In preparation for the class I'm teaching this semester on novel writing, I scoped around for some short novels to put on my syllabus. (While craft books have their place, I still believe that the best education for how to write a novel is to read as many as you can. And if that sounds like punishment instead of heaven, then you probably should consider another outlet for your creativity.) While the average length for a published novel in this country, by most estimates, comes in at around 100,000 words, there are several examples of successful, even famous, novels at around the 60,000 word mark. These I specifically sought out as I thought they would best serve as models for my students' short novels. One novel about that length is The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winner from the late 90s, the book--I think it's safe to say--that still defines him. I first read The Hours several years ago, shortly after it earned so much acclaim for winning the Pulitzer, and I saw the movie version when it appeared a couple years later. I admired both, but hadn't returned to either after my initial experiences of them. Indeed, last week as I prepared to teach The Hours in my Novel Writing Workshop, I realized exactly how much I had forgotten about the book, and how much about it I missed the first time around.
If The Hours does indeed end up defining Michael Cunningham's career--and realize that he's written several other valuable books (including A Home at the End of the World, which was also turned into a movie)--he could do far worse. There are many different ways to enjoy and analyze The Hours: its brilliant triple reiteration of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; its economic but stunningly poetic language; its introduction--to a mostly straight reading audience--to the many and various faces of gay and lesbian life in late twentieth century America; its expansive humanism; its exposition of how enforced social and family roles finally can deform and even defeat a person; its implicit argument that mental illnesses we think of as being so au courant have actually been with us for quite some time. Yes, it's all that, in a mere 60,000 words.
But it's also a tour de force of historical fiction. In his three part story, Cunningham takes up the unique challege of trying to be contemporary and historical in the same work and having both parts (or in his case, three) feel equally immediate and real to the reader. Unquestionably, he succeeds. He captures London suburban life of 1923, Los Angeles suburban life of 1949, and Manhattan urban life of the late 1990s with equal veracity. Given that Cunningham himself was not born until 1952, the former two strands of the novel clearly count as historical fiction (even knowing he was raised in California). And he evokes those two eras with ferocious clarity. It seems to me that the clarity is rooted in two sources: 1) an attention to objects, and 2) a refined understanding of social milleau. (Arguably, these are exactly the two qualities one finds most often in Woolf's fiction, be it Mrs. Dalloway or some other volume.) Cunningham does not spend sentence after sentence or paragraph after paragraph detailing his settings. A lot of that is implied. However, in both the Richmond and LA sections he extends specific narrative attention to certain household items that go a long way to reinforcing the time period. In the Richmond, there is the tapestry handbag carried by the "suspicious old wife"on Mt. Ararat Road, the China tea and sugared ginger that Virginia is so intent on serving to her sister that she makes her servant Nelly take the train to London for it--even while Nelly is trying to put together a luncheon! There is the twine with which Marjorie wraps the latest products of Leonard's press. In L.A., Cunningham evokes the shiny new post-war landscape Laura and Dan Brown exist in with details like the "smart" green face of the clock in Laura's bedroom, the aluminum cup measure and filmy white curtains in Laura's kitchen, the "halo" of her neighbor's bright blonde-brown hair. And later, when Laura escapes to the Normandy hotel, we are directed to the "tall, angular chrome letters" forming the hotel's name and, inside, the "horizontal line of brilliant red numerals" above the elevator door. Most of all, Cunningham focuses narrative attention on the cake Laura struggles to make (from scratch) for her husband. As it turns out, it was cagy for Cunningham to set the L.A. scenes in 1949. In that year, Betty Crocker had only just begun widespread marketing of its cake mixes; and Duncan Hines cake mixes hadn't even been invented. Thus Laura's insistence that she must either make a cake for Dan or "declare [herself] hopeless" and order one from a bakery. (And she refuses to make such a damning admission.) There is no third option. Unlike Virginia Woolf and Clarissa Dalloway, Laura Brown has no servant.
This brings us to Cunningham's other point of attention: the social climates of competing eras. Both through Virginia Woolf's (that is, Virginia Woolf the character in The Hours) memories and the details from Mrs. Dalloway that Cunningham passes on, we are able to visualize what London of the 1920s means to Woolf and how comparatively isolated she feels in Richmond. It is as if London is light to her and Richmond gloom. And this has as much to do with whom she can see and visit, what she can do, as it does for physical particularities. She feels she has been expelled from a milleau she adored and is only barely surviving at the bottom of another. Similarly, Laura Brown shrewdly sees exactly how and why she fits into the social strata of her shiny L.A. suburb. (In L.A. there is almost nothing but light, but it becomes an oppressive light to Laura, who constantly seeks out interiors, and solitude and, in some cases, literal dimness.) Laura's social esteem has nothing to do with herself but comes from the fact that she has one child and is pregnant with another, and she has a good-natured, succesful husband who is a veteran of a recently concluded, heroic conflict. Her neighbor Kitty is prettier and used to be far more popular, yet the fact that she is still childless after several years of marriage and that her husband appears to be physically falling apart, has knocked Kitty below Laura on the social scale. This is an irony that Laura appreciates and exploits but also finds maddening. Clearly, she wishes both she and Killy could be defined by standards that have nothing to do with who they are married to and how many children they have. In both the Richmond and L.A. sections, therefore, Cunningham evokes historical eras by evoking--with an almost impossibly fine-tuned ear--his character's social positions and social dilemmas. It's never abstract; it's never wordily written; and it's always specifically focused on character; and yet it reveals so much about the history behind his historical fictions. Just another example of an obvious lesson: for historical fiction to breathe right, it can't be fundamentally about history but about the characters living inside the history.
Publication note: Because at times I've written on this blog about long distance running and its connection to novel writing, I thought I should pass on a little publication news. A collage-style essay I wrote about marathon running has been accepted for publication by 1966, a journal of "research-driven creative nonfiction." The essay evokes the history of marathon running, a couple deaths that occurred in marathon races I have run and one that occured in an Olympic qualifying event, as well as my own particular struggles when I trained for and ran my first marathon. As someone who typically publishes fiction rather than nonfiction, I'll be excited to see this rather personal essay in print. I'll let you know when it appears.