Thursday, July 7, 2016

Roxana Robinson Asking for Love--Cheever in Content, But Content is Secondary to Great Stories

I got an email from a publisher marketing associate recently, suggesting that since I was such a fan of Alice Munro I might also like the stories of Roxana Robinson and perhaps be willing read her collection Asking for Love and review it on my blog.
I was familiar with Roxana Robinson's stories from the past, so I said yes and started the process of getting a copy of the book in e-format online, which involved registering with NetGalley, a website that started back in 2008 (but with which I was unfamiliar), which allows publishers to distribute digital galley proofs of  books—a cheaper alternative to sending out those paperbound galley proofs I used to get regularly when I was reviewing books for newspapers.
After a bit of a struggle, I got the book to my Kindle Fire and started reading the first couple of stories. I thought they sounded vaguely familiar.  So I checked my file cabinet, and sure enough there was a Roxana Robinson folder, and damn all, there was a review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1996 for a collection of stories entitled Asking for Love. I then checked my bookcase, and sure enough, there was a hardback copy of  Asking for Love, albeit with a different cover than the one that showed up on my Kindle. What is this, thought I?
A little research revealed what the marketing associate neglected to tell me, perhaps thinking I already knew: The publisher of Robinson's "new" book, Open Road Media, specializes in publishing the "backlist"--books that have been around for a few years, but out of print, or at least not available as ebooks.
Co-founded by Jane Friedman, who was once the CEO of HarperCollins, Open Road Media seeks out authors or author estates and offers them a 50% cut of whatever profits the book earns as an ebook—something they can do because they do not have the overhead that traditional publishers face--storing stock, maintaining big offices, hiring lots of salespeople, etc.
Pretty smart, especially since many readers these days prefer reading on a Kindle or i-pad to turning paper pages.  Actually, nowadays I find myself reading more Kindle copies than physical books.  I have over a hundred books on my Kindle now. They are often cheaper (although that seems to be changing), and space on my bookcases is getting sparse (I keep boxing them up for a local Friends of the Library), and I can read at night without turning on the bedside lamp (thus keeping my wife awake).
However, most all the books that Open Road Media offers (although they are starting to publish new books) are also available at on-line used book stores.  A quick check on Amazon reveals three versions of Asking for Love, with three different covers: Open Road's Kindle version of  Asking for Love will cost you $11.49, whereas you can get a used hardcover copy in "good" condition for $.24 and a used paperback copy in "very good" condition for $1.15. Of course, you have to add $3.98 for shipping.  So, you ask yourself: do I spend $11.49 for an e-version or $4 or $5 for an old-fashioned physical version, perhaps with a few underlining? Maybe Open Road should lower their prices.
I have just finished my second reading the fifteen stories in Roxana Robinsons' Asking for Love on my Kindle.  Twenty years separate this e-reading and my original hard-cover reading. Since I did not review that first reading, I cannot compare, for I have forgotten my first response.  I have read a helluva lot of stories since then. But here's what I thought this time around:
Perhaps the most frequently quoted comment on Roxana Robinson's stories is the one by fellow author Bret Lott in his New York Times Book Review of her first collection A Glimpse of Scarlet (1991). Lott said that Robinson "may be John Cheever's heir apparent." It's on the cover of this new ebook edition of Asking for Love.  However, Lott was referring to the similarities between the characters and social context of the two authors—e.g. New York City, the Hamptons, Greenwich, Conn,  post-dinner-party fights, affairs both known and suspected, husbands and wives with some money and lots of marital angst, etc.
In 1996, when Brooke Allen reviewed Robinson's second collection of stories Asking for Love, she began with this sentence: "Every time a new and promising WASP writer comes along, it is his or her inevitable misfortune to be compared with John Cheever."  Allen then argued that although Robinson focuses on the same social class of characters, she is "not nearly as good as Cheever; her vision is neither as dark nor as rich, and her outlook is somewhat limited in that it is an exclusively feminine one."
Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Janice Harayda also weighed in on the Cheever comparison by suggesting that pairing Robinson to Cheever reflected declining critical standards in 1996. "The sort of encomiums that might once have been reserved for the masters of the art are now doled out to the merely gifted."  Harayda also acknowledged that there were some social context similarities between Cheever and Robinson, e.g. stories that centered on the East Coast world of money and privilege, boarding schools, dancing and horseback lessons, summer house in the tonier regions of northern New England.  But Cheever's stories, argues Harayda, "have a moral and spiritual dimension" absent from those in Asking for Love.
I did a short blog essay on Cheever a few years ago, going back to read such stories as "The Torch Song, "The Enormous Radio,” “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” The Country Husband,” The Death of Justina,” and “The Swimmer.”  I did not find them as compelling as I did when I first read them in the sixties.  But when I looked at them again this week in comparison to the stories of Roxana Robinson, I appreciated them all over again. 
Let me provide some brief critical summaries of some of Robinson's stories in Asking for Love and then risk a comment or two on what I think makes Cheever's stories more powerful examples of the short story form than Robinson's, although, indeed Robinson's stories are quite readable and capable. [a side note: most writes have a tic they probably should be aware of and try to avoid.  Reading on a Kindle, you can quickly spot one of these and then do a search for the rest. Robinson has a tic for "heart pounding." I have cited them in brackets."]
In the opening story, "Leaving Home,"—a 13-year-old girl goes with her family for a yearly summer visit to a cousin's farm in Mass. She has just become aware that, unlike her honorable parents, she is "deeply deficient in virtue." In a bit of childish pique, she disappoints her parents by saying she hates her 11-year-old cousin Gloria.
Cuing us that this is a coming-of-age story of sorts, Robinson tells us this is the first summer the girl does not feel nourished by her family and comforted by being in the farmhouse. She meets a neighborhood girl who is so sophisticated that she feels lanky and wrong. She wants to be one of the in crowd, but, alas, she likes to read. She wants to keep her virtuous unacceptable family secret from the smart crowd.
When the dorky cousin asks her to go swimming, she fears it will destroy her façade, contaminate her, expel her from the in crowd. When she sees the sophisticated girl in a canoe, she swims to it and deserts the cousin. "I fixed my gaze ahead, as though I could put my family behind me forever, as though I would never have to look at them again." It's straightforward and pretty predictable, a standard treatment of an obvious adolescent girl transition.
In "Sleepover," a seven-year-old girl named Bess wants to see her mother as someone with a secret life. And indeed,  Mom seems to be having an affair.  Thus, the title refers to the mother rather than the child. The  father tries to tolerate all this, but he looks around the living room "as though he were on a doomed island, a tiny decaying principality that was slowly sinking, lowering itself into destruction."  ["Bess took a step back from him, her heart pounding."]
"Slipping Away" gives us the point of view of a woman who has been married for seven years and is having an affair. She and her husband have a 27-year-old Spanish maid who has a "tempestuous private life." The woman says, "It is like having the third act of an opera in your kitchen every morning." She says her husband mistrusts all women and wishes all women were there only to serve him. The story centers on a melodrama about the husband listening to the wife's phone calls on another phone and her anxiety level increasing. The wife  thinks the maid's marital drama never happens in English. The story ends with her feeling her orderly life slipping way, "slipping into Spanish, right before my eyes."  It's an entertaining a comic story about a woman's life becoming a telenovela. ["Still my heart was pounding." "My heart was still pounding." "My heart was pounding even more."]
In "The Nile in Flood," a couple married for five months take a boat trip down the Nile on a belated honeymoon. She is forty-nine. He is sixty-five.  Much of this story is about the wife's thoughts about her life. Feeling suffocated, she slips out of their cabin one night. She wants something romantic in her life, but feels that it is too late. The story ends with this: "She had not known that the line at the end of passion would be so clearly marked, that the life that lay before her would be so pale, so dry."  This is a pretty conventional story of a woman feeling she is growing too old for the passion and romance of her youth. ["Nora's heart was pounding."]
