Review: Inventing the Abbotts by Sue Miller Print

inventing(Written January 1988)

An Etherized Fiction for the 1980s

I will hazard a guess outright: Sue Miller’s Inventing the Abbotts should receive oodles of good press. Critics will be enthralled by these stories, recalling the praise they ladled on Miller’s novel, The Good Mother, a few years back, and here again they will be taken by the skillful weave of psychoanalysis, sex, and middle-class angst, not to mention the pithy dialogue and narrative clarity of the pieces.

Reviewers, I imagine, will applaud how authentic Miller portrays the world of relationships between men and women in the 1980s. Many will re-live turbulent scenes from our lives with divorced parents, the children we over-protected during our own break-ups, or the nights wasted, prowling bars blindly for love. Men will wince, women will nod, young readers (if any) may flip to the “good parts.” (There are few of those.)

Miller’s authenticity is something people can believe in. Her portrait of adultery in “Tyler and Brina” shows the wife as chump and the husband as compassionate liar—the latter who loves his wife but can’t live faithfully with her, though he tries with tenderness to tell his girlfriend that he must go back. We know fifty percent of married men fool around. Perhaps many in just this way.

Or, in “The Quality of Life,” a divorced man about to marry a woman with three teenagers brings his three teenagers (six total) to her house for a Christmas holiday. More newly divorced than she is, he has second thoughts about his break-up (which his ex-wife didn’t want), which fuel his guilt and emerge in his treatment of others. When his shy, youngest son fights with his fiancé’s arrogant son over a visiting French girl, the man lets his boy get in the final punch before he stops them. We see that he has failed to be honest with himself, and he inculcates the same stubborn strain in his child. We’ve all met half a dozen, maybe half a hundred, like that.

Most of Miller’s tales follow an unchanging script: Because past pairings have scored strong consciences and erased most good intentions of her characters, once they get involved again, they are guilt-ridden for loving too little or too much. They end in despair, embracing abstinence and solitude. Estranged from themselves, few Millerites do much else but (1) observe how helpless they are and (2) await judgment, for they are incapable, given Miller’s marionette strings, of judging themselves.

How writers judge their characters and how those characters judge their own and others’ actions preoccupied me while reading Miller. (What I’m most interested in is the moral vision that emerges, the character the characters the author chooses display.) The idea kept coming up because her plots seldom push through to the moral import of her conflicts. Like her characters, Miller often suspends at crucial moments her evaluative sensibility, writing in a naturalistic style, like an Emile Zola of the singles’ set, “objective” fiction.

Indeed, Miller keeps from understanding much of anything with fiction. She’s hooked on the meaninglessness of meaning, avoiding the cathartic, the philosophic, the mysterious. The tally adds up. Her characters intone that a first relationship is a bitch and then you go and have another. Of course, life’s awful if our sole determiner of its value is the success of our relationships!

These stories are undeniably true-to-life but not undeniably whole. They reveal relationships in the l980s to resemble the shards of a fallen mirror staring up at us from the floor. As we stare at the pieces, we are captured and held by the multitude of reflections, unable to see any wholeness that otherwise might glue together some sort of unity.

An example. In “Leaving Home,” Leah, the middle-aged mother of Greg, watches her son become alienated with his marriage, and it reminds her of similar events that led to her divorce. Greg’s wife, Anita, starts to domineer him and their baby as Leah once did when she was a single parent struggling with Greg. At most, Leah wants “the illusion of wholeness” for Greg, a sentiment she knows will guarantee the eventual failure of their marriage. (She wants it even as she knows it’s wrong, a typical Millerian trait.)

Although Leah walks away one night (she’s been staying at their home), she carries her bitterness, unspoken and trapped, inside her. She says nothing to Greg, but feels it all instead, her private legacy. This bias—sorrow deadening communication—recurs all too predictably in Miller’s work.

Again, when no authorial judgment emerges, there remains only an exposed sore, a sick patient abandoned on an etherized table of fictional analysis. The problem here is that

the pain of the characters has taken over the author’s will to make something of it, something consequential. Miller is enamored of her characters inability to respond to the difficulties she sets for them: they can’t do anything but freeze in open-mouthed, door-shutting silence, acquiesce, grow malleable, act dumbfounded. Sure, it’s authentic. But, prominent in ten of the eleven stories, the idea undermines alternate, perhaps loving sensibilities I think Miller would like to explore but is morally unequipped to.

The title story, the only one with any generational scope, appears to be an exception to the pitfalls of surface emotion. Jacey grows up to become “a lover of women,” desiring them because his father has died and his mother has begun to neglect him in favor of her newly born child, Doug. Jacey expresses his need for women’s affection with the three rich Abbott daughters whom he sleeps with over the years and manipulates for his pleasure, each one against the other two (of which each does some of the same with him).

