Sue Miller’s acclaimed first novel, The Good Mother, was published in l982; now, almost thirty years later, The Arsonist reminds us, if we needed reminding, of her remarkable achievement in fiction. Her work is so quietly accomplished as to be overlooked in the glare of more strident claims made for Joyce Carol Oates or Toni Morrison. It may also be the case that Miller has been typed as predominantly appealing to a female audience; if such pigeon-holing has taken place, it is a mistake, since the quality of her novels transcends any possible gender bias. Her engagement with life is large enough to free her from such a constraint.
In her more recent novels, beginning with The World Below (2001) and continuing through Lost in the Forest (2006), The Senator’s Wife (2008), and The Lake Shore Limited (2010), Miller has demonstrated a steady growth of her abilities and her venturesomeness as an American realist—to make use of a possibly outmoded generic classification. But realist she is, in the line inaugurated by the early Henry James, continued by Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather and more recent practitioners, among them Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin. One is not primarily drawn to these writers by the presence of a formidable style that calls attention to itself. Like them, Miller’s style is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the life that James invoked so memorably in his great essay, “The Art of Fiction”: “a personal, a direct impression of life whose only obligation is that it be interesting.”
The life that informs Sue Miller’s fiction is mundane, domestic, family oriented, full of disruptions and dislocations, conflicted and intense. Its erotic component, a significant one, is heterosexual, usually though not always experienced through the person of a woman. It is most powerfully and disturbingly present in Lost in the Forest, in which a young adolescent girl falls into the exploitative hands of an older, married man. The Lolita echoes are unmistakable, but Miller doesn’t play any of it for comedy or antic narrative games.
In The Arsonist the principal vehicle for erotic feeling is Frankie Rowley, a woman in her thirties, returned from Africa where she has been doing aid work for some years. Her return is to a small New Hampshire town, Pomeroy, where her parents have recently moved to their summer house, now a year-round one since both husband and wife have retired from academic pursuits. Sylvia, Frankie’s mother, is a smart, ironic figure whose equilibrium is shattered as her husband, Alfie, becomes increasingly a victim of Alzheimer’s. (Miller’s memoir, The Story of My Father, vividly lays out some of the disease’s lineaments.) This family disruption coincides with an outbreak of unexplained fires, usually of unoccupied summer houses, which disrupts the community. Parallel to these events is Frankie’s developing attachment to Bud Jacobs, editor of the local newspaper and occupied at the moment with writing up the mounting instances of what is clearly arson. He has been twice married and divorced; she has had many affairs in Africa and is wary of becoming too deeply involved. Nevertheless it happens.
At the risk of overlooking someone, my sense is that at present there are few serious American woman novelists who are at ease, indeed have an inclination toward writing about heterosexual love. On consulting more than one reader of contemporary fiction and asking about who they think of as a portrayer of such love, the name Erica Jong often surfaces, which suggests how far away the author of Fear of Flying—iconic in the 1970s—is from today’s fictional scene. Aside from the previously mentioned Lost in the Forest, where a twisted relationship is centrally treated, one doesn’t come up with any memorable erotic encounters in Miller’s books; rather, they are taken for granted as a fact of life, not to be given central billing as in John Updike or Philip Roth. An example: Frankie and Bud spend some time lying in a field looking up at the Northern lights and tentatively exploring each other physically. The words for their encounter are nothing out of the ordinary: “He rolled against her; he kissed her. For a moment her whole body moved, rejoiced, in response to the length of him, the size of him against her. Her mouth answered the warmth of his.” A little later, still before they have slept together, Bud is having coffee and toasting a piece of bread. He thinks about Frankie and sex: “He’d thought about it, her, numerous times in ways that were at once all too generic—legs opening, et cetera—and very specific.” He recalls that she had seemed hesitant “in a way that seemed to him to spring from all that was unclear and unresolved and troubling to her in her life—and that seemed to be just about everything.” A solemn reflection, followed by this:
On the other hand they were both freezing their asses off at that point. The toast popped up noisily. Sometimes it flung itself out so enthusiastically that it landed on the counter, and he always felt cheered when that happened. Not today. “Wuss,” he said to this slice, nicely browned.
