Maud’s Line. Margaret Verble.

Verble, Margaret. Maud’s Line. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015. Kindle electronic version. F; 5/16.

This is one of the runners-up in the 2016 Pulitzer fiction contest. I’ve already said I didn’t like the winner, I also wasn’t crazy about the other runner-up, and funny, I’m not wild about this one either. I guess I was more impressed by Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style than I admitted to myself at the time I read it. Ever since then I’ve been wondering whether what I read is “graceful”, trying to get beyond Pinker’s academic definition that relies on telling a clear and interesting story that wins approval from a panel of respected (American) writers and critics.

Maybe everybody works away at their own definition of graceful. It may just amount to what we like. And how legitimate that is understood to be depends pretty much on who we are. But never mind, as I read fiction I’m always trying to close in on my own idea of literary grace. And this book doesn’t meet that definition as it is at the moment and as it’s I hope slowly growing.

Part of defining grace for myself is to admit my biases. I don’t like stories that rely for their dramatic impact only on illness or on a popular celebrated cause. I prefer stories that seem to reflect my own inner life, and I try not to be led astray if a story centers on characters that aren’t like me: people abused as children, females, very good tennis players, religious fundamentalists, homosexuals, Africans, dog lovers, etc. etc. I’m reassured that I’ve loved stories involving every one of those types of people.

This tale is about a poverty-stricken 18-year-old partly native girl in the late 1920s American southwest, and a terrible decision she has to make in the face of limited information. She’s very pretty, and no fool. She’s also kind of anachronistically (reminds me of Atwood’s Grace) self-determined and frankly self-motivated. She wants out of the dirt and poverty, and I think the culture, she inherits, and sees a mature capable boyfriend as both an attractive lover and a ticket to a better life. This protagonist almost could’t be less like me, but she does remind me quite a bit of my mother.

The plot is thickened by murder, family intrigue, a strangely troubled probably psychotic brother, lying versus the truth, frankly evil people, plenty of sex, pregnancy, native Indian superstition, and the constant possibility of starvation, illness, and death from snakes or wolves. But the whole middle third and most of the end of the story focus on a single dramatic question: will the departed boyfriend come back and rescue her? There is a dénouement on the last page or two, and bingo: that’s it.

So what’s the matter with this story, said to be more or less autobiographical and celebrated as an honest statement of the author’s life and worldview? My problem is that part of what makes fiction writing graceful, that is a pleasure to read, is just credibility. Not of plot, but of a character’s inner life. Maud, for example, at one point is trying to understand whether her father is responsible for a recent killing. Her aunt describes another murder family members were involved in years ago, and:

Maud recalled her mama saying that time moved in a circle, not like an arrow. She felt dizzied by that circle and clutched the iron rod to hold herself to the mattress. She was still holding on when Viola came into the room.

What caused Maud to grip onto the bed like that? It doesn’t wash for me that it was her reflection on her mother’s fanciful concept of time. It would more likely have been the hard description by her aunt of the ambiguity of who committed the old murder, her actually picturing it, and the fact that it might have been her dad who did the recent one. She was dizzied by the horror of the murders and their closeness, not “by that circle” exactly.

Am I splitting hairs like an English lit major here? I don’t think so. The author is asking us in a moment of strong emotion to take a leap from the horrible repetition, guilt by association, and almost routine acceptability of killing, to the young woman imagining something abstract her mother told her. Not at all that Maud was incapable of abstract thinking, far from it is we see many times. But as a terrifying realization dawns, figurative geometry would not have been the first thing in the front of her mind, and putting it in front of ours steals from us the shock Maud must, or should, be feeling, in the service of reassuring us of the author’s creative presence.

Other shreds of metaphor are left blowing in the dusty breeze at the abrupt ending. What’s that crack in the ceiling over Maud’s bed she focuses on several times? Why are snakes everywhere? Are these supposed to mean something?

Not to belabour the issue of the Pulitzer prize, when something falls as flat as this novel does for me it’s hard not to start imagining why it gained its prestigious honourable mention. Were the judges trying to emphasize poverty? Herpetology? The American native? The evils of alcohol? Feminism? That it was the South’s turn for recognition? Who knows.

Anyway, 7.1/6.7.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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