California Literary Review

Book Review: Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt


November 5th, 2012 at 8:00 am

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Book jacket: Prosperous Friends
Prosperous Friends
by Christine Schutt
Grove Press, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A mile wide and an inch deep? Not Christine Schutt’s Prosperous Friends. Quite the opposite. It’s a compact 205-page spare-prose novel with a wickedly deceptive rose-colored antimacassar of a book jacket. With those rudimentary tools, it rips the façade off of marriage, much the way a smiling nurse s l o w l y eases a bandage from your wound, and then when you’re good and trusting, rips off the entrenched last bit.

Schutt sets the quotidian exchanges between Isabel, who has “projects,” and her husband Ned, a writer steeped in the louche dishonor and hypocrisy of academe, in or on the ragged outskirts of iconic urban destinations. They are the places to which artists and writers flock to realize brilliant success or staggering failure. Ned and Isabel’s marriage is caught on the tightrope spanning the two possible outcomes. It would be interesting to poll readers to learn at what point in the couple’s retracing of their precarious steps across Schutt’s carefully constructed high wire that they are tempted to abandon all hope for them.

Ned and Isabel are not the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf match of a half-century ago, that carries into their enterprise the limpid provenance of family distinction, when, for example, “Daddy” was the college president. Isabel and Ned fit more into the déclassé and shapeless caste of today’s trust fund kids who lack what has been gently dubbed “emotional intelligence.” This deficit notwithstanding, they have accumulated enough credentials to locate all the right ladders. Climbing them is the labor to which they halfheartedly dedicate their days. Their nights belong to the agonies that diurnal rationalizations spawn. Isabel and Ned are parasites. For them, happiness isn’t a metaphysical state of elation so much as an elusive commodity to be filched from the kindnesses of the idle, if well-situated rich. Their professions are more like stepchildren than the consequential heirs of their relationships and experiences. The salience of their couplehood is their golden ratio because, as individuals, they are forever lost, rootless, and bewildered. They brandish their relinquished hopes in under-tended exchanges with one another.

The couple cherry picks their socializing for opportunities to flirt and court affairs with promising candidates, mostly because it is a self-flattering way to betray a partner, and requires minimal effort on the part of the battle-fatigued couple. Though paltry in number, their fantasies and experiences are culled from the mediocre brands arrayed randomly in the social marketplace and then minted into the coin of their realm in the Bakelite oven of their playhouse hostilities. As thirty-somethings, they still imagine that being as bad as you wanna be offers release from their marriage frankenstorm. Instead, they encounter the ashes of humiliation. The reader feels their pain. They take up with people whom they suspect they’d suspect. Ned conducts a halfway sustainable affair with his former girlfriend Phoebe, who has married her husband Ben for his money. Phoebe claims that the marriage anchors her in a safe-seeming harbor of Hallmarked happiness. Isabel, even after spending scant minutes of a stolen evening nosing through Clive’s family jewels and finding them wanting, accepts Clive’s invitation to spend a summer at his guesthouse, a parcel of a decaying Maine manse where he “summers.” Clive is married to Dinah, who nails the artist’s wife role by remaining insightfully out of sight and somewhat tipsy. Clive visits his ungainly and needy daughter by his first wife as infrequently as possible, and her institutionalized mother, never.

Isabel is an anorexic who turns a cold shoulder to every social opportunity except those that advance her parasitism. Most especially, she rejects her husband’s false-self charade of affection because it rankles against her morbid realism. Yet, she invites him to join her at the guesthouse. What she seems to grok only by degree is that her entire life is a fraud. All the tailings are there, but she has disengaged the mechanism that would assemble them, and is instead mesmerized by the psychic shudders that arrive whenever she is forced to view the diorama-sized junk pile that her life aggregates.

Ned gets the drift of where things aren’t going in his marriage when his wife’s misery is redoubled by Clive’s inevitable and dispassionate rejection of her. Ned wanders away briefly from the scenes of two marriages just far enough and long enough in his mini-universe to set up the dénouement for the disengagement of the Ned-Isabel double harness.

Schutt’s syntax and sensibility are so unorthodox throughout that they open the door to almost any kind of plot resolution, and the dark horse, Sally, Clive’s daughter who is the same age as Isabel, lopes into the barn at just the right moment. With Ned now distanced, the arbitrary and haphazard cruelty of men comes into bold relief. It can be disdained instead of endured, put in its proper perspective alongside the other loathsome things men thoughtlessly leave about them and in their wake. We can now see Sally in a different light, less a victim, more capacious and handy at surviving. In Sally’s company, Isabel notices the beauty in the flocks of birds. Clive sees the meanness in his history of high-handed slights, and Dinah snakes optimism into the gridlock, a kind of Lilac Fairy who is in her cups.

Perhaps Schutt’s clever story shows a way out of the plaque to a claque that seems undeserving of a remedy. But really, if their tiny n-minus-1 handcrafted miniature distresses invite a quotient of relief glittering in the trappings of joy, what’s it to the rest of us anyway?

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