I'd like to say I've been at a loss as to what I might write about our January selection, After This, by Alice
McDermott, but that would not really be the case. Instead of loss, my hesitancy is caused by gain--by an abundance-- of beauty, truth, and strength. This book is so beautiful and so close to perfection that it almost seems like a violation to approach in terms of review or analyzing. I finished this book being truly awestruck by a writer whose talent goes beyond great to the level of literary genius.
After This defies categorization for me. It is not a traditional plot-driven novel with a recognizable problem and resolution. It is character-driven, with the Keane family made up of parents John and Mary, along with children Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare, being the focus. The family members are fully developed by McDermott through their words, spoken and unspoken, and their interactions with the people and places around them. McDermott's words are sparse, but powerful and so loaded with information that it is sometimes necessary to read sentences and whole passages more than once. Such re-reading is not arduous, though, but instead is closer to excavation, as with each new dig the reader discovers some new detail that adds to the experience of revealed treasure. Another feature of After This is McDermott's ability to make the reader feel like he has intimate knowledge of each character and moment whilst simultaneously being a distant observer of an expanse of time, much as we might consider the lives of acquaintances and neighbors. After This is a period novel, set in America during the post-war and Vietnam eras and yet it speaks to the changes, hopes, and concerns of today. We recognize the images of the past, but all of the thoughts and actions of the characters could easily be placed in a current setting.
In reading biographical information about Alice McDermott, I found out that she, like the Keane children, was raised in an Irish Catholic family in New York. This book is a thoroughly Catholic book in its appeal, style, and themes.
After This is universal in its appeal. Anyone can relate to these characters and to their lives. The Keanes and their friends are normal, flawed people who have what is necessary, from within and without, for both good and bad. John and Mary Keane love their children and they worry for their futures. The Keane children love their parents, but must face the usual challenges of facing the world as individuals and deciding what to keep from the past and the present.
In several passages, John's fear of his daughters is expressed as he feels such love for them, but often doesn't understand their feminine ways. After his youngest daughter, Clare returns from an excursion to see a play in the city, John sits, trapped by a contraption of his own means that is an attempt to heal his aching leg. She recounts the dramatic details of the play as he observes the young lady she has become. The feelings possible from any father of a girl are expressed in this short passage.
She paused. Looked at her father and shrugged. he suddenly realized that she was about to cry.
"That's too bad," he said. he knew enough not to laugh at her. He had already offended her, more than once, when he'd teased her about her easy tears....
And then, to his great surprise, she began to sing. her voice was sweet, lower than he would have expected, although surely he had heard her singing around the house a thousand times before. But now she was singing for him, much as she used to do when she was very small, her hands at her sides, her eyes half closed. The cotton shirt not too long, perhaps, but wrinkled front he hours she'd been sitting. The little-girl knees, although her body was growing lean. She sand and he was both enchanted and embarrassed by her earnestness. Both hopeful that neither of the boys would come upstairs (Jacob would only roll his eyes but Michael would sing along with her, mocking, howling the words to run, where the brave dare not go ow ow) and yet wishing that they would because there was something painful in it, watching her, another kind of pain altogether than what he'd been fighting these past two days. The boys had their lives off in the wider world, he thought, but girls, his daughters, they had their lives far wider and far more inaccessible, right before his eyes.
In meeting to discuss the book, our book club members expressed enjoyment of the details of the Keane's house, its normalcy and homeyness easily related to our own. Also, the relationships between the siblings were authentic with their interactions which where a delicate balance between antagonistic and loving.
In addition to its universal appeal, After This is Catholic in its style. This is not a dialogue-driven piece. Characters do not work out their problems or thoughts through detailed conversations. There are no monologues which declare to the other characters and the readers what thoughts are taking place. Instead, with a Catholic sensibility for relating to others through sign and symbol, McDermott chooses words with artistic precision to illustrate using characters' thoughts, clothing, surroundings, and closest friends. In one passage, Mary has come home from the hospital, with baby Clare in her arms and her other three children overjoyed at her return. They only know how to express their love by acting as if they hated Pauline during the time she baby-sat them. It gives insight into the workings of childrens' minds and what must have been the nurturing motherhood of Mary Keane. Instead of conversations or vignettes of family scenes, this is how McDermott tells us what kind of mother Mary Keane was to her family.
