For those of you not paying attention we are shinning the spotlight on Michelle Herman this week (and by “week” I mean “an indiscriminate period of time”). Tuesday we tackled her first novel Missing, today we move on to her next book, A New and Glorious Life, which is a collection of three novellas that inaugurated Carnegie Mellon’s short fiction series
The first novella in the collection, Auslander, was first published in Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers. The story centers on a translator living in New York who is asked to translate some Romanian poetry. The catch: she is asked to do so by a stranger who found her number in the phone book and the poetry is his wife’s and she doesn’t want her work translated. For a variety of reasons – pity, curiosity, the faint hope of a discovery – she agrees to meet with this gentleman; and subsequently agrees to read the poems but not to translate them without the author’s permission. Slowly but surely Auslander finds herself caught up in an awkward triangle between the wife, and brilliant poet, who refuses to have her work translated and the husband whose inability to let the issue go seems to be threatening the marriage.
What I found interesting about this novella was the way Herman weaves in the story with Auslander’s life. This, in my opinion, is Herman’s most appealing talent. She is a sort of literary portraitist; she skillfully sketches the history and mental furniture of her characters to the point where you feel like you know who they are; you feel like you would recognize them if you fell into a conversation with them. At the same time she is able to create tension within her stories despite the lack of a complex or detailed plot. There is very little action in Auslander and yet it has tension and suspense.
The next novella is the title piece. A New and Glorious Life tells the story of Demitrious Gadol, known to his friends as Gad, a mid level composer in residence at an artist’s colony. Gad has taken up residence at the colony in part to get away from his wife. Gad is a serial philanderer who has recently given up his roaming ways in an attempt to save his marriage or at least make peace with his difficult wife. He finds that, although he has been very productive artistically, he doesn’t fit in at the colony. He awaits the rumored newcomer to the colony with the anticipation that he might yet make a connection with someone.
And he does. Gad connects almost instantly with Hannah the exuberant and beautiful poet in a way he could hardly have imagined. As in her other stories, Herman intertwines this new relationship with Gad’s past and present life and thoughts. Remarkably, she crafts a rather tender love story out of the connection between these two unlikely soul mates. Herman ably captures the emotions, the elation and insecurities, that come with falling in love. She also captures the despair and frustration of being stuck in an unwanted place; of catching a glimpse of your dream and wondering whether you have the strength to reach out for it.
Hope Among Men, the final novella in this collection, is also about complicated relationships; about falling in and out of love; about trying to understand who you are and how you got here. But it also has a tongue in cheek narrator (or perhaps post-modern or meta-fiction) that tells the story of Hope’s relationships with two men labeled “Misery” and “Heartache.” The story told by the narrator has classic Herman touch-points: multiple relationships, a move from New York to the Midwest, a focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters rather than dialogue and/or action orientated plot, etc. In fact, Herman mocks critiques of her style in the narration:
. . . I can see I have been remiss in many ways. I’ve told almost the whole story in summary – rushed through months (years) of Hope’s life at breakneck speed, with hardly any dialogue, the barest hint of “setting,” and no background on the characters (who are these people, anyway? Where are they from? Who are their parents? At the very least I could have told you what Hope, Misery, and Heartache look like) – but there doesn’t seem to be much point in slowing down now.
I am not an expert on meta-fiction nor have I fully explored any of the deeper psychological or intellectual issues that might lie beneath the surface of Herman’s stories, but I appreciate her style and how it is both artful and humanist in the sense of communicating a deeper understand of what it means to be human. I was struck by the ideas flushed out in a review of this collection in the American Literary Review. Two things stood out. One was that Herman was trying to communicate that
There is nothing in the human condition as neat, precise, or clean as we would have it be.
That strikes me as accurate and one of the things I find attractive about her writing. The reviewer also goes on to, in my mind, accurately characterize Herman’s writing:
The writing reflects all this, and it is occasionally tough but also rewarding going, never quite descending to the utter unintelligibility that has seemed permissible and even desirable since Joyce and Faulkner. It is, in other words, complex enough to engage the professional, while lucid enough to remain accessible to the general reader. There ought to be more writing like it–it remains sadly rare. A seeming bog of exposition yields an astonishing poetic flower.
I agree. This is not the type of work I would think of myself as enjoying (a women writing about feelings, emotions, relationships, etc.), but I found it to be enjoyable and thought provoking. I echo the sentiments above and would recommend this collection to “literary professionals” and general readers alike.