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Unexamined Lives

OFF KECK ROAD A Novel By Mona Simpson;Alfred A. Knopf: 168 pp., $19

November 26, 2000|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

With "Off Keck Road," her new novella, Mona Simpson makes a notable departure from the big, bulky, vibrant novels that established her as an individual and compelling voice in contemporary fiction. In this triad of books--"Anywhere But Here," "The Lost Father" and "A Regular Guy"--Simpson produces a contemporary version of what Henry James, speaking of the Victorian novels of the generation preceding his, called "loose baggy monsters." In Simpson's case, what the novels lack in rigor, structure and discipline, they often more than make up in a kind of emotive largeness, a willingness to go deeply and relentlessly (also, at times, repetitively) into their young female protagonists' relationships with, first and most vividly, a mother (the unforgettable Adele August, a character that alternately fascinates and repels the reader), a largely elusive father and finally a brother. After probing this densely explored familial knot, a question hovers over Simpson's work: In which direction would she bend her imagination next?

The answer, "Off Keck Road," is a curious book. By turning to the novella, Simpson would seem to be trying to avoid some of the structural issues that she never quite masters in her previous books. By size and intent, a novella circumscribes. It is a tricky form, one written with assurance by James and Wharton and later by Nina Berberova, Saul Bellow and Jane Smiley, each of whom, though in different ways, narrowed his or her material by theme, plot, characters or span of time, producing the sense of heightened atmosphere commonly associated with the short story while crossing it with some of the novel's looser, more relaxed unfolding of events.

In "Off Keck Road," Simpson follows the lives of three Green Bay women, Bea, June and Shelley, picking them up in the late 1950s and leaving them off again in the mid-'80s. As this is a great deal of time to encompass in 168 pages, it's not surprising to find that Simpson narrows her canvas in other ways: in the events that take place in her characters' lives or, rather, in the way these events are perceived and experienced by them; in their relationships, both with one another and with their other friends and family; and in the detailing of their interior selves, which Simpson skims across more often than she penetrates or effectively distills.

Simpson has set herself a difficult challenge with this book: to render engaging the predicaments of three women whose lives are largely conducted within severe limitations of ambition, passion and human connection and whose emotions range in tone from beige to gray. Such a palette, even when deliberately reduced, is certainly capable of becoming sharply, indeed powerfully, colored; think, for instance, of the women in Alice Munro's short stories, the aunts, the nurses, the companions, the cousins who, while similarly spinsters (Simpson's June marries, but we learn little of the union), are drawn with a kind of insight and compassion that remind the reader that every human life, when sensitively and probingly assessed, contains an infinity of meaning.

What Simpson does best in "Off Keck Road" is convey the constrictions that certain women in certain places have lived with during certain times in the 20th century, most particularly after World War II when, in middle-class American life, women seemed to have fewer options and narrower paths. Though Simpson's women here are ostensibly the women who have not been successful in creating families of their own, she never romanticizes marriage; in "Off Keck Road" all romantic connection is flawed, all friendship muted and almost all extra-familial exchange ultimately a disappointment. The most nuanced bonds her characters form are between daughters and mothers, such as Bea and Hazel Maxwell, or--most touchingly--between a granddaughter, Shelley, and her "grammy," whom she loves "the way you love only one person, the person who had put your life over anything else."

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