Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Class & love in fiction

In the two most recent novels I've read, class issues are front and center. Both derive a depth and richness from this. Of course it doesn't hurt that both are beautifully written, that both authors are talented, that both approach story with a sweep both capacious and compassionate. What's rare here is a class-conscious vision, a way of looking at interlocking lives that acknowledges the reality so often ignored in contemporary fiction, at least contemporary fiction available in English in this country: this is a class society, and every life is lived within that framework.

While most readily available fiction ignores class altogether, there are certain popular alternatives. A character's life might be defined by the attempt to ignore class boundaries. Or to cross them. Or it might trace an upward or downward course, rags to riches or the reverse. Or two lives might meet across the class divide. All these are old stories, popular and oft told. Especially the last, love between rich and poor. Love conquering all, all in this case being snobbery, misunderstanding, prejudice, material disadvantage, etc. Love as the great leveler. Manse on the hill, wrong side of the tracks, the stark contrast dissolving, dismantled by love.

Uh huh. Not in real life. And not in novels more interested in truth than gooey fantasy.

Sarah Waters, the wondrous brilliant weaver of literary lesbian tales, has told the class truth in her previous four books--I remember my glee when, toward the end of reading her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, I came to scenes of the protagonist meeting and attending political meetings with Eleanor Marx--and in her latest the question of class is if anything even more directly the theme. The Little Stranger is many things. A ghost story. A haunted house story. A love story, thwarted. A meditation on time and change, war, history, progress. A sad consideration of class strictures, class division, class attitudes, of the immutability of class, and of the wreckage, the damage done. This is Britain, Waters seems to say. Read it and weep. (Then get out there and fight for a new system. OK, that's me.)

Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn is less ethereally lyrical, but we're in Idaho now, not the drippy, misty precincts whose Heathcliffs and Catherines are being superseded, book by book, by the divine Sarah Waters' creations. We're in sere 1980s Idaho--every bit as haunted, but by Reaganism, by racism, by religious fundamentalism, by conformity, by homophobia. Above all, by class. This is a book of grand ambition, encompassing many characters most of whom the author does a good job of bringing to life, all these lives moving along tracks laid down by class. There are struggles here: to survive day to day, paycheck to paycheck; to raise kids halfway successfully yet also find some sort of fulfillment, some identity beyond parenting; to endure the humiliations of poverty, adolescence, love. There are friendships built and broken, there are faith and illusion lost and found. I found the most affecting moments in the relationships, within and between classes. To some extent McIntyre toys with and subverts the hoary old love-transcending-class trope. There are characters who try and fail. There are also characters who, we are left to suspect at the novel's close, just might manage the trick. The former--the falling back into the confines defined by class--I found more satisfyingly realistic, bitter, even tragic, as it in some cases is. The latter--the couple that just might make it despite having met in circumstances that are practically a textbook illustration of characters of starkly different classes--I found less likely, and for that matter, from my point of view, not a particularly appealing plot turn. But hey, that's just me. I'd rather fight for and force the boss to fork over better wages than marry the boss. Another reader might find this a perfectly satisfying resolution. In any case, over all McIntyre goes a good deal further down the road of class honesty, I'd say, than many U.S. authors.