Wednesday, September 30, 2009

All The Living by CE Morgan

All The Living is a slowly unfolding, melancholic story of southern living, suffused with traditional southern spirit. Set in the present, it could, with its old-time preachers and fundamentalist morality and strict work ethic, have taken place any time in the past hundred years or more. It follows a young, orphaned woman Aloma, who moves in with tobacco farmer Orren in the aftermath of an accident which is often mentioned but little described, but which has killed Orren’s entire family. Together, the couple try to fashion a relationship, while struggling with a drought which threatens their tobacco harvest and with small-scale farming difficulties made more difficult by the lack of available hands, by Aloma’s unproficiency at country living and by Orren’s increasing inability to ask for help. There is, throughout, a sense of claustrophobia, of people enclosed in their small lives, unable not only to escape but even to comprehend that there might be the concept of escape.

The novel begins after the car accident, with Aloma moving in with Orren on his Kentucky farm. They do not, however, move into the new farm house in which Orren and his deceased family had lived, but the older, original farm house, which is running to disrepair and is redolent with – to Aloma – challenging memories of the family’s ancestry. Orren is reluctant to do anything with the new house, or even to visit it; clearly, there is too much emotional weight bearing on it, and the first portents of the difficulties this young couple might encounter are exposed. Gradually, tensions arise. Aloma tries to settle into farm life, teaching herself to cook, helping when she can, but she is not naturally suited to farm life and her frustrations grow. She is a talented pianist, apparently trained to a high standard, but the piano in their house has been neglected beyond repair. She enquires at the local church whether they require a pianist and, although initially rebuffed, she quickly has a chance to show her ability and is engaged on a regular basis. This allows her the opportunity to practice whenever she wants, as long as the minister, Bell, is present, and Aloma relieves the frustrations of her life with the uncommunicative Orren by returning to her first love of playing piano.

What follows, in terms of plot, is slight and somewhat predictable. Her relationship with Orren becomes ever more tense; that with the preacher Bell begins to develop. We are being shepherded to a climax, which we know will come when Aloma’s relationship with Orren, which she has hidden from Bell, is exposed, and this is, indeed, what duly happens. That isn’t to say the novel is without interest, for although there is a grim inevitability about the unfolding events, CE Morgan’s prose is so beautiful, and her pacing – deliberately, deliciously slow – captures the mood perfectly. (That said, there is an archness about the way she turns nouns into verbs, and the Cormac McCarthyesque lack of punctuation for dialogue is tiresome.)

There is, throughout, a strong religious undercurrent here. Morgan is a Divinity graduate, and she is following in the long tradition of religiously-inflected southern writing. There is no grotesquery here, however; the characters are, perhaps, stock, but they are not caricatured, and their actions feel like the actions of characters following their God, rather than a Haze Motes or a Tarwater following their author’s following of her God. These are not O’Connorish puppets. There is no redemption at the end of the novel, and only a prospect of grace. Matters are resolved – of a fashion – but ambiguity and uncertainty remain as potent at the conclusion as they were at the beginning. For that, Morgan deserves respect: she clearly has her view of the spiritual, but she does not force it on her characters. It makes her message all the more powerful. All The Living is a very fine novel.


DorreenG. said...

Excellent review...As a transplanted Southerner, born not far from where this book was written, I just wanted to add a little nuance to a very small comment in your review. You mention that you don't like the way Morgan uses nouns as verbs, but this is a VERY common feature of language in the Appalachain region. It's a very normal thing for people to do this, you hear it in everyday speech used by old timers. My grandmother would always say 'pencil' for 'add up', as in 'that doesn't add up'. One of the characters says this. The narrator in this book is constantly weaving in old Southern words and usage into the narration and I really loved this. Of course, I'm from there!
Another thing, I don't actually think all these characters are following their God. I don't think Orren has a God. He's lost his religion, as they say.

I wish there were quote marks too. I was rereading a lot of sentences.

Ken Hannahs said...

The problem with the Southern novel is that it has all become a second-rate affair behind Faulkner and O'Connor. Any time you write a book that falls into the realm of 'Southern' you will inevitably be given a negative review as it is not the work of genius sprouted from these two greats. This, to me, is odd as there is no other region on the planet where this myopic stance on literature is as evident. I haven't read 'All The Living,' but living in Georgia and loving the language of the south, I am now more likely to pick it up. (First on my list, however, is American Pastoral)

Great write up, as I have said before, I love your write ups and your eclectic taste in literature. It is a (pardon the cliche) a breath of fresh air that there are still people who don't consign their entire literary repitoire to one genre. Kudos to you!


Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Dorreen.

Yes, thinking about it, I have noticed the dialogue in southern novels often does this, that's very true.

In this one, for me Morgan does it a bit too much in her narrative, though. It feels like she's straining just a touch too much for the distinctive voice and the beautiful phrase. I don't think she needs to do that because she uses words beautifully anyway. But you make a good point, though.

Orren: yes, you may be right on that, too. Or is his religion the earth/the environment/farming? This, it seems to me, is becoming an increasing trend in fiction: the religion of environmentalism.

Ken: yes, it's strange how, even still, the southern novel is gauged against Faulkner, O'Connor et al. Perhaps they bring it on themselves to an extent, because there is still a conservative element to southern writing, wanting to go back to a pastorally idyllic time, so there is in their makeup a tendency to sentimentalise the past, including their writers. Is that fair? But yes, it must be frustrating for southern writers to see every review compare them to one of the southern pantheon.

Glad you enjoy the reviews. Coetzee coming up...