Monday October 5th, 2009

Despair and Mercy


Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany
Scribner, 240 pp., $14.00

The collection of fiction I keep on file for teaching (i.e. dissecting) purposes is far from a collection of desert-island favorites; and the books I would most eagerly review for public consumption are those that strike me unevenly, with a healthy mix of strengths and flaws to approach with cerebral clarity. The books and stories that have changed me unequivocally (a poet friend describes this as being wrecked), on the other hand, sit quietly and deeply inside me, like secret treasure to which only I have the crumpled, ink-faded map. I don’t want to talk about them. I don’t want to describe why or how they’ve moved me, lest the spell be broken. I don’t even want to hear that you, too, treasure them (my delicate heart grows faint at the thought of my beloved’s polygamy).

So it is with trepidation that I attempt to substantiate a claim about a novel that has, until now, fallen into the category of the unspeakable, and that recently (apparently in a moment of temporary insanity) I publicly declared “the best book no one’s ever heard of.” To be clear, Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2006), the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian First Book Award. It was named Best Debut of the Year by the Sydney Morning Herald. Many readers around the globe have heard of it, but in the U.S. I’ve found it remains little known.

In 1934, the Better-Farming Train rolls through Depression-wracked wheat-farming towns of the Mallee — a hot and dry region in northwestern Victoria, Australia — bringing advice in the form of “lecturettes” on everything from child nutrition and cooking to animal husbandry to chicken sexing to soil improvement. An assemblage of eccentric experts staffs the train, including sewing instructor Jean Finnegan, a remote young woman orphaned at a young age by a mother who died giving birth to her and a father killed in battle; and Robert Pettergree, a soil expert raised as an only child in a brothel (two siblings died of spina bifida) who has the uncanny ability to identify a soil’s origin by its taste. Mary Maloney, Jean’s levelheaded confidante, teaches cooking. Sister Crock wags her matronly finger at anyone who dares cross her path on the topics of womanliness and mothering practices. Mr. Ohno, the world-famous, swallowtail-jacketed, Japanese chicken sexer, whom Jean finds oddly alluring and vice versa, prefers the company of his chickens to humans (with the exception of Jean). Mr. Platfuss heads up the dairy car, Mr. Baker knows his pigs. And Mr. Talbot, with his “long thin face and soulful eyes,” waxes ominous about the tissue diseases of sheep.

“Eccentric” may be euphemistic. These characters are strange, as is the essential tenor of this novel. One might expect from this ensemble a dark comedy of sorts, but Tiffany’s world is one in which the outcast’s experience of absurdity translates into passion and tragedy rather than irony or hilarity. The result is profoundly affecting.

Jean’s narration reminds me of the best reason to write in first person: to endow the reader with both the sensory and emotional experience of a character whose intimacy with the strange is disturbing and consoling at once. In her novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson created a similar sense of sad and knowing wonder through her narrator, Ruthie, and there is arguably a literary family resemblance between the two, as in this passage from Rules:

My mother died before my eyes had barely opened, and because of this people liked to touch me and give me things. Most weeks the teacher gave me something from her pocket — a hair slide, a picture of Baby Jesus all fat and white like a grub, or a piece of chocolate. A special low voice went with the giving and some patting of my arm or head. I thought that was like me and Abe the cat, so I tried to stay still . . . and look happy to be petted. [ . . . ]

Then we had to write an essay about duty, but because I was the youngest I was allowed to draw a picture. I drew the middle of Australia filled up with Baby Jesuses. Baby Jesuses covering all the paddocks of all the farms, Baby Jesuses top-to-toeing it across the desert, and one Baby Jesus high up on Ayers Rock with a smiling dingo for company.

Jean’s childhood memories — like the vision of her cat, Abe, walking across the broken keys of a piano (“he was four octaves long”) — echo throughout the story. One morning, Abe the cat goes missing; that afternoon, her father pulls Jean out of school.

He was all long and flat — all of him was there but none of him was there. His fur stood up rough and wouldn’t sit flat even when I stroked it. His mouth was open a little and the pale pink of his tongue made me gulp. Dad parted the fur on his one white leg to show me the puncture wound from the snake’s fangs — two holes an inch apart.

They dig a grave in the orchard (her father is a fruit grower) and Jean drops dandelions into the hole. Her father goes to get the apple box in which the cat lies, only to see it blink its eyes.

