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Books  |  Reviews

Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt

The play’s the thing

January 8, 2013  |  2:31pm
<i>Prosperous Friends</i> by Christine Schutt

Midway through The Seagull’s 1896 premiere, author Anton Chekhov famously fled backstage amid a barrage of whistles and jeers. Outrage! Primed for easy farce, the St. Petersburg crowd instead found themselves riled by this “comedy” of subtext, a performance where the unsaid demanded as much attention as the spoken dialogue, where the principal action occurred offstage, and where the playwright admitted he “began it forte and ended it pianissimo, contrary to all the rules of the dramatic art.”

Feeding off Chekhov, Wilder, O’Neill and the emotional electricity of live theater, Christine Schutt stages her own brand of parlor drama in Prosperous Friends, a novel that—like The Seagull—denudes serial monogamy and upper-class ennui as mighty gaffes in la comédie humaine.

Throughout Schutt’s oeuvre, money—the wrist-lock and bruising thumb of those who have it on those who don’t—habitually twists the dynamics. In two masterful short story collections and a pair of lauded novels, Schutt has embroiled her characters among prosperous relatives (2004’s Florida), prosperous prep-schoolers (2009’s All Souls) and prosperous abusive lovers (“The Blood Jet,” “The Summer After Barbara Claffey”).

Never admitting a hard line between the one and the 99 percent, Schutt instead probes prosperity’s margin of error: free spirits who’ve pissed away entire legacies, scions sweating out trusts and entanglements, and fatalistic women who leverage sex and cohabitation as a means to financial security.

With its well-bred, art-damaged Gothicism—and a bewitching knack for appearing both full-frontal and oblique—Schutt’s prose may have no closer counterpart than the lyrics of P.J. Harvey, and Prosperous Friends storms out in the hot-blooded forte of Harvey’s “Long Snake Moan.”

Ravishing Columbia grad Isabel crosses the threshold of a cathedral in the Cambridge fens only to be accosted on the cold stones by her raffish husband, Ned Bourne, his paws creeping up her holiest of holies.

Titled chapters (“Postdoc, London, 2002”) mark the movement between the novel’s acts like scene cards, beginning as the high-cheekboned newlyweds alight on what promises to be a sensual, thrilling European tryst.

Except…

“What is it I can do for you, Isabel? What is it you need?” Ned asked.
If only she knew, but she never…
“Never?”
“Don’t act as if this is news, Ned, please.”

Never. Stacking leading phrases atop suggestion and implication, Schutt leaves the reader groping for clinical specifics and the exact orifices at play—suffice it to say, however, that between misty Oxford and wet Rome, Ned and Isabel’s conjugal avocations rate as neither sport nor a pastime.

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“How do you like this?”
“Yes, well. No, not exactly.”
“How about this?”
“Yes.”
“This?”
“A little.”
“This?”
“No. No, that hurts. That really hurts, Ned.”

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Despite the stir of unconsummated passions, terminal illness, and suicide, Chekov swore long and hard that The Seagull was a comedy. In Prosperous Friends, Schutt offers few cues or stage directions, but as Isabel’s inability to reach a sexual climax dooms her marriage, the ultimate reaction may vary greatly depending on the reader’s chosen pitch. Who do we cast as our romantic leads? Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes, or Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen?

Action, conflict and the novel’s significant beats occur off the page, and while the dark matter of the imagination fills those gaps, breathing any life into Ned and Isabel requires a concerted act of readerly will. Where Fitzgerald brought Dick Diver into glamorous relief through the perspective of Tender Is The Night’s gushing ingénue (“for a moment she lived in the bright blue worlds of his eyes”), Schutt frames Ned and Isabel from a calculated, indistinct remove.

In both her poetic early stories and her prized debut novel, Schutt inhabited a prodigious first-person, wielding that voice to demand a reckoning for her flawed narrators, highly observant types who could bottle their image in a line (Exhibit A, Florida’s Alice: “What a shrugged tough I am, a spoiled pouter at seventeen and eighteen and so on…”). On the page, those narratives shimmied in a sort of chiaroscuro, turning chunks of white space into a rhythmic, visual, and affective tool: gradually, all that emptiness formed a depth of shadow, with wounds, depravities, and entire secret histories lurking inside.

Shifting to a tidier third person with All Souls, Schutt’s prose flattened out—a two-dimensionality that, in fairness, could equally be ascribed to that book’s gaggle of spoiled teens and its compact timeline. Schutt, however, never seemed terribly enamored with the personalities flitting through the academic year in All Souls, and again using the third person in Prosperous Friends, she endows Ned and Isabel with the scantiest of charms. At best, Ned diddles along as a shallow retread of handsome, arrested adolescent Tim Weeks in All Souls. At worst, he’s a total nonentity: “Sweet Neddie, he seemed so _____. Fill in the blank. Blank?”

Meanwhile, ever-petulant, ever-unmotivated and ever-antisocial, Isabel goes down as the bleakest of pills.

