Uncomfortable Places

J.S. DeYoung reviews Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood.
And Other Stories, £8.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Read through a few interviews with Christine Schutt and at one point or another, in one way or another, she will say that when it comes to writing, she goes to “uncomfortable places.” Her explorations of ‘uncomfortable places’ aren’t necessarily to exotic locales, but into the hearts of people who belong to a privileged class yet cannot escape the toxicity of their unnerving desires, their impossible demands, their unreliable observations. “In all of their iterations,” Schutt has said, “the privileged… are a source of wonder and grief.” And she attends carefully to this fruitful garden of characters, wary not to stake her narratives on slight beefs. The stories in her latest collection, Pure Hollywood, are inhabited mostly by upper middle-class women in legitimate crisis, and Schutt showcases the turmoil experienced by these women in some of the most innovative modern prose out there.

The author of three novels and two other short story collections, Schutt is known for the intensity of her fiction and the unique quality of her sentences. As a student of the inestimable Gordon Lish, Schutt’s early works are marked by her use of his ideas of ‘the swerve’ and ‘consecution.’ In explaining these techniques to The Believer, she has said that “[e]ach sentence is extruded from the previous sentence. … Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them. … Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitable be used in composing the next sentence. … The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before.” Here’s an example of how this approach to writing looks on the page; it comes from Schutt’s first collection of short stories, Nightwork (1996):

She brought him what she had promised, and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, ‘I like your skin,’ when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottle white of his arms and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms. Long hair along his arms it was, hair bleached from sun and water — sun off the lake, and all that time he spent in water, summer to summer abrading the wild dry hair on his head, turning the ends of his hair, which was also red, and deeply so, quite white.

Schutt followed Nightwork with a novel, Florida(2003), a largely autobiographical tale about a young woman’s coming-of-age. Her other books include All Souls (2009), a novel structured on a school year at an elite prep school, and another story collection, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (2005). In her most recent work, she has steered away from ‘Lish-ian’ techniques somewhat, and her narratives are less claustrophobic. Of this new direction in her style, Schutt has said: “[N]ow my style is getting simpler and simpler. With what I’m working on now, I have this idea that I would like it as absolutely clean and fast as it can be…” Her most recent novel, Prosperous Friends (2012), is certainly more reader-friendly than her earlier ones, and Pure Hollywood is also a taut, speedy read — fun at times, and, at others, so poignant you hardly want to speak of it.

Although I take Schutt’s remarks metaphorically when she says her stories go to ‘uncomfortable places’, setting often becomes a literal place of discomfort in Pure Hollywood. Consider, for example, the collection’s title story, a compressed novella about a young widow named Mimi and a famous house. Fires in the Hollywood hills are gobbling up homes, leaving behind a “matchstick aftermath” in “thready smoke”, but the famous Piro house — “a modern house shaped like slung plates, no corners, different heights” — remains intact. Living in this sanctuary, a house that won’t burn because its gardener wets it down daily, is like living in a work of art, “bereft of life”.

Mimi is a celebrity’s child, ill-equipped for much more than being kept. As a child, her famous mother committed suicide, which forced Mimi to live with her more celebrated father, Jack Deminthe. Mimi stays with her father until she marries Arnie Fine, a Don Rickles-type comic, much older than she is. Arnie, a hard-living man, dies suddenly in the pool of the famous house. While his grown children squabble over possessions, Mimi sets out on her own journey to find the house in which her mother committed suicide. She’ll find something resembling it — but, as she confesses to her brother, “I can go only so close to what happened.” Here we have a literal narrowing of space from Hollywood, to mansion, to desert domicile, where Mimi discovers a new start and fresh ghosts.

These ‘uncomfortable places’ are often shaped by irony, such as in ‘The Hedges’, which is about an arrogant young couple who bring a sick toddler to an exclusive resort where there are no other children. With the family out of place and unwelcome, it’s here that the mother’s negligence turns tragic. ‘Species of Special Concern’ is set overlooking a wooded landscape, but the situation and the awkward tit-for-tat exchange between the men in this idyllic space is heartbreaking. And in ‘A Happy Rural Seat of Various View: Lucinda’s Garden’, a young husband and wife, “untested” and “newly everything”, are hired to housesit, but as they tend the famous garden of their new retreat, the wife suddenly vanishes.