“Talk about nine lives,” he said. “Talk about nine bloody lives, eh?” . . . We trickled sugar water and milk down Abe’s throat. We massaged his limbs and bent them backwards and forwards as if he were walking. We breathed into his fetid mouth to expand his lungs. Dad carried him outside and laid him on the dirt. He felt around his tummy and squeezed different bits until some pee trickled out. He was limp. He didn’t even purr, but he was still alive in the morning.

Then one day [two months later] I walked up the hill and Abe was sitting on the gatepost washing himself as if he had never been sick. . . . He went to the orchard and the packing sheds and under the house. He went to the stables and fell asleep in the straw.

The ordeal is an emotional roller coaster. The cat is a motherless child’s only companion; the cat is dead; the cat is alive but paralyzed and a vegetable; the cat is healed! Then Jean’s father goes off to war, where he will die in combat, and Jean is sent to live with her aunt, who won’t allow the cat. We think, oh Lord, yet another heartbreak for Jean, but instead:

Anyway, the woken-up Abe was different. He didn’t play the piano anymore, he didn’t like to be picked up, he had gotten very thin and sometimes when I watched his sinewy back move it made me shudder. He hissed at Dad.

Suffering, death, resurrection. In Jean’s world, even a happy ending, the stuff of fairy tales, is an unhappy one, the stuff of adult disappointment. And hope will take its toll on Jean and everyone she comes to love.

Chief among her beloved is Robert Pettergree, the self-fashioned man of science who holds himself apart from the others. He and Jean study each other from a distance and then one day stumble into each other, literally, while working in the honeybee car:

I am sweating. Sweat slides from my face and throat and mixes with the honey. There is honey on my cheeks, my fingers, my dress, on the toes of my shoes. . . . My arms ache with the weight of the frames.

“It’s hot in here.”

I nod. . . . Then he takes off his shirt, pulling it over his head, the buttons still done up . . . It is so tender a thing to see — his face hidden in the cotton like a boy’s.

Clothing is removed swiftly and awkwardly, and then we get the first of several accounts of haunting sensual consummations between Jean and Robert. Eventually, they marry and settle on a farm in Wycheproof, in the arid Mallee, where Robert plans to revolutionize Australian agriculture by growing scientifically engineered wheat, with Jean as his industrious assistant. Robert’s faith in the scientific method is complete and, from the perspective of their colleagues, fanatical. In response to an article Robert has written, from which the novel takes its title, Platfuss says: “Rules like that are all right for a plant man. An animal man isn’t going to come up with concrete rules for living because there’s no point. With animals everything’s always changing . . . you can’t go living by rules when there’s a heart involved.” Says Mary Maloney: “Do you want to live with someone who thinks they know the answers, or spend your life trying to find them out together? Then there’s love – and there’s dancing. Now, have you ever seen him dance?”

No, Jean hasn’t seen him dance; but she’s seen him do other things. And throughout the novel, we witness with both awe and discomfort Robert and Jean’s rough and urgent lovemaking — anything but predictable or rule-abiding in the way it comes over them:

[A]fter lunch each day, when I sit facing Robert at the kitchen table, instead of familiarizing myself with the electric proving cabinet, something else happens. . . . I might be looking out the window, showing the side of my neck, some collarbone, when he places his hand heavily on my shoulder. The feeling, when it rises, is so intense, the need for each other so urgent, nothing is fast enough. The table is pushed out of the way, clothes shed, sometimes ripped, bodies held with force. Then we are coupling hurriedly wherever we might fall. In front of the pantry against the sink, even on the table, my hair in a puddle of lukewarm tea. On days when Robert is clearly tired from carting water and we have barely even talked, I always think it might not happen, but it is enough for me just to brush my hand against his wrist as I remove his plate. Then he stands abruptly and grips my waist.

Both survivors of forsaken, lonely childhoods, Robert and Jean’s sexual need for one another might be deemed “dysfunctional” in modern parlance, but in Tiffany’s world there is a wondrousness to their passion, a terrible beauty and a kind of truth.

In Wycheproof, a new cast of memorable characters surround the couple: the neighbors Bill and Elsie Ivers, Lola Noy Sprake and Wilma Sprake Noy, who traded surnames when they married; Iris and Doris Pfundt, Doris now Doris McKettering, married to Ern, who loves his motorcar and takes to Robert. Predictably, Jean feels out of place among the women — “I wonder what I am doing with these women whose lives seem to have neither science nor passion.”

