There is a certain kind of American novelist of the late twentieth century whose fiction fetishises plant names. The ability to inventory the flora of an imagined terrain, especially with local variants, is often taken as a sign of novelistic prowess: where, in postmodernism’s wake, pretence to interior knowledge falters, knowledge of surface takes over. When Cormac McCarthy guides his readers around the southern states of America, he can sometimes seem more a botanist than a novelist, so lacking are his novels in interiority and abundant in the common names of flowers. When Michael Pietsch arranged the fragments of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King for publication, he naturally placed at the beginning an unlocated paragraph describing a landscape that features an extensive, incantatory list of obscure plant names: ‘shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed,’ and on it goes. Philip Roth once playfully suggested he should give up writing because, as he put it, ‘I don’t even know the names of the trees.’ Names are knowledge, the logic might suggest, and knowledge is mastery. Though we might mourn the loss of these languages from our lives, and though this kind of writing might prompt us to redress that loss, to the average reader, in the immediate term, a parade of plant names like Wallace’s can be like nonsense verse: the words are interesting for their shape, their weight, their buoyancy, but they call no image into being. It can thus look like a kind of peacocking: a florid display of the writer’s close attention to the world that disempowers the reader’s imagination. Looked at another way, however, the effect becomes a metonym for the condition of fiction: with the writer as our guide, we look both at and away from the world.
Christine Schutt understands more than most fiction’s necessary imbrication of things, names and ways of seeing – that, in other words, there is no objective gaze. Of the eleven stories in her fertile, dense and blooming new collection, Pure Hollywood (her first to be published in the UK), five feature gardeners prominently. There are as many ways of naming plants in the book as there are gardeners, each reflecting an inner as much as an outer landscape. ‘On the subject of plant names,’ begins the third story, ‘Species of Special Concern’, ‘Bob Cork was indifferent: the common names for things were commonly changing.’ Bob Cork’s indifference is a marker of his self-centred complacency. But the story isn’t focalised through Bob, but through his friend Dan, with whom he tends plants in his nursery. Dan takes plant names far more seriously – so seriously that he opts to name a daylily after the woman he admires most: Nancy Cork, Bob’s neglected and terminally ill wife. Thus plants, in this story, are described with their proper names and coated in a gloss of disappointment that tells us Dan’s is a story of frustrated love: ‘Dan looked out at the tired nursery: slugs on the ligularia and mildewed phlox; hostas exhausted and bee balm ruffed as fighting cocks.’ But the following story sees things differently. ‘A Happy Rural Seat of Various View: Lucinda’s Garden’ is concerned with beginnings rather than endings. A young couple, Nick and Pie – newlywed, ‘newly everything’ – tend the garden of an aunt Lucinda’s empty coastal mansion. They are careless and ignorant, their labours inexpert and clumsy, and they leave the plants looking ‘embarrassed’ and ‘shorn’. Fittingly, therefore, plants in this story aren’t named but idly, inexactly described: there are ‘hooded plants’ and ‘cupped plants’ and ‘droopers’.
In the collection’s most delicately moving story, ‘The Duchess of Albany,’ a widowed, nameless poet whose botanical vocabulary is awash with poeticism and farewell tends her late husband’s garden. The story is itself named after a plant, her favourite, a clematis (named, in turn, after a German noblewoman), which she likes for its gentility: ‘The garden was not genteel. The garden was full of thugs… The Duchess of Albany was not a thug…’ She understands that a garden is a taming of a wilderness, just as language is a taming of reality – that the gardener, like the poet, the namer, tames the real, hems it in, weeds it, endows it with nobility. This understanding is a source of terror in the title story, ‘Pure Hollywood’, in which Mimi, another recent widow, a minor Hollywood actor, takes sanctuary in her rich late husband’s famous modernist home, while wild fires rage through the area. Cocooned within the house’s aesthetic, unreal and untouchable, she tries to relax, but is unsettled by a presence outside, a gardener known only by the signs of his work: water hitting windows as he wets the house against the encroaching fires; ‘the hacking cough of his truck’; the noise of his leaf-blower. Custodian of the too-real and threatening, he is tasked with sweeping decay (‘grotesque tree-shed… brown leaves, long as shoes’) out of the picture.
