By Christine Schutt
For those who prize not only the integrity of the sentence but also elliptical momentum gained from the arrangement of such sentences, a Christine Schutt novel should serve as a paradigm of literary craftsmanship. Her latest ticks through the failed marriage of Ned and Isabel Bourne, a pair first introduced in the narrative when bed-and-breakfast proprietor Aura Kyle hears Isabel bawling. “Such exorbitant crying!” is her observation, and by the end of the novel, as Aura remembers the couple for their “extravagant suffering or bitterness,” the implication of indulgent wretchedness has been instantiated through brief scenes of the couple’s post-MFA meandering through the rarefied world of country homes and European getaways.
Isabel and Ned face a troubling reality: desire and privilege extend only so far. Their marriage seems an impotent stab at a self-fulfilling prophecy; what, after all, could better corroborate that they are the masters of fine art that Columbia has supposed them to be than the kitsch and spontaneity of a Las Vegas wedding? Yet Isabel finds no pleasure sexually or otherwise and languishes in nonproductivity. Ned’s looks recommend him more than his short stories, but even his handsome face has not saved him from the disappointment of his sexy ex-girlfriend Phoebe leaving him for an eventual marriage of means. Isabel and Ned’s is a misery predicated on not quite becoming—either in love or as artistes. “I can’t,” Isabel tells her husband soon after she discovers she is pregnant. “I haven’t become anything yet.” Then the couple agrees—perhaps the only time they do so—to abort the baby.
Schutt nudges the couple around an axis of unfulfilling infidelity: Ned takes up with Phoebe, Isabel with an aging painter, Clive Harris, who has a daughter Sally that resembles his lover. This narrative is hardly novel, but Schutt’s deft looping through various characters’ points of view is, especially when the perspectives are bridged with the elaborate logic of her wordplay:
“Where was this? France, Spain, Italy?” Isabel wonders when she spends one night with Clive. “France. Nice— Neese. To say nice seemed cornball but that was Clive to her.
‘I am not nice,’ he said. He was thinking of Sally, poor Sally and the drab adjectives he used whenever he spoke of what she was but might have been.
An only, lonely daughter. ‘I am one of those, and Ned is an only too. Maybe that’s why,’ but she didn’t finish.”
Not finishing is about as much as the Bournes ever end up doing in the span of this novel, but their bougie-boho afflictions aren’t as irritating as some class-conscious critics might suppose. Isabel truly suffers an inability to have fun, while Ned cannot help but see himself in the eyes of his dying, disappointed mother. And this is just one more of Christine Schutt’s sleights of hand: she imbues the hipster blues with compassion.