Essay by Jan Hokenson
Department of Comparative Literature / Florida Atlantic University
"I can't decide whether to have my novel be a comedy or a tragedy," boasts the male lover of Lisa Alther's first heroine, the now legendary Ginny Babcock in Kinflicks. Terminally weary of male pretensions, she retorts, "Does it make any difference?" "Of course it does. It determines the whole structure. The essence of comedy is that life goes on; the main characters are survivors. They keep popping back up whenever they're knocked down. In tragedy, though, the heroes usually die and drag kingdoms down with them." In this rare moment of reflexive poetics, the young man is as wrong about Ginnie's sexuality as he is about Alther's own novelistic art. In Alther's comic novels, it is heroines who are knocked down and drag male kingdoms with them, only to pop back up and look around, ready to take on another one, optimally in the loving company of another woman. Wars, rapes, tortures, treacheries, grisly maimings--our modern tragedies--proliferate. They change the rhythm of life but they cannot stop the protagonists' serio-comic, poignant quest for clarity and conviction. Social and political ideologies, indeed any inflexible system of knowledge, turns out to be pseudo-heroic posturing, just so much macho impedimenta. Along the way to that discovery Alther's comic heroines get themselves into hilarious dilemmas and do battle with some of America's most cherished cultural assumptions about social justice, personal identity, dignity, and love.
Her first novel, the best-seller Kinflicks, won Alther a wide audience in 1975, when reviewers at the New York Times Book Review and The Nation hailed her "comic genius" and welcomed this new voice in American literature. Four subsequent novels, a novella, and four stories have strengthened that voice and extended its range, as Alther has continued exploring the lives and deaths of her generation of Americans. In 1996, recognizing Alther's prominent place in American letters, Penguin reissued the five novels in new editions. Regularly translated into many languages, Alther is one of few American lesbian novelists who have achieved mainstream readership and an international audience.
In addition to the appeal of madcap comic characters and deft social satire, one of the reasons for such steady success may be that, in an age when gay writers can deluge readers with explicit sexual detail, Alther is more concerned with the emotional impact of sex and sexualities. She takes a biographical approach to character (each protagonist is rooted in a rural Southern childhood before being loosed into the laboratory of the world) and she keeps her focus trained on the single, manifold problem of making sense of things-- sex included. In an Alther fiction, sexuality begins straight (a Southern duty) only to turn wildly experimental in gay and lesbian follies, before settling into patterns of lesbian courtship, mechanical misfittings, spiritual misfirings, and other comic couplings that leave Alther's women ecstatic for a time, but increasingly bemused by the strange incompatibility of human desires. Alther's lesbians are born asking impertinent questions about the world and, all their lives, rejecting facile answers outright. Comedy occurs in the collisions with authority and the brutal tyrannies by "experts" of all sorts. Alther's people must strike out on their own, working their way through gender stereotypes and discarding conventional wisdom. One of Alther's distinctions is that her women must think their way forward, and so Alther's "comi- tragedies" (to borrow Beckett's term) resonate with rollicking debates about the nature of the individual in a swiftly changing culture.
Alther favors the Bildungsroman or novel of education, tracking gay or androgynous characters from infancy forward, and charting both their inexhaustible sensuality and their increasing clarity of mind. Emily in Original Sins has "difficulty thinking in categories," and certainly cannot fit into any of them, until she realizes that most social categories are themselves manipulative, faintly absurd conventions. The most tenacious convention for Alther's people is the ideal of romantic love, which they keep rejecting and ridiculing- -and reenacting. They all come to realize, like Jude in Five Minutes in Heaven, that "everyone is a house of mirrors," flashings of different heritages, social contexts, sensualities, which can combine now this way, now that, in a dynamic kaleidoscope of cultural icons and contradictory possibilities. Soulmates are a long shot.
Alther works with two primary forms, the multi-character epic or the duologue of two women in alternating states of consonance and dissonance. Kinflicks and Five Minutes in Heaven track one young woman through a lifetime's relations and acquaintances, flashing back repeatedly to past actions and origins of present reflections, and Original Sins fans out prismatically into alternating monologues of five different characters in successive stages of life. Other Women rotates two monologues, each riven with flashbacks, to weave the friendship that eventuates between a young lesbian mother and her psychotherapist, session by session. Alther once interlaced both forms in vigorous, tensile balance in Bedrock, where two women lovers try to comprehend an entire New England town. Whether the structure is prismatic or dual, the Alther novel uses monologues to alternate viewponts and to weave the past (of American social history as well as main characters) into the present. Frequent flashbacks (Alther's people are their past-in-the-present) function both comically and tragically, revealing, for instance, the ludicrous hubris of youth and the grotesque mortality of a generation organizing Freedom Rides, discovering drugs and contraceptives, fighting in Vietnam, smashing color lines and gender ceilings, dying of cancer and gay-bashing.
Alther's rebellious lesbians begin as gentle iconoclasts, wondering about the nature of stereotypes while enduring each one like a hair shirt. Ginny Babcock's uproarious escapades as a Southern tomboy, a Spinoza-spouting ivy-leaguer, a lesbian communer, a frantic New England housewife and mother, an angry adulteress, fuse into facets of the disillusioned young woman in the present. The hilarity of the heroines' predicaments derives both from the Molieresque eccentricities of people around them, a comic cast of Americana, and from their own (Southern) impulse to please them all. Minor characters in the margins furiously debate the novels' major issues (free will, medical ethics, human cruelty) like a satiric chorus to the heroine's epic endeavors on the main stage. Great ideas collide around them, and regional cultures clash within them, as they navigate the American landscape of 1950-90, pot-holed with racism and bigotry, colonial war guilts and liberation movements.
