Review Of Ellen
Gilchrist’s Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/08
Having 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, damn it!
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 daughter asked.
“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.
The old man was eighty-eight when this conversation took place. The year after he lost all the money. The year before they took his car away and then his gun. He had had at one time almost twenty million dollars but he had lost it all. He had lost it by believing in his sons. Or else, he had lost it by being afraid to invest in the markets, by being afraid of the contemporary world, by being a racist and a misogynist and becoming an old man. His father had died a pauper and now he was about to die one too. Except for Social Security, a government program he would have ended if he could have. He had given at least one of his millions of dollars to the right wing of the Republican party. Now he was being taken care of by Social Security and Medicare. He saw the irony. What he could not see was how the weak destroy the strong within a family as well as in larger worlds. This happens in every family. It is as inevitable as the sun and rain. All the daughter wanted to know was how to keep it from happening to her.
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 shit 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?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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