Anatole Broyard, ‘The Rotten Luck of Kate and Baba’, review of The Country Girls Trilogy, and Epilogue
in New York Times (11 March 1986).

Source: New York Times - online [orig. access date unknown].

Just as women used to have hope chests, Edna O’Brien has a hopelessness chest, where she treasures up material for her novels. In the early books, the hopelessness is bitter and destructive; in her middle and late period, it is flailing and ironical.

Published separately in the early 1960’s, her first three novels are now reissued as The Country Girls Trilogy. As always, Miss O’Brien addresses the old misunderstanding between men and women. Her characters live in what Aldous Huxley called “a hostile symbiosis,” a deep, historical distrust. There is little friendliness or good will between the sexes in this village in western Ireland: each sees the other as a punishment for the ancient sin of desire.

This is the life that Kate, the narrator of the first two novels, and her friend Baba are born into. While Miss O’Brien underlines their isolation by more or less ignoring events outside the village, the time seems to be the 1930’s or 40’s. Women, including the girls’ mothers, are swept into the corner by convention, by Irish Catholicism and perhaps by Miss O’Brien. Men repair -the word is apt - to the pub. Lower-class respectability breeds an everyday obscenity, a deep suspicion of human nature. Earthiness has decayed into vulgarity.

The narrowness of her life forces Kate to conceive, in self-defense, a sad romanticism, like a stillborn baby. She has vague expectations, based on nothing more than the market value of her moderate prettiness. Baba, a born mocker, thinks of herself as a survivor, but all she survives is her own willful mistakes.

Miss O’Brien’s outlook is intemperate, like Irish weather. She’s fond of blarney, but a bleak, literary kind, more in the mood of the later Yeats than of Celtic charm. She has no patience with the ordinary, the soothing monotony of innocent small events. Her people’s houses are always damp; their teeth are bad; they have no charity; their pleasures are tainted. The women in this stage set of a village are traditional figures, but without the dignity of ritual or an emblematic role. Everywhere one feels the growing ineffectuality of God. In the convent school, where they are sent to atone for the original sin of unregenerate childhood, Kate and Baba are warned to face the foot of the bed when they undress, lest they “surprise” the girls beside them. The body is a rude surprise, a carcass spoiled by consciousness. When the girls go to Dublin together to get jobs, they have nothing to look forward to but distraction, the blind date of their futures.

In Dublin Kate tries to bring to some sort of consummation a flirtation she began in her village with an older married man. He is part French, a solicitor and a cultivated person, but his relation with Kate amounts to little more than broken promises - even the much-postponed one of sex. Kate has nicknamed him Mr. Gentleman and the message seems clear: a gentleman is a failed promise.

“I hate being a woman,” Kate says, and our first thought is that this is what life has done to her. Yet she makes no effort to struggle against her self-hatred, to oppose it in a way that would give her behavior tension and dignity. While she may be a victim, Kate is not a sympathetic figure. She lacks charm, and to make it worse, she seems deficient in any sort of broad consciousness. As Miss O’Brien presents her, Kate lives blindly, in a furious passivity.

She is given a chance to change when she meets Eugene, who makes documentary films. Eugene is her devoted lover and teacher; he’s almost masochistically patient with Kate, encouraging her without bullying or condescension. But in a reversal of the traditional male and female cliches, she loves him only in bed and refuses to interest herself in books, music or people. She’d rather go to the movies with Baba. After “The Country Girls” and “The Lonely Girl,” Baba takes over part of the narrating of the third novel, “Girls in Their Married Bliss”; the rest of this volume is in the omniscient mode. Baba’s style is more literary, as if one automatically grew, or declined, into literature. We see in her the beginnings of Miss O’Brien’s more elaborate later manner.

Kate’s marriage to Eugene is a disaster, but it’s not clear why this should be so. Miss O’Brien may be suggesting that Kate has been irremediably conditioned against happiness - or she may be implying that this is simply the way things are. Kate is generally the aggressor in contriving their disillusionment. As she says to Baba in talking about Eugene, “she’d persecute him until she had loaded him with the love trophy.” Later, while discussing men with her psychiatrist, Kate says, “I feel I sort of destroy them, with weakness.”

