Bleak House

Christine Schutt’s small, distinguished oeuvre is notable for the attention it has received from awards committees. Her first novel, Florida, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her ...

Christine Schutt’s small, distinguished oeuvre is notable for the attention it has received from awards committees. Her first novel, Florida, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her second, All Souls, made the Pulitzer Prize shortlist. Her short stories have won O. Henry Awards and a Pushcart Prize. In 2010, she received a Guggenheim Award. Another distinction: the length of time between her publications. Each of her slim volumes is freighted with the years that went into its crafting. Her concise prose reads as if it had been held up to the revealing light of time in order to summon what James Wright called “the pure clear word.”

In Prosperous Friends, Schutt’s third novel, the author has brought her signature poetic precision to a dystopic comedy of manners triggered by the brief unhappy marriage of two MFA graduates, Isabel (née Stark) and Ned Bourne. Both are talented and comely: Ned is said to be “handsomer than Rossetti,” and a famous artist wants to immortalize Isabel on canvas. Outwardly the couple seems to live a life of promise and privilege, sojourning in England for Ned’s post-doc fellowship, then returning to their Tribeca loft in New York. That they married at all seems to be a matter of happenstance:

[A] short romance, three years if Columbia counted, no more than a sniffle, an accumulation of scenes in thrift shops and workshops, a whimsical wedding in a rhinestone casino. I will if you will yes. Las Vegas, 2002.

From there, it’s downhill all the way:

“I like melancholy,” Isabel said.
“That’s one of the problems,” Ned said. “I want to be happy more of the time.”
“You don’t say.” Isabel said.

Before their first anniversary, both spouses are already seeking distraction from their incompatibilities. Isabel adopts a blind, deaf, dying shih tzu. Ned begins an affair with the college girlfriend he was not rich enough to marry. Along the way the “prosperous friends” of the title come and go. One takes them to Rome. Another invites them to her family estate in “a rural part of New Jersey people did not mock,” and a third offers them an August retreat at Bridge House, a seaside cottage in Maine.

Unlikeable and initially unsympathetic, Isabel and Ned remain throughout this novel exactly as they are when we first meet them: mid-thirties, callow, less than diligent at their craft, and shocked by their dearth of accomplishments.

Isabel was stung by the little startles of those who knew her at what she had become. From the girl most promising—no book, no significant publications either, and online didn’t count.

As for Ned, his powerhouse agent, who represents him as a favor to Ned’s Columbia University mentor, is not impressed with his collection of short stories. What Ned needs to write, she tells him, is a memoir like his former classmate’s, entitled No One to Say It. This brief scene during an author–agent lunch slyly cues the silence that underscores Isabel and Ned’s blithe lives. For indeed, where Isabel and Ned are concerned, there is no one to say it. Neither can scale the cliff walls of their narcissism. They don’t know what they want. They don’t even know that they want.

“How do you like this?”
“Yes, well. No, not exactly.”
“How about this?”
“A little.”
“No. No, that hurts. That really hurts, Ned!”

No one to say it—except for Schutt’s artful omniscient narrator, which, against great odds, engenders sympathy for these two emotional mutes playacting at marriage and writing careers. Through elision and counterpoint the narrator reveals the mournful depths of their unconscious desires.

The unmanning memory of the Clam Box. The Clam Box on the dock, that lidded, sunken, mossy place, hurried, humid, steaming tubs of shellfish, small orange light; it was here they all sat—two, three nights ago.

“Don’t,” Isabel had advised Ned behind their menus.
“Don’t what?”
“Oh, to hell with it. Do what you want.”

Schutt uses her narrator to inform the reader of all that Ned and Isabel are incapable of knowing. That knowledge is hidden in the spaces between what is said and done in the novel, working the way a metaphor works: What is not said becomes full and apparent in the reader’s imagination by comparative association to what is, an intuitive perception that Ned and Isabel clearly lack. If the soundtrack to the surface lives of the couple is a tinny piano, the narrator’s song is all cello—as Kandinsky imagined it—playing “the deepest blue.”

In the last week she had told him that his penis was small.
That his penis was small, he knew; but her cunt, he said, was enormous.
In whatever game it was they played, Ned and Isabel had made a point of staying even.
“You want me to pay attention,” Ned said. “I know. I’m trying.”
She curled his belt in a shoe box for charity, but his hairbrush she kept for his smell.
Why do that?
How could she explain herself to herself or to anyone?

Through her narrator, Schutt offers the reader a poignant vision of what might have been—for these two, for a certain socioeconomically privileged generation, for married couples in general.

The novel ends with a character recalling the fate of Baucis and Philemon. After unknowingly offering food and succor beyond their means to Zeus and Hermes disguised as peasants, the elderly couple is granted one wish. They ask to die together, so that in dying they have only enough time to cry, “‘Farewell, dear companion,’ before they turn into trees, a linden and an oak, sprung from one trunk.” In light of Isabel and Ned’s disastrous union, the narrator may be invoking a working model for marriage—or reminding us that ideal marriages are mythical. icon