An occasional series introducing new books from Baltimoreans
I really don’t know of any writer, living or dead, who fashions a funnier sentence than Jim Magruder, and I mean that in all seriousness. For many readers, the almost vertiginous hilarity of Magruder’s prose will be a source of unbridled pleasure while for aspiring literary comedians such as myself, that enjoyment must be mixed with venomous jealousy.
His current tour de force, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, follows a coming-of-age novel called Sugarless and a collection of linked stories called Let Me See It, both of which I and everyone else who read them loved. As the orgasmic critical response to both of these is excerpted in the front of Love Slaves, I was turning green before the book even began.
Surely you will want to read the damn book for yourself, but let me give you a little overview.
The action takes place at a residence hall for graduate students at Yale in the academic year 1983-1984, and its narrator is a spirit named Helen Hadley, for whom the building is named and whose portrait hangs on the wall. As she explains in a prologue, “I was born in 1895, and I passed from solid to vapor in 1951,” but “Love and its many permutations still quickens my blood.” So every September, as a new batch of residents arrives, “I select my favorites, follow their adventures, cheer on their shifts and stratagems, and pick up their lingo.”
And though she confesses that she trained as a chemist, not as an author of creative nonfiction, she promises us “carnal congress, a near-homicide and a wedding finale.” All true.
This 19th-century narrative angle makes a deliciously absurd frame for what are certainly the most wild pansexual goings-on ever found in a book with a picture of doughnuts on the cover. (Doughnuts, too, play a major role in the plot.) Hunks, punks, divas, foreign students, and townies explore their sexuality and their souls in every combination possible.
The most passionate and endearing of these relationships is the one between super-hottie Silas Huth and altar-boy-type Randall Flinn, who become best friends after their first conversation in the “dining pen.” This conversation touches on “Ophuls and Altman, and Vatican II and the Indian Removal Act and the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria, Balzac and Bronzino and Shostakovitch and The Cars and Roxy Music and Cap’n Crunch and Count Chocula and Wallace Stevens and Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa and where they had been for the moon landing and Nixon’s resignation and Elvis’s death, Freud and Pater and Lacan and Lukacz and the instability of meaning.”
Our narrator confesses she couldn’t follow half of it, but “watching bright young things come to know each other is an eternal delight for me.” As it is for us, too.
And now let us grill Magruder as to how these delights were produced.
Clearly this book has autobiographical roots. Tell us about Yale and the early days of AIDS.
Like several of my love slaves, I entered a PhD program in French Lit at Yale in September of 1983. I too lived in Hadley Hall, on the third floor. I don’t whether I say this with pride or embarrassment but with two exceptions, every character in the novel—and there are scads—is based on someone I knew, met, took classes, ate meals, and/or slept with back in the day. I spent seven years total in New Haven, two of them at Hadley, collecting degrees from both the French department and the Drama School; the novel compresses all those years into two semesters.
As for AIDS, they were still calling it GRID when I began grad school. Gay Yalies were paranoid, to be sure, but not yet paralyzed by the specter of acquiring it, because we were young, we were arrogant, and also because they hadn’t yet discovered that it was caused by the HIV virus. That happened second semester—it’s quite an event in the novel. No one knew anyone who had died, and there had been no celebrity deaths reported as AIDS cases. All we had to go on was a list of symptoms and magical thinking. The truly dark days were ahead, I’d say, from 1985 onward. I found out I was HIV-positive on Groundhog Day, 1988. I got my results, anonymously, at a public health clinic near the New Haven train station, a month before my pre-doctoral orals.
So who is “David Nolta” to whom the book is dedicated?
David Nolta was and is an art historian and the funniest person I’ve ever known. Also the most erudite and the most Catholic person I know. And the greatest personal influence. He currently teaches at Massachusetts Art College in Boston. Last month, my husband Steve and I were lucky to have David and his colleague Ellen give us a two-week tour of Venice and the Veneto, along with twelve of their students. David lived on my floor at Hadley that first year, and we’ve been laughing ourselves sick for almost thirty-three years. Saying we grew up together isn’t quite right. We grew up on each other. I am a writer because of him, and I feel I am a writer for him. Not because he doesn’t write—as a matter of fact, he’s published two murder mysteries and is a marvelous poet who eschews a readership—but because I feel my sentences need to pass an imagined “Nolta test.” Yes, but would David find this amusing? Apt? Well-turned? He just told me on the phone that he has a copy of the very first draft of Love Slaves in his attic. (This dates to 2001 and is literally double the length of its present, published state.) I don’t have one myself.
