In a recent issue of The Observer of London, Anthony Burgess bravely declared that he thinks he knows what art is: "The disposition of natural material to a formal end that shall enlighten the imagination." This brisk journalistic definition--not at all the cliche' it might appear but a distillate of a complex critical tradition we ignore to our peril--confirmed what I had reluctantly recognized on a first reading of Elizabeth Cullinan's fourth book, "A Change of Scene": It is a failed work of art.
In none of her well-wrought stories, which have appeared regularly in the pages of The New Yorker and are collected in her second and third books, "The Time of Adam" and "Yellow Roses," does Cullinan let down her reader as she does in this, her second novel. Her first book, "House of Gold," had "promise," that quality so often ascribed to first novels and not always fulfilled in later work, but which has been realized in much of Cullinan's. Her short stories display a mastery of craft that seldom fails to enlighten (or at least to spark) the imagination.
So what went wrong with her new novel? There are plenty of good things to say about it:
Its chapters, like its paragraphs, flow smoothly one into the next without apparent manipulation. Its words clearly have been chosen with care. How much, if any, of the author's personal history is reflected in Ann Clarke, the 26-year-old Irish-American narrator and principal character of this novel, is neither the reader's nor the reviewer's business--even if our natural curiosity is aroused. But obviously Ann Clarke's Dublin is one Elizabeth Cullinan knew well during the early '60s, when she lived there. She evokes this Dublin with emotion and an authenticity of detail that brings to life a city as far removed as is Joyce's Dublin of 1904 from the present scruffy reality.
But in "A Change of Scene" only the scene comes alive. Part of the difficulty may simply be that such a large part of it is spent portraying Dublin. Too little is left for Ann Clarke and for all the interesting men and women she meets to be developed in depth.
None of her encounters changes Ann. For no particular reason, she drops out of Trinity after one literature class and too few classes in the Irish language to have learned any of it. She goes to bed with two of the men she meets; drops the first, beery, aggressive Tomas O'Domhnaill, seemingly because she isn't learning enough about "real" Irishmen from him; and is dropped by the second, handsome Michael Flynn, when she begins to think, and says, she is in love with him. Only her vanity suffers, as far as the reader can gather. But this blow, along with the news that another, unsuccessful, suitor has fallen in love with somebody else, is enough to drive her to the Aer Lingus office to book a return flight to the United States.
There have been other dissatisfactions contributing to her eventual departure: a move from a wicker-furnished room in which she nested on Fitzwilliam Square to unsatisfactory lodgings in a house occupied by an old madwoman and her keeper, the equally old cook; a trip by rental car to Galway with her visiting sister whom she realizes she really doesn't like.
Any of these or dozens of other relationships and events tenuously connected by parties and coincidence might have been shaped into individual short stories. Cullinan could have used some of this rich material to show us a young woman changing or to make us comprehend her inability to change. As it is, her self-concerned, vain narrator seems to spend the year in Dublin at one remove, as if she has a permanent case of jet lag. Or, using the form she handles so much better, Cullinan might also have allowed us to learn something more than we do about some of the lives Ann Clarke's life crosses:
There's the priest, for example, who on a pastoral visit to her lodgings unexpectedly catches her in her bare feet trying to dry her stockings. Later he hears her confession and gives her advice about Michael Flynn but no penance. When she has a sherry with him in his "digs," he shocks her by putting his hands on her breasts. Still later, having avoided his church for a while, she hears him say mass again one Sunday. Exit the priest.
Then there's Tomas. Cullinan uses his sudden appearance in Manhattan "15 years or so" after his last tussle with Ann (by now an assistant producer at a television station) to open and close the novel, giving it an artificial frame. At first his arrival irritates her. But she softens and decides to share her New York with him as he had shared his Dublin with her. "Will we have a drink somewhere?" he asks on the last page. "We will," she says, concluding the book.
Had our imaginations been set alight by this couple's earlier relationship, how we would ache to be with them now. As it is, it's a relief not to be invited to join the celebration.