When Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few weeks ago, a colleague reminded me that some of her AP students had recently gotten to have a luncheon with author Elizabeth Strout and talk to her about her book. I’m told that the students’ primary question was why her book was so depressing, and that Strout retorted that her book wasn’t depressing, but realistic.
With that personal connection in mind, I read Olive Kitteridge. Strout is right: the book isn’t depressing. But it is plain, ordinary, and underwhelming.
Olive Kitteridge’s closest kin in the American literature canon is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; each is a collection of related short stories, which taken together form a mosaic of a town and offer several perspectives on a principal protagonist, in Anderson’s case, Joe Welling, in Strout’s, the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. In that sense, the novel also bears a resemblance to another, more recent work with this same conceit, David Shickler’s excellent (and superior) Kissing in Manhattan.
Anthologies of short stories typically don’t sell well, and most authors avoid them. The copyright page for Olive Kitteridge shows that many of its chapters were published alone over more than a decade. This feeling of discontinuity–or rather, a forced continuity–is apparent throughout. The chapters where Olive isn’t the main character yet she pops up anyway, sometimes only in a throwaway reference, stick out as desperate attempts to make the conceit work. One wonders if older versions of these stories were lightly revised to include Olive’s name just so this could be published as a novel as opposed to the collection of short stories that it is.
As it is, Olive Kitteridge isn’t bad, but bland. I know I haven’t read enough new literary fiction, but did this really deserve to win the Pulitzer? Was this the most powerful, original, profound, moving work that came out of America last year? I find that hard to believe, and if it is, then shame on us for recycling the same old tripe, then patting ourselves on the back and saying, “Good enough.” There’s nothing special in Strout’s writing style–it’s competent, but hardly memorable–and her supposed grasp of the subtleties of strained human relationships–so breathlessly touted on the book’s dust jacket–are banal to the point of making clichés seem fresh.
Strout shows us dozens of people, each of whom is trapped in some way, emotionally constipated and unable to connect with others in any meaningful way. Not only is that stale (aren’t there any healthy people out there, according to Strout? Is everybody damaged goods?), but her approach to the concept is entirely pedestrian. Frankly, anyone wanting to explore the psychic fracturing of modern life would be better advised to go back nearly a century and read Winesburg, Ohio. Or Anne Tyler’s superb Breathing Lessons, the 1989 Pulitzer winner and another novel about the failed communications of a late-middle-aged married couple. Or any of a number of other novels, all about the same thing.
Not to say that Olive Kitteridge doesn’t have its redeeming moments. Perhaps Strout lays on the too-thick two-dimensional characterization early in the novel just to make the gradual evolutions later on more discernible, which is a cheap trick, but effective enough. And Henry, the pharmacist husband, is a great character…too bad we don’t get to see more of him, and see less and less of him as the book progresses. But still, no, Olive Kitteridge is not a depressing novel. Strout clearly believes this. No doubt that she subscribes to the wisdom of John Steinbeck, who said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.
He amplified this thought in East of Eden:
“There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”
And at the end of Olive Kitteridge, we read: “And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.”
When my own students complain that literature is too depressing, I explain that most literature (including the Bible, even) takes the form of cautionary tales: warnings based on the tragic falls of heroic figures, perhaps. And at that level, Olive Kitteridge sneaks in a marginal but decent victory. As far as morals go in stories, that one at the end of Elizabeth Strout’s new Pulitzer winner is as worthy as any.
Final Grade: C+