Upstate

Upstate

by James Wood

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Overview

New Yorker book critic and award-winning author James Wood delivers a novel of a family struggling to connect with one another and find meaning in their own lives.

In the years since his daughter Vanessa moved to America to become a professor of philosophy, Alan Querry has never been to visit. He has been too busy at home in northern England, holding together his business as a successful property developer. His younger daughter, Helen—a music executive in London—hasn’t gone, either, and the two sisters, close but competitive, have never quite recovered from their parents’ bitter divorce and the early death of their mother. But when Vanessa’s new boyfriend sends word that she has fallen into a severe depression and that he’s worried for her safety, Alan and Helen fly to New York and take the train to Saratoga Springs.

Over the course of six wintry days in upstate New York, the Querry family begins to struggle with the questions that animate this profound and searching novel: Why do some people find living so much harder than others? Is happiness a skill that might be learned or a cruel accident of birth? Is reflection conducive to happiness or an obstacle to it? If, as a favorite philosopher of Helen’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living,” how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, James Wood’s Upstate is a powerful, intense, beautiful novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374279530
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,258,068
Product dimensions: 5.73(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

James Wood is a book critic at The New Yorker and the recipient of a National Magazine Award in criticism. He is the author of essay collections, the novel The Book Against God, and the study How Fiction Works. He is a professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

First he would have to go and see his mother. He would tell her — something about Vanessa, not everything of course. The home, six miles along a favorite road, was a formidable old place, with that gray strictness of the north he loved. But now it looked abandoned: everything was in wintry abeyance. Four years she had been living there, and he was still never sure how to announce himself. It was also ridiculously expensive, he could no longer afford it. What did she, what did he, get for the money? Two small rooms rather than one, extra space for the dark massing of a lifetime's heavy old furniture; and maybe she got two biscuits with her tea on Fridays.

He made his way through two huffing fire doors, which bottled a weekend's stale yeast. School food. Outside his mother's room ("Clarendon"), he gathered himself a bit like a clown, pulling up his trousers, dusting down his coat, and entered with a light knock. The television was off, thank goodness. She was asleep in the chintz chair his father had used as the family throne, issuing directives and decrees from behind his newspaper. She was tiny, sunken, some of her teeth were out. The old music hall joke ... Her teeth are like stars. They come out at night. But it was early afternoon. As she breathed, something seemed to catch in her throat. She'd always had a large nose, and now she seemed to be reducing around it, shrinking down to bone, the nose tenacious, final, rootlike. I have hers, so this will be mine, right enough. He knelt beside her, and whispered. She opened her eyes, and said with slight affront, "When did you get here, Alan?" as if he'd been spying on her.

"Just a second ago."

"Fetch me my teeth — by the side of the bed, please, in the glass." She turned away from him to insert the plate. "Now we need to call for some tea and biscuits. They'll bring it, if you ask." As a child, in a lower-middle-class suburb of Edinburgh, she had made herself unpopular at school by affecting an English, or maybe Anglo-Scots, pronunciation; since his dad's death, her accent seemed to have moved up the ranks again, by another notch or two. It usually had the effect of making her sound slightly irritable.

In truth, these days she sounded like the mistress but looked more like the servant — short, bent, too modestly or shabbily dressed today.

"You don't need to wear this shawl thing, do you?" he said, lifting it over her shoulders.

"Certainly not, I just put it on for my nap. Thank you ... You look very tired. You know you can't burn your candle at both ends."

"A Roman candle, maybe?" He had just had his sixty-eighth birthday. "How are you?"

"All right, I suppose ... but this English view isn't my landscape, of course," she added, gesturing at the window with splendid authority.

"Well, it's not a bad one," he said, looking at the line of leafless trees, and the icy hills. He was paying for that English view. "And we've been over this. You don't want to live with me, you need your independence, though it would be a lot cheaper if you did move in with us."

"Absolutely not. I took in your grandmother, as you perfectly well know, and it made my fifties a complete blank. All I did, day after day, was look after her. I'll never do that to you."

In that house, the two women had seemed to detest each other; with stealthy expertise, each made the other immovably depressed.

"But you want me to visit. And I want to visit you." He took her hand. "You're no good to me three hours away up in Scotland, even though you'd have your own landscape there." He said it gently.

The tea arrived, carried by a very red teenage boy. He offered a biscuit to both of them, and then left, making sure to take the full plate with him.

"Wartime rations round here!" said his mother. The young man appeared again.

"Mrs. Querry," he said, "I'm supposed to remind you that the residents are gathering at three-thirty in the sun lounge for the winter flu vaccination. It's, you know, the booster for them that missed it first time round. Need any help?"

"No, I have my son. Thank you."

The room could have been a lot worse. High ceilings with ornate moldings, Roman laurels almost; textured wallpaper with chips in it like slivered almonds — though in fact these always made him think of splinters caught under a child's skin — all painted a pleasant cream. And parental things he had known all his life: a watercolor reproduction of Durham Cathedral, an antique mirror that you couldn't really see yourself in (it looked valuable but he knew it wasn't), a cushion whose faded lilac cover, bought by him at Heal's, London, on the Tottenham Court Road, had not been replaced in thirty years at least. It was all pretty good, or as good as can be when one's whole life has been reduced to souvenirs of selfhood. It was a nice place. But he couldn't afford it any longer.

