The Graduate

  • Christine Schutt. All Souls. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. April 2008.

Christine Schutt, the author of two short story collections and two novels, was one of the last writers Gordon Lish published before he left Knopf. Her early books bear the strong imprint of the Lish method; her later books tell a story of evolving from it.

In the early eighties, Lish published Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison. Schutt was part of a later cohort whom he found in the early nineties. This later group included Gary Lutz, Schutt, Lily Tuck, and Diane Williams. Like his earlier writers, most of them have been associated with the idea of literary minimalism. Lutz and Williams present among the most extreme examples of what Lish seems to have emphasized in his famous writing classes: an obsessive focus on language (the idea that each time a word is used, anywhere, by anyone, it becomes slightly diminished) and straightforward confessionalism (Lish is said to have started workshops by asking his students to tell him a secret). The result was a lot of exceptional writing that often seems to have a wounded quality, as though the writer felt forced to return to the same hurts and same sentences constantly and dig what was already there even deeper.

The most prominent secret in Schutt’s first collection, Nightwork (1996) is incest. It would be hard to repeat the shock and surprising detail of the second part of the long first sentence of the book, which begins like an ordinary description of two lovers and concludes: “[S]he said, or thought she said, ‘I like your skin,’ when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottled white of his arms and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms.” The disclosures in the rest of Nightwork, Schutt’s first novel, Florida (2004), and her second short story collection, A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer (2005) run along similar lines of family dysfunction. The daughter suffers from neglect by her unstable mother; the daughter sleeps with her father; the daughter turns to an older lover; the daughter has her own son and burdens him with the neediness her parents left her.

The writing seeks to recreate the experience of shock and surprise; it uses words we do not know or have not seen before in this context,  and the sentences are always turning back upon themselves. It’s not hard to see the influence of Lish here. The most well-known anecdote about him is how he conducted his classes. Like a Lacanian psychoanalyst, Lish asked his students to read their stories aloud until a sentence bored him: often this happened after only one line or two. Now it seems possible to trace how this technique worked in his students’ writing. There is, in Schutt and others, the sense of a constant fear of being stopped short. So the sentences raise the stakes. “Here is a story in the worst way,” Gary Lutz writes in the opening to one of his early stories. And, in another opening: “I keep changing my story when in fact it could not be more straightforward or plain.” Many of Lish’s students produced unrepeatable writing, and it’s possible to see that much of it came from one person working the same way on many others.

Many of Lish’s students have become teachers. Schutt has taught at the Nightingale-Bamford School since before she wrote Nightwork and often portrays students and teachers in her writing. Classrooms have a special place in her work: they become a sanctuary for young women who face worse trouble at home.

Another recurring character in Nightwork and Florida, besides the dangerous parents, is the compassionate English teacher who shows the young woman how to escape into literature and the impersonal joys of being a good student. In Florida, the teacher’s name becomes the narrator’s incantation: “I thought of hurtful people. My head was on fire with thinking about them. I had to remind myself, in the most deliberate way, to think of the kind and forgiving. Mr. Early, Mr. Early, Mr. Early.” The young woman grows up to be a teacher; playing the same role for younger girls becomes as much of a comfort to her. “I am happy, happier. The newness of the books for the young I teach, they read as if no one before had ever rightly read them or understood them, the press and the pressure of loving books, a book, a book of poems, a poem and the poet who wrote it.” Lish may not be that instructor, but his influence is there, much deeper, in the performative sentences. Lish’s writers can sound completely different from one another (Carver, Hannah, and Williams) but almost all of them became known for idiosyncratically voiced confessions.

It has been more than ten years since Lish retired, and many of his writers have continued to publish. There is something to study in the ways they have found to proceed with their careers. Many of the writers in Schutt’s cohort seem to have changed one part of their approach in order to continue with the others. Sheila Kohler and Lily Tuck have shifted the stages of their confessions to historical fiction. Schutt herself covers the same material, in similar language, from a different perspective.

In Schutt’s second novel, All Souls, the cast of characters stays the same (troubled mothers, fathers, teachers, and daughters) but the narrator is transformed. It is as though some weight has been lifted from the writer, and this has actually lifted up the narrator. All Souls is told from the point of view of some patron saint of girls’ schools, who looks down on the adults and children at one Upper East Side school with constant benevolence. Schutt’s narrator forgives these characters for their sins and, more surprisingly, for their privileges. She follows a large cast of senior class girls, parents, and teachers from fall to spring with care for their concerns and seriousness of purpose.

