Friday, May 17, 2019

"Strangers and Cousins"

Leah Hager Cohen was born in Manhattan and raised at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens and later in Nyack, New York. She attended Hampshire College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The author of five novels and five works of nonfiction, she is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross.

Cohen applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Strangers and Cousins, and reported the following:
Hm. I wonder what I’d even consider “representative” of Strangers and Cousins, which seems to me, more than my other books, an odd mix of voices. The point of view rolls around quite a bit – not even shifting in neat sections; it’s really very rolly. We slip in and out of various characters’ thoughts and memories. At times we even consider things from the perspective of a mouse, at times from the perspective of the moon.

On page 69 we are more or less inside Bennie’s head. Bennie, the mother, the de facto matriarch of the Blumenthal family, is sitting in the kitchen thinking about her somewhat wayward younger brother, Lloyd, whom she hasn’t seen in two years, and who is due to arrive that afternoon with his daughter Ellerby – just two of the many people descending upon the old family homestead in advance of her eldest child’s wedding at the end of the week.

Bennie finds Lloyd a bit maddening, a bit inscrutable. One part prodigal son, one part Eeyore. And her thoughts pinball from the disparaging to the forgiving to the fretting to the lovingly mocking. Deep down she’s hurt that he never accepts help from her, but it’s so deep down she’s not even quite aware of it:
That was the thing about Lloyd, the thing that made him at once irremediably lovable and irremediably infuriating: the graciousness of his demurrals, which made you always yearn to offer him more, or offer him something different, always in hopes that you’d come up at last with the elusive thing he might actually accept, so you’d keep striving for this, failing to acknowledge its certain futility.

Well – but he had accepted the invitation to Clem’s wedding. Managed to RSVP and everything. They’ll be here today, he and Ellerby – another thing to prepare for. Even if she does wind up roping them into lending a hand with the scullery work later this week, she does at the very least need to have beds made up for them when they get here. Not to mention have dinner to serve. And, asterisk to that: her brother’s ever-changing dietary preferences to cater to.

Fake butter, she adds to one of her lists. Soy/almond milk.
Then her thoughts are interrupted by one of her children coming into the room – that’s another thing about this novel: no one’s stream of consciousness goes on for long without interruption, because people are forever entering or exiting the stage (so to speak) in a jumble of slightly slapstick activity:
Speaking of brothers: “Where’s your brother?” she demands of Mantha, who’s wandered into the kitchen and is poking around the fruit bowl. “What are you looking for?”

“A plum that isn’t squishy.”

“Well stop that. Just take one. You’re making them all squishy. Where’s your brother?”

Mantha takes a plum and gives it a distrustful, millimeter-long lick.
If there’s a way in which page 69 is representative of the book, it may be in this very interruption, in the overlap, the swerve from large abstract thoughts about the very essence of a bewildering loved one to the staccato practicalities of shopping lists to the found poetry of a scrap of mother-daughter banter. All stitched into a mammoth, messy patchwork quilt.
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--Marshal Zeringue