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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Aren't You a Little Obsessed?

What role does transformation play in Grand Central? Transformation is a key element of fiction and of memoir.

“A transformation is a dramatic change in form or appearance. An important event like getting your driver’s license, going to college, or getting married can cause a transformation in your life.”

In Grand Central, we have a very dramatic event—the protagonist embarks on a love affair with a married man and becomes pregnant. Eventually he leaves her to return to his wife. Last week, we talked about the operatic nature of these events. Such circumstances would indeed transform many fictional and even real-life people, possibly turning them angry, more wary and wise about love. What happens in Grand Central?

At the beginning, we have the protagonist (let’s call her Blondie) “holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.” She’s awaiting the arrival of a man and his wife, the man whom she’s been desiring but has never met. But she likes (loves) the wife, “and I entirely renounce him for only her peace of mind.” She imagines suicide and senses a strong contrast between the beautiful Pacific coast of California, and deadly creatures in the shadows. “The long days seduce all thought away…the Beginning lurks uncomfortably…(the Beginning of their affair.) Blondie is obsessed with him, and finally has sex with him beneath a waterfall (sigh!)

“No, my advocates, my angels with sadist eyes, this is the beginning of my life, or the end. So I lean affirmation across the café table, and surrender my fifty years away with an easy smile.” (This is a point where she’s giving a clue to when she wrote it, and to the distinction between the protagonist and the Narrator. She—the Narrator—is talking about “my”—the protagonist’s—fifty years.)

She has the affair but then her paramour’s mother and brother are killed in the Blitz and he leaves for England. She is pregnant. “When I doze, the Fact, the certain accomplished calamity, wakes me roughly like a brutal nurse…Thus every quarter hour it puts the taste of death in my mouth, and shows me, but not gently, how I go whoring after oblivion.” Now she is in pain. Transforms to pain. “O the fact, the unalterable fact: it is she he is with: he is with her: he is not with me because he is sleeping with her…But I do not bleed. The knife stuck in my flesh leaves only the hole that proves I am dead.”

She is in pain, but still hopes for his return. She goes through the first two stages of grief—denial, anger…sort of, but cannot maintain anger at him for long. She’s angry at his wife.

At the end, she imagines her lover yearning for her, saying her name as he sleeps beside his wife.

Last line—My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?

So there are some subtle transformations here, initially her brazen lust is modified by meeting her lover’s missus, and she feels guilt and then contemplates self-destruction. By the end, she’s physically transformed into a pregnant woman, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much emotional transformation. She goes from waiting to meet him at the beginning, full of desire, tempered by terror. At the end, she dreams of getting him back, dreams of him loving her rather than his wife.

I have to confess (maybe I already did), that I feel frustrated with Elizabeth Smart. Grand Central is a beautiful book in terms of the poetry, the style, we could say. But as a story it disappoints me. In a naïve way, it would be satisfying to have her realize Mr. B is a jerk, a cad who’s used her, but she continues to be a victim. A saint. A pregnant saint. It’s a tragedy. As her father says at one point, “Aren’t you just a little obsessed about this whole thing?”

But this is just a snippet of her life, published years after the fact. Her project seems to be to show what her life was like at this time. Memoir-like. It’s possible there was more significant transformation later on.

Wait! Wait!

Even though the protagonist doesn’t appear to change much in the story, the story is full of change, full of transformation.

One of the main allusions in Grand Central is to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We have a reference to the story of Narcissus and also the story of Marsyas and Apollo. As mentioned in an earlier post, we have the story of Venus and Adonis. These are all stories about transformation, about one thing becoming another. Metamorphosis shares its first two syllables with metaphor, and Grand Central is stuffed with metaphor and allegory, another means of transforming one image into another. One thing is actually two. Her beloved is a somewhat fussy man who gets off a bus, anxious with tickets; he is also transformed into the shepherd who feeds his flocks in the lilies.

Poetry is transformation, the metamorphosis of words. Grand Central has a somewhat static story but is full of messages about change.

Next week, a new book. Mathew Quick’s 2008 novel “The Silver Linings Playbook.”

Till then best beloved.


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