Simply Separate People, Two
(The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions, 2011)
In Simply Separate People and earlier works, such as Fortification Resort Lynn Crawford focuses on the leisure time of the leisure class. In her new book, Crawford, an occasional writer for the Rail whom I have known for a number of years, complicates things by placing her chosen content in a comparative perspective, resetting the plots of earlier novels in modern days and dress, so that every alteration she makes illuminates a distinctive difference between eras.
The upper middle class in Crawford’s portraits do not, like, say, Fitzgerald’s in Tender Is the Night, spend leisure time at resorts where they can relax, flirt, swim, and mingle. Instead, they engage in often strenuous, always physically or mentally enhancing activities, attending retreats, going to yoga classes, taking triathlon training or, in one story, visiting a SACRED FLOW = TRANSFORMATION conference. Her attitude toward their pursuits is near satire, but not in the acerbic form one might find in Huxley’s Crome Yellow or Waugh’s Vile Bodies, for it is not without empathy, her cool, measured sympathy that places every scene in an unflinching, unflattering light.
The leading innovation, just noted, comes about because the book’s protagonist, a housewife, has become distressed and bored with the cattiness and exhausting routines of her fellow homemakers, who, though they don’t work, find other competitive pursuits. “Hobby engagement (style, golf, religious devotion, choral singing, cooking, knitting, fitness routines and levels, book clubs) is…cutthroat.” So, she decides to write two novellas, based on works by Hemingway and James, to help her think through her circumstances by contrasting the moneyed, then and now.
Needless to say, to bring off these novellas-within-the-novel calls for some finesse, delicacy and historical sensibility, but carried out rightly, the payoff is a unique, awry sense of how things have changed. In her work “Harvest,” the heroine reflectively recasts The Sun Also Rises. In the Hemingway novel, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, is a wounded WWI veteran, like many of the men in the book. In the housewife’s novella, Jake Barnes is a war correspondent who has been psychically scarred, as indicated by his sudden disappearances from his girlfriend’s side. “Last night he [Jake] comes over late… We eat, drink and talk on my balcony. Then go inside. It is very good. Later, I turn toward him; he is gone.”
This one difference inflects the whole surface of the book. In Sun, all the men have served and been warped by the world-shaping war. There is a shared, bitter, male Zeitgeist. In our age, when only a few serve and most ignore our country’s foreign conflicts, those who have participated are unreadable to others, even in intimacy.
As this example and my earlier remark about the change in leisure pursuits suggest, the alterations Crawford makes in her rewriting are used as a commentary on historical discontinuities, but I hope this thought doesn’t make you think Simply Separate People, Two is a dry exercise in comparative ethnography. In fact, the book is a lively, readable set of narratives. First, the precise, witty examination of the narrator’s suburban (then urban) community; then, a rich social portrait of the interlocked social circles of the Hemingway revision; and finally, the unsettling, disturbing recasting of James’s Turn of the Screw.
Just as it is said some scholars carry their learning lightly, so it might be said Crawford manages the structural complexity of her book lightly, with, I daresay, the same sangfroid and studied nonchalance of Hemingway’s Lady Brett.