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Richard Eder

Herself in Love and Other Stories by Marianne Wiggins (Viking: $16.95; 184 pp.)

August 16, 1987|Richard Eder

We notice the dangerous momentum, the signs of curious steering and the astonishing absence of brakes, which makes it clear that Marianne Wiggins is about to go too far.

Sooner or later, accomplishments become prisons. It's not only out of East Germany or Czechoslovakia that some ingenious despair will fashion a tanklike, water-crossing, hedge-jumping contraption for busting out in search of fresh air.

Right here at home, our material and intellectual industry ends up submerging us in its exhaust. It can be as true of the high competence of many of our writers as it is of the high competence of New American Cuisine. And here comes Wiggins jumping hedges.

I do not like all the stories in "Herself in Love." There are one or two I only partly understand, and one or two others whose understanding I can manage only on a second reading. Wiggins is knotty and erratic. She careens. And then, she takes us with her on a course we have never thought of but recognize at once.

Her subject is women's pain. You could call her one of our most remarkable feminist writers, but it would be misleading. She writes of women as James Joyce wrote of the citizens of Dublin; as if they were a local phenomenon so thoroughly seen, and seen through, that they serve as universal ways of being human, and not only female.

Estrangement between the sexes comes not because men and women fail to recognize each others' crippled longings but because they do recognize them. And they turn away because they can't mend them. Their shared exile separates Adam and Eve more than it unites them.

Wiggins performs the estrangement in a whole variety of ways: tender, frightening, surreal. For the first, made crisp by wit, there is the title story. "Herself," the third-person narrator--if such a thing can exist--is a busy woman, neither naive nor unmarked, who quite reluctantly falls in love with a young carpenter.

Killebrew, awkward and indirect, stumbles into a declaration while having several cups of coffee in Herself's kitchen. Their affair, 10 days old and still indeterminate, would be the most banal of events if it were not for Wiggins' discourse about the mysteries of such a thing.

Herself has a hopeless mix of feelings. "Killebrew, that bastard couldn't put two things together without causing one of them to break out in a rash. Herself was decent, ordered, sedulous, just. Killebrew was seepage," she reflects. "Killebrew appeared from time to time like water on the floor inside the house."

That is before. After, comes the meditation on what women like about men. "They think of men not so much as objects of their love but as a project that comes wrapped at Christmas, disassembled." In other words, it is the particular parts, not the whole, that women fix upon. "They say, 'He has spaces between his fingers. He has fine hairs along his shoulders. He has toes.' "

Killebrew performs, telling stories about himself. Herself contemplates. "Here's what women think: They think forever." But she asks for another story instead, and, when he finishes, "She lay against him, as if she were his shore and she wanted to say: 'I love you, John,' but something told her he would turn to her and tell her 'thank you. . . .' "

"Stonewall Jackson's Wife" is a wilder and more difficult story, and one that shows Wiggins' power at its nerve-racking best. It begins in the Confederate general's home when word comes of his fatal injury. Mary Ann, whom he married after becoming a widower, goes to his deathbed and to the mournful funeral procession that winds through the remote hamlets of Virginia.

The heart of the story is the narration. It is erratic, full of unexplained rancors and regrets. Only gradually do we realize that the narrator is the ghost of Jackson's first wife, Eleanor.

It is an appropriately haunting protest about what life does to men and women. Eleanor remembers her young Jackson, who loved her and life before he became obsessed with his mission of fighting for the Confederacy. She shows withering contempt for Mary Ann, more nursemaid than wife to the fads, fasts and vigils of the Great Man, who has aged out of the man, pure and simple, whom Eleanor knew. At the funeral, while Mary Ann is playing dignified grief, the ghostly Eleanor is fiercely urging the military honor guard to desert.

Women, Wiggins is writing once again, cherish men's particulars--the fine hairs, the appetite for raspberries--and not the generality--the work, the mission--to which these particulars are sacrificed. The theme is very dark, here; desperation replaces the ruefulness of the title story.

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