“I found poems that might lend my life a sense of gravity. I read them in the near-dark, trying to pass the time so I wouldn’t go to bed at such embarrassingly early hours. When you are old and grey and full of sleep…My throat was gritty with wine; anger rose like phlegm. How could anyone write those words once they’d seen aging for themselves? But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,/And loved the sorrows of your changing face. What did young Yeats know about the bodies of old women, how their pubic hair turned ashen between the sticks of their thighs?”
Alcoholism; anorexia; abortion; the female body — pain of, aging of, desire of; family — secrets of, estrangement from, dysfunction of; sex — prostitution, affairs, consensual; the American West; displacement, rootlessness; the loneliness of the city. And that’s just for starters. It sounds like a lot for a first novel to carry, but The Gin Closet does it with grace and heartbreaking beauty.
I’d been intimidated by Leslie Jamison. By the wonderful title essay from her collection The Empathy Exams, by her wisdom and openness in the immaculately condensed How To Write A Personal Essay (which I mentioned here) and, not least, by her amazing tattoo. But then she was one of the writers featured in the IOWA How Writers Write Fiction course, and — as often happens when you ‘meet’ someone in person (or in this case, watch a video of them talking!) — I found her generous and quirky and full of interesting advice. (Sample: Give yourself a mini-sabbatical from pushing your narrative forward by writing up a world glossary of objects, places and phrases, and what they mean to your characters.)
Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, was published in 2010. Twenty-something Stella is commuting from her empty life in New York to Connecticut to care for her increasingly frail grandmother, Lucy, when she finds out that Lucy had a younger daughter, Matilda,
“In her croaking voice, Grandma Lucy told me about her younger daughter in reverent bursts, as if Matilda were a dream that would be lost if she weren’t told fast enough. It had taken all these years just to say her name out loud.”
When Lucy dies and Stella’s lawyer mother proposes to write a letter informing Matilda, Stella decides to seek out her lost aunt and deliver the letter herself. Finding Tilly living in a trailer park in the Nevada desert, Stella is drawn into Tilly’s life of alcoholism and squalor, and drawn into the possibility of helping her find redemption. “You’ve always wanted to turn yourself into a story,” Stella’s brother Tom observes, “I knew it would get you into trouble someday.”
The novel is structured around alternating first person sections narrated by Stella and by Tilly. The sections are, until the closing pages of the novel, relatively long — around 50 pages — and they allow you to sink you deep inside each of the women. So often structures that move from one voice to another leave me twitchy and desperate to get back to the viewpoint that I prefer, but Stella and Tilly were equally compelling, equally telling in their observations of the other.
Jamison’s sentences are smooth, slow, rich with imagery. She has no fear of simile, sentences with the word ‘like’ pile up, one after another, yet all contain surprising, fresh images. She mentions blogs and cell phones and the world as it is without ceremony or hesitation, which shouldn’t be rare enough to mention, but somehow (in my reading at least) is. ‘The truth was, I shopped at store that other people liked first or that trusted bloggers recommended.’ Well, what blogger wouldn’t love a book that acknowledged that blogs exist?
I knew from reading interviews with Jamison that her essays and fiction shared common concerns. Here she is on the overlap between The Empathy Exams and The Gin Closet
“There are, as you say, so many resonances between the books: an interest in bodily experience (especially pain) and how it shapes us, how it inflects the ways we care for each other. But the novel often finds hollowness or self-interest or futility in certain things (presence, listening, rescuing) that the essays ultimately want to recuperate. They say, “Of course empathy and showing up and caring for are all subject to polluted motivation and troubled execution, but let’s try them anyway. Let’s see where they go. Let’s see what good they can do.””
Leslie Jamison, interviewed by John Lingan
I love that ‘polluted motivation and trouble execution’. And, yes, let’s try empathy and showing up anyway. So here I am, still intimidated by Leslie Jamison, but now just for her beautiful writing and her wonderful mind.
Where do I go from here? I’m reading Jamison’s essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’. Planning to commit to memory her recommendations from The Millions A Year in Reading series (unconnected: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets arrived here yesterday, so maybe I’ll start there). And, finally, re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, partly for the aunt connection, partly for Jamison’s admiration for Robinson, and partly because I know Kerry is about to read it and I couldn’t bear the thought of the pleasure she is about to have without having some of it for myself.