Sunday, March 16, 2014

We ("The Wives of Los Alamos" by TaraShea Nesbit)

At some point in the of development of their skill, a writer will want to experiment. They'll read other writers who've successfully challenged the tropes and structures of literature--Vonnegut, Grudin, Calvino, Oates--and want to do the same, and at some level this is understandable. For all the freedom and opportunity provided by literature, there are also borders:  stories are told in chapters, the audience is never addressed, dialogue is accompanied by verbs and adverbs to signify the speaker and their state of mind, and so on. Writing is, for lack of a better analogy, a prison with no walls--a democracy of one constrained paradoxically by history and tradition. For most writers, open defiance is an understandable--if short-lived--impulse that often produces little publishable material and a large sense of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, the products of these rebellious little diversions find their way to print.

TaraShea Nesbit's The Wives of Los Alamos is told entirely in first person plural and by the titular figures--dozens, then hundreds, of women whose husbands have been relocated to New Mexico to help develop the atomic bomb. This itself is not unusual--quite a few books have been written from a collective point-of-view, the most famous being Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides--but it's also a difficult mode in which to tell a story, as it requires consistency. The reason Eugenides' first-person-plural novel works is because all of his narrators share the same memories:  their infatuation with the same five girls gives way to horror as each girl commits suicide for no discernible reason. By retelling the story with more than one narrator, Eugenides builds a sense of inevitability and complicity beneath the events, like bystanders watching the injured crawl away from a traffic accident without helping:  the boys observe but don't act--cannot act--as though each has passed off responsibility to the next, over and over again.

Nesbit's narrators, while sharing the same basic experiences--the loneliness of the desert, the loss of family life, the growing distance between spouses and neighbors--are also different, pitting themselves against one another as they attempt to reconcile the  mundanity of their lives with the need to feel important and do important things. (At one point, the collective women talk of pregnancy as the only true method for getting a better house.) Nesbit's narrators write about neighbors being exiled from house parties, gossip about bed-jumping and thievery, despondency over what they've each given up. And because Nesbit wants to strike this balance throughout her book--individual lives and shared experiences--she is forced to write all 230 pages as a compromise that justifies neither side and makes for a book that is both dull and without a clear destination.

Take, for example, the passage--chosen randomly--about how their husbands' new assignments have affected their marriages:  "Sometimes our husbands returned from the Tech Area and said they could not stand it anymore. We did not know if it was us or here or their work, but we were concerned it was us. We could not talk to our best friends about this suspicion, because they were back in Idaho, or in New York. A couple of us said, I can't take this, either, and actually left. We returned to our mothers. We became Nevadans and moved to Reno for a quick divorce. And our husbands moved into the singles dorms and were unofficially, or officially, separated." The occurrence of "or" in this one passage--four notations of difference, of other possibilities and realities--is minor compared to the volume of conjunctions that haunt every chapter. From one chapter to the next, this balance--between the singular and the all--threatens to shake Nesbit's entire story apart.

In a way, the plural narrators are an intelligent, intuitive idea for this subject. Writing of an era when women were relegated to the duties of a mother and housewife and little more, the protagonists serving together adds to the sense of one war being fought alongside another--the soldiers of the United States and the soldiers of feminism, each fighting against dehumanization and tyranny, and the latter looking for a way to assert their own individuality, make their own choices, and be themselves, even--and especially--when conscripted into a faraway domestic-military bureaucracy that prohibits all three. Both are wars for freedom, though one is waged on a global scale while the other is waged quietly in millions of living rooms. And in that sense, yes, Nesbit's gamble makes sense. But attempting to tell the story of strong, independent women by lumping them all together as one voice--except when there is tragedy, gossip, backstabbing, and other sordid events--seems somehow counterproductive, maybe even paradoxical, and it hurts any point Nesbit may be trying to make. Her book is the story of women, pure and simple, but because of a silly narrative choice, The Wives of Los Alamos becomes a book with hundreds of hearts but no soul.