Sunday, September 29, 2013

"The Last First Day"

Carrie Brown and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, have spent their working lives writing and teaching side by side in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Sweet Briar College, where John Gregory Brown directs the College’s creative writing program.

They have published ten books between them and raised three children on the campus at Sweet Briar. Over the years, they have been fortunate to host many of the world’s great writers at their home, Sanctuary Cottage, and to introduce those writers and their work to hundreds of students.

Brown now serves as Distinguished Visiting Professor at nearby Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she lives at the University and works with undergraduate and graduate students in the University’s esteemed creative writing program. She and her husband travel between the two literary landscapes and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Brown applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Last First Day, and reported the following:
Time is important in the novel. Its title -- The Last First Day, a phase that sort of folds in on itself; you have to stop and think -- reflects the way that time and memory operate, which, as we all know, is not linear. Page 69, as it happens, is one of the many non-linear moments by which the story progresses. We call such moments “flashbacks,” of course, for the way they collapse time in a flash, but in the case of this novel, the forward and back in time are so interwoven, that flashback doesn’t seem the right word. The flashes here are like distant lightning pulsing all night long on the dark horizon. The past is always with these characters.

The Last First Day is the story of a marriage, told primarily from the point of view of the wife, Ruth. Her husband, Peter, becomes the beloved headmaster of a boys’ boarding school in Maine in the early 1960s, and he remains at his post for nearly fifty years, with Ruth by his side. The couple meet as children, and they remain together, except for one nearly tragic separation, for the rest of their lives.

The novel is divided into two parts, “The Last Day” and “The First Day.” I was reading a lot of novellas while working on the book, and it was my intention that the parts could stand alone. Every school year has its first day, of course, and the first part of the novel –“The Last Day” -- begins and ends with what will turn out to be the last first day of the school year for Ruth and Peter. The second part of the novel – “The First Day” – also ends where it began (though a little less directly), which is the scene of the couple’s first meeting. The inversion here – that we begin with the end – is purposeful. The novel is a retrospective, and I hope it contains the pleasures of a retrospective, which is that we see the ending in the beginning and vice versa.

Ruth’s experience – her love for Peter, her struggle to define herself as separate from her husband, in an era when women were often expected to put aside their own lives for the sake of their husband’s career -- is the current that flows through the novel. It is not a current that obeys any law of gravity or follows the usual behavior of waterways, however, which is to head in one direction toward the sea. The novel moves forward and back in time, circling certain moments, eddying in pools, contemplating the riverbank, retrieving and rethinking and remembering. In the course of this journey, the reader learns about Ruth and Peter’s lives and comes to see the ways in which their lives and their marriage – like any life or any marriage – contain happiness and sadness, tedium and passion, spans of tranquility, winters of discontent, brinks of disaster. Ruth comes to see and understand her life both accurately and inaccurately, as we all do. Her love for Peter, however, and his for her – is the landmark on the horizon by which Ruth keeps righting herself. Sometimes she is lost, but it is in her love for Peter – a generous and deep love -- that she most fully finds herself.

I hope the novel delivers what I think Virginia Woolf once said she wanted to convey with a story or a sentence: the felt experience of another human being …without impediment. I am a great admirer of Woolf, especially Mrs. Dalloway, with its breathtaking luxuriance of time (oddly, the more time there is, and the less rush, the more suspense is created). In general, the more complex the ways in which a novel moves through time – think Proust, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Alice Munro, for instance -- the happier I am. I have an affinity as a reader and a writer for stories and novels that balance the world on the head of a pin, as it were.

On page 69 of the novel, Ruth and Peter are at a doctor’s office, receiving a diagnosis for Peter that is not fatal, though it is serious. It is a moment of complicated time – Ruth is recalling this moment just as the first day of the school year, which has been punctuated with vague warnings and stirrings of unease, comes to a close. In Ruth and Peter’s conversation with the doctor, we see Ruth’s terror at the prospect of losing Peter, her guilt that she has been insufficiently attentive to symptoms that she now learns are real, and also a tiny portrait of Peter: when he “obediently” puts on the big folding cardboard sunglasses given to him by the doctor, he looks “ridiculous.” This is a moment of dismay for Ruth, as she sees this deeply respected man whom she loves so much appear vulnerable. It is also a little reminder of the intimacy of marriage, where one is likely to appear ridiculous or vulnerable at least some of the time.

That a little moment of terror and sadness reappears for Ruth as the sun begins to set on this momentous last first day (though she does not know it will be the last) is part of the novel’s strategy of sounding various notes all at once, like bells of both warning and celebration being rung all over town.

Why is time the underlying theme of the novel, you might ask? Well, the older I get, the more aware of it I become. It might be that simple. I think it was the writer Ron Carlson who said that stories are the ways that writers stage dress rehearsals for events that worry them. In a story, one can boss things around so that one feels less helpless. Perhaps I was, with one eye closed, looking ahead from the vantage of my own long marriage at my husband’s and my inevitable and final parting.

Page 69:
Ruth had felt stricken. She had thought Peter was getting taller somehow, but it seemed so unlikely. He’d lost some weight, and she’d attributed the odd effect of his apparently increased height to that change in his appearance. But he’d complained about his shoes, and just the week before she’d replaced both his ancient wingtips and a pair of sneakers.

The syndrome, it turned out, was a form of giantism. Marfan syndrome, the doctor had continued, an uncommon genetic disease, an inherited defect of connective tissue. It was relatively rare, though less so than one might think, he said.

I’ve never seen it before, actually, he admitted, but there was no reason for them to worry about it much in a man of Peter’s age.

Others things, he implied, unsmiling, would probably finish off Peter first.

Peter had taken the news with what Ruth considered freakish calm.

In truth, though, there was little to be done. He had regular echocardiograms, as there could be trouble with deterioration of the walls of the aorta, an enlargement of the heart. (How terrible and ironic, Ruth had thought, if Peter should die because his heart was too big.) But so far he’d been fine. Other than new prescriptions for his glasses – at least every year and sometimes more often -- there hadn’t been anything else in terms of treatment, they’d been told.

The doctor had put more drops in Peter’s eyes that day and sent him off with a pair of folding cardboard sunglasses, which he obediently had put on. They were much too large, even for his big head, and he had looked ridiculous.
Learn more about the book and author at Carrie Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Last First Day.

--Marshal Zeringue