November 2012

Christopher Merkel

fiction

The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

There must certainly have been books -- although I don't remember specifically which ones they were or exactly how they looked -- but there must certainly have been some (and maybe more than I'd like to admit) that I read for their covers. In the case of The News from Spain, however, my whim was floated entirely by the fact of the title. The news from Spain since my lease expired and I left that country in early summer has been tumultuous. My sister visited in September and found herself in Barcelona on the day of the million-man demonstration for Catalonian independence. And then, in Madrid, there ensued the protests against the austerity measures adopted by the Rajoy government to coalesce its position at the center of the mire of the Spanish economic crisis. But no news from the Galician friend of mine with whom I spent the day of the general strike at my apartment in Seville at the end of March. So I read The News From Spain because that was the title. I didn't expect any news, but I thought that the simple (silly?) pursuit of that whim might help to sate my longing.

But does longing love company? Can we really successfully pine in the presence of anyone but the image of the object of our pining? That willfully desperate melancholia should, maybe, be left to itself. Or is it, maybe, that what we're after is less sympathy than distraction? And isn't it possible that we long for distraction because its company relieves us from our longing? And then, maybe, the object might shift. Moment to moment, maybe we're just looking for something to tide us over until (or help us fortify ourselves for) the next thing. Loves. And we allow them to be widely construed, take them as they come and where we find them. What was it that we were longing for? What (oof...) is love? There are as many answers as love stories. In The News from Spain, Joan Wickersham gives us seven. And I welcomed their distraction from the pending news from Spain.

"You know what love is." "You know what he always does." So goes the epigraphs to the penultimate story of the collection, translated separately from the librettos of operas by Mozart and Da Ponte. And at this point we do... know, that is, if not by our own experience, then through the experience of the characters in the preceding five stories. Love, as per The News from Spain, just happens, in the sense of, say (as they say), shit happening. And we take it. We take it until we're forced to seek more or another one or other ones to deal with the one(s) we have and with all of the things that have variously happened to us as a result of them.

"You," she says in the second person point of view at the end of story number three, standing in line at the Prado with her husband, decades after the facts, "You thought about how lovers, or any two who fascinate each other, choose in rapture and ignorance." And then, after the action builds through stories four and five, in the story that follows that epigraph (by which the two characters are named), Elvira confesses to Rosina: "In the end I did get hurt again. Not as badly, it wasn't as violent as the first time. I had been curious to see: Can I do this? ...And in the end the answer was no, not really. I'm not sorry, though... I know what he's like. But I've never been happier than I was when I was with him... And you haven't even heard the news from Spain yet."

I don't think that Joan Wickersham is pessimistic about love. And although this collection of hers plainly depicts the hard contours of her subject, neither did I find the author cold. Love in The News from Spain is, like the recent news from Spain, simply tumultuous -- although not necessarily like the tumultuously passionate "Spanish" love between, say, the artists portrayed by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Had another author composed the same variations, their theme might have had an entirely different focus. But the tumult of love in Joan Wickersham's collection occurs offsite, away, we might say, from where love has already been considered. A daughter, torn between lovers in middle age, connects (for real) for the first time with her invalid mother. A paralyzed former ballet dancer finds sympathy and distraction in the company of her male caretaker, whose lover is on tour in Europe with the former dancer's husband and his most recent... ingénue. A biographer obsequiously interviews the widow of a famous race car driver, and although he might not see it himself, his wife does: in a photograph of the erstwhile couple taken in Spain, "the look right before you kiss the one person whose existence strikes you as both necessary and miraculous."

In Joan Wickersham's variations, love happens, and it's taken where it comes: love, her stories seem to argue, is the thing that we find in the people who accompany us through the tumult of our various loves. It's the sympathy or the distraction we find in front of us when love begins to fail and, as "perilous reminiscence," begins its persistently distracting drip. To the extent that we would cast ourselves to the whim of the fleeting bastardry of love, we also become acutely sensitive to the kindness and concern that we find in the offing. Love, as per The News from Spain, is what we find when we're left waiting in the offing by love.

Wickersham's collection might have been the love child of the collections Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill (that author's unmitigated straightforwardness) and Love Today by Maxim Biller (those characters' beautifully willful resignation), although certainly, as its own grownup book about love, with its own distinct personality and experience. And Wickersham's collection builds on the theme of misplaced-displaced-replaced love throughout its progression from story number one to number seven, increasing in structural complexity from one story to the next toward a point of submission and self-consciousness at which even the author has very frankly lowered her expectations.

And that point, unfortunately, toward the end of story number seven, was the point at which I questioned my own expectations of The News from Spain. Had I been wrong in feeling what I'd felt while I was reading it? Wickersham shows her hand and calls: "I am writing about women, about love and humiliation. Men do it to us, but mostly we do it to ourselves. We love the wrong people; we love at the wrong time. We think that we can make it right, reconcile the irreconcilable..."

Huh. Et tu, Joan? Should I have inferred it earlier from the nuance of that epigraph? In spite of myself, I felt betrayed. And for the simple fact of, well... that dichotomy. And I'm left in the offing. But maybe it's different if we men are, say, in a different way, as was the case with that crippled dancer's caretaker. Should I be offended? "Maybe for [the one] it was a step forward, even if to [the other] it felt like a loss, a sudden discovery that something lovely and unspoken had perhaps not been spoken because it wasn't there." "The news from Spain this week is that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." Ha. Universal romantic bathos.

Still, at the same time I found solace in rereading that one story of the seven. It was the unabashed tenderness and vulnerability of it; that story, which, I'll admit, had nothing really to do with my personal experience in specific, my own longings, but which -- and, I mean, what's in a title? -- was so aptly titled "The News from Spain."

The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307958884
224 pages