The White Street Loft, New York, 2003. As if baiting her audience to respond with their own barrage of hoots and whistles, while the reading world has collectively crossed its forearms and commanded Begone! No more books about fucking writers! Schutt now doubles-down and offers up Ned and Isabel as the consummate workshop romance, a writing duo fresh out of program.

When Schutt puts the squeeze on these bloodless turnips, irony drips. We have Ned with his thrift store haberdashery, his perpetually beige agent, his Goddamned Whiting Award. And we have stunted Isabel, not just a wife who doesn’t come and a Manhattanite who doesn’t know a soul, but also the dreaded writer who doesn’t write.

“Where was her book, her business, her flaring discovery? She spoke no other languages, had no hobbies – unless reading was a hobby.”

They drink. They dally. The marriage teeters: “For a time, fucking, being fucked, being hurt, then not being fucked.”

Despite Schutt’s poker-faced delivery, there’s a distinct “tell” in that she offers neither of her littérateurs the slightest opening to talk craft. Not only does she not take them seriously as writers, but only the broadest comic stretch can explain the endurance of their paper-thin union: despite little shared history and a spontaneous Vegas “I do,” despite the absence of children or any social, religious, financial, or family pressure to stay together, Schutt stages their marriage with Forsytean gravity.

Though the characters may not be tragic actors, that hardly renders their circumstances insignificant. As theater-lover Isabel maunders in depression, Schutt spikes her sentences with lines as tart as Meryl Streep at her most British, opening a full spectrum of comic and dramatic reads.

“How could she move past Rwanda to mulled wine and apples, but she was doing just that when Ned emerged from yet another afternoon spent looking too closely at the wall.”

That numbing hashtag of first-world problems, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) has even gotten in on the act: Bitching, complaining, when some people ain’t got shit to eat. As a dramatic staple, “Uptown Problems” date back to the Prince of Danes and Schutt offers repeated references to “graver agonies” and “the greater sorrows of others caught in civil wars or genocides.” Given the nature of Isabel’s depression, that added shovelful of guilt weighs as one of life’s particularly unfunny ironies—members of the working class can at least console themselves with the delusion that winning the lottery would make them happy.

A ray of hope finally emerges when Isabel finds herself propositioned by Clive, a silver-maned, 60-something painter possessed of fabulous renown, fabulous wealth and a fabulously lupine sexuality.

Except …

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“Clive’s hand against her collarbone, she took it up and put it against her face and smelled him in a brandy fume of sensations before his hands against her head guided her downward to disappointment: Why did it always end like this with that musty part in her mouth?”

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The Bridge House, Maine, 2004. An indecent proposal: though sex with Clive only occasions more unpalatable gunk to swallow, Isabel accepts the artist’s offer to take up residence in his New England guest house. Complicating matters, while Ned has reignited an affair with the one that got away—a capable, worldly woman he lacked the money to formally court—he still decides to tag along and use Maine’s quietude to write a memoir (seriously).

Further complicating these complications, although Isabel has been invited to serve as a nude model, Clive remains contentedly married to his second wife (and ex-student), Dinah.

Two men. Two women. Differences in age, differences in status. An isolated space. With direct textual references to Long Day’s Journey Into Night and copious highballs in the offing, Schutt tantalizes with the potential for a Tyrone-inspired bloodletting … or who knows, perhaps even an all-out Albee-evisceration.

Except…

Contrary to all the rules of the dramatic arts, Schutt again and again uses the narrative to mirror Isabel’s inability to reach a sexual climax, stroking scenes and interactions to a pulsing flush and build before frustrating their ultimate release.

Instead of interpersonal fireworks, Schutt divagates into an extended pianissimo, presenting Clive and Dinah as examples of the life well-lived. Bypassing urban luxury or material ostentation, Schutt sees prosperity in the pastoral, in the bloom and thrive of open porches, field grasses, bay views, and lazy nights wound down at the local shellfish joint, the Clam Box. (Dare I? No—I dare not).

Though originally intent on painting Isabel, Clive ultimately blurs her into the background, faceless and finely pubed, as his final composition focuses on Dinah and her well-tended garden: Dinah, who “left a husband, a hometown, and friends for a man who openly cheated on her even then. Oh, pride was overrated.” Dinah, who discovers that the secret to holding on to Clive is to love him more than he loves her. Dinah, who “jiggers-up” her juice with vodka just to make it through breakfast. Dinah, who drops everything and giddies whenever Clive turns his attention her way.

And the butt of this cosmic joke is…?

Like Chekhov in The Seagull, Schutt offers allusions to Ovid’s tale of Baucis and Philemon, the simpatico old couple granted extended lives as a linden and an oak to reward their hospitality to the gods. With Clive and Dinah’s plenitude, it’s entirely possible the author means to pay sincere homage to the fine art of settling; or perhaps she sees an infinite jest in that reconciling to a life of compromises and ambiguities could be as good as it gets. At root, Prosperous Friends may be a knotty comedy or a confounding drama—which is, in all likelihood, the living truth.

Nathan Huffstutter lives and writes in San Diego. His work has recently appeared in The Literary Review, The Classical, and The Iowa Review Online.

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