Thursday, April 4, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Prophets of the Ordinary (on Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies) by Douglas Messerli



prophets of the ordinary

Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies in My Sister's Hand in Mine: An Expanded Edition of the Collected Works of Jane Bowles (New York: The Ecco Press, 1978)

The two serious ladies of Jane Bowles' title, are, in many ways, as different as they could be; and, although they know one another slightly, they are not good friends. Bowles presents us with a brief history of Christina Goering, daughter of a wealthy American industrialist. Even as a child Christina was not appealing, most children refusing to play with her because of in the puritanical religious games she demanded along with a bizarre series of punishments, in one case involving being packed in mud before swimming in a small stream.
     Yet, as with almost all Bowles' women, she is strong-minded, opinionated, and feels no regret for speaking forthrightly. She is, in some senses, an absolute monster. Yet, throughout her life, she attracts people to her, or at least they are attracted to her because of her money. Lucy Gamelon, despite having any real connection to Miss Goering, visits her one day, only to move in with her the next day. At a party, Miss Goering meets a sweating, overweight man, Arnold, who soon also moves in with her and Miss Gamelon.
     But hardly has this tale begun, with its completely unexpected results, before Bowles interrupts it to tell another story, about Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet momentarily at the party, but other than that, there seems to be little connection, and one can only wonder at the structural logic of Bowles' fiction.
     For all that, we do, however, sense a link between the two other than the authorial declaration of them both being "serious" ladies. Mrs. Copperfield is far more hesitant in doing new things than is Miss Goering, yet it is she who actually travels, with her husband, to Panama. And once she is ensconced into the run-down hotel in the middle of town to which he has taken her—determined to forgo the expense of the more popular tourist hotel—she appears far more adventuresome than anyone else in the fiction.
      Certainly her first foray into Col√≥n street life is characterized as a Kafka-like nightmare:

                      They were walking through the streets arm in arm. Mrs. Copperfield's
                      forehead was burning hot and her hands were cold. She felt something
                      trembling in the pit of her stomach. When she looked ahead of her the             
                      very end of the street seemed to bend and then straighten out again...
                      Above their heads the children were jumping up and down on the wooden
                      porches and making the houses shake. Someone bumped against Mrs.
                      Copperfield's shoulder and she was almost knocked over. At the same
                      time she was aware of the strong and fragrant odor of rose perfume. The
                      person who had collided with her was a Negress in a pink silk evening dress.
                            ..."Listen," said the Negress, "go down the next street and you'll like it
                      better. I've got to meet my beau over at that bar." She pointed it out to them.
                      "That's a beautiful barroom. Everyone goes in there," she said. She moved up
                      closer and addressed herself solely to Mrs. Copperfield. "You come along
                      with me, darling, and you'' have the happiest time you've ever had before.
                      I'll be your type. Come on."
                          ....The Negress caressed Mrs. Copperfield's face with the palm of her hand. "Is
                     that what you want to do darling, or do you want to come along with me."
                          ....:Wasn't that the strangest thing you've ever seen?" said Mrs. Copperfield
                     breathlessly.

It is precisely scenes like this, or even more normal-seeming meetings wherein the characters say totally unpredictable things that entice us into Bowles' story and helps us to comprehend Mrs. Copperfield's actions. For no sooner has she encountered this strange world than she is truly sucked up into it, joining, ultimately, the prostitute Pacifica, who encourages her to move into the Hotel de las Palmas where she lives.
      Giving up her husband's hotel, and, finally, even her husband himself, the timid and frightened Mrs. Copperfield discovers the friendship and love of the local prostitutes and shares time with them drinking in bars. By the end of her story, we recognize that she, like Miss Goering, is a woman on a mission to challenge herself, to alter her life, and survive in conditions she might never have imagined. Similar to Miss Goering, this serious woman is rushing into the unknown as a kind of punishment and test for her own fears. As Mr. Copperfield writes, in his goodbye letter to his wife:

                   Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your
                   lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards
                   your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness,
                   end up in the same position in which you began.

In short, as we are about to discover, Mrs. Copperfield—although a much more charming and, at times, disarmingly sensual woman, is of the same breed as Miss Goering, both of them being strong strictly-raised women of great eccentricity testing themselves over and over again to challenge the patterns of their lives.
      When we return to the story of Miss Goering, accordingly, we read her increasingly bizarre shifts in reality with the knowledge that, as in the case of Mrs. Copperfield, it can result in significant sensual changes.
      Yet, as we have been told, Miss Goering's seriousness is more of the religious type than Mrs. Copperfield's inconsistencies. She is determined to challenge almost all her fears. She sells her lovely house, despite the outcry of the parasitic Miss Gamelon and challenges of the t dependent Arnold, moving to an industrial island near Staten Island into a house with little charm and hardly any heat.
      When a third man, Arnold's father, determines to join their strange little community, Christina begins traveling to the larger island, visiting a local derelict bar and accepting the offers of its male customers to join them in bed.
       After her first adventure, she reports that she intends to return, admitting that she may not come immediately come back. One by one, the remaining trio who have lived with and off of her fortune, abandon the house, Arnold having discovered a new love, Miss Gamelon having moved into another house, and Arnold's father returning to his wife. In the end Miss Goering, who has gone off with a ugly man who believes she is a prostitute, must face a future even more undetermined than Mrs. Copperfield, who has returned to New York with Pacifica in tow—although it does appear that Pacifica may not soon bolt.
      Even Miss Goering, although believing that the challenges she has set before her, has made her "nearer to becoming a saint," wonders if she hasn't been piling "sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield." For these strong women have both become dependent upon the flesh.
      The marvel of Bowels' strange tale is its complete originality. Although, the events she tells are often strange, even a bit surreal, they are played out in a seemingly logical way that they seem the more incredible for their occurring. Most important, the central figures speak in the linguistic pattern, mixing a kind of nineteenth century rhetoric with a language which might be at home on the street. In a very odd way, Bowles' language is as outlandish as is Damon Runyon's—except that although these characters, like Runyon's, are not particularly educated, their talking is a process of thought instead of simple communication. And in that sense, they are always participating in a dialogue—socially or interiorized—with everyone around them, with the entire world.
     At times, in fact, it seems that the whole world might potentially be pulled into Bowles' tale as the two serious ladies travel about, gathering up friends and lovers as they go. Both are heavy drinkers, who prefer to sit at the bar and seem able to attract anyone to them with whom they speak. Critics have mentioned the pattern of twos and threes that accumulate around Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, but I would argue that while the two do tend to alternate between duos and trios, like magnets they might equally attract dozens of willing partners, men and women. And, in that sense, these highly wrought women are a bit like latter-day prophets, missionaries who in preaching to the natives, willingly take on the attributes and behavior of those whom they might seek to save, transforming themselves, in the end, into absolutely ordinary human beings. Yet both, strangely, have become something larger simply through their abilities to change their lives.

Los Angeles, November 29, 2011
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (December 2011).

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