THERE IS no point in pretending I have read all of Thomas Savage's previous books, for, after the pleasure of reading Her Side of It , I found just one other, A Strange God, a sedate, competent novel published in 1974. I had heard reports that the more recent I Heard My Sister Speak My Name was fine. On the basis of such scanty background and the qualities of the new novel I can state that Savage is a superb writer, and that his new and 11th book is that extraordinary achievement in fiction, a novel about a novelist which succeeds in making the subject believable.
The character of Liz Chandler Phillips is a fine amalgam of sensitivity, wit, intelligence, cruelty, and entirely credible despair. She is a writer who talks as well as, presumably, she writes (of this Saviour persuades us).
Savage places Liz Phillips' story into the kind, ineffectual, but reliable hands of an assistant professor of English at a small New England "freshwater college." Bill Reese, like Liz, was born in Montana and like her is destined for failure. He does not (or cannot) marry, he will not be promoted or tenured. His mission, is, like Charles Citrine's for Humboldt, to tell the story of Liz's agonized life from her voluminous letters to him, the scrappy papers she leaves to him after her death, and his memory of their friendship. Beyond this single purpose he is colorless and static: his only constant possession is an ironing board which he moves from apartment to apartment. "I like to touch things up," he explains to a colleague.
Liz and Reese have a passionless and Platonic relationship. Liz tells him that she loved her crazy father because he was "unable," and adds cruelly: "I am attracted to unable inept people. That could be why I like you." Reese takes this to be honesty and thinks, "I am lucky in having early accepted the fact that nothing much would become of me and that I was not likely to be among the invited guests, and so I have freed my mind to exercise what small gifts I have: an ability to faithfully record conversation and sometimes to interpret it."
Liz's life is pathetic and dramatic. She grows up during the Depression in the West. Her father teaches animal husbandry and goes mad, her mother takes her to unwelcoming grandparents in New Hoosic, Iowa. Her years there hone her sensibilities against the rectitude and coldness of her grandmother and the demands of her peers that she go to school dances: "Liz was a stranger in a strange land; as a stranger she was suspect, for all we know about strangers is that they were not a success where they used to be or they would still be where they were." Before a prom she is stripped of her virginity by the high school football hero.
At the University of Iowa she writes a prize-deserving but eventually censored story, a foretaste of the rejection she is to know later. She marries Hal Phillips, an aristocratic new England ne'er-do-well who uses her Guggenheim money to buy a boat which he is obsessed. Liz writes a superior first novel which confuses the critics, and a second novel which is a moderate success. Her marriage wears thin, and then out. Liz knows it was "never a marriage. A need we both had, a need hard to honor and hard to refuse. Perverted generosity on both our parts, maybe out of a fear of being alone, of no one's caring."
But the novel is not about Liz's life, its curious and ironic turns, but about her work, about being a novelist in a world hostile to art and artists. Lack of money defeats Liz; her desperate measures to survive include taking a wealthy woman as lover, and becoming an alcoholic.
The crisis comes at a reading Reese has arranged for her at his college. Before it she must attend the customary party in her honor. She is thrown into terror and confusion:
"In that room she could not have escaped self-doubt, a recognition of her failure both as woman and as wife -- even her failure as an artist. Surely she had expected to have written far more. The fallow female artist cannot compete in any room with the woman who smells with motherhood. It is far more likely that the artist will never again come to term than that the mother will cease to bear."
She drinks herself into insensibility, lashes out at Reese who tries to take her bottle away by calling him "a God-damned queer" and refuses to go to the reading. Soon after he hears of her death from a failed heart brought on by drinking, and Reese's own denial of tenure and academic death follows.
Savage is writing, elegantly and tellingly, about failed talent, destroyed by poverty and loneliness, gin and non-recognition. Liz Phillips is the incorruptible artist who leaves among her papers a definition of the base agent:
"Money omnipresent, omnipotent, all-corroding, all-pervading. It rules, holds sway, makes possible, makes impossible. Its language needs no translation. Its rule even among the most ascetic and unworldly is unquestioned. The blind and the deaf, the sound and the unsound understand its subtlest whisper, nuance, cadence, its ear-splitting roar. It is the triumphant general of all our wars. . ."
Her Side of It is a fully furnished novel with disquisitions on almost every subject within its purlieu. It is characteristic of Savage's style that he will lecture for three paragraphs on the passing of the American railroad system before allowing a character to arrive by train. Some may call this habit understandable discursiveness, typical of the college professor telling us the tale, but it can be distracting to read a short homily on which sections of The New York Times are read by which people before the character buys a paper, and there are other equally curious digressions on the sonnets of Shakespeare, the kind of people who attend Christmas parties, and so on.
Liz is the novel's achievement, a figure as vital and as tragic as was Bellow's Humboldt, a woman of great promise defeated by the integrity of her own vision and the vulgarity of American culture, a loser whose losses are the greater because she is lost to literature -- at least in her own time.