Like choosing to walk upright or on one’s hands, everything has a flip side, a counter opposite. It is the play between these opposites that David Grossman explores in A Horse Walks into a Bar. The genesis of humor is embedded in the polarity of the unexpected opposite. The punchline of the joke in the novel’s title is never rendered in the novel, but the reader knows the joke rides on its unexpected premise. By the same token, the page-turning response of the reader is a direct result of the rhetorical technique of the novel, the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious.
The comic and the tragic are worked out in a single set of the comedian, a single performance in time. Grossman has said that the nucleus of his tale–a young boy not knowing which parent’s funeral he is about to attend–had rattled around in his head for years while he sought the vehicle for its artistic realization. The choice of a comic’s voice could have rendered the dismissal of slapstick or the sentimentality of the confessional, but the genius of the writing, carefully modulated between farce and pathos, realized the poignancy of tragic depth. The reader watches the performance of an artist unravel with the same morbid fascination that causes us to pick at a scab.
Time spins backward as shtick morphs into confessional memoir, sub-levels of consciousness exposed. The artistry of the narrative rides on much more than the single dramatic elements of performance and audience. That these are realized through the lens of one member of the audience adds depth and consequence. The judge, a long-ago friend of the comedian, views the performance from both present and past, objectivity and subjectivity. He is the arm of justice twisted into its moral ambiguity as he struggles to accommodate a moment of adolescent betrayal. As focal intelligence, he represents a polar opposite to another intent listener, the dwarfed medium befriended in a web of childhood persecution. She plays agape to his legality. Both are the shadows teased into the comic Dovelah’s matriarchal/patriarchal light on the road to Jerusalem. They are players in the final resurrection.
I was disappointed that Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal was not named to the 2016 Booker longlist. There was so much to love in that novel, and I’ve continued to think about Martel’s use of backward-walking as a device to process the mutability of time, the surreality of grief. Associations with that book flooded back into my consciousness this week when I read A Horse Walks into a Bar, a novel shortlisted for the 2017 International prize. The Israeli author David Grossman is equally as adept as Martel in employing an alternative approach to standard human mobility as a device to cope with life. For both of these authors, there is a bedrock understanding that how a man walks reflects that man’s struggle to handle his emotions and control his life.
Grossman’s central character Dovaleh learned as a child to walk on his hands. The device was was more than performance; it was a way to protect his young body against the physical assaults of older and larger boys, a defense against persecution. It’s hard to cuff a boy’s ears when he’s upside down. In fact, that surprising orientation left predators increasingly nonplussed, and it became a life strategy for the protagonist. To turn things upside down became the constant way to disarm others and to understand the injustice of life.
When a sergeant comes to get the adolescent at compulsory training camp, but fails to clue him to the reason he has been summoned, he defaults to walking through the hot sand, the thorns of the desert, on his hands as he did as a child. He circles the sergeant in his confusion, madly trying to reduce the circumstance to something he can control. The image of turning things upside down punctuates his trip back to Jerusalem–the jokes of the driver, the offered cigarette, the violent rejection of his stomach to the nurture of the driver’s sister, even his own vomit beside the road. These become external images of the mental struggle to fight for his own orientation to equilibrium.
Inwardly, the boy struggles to imagine death into life for first one and then the other parent. Not knowing which has died, he alone is imaginatively in control of destiny as the unlikely military truck hurls itself beyond its orders. The journey is as surreal as the monologue of the fifty-ish standup comic who remembers that pivotal night in time.
While Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton has the narrative mind of the novelist, Deborah Levy’s Sophia Papastergiadis has the mind of the poet. Lucy’s introspective pondering of the past has a residue of plot in the way that it tirelessly probes memory to piece together the formation of her identity. Sophia’s mind builds her identity through a collection of sensory impressions. It flits from experience to experience in present time, suggesting more than it explores. The pastiche of life encounters calls the reader of Levy’s Hot Milk to weave meaning from the associational images that Sophia encounters.
The irony of Sophia’s characterization is revealed in her definition of herself as a doctoral student of anthropology. Her unfinished dissertation hangs over her psyche as uncomfortably as the tops that rub against the medusa stings on her shoulder. She represents herself as processing life experience as a social scientist, yet she lacks the sustained concentration to explore life in carefully documented notes. The reader understands that the command of the present moment keeps her from the longer view of antiquity.
She is acutely aware of the stings of the moment, and her mind continuously makes the associative leap from sensation to sensation. Her perception of sights and sounds, odors and kinesthetics, enables the reader to taste life as she imbibes it. Her richly textured world becomes the world of the reader. And thus the novel is processed in the way a tourist examines a travel destination.
While the journey to Spain is represented as a search for a cure for the mother’s mysterious paralysis, it is in reality a search for a daughter’s long-delayed maturation. The psychic connection between the two plays out in the murky distance of a pseudo clinic presided over by a pseudo clinician. Gomes, who understands more than his fraudulent identity suggests, is the high priest of sensation. He may well be the poet behind the larger poem that the novel reveals.
The title of Elizabeth Strout’s novel suggests that her protagonist is obsessed with naming. In fact, naming has been central to her experience since she was a child. Her early years in school were defined by her struggle to name the words she discovered and the actions she observed in others. She was victimized by the names her classmate called her, directly or by inference.
