Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer
Midwestern authors have a problem. Writing for The Daily Beast, Anna Clark puts it politely:
The fact is, while writers from other areas of the U.S. are typically discussed in context of their native landscape, writers from the Midwest, strangely, are not—even when their fiction spotlights the region . . . There are Southern Gothic tales, Westerns, New York stories, and plenty of novels about Boston, California, and even Washington, D.C. But what of the fiction native to the center of America?
Even when the native-Midwest author is successful and celebrated (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury), his or her birthplace is downplayed, or conveniently never mentioned at all, because “as everyone knows” nothing good can ever come out of the fly-over states; nothing real or relevant ever happens there. George Will, once writing about my home state of Iowa, sunned up the ultimate smugly parochial fly-over mentality when he referred to it as “a dark, brooding, insular, medieval sort of place.” And one or two rather well-known eroticists from the urban east coast have made comments to the effect that “nobody ever wrote a good story set in a small town”. They should all read William Maxwell’s brilliant little gem of a novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow and summarily shut the fuck up.
Sometimes the problem is of our own making. It doesn’t help that many writers from the region internalize these prejudices growing up, a mentality often manifested later in life in diffidence, self-loathing, or downright denial of one’s origins. We tend to have a certain ambivalence about our native region because we are constantly haunted by the notion that we are somehow not good enough; that a “real” writer has to be from someplace else in order to be taken seriously. (Garrison Keillor has successfully employed this attitude as a comedic shtick for nearly a half century.)
Within every literate Midwesterner is the fear that he will be fond out—exposed for the poseur he is; the up-jumped hayseed, the bumpkin, the hick, the pretentious peasant, the farm boy with feet of hay. Midwestern writers are sensitive soft-shelled creatures who must migrate to the coasts in order to become real; to New York or Los Angeles to be taken seriously, to become hard-boiled and cynical. In the meantime, we look out at the rest of the country with stubborn defiance or with envy, perpetually apologizing, like the characters in Peter Hedges’ What’ Eating Gilbert Grape, for not being from somewhere else—“someplace cool”, because, surely, anywhere else must be cooler than where we came from. Like the residents of Lake Woebegone or of the Cohen Brothers’ fictionalized Fargo we are sorry—
–sorry we don’t have mountains or oceans to inspire us.
–sorry we are so easily impressed.
–sorry we do not belong to a “tribe”.
–sorry our lives aren’t as colorful or inherently dramatic as in the South or the West.
–sorry we did not grow up enjoying all the advantages of toney prep schools and trendy restaurants.
–sorry we are so practical and down to earth—that we did not grow up with servants to wipe our asses for us.
–sorry we do not have refined tastes.
–sorry we do not have a “real culture” of our own.
Popular media perpetuates these stereotypes. The naïve, fresh-faced, starry-eyed dreamer just fallen off the turnip truck in the big city nine times out of ten hails from Iowa or Indiana, whether it’s squeaky clean Riley Finn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “from a little farm just outside Huxley (Iowa)”, or the wide-eyed orphans from Des Moines in Mame. And who could blame them for wanting to get the hell out, when what’s left behind are the soporific neo-puritans in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, or the inauthentic, shallow, weirdly soulless Minnesota yuppies in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
I particularly despise the work of authors like Franzen and Robinson. The latter gleefully perpetuates the stereotypes of the Midwest as an idealized realm of fossilized quaintness and “nice” old-fashioned purity. Her portrayal of clerical culture in small-town Iowa is purely the figment of a priggish imagination, a fabulist conjuring an idyll that never existed—of course, dupes from the effete centers of “literary respectability” lap it up and call it “wise”. Franzen, beyond consideration of his baroque excess and cloying nebulosity—a kind of literary attention deficit disorder—falls in with that pretentious clique of erotic denialists, those self-congratulating “serious” authors who regard sex as something beneath them, a chore to be endured like a Victorian bride on her wedding night, an undignified intrusion into the realm of “what really matters” thus often treating it as something comic or absurd to be brushed aside with an outlandish metaphor or two.
