Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Time, which was an immediate on-rushing enemy to the onlookers in the street and the firemen on the roof, was only a small far-forgotten event to the girls; for they were stunned not only by the force of the explosion, but, when they recovered and looked round, still more by the sudden dislocation of all familiar appearances. A chunk of the back wall of the house gaped to the sky. There, in 1945, they were as far removed from the small fact of time as weightless occupants of a space-rocket.

Let us put aside the subject of Muriel Spark's sense of economy, which I feel like I have been prattling on about for one, two, three, four books. Yes, it continues to impress but in another sentence or two I'll have written more about it than Spark took to write The Girls of Slender Means.

Instead, I have another facet to extol. Funny that Billy should post today on Slaughterhouse-Five, since what has always remained with me about that book, other than Billy Pilgrims' massive wag, is the idea of an alien race that views time as a panorama, seen all at once. I recall that the image is one of a mountain range; to the mountaineer the mountain miles behind is in the past, but to the faraway observer, each mountain is seen as a part of the whole.

So it is with Spark. With the exception of Robinson, there are no plot twists or surprises in her novels, for the simple reason that everything of importance is unloaded up front. Sometimes this takes the form of a "flash-forward"* scene and sometimes it happens in the middle of a sentence:

It was the girl in Jane that had moved him to kiss her at the party; she might have gone further with Nicholas without her literary leanings. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business.

How subtle, yet how opposed to what we think good writing ought to be: organic, well-paced. I am reminded of Eco, who in his postscript notes that his dialogue is so carefully timed that his characters only converse as long as it takes to get to where they are going, and no longer.

And so before the first couple of chapters are over, we know the bare bones of the story: In 1945, Nicholas Farringdon will enter the social orbit of the May of Teck Club, which supports London girls in their twenties who are separated from their families. He will be initiated therein by Jane Wright, a decidedly non-slender girl whose employer will decidedly not end up publishing Nicholas' book. He will sleep with Selina on the rooftop of the May of Teck Club, before the building is destroyed by an bomb in the garden left undiscovered until after VE-Day. He will die years later, martyred as a priest in Haiti. This is the whole story, yet these cannot even be called spoilers.

The arrangement imitates the way Vonnegut's aliens view life, though Spark was probably thinking more of God. Like the undiscovered bomb, death lingers; though Nicholas survives the collapse of the May of Teck Club his true end is equally gruesome. Spark treats the intervening years as if they were nothing. Nicholas dies here and not there; yet he does die. When Nicholas tries to console the visiting father of a girl whose life did end in the collapse, they fail to make sense of her death, but what sense is to be made? It is a place we all must go, and the timing seems a matter of small importance.

Trapped in time, the girls of the May of Teck Club fail to see this. Though they are puzzled by the presence of the older ladies who have remained at the club though they have long since left their thirties, they fail to see that they too will become those women, or are them already. They fail to see that the new wallpaper they disguise will in a few years' time become quite fashionable. The anarchist Nicholas fails to see that he will die a Catholic convert. But Spark, who moves through her novels like God, sees it, and shows us. The absence of surprise explains some of her unsentimentality, her cold detachment, and makes one wonder if God feels the same way about us.

*And to think, with Lost forty years in the future.

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