Make It Stay by Joan Frank
The Permanent Press, 2012
I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. … the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.
Ian McEwan, “Some Notes on the Novella”, The New Yorker, 29 October 2012
The setting of this novella is a fictitious Northern California town called Mira Flores. The main characters are two couples: Neil Abercrombie (a Scottish expat lawyer), Rachel Blum (his wife, a typist/transcriber and writer), Mike Spender (owner of the aquarium shop Finny Business) and Tilda Krall (his wife). Mike and Tilda’s daughter Astrid (Addie), her husband and son are among the supporting cast.
The story is told by Rachel through whose eyes we meet the others. This is a story of flashbacks, whose chronology is not always evident—when is now? At the beginning, the text overflows with details about cooking (a motif), as a form of sharing, a social activity; at the end, there is a starkness associated with the fragility of a marriage.
But it is a double narrative, a story within a story: Rachel relates what Neil tells her about Mike and Tilda in the hours before a dinner party to which the couple are invited. We hear Neil’s voice here telling what happened before Rachel came on the scene. Some of the story she has heard before but its retelling for the reader is an excuse to delve further for details.
The story opens as Neil and the unnamed narrator (Rachel) are preparing for a dinner party:
The cooking? An act of aggression against an industrially grim childhood. It took Neil years, for instance to be able to face cabbage again.
The first focus is on Neil and, at the end of the first page, on the narrator who had,
…learned to live with him reading cookbooks beside me in bed at night, stork-legs crossed, pointing at the photos while I correct (try to correct) page proofs.” [A nice touch, those parentheses!]
By 2005 I had let him convince me to move in. A risk, at our ages … I was already forty, had lived alone a dozen years. But at what age does one call a total moratorium on risk? […] Against ridiculous odds we became a thing: part him, part me. All I know is it had to do with time. […]
Time. Confederate and trickster. What I’m remembering happened more years ago than I can myself account for.
By the end of the third page, we have met the four main characters: Neil the stork-like Scot; Rachel, short, urgent, Jewish. Curves, good carriage, good breasts, handsome (“not beautiful”); Mike “the laugh, the bad puns, the jolly giant physique, strawberry beard – the BMW motorcycle, called Black Beast. Later, the bald head”; and Tilda:
… she could have been a biker to look at her. She has a face – it doesn’t make me happy to say this – like the faces of the homeless. Leathery, ruddy, gimlet-eyed.
On the surface, this is a story of a wife’s struggle to accommodate her husband’s old friends within their marriage. A story of differences; one of male friendship. Mike is Neil’s oldest friend, whom he met in 1974. Mike saved Neil from drowning early in their friendship; Neil was the witness at Mike’s wedding, ring-bearer at Addie’s, fairy godfather and reliable family friend. Neil was the person called when Mike had his first heart attack; Neil falls apart at Mike’s death. Their difference has made his friendship with Mike the rock of his life, perhaps more solid than his marriage.
As the focus is firmly fixed on Mike and Tilda, it is not immediately apparent that Rachel’s focus is on its relationship to her own marriage. The story of Mike and Tilda illustrates the dangers of losing Neil – as first shown when he cannot cope with Mike’s death:
Neil, like all of us, is alone with it.
Silent the winter night, the house.
After some minutes, he quiets. Raises his gaze, meeting mine
“I am not happy,” he says.
And it is not grief, but me he accuses.
Rachel relates Neil’s description of Mike and Tilda’s life – the house they built, its squalor, their worn-out second-hand clothes, how they brought up their daughter – in a tone that would be far more disapproving if told directly by her. “Decent” middle-class working characters are nevertheless contrasted with “marginals” of all sorts, bikers, drinkers, womanizers, thieves.
The author or the narrator (also a writer) punctuates the story with wonderful asides: see the description of Tilda above, for example, or the sudden violent reaction to the destructive power of sex:
I do my best to sound mellow and scholastic, leaning against the sink with my arms folded, as though all that can matter is retrieval of the accurate word. But I feel my heart tolling, slow and hard, under my arms. I am thinking, Why must this be the story, over and over and over. Dear God the durability, the resilience of this bitterly dreary script. Scratch any history, up it pops.
Send it off in a space capsule, rubber-banded to a message like a ransom note: Yes, here’s what we mainly got up to during our little tenure. We contained polio and smallpox, built dams and ballparks and diving bells, split the atom, cloned genes. We also liked to kill and torment each other, liked that very much. But here is the ultimate grail among the spoils, what we desired first and last.
I remember wondering: How much else have I misread in perfect, serene confidence—for how long, and how badly? A salutary thought.
And a reminder that a narrator is fallible and rarely neutral.
Make it Stay is a novella of some 47,000 words. An experienced author, Joan Frank has also published novels and short stories; this format/length works very well for her text. The publisher/designer has chosen to spread it out, prefacing each of the four main sections or chapters with a roman numeral, on a separate page, followed by a blank page, and starting the text with a curlicue and raised initial capital letter approximately one-third of the way down the page. This generous spacing, whatever the reasoning behind it, actually helps to pace the story.
This is a book about the fragile phenomenon of marriage: how to work at it, how to appreciate and adjust to it. It’s about experience, ageing, survival. Life.
Everything is partly true. That’s the confounding thing. But energies wane earlier now. So does the quality of belief we used to carry around like banners—a colorfast constant that held, wash after wash. You want to tell certain people, Oh please, just be all right. So you say, Take care. Which means, Can you please manage to get a basic enough hold of yourself so that I won’t have to spend my own dwindling time on earth feeling guilty and uneasy about you. So I can forget about everything else in the day to day, except the increasingly dear immediates. Food. Warmth. Sleep.
The man who lives with me.
Make It Stay has a tentative happy ending but the epigraph warns, “It is a species of sentimentality to believe that the end of something tells the truth about it” (Joan Acocella, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints). There is much in the polished text on which to reflect.