It wasn't that they'd found Pauline unlovable. The entire world of adult strangers was more or less unlovable, with their huge earlobes and their smoky breaths, their yellow teeth, their intrusions. It was only that the house was empty without their mother in it. Recognizable still in all its familiarity: the vestibule where they dropped their book bags and (at Pauline's insistence) hung up their coats, the living room where the slipcover was newly dark, the cluttered dining room, the Formica counters in the kitchen, the Dutch Boy cookie jar, the worn carpet on the stairs, the sunlight through the windows of their bedroom which seemed always, from the time they woke until darkness fell, the sunlight of four thirty in the afternoon, all of it familiar but seen, for the first time, as it might look when it was empty, with none of them there. This both puzzled them (because all three of them were indeed there, and Pauline was there, and by nine o'clock each night when visiting hours at the hospital were over, their father was there) and filled them with despair, which was what made them tell their mother, once she had returned, the baby in her arms, that they hated Pauline. That they hoped they would never be left in her care...
It wasn't true, they hadn't hated her at all..., but it was an explanation that lingered, a conviction they would share for the rest of their lives.
The route was all familiar--gray sidewalks and driveways, green rectangles of lawn, cars, bicycles, houses and trees. The familiar streets. He and Jacob could name nearly every family as they passed. The O'Haras' house, the Krafts', the DeLucas', Levines', Perichettis'. They'd been in most of their kitchens or front hall-ways, they'd collected paper-route payments or candy on Halloween, gotten glasses of water or Kool-Aid from them on hot summer days. As he walked beside his brother, Michael's recollection of these days made them all seem soft-focused and gentle, an easy roundness about things that had since given way to something thinner, something grown sharper in threadbare sort of way. Maybe it was the clean-edged aluminum siding that had replaced the aging shingles on most of the homes, or the sleeker cars, or the sun catching the chrome on Tony Persichetti's motorcycle in the driveway, where he once would have left his bike. Maybe it was just the sense of it coming to an end, his time in this place, his childhood. Maybe it was that the place had worn thin only for him, that he was already worn out with waiting to leave it and get on.
I would also submit that this book's Catholic style can be seen in the way good and bad are portrayed realistically. The difference between sin and virtue are shown in a subtle, artistic manner. Characters who sin are not automatically smote by God. The sadness, scars, and effects of sin are left for the reader to realize, amongst the actions of life. Is that not how it happens in real time, in real life? It would be a disservice to only portray extreme examples of only virtue or only sin and then show clear-cut immediate consequences of those actions as being easily identified to everyone. It would be as misleading as Annie's friend, Susan's father, who would sit on the couch in months to come, bidding his sweet innocent daughter a farewell, while being unaware of recent events and the way they changed his daughter forever. A few weeks ago, as a friend and I discussed the movie we had just viewed, Silver Linings Playbook, we expressed a common feeling that while we loved the world of period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, sometimes we needed to see well-done films in a form that looked more real and more relevant to our own lives. McDermott uses contrasts and inner thoughts to illustrate the reality and effects of sin.
If the event of Susan seeking an abortion had been written from a Puritan standpoint, I think there would have probably been two possible story-lines. One, Susan would have been saved from the abortion, either by a last-minute persuasion by Annie or by harsh treatment by the abortion clinic staff which would shake Susan into a realization of what she was doing. Two, Susan would have had the abortion and then died from it or been seen later in the novel as psychologically traumatized or unable to bear children. It would have been cautionary hellfire and brimstone in novel form. Instead, I see McDermott's treatment of this event as much more powerful. I cried and I still can't get it out of my mind. My heart aches more for Susan and for Annie in her involvement much more than it would have in either of the two story-lines above. We have Susan first coming to terms with her abortion.
If Annie hated her for what she had just done, Susan thought, then she would be alone in the world, as lost as her crazy brother screaming in her dreams...