Houses and gardens, young parents and younger couples, older women and their adult children: the stories in Pure Hollywood tap a reliable vein of drama, and indeed there is something positively nineteenth century about some of the situations that Schutt’s characters run through. But what makes Schutt’s stories special is her scene-wedded prose. Popping like little sweet wonders on every page of her work is the relentless novelty of her sentences. In her interview with David Winters for The Quarterly Conversation, she says, “banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing”. Pure Hollywood repeatedly offers evidence of how much fun she finds it.

Indeed, through their compression and musicality, the stories in Pure Hollywood readily wish to be read aloud. Take this sentence from ‘Oh, the Obvious’, a story about two grouchy women riding horses: “Arden’s horse started to lope then lapsed into a rough trot stopped at the earthy rump of the dentist’s enormous horse.” In this comma-less gem, there’s a lazy cavalcade of oh-sounds along with a rhythmic cantor of words all the way up to its hiccupy halt. Or take this one: “White chips of birds passed fast overhead, and the water was bright; they looked too long at its ceaseless signal and at noon they zombied to it.” Woefully out context, I know, this sentence demonstrates again Schutt’s sense of sound in her writing. The opening has six rapid-fire words mirroring the speed of those birds and then the whole thing ends with a new verb for walking, “zombie”, to describe the couple’s descent to the ocean. It wouldn’t be wrong to say Schutt is heavily influenced by poetry in general, and Emily Dickinson in particular.

Not all of her sentences are composites of sound and sense, however. In ‘Where You Live? When You Need Me?’ — a story about a mysterious nanny, and one of the best in the collection — we get this snappy and balanced sentence: “She wasn’t a bargain, but she was worth every penny.” And, often, Schutt saves some of her freshest descriptions for her characters. Here’s how we meet Mimi’s father in ‘Pure Hollywood’: “Jack Deminthe, at seventy, masseused and smooth as a skinned almond, orderly and fit, no swollen or discolored parts about him…” Here’s the vanished wife from ‘A Happy Rural Seat’: “A girl, a pretty speck, a part of summer and passing through it.” Here’s a remarkable little passage from ‘The Duchess of Albany’: ‘But Owen, his voice, the sound of him in another room. Off-key hummer, cracking nuts over the paper, singing or whistling a patter song. A Gilbert and Sullivan tune twiddled for days: “The lady novelist… she surely won’t be missed.” Whatever he thought to play or heard was his favorite G and S. “I’ve got a little list… she surely won’t be missed.”’ Love that unrestrained hiss with ‘missed’, ‘list’, and ‘G and S’.

Such thrilling and unexpected manoeuvres in language help Schutt build tension in her work. With syntax, word choice, and narrative flow mutually reinforcing each other, Schutt is released from the workman-like construction of plot. Instead, at times, she offers only the echoes of conflict, or fragments of it. ‘The Duchess of Albany’ is a good example of her restraint. In this story, a mother is resisting her twin daughters’ urgings to sell the family home after their stepfather’s death. Schutt serves up just snippets of the main conflict by way of a daughter’s whining “Mother!” and the occasional full sentence — “Don’t talk of moving just yet, please” — but otherwise the story is consumed by sub-plot patterns: the mother’s drinking, her care of a beloved garden, the composition of a sestina, and yet, of course, the pace of language carries you right along.

All of Schutt’s books are worth reading, but Pure Hollywood, full of action and extravagant with auditory riches, might make for a compelling entry point. The effect of these sound-centric stories touches the head and the heart (and sometimes the groin!) in the most tender ways. They’re not always easy to endure — “I don’t write jolly stories”, Schutt has proudly admitted — but the experience of Pure Hollywood is all the more intense for it. So much teeters here, in Schutt’s fiction, toward collapse or rescue, and often her characters are abandoned, often their worlds do fall apart. But the stories in which these things happen are among her most haunting, and they remind us of why we’d want to step into her world in the first place: to explore, in her company, ‘uncomfortable places’, and to be changed by the time we spend in them.

About J.S. DeYoung

J.S. DeYoung is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and he is the author of Waiting for the Miracle, forthcoming from The Cupboard Pamphlet in 2020. His reviews have appeared in a range of venues including Music and Literature, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. Other work can be found at jasondeyoung.com and he also tweets @J_DeYoung.