What’s For Dinner?, by James Schuyler

A NYRB book

I will confess to a highly ambivalent response when it comes to novels that are written by authors who, for the most part, are poets. I am not a poetry reader, so that bias is admitted up front. Most often, I find that the language gets in the way of the novel — Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault would be a good example. And then, just when I am getting ready to give up on poet-novelists, along comes something like Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog and I realize I would be doing myself a tremendous disservice if I became so arbitrary.

My poetry knowledge is so slim that I did not know James Schuyler was an outstanding poet when I ordered What’s For Dinner? — a recommendation from leroyhunter in a comment on L. J Davis’ A Meaningful Life was what put me on to the book. It was, leroy said, ” a study of suburban mores [with] a pleasant sharpness that is reminiscent of Davis”. That is as good a description as you could ask for — there are echoes of both Richard Yates Revolutionary Road and Mad Men, the television show, but more than anything else there is an exploration of New York suburbia in the 1970s.

To fill in the background that I did not have: Schuyler is indeed a major American poet of the New York school with a score or so of published volumes to his credit. He was also W.H. Auden’s amanuensis, among other things. And he was a significant playwright; both the poetic and stage-writing talents come to play in this book.

Consider the opening, where we meet Mary C. Taylor and her husband Norris in their living room:

It was a lovely light living room. Or it would have been, had not a previous owner found quick-growing conifer seedlings an irresistible bargain. When the sun set, a few red beams would struggle in, disclosing in their passage the dust of which the air at times seems largely composed. Mary C. Taylor — the laughing Charlotte of the class of 19** — found the sweet mood brought on by contemplation of the spick-and-spanness in which her husband Norris perused and, presumably, memorized the evening paper, soured.

“It seems to me all I do is dust this room.” She put on the bridge lamp at her elbow, in hopes of fighting light with light.

“It isn’t dust, it’s pollen.” Norris was never so absorbed as not to leave a trickle of attention running.

Lottie and Norris are childless; they have replaced the rigors of child-rearing with collecting (and dusting) knick-knacks and, in Lottie’s case, a dependence on the vodka bottle that will eventually see her checked into a rehab centre.

The Delehanteys, by contrast, are a Catholic family with two teen-age, twin sons, who tend to dominate their attention. Father Bruce sees himself as a strict disciplinerian, monitoring and directing (mainly on the negative side) the boys’ musical, athletic and scholastic careers. Alas, like most parental intervention, his efforts are being overtaken by reality and the twins are growing up with the same kinds of distractions (say soft drugs) that most teenagers run into.

Family three in the book actually isn’t a family it is a widow, Mag. Her husband’s death was pretty much a surprise and Mag is not yet ready to give up her life to widow’s weeds.

That’s the framework for one half of the narrative of the book. The three family units interact with each other — sort of. Dinners are hosted, bridge is played and hanky-panky does develop.

As the novel unfolds, Schuyler also spends a fair bit of time exploring the institution where Lottie has been confined, which has an entirely separate community of characters.

That cast is large enough (and very well developed, I must say) that I won’t even try to list them. What is significant about this thread of the book, however, is that it is where Schuyler the playwright comes into play (sorry about the pun). Almost all of these sections, which alternate with the suburban life ones, are done completely in dialogue. The patients go through family and occupational therapy (stitching moccasins, braiding belts and “painting” and “potting”) but most of the non-dialogue parts read like stage directions; the story and relationships between characters comes in the dialogue. An example from early in the process:

Group was in session, and Dr Kearney looked bored. “All right, Bertha,” he said, “you’ve made yourself the center of attention long enough. We’ve all heard your stories of marijuana, music and LSD. You’ve convinced us that you were a real swinger, and you swung yourself right in here.”

“You never talk about your problems, I’ve noticed,” Lottie said, “the things behind your actions. That might be more interesting and helpful. To all of us, not just yourself.”

“My only problem,” Bertha said, “is that I have a family. They’re nice, but they bug me.”

“Bug you?” Mrs. Brice said.

“They let me do anything I want, but all the time I can tell they secretly disapprove. They don’t know what to make of me , but I know what to make of them. Spineless. Nice, but spineless.”

“We haven’t heard much from you, Mrs Judson,” Dr Kearney said.

“I never did talk much,” Mrs. Judson said.

“That’s true,” Sam Judson said. “Ethel was never much of a talker. She shows her feelings in other ways.”

“In other ways?” Norris said. “I’d be interested to hear an example.”

As that excerpt illustrates, there is a somewhat painful slowness to this thread of the book but, to the author’s credit, it does eventually acquire a rhythm of its own, in contrast to the equally slow (but differently developed) world outside the institution. Like Yates (and Mad Men), part of what Schuyler is exploring is the inherent boredom of suburbia and life outside the institution is not that different from life inside it.

