Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Postmodern Postmistress

Metafiction for the Masses

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake.  Berkeley Books, 2010, 361 pages.

Sarah Blake sets her bestseller-début novel, The Postmistress, in Massachusetts and London of autumn 1940 to summer 1941. More specifically, for this purports to be, if not a war novel, then a pre-World War II story from the American point of view, the action takes place in Franklin, a fictitious coastal town where one atypical member of Civilian Defense faithfully keeps watch for German U-boats, and in London’s East End, where two members of the cast of ‘Postmistress’ meet and discourse in a funk hole, or underground refuge from Germany’s blitz-bombing of Britain, especially London (71 times), and especially London’s East End.

Granted that The Postmistress occasioned her début as a writer of New York Times bestsellers, Sarah Blake is no literary debutante. A former teacher of college English in Colorado and New York, Blake published her first novel, Grange House, in 2001. Grange House, a coming-of-age tale set in Maine of the 1890s, takes its seventeen year-old heroine, Maisie, from innocence to experience in the course of one harrowing summer, making What Maisie Learned a subtitle more befitting than What Maisie Knew, though in fact there is no subtitle. Grange House is a plausible name for an elegant nineteenth century Maine hotel, perhaps only coincidentally echoing “the Grange,” relatively elegant locale of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. For in addition to her experience as a teacher and writer, Blake holds a Ph.D. in English literature, and as she demonstrates in the author interview that follows the novel, Blake has reflected deeply on questions of structure and style, and on the concepts of historical truth and fictional veracity. A scholar of Victorian literature, Blake expresses a partiality for intricate storylines mirroring characters’ passions and desires – plots like those fashioned by the Brontës (no mention, in the interview, of Jane Austen). Blake’s preference for romance story architecture prompts her readers to consider the often odd and incompletely cohesive style of The Postmistress, then, in light of its literary forebears.

Historical Romance?  Historical Fiction?

But for the seriousness of its intent, Blake’s novel, with its two storylines involving romantic love, might best be described as historical romance. The romances of Emma and Will, Iris and Harry, are counterbalanced, however, by the Frankie storyline. Frankie’s story, which takes up a good portion of the novel, is both too dry and detached, when Frankie assumes her work-a-day persona, and too deeply tragic, when Frankie recounts the stories of escaping Jewish refugees, to be characterized as romance.

Is Sarah Blake’s novel best described, then, as historical fiction? The Postmistress is certainly well researched, and the historically accurate character of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow adds a note of authenticity. The titular character, Iris, seems a woman of the era in all but her title (had a New England woman of the 1890s served as postmaster, she would still be called  “the postmaster”).

So if this is historical fiction, what are the novel’s antecedents? Since The Postmistress is a novel about delivering messages and news in wartime, one thinks immediately of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. Set in California’s Central Valley during the First World War, Saroyan’s novel features a messenger – not a spinster named for the Greek goddess of messages, but a twelve year-old boy named Homer who delivers messages on a bike. Nor is Saroyan’s medium the tantalizingly sealed personal letter of Blake’s New England, but rather the read-aloud telegram. Evidently, the dilemmas and discomforts of the message-bearer remained the same from one war to the next. In The Postmistress, these dilemmas and discomforts encompass the professional activities of the novel’s main character, reporter Frankie Bard. Working for CBS under the supervision of Edward R. Murrow, Frankie travels through France, using a Dictaphone-like recording device to collect the witness-bearing voices of European Jews fleeing the Germans.

Another literary antecedent for writing about war is, of course, Hemingway, whose influence on our thinking about war and happenstance registers with Frankie: “We think we know the end of the story…We think we know because…we’ve read Hemingway…and Martha Gelhorn…”  (pp. 182-3) What having read Hemingway means to Frankie is that a chance meeting in war-torn London between a keen young man and an attractive woman should be the beginning of a love plot; instead it’s the prequel to a pointless death.

Yet for all its accuracy, verisimilitude, and well-researched solidity, The Postmistress reads oddly as historical fiction (and perhaps even more oddly as historical romance). The Postmistress doesn’t  behave like historical fiction because, among the novel’s early twentieth century characters, postmodern philosophical and literary preoccupations are rife, as is a penchant for chatting about metafiction.

A Novel of Ideas

Where Blake’s novel baffles as historical fiction, it is surprisingly ingenuous as a novel of ideas. Nor are the author’s discourses on metafiction as improbable as one might expect, when they occur in the mouths of certain characters. Frankie Bard, the character who is likely closest to the author in values and intentions, is also the character who most often articulates her concerns about the nature of ‘the story,’ thus exposing the scaffolding of the larger story in which she operates as a character. Frankie’s preoccupation with the art of storytelling is motivated by her professional role, and it is a clever move on the part of the author to put most of the novel’s references to ‘the story’ in Frankie’s mouth. As a reporter, Frankie has a story to get out (as does the author of the novel). Thinking about how best to find and tell a story is an integral part of Frankie’s profession. Similarly plausible are Will’s concern, and at a later point, Emma’s, about what happened to the boy described in one of Frankie’s London broadcasts. The desire to know the fate of the child beyond the end of the reporter’s story is believable coming from two people who are sensitive to human suffering.

