There was a time I labeled myself a non-conformist. It was a short time, or at least I want to believe so. Like your typical socially inept nerd, I could not fit the norms and weren’t interested in them. There was supposed to be some vague ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’, but the impression I got is that it was just another herd. Whether you’re following a small or a big herd, you’re still following a herd.
Then the whole idea of ‘following a herd’ started to not seem so bad. It turned out that the popular kids got a few things right, and that trying to fit in has its benefits. I ‘found myself’ not by discarding everything else – I didn’t define myself by lack – but by taking pieces of this and of that, whatever fit. Being different on purpose is just limiting yourself. When I no longer cared about being different or fitting in, things became so much easier. I also became weirder and harder to digest, if my friends’ comments are anything to go by.
You rarely find this narrative in art. Our parents, schools and sport guys tell us to conform. Weirdos are bad because they’re weird, and being weird is bad because it’s weird. It may have something to do with weirdness meaning automatic sexual unattractiveness, or that it leads to ‘failure’. Music, books and movies tell us to stand up. The mainstream is stupid. We should put a fist up, do the opposite of what they tel us and buy Rage Against the Machine records. Art’s narrative gives you an enemy to rebel against, and everything that’s associated with it is immidiately bad. How many embarassing political songs there are about ‘America’, where if you put the word ‘you’ instead of ‘America’ you get a generic break-up song?
Housekeeping offers a truly different (oh!) narrative. Its narrative touches a lot of things, and some of them will surface only after re-reading. Like other capital L Literature, like The Assistant, it’s a book that’s very profound when it shows life and incoherent when it attempts a philosophical essay. It does more the former than the latter. Robinson’s language is as beautiful as everyone says it is, but the style is different.
Housekeeping is called ‘descriptive’ when, in fact, it’s very minimalist. It doesn’t take long before Carver name pops in the mind. It was released around the same era. Robinson reaches the same intimacy Carver’s writing has but in the different way. Carver’s writing is rough and hard. It just stands there, hoping the emotions will surface on their own. Robinson reaches out for them, tries to make it clear.
It’s funny to describe the novel this way when the protagonist is so inactive, but what can you expect from it? This is how novels about grief and tragedy should be written. What’s interesting about death is less that it happens, but how people cope with it. Tragedy is only as meaningful as the characters’ reaction and means of coping with it. Paul Auster made a whole career out of it.
Ruth’s behavior is reminiscent of Holden Caulfied. Both of them spent too much time in their youth with death, and you get this PTSD-like behavior. Ruth is passive not just because Robinson’s characrization is a bit underwhelming, but because she can’t think of anything else other than death. Death is everywhere. She lives in a house where she last saw her mother, who comitted suicide in the lake where their grandfather died.
There is no escaping death, or forgetting it a little. They’re isolated from the town. The lake is always there and the train is always audible. They are a reminder of lost family members. Just like how Caulfield kept thinking about his dead brother, Ruth can’t help not think about her dead family members. She finds no way of coping with it.
Lucille is the alternative. Lucille is in the same spot as Ruth, but she wants to move on. ‘Escape’ isn’t the right word. After a certain point, there is little more you can learn from death, other than that it gets you eventually. Lucille doesn’t ‘conform’ because she’s bad, or because she’s not unique enough or anything so silly. Her ‘conforming’ is a way of moving on. She conforms out of her own will, because eventually there is nothing to learn about that lake, other than that people died there.
This is where Housekeeping‘s story of nonconformity takes a unique route. Our conformist ‘conforms’ out of her own will, and it does her good. The problem is not that there is a ‘norm’, but that it’s enforced. Ruth’s and Sylvie’s situation worsen when society opens its eye on them, and tries to ‘set them’ on the right path.
There is no attempt to understand them, why Sylvie is such an eccentric and Ruth is so passive. They try to use brute force, as the problem is that Ruth doesn’t go to school and not something deeper. It reminds me of what Marilyn Manson said about the Columbine kids: “I wouldn’t say anything to them. I’d hear what they have to say”. All this brute force did, in fact, push them in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter what kind of norm society stands for – there is mention about a strict religious attitude, but it’s not developed. All that matters is that it thinks forcing the ‘weirdos’ to conform will somehow make everything better.
Robinson expresses these ideas by showing the behavior of the characters, and she does it welll. So why are the philosophical ramblings? In a novel that’s all about letting you figure out its meaning, what spelling out will do? It’s funny to see such talented authors resort to this trope. Talented people are indeed unaware of their talents. To Robinson’s credit, she has a knack for crafting a beautiful sentence even if its meaning is opaque. She’s closer to McEwan than Malamud. Her sentence have a nice, easy to read rhythm. It’s a langauge beautiful enough to be enjoyable without being meaningful, but the novel is too good for this.
Robinson also can’t get over realism’s biggest obstacle. In an attempt to make ‘realistic’ characters, they make their characters dull. They don’t include enough odd details that inform us who these people are. Sylvie and the aunts get some development, but their quirkiness is contrasted with Lucille and Ruth. Lucille and Ruth feel almost empty. The writing and pacing feels real enough, so instead of coming unrealistic or undeveloped, it just reads like Robinson held a lot of information back. What the novel needed was a few moments that will show us how these sisters are like when there are together.
For a novel about two sisters who lived their whole youth together, there are barely any moments to show it to us. They are young teenagers. Isn’t it that time when clothes and boys are starting to be interesting? Isn’t it the time when you start to doubt that adults had everything figured out? It’s the time when personality develops, but there is perhaps one or two fights. That’s it. People’s lives don’t revolve just on whether to conform or not, but Ruth and Lucille’s relationship does. Maybe adding this means adding an extra 60 pages, but I wouldn’t mind. Robinson isn’t terrible when the pen gets away from her, so writing a bit of what she does best can’t do harm.
It’s a beautiful novel though, one that deserves its place in the canon. Even if it fails in the same way most realists do, Robinson keeps the intimacy. She never builds a wall of words that separates us from the charactes, like Updike or Malamud. She rarely takes her eyes off the characters, and what’s left in the end is not the philosophical ramblings but the feelings that we really were there. This is what realism is all about.
3.5 lakes out of 5