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The Law of Enclosures

The Law of Enclosures

by Dale Peck

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Dale Peck’s second novel offers a searing, nuanced portrait of a marriage across the decades. Beatrice and Henry—the parents of the protagonist of Peck’s debut novel, Martin and John—are first drawn together when the teenaged Henry is battling a brain tumor that he believes will soon claim his life. But forty years later they’re


Dale Peck’s second novel offers a searing, nuanced portrait of a marriage across the decades. Beatrice and Henry—the parents of the protagonist of Peck’s debut novel, Martin and John—are first drawn together when the teenaged Henry is battling a brain tumor that he believes will soon claim his life. But forty years later they’re still a couple, in a story that moves from Long Island to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, and from love to hate and back again. Peck bisects the story of Henry and Beatrice’s marriage with a stunning 50-page memoir about his own father, mother, and three stepmothers, which combines with the primary narrative to build an unforgettable and deeply moving book about the ways that family both creates and destroys us.

The Law of Enclosures
is the second volume of Gospel Harmonies, a series of seven stand-alone books (four have been written) that follow the character of John in various guises as he attempts to navigate the uneasy relationship between the self and the postmodern world.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Law of Enclosures
“An astonishing work of emotional wisdom . . . Peck has galvanized his reputation as one of the most eloquent voices of his generation.”
—The New York Times

“With his first novel, 1993’s Martin and John, Dale Peck drew critical hosannas for his uncannily authoritative grasp of style, which would have done credit to any veteran and was especially impressive given his youth . . . The book put some readers off, though, with its self-consciously complex stories-within-a-story structure, Peck’s newest effort, The Law of Enclosures, is if anything more pretentious in its concept, and if possible more virtuosic in its execution.”
Washington Post Book World

“The prose is so unobtrusively graceful that it may take you a while to notice how beautiful it is . . . Peck is as piercing on old age as on youth, as comfortable writing about women’s bodies as about men’s.”
—The New Yorker

“Few writers have Dale Peck’s nerve. He writes without secrets, packing his novels with the intimacies of his life, his family, his sexuality . . . There is an extraordinary sense of the risk and adventure of writing in every page of this novel.”
—The Nation

“Shatteringly honest, disturbing and provocative . . . A masterful confrontation with truth in the guise of a brilliantly conceived and executed work of fiction.”
San Francisco Chronicle of Books
“Peck’s no-holds-barred writing—which throw in everything, even titling a chapter after the kitchen sink—is what makes this familiar domestic plot worthwhile. He careens through catalogs of mundane items to reveal meaning . . . Beatrice and Henry may save themselves finally by refusing to turn their lives into a story, but we’re richer for the fact that Peck told one anyway.”
Boston Globe
“Remarkable . . . This curious, hump-backed book, with its mixture of private rage and accomplished world-making, and its absolute reality, is a very rate, original, and cherishable achievement. There is nothing else like it.”

Kate Moses

In his lavishly praised first novel, Martin and John, a series of variations on the theme of gay love and alienation in the age of AIDS, Dale Peck overcame writerly missteps with the sheer force of his passionate observations -- made concrete with astonishingly fresh imagery -- and by his refusal to ignore or pass easy judgment on emotional collusions. True, sometimes his images were too astonishingly fresh (how could one keep a straight face while the dewy-eyed narrator rhapsodized over the smells of morning coffee and his lover's underwear "mixing in his nose"?), and his narrative technique of giving the same proper names to different characters could, with a less confident stylist, have become a confusing gimmick. But so deep and original was Peck's vision that his palimpsest of anguished vignettes revealed the universality of loss and hope.

Unfortunately, Peck seems to have misapprehended what worked in his first book (his compassion for his characters, his uncommon imagination) and what didn't (the workshoppy structure). The Law of Enclosures is a mystifying and relentless catalogue of clichés and hackneyed, TV movie shticks designed to portray the essence of heterosexual marriage. Tiresome domestic tragedies are perpetrated by (and upon) cartoonish ciphers rather than characters in whom the reader can muster much interest, let alone empathy. The plot is propelled solely by the same-name ruse: the ubiquitous parental figures from Martin and John, Beatrice and Henry, are now our protagonists, although here they appear as just two unlikable couples, one young and newly married, one old and married far too long. Gratuitous cruelties (broken furniture, fistfights over babies, infidelities, namecalling) mount quickly, all in retaliation for psychic disappointments never articulated to the reader. So shallowly imagined are these characters and their plight, in fact, that even the connived moments of self-realization and reconciliation are laughable.

Of the myriad lowlights in Peck's sophomoric analysis of marriage, my personal favorite has to be the thoroughly unironic allusion to O. Henry's corny "Gift of the Magi" -- I kid you not! -- during the novel's wedding scene. It might have been interesting if Peck had written about how people come to hate each other's guts; instead, he's described how people act when they hate each other's guts -- something we already know.

