Monday, 22 August 2016

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart

My goodness, this slim little book makes me feel curmudgeonly. Look at the cover, the praise showered on it for being true and real and a masterpiece, and really, all I felt was irritated. I wasn't convinced this was a great love story, any more than Wuthering Heights is. And at least with Wuthering Heights, I'm not convinced we're supposed to think it is romantic.

The comparison that kept coming to mind was with Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, which it is no secret I loved with a fiery passion neither rereading nor time has dimmed. This, on the other hand, feels like it treads some of the same ground, but without any of the things that so intoxicated me about Winterson's work. 

For one, the affair at the centre in By Grand Central etc. never seemed particularly real. Let's sidetrack into plot: young woman has affair with married man, gets pregnant, he doesn't leave his wife. I am absolutely delving into that nefarious practice of describing plot in such a way as to make it absurd, and I do try not to do that. I firmly hold to Roger Ebert's axiom about it not being what it's about, it's how it is about it. 

So if it's about an affair, why do I hate this book and love Written on the Body? It is because how it is about an affair is annoying as hell. For one, By Grand Central Station sounds very much like a young woman convinced her love affair means more than anything in the world, that all those horrible normal people out in the world know nothing of passion or depth of feeling, that she alone is privy to the depths of emotion. It's that specifically - not the emotion, but the sheer self-centeredness of asserting a sole claim to emotion and love and passion, that gets on my nerves.

In contrast, Winterson never needs to say that her character's passion is great - she shows it. It isn't established by denigrating others, it's through the intense tunnel vision brought to the novel, to the attention one pays to the other, and how it is returned. In other words, she's showing, not telling. 

(It really doesn't help that Smart's little bio on the inside back flap sounds exactly the same - that she's far too real for us Establishment types. Society never understood her, because she's too real.

More important, there are so few specifics. There is a lot of flowery prose, but it's all esoteric, describing feelings without ever rooting them in events, in sensations. It feels curiously disembodied, which, for a book about a love affair, seems a little odd. I can tell you that the man didn't leave his wife, but I can't tell you what happened when the narrator found that out. It's all very, flowery, but it would be so much more powerful if it were told through actual events, rather than vague descriptions. 

Specificity is your friend. Written on the Body is rife with actual events, rooted in what feel like real bodies, between two people who are specific, not generic. A Capital-L Love Story is not at its best when it feels like it's between every disenchanted young woman and her married lover. Even the references to his wife are extremely vague - the narrator apparently doesn't hate her, I guess, but we are given nothing that makes her a human being rather than a symbol. I might buy that someone writing about having had an affair might not want to grant humanity to the person who is being cheated upon - but when I can say the same thing about the lovers, Houston, we have a problem.

This is all flowery and so little substance, filled with self-importance and lacking in content. I don't buy it as a masterpiece. The writing isn't bad, but it's not enough to carry the book alone, without plot or characters or ideas.

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