Marya: A Life - Back in Print
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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Joyce Carol Oates on Hortense Calisher


from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

March 22, 1981

"... have read stories by O'Hara, Saroyan, Calisher, and a few others, of what might be called an 'older' and somewhat 'forgotten' or neglected generation, and was very impressed indeed. Each generation's discoveries are inflated with a sense of newness, but there isn't anything new about quality, the uniqueness of the voice, the quirks & unpredictable nuggets of language that constitute art."

from "Imaginary Cities: America"


"New York City—that most mythical of cities—tends to emerge in recent literature as hellish, or at any rate murderous; yet its presence is the occasion for some of the most subtle and intelligently graceful prose of our time. Consider Hortense Calisher's classic "The Scream on 57th Street" in which a lonely woman hears, or believes she hears, a scream of terror five flights below her bedroom window: Some of us, Mrs. Hazlitt thinks with desperate pride, are still responsible."

"The Citizen Courior in Outer Space"

by Joyce Carol Oates

New York Times Book Review
November 6, 1982

Among contemporary writers of distinction Hortense Calisher has always been a strangely elusive presence. So radically do her novels differ from one another (the spareness of "Standard Dreaming," for instance, set beside the baroque complexities of "The New Yorkers"), it has been impossible to assign her to the sort of ready-made category that literary journalism seems too often to insist upon. And now "Mysteries of Motion," her 9th novel and 15th book, will further baffle classification. It is a highly realistic narrative in the guise of a space traveler's private logbook. It begins and ends in outer space—quite literally in an orbit-limbo of thwarted dreams.

This massive, densely plotted novel of the not-very- distant future is Miss Calisher's most unexpected work of fiction and, surely, as ambitious as anything we are likely to see published this season. No summary of the interwoven plots, no discussion of the novel's many ideas, can suggest the quality of this unusual work, which is at once a defiantly risky species of science fiction and a thoroughly realistic psychological novel—traditional in its fidelity to the analysis of human personality under stress. Suspenseful as the novel becomes, especially as its frightening conclusion approaches, it is primarily a meditation upon the nature of heroism and self-sacrifice in the service of an ideal. "Reader," says Tom Gilpin, the narrator and one of the space travelers we come to know well aboard the space shuttle Citizen Courier, "ride with us. Not for our sake alone, not for yours ... (but) for the sake of that once gentle brown humus from which we all come."

Miss Calisher has said of the short story that it is an "apocalypse served in a very small cup." "Mysteries of Motion" is apocalyptic in a large, even gigantic way, covering not only many thousands—millions?—of miles in space, but the complex lives of a half-dozen central characters. Present action is on board the space shuttle, as it moves toward "the first public habitat in space." But much of the novel concerns itself with flashbacks into the lives of the passengers.

In the latter years of our century, during which the action of the novel takes place, Earth is being destroyed by its own wastes. The air is "a nimbus of cancerous fire," and the waters have been contaminated by "fetus-deforming scum." "We were all fire-eaters now," Gilpin observes. Gilpin, who addresses us throughout the narrative, is known as a "world person" of sorts—a gadfly, idealist, troublemaker. By way of the popular newsmagazine he publishes, The Sheet, he has marshaled enough public sentiment to force NASA into filling a space shuttle with 100 citizens, including pregnant women and persons suffering various infirmities. It is a political triumph that will have its repercussions.

Gilpin's fellow passengers in the elite Cabin 6 of the Citizen Courier are a wealthy man named Mulenberg, whose motives for making the dangerous pilgrimage to the habitat in space are ambiguous; a woman Mulenberg loves hopelessly; a black journalist, Veronica Oliphant, who is secretly married to Gilpin, her employer, though their relationship is platonic; a mysterious man named Lievering, or "Jacques Cohen," who was once Veronica's teacher and lover in Cuba; a former diplomat named Wert; Wert's Iranian wife, Soraya, who is seven months pregnant by the novel's end; and a young man named Moreson "Mole" Perdue, the rebellious son of the NASA admiral who has opposed Gilpin's program. (Mole, the novel's most appealing character, is the only one who dies in our viewing; his death is in fact murder—the consequence of deliberate neglect by shuttle personnel who want to revenge themselves on his father.)

The ways in which Miss Calisher weaves the stories of these individuals together, both in the present and in their commingled pasts, are subtle, ingenious and occasionally puzzling. The complex ties between Wert and an elderly Iranian named Bakh, Bakh's son, Manoucher, and, eventually, Bakh's widow, Soraya, take up more than 100 pages in the midst of the Citizen Courier's journey. This section of the novel—"The Country Behind Him"—is often quite fascinating but somewhat digressive. It has the air of an independent novella, splendidly realized, but not (to this reader, at least) clearly integrated with the space adventure. And is Wert, the most conventional of men, actually married to two Iranian women, both of whom are named Soraya?

Equally problematic is Veronica Oliphant's relationship with three of the men in Cabin 6: Gilpin, to whom she is legally but chastely married; Lievering, to whom she was once "illegally" married as a teen-ager; and the love-struck widower Mulenberg, with whom she had a fleeting erotic affair. The much admired Veronica is so many things—a former model, a poet, a well-known journalist, a thoroughly liberated modern woman—and she is so tirelessly scrutinized by her comrades that she seems more idea than flesh and blood. ("At times [Veronica] broke into poetry the way other people broke into sweat.")

Once the Citizen Courier begins its voyage, however, the various lives combine in a suspenseful narrative. Is the space ship's mission, or, indeed, the vehicle itself, being sabotaged? Has NASA acted in bad faith? Are some of the cabins empty, or populated with persons other than the average citizens chosen for the habitat?

