International Writers Magazine :REVIEW
Gilchrist's Collected Stories
Dan Schneider review
read Thom Jones' Sonny Liston Was A Friend Of Mine and overdosing
on its phallic ejaculations I turned to the Collected Stories
of Ellen Gilchrist for a change. In a sense I went a hundred
and eighty degrees. These tales are dripping with femininity, but
I also went a full three hundred and sixty degrees, in that Gilchrist's
tales are as bad in their own clitoral way as Jones' are masculinely.
If Jones is a tenth
rate Hemingway wannabe, then Gilchrist is a fifth rate Alice Adams idolator,
and her poor romance level writing is yet another symptom of the ills
of contemporary publishing. Yes, Gilchrist is a staple of the New Yorker,
and her tales follow that formula to a T. In that sense, she is most
certainly not a 'Southern' writer in the way that a Flannery O'Connor
or Eudora Welty were. Some of her tales are set in southern Gulf states,
but most are simply character portraits of a handful of motley recurring
characters- none of which seem to learn nor grow from tale to tale,
even though decades can be traipsed between them.
Her tales are like water- they do not leave a hint of their appearance
after some time has dried between their reading and attempted recollection.
The book's first tale, The Famous Poll At Jody's Bar, is about
a young girl named Nora Jane Whittington who keeps cropping up in tale
after tale. She is a self-proclaimed anarchist who resolves to rob the
titular bar in order to finance her move to California to be with her
boyfriend. In later tales she sleeps around, gives birth to twins, and
feels like a worthless Berkeley hausfrau. If you are expecting me to
tell you anything more about this character you will have a long wait.
That's all there is. These are archetypal New Yorker tales, um- say,
fourth generation, and the difference between a John O'Hara and an Ellen
Gilchrist shows. Most of these tales are all filler and no character
development. Some, such as There's A Garden Of Eden, are pure
Danielle Steel- right down to the hired help who strips a divorcee of
her clothes, then carries her off to the bedroom. Yes, prose hardly
gets purpler than this mess. Yet, at least Ms. Steel has the decency
to try to not make her tripe pretentious. Unlike Gilchrist, her characters
never spout off about Kierkegaard. In The Land Of Dreamy Dreams
lets us know what we've always suspected about tennis club goers- they're
dull bigoted snobs. Thanks, Ellen. Oh yeah- great title, too.
Perhaps the only story that could remotely be called good is Victory
Over Japan- a child's remembrance of first hearing of the dropping
of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Yet, even that works only on that
one level, in a My Dog Skip fashion. Of the thirty-four tales, the only
others that have any literary success are The Uninsured, which
is an epistolary tale to insurance companies that's mildly funny about
once every three letters, and Anna, Part 1- a de facto faux memoir,
presumably, of Gilchrist, in which a writer has an affair, a breakdown,
and easy book deals. I say it's presumably Gilchrist because this tale
mentions a tale that Anna will write, called Light Can Be Both Wave
And Particle- which appears as a separate Gilchrist tale in this
book which, incidentally, since only four or five tales per book seem
to have made the cut is really a Selected Stories, not a Collected.
As for the tale mentioned in the other tale and the book. The former
I have no knowledge of, but the latter reeks. Just a day since I read
it and I cannot recall a single thing- and I refuse to reopen the book,
Then there are a number of tales featuring Rhoda Manning- a recurring
Gilchrist character, and a maid called Traceleen. Basically it's a black
domestic's 'Ain't White Folks Funny?' series, as she details the life
of her boss, Miss Crystal. You Must Change Your Life gets its
title from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke's great poem Archaic
Torso Of Apollo, yet does nothing with that fact, nor its full quotation
of another of his great poems- The Panther. But, damn it, she knows
good writing when she stumbles upon it, no? The only other tale worth
mentioning is small de facto proem called A Prologue, which, having
recently read a number of such short prose pieces from Reynolds Price,
comes across as rather flat, one-dimensional, predictable, and unpoetic.
But, since I've yet to give you a sample of Gilchrist's actual writing,
I guess I shall start and end with this piece, although I'm afraid its
brevity and borderline passability may make my review seem too harsh
in comparison. But, trust me, I've never let you down before. Here 'tis:
Six months before he died he told his daughter that he had
not wanted to remarry her mother. He was brushing his teeth while he
told her. She liked to watch him brush his teeth. He was so efficient,
so dedicated, so determined.
"I did it to save the children," he said. "I came
back to save the children."
"You gave up the mistress to save what children?" the
"To save Juliet. She was running around with the wrong crowd.
She was going out with a black."
"So you tore up the life Mother was making for herself and
made her marry you again to save Juliet?"
"Had to do it. Had to stop that." He was flossing now.
He had been the first person she knew who used dental floss. It had
been given to him by the pathological dentist who had ruined all their
teeth in the sixties.
Guess what? Racism is wrong, and can leave you not so good. Wow! What
insight! And don't you empathize with the daughter? Most of Gilchrist's
tales go nowhere, with characters you cannot identify with, and the
few moments that could lead to something deeper and more complex simply
fizzle out, or are dropped. In a way, these tales all seem to have a
New Age sort of didacticism to them, tales of life as it should be-
if you enjoy dippy Southern belles and idiotic men that speak in wiseass
sitcomese and lead lives bad soap operas wouldn't touch, than real life.
In short, recurring characters, especially, need to be interesting in
some way- hers are not, and the fact that she has such a limited cast
suggests that Ms. Gilchrist simply lacks range, as well as any discernible
writing talent. And the reliance on characters taken from tale to tale
and book too book allows Gilchrist to assume certain things are known
of her characters by all readers, whereas a newby to Gilchrist will
be right out of luck for the singular tales are not good enough on their
own and do not give the needed insights to hold the particular tale
they appear in. Too goddamn bad, I say. They may as well suffer like
the rest of us, right?
© Dan Schneider June 2008
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