Let me state this bluntly and as clearly as I can: A writer who cannot or, worse, will not write honestly, forthrightly, explicitly, uncondescendingly, and unashamedly about the sexual components of real life, regardless of where he or she hails from, is as toneless and hollow as a stringless fiddle. Spare us all from these feckless buffoons! The most celebrated literary authors in the country have nothing whatsoever over the finest writers of erotic fiction—nothing!—neither in terms of imagination, relevance, or craft, to say little of the richness of language—effective sentence structure and puissant metaphor— or the keenly empathetic understanding of the human condition.
This brings us to a consideration of Paula Bomer’s very fine 2014 collection of quintessentially Midwestern erotic short fiction, Inside Madeleine. The title story is an insightful. sometimes harrowing character study elucidating a tragic circle of life, which becomes in itself a kind of structural microcosm of the whole book. These nine masterfully-crafted stories reveal a loosely cyclic form in which we would seem to perceive the transmigration of a woman’s soul through a series of closely-resemblant avatars, constantly revisiting, not only the same places—South Bend Indiana, certain neighborhoods of New York and Boston—but endeavoring repeatedly to overcome the same obstacles, the awkwardness of puberty with its bewildering “grossness”, spirit-crushing humiliations, and all-too-real growing pains, the fear of imminent adulthood as the fear of the unknown, the search for a mentor who might give this vexed and chaotic life a sense of centeredness and meaning.
Bomer’s language is by turns fierce and abrasive, introspective and disconcertingly explicit; unnerving in its frank intimacy, fearlessly personal, unabashed, trenchant. Here, for example, in the aptly-enough titled breasts, the author brilliantly reveals something of her character’s turbulent inner life through a description of her physical form:
Lola Spencer had the sort of breasts that define a woman. They were gorgeous perfect things, pinked-nippled, sized like cantaloupes, firm and white. They were big and she was small. The rest of her existed to accentuate her breasts; her hips were narrow, her waist a tiny circle, her little pale legs ended in child’s feet. Her head was small and heart shaped, her features pale and slightly receding. Indeed, it was as if every other part of her got out of the way to make way for her breasts. Yes. Lola’s breasts were the sort of breasts that made a girl feel special, feel as if she were not destined for an ordinary life . . .
Or, from pussies, where we can practically feel a character’s dread and disappointment at the understanding of her destined place in the scheme of things, the very mortal terror that is the price of self-awareness:
This was before I knew that we all live on this planet, driving in the cars of our own little minds, our own self-contained worlds. Yes, this was before I knew that, when I thought I mattered, when I thought that people saw me, deep into me, saw all my love and excitement at being alive, saw the very glistening running-overness of my aliveness. But we only matter when we do something awful. Then, someone sees us and only then.
In outsiders, another character draws similar conclusions, though perhaps after taking a more colorfully circuitous route:
On the train ride home for Thanksgiving break, Ruthie sat by the window looking out at the world passing by her. It was dark but she could make out shapes of houses, with their endless people in them, and a parade of scarily tall trees devoid of any leaves. She hadn’t slept, her mind a storm of thoughts. The conductor had been kind enough, like the waiters at the Plaza to serve her even though she was clearly underage. She had been slowly polishing off a bottle of red wine and she felt warm and woozy. Her thoughts, drunkenly floating through her mind, were of deep significance. It was a twenty-four hour ride to South Bend, and she was more than halfway there, the Midwestern land flat and straight around her. Her once perfectly curled bangs hung limply over her eyes. White trash. She would never have a mane of hair to toss over her shoulder. She would never have a lot of things, she would never be many things—but she wasn’t the same person she was a few months ago, no matter what anyone said.
This is an important book, whether considered as an example of erotically frank coming-of-age fiction, or an exciting example of an emerging “mature literary” approach to story-telling. It will, I suspect, open eyes to realms of possibility, even as it inspires and empowers generations of writers—no matter where they come from.