At the center of the novel is a pair of inseparable friends, Astra and Carlotta, who are among the most attractive, intelligent girls in their class. Astra, socially graceful, impossibly kind, is a dancer who is sick in the hospital for most of the story; Carlotta, or Car, who is the class writer, thinks constantly about her thinness and her writing, which she secretly knows to be awful. In a photo in the school yearbook, Car and Astra appear with the three other “in crowd” girls in their class: “legs identically crossed, hair identically swooped to one side, long, side parted.”

If these characters seem superficial, it’s because they are. Their thoughts sometimes rise to the surface (Car thinks of lines from Paula Vogel), but the narrative never goes deeply into any of their consciousnesses. In this way, the style of All Souls seems modeled after Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which fixes a girl in a line and a phrase, but Schutt offers the gentler version. Rather than condemning her girls to their high school personalities (other classmates include Marlene, who picks the nuts out of tubs of ice cream, and the plain “two Elizabeths,” who edit the yearbook), she seems to move lightly over them because she knows how easily they can be broken. Schutt is especially careful and playful with the self-conscious Car, who seems to like herself better when she imagines her life as literature. Car hides from her mother at her expatriate father’s empty apartment, reading one of his cold letters: “Her father was a character in a Henry James novel. Car lit up another cigarette and ashed it on the table.”

If Car is almost entirely self-involved, Astra is her opposite. Superhumanly selfless, even from her hospital bed, Astra is less a character than an angelic agent of the narrator, sent down to earth to propel the novel forward. In Astra’s presence, characters who hold themselves close at school become miraculously revealing. Lonely Marlene sits devotedly by Astra’s hospital bed and imagines that she has become her “best friend.” Wistful Miss Mazur, who is “nobody’s favorite,” persuades Mr. Weeks to come see Astra in hopes they’ll go home together. Lisa and Miss Wilkes make a visit to Astra their first assignation, and when they find her asleep, have coffee instead, and Miss Wilkes puts her hand over Lisa’s. The gesture seems at once untoward and blessed by Astra.

The short affair between Lisa and Miss Wilkes feels less like a disruption of the school order than part of a continuum of student-teacher relationships. Although there must be more teachers like Miss Mazur who, whether they like to or not, leave the school at the end of the day, they seem less common than the ones who have some personal involvement in the lives of their students. Every student knows which teachers volunteer to chaperone, who listens, and who is most forgiving. Most of them probably also are aware that Miss Hodd hosts dinners for her students, Mr. Rhinelander gives his chess players money for cabs, and Mr. O’Brien has confessed his love for Astra and Car’s friend Kitty.

There is something uncomfortable about Miss Wilkes and Mr. O’Brien’s advances, but perhaps in this novel they can be forgiven. In the landscape of Schutt’s fiction, closeness between teacher and students feels less like a transgression than it does like a corrective. It’s no coincidence that Lisa and Kitty, whom Miss Wilkes and Mr. O’Brien seduce, have some of the most unpleasant parents in the book, and several other girls also come from homes that resemble the most dangerous ones in fairy tales. Car sits across the table from her distrustful mother, who appears to her as a wolf: “‘The better to see you with,’ her mother said, and her expression at the end of the table was skeptical or indifferent.” This is precisely the opposite of the situation with Miss Wilkes and Lisa: “What big teeth you have Grandma,” Lisa says wryly. For the first time, comically, the girl is in control.

Somewhere behind the narrator’s descriptions of Kitty and Lisa, it seems possible to imagine the girl in Florida who learned to forget her absent father because of the fatherly affection of her English teacher. The care this young woman later lavishes on her own students seems to expand in All Souls to become the gentle, generous attention of the omniscient narrator. The language, too, has changed. There is the same obsessive labor over the sounds and rhythms of sentences, but with Schutt’s narrator further removed, they no longer have such a strenuous feel to them. (Some lines even sound like throwaways: “‘There’s a new hand dryer in the third-floor bathroom and they’re in there playing with it,'” Miss Hodd says about her students.) In the final scene, the narrator watches as Car and Astra walk down Park Avenue. Astra is better now and no longer looks so fragile: she cut her hair, paints her nails, and dresses “like a boy.” She seems free of her rarified adolescence.

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