Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."