Thursday, March 9, 2017

Notes from “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth”

Confession: I owe Cara Hoffman one note of unqualified praise: she was the first person to read through my fiction, mark it brilliantly up with a rosy pen, and then look me steadily in the eye and tell me I was “the real thing.” All this nearly two decades ago.

At that moment I assumed, with good reason, that I had met a rare specimen, the large-hearted person.  She was singularly gifted at the exceptional art of delicate, individual attention ­– a species of consideration that we always crave.  In truth, I would soon learn, praise and blame are twins.  

Our friendship soured.  With distance and a cool head, I could stand in her shoes, and see the world she beheld.  She rotated around the axis of Us vs. Them.  Once I shifted from Us to Them, I found myself in an unfriendly state of existence.  

Looking back, that exile was a blessed occasion.  For Hoffman followed her Us vs Them paradigm with a devotion close to fervor. In her first major novel, So Much Pretty, small town life in Upstate New York is clearly east of Eden – a place beyond the pale.  The heroine of the novel is more intelligent, discerning, and condemnatory than the flat characters which surround her; she flees the “Them” of the weeds and the wilds. 

I skipped her second novel.  Her third, Running, I read in manuscript form all those years ago.  I have not read the current rendition of Running.  What I read in 2001 was definitive: the damaged and drained heroine escapes her all too real life of deprivation; she transforms her defeats into victory through the gathering of secret gnosis. The rest of us, the flock, the hoard, simply don’t get the indefinable “it.” We are doomed

This brings us to the very reason for this post.  In the Paris Review Hoffman explores her relationship to a painting. All is fine and well.  Then my home in the Finger Lakes is stripped of life and sun and joy and laughter of little children, and cast under the rubric of “Them”.  She writes:

I spent another decade in low-wage work, living in the liminal, and largely white, landscape between former industrial cities, among people who would often refer to their towns—because there were lakes there for summer people or because there were waterfalls, or because they hadn’t traveled or didn’t want to admit failure—as “the most beautiful place on earth.”

These chilly words fail to match my reality.  Cornell University never feels liminal; in fact, it is a hub, a dynamic place, not the realm of unadmitted failure.  I look at those around me, my friends, my colleagues, and they are widely traveled folks. They read and think deeply. They can't be described by any blanket statement of status or identity.  They are a varied and beautiful lot and I love them. Arguably this region may not be the “most beautiful place on earth” but it is not peripheral to anyplace or any person. It is central and vital to excellent people.

But for Hoffman, it  makes sense.  For Hoffman, Manhattan is now the realm of Us; she and her partner, the guardians of gnosis, the strident elect, bound down Essex Street like ubermenschen, awash in translucent orange light; their shadows are “tall beneath the flame-blue sky.” She had once more winnowed reality and drawn a line between the tall shadowed people of lower Manhattan and the homunculi of the land of faux beauty. My land.  My people. 

If writing is an invitation to a reader to walk through an open door, Hoffman’s fiction will always contain closed doors for someone, somewhere.  Her stories of travel, deprivation, election and sainthood feed off denigration.  An Ur-tale is being unfurled. She chips at the edges of some literary pathology.  She circles back, again and again, to ennobling those myths she deems enlightening, while demeaning the fairy tales of the lost. 

Unfortunately, this is a visible stain on the garment of an otherwise talented writer.

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