Feasting on "Yes"

The House on Eccles Road

Judith Kitchen.
Graywolf Press, 2002.
221 Pages.
ISBN 1-55597-368-X; Hardcover $22.00 [
Browse/Purchase]

Two Reviews – A prose review by Bob Williams, and a review in verse by poet Suzanne Nixon


Review by Bob Williams

Physically this is a handsome book with well-executed binding, elegant proportions and refreshingly different but readable typography. The story concerns Leo and Molly Bluhm and the day is June 16, 1999 in Dublin, Ohio. It is their wedding anniversary, which Leo has forgotten. It is a second marriage for both of them. Leo has a daughter, Marcie, by his first marriage. Leo, a teacher, is prone to be the patron of young students with special needs. His protégé of the moment is a young man named Steve. The initial letter of the first chapter – there are eighteen chapters – is an ‘S.’
The ‘S,’ the number of chapters, the names Leo, Molly and Steve (Stephen) and the date conjure up the classic book by James Joyce but this is a skewed version of Ulysses, told in a breathless fashion with major and minor resemblances weaving in and out of the narrative. It is a clever but daring idea. Sequels and updated versions are a literary subgenre more admired generally for audacity than quality. The less the literary value of the original book the more successful is the sequel likely to be. The attempt to deal in this manner with one of the greatest novels in the language argues courage of awesome proportions.
Leo and Molly had a son but the son, Arjay (Rudolph Joseph), died when he was three. She thinks of this sadly as she passes her pregnant neighbor, Jackie, on her way to shop. A friend who works as a checkout clerk invites her to audition for a musical. Molly has not sung since the death of her son but the clerk doesn’t know this and Molly, in a life-affirming move, agrees to audition. When she returns to her house the phone is ringing. She hopes that it is Leo, suddenly aware of their anniversary. But it is an old friend, Ted Boyle, a past director anxious to have her back singing and anxious to entice her into his bed. Her relations with Leo have not been meaningful since the death of Arjay.
In the way that she prepares for the evening regardless of whether Leo remembers their anniversary or not and in the far-flung reach of her reflections as well as in her pleasure at hearing from an old friend, Kitchen’s Molly does not resemble Joyce’s Molly as much as she resembles Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And there is another difference. Narrative flows through other minds than Molly’s. If Molly agrees to stay with Jackie’s children while Jackie goes off to have her third child, we are allowed to learn what Jackie thinks of Molly and later we find out what Jackie’s husband Bob thinks of Molly as well as what he thinks of his own parents and siblings. This is a narrative generosity very different from that practiced by Joyce. It is possibly reasonable to chuck Ulysses out the window and attend to Kitchen who at least early in the book seems sufficiently in command and interesting in her own right. Her story speeds through her book, however strongly it may sometimes be pulled by the magnet of Joyce. I suggest that, just as Joyce needed Homer and Hamlet to help his story, Kitchen needed Joyce to help her through hers.
Molly is anxious about her meeting with Ted Boyle again after eight years and she decides to use the remainder of the afternoon to see him again, to get it over with. She has tried to find Leo but like Leopold Bloom (or, for that matter, Odysseus) he is not to be found and he seems able to stay from home and Molly indefinitely. Several times Marcie has called and each time has put Molly’s patience to the test by her cold, peremptory manner. Molly is certainly correct about Marcie. Joyce’s Molly was not right about Milly. Similarities and differences.
Molly, on her way to Boylan – excuse me, Boyle – is caught in a traffic jam caused by a disaster involving deaths, injuries and many wrecked vehicles. It makes it too late for her appointment and there is something minatory in the accident for Molly. In this world, in this novel, Molly and her lover will apparently not come together.
Not that Molly lacks reason to betray Leo who is unconscionably and culpably careless and inconsiderate. In this regard there is, of course, no resemblance between Leo and Leopold. Molly and Leo almost meet at the hospital where Jackie has her baby and this is the section that corresponds to the Sacred Oxen chapter of Ulysses with Jackie in the role of Mina Purefoy. Molly, at last in revolt from Leo’s carelessness, goes to Boyle’s apartment. The form of the chapter is that of the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses. The couple goes to the restaurant that Molly had chosen for herself and Leo. Nothing happens between them. Molly performs for the audience and her singing releases her from dissatisfactions with Leo and her amorous inclinations to Boyle, a hardly credible replacement of Joyce’s Blazes Boylan, “the worst man in Dublin.” On her way home she inadvertently becomes temporarily lost and the scene is in a gestural manner like the Circe section of Ulysses. In the meantime Leo has learned that this is their anniversary. A bouquet of flowers from her brother tells him this.
The lovely and moving surprise of the ending is a tribute to Joyce, as indeed is the whole book. There are playful similarities, inversions that are brilliant improvisations on a theme. But the real point is that this is a first novel and it has merits of its own of startling originality. One must look forward to future novels after such a distinguished beginning.

--Bob Williams
21 March 2003

Review by Suzanne Nixon

Feasting on “Yes”

spring is upon us
time of resurrection and transformation
season of return to the exuberant expression
of earth’s artistry
and I have just finished the feast
from Judith Kitchen’s
The House on Eccles Road

Though knowledge of Ulysses
(Homer’s or James Joyce’s)
adds spice to the read
neither is necessary to the enjoyment
and understanding of this beautifully wrought Tale
of the protagonistic Molly and her day.