Which character do you feel is closest to you? Honestly, I see you as half-Silas, half-Randall, with just a touch of Nixie.
My most astute readers, including my sister Margarette two weeks ago, have remarked that I seemed half-Silas and half-Randall. In the long slog to completion, Randall was once the narrator, so he might have more of me in there than I can presently perceive. As for Silas, well, I was a sex-mad French student who fell for the unattainable “Scott Jencks” after meeting him in the Yale Co-Op, and yes, he had met “Peter Facciafinta” literally the night before at Partners Café, but I am not a foundling and my eyes are blue, not green. A touch of Nixie (good title!)? Hard for me to see that, given my congenital self-consciousness and given the actual Nixie’s continuing presence in my life. I sure wish I had her confidence and authority.
I feel I must award the “Magruder Prize” to Iowa soprano Becky Engelking. Her various hungers are very real to me. Also her hapless rages. And her misplaced egotism. And a certain Midwestern obtuseness. Another clue is that she is the most ill-treated love slave; Magruder stand-ins always get punished in my stories and plays. That said, there was a “real” Becky who came to the Yale School of Music from Iowa, etc. And, I’m happy to say that, despite experiencing serial narrative humiliations, Becky wins big in the end.
You mention in the acknowledgments that the writer Amy Bloom encouraged you to return to this slumbering project, which took nineteen years in all. What did she say?
In January 2010, my first novel, Sugarless, had been out for three months, and somehow my life hadn’t miraculously changed because of it, so I thought I’d better trudge back to the laptop. (It hadn’t yet occurred to me to yoke, I mean, link my stories into Let Me See It.) I had several ideas for new novels, but then I remembered Love Slaves, which had remained in a drawer for about five years. My fear in going back to the manuscript was that it would be cheating, or cowardly, or basically, not what a real writer would do. But I loved those characters, that milieu, that time in my life. I knew Amy, whom I’d fallen for at MacDowell in 2005, would put it to me straight. She did. She said it wasn’t cheating, but she warned me that it would be a problem if, after Love Slaves, I then wanted to return to a paper I’d written in grade school. I resumed work with a hatchet and a chain saw. It would still take me another 22 months to have my eureka moment and discover that Helen Hadley had to be the narrator.
When you read the manuscript of my novel-in-progress, you were forced to point out that I had flubbed a reference to a character in “Death of a Salesman” – it’s Loman, not Lomax. Therefore, I am happy to report that your expertise in matters dramatical has met its match in my familiarity with illicit drugs. At an early point in Love Slaves, a Lebanese character named Jasmina Wha-Sab brings a hostess gift to middle-aged returning student Carolann Chudek: “three ounces of cocaine.” I feel compelled to point out that this would be about $10,000 worth. Please explain this egregious error.
You know as well as anyone, Marion, that I was a clean teen. I didn’t try pot until college, and then only toked about four times. Cocaine, when I came to it at Yale, was a different story. I loved it. But it was expensive, so I never bought it myself, and so never had any experience applying weights and measures to illicit substances. To me, three ounces is like the four inches of chorizo I put into my picadillo recipe. I will say that the “real” Jasmina had the kind of resources to bring ten grand of coke to a make-your-own pizza party. I wonder if I can find her on LinkedIn.
I must confess to some head-scratching around the Runteleh Gidwitz character and the Katrinka subplot. Help me.
The model for Runteleh Gidwitz was the terrifying Lacanian goddess described in the book. I took her Oedipus/Freud/Lacan seminar my first semester at Yale, and I have to say that it forever changed how I read literature. She had that effect on hundreds of undergrads and grads in her time there. Her obsession with Silas and Katrinka is invented. I would never have dared to say hello to her on High Street, much less visit her during office hours.
As for Katrinka, well, although I am not haunted by an alter ego like Silas in the book, as a boy I was obsessed with the Netherlands and all things Dutch. There is a pair of wooden sabots on our hearth in Charles Village, a gift from one of the very first readers of Love Slaves back in the last century. Despite its bedrock of autobiographical realism, the novel has moments, or leaps, into the inexplicable. You know that things can happen to a character when the writer is “in the zone.” Katrinka sprang out of Silas in Chapter Five in the very first draft for reasons I couldn’t articulate then or now. On the last big edit (2010-2013), when I cut characters and foregrounded the Silas and Randall plot and killed scenes, I found I couldn’t get rid of Katrinka. Strange as she is, she is deeply woven into Silas’s journey. I did have to “solve” her more coherently and efficiently, via a repressed memory, and I hope I did.
