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'Two Marriages: Novellas' by Phillip Lopate
Other Press: 272 pp., $24.95
THE publication of new fictions -- the first in more than 20 years -- by one of our most reliable men of letters is an occasion worth marking and measuring. Phillip Lopate is best known as an essayist. The celebrated author of half a dozen collections of literary nonfictions, including "Bachelorhood," "Portrait of My Body" and the recent "Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan," he is also the editor of the form's definitive anthology, "The Art of the Personal Essay" -- a truly serviceable enterprise that connects the work of Augustine and Montaigne to Hubert Butler and H.L. Mencken, thence to Joan Didion and Annie Dillard.
FOR THE RECORD:
Illustration credit: The credit on Page F8 of today's Calendar section below the illustration of a man and woman on a couch misspells the first name of Lauren Simkin Berke as Laurn. —
Lopate has also published poetry and film studies, his reviews and commentaries turn up in all the best journals and magazines, and he holds a chair at Hofstra and conducts workshops at Columbia, the New School and Bennington. In short, he is a bookish man working in a variety of available forms on a free range of subjects. But not since "The Rug Merchant" (1987) in which he conjured the lot of Cyrus Irani -- an intellectual melancholic and hapless bachelor -- has Lopate turned to the alchemy of fiction.
"Two Marriages" is full of binaries: two stories about two couples, to wit -- Gordo and Rita, Frank and Eleanor. Both husbands are 48, both wives in their 30s. Both love nests are in Brooklyn -- one in an 11-room "mansion" in Dyker Heights, the other in a brownstone in Cobble Hill. The first and longer novella covers two years, in two parts, of "The Stoic's Marriage," while the second -- "Eleanor, or The Second Marriage" -- involves a pair of divorcées, two years into their second attempts, whose weekend plans include a pair of dinners, Saturday nights out, Sunday nights in and the litter of friends, children, past histories and new hopes that surround the reconstructed spouses. And, of course, each of these novellas involves two stories: the "his" and "hers" versions, often at odds, that form the core of most consortia. Studies in deceit and intimacy -- Lopate's fictions deftly deconstruct the fictions married people build to house their marriages.
There's this echo in "The Stoic's Marriage" of the voice we are accustomed to in Lopate's essaying: a monkish, introspective, finely schooled and mildly beleaguered man in the habit of talking to himself, alone, in search of what it is that rings true in his experience ("A cat examining its fur," as Lopate has written elsewhere of Montaigne). That is how his earnest diarist opens "The Stoic's Marriage":
"I would like to record here, in this brand-new notebook of twenty-two lines per page, with my new Rollerball pen, the story of my marriage as it unfolds. Why? Because a good marriage deserves to be examined as well as commemorated, it requires alertness, vigilance. All unhappy marriages are actually alike (pace Tolstoy), the two partners endlessly miserable because they fail to communicate, and the wellsprings of mutual affection dried up, replaced by petty malice. But each happy marriage is at once a miracle and a complex mechanism, like a Swiss clock whose successful inner workings, once analyzed, could conceivably offer hope to conjugal sufferers everywhere."
This willingness to open the clockworks, pull out the innards and have a look is Lopate's signature ante, his gambit, the pawn pushed forward with the come-hither look to announce that this is a game he wants the reader in on. And he does. Lopate's stoic is feckless and hopeful, a devotee of Epictetus, the product of nuns and Jesuits, self-doubting, self-editing, self-deluding, given to fits of generosity, introspection and connivance; an idler, an adjunct, a man apart. He is, in short, in love. His paramour is an illegal alien with breasts he can't help but admire and a sexual liberty that frees him to consider the dynamics of love beyond a marriage of convenience. Their little ship of love sets forth, as every marriage must, in search of the truth about one another -- an epic quest of such invention that we are both tickled and a little traumatized by the ship's log:
"We can live out our fantasies, it seems, for a while at least, and perhaps the wall between fantasy and reality is more permeable than we suspected, provided we relinquish, going into the game, any hope for understanding what is going on or what is just ahead, in other words, the whole concept of foresight. So the question 'What did you expect?' becomes moot."
If this sounds like an essayist wrestling with the fictionist, the reader is willing to forgive. We are, like his characters, happily adrift in the narrative. Events shape Lopate's heroes more than the reverse. They rarely make things happen. They are bystanders, passersby, not altogether unreliable witnesses, not entirely innocent victims, men to whom things happen, often at the hands of women. Will they run aground as comedy or tragedy? Ever the contrarian, Lopate leaves us multiple choices: maybe neither, maybe both, maybe we will never know.
In his essay, "Against Joie de Vivre," Lopate considers the math of dinner parties: "Much thought has gone into the ideal size for a dinner party -- usually with the hostess arriving at the figure eight. Six would give each personality too much weight; ten would lead to splintering side discussions; eight is the largest number still able to force everyone into the same compulsively congenial conversation." But in the second of these "Two Marriages," Frank and Eleanor end up with nine -- three couples, three variously unattached free agents, and nine Cornish game hens in two pans in the oven. Frank fears age and death. Eleanor fears the further loss of beauty. The deal they've made is for safe harbor:
"He was in love with Eleanor's sex. And yet he knew that there was nothing extraordinary about her vagina in terms of its shape or the texture of pubic hair. He was a grown man, he had never felt that a woman's sexual organ had to have such-and-such configuration, narrowness or tightness of fit, or feel like cashmere mittens. Well, why then this infatuation? In some uncanny way he felt his penis belonged there. It was his nesting place, his cove; it made him think of Sailor's Snug Harbor on Staten Island. . . ."
There's magic in the way, in Lopate's prose, the sublime beds down with the ridiculous, the sigh gives way to the hoot, the grin becomes, alas, a wince. He is a master of the sentence and the scene-set, which lend to these brief novels the widescreen, cinematic thrill not often available in the close quarters of intimate dialogue. And it is after the party, Sunday night giving way to Monday morning, that Frank and Eleanor abandon their "compulsively congenial conversation," in trade for real communion. In the give and take of their painful, graceful, hurtful, half-hearted talk, we hear ourselves.
"You've gotten to where you just make things up," my wife once said to me. Whether praise or complaint, I couldn't say, but reading Lopate, I hope it's so.
As with marriages, so with the best of fictions: Things happen that can never be predicted. The nuptial pacts are ever being renegotiated. The mail-order bride comes with complications. The best of men must often disappoint. A second marriage comes with no guarantees. Every expectation is undone. For Gordo, the dispassion prescribed by Epictetus (who counseled that we cannot control events, only our reactions to them) leaves him cuckolded, dispossessed, a little wary of women, but stoic nonetheless and, in odd ways, more alive for all that has befallen him. It is much the same for Frank and Eleanor. It is impossible to separate the dream from the dull facts of the matter. These are contracts, for better and worse, public bargains cut between private parts -- checkbooks and genitals, home and hearts, fidelities and trusts. We cannot know the truth, but we can have the stories.
Thomas Lynch is a poet and essayist whose books include "Bodies in Motion and at Rest" and a forthcoming book of fictions from W.W. Norton.