Q: How many masochists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Forget it. They’re too busy sticking their fingers in the bulb sockets.
If you can imagine a novel like this, so beautifully written that you feel the haunting warmth of the dead bulb, see the sinuous fingers extend toward the naked contacts, and sense the exquisite torture as the current jolts the body–well, you’ve just imagined how I felt reading The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor (Viking, 2002).
Since Trevor’s a writer whose reputation reaches far beyond his native Ireland (he’s been mentioned as a Nobel candidate), I actually finished the book, wanting to know what it was that bothered me.
My trouble isn’t that the novel is bleak, or that all the characters suffer great pain. By itself, that doesn’t put me off, and if terrible sadness were the bane of readable fiction, that would eliminate just about all Russian literature and much of Irish, for starters. In fact, I’m still scratching my head over a complaint I heard in a book group many years ago. A woman dismissed James Joyce’s Dubliners, because, she said, “The stories are all so depressing.”
Maybe they are, but Joyce gives the reader–at least, this reader–something to hold on to. The characters have dreams and try to fulfill them, but when they fail, I feel for them, recognizing their frailties as my own. In Lucy Gault, I had nothing to hold on to, so the beautiful prose, the subtle moments carefully observed, and the pain of being human didn’t reach me.
Let’s start with the premise, which must be plausible if the novel is to strike a chord. See what you think of this:
With civil war roiling Ireland in the early 1920s, a former army captain takes a rifle to three prowlers outside his seafront home one night, and foils what seems to have been an arson attempt. Fearing for his family’s safety–his wife is English, and they have a nine-year-old daughter, the Lucy of the title–Captain Gault decides to seek exile in England. But the parents won’t tell Lucy why they’re moving, thinking it better not to frighten her. Their silence costs dearly, for she runs off, determined to stay in the place she loves, misinterpreting the departure as a capricious, heartless act aimed at her.
Would the Gaults really have kept silent, especially after Lucy objects? Maybe. Would they then, after she fails to show up, believe so readily that she drowned, leave as quickly as they do, and go into exile in Italy, cutting off all contact? I doubt it. I think they’d have stayed put, hoping against hope that Lucy survived–which, in fact, she does–and daring the nationalist goons to do their worst, believing that they’d already lost everything.
Not to mention that the captain had survived the Great War, having fought at Passchendaele, no less. Would he really have bolted because a trio of inept terrorists had poisoned his dogs and skedaddled at the first shot? And if, by some stretch, the Gaults did leave Ireland, why didn’t they write the caretakers staying on the property, just–well, just because that’s something people do? Instead, over the course of years–make that decades–Captain Gault seals and stamps several letters home, but sends none, just another in a series of self-inflicted wounds with which it becomes harder to feel sympathy.
For these characters, changing a lightbulb would have been showing great initiative, never mind struggling against their predicament. It wouldn’t have taken much effort, either, to dispel their sorrow (ending the thin story). But they have no more dreams, even, no desires, just play out their lives in emptiness. Where’s the novel in that?