A CURIOUS AUDIENCE member at a recent Amy Bloom reading at Bailey/Coy Books asked how her dual professions—psychotherapist and fiction writer—intersected. Bloom's answer was even more curious; they don't, really, she said, other than that she only sees a few patients she's been seeing "for a long time" now and devotes most of her time to writing. Those poor long-term therapy patients aside, her answer seemed strangely oblique and possibly disingenuous coming from a mental health professional; being trained to look at the human mind as a psychotherapist must somehow affect one's writing and outlook—and christ, if she's not getting some good material out of her patients, they don't need her. But Bloom seemed perfectly satisfied to have given this idea little thought or analysis. Weird.
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
by Amy Bloom (Random House, $22.95)
Bloom's new short stories are weird, too; while some of the tales in A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You are brilliantly written and elegantly economical, several have something of the case study about them. The collection as a whole centers on themes of loss, death, and the various tortures of modern medicine; it's fairly riddled with dying babies, parents, and lovers. The characters involved are generally at the anger stage of coping, and it's a rage so heavy and complete as to leave them in a state of heartless self-absorption, which is then reported to the reader in a sometimes dispassionate, clinical way.
In "Rowing to Eden," a woman with breast cancer is undergoing chemotherapy while her husband and longtime friend look after her. She has a fond antipathy for her husband, while he and the friend share a mutual, tender dislike. The characters are finely drawn and the relationships well founded, but nothing leaps out here; the voices are measured and smooth, the despair is vague. The wife is "incapable of love," and the trio are yuppies dealing with illness and mortality much like they deal with everything else. The main character is a hard woman, and it's a hard story to care about.
These studies in fear and grief, often in the third person, suffer mightily when compared to Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (from her collection Birds of America, 1998). That story was a masterpiece of frenzied emotion and exhaustion—not a fair comparison, really, but one that cries out from several of the eerily calm stories concerning illness here. None of them sing with the animal passion, the guilt and love that Moore's character feels for her sick baby; the ailing and the bereaved alike here are understandably but too frequently disaffected.
But the thick sorrow and heavy rage are worth pushing through; all the pieces are good, and some are great. Bloom's portrayal of the aging of a matriarch in "Lionel and Julia" is real and moving. The anger of the bereaved attains a straightforward lucid passion in "Hold Tight," about a teenage girl whose mother dies: "When I got too angry at her, I'd leave the house and throw rocks against the neighbors' fences, hoping to hit someone's healthy mother not as smart or as beautiful or as talented as mine. My friends bickered with their mothers over clothes or the phone or Nathan Zigler's parties, and I wanted to stab them to death." And lack of affect becomes fascinating in "The Story," in which an unreliable narrator keeps switching around the story, addresses the reader and the reader's expectations with startling directness, and eventually reaches the stony purposefulness of a vengeful god.
As the narrator of "The Story" says of the vanquishing of a neighbor/rival, "Even now I regard her destruction as a very good thing, and that undermines the necessary fictive texture of deep ambiguity, the roiling ambivalence that might give tension to the narrator's affectation"—and reflexively and humorously, the fictive texture and tension remain. It's elsewhere in Bloom's collection that a necessary ambiguity and ambivalence sometimes go missing.
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