The Abyss - Anything Is Posiible
First, here's a no doubt surprising but at the same time evident deviation. My usual habit is to publish a new installment of this blog on Thursdays each week. It is a great pleasure for me to write them, and I hope that others read and get some happiness as a result. I should say that I learn a lot from these blog posts and that the process of thinking about and writing each one is quite rewarding.
That said, this week, I am posting on Tuesday instead of Thursday and further, there will be no post next week.
Both of these developments are due to Dena and I taking a vacation. Rest assured, while enjoying being away, I will continue to do the hard work of thinking about literary matters, as well as about the next post when I resume on Thursday, November 2nd.
What are we supposed to do while you’re gone?
Today, let’s continue delving into Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. In Snow-Blind, the eighth chapter of the book, we have a story that is concerns a character, Annie Appleby, who is referenced prominently in Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast, although only through the perspective of other characters. Snow-Blind is immediately distinct because it is the only one of the stories in Anything Is Possible that was published before-hand as a short story, and it is, as you would expect, complete and self-contained.
In Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast, a guest of innkeeper Dottie Blaine, the woman who comforted Charlie Macauley, tells a long story after spotting a random playbill, eight years old, about an actress named Annie Appleby who was the paramour of a friend. The guest, Shelly Small, describes Annie as being very significant to her. “I think about Annie a lot,” she says. but has lost touch with her.
Snow-Blind begins, “Back then, the road they lived on was a dirt road and they lived at the end of it, about a mile from Route 4.” Please remember my thoughts last week about the narrator-entity of Anything Is Possible, as she/he is making another appearance. “This was in the north, in potato-country, and back when the Appleby children were small, the winters were icy and snow-filled…Weather was different then like a family member you couldn’t avoid.”
So, my friends, without warning, we the readers are sent back in time and place, apparently to Maine in an earlier time—1960s? Annie Appleby—whom we’ve already been introduced to as a grown-up through Shelly Small’s perspective—is a child who lives with her father Elgin, “a closed book of a man,” her mother, and a brother and two sisters. The family is poor and isolated by this poverty. The title, Snow-Blind, refers to a warning Annie’s teacher issued that one should not stare at the snow when the sun is shining because you could go blind. Annie’s grandmother says, “Then don’t look,” which is significant in a story about ignoring and denying destructive behavior.
In the course of the story, Annie grows up, discovering she has a talent for theater. She leaves home as a teenager and becomes a big success as an actress. She stays away from her family for years; they hear stories of her success. Eventually her eccentric father becomes not only demented but assaultive, and is confined in an institution. Annie finally returns home to her ageing mother and grown siblings. It’s revealed—although there were hints of it before—that Annie’s father has hidden a long-term sexual affair with another man, a situation he maintained throughout Annie’s childhood and his marriage.
It should be said that the story makes no negative judgment about being gay; the problem that is shown is more the level of deceit involved, the recklessness with which Annie’s father risked everything for his passion.
One of her sisters is still in denial about this: “…were it true they would have known. (she says) What Annie did not say was that there were many ways of not knowing things; her own experience over the years now spread like a piece of knitting in her lap with different colored yarns—some dark—all through it. In her thirties, Annie had loved men; her heart had often been broken. Currents of treachery and deceit seemed to run everywhere; the forms they took always surprised her.”
At the end: “Annie looked back at her siblings…They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil. Yet, oddly it was her father she felt she understood the best. And for a moment, Annie wondered at this, that her brother and sister, good, responsible, decent, fair-minded, had never known the passion that caused a person to risk everything they had…simply to be near the white dazzle of the sun that somehow for those moments seemed to leave the earth behind.” It’s worth it to risk snow-blinded-ness for transcendence. No?
So, the story draws a link between Annie and her father. In the course of the tale, Annie doesn’t so much as transform as she grows up and becomes someone very different than her brother and sisters. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story in that sense if one feels the need to label.
Long-time readers of this blog who have read Anything Is Possible are no doubt nodding in a self-satisfied way and thinking, Aha! A mise en abyme! Yes, best B. that’s exactly what we’ve got here. Snow-Blind is a reflection of the whole story. The parallels are that all the chapters, but explicitly Sister, tell a tale of Lucy Barton, who grew up in a poor and dysfunctional home and escaped to find success as a writer. And in Snow-Blind, Annie Appleby does the same, escaping a dysfunctional home to find success. In each story, those left behind envy and resent Lucy and Annie. What’s different is Snow-Blind’s time structure which begins in the remote past and moves forward, and that the protagonist. Annie, really does seem to escape and find a better life; Lucy Barton, despite being idealized by the townsfolk, seems more troubled.
For Annie, as is true for many of the characters in the book, Abel Blaine’s pronouncement at the end is most fitting. “Anything is possible for anyone,” that is, one’s troubles don’t have to be a life sentence. It is possible to change for the better.
A good message.
Till next time.