Review of The Secret Life of Objects, by Dawn RaffelBy Nathan Huffstutter
May 21, 2012
“I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” says the father. “…Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”
The old man is eighty-six, bedridden – beseeching! – but the daughter of Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” cannot honor this last request, cannot plot an unswerving line or knot every narrative thread: Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.
“You misunderstood me on purpose,” says the father.
“Start again,” says the father.
“What a tragedy,” says the father, “the end of a person.”
“When will you look it in the face?”
Dawn Raffel published her first collection of short fiction in 1994. Another in 2010. Equidistant between, one taut novel. In these slim offerings, Raffel has approached mortality from an array of oblique angles, that never-timely end setting in motion a revolving succession of fathers, mothers, children; observing their arcs and pulls, Raffel refuses to simply set down what happened, refuses to dutifully record what happened next. Time oscillates. Dialogue elides. Constellating, Raffel pinpoints a field of luminous instants, leaving the lines between to the open destiny of imagination.
Cold? Distant? Unfathomable?
Or, look to Raffel’s first classified work of memoir, The Secret Life of Objects. Perhaps the greatest secret of Raffel’s fiction is how fantastically her stories vibrate with wit and the warmest emotions: empathy, tolerance, unconditional love – human connections always exist, if perhaps not always occupying the same space at the same time. In Objects, Raffel alights with her most inviting qualities in center frame, opening up in a spirit that calls to mind Lydia Davis’ achingly splendid “The Cottages,” or perhaps even more precisely, Lyle Lovett’s humble rendering of “Step Inside This House,” a lyric that offers the story behind a painting, a book of poems, a piece of prism glass, an old guitar:
I’ll show you all the things that I own
My treasures you might say
Couldn’t be more’n ten dollars worth
But they brighten up my day
Guiding a tour through her entries, common areas, and back rooms, Raffel presents Objects in a sequence of stand-alone vignettes, the homey feel accentuated by her youngest son Sean’s unaffected illustrations. Jewelry and furniture, framed art and knick-knacks, plush toys and devotional books, a lifetime’s accumulation of gifts, heirlooms, and trifles – her treasures, you might say. Showing not what she sought but what she kept, Raffel ultimately reveals far more than she could in volumes of tell-all telling.
“Sound,” says the divorced father of “The Air and Its Relatives” (from Raffel’s 2010 collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe). “Is slow compared to light.”
Our father has left or is leaving again.
He is up in the air. He is standing on a wing in an aviator jacket.
Hand on hat.
Rose on wood.
Oil and water: mother paints. All over the house are the scenes she has hung.
So goes “Beyond All Blessing and Song, Praise and Consolation,” the resonant Kaddish that closes Further Adventures. Appropriately, out of the echoes of that maternal requiem, Objects begins with “The Mug”: in the wake of her mother’s sudden passing, Raffel is forced to look enormity in the face as she sorts the contents of a house left “mid-thought”:
Because she had been an artist, her house was filled with dozens upon dozens of sculptures, in clay and in wood, paintings and drawings, in oil, in acrylic, in charcoal, in pencil, of water and trees and women – so many women from so many angles, clothed, nude; their faces, their bodies, the suggestion of the inner life.
Taking in the entirety would suffocate every inch of her own space, creating a moving dilemma – how does one let go of the physical representations of a life’s work?
Raffel settles on a few favorites from the breadth of her mother’s compositions, secures the jewelry and valuables, finds a cache of shoes that fit, and at the stern suggestion of an aunt, retrieves a gift shop coffee mug, a Milwaukee Art Museum keepsake emblazoned with Picasso’s “Le Coq de la Liberation,” the cup she now drinks from first thing every morning.
(My father) told me once he believed the infinite resided in the infinitesimal, Raffel says in “The Prayer Book,” a selection where that hereditary conviction works to alchemical effect. Bar-Mitvahed, born-again as an atheist and an Air Corps engineer, then born-yet-again as a divorced furniture salesman, Raffel’s father died mid-Rumba, suffering a heart attack in the swing of a ballroom dance lesson. Unlocking a drawer of his private effects, amid mementos and clutter, Raffel discovers her father had kept his childhood prayer book:
The prayer book is old school, insistent on the literal resurrection of the dead, where more reform prayer books lean toward the idea that the dead live on in the living.
The infinite residing in the infinitesimal: in the course of one of Raffel’s most transcendent short fictions, “Somewhere Near Sea Level” (from 1994’s In The Year of Long Division), a father leads his young daughter out to an ice rink and teaches her to skate. Ill-fitting blades, a series of wobbles and clutchings and falls, flickering in and out of these sessions are lifts from ballroom dance classes, spins from father-daughter promenades, an arch, a clasp, a veil, flashes of weddings and passings, a breathtaking montage captured first in the sparest suggestion, then born again in Objects.
