Monday, December 19, 2022

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. It also happened to be one I nominated. After a few years of having my choices barely miss out, I have had no fewer than three selected this year - presumably random variance. I nominated this one because I enjoyed Lauren Groff’s short story collection, Florida. Also, it was President Obama's favorite book of 2018, and his book lists are excellent. (Arguably our best read president - and certainly of the last 100 years.)


Fates and Furies is nothing like Florida, although there are some characteristics of the writing that are recognizable. I’ll do my best to explain what the book is like, but it isn’t easy to describe. 


Groff originally conceived of writing two books containing the same story, one from the man’s perspective, and one from the woman’s perspective. Her publisher convinced her that it would be better to combine both into one book, which is what she did. 


The first half of the book, entitled “Fates,” is from the point of view of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a man born into some wealth, but cut off by his mother after he marries Mathilde Yoder, a tall and striking woman without a cent to her name. She supports him while he tries to make a go of it as an actor. He fails at this, but manages to write a play, which Mathilde encourages him to market. He becomes a famous and successful playwright, while Mathilde retreats into being the perfect wife behind the scenes. 


The second half, entitled “Furies,” picks up after Lotto’s untimely death of the same aneurysm that killed his father. Told from Mathilde’s point of view, it upends much of what we thought we knew from the first half. The supposedly perfect marriage is not so perfect, but also Lotto has been completely clueless about a great many things, from the way his little sister supported them with her allowance, to all the strings Mathilde pulled behind the scenes to make him a success. 


Because of this format, reading only the first half of the book will make no sense. One will get an impression of Lotto as a bit of a narcissist, a lousy husband (although sexually faithful), and not a particularly likeable sort. Not a compelling book, if that were where it ended. But the revelations in the second half change everything. In a way, Lotto even becomes more likable despite his faults, because we understand more of the nuances of the relationship. 


Online reviews have hinted at the underlying mythology of the book. The title is no accident, of course. The Fates are the three goddesses who weave the stories of human lives, for good or ill, and they are so powerful that even Zeus himself cannot change their decrees. The Furies are goddesses who carry out the vengeance of the gods. For Lotto, his life is characterized by fate - he seems fated to success, no matter how much he bumbles. Mathilde, on the other hand, is, to a significant degree, a Fury. In the second half, we discover how she eventually wreaks vengeance on those who have wronged her, from the parents who abandoned her to Lotto’s friend Chollie, who betrayed her secrets to Lotto, perhaps hastening his death. 


But the central myth is, in my opinion, that of Jason and Medea. The book is not a retelling so much as it is a re-imagining. The events are not the same, the sequence of parallel incidents is not correlated, and there are a number of significant differences. 


However, I think the core of the myth is the core of the book. When we remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, it is easy to remember him as a great hero, the conqueror of his destiny, and a Great Man™. But what really happened?


Well, Jason meets Medea, who is the niece of Circe, and a sorceress in her own right. But, patriarchy being what it is, she gets to serve as the “helper-maiden” to the hero, then fade into the background once his success raises him to the pantheon. 


Nothing Jason did could have been done if Medea hadn’t given him the cheat codes. Nothing. His bones would still be bleaching in the desert. She did it all for him, and all he had to do was be “great” and succeed. 


And then, as Euripides tells it in his powerful drama, Medea, the great badass helper-maiden is relegated to wife and mother while Jason gets all the glory. And, as Great Men™ tend to do, he discards her as soon as she becomes inconvenient. Needing a political alliance, Jason decides to marry another woman, and disinherit his sons with Medea. She does not take this well, poisoning her rival, then killing her own children. She eventually finds other adventures, although she will always mourn the loss of Jason. He, on the other hand, never entirely recovers, and dies when the remains of the Argos crumble and land on his head - he is done in by the memories of his prior glory. 


While not an exact duplicate of the myth, the story of Lotto and Mathilde does largely parallel it. Lotto succeeds because of Mathilde, but she is increasingly relegated to the role of “wife.” (Instead of murdering her children, she gets an abortion and her tubes tied - before Lotto’s success, at a time when neither could afford a child.) Lotto, for his part, is so clueless that he takes Mathilde for granted, eventually letting loose at a conference with the kind of sexist tripe that is the core belief of the Cult of Domesticity: that women are not really creators of art, because they pour their creativity into making children instead. This in turn leads to a shattering of the relationship in a way that Lotto never quite understands - they never divorce, but it is also never the same as it was. 