Even Eugene runs out of patience, observing at last that “young girls are like a stone.” He says, “It’s your nature to lie,” for she does lie all the time, as if truth were the same as damnation. “You never cry for anyone but yourself,” he points out, but she feels that she has an immense debt, a national debt, of crying to pay. When they separate, Eugene seems like a stranger to her and Kate reflects “how little had she observed him.” Her trouble is that she sees marriage as a job or discipline, a painful lesson to be learned. She’s not so much afraid of experience as resentful of it. Other people are agents provocateurs, trying to trick her into a seditious participation.

After leaving Eugene, Kate has a one-night stand with a man who may or may not be homosexual, but who clearly does not care for women. Kate and Eugene have a son, whom she sees occasionally and smothers with love and guilt. There’s not much originality here, except for one beautiful moment when Kate goes to Eugene’s house and finds in the front yard a snowman, or snowboy, an exact replica of her son, like a judgment.

Baba sells herself to the lowest bidder, a stupid man who offers nothing but financial security. Predictably bored with her marriage, she sleeps with a semi-impotent drummer who plays on her naked body with drumsticks, making the kind of music Miss O’Brien specializes in. Like Kate’s, Baba’s extramarital choices are conspicuously odd, and if Miss O’Brien means these men to stand for women’s fate, she has certainly stacked the deck.

In an epilogue written for this volume, Baba stands in for Miss O’Brien, looking back after 20 years on Kate’s life and her own. The style here is full of forced energy - slang, verbal jitters and epithets - in what seems a retrospective attempt to modernize the trilogy. When Kate comes to a sorry end, Baba represents her as a defeated romantic, a victim of “bastards” and “brigands.” She shifts the responsibility for Kate’s fall onto the men she met, but it’s hard to see the justice of this, for there can be no defeat without a trial, an effort, an aspiring after something. For all the talk about romanticism, Kate never seriously risks herself. She fails by default.

Like Kate, Miss O’Brien too sees the world through “wronged eyes,” and the success of her career suggests that, in literature at least, two wrongs make a right. While feminists have not been fond of her work because of her heroines’ chasing after men, “The Country Girls Trilogy” is a powerful argument for feminism. To watch Kate and Baba and their various partners making war, not love, reminds us of ignorant armies that clash by night.

A question nags at us about the body of Miss O’Brien’s work: why is her women’s luck so bad? After all the ironies and sexual politics have been acknowledged, the fact remains that other women manage to get along - or at least to amuse themselves - with men without murdering them, as the heroine does in I Hardly Knew You (1977). The women in the later books are attractive, intelligent, witty - surely they could do better if the author let them.

Miss O’Brien’s most recent collection of stories is called A Fanatic Heart, but it is not exactly love her heroines’ hearts are fanatic about. Pitying themselves all the while, they squeeze men like lemons for acid incongruities and the rhetoric of disenchantment. It’s a shame Miss O’Brien can’t find a fresher subject, for irony and sex have been sleeping together so long that the sheets need changing.

In her earlier novels, her women are nearsighted with egoism. From her middle period on, Miss O’Brien sometimes allows them to look beyond themselves at the teeming world, and when she does this she writes as well as anyone. In Night, a novel published in 1973, she abandons her fretful tone - “like the insistent out-of-tune of a broken violin” - and Mary, her narrator, suffers in bel canto. Her sentence rhythms, diction and invention are more robust, more voluptuous, than any of her beddings.

Sex in Night serves as a series of farcical intervals between the real troubles of life, which Miss O’Brien renders with a wild, reckless humor. At Mary’s mother’s funeral, the mystery of an abandoned bicycle leaning against a tree in the cemetery distracts her from the mystery of death. Preparing to visit her father, she feels “as if I were taking an exam.” When she arrives at her cousin’s house in the country, he is just about to go out and drown a litter of puppies.

Everyday scenes like these are the truest and best parts of Miss O’Brien’s work. Reading them, we wonder whether love and sex, for which she has become an ambivalent apologist, are her natural subject after all - or just a burlesque to keep the genuine terrors at bay.

[ close ] [ top ]