A full post could be written on Lady Caroline Blackwood, her Guinness inheritance, her marriages (painter Lucien Freud, pianist Israel Citkowitz, poet Robert Lowell) and who fathered which child, but I’ll let you google for all of that. What is relevant here is that that background produced some fascinating experiences for her children and, while Ivana Lowell and Evgenia Citkowitz reflect that in different types of prose, it shows to advantage in both works.
Ether is a collection of seven stories and the title novella which takes up almost half the work. I’ll focus my attention on the novella — not only is it the most impressive piece in the book, it is also a reflection of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the stories.
Ether is a very appropriate title since the 118-page novella is a series of ephemeral story threads and observations. They overlap and come together frequently, but part of the beauty of the piece is the way the author explores (incompletely, leaving lots to the reader’s imagination) each thread.
William is an author whom we meet at a restaurant in New York, lunching with his editor Vivian before they end up together back at his apartment:
Vivian Newman was no pushover. She was educated and smart. Vivian ran marathons in her spare time. She went to her office only to appear at his apartment a few hours later. They picked their way through packing cases, his life still in boxes, since the movers — a company that went by the name We Move U Fast — hadn’t turned up to collect. (You moved me NOT, William yelled into the phone that morning.) They had sex on a mattress, on the floor. It was raw and hasty, reminding him of student days when everything was improvised and imperative.
That assignation is a “goodbye” one. As the boxes indicate, William is on his way — to a teaching post at UCLA but mainly to find the time and space to write his next book. Vivian will remain his editor, but a new manuscript is more important to her than regular sex or an ongoing relationship. William stumbled into his first book, Days of Plague when he discovered a journal on the plague while searching for something completely different. Now he is planning a novel.
Citkowitz leaves that New York picture incomplete and immediately introduces us to William arriving in Los Angeles, where the rest of the novella is set:
At first sight La Cienaga was unremarkable, a string of fast-food stores, gas stations, and discount shops. But as the road climbed up past the oil wells — rusted cranes slowly pecking the ground — he began to notice the geophysical presence of the land. It dipped and rolled with a sculptural majesty. The suburban outcrops had the look of an unsuccessful art gallery installation; an awkward imposition that in spite of itself had an integrity, an insistence that it be called Art. As he drove, he had a sense of space expanded — the infamous and sultry LA sprawl. He experienced it as a release, much as you would the loosening of tight seams. He understood what the settlers must have felt to go so far west you can’t go any farther.
A sense of arrival.
Citkowitz is not just ethereal with her settings, she is even better when she applies her impressionism to her characters. William meets Madeline, an actress, at the first social function he attends in L.A. — the two will take up and eventually marry. Various succeeding chapters will be told in Madeline’s voice, often exploring history which has no relation to William at all.
Two other characters — Bree and her challenged son Dennis (maybe autism, maybe Asperger’s, the doctors say) — are introduced out of nowhere a third of the way through the book. Their story has its own set of gaps, influences and downfalls which eventually lead to a link to the William/Madeline story. Madeline has become a movie star threatening to move onto the A-list (until she self-destructs); Dennis gets a camera and becomes obsessed with photography and movie stars. It is a tribute to the author that when the obvious linking of the two story threads occurs, she uses it develop depth in both threads, not meld them into the far more conventional option which most writers would have taken.
The result of all this a collage of images — the New York publishing world, L.A. as experienced by new arrivals, writers lacking the discipline to write and many more confused individuals trying to make their way in a hostile world. Each element has parts which have been developed in immaculate detail and others which are completely missing. The novella does not so much end as hand off the various stories to the reader to contemplate what was there and what wasn’t, to complete the picture yourself.
The seven short stories are a bit of a mixed bag, although all are highly readable. My favorite, The Clearance, is a good reflection of how Citkowitz brings the experiences of her unusual (and privileged) upbringing to her fiction. We meet George, of the Clearance Company, stuck in his van in a traffic jam outside Harrods (the sale has just started, attracting crowds) on his way to a London townhouse in Belville Place (fictional as far as I can tell, but think Chelsea or Knightsbridge). George does “house clearances”:
We go in after the family have squabbled over the furniture and the antique dealers — bloody crooks — have cherry-picked the best bits and everyone is too shagged to care about the rest.
It was George’s job to get rid of the stuff that no one wanted, usually after a death, divorce, or bankruptcy, enabling the clients to start a gathering and accumulation of their own, so that the process could be repeated again by their children or executors in another sixty years.
George, of course, discovers much more than leftover furniture — like Henry James in some of his more plottish short works, he finds leftover people, leftover stories and, most important, leftover secrets. All of which are stirred into dramatic action to produce a highly successful story.
Ether was a more than worthwhile read and highly recommended for those who like the short story genre. The title novella has echoes of both John Fante’s Baldini quartet and Gina Berriault’s The Lights of the Earth, for those who know those two authors. Alas, Citkowitz is not up to Meloy for me, but she was still a worthwhile discovery to end 2010 with — I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that her next work will probably be better than this one.