As I Lay Dying
The plot in Susan Minot's luscious new novel, Evening, is deceptively simple. Bedridden with terminal cancer, 65-year-old Ann Lord drifts in and out of a morphine-induced reverie, recalling her husbands, children, and social life. But the most prominent thing in her mind is a long romantic weekend in the late 1950s. She was 25, and attending her best friend's wedding on an island off the coast of Maine. Also attending was the handsome Harris Arden: "Ann had had feelings with a few other boys and with each there was something particular to the person which was unique and it seemed that the particular feeling around Harris Arden was more unique than usual. There was something larger in him, in his stillness, in the way he moved. She watched him carry the suitcases to the car not hurrying but purposeful and intent and sort of angry."
Obviously Ann falls for him and he for her. There's just one catch -- two days later another wedding guest arrives, Arden's fiancée. How will things turn out?
This is a thinking reader's love story, not a Harlequin Romance. It's a love story the way The Great Gatsby is a love story. Minot's tale even ends with an auto accident as dramatic as the one that occurs on the road beneath the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.
You'll find thatEvening surpasses Gatsby in terms of eroticism, however. Minot's sex scenes are dense and extended, and the earth moves for Ann even more than it did for nurse Barkley in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Yet no child happening upon Minot's sex scenes would have a clue about what was going on. For example, "There was nothing to seal off the world. The black sky did not cover them, it was the opposite of a covering, it drew them up. The sky was an example of how far distance could go. I go on forever, it said, nothing can be contained."
I recently spoke with Susan Minot about her work, but we concentrated on Thanatos, not Eros. Hell, I didn't even kiss her -- and I was going to when we first met.
Wait. I don't mean that the way it sounded. Minot and I rendezvous as strangers at a Greenwich Village French restaurant (her choice!). I recognize her from her photo. She's never seen me before in her life. Yet she leans toward my face as if she expects one of those Euro-peck greetings. I know Minot has spent time in Italy writing the script to Bernardo Bertolucci's movie, "Stealing Beauty," so I lean toward her as well -- only realizing at the last moment that not even the French buss when they meet as strangers. I whip my head back. Minot appears to miss this awkward gesture.
At our table I rub my sweaty hands on my pants and get her talking about EVENING. She reveals she took five years to write it. "I started the novel in '92," she tells me. "And I was very much in the note stage. When I started work on the Bertolucci movie I was still trying to keep the novel going, but I was taken away from it when I was working on the set. When the film was over, I thought, If I don't get back to this and grab it, it's going to melt. So for the last year and a half I left New York and lived in different places, staying in friends' summer homes in the winter, just to really concentrate on the book and get it done fast." She smiles at the word "fast," adding, "A year and a half later."
How did Minot keep track of alternating between Ann's deathbed and her memories of the wedding party? Did she map the scenes out?
She nods. "There was a general structure to the book that was mapped out, but really only after half of it had been written. That's when I then tried to organize the plot a bit. It's really the backstory of the wedding, those three or four days that give the book its structure. Then the going back and forth became an intuitive thing with each draft."
I ask her to list the books that she loves. The first title off her lips is that grand Russian love story, Anna Karenina. When did she first read it? "I don't know. Probably as a teenager. I read the novel again a couple of times. If I could have written any book, Anna Karenina would be it."
We then talk about Dawn Powell. I mention the new biography of this overlooked New York writer, and Minot praises Powell's diary. Does Minot keep a diary? "I have a journal that I've been keeping for a long time. I have nearly 100 volumes."
Then I ask, "Do you ever think about your own mortality and what will happen to your journal?"
Suddenly she is frowning. "I never think about mortality," she sneers with icy sarcasm. "How can you ask that? I just wrote a book about a woman dying."
I think fast. "That doesn't mean you think about your own death."
"Oh yes it does," Minot says. "It absolutely does. You can't spend five years writing about what it's like to die without thinking about what it's going to be like to die." She pauses. "I think about death more in terms of how it makes life meaningful than what happens afterwards. That's unknowable." Then she adds, "The things that go through my mind every day are the things that were going through Ann Lord's mind as she is dying."