The prayer book is in my dresser drawer.
“I always thought if she killed anyone, the one she killed would be me,” says the daughter in Tumble Home, Amy Hempel’s first (and only) long-form work.
“I know,” says the father.
Following the mother’s suicide, father and daughter accept an invitation to Europe as houseguests of a famous painter, a complete stranger who serendipitously connects with the pair after the loss of his own wife.
“Feel free to pull canvases out of racks,” the artist says, stepping away for the day and allowing father and daughter the freedom to tour his working studio:
Turned loose like that, I looked at everything he had done. It felt like meeting relatives. It was a lesson in revision and amplification, in devotion and experimentation.
Among the most immediate pleasure of Objects is a comparable turning loose, the welcome reunion with ancestors, anecdotes, and relics from Raffel’s earlier fictions. “The Tea Set From Japan,” “The Watch,” and “The China Tree That Looks Like My Grandfather’s China Tree” have each been passed-down from the very-Paley “Our Heaven” (from Further Adventures): sketching that same stoop’s-eye view, the non-fiction pieces add depth and perspective to the anti-Semitism that stalled her father’s post-war engineering career and forced his sidestep into the family furniture racket. Relatives by blood and relatives by marriage, roots in Eastern Europe and branches in the Windy City, in the compendium of Objects these genealogies gain flesh, backstories firm, and oral histories repeat: the horse that died of heartbreak, the fatal bris, the image of Raffel’s ninety-something grandfather, cruising Chicago in his fabulous boat of a car, enter(ing) people’s driveways, thinking they were streets to somewhere else.
Revision and amplification, devotion and experimentation.
“Yosemite and the Range of Light” revisits an ordinary Ansel Adams print and a second-hand chair, furnishings hastily arranged amid an expedited, postnatal move to a roomier, older house: in that chair, facing that print, Raffel nursed her firstborn through his midnight needings and feedings, dark hours during which she conceived her housebound novel, Carrying the Body, a taphophobic nightwork where the haunted and the ghosts are one and the same.
There were, writes Raffel in the 2002 novel, as a matter of possible record, a number of fine things still in the house.
“Touch it,” says the father of “The Air and Its Relatives,” explaining to his daughter how to determine the value of a vanity. “If you can poke your reflection, if there isn’t any distance, you know it’s junk.”
Sound advice – within and beyond the showroom floor.
While the studio insights and nostalgic connections deliver a ready gratification, the lasting quality of Objects surpasses that of a curiosity or companion guide; forever looking outward, Raffel resists the temptation to glaze her own image, resists what, in The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus calls “the routine in-gazing practiced by professional disclosers.” Too sublime for manufactured unburdenings, Objects indulges neither degradations nor posturing: from a keen, knowing distance, Raffel casts comic passages of female friendship (“The Teacup,” “The View”), concise observations (“The Frogs,” “My Grandmother Bern’s Recipes”), and cross-generational gems (“The Florsheim Dog,” “The Lamps”), her son’s penciled illustrations adding another layer by extending the line. Just eleven when he designed the vivid cover art for Further Adventures (roundball planets aligned in an almost musically-notated galaxy of stars), Sean’s drawings in Objects essentialize his mother’s lasting cares, art as an eternal medium of representation and exchange, the memoir ultimately taking its completed shape through a remarkable balance of form and content.
Too mild? Too modest? Too common?
Take a step back.
So it was to the objects in the world around her that the letter writer turned, writes the daughter in Tumble Home, and like Hempel’s novella, in which the epistolary voice appears to signal a new authorial direction, what seems a stylistic departure in Objects is only a shift in degree and magnitude: Raffel is still constellating, still pinpointing radiant instants, still seeing open possibility as something to illuminate rather than eliminate.
In closing, opposite “The Mug,” Objects is bookended by the “The Dictionary”: gold-embossed, finger-tabbed, a heavy Webster’s that Raffel received from her mother as a sending-off gift before she moved away for college. All the words between its covers, the worn volume may mark a literal terminus: with infinite Wiki’s a click away, neither of Raffel’s children have the slightest interest in hardbound reference guides. At least, not yet. But the secret value of those trusted books isn’t the efficiency with which they deliver the information sought – cracked too soon, flipping too far, through the very act of searching you frequently find something far more valuable than the original object.
“If the things we owned could talk,” says the mother in Long Division’s “Seeds in Public Places.”
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