Friends With(out) Benefits: Christine Schutt’s Portrait of a Dying Marriage

In his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James relays a story he


In his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James relays a story he once heard Ivan Turgenev tell about his writing process:

It began for him almost always with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were. He saw them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances, the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and to feel.

Christine Schutt—the author of two story collections and two previous novels, the 2004 National Book Award finalist Florida and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist All Souls—has never struck me as a particularly Jamesian writer. Her artistic genealogy includes Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Robert Lowell and the Gordon Lish school of high-gravity minimalism; her collected works probably run about the length of The Portrait of a Lady. And yet the characters in her new novel, Prosperous Friends (Grove/Atlantic, 224 pages, $24.00), a small but powerful work of craftsmanship, are—likeTurgenev’s—vivid, hovering, and very much disponsibles, though not necessarily to one another. Then again, later in James’s anecdote, he reports that Turgenev said he would rather his novels had “too little architecture than too much.” Ms. Schutt does not consider story and structure as separate entities. For her form is content, which, come to think of it, is hardly an un-Jamesian proposition. While her sentences are lyrical and flowing—she is perhaps the single best practitioner of the acoustical clustering technique Mr. Lish has described as “consecution”—her scenes tend to be stripped-down and brutally juxtaposed. Here’s a chapter from Florida—one of several entitled “Father”—in its entirety:

I found him, I think, on my own. Late summer in a far-afield family site, I stood at his grave and tried to communicate. A radio played somewhere loudly, and I couldn’t think what I was to him or would have wanted to be with this racket going on. Tunes from the 1960s, for Christ’s sake, and coy impatiens growing so easily around his stone, I couldn’t think who he was to me—but some kind of father, surely.

Other recurring chapter titles in Floridainclude “Mother,” “Tucson” and “The Big House.” Sometimes Ms. Schutt will end a scene or chapter with a word and then begin the next scene or chapter with the same word, using the repetition as a conceptual bridge over the troubled water of the blank space. It’s doubtful that she would ever make a claim along the lines of James’s famous assertion that he created Isabel Archer (the heroine of Portrait of a Lady) before giving a thought to the story he would tell about her. Ms. Schutt’s characters and their stories are inextricable from the worlds they inhabit. Prosperous Friends, like all of Ms. Schutt’s fictions, is an island ecosystem—a Madagascar, a Galapagos—evolved in isolation, where new and strange forms thrive; the results are marvelous and startling.

The Isabel at the center of Prosperous Friends is Isabel Bourne (née Stark). She is first encountered as a disembodied voice heard sobbing through the wall of a bed and breakfast by its elderly proprietors, Ed and Aura. “The girl’s crying was wholehearted, a baby’s kind, in no way self-conscious: but unlike a baby’s crying, the girl’s had nothing to do with discomfort or hunger. Hers was purely announced sorrow.” The old woman speculates to herself about the cause of this sorrow (“Infidelity? Boredom?”), but does not get involved. In the morning her husband mentions the noise, which he interprets as a purely announced pleasure—“So she wasn’t moaning?” he asks his exasperated wife. “No matter: the young couple left the next morning. They left before breakfast, which Aura thought was wasteful.” The prologue ends with Aura troubled by a liver spot on her hand, and Ed congratulating himself on having reached the ripe old age of eighty-two.

Though they don’t play any significant role in the story proper, Ed and Aura carry the novel’s thematic fire: they introduce several key motifs with graceful indirection (aging, marriage, money), and their marriage can be said to offer a kind of control group for the more experimental arrangements made by the novel’s central characters: Ned and Isabel Bourne, young unhappy newlyweds; Ben and Phoebe Harris, Ned’s ex and her wealthy husband; and Clive and Dinah Harris, Ben’s famous(ish) painter uncle and his second wife.

