Monday, January 11, 2010

A not-so reliable wife


I read about half of A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick on Saturday night – a terribly overwrought piece redeemed only by its sudden shifts in the storyline.

I’ve also been reading Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern. I thought it would be about his filmmaking, but it’s mostly the background to the films, in the sense that he is telling us where the films came from. It’s equally overwrought – the passions, and dramas, and murderous feelings and hatreds and sex at every turn and grotesque relatives all start to get a bit much. It’s as though there was barely anything normal about his childhood.

Both books put Christianity in a place of horror – in Goolrick, Ralph Truitt's mother is forever (and I mean forever) going on about everyone else in her family going to Hell. And seemingly doing her best to send them there with her total lack of love. Bergman’s family isn’t a lot different: his father was a minister, and so everything revolves around righteous behaviour within the household – at considerable cost to the relationships. Bergman, however, seems the least righteous person in the world – at least in his growing up, and he doesn’t much improve as an adult.

I finished A Reliable Wife last night, and it doesn’t improve – pages and pages of the outworkings of lust, which I skipped because they added nothing to the story (it was like reading an overheated literary Mills and Boon). And then there’s all the guilt and horror and shame and lack of forgiveness. The only advantage in Goolrick’s writing is that you can skim most of this and lose nothing. The basic story could be told much more quickly – even the ‘subplots’ are non-starters – or else it really could have been entwined with some interesting details about other things in life! The business of the main character, Truitt, is vague, but it obviously earns millions of dollars, if the excesses of spending are to be believed. Time is so elastic that winter apparently lasts for umpteen months and a short visit to St Louis takes forever. Days are constantly passing while the characters muse, or wander, or read in the library. Truitt’s housekeeper is a miracle of a woman who can keep two houses clean on her own, even though they’re separated by several miles and no one else travels through the thick snow. The people in the small Wisconsin town kill themselves and each other brutally because ‘such things happen’ – as Goolrick’s little repeated refrain states (increasingly repeatedly as the book draws to a close).

On the plus side, there is a great deal of forgiveness in the book, as there would have to be when you consider that Truitt’s second wife lies about many things during the course of the story, and slowly begins to murder him with arsenic (and then helps him to recover again when she has a change of heart!). And there is the Truitt’s ‘long-lost’ son who refuses to stop believing his own lies and causes havoc wherever he goes.

Crikey. I had to read some of Billy Collins' poetry before I went to bed to clear my head of all the excess!

PS. Just came across something that Norman Mailer's son wrote about his father: "One of the best pieces of advice Pop gave me about writing is to learn how to say something once. Most young writers say the same things different ways. You have to choose the best." It's a pity Goolrick hadn't taken this piece of advice into account before starting his book.
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