I don’t think What’s For Dinner? is a great book, but it definitely is a worthwhile one — exactly the kind of volume that the NYRB should be ensuring stays in print. I am sure that, if you are a poetry reader, Schuyler’s poetry is a better investment of your time, but then I am not a poetry reader. In its own way, this novel captures the same kind of stasis that drives Yates’ Revolutionary Road and explores what kinds of outcomes that suburban stasis produces — with somewhat less disastrous consequences. Written in 1978, it captures that “bust” era — the liberation of the 1960s is now a fact, it has left some damage in its wake. In its own way, that has contributed as much to the modern world as the revolution of the sixties did — it is more than worthwhile to investigate how it looked at the time.

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15 Responses to “What’s For Dinner?, by James Schuyler”

  1. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I don’t know, but it seems to me like you are missing out on a great part of the novel form. I mean, I’ve never read a review by you that felt so short. It’s like you ran up against a wall.
    No offense, but it just felt that way, and I though it would be an injustice not to tell you.

    One thing I find surprising about poet-novelists is that they are poetic in very subtle ways. At first glance, Coetzee looks like a novelist with the heart of a poet, but you soon realise that his style is very uniquely prosaic. Compare him to Prufrock all you want — and I do –, Coetzee couldn’t possibly write in poetry.
    This one, on the other hand, doesn’t really look that poetic, but a couple of rereadings (of the excerpt, not the novel) reveal the hidden rhythms inherent in this guy’s prose. Similar facts can be found in some of the movies of the Coens and Tarantino. (I was watching Lebowski today, and found myself humming.)

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    That is a very fair observation, Ronak. The review is flat because the book is pretty flat — although, as you observe from the excerpts, there is both depth and rhythm to the language. The time is three decades after the war and, for the middle class (which is what these characters are), there is certainly material comfort. Alas, that is accompanied by a certain emptiness (I don’t want to go so far as “moral” or “spiritual” but it heads in that direction) and this is Schuyler’s focus in the book.

    I did think occasionally about The Bonfire of the Vanities when I was reading this novel — it was published about a decade later. It is almost as if the flatness portrayed here is an enviornment for a gathering storm, that will explode into Wolfe’s “master of the universe” and the conflict between the powerful and the powerless in that novel (with the middle-class people of this novel significantly absent).

    The poet-novelists whom I don’t like tend to bring too much language to their prose fiction (that’s my problem with Michaels). You are quite right in tracking that Schuyler is almost the exact opposite — he brings an economy of language to the work (so, in one sense, finding the review “felt so short” is actually a compliment). The play-like thread, as you can probably see from the excerpt, is even more distinctive — there is an Albee-like way in which he builds the story there (nothing even approaches a soliloquy).

    There is no doubt that I am stronger on plot, reportage and character than I am on language — I suspect this review reflects that (negatively, I agree).

  3. Ronak M Soni Says:

    About your writing, I’ll quote David Bordwell:

    Writing style is overrated. Many people think that good reviewing amounts to personal opinions whipped up in frothy prose. Perhaps the snazzy styles of Farber and Kael have led people to weight style too much. Granted, the Web has revealed that a lot of people are excellent writers, and without the Web they would probably never have found an audience. Although lively writing is always welcome, it gets heft and endurance through its arguments, and that comes back to ideas and information as much as opinion.

    I think my problem with your review was that it felt like it didn’t have as much argument and information as I’d come to expect from you.
    But your explanation for this makes a lot of sense.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Ronak. As you probably know, my working career was in the newspaper business — and most of that was on the editing and management side, although I did start as a reporter. I think that probably leads to a bias that says language is used to tell a story and is not an end in itself (and I admit that not everyone feels that). I also think I was a better editor than I was a writer — at last count more than 10 of the “reporters” that I worked with went on to write books, including a couple of prize winners. Thanks for understanding what is lacking in this review. I promise that I will try to get back to form quickly.

  5. John Self Says:

    I have this book and I will read it, though not as soon as I otherwise would have. And even that wouldn’t have been as soon as I initially would have, since I first read Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere (also in NYRB), to which I had approximately the same response that you did to this book.

    But I agree, nonetheless, that these are the sorts of books which NYRB should be keeping alive. And sometimes it’s more interesting, or at least instructive, to read against the grain than to keep in line with our usual fare.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    “Against the grain” is a good description — after longish Amis and McEwan recently, the preciseness of Schuyler’s language was a treat in itself in some ways. It doesn’t take long to read and was well worth the time. I suspect it may become one of those novels that produce stronger memories over time than the actual reading experience did.