Singing a plainsong
subtly constructed of simpleword
about mundane activity
Judith Kitchen offers us
the richness inside the mind
of stay-at-home Penelopollean Molly
over the course of a day
when she recovers her voice
and her freedom
from the labyrinth of constraining sorrow:
the death of her son
and the cold discomforts of her marriage
to the Ulyssean Leo,
who has dealt with the event by affectively wandering
away from her and his own feelings.

The satisfactions of this Tale
come less from the exegetical cleverness
of finding the parallels between it
and Joyce’s rendering
and more from allowing the self
to be swept along in the stream of consciousness
of Mollymind;
and all the tributaries of consciousness
that flow in the minds of the other characters.

Kitchen achieves a masterful blending
of these streams into the river of her story
as we are taken in the flow
from Molly’s solitary thoughts
into those of the other characters in the book:
into her spouse Leo’s; who has drifted from her
into the next door woman’s; who is about to give birth;
into Leo’s daughter’s; his first marriage child, resentful and unempathic;
into the shopclerk’s; who provides the auditional key
by which Molly finds her capacity to sing again;
into the director’s; in whose productions and heart Molly sang
before tragedy silenced her singing,
and with whom there is the possibility of love
reborn.

Time and again we find ourselves
being moved from the stream of Molly’s thoughts
into the connected mindstreams of these others
as Molly interacts with them or thinks about them;
the weave of this fabric seamless
as one might expect from the hands of
a Penelope who weaves by day
and unravels by night
to save herself.

The distinction
between woman mind
and man mind
as exemplified by Kitchen’s telling
and Joyce’s is striking.

(I make this statement on the basis of my perceptions
of the workings on my own mind in comparison
to a host of male writers whose works I have read:
whether Judith Kitchen’s mind or my own
are representative of the generalized “woman”
I frame no hypotheses;
wishing no close shave with Occam’s Razor)

I was prepared to love this book
before I opened the covers
having had musings of my own
on how Molly’s soliloquy
which completes Joyce’s Ulysses
would have truly been,
had it sprung from the mind of a woman
rather than the Joycean man.

And all the important differences
resound in Kitchens singing of the tale.
The spices that season the details
of Mollys day in this book
(more thyme sage and rosemary)
contrast sharply with the salt and pepper
of Bloom's day in Joyces

Kitchen’s tale is internal;
Joyce’s tale of Bloom and Stephen
is of men out and about in the man’s world ,
where even their inside is out

Kitchen’s Molly is out and about
in the domestic mundanities
of a “woman’s world”
the constitution of her freedom
written in the expression of her emotions

Kitchen’s Dublin is small town America;
not the populous Dublin of Joyce’s Ireland.

Nature rather than “civilization” are emphasized;
her Molly’s world as sensuous as it is cerebral:
from her memories of her family’s survival
and endurance of tragedy in the form of a flood
to how the perfection of vegetables in the market.
caresses her senses.

The death of their son
leads to Molly’s loss of her song
her artistry her creativity silenced
as she is carried by the currents of grief’s flood;
as she learns to swim in the midst of its insistent roil.

It is not by chance, I’ll wager,
that the name change of Eccles Road
is to Larch Street-----
the larch tree symbolic of immortality and
an icon on funerary association.

Leo’s silence in Kitchen’s book
is the silence of compartmentalization and avoidance
not submergence into the flood.

For all the muting of this Molly’s voice
inundated by grief
she does not drown:
though this is the interpretation
her husband has made
in his speculations on her silence.

His misinterpretation and avoidance
lead to the yawning affective gap in their marriage.

His denial leads him outward and away from intimacy.
apparent in his backing of losers in the academic race;
as presented through all of the missed messages
between Molly and Leo on this day;
the anniversary of their marriage,
which he has also forgotten.

Molly has her day.
From the opening moments of the book
she and we with her, understand today
will be an awakening;
as events unfold that lead her
from one epiphanic moment to another;
to find her capacity
to be free to sing once more;
her creativity and passion reborn.

Whether the passion of the marriage
is to rise again or not,
Molly blooms.

The closing soliloquy of Leo
in bed his denial exerting itself
in all of his “no”s
is moving brilliant and exactly right.

***

My father, a voracious reader
refused to read novels written by women;
a fact about which he and I had fairly heated words
on numerous occasions.
I do not think he was unique in this attitude.
This is not a “woman’s book”
to be skipped over.
It is a demystification of the soul’s secrets
which does not take the mystery away.

I urge readers men and women
to read this book;
and in the process take its moving lesson
to heart.

And to Ms. Kitchen
I offer a spirit felt
“Thank You”
for her artistic vision
and the privilege of her insightful read.

--Suzanne Nixon
21 March 2003

Additional Information

Graywolf Press Page -- The homepage for the publisher of The House on Eccles Road.

Contact

Email Bob Williams at: prospero@gmtel.net

Email Suzanne Nixon at: suzannasirenic@earthlink.net

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.