Friday, January 8, 2016

Fiction | A Poet in Crinolines

"'I must admit, dear Gloria, that you did fool me for a while. But the truth of the matter is that you have never been one of those girls—no matter how well you have learned to disguise yourself as one of them.'"

If you've asked me to name my favorite book anytime in the past decade, my answer has been easy: Keith Maillard's Gloria. No one has ever heard of it, and no one has ever heard of its author. I adored this book the first time I read it, as a college sophomore, back in 2005. I loved it so much I read it again just a year and a half later during the summer before my senior year. Despite claiming it as my favorite book for the past decade, though, I honestly had no real recollection of its details beyond that the writing is, in fact, incredibly detailed—purposeful—and that Gloria is a wonder to uncover. Amid a recent reading funk (the one that keeps hitting around Thanksgiving when I can't decide what to read next—JUV or ADULT), I decided to pick it up again, as a "proper adult," to see if my perspective on Gloria's coming-of-age had changed.

In Maillard's story, Gloria Cotter is suffering that summer of ennui and uncertainty after college graduation. The year is 1957—and that's a tidbit that should immediately indicate Gloria is not your average young woman. [A woman college graduate? Unmarried? In 1957?] We quickly learn that Gloria is anything but ordinary, though that's exactly how she works ardently to appear to everyone around her.

Gloria is a product of high society, her father being the most senior vice-president of a major steel corporation in West Virginia. She's had the boarding school upbringing, the big fancy house, the country club membership, and the style and demeanor that instantly back up her economic status. On the inside, though, Gloria has always felt like an imposter. She's deeply poetic and highly intelligent. She's constantly reflecting on herself, her thoughts, and her actions, determining if she's acting as a "normal girl" would.

"Then she was aware, suddenly, of herself in this particular room, and aware with such an intensity it made her feel as though she must spend the greater part of her waking life sleepwalking: the way the light fell right now—the muted, green-tinted colors it created—and the calling of a bird, the sound of soft footsteps in the house, a hint of a breeze through the screened window tickling the hair on her arms; and the weight of her body flowing down through her hips into her legs and feet, the immediacy of the sensation of the thick nap of the rug felt through the slippiness of her nylons— The fear of death struck her. Oh, she thought, how could this elaborate, intricate, wonderful web of interconnections ever be extinguished?"

Above all, Gloria has an awareness—of herself, and people, and the world around her—that is complex and uncommon; she observes and understands the intricacies of identities and relationships. Her ability to read situations often comes as a surprise itself, leaving her overwhelmed by this knowledge or understanding that most cannot see or reach. She is an enigma—a young woman that has carefully crafted a personae to an audience—but she's an enigma to herself as well. She's uncertain of her own place and how expectations clash with her own interests and way of thought; she rejects the expectation of early marriage but lacks confidence in a life outside the norm.

I do still love this. But I definitely read it as much darker this time. There's a raw, sexual undercurrent that runs through Gloria's world and asserts itself as power struggles and personal crises. Gloria is a young woman in an era that is on the cusp of change for women, and Maillard writes to those conflicts, both on society in general but specifically her upper-class country club upbringing.

Gloria is an intellect, and large sections of the text delve into academic discourse on authors and poets. The narrative itself is told in a rather confusing order, as this unsettled summer has Gloria reflecting on past experiences and how they brought her to the present as she questions her uncertain future. Pages and pages are dedicated to a lengthy episode from the past, causing us to often lose track of our place in time and forget that this story we're hearing is, in fact, an anecdote, and that the present-time Gloria we have met is a product of all these occurrences. I say confusing, yes, because it should be, in theory. But it's actually brilliant and rather not confusing when you are enmeshed in the story; these are all pieces to Gloria's puzzle, and you so desperately want to know where her story leads.

At 630+ pages, this re-read was a heavier commitment than I expected. It's not a quick read, by any means. It is, however, a satisfying deeply multi-layered story of a girl who would seem, to a stranger, entirely ordinary but is, as you discover, anything but.

No comments: