by Thomas Gardner
What Will Suffice
Larry Woiwode's 1975 novel Beyond the Bedroom Wall is one of the great American books. Focused on the Neumiller family—Alpha and Martin, and their children Jerome, Charles, Tim, Susan, and Marie—but ranging back a number of generations and forward to the children's adulthood, the novel is a lyric exploration of time's heart-stopping thefts and quiet restorations. Its central event is the death of Alpha at 34, just a few months after the family had moved from the small town of Hyatt, North Dakota—its smells and rhythms and intimacies painstakingly re-created by Woiwode—to an improvised, disorienting stab at a new life in Forest Creek, Illinois. Alpha's death opens an abyss. The family stays intact, but Martin almost buckles under the pressure of continuing on, and the children splinter and piece themselves together in various and richly imagined ways.
Charles, the second son and nine at the time of the disaster, is convinced that his hateful thoughts about his mother brought about her death. Echoing passages in the book where, as children, both his grandfather and his older brother Jerome stilled themselves in the dark and re-created a world far beyond their bedroom walls—their parents' room, the yard and fields, North Dakota, North America, drawing ever closer "to a vast source of power" beyond it all—Charles wakes one night turned the wrong way in bed. It is the last night he will see his mother, a night filled with phone calls and stricken faces, something terrible and unspoken being withheld from the children:
I woke to darkness, twisted in the blankets, my heart beating hard against the mattress. I had to see my mother right away. I started out of bed and struck the wall. The wall was on the other side of the cot. I tried again, and again I struck it. There wasn't a wall on that side of the cot, and not all the logic in the world, or the wall itself, could convince me otherwise. Being reversed in bed never occurred to me. I tried again and again. I called for Jerome and there was no word. Was I outside the room? Finally I fell back on the cot, exhausted, and my left arm stretched out into blank space. If there was a wall where I knew there was none, then what lay in this emptiness where the wall should be? I pulled my arm onto the safety of the cot and held it over my chest, afraid to move, afraid of the dark.
In the morning, without having to be told, I knew my mother was gone.
It's a brilliant passage, suggesting that after the disaster of Alpha's death, there would be no passage outward into the nested communities of family, village, and nation. There would be no movement, as Emily Dickinson puts it, "out upon Circumference" and into the presence of God. An impenetrable wall holding one alone within a sickening blank space—that's the world each member of the family is plunged into.
This is a wound that there is no final recovery from, and it is the great strength of this novel that it charts, beautifully and openly, the hungers and insights—physical, emotional, and ultimately spiritual—that such an acute awareness of brokenness brings one to. A presence is continually felt around the edges of many scenes: the children's mother, a lost world whole again, God himself. The presence takes various forms and is called different names. Characters shape and define themselves in the way they respond to it. Some block it out, others tentatively approach what blinded eyes allow them to see. I'm reminded of similar moments in the Gospel of John, a resonance Woiwode would surely have welcomed if not have fully understood at the time.
That wound also creates artists, of course, and Charles, who is very much the Woiwode figure, both being second sons in families with similar histories, sketches a vision of a novel which, though he despairs of ever writing it, has much in common with the book we are reading. Charles imagines a novel split by an abyss. One half of it would be a journal written by his mother, describing her early years and leading up to her life in Hyatt, its path moving in an "earth-colored, unbroken line." The other half would be a series of "multicolored pieces about North Dakota and Illinois, … each piece complete in itself, whole and unshakeable, bearing no outward relationship to any other piece, … each moment, each year sealed off because it's escaped destruction and has to buttress the chaos battering at it." What would happen, Charles asks, if the pieces could somehow shift and rearrange themselves, no longer sealed off from each other or from the lost world across the abyss? It would be as if his mother were signaling him from across that great divide, the edges of things permeable and no longer fixed, his mother urging him to move forward and live. Impossible, Charles admits, eyes on his own "tongue-tied paragraphs." Perhaps not, the novel suggests, offering, splintered sentence by splintered sentence, the first steps of just such a work.
Woiwode has published two memoirs that document his attempt to bring the lost, "unbroken" line associated with his mother into productive tension with the sealed-off, walled-in pieces of his adult life. The two books share a distinctive form. What I Think I Did (2000) tells the story of the winter of 1996 on Woiwode's southwestern North Dakota farm, two hundred miles from where he had grown up. The family moved there in 1978, and found themselves, eighteen years later, caught in "the worst winter in collective memory." The major drama is the desperate struggle to keep an outdoor wood-burning furnace going despite bitter cold, terrible storms, and a woeful lack of preparation. The book-length narration of these events is interleaved with Woiwode's memories of first coming into language, discovering his core material, and writing his early stories. We might call this the story of his becoming a writer, culminating with the publication of his first novel, What I'm Going to Do, I Think, in 1969.
The second memoir, A Step From Death, just published, recounts a terrible accident suffered by the author while baling hay in 2005. His clothing became entangled in the tractor's PTO, its power takeoff, and he broke three ribs and almost lost the arm around which his caught jacket knotted itself. That tale—the accident and his recovery—is broken into by a series of flashes and glints that eventually combine to tell the story of the next phase of his writing life, coming to a head with the publication of Beyond the Bedroom Wall in 1975. The form is really the point of the two memoirs. In both present-tense stories, the author is plunged into a blank, whited-out state. He is almost erased, and to make himself visible again, he must sort through the various memories and insights that rise up into consciousness. Wallace Stevens describes poetry as "the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice," and Woiwode would agree, making a kind of prose poetry out of the act of remembering and testing and sorting out, the two memoirs rising up out of Charles' heart-stopping plunge into an inexplicable blank space yawning open just where stability should have been.
What I Think I Did has much to say about this process, arguing that the knitting together of incidents into story, making them matter, is an act of faith, an acknowledgment that "We are headed somewhere and it's our story that carries us forward in its wake. If I weren't headed toward eternity (as I see it at times), I wouldn't have a story to tell." If story is a pilot, drawing incidents into its wake and setting them free to jostle with and make swirling sense against other caught-up moments, memory is "a backseat driver who wants control," insisting that its version of what once happened is what inevitably lies ahead. Memory is another name for the blank spaces we continually find ourselves suspended in: "It holds a lifetime store of every angle and declination of experience and sensation and fact we know." Story is how we fight for ourselves there: "What we call a memoir is an attempt to tame memory's takeovers into paths we tiptoe down toward truth."
That fight, as Woiwode gradually comes to see while struggling for life in the desperate winter of 1996, is against the "immobilizing freeze that all the deaths that began with my mother's have slammed into me." Her death removed from his awareness any trace of the first eight years of his life in Sykeston, burying it deep in a trunk in an attic: "When she died the years in North Dakota tumbled into the attic, because we had moved to Illinois the summer before, and her death was like a guillotine across them. They went falling in folds into their place in the trunk and its lid slammed shut." It was not until his early twenties that he began to sense the hold those blanked-out years had over him, but there seemed no way of moving back to them, breaking through her internalized "No" and his deep sense of guilt: "When I tried to get to the other side by every imaginative leap I could devise, it didn't matter if I missed by a mile or an inch, I was in a dark deeper than dreams." And if he did stumble back, pulled down by some remembered smell or turn of a road, there seemed no way to move forward, no way to bring the two worlds together: "Even after I made pathways to the trunk and dug deeper in it each time, no way was safe back to adulthood." There was no story, no way of "writing my way out of [the early years] with my parents, into the space I would occupy as a young man."
Much of this first memoir, then, composed against a winter two decades later, focuses on the discovery of a language that would allow the young writer to begin moving, breaking loss's wintry grip on his soul. What he arrived at was a densely realistic style, grounded in sensual details that, handled and rehandled by a probing, pressing mind, continually opened channels and connections to other sensual details from other periods. It's a kind of lyric, exploratory prose: story trembling always at the edge of metaphor. Woiwode was brought to this language by various guides and companions, many of them acknowledged in this first memoir. He originally saw himself as an actor, and Charles Shattuck at the University of Illinois helped him open the door whereby he could "leave myself behind and be somebody wholly other." Shattuck's friend William Maxwell at The New Yorker, an extraordinary writer in his own right and an editor of genius, not only kept the young writer alive in his early years in New York after college but eased him deeper and deeper into his charged material. And the young Robert De Niro, 19 to Woiwode's 22, caught up as well in a struggle with the "energy of the inarticulate," became a crucial figure, someone his own age working in tandem with him toward authentic forms of physical and verbal expression.
Maxwell's influence was extraordinary and is surely part of what Woiwode has in mind when he ends What I Think I Did with an echo of John 1:16 ("For of his fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace"): "It has all been gravy, … and, better, grace and gracious people put in my way, and yet more grace." Reading his early work, giving him writing exercises, sitting at a table with him and going over typed drafts ("I follow his trail of pencil marks, feeling chunks of words and paragraphs break free and fall from the ceiling of my mind"), Maxwell, who had also lost his mother at an early age, stood beside him as he entered the space controlled by his mother's loss, pointing him toward words and guiding the ensuing torrent: "I bore inexpressible knots in myself, so deep and unreachable and sometimes malevolent that only words could release them, and he helped me find my way to the words. Set down right, they had the transfiguring power of love." Woiwode imagines this again against the backdrop of his family's struggle to hold each other up during an almost overwhelming series of storms. This transfiguring power, the basis for words, is made vibrant flesh in his desperate attempts to warm himself in bed with his wife and in his children's patient bearing with his weaknesses and oversights.