So, that is at least an idea of the book. As with all of Groff’s books I have read, her writing is excellent, with often unexpected descriptions, savage parody, and a real skill at getting inside the heads of unpleasant characters. 


The book is rather sex drenched - it is one way of explaining why Lotto and Mathilde remain together. As the Eagles put it:


He was a hard-headed man

He was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty

She held him up, and he held her for ransom

In the heart of the cold, cold city

He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude

They said he was ruthless, they said he was crude

They had one thing in common

They were good in bed, she'd say

"Faster, faster, the lights are turning' red…


It also fits with the over-the-topness of the story. Groff is going for myth here, and the Greeks certainly wrote their heroes as demigods, not mere mortals. So don’t go into the book expecting true realism, or full plausibility. This is how a golden fleece and dragon’s teeth would be written in a post-supernatural world, perhaps. 


There are also a whole lot of other myth references in the book, and I suspect I didn’t find them all. For lovers of mythology, from the Greeks to the Norse and Arthurian legends, there will be plenty of easter eggs. (The fact that there are characters named Lancelot, Gawain, and Gwenevere is merely one of them.) 


I will also note again that the book works as a whole, not as mere parts. It is easy to get discouraged early on, because Lotto isn’t likable, and his early life seems to be a never-ending parade of privilege and fucking. But this is stage setting. The story has to unfold in a certain way to make sense. So stick with it, and the reward at the end will, in my own experience, be worth it. Your mileage of course may vary. 


As usual, there are a few bits that stood out as zingers. The first one comes during Lotto’s teen years, when acne ruins is perfect face, and he suffers from the usual lack of knowledge that comes with growing up without a father and with a mother who has buried herself in fundamentalist religion. When Lotto is offered the chance to have sex for the first time, he sneaks out - but is caught. And this unexpected line:


He had a bottle of WD-40 in his pocket. Lube, the boys at school had told him, was important.


That was a total ambush, something I was not expecting at all.


Fortunately, Lotto gets better at sex with experience. Ultimately, great sex becomes the foundation of the marriage. Here is an interesting passage that takes place at one of the annual dinner parties that Lotto and Mathilde host for their friends. 


“What’s it like?” Natalie said quietly. “Marriage, I mean.”

Lotto said, “A never-ending banquet, and you eat and eat and never get full.”

Mathilde said, “Kipling called it a very long conversation.” 


Both can be true - and often are in a good marriage. But the different responses are telling. As we find out as the story unfolds. 


The first part ends with a rather beautiful account of Lotto’s experience of dying, but right before that, Chollie takes what he sees as revenge on Mathilde for her taking Lotto away from him. He reveals that Mathilde was [gasp!] not the pure virgin he believed she was, but had an “arrangement” with a sugar daddy to pay her way through college. That Lotto finds this devastating would be amusing if it were not deadly serious to him and to the future of the relationship. Indeed, he dies soon afterward. 


Honestly, though, despite the crap that patriarchal sorts feed us, there is nothing magic about a virgin. (Which is why no one has actually seen a unicorn, right?) There is nothing special about the first time a woman has sex - it can be special, but only when the partners make it special. This is actually a positive thing. The sex I had most recently with my wife is every bit as special as that on our wedding night. And, to be honest, we both are a bit better at it than we were then. All of it has been special, from the first to the last. Even the “we are both too tired from small babies to care that much, but we are also horny and need some release and reward for all the literal shit we dealt with today” sex. It ultimately would not matter to me whether I was the first. What matters is “does she actually love me now?” 


Lotto, on the other hand, is a prick, so he freaks out. Later, in the death sequence, he has a vision of his parents, and his now dead mother finally accepts Mathilde, and gives Lotto a bit of a rebuke. 


“Huge thing’s your ego. Awful that you weren’t the only man for her. Girl scrubs your toilets for twenty-three years, you begrudge her the life she had when you weren’t around.”

“But she lied,” he said.

“Please. Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste. She never lied. Just never said.” 


And this is true. And, to a large degree, the lies are true too. The lies we tell our spouses in this sense represent the deeper truth, and are more true than the passing thoughts that would crush our partners. 


After the catastrophe of Lotto’s death, Mathilde goes into a bit of a spiral for a while. The thing is, even as she was deeply hurt by Lotto’s insensitivity and chauvinism, she still loved him. It is, shall we say, complicated. I think this is what eventually made me realize which myth this was. Medea’s fury is driven by her love for Jason and her pain at her abandonment. Mathilde has her own epiphany, which gives her knowledge, but can never ease the pain. 


