Christine Schutt came to national prominence in 2004 when she, alongside 4 other “quiet” “women” writers, were selected as finalists for the National Book Award. The minor outcry in the wake of the selections—how dare the people entrusted with the privilege of bestowing such honors ignore the too-big-to-fail turds?—handily revealed the implicit assumptions about what kind of fiction is considered worthy by the gatekeepers of our literary discourse, and it also had another benefit: an author of Schutt’s great talents and dedication was momentarily bandied about in the nation’s major reviews of books.
One wonders what those same people would have made of Virginia Woolf, were she alive, largely unknown, and being published as a midlist author on a midsized press today. I mention Woolf because Schutt references her more than once and resembles her to an impressive degree in her 2008 novel All Souls.
The book takes place amid the senior class in an elite women’s high school for the 1996-97 school year. What I most admire about this book—well, what I most admire is the writing, plain and simple, more on that in a moment—what I most admire about this book is its ability to enter the adolescent mind without itself being adolescent. Schutt has really captured what it feels like to be a high school teenager; that sense of practicing for real life, yet of also taking yourself deadly seriously—the book is robust with the thoughts, the notes, the essays of the teen mind—but she puts it into language that is so mature and refined and reflective; you get a momentary whiff of your teenage years while at the same time a sort of meditative, adult perspective on what it all means.
At the same time All Souls is a remarkably tactile book. There’s a bit about hair buried in there that gets at it. A bunch of seniors at the high school have just given a dance performance, and they are changing into their street clothes:
. . . Damn. Her mother was in the dressing room.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t wait. You were all so beautiful.” Mrs. Van de Ven, jostled, backed away from the door, watching. Far-fetched hair, lots of hair, spectacularly flying free of popping hair bands, hair astonishingly clean and glassy. If she could touch it . . .
“Mother, please, we’re all getting changed in here.”
There is so much happening here. First of all, that sentence where Schutt uses “hair” three times, it always puts me in mind of a very youthful plenitude (so much hair flying everywhere!), potentiated by the fact that it comes through the mind of an older woman who achingly remembers that she was once this age with her own bounteous hair. I read this and I can see all that hair, really feel it. And look at how economical Schutt is, just one 18-word sentence is needed.
But then, too, the way Schutt weaves from daughter’s consciousness to mother’s, the way we get the counterpoint, that childish irritation that comes from taking one’s mother for granted (which we all do at that age), contrasted against the mother who can no longer quite remember what that was like to think that like, and for just a second is beguiled and wants to have a way to get back into that adolescent world.
I suppose if you were of a certain disposition you could attack All Souls for being very much about beauty and hair, in the same way that someone might attack Mrs. Dalloway for being about a society lady throwing a party. In both cases it would be dumb, and for the same reason.
I’d like now to talk for a second about Schutt’s prose. In an interview between her and the critic David Winters that I published a few years back, Schutt says this about her own writing:
Christine Schutt: “By the mouth, for the ear”—is there any other way in which to write? For me, banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing. Hearing story is part of reading’s pleasure: “(S)he swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful./ She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished/ That heaven had made her such a man.” Why should we wonder at Desdemona’s “downright violence, and storm of fortunes” to wed the Moor and “with a greedy ear/Devour up (his) discourse”? Shakespeare gives a writer license to be extravagant with sound.
But ear alone can’t be all. Eyes (in the sense of image) and mind (capturing a scene) must be appealed to. Take the first sentence from an early story of mine, “The Summer After Barbara Claffey”: “I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck.” Sound, yes, but something is happening in the sentence that is meant to captivate from both a visual and plot standpoint. My stories may be musically arranged but there is also event, there is also action.
I think she gets it very right. The groupings of words that Schutt gives us in All Souls are often unusual, the prose feels very fresh and original to my ear. Yet it is also very, very tactile (as I’ve been saying), there is much action and emotion and personality in this book; in this book you are never far from some dilemma, some disappointment, some earnest reflection, some aspiration, some snide observation, some nostalgia . . . even though the prose and the shape of this book continually push themselves toward things that have never been seen in a literary novel.
Long story short: I don’t know very many novels that try to write about teenage women (or, really, teenagers at all), it’s just not a subject that gets taken very seriously in literary fiction, and not so many people do it; of those that do, it’s hard to think of novels that get beyond the typical tropes and clichés of this subject, or that don’t get swallowed up in a self-conscious effort to defy those things. All Souls feels easy, effortless. It makes this subject feel meaningful, and it makes it feel new, and it does it all very lightly, in the way that could easily be missed if you were not disposed to take this book seriously. It’s one of those wonderful books that is very much about language but it also very much about life and reality and our experiences of the world.