What these guides helped him tap into, Woiwode suggests, was a relationship with language and landscape that had been with him since childhood. He describes long walks the summer he was twelve, after the death of his mother, mile after mile down dirt roads or alongside railroad tracks, caught up in his body's rhythms and, for a time, moving beyond her absence. He remembers, in the silence, being filled with a pressure and presence that he could only describe as "the presence of God." The light pulsing through the gaps between trees, he passed through the charged aisles and felt himself moving into a world "brimming with voices about to break into speech. I was in a grip greater than my mother's hand, and tears of laughter leaped out like the presences I expected to see." He was flooded with language from a source immeasurably far outside of himself, as in Psalm 19 which he read much later, a source calling language from him in ecstatic response: "Oh, beautiful trees!, Oh, sky above!" Remembering those days and those walks again—"listen[ing] to a language leaping past time and entering me in a way I couldn't begin to explain"—he realizes that this experience had prepared him for the language pouring through him in his twenties, the sudden words sweeping him back to those lost childhood years and "launching" his career.
In his new memoir, A Step From Death, the base story is the accident in August 2005 and the author's slow recovery over much of the next year. Woiwode's wife and the last of his four children are with him at the time of the accident, although both are away during the accident itself and the two hours it takes him to free himself from the entanglement. His daughter leaves for college a day after the accident, and his wife takes a job in town, so the author is alone during much of his recovery—once again in a "displaced region" where memory continually overrides the present's constrained, featureless blankness. Words begin rising to the surface, and he finds himself in a space where "the forces of silence, good and evil, contend." If the struggle in the first memoir was to break out of the frozen immobility associated with his mother's death, here the struggle is to tell the truth, to break free of entanglements, many of them self-imposed. To tell a story, it turns out, is to ask continually what really happened and what one really felt. There are many screens and self-protective barriers to work through. The accident forces him to look again at the story of his growth as writer. It "causes me to reassess everything before and after, as if I've returned from the dead and find I'm walking the world again … . A new person stepped from that entangling, and the 'I' that was is no more." In that space, the author begins "building" a book addressed to his only son, Joseph, off to pilot a helicopter in Iraq—a book in which the father attempts to tell the truth about who he is and how he has failed, untangling dreams from fears and steps from missteps.
And here, as in his first memoir, Woiwode doesn't simply tell the truth—he also reflects on what it is to tell the truth, bringing to life the costs of moving into true speech: "Every sentence is a question of who I am over its course, an assemblage of words sorting out my consciousness at the moment, recording a newly forming identity, just as every act we undertake proves or disproves who we think we are. The faults in my sentences, or my scars, then, might be the only truthful record I carry into the future." What he offers his son is his own experience of walking a path—confessing, turning, asking for forgiveness—intending to draw both son and reader toward our own scarred, generative places: "My interweaving is on purpose, with the hope of holding you in one of its stopped-moments for a momentary glimpse of your own infinity … . Our multiple selves collide at every second of intersection, one or the other vying for supremacy, the scars of the past flooding through the present texture of our personality, and maturity is knowing how to govern the best combination of them."
The primary story he untangles has to do with the decade of working on Beyond the Bedroom Wall. It's a harrowing tale, stretching from the early years in New York working under Maxwell's guidance, through a series of moves, breakdowns, and a separation from his wife, to the forging of a new relationship with his father and the completion of the novel just before his death. Along with Joseph, we are privy to the pressures scarring and twisting the novel's attempts to reach beyond the mother's death and recover the world buried with her. Writing the novel, like the struggle with the PTO, takes him a step from death—darkness and despair needing to be passed through in order to be overcome.
My echo here of the gospel story—Christ passing through death in order to overcome it—is deliberate and is touched on a number of times by Woiwode. He describes, years into his work on the novel, passing into a state so dark that he felt himself tugged away from life. His wife attempted to intervene, crying out for some sort of "spiritual connection" and eventually helping him realize that he was turning away from life out of a "rage … at all that had gone wrong from my mother's death to the mental smashup of last year." Slowly, as much in his writing as anywhere else, Woiwode began to acknowledge "a presence I've sensed most of my life, which I've tried to drink or smother or mock or smoke away."
More of this story is told in the memoir-like interleavings of his meditation on the book of Acts (1993) and in fictional form in the novel Born Brothers (1988), but what rises to words in this book is the painful moment, before he had reconciled with his wife, when he realized that the "generative focus of the book," obscured over the years, was the "spiritual state of its people." And with that, the novel comes together—a vision drawn out of his own acknowledgment of the reality he had been avoiding, a step taken almost simultaneously with his dying father, both of them, in different ways, breaking "through the membranous reality we know as life and [coming] down hard on that eternal reality that takes the best and worst of us for good, death." The novels and the memoirs are brilliant books that call for a reading as attentive as their writing—their rhythms insistent and elusive, their words rising again and again out of death, as rose the broken, triumphant Word.
Thomas Gardner is Cutchins Professor of English at Virginia Tech. His most recent book is A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson (Oxford Univ. Press). He is at work on a book entitled Poets and the Gospel of John.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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