Today, in these gender fluid times, neither you or I would bat an eyelash (publicly) if one of our male writing students turned up in class one evening dressed as a little Dutch girl and said, “I identify as Katrinka now.” We’d respect it and carry on. A couple of months ago I read about a middle-aged British man who has re-fashioned himself as a girl toddler. With Katrinka I think I was ahead of the curve for once.
“Mah-jongg was for Jews, Asians and homos.” This is one of many politically incorrect sentences in the book. How do you expect to get away with this?
Ah, but that’s Becky Engelking thinking out loud in December 1983, not Magruder or Helen Hadley. And as I mentioned, Becky gets hers, over and over again, until the very last page. Love changes her.
Your insider’s view of Yale leads to pointed insider comments, like this one: “One problem of Yale’s Drama School is its tendering of expectations. The promotional literature says Shakespeare and Schiller but, given its number of Oscar-nominated alumni, it is impossible for the students not to hear Miramax and HBO. It’s an Ivy League start factory, with as many as eleven hundred hopefuls auditioning for a sixteen member acting class. This translates into forty-eight infantile, narcissistic monsters running amok…” I happen to know you are currently working on what is bound to be a somewhat more respectful portrait of this illustrious institution … Please describe.
Yale University Press has commissioned me to write an 80,000-word chronicle about the first fifty years of the Yale Repertory Theatre. I’m honestly terrified to attempt non-fiction. I mean, I can’t make stuff up! Like most Yale drama students when they’re there, my initial perspective on the Rep was warped by my ego—“Our work is so much better, why am I not on that stage, I can’t believe I have to usher again tonight”—but decades later, after a dramaturgy career spent mostly at Center Stage, I have a much greater appreciation for what the Yale Rep has done and still does.
I must pay homage to your similes. “Eyebrows like the brushstrokes on a Japanese declaration of war.” “Back then, coffee didn’t trail Italian suffixes like a servant role in a comic opera.” Women “weeping life half-sisters in a Russian play.”… Even very tiny flourishes like “the sullen perfume of lilacs” delighted (and sickened) me. Can you talk about where and how in your process this level of embellishment occurs?
Thank you, and what a great question. Like a lot of us, I write one sentence forty times, then the next sentence fifty times, then I go back to the first sentence and start all over again. I never jump ahead, or think “I’ll fix this later,” or make the mental note “Better metaphor needed.” For better or for worse, I plow the ground at a glacial pace. The visual for La Cincha’s eyebrows came out of the forge (to switch metaphors) as written, circa 1998, and it never changed. The coffee suffix simile was worked to death, then cut for a couple of years, and I still would repair it—if I knew how—because it has, to my mind and my ear, two too many syllables. As for the Russian theater reference, they were sisters first, then stepsisters, and then, finally, half-sisters because I was thinking of Anya and Varya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (one of my favorite plays), who are half-sisters. “Sisters” alone might be a striking image, but “half-sisters” is the truth as I and Helen Hadley know it.
Which brings up one of the central tensions in the book. These three similes rely on a passing knowledge of Japanese military history, Italian comic opera, and Russian theater. Those are rarefied, smarty-pants references. I think one of the reasons the novel never sold—and why my agent said she wouldn’t even try—is because its narrative life began, in some sense, as a compendium of everything Magruder ever read or learned about and that he thought would make David Nolta laugh. I was angling for a readership of two, as it were.
I remember an agent passing on it by wondering why I would lavish such a baroque, elevated prose style on such idiotic people. That, I thought, was the point. It wasn’t until Helen herself took over as my 117-year old narrator that I could justify (and adjust) my now-ancient sentences. She knows the lingo. She knows that “callipygous” and “bootylicious” are two different signifiers for the same thing, separated by 2400 years.
Although I hope that those who’ve read my other books will take this ride too, I know that Love Slaves isn’t for everybody. It has too much sex and it has too much book larnin’ and the characters are fools, by and large. But they are fools for love—and we all know and want to remember what that’s like, don’t we?
The Baltimore launch for Love Slaves is on Monday, May 30 at 2 pm at the Hopkins Barnes and Noble, 3330 St Paul Street.