The Bonds of Matrimony
Friday, October 3, 2008
By Phillip Lopate
Other. 264 pp. $24.95
Phillip Lopate is such a smart man and such a fine writer that sometimes it's hard to know whether he's gaming you -- having fun with you just because he can. Here are two novellas about marriage: one called "The Stoic's Marriage," the other, "Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage." They're both set in Brooklyn, resolutely set there, as if every person in the whole world should know its every cobblestone and street, so that when the protagonist of "The Stoic's Marriage," for instance, refers to his home in mansionlike terms, we don't know if it really is a mansion, or just the biggest house in a run-down slum. And obviously Lopate doesn't want us to know -- but why?
And if, after reading these two tales of marriage, you find yourself wanting to run to the nearest monastery, rush inside, lock the door and throw away the key, well, is that the author's intention? Maybe. Maybe not. Lopate tells you everything and nothing at the same time. And perhaps that's what marriage is, what life is. A surfeit of information that, in the end, is inexplicable.
In "The Stoic's Marriage," Gordon, a lonely, aging bachelor who has recently moved back in with his mother, has that same perplexing combination of knowledge and ignorance about himself. He describes with disgust his "roly-poly belly and thinning, wiry hair," and also admits to being a "procrastinator, selfish, petulant, introverted, melancholic." But he's proud of his education and aristocratic connections, and he seems to take perverse pride in never having finished his PhD. He thinks lofty thoughts because he's lofty, not because he has to earn a living as an academic. He admires the works of Epictetus and quotes from them in his newly begun diary. Gordon has unexpectedly come into an inheritance of happiness and, in his naivete, thinks he's become an expert on the subject.
His crabby old mother has been ill for a long time, and through the hospital Gordon hired Rita, a beautiful woman from the Philippines, to come and look after her. Caring for a tiresome old lady as she lies dying is not a job at the top of the economic food chain, so Rita must surely have her own hard and urgent reasons for being there, but Gordon is either too besotted or too self-absorbed even to consider that she might have a past, a life of her own. Also, he's thinking with the part of his body that is not, to put it delicately, situated above his neck.
Rita takes Gordon to bed. She stays on in the house after his mother dies. They marry. He's insanely happy, so full of himself that he thinks this diary he has started might well function as a marriage manual, and for the first few months of their connection his sole worry is whether he should keep this work for himself or submit it to the larger public.
What's Rita's story? To anyone who has had occasion to hire a minimum-wage immigrant or tune in to Lou Dobbs when he's feeling testy, it will be obvious. There's something Rita wants and needs, and she wants it a lot. The reader can only watch helplessly as Gordon is taken to the cleaners in every possible way, shape and form. There's nothing to be done. He's a prisoner of his own folly. The only happy ending -- if there is one -- is that he finally learns what it is to be a real stoic.
"Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage" is just as disheartening. Eleanor and Frank, after hardscrabble first marriages, are making enough money now and enjoying enough career success that they feel reasonably confident about embarking on this second attempt at matrimony. But Frank's older son (with whom Frank smokes dope and blabs on at length about his youthful depression) "knew his father had left because his mother had gotten fat." So Frank isn't exactly a man of deeply felt, profound emotion.
Be that as it may, and knowing what they do, Frank and Eleanor go through the postures and positions of being a sophisticated New York couple. On a typical weekend, they engage in vigorous sex, go into Manhattan for a charming restaurant meal and on Sunday throw a casual-seeming but opulent dinner party. Eleanor makes Cornish game hens; Frank sets up an actual movie projector so that their guests can watch "City Lights." (No crass DVDs for them.) They talk of the theater. They eat on white sectional couches around a Noguchi table. They are consumers of culture, cognoscenti in the most unpleasant sense. And, as in so many second marriages (and first ones, too, I imagine), the subtext, the real story, centers on who's going to get control of the relationship or, more drearily, who's going to be unfaithful first.