Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Frankie Adams is an “unjoined person.” Part of her craves connection, part of her is attracted by disconnection. She is contrary: sometimes sweet, sometimes bad-tempered; sometimes practical sometimes ethereal. She is an innocent, a twelve-year-old still baffled by the adult world and simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it. She is deeply in love with her brother and his soon-to-be bride and the focus of the book is her implacable but doomed resolve that, after the wedding, the three of them will drive off together into the wilderness. The Member of the Wedding is the most beautiful evocation of loneliness I’ve read since – oh, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers has officially become my new favourite author, and Frankie Adams joins Mick Kelley in my list of favourite characters.

Read on a simple level, The Member of the Wedding is a gentle, beautiful, witty and sad story of adolescent confusion. Even read on this level it is a great work. But it goes deeper than this, of course. Otherwise we would be left with a novel presenting only the cliched oxymorons of teenage angst, that life can be bitter and sweet, funny and sad. That isn’t to decry such works – they have a power of their own – but Carson McCullers’s perception of human nature goes far beyond such truisms. Her disconnection is a cry for love, and her love is fractured by disconnection. It’s a circularity that is all too common. It’s been the basic theme of my own writing for as long as I’ve been a writer, and I’ll never come close to approaching McCullers’s insight or literary genius.

In The Member of the Wedding, she presents us with three fragile human beings: the gangly outsider Frankie; her black, four-times-married maid, Berenice and her first cousin, six-year-old John Henry. The interplay between these disparate characters is remarkable. These ordinary people, none of them eloquent in the ways of human love, together nonetheless manage to reveal extraordinary truths. Each has been born into a fixed identity, into a role that society expects of them – Berenice already to service; Frankie, in time, to marriage and children; and John Henry, even later, to a lifetime in the workplace of men. But each of these characters, in their own way, eschews convention.

The pre-war certainties of gender and race give way here to an understanding, simply, of people as people. John Henry reckons people should be “half boy and half girl”; Frankie wants them to change back and forward between sexes; Berenice imagines a world where everyone is light brown with blue eyes and black hair. Theirs are worlds of fairness and goodness. They even begin to criticise the Creator and each, in turn, assumes the role of “Holy Lord God” and decrees a better world. John Henry’s is “a mixture of delicious and freak”; Berenice’s contains no war, “[n]o stiff corpses hanging from the Europe trees and no Jews murdered anywhere”; Frankie’s is “the hest of the three worlds”, in which she builds on Berenice’s basic concept, but adding “an aeroplane and a motor-cycle to each person, a world club with certificates and badges, and a better law of gravity”.

Their conversations around the kitchen table are perfectly judged. They are slightly stylised, so that some of the subject matter, when considered rationally, would be beyond at least the two children; but, even so, the fictive dream holds: their visions of a better world are lucid and appealing and we remain in thrall to these three uncommon sages.

This is no, Eden, however. McCullers is no Pangloss and the imagined worlds of her characters are ultimately revealed not to be El Dorado. Although wildly humorous and broadly uplifting, The Member of the Wedding is explicit in its depiction of the disconnection of modern life. The experiences of its characters make this clear.

The central character is Frankie, our free-spirited, lonely, happy/unhappy, bored/engaged young tomboy. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father is remote and incomprehending of his daughter. Frankie feels herself an outsider and dreams of escape. The novel begins:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

She has dreams, and as the novel begins those dreams coalesce around her fantasy of accompanying her brother and his fiancee on their imminent honeymoon and beyond. She will, literally, become a “member of the wedding” and the three of them will head afterwards into the wilderness of Alaska and eventually they will make “thousands of friends, thousands and thousands and thousands of friends.” They will be, she concludes, “members of the whole world”. Thus, we have escape and flight, those essentials of freedom; but we also have family connection, the assertion of familial bonds more loving than those attaching Frankie to her father; and, more than that, we have a strong sense of human connection, a promise of companionship among the entire human family. The confusion wrought by her childhood alienation is thus, in Frankie’s eyes, brought to a perfect resolution: freedom, with control; escape, with ties; family, with community; private, with public. In Frankie’s adolescent mind, such contradictions offer entirely practicable solutions to the intractable problems of loneliness and hope and fear.

