If the primary substantative complaint (as opposed to simple whining on the part of publishers) about the 2004 National Book Award nominees was that "big" novels full of ideas and ambition, novels written in the literary version of Cinemascope, were ignored in favor of more modest, more exquisitely crafted fictions, Christine Schutt's Florida must certainly have been exhibit one. It is the very antithesis of the engaged social novel, the grand narrative, the "compelling read" straining to be a blockbuster.
And I rather like it.
Florida is a thin wisp of a book, without question, and its pleasures are to be gathered gradually, through a quiet accumulation of detail and episode, recalled moments from the narrator's past that are revealed in a kind of associative memory chain that makes up in continually freshened insight --prompting the reader to remain receptive to such revisions--what it might lack in narrative momentum. Although the novel has a story to tell, the narrator's compressed account of a life spent dealing with, first, the death of her father, and, subsequently, the mental instability of her mother, both of which necessitate that she be raised by an aunt and uncle, that her childhood memories be of a child trying to understand what has happened to her childhood, this story can't be separated from the method of telling it.
In recording the events of her materially comfortable but emotionally restless life, the narrator, Alice Fivey, seems clearly enough attempting to make it settle down for herself, to give it the kind of stability a precise and evocative language can give it and that can provide her with a perspective by which to really perceive it whole. The result is less a novel structured through narrative revelations that lead both protagonist and reader to some final moment of recognition or understanding than a prose portrait the last flourishes of which merely complete the realized work. This requires a certain degree of detachment, even neutrality, toward her own life story on the narrator's part, and indeed Alive Fivey seems to regard her past with a certain dispassion, although this does not mean there is no feeling in her account, no human connections to be made between Alice's lyrically fragmented story and attentive readers. Indeed, Alice provides affecting accounts of both aunt and uncle, who seem hardly more certain how to form a family than Alice herself, of her grandmother, Nonna, unfortunately unable to communicate with her granddaughter, and of the family chauffeur/handyman, Arthur, to whom Alice arguably feels a closer bond than to any member of her actual family.
For this reader, it is the very effort to find the words that will evoke her past and clarify her present problems--she has not altogether avoided some of her mother's self-destructive habits--that makes Alice Fivey's story emotionally engaging. It's an effort that avoids sentimentality and easy pathos, even though Alice is depicting a set of lives that do turn out sadly enough, that fail to bring much happiness or accomplishment despite their promise and material advantages. At the end of the very first chapter, Alice writes:
. . .We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinos--my favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. "Could I have more?" I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stems and all! "Here's to you, here's to me, here's to our new home." One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet, every time.
Of course, no one in the family ever does reach this Florida (the mother does find her way to a sanitarium that will be "her Florida"), although Aunt Frances and Uncle Billy eventually do settle in Tucson, a desert location that seems more symbolically appropriate to the familial desolation Alice experiences than the fertility of Florida.
Still, whatever empathy one has for Alice Fivey and her family, however much one finds Alice's narrative compelling, depends finally on the quality and sharpness of Schutt's prose. And her writing has plenty of both.
Old dead hands prayered, a draped arrangement of draping skin, a fleshy hem colored to look alive by the gentle mortician. Nonna was in the casket, and I was at her side, yet "the glazing eyes shunned my gaze," or that was what I was remembering about her as we drove to her internment.
Arthur had driven us--Uncle Billy, Aunt Frances, me--through a gardener's rain that gullied the tent as we stood at the site, Nonna's gravesite, brighter greens, June, plate-sized peonies beaten in the downpour, the coffin shiny.
Who can forget? some said. Description of the too long-alive, now dead. The homily went on and on, and Arthur had to wait.
Who would have guessed there was so much left to say?
At the novel's conclusion, Alice is visiting her mother at a nursing home, where, prematurely aged, she has had to be confined:
The wind is an assault and the sound of water bewilders her, and I wonder: What does she think? Does she think?
"I have to go home now, Mother." Good-byes, those little deaths, rasp my throat, but I am not sure she has heard what I have said. I am not sure she understands what we are looking at: so much water and the line that is the other side. Mother is in the sun; she is in her Florida. Squinting in that tin box of refracted light, she has to frown to see, and what does it mean what she sees? The world is a comfort and then it is a discomfort. Mother is all thin hair and vacancy, tears and starts, a small clutch of bones, an old woman, grown innocent.
Who will forgive me if I do not come again?
"Alice," she speaks, and she looks at me, and it has been a long time since Mother has used my name, which is also her name, as a good-bye, and I think she knows, as once she knew, what will happen to us. "Alice," she repeats. It may be no other words will follow or it may be a downpour of speech.
Such writing, like the novel as a whole, doesn't call attention to itself, but it is both honest and incisive. Florida is not a novel full of conspicuous ambition and tricked-up effects, which is perhaps why it was dismissed as an NBA nominee for being "slight." It is instead a modest but serious work of fiction that highlights what is perhaps the most important feature of serious literary art in the first place: good writing.