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Great Fiction – Seven Loves by Valerie Trueblood
Inexplicably, this book whispered to me from the bookstore shelf – among the dozens of other titles, the case displays, the signs announcing readings and special events, the specials and bestsellers, even the other shoppers. It somehow found me. Maybe it was the lovely pastel colors in the cover art; no, it had to be the content. Once inside I happened across so many people I seemed to have known in my own life – the mother of a hopelessly drug addicted teenager who continues to hanker for extrication against all evidence and reason, the once strong, healthy and articulate teacher turned into a vegetable by age, the married person who has that once in a lifetime whirlwind affair that takes their breath away for a flickering second. I felt a rare communion with this fiction. I just had to get it!
Some novels can be enjoyed and appreciated by practically anyone over the age of eighteen. Others, in order to be enjoyed, may require a certain level of knowledge, or maybe a particular kind of temperament or disposition. Still others – let’s say Toni Morrison, Pynchon, or Faulkner – require a level of concentration, study and attention that many readers simply won’t be willing to give. Valerie Trueblood’s first novel Seven Loves, in my opinion, has a somewhat unusual requirement – to be fully absorbed as it is meant to be absorbed, I think a reader has to be at least in the forty to forty five year old age bracket. I say this for two reasons. The first is that until you get to be that age you don’t really understand how the strands of life unfold, and the second is that none of us really begins to think about our own individual lives in the way Trueblood suggests we do until we reach that age. For what this novel really does is present a theory of what a biography – yours, mine, anybody’s – really consists of. It concerns one female, May, and the seven large, dominating episodes of her life. It is absolutely stunning to experience how Trueblood gets across the totality of the aura, mystery, and experiences of her character’s long life, her complete existence from childhood to death, in such a comparatively short novel. This kind of counter-Joycean approach reminded me of, say, the way the spare, spaced lines of cool jazz reacted against the busy, technically difficult style of bebop in the fifties (a shaky analogy, perhaps, but that’s how I thought of it). The point is that the minutiae doesn’t matter – it’s the big events that do.
Imagine you’re sitting in a theater watching a film of your own life, proceeding chronologically through time. Imagine further that you’re given the task of splicing out of the film the seven most important singular events in this movie, and stringing them together not in chronological order but rather by how you’d rank them in terms of their psychological or emotional importance to you; if you can do this, you’ll have a good idea of how Seven Loves reads. For purposes of illustration I’ll make a small chart showing the chapter sequences on the left and how they fit in in chronological order in May’s life on the right:
Chapter Chronological Order In May’s Life
Now in reality telling a story out of order in this way isn’t very new. I believe it goes all the way back to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. In that respect there is no novelty in Trueblood’s book; there is novelty, however, in Trueblood’s more postmodern approach insofar as there is no plot to speak of as such – interconnectedness, yes, but no plot. Some of the people who are highlighted in one chapter show up as supporting players in others. Irony and coincidence – the kinds of things that a young person doesn’t full get because they haven’t fully witnessed them yet – abound. The concernment that a heretofore insignificant or unknown person can suddenly acquire in our lives – in a moment, without warning – is demonstrated with great skill and depth of feeling. It’s probably wisest to review the novel chapter by chapter, with a brief glance at the “love” that each one is specifically concerned with.
1. Jackie – As the book opens May is seventy four years of age. A retired high school teacher, widowed, she now works in an office after a lifetime of teaching English. The “love” of this chapter is Jackie, twenty four, a co-worker. This is how May thinks of her:
At seventy four, she is in love. Or not love. What is it? A consuming interest in another person – a person of not much interest, really, she thinks in bewilderment- has seized her, so that she looks forward to even the mildest encounters at work.
Jackie has numerous insecurities, isn’t very bright, and has lost her two children in court (though as a matter of practicality her deadbeat husband has returned them to her). But Jackie has a quality that keeps her in the forefront of the consciousness of everyone she meets – she is drop dead beautiful:
But there is her beauty. Wherever she goes, in her car, on the street, in stores, she is pointed out. In the building their floor is known as the one where Jackie gets off the elevator. Her beauty is a pollen shaken onto all of them. She could be looking out over ruins, over oceans, a stone woman holding up a roof.
Why would May be so interested? At first this seems contrived and preposterous, but as the chapter and the book play out we begin to see the malleability that’s built into the story, like a piece of clay that we can bend and shape and mold. Later we will see Jackie’s connection to another person who plays a huge role in May’s life, a person who was involved with her son Nick. Although we don’t meet Nick in the first chapter, there are allusions. The first episode in the yarn shows a young mother and her small child passing by May, with the mom jokingly asking, “Should we keep her?” At this early point we’re ignorant of the import this has for May, but it represents some very deft narrative construction.
2. Nathanael – Here we jump back from the relative present to 1960. May is at a teachers’ conference in Chicago. Here she meets the man with whom she will have her single extramarital affair, a black school principal named Nathanael. They live far apart, are both happily married with families, and know from the start that their affair cannot last. They desperately meet three times before he calls it off for good; to enhance the sense of drama Trueblood utilizes one of the oldest plot contrivances in literature – May gets pregnant. She assumes it to be Nathanael’s baby and realizes she has no choice but to tell her husband, Cole, about the tryst. She tells him the baby is probably her lover’s, but to everyone’s surprise it turns out to be Cole’s – the baby looks exactly like him, even has one of his distinctive facial characteristics. Trueblood sets the amourette against the backdrop of the 1960 presidential campaign, caving in to the universal temptation among writers to identify with Kennedy and the New Frontier (even to the point where we learn that Nathanael actually leaves education to go into politics, becoming the mayor of his town – he’s swept up in the idealism of the times).