But Frankie’s entrance into adulthood is not, as we readers quickly intuit, going to be so easy. The day of the wedding is, naturally, a disaster. The bride manquée is spurned. But even before this, Frankie’s lessons are harsh. Styling herself F. Jasmine to separate her grown-up self from the childish Frankie she has come to hate, she goes into town and enters a bar. Here, she is mistaken by a soldier for a much older girl and, unable to refuse, goes with him to his room, where he attempts to seduce her. F. Jasmine is so innocent she doesn’t even realise what is happening, only later making a connection between this and an earlier experience, when she witnessed the lodger and his wife in their room, as the lodger appeared to be having some form of fit. Growing up, then, is not an idyllic rite of passage, and those who dismiss The Member of the Wedding in such terms are not doing it justice.

Accompanying Frankie through much of the narrative are Berenice and John Henry. Berenice, old (“I bet you are forty years old,” says Frankie) and wise, represents the adulthood to which Frankie aspires, and John Henry, her young cousin, the childhood from which she is retreating. The truth, of course, is more complicated than that: at various times the woman retains the sense of a child, and the boy reveals the insight of a man. But, in this way, the three form a unique bond. At one point, one of the most beautiful in the novel, they each burst into tears at precisely the same moment: “suddenly it started, though why and how they did not know; the three of them began to cry... and though their reasons were three different reasons, yet they started at the same instant as though they had agreed together.” It is one of the most arresting scenes I’ve read in a long time, a middle-aged black woman, a tomboy half-girl, half-woman and an infant boy, sitting round a table, crying. It is inexplicably moving.

Berenice is lost in the past. She has married four times, but the latter three occasions are to men whom she married only because, in different ways, they reminded her of her true love, her first husband Ludie, who died of pneumonia the same year that Frankie was born. She married him when she was thirteen – that is when she was only a year older than Frankie is now. Thus, while Frankie is straining to embrace the future and move into adulthood, Berenice’s emotional development has stalled completely: an adult, dismissive of Frankie’s childish whims, she is nonetheless stuck in the past, holding to memories of younger, happier times, and is as confounded by visions of the future as the confused child.

The final member of the triumvirate is John Henry West. How difficult is it to write convincingly of a six-year-old main character? Cormac McCarthy tried and failed in The Crossing: in the early drafts Boyd Parham is only seven, but by the time of the published draft he has aged to fourteen. But John Henry West is a living, breathing boy. In a way, in some emotional or spiritual sense, he is the eldest of the three, wise beyond his years, calm and sensible, except when he is covering the walls of the kitchen with “queer, child drawings” or picturing the freaks from the Chattahoochee Exposition who so excite his interest. His heartbreaking fate represents the end of childhood and, no matter how much we always want to break that bond at the time, age and experience and weariness usually return us, at one time or another, to a sense of nostalgia for those lost days. John Henry reminds us that we cannot.

So what is The Member of the Wedding about? For McCullers, it is about belonging. She writes:

I to think the idea of wanting to belong haunts every child. And not only children. I think it is the primary question: ‘Who am I? What am I? Or, where do I belong? and where can I belong?’ But childhood or adolescence is a time of crisis, and such questions are more haunting, more immediate, then.

It is that, and it’s more than that. Belonging is a basic human desire but it brings with it, too, a sense of need. And it requires love, and faith, and trust. The necessity of love and the difficulty of love – whether that is romantic love or familial love or societal love – that is what this novel addresses. That something so necessary and so beautiful can be, at the same time, so painful is what makes love such a difficult emotion to manage. And that is why our human connections are always so fragile.

The saddest, most beautiful reflection of this sad and beautiful book is that, throughout, Frankie is connected. All along, she is indeed part of a marriage of three – a marriage between her and Berenice and John Henry. But, as it transpires, this marriage is as illusory as the one in Frankie’s imagination, and it fractures into tragedy. The triumph of The Member of the Wedding is that, through this tragedy, a sense of hope remains.


aliceunderskies said...

Lovely review of one of my favourite books. Thank you.

Unknown said...

What a delightful review. Having just finished the book and judged it as one of the very finest novels I have ever read (far superior to THILH) I was grateful for your insights.

A Crossland