The scheme queen
“BECAUSE a fire was in my head” is a line from “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” a poem by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Happily, Lynn Stegner makes good on her borrowing in this portrait of an amoral, redheaded woman vagabond who cuts a swath of psychic destruction from the prairies of Canada to the beaches of Northern California.
Young, pert and dimply Kate Riley is a descendant of Irish immigrants who settled on the vast and comfortless plains of Saskatchewan. Ashamed of the catalog pages she has to layer beneath her coat to stay warm but proud of the ringlets her doting barber father fashions for her, Kate is an archetypal daddy’s girl, much to her icy mother’s disgust. After Kate’s father dies in 1941, when Kate is 10, the grim battle between mother and daughter escalates as the young men of the hauntingly named village of Netherfield, including Kate’s older brothers, go off to war. Starved for love and joy, Kate often falls ill, or claims to be so, hoping for at least a little succor. And so a pattern is drawn: Whenever love, or even merely lust, is threatened or lost, sickness and disorder ensue -- including feigned maladies and theatrical acts of self-injury.
Stegner has set the bar high by summoning Yeats, but she is used to such challenges. The author of four novels, including “Undertow” and “Fata Morgana,” she is married to writer Page Stegner, and her father-in-law was Wallace Stegner (1909-93), winner of the National Book Award for “The Spectator Bird” and the Pulitzer Prize for “Angle of Repose.” Wallace Stegner also founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program, the proving ground for Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. Lynn Stegner truly is part of this great and heretofore conspicuously male tradition, writing with the same intensity and paying the same high attention to language, land and vagaries of thought and feeling while telling compelling stories about complex and involving characters. A novel fully realized on every level, “Because a Fire Was in My Head” is a provocative literary work of weight and luster. A risky, intermittently melodramatic tale, it casts light both on the timeless mysteries of the human psyche and on the paradoxes of a notoriously contrary epoch, namely, post-World War II North America.
One of the most daring and rewarding acts a novelist performs is to give voice to a morally suspect, even repugnant, main character, in this case a narcissist of epic self-regard. So deeply does Stegner peer into Kate Riley’s damaged heart that her protagonist’s helpless callousness and insatiable longing exert a powerful fascination. Kate’s first conquest is her father; her second is handsome and earthy Jan Larsen. But Jan’s adoration, precocious lovemaking and marriage proposal are not enough to keep curvy, green-eyed, red-haired Kate home on the prairie. At 17, she leaves him torn between hope and fear as she extracts herself from the clutches of her selfish, unloving mother (never imagining how much she is like her) and boards the train to Vancouver. Confident in her allure, Kate dreams of a job in a swanky office, and of glamorous clothes and love affairs with successful men. But the body she counts on for passage to more refined worlds betrays her.
After an unintended pregnancy, an off-the-books birth and brusque abandonment of her baby, Kate, in a moment of staggering blankness (she is as out of touch with her own feelings as she is oblivious to those of others), attempts suicide. Or does she? On the rebound, she calculatedly seduces and marries the much older wealthy owner of the hotel where she labored oh-so-briefly and miserably as a chambermaid. Kate doesn’t have to work anymore, but she revels in her new job at a bank (naturally she’s good with numbers), where Stegner describes her walking smartly in a tight skirt, “everything about her presence, her personal-kinesis utterly synchronized to the unstoppable beat of the times.”
In considering the consequences of the have-it-all mentality, Stegner observes that Kate’s “everyday ideals, the things she dreamed of, the objects she craved ... were lashed entirely to the bow of a booming, fast-paced, and largely directionless modern culture plying through time like a gassed-up cutter.” Not only does Kate lack empathy and kindness, she also has no imagination, no sense of what life is truly about. For her, it’s all “glitter and gleam.” Even her sexuality is store-bought, hence flimsy and impersonal.
Clearly, Kate is destined for a fall, and Stegner orchestrates an especially nasty screw-up, a sordid near-catastrophe rooted in Kate’s appalling failure as a mother. Although she ultimately gives birth four times, there is not one maternal gene in her genetic code. For Kate, children are nothing but “bottomless pits of need,” and she sheds them more readily than last year’s clothes. It figures that the only person Kate fixates on is just as ruthless as she is: Max Wyman, a “handsome-ugly,” coldly sexy and very married Seattle nightclub owner.
This time Kate deliberately gets pregnant in the hope of forcing Max to get a divorce and marry her. Her plan backfires (the wrenching story of this doomed child is positively gothic), and Kate attempts to fill the void left by Max with food, her drug of choice. As she turns stout, she names her plumper self Ramona Moon, a perfect alter-ego for a woman who waxes and wanes, dominates then vanishes, and whose only light is reflective, on the surface, not from the core. Lonely and increasingly out of sync with the rapidly changing social constructs and mores of the 1960s, Kate obsessively records her bodily malfunctions in “health journals,” which play an odd role in her next attempt to wrest happiness and security from a man she can’t begin to understand.
Writing with lyrical grandeur and psychological gravitas, Stegner describes Californian foothills in spring “fading to a soft celery viridescence” and shapes such arresting phrases as “the ancient bog of shame” as she subjects her increasingly sympathetic protagonist to lacerating self-critiques and shattering recognitions. As Kate’s quest for a man’s devotion leads her further south along the Pacific coast to San Francisco, she becomes a fugitive from the prairies, her family, her lost children, her wronged husband, her cruel lovers and even from herself. Yet Kate still operates according to “her prairie culture where the object was to endure, to have a shrewd sense of the possible, to be determined but not dreamy.” By the time Kate perceives that “something vital had passed her by,” the reader feels not outrage over her reckless indifference to simple decency but compassion.
Such profound awakenings on the part of both a novel’s characters and its readers are the landmarks of powerful and lasting fiction. Stegner extends the long, spiraling reach of literature by following the footsteps of her mentors and bringing new light to the old story of our abiding ties to place and family, and to the archetypal tale of the forging of the self and the search for love. She is also keenly attuned to the changes in women’s lives that could have saved her “glimmering girl” (to circle back to Yeats) from suffering, if only Kate was able to see beyond her pain and desires. Ultimately, Stegner’s bold and stunning novel reminds us that for all the transformations of the tactile world, the country of the spirit remains the same, impelling us to sing the song of being human, as Yeats writes, “till time and times are done.”
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