Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Girl’s Souls

A poor little rich girl, alternately neglected and abused by her uncaring father; an awkward “fat girl,” mostly disliked by classmates and shunned from the “better” lunch tables; a lonely, bored teenager experimenting with lesbianism with a lonely, bored teacher; a competitive Asian; a diversity-minded African; and a delicate, beautiful dancer who inspires all around her; these are the characters a reader is likely to expect to find in a book about an exclusive—expensive—private high school in New York’s Manhattan and these indeed are the characters that characters the pages of Christine Schutt’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Fiction finalist All Souls.

The characters of Souls orbit Astra Dell, the dancer at the center of this senior-year story, defining themselves in relation to both Astra’s illness and mid-year recovery. At the opening of the story, early September, Astra is hospitalized with cancer; by the end, graduation in May, she is in remission and back in school. Even by the end of the novel very little, other than the fact that she was Dance Club President, had lost her mother to accident several years earlier, and possessed a thick, bright red head of hair, is revealed about Astra. She remains undeveloped and static. Her unchanging character emphasizes the personalities, thoughts, and actions of the other characters.

In one particular area the contrast is most sharp: the contrast between Astra’s very possible death and the worries that others assume accompany it and the typical trials that go along with a senior year of high school and the worries that those characters express. Schutt draws attention to this contrast, for example, in the reflections of, Kitty Johnson a mother of one of the students; Car Foresstal, Astra’s best friend, and Lisa Van de Ven, a fellow senior at Siddons School:

  • What other conversations were there? Was there still talk of the Dells, Astra Dell especially? Was the subject of her cancer old, or simply avoided because it diminished all the other griefs a healthy person felt? Here was a body dangerously sick: Astra Dell, that pale girl from the senior class, the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever, and she consumed.(i)
  • Astra occurred to her and how weird it was that she, Car, who smoked and drank, was healthy while her best friend was sick. Good could be wrung from dwelling on Astra. Comparatives were meaningful. (ii)
  • Lisa remembered the numbers and was pretty sure her mother had the news as well; her mother had been in school in the morning giving a parent tour. Her mother knew all about the top 2 percent, which explained her mother sending flowers to Astra Dell—a sick girl was less a disappointment probably. (iii)

Although Astra’s illness is the defining line for the events of the story, the intent of the novel extends beyond the complex concerns of death and the mundane concerns of everyday teenage life. Schutt also explores the possibilities of personal change and how that change can occur in unexpected ways. The contrast between Astra and the other characters is effective, particularly in regard to Marlene, the character who changes the most. In the beginning Marlene is awkward, unkempt. Consider:

Marlene picked her nose and sent what she found in it flying across her room. She was a dirty girl, she knew that much, and whatever the girls in school suspected her of—stealing, farting, lying—was true…Look at her messy room, the unresolved of such disorder. She had no ambition but to dizzy herself into absence. (iv)

Marlene, more than anyone else, visits the hospital and devotes time and energy to the sick girl. She reads to Astra and brings her her homework, making sure the sick girl is able to stay caught up with assignments. As a result of her time with Astra, Marlene changes; she begins to do better in school, “Marlene had reviewed for exams with Astra and done well. Marlene was not dumb after all; she had only been lazy as some of the teachers had always suspected.” (v) and becomes concerned with her appearance, “Marlene would walk down the aisle of the church wearing a white A-line satin dress—not exactly summery, but a white dress that might serve a couple of occasions was hard to find—and a seed pearl necklace. And her hair? She pinned her hopes on a hairstylist…” (vi) It is clear that her time with Astra is the reason for the change, “…Marlene nevertheless felt like she was Astra, growing ever more like Astra. Astra had faith; miracles were possible.” (vii)

The contrast between Astra’s simple days in the hospital and the complicated lives of the other characters and the development of the characters, particularly Marlene, is compelling and unique; however, the distant, non-emotional voice and distracting figurative language counteract the interesting contrast of characters and life issues. The distant, non-emotional voice, which can be seen in all the examples included above, is consistent throughout the novel. It is not the voice of a teenage girl. The voice must have been an intentional choice for Schutt. Perhaps Schutt meant for this voice to establish clear psychic distance between the narration and the reader and thus give the reader more of a bird’s eye view of the events rather than the opportunity to experience living life as a teen. It is more difficult to determine a reason for the distracting figurative language. On several occasions the similes and metaphors seem out of place. For example, “Even the language behind her silence was worn and uninspired and whapped the way balloons did without surprise or weight.” (viii) The image behind that language is confusing. Perhaps that is the point? Yet, if that is intent, other examples cannot be resolved with the same logic. Consider, “The little girls had hands as small as starfish.” (ix) Beside the fact that not all starfish are small, the reference to them has no relation to the character, the scene, or even the story. Overall, the voice and figurative language were problematic.

I was curious about the publishing history of All Souls, so I looked it up on Publisher’s Marketplace. The book deal for All Souls is not listed, but the film option sale is. The option rights were sold this past May to Anabel Graff, who said, “My screenwriting is super commercial and teeny-bop…All Souls is like a literary Gossip Girl.” (x) Given that Souls is peopled with many of the same teenage archetypes as Gossip Girls that statement is right on. I will look forward to the release of the film adaptation of All Souls, as a project that started out as a possible Pulitzer prize winner and is later refashioned into something as highly commercial as The Gossip Girls is of great interest to me.

[i] Schutt, Christine. All Souls. (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2009), 11.
[ii] Ibid., 33.
[iii] Ibid., 45.
[iv] Ibid., 12.
[v] Ibid., 149.
[vi] Ibid., 212.
[vii] Ibid., 151.
[viii] Ibid., 19.
[ix] Ibid., 204.
[x] Fisher, Wally. The Miscellany News. “Artist of the Week: Graff Rewrites Limits of Authorship.”

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