The subordination of the novel’s plot, however, is apparent in the way a random event is made to disrupt the storyline. That disruption leads to an uncomfortable moment of looking at the story from the outside in. Disruption of the story's direction leads to awareness on the part of the reader that the novel is an artifice. Thus when Will abruptly dies in a freak accident, the reader is likely to protest, along with Frankie’s colleague Max: “Hell…where's the story?” (p. 183) This unwelcome glimpse of the malfunctioning of fiction’s machinery doesn’t feel like the shared moment in which reader and writer enjoy a sophisticated literary understanding, as is optimally the case with metafictional revelations. Instead, the reader, robbed of a satisfying absorption in the story of Emma, Will, and Frankie, is made aware of the fictional nature of The Postmistress precisely because of an unexpected twist in the author’s storytelling.  

Indeed, the author of The Postmistress sacrifices two dynamic characters to make a rhetorical point, foregrounding theoretical aspects of storytelling. The sacrifice of Will takes place at a point when his story is one of the key narratives of the novel. Witnessing his death, Frankie instantly translates its significance: “every story – love or war – is about looking left when we should have been looking right.” (p. 183) When Will’s accident takes place, his story, having become foreshortened, is framed by the story of Frankie as bearer of bad news: to Emma, and to the village of Franklin.

Because Will’s accident is so random, his death is cruel. More cruel still is the death of Thomas, whose story on Frankies’s recording of refugee voices is one of unanticipated, almost miraculous escape. For the reader who has just taken in Thomas’s escape story, in which door after door is left open for him, allowing him to walk out of the police station to freedom, it is shocking and appalling to learn that Thomas is later shot. That his escape to freedom was only a reprieve. Listening to his recorded story, Frankie thinks, “Thomas was dead. But here was his voice. Here he was alive.” (p. 218) That the author rather quickly incorporates Thomas’s story into an abstract schema about storytelling blunts its irony, if not its pathos.

The business of metafiction can quickly become metaphysical. Contemplating the disconnect between Thomas’s recorded story and the contrary shape of the story that frames it –– Frankie’s witnessing of his murder –– the reporter responds to the discrepancy by imagining God’s reaction. God’s imagined dissatisfaction with the world’s disorder resembles Max’s impatience with Frankie’s reporting, which in turn reflects the reader’s dismay at the truncated Will plot, and at the plot twist that changes the end of Thomas’s story. In the case of Thomas's story, too, the reader might well exclaim, along with God and Max, “Hell…where's the story?” Frankie wonders about God’s confirmation of error when Thomas is shot: “Surely God ought to look down and see that a part of the story had been separated from the other…How could He stand these gaps?” (p. 218)

Only a Novel

In her famous defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen replies to the common charge that a designated work of fiction is “only a novel.” Austen concurs that a novel is:

“…only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” 
(Northanger Abbey, Volume 1, Chapter 5)

The best-chosen language, whether of a comedy of manners, a tragic tale, or something in between, has always included description and metaphor. In The Postmistress, however, it is as though the author of the novel had taken to heart advice given to her character, Frankie, about how best to report a story. Frankie’s colleague Max advises her, “You told a story by letting the small things speak.” And he warns:

“The minute you looked away – into description, into metaphor of any kind – the thing collapsed, silently and completely, before you.” (p. 312)

Sarah Blake’s style in The Postmistress resembles reportage. In fact, with one important exception, there are few thematic metaphors in the novel. That exception is the theme of the watcher: perhaps Iris watching over the townspeople at the post office, perhaps Harry at his watch in the tower, perhaps the small town community watching over Emma, perhaps God. Other figurative language is thinly developed or overblown. Attempts early in the narrative to describe the inner worlds of Emma and Iris in terms of architectural spaces like corridors and hallways are abruptly abandoned. Leaving aside some Harlequin romance imagery, there is little symbolic language overall in The Postmistress, with the possible exception of the names of certain characters: Iris, Will, Frankie Bard. Following her ruminations on Max’s advice on reporting, Frankie makes an odd segue from imagining herself as an archer, to: “An archer?” Frankie sniffed. “She was a liar.” (p. 312) Frankie’s inability here to think metaphorically, like the author’s stylistic decision to cull figurative language, exposes a deficiency in The Postmistress as literature, suggesting that if The Postmistress doesn’t meet Austen’s standard for the good-to-great novel, it is because of the author's reluctance to use ‘the best-chosen language.’


Unknown said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure I like the idea of sacrificing *two* of the main characters in order to make a rhetorical point... But more pressing a question in my mind is the whole idea/concept of 'metafiction'. Could you expand on your observations on this? It's partly me, I know, as a bear of little brain for this kind of thing, but also I have a feeling there's more that you have to say that many of us would find illuminating, including parallels and comparisons with other authors. For some reason I wonder if you would consider Virginia Wolf a writer where the concept of metafiction would be productive.

Unknown said...

I'm leery of anyone who self-describes as a bear of little brain, but here goes...Virginia Woolf is considered, in keeping with the time in which she wrote, to be Modern rather than Postmodern. Her novels are innovative, to be sure, but stream-of-consciousness still engages the reader, providing for absorption in the story. Mrs. Dalloway does not ponder the nature of fiction, unlike the 'Postmistress' characters whose dialogues about storytelling are likely to make us readers stop and think, "Oh, I'm reading a story." This experience has rightly been compared to what happens to Brecht's audience when his actors do the Verfremdungseffekt (sp.) thing – usually holding up a sign pointing out that this is a play. Perhaps others can find instances of metafiction in V. Woolf – perhaps in her less well-known novels.