Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Review: The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart
       
Author: Alice Walker

Author's (spectacular, bilingual, Old Left) web page: http://alicewalkersgarden.com/
       
Date: 2000
       
Publisher: Random House
       
       
Length: 200 pages
       
Quote: “[O]ur people, the American race, lovers who falter and sometimes fail, are good.”
       
Toward the end of the 1990s Alice Walker’s long-strained marriage finally fell apart, and she wrote this collection of feel-good stories about people who’ve loved and lost and enjoyed some sort of comfort again. Undoubtedly it was cheaper than therapy and safer than medication.
       
The stories don’t really cohere to form a novel, and relatively little happens in them. Time passes, and people go to bed, get up, cook food, get massages, listen to music, smoke marijuana. (One of them also eats “magic mushrooms.”) They seek pleasure, alone or together, and find it without too much effort. Some of them may be successful on their jobs, but the only successes they seek and find in these stories consist of managing their misery. Well, at least they steer clear of Prozac...
       
Regular readers can probably guess my reaction to these characters. I think they have become comfortably numb. I miss the intense integrity of Meridian, even the fierce, edge-of-sanity compassion of Possessing the Secret of Joy. Granted, the characters in these stories aren’t being called upon to confront external evil as Meridian, Tashi, or Grange Copeland was. Their sufferings have been caused by the evil within themselves. I would like them better if they’d confronted those evils within themselves as bravely as the characters in Walker’s better novels confronted evils without. I would have liked to have read about people who rallied their internal resources to oppose laziness, cowardice, prejudice, infidelity, or unresolved grievances with the same fortitude Meridian addressed to discrimination, even with the violent rage Grange Copeland or Tashi called on to defend their grandchildren. I would have liked these characters better if they’d figured out that everything in a human being is not good, that love and marriage don’t always feel like rubbing oil into dry skin or watching the sun sink behind the trees, that race discrimination is not the only thing in life that ever requires people to stand tall when they feel like falling down.
       
But that’s where I am, and The Way Forward is where Alice Walker was at the time, and I reread it more than once, in search of a single plot. I didn’t find one. 
       
Part of what Walker is trying to say in The Way Forward is, of course, that the interracial aspect of her marriage, and her first pair of characters’ marriage, was not what caused the divorce; that homogeneous couples break up too. With this, at least, I can agree. Walker is generally classified as African-American (she’s triracial); her husband was ethnically Jewish. I am more Irish-American than anything else, but am at least biracial; my husband, a legal immigrant from Canada and distant cousin to Princess Diana, was genetically triracial, and it showed. Among sophisticated people of good will a little cultural clash is simply interesting. The conflict between introverted and extroverted personalities, or between a strong spiritual commitment and a weak one or lack of one, really will produce long-term misery; our ancestors’ interracial marriages had proved, long before we were born, that surface differences don’t have to matter. And if you were hoping that Walker would be the one to write the first great, realistic, intimate novel about a lasting interracial marriage, your way forward after reading this book may be with a cracked or dented heart. She may still write that book, but The Way Forward isn't it.
        
I think The Way Forward reads more like a novelist’s blog than like either a real novel or a real batch of short stories. Walker is of course a good novelist, and even these bloggiest pieces of her writing contain flashes of brilliance. A gem pops up almost anywhere the book falls open...
        
Pages 17-18, containing a middle-aged lady’s Driving While Black experience: “My friend’s face was tense with suffering as she rummaged through a rather messy glove compartment for proof of ownership of her car ..‘And why would I have stolen this battered little car...and not...a Mercedes-Benz?’”
        
Page 49, in which an old woman has real problems: “[A]s I sat on the edge of the bed, after putting our child to sleep next door...she came in, and warned me not to put anything on her dresser because whatever I put there—hairbrush or whatever—might scratch the finish.”
        
Page 74, in which a couple are finally about to release a few prejudices they have held against each other: “John riveted his eyes, which he felt were practically steaming, on a story in his magazine.”
        
Page 115, in which a woman has internalized an ugly cultural stereotype of interracial sex: “As an adult she com­pulsively reiterated the stories, much as Auntie Putt-Putt had done. It gave her life a quality of moroseness and easily triggered resentment.”

Page 177, in which a bisexual woman defies her parents’ church group: “If sleeping with women is a crime it’s one for which the whole world is guilty.”
        
But they don’t add up to more than a few smiles, a few insights, a few pats on the shoulder. Comfort food for the soul. Read it if you could use a bit of comfort food, but don’t expect to feel your mind growing as you read, the way you did while reading Meridian or In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. If you’ve ever tried writing a novel and found yourself merely noodling around with a bunch of emotions you’ve projected into a bunch of stick figures, The Way Forward might remind you of that manuscript. Obscure young writers usually end up burning such manuscripts, and wondering whether "real" writers ever write them too.
        
Right. That’s the redeeming value of The Way Forward. As The Dark Tower did for C.S. Lewis, it reminds fans that even the best writers occasionally write things that aren't ready to become novels. (To his credit, Lewis didn’t try to finish or publish the title story in The Dark Tower; if you page through that one, the published stories that complete the collection are pretty good.) If you are an aspiring writer, and reading something you wrote and liked last year makes you want to dissolve into the ground, this book will help you.

The Way Forward has been widely distributed, and, fair disclosure, what I physically have for sale is a worn library copy. Online, it'll cost $5 for either the worn copy or a newer reprint, $5 for shipping the book (plus anything else we can send you in the same package), and out of this total of $10 Alice Walker or a charity of her choice will receive $1.