Jane Bowles

Of Potatoes and Alligators

In Jane Bowles’ story “Plain Pleasures,” published the year I was born, 1966, we meet Alva Perry, “a dignified and reserved woman of Scotch and Spanish descent in her early forties,” who is “still handsome, although her cheeks were too thin.” Alva is widowed and lives alone in a tenement, in the basement of which lives John Drake, “an equally reserved person.” One day Alva runs into John, not coincidentally it seems, and the two of them end up sharing a deliciously dreary “potato bake” in the back yard, the quintessential “plain pleasure” of the title. 

Jane Bowles (drawing by CS, sourced from photograph at www.denniscooperblog.com)

John Drake’s faltering attempts at conversation are swept away by Alva Perry, whose long monologue touches on her sister, Dorothy Alvarez, an extrovert, whose invitation to “go and raise the dickens with her” Alva refuses, stating “It’s always better to stay alongside of your life,” by which she presumably means, engage in plain pleasures with men such as John Drake. John Drake’s own monologue (there is no real conversation) touches on his decision to turn down an opportunity to run an alligator farm in Florida, a decision which has left him “woeful.”

Eventually Alva goes out to eat with John Drake, who offers her “Nothing dishonorable … on the contrary, something extremely honorable if you will accept.” Alva Perry does not. Instead, rather inebriated, she winks at the lecherous restaurant proprietor and goes upstairs to one of his bedrooms, where she falls into bed, ecstatic to be alone. 

At this point, as the rain teems down outside an open window, we become privy to the inner complexity of Alva Perry. “I have kept the pathway open all my life,” she mutters to herself, thinking fondly of her own bedroom, “.. so that I could get back.” Weeping, she imagines herself back there,”an expression of malevolent triumph” transforming her face as she finally falls asleep. 

What is the triumph, and from whose perspective is it malevolent? Bowles is engaging here in a kind of observational Cubism–we are viewing Alva both from outside and in, simultaneously. Alva wants intimacy, but not at the price of her own integrity–pleasure, nullified by plain-ness–and can only rest when both poles are held in relationship. The impossible situation of a woman whose desire for intactness conflicts with her urge to connect is subtly contrasted with the (perhaps) less torturous or loaded solitude of poor John Drake.

When Alva wakes, sobered, the next morning, she remembers her uncle passing out at a business convention, and comforts herself by considering this similarity. She’s relatively normal, after all. Isn’t she? This morning the restaurant is clean and empty, and her date long since gone, allowing her to indulge in some paradoxical sentiment: “John Drake, … my sweet John Drake.”

So far so quaint. But let’s back up a page: there is a faint suggestion, just as Alva heads upstairs, that the restaurant proprietor might be planning to take advantage of her while she is passed out, a suggestion never resolved. Bowles would never be so crude. Her stories trade less in events than perceptions; few of her characters, least of all Alma, are even conventionally likeable. Far from plain, despite its straightforward language, “Plain Pleasures” reveals a parallel world in which people try to talk yet no one understands, and in which apparently tragic events remain oddly comic. It’s a disturbing, absurdist little masterpiece.

One Serious Lady

I am not sure who you are, or how you found me. I am not sure where I am writing from, or when, this being a disembodied place, and the form neither an intimate letter nor a public performance. Perhaps it’s rather like broadcasting , speaking into the single ear of an imaginary listener while speaking through that listener to an unseen world. What I do know is that I’m here to write about reading, and writing, and the space literature makes for humans to hear, know and see a little of each other. 

The title of this blog comes from Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies, a “serious work of art” which is also droll, ludicrous, and tragic. Jane Bowles, in case you don’t know, was a misfit of her times who experienced struggles with language, both speech and writing, whilst also living a life of privilege and proximity to literary power centres. Her work could have ended up completely unknown were it not for her connections. White, wealthy and well educated, she was also Jewish, queer and disabled; she married fellow writer and composer Paul Bowles to whom she had a lifelong attachment. Seeking space to live more openly (Paul was also queer) they moved to North Africa, where Jane formed a deep erotic connection to a woman merchant with whom she shared almost no common language.

A genius at capturing the non-communicative power of speech and dialogue, she wrote plays and stories that existed on the edge of realism and surrealism–when she could. Mostly she was blocked. She drank and smoked to excess, and ultimately suffered a stroke which made speech difficult. Her position in the world was riven with contradiction and perhaps her triumph was to refuse to resolve any of it. Fortunately, her work was championed by important voices, and has undergone some revival, now that readers are perhaps better positioned to read it.

Her biography is certainly relevant, but it’s not the person as much as the work which I’m interested in here. Her stories gain their power from angular, aggressive juxtaposition: the placing of conflicting, jarring statements or details beside each other, such that a sentence begins one way and ends in another to the extent that it almost cancels itself out. Narratives are set up and proceed like realism, but the conventional cause and effect chain either isn’t there, or else deliberately undermines our expectations. In this way, Bowles launches an offensive against cliché, not just of character or plot but thought and emotion. Instead, Bowles makes no attempt to bend narrative into a shape which evokes moral epiphany or aesthetic satisfaction, such that the reader emerges from her fictional worlds with a sense of having witnessed something utterly true and complete.

My intent here, in this same spirit, is to respond seriously to books that have affected me, some of which may be well-known or well-regarded, all of which have touched, provoked and/or inhabited me for a while, in particular those which work against cliché. I’m particularly interested in amplifying works which have received less attention than they deserve. I also expect to veer off into other creative directions, including covering issues of interest related to my recent novel, The Causes, and other projects. Please tell me what you think, or if you have a title to suggest.