We meet Isabel and Ned properly in chapter one, set two years earlier in Europe, where Ned has her engaged in semi-consensual petting against a wall in an English church. They’re both short story writers; they met in a writing workshop at Columbia around the turn of the millennium. They’re spending 2002 in England because Ned has a fellowship (and perhaps, though it goes unstated, because they fled New York after 9/11). They’re living in a place called Lime House, and he’s at work on a story collection he’ll come to call Lime House Stories. It will fail to sell. (His agent will push him to write a memoir; he’ll find this notion disgusting but attempt it anyway, and then be further disgusted by the ease with which the cheap pathos comes.) Isabel has fond memories of a road trip across the U.S. that she and Ned took in the summer of 2001, but whatever love or excitement they shared during that time has long since withered. In Europe they are barely able to communicate—their conversations are terse and recriminatory, their sex life flustered and dispiriting. Ned is frustrated with Isabel but also rough with her, while Isabel is increasingly frigid. She does grant herself a fling with a girl she encounters (identified only as G.) and there’s a maybe-maybe-not-consummated flirtation with Ned’s creepy friend Fife on a trip to Italy, but the general sense of Isabel is of someone who has extinguished her own desire.

The Bournes return to New York City in 2003 and take up residence in a loft on White Street, blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center. Things don’t get better. A visit to New Jersey to see their “prosperous friends” Ben and Phoebe is wrought with tension and indiscretion. Ned takes meetings with his agent. Isabel sulks and mulls and fosters an old blind shih tzu.

Things change in 2004, when Clive, the painter, takes Isabel out to lunch, seduces her, then invites her to spend some time on his estate in Maine—she will pose for him, but have a nearby house to herself, country air to clear her head, and plenty of time to write. (In a side plot, Clive’s grown daughter Sally, a former addict, claims that she owns the would-be guest house, and that it isn’t Clive’s to offer.) It’s Isabel’s own version of Ned’s fellowship, maybe, though in the time since London the marriage has soured so considerably—not that it was ever very sweet—that it’s actually astonishing when Isabel allows Ned to come along.

So why does Isabel let Ned join her? Is she making a misguided attempt at reconciliation? Is she hoping Ned’s presence will forestall her own inevitable fling with Clive, or is she eager for the chance to throw her infidelity in his face? Does she just want to keep Ned where she can see him, that is, away from Phoebe? It is here that Ms. Schutt’s Isabel may have the most in common with James’s—her motivations, her actions, her being, are ultimately inscrutable.

But whereas James saved his unknown known for the end of his novel, Ms. Schutt’s comes halfway through hers, which means that—in technical terms—something’s gotta give. Adroitly, she shifts the focus of the narrative from the Bournes to the elder Harrises. Dinah Harris, in particular, emerges as a major character, perhaps the worldly counter-force to the unexamined piety of Aura and Ed. “Oh, why were the young so slow to turn to life when they had it?” Dinah wonders, observing the Bourne marriage in its late stages of collapse. She pities the Bournes for the pain they’re going through, but unlike Aura, who wondered what the problem could be (“Infidelity? Boredom?”), Dinah believes that reasons are mostly excuses, because misery is always freely chosen—your loved ones can only hurt you if you elect to find their behavior hurtful. Dinah, for example, tolerates or even condones Clive’s serial infidelities, which is why it’s no trouble for her to be tender toward Isabel, who is, after all, merely the latest in a long line of figure models who end up on their knees in her husband’s studio.

Prosperous Friends is intimate and alien as a dream. Like poetry, it rewards careful reading, and though brief, the questions it raises linger, unanswerable and self-complicating. There is, for instance, a level at which the novel suggests that the Bournes would be happier if they only modeled themselves on the Harrises. The Harrises certainly believe this. But if their pity for the Bournes—along with its attendant condescension—is in some respects the wisdom of experience, it is also deeply self-justifying, and therefore suspect or even corrupt. The more time one spends with the Harrises, the more one begins to suspect that they are not so much satisfied as resigned, and that while their happiness may be real enough, it is marbled with despair. Moreover, it may be that Ned and Dinah do see themselves on the Harris trajectory, and that this fact doesn’t alleviate but rather compounds their misery and dread. Clive, after all, is an established painter but neither a revered nor an important one, and Dinah is a functional drunk who grinds out poems about the lunch leftovers. So much for prosperous friends.

Friends With(out) Benefits: Christine Schutt’s Portrait of a Dying Marriage