In "Asking for Love, "the title story of the collection, the narrator is at her parents' summer house in Maine with Melissa, her seventeen-year old daughter. She is  divorced from a twenty-year-marriage, and has been dating a man for eight months. Melissa, who has been at boarding school, does not want to see her mother with anyone but her father. "She doesn't want me to be single; she wants me to be a mother."
 The narrator does a lot of thinking, mostly as a writer would think, e.g.: "I think love should be inexhaustible, like air, that we should give and take it freely, without doubt." When her new lover kisses her, she thinks: "This is something that never fails to surprise me—this sudden melting, turning-to-gold sensation.  Before I married Michael I thought all sex was good sex, I thought good sex was a given. Now I've learned that it's not a given but a gift."
When she recognizes the young waitress at a restaurant, she thinks: "This transformation from girl into young woman is a miracle, like a flower revealing itself." She wants love from Melissa but will not ask for it.  "Asking for love is the saddest question in the world, and if you have to ask, the answer is too painful to hear."   More authorial thinking: "Memory is kaleidoscopic: the slightest shift creates another picture, detailed, complete, convincing." When she and her lover are locked out of her house accidently, and try to climb in a window, he steps away and she feels emptiness beneath her. She cannot pull herself up and her heart seems to "have gone out" of her--a final metaphor of her precarious position with daughter, new man, etc.
"Halloween" is a simple story about a woman being frightened of an adolescent boy she has allowed into her house on Halloween. And who she fears is more interested in sexual tricks than innocent treats. The theme is explicitly stated at the end:  "The boy never came back.  I never saw him again, and I never forgot him.  I never forgot what he had taught me: that here is as dangerous as anywhere, that safety is a fragile membrane, easily pierced…. Maybe I was wrong to be alarmed…Or maybe I was lucky." ["My heart was pounding." "My heart was still pounding."
"Reign of Arlette" is about a woman who hires a twenty-five year old au pair girl who initiates her son into sex.  This story is also full of authorial statements, e.g.: "When you're a single parent, you feel solely and wholly responsible for your children, as though you were refugees, making your way through a war-torn landscape." ["Unaccountably, my heart began to pound."]
"Breaking the Rules" focuses primarily on a woman visiting Scotland and getting into a quarrel with a Scottish man about gun control, with all the usual clichés about that debate. ["She marched upstairs her blood pounding." "With her heart pounding, she clambered at last up." "her blood pounding in her ears, her face now slick with sweat."
"King of the Sky" moves toward a horrifying accident involving a young rebellious boy, which makes the female narrator, who has a son of her own, think the following explicit thematic thoughts:
"Most often there are miracles; most children are saved.  When a miracle doesn't happen, when you hear that a child is lost, the terrible sound of it echoes within your mind, a series of slow reverberations.  They continue, deep inside you, distant and sinister. You feel terror, the vertiginous pull downward, the drop that you escaped from no reason. And you hold our own child close to you, close, no matter how he struggles."
["These were loud, pulse-pounding moments."]
There are many differences between the stories of John Cheever and Roxana Robinson, and Bret Lott did her no favor by comparing her to him. Robinson's stories are written on a different level than those of Cheever.  They are primarily plot-based with understandable character motivation. They do not take chances, with Robinson always making sure, usually with explicit statements of theme, that the reader knows exactly what the story is meant to illustrate. Cheever, on the other hand, always created a mythic, symbolic, folktale subtext that paralleled his plots, and, like Chekhov, knew when to keep quiet and allow the reader to infer the thematic significance he explored.
If you have a kindle or other i-pad that you can read in the outdoors, Asking for Love is a fine book to read around the pool or take to the beach.  It will not make demands on you, and will reassure you that the author is a smart psychologist or philosopher or sociologist, who knows the people and the society about which she writes. And is happy to make sure you know them too.

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