D. H. Lawrence once praised the novel for showing “the full play of all things.” In Miller’s sentences above, to follow a lyric reflection about sex with “freezing their asses off” and a piece of toast that fails to misbehave (“Wuss”) is a Lawrentian moment turned toward comedy, a small version of the full play of all things.
This tonal and moral complication of feelings—always mixed feelings in a Miller novel—is backed up by an ever-present solidity of specification. After Frankie moves temporarily into her sister’s newly built house, she goes outside to cut some meadow flowers; “Purplish joe-pye weed, blue cornflowers, the flat delicate fretwork of Queen Anne’s lace.” Returning to the house with a sense of belonging and a large bouquet, “she ran some tap water into one of Liz’s clear-glass Mason jars and arranged the flowers in it. She set the jar and its drooping bouquet on the trunk by the chairs.” She goes into the bedroom for a book picked up from her parents’ shelves, James’s Portrait of a Lady, settles herself in a chair and begins to read:
She heard the refrigerator grumble back on, she heard the sawing of the crickets in the heat outside. Slowly she lost herself in the words about another kind of countryside—tamed, green, shadowy. About another kind of expatriate.
This seems to me perfect in its unfussy selection of details, as well as delicate in the way James’s heroine and the opening of Portrait is alluded to.
As a nice contrast to this moment of order, there is the inside of a trailer, where Tink Snell, arrested as the probable arsonist, has been living:
Dark rucked-up carpeting covered the floor. Clothing was strewn around on it, and a couple of girlie magazines. Along the wall facing him, a smudgy picture window looked south to the Presidential Range. Under that was a banquette and a built-in table with a Formica surface. There was a small television set on the table opposite this.
A reader, carried along by matters of plot and character, is not likely to register all these details, but when you take the unobtrusive sentences more slowly they feel quite unmistakably right.
In an appreciative essay on William Dean Howells’s novels, John Updike listed three of the novelist’s characteristic qualities, one of which was a tendency of his stories “to defuse themselves, to avert or mute their own crises.” For Updike this was an important part of Howells’s realism, the attempt to render life as it goes on, not often presenting the dramatic or melodramatic resolutions and endings that novels—often less than good ones—feature.
I’m certain there is nothing like a conscious debt to Howells’s example in Miller’s books, but her own way of defusing or averting or muting their crises should be noted. In The Arsonist the two main plot lines, often converging, are first, the identity of the firebug, and second, the romantic relationship between Frankie and Bud. One possible way to end the arsonist plot would be to have some member of the community identified as the culprit. In Miller’s book there is a culprit, but some doubt is cast on his guilt, certainly in Bud’s eyes, by the way his confession was elicited. We find ourselves suddenly being asked not to care very much about just who was responsible. As for the love plot, Frankie has to decide between taking a new job in New York City or settling down, in one manner or another, with the newspaper editor. On the verge of a scheduled interview in New York, she changes her mind, gets off the train, and heads home. Then she disappears from the book briefly, while in a capsule account of the next few months Bud decides the affair is over and anyway their passionate love was bound to fall off. If we’ve been waiting to give a cheer at their reunion, we’re invited to regard it as likely to be something other than a happy-ever-after one.
An often-quoted sentence from Henry James’s memorial essay on Anthony Trollope marks Trollope’s singular virtue as “a complete appreciation of the usual.” What follows the claim is not so well remembered, as James tells us that such a gift is “not rare in the annals of English fiction” since it would “naturally be found in a work of literature in which the feminine mind has labored so fruitfully.” He continues in a manner that might upset equal-opportunity students of the sexes: “Women are delicate and patient observers, they hold their noses close, as it were, to the texture of life. They feel and perceive the real with a kind of personal tact, and their observations are recorded in a thousand delightful volumes.” Yet surely James himself was deeply committed to being a delicate and patient observer, holding his nose (or whatever) close to the texture of life, and recording his observations thereof. Sue Miller’s novels seem to me an outstanding example of the way such a realist disposition is observable in American writing today.