Having It Both Ways

In his New York Times review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, Todd Pruzan explains how Raymond Carver “advanced a literary genre with ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’  The movement wasn’t dirty realism or minimalism, but ‘vaguely titled fiction’: stories concealing their intensity and anxiety behind titles full of pronouns and ennui, signifying nothing much about their narratives.”  As examples, he cites Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Lorrie Moore’s People Like That Are the Only People Here and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Meloy actually goes Pruzan and Carver one (or two or three) better.  She not only borrows Carver’s technique (or was it Gordon Lish’s?) for titling her book  (the story titles are more to the point),  she mirrors his simple narratives and working class  protagonists. At times, her stories reminded me of  Annie Proulx, Richard Ford (who wrote a blurb for her book) , even Joyce Carol Oates.

Indeed, the book’s first tale of a gimpy, modern- day cowboy who falls in love with a young, traveling  attorney seemed like something Proulx might have done and done better. It immediately set me to thinking. Do MFA programs –Meloy took hers at UCIrvine, a school which produced Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and, back somewhat, Richard Ford–teach imitation disguised as learning by example? There’s nothing wrong with learning from other writers. But how do you avoid sounding like them?

The second story, an abrupt coming of age for a 15-year-old girl triggered by an aggressive older man and her father’s compliance, all with the added tension (and metaphor) of firearms, was artfully disturbing but still came across as an Oates-meets-Ford story. At that point we put the book down.

That was a mistake. Picking it up again, we found Meloy master of her own voice in the remaining nine stories. They’re simply told and suggest all the complications and moral questions that salt even the blandest lives. Nor, as we feared, was she exclusively a Montana regional author (she was born and raised in Helena but now lives in L.A.). Her stories take us to working class  Connecticut in the 1970s and upper class Argentina.  There’s intrigue in the strange mystery of  intercom pranks in “Lovely Rita” and wise, generational contrasts of romance and reality between a grade school student  and her mother in “Nine.”

Meloy’s craft comes from her matter-of-fact voice, as easy and gentle as a soft rain, even if a storm is lurking in the distance. Disease and death pay quick and lasting visits, fidelity is challenged and even children aren’t quite sure what to make of their lives even as they seem routine. She infrequently spices dialogue with terrible insight, masked as down-home homily: “the whole soul mates idea,” explains one woman, ” is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.”

What Meloy does best is inject a benign tension into her stories, tension that starts passively enough and builds into a sort of personal horror. In the last story, “O Tannenbaum,” which does take place in Montana, the fears and resentment between two couples, one traveling home with their daughter after cutting a Christmas tree, the other stranded in the snow, grows as Meloy reveals their reflected and assumed histories.As she does in many of the stories, the author employs a child, not only to show what is at risk, but to heighten the fearful and innocent qualities of action.

One other Carver comparison: Meloy seems so comfortable telling her stories from a working class perspective, one has to wonder if the details come from experience or research. If it’s the later, she’s done a great job (she’s reportedly now working on a novel set in post-war London). As author Dagoberto Gilb pointed out, Carver wrote about working class anti-heroes from his experience as a hard-scrabble graduate student, then applied the principles of struggle to the working class characters. Maybe we should be wondering what Meloy’s student days were like?–Cabbage Rabbit

Note: Why is it that in their book jacket blurbs, author’s are so reticent to note their education? Maybe they don’t want their craft to be thought of as manufactured? We discovered Meloy’s MFA school in a Wikipedia article, not necessarily a source the Rabbit likes to quote unconfirmed. We could not confirm it anywhere on her web site  and, as noted, it’s missing from her bio on the book’s jacket.  More Google searching to follow…

Leave a Reply