Only the explicitly autobiographical middle section of the book, sandwiched inexplicably between the two hollow "fictions," demonstrates the originality and generosity evident in Peck's earlier writing. One wonders why Peck felt compelled to publish such an unrealized book when his own true story has all the juice. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This lyrical and boldly constructed novel contains a powerful 50-page childhood reminiscence by a narrator named Dale Peck wedged into a bifurcated portrait of a tortured marriage. In his first novel, the well-received Martin and John, Peck used incandescent prose and idiosyncratic narrative shifts to tell a story about family dysfunction and the scourge of AIDS; he goes many giant steps further here. The Dale Peck passages tell searingly of a violently displaced upbringing-abusive father, mother dead when he was only three; three successive stepmothers, each increasingly bizarre. This apparently autobiographical narrative is surrounded by two accounts of a marriage. Each concerns a couple called Henry and Beatrice, and each is set in the 1990s. But one deals with the couple's early years in Long Island, while the other relates their retirement in the Finger Lakes region. The juxtaposition of these two narratives allows Peck to say much about love, boredom, desire and betrayal. This is writing not as entertainment or an attempt to capture experience, but as an effort to surmount experience, to overcome memory and the lack of it in order to be free. Though the book's fractured structure may frustrate readers looking for a controlled exposition, it seems the only form true to the harrowing emotional landscape it encompasses. The "law" of the "enclosures" of the title suggests two interpretations: the breaking of the rules of family trust, and the flouting of the conventions that dictate the form of most novels. Not only an unblinking look at the dark chambers of the human heart, this is also, and above all, a brave artistic gamble-one that, ultimately, comes up spades.

Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The child Beatrice lived submerged in a world of emotion that swirled around everywhere but never touched her. Underwater, in a wet suit, Beatrice felt the pressure of her parents’ love for each other bearing against her own body: it lifted her up, it held her down, it tantalized her with its untouchable nearness. But she sensed that if she somehow managed to penetrate the thin membrane which separated her body from theirs, she would drown, and so she never poked too hard, just sat and watched, listened, silently. Watched and listened, and smelled and felt and even tasted: her parents’ love was so palpable that it seemed to invade all her senses, and sometimes it was so strong that she floated to their bedroom on the current that filled the house whenever they were home, and in their small warm room the lid on emotions could never quite close. The heady air, the wrinkled bedspread, a discarded pair of underwear: all these things led Beatrice to believe that she was dangerously intoxicatingly close to their secret. Tucked into the pink plush of a chair, pretending that her attention was focused on the tiny black and white television, Beatrice witnessed again and again the contradiction of her mother’s hair. Its gold plaits were as textured as the trail left behind a paintbrush; they made Beatrice think of running water gone suddenly cold, frozen. Hair swirled about her mother’s head in a halo of long gentle rigid curls, each stuck in place by clouds of hair spray that fell on Beatrice’s arms and clung to them like filaments from a spiderweb. “Honey, please,” her mother would say if Beatrice dared touch the pointed tip of a curl, “I’m trying to fix my hair.” Beatrice’s father sat on their bed, and he too did a bad job of pretending to watch the television when his attention was really focused on his wife. Always, by the time her mother got to her hair, her father would be fully clothed, only shoeless, and on the quilted white satin spread his long legs in their dark pants floated like slivers of chocolate atop steamed milk. His hair was as short and wiry and dark as the brush her mother used, and his hands paced the length of his thighs. “Pretty tonight,” he would say, every night, “your hair.” In the corner chair Beatrice followed his gaze to its target, then looked at his eyes again, and then at the mantle of hair, and her mind filled with an image of candy-coated ice cream, soft underneath its outer shell. Her father’s hands squeezed his legs lightly, his fingers ran through his hair, and the rippling brush played with light the way velvet does. And then her father would swing his legs in their black pants and black socks off the bed and slip them into black shoes, and then, together, her parents would be gone.