She looked at him with her pale blue eyes: Vanessa's.

"This whole place is up in arms! My next-door neighbor lost her hearing aid yesterday, she put it in some tissue paper on her bedside table and the cleaner threw it out by mistake, she thought it was a bit of rubbish. And in the room that's just two doors down the hall, Mary Binet is furious because she likes to talk French to another woman here who can understand it, she's the only woman who can, and now Mary's been told to stop talking French by the staff — apparently, someone else, we all assume it's one of the residents and I have a very good idea who, has complained that they're speaking a secret language to exclude everyone else. I'll miss it, I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I liked hearing the French ... And now the manager is leaving at the end of the month, she's only been here for six months, she's Czech I think, a nice woman though for some reason she hates to be thought of as Polish —"

He interrupted her. "Ma, I have to go to America for a week."

"America? Well, well. On business?" She had always enjoyed enunciating those words, so he spoke them back to her, with finality:

"On business."

"Well, don't ... get caught up in anything."

"Caught up in anything?"

"It's a dangerous place, from what I hear ... There was that terrible thing with the towers. You'll go and see Vanessa? She's always wanted you to visit her in ... in that place ..."

"In Saratoga Springs."

"Yes, I wanted to say ... Sarsaparilla."

"I will see her. And Josh."

"Oh good lord ... courage, there! He's far too young, and certainly not good enough for her —"

"You've never even met him!"

"Yes, that's two of us, but I do have a telephone here, you know, I get reports, and I was about to say — before you interrupted me — that Vanessa isn't getting any younger, is she?"

"Ma, I can't keep up with you — now you're giving him your blessing?"

"Well why shouldn't the poor thing have a boyfriend? Maybe Josh is the one? And when they marry, you'll blame him for taking Vanessa away ..."

"Oh, Vanessa was already away. Well away. She did her Ph.D. there, not here, after all. That was the beginning."

"Silly girl. It was a shame she didn't come back at Christmas. I suppose she'd rather spend time with her beau." There was a moment or two of old-fashioned silence: the tick of his mother's fancy carriage clock. His gift.

"Alan love, can you help me to the sunroom? I want to get there early — while the needle is still sharp ..."

They smiled at each other, and he helped her up and went beside her as she gripped the mouse-gray tubular walker, a marvel of engineering, as strong as a weight lifter but as light as the bones of a very old lady, with wheels on the front and two splayed yellow tennis balls stuck on the back legs. These dragged along the carpet as the aged couple, mother and son, moved slowly down the corridor.

CHAPTER 2

The House of Querry certainly looked good — as if it were built on rock rather than sand. A curved gravel path (as he drove up it now, his car tires ground and displaced the little blanched pebbles in an expensive flurry), ample stones, tall windows, a black metal "S" to keep some sagging stonework together, a stout old front door, a bent black iron boot scraper (the kind you could never buy, only inherit). It was circa 1860. Alan Querry hadn't built it, but sometimes felt as if he had. Here he and Cathy had brought up Vanessa and Helen, and here he had raised them, after Cathy walked out. Here was the window he'd replaced, on his own, there the guttering he'd fixed, on his own, there the garage roof he'd replaced with the help of Rob, the slightly retarded odd-job man from the village.

It looked like the place of someone who'd done well for himself. He lived in the poshest part of Northumberland, where all the neighbors, if that was the word for people so richly distant, seemed to be "gentleman farmers." They had all boarded at Eton, and strode around the county wearing those rust-colored baggy corduroys, tired but glowing somehow like the embers of old money. (Where did they get those "old" but very expensive new clothes? New & Lingwood, Jermyn Street, London: he'd once shopped there himself, triumphant but sweaty in the hushed emporium.) His nearest neighbor was a balding, middle-aged baronet, a gentle but unremarkable chap who had done nothing at all in his life, and whose only distinction, celebrated in the area, was that he read The Shining when it was first published, and was so scared he'd been unable to sleep for three whole days and nights.

It wasn't Alan's world. His father left school at sixteen and went into the shipbuilding industry in Newcastle. Da was clever and industrious, and was soon working at Parsons, buying parts for their great steam turbines. Alan was born in Newcastle; after the war, the Querry family moved to Durham, and Da eventually opened a big hardware shop there — on Saddler Street, on the way up to the cathedral. His father had truly established himself; not just a "shopkeeper" but a "proprietor," whose name was proverbial in town: "I'm popping into Querry's." Da never made more of it than that, though. It was seeing his father try and fail to expand, try and fail to acquire a second shop, that gave Alan the idea of going into property — first in Durham, then in Newcastle, York, Manchester. Their only child liked making enough money of his own to buy his parents a brand-new Volvo — the only new car they ever owned — and to pay his dad's hospice bills, when the end came.

