World Without End, Amen
By Mary Caponegro
Coffee House Press, 2009
With a precise eye, sympathetic ear, and a commanding, sprawling, and, at times, overwhelming but no less pleasurable voice, Mary Caponegro, in her new collection of stories and novellas All Fall Down, probes the minds of an odd collection of characters: a couple whose marriage is headed toward dissolution; a man torn by conflicting allegiances to his wife and mother; two other lovers whose new relationship is ravaged by the onset of illness; a woman who just can’t seem to let her daughter go; children who, in a fantastic, disturbing turn, run an abortion clinic; and, lastly, a crusty, dispassionate academic. These are flawed people, raw like flensed skin, and, as in the case of the kids running the clinic, oddly neglected. They are selfish and unaware, or self-aware but uncaring, or hyper-aware yet still encumbered by their history, their territorializing, their devotions, their supposed obligations. While the characters in these stories have much to be glum about, Caponegro’s insistent lyricism, scathing humor, and remarkable precision always impresses, always reminds the reader of the possibilities of fiction as a vehicle for psychological exploration. Sure, many contemporary novels are promoted as “psychological,” but Caponegro, with a style equally indebted to Virginia Woolf and William Gass, distinguishes herself by ably capturing the psyche’s complexity, its unpredictability, its darkness, its disquieting mystery.
Throughout her career Caponegro has been concerned with relationships and society, with their hierarchies, tensions, and contradictions. The title of her previous collection from 2001, The Complexities of Intimacy, could serve as a description of her writing as a whole. Domestic squabbles are fodder for Caponegro, and you can almost imagine Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy ripping into each other in the screwball comedy atmosphere of “Last Resort Retreat.” Here you find Martha and Norm wallowing in a long but unhappy marriage and headed toward a couples’ retreat where they hope to find some kind of reconciliation, perhaps even a renewal of their affections. Well, at least that’s Martha’s desire: Norm is just humoring her. Regardless of their expectations, “as the weekend wears on,” Caponegro writes, “they will come to believe that each activity, each event is both symbolic and contrived.” The story reaches its crescendo with a series of blistering scenes in which both Norm and Martha break down. Norm cuts off his hair with cuticle scissors and rushes outside looking for a “snow bank to weep in, then freeze to death…” But then Martha appears
in her wedding dress—surreal, all billowy; the expression, like a vision never seemed so literal or less clichéd. But something’s distorted, ambiguous, like she’s too big or too small, displaced. He sees his wife larger-than-life, but he knows she can’t be taller than normal—walking over the snow-covered field, with her stupid down jacket all puffy on top and the giant, bustling satin and lace, layered skirt puffy below. She looks lost, uncertain, absurd, but determined, overdressed to be sure… Every fiber of her costume and her person fascinates him, but in an almost grotesque way.
The narrative up until this critical point has methodically ping-ponged between the minds of Martha and Norm, capturing their misunderstandings, failures, and desires. These final moments reverberate much like the coda to Joyce’s “The Dead,” its language similarly swirling until everything unfurls. These are sentences that swallow you up with their concentration of detail, with their honest exploration of the couple’s misunderstandings, their own self-contradictory thoughts. Caponegro withholds nothing.
Such close attention to the gnarled complexity of her characters’ thoughts, their troubles, their duplicities, is displayed in nearly every story here. For instance, this is how “Ashes Ashes We All Fall Down” begins: “Every night, Carter sleeps with a woman not his wife and feels both virtuous and guilty…” It’s a surprising first half of a sentence that continues by describing how he is
virtuous, because the woman not his wife is not a mistress either but his mother, to whose side he cleaves in part to spare his wife, and guilty, because despite the cumulative nights in sacrifice, he cannot save his mother, for whose sake he nevertheless continues to deprive his wife—his wife who has her own legitimate needs but who because of these merciless circumstances receives only the dregs of his attention and energy.
It’s easy to gush at such breathtaking, masterful sentences; breathtaking not only because of its compound sentences but because of how it sets up the expectation that this is a story of infidelity and then confounds that expectation by introducing a different kind of tension, while still exploring the recurring themes of allegiance and betrayal. At a later point in the story we find Carter
sandwiched…between his post-precancerous pre-postpartum wife and his postcancerous pre-posthumous mother—buffering and ferrying and shepherding from hospital bed at home to hospital proper from pre-op to post-op to “hear the heartbeat honey, can you feel the kick?” while life kicks him again and again and again in the balls, as God the referee counts theatrically from one to ten.
This story is an excellent example of what Caponegro does best, namely, vividly depicting how a mind works, what it understands, what it covers up, what it explains away; how it negotiates words, images, parts and wholes, how it synthesizes, how it navigates simultaneity with sequential thinking, how it understands time. But this is no stale scientific treatise, nor mere wordplay; it adds up to an elegant depiction of a man who, though riddled with doubt, asks many challenging questions about love and responsibility, life and death:
And at what point does death yield grief? When, exactly when, does grief commence in earnest? And what is its configuration: mountain, ocean, column, vector, black hole? A revolutionary universe with its own laws, its own specific gravity? A world without end, Amen?