LATER, IT WILL come to seem prefigured: her mother had had to die before Beatrice could find herself, and her father had had to die before she could find Henry. There was an end to things, marked most clearly by her parents’ death, and there was a new beginning, marked by her enrollment in college at the age of twentyfive—and then, as if in confirmation, there was Henry. Beatrice had lived exactly a quarter century: a third of her life, half her most productive years. Three-quarters of the age of Christ, she thought, and the whole of her youth was gone. She learned Christ’s age through her literary criticism class, in which they were reading the Bible. The Bible fascinated Beatrice, but a stronger object of fascination was the young professor of the course. He was a man of about her own age who used his hands when he talked and who favored, on colder days, white and gray and black turtlenecks which made him seem quite skinny, in the way that Beatrice imagined scholars were skinny. Still, even Beatrice realized that scholars didn’t teach at community colleges, but he was handsome, and Beatrice listened attentively when he spoke, though she couldn’t imagine speaking to him. Instead, she took notes on everything he said so meticulously that on exams she was able to quote him verbatim.
       But there was one thing she couldn’t write down, and that was the moment when the professor stopped in the middle of a sentence at the same time as the door in the back of the classroom creaked open and creaked shut and then settled in the doorframe with a loud click. The professor was speechless for only a moment and then, a pained look on his face, he turned, made a mark in his roll book, and went on with the lecture. But the look on his face held Beatrice’s attention for a while longer, long after, in fact, it had disappeared, until she realized that she’d never before seen anything animate the professor besides a book. She considered this carefully, not sure why it bothered her, until it occurred to her to wonder what had disturbed him. Beatrice remembered then the opening and closing creaks of the door, and the click as it latched. She turned around slowly, wondering how she’d be able to tell who’d come in late. The answer was simple: four rows back, three columns over, two weeks late for class, sat one boy who hadn’t been there before, and, at the sight of him, Beatrice felt a spot of nothingness inside herself. She saw him: saw thin wrists and a thin neck poking from a sweater she’d have thought much too heavy for this weather, but then she supposed that if you were that thin you must get cold easily. Attached to his wrists were pale delicate hands with long fingers, and on top of his neck sat a head so  perfectly spherical that it reminded her of a globe, an impression only heightened by the head’s total lack of hair. He had neither eyebrows nor eyelashes, and his head wasn’t darkened by even a shadow of stubble. She turned forward then, just as the young professor asked someone to explain what foreshadowing was. “Foreshadowing,” the girl said, “is predicting the future.” “No-o,” the young professor said, his voice wobbling a little, “that’s prophecy.” Foreshadowing, Beatrice thought, and she turned around again, to make sure that the boy really existed, and then she faced front for the rest of the class.
       On the way out of class, a young black girl—they all seemed young to Beatrice, the girls there—tapped her on the shoulder, and when Beatrice turned at her touch she confronted an expression that was a mixture of confusion and determination and fear, and, seeing it, Beatrice took a step into the hallway to clear the door. Guardedly, she said, “Hello?” The girl blinked and looked down and said, “Look, I don’t know if I should say anything or not, it’s just, well, I saw you turn when—” Just then the hairless boy came out of the classroom, and as he walked down the hallway Beatrice noticed again his slimness—no, thinness is the better word—the slender branch of a neck that poked from his sweater, his narrow shoulders, his flat ass, and she saw also a handkerchief dangling from the back pocket of his jeans. Then her eyes traveled back up his body and when she got to the hairless head her mouth dropped open in a silent O, for there, at the base of the boy’s occipital bone, distending the globe of his skull like a polar distortion, protruded a lump the size of a robin’s egg, and when Beatrice turned back to the girl she realized she’d been looking away too long, and when she saw the girl’s expression, at once more confused and more determined, she knew that whatever she was going to say concerned the boy who was now walking out of the building. A flood of late-afternoon light cast a tenuous shadow behind him, and the door closed. “His name is Henry,” the girl said then, and she laughed briefly, ruefully, and then she said, “He’s gay. He has AIDS. He—he’s dying.” Her words hit Beatrice like barbed darts, and they hung from her skin painfully. “Why are you telling me—” “I saw the way you looked at him,” the girl cut in, and, as if she’d said something wrong, she blushed. “Oh God,” she said. “I’m sorry I had to be the one. It’s just—you seem nice and all. You’re Beatrice, right?” Beatrice nodded, and the girl stepped back from her. “I’ve got to get to my next class. I’ll, I’m Claire. I’ll, um, I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
       She turned and ran down the hall, and Beatrice, dazed, watched her retreat, and as she watched she shuffled backward out of the building. When she was outside she began to walk away from the building. She moved slowly at first, but the farther she went the faster she walked, and as she walked she pushed again and again at her hair, causing the sun to reflect off the silvery strands among the brown. The other students parted abruptly for her swiftly moving form, turned, looked back at her, and then turned away again, but Beatrice pushed on, almost running now. She made her way past a few more buildings, a few more people, she ran across a practice field at the edge of campus until she came to an oak tree, which she collapsed under and leaned against, and then she let her sobs free. She didn’t know why she was crying. She only knew that she hadn’t cried when her mother had died and she hadn’t cried when her father had died, but now some dam had burst, and the stagnant water behind it was finally flowing away. Tears stung her eyes and steamed hot trails down her cheeks, rasping sobs burned her lungs the way pneumonia had burned them when she was a child. But when she finished crying she felt clean and empty, drained, but also full of energy. As she made her way to her car she thought of the boy called Henry. Before she had seen him, she realized, she had been waiting for something to happen. Now that she had seen him she knew he was what she’d been waiting for. Before, she had merely counted down the days, but now her mind was filled with an image of the white bulb of his hairless head, and she began to number her days from a new zero.
