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Mona Simpson's Family Values

The novelist's books reflect real life. You may not like it, but that's because it hits too close to home.

November 17, 1996|LISA BROADWATER | Lisa Broadwater's last story for the magazine was a profile of poet and children's book author Gary Soto

This is not the story of an overnight sensation. OK, well, maybe it is--or was, in the beginning.

Ten years ago, Mona Simpson was 29 and had just published "Anywhere But Here," the wrenching story of a mismatched Midwestern mother and daughter attempting to adjust to life in Los Angeles. It was that rare first novel that earned both phenomenal popular success and critical acclaim. Words like "brilliant," "extraordinary" and "stunning"' were tossed about like so much confetti whenever "Anywhere" was mentioned, which was often.

Although Simpson was not new to the literary scene--she had been an editor at the Paris Review for several years--she suddenly found herself a member of the literary elite. The accolades began to pile up. She won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was named a Hodder Fellow at Princeton. To the public she became the voice of her generation. She was profiled in People. Hollywood came calling. In short, the world was knocking down her door. So what did she do? She made a brief appearance and then she went back to work. Unlike some of her flashier peers--the ones who spend the bulk of their careers yakking about a literary life--Simpson has actually been living one.

Last month, Simpson published her third novel, "A Regular Guy," the story of a charismatic, power-driven entrepreneur and his eclectic community of family and friends. As was the case with "Anywhere But Here" and its sequel, "The Lost Father," "A Regular Guy" took almost five years to write. The reason, Simpson will tell you, is that she's "slow, slow, slow." Yet, as with many things involving the author, the reason isn't remotely that simple.

Simpson, who is unnervingly uncomfortable with praise, might label herself as slow, but those who know her see her as painstakingly deliberate and profoundly committed. She is a writer's writer whose influence in the literary world isn't limited to the proficiency with which she strings together words on a page. Granted, she isn't considered a slouch in that department, either.

"Mona is one of the best of her generation in terms of plumbing the complexities of family relationships and the broader social significance," says John Glusman, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux who has worked with many of Simpson's contemporaries, including Richard Powers, Peter Cameron and Elizabeth Benedict. "She's an extremely gifted novelist--a kind of archeologist of family relationships who writes with genuine psychological insight in richly textured prose."

Adds Stuart Dybek, professor of creative writing at Western Michigan University and a regional judge for Granta magazine's "The Best of Young American Novelists" issue, which placed Simpson on its list of 20 best writers under age 40, "Mona is able to do what only a few American writers can do: She has the ability to write stories that at once have a popular appeal but high artistic intentions. What she's doing is creating a world that's realistically recognizable to her readers. She holds up a very accurate mirror to a whole set of attitudes that people recognize in themselves."

Ask Simpson to sum up one of her books in a sentence and she slowly shakes her head: "If you could get everything in that sentence, why not just write the sentence?" She has a point. So does her fiction. For the uninitiated, this is not Saturday afternoon beach fare. The world according to Mona Simpson is an undeniably dark--yet eerily illuminating--place. Plot is often beside the point. Delving into the human psyche is. Characters are rarely what they (or you, for that matter) would hope to be. Children are forced to behave as adults while adults . . . well, adults behave badly. The American Dream may be desirable, but rarely is it attainable.

Consider this, from "Anywhere But Here": "I'd been taught all my life or I knew somehow, I wasn't sure which, that you couldn't trust the kind faces of things, that the world was painted and behind the thin bright surface was darkness. . . ." Or this, from "The Lost Father": "We are all endlessly telling the explanations of why we are not more. At a certain age, this begins. And for my mother and my father, the explanation was still, after all these years, the other's name." Or this, from "A Regular Guy": "It was strange: in her mother's bungalow, Jane always felt beautiful--she was, she knew that. But here, all that fell off like a joke and she was left with her plainness."

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