Following this story is the collection’s first of two novellas. “Ill-Timed” tells of Alexandra and Paula, two new lovers whose young relationship is challenged by Alexandra’s having been inexplicably stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). At times, I felt that the constant see-sawing between Alexandra’s complaints about her illness and Paula’s self-centered reactions to her lover’s illness was tiresome. Oh, I found myself asking, here we get another scene where Alexandra and Paula struggle to out-complain one another. But after finishing the story I thought that this might have been what Caponegro set out to achieve, that is, that illness and its effects on the individual and her relationships is characterized by its mundane repetition. The choice to depict the debilitating effects of CFS while flirting with making the story itself tiresome to read makes for a striking tension. Its deliberate tedium notwithstanding, Caponegro’s command of characterization echoes Henry James’s fictional clashes of the titanic personalities and also mirrors Virginia Woolf’s empathic sensibility, her ability to navigate the treacherous waves of consciousness. Caponegro treats us to passages like this one:
Time in Alexandra’s mind has formed itself as gray-brown sludge and she is trying to step free of it; meanwhile, the uncharitable watch hands are not reaching forth to pull her to safety, but rather covering their face in indifferent see-no-evil stance, while tacitly instructing her to do the same—to hide her shame each time a passing acquaintance, stewing in a braised nostalgia, croons, “my, how you’ve changed; how could such a gorgeous, vivacious—do tell me, now, Alexandra, how did you manage to let yourself … go?” Oh the shame of it, the shock of it, that she who previously could leave no minute unfilled, who seemed to set a record every second, could tackle twenty tasks before breakfast, was now reduced to mopey mantras like, “I’ll gather my strength,” or “five minutes rest and then I’ll be up to the task.” But by that time who could remember which task it was anyway?
From the couple who had fallen out of love, to the man who can’t measure up to his own idealized standards of duty, to the woman broken by perpetual fatigue, we come to a parent in “A Daughter in Time” who remembers being “glued to a screen on which a gravity-defying tower toppled without resistance like a sandcastle submitting to an inexorable wave.” Far more than a paint-by-numbers post-9/11 story, it is a quietly anguished tale of parents losing touch with their daughter, and fits well alongside stories from The Complexities of Intimacy, especially “The Daughter’s Lamentation,” “The Mother’s Mirror,” The Father’s Blessing,” and “The Son’s Burden.” “Junior Achievement” details another kind of fall, a fall from grace, from innocence. It’s a disturbing story about children who run an abortion clinic. Amid training sessions using the game Operation, the children process their parents’ death, sing a song about uterine scraping, and even perform a “pa-seizure,” or procedure, on a patient. It is a kind of cautionary tale reminding us how quickly children lose their innocence in our post-industrialist society.
Besides her inspired command of dialogue and her navigation of mercurial shifts in consciousness, Caponegro distinguishes herself with her sense of empathy. You never get the sense that she’s taking anyone’s side. In All Fall Down’s second novella, “The Translator,” we find Caponegro thoroughly excavating the mental duplicities of an academic, a windbag whose theoretical musings about his relationships and largely irrelevant, while still interesting asides, serve only to keep him from achieving any kind of real intimacy. This is a major theme for Caponegro reaching its apotheosis in the evisceration of the nuclear family found in The Complexities of Intimacy. And like those other stories, the ones in this collection probe the boundaries of institutions like marriage, the vagaries of love, the pressures of duty, and also of the capacity of language to both illuminate and confuse. “Words are slippery,” reflects the crusty narrator,
as treacherous on the tongue as ice under one’s feet, and as wondrous as the latter’s vitreous texture to the gazing eye. German is a solid language, all agree; Italian, French: more liquid. But what language would be flattered to be designated flatulent? Considering the coexistence of these varied states of language-matter, one could hardly expect the Tower of Babel to be as charming as the leaning Tower of Pisa. It is therefore a foregone conclusion that language is to blame for almost any complication one encounters in one’s daily interactions. And when you spend your hours gallivanting among languages, I assure you, the likelihood of complication becomes exponential. For we rely so heavily on the fiction of translation.
What follows is a series of complications between this professor and his frustrated almost-lover Liza. Although she has other ideas, the narrator toys with her affections, dangles the possibility of consummation of their desire like some kind of carrot. She is for him “a noteworthy commodity,” a plaything. In the end, after many tangential reflections on subjects like Cerberus, Bernini, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Antonioni’s L’Aventura, The English Patient, Roman buses, tessera, and references to classical literature ad nauseam, the professor’s machinations are thwarted by the young woman. Caponegro explores similar territory, albeit utilizing different stylistic effects such as collage and fragmentary prose in her 1998 story collection Five Doubts.
While certainly not burdened by the dust of hermetic scholarship, Caponegro reveals within her stories that, like her professor in The Translator, she too lives
between the lines, inside consonants and vowels and across paradigms, in adjectives and expletives, in predicates and nominatives; for languages, like lovers, are differently inflected and variously proportioned, possessing ever-shifting moods and tenses, agreement not arrived at without constant vigilance and effort.
And it’s because of Caponegro’s “constant vigilance” over her characters’ shifting moods and thoughts, along with her command of diverse rhetorical strategies, that we get in All Fall Down a tremendous intellectual and emotional lift up.
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. He’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in elimae, ArtVoice, Underground Voices, Little White Poetry Journal #7, and forthcoming at Opium Magazine and Publishing Genius Press. He reviews for Bookslut, The Diagram, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, and Word Riot. You may also find him at hitherandthithering waters, Big Other and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.