For me this collection divides along a line between story-driven episodes that unfold ideas & characters from a narrative, and pieces that dissolve these elements in a diffuse, intensely poetic, emotionally charged meandering. But perhaps I’m being overly convergent in seeing a line when I should detect a field of ambiguity and shade.
I often struggle with plotless writing but when I can feel a depth of glowing emotion as I can here I can appreciate. Hardwick conveys a moody, conflict-ridden yet implacable and transcendant love for New York City, partly (I’m not entirely sure how she achieves this shimmering web of effects) by piling images one atop the other in a profusion of witty contrasts. Another way she does it is by introducing vulnerable and unconventional personalities in a way that makes NYC seem like a sheltering haven where the fragile can survive
I think Hardwick is an analyst, but she manages to be remarkably gentle and unintrusive about it, never implying that misfortune or rejection is the result of some moral failure or innate deficiency. She grants everyone, however potentially pathetic, the generous sympathy of the tragedian. But of course, Hardwick is a feminist tragedian, not giving a pass to Macbeth by dragging his wife into the mud. I don’t mean that everyone she paints is an angel, but they are all feeling and struggling humans caught in currents and cross-currents.
I am sometimes exasperated with white malaise but Hardwick makes the floundering anguish of her characters both comic and pitiable, symptoms of the disease of civilization that the glowing embers of life force inside people are vainly trying to fight off. Besides, the prose is just about irresistible.
The final tale is my favourite; a black part-time maid has died, and the incident allows Hardwick to sketch New York’s racial contours, gently unpeeling the ignorance of liberal attitudes. As in the tale ‘The Purchase’, she also explores the shifting meanings of wealth and class in a supposedly classless society (this is the title of another tale), critiquing middle class greed in a way that indicts the social structure and treats characters humanly, without ever sliding into an author-voiced harangue.
The introduction by Darryl Pinckley is insightful and intriguing, lit by a warmth towards Hardwick that seems almost personal; a friendly appreciation rather than reverence. He gives us a critical and intellectual woman from the South in ecstasy in New York, a prose poet, a writer’s writer. Read her and fall in love.