At 64, Schutt hasn’t written much compared with her book-a-year colleagues, but almost everything she publishes attracts extraordinary critical praise. Her first novel, “Florida,” was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, “All Souls” was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and her short stories have won the Pushcart Prize and two O. Henry Awards. If her striking, lyrical work remains relatively unknown, it’s a house favorite of other literary authors and readers of sophisticated fiction.
“Prosperous Friends” will satisfy that refined audience again. In these dark, delicate pages, two young writers enjoy a short romance, “no more than a sniffle,” Schutt writes, “an accumulation of scenes in thrift shops and workshops, a whimsical wedding in a rhinestone casino” in Las Vegas. Then, almost immediately, they realize they’re incompatible, but their marriage bleeds on, weakening but never dying.
Ned and Isabel met at Columbia University while working halfheartedly on MFAs in creative writing. (The piercing accuracy of these scenes is informed by a lifetime of experience: Schutt earned an MFA from Columbia and has taught at a number of schools.) Ned is popular and distractingly good looking — “a sleek boy in an ad for cologne”; Isabel is lithe, beautiful and despondent. Released from any responsibilities and gassed up on fellowship money, these two blessed kids tour the United States and Europe. Ned fiddles with a collection of short stories and considers writing a memoir. Isabel floats in a corrosive fluid of indolence and depression. “Who was to say what anyone might make of a life, but Isabel was stung by the little startles of those who knew her at what she had become,” Schutt writes in that arresting voice of hers with its surprising sidesteps. “From the girl most promising — no book, no significant publications either, and online didn’t count.”
Isabel remembers promising a college roommate that they would soon be purposeful, employed and well traveled — a plan only a third completed, though she’s already 33 years old. “I need a regular job when we get back to the States,” she tells Ned. “I need something to do.” Together, these two are like poster children for some Marxist campaign against excess leisure. My sympathy for their pain was mitigated by rising irritation at their laziness and self-absorption (and the nagging sense that I’d read enough about the ennui of bright New Yorkers in the New Yorker back in the 1980s). Let Isabel spend a few years asking, “Do you want fries with that?” and then at least she’d have a reason to feel so sleepy and bored.
Like Schutt’s two previous novels, “Prosperous Friends” is relatively short, but the poetic concision and allusiveness of her prose give the story more heft than a mere 200 pages would suggest. Pared almost to the point of stinginess, her sentences never waste a phrase or even a word. In these finely cut scenes, months are reduced to crucial moments, and those moments captured in just a few impressionistic lines. A short section concerning an unwanted pregnancy rivals Hemingway’s elliptical devastation in “Hills Like White Elephants”:
“ ‘Are you sure?’ the doctor asked.
“She did all the unsightly crying things, and both men watched. She used the sleeve of her yellowed nightgown on her face.
“ ‘You’re in agreement?’ the doctor asked.
“ ‘Yes,’ and they said yes at the same time, so Ned and Isabel must have been in agreement.”
Schutt deals killing blows with such short, precise movements that at first you barely register the wound. Her portrayal of sexual dysfunction manages to be just as cringe-inducing as it is oblique. Here’s one complete scene, for instance, that makes you wince with its mingled tones of frustration:
“Let’s just try this.”
“I don’t want to.”
“No. Why don’t you just give in to what I can do for you? Most guys would.”
Not all the scenes are that short — most run for a page or two — but all of them display this astonishing compression of emotion. Though clipped to within a phrase of real life, Schutt’s dialogue always sounds piercingly real: “If you could only look as if you were having fun,” Ned tells Isabel, “we might make some friends.” By the time spouses are calmly giving each other poisonous advice like that, there’s no use calling Dr. Ruth. In the mellow, ironic voice that flows around these characters, Schutt writes: “Alone and together in the intimate familiar that was marriage — wasn’t it? And she had nice clothes, too, didn’t she?”
What complicates the story of these two toxic lovebirds is their interaction with prosperous friends. How happy they seem, how content, but who really knows what’s going on behind the doors of other people’s marriages?
The second half of the novel takes place on the idyllic Maine farm of a famous artist who has invited Isabel to work as his model during the summer of 2004. Clive is a serial adulterer, as his wife, Dinah, well knows, but “pride was overrated; she had learned how to put it aside.” This older, long-married couple serve as an unsettling counterpoint to Ned and Isabel’s faltering marriage. But how successful is a union built around turning a blind eye to one partner’s perpetual infidelity? Of course, we’ve got an easy answer to that question, but Schutt keeps needling our righteous indignation. “The advantages of an old wife, Clive thinks, are too often overlooked.” Try that toast at your next anniversary dinner.
A bitter wisdom runs through these pages. “There may be cures to loneliness,” Dinah thinks, “but marriage is not one of them.” Although Schutt can be grim about the agony of a loveless marriage, she’s not dismissive of the dream that keeps leading us to say, “I do.”
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.