The nominations for the 2004 fiction National Book Award were much criticized for the obscurity of the authors (two first-novel writers) and lack of plot, though the winning one, The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck was the exception in that regard. Because I not only admired but enjoyed The News From Paraguay, I picked up Tuck’s first novel, Interviewing Matisse: Or, The Woman Who Died Standing Up, in New York to read flying home.
I have to say that I would not have persevered reading through it had I been home.. or had another book in reach from my window seat. I had finished the other book I had within reach and didn’t want to try to get to the aisle to take out something else, since my neighbor had his tray table blocking the way.
The novel was not quite as annoying to me as its main rambling narrator. I could tell myself that Molly, who is not a photographer but someone who photocopies objects and who visited Henri Matisse late in his life, is being satirized. From Connecticut, Molly calls her friend Lily in Manhattan at 1 AM with the news that their friend Inez was found by a dry-cleaning delivery boy or man dead in her underwear and galoshes dead and still standing. Eventually, Lily and the reader learn that the door was open and that the dry-cleaning deliverer initially mistook her for a life-size sculpture.
Lily periodically comments on the lateness of the hour and comes across as less scatter-brained than Molly and expresses concerns about the long distance charges Molly is running up. Molly says that her former husband pays the phone bill, and Molly cares not at all about the excessive length of the conversation that is close to being a monologue.
One of Molly’s obnoxious verbal ticks is prefacing some trivial recollection with “I’ll never forget.” Alas, Lily shares this stock phrase. There is much that these two women claim to remember clearly, though both seem unable to tell one story without being distracted by other memories or comments on people one or the other of them knew.
I believe that memories are mixed up with other memories, both in unreliability and in haphazard chronology. I don’t think that the streams of consciousness in canonical modernist novels by James Joyce or Virginia Wolf even approximate how minds work in real time, but don’t balk at their artificiality.
In contrast, I don’t think that anyone’s memories are quite as chaotically mixes up as Molly’s. At least in my experience, most people are able to tell something more straightforwardly than any of Molly’s self-interrupted narratives. Yes, one thing reminds us of another and we may veer off and fail to finish what we started to tell someone. What strikes me as especially implausible in Interviewing Matisse is that the scatterbrained Molly generally returns to stories she started to tell in what seem measured dollops.
There are many, many matters that are not narratively resolved, including the cause of Inez’s death. William James wrote of “the blooming, buzzing confusion,” but he was arguing that adult minds are not “blooming, buzzing confusion.”
In her biography of Italian writer Elsa Morante, A Woman of Rome, Tuck quoted Morante to the effect that “it does not matter how the facts occur in life; it matters how they are told.” Molly surely has a feeble grasp of what happened in her own life or anyone else’s, and what she has to tell – other than the sensational news about Inez being found dead and standing up, news imparted in the very first sentence of the conversation, is not very interesting. This includes her memories of an afternoon at the wheelchair-bound Matisse’s villa. Through the last half of the novel, in addition to babbling to Lily, Molly is searching a mess of papers for the text of the titular interview.
Of course, she finds it close to the end of the novel and of the phone call. Somewhat surprisingly, she recognizes its banality. Lily, who saves nothing, having little room in her Manhattan apartment, urges Molly not to throw out the interview Molly eventually finds. Lily opines that it is interesting to know that Matisse said “You can’t recreate the past, you can only invent it.” But Molly did not read this in her long-ago interview transcript. Indeed, she rhetorically asked “Who was it who said…” Moreover, would Matisse have used “recreate” rather than “remember”? That already spoils the contrast…, which Tuck undoubtedly knows.
Perhaps it matters whether Molly initially said that Inez was propped up like a mop rather than a broom. At the end Lily asks, “What was it you said, Molly, a mop?” Molly says that she said “like a broom.” Is this there to undercut the reader’s belief that Molly is an unreliable narrator? (the reader can turn back to the first page and find that Molly is right that she said “like a broom”).
I had to ask myself if my lack of interest in most of what one seemingly scatterbrained woman says to another drowsy one is sex-linked or outright sexist. Would I enjoy the novel more if the topics and perceptions were male? If the focus was on actions rather than relationships? I cleared myself of the charge: I’m relatively certain that I would be as annoyed by the chaos of a male narrator bouncing back and forth among male concerns as I was by Molly abetted by Lily herein. There are recollections about Faulkner and Hemingway and Matisse and behavior of males in Molly’s flow, and “I’ll always remember” would grate as much from a male as from a female narrator. That is, I don’t think that my rejection of the novel is because it is “chick lit,” but because I don’t accept the stream of verbiage as plausible… or interesting, whether the milieu and pretentious artiste (Molly) are being satirized or presented. I know that the book is fiction, but why create Molly and a stream of consciousness externalized (from thought as in Joyce and Faulkner and Wolf) into supposed conversation? I don’t care about the characters or the consciousness as (re)presented in this 1991 novel.