Then, sitting in a diner with what would normally have been a fun meal of perfect hamburgers and egg creams with her best friend, we find them unable to eat, as Annie tells Susan she "lost it" and had to leave the waiting room.
For Susan, the thick pad and cramps and the terrible word--curettage--that set her teeth on edge, all gave way to the sudden descent her heart took. If their places were exchanged, Annie wold not have done what she'd done. And there was no undoing it.
Then, Annie proceeds to tell Susan that it was the events of the book she brought along, A Farewell to Arms, that had caused her to cry in a bathroom stall for twenty minutes.
Intolerable and terrible and made even more so by the fact that within the same hour of her reading, the book had convinced her (there in the softly lit waiting room of the abortion clinic) that despite war and death and pain (despite the way the girl with a woman who might have been her mother seemed to gulp air every once in a while, a handkerchief to her mouth), life was lovely, rich with small gifts: a nice hotel, a warm fire, a fine meal, love.
And then comes what breaks my heart because it is so tragic and so real. Teenagers who have sought answers within themselves instead of turning to God or to trusted adults. Trying to convince themselves, trying to dust themselves off and move on, without pain or guilt. An attempt at justification we have all experienced at different points in our lives, but particularly during our formative years.
Annie threw the balled-up napkins onto the table. "Christ," she said, "what is wrong with them? Why do these crazy women want us to read such depressing things?"
"They want us to suffer, " Susan said, sarcastic so that Annie wouldn't see how much she wanted to cry. "They want us to be afraid."
"They want us to be nuns," Annie added, so she wouldn't have to say, Oh, Susan, oh, my poor friend.
And in that last exchange between the girls we know. We know the pain and guilt that will haunt Susan. We know that Annie wouldn't have done that and that she knows it was wrong. We know that she feels guilty for her involvement and late realization. We just know, because we are intimately familiar with childish logic and as adults we are all too aware of its consequences.
The themes of this novel are unmistakably Catholic, and therefore, really, they are classic. The theme of a full life is delivered through the major events of this novel which usually deal with sex (and childbirth) and death. Always, there is a common intertwining between pain--not always in terms of being hurt, but sometimes in sweetness of ache-- and pleasure, joy and sorrow, not presented as some sort of lecturing illustration, but as a true depiction of a life fully lived. A full life is an open one, an openness that cannot be selective in regards to suffering without also closing itself off to the fullness of love. Christ on the cross.
We first see a glimpse of this theme as we are introduced to Mary, who, in her early thirties, seems destined to be single. We are along on her date with George and then there on the following morning when a handsome stranger stands waiting for her at the door of her usual lunch spot.
Only him, again, leaning by the door, suit jacket and fedora, the sunlight striking gold, the leg he had favored bent back and pressed against the building. He was smoking a cigarette. He was the handsomest man on the block. He was waiting for her.
She felt Pauline beside her, stiffening against his greeting . She thought, giving him her name, how there was a trace of sorrow in every joy. She thought, as he held the door, smiling at her, Poor George.
You can further see this theme in comparing the love scene between the married John and Mary which occurs toward the beginning of the novel (the baby grand) to the scene of Michael and Beverly, when he recalls the words of a prayer. Compared to the range of emotion and experience of his parents love which ends with them sharing tenderness, we have Michael and Beverly, speaking of nothing of consequence with only alleviation of boredom and attainment of pleasure as their goal for joining.
She only stirred and then slowly climbed over him, spreading herself over him, no weight at all.
There is McDermott's description of my favorite piece of art, Michelangelo's Pieta, as seen after a long wait in line on a hot day. Once inside the cold marble is before them as the air conditioned air now makes them shiver.
In the absence of all color and all other light, the white marble held every nuance and hue a human eye could manage. Here was the lifeless flesh of the beloved child, the young man's muscle and sinew impossibly--impossible for the mother who cradled him--still. Here were her knees against the folds of her draped robes, her lap, as wide as it might have been in childbirth, accommodating his weight once more. Here were her fingers pressed into his side, her shoulder raised to bear him on her arm once more. Here was her left hand, open, empty. Here were the mother's eyes cast down upon the body of her child once more, only once more, and in another moment (they were moving back into the darkness) no more.
