Review Of The Stories Of Alice Adams
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/06
As my wife and I were browsing in a discount overstock bookstore I came upon a $4.99 edition of The Stories Of Alice Adams. Her name was familiar as a staple of the New Yorker-Harper’s-Atlantic axis of late 20th Century literature. Yet, I need not have known that fact for after reading the tales it was clear that her stories were perfectly constructed into the tidy formulae needed to get an in into that world. This is not to say that she was a bad writer, just that she was predictable and formulaic. In a sense she was the John Updike of short stories, save she had a better understanding of the human condition- certainly not a great one, but better than Updike.
Here’s a typical Alice Adams story: a great opening paragraph with a twist that makes it stand out, WASPy Southern self-loathing characters- usually female artistes, a mushy middle with rather banal conversations, and a trip to an exotic locale, or the introduction of an odd character, a smattering of yuppies and wannabe sophisticates, and a very weak ending. Of course, in the book of 53 tales there are some exceptions, and these tend to be the best of the stories. Most of the tales that deal with love tend to veer toward the sudsy- definitely at about the level of a typical soap opera character. I could net get Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane character from All My Children out of my head in tale after tale of high class heroines. Yet, it is a very artificial emotional plane. While not as utterly void as a John Updike character, nor as ragingly impotent as a Raymond Carver hero, the typical Adam’s character has the dull life of a Willa Cather character, yet with pomp, the small emotional situation of a Eudora Welty character, save for letting it play in a nicer, richer world, and the hypocrisy and self-delusion of a Fitzgerald character, save for living in a more modern time. All in all a mixed stew of potentials. Unfortunately, probably because she was getting published so regularly in the New Yorker magazine, this stunted her growth as a writer, so that the above mentioned characteristics did not become leaping off points, but the perimeter of her fiction from the 1950s till her death in 1999.
Thus, her tales are, with few exceptions, all from an aging omniscient third person, yet female, point of view. The stories, in many ways are interchangeable, and too long. It’s like living in a world of gray people, in which shades of hue are minor to the reader and character. Unlike a Welty or a Flannery O’Connor, the Adams archetype is a predictably Freudian Women’s Libber with faithless lover, alcohol problems, a pet substituting for a man, and a raging libido, yet, almost always plagued with a desire to dash that in one form or another. Yet, since these seem to be the driving force of many of her tales I thought I was, in a sense, back reading Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness- a Women’s Lib tale if there ever was one. The only stories that seem to rise above this formula are those with ‘colored’ characters, or animals- the rest are a notch above cardboard (shorthand for Updikean), although weft with clichés like ‘Only his death could release her from the brutal pain of his absence in her life.’ Rarely does a tale end with an epiphany, or even have a sense that it is real. Unlike a Carver or Pete Hamill tale an Alice Adams tale is always aware of its convention and artifice, yet, rarely does it descend into outright caricature- this is the main thing that separates her from an Updike. This could spur some creative juices, but it would definitely exclude one from appearance in the Atlantic Monthly.
This anthology unfortunately does more to limn the limitations of Adams’ world than demarcate its openness- stock characters, dismissiveness of the locales they’re set in, petty quarrels in stilted tones, and wan resolutions. However, many of the stories could fill a primer on how to engage a reader, and there are three really good tales amidst the grayness. The first in the book is Greyhound People about a yuppie type who commutes between Sacramento and San Francisco on a Greyhound bus, and finds she much prefers the bus that makes more stops, and goes through lesser neighborhoods, filled with minorities. She makes the discovery about herself that is revealed in this way, to explain her subconscious, then conscious decision to avoid the yuppy crowds that populate so many other Adams tales: ‘Recently I read an interview with a distinguished lady of letters, in which she was asked why she wrote so obsessively about the poor, the tiredest and saddest poorest people, and that lady, a southerner, answered, “But I myself am poor people.”’ The tale ends in an ok fashion, much better than most Adams tales, which sag, but still not up to snuff with the rest of the story. The second good story is My First And Only House. At under four pages it may be the shortest tale in the book, and follows its heroine back to her childhood home. The last of the best tales in the book is Raccoons, about a woman’s emotional attachment to her cat Linda, whom she fears is lost forever after running away. This tale, possibly because it concerns emotions not directed amorously, is the most ‘true’ in feel.
Formula dominates the rest of the book. In Verlie I Say Unto You, rich whites, the Todds cannot grasp the grief of their black maid, Verlie, who has four children, an unfaithful husband, as does Mrs. Todd, yet the two women never connect. In the schmaltzy Winter Rain a rich old dilettante recalls a winter in Paris, when ‘when it always rained, when everything broke down.’ I think you can sense the story told just from that line. It ends very stiffly: ‘''And I am forced to leave Madame, and Bruno of whom I never think, as and where they are, in that year of my own history.’ In ‘Beautiful Girl’ an even more insecure old dilettante waits on an old pal’s visit. She is tobacco heiress Ardis Bascombe ‘who twenty years ago was a North Carolina beauty queen….now sitting in the kitchen of her San Francisco house, getting drunk.’ In ‘Roses, Rhododendrons,’ a girl befriends a pretentious clan as her nasty mother disapproves. The emotional depth of the tale is reflected in passages like this: ‘The effect was rich and careless, generous and somewhat mysterious. I was deeply stirred.’ In ‘Truth or Consequences,’ a single playground kiss, from youth, is the jumping off point of fantasies. All are good ideas. The results are where the problems lie.
Here is a typically good Adams opening paragraph, from the typically soap operatic tale Snow, about four people and their tribulations:
On a trail high up in the California Sierra, between heavt smooth white snowbanks, four people on cross-country skis form a straggling line. A man and three women: Graham, dark and good-looking, a San Francisco architect, who is originally from Georgia; Carol, his girlfriend, a grey-eyed blonde, a florist; Susannah, daughter of Graham, dark and fat and now living in Venice, California; and, quite a way behind Susannah, tall thin Rose, Susannah’s friend and lover. Susannah and Rose both have film-related jobs- Graham has never been quite sure what they do.
Now its end, and, regardless of what the tale in between was, look at how utterly flaccid and banal this paragraph is- dramatically and verbally:
In the middle of the night, in what has become a storm- lashing snow and violent wind- Rose wakes up, terrified. From the depths of bad dreams, she has no idea where she is, what time it is, what day. With whom she is. She struggles for clues, her wide eyes scouring the dark, her tentative hands reaching out, encountering Susannah’s familiar, fleshy back. Everything comes into focus for her; she knows where she is. She breathes out softly, ‘Oh, thank God it’s you,’ moving closer to her friend.
Note how every sentence is trite and every modifier predictable- this is clichéd writing at its worse, but now return to the opening paragraph. In that declivity you see the starting and ending points for virtually every Adams tale- a promising start, but a banal, predictable end. Adams had potential greatness, but a propensity for copping out narratively. Whether this was her natural self’s fault or the need to crank out fodder for the magazines that published her does not matter. But, at least it got her published by the Big Boys.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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