That was when she knew, with existential bitterness, that her husband had understood nothing of her. Somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. 


The second half contains a lot of flashbacks to Mathilde’s earlier life, interspersed with the events after Lotto’s death. One interesting line comes when she decides to go ahead and become Ariel’s mistress - a purely business arrangement, as he insists, and so it remains for her. She remembers her brief unpleasant life with her grandmother, who had three men as lovers. 


Mathilde had listened from her closet and thought: Never. Never for me. I’d die first.

Never’s a liar. 


Particularly harrowing for me were the passages where it becomes clear what Lotto’s mother has done. She offered to throw a million dollars at Mathilde to go away and let her son marry someone “acceptable.” Which, in this context, probably meant “fundamentalist” and meek and mild. Mathilde refuses the offer, and determines to make sure she never sees her son again. And keeps that promise. The story is, as with everything, a bit over the top. But there is a core of truth, and a lot of resonance with my own experience. My mother never liked my wife, and eventually drove her away from the family, which has had profound consequences. It is the biggest elephant in my life, and one that my parents have not, and likely will never acknowledge, let alone try to repair. Like Lotto, I hoped for many years that things would be better. But I think my wife knew, like Mathilde, that they never would be. Because there is no possible compromise in this situation. One side or the other “wins.” 


So transparent, her husband, how he believed that if only he could show his mother how right his choice was to marry Mathilde, everything would be all right. 


Yep, that was me, naively thinking that if my mom could only see what a wonderful person my wife was, and how perfect she was for me, that things would be all right. It took a decade and a half to understand that the good things about my wife were precisely what was hated. And also that there never could have been any woman I could marry who would have been accepted. 


I also have to quote a line that is unforgettable. 


It occurred to her then that life was conical in shape, the past broadening beyond the sharp point of the lived moment. The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloon slowly blown up. A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges.  


This ties in with the central trauma in Mathilde’s life. As a four year old, she had let her infant brother - just learning to walk - out of his room, and he proceeded to tumble down the stairs, a fall which killed him. Her memory is muddled as to exactly what happened, but she was so young, she could not have been morally responsible. 


All that remained were the facts. Before it all happened, she had been so beloved. Afterward, love had been withdrawn. And she had pushed or she hadn’t; the result was all the same. There had been no forgiveness for her. But she’d been so very young. And how was it possible, how could parents do this, how could she not have been forgiven? 


This comes near the end, as a series of twists of the knife. Including the ending of the book, which is, well, I can’t even explain it. One early scene in the book is the moment when Lotto and Mathilde have their moment. She, coming to the end of her contract with Ariel, meets Lotto at a party. He is stunned, and asks her to marry him right there. The memories differ between Lotto, Mathilde, and others. Did she say yes? No? Or Sure? (That was literally the way one older groom at a wedding I played at responded to “do you take this woman?”) In looking back, did she marry him for his money? (Which he never got until just before his death.) Or for love? Or for escape from being unloved all her life? Or all of the above in a complicated way that only got more complicated in the twenty-three years of their marriage? In any case, she is left with regret that she protected her heart more than she should have, at the expense of true intimacy. 


He offered not only his whole laughing self, the past that built him and the warm beating body that moved her with its beauty and the future she felt compressed and waiting, but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With the gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision. 

She wished she’d been the kind Mathilde, the good one. His idea of her. She would have looked smiling down at him; she would have heard beyond Marry me to the world that spun behind the words. There would have been no pause, no hesitation. She would have laughed, touched his face for the first time. Felt his warmth in the palm of her hand. Yes, she would have said. Sure.


This reflects Medea, of course. And, ultimately, the problem of regret at a relationship that fails at some level. Mathilde isn’t entirely in the right here - had she given fully of herself, it may never have led to Lotto appreciating her. Her regret is thus more that she was unable to truly appreciate what she did have with him. In the context of the myth, this is the regret that Euripides highlights, just as he highlights how serious Jason’s betrayal was - rather progressive thinking for 2500 years ago in a deeply patriarchal society. Groff’s re-imagining preserves the best of the emotional landscape of the old myth, but brings it into a modern era of a more equal society, and one in which the supernatural isn’t assumed to be behind everything. But also an era in which love remains complicated, relationships not guaranteed, and one in which the fates and furies still embody the forces of time and chance. 


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