a stairway to paradise
by Madeleine St. John
Carroll & Graf
192 pp., $22
My old art history professor struggled in vain to make me see the area around a sculpture.
"Look at that negative space," she'd demand. I would peer with futile concentration, hoping to get a glimpse of the fourth dimension she seemed able to discern all around us.
From the witty novels of English writer Madeleine St. John, I'm beginning to get a sense of what "negative space" might be.
St. John is a writer of deceptively simple domestic scenes. She's interested in the way ordinary men and woman talk, in what they say and, remarkably, in what they don't say.
Indeed, the most painful, comic, forlorn feelings her characters convey hover in that "negative space" between the ordinary pleasantries they express instead.
Her last novel, "The Essence of the Thing" (1998), was composed almost exclusively of dialogue. In her latest, a short novel called "A Stairway to Paradise," the narrator provides more commentary, but the characters are still largely on their own, struggling with what St. John calls "the tyranny of language." Even the construction of the book, with its frequent blank pages and staccato scenes, emphasizes the moments of silence.
The story revolves around Barbara, a young woman who works as a waitress, a nanny, and a housesitter. She's pleasant, aimless, and captivating to every man she meets.
One of the men swept away by her is Alex, a finance journalist trapped in a comically chilly marriage to Claire. Alex and Claire can't stand each other, but they stay together to protect their assets, while whispering to friends that "it's for the children." St. John has a pathologist's precision for describing a dead relationship:
"A marriage such as his and Claire's had become was perfectly negotiable: perfectly: as long as one had all this space. All this rare and valuable north London space. And just look at those mouldings, and try those doors: yes, those are the original handles. And the skirting - it made up for a lot, an awful lot, that skirting. It made up for vacancy, and ironical courtesy, and alienation, almost."
In fact, good moulding isn't enough to make either of them happy. Claire speaks to her husband in the "very cool, very polite, utterly reasonable" voice of someone trying to get along with an incompetent colleague. Alex retaliates by pleasantly ignoring everything she says.
For Alex, the moribund state of his marriage is enough to excuse his affair with their babysitter, Barbara, but she won't accept that logic. The ecstasy of their adultery is, for her, like falling "into an abyss." She understands immediately that they won't, as Alex claims, "live happily ever after."
" 'But we won't be together,' she said. 'I thought we'd be together.' 'But we are,' he said. 'We won't be,' she said. 'Very soon, we won't be. You'll be at home and I shall be here. And then - how often shall we be able to meet after that? No, don't tell me. I know. But even that is not really the point. We'll be sneaking around behind Claire's back, deceiving her and the children, behaving as if this were something disgraceful, secret - it just won't do. I can't do it. Don't you see?' "
Alex argues that their relationship "has nothing to do with anything else in the world or in our lives, it's ours alone," but Barbara rejects that sort of moral compartmentalization. Unfortunately, she never seems to find the satisfaction she deserves.
There's nothing prudish about St. John's outlook. This isn't "Just Say No!" for adulterers. These characters say no, and then have to deal with the insatiable anguish of their loneliness. That's a bold plot to float at the end of a century of moral relativism. But St. John has the witty, if steely, gaze to carry it off.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society