Jean finds her own way as wife, lover and partner, and through her, Tiffany weaves — like the intricate embroidery that Jean always has at hand — a stirring portrait of complex womanhood. At a time when young women studied “domestic sciences,” including “Making Thrifty Contrivances,” “Rich Cake Mixtures” and “Household Mending,” and required a husband’s signature to obtain a library card, Jean’s remoteness and fierce sensuality, wrapped soundly in her devotion to her husband’s stern and sometimes feather-ruffling ambitions, set her apart. This sort of progressive heroine may not be so unusual as a literary trope, but Jean Finnegan is strikingly evolved relative even to today’s woman, who still has trouble figuring out how sensuality (body), work (intellect) and fidelity (soul) might be powerfully of a piece.

By 1937, the Depression is widespread, and Robert is called upon by the government to teach his formulas for soil improvement, as well as individualized sowing and fertilizing equations for each farm in the region. His time for greatness has arrived, and Robert soberly steps up to the challenge. Facing major crop failure, the farmers who have been suspicious of Robert’s agricultural science are at his mercy.

But then comes drought, followed by soil storms that bury the town in sand, and the subsequent drift that exposes the sickly land bare. Then a mouse plague. Crop failure smothers the region, ruining every farmer that Robert advised, friend and foe alike. Farms go under. Several are pillaged by a dishonest creditor. By 1940, the Pettergrees are swathed in loss: Jean’s pregnancy has ended in stillbirth, their friends the McKetterings have gone bankrupt and moved to an apartment in town, Australia has entered the war, and Jean learns — too late, because of Robert’s jealous control over the mail — that her old friend Mr. Ohno has been imprisoned in a work camp.

In the Depression’s wake, Robert is a humiliation, to himself most of all. His emotional unraveling is complete when he leaves Jean without discussion and enlists in the army — presumably a suicide mission. Before he goes, Robert’s self-loathing overtakes him as he accuses, “Your heart was always elsewhere.” Jean responds:

My heart? My heart? How can you talk about my heart? My heart has always been here for you. Everything was about love — can’t you see that? Every experiment, every sample, every hopeless loaf of bread, it was all about love, Robert. My love for you. And what did you give me? Rules. Useless rules. Where is the heart in your useless rules? The rules don’t mean anything. . . . They get in the way of the truth.

A novel full of such outbursts would be maudlin, but Tiffany chooses the moment carefully for this rare direct expression from Jean. Finally, she gives voice to what she’s shown throughout — that sex, love, science, domesticity, work, loyalty, passion, these things breathe as one fabric. And we understand better in this moment what Jean thought to herself earlier in the novel, when she decided to leave the Better-Farming Train to marry Robert:

I can’t say exactly what it is I want, but I know what I don’t want. I don’t want to teach something I haven’t lived. I don’t want to be always with women. I don’t want evenings in the common room playing bridge and crazy euchre. I don’t want to be like Sister Crock, spectating and directing life from the outer – I want a chance to feel it and taste it for myself.

And for Jean, this was enough – the living, the feeling, the tasting. Robert’s sights, on the other hand, were always set on something else: the self-redemption of accomplishment, of proving himself right — in the eyes of others, and in his own.

On the level of language, the novel offers myriad pleasures. Tiffany’s prose is spare, character history and action presented with admirable economy. A setting that will be foreign to most readers comes alive in specificity. Nabokov said that to be a writer, you have to know the names of trees, and here we have trees (sweet gum, peppercorn, mulga, greybox), five kinds of wheat (Ghurka, Rannee 4H, Baldmin, Bencubbin, Regalia), and the subtle contours – “it swerves and undulates . . . There are sharp rises in the middle of paddocks, hills around fence posts, steep mounds edging dams” – of a place that the uninitiated eye would consider despairingly flat. There is in fact nothing flat about Tiffany’s depressed Mallee – drenched or drought-stricken, piled high in sand or stripped with roots laid bare, the landscape’s wrenching battle with nature is as deep and wide as the emotional range of the plain young woman at the book’s center.

I confess to feeling a pit of failure in my stomach, a sense of having fallen short in conveying the startling strangeness and emotional scope of Everyman’s Rules. Even so, I give you this flawed map to secret treasure in order to humbly heed Robert Pettergree’s Rule No. 5: Disseminate.

Sonya Chung is the author of the novel Long for This World, forthcoming in March 2010. She teaches fiction writing at NYU, Rutgers University and Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and she is a regular contributor to the literary blog The Millions. Currently she is at work on her second novel.

Mentioned in this review:

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living