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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

I Remember We

‘Kay. I have said that, this week, we should examine Grand Central as a work of fiction. I felt good about the clarity, not exactly smug, but pleased with myself. Now a week has passed, and we have a problem, my friends.

(Whiny voice—You have a problem).

Is Grand Central a work of fiction or of memoir?

“A memoir uses fictional techniques to draw readers into an honest account of a true story. It is written in the first person, from the author’s point of view. And it differs from an autobiography or biography in that while the latter tell the story of a life, a memoir has a narrower focus. A memoir can be said to tell a story from a life. The turning point of an author’s life might make a great subject for a memoir. A novel is a work of written narrative fiction that may be based on or inspired by a true story, but does not claim to be a true account.”

Based on these definitions, it would seem Grand Central falls into a gray area, but is closer to memoir.

In rough strokes, it is the story of an unnamed Narrator who tells the tale of a love affair with an also unnamed man. He is married, and the Narrator experiences intense guilt over inserting herself into the marriage. (although that doesn’t stop her). The couple encounter major obstacles to their love which must at times be clandestine. They are criminally prosecuted. The Narrator faces disapproval and outright interference from her family. Her lover returns to his wife, and the Narrator addresses him in passionate passages which could be letters, could be thoughts. She is tortured by the way she feels about a man who distances himself from her.

Despite my protests, we cannot ignore the fact that this is very much the story of the real Elizabeth Smart and her paramour, George Barker.

(Who are “we?”).

However, Grand Central also fits into the definition of fiction. It makes no claims to be a true account. This is not a memoir that begins with something like “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. . . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters . . . . " (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt) On the contrary, the text of Grand Central is composed in present tense, and provides little context for the events it describes. It does not begin: “When I look back at my intense affair with Mr. Barker, I wonder how I survived.”

It begins like this: “I am standing on a corner in Monterrey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.” Powerful stuff. A Narrator, an “I,” begins telling us a story of waiting for something with magnificently mixed feelings. Terror and desire. Then the Narrator describes what occurs when the bus arrives: “But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her Madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusting as the untempted…Her eyes shower me with their innocence and surprise.” So, a female bus passenger emerges, perhaps when the Narrator had expected someone else—suggested by that “But…” And the Narrator is reassured, the emergent passenger does not appear angry; in fact she seems innocent and trusting. Then: “Behind her he whom I have waited so long, who has stalked so unbearably through my nightly dreams, fumbles with the tickets and the bags, and shuffles up to the event which too much anticipation has fingered to shreds.” The Narrator reveals it has been waiting for a male person whom the Narrator can now see. The Narrator has long anticipated this meeting, dreamt about it.

(Excuse me, Mr. Pretentious Bully, but you’re making this as dry as toast—as usual. When will “we” get to the racy parts?)

It does not refer to any of the characters by name. (except for the protagonist eventually being called Blondie) Is this significant? I think so. It’s part of the book’s style to keep a boundary between reality and—if you will—poetry. If the protagonist were called Liz, her beloved, George, it would change the story, forcing the reader to think of the real people the book is about. It would spoil the feverish, dream-like style.

As in a work of fiction, one can identify the story-telling triumvirate. First, there is Elizabeth Smart, the real author, who lived events close to those shown in the book, second, the Narrator, an “I,” who focuses with intensity on her experience of things rather than telling a story in a more conventional manner, and finally the book’s style, which is poetic and allusive.

Is the Narrator of Grand Central Elizabeth Smart? I say no, best beloved. They are incredibly close, but the difference is that the Narrator, despite relying on the present tense, is writing about events that have already occurred—occurred to Elizabeth Smart, the protagonist. And the Narrator tells the story using a raw and poetic language which had to have been generated after the fact. (more on this next time). Perhaps the Narrator could be thought of as a future Ms. Smart, looking back. But, as mentioned above, she does not make this explicit, nor does she refer to herself as Elizabeth.

In the final chapter, the Narrator mentions opera. “The Pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had an operatic grandeur.” (please note past tense). Is this a clue to understanding the story? The European operatic tradition consists of stories of dramatic events, deaths, betrayals, adulteries. The characters present these stories with extreme emotional expression.

Sounds like Grand Central.


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