Lucy and her mother name her nurses, preferring their own pet names to the given names of these persons who come in and out the sanctuary of the sickroom. Together they struggle to name persons whose lives somehow fill out and enlarge their shared experience. Lucy would like to name the emotion that hangs between the two women, but her mother closes her eyes and refuses to cross that line. Her pet name “Wizzle” is sufficient for all that is unsayable.
There are things that Lucy is reluctant to name. She can’t say the word “snake,” and she shies away from the “Thing” that involves her father and penetrates every page of the novel. She knows that as a writer, she has assumed the obligation of naming, and she worries about the injunction to be “ruthless.” She puzzles over the reluctance of the writer Sarah Payne to give her name when the two first met in the New York clothing shop, but she comes to understand what it means to own words published in black and white.
Lucy came of age with parents who found it difficult to name their past as well as the present. Her father’s denial of the two young German civilians he killed in WWII when he was barely older than a boy is a failure of naming that overshadows his life and figures in his rejection of the German heritage of the man Lucy marries. That family horror lingers , leaving Lucy with an unnamed conflict over her husband’s inheritance of money from an ancestor whose profits had come from the war. Her nightmares related fears that a Nazi would imprison her and take her children.
Much is left unnamed in this novel–the breakup of Lucy’s first marriage, the relationships of her daughters with their stepmother, her rise to fame as a novelist, her choice of second partner. It is far easier for Lucy to name the cornfields of her youth and the skyline of her adulthood than it is to name her conflicted emotions over her own role as mother. She is after all her mother’s daughter.
The Chrysler Building is featured in the cover design for both the British and the American printings of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, but the designs suggest subtle differences. The British cover features the stylized window and the empty chair of the mother’s ever-illusive presence in the daughter’s life, while the American cover slices the building with the author’s name and the book’s title. The two designs reflect the tensions that exist in the protagonist’s life. Struggling to be heard or even be noticed as a child is partly resolved in the older professional who makes her mark on the publishing world. It’s another novel that studies the power of limitation to motivate success. The charm comes in the dramatic irony; the narrator never quite understands what she clearly reveals to her audience.
The bulk of the novel is set in five days during the protagonist’s nine-week stay in the hospital to overcome the mysterious aftermath of an appendectomy. The period of hospitalization is peculiarly redemptive. It becomes the occasion for the narrator to climb back into the womb and listen to the murmur of the mother’s voice. She revisits the life she knew as a child but without the isolation and silence. It’s an exercise in the revision of family history.
Hospitalization offers as much psychic healing as it offers physical healing. It’s a place of secure warmth as opposed to the cold of the garage where the family once lived, a place where her physical needs are met as opposed to the meager bread and molasses of her childhood. Visited regularly by a doctor she adores, a sort of high priest of the medical world, the patient is blessed by the rituals of caring.
While the security of the extended hospital stay allows Lucy Barton time to process the deprivations and hardships of her childhood, it also reenacts the same dissatisfactions that are woven into her past. The mother’s voice is at the same time comforting and distant. The nurses are caring but unable sit down and talk. The doctor disappears from her life when her illness ends. The depths of her neediness can never be filled by others. There will always be a psychic disconnect in her life. She is left with the task of declaring her own name.
The eponymous title sets the parameters for Elizabeth Strout’s deeply introspective novel. Like a child in first grade or a beginning language student, the protagonist, Lucy Barton, proclaims from every page her rage to be seen against a shifting landscape in which alienation is the ever-present danger. The reader meets her in the anonymity of a prolonged hospital stay. The clinical sterility of her room is illuminated at night by the lights of the Chrysler Building. That building hovers over her experience as a strangely personal image of a secular god. Its suggestion of order, beauty, and strength reaches toward the sky beyond, a silent correlative of the hidden element in her own soul that is both salve and desire.
The building acts as recurring motif throughout the novel. It’s an image of identity in an otherwise blur of buildings. It aspires to having its artistic design recognized and thus becomes a model for Lucy’s ambition to have her own fiction recognized.
The building is linguistically connected to the near-mystical presence of Lucy’s mother in the hospital room. Both mother and building seem to have mystical night powers as they intersect with the daughter’s silence. The mother’s dreams connect with the daughter’s life providing knowledge of a birth, certainty of recovery, and a troubled marriage to come. The illumination of the building at night enables mother and daughter to transcend their habitual patterns of silence and talk of acquaintances from the past in a new freedom of conversation. The mother’s speech becomes for the daughter an engendering presence that rivals the steadfastness of the building’s image. “Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellations of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.”
The Chrysler Building “shone like the beacon it was, the largest and best hopes of mankind and its aspirations and desire for beauty” in the night for Lucy. She wanted to tell her mother how she felt about the building, but the years of shielding emotions prevented this disclosure. Yet, her intuitive mother wrote after returning home using a picture postcard of the building, a silent affirmation of the power of the building in their abbreviated five-day experience. Perhaps, though she would deny it, she caught a glimpse of what the building meant to the daughter. Uncomfortably, she saw through that shared window and knew what the carefully dressed women walking on the streets of New York meant to her youngest daughter.
Stroud’s novel is a good place to start a read through the Booker longest. It’s a short novel that can be read in a weekend or a long night. It is technically fresh while delivering philosophical depth. It probes the way culture shapes perception, personality, and the process of societal adaptation. It never whines but explores the shaping influence of economic and class differentiation.