R. H. W. DILLARD
Review | Florida,
by Christine Schutt
review also appears in the June 2004 issue of The Hollins Critic and
Christine Schutt's first book, Nightwork, a collection of stories published by Knopf in 1996, was widely and rightly praised for the power and intensity of its insight into "the darkest reaches of a woman's experience" (Dawn Raffel) as well as for its "beautifully stylized prose . . . . akin to prose poetry" (Publisher's Weekly). John Ashbery also chose it as the best book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. It is no wonder, then, that her first novel, Florida, was so eagerly awaited and is being so well received.
But we should get a few things straight right up front. First, Florida is not about Florida. Second, despite its publisher's efforts to describe it as "the portrait of the artist as a young woman, an orphan's story full of loss and wonder, a familiar tale told in original language . . . . a heartbreaking and brilliantly written coming-of-age story," the novel cannot be so simply described. Third, it is all of that and much, much more.
The Florida of the novel is not the Sunshine State of everyday fact or even the fantasy state of travel brochures. It is, rather, a Florida of the mind, that wondrous "other place" where pain and loss and self-doubt disappear in yearning and denial and even satisfaction. It is its narrator's mother's place of refuge, whether it be a sanitarium, a home-made tanning bed, or a "tin box of refracted light" where she must squint to see whatever it is that she sees, whatever it is that she does or does not understand. And it is also, of course, this construct of memories and musings and words that is Alice Fivey's book, her meditations on her mother (also named Alice), her grandmother, her lost father, her complicated and continually fascinating family—and herself, then and now, in life and in these living pages.
The last thing Florida is is a familiar novel. It may not be a novel at all by any conventional definition. It may be a prose poem, but, then, even as I say that, I remember Nathalie Sarraute's objection to Jean Paul Sartre's using the term 'anti-novel' to describe her first novel, Portrait d'un inconnu: that (as Gretchen Rous Besser put it) it indicated "that Sartre had a predetermined notion of what a 'novel' should be, which he used as a yardstick against which to measure other types of fiction that did not correspond to this norm." And, for that matter, Besser's description of Sarraute's fiction might apply just as well to Schutt's: it "deliberately removes from the reader's grasp all the familiar props of plot and character . . . [and] substitutes instead a strange, disturbing world in which appearances are deceptive and conventional reality is revealed as a trompe-l'oeil artifice of delusion and sleight-of-hand." Which is not to suggest that Florida is a nouveau roman, but rather that it is a new novel in all senses of those words. Its readers must engage with it rather than sit comfortably back expecting it to do all the work for them. The result of this active readerly engagement will not be the satisfaction of observing conventional characters in a familiar plot, but rather involvement with very real characters living in a plotless world as real as today or yesterday or even lucky tomorrow.
The good news is that Florida is indeed an engaging book, emotionally strong, brilliantly written, word by word and page by page, and profound in its insights—into life, into memory, and into the uses of language to both capture and to free the human moment (or, to use C. D. Broad's term, "the long event" of being human). It is certainly one of the best new novels that I have read in some years, and I eagerly look forward to Christine Schutt's forthcoming collection of stories (A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, also to be published by Northwestern) even as I urge you to read Florida, as I am sure I shall again, more than once.