I backtrack to why I brought up the idea of mortality. "But your journals -- do you care if they're printed after you're dead?"
"It's out of my control," she answers. "No one would want to publish 100 volumes of my journals."
"With web sites, who knows," I say. "Readers may want to download the 'One Hundred Journals of Susan Minot.'"
The moment after I speak her name, she says, "Let me tell you how to pronounce it really." I referred to her as Min-knot. Wrong. "It's what you do with gold," she laughs. "You mine it." Ah. Susan Mine-it. "It's the most flattened-out Americanized version possible."
I practice saying her name, "Susan Minot, Susan Minot, Susan Minot." Then I stop. I could be misconstrued as a lovelorn fool. Then Minot tells me that she's just finished writing the screenplay of Evening for Disney. Wow. I'm impressed that they'd want to make an intelligent movie that has no car chases or special effects.
"There actually are a lot of special effects in Evening," Minot said. "The sort of dreamlike back and forth in time. People walking on water. Birds flying into a room. Grass growing out of a bed."
Ah. I forgot to mention the magic realism attending Ann Grant's death.
"Here's another book I can promote," Minot suddenly says. "I just wrote an introduction to Louise de Vilmorin's Madame De. I never knew it was a short story. I just knew the Max Ophuls film."
Then Minot reveals that she spends much of her time in Africa. She talks about taking the Lunatic Express, an "old rattletrap train that was probably built in the '40s" that runs across the Tsavo desert between Kenya and Tanzania. I ask her if Africa has become her place, like it had for Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham (Minot having praised Out of Africa and West with the Night).
"I feel that I am exploring the world and places that I don't know well," she tells me. "When you look at all the practical problems in the world it sometimes seems a little indulgent to be writing." She pauses, then says, "I do believe that it is worthwhile to write." Adding, "Though not in an apparent, practical way."
As the interview ends and I hand Minot a copy of her lovely unpractical love story Evening to sign, it dawns on me that our conversation could have come from the book. Although Ann never had to endure a grilling by a book reviewer, she does recall awkward encounters in her life. She remembers a dinner date when a boy (not Arden) tries to give her a wedding ring. She refuses to accept it. He walks out of the restaurant into the snow. "He turned around. There were wet streaks on his face. He wiped them with a flat palm, and his gaze shot upward to the windows of the lounge where they had sat, considering something -- how things might have gone otherwise -- thinking what he left behind...."
I thanked God that it was too early for snow and that I wasn't in fact some lovelorn fool, and stepped out of the restaurant to the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue.
David Bowman, barnesandnoble.com
"Her best work yet, assured, supple, exhilarating in its nerve and cool momentum" Joan Didion
"A stunning novel...a powerful story that cuts back and forth in time to give us both the defining moment in a woman's life and an understanding of how that moment has reverberated through the remainder of her days...Her evocation of her heroine's passion for Harris Arden is so convincing, her depiction of the world she inhabits is so fiercely observed...The difference between [Monkeys and Evening] attests to Susan Minot's growing ambition and assurance as an artist" Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"An absorbing drama...Minot writes with quiet perceptiveness and grace, pulling the reader into Ann's deathbed reverie" Elle
"A brilliant lyric performance" John Casey
"In spare and lovely language, Susan Minot has set forth a real life, in all its particularity and splendor and pain. This is the task of the novelist, and in Evening Minot has succeeded admirably" Roxana Robinson, New York Times Book Review
"It astounds in its craftsmanship and imprints itself indelibly on the heart...A haunting work of art that moves at the pace of a suspense thriller" Sheila Bosworth, New Orleans Times-Picayune
"Evening is a beautifully realized work...more mature and confident than anything she has written...An exquisite novel" Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe
"A wonderful, truthful, heartbreaking book. . .. Evening vindicates the wildest assertions any of us have made about Susan Minot's talent" Tom McGuane
"Evening is a supremely sensual, sensitive and dramatic novel...So rich in color and motion, music and atmosphere" Donna Seaman, Booklist
"I was swept up in it...It moved me and made me cry" D. T. Max, New York Observer