I have been meaning to read Alice McDermott’s work for several years now– my father has been continually recommending her–but it was only a few days ago that I finished her newest novel, Someone.
In fact, I started it and finished it within twenty-four hours; it engrossed me in a way no other book has in many, many years.
Like most of her stories, Someone is about an Irish Catholic family living in the Bronx during the first half of the twentieth century. Well, actually, it’s about one family member in particular, but in a recent interview McDermott tells us that her novel did not start out that way.
Originally, the novel was going to be a much “bigger” project, but towards the very end of writing it, McDermott realized she had missed something. She wanted to tell the story of Marie–a rather plain and nondescript character, especially in comparison to some of the others. But in order to do that she had to change the narrative pretty radically:
[…] [T]his is the first time in my writing career that I wrote a novel mostly in third person, and then very, very close to finishing the novel, I thought, no one’s listening to her and neither is her author. […] I need to give her the first person. I need to let her tell her own story that directly. (PBS Interview)
And Marie does tell her own story. The details are sometimes breathtakingly intimate–the ordinary events of her private life laid bare for us to witness in beautiful but sometimes relentless detail. The two main love affairs of her life ring–painfully–true. Her experience as a child, the slipping away of years, her aging, all described so movingly not because they seem “universal” but because they seem so specific. She is not just “anyone”–as the title suggests.
What I love about the story is how the setting is so lovingly drawn–it is as essential to the plot as the characters are. And in this sense McDermott does what Flannery O’Connor does. (You knew the comparison was coming.) The setting is not incidental, but central, to the action of the story–and the careful description of physicality in the novel is not a materialistic explaining-away of mystery, but rather a profound hearkening toward it. Like here:
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining room table where the cloth–starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s cross-stich–had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. (McDermott, Someone 10)
This description of the family apartment will be revisited later in the novel as the years go by. McDermott weaves together Marie’s memories and sometimes moves us forward and then backward in time, though the thrust of the main narrative is consistent.
O’Connor, I think, would appreciate that this novel is so deeply entrenched in a particular time and place. It isn’t hovering vacuously in a vague American somewhere, with “universal” characters untouched by their birthplace and their family. There are even, I noticed with some surprise, a couple of rather “grotesque” characters, whose physical and emotional deformities remind me of a few O’Connor characters. And there is a lot of emphasis on the human body in this novel, in all of its manifestations: living, beautiful, ugly, sick and dead. This also reminds me of O’Connor and other “sacramental” writers (whether Catholic or not).
Yet McDermott is not of the “violent intrusions of grace” school of Catholic literature. The grace she intuits is far more subtle and easy to miss–rather like the sort present in most of our own lives: ignorable but nonetheless persistent.
I think it would be easy to think of this as a gentle story. In many ways it is. But I think if you read it and close it and say to yourself, “How lovely and touching that was,” you’ve rather missed the point. Though I believe anyone who has really confronted death and lost someone they loved would not say such a silly thing.
If you’re interested in this novel or in Alice McDermott, read this fascinating piece she wrote ten years ago about her own fiction and the rather troublesome label, “The Catholic Writer.”
A taste–that I believe Flannery would savor:
[O]urs is a mad, rebellious faith, one that flies in the face of all reason, all evidence, all sensible injunctions to be comforted, to be comfortable. A faith that rejects every timid impulse to accept the fact that life goes on pleasantly enough despite all that vanishes, despite death itself.
What I have to say about being Catholic, then, is simply this: Being Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossible of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. (McDermott)
McDermott’s characters will accept nothing less.