The Ordinary Line

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In a review-essay on her novel Prosperous Friends and, beyond that, Christine Schutt as a writer and prose stylist, the writer David Winters classes her as “one of the finest stylists alive.” I agree, without hesitation. Schutt is the rare writer whose next move, on a line-by-line basis, stands a real chance of surprising me as a reader. It’s worth noting that those surprises vary from pleasurable to unsettling. That she possesses the capacity to provoke such reactions seemingly at will is reason to marvel and places her in the company of, for me, writers like James Salter, Michael Ondaatje, Alexander Maksik and Andrew Holleran. That’s an incomplete list to be sure, but it’s indicative of the sensibility Schutt presents.

By the end of Prosperous Friends, though, I had begun to respond less to the lyricism Schutt employs, worthy thought it is, than her unerring sense of when to opt for basic phrasing, the ordinary line. Maksik’s work in A Marker to Measure Drift showed a sustained willingness to subvert his lyrical impulse in the service of the narrative. Salter has spoken in recent years about an urge to curb his own tendencies in that direction, because he feared readers were too focused on the line’s he’s known for, rather than the narrative as a whole. Schutt has found the delicate balance between the lyrical and the nondescript. She delivers runs of evocative description and sharp character insights, but there’s always an anchor to hand. So, we get plenty of passages like this:

To walk from one house to the other was not to be undertaken lightly: In the plaid field, thorns scored the body and stung; nothing drooped but stood up in the heat – and today, huzzah! The out-of-doors roughly washed, not yet dry but  cooler, cleaner, like walking through sheets on a clothesline.

But we also get the matter-of-fact, as in the passage below, which I stopped and read fully half a dozen times to understand its full range of implications. It’s a chancy turn on Schutt’s part, but she brings it off so deftly:

“What are you making?” he asked.

“A modest scarf?”

“In brooding colors,” Dinah said and she touched his arm, and he put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. “Dinah,” he said because he liked to say her name.

I read it again and still it loses nothing. A formidable writer, Ms. Schutt. It grieves me to realize there are only four other books in her name at this point.

— John McIntyre

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