'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years

Nevertheless, she admires the mock heroic quality of his style (though she herself has merged mock and heroic at a different juncture), and she envies and respects his crazed ambitiousness, the dizzying pinnacles of his ego. Recently she has been intrigued by his essay on American Psycho, especially the paragraph on minimalists, his complaint that with minimalists there are simply "not enough pages." She cannot conceive of the world of not-enough-pages, having been schooled by Katherine Anne Porter and Hemingway, who treated words like stones. Our Writer believes that less is more, that simplicity is daring, and likes her sentences compressed. She calls herself the Queen of Terseness and is given to saying things like, "I never read anything that couldn't be shorter."

But she thinks it would not be so difficult to write like Mailer, now that Mailer has shown us how to write like Mailer. In fact, she thinks it would be easy, the rising and falling, the loopy love of alliteration, the cadences, the commas, the qualifications, the sifting, the flights, and hey, she is liking writing like Mailer, standing in front of the unabridged dictionary flexing her pecs, watching the muscles ripple across her chest just above her breasts, admiring her washboard stomach, her biceps raised like little mountains of excess. Oh, it is fun, this literary calisthenic. And she is reminded of how she once spoke in tongues. [return to top]

VLS, June 1994

Regarding Jane: the Passion of the Other Bowles

By Stacey D'Erasmo

Jane Bowles has slipped out of print—to be more accurate, in-between print. Her rights are scattered among Ecco, Farrar Straus Giroux, and Paul Bowles. Penguin is preparing an edition of the two Bowleses, but if you walk into a bookstore right now and try to get a copy of Ecco's collected edition of Jane Bowles, My Sister's Hand in Mine, you will almost certainly not find it, because Ecco itself has less than 50 copies. Ecco and Farrar Straus cannot agree about who gets to publish how much of Bowles's collected works; Ecco may have a new edition of them in the spring of 1995, or they may not. Bowles is sliding away, as she always has, perhaps resurfacing as half of a couple.

It is oddly fitting. Despite a style so singular that I hardly know how to write about her, Jane Bowles always appears in my imagination shadowed by another. Sometimes it is the lean, mysterious shadow of Paul. But more often, it is larger, vaguer, more diffuse, and more dangerous. (Probably, they are the same.) In one sense, that shadow is literal. Bowles, petite and limping, figuratively half-mute during most of her writing life, literally half-mute during her last, tortured, aphasic months, hitched her brilliant wagon to a series of engulfing stars with whom she had complicated relations of domination and submission, adoration and rejection. Two Serious Ladies, Bowles's only novel, is dedicated to "Paul, Mother, and Helvetia"—her husband, her mother, and her domineering, wealthy older lover at the time. They are an imposing trio, oppressively sturdy.

Jane, as we know, was not. In pictures, she looks small and nervous and explosive, like Judy Garland. She is rarely alone; Truman Capote is always there, or Paul, or people in party costume. She rarely looks at all confident, although sometimes she looks quite happy. Unlike Paul, whose soul seemed to transplant to the desert easily, Jane found her exile fraught, crosshatched with doubt and anxiety, guilty. I always imagined him gliding over dunes; her, sunburned and limping behind. The persistence of the myth that Jane's last lover, Cherifa, poisoned her speaks both to the tremendous power with which she invested her caretakers (and they were all, in different ways, caretakers) and to the ambiguity of her exile. One can hardly read The Sheltering Sky and not think of Jane, ravaged by the same environment Paul found so salutary. One can hardly fail to be suspicious of him.

At the same time, the poisonousness of dependency was one of Bowles's favorite tropes. Her death was a play she might have written herself. The other, more interesting aspect of the shadow dogging her is a figurative one. The shadow has a sort of unselfconscious loquaciousness. It knows exactly who it is. Like the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, it doesn't allow its own evident strangeness to get in the way of demanding that people explain what they are doing and who they think they are and where they are going. Sometimes, that shadow is a person; at others, a foreign landscape, like Guatemala or Panama; at still others, foreigners in general, whom Bowles tends to represent in the cartoonish way happy people look to miserable ones. I know exactly who I am, the shadow seems to say, who are you? The response is invariably a stutter, a sly comment, a joke. The shadow is always in some sense Identity; the distracted half-answer is its frustration.

In fact, Bowles's one complete play, In the Summer House, begins with a question: "Are you in the summer house?" The question is posed by Mrs. Gertrude Eastman Cuevas to her 18-year-old daughter, Molly. Gertrude's voice—banal, repetitive, self-absorbed, seductive—dominates much of the play. She goes on and on about the varieties of hair color and how they indicate character, her new romance with Mr. Solares, Molly's many inadequacies, her own childhood alienations and jealousies, and democracy. Molly, holed up in the summer house (a gazebo on the property of Gertrude's larger seaside estate), answers in small, noncommittal sentences. She is her mother's straight man. She adores and despises her. Molly insists on remaining in the summer house like a doll holding herself hostage in a dollhouse, furiously miniature. Eventually, in her quiet and stubborn way, Molly probably kills another teenage girl, a rival for her mother's attention.

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