The Hunger Artist
Christine Schutt's spare portrait of family disintegration.
Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By EDITH ALSTON
VIEWING THE WORLD WITH THE hard-edged precision of a child who has seen too much, Alice Fivey assesses adults according to the offhand things she hears them say over her head. Their physicality she rarely bothers to notice unless they are much loved, very old, or positioned outside her ordinary line of vision.
"She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding out from under curtains, rump polishing the floor," Alice begins, remembering a moment in her mother's drastic mental deterioration. "Talk to me. Be a daughter," her mother was saying to her, in a voice without inflection, as if her mind was on something else.
What Mother's mind may have been on was Walter, the alcoholic and abusive boyfriend in the next room. For both Alice and her mother (also named Alice), Florida at the start of this story is already the place of happy memories and dreamed-of reunions, where the young Alice remembers her parents at the cocktail hour, and herself tasting the sweet succulence of sugared fruit sections topped with a maraschino cherry.
Once, like Oliver Twist, she asked her father, "Could I have more?" And her father answered, "Sure."
Now Father is dead, a possible suicide, drowned in his car, and Mother writes her occasional letters from "the San." Alice, meanwhile, is shuttled between the "rooms and rooms and rooms" of her Nonna's grand house at one end of a lake somewhere in the Midwest and her Uncle Billy's house at the other, with an occasional foray to a second house of Uncle Bilaly and Aunt Frances in Arizona.
Ten was her age, Alice says, when "Mother left for good and this sleep-over life began." Now Nonna is a speechless and decrepit shell of her former self, kept alive by nurses; Uncle Billy has the feckless pastimes of a man who has never had to earn a living, and Aunt Frances the frugality of a woman who wants to keep what she has. And Florida for both Alices is also a foil-lined box, built by Arthur, the family chauffeur, where Mother used to lie with dark-painted toenails getting an out-of-season tan, holding onto an illusion of warmth in the time before illness overwhelmed her.
For a time, only Arthur seems to recognize that Alice has needs, and to be there at crucial moments that connect to her past, and especially to who her parents once were. For this, Alice loves Arthur and is grateful to him, but also knows in her austere self-awareness her capacity to betray him. In a family feeling too privileged for anybody to have to recognize any needs but their own, she picks up her clues about how to live and think and feel with the randomness of someone collecting refundable soda cans.
And Mother is never really gone. She is the longed-for, the once-visited, sometimes dreaded and imminent presence, who escapes from "the San" eventually, and even makes a tenuous life for herself on the West Coast. There, finally, Alice will know her again before she disappears.
For all such elements, there is nothing Dickensian about this taut and intricately told tale. (Nor is Alice like Jane Eyre, a comparison repeatedly suggested once her English teacher becomes one of the two sympathetic male characters.) Schutt writes arthroscopically, plunging deep into a succession of small moments she examines with a close-up lens--then withdraws, leaving the surrounding tissue undisturbed. Later, if she needs more of a moment, she plunges again, picking up another detail or two off the periphery.
She never gives her readers more than necessary; she's a latter-day hunger artist, keeping them wanting more.
In a story so narrowly and steeply told, the risk is that characters other than the protagonist will get too little time under the author's lens. Schutt's way of mostly avoiding this is to cover a time span long enough for some of Alice's assessments to prove unreliable. Threading her way into adulthood, making choices grounded in what sometimes feels like a distressing inevitability, she also views characters out of her past with unexpected generosity.
And from the opening paragraph, always intensifying at the heart of this story, is the question: In what ways will Alice be the daughter her mother asks her to be? Meted out in a spare 156 pages--with considerable white space allotted to page breaks, text shoved down the page by reiterating section titles, and sections ending well short of the bottom of the page--the answer is both daunting and heartening, almost bitterly honest, and ultimately redeeming.
Florida is Schutt's first novel, and a National Book Award finalist. Now out in paperback, it is not always a pretty story, but is always handsomely told.
Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.