Treading the Lyrical Tightrope: The Understory by Pamela Erens

Vanessa Blakeslee

Portland, OR and Brooklyn, NY: Tin House Books, 2014. 169 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

What drives the novel of simmering obsession, where plot takes a backseat to other narrative devices? When the smaller steps of daily life are magnified, does that narrative reach its greatest potential for a unified and powerful resonance? The recent novels of Pamela Erens, The Virgins and The Understory, could hastily be classified as “thin on plot” or “quiet.” Peel back the layers, however, and one finds a finely-crafted lyrical propulsion at work—a subtle but sturdy web of images, dreams, and character doubles. The Understory marks the author’s second title with Tin House Books, following the release of 2013’s acclaimed The Virgins. Yet The Understory is Erens’ debut. The book first appeared in 2007, placed as finalist in both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Small wonder that Tin House decided on a rerelease.

“Looking at the beds, I could already feel the nearness of the bodies that would lie in them tonight,” says The Understory’s narrator Jack Gorse, upon his first night in the monastery to which he’s fled. “Snow drizzled steadily outside the window. The fire under my skin brought water to my eyes and I slapped heavily at my arms, then pushed up my sleeve to show the monk that there was a reason, that it wasn’t craziness.” Jack’s declaration is a red flag, signaling his suppressed conflict. A closer look at The Understory reveals how Erens uses ancillary maneuvers to create a psychological study of disturbance, where thought, rhetorical questioning, atmosphere and theme imbue meaning over plot.

From the beginning, Erens wisely sets up her quiet tension for escalation in chapters that cut back and forth. In The Understory, the narrative shifts from Jack’s present-tense struggles at the Vermont monastery to New York City and the events which preceded his seeking refuge. The Virgins contains a similar structure. In the Manhattan thread, we learn that Giglio, the landlord determined to renovate and rid his building of stubborn tenants, has turned off the heat in Jack’s apartment of fifteen years. Jack has ten days to leave but refuses. Here Erens’ precisely-drawn characters rise to life. In describing an encounter with his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fiore, Jack states, “I could smell her smell, a mixture of soap and something deeper, unwashable.” Later Jack gives us a rare description of himself, and the language hearkens to the initial portrayal of Mrs. Fiore: “Sometimes, crouched next to the tap, a smell would reach my nostrils, a pungent mulchy odor which I associated with old people, and which I remembered sometimes having detected under my father’s cologne.” The echo feels natural, even inevitable, because Erens has tied the odor to the memory of Jack’s dead father. In one deft move Erens shows us how Jack has taken the leap to associate this odor, at first relegated to eccentric, older “others,” with himself.

Erens’ eye for detail isn’t confined to her principal characters. One of the most notable aspects of her fiction is the way she takes “sensory snapshots” of her world and its inhabitants—honing in on details that may appear tertiary at the time, but which effectively build so that the novel feels like a living, breathing mural. “After Canal Street Chinatown dissolves into the municipal district, with its ugly horizontal architecture, its clouds of dirty pigeons, its stream of distressed visitors,” Jack observes. “Lawyers leap out of taxis, thousands of lawyers on their way to family court, divorce courts, housing court, criminal court.” The result is a ruthlessly poignant depiction of a New York City steadily ceding to gentrification, vividly relayed as Jack conducts his obsessive, routine walks through parks and bookstores, and avoids Gilgio’s notice. In these long paragraphs of Jack’s thoughts, the theme which lends itself to the book’s title surfaces:

What speaks to me most is close to the ground: the shrubs and vines, rather than the great elms, oaks, and maples. The understory, as botanists call it. In the decades after the war, when the city turned its back on the park—firing the groundskeepers, ceding greater and greater swaths of land to the muggers and drug dealers—it was not the big trees that began to disappear; it was the shrubs: the witch hazel and jetbead, black haw and sweet pepperbush. The park became like the city: skyscrapers, no texture. And that meant it was dying. The things that live at ground level are what hold the earth fast. . . . It is the shrubs that allow the park to survive.

This theme and its biological offshoots are what supports the novel’s main action and allows for its greater meaning—what happens to those on the margins of society, who are displaced by so-called “improvements”? Jack maintains an odd fixation on twins, and Erens builds intrigue into the theme of twins, branches off, and eventually links back to the main image of the title. Here’s Jack in the monastery section:

I . . . think of an article I once read in a science magazine. Ultrasound, the author wrote, shows that many pregnancies start out as twin pregnancies. Long before quickening, either the twins merge or one is absorbed by the placenta. Up to fifteen percent of us might actually be the surviving half of a twin pair.

Why this obsession? Jack is alone, the only child of dead parents. Eventually we learn of his desperate, doomed friendship with a boyhood friend named Henry, which resurfaces in his attraction to the architect, Patrick. That Erens refrains from stating Jack’s loneliness or sexual orientation imbues the narrative with a compelling power—by building her narrative through image and patterning over plot and subplot, Erens invents a protagonist driven by his mind in the Nabokovian sense, with all its loops and detailed fantasies.

As the story in Manhattan unfolds toward destruction, the present-tense chapters of Jack at the monastery build upon the theme of biological determination. He tends bonsai trees and, after his efforts fail, takes a job in a nursery. By the book’s ending, Erens’ focus on a solitary, disturbed man plays as a lyrical sleight-of-hand. For as her themes seamlessly double back and unify, she provokes greater questions—of what happens to those leading quiet lives when they refuse to change, and are pushed to the brink.

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