Saturday, October 26, 2013

“My Notorious Life"

The best aspect of writing a blog is that nobody can shut you up. (The worst aspect of writing a blog is that nobody can shut you up.)

Contrariwise, when writing a novel there’s far more static, more white noise: or is that the loudness of blank pages waiting to be filled? Many colleagues also seem gripped by a professional jealousy that must hinder their creative way along the scenic route. How can you enjoy the unexpected diversions of a landscape if you’re worried you’re being followed?

Fortunately, I’ve never been in danger of being followed—I know nearly everybody who bought my first novel, and unsigned copies of my books are rarer than autographed ones. All this is to say that I cannot understand fellow writers who take as personal insult the fine reviews garnered by others; the life is so difficult that it makes me happy when somebody gets applause that seems even partially deserved. To quote Jorge Luis Borges on the Falklands war, it’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.

The purpose of this blog, then, is to laud a new masterpiece of fiction, just published, by a longtime friend, Kate Manning.

Back when I was a college student, many of us dreamed of becoming professional writers; some were too embarrassed to mention it, but thirty-five years ago I personally took for granted that all good things were feasible. I don’t recall if Kate was writing then, but I assume she must’ve been; I can’t believe this sort of virtuosity started late. But I doubt any would have picked her, among all our scribbling classmates, to write a novel inarguably great and profoundly American.

About eleven years ago Kate, living in New York, published a fine first novel. It got strong reviews but one brutal notice that dissuaded the publisher from putting any weight behind the book. Oh, how they must be regretting their cowardice now.

And one month ago Kate published her second novel, “My Notorious Life.” When she sent it to me, like everybody else given the privilege of reading it early on, I realized immediately that it was very special. Here is part of the publisher’s publicity material:

“Inspired by the true story of Ann Trow Lohman, a female physician who became one of the most controversial figures in Victorian New York City, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE vibrantly portrays a charismatic, passionate woman who changed the lives of countless others.

”Set in gritty late-19th century New York City, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is the story of Axie (née Annie) Muldoon, a formidable child of Irish immigrants who works her way off the brutal streets to become one of the most successful—and scandalous—women of her time. With a quick wit and a sharp tongue, Axie recounts her separation from her mother and siblings, her apprenticeship to a midwife, and how she earns a fortune selling “Lunar Tablets for the relief of Female Obstruction.” As she builds her thriving midwifery practice with her husband, ascending from one room in a tenement on the Lower East Side to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, she finds herself on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, whose self-appointed mission is to clean up America one ‘sinner’ at a time. It will take all of Axie’s power to outwit him and keep her family from falling back into ruin.

“MY NOTORIOUS LIFE provides a little-known historical backdrop to current debates over women’s reproductive rights. The pleas of the patients who visit Axie in desperation will resonate with contemporary readers who recognize that 150 years later, we are still fighting many of the same battles. This moving and nuanced commentary on one of today’s hottest topics is sure to fuel the fire of an already blazing debate.

“A brilliant rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is ultimately the story of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is truly a heroine for the ages.”

Better yet, rather than trusting the Scribners propaganda machine, or me, you can read the smart and subtle reviews this smart and subtle book has engendered at the Nation and the Washington Post.

Kate has brought to life the grim, grimy tenement portraits of Jacob Riis (look him up) from five generations ago and—foolhardy as it may be for me to predict the future—I believe that this book will still be read five generations from now, whether or not it soon garners the prizes it deserves.

What I love most about this novel, and there is much to love, is how apparently effortlessly the past is put vividly before us, in meaningful (but never forced) detail; and the restraint with which the author handles the social and societal milieu, trusting us (by virtue of our modernity) to feel the proper outrage without any pounding at the piano on her part. We are left, finally, with the honest abrasive voice of that wonderful narrator, telling us all about herself—of what survives, and what finally does not.


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