Shadow play

In tale about love and art, four characters’ entwined lives are reflected in a stage drama about a terrorist attack

(Ellen Lupton)
By William H. Pritchard
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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Sue Miller’s ninth novel is also her most intricately plotted one. Her early “Family Pictures,’’ while full of characters and narrative shifts, had nothing like the controlled focus on four principals that informs the new book. They are brought together, some previously known to one another, by a performance of a two-act play, “The Lake Shore Limited,’’ at a small theater in Boston’s South End. In the play, a train has been blown up in a terrorist attack at Chicago’s Union Station. Gabriel, whose wife, Elizabeth, was on the train and with whom he is no longer in love, receives the news that some of the passengers are dead: He waits, in agitation, for further news. In real life Rafe, the actor playing Gabriel, is married to a woman mortally ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease; while the play’s author, Wilhelmina “Billy” Gertz, has lost a lover — whom she was on the verge of breaking up with — in the 9/11 disaster. When Rafe has a one-night stand with Billy, the claims of art and life are forcefully complicated.

A formidable difficulty in making a play central to a novel is imagining a plausible action conveyed without prolixity. Miller’s decision to make Billy’s play a short one was shrewd, as was her decision to concentrate on its final moment. In it, the wife survives the attack and returns home, announcing herself with the question “Gabriel?”, which elicits from him the final word in the play: “Elizabeth.” The question of how to say this, what combination of feelings should sound in the voice, is key, and as usual Miller keeps her head, avoiding the reductive and the banal. Philosopher William James once memorably wrote that life makes rival demands on us — a desire for simplicity and a concomitant one for clarity. Miller chooses the latter, which involves noticing and respecting life’s details, even as they refuse to quite fit together.

To this end she has paid close attention to the novel’s architecture (one of the main characters, Sam, is an architect) by devoting the bulk of it to four narratives: first, that of Leslie, who organizes the Boston play-going and is eldest sister to Gus, the 9/11 victim; then Rafe’s, featuring the back story of his wife’s illness; then Billy’s, the longest of the narratives; and finally the tale of Sam, who decides he is serious about Billy after meeting her and seeing the play. In the final 40 or so pages, each narrator comes back briefly in the same order to participate in the novel’s resolution. There is a satisfying variety and uncertainty in this sequence, as often we hear something from one character that we’ve already heard from another one, but now sounding different. By comparison, Miller’s last novel, “The Senator’s Wife,’’ alternated only two voices, so the range was somewhat less.

“The Lake Shore Limited’’ is craftily plotted, too good for a reviewer to give much of it away. Also, as with her previous novels, Miller resists allowing her characters the resources of eloquence; nor does she — in Henry James’s words — “go behind” them to offer us deeper truths about their behavior. This makes it mainly unproductive to look for some especially quotable passage that rises out of the book, acting as a relevant gloss on it. The novel’s prose is typically understated and even-handed, as when Billy wonders what to do about Sam’s invitation to see her again: “He came from Leslie, and Leslie was the last person she wanted closer in her life. . . . But she was drawn to Sam, as she hadn’t been to anyone in a long time. As she had chosen not to be in a long time.” Matthew Arnold said about Wordsworth’s poetry that it had no “style,” not to dispraise it but to distinguish him from other poets. Like her predecessor, Miller seeks and impressively succeeds in finding what Wordsworth called “a plainer and more emphatic language” to express “essential passions of the heart.” Her art is to find those passions and that language in the streets and parks of the Boston she knows and writes about so well.

The plainer, more emphatic language extends to the sexual encounter between Billy and Rafe. Miller has not been recognized enough for her willingness to include the minute particulars of sexual relations, and she does so convincingly here. Equally convincing, in a comically poignant way, is Billy’s large dog, Reuben, given to her by Gus in an attempt to keep their romance alive. Out of such particulars, sometimes humorous, emerges unobtrusively the book’s moral issue about the propriety or necessity of “using” one’s own and others’ experience for what might be seen as selfish purposes. When Rafe looks in the mirror he sees “Gabriel,” “the man he’s made, and made his own, the man whose grief drinks from his own grief, whose joy eats his joy, but whom he uses, over and over, to escape his grief and joy.” The reflection, pitched at a notably higher key than to be heard elsewhere in the novel, concludes with words that have their application to the novelist as well as her creations who strive, with grief and joy, “to make them commodity, currency. For better or worse — he doesn’t know — to make them art.”

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is ”On Poets and Poetry.”

By Sue Miller
Knopf, 270 pp., $25.95