In taut prose of sure precision and figurative power, shot with deft comic timing and crackling dialogue, Alther fluidly shifts between several registers, from lyric to broad farce. She is primarily known as a social satirist, and she uses satire both to critique the sorry state of America's ideals and to celebrate the comical optimism that always surfaces again, if only in disenchanted burlesque.
Although the thematic territory differs in each novel, as does the American decade, the Alther heroine stumbles like Candide through fake truths and phony promises. What begins in hapless earnest ends in comically discarding the savior du jour (evangelical religion, paternalistic capitalism, revolutionary politics), always including sexual correctness (sex is sport, sex is sacred) and manipulative lovers, until she throws up her hands and begins using honest candor as a way of living. Alther's implication seems to be that, where knowledge and the knowers are corrupt, aggressive naivete is the best self-defense--and may be an epistemological tool for the bare beginnings of understanding oneself and the world.
In early Alther, however, that is a lonely bargain, clarity at the cost of social connection. As the later novels center upon two women, in more nuanced "spelunking in the caverns of the psyche" (in Other Women), Alther's practice of constructing characters from their successive roles or incarnations is interiorized into the women's own reflections on their experience. Like Caroline in Other Women, they learn to see their own "reruns" and to discern, like Clea in Bedrock, their "connectedness" in a world without peace or perhaps even sanity.
Horrific scenes of cultural violence (white on black, black on black, liberal Yankee on conservative Southern, male on female) are riddled with Alther's irrascible humor. In Original Sins, women are just orifices for black and white male sympathy (especially "the Great Ear"). Cinematic techniques of scene-splitting mock heroic pretensions (idealists quarrel against the background dialogue of American Bandstand, feminists couple to the strains of "Stand by your man/ Give him two arms to cling to"), and background tv's superimpose images of carnage, displaying Freedom Riders being hosed down in the barbaric South while Black Power leaders abuse "their" women in Manhattan. The novels are slashed or spliced with such comic and sarcastic fragments of their englobing cultural contexts, in Alther's electronic fantasia of irreverence.
Such quicksilver slippage between viewpoints is more than just a comic technique, for it manifests the instability of perception and identity in the carnivalesque confusions of personal aspirations and cultural realities. Alther's gay characters in particular wonder whether they can survive it all with any indviduality. Carnival--the wild fun, the certain danger, the mad masks as well as the freakshow- -is never far in Alther's fiction. It too has many forms, such as the acid hilarity of the masks: Emily in Original Sins, at her dreary publishing job for sexist bosses, has one of the Alther moments of recognition: "Emily suddenly saw herself as Stepin Fetchit: 'Yassuh, that noose is mighty fine. Law, it looks so fit and snug! Why, boss, you just the smartest thing!'" At the end of Other Women, as anguished therapy ends and winter ice is breaking up, birds begin coming back from tropical migrations "like revellers returning from a Caribbean carnival." The interior, psychic carnival of the late novels has its roots in the earlier epics. In Bedrock Clea abandons trendy Manhattan for the bedrock of an historic American village, which turns out to be a ten-generation carnival of crazies. One denizen prefigures the later heroines in realizing, "We all crazy... it's just a question of how, not whether." Whether carnival in Alther is a place, a bewitching person, a state of mind, it beguiles and seduces, and passage through it chastens and cleanses.
Alther's is the classic carnival of the world topsy-turvy, where an ass is obeyed in office and the Pope wears donkey's ears. It is a frightening realm of deadly danger, because it scrambles all certainties in a danse macabre with extinction (of outworn selves, of ideals), and to survive it is to win the boon of authenticity (and so maybe oneday true love). Ginnie Babcock's descent into the basement with Hawk the mind-tripper, Clea and Hannah's spelunking in the psyche, Jude's flight into the catacombs of Paris in Five Minutes in Heaven, are forms of carnival where, if Alther's holy fools learn to laugh at themselves, they gain the wisdom of humane insight and the strength to carry on without a big idea.
Increasingly in the later novels, as cultural lunacy extends its compass, Alther focuses on the concomitant problem of whether love without erotics, even for two women who love each other intensely, can suffice in such a world. The answer, in the self-mocking flourish of fairy tale in Bedrock and in the uprorious mock-heroics in Five Minutes in Heaven, is probably laughter, an Erasmian hoot at the folly of such questions, in such a world.
Many readers have noted that they can trace the changes in contemporary American culture by charting the shifts in Alther's social landscape of America. However turbulent the setting, Alther always measures politics--social and sexual--against a high standard of humane value; laughing travesty can swiftly soar into dark anger. In Manhattan Emily watches Civil Rights leaders exploit the women's movement: "And next week the sisters would be stacked in someone's attic like cast-off hulahoops. Political consumerism. Fuck it." In Other Women, Hannah is Alther's first authority figure worthy of affection, indeed honor, as a scarred and humane healer, and a woman. In Five Minutes in Heaven, following one of the finest sagas of Southern childhood since Huckleberry Finn (now with tomboys), and after the serial deaths of three beloveds, Jude flees to Paris-- straight into Alther's first cross-cultural comedy of the not-so-innocent lesbian abroad, who trips over French social and sexual values with panache. Like several late Alther heroines, though more intensely, Jude ponders the nature of evil. Alther leaves her still thinking through it, and still learning to laugh.
Department of Comparative Literature
Florida Atlantic University
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