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.