The Flaming Lips of Willa Cather


Walking through a bookshop recently, I did a double-take as I passed a modest grouping of spines boasting a familiar author. I’d heard of Willa Cather before, even tried to read one of her books. But that was back when I was yet too immature to tear myself away from the glow of would-be actresses devouring raw horse rectum or lasting a full minute in a sarcophagus teeming with roaches. Looking back it’s sad that I chose reality TV over a weathered literary classic, but what can I say—there’s no competing with primetime droll when it comes to winning a child’s esteem. So my little-kid mind did the only thing that seemed right in the face of temptation: I dragged my eyes across the pages of my novel without retention, marked on my homework slip that I’d had a book open for a full twenty minutes, and then settled in to watch the future of entertainment unravel.

Back at the bookshop, my maturing hand picked up the copy of My Ántonia—three dollars, used—and brought it home. Since my first try with the novel, I’ve loved, learned, and transplanted myself a world away from my roots. It seemed the perfect mindset to recapture a gem I could have had in youth, this well-penned story to linger in my mind. Love, loss, mobility, and moving on share the leitmotif of the piece. So it’s almost funny now, having read the book clear through, just how much of its clarity and fierce destiny lay in wait for me to come along at twenty-seven, having lived a little and at last eager to see.

The narrative follows Jim, a discerning country boy growing up on the Nebraska prairie shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His story is interwoven with the novel’s namesake, a rugged and vibrant Bohemian immigrant affectionately called Tony. I hadn’t braced myself for the reality of what I’d assumed would be a fanciful and bumpkinesque book. In the first chunk, Cather deals with the trying themes of immigration, poverty, regret, and suicide. As affection builds between Jim and Tony, the story takes on the nuances of growing up and the resolution that all things, good and bad, are bound to rise and wane as the world spins madly forever.

As with any well-told story, the romance never develops to fruition in time for either of them to get a word in edgewise. Before we know it, Jim is off to Lincoln and then Boston, while Tony meets her own fate on the prairie. Without letting slip a spoiler to those who have not read, the story does not wrap up as you might think. Or at least not as I had thought, knowing that the book is considered a romance and catching on the note of possession in the title. What we get at the end is not the kind of neat wrap-up that satisfies you all the way into a warm bubble bath. The story’s culmination reveals an honesty of living that sends you reminiscing fondly while cursing all your lost opportunities as they pass before your eyes in stark and living color.

Throughout the novel are glimpses, from a variety of perspectives, of human value and its place in the grand drama of progression. On the final page, Jim walks the fields and roads of a youth spent with Ántonia and feels her shadow, nearly forty years distant, egging him on to play.

“The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

As I scribble my thoughts on My Ántonia, my playlist has circled around twice to “Do You Realize,” by the Flaming Lips. Its fury and simple lyricism make it one of my all-time favorite songs. Along with its opening cadence the second time through I was struck with an aha notion that nothing else could sum up Cather’s novel more concisely or more completely. Did Tony realize all the beauty radiating from her singular face? Did Jim ever let her know, in time, that he realized that the fast clip of life makes it all the more important to make the good things last? Did either of them realize that all things must pass way and be borne forever to the eternities?

Smoothing over the many dog-ears that work assignments and buzzing dryers have laid on the pages these past few days, I set the finished book aside and marvel once again at all the humanity I snubbed when I chose horse rectum over honesty. Some books have nothing to tell us but story, but Cather’s is brimming with a life so universal that its recognition strikes you as lightning even a hundred years later.

Luckily for anyone in my shoes—anyone reading this story in the prime of life—it’s a reassuring marvel that the sun doesn’t really go down. Through it all, it’s just an illusion, caused by our worlds spinning ‘round.


Pride and Prejudice: An Untimely Review

Pride and prejudiceWas I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn’t until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I’d discovered it as a budding thirteen year old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I’ve been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think…

If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there’s a reason why Austen’s sparkling language has endured—though it’s surprising that she wasn’t more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn’t afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she’s been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it’s understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family’s reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women’s suffrage was but a twinkle in John Stuart Mill’s puerile eye.

What’s more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you’ve got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as old-timey literature.

That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book by two stars for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we’ve all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.

So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that in 2012, or whatever year it is now, it’s hard to swallow such a neat ending. It’s as if we don’t need to know any more about the well sketched characters once they’ve passed through the marriage veil. It’s tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India. On the other side, it’s tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.

Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman’s life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I’m grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it’s heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there’s something about Happily Ever After that screams “cop out,” and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.