As his skill at manipulating women grows more refined, Jacey becomes even more inattentive with the daughters while Doug, apparently more sensitive because of his mother’s care, takes on his brother’s responsibilities, namely, the respect Jacey should show the Abbott girls. (A wise vantage point, it is Doug who tells the long story.)

Doug is the one who learns that Jacey can’t fathom Mrs. Abbott’s remark when she says in the end, she has no more daughters for him. He is empty—he was always empty—because “what Mrs. Abbott had just said and done had all happened years before, with the rest of it, when he was a child.”

This feels unsettled, achingly unresolved. The story is focused on Jacey who, via his sexual use of the Abbott girls, grows into more of an adolescent as he ages. But Doug, after the early part of their lives is over, realizes that Jacey has always been shallow. Does this mean that because Jacey is unconscious of his actions, then his mistreatment of women is transferred to Doug who becomes the moral and emotional arbiter? Is it something which is not his to arbitrate?

“Inventing the Abbotts” gets very confused about its fictional conscience. Although the story carries a more dialectical grasp of the social and familial pressures upon siblings than all the other stories, its message feels simplistic. As we struggle with our choices and consciousness takes a backseat, we drift away all too easily to our fate, what we were marked with long ago, our parent’s original “sin”—be it their divorce, death, neglect. It leaves unanswered, and unacted-upon, the human vulnerability that fiction feels designed to engage and confront.

In the 1930s, James T. Farrell called this strain of modern writing “stylized literary morality” where a character (here Jacey and Doug) becomes a spectator of his own life, the author a bystander as well. Such a character, Farrell notes, is one “who does not act and who does not have to make responsible decisions demanding action.” In turn, the moral problem is merely exposed, cut open and left raw, undisciplined by any authorial intent.

In this equation, sex becomes stylized too; but more than just assuming an ineffectual release of tension, sex feels aberrant, licentious, designed not for compassion or discovery, but for some karmic retribution against parental misdeeds. (For the last word on just how pathetic sex-as-retribution can get read the powerful story “Expensive Gifts.”)

But good sex or bad sex, I still wonder why these characters can’t see straight. The book jacket tells us that Miller’s stories are about, and presumably for, the “educated middle class.” (I know this is fluff to help the book’s sales, but there’s truth to the claim: In a time when marketing strategies run so much of publishers’ expectations, fiction substitutes for lifestyle: the class-based need for free time to read becomes an audience’s marketable identity.)

These are the people and their children to whom having any relationship is everything. A friend of mine says that the me-decade of the 1970s gave way to the we-decade of the l980s, where the “we” assumes no community greater than the paired two.

And it is this sense of an unstable relationship as an expression of community, locust-like in middle-class consciousness, that seems responsible for narrowing the scope of Miller’s world. If these people have professional lives, we don’t know it because Miller seldom gets out of the bedroom or living room long enough to show us. Miller’s characters quiet children, tend house, go on picnics, cook dinner, get home from work, come over for the evening—all to coordinate the time and place of their bondage to the evolving-dissolving relationship.

But because they have been educated (i.e. driven) to a hyper-possessiveness for spouses and children, Miller’s charges, electrified like Frankenstein with middle-class guilt, suffer an ethnocentrism of their class that goes beyond their personal problems. They cannot see what we see missing in them. Even though middle-class characters are conscious of their pain, we form a different view of them: their working and historical lives emerge in spite of those things because we know relationship problems come from much, much more than an evening’s disagreement, next year’s lover, a weekend seminar in self-healing.

We know the contexts of these people’s lives, for most readers of such fiction are—as the book publishing industry wants us to remember, wants to honor us as—the educated middle class. There is really something of a betrayal of an audience here, not just the stylized and incorrigible morality of naturalistic literature. Except for these pinched home lives, revolving around mating rituals, we seldom see the facts of work, ethnicity, upbringing, schooling, neighborhoods, and culture that many writers use to cast and help direct their and our judgments.

Miller must know that with so little else but sexualized emotion or emotional partnering to go on, those habits of being are the only substantive ones we can evaluate her work upon. I don’t deny that these stories are not intelligently planned, superbly set, devastatingly right on target in their emotional aims: Miller does evoke the withdrawn, alienating life of the 1980s. But her vision inclines towards sentimentality, self-pity, and indifference, to society in particular, when actually her middle-class losers are much more varied people than she credits them for.

Real art, moral art, comes not from the hand-wringing of wronged characters, crying out their despair in rigorously crafted scenes. That tendency leads to mannerism, ultimately to decadence. Real art stems from a writer’s willingness to shape a vision of what people are, wholly, against what they might be, the evolving strain from what has been to what should be. I can think of few things more dispiriting than to tell an audience through fiction (in Miller’s case, to insist) that their rage is impotent and their integrity is unreachable.