       In the years following her mother’s death, her father’s intake of food had far surpassed his need for it, and his body had swelled like a balloon slowly but steadily and unceasingly filled with air, and by the time of the war Beatrice could only cook for him, and serve him, and stare at his bloated form as he watched the war on television. The flashing lights of nighttime bombing raids sliced into his inflated white body and glinted off the silverware that moved without stopping from his plate to his mouth and back again, until, four weeks after the bombs had begun falling, they stopped. The enemy surrendered as winter surrenders to spring, and spring to summer, and in the rising heat Beatrice believed that she could smell the smoke of oil fires and burning homes and charred bodies, but then her nose cleared and she realized that all she smelled was her father’s body, and her father’s body smelled like death. He spilled out of his old chair in the living room and stared at the television, and on top of the television were five pictures of his wife, Beatrice’s mother, and the images within all six frames—those holding his wife, and the television itself—were obscured by a settling film of dust and by the film that settled on his eyes, and in the days and weeks and months following the war he ate less and less of the food Beatrice brought to him until one day he asked her for a knife to cut his spaghetti instead of twirling it on his fork, and Beatrice knew that soon he would be rejoining his lost wife. And it was only when Beatrice thought of her father actually dying that she realized it had been seven years since her mother had been broadsided when she tried to access the Long Island Expressway from a newly completed on-ramp, and the sadness that had been the whole of her life since that day, the ache, the emptiness, the longing, the never-ending task of caring for her father, stepped away from Beatrice long enough for her to see that her own sadness, like her father’s pictures, no longer resembled her mother, nor seemed, when it moved back inside her, to have anything to do with her mother at all. Her mother, she realized then, had always and only belonged to her father, and her father only to her mother.
       It took a long time for Beatrice to accept the idea that her parents had never really loved her, but when she did accept it she accepted also that she had never really loved them, and this knowledge, like fire, eradicated everything that had been there before. Loveless, she felt capable only of hate, and on that day she called her father “old man” and told him to cook his own meals. Before this small act of hostility she’d never disobeyed him, and what might seem like a delayed adolescent rebellion to some felt like civil war to her, and in its numbed aftermath she removed an application to the local community college from a drawer in the hutch, the seventh version of an application she’d filled out and never mailed every year since her mother’s death, and this time she delivered it by hand to the campus. But by six o’clock her anger had dissipated, come unstuck like a traffic jam or a clogged artery: when she got home she made dinner for her father. She walked with his TV tray into the living room but he wasn’t there. The television was on but the pictures of her mother weren’t on the television; there were instead five outlines like footprints or shadows or ghosts in the dust on top of the console, and the shadowy footprints of a ghost-light form led down the hall, and Beatrice realized that her father had taken to his bed. That’s how he came to live and that’s how, four weeks later—a little more than three weeks before her college classes began and a little less than two months before she fell in love with another dying man—he died. He took with him, Beatrice felt, not just the remnants of his own life, but of his wife’s, and her own. All he left behind were the dishes from his last meal, and these Beatrice washed and dried and returned to the cabinets and drawers from which she’d taken them, and there they waited, for whatever she might choose to cook next.
       There were still grass stains on her skirt and tear tracks on her face when Beatrice lay down on her bed, and touched herself. She blushed when she thought of it in such old-fashioned terms, but she blushed even more when she thought of the word “masturbating.” She closed her eyes and pulled her T-shirt above her breasts and pushed her panties around her ankles. She considered taking them off completely, but didn’t, and then she made herself imagine the young professor. She imagined him naked. She knew the way his limbs would lock on to his torso with a minimum of fuss, and she guessed from the days before he started wearing turtlenecks, from the significant tuft of hair that poked through his unbuttoned collar, that he had hair all over his body, and it was the thought of that hair pressed against her own body that began to excite her, and then her imagination took its usual turn as she was entered by a penis she couldn’t really imagine since she’d never seen more than health class drawings of them—what did that word mean, she wondered, “entered,” what did it feel like, did it feel like her finger?—and then she was reaching for her panties and pulling them up, but before she fell asleep she smelled her hand, and then she hid it under the pillow.

Meet the Author

Dale Peck is the author of twelve books in a variety of genres, including Martin and John, Hatchet Jobs, and Sprout. His fiction and criticism have earned him two O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He lives in New York City, where he teaches in the New School’s Graduate Writing Program.

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