In contrast, we are given the character of Pauline, Mary's former co-worker who becomes an extended family member. Pauline has had a hard life. She does not go to church or seem to have any real belief in anything beyond what she can plainly see before her. Her attempts are always directed at control, order, and safety, all pushed to the limits in an attempt for an imagined perfection. We alternate between feeling Pauline is pleased with her arrangement and that she finds much loneliness and despair in her life. She is guarded. She is closed. In her effort to save herself from pain and discomfort she has also closed herself off from pleasure and joy. She, like us, cannot escape the messiness of life and we see that she cannot escape suffering, but hers is even more keenly felt because it does not have joy as a counterbalance.
Another theme explored is the Catholic balance of the old with the new. This is a greater problem for the Church than any other institution due to its existence for over 2000 years. It is understandable in smaller portions, though, as McDermott illustrates the American eras in which the novel is set. We see the changing face of war, that continues today. A relatively large portion of the book takes place at the beginning when the Keane family takes an impromptu picnic on a Sunday during an approaching storm. Michael and Jacob play out the battles of World War II with their toy soldiers in the midst of this ordinary scene of family life. It is play full of heroes, bad guys, and recognizable goals with measurable results. It represents the nostalgic view of World War II that became a part of American culture. The Vietnam war, however is portrayed in the stark rawness of Jacob's life being lost and Tony Persichetti's breakdown upon return from his tour of duty. The mere mention of the Vietnam War leads to argument or silence on the part of those for whom the tragedy is just too real. Too real to expose their loved one's memory to debate.
Then, there is the center of the novel. The center of the family, the center of their world. Their Catholic parish. Their church, St. Gabriel's, first introduced as a traditional building showing signs of age and later taking the form of what Jacob would think of as a "flying saucer" from an airplane taking him to Basic Training. The excitement of raising funds to give the parish a new place to worship. The good intentions. Then, the disappointment as something seemed missing, from the moment the old building was demolished.
In the days before the dismantling and after the demolition itself, McDermott lets us know the place the parish building held in the hearts of the Keane family.
A rumor spread among the younger ones, Clare Keane included, that the unused staircase at the back of the church, with its wide marble banister and its velvet rope (and its scent, when you got near it, of incense and attics) was an entrance to heaven.
The descriptions of the workmen carrying out the last statues and pictures while the school boys watched were beautiful. Jacob watched it all with the other boys and
...swore that the smell of incense still came from the hole where the church had been. He made the other boys pause and sniff the air. Yes, they nodded, their chins raised, they could almost agree.
I think it's significant that it is Jacob, with his Jewish name, who senses a loss from the past and leads the others to notice it. Jacob actually plays a role throughout the novel in giving other characters pause to look at things differently.
Now, I know some think I should read into the new parish building all the horribleness done in the name of Vatican II. I should decry churches without altar rails and say that we are in the mess of modern society today because the people built modern buildings and we can't have authentic Catholic lives without Latin and buildings built from yellowed architectural renderings, but the aftermath with which we are now faced is more complicated than that. I see Latin mass as the most beautiful form of worship we can accomplish on earth, but since one of the major reasons I am Catholic today is my belief in the authority of the Church, I accept that I can worship in the vernacular without getting angry about it, since the Church says it is licit. I love my parish building with its modern space, its ceiling that looks like the hull of a ship and never fails to remind me of the fulfillment of God's promise he began with Noah and the safe haven of Peter's Barque. But, I also love visiting the adoration chapel of a local church, with its abundance of dark stained wood, statues, stained glass, and lingering smell of candles. I often let my mind drift to memories of worshiping at the Cathedral in Liverpool, England. It's a modern structure formed of massive amounts of concrete and stylized stained glass; it has been a topic of controversy since it was completed. It is breathtakingly, achingly beautiful, with its ceilings' skeletal structure made to represent the Crown of Thorns. The beautiful side St. Joseph's altar, made from carved wood elements. It takes up a huge amount of the skyline of Liverpool, and like a nun's habit, when you look at it, no matter what your background, you stop and think of God. And I loved the glorious churches from previous centuries in all their beauty and glorification of God. I love them all because I can go to all of them to receive the Eucharist. That's what matters most to me and I am so in need of Christ in the Eucharist that I will go to any of His sanctuaries to receive.