"Mysteries of Motion" is remarkable in its scrupulous attention to the details, both technological and psychological, of space flight: the sensations of liftoff and an attempted docking; the malaise of nongravity ("Now we desert into an element where the body can never be quite natural again"); the finicky attention to food, drink, hot water, comfort; the commingled wonder, apprehension, excitement, boredom; the necessary claustrophobic focusing upon one's fellow travelers. Space travel begins to seem not at all visionary but merely practical, inevitable. Earth as the humanists would know it is finished. Gilpin wonders, as we do, "why even ordinary citizens still relegated so much of what was happening in the world to science fiction. They themselves were fiction, to the scientists."

As the fated Citizen Courier approaches its destination—as the novel confronts its series of surprising climaxes—Miss Calisher's prose becomes increasingly economic, urgent, surrealistic. Only one passenger goes mad, but all share in the hallucinatory nature of their predicament. As the novel ends, a mechanical failure prevents the spaceship's landing. It orbits the space habitat, its passengers awaiting rescue, futilely or not they cannot know. Gilpin broods over the arcane term "Psychopannychy ... All-night sleep of the soul; a state in which (according to some) the soul sleeps between death and the day of judgment." Terror and optimism alternate. Gilpin's logbook is addressed to us in increasingly incoherent language ("broken time, broken language, broken lives always fusing—breaking the mold?"). Long after the journey has ended for the reader, the Citizen Courier's eloquent voices linger in the mind, haunting and prophetic. "If we are not dead—we are forestalled," Gilpin observes, speaking, it might be surmised, for us all.

"Are we the country behind you, or the one before?" Gilpin asks rhetorically at the end of the novel and (perhaps) the end of his life. These voyagers set out in search of an ideal, a new civilization. And the fact that they find it difficult, as we all no doubt would, to abandon their earthly concerns, does not in Miss Calisher's mind diminish the heroism of their attempt.

"Mysteries of Motion" is as demanding a novel as Miss Calisher's "False Entry" and "The New Yorkers," but its rewards are well worth the effort.

"Fiction Chronicle"

by Joyce Carol Oates

Hudson Review
Autumn 1969

Hortense Calisher's new novel, The New Yorkers, tells a very long, technically complex, claustrophobic story which is precipitated by an act of violence—the killing of a woman by her daughter, in the presence of her lover. To the genteel imagination, violence justifies itself because it is a rejection of the genteel; a murderer is always interesting. Those of us who are not genteel are more cynical, knowing that murderers are no more interesting than anyone else, and in literature they are no more interesting than their creators are able to make them. In fact, the danger with a murderer is that he never accomplishes anything else—one act, one crime, one glorious killing, and after that all he can do is think.

Ruth Mannix is twelve when she shoots her mother; but she carries with her a perpetual "odor of memory," which distinguishes her from other, less guilty, people, and which obsesses her father, the important Judge Simon Mannix. He has disguised the murder as a suicide, in the interest of his daughter—"I choose her;" he thinks. The facts about the death are kept secret from everyone, including the reader, until in a long, rather lyric monologue Ruth reveals—and here we see how truly genteel Miss Calisher's imagination is—that the killing was done out of mercy, because her mother demanded it.

The novel concerns itself not with facts but with the play of consciousness over facts. Nothing is real; everything is relative. Like the Judge, we become obsessed with the subtleties of guilt, responsibility, the "inter-penetrations of things." Therefore, chronological time is insignificant; we move freely back and forth from the novel's present (1955) to its important pasts (1943 and 1951), so that threads may be taken up, partly explained, different points of view may illuminate ambiguous events, or further darken them. The novel's structure is dictated by Miss Calisher's commitment to what seems to me an old-fashioned, but occasionally effective, means of keeping in the foreground an act that is not only historical, but confused as history; this "act," with its mythical aspirations, must dominate nearly every page of a novel of 559 pages. Who would want to take on such a burden as a writer? In order to keep prominent the theme of violence other violent acts are introduced, rather arbitrarily—a weird episode in which a meek, drunken assistant professor of English slashes his wrists on Ruth; an equally weird episode in which Judge Mannix's brilliant secretary-protégé beats and apparently rapes Ruth in her own father's house, with her father upstairs. Thus Ruth is associated with blood, violence, passivity, the fate of an eternal victim who can be depended upon to remain silent, daughterly, etc.

Miss Calisher has not a logical or intellectual imagination at all, as many critics believe. She is a primitive, a believer in magical powers, fantastic feats of consciousness, the uncanny confusion between inner will and outer history. There is nothing realistic in this novel apart from its concern with the law and its setting, which is done with care (New York City—the upper middle-class—cultured Jews—excellent furniture and antiques); everything is exaggerated, drawn out, worried over, teased, twisted, left dangling. Less direct than either Henry James or Djuna Barnes (an unlikely combination, but strangely suggested by this novel), Miss Calisher is concerned with presenting a kind of ballet which ties together the various characters of the novel into what the Judge calls the "inertia of family life ... an underground spring neither diseased nor healthy .... " How to break free of this inertia? ". . . any man at a window now and then shivered at its argument, assassin deep in the breast. I must move. I must murder. Where is Joy?"

But the will to move, let alone murder, is not strong enough. Everything is dense, weighed down, opaque, slightly insane. The New Yorkers is not only a primitive novel, it is something of an insane novel, unfortunately weakened by its moments of sanity and the author's tendency to simulate realism through meandering conversations. There are too many words, too many subtle thoughts. Says the Harvard protege, Edwin, who takes his place in the ballet as a rapist some years later:

It wasn't only your possessions that I didn't know the names or uses of, that confused me.... It was you yourselves, sir, in your heads and souls. It was like I couldn't even tell secondary sex characteristics at first, or what was the age of who .... For a while, until I saw the sequence, you all scarcely had any actions. Just talk. Like magic powder—that explodes.