Monday, April 15, 2013

Jill McCorkle's Disappearing Act

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 at 7:09 AM

The subject is Life After Life. And no, not the new novel by that title by Kate Atkinson. I mean the new novel by that title, from Algonquin Books, by Jill McCorkle. And note: That's life after life, not life after death, because McCorkle, who teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University, has had it with vampire stories. She said so recently from Jackson, Mississippi, one stop on her 28-city tour to promote her latest novel, her first in 17 years. That tour includes Memphis, where she'll be reading from and signing Life After Life at Burke's Book Store on Wednesday, April 17th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. But back to that topic: vampires.

"I have to say," McCorkle said by phone and between fits of coughing — she'd been hit hard by the spring pollen — "I've taught now for almost 28 years, and I've always been very open-minded. But about three years ago, I had that semester where I finally said to my students: I cannot do one more vampire. I've just had it with vampires.

"The thing that bothers me is, you have a character like Frankenstein's monster, and there's emotion in that story. I don't have a problem with taking a leap into another dimension. But I want my students to hear a good story that's well written … good sentences. What I was seeing was a lot of kids plugging in these types without the logical development that should go into a character."

Which sounds a lot like something you hear from Toby Tyler. She's the sharp-tongued resident of Pine Haven Estates (billed as a "retirement village and assisted living") in Fulton, North Carolina, where many of the scenes in Life After Life take place, and it's Toby, a former high school English teacher, who lets loose at one point:

"I said to my principal, the boy king, I asked him, If I retire like you say I have to, who will teach these children? Who will guard the gate? … Who will teach the value of literature? I said, Who will tell them nobody gives a shit about how dwarves and trolls have sex? If they had, the Brothers Grimm would have figured it out and already done it."

And Toby's not done on the topic of today's popular literature.

"What I wouldn't have given for a stained soul. One good stained soul story. Murder, suicide, adultery, a simple lie or betrayal. I wanted a stain or a tear in a soul and I wanted a vivid description of some place in the world that leaves me feeling like I was there. … I mean we can all think of a place and we all have stains on our souls."

Yes, we do. And so do Joanna Lamb (Pine Haven volunteer hospice worker), Carolina Jessamine (C.J.) Loomis (tattooed and pierced Pine Haven beautician), Sadie Randolph (retired third-grade teacher), Rachel Silverman (widow and retired attorney from Boston), Stanley Stone (widower and another retired attorney), Ben Palmer (an amateur magician, who specializes in disappearing acts), Kendra Palmer (Ben's wife and a world-class bitch), and Abby (Ben and Kendra's 12-year-old daughter and friend to the residents of Pine Haven).

That's quite a community of characters, and that's not all in Life After Life, which skillfully negotiates the past, the here-and-now, and the uncertain future of all its characters — uncertain except for the one, inescapable future that all of them, and all of us, share.

A novel set largely in a nursing home, an assisted-living facility, a retirement "village": Call it what you will. But Life After Life treats the living of all ages with uncommon understanding and grace. And not a little humor, as in the pronouncements of that outspoken retired teacher (and lesbian) Toby Tyler. As in the observations of that retired attorney (and heartsick) Rachel Silverman, whose Northeasterner's view of the South may be jaundiced, doesn't mean it's mistaken.

"Home of lard, Jesus, sugared-up tea and enough meshuggeners to fill Fenway Park" is how Rachel describes Pine Haven. Even the 85-year-old optimist Sadie Randolph has to agree on some of the South's syrupy customs: "For as long as I can remember there was just tea and then unsweetened tea. If you asked for tea, it was sweet. I don't know when all this fuss over sweet tea started."

Nothing syrupy, though, about Life After Life's harder truths, its manifold revelations. The novel, it turns out, grew out of some hard truths in the life of McCorkle herself.

"It was many years ago," McCorkle said. "I had the idea of wanting to deal with a whole community of people. I'm often attracted to that. And I guess the seed of Life After Life was when I was with my dad as he was dying. It was my first experience with people working in the hospice field, and I became interested in the notion that there's this whole buildup and hustle and bustle surrounding the dying. There's all this life. And then that dying person's gone, in a second.

"It was life-changing for me. It all felt so abstract. But I knew, as a writer, I was interested in pursuing that last leg of life."

The final few minutes of life are a critical component of McCorkle's narrative, and they come in short passages that can best be described as the closing mental activity of a dying man or woman. Stream of consciousness? McCorkle calls it simply that "extra dimension."

"I knew I had Joanna keeping a notebook on her dying patients, and I thought throughout I'd be leaving scraps of memories of the people she cared for. But it was only when I was into the construction of it all that I started thinking of those last moments of a person's life as the missing pieces of the story.

"I had the surface structure, the plot in mind. What I didn't have was that extra dimension, which had inspired the story in the first place: that moment of one minute here you are and then you're gone. I was thinking sleight of hand, now you see her, now you don't, the different ways of disappearing."

But there's also the different ways of seeing. That's the case with Rachel Silverman, who moves from Boston to see (and to retire to) the hometown of the man with whom she'd had an extramarital affair decades earlier. She discovers more about that man, now dead, than she ever knew. Jill McCorkle, in writing about Rachel, looks back too.

"I lived in the Boston area for almost 20 years, when my children were growing up. It's a place I love. I miss it. So with my character Rachel … the whole notion was of someone being not only homesick but 'timesick.'"

McCorkle, in Life After Life, even looks back with fondness to the world of pro wrestling. In our interview, she recalled the times she'd take her son and his friends to watch the likes of "The Hardy Boys" and "The Undertaker" battling in the ring. "Entertaining" is how McCorkle recalled the spectacle of it. Stanley Stone, who's feigning dementia to irritate his grown son, pretends to be a fan of wrestling as well. And he makes a spectacle of himself at Pine Haven, until he becomes a more honest man thanks to Rachel Silverman.

A novel can take on such extended character development. How did it feel for McCorkle to turn once more to the longer novel form?

"It felt great. I think, by nature, I'm more a novelist," she said. "And I think the time I spent writing stories was very helpful to me as a novelist and especially in the writing of this novel. I don't know if I could have written Life After Life if I hadn't taken the time to work in the smaller space of short stories.

"Given the number of characters, early on I might have considered writing a number of linked stories. But putting them all in one novel took it to the next plane in terms of getting closer to the notion of life after life. These characters have all had whole lives, but those lives are continuing. Stanley and Rachel now have their story. Rachel and C.J. have their story. I wanted that sensation that their lives go on."

And what of Abby, the youngest of McCorkle's characters, who has her own life before her?

"I like kid characters. To my mind, the most interesting characters are almost always the kids and the very old. I like the ends of the spectrum," McCorkle said. "I knew I wanted a kid seeking comfort from these older friends.

"I'm someone who grew up spending a lot of time with a lot of older relatives. Some of the best things I ever heard or was taught came from them. I wanted Abby to have that too. She's going toward life, and Sadie Randolph is looking back on life. It's Abby's parents, Ben and Kendra, who are stuck — as parents often are — in that flabby, selfish center of life. They're not paying attention."

But Jill McCorkle is. And in Life After Life she gives us a vivid description of some place in the world that will leave us feeling like they were there. Toby Tyler, no doubt, would approve. •

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