Elizabeth Gentry’s ‘Housebound’

by Jonathan Williams

by Elizabeth Gentry
Lake Forest College Press, $15.00 paperback
Early into Elizabeth Gentry’s gently paced nightmare Housebound, eight-year-old Edwin is doing what he does—repeatedly bouncing his ball against the barn door—when his sister comes home. Maggie, the eldest of the family’s nine children, has been with her father to the city, where she has found a job. It is Monday evening; Maggie will move to the city (the name of which is, unless I missed it, never given) on Friday. She is nineteen, and will be the first to depart a home from which departure is not necessarily a foregone conclusion for anyone. Edwin, upon seeing his sister, feels “shamed somehow, caught doing something routine when she had ventured out to something new.” It is a quietly moving moment, a simple yet surprising evocation of childhood’s natural loneliness, the depth of which we too often decline to notice.
But the larger point I’d like to make about this moment—Edwin’s tiny yet deeply sorrowful pang—has to do with the shame we all ought to feel in reading this novel. Bouncing a literal ball against a literal barn door is nothing to be ashamed of (it actually sounds kind of nice). But to contentedly sit around and judge everything we read by how well it bounces off the barn door, as it were, of contemporary fiction’s formal and tonal tendencies—this, friends, is shameful. And Housebound will not abide it.
That old standard The Art of Fiction has its virtues, but John Gardner does the “young writers” to whom the book is addressed an incalculably large disservice when he insists upon the superiority of the “authorial omniscient” point of view. It is the preferred point of view of the “noblest” writers, he says. It allows the writer to speak “as, in effect, God.” Human consciousness? Too petty, it would seem. Do I exaggerate? Read what he has to say about Henry James, and then decide for yourself. To what extent Gardner’s influence is to blame I do not know, but authorial imposition is awfully popular these days. Narrators often have little or nothing to do with the characters they tell us about. They are vehicles for stylistic stunt work, or channels for cynicism, sarcasm, disdain, and what can only be described as snark. It’s all very glib.
What Elizabeth Gentry understands—what Flaubert and Henry James and Virginia Woolf understood—is that omniscience need not be “authorial.” It need not reject the rhythms of human consciousness. It is allowed to value the interior landscapes of its characters. The narrator of Housebound is a palpable entity, but Elizabeth Gentry is not that narrator. Maggie and her family, we learn in the very first paragraph of the novel, have “succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers.” They have read too much, experienced too little. Maggie has few clear memories, and she can never remember which are real and which are images and landscapes from books she has read. She does not know herself. She has no syntactical identity. The distant, separate, syntactically distinct narrator is there to illuminate the interior landscapes of Maggie and her family, to speak for them, to elaborate their muted longings; not to subjugate them. This narrator is not Gentry, nor is it God—at least not the kind of God that Gardner is talking about. No, this narrator is something like an angel, or a ghost. It is an interpreter. This narrator knows Maggie intimately, along with her siblings, her parents, her house—even the rat who bites her hand—and takes great pains to stay to true to them all. This narrator moves from family member to family member, freely and seamlessly, going where needed. Without an omniscient, distinct narrator—this narrator—Maggie and her family would be utterly lost, as would the story.
And what a mercy to us that this is not the case. Maggie’s journey—along with Edwin’s, Warren’s, Philip’s, Martin’s, Douglas’, Agnes’, Hannah’s—is an exquisite collective nightmare from which I was loathe to wake. As in most, perhaps all, nightmares, each character has a goal that everything works against. I have a dream sometimes where I am stuck in the middle of the street, unable to pick myself up from the ground. Maggie’s effort to leave for the city is similar. Everything—family, neighbors, landscape, house, silence, memory—gathers together into a tremendous, dark gravity.
Maggie’s desire to leave home at nineteen is normal, but is new and unsettling because of the family’s preternatural fragility. So, too, is this novel new and unsettling. Its fairy tale structure, free-floating omniscience, conflicts, and Modernist approach to language and image—we have all seen these before. But Gentry combines and manipulates it all in a way that both eludes and thrills me. I really can’t think of anything else quite like it. Housebound, I expect, has already begun tunneling into the secret chambers of my memory. Come on in, I say.