The Point Breeze native has long been noted for his use of beautiful, unpretentious prose to document the lives of ordinary people dealing with losses such as deaths, divorce, disappearances, and — in the case of 2007’s highly acclaimed novella, “Last Night at the Lobster,” — downsizing. As a wunderkind of the early 1990s, he won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize right out of the gate for his first collection of stories, and soon earned a spot on the short list of best young American writers. Now 50 and back in the ‘Burgh, he wears his years well, displaying an impressive philosophical and stylistic maturity in his latest work. Indeed, nothing is more indicative of his talent and stature than the fact that his new novel, “Emily Alone,” survived the perils of publishing selection to see the light of day. In an industry overrun with deathless vampires and “Ageless” authors of dubious celebrity, O’Nan’s creation stands apart as a lovely, literary portrait of an aged woman in an aging city.
Emily Maxwell is a lucky lady. “All she ever wanted was a quiet, dignified life,” and she’s got it. At seventysomething, she lives with her faithful, flatulent dog, Rufus, in a comfortable home in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park, solving crossword puzzles, listening to Classical QED, and sharing regular outings and the occasional ironic observation with her sister-in-law, Arlene. Her life has been “happy, for the most part, her disappointments mild, common.” She has her wits, her garden, a pension, helpful neighbors and two distant, disappointing, but dutiful grown children with families of their own.
The Maxwells were first introduced to readers in the 2002 novel, “Wish You Were Here,” in which they prepared to give up their beloved but burdensome cottage at Lake Chautauqua, conducting a bittersweet ritual of last things. Now 10 years later, Emily, alone, braces for another kind of leave-taking, making memories and arranging her affairs as she approaches the end of her life.
And the end is coming, regardless of Emily’s high quality of life and the book’s benign tone. Death, in the form of an unspecified diagnosis, hovers patiently on the periphery of every narrative segment, periodically issuing discreet “ahems” in health scares and hidden dangers, and manifesting itself in the gradual, inexorable contraction of Emily’s existence. Economy, infirmity and inertia have conspired to limit her orbit to a round of activities in the East End, and the summertime sojourn at Chautauqua — the highlight of each year — has been reduced to one week in a rental. Her skin is wrinkling, her weight keeps dropping, and the fierce emotions that once drove her actions have mellowed from love and longing, rage and exultation to affection and concern, irritation and contentment.
But as her life shrinks, its details are magnified, revealing a full portion of wonder and mystery, albeit on a smaller scale. There are surprising revelations about longtime acquaintances on the obituary page, the unexplained appearance of a spray-painted arrow on her doorstep, and an extraordinary encounter with the frumpy woman next door:
One noisy night when she couldn’t sleep, she threw off her covers and padded into the bathroom to take some Bufferin and refill her water glass. The moon was bright, laying shadows over the plush bath mat by the sink, and as she looked out onto the yard, she noticed someone standing on the Coles’ back deck. The figure by the sliding door was pale and still. At first Emily thought it was a trick, her fears conjuring a burglar from the darkness. Then the figure moved, lifting its face to the sky, and she could see it was Marcia, and that she was naked, her skin reflecting the moonlight. It seemed to Emily that she was basking in it. There was something ceremonial and dreamlike about the scene, and Emily didn’t dare move.
However, unless one considers a trip across the icy backyard to fill the birdfeeder a dangerous adventure (which from Emily’s point of view it certainly is, “one misstep from disaster”), the book is utterly devoid of the kind of excitement to which readers of plot-driven fiction are accustomed: no sex, no violence, no crime, no yelling, no crying. Those conditioned to expect works featuring old people and dogs to result in the death of at least one of them may turn quite a few pages, carried along by the author’s beautiful language, before realizing that the principal action of the novel is simply the ebb and flow of life itself, recounted in Emily’s impressions and recollections. These thoughts, which constitute her interior life, fluctuate between the temporal and eternal as she slowly transitions from the here and now to the hereafter.
She reflected on the arbitrary, changeable nature of time, and how, at her age, she was almost free of it. The idea pleased her, as if she’d discovered something elemental. Springing ahead was an official admission that no clock could ever measure the rotation of the earth, or the earth around the sun, birth and death, the turning seasons, the thrust of new shoots. Though she couldn’t quite say why it was a comfort, floating in this unmapped, in-between state, she appreciated time being imaginary and malleable, as if, knowing its secret, she might loosen its hold on her. But in the morning, when she woke, it was still dark out and she was a full hour behind. She had to hurry to get ready for church and then was late picking up Arlene.
Fans of this genre will recognize in “Emily, Alone” the influence of both Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) and Evan S. Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge” (1959), two other great novels of the interior lives of middle-class matrons, to which O’Nan pays tribute in some of his book’s finest scenes. The opening sequence, for instance, in which Emily wends her way through streets “saturated with memory” to the Eat n’ Park breakfast buffet at Edgewood Town Center as the white-knuckled passenger in Arlene’s overheated, smoke-filled Taurus, is a variation of Clarissa Dalloway’s progress through Kensington to buy flowers on a bright summer morning, cleverly adapted to dun-colored Pittsburgh in the days before Thanksgiving. And the chapter titled “Resurrection,” in which Emily gingerly backs her late husband’s oversized Oldsmobile out of the narrow garage where it has been languishing, recalls the tension of India Bridge’s misadventure under similar circumstances.
But this novel is not “Mrs. Maxwell.” One of the advantages of Emily’s advanced age is that she is no longer defined in relation to her husband, children, grandchildren or parents. She is finally, and for the first time, simply herself. And because O’Nan possesses a rare talent for observing characters without judging them, she is spared the contempt that Woolf and Connell heaped on their bourgeois protagonists. Emily is neither to be scorned nor pitied, living what Woolf called “the real, unrecorded experience of women in solitude.” And in that solitude, without Mrs. Dalloway’s parties or Mrs. Bridge’s aimless shopping expeditions to distract her, she achieves a clarity that eluded her repressed and befuddled literary predecessors.
Emily doesn’t travel to a distant mountaintop to unravel the meaning of life, or even leave town. It reveals itself to her right here in Pittsburgh in a series of little epiphanies; at a flower show, an art exhibit, a jumble sale, her polling place, and literally in her own back yard, when a metaphor for memory is disclosed in dog doo:
The snow thawed, soaking the yard, dotted with Rufus’ handiwork, some from as far back as November. She scooped up one disintegrating pile at a time, surprised not just at the amount, but at the variety — chalk-white, brick-red, dark olive. He ate the same food every day. The different colors, she realized, must have come from his treats.
By virtue of the careful consideration of small things — by Emily and her readers — her life appears not so much diminished as distilled.
The same pattern of refinement applies to the author’s oeuvre. The love affairs, confrontations and crimes that appeared in O’Nan’s early works have, through the course of a dozen novels, moved off-center until now, in his thirteenth, they exist only in suggestion or in memory. Eliminating drama to enhance detail, he succeeds brilliantly in telling more by showing less. Talk about improving with age!
Mercifully, Emily’s story ends not with a death rattle, but a cheerful honk and a wave. Having “completed her errands,” she is “ready for her reward.” Back in the car once more (this time with Emily at the wheel), she and Arlene leave Pittsburgh, the city once described as “hell with the lid off,” for Chautauqua, her idea of heaven on earth. Although one accepted translation of the Seneca word “Chautauqua” is “place of easy death,” one believes that Emily will live on, for as she herself observes, “though everything faded, nothing was ever done.”