By Christine Schutt
Original Publisher: TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press
Current Publisher: Mariner Books
Josh Weil writes:
Whenever I return to Christine Schutt’s work—and her gorgeously devastating novel Florida, in particular—I’m as bemused by it as I am blown away. There’s plenty about Florida that will enchant any lover of vivid language, intense perception, originality of voice, honesty of emotion, complex characters deeply felt and flawed…in short, the things that make literature great. Other than plot. And it’s precisely that—the way that Schutt manages to subvert my expectations of plot, and yet still keep me turning the pages, keep me loving the story (for there is a story, a grand and sweeping one); the way she makes me see fiction freshly—that gathers up all the other impressive aspects of her writing and binds it together in a book that is, indeed, great.
How does she do it? When I try to break down the elements of story to their most fundamental I come to this: the question. What am I asking while I’m reading, what am I most eager to find out, what answer is dangled in front of me by raising a question of supreme stakes before my eyes? Florida begins here: Alice, a young girl, is separated from a loving though unstable mother who is being institutionalized in “the san.” As Alice floats from home to home of various relatives who take care of her (or give her shelter and sustenance; she mostly takes care of herself) she is haunted by her relationship to her mother, and her mother’s absence seems to haunt the story. So I latch onto this: Will she be reunited with her mother? A traditional plot might unfold from there, giving us evidence that the reunion is nigh, offset by evidence that it’s not, and so, through our expectations, building narrative tension.
But nothing about this novel conforms to expectations. Gradually, that question slides away. We get an answer too early for it to cap the story, and the answer we get doesn’t so much sate our interest as send it caroming off at another angle. What will it mean for Alice to get her mother back? How will that affect her own sense of self? And what’s all this about her father? Because, gradually, as the mother’s role in shaping Alice becomes more clear, more understood, less athrum with wondering, the question shifts to what role her father’s disappearance from her life plays in shaping her ability to cope with life now (for the book rolls through years: here she is finishing high school; here she is at thirty). But that’s not a question that a plot can answer. Perhaps, in a life tossed from home to home to home, the driving question has to do with sense of place (the first thing Alice does as an adult, when she inherits money, is use most of it to purchase an apartment she can call her own. Of her mother, she says, “She bought a home, which she insisted was a first home because, unlike all of the others, she had picked it.” She might have been speaking of herself.).
And here I am, in my hunt for a basic driving question, suddenly grappling with complex ideas of belonging, and the way that the self is ungrounded without it. Here I am, halfway through the novel, seeking answers to questions like how does one build a life out of all the things gone missing? How does one survive all that loss and come out unbroken on the other side (is there even an other side on which one can emerge?), or at least whole enough to go on? In the end, that’s what pulls me through this story: Will Alice survive, stay whole, hold to herself?
What a feat! Schutt boils her question down until it is reduced to a simplicity that in a lesser writer’s hands might seem too vague, too slight (will Alice survive?) but in Schutt’s hands serves to free me from looking for the fundamental question (after all, there it is! So simple!) in order to urge me to lose myself in the far more interesting and significant ones. And I do, without the novel ever losing the kind of grip on me that usually requires a clear narrative’s strong claws. In part that’s simply because Schutt creates in Alice a character about whom I care so deeply; I want her to survive intact; I hang on every moment that threatens to undermine or diminish who she is.
That sense of her character is so strong because Schutt gives us the world of this novel through Alice’s eyes, described in her voice. And, because she’s Schutt’s creation, and Schutt’s voice is one of the most unique, exciting, and original voices in contemporary fiction, Alice is gifted with a way of perceiving and describing the world that sharpens my sense of her with every sentence, and makes me grateful to her for seeing and hearing the world in a way I haven’t ever before (air is “peated” with dark; marble is “a color green as of weeds or of weedy, shallow water streaked darker in places with amphibious nesting”).
Of course, I’m really grateful to Schutt. Her language is so carefully wrought, her images so packed, each sentence full of as much meaning as music, that nearly every line feels like a discovery; for a writer, those lines also serve as invaluable, invigorating lessons. For instance, I know of no one who uses exclamation marks quite the way Schutt does; at times they are charged with urgency, at others thick with a kind of winking understanding of hyperbole (just look at the example, below).
But, remarkable as the writing here is on the sentence level, it’s no less rich when taken in through the wider lens of each moment. Every moment is packed with significance that reverberates far beyond the action or description that leads into it. An example:
I was a prude then, I was easily embarrassed by my body and by my mother’s body and how she had exposed it—remember? When the yard was under snow? Mother, the sun bathing on a bed of foil Arthur had built for her, a sun-box, Arthur’s homemade Florida, and Mother on her knees, waving to me—waving to the neighborhood!—her legs glossy and oiled and white, the sun invisible in murk.
That’s how we find out that the “Florida” of the title is a suntanning box (at least in one iteration; like everything in this book, the full meaning is far more complex). But how much more than that information is contained in the getting to it! The information serves as a way into meaning. Everything does in this book. A simple description of birds in Alice’s grandmother’s house leads inevitably to much more:
The doves cooed unregarded, I thought, so I paid close attention to the doves; I made a point of looking at them. I believed then that any gesture I made was felt; I believed I could make the unhappy happy just by my attentions.
“I think you’re pretty,” I said with my fist around the money of a compliment, but the veiled crone asked, “Who taught you to lie like that?”
How much those few lines contain! It’s that richness of vision, music, character, and insight, paired with a sense of urgent import, that allows Schutt to challenge our expectations of narrative so successfully, so confidently, that she can shine a spotlight on what she’s doing within the pages themselves. The third section of the book begins with Alice quoting from Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. “Plot abandoned in favor of insights,” she writes, and I find myself nodding, knowing I’ve witnessed the success of just that, grateful for each page that proves it to me, yet again.
Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley, a collection of novellas that won of the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. A recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and One Story, among other publications. He is currently the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. (Photo: Ben Weil)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for Madeleine Is Sleeping
- Christine Schutt for Florida
- Joan Silber for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories
- Kate Walbert for Our Kind
Fiction Winner That Year: Lily Tuck for The News From Paraguay
Fiction Judges That Year: Linda Hogan, Randall Kenan, Rick Moody, Stewart O’Nan, Susan Straight
The Year in Literature:
- The Known World by Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Schutt selected C.E. Morgan as a 5 Under 35 honoree in 2009 for All the Living.