- All the Living: A Novel
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.
Making Do, or Doing Without
“There are two ways of becoming wise,” Jostein Gaarder wrote in his book The Christmas Mystery. “One way is to travel out into the world and see as much as possible of God’s creation. The other is to put down roots in one spot and to study everything that happens there in as much detail as you can.”
In All the Living, C.E. Morgan roots herself so firmly in the soil of a rural southern landscape that it would take a track excavator to haul her out.
But we don’t want to do that. For All the Living is an excellent debut for Morgan, a bold book of small incidents and large emotions. It is the work of an author unafraid to wrestle with language and if, at times, language wins out, well then, it’s merely shaping her muscles for the next round.
The plot, much like Toni Morrison’s recent effort, is simple. A young woman called Aloma comes to live with her boyfriend Orren on his family farm, in a vague countryside that one might hazard to call Kentucky.
Orren, short for Orpheus, grows tobacco. His older brother and mother have been recently killed in an automobile accident, and he is the sole inheritor of the land and its problems. For summer arrives during the course of the novel, and with it the drought.
Aloma is unprepared for this, much as she is unprepared for Orren’s grieving process or her own feelings about their relationship. Focusing on this young woman, Morgan digs deep into her dissatisfaction to explore how we go about the process of making life-changing choices.
Aloma has one major decision. She can stay with Orren on the farm, spending all day cleaning the house and cooking in the kitchen, or she can follow her dream of becoming a pianist, a talent she learned at a mission school.
Staying on the farm is a hard option. Aloma struggles with the daily indoor chores, fends off a vicious rooster (and is galled by Orren bringing her the spurs as a gift) and kills off the chickens with wet feed. Orren spends most of his time worrying over his tobacco, his skin becoming “so dark with sun that he did not look the same race as her.”
Music, on the other hand, is something Aloma knows she can do. It represents her independence, her complicated sense of self and selfishness, and is tied up in the story with a young preacher named, appropriately, Bell. A charismatic speaker (in contrast to the taciturn Orren), he hires her to play for church services:
Then came her own shuddering response to the sound of their hollered singing, the mismatched pitches rubbing and abrading against one another, the static of imperfect voices. It was not perfection that moved her, only that rub, what others found ugly. She sought the joy of misshapen things.
All this banging on keys seems a frivolous pursuit to Orren and Morgan works this tension into their relationship. As Aloma becomes more and more absorbed in her playing and her relationship with Bell, Orren becomes more and more withdrawn. In this story, at least, Orpheus doesn’t give a holy damn about music.
Even the property appears to conspire against them. For Aloma also has to contend with the many ghosts of the past. There are two houses on the property – the old, in which she lives with Orren, is haunted by his ancestors, a neglected piano and portraits of a family Aloma has never had. The new one, though more modern and better equipped, is abandoned. In it is a snapshot of the young Orren that has been stained with water. And in the times before the water dried up, it is the place where his mother and brother lived. Orren, we hazard, wants to suspend himself in a time that is neither future nor past.
The plot works in the same way. The characters drive trucks and tractors, but there is no Internet, no discussion of national politics, no allusions to current events. Aloma and Orren could be battling out their problems today, or one hundred years ago.
Similarly, the language has the peculiar cadences and idiosyncrasies of an isolated community. Sometimes what is said can mean exactly the opposite, as when Bell suggests:
How about you just play this hymn for me, he said. If you don’t care to.
Morgan takes up these quirks with glee, developing a style that likes to play around with verbs. Aloma “hymned as she walked” or her “voice husked out in a whisper.” Orren drives up the hill, “the dust rolling and sweeping low to the ground in blond curls behind his truck, then flanging and fading to nothing.”
In the first pages, like many authors eager to bolt on the starting gun, she runs the risk of falling in love with her words to the detriment of the story, but she hits her stride soon enough. The characters, whose speech and thought flow into the work without quotation marks, take over and work their own way out.
Plus it’s not just the characters we learn to appreciate. Morgan has a real feeling for nature, and we become deeply involved with the heat and the drought, the weather and the crop, the animals and the seasons – all the things that go into a life lived close to the ground.
Perhaps what I like best about All the Living is that Morgan gives us a portrait of love that’s both simple and complicated at the same time. In the end, it’s not the cracking thunderstorm that signals the turning point in Orren and Aloma’s relationship, nor Aloma buying new chickens with the money she made at church, nor the birth of a calf, but Orren’s simple declaration that he needs her help in the field, and Aloma’s realization that she wants to give it.
We know it won’t be hearts and flowers when the book finishes. It’s a dissonant love, a problematic tune of selfishness and sacrifice that Aloma chooses to play with Orren, but it’s love just the same.
And it’s a decision that, fittingly, Morgan makes sure to mirror in the landscape. Early on we learn that since her childhood Aloma has been attempting to escape the sunless shadow of the mountains, to settle in spaces with endless horizons.
But what she discovers in All the Living is that Orren’s farm will always be the edge of Burnt Ridge Road and the mountains, though distant, will endure.