|Interior of Liverpool Cathedral. That's stained glass, not neon.|
|Interior of St. Etheldreda's in London|
The new St. Gabriel's seems to resemble the outside world of the characters. It is more and more unfamiliar and less beautiful, but inside it, they can still find God in His Truth and Love. The familiar has been taken from the parish, so that their homes become the only refuge in the chaos of the era in which they live.
In her descriptions of the new building, we get a sense of true loss and diminishment, there is no doubt, but McDermott manages to show the attempt to reconcile the old with the new and make us think of our attempts to do the same.
Beside her, her husband noticed how the new pews lacked the small brass hat clips that had been secured to the back of every pew in the old church...He understood there was no longer a need for them--so few men wore hats anymore (he blamed JFK with his thick hair and his big Irish head for changing the fashion)--but the lack of them added to his dawning sense that the new church had turned the stuff of his past, his own memories, into something quaint, at best. At worst, obsolete.
And yet, the smell of the incense from the center was the smell of the incense of the old, and the stately movement of the priests in their robes as they walked down the aisles swinging them, sending the pale smoke into the air, their free hands placed gently over their hearts, was as it had always been.
No matter how far the architecture wandered from the past, the central purpose of the building, the mass, was still there. It exists regardless of the surroundings or the changing times. So, it is for the truths taught within the parish's sanctuary and its school walls. We see this later, with Michael as he is faced with navigating adulthood away from the safety of home.
They were lying side by side, naked in the dark, and the old house, as it did every night, was steadily growing colder. The drawings made him think of the satyrs and nymphs on Chris's dope box and then of Caroline opening her parka for Ralph, that motley crew of cherubim and seraphim all around her. Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy. Our life, our sweetness and our hope.
He thought how even after you'd disentangled yourself from everything else, the words stayed with you:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then,most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of they womb...
Words you could dismiss as a joke as readily as you could claim them as the precise definition of everything you wanted.
It was still there. The faith of his upbringing. There for him to draw upon when he chose. The outside world couldn't take away its presence and it will be his decision to claim all that it offered from the recesses of his mind. Part of what makes the children's stories so emotional to read is an understanding that parents, relatives, teachers, priests can only do so much to lay the foundations, but at some point the children must make choices on their own as they grow older. Just as the priests in the new St. Gabriel's still went about their duties as priest to give what their parishioners needed, parents must do the same for their children regardless of the surroundings. McDermott makes us feel even closer to John and Mary, as like them, we can only wait and see the choices Michael will make. That is almost as agonizing as the choices themselves.
I see the title itself as an essential Catholic theme of this novel, as it is in our own lives. To me, After This is a sigh. It is acceptance, at times resignation, towards the events of our lives, joyous and sorrowful. It is mustered resolve to face it and get through it. Each event is met with this resolve by John and Mary, anchored in their faith and upbringing, while their children search for an anchor that gets them through in the turbulent world of their time. It is a sigh of loss of the past. Proud parents who miss the years of their grown children's childhood. Adult children remembering their past with wistfulness. But it is also a sigh of hope, behind it anticipation and expectation. As scripture reminds us in I Peter 2:11, we are "aliens and strangers in the world." As the prayer recalled by Michael implores, Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. This earthly life is not all for which we were made. We were created to love God and live with Him for all eternity. Only then will our struggles be over. Only then will we find the total, eternal fullness of peace, comfort and love. And as we saw throughout this novel, that expectation of future joy is tinged with sadness, as our earthly minds can only imagine how God will reconcile the Love of Eternity with the earthly memories of our past.
There is so much more to consider after reading After This (like the ending: perfection from a literary standpoint). It is a master work of fiction. I had to stop marking pages and quotes because almost every line was worthy of highlight. After This, in all its modernity, is still a deeply Catholic work which illumines the longings of every person and the very real world in which they seek the fulfillment of those longings.