April 20, 2012
“I want to be needed.” says Carrie Snyder’s Juliet quite a way into her story, past her childhood bisected by a life in Nicaragua, past her brother’s illness, past her phoned-in teenaged years. It’s near the end of the book, in truth, but closer to where the story seems to begin. For more than 250 pages we have watched Juliet recoil from one experience to the next, watched the world happen around her and shared her understanding of it, but until now we’re not clear about what will become of her, what it all amounts to. While her life’s experience has been remarkable, the core Juliet seems to have been formed some time earlier by forces less eventful than the upheavals and the cancers and the divorces.
Juliet is an unsure person. From the time we meet her she is obsessed by answers to big, unaskable questions as if answers will reassure her in some fundamental way. Answers, of course, are at best complex and at worst absent, and so Juliet remains confounded and unsure. This sort of probing, abstract personality is brought to fascinating life by Carrie Snyder’s prose. Just as Juliet is uninterested in tangible, present facts and experience (except when fetishizing minutia – we are sometimes caught up in her moments of sensory immersion), Snyder’s prose asks abstract questions to evoke the mood of the place and event. To describe a line portrait of our protagonist she asks, “Who would want this thread unwound?”
Juliet the child thinks someone else has the answers, or at least the ability to make the questions answerable. Her mother is early on marked as unhelpful. Gloria appears through Juliet’s eyes to be a mass of neuroses and hysteria, who despite caring quite well for her children and the other volunteers in Nicaragua is not to be relied upon because of a tendency to collapse in on herself. The oft-absent father, Bram, is the savior not just of the family but of the other untied and searching women of the entourage.
But Juliet the adult, after weathering the disintegration of her childhood family, finds herself unable to be the one asking the questions anymore. As an adult she seems sometimes to have succumbed to a kind of nihilism, engaging in remarkably reckless behavior for someone so thoughtful. Having failed to arrive at any order or meaning in her earlier life, she is willing to treat all actions as if they might have any possible result, rather than one predictable one. In this sense she has grown into an irresponsible young adult who treats sex, alcohol, property and memory as if they could not possibly have any consequential effects. Something about this casual disregard attracts others – her lovers, her brother, even animals. Perhaps they suspect her of having answers. There is an alchemical effect to this paradox: Because she has no answers, she appears to have them; and by needing her to provide them her dependents rouse her to provide, if not those answers, than the conviction that she could, if pressed, provide them.
If there is genius in Carrie Snyder’s book, it is in describing that cycle that the search for meaning takes in the lives of so many people. Nobody ever becomes enlightened, truly, but the simultaneous need for meaning creates our interdependence. The Juliet Stories is a book which helps make that human experience understandable, no question.
But it can also be a frustrating read for a reader who feels she has arrived at a place of understanding in her own life. Juliet has all the tools necessary to make her a surer person with more control over how she reacts to the events of her life, but something fundamental to her prevents her from seizing them. Her father, her brother, her lovers all seem better grounded than she is. Is it simply the influence of her mother (who she seems intent on resenting) that keeps her unhappy? It is difficult not to wonder what this says about the female experience when the women of the book are almost universally painted as reactive, given agency only by the condition of motherhood (or surrogate motherhood in being needed by others). I found myself often frustrated by Juliet (and Gloria)’s refusal to stand up and accept responsibility for their own happiness. This is no fault of Snyder’s – not every book must reflect every reader’s experience. We learn by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. It’s an uncomfortable process, however. After these miles in Juliet’s shoes, I felt like I had corns. Such is my nature that I wanted to retaliate by giving her a smack upside the head.
But isn’t that the definition of great writing – the stuff that really gets to you? Prodigiously talented indeed – Carrie Snyder is living up to her reputation as a writer to stick with.