  7. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin, your review gives much food for thought and made me revisit my own (more enthusiastic) response to Schuyler’s book. When a recommendation doesn’t work out you (the recommender) are always left with a slight feeling of guilt…
    I saw this as much more a companion piece with the Davis book, and while I take your points about Revolutionary Road I can’t quite see the kinship myself. You’re absolutely right to refer to stasis but I feel Yates’s book is driven by anger and loathing that are absent from What’s For Dinner? The other reason I class it more with Davis is that I found it quite a funny book, and while the humour has an edge to it that highlights the foolishness, self-absorption etc of the characters, there is an absence of the bitterness I associate with Yates.
    My other disagreement with you would be on the idea of it being a “painfully slow” book. Granted, very little happens, and there is an element (especially in the therapy strand) of it being a series of talking heads. There is such a level of detail in the portrayal of character and relationships though that I didn’t notice the lack of “plotty” events or revelations. I liked the switchbacks he manufactures in the dialogues and, as you say, a rhythm builds. I was happy to go along at that pace: I didn’t feel any drag because of his focus on minutiae.
    I’m glad that, having read the book, you thought my original description was fair – but seems like I owe you (and your readers) an apology for putting you onto something that didn’t hit the spot!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy: There is certainly no need to apologize — this was a very worthwhile book and I am feeling guilty that my review apparently did not communicate that. To address a few of your points:

    — I agree that comparisons with Davis are more appropriate than Revolutionary Road, for all the reasons that you mention. Much of Yates is about rebelling against; like Davis, much of this book is about “adapting to”. There is certainly some humor to that adaptation — even more, I would say, is a gut sense of survival that would be quite foreign to Yates.

    — I meant my “painfully slow” comment to apply only to the dialogue in the institution, not the whole book. And even in the institutional exchanges, I can find a very good reason for it — Schuyler is illustrating the painstaking approach that is required for those people to understand the incredibly ordinary world that they live in. I thought it was one of the more successful parts of the book.

    — And I have not even addressed Schuyler’s use of language (quite different in the two threads) which is another significant plus.

    I definitely did not mean to imply that this was not a book worth reading. It does have a very deliberate pace (for good reason) and asks for some understanding from the reader (with equally good reason). And I do appreciate the recommendation — without that, I doubt that I would have discovered the book and I am glad to have read it.

  9. leroyhunter Says:

    Fair enough Kevin. I probably picked up the wrong elements of your review, which as I said I found thought-provoking and interesting.

    Am interested that both you and John thought this was “against the grain”…any other thoughts you have on this? You both seem to have pretty catholic tastes so I wonder what you would think of as “with the grain”. I agree that it’s always good to challenge your natural taste or disposition as a reader, to try some the the different things that are out there.

  10. leroyhunter Says:

    PS – am looking forward to your review of The Priviliges. I only heard of this last week (on another site – The Millions) and am intrigued. Not sure as yet if it’s one I want to pick up so interested in your take.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Schuyler’s novel would be “against the grain” for me in the sense that I am hesitant about novels where the writing tends to take precedence over the story or characters (hence my concern about poet-novelists). On the other hand, it is very much “with the grain” for me in that I do enjoy reading “New York” novels from Wharton and James right through to Jonathan Dee :-). That is where I think your initial recommendation, comparing it to A Meaningful Life was worthwhile. (And rereading this comment, I don’t mean to suggest that the book is just, or even primarily, about language — it is definitely much more.)

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Reading this again, I’m actually quite tempted by it. When I first read this review, it left me indifferent to the book (so I didn’t comment). Looking at it now, what strikes me is that I like both quotes, the language in them, and I suspect if you’d liked the language more you’d have liked the book more – found it less flat.

    I agree with the views on Yates, a tremendously angry writer, it’s part of what I like about him. Hm, must read more Yates.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m glad you provided the opportunity for me to comment again, Max. I did not dislike this book; in fact, in its own quiet way, I found it very impressive. I do feel that a reader who is more attuned to language than I am would find it even more impressive. And I can say that a few weeks later, I do hark back to the way Schuyler tells the institutional story almost totally in dialogue — a device that seems to be improving with time for me.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I doubt I’m more attuned to language Kevin, I think I just have a higher tolerance for poetic language (and not vastly higher, it can sometimes quite irritate me). That’s more a taste thing than anything else really.

    Nice to hear about how it’s still having some resonance some weeks later, it’s always interesting how novels can grow or diminish in memory. What’s odd is when sometimes one reads one’s own review, and is surprised by the level of positive or negative sentiment it contains.

  15. Phillip Routh Says:

    Strange, but Schuyler left such a strong impression on me with another novel that I’m releluctant to explore anything else he wrote. It will intrude, in some way.
    I consider Alfred and Guinevere to be a gem. No less than a gem. Its evocation of childhood is unmatched in my reading experience.

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