If you have not heard of Gina Berriault, you should feel sinned against. However, maybe you have heard the name. After all, she did win the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for her collection of short stories Women in Their Beds (1997). In 1997, she also won the Rea Award for the Short Story due to her outstanding achievement in the short story form. (“The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress” is one of the great short stories of all time.) And, even if the name rings some distant bell, I suspect few of my readers, as well- and widely- read as they are, have cracked a novel by Gina Berriault. If I am right, it is a most unfortunate fact. This review is one attempt to remedy the underappreciation of Gina Berriault as a novelist.
I will admit to first developing an interest in Ms. Berriault when she won awards for Women in Their Beds. I had not heard of her before then, but quickly sought out one of her novels in when I heard someone lauding her as a writer’s writer. She was that, in at least two senses of the phrase. First, she was underappreciated among the general book buying public and so, in a fact if not motivation, wrote mostly for other writers who knew about her. Second, but more importantly, she was an incredibly talented writer who wrote with artistry and depth. Her skill with a pen has been matched only rarely. She is the kind of writer writers respect, the kind of writer writers want to be.
While Women in Their Beds is an outstanding collection of short stories, many of us prefer to read novels. Besides, that collection is an award-winner. However precious, it is not a sufficiently obscure literary gem to be treasured for its discovery as well as its contents. Her novels are.
If I were simply recommending one work by Berriault, I would start with her final novel, a short masterpiece: The Lights of Earth. However, I am not simply recommending Gina Berriault. This is a review of her short (143 pages) novel Afterwards, originally published in 1962 as A Conference of Victims.
Afterwards opens with the following:
The day was election day but Hal O. Costigan, candidate for Congress, was nowhere around to have his picture taken as the winner or the loser. By his own choice he was nowhere around to care. The day was warm and windless, the large flags at the polling places rustling a little toward evening. Inside garages swept clean and living rooms tidied up, women with an official look appropriate to the day sat at card tables and checked off the names of the voters. Everything was as it should be, except one: a dead man’s name was on the ballot.
The chapters are told from the perspective of several of the victims of his suicide. Naomi Costigan, Hal’s sister, is the focus of the first chapter. The second chapter introduces us to Hal’s lover who shares the name Dolores with Nabokov’s Lolita. Hal’s and Naomi’s younger brother Cort Costigan is the focus of the third chapter. Each of the remaining chapters revolves around one of these three characters, with Naomi receiving the bulk of the attention.
Naomi lives with her (and Hal’s and Cort’s) mother. Her mother is convinced Hal was killed. Ms. Berriault effortlessly exposes the family dynamics. After recounting a conversation with Cort in which the mother urges Cort to find Hal’s killer, she tells Naomi:
“…But Cort’s a coward. He’s got a birthmark on his back looks like a little eel.”
“It always looked like nothing to me,” said Naomi.
“An eel. He was always slippery.”
Naomi did not defend her younger brother. Their mother loved him and that was his defense.
Their mother also blames Hal’s wife, Isobel, for not going to the mayor and exposing the true nature of Hal’s death. In short, their mother is in denial.
Naomi is not. Her attempts to point out the truth of Hal’s suicide to her mother are unavailing. But Naomi’s acknowledgment of the facts does not save her. Like the rest of the family, she is preoccupied with Hal and his death.
Hal was very clearly the favorite child. Mother, sister, and brother all revered him. They had defined themselves in relation to Hal and, in the aftermath, they each struggle to find an identity of their own. The most freuqent subject of their thoughts is Hal. They tell the story of Hal to strangers. Almost compulsively, they talk about Hal with each other. The shadow of Hal’s suicide looms dark and cold over their lives.
Perhaps the truest victim is not family. Dolores was only seventeen at the time of the affair and suicide. In an effort to make sense of events, she asks her father why Hal killed himself.
“What you got to learn,” he said, pulling at a dusty boot, “is that everybody is a little bit crazy.”
He glanced at her sideways, a secret glance of satisfaction that said the most respected, the most popular, the ones on their way up, as Costigan, were no better than the dolts, than himself, a maintenance man in an oil refinery, and, in this glance that was without any sympathy for the dead man, he revealed a stoniness of heart she had not glimpsed before. It was not that way all the time, his heart. Only now, and was it his own little bit of craziness? She opened a can of beer for him and set it on the table with a glass, and when he glanced up, his fatherly love for her had returned to his eyes.
Dolores uses the suicide to fill her need for love. She tries to convince herself that Hal’s love for her left him little choice but to commit suicide. He could not leave his wife, but he refused to be without Dolores. This is the story she constructs for herself and various others who come into her life.
After an exchange in which one of her roommates compliments her as having “an expenseef look”, Berriault lays bare the tragedy of Dolores:
The flattery was demanding something of Dolores. She couldn’t reject it because she needed even flattery’s imitation of praise. It demanded that she confirm the truth of it and surprise this woman with the truth.
Her version is not the truth, though. Her story is mere facade, however, covering a yawning emptiness, the same emptiness she had earlier tried to fill with the affair with Hal.
Cort fares no better. Like both Naomi and Dolores, Cort is compelled to talk about Hal:
Even in the midst of pleasure, he had brought him [Hal] into the company and introduced him around to remind them all of the meaninglessness of their existence….He told about his brother every chance he got, like a derelict who claims high-class relatives. He had to tell everybody that he, Cort, was different, he was smarter than his listeners, who accepted life without questioning.
He knows he needs to leave the memory of his dead brother behind, to concentrate on life. The lesson of the meaningless of life he has taken from the suicide cripples him. Cort struggles to find pleasure in life, to find meaning in it. A love affair shortly after Hal’s suicide precipitates marriage and a child. Still Cort cannot escape Hal.
This story is an emotional tragedy. Naomi, Cort, and Dolores are irreparably damaged by Hal’s suicide, largely because they each idolized him or their relationship with him. If even Hal could not find reason to live, what is life worth? Each of the three struggles with this fundamental question. Having placed so much worth on Hal and their relationships with him, they are devastated by Hal’s deeming his life worthless.
The ending is as beautiful as it is devastatingly well-judged. Ms. Berriault brings some narrative tension to the story, setting the needs of Naomi against those of Isobel. Isobel never told Guy, Hal’s son, the truth about Hal’s death. This tension is masterfully played out and resolved.
Gina Berriault relates her characters’ tortured efforts to wring meaning out of Hal’s death and their own lives with deft insight into the human psyche. The action in Gina Berriault’s novels is almost entirely psychological. She does not tell happy tales of adventure. If you are looking for optimism and happy endings, Berriault will not oblige. Her focus is on truth. She writes efficiently and with unblinking, unsentimental realism. Her short novels are dense with wisdom.
Of the recent authors I have reviewed here, her style most closely resembles Maxwell, Bellow, and Ozick. As a final exhortation to read Gina Berriault, I direct you to this remembrance of Gina Berriault by Cynthia Ozick. Gina Berriault’s novels remain underappreciated treasures. I urge you to give her a try.