Now he was paying his mum's bills, and he couldn't afford it, and no one, least of all Helen and Vanessa, would believe him when he told them this, it would be incomprehensible to them. How could the Querry Property Group, with buildings throughout the north of England, even a shiny (but it was only one-room!) new office in Manchester and a fancy website designed by an American firm from Salt Lake City — how could all that not keep on paying and paying?

He walked across the gravel and pushed open the heavy front door. Otter jumped from his basket, writhing with pleasure. He hadn't seen Candace's car at the front, so perhaps she was out. There was no one in the kitchen, nor in the expensively subdued sitting room. The French windows glowed; the short February afternoon was sloping away. It was very still. For so many years, after Cathy left, and after the children went off to university, the house had seemed desperately quiet; the thick carpet held the ghost of their footsteps. He even thought about selling the beautiful old place. Candace had changed all that. His daughters, Helen especially, didn't much like her. Among other things, they found her free-market anticommunism strident. Well, he didn't like Candace's politics that much; he'd always been reflexively Labour, everyone in Durham was, even the successful ones who "got away." Maybe they were jealous, as they got older and grayer and wider — as they wanned (Vanessa's coinage, combining "wane" and "wan") — jealous of her still-black hair, straight and glossy, her trim hips, her formidable vitality. The only time he'd seriously attempted to get his daughters together with Candace, they argued about whether Mrs. Thatcher had been "a net benefit" to the country (Candace's brisk conclusion) or a bloody disaster (Helen's). Vanessa later said she found Candace "coercive"; Van had sulked like a child and retreated to her bedroom, he now recalled.

Whatever Vanessa and Helen felt about the situation, he'd been saved by Candace, that he was sure about. She was ten years younger than him, and had great optimism and strength. She had saved him from solitude, from overwork and the widower's musty celibacy, saved him from aging, from dying, even.

"Candace! ... Candace, love?"

She was in the small television room at the back of the house, sitting cross-legged on a dense round cushion. For over a decade, Candace had been a management consultant in Hong Kong, but she told Alan she had never liked it much. A year ago she decided to train to become a Buddhist psychotherapist. There was an emphasis on meditation, of course — and gardens, somehow. The self like a plant, perhaps — growing, dying, reborn. She now spent a fair amount of time sitting on that low cushion, which was covered in crimson chinoiserie, and he knew it was coarse of him but she always seemed to be basically asleep, not meditating. Helen said that Candace lacked any obvious therapeutic gifts. ("It's like Quincy Jones attempting monogamy.") Alan laughed willingly, and later looked up "Quincy Jones" on Google. It wasn't true, not at least about Candace Lee.

She was intense, dry, coherent: she could do no wrong. Alan saw that she was shoeless — her naked feet.

"Did you tell her?" Candace disliked his mother, was amusingly bad at hiding it.

"Well, I told her I had to go to America."

"Of course I don't mean that, Alan. You didn't tell her why you're going there?" She got up from the floor, as if it was easy.

"I don't think this is the right moment," he said. "I'll wait till I've come back."

"You were afraid."

"I suppose I am, a bit."

She drew closer and lightly tapped his chest.

"You can't be afraid, you have to be there for Vanessa. She needs you."

"Be there for her ..."

"Yes, you have to be there for her, I'm not embarrassed by that phrase. You are her father, so you must embody what it means to go on, why you go on doing what you do."

"I 'go on,' I suppose, because I don't think about life too much."

"Like the centipede," said Candace. "When it discovers it has a hundred legs, it stops being able to walk. That isn't true about centipedes, it turns out. Most don't have a hundred legs."

"Can I use that? When I'm over in Saratoga Springs?"

She looked at him sternly, an atmosphere of hers he particularly liked. Candace's mother had been so relentlessly ambitious, so determined to get out of her impoverished provincial Chinese village, that her school friends mocked her as "the toad who dreams of eating swan meat."

"You are taking this seriously? Send me, if you're not going to be serious about it. Vanessa's life — it isn't some silly English play."

Alan thought for a very brief moment about how poorly Candace's arrival in Saratoga Springs would be received.

"Of course I'm serious. But I can only be myself."

CHAPTER 3

That self was in need of a bath, and later a drink or two. He turned on the taps in the main bathroom, the grand one he liked best — the one that would have to become his mother's if she moved in with them. He had a routine for bath-taking: as soon as he climbed into the tub, itself a decreasingly facile project, he emptied the water, so that he never spent more than four minutes immersed, and most of that time in mild discomfort. Da had instructed him in that particular hardship; it was the way a lad kept himself "hard." (Though Da's baths were also cold.) In the north of England, "hardness" mattered more than cleverness or beauty or gentleness. The young men like him would roll their shirtsleeves high, so their biceps showed like a ball emerging from a cannon. They nailed metal crescents — "segs" — into their shoe heels, so they could stomp and click and scrape hard military sparks from the pavement. He still conformed to his father's mindless code, and the rare bathing exception seemed like a great luxury: today he would sit for twenty good minutes in a warm bath whose waterline didn't immediately start wavering down to nothing.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Upstate"
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Copyright © 2018 James Wood.
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