Books: Refusing to Look Away

Bette Howland, the MacArthur Genius who published three acclaimed books in her lifetime and then fell into obscurity, has been hailed as a major rediscovery with the reissues of her books. (Never mind the cultural implications of why only women seem to become so forgotten that they are cause for celebration upon rediscovery, let’s just be happy that writers like Howland and Eve Babitz and, the queen of rediscovered genius, Dawn Powell continue to be in print.)

If Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the collection of her selected short stories, seemed slightly underwhelming, the reissue of her three novellas proves the enthusiasts correct. The women in Things to Come and Go (A Public Space Books, May 10) are sui generis and yet utterly recognizable. Howland is grappling with big themes via minutiae in these stories: The careful physicality of the family at the center of the first story lays bare the X-ray vision of children; is it any wonder the narrator recalls all the people who were forever “imitating me staring at them.”

Keen observation is one thing; Howland transmogrifies details into mosaics. The heat and the hair and the sweat of “Birds of a Feather”; the conflicting desires of the three adults at the center of “The Old Wheeze,” much of which take place in an apartment decorated with such bohemian naïveté (or maybe it’s naive bohemianism) that it transcends cliche to become archetypal. And in the final, staccato story that shoots around in time and place, a daughter confronts her uneasy relationship with her father on her way to and from a series of hospitals. Along the way, she encounters a slightly older woman on the flight to Florida, also to visit her aging parents.

“She picked up her sandwich in plump ringed fingers and eyes it suspiciously. ‘Wonder what’s in this? Ugh. Don’t you hate airplane food?” She put it back on her plate and began to dissect it with her fork.”

Throughout the book, Howland’s characters are dissecting their meals, their intentions, and their memories—but Howland and her narrators are dissecting them. Sometimes kindly; sometimes dispassionately. But for Howland, the act of seeing is the most powerful thing one can do. Her characters may be blinkered, but Howland never is.

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