Maureen Howard: Natural History

Maureen Howard published her first book, Not a Word About Nightingales, in 1961 and apparently it was something of a bestseller. She went on to write several more novels and a book of autobiography which at least continued to be critically well-received – the edition of Natural History which I own features blurbs by the likes of Susan Sontag and Richard Powers on the backcover. And yet, she appears to be almost completely forgotten today – her name does pop up occasionally in lists of American novelist with a penchant for the experimental (which is where I found her, next to Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo – conspicuous not only for being the only name I had never heard of it, but also for being the only woman on that list), but she does not seem to be discussed much, and even less read – the Goodreads ratings for her novels are absurdly low.

Absurdly because, judging by Natural History, she is a brilliant and exciting novelist; personally, I’d judge that particular novel a major contribution to 20th century literature and think it should be counted among the great American novels of that era. I’m a bit baffled, then, as to why she seems so thoroughly forgotten – I suppose her gender might have something to do with it, and that her novels require some effort on part of the reader. And (given the occasional exception) women writing difficult books seem to have a particular hard time of it, apparently the general reading public is more accepting of breaking and experimenting with established forms when it is done by male authors…

Another reason why Natural History in particular has not received the recognition it deserves is, I suspect, that it constitutes a slap in the face of literary realism, or more precisely a certain kind of American novel that attempts to give a realistic depiction of middle-class life in the the United States, writers, in other words, like Richard Yates, John Cheever or John Updike, a genre I like to call suburban realism and which continues to be popular with critics and readers (compare The almost 50,000 Goodreads ratings for Revolutionary Road with the 16 (!) for Natural History) and which also happens to be quite dominated by male writers.

Natural History consists of three main parts: The longest part, “Museum Pieces” (itself consisting of several chapters) is framed by “Natural History” I and II. The first part, then, “Natural History I” describes a day in the life of the four members of the Bray family towards the end of World War II. It is the most straightforward part of the novel, in fact it his exactly the tone of suburban realism, claiming to present a slice of actual American life and  maintaining a more-or-less subtle sense of condescension towards it characters, that slight but always noticable wrinkling of the nose wich seems to be an essential part of this particular sub-genre.

However, this first part merely lays the groundwork for Maureen Howard’s novel, at the same time circumscribing the area where conventional realism is able to reach, the title “Natural History” both referring at the way middle class heterosexual family perceives itself as the natural state of things and the way suburban realism, even with all of its criticism of its specific manifestations, still accepts the white middle-class family as the measure of all things. Natural History repeats that gesture in the first part, confining herself strictly not just to describing a single day in a single narrative mode but also staying close to the perspective of the family’s members.

In the novel’s second part, Maureen Howard subverts…. no, she explodes the novels of suburban realism and its pretensions to present a piece of contemporary life in the USA. She blows the form up and watches it fragments scatter all over the place, then picks them up, rearranges them und puts them on display. She opens up the novel’s perspective beyond the scope of the white middle class to other races and other social strata, unfolding how it is embedded in society and history, reaching back to the 19th century. “Museum Pieces” itself consists (unsurprisingly, given the title) of several chapters, focusing on James and Catherine Bray, who we met as children in “Natural History I,” several decades later, but also on the people each of them is living with – I’m purposefully being somewhat vague here, as one can already see traditional role models dissolve in these relationships.

In that regard, the James’ (who has become a moderately famous actor) project to make a movie about his father (who was a policeman) and one of his cases seems like an attempt to recapture a time where traditional family structure were still intact and working. A large part of the novel centers around this  movie project in one way or another, and it will not come as a surprise that the hankering after tradition turns out to be pure nostalgia, pining for a past that never was. The chapters of “Museum Pieces” present a variety of different literary form, from screen plays to a collage from historical documents (presented on even-numbered pages) and narrative (presented on odd-numbered pages). This latter is not just the lonest but also thematically central, it connects all strands of the novel and ties them up with with (among quite a few other things) T.P. Barnum and shopping malls, openly referencing Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk in the way it sparks off insight by juxtaposition of carefully selected material.

Everyone is constantly on display and is constantly aware of it in that Museum of Natural History which is a freak show which is a shopping mall which is the United States of America, and which is also Bridgeport – thanks to the author’s fantastic sense of place, she manages to show that city (home town of Robert Mitchum and Remington where P.T. Barnum was mayor twice) as a focus of everything American and still retain its specific weight as a real place. Natural History is not the easiest novel to read – most of it is written in a stream of consciousness constantly shifting between different narrators and times – but as is so often case the greater challenge also brings greater rewards, in this case one of the most incisive and insightful novels written on the State of the United States in the twentieth century.

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