Nathanael is one of two of the seven loves who does not meet any of the others, who doesn’t have any interaction with a substantial part of May’s social network, and in this way Trueblood emphasizes how a brief, singular, intense, isolated relationship can live in time and in memory almost as if it were a tangible thing locked in an icebox of the mind for many many years.
3. Cole – It’s interesting that while May’s husband Cole and her son Nick are counted among the loves, her daughters Vera and Laura, who both play fairly prominent roles throughout, are not. She’s caught up with her menfolk in large, dramatic ways that it is impossible for her and her daughters to approximate. There are emotional scenes in Cole’s chapter, and in Nick’s, that make us tremble, even weep if we so allow, while the girls are coolly efficient, make lives and careers of their own, indeed, don’t really seem to need their mother beyond a certain point in their lives. May never sees her daughters in vulnerable situations as she does her husband and son, nor is she herself vulnerable around them.
This chapter swings back and forth between an episode at a Canadian resort in the 1970s and the time of the couple’s courtship in the years before World War 2. May is troubled by the revelation that, a few years prior, a young woman lost her husband at the resort when he got lost in the woods and was never found. Her anxiety over this is intercut with those days so long ago when she fell in love with Cole and stole him from the other woman he was engaged to at the time. Her remembrance is stirred by her observation of a young couple at the resort, first in the lobby and then later in the hot baths. She imagines herself giving them advice about their future, then she recreates the horror that the girl who lost her husband must have felt, and she then feels an urgent need to locate her husband in the pool among the throngs of other bathers, panicking when at first she can’t and then feeling tremendous relief and comfort when she does. This remarkable passage clues us in:
She had forgotten this look of his, and that was her own doing, misplacing it along with so much else in the merciless forgetfulness, the oblivion of marriage, for he always showed this pleasure when he had been waiting for her and she appeared, did he not?
4. Nick – In the course of the saga Trueblood comments continually on the disconnect between people of May’s generation and young people. May is consistently meditating on the mysterious ways of teens, both those in her classes at school and those she observes at random around her on the streets of Seattle. A couple of times I found myself wondering abouot this because it seems as though she has knowledge of the seedier side of these kids that a woman such as herself shouldn’t have. But then, upon a second and third reading I saw how much I had missed, for example “They know May had a son, as well as daughters.”
In the chapter on her son it is revealed that he has always been “secretly, deeply favored” in her heart, but this favoring can’t be anything tangible. It has to spring forward from some kind of ineffable viscerality, an almost purely emotive entity that no one is able to verbally access. May casts around in the chambers of her mind for reasons (“incompatible chemicals”; “your grandmother was a devotee of Kropotkin”; and a somewhat disappointing discourse on how first a lot of boys – this is in the sixties and seventies – in the school began to show signs of drug problems, soon followed by the girls) but none really come to the fore as adequate explanations. There is also a subplot having to do with a cat that surprisingly influences where one of May’s daughters ends up with her husband and family, a beautiful stroke of storytelling excellence.
5. Arne – This is one about which I’ll remain silent.
6. Sven – At the end of her long life May has had several strokes; in a home, we meet a whole new cast of characters – Mr. Dempsey, a former union official who’s her best friend among the other patients; Nita and Nalda, twin sisters who have been apart most of their adult lives, now reunited; Renee, a Haitian worker; and Sven, also an employee, a rowdy punk rocker who drives the van on outings and performs tasks for the group such as sneaking in porn magazines for Dempsey, or perhaps foods that the house nutritionist has forbidden anyone to have. May is in bad shape: “No one would promise her that another stroke wouldn’t finish her or, worse, not finish her.” For obvious reasons young Sven reminds her of her son. When she accidentally walks in on Sven and Renee engaged in wild lovemaking in Dempsey’s room the remark “It’s only May,” cuts; when she watches Sven seethe with quiet jealousy at the visits of Renee’s ex husband it’s as if this sparks memories of her whole life that hit her in the face like a concrete slab. The resolution of this chapter, and thus of her life, is something each reader has to ponder in their own way. By placing it where she does, however, Trueblood signals that perhaps one or two pieces of critical information have yet been withheld from us. Specifically, reades should be searching for instances of medical doctors and piano players.
7. Anna – All along we have gotten quick glimpses of the mother and her activist political beliefs. Now the final chapter of the book takes us back to May’s early life with her parents and her sister Carrie (name checking Dreiser?) who figured prominently in an attempt to straighten Nick out earlier on. From early on in life the mother is an anarchist. This is how she meets May’s father, while picketing for her cause:
The girl who was to be May’s mother handed him a leaflet that said KEEP OUT. Out of the war it meant, the Great War.
A peripheral perspective is gotten on the bloodshed of the twentieth century now – we’ve seen the story of May’s life open up to us against the background of the first world war, the second, and Vietnam. And now, at the finish, we witness her mother’s political zeal jet completely out of control, as when she reads May a story by “the sweet Kropotkin” that is totally inappropriate for a child or makes a fool of herself by giving a speech to unemployed workers who taunt and jeer her. As always, this chapter reflexively sheds light on earlier ones, comments on them, bolsters them, makes us see them anew. Crucially, here we find the link from a woman named Anna Olafsson back to Arne from Chapter 5.
Seven Loves, in my opinion, carries great weight. I rarely have anything too negative to say about the novels I discuss it here, but this book is truly exceptional in every way. I expect that over the course of many years I will come back to it often – for advice, for wisdom, for instruction in the kinds of things that really matter.
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