its anus—drowning what was already dead.” There’s a touch of dark humor here, a recognition that Isabel and her attempts at becoming something, taking care of something, might be funny if they weren’t so pathetic and futile.
The novel gives Isabel an equivocal ending. It’s certainly more human connection and comfort in companionship than she gets anywhere else in the book. She’s ensconced in her now ex-lover’s summer house in Maine, being taken care of by his daughter and wife. She’s eaten a tart, and sits beside the soft, bumbling Sally, her ex-lover’s disappointing and hapless daughter, watching the crowd as they laugh and dance at an outdoor concert. Isabel is finally out of herself, taking an interest in the lives of others. Early in the book, Isabel recalls an old friend’s “gift in seeming interested in a person’s life—she is interested,” while finding herself “deeply incurious.” But here Schutt leaves her: among the crowd, interested, watching, speculating. It is not the ideal of intimacy, marriage, which the novel imagines as two trees “a linden and an oak, spring from one trunk,” but it is a beginning.
Schutt is a master of the poetic sentence. She, like Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Skelton, is particularly interested in the musical qualities of sentences such as these, thick with beautiful clusters of consonants and vowels:
London had happened so fast. Good bye to the heath and the horse-guards, to the floridly decorated flat.
On the kitchen table near the open window was a tiny bottle of fluttery sweet peas feigning faint of heart.
Common as a kitchen cut, her question starts a fight.
Summer’s ease, in a soft, clean shirt, rolled sleeves, he saw the dark ropes of his arms were a lustful seducement to any Polly to be shoved against the barn.
The minced pie looked gaunt, and she moved past it to the bowl of fruit and cut a stem of grapes, gone-by globes, the fattest of them split.
The g’s and o’s in “grapes, gone-by globes” force you to open your mouth as if eating grapes and the “fat” and “split” in the final phrase, the harsh, jarring sounds of the f-t-p-t sounds, create aurally some of the disgust the grapes themselves surely induce in the anorexic Isabel. The technique is similar in the others. These rich sentences can stand alone, apart from the greater meaning of the book. They have a beauty all their own, more poetic than prosy.
In a piece called “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” Tom Lutz describes the sentence as “a totality, an omnitude, unto itself . . . the one true theater of endeavor . . . the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy.” This is the philosophy that shaped Lutz and Schutt—along with other protégés of Gordon Lish—as writers. Lutz goes on to describe Schutt as the foremost living writer of such omnitudinous sentences:
Gordon Lish—the enormously influential editor, writer, and teacher whom I mentioned earlier—instructed his students in a poetics of the sentence that emphasized what he called consecution: a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows. The discharge can take many forms and often produces startling outcomes, such as when Christine Schutt, in “The Summer after Barbara Claffey,” is seeking the inevitable adjective to insert into the final slot in the sentence “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and ______.” What she winds up doing is literally dragging forward the previous adjective, tall, and using it as the base on which further letters can be erected. The result is the astounding, perfect tallowy—the sort of adjective she never could have arrived at if she had turned a synonymicon upside down in search of words that capture the quality of light.
Critics of the Lishian school might say that this approach to reading and writing leaves you missing the forest for the trees: the drama of tall becoming tallowy and the poetics of the sentence in general supersede concerns about story, character, plot, and thematic coherence. And, indeed, Prosperous Friends might be accused of having neglected plot and thematic coherence in its deep commitment to shapely, succulent sentences. It’s not really about prosperous friends, for example. At any rate, the superior prosperousness of Ned’s mistress Pheobe Harris and Isabel’s adulterous lover, Clive, seem incidental rather than crucial to explaining why they are happier and more successful at life than Isabel and Ned. Ultimately, the novel’s plot, such as it is, doesn’t seem terribly important: It is more an excuse for beautiful sentences. Whether you find them sufficient is another question.
Emily Colette Wilkinson is a writer and teacher living in Williamsburg, VA.
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