Sunday, February 16, 2014

Visitors ("Starting Over" by Elizabeth Spencer)

With the exception of "Christmas Longings," the shortest story featured in Mary Spencer's newest collection--her first in over a decade--all of Spencer's fiction features a visit of some sort. Most of these are unplanned, though this is not where the tension is derived. Instead, the conflicts--quiet, subtle, like disturbances beneath the calm surface of a lake--arrive after the fact, as those on the outskirts of the events must come to terms with the aftermath. There is the mother whose son from another marriage arrives and is promptly victimized by his half-brothers and grandfather, all of whom threaten him and destroy his possessions; kept far from the aftermath--in one scene, she is literally shut out of the room where her new husband interrogates his children--she must decide whether to stay or go. There is the wife whose dinner-party neighbors become virtual shut-ins, their poor son left to wander up and down the street, until they vanish for reasons left unexplained; the end of the story finds her peering into the neighbors' old window, knowing she'll find nothing but looking anyway, her expectations unclear. And there is the father who, curious about his daughter's newfound interest in religion, follows her to singing practice at church and sits, noticed but unidentified, in the pews, where he can weep to himself…about what, we're never told, but the pains on him--as a visitor to this place, to the beauty of this music--are clear.

In each case, Spencer's characters seem to exist on their own--lonely, distracted, their minds racing to keep up with events unfolding around them, unfolding without them--to the point where some of them become near pitiable. The wife who worries over her withdrawn neighbors is told by her husband to leave them be; even after she spies on the neighbor's fire-and-brimstone church, where she witnesses what might be the abuse of children, her husband admonishes her, and she is left admitting that maybe she imagined the whole thing. The mother of the bullied son decides to stay with her husband and their children, even after it becomes clear what they have done to their step-brother, because she thinks of her husband as honest and good--a moral compromise struck less for love, it seems, than for the safety of what she knows in the face of the great unknown beyond her front door. And the father, weeping in the back of the church, is unable to talk with his daughter about why her new interests move him so, even as his wife dismisses everything religious as unworthy of their attention.

There are homes in Spencer's stories--large, warm places where people eat and make love and grow--but they are places where these characters live like ghosts, unable to find a well-lit corner to claim as their own. They do not understand their roles, the decisions they have made, what they have become; they move up and down their streets like visitors themselves rather than as men and women who belong, who are stakeholders in the community, who know the streets and fence-lines like the veins in their own hands. Each searches for some purpose other than the ones to which they have been assigned by fate:  a housewife looks toward the end of her driveway and wonders; another peers into the window of an empty house and imagines; a third listens to his daughter's choir sings and becomes a man unlike himself, ready to change but unsure how. These people--Spencer's people--are us in every sense of creation, and in reading about them we read about ourselves:  visitors to our own lonely souls.

All of which is what Elizabeth Spencer has been doing for the last 60-odd years:  dusting off the shelves of our houses and showing us where we set ourselves before walking away and forgetting.

Southern by birth, Spencer comes from a literary tradition that is all but gone today. Her prose is sparse and waves off any need for unnecessary details, and in her hands the English language is moldable like a tongue made of clay. Words and phrases grow from the page like strange backwoods flowers, so effervescent and yet so ungainly, and the characters who haunt her stories exist similarly. We stumble upon them as though Spencer's passages were not pages in a book but a series of 200 windows, each of them set before us without comment. We are not voyeurs, but bystanders:  visitors to an art gallery, spectators at a clubhouse game, the neighbors down the block. There is no room for us to comment here, only to observe, and we do so diligently, eyes open and ears waiting the next unsettling rumble from beneath the waters.

At age 92, with almost 70 years of published work behind her, Spencer is one of the last great Southern writers--not just a writer from the South, mind you, but a writer whose work embodies the very attitudes, personalities, and paradoxes of what it's like to live in a place where the time of people moves much slower than the time kept by the world around them. Think Eudora Welty, who died the same year Spencer released her last collection, and at the same age Spencer is now. Think William Gay, another writer stuck in time who suddenly a few years ago, his wonderful but thin output a series of windows all their own--shattered, dirty, mask-like. Think William Faulkner, the granddaddy of them all, dead for decades but swimming in every ink-stain of Southern prose like one of his own characters shuttled down the river of literature. The men and women of Spencer's world are stuck--of their own making, by forces beyond their control--and into this limbo stumble those who live beyond these very pleasures and confinements. Sometimes they are better for their separate lives, sometimes they are worse, but it is not for anyone to know or judge. For in judging them we would be judging ourselves, and the 200 windows into which we peer would suddenly become mirrors staring back at us.