Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Writing on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's novel, The Writing on the Wall, escaped my radar in 2005. There was a flurry of 9/11 literature:  Ian McEwan's  Saturday and Jay McInerney's The Good Life, both of which were stunning and sad, and many, many more I didn't read.  
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I was tired of the incessant chronicles of the event.  A zillion and one journalists wrote books.  All that TV jingoism.  The televised concert for the firemen.  Yes, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, and the Who.  Writers expressing their reactions in The New Yorker.  
But novelists often tell the truth in a more effective way than journalists, and I was finally ready to read Schwartz.
In Schwartz's superb novel, the main character, Renata, has an emotional breakdown after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center. Renata is a librarian-translator who has kept emotions under wraps for years.  Her twin sister, Claudia, died when they were teenagers after the uncle with whom she had had an illegitimate baby left her to drown in the river.  A few years later Renata's father committed suicide.  Then her mother went into a mental hospital.
Renata, the sole (sane) survivor of the family, was left literally holding the baby, her sister's illegitimate daughter, who had been given away informally to a mobster couple.  When the couple had to run from the police, they left the baby with Renata, who was working as a barmaid in New York.
Something so terrible happened after that that I'll spare you. The trauma explains much about Renata.  But the point of the 9/11 disaster is that Renata's quiet life finally explodes, and her carefully edited presentation of herself to Jack, her boyfriend, falls apart.  The lacunae in her confidences become apparent when her exaggerated attachment to a few needy children in the aftermath of the event--an orphaned baby and a lost girl who cannot speak--underscores her mourning.  The terrifying disaster deranges her.
Of course the plot is not all.  It is Schwartz's skillful, lyrical writing that makes this novel compelling.  She manages to describe the terrorism in an understated style that conveys the shock and the horror.  And she shows us Renata's metamorphosis--the turning of her mind inside-out during the horror--from a controlled woman obsessed with language to a sad person who briefly loses her sanity.
"After the pillar of smoke came a hurricane of paper.  The sky rained paper, and later some of the papers would be picked up as relics and sorted out--office memos, bills, jottings, computer printouts, resumes, stock reports, the daily menu of corporate life mingling with private scrawled hieroglyphics--while other papers would be left lying in the ash to devolve back to pulp under trampling feet and the wheels of sanitation trucks.  Any other day the papers would have been a treasure trove for Renata, with her collections of linguistic artifacts, of demotic speech, examples of brain and tongue company.  But not today.  Not hurricane day."
Schwartz is one of our best contemporary novelists.  Perhaps her work is overlooked because it doesn't employ the pyrotechnics of Jonathan Lethem (actually my favorite American writer) or the poeticism of Marilynne Robinson.
But I do urge you to look her up.  My favorite of her novels is Disturbances in the Field.

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