Christine Schutt – Nightwork

The more I read authors from start to finish, the more I find this method of reading suits me better than any other—there is something about following a writer’s evolution that I find so fascinating, so satisfying. How they move through and repeat certain themes, how their style intensifies or thins out. I’m thinking of this tonight because I’ve just finished Christine Schutt’s short story collection, Nightwork – this is the first book she published (with Knopf in 1996 and then it was re-issued in 2000 by Dalkey Archive), and I wish I had read it before reading Florida (her first novel, 2004).

I wish this only because Nightwork felt like it contained all the elements that worked together as a blended whole in Florida, only in Nightwork they were still separated, each held under a microscope or pushed to an extreme. They sort of worked against and around each other, instead of merging so seamlessly into a single narrative. Both books are excellent, by the way, so I’m not trying to suggest that Nightwork is some unfinished or raw version of Florida.

Nightwork collects together a series of intense little pieces—the best word to describe these stories may be unsettling, although they are all of them beautiful or sad or even funny as well. But what Schutt does more than anything else is create a vivid sense of disquiet. These are women-centered fictions—all about mothers, girlfriends, wives, daughters, sisters—and the worlds these women have found themselves in, or created, are not easy places to inhabit.

From “Religion,” for example:

Scabs in the spring air on the compound, cottonseed and petals, early bees and trembling webs, dews, worms, some stones in the sun already warm against our feet—remember spring there? How Jerry caught us in our nightgowns, how he stared? I was ashamed—we all were. We never went outdoors again quite so undressed.

Or here in “Teachers,”:

Once hours on the floor doing puzzles, and even earlier, she remembered, a baby in the middle of the bed, so needful and small, she had thought she might kill it—this, and the flushed breasts inflamed from suckling. His thirst, too, the oil he used to ease past the stitches when she was milky and wounded and just to put her foot against the floor to rise from bed as lightly as she did amazed her, as the baby amazed her.

Violence and trespass are what underwrite these stories: dark spaces, the movement toward taboo behaviors, closed rooms and oversized emotions, fear and anger. And in many of the stories, a dangerous closeness between mothers and daughters.

Interestingly, what defines the collection for me—more than these subjects or themes—is the impenetrability of the stories. Schutt is hinting more than she is showing or telling, and the actual scenes and description and dialogue all seem to work to shield the “truth” or “meaning” of the story instead of wanting to reveal it. I can imagine that some readers might find this frustrating, but I found it was extremely effective especially because the personal relationships within each story could be so disconcerting.

And, more than anything else, Schutt’s poetry – the way she juxtaposes images and slightly changes words (“needful” in that second excerpt for example) – is just wonderful.

Now that I’ve backed up and started reading her from the beginning, I’ll read her second book, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (another story collection) before I move on to reread Florida and then her two most recent novels, All Souls and Prosperous Friends.

muscling her own weight

This is from “The Summer After Barbara Claffey,” the second story in Christine Schutt’s 1996 collection, Nightwork:

She is watching from her window the man’s approach across the lawn. “You can wave from here,” Mother says in the voice she uses with the new Jacks, and I do.

I wave and wave, even though she is not looking. I wave at my mother muscling her own weight under this Jack’s arm. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is quiet in this town.

But the neighbors must notice my mother and her Jack. Either side of us and across the street, the Dunphies, the Smiths, Barbara Claffey down the street, must press to windows startled as by birds that swoop and mate so queerly close. I sometimes draw the blinds to them—but not to Mother. I am ready for Mother and her sudden turning to see if I am watching her, to see if I am paying attention to how she stands, tottering in her shoes, ankles gagged and tense and helpless—and Mother is not helpless. My mother is brave, I think, and her upturned face is shining. I see this, and see them both, willful lovers, tilted away from the house, leaning hard into the night.

This collection is extremely hard to put down. The writing! The mood! Interestingly, much about these stories is inscrutable—what exactly is going on? what kind of situation has the narrator found herself in? The stories move forward in impressionistic little flashes and fascinating off-kilter dialogue, but the atmosphere is sharp and dark and well-defined. There is so much menace, and each story seems to function within a borderland space of taboo and transgression. The story I’ve quoted from here actually reminds me a lot of her first novel Floridathis intense mother/daughter relationship and the precariousness of the mother’s dependence on various men.

I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished…  

Christine Schutt – Florida

Impressionistic, mixed-up timeline kind of novels can be extremely fun to read – especially when the voice and the unusual imagery produces a sustained series of “wow” moments for the reader. I especially love it when I find myself as intrigued with the work of sorting out a linear timeline as unstacking or unraveling the images that flash past as I read along. Christine Schutt’s Florida is exactly this kind of novel—it involves woven layers of memory-style vignettes that manage to tell a huge story, the story of a woman’s entire life really, while seeming to reveal very little.

Briefly, Florida is the story of Alice. Abandoned as a child by the death (possibly a suicide) of her father and then her mother’s illness/instability, Alice grows up shuttled between relatives with only passing contact with her mother, a mother who remains for Alice half glamorous fantasy and half unsightly embarrassment. The book has a loose linear movement in that it begins when Alice is 10 and sent to live with her relatives and then follows along until she’s an adult in contact with her dying mother. But the narrative twists and backflips and repeats itself.

In this type of novel, I think there’s often a fine line between asking the reader to agree to be completely lost within the layers of text and image, and effectively creating a pathway that brings the reader along on a meaningful and expressive journey. Perhaps it’s better said this way – some writers naturally present even apparently unconnected scenes in a way that mimics human memory, so while the information appears to be disjointed and nearly random, it really follows a pattern that feels very comfortable to the reader.

Even when her company promised no pleasure, I went looking for my mother. She was, as often, looking for whichever man was making up her life. My mother made up a tramp’s sack of the silver and shouldered it to carry to a lover as a gift. I saw her leaving, and later, on the lawn, I stood where she might have stood, and I called after her.

“Remember my shoes,” Mother asked me when she had stopped crying and Aunt Frances had left the room on that one and only visit to the San. “My shoes in the yard with the leaves?”

I saw shoes, narrow and balletic and made in a material that stained. Strapped ankles, stubbed toes—from dancing? I wondered. Such shoes as these the terrible Walter caught up in a rake as easily as leaves and burned.

Nothing then, nothing held its shape but blew away.

This particular vignette occurs on page 52, almost exactly a third of the way through the book. Taken on its own, it’s nearly incomprehensible except for its innate references to the book’s mother-daugther theme. However, Schutt has given us several of these memory cues before – the bag of silver, the hospital room, the ballet shoes. The reader gets little glimpses of these same objects again and again so by the time we see them here, they’re nearly familiar, they’ve become part of our memory of the text.

Florida is a short novel but it’s beautifully done, and it’s quite powerful. Schutt is asking questions about memory and how childhood experiences are carried forward into an adult life. The writing is quite unique, but it has no hint of “aren’t I so clever” tucked into its experimental nature. It’s wonderfully honest and there are moments when it feels almost like memoir. I really enjoyed that blend because it enforced the feeling that the structure of the book grew out of the content; it wasn’t something author imposed, which is how some impressionistic writing can feel.

Florida was Schutt’s first novel (it followed two story collections, both look excellent) and was published in 2004 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Schutt has since published two other novels –the most recent, Prosperous Friends, just came out this year. I’ve added all of her work to my TBR list.


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