A journalist misses the stories around her.
Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By ANN STAPLETON
And so the question becomes, can Emma Gant (her name a cross between Jane Austen's "heroine whom no one but myself will much like" and Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant, unable to go home again) carry the novel? It's a curious phenomenon. All the pieces are in place here: the epigraphs by Spanish exiles, Emma's story, usurpations large and small, the overlay of mythos. Yet the parts remain separate and immobilized, like a string of railroad cars with no couplers and no engine. We have our tickets, but nobody is going anywhere. And then we realize what's missing. That the absent element is the reader's engagement--the spark of interest, the willingness, the absorption necessary to fire things up and move the scenery along--should not be at all surprising.
Life is personal. Human beings are naturally self-serving creatures, when not in the throes of occasional magnanimous and glorious acts, and in literature our self-interest (though it set the deconstructionists in their death throes to another round of hissing and shrieking) is best served by characters (preferably more than one, but even one will do) whom we can--yes, I'll say it outright--whom we can love.
I use the term loosely, to suggest someone, however flawed, whose fate engages us deeply. That there is no one here who fits that description represents an exile from meaning and pleasure that we might well protest.
But we are still left with the paradox of Emma's presence: that she consumes all the oxygen in the novel, and yet somehow her flame remains too dim by which to see much. (In Greek, Persephone means "she who destroys the light.") In an indicative scene on a borrowed houseboat, Emma uses a bathroom decked out with hundreds of small mirrors:
Virtually every inch of wall was covered with them. Square ones, round ones, heart-shaped, Art Deco, Tiffany, Woolworth's, framed in seashells, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, you name it. Yet nowhere could you have an extensive view of yourself. While seated, I . . . partook of snippets of my anatomy, none of which, because of the limited views allowed, was either alarming or flattering.
And thus we always encounter Emma, fixated on her own image, but never able to see herself clearly, every person she meets a miniature looking glass in which to regard her own visage. Similarly, we are at the mercy of "the limited views allowed" by Godwin's choice of Emma as narrator. Whereas Jane Austen had the third person at her disposal to moderate the effects on the reader of her not-quite-likable Emma, Godwin has chosen the first person as her vehicle, and Emma to drive it. But in addition to the awkward self-boosterism the choice engenders ("My combination of attractive surface and interesting mind appeared to be having its effect") a character like Emma's begs for authorial intrusion, both to censure and to save her.
To be fair, Emma does make a bit of progress toward the end of the work, particularly in a scene around the pool at the Julia Tuttle when, surrounded by the exiles, she forgets herself a little, engages with Luisa, and is able, finally, to take her first swim. But her immersion seems too little too late, and is undercut by the affectless, science-book language of her epiphany: Like Emma, we are given the words, but not the feeling:
Lulled by my partial submersion in the watery element, and by the discipline of rhythmic breathing, my mind began to unclench and let go of its habitual frets. . . . Associations spooled out and made new contacts. Tough subjects and their interconnections pulsed with interest. . . . Our designs in progress collided, intermingled, left behind imprints, created more options, each with its set of branches and subbranches.
When Emma's boss (nicknamed Lucifer), despised by Emma for not much better reason than that he remains immune to her charms, in a sudden, anticipated-all-book-long strike, finally absconds with her (simply a reassignment of Emma to a work location she does not prefer), we are not moved to round up a search party. In truth, we are a bit relieved. Her absence will not turn the topside weather glacial and dull, and leave us lonely for human connection. It was, regrettably, her presence that did that.
Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.