Like Mimi, Schutt’s characters tend to be (or be trying to be) at leisure: on holiday, in the garden, by the pool, at the beach, on a horse. Leisure seeks exclusivity; the you-at-leisure wants to be the only you there is, to rope off everything else (work, relationships, mortality). But reality fights back. Part of Schutt’s immense skill is to show her characters in the process of roping-off, whilst making present and felt that which gets left out. Perspectives are limited, but the world beyond their tight boundaries – an anarchic world of wildness and wild fires, of refuse and decay, of ‘gaudy mayhem’, as one character thinks of the ‘muted news [that] flickers on the flat screen’ in her ‘all-purpose islanded kitchen’ – is always present.
One result is that events don’t always register as they should. A hurrying description of Mimi’s husband’s death – ‘the ambulance, the body bag, the funeral home, the furnace’ – leads into a discussion of how much the swimming pool he died in might be worth. Later, as though passing through another story, Mimi mistakenly enters a stranger’s house and witnesses an horrific murder: a woman, Dora Wozack, is shot dead by her son. The narrative passes on without comment and when, later, Mimi tries to describe it, it is language, not event, that she gets hung up on: ‘“Dora Wozack said, ‘My son’s troubled,’ or maybe, ‘My son’s trouble.’ It could have been ‘in trouble.’”’ In ‘A Happy Rural Seat…’, a pattern of unregistered event (an unknown something killed in a drink-driving incident; an unanswered phone call; a disturbing news story switched off) culminates in the glancing half-revelation that Pie has been missing for a long time, presumed dead.
Disorientation is the collection’s guiding affect. Schutt’s characters are drunk, lost, amnesiac. The grieving poet muddles the seasons: ‘She thought it was summer still if not spring but the day’s evidence said it was fall. Again!’ After Pie’s disappearance, Nick often ‘found himself standing in front of open broom closets and cabinets, in front of the dishwasher and sinks. Sometimes his hands were wet.’ Homes become unheimliche: Mimi is surprised to find her house full of strangers before remembering that its contents are in the process of being auctioned off.
The stories themselves are disoriented. In ‘The Hedges’, a superficial, not-coping couple go on holiday with a sick child who falls off a balcony to his death. In telling us this story, Schutt’s narration seems to be always in the dark, playing catch-up, eavesdropping, struggling to read the signs: ‘Sometime in the night… a cry, followed by another, sounded on the hillside. It might have been a sound of pleasure or pained pleasure or something else; the cry was ambiguous.’ Even the sentences are disoriented; information falls in the wrong order, constructions don’t seem to end up where you expect them to.
In general, Schutt’s prose is never less than striking. It has a quality of glancing exactness, as though simultaneously looking and not looking: a modern house is ‘shaped like slung plates’, a pair of nuns are ‘wimpled and sudden’. Occasionally, the prose is striking in its (artful) ugliness: a description of dusk in ‘The Hedges’ reflects the couple’s superficial engagement with the world: ‘By then, the sun had set, and the night sky’s show was blinking on quickly. A greater darkness amid the foliage squeaked notes, very pretty.’ Occasionally, it’s incomprehensible: Dora Wozack stands in her kitchen ‘yukking over a quilted jar of vodka’, whatever that means. But the opacity is important. Schutt writes with a coagulate figurative precision. Her prose is somehow crystal clear and opaque, like the thick surface of an oil painting that both figures a world and arrests your attention with its material texture. It looks at and it looks away from and it knows, in its disorientation, that the two are not always so easy to tell apart. To look at the world isn’t always to know it; to look away from it sometimes is.
These stories aren’t perfect. They’re culturally narrow, tending to focus on the limited horizons of the economically privileged. One result of writing about how things get left out is that things get left out. A reference to ‘the war-ravaged poor rocking in a boat in the middle of a black sea’ might be deliberately insufficient, but it’s still insufficient.
But what the stories do know know they know brilliantly. They know how little we can know of the world, of each other. They know that where one person looks at a garden and sees a list of plant names, another sees shapes and colours; where one person sees wildness, another sees gentility; one sees perpetuity and cycle, another decay. They know that a garden is a perspective, a roped-off aesthetic worldview. When the grieving poet of ‘The Duchess of Albany’ wants to write a poem about her late husband, the gardener, Schutt describes the act thus: ‘She put Owen in the poem, Owen or the shape of him.’ Owen’s garden is his shape, his own unique leaf-blown clearing in the wilderness, wetted against wild fire; through her care and attention, without claiming to know him, by fitting the shape of him into her own aesthetic worldview, she allows him presence in his life. And this is what these sad but hopeful stories might ultimately know best: that, if we can’t know one another, we might be able to care for one another’s gardens, even after death.