Alice Adams is a writer who hit her stride early and has been going flat out ever since. Even her four novels are headlong and speedy. In her fiction things happen fast, and her prose accelerates to keep pace with them.
To See You Again is her second collection of short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Her readers will recognize their formidable worldliness. This worldliness is more than an attitude, a matter of style or sophistication; it amounts to a metaphysics, the wisdom of the world. Adams casts a cold eye on romance, nostalgia, anything that smacks of sentiment. She is staunchly on the side of those who believe that happiness, if it lies anywhere, lies in reality. She is alert to the smallest self-deceptions, all those little illusions that are anything but innocent, the fine cracks in the teacup which ought to warn us that sooner or later that teacup is simply going to fall apart.
Nothing lasts, least of all the relationships between men and women. Adams' fiction, including this new collection, is populated with women who are divorced, widowed, or between affairs. Willingly or not, they are on their own, and the tricky lesson they all must learn is how to live without men.
The lesson is tricky because, first of all, they have been raised with the expectation of marriage. These are intelligent, well-educated women from affluent families; and even if their parents' marriage was miserable (it usually was; the father who recurs in Adams' fiction is a hard-drinking, brutal, glamorous womanizer), they expect to do better. What they do instead is repeat their parents' mistakes.
And so they get divorced and move to San Francisco, the setting for several of these new stories. The city is heady, anonymous, and dangerous--Adams does not celebrate it as, say, Bellow celebrates Chicago. Yet it is the ideal place for those women to start over. They are not only leaving men behind; they are shedding their past, the past that dictated the choice of the wrong men. They have literally to re-create themselves, to make themselves over--in their own image.
These women have not completely sworn off men. They can't; they enjoy them too much. The erotic currents are murky and powerful. Sex, not love, is the great mystery in Adams' fiction. The men swim by like so many fish, brilliant and colorful in the moment before they disappear, as they inevitably do. The women respond to their grace and beauty with a sensual gusto that is the traditional response of men to women. Though not in the least romantic, Adams is a marvelously sexy writer.
The conflict--not the outward conflict between men and women, but the private and inward conflict of individual women--runs through all of Adams' work. Her women value men but they prize their own independence. She treats the conflict as a given, a tension so familiar and commonplace that it requires no explanation. She is not particularly interested in the observation of emotional and psychological niceties. She would rather show us how people act than how they feel.
The result, of course, is that her stories have a decidedly moral cast. They can be read much as Hemingway's stories were and sometimes still are read, as advice. In fact, her fiction does for women something very similar to what Hemingway's fiction did for men: it embodies a code.
Several of the key rules of this code are stated forthrightly in the description of the young woman in "An Unscheduled Stop." Flying over the town where she grew up, she has burst into tears.
"The young woman . . . who is not on drugs, or drunk, has been deeply mortified by those tears, which came on her like a fit, a seizure. Generally she is a disciplined person; she behaves well, even under emotional stress. She does not make scenes, does not cry in public, rarely cries alone. Maudlin, she is censoriously thinking, and, How could I have done this to myself? How could I take a flight that would go right over Hilton?"
A "disciplined person"--this woman has created herself through an effort of the will. She tells herself that she has made "precisely the sort of 'unconscious' mistake that people who pride themselves on rationality, on control, are most prone to make . . . it is how they do themselves in, finally." The code is not easy to apply.
It requires more than resolution and intelligence of the women who adopt it; it requires fortitude. The woman in "Berkeley House" learns that her stepmother, from who she is estranged, is going to sell the house in which she grew up. "If I can't have it no one will, she wildly thought, at that most vulnerable predawn hour." In the very next sentence comes the reassertion of control: "She had no right to any of these emotions." Yet she cannot censor her dreams, which are frequently of the house. She regards the dreams as "unbearably sentimental, not to mention infantile." Here, again, the "unconscious" has impinged, bringing with it its residue of grief and rage. The code requires her to bear her loss and her dreams in silence. She doesn't allow herself to tell her lover about her dreams until the dreams have ended.
There are many other similarities between these two stories, including a professional resemblance--one woman is a painter, the other a magazine writer. In both stories the encroachment of the "unconscious" is assimilated into their work. The painter finishes a landscape--"its tidiness possibly being a counter to the confusion in her mind"--and without showing it to anyone takes it to her gallery, where it is immediately sold for enough money to live on for several months. The code emphasizes the importance of work as a source of self-expression and self-esteem. And the code has a bottom line: money, usually in short supply for Adams' women, is always the condition of their independence.
Provide, provide--this is, after all, the wisdom of the world, it most ancient wisdom. Alice Adams has updated and adapted it; her women are sane and civilized and frequently gallant; her stories are true and contemporary, a part of the history of our own times. Her books are eagerly awaited, and her readers, I am sure, find their own lives reflected in them.
I am equally sure that I will only sound like a dog in the manger when I say that the wisdom of the world is not enough. It aims low; it is a strategy for cutting your losses. No wonder Alice Adams' characters move so fast--something might be gaining on them.