on The Blue Girl, a novel by Laurie Foos (Coffee House Press)
The multi-voiced narrative is a near-obligatory routine for many mainstream novelists. It satisfies benign inclinations – first, to display one’s ample virtuosity, and then, to flatter the reader’s presumed perspicacity. Any single fictional character may see only a part of a situation but the reader is persuaded that he/she can see it all. Since no one can ever see it all, the character’s reality is more real than the reader’s. Imagine paying $16.95 to be so deceived! These novelists work for a corporation called “Understanding, Inc.” – even though how we understand is our actual problem and puzzle.
In her seventh novel, The Blue Girl, Laurie Foos uses the multi-voiced narrative for ends that are more exploratory and provisional if also less conventionally gratifying. But its pleasures are several. If the typical multi-perspective narrative combines to speak the truth, Foos is more committed to speaking truthfully. Her language exists in complicity with what dismays and provokes her. The Blue Girl gathers the reader into a complete vision of a world while allowing a chance to wonder: what are a novelist’s alternatives to revelation?
There are three adult speakers, three mothers each with two children and a husband either disengaged or demented. They live in a small town beside a lake, a place where lives seem fated for diminishment. In the woods near the lake, the blue girl lives with a crone. Why is she blue? There are various ideas, none definitive. The run-time of the novel occurs between two attempts by the blue girl to jump into the lake. She doesn’t swim – are these suicide attempts? She doesn’t speak, all we hear are her rheumy breaths.
Irene’s daughter, Audrey, wades out to save the blue girl. For some reason, this is both her privilege and compulsion. Her little boy Buck is a figure of soon-to-fade male innocence. Libby’s daughter is Rebecca, the town beauty; her boy Ethan is developmentally delayed by fragile X syndrome. Magda’s anatomically inquisitive daughter is Caroline; her crass son Greg is Rebecca’s sexually importunate boyfriend.
All of the female characters speak – but without nuance for their environment or themselves. Nevertheless, they wish to talk intimately and reveal secrets, a desire triggered by the cloistered presence of the mysterious blue girl. The mothers prepare food to take to the blue girl – moon pies, which they bake almost continuously, telling their children that the pies are intended for a bake sale (the children aren’t fooled).
“I haven’t told the others, Magda and poor Irene, but when the blue girl first appeared that day on the lake, felt awake for the first time in years. She was a rumor until then, a whisper overheard in the parking lot of the grocery store. A dream, except I’d stopped believing in dreams. When I heard about this strange blue person who lurked somewhere around the lake area – I don’t think we knew then that she was a girl – I thought maybe I would be able to dream again, that I would look forward again to nighttime, to sleep. I felt comforted by the possibility of dreaming again. I thought here would finally be an end to this blankness. And there has been, even without new dreams, because I have awakened. The blue girl, who came to our woods and almost drowned in our lake, has awakened me.”
Disappointed in themselves and estranged from their daughters, the mothers establish the reader as the sole receptive listener in the world. “We could understand the boredom, the stifling we sensed in our girls, even at fifteen,” says Irene. “We didn’t want that for them, but what could we do? We had already long been broken.” The girls want to share their confidences as well. Audrey speaks: “She’s all I think about. If I ask myself why should I get in the car and go to her again, when I know what I’ll do once I get there, I don’t have an answer. Except that there’s been something connecting us since that day, since I breathed into her mouth and she breathed back into mine. And that’s all I can say about it.”
This is a world of fixed qualities described by women who cannot penetrate their own understandings with words. Accustomed to fictional worlds that unfold with clearly detailed circumstances and ever more comprehensible conclusions, the reader may ask where the pleasure lies in watching and hearing the disconsolate lives and speeches of these women and teens. There may be two kinds of readers – those who enjoy desiring something from a text and those who require satisfaction. The pathos of Foos’ women is the obsessiveness of their desire even in light of ruined affections and lack of a viable object for their passions. They look back to Sherwood Anderson’s miniature Winesburg grotesques -- and much further back, to the traditions of folklore and fairy tale. The crone who guards the blue girl's house could be a figure in a Grimm's tale. Pascal Quignard said he came to prefer folktales to novels because the former are "older, less human, more dreamlike, a more natural form -- something quicker in the mouth and readier in the mind, something more thrilling." One encounters these attributes in Foos' novel.
Evelyn Waugh said, “I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.” The Blue Girl offers all three elements – but on its own terms. Foos also insists on the primacy of language (flattened, repetitive, slow to advance) to depict how certain minds work in adverse circumstances. The unpromising striving through them suggests a certain bleak dignity.
Libby speaks: “Look at us, I think. Now we are women like that. We are women with baskets and napkins and tote bags, all for a girl who cannot get out of bed. A girl who seems to drown but still lives. As if we can do something, anything, for such a girl. But then as we approach the house I think to myself, Who’s to say we can’t?
In Laurie Foos' hands, the ways in which things don’t meet our wishes offer daunting and moving entertainment. If The Blue Girl resists the gratifications of "realism" and its click-shut resolutions, she goes further by using language to let us experience the desires embedded in our deprivations.
[Published July 125, 2015. 210 pages, $15.95 paperback]