Monday, November 5, 2007

Andrea Barrett Visits

Andrea Barrett visited the Institute last week. Langdon Brown, Institute Fellow, delivered a fine introduction for her, and she then went on to give a powerful reading from her new novel, "The Air We Breathe."

Here's Langdon Brown's introduction:

It’s a pleasure to welcome back to the Writers Institute tonight’s guest Andrea Barrett, a writer who involves us like no other in the joy of discovering the world around us. She is a remarkable weaver of tales that treat readers to imaginative journeys through our natural universe in the company of vivid characters whose thirst for understanding about that universe and the mysteries of their own emotional lives leaves us quite dazzled by the complex implications of each moment of every human life. Critics have long celebrated her special gift for connecting the passion for scientific discovery with the more familiar literary preoccupation of romantic passion, but this idea can only be the start of appreciating the craft and skill that defines a writer who celebrates humanity’s passions in so comprehensive a fashion as to approach exegesis. In reading her we become alert to possibilities we were unaware of, to connections between people and the natural processes of the world around them, to the mysteries of people’s connection to their families, to those they love and to those with whom they compete and toil. This is nowhere more evident, it seems to me, than in her elegant depiction of relationships carried on despite barriers of time and space and the mystifying threads that bind two beings separated as, for example, Max and Clara in Servants of the Map. The paradox of the quest for self and its relationship to the quest for love cannot be depicted with more transparency or more shattering honesty than it is in this writer’s hands.

Critics, in attempting to describe her work, repeat words like engrossing, stylish, detailed, uncanny, intelligent, devastating, provocative and stunning. I would return to words like affinity and wholeness though to attempt to touch the special nature of this work for me as a reader. Just as her stories and novels connect one to the other through shared characters and heritage, the writing allows us to sense affinities between separated eras, disparate ideas, natural phenomena, world political movements and brings us back always to the bond between individual humans, a bond indelibly etched by her writing in the unforgettable interactions and conversations between her characters. The reader’s experience of these characters and their lives is enriched by the skillful manipulation of point of view including in her latest work one of the most democratic narrative strategies I can think of. This technique gives the reader the gift of receiving information the way the characters do, or in a sense, the way we do in life, not simply or reliably or from a single source. I imagine that this reading experience must recall something like that enjoyed by the first readers of Ibsen, who accomplished something similar in dramatic writing. In fact, I find that when I recall an earlier work like Ship Fever, for instance, I find myself remembering it more in the shape and form of real events than I do those from literature.

In the obligatory preemptive eulogy required of introducers I note with admiration that critics and award dispensers have been generous and wise in recognizing Andrea Barrett’s work. She received the National Book Award for her 1992 collection of short stories titled Ship Fever. Her 2002 Servants of the Map was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and its title novella was anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards volume. She received a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a 2003 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library.

In her new book, The Air We Breathe, we are transported to a richly imagined version of our very own Adirondacks, specifically Saranac Lake reborn and fictionalized as Tamarack Lake, where tuberculosis patients counter the boredom of their rest cures with gossip and a weekly discussion group promoting the intrigue and betrayal leading to the story’s central catastrophe. Hanging over the characters are the threatening events surrounding the First World War and the United States’ involvement in that conflict. When these events reawaken and encourage dangerous attitudes toward ethnicity and immigrants, the larger world crashes in on the small community and changes it and its inhabitants forever. In this as in other work Ms. Barrett stimulates thoughtful reflection on troubling and very current issues without moralizing or sentimentalizing. Her transparent prose and deft handling of character and incident permit an oddly serene contemplation of the most disturbing and turbulent events while permitting, or perhaps insisting, on our reflection on our own world and the cyclical catastrophes we visit upon ourselves without mercy. In this work as in earlier writing she engages and synthesizes lyric, epic and dramatic modes in a compelling story-telling form that allows us access to profound and private levels of mental experience. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in her shattering depiction of the human compulsion to gossip, the damage wreaked by such behavior and the strangely serene manner in which we move on from the havoc thus wreaked. One phenomenon among the many tonight’s guest subjects to her wise and thoughtful pen. Please welcome back to the Writers Institute Andrea Barrett.

Langdon Brown
November 1, 2007