Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Son’s Burden”

This 113-page novella is the centerpiece of Caponegro’s book of stories. As in the first stories (articles here, here and here), it again presents a family, but a family fragmented by misconceptions and hatred. After a prelude, most of the work takes place on New Year’s Eve and gives off the air of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The story is narrated by the son, Thomas Edward Smalldridge, a toiling inventor. His father is a bullying railroad worker who has long tormented his son and daughter (Eleanor) by making them learn and recite obscure facts about inventors, inventor’s birth dates, their patents and patent dates. At some point early on the father’s harpist wife went to live in the attic of the house, never coming down to the family except for New Year’s–the day when Thomas is to reveal his new invention. But Thomas’s inventions never satisfy his father because they aren’t practical enough and he, along with Eleanor, seemingly insult him every chance they get. Thomas, meanwhile, has an attachment to his mother–he grieves her and her harp, which she held against her womb and played when he was inside her, as well as when she breastfed him. On this night as well, Thomas has brought Cecilia, his finance, to meet the family and will ask his father to give him money to buy a wedding ring–a request denied. Thomas introduces the characters and story this way in the fourth paragraph:
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Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Father’s Blessing”

“The Father’s Blessing” is the longest story in The Complexities of Intimacy so far, and it’s a major comedic turn, albeit a dark one. Whereas the first two stories are told from the point of view of a daughter and a mother, respectively, the third (told from the perspective of a priest, an unreliable narrator who wreaks all kinds of psychological mayhem) might be considered a kind of fracturing of the nuclear family, one of the collection’s primary themes, if not a theme, generally, in Caponegro’s work. Caponegro was wise to change it from its original title: “The Priest’s Tale.” This might be a stretch, but his name, Faraday, suggests “faraway” to my eyes and ears, and it also suggests that he’s “far from a day,” that is, the current time in which the story is set, his sometimes rather stiff language and antiquated ideas underscoring his temporal displacement. Being “far from a day” also suggests that he may be closer to night, that is, darker things, making him more menacing than he might at first appear. Speaking of displacement, I was surprised upon reading about the Polaroid photograph (51), since I had been thinking that the story was set in much earlier times, particularly because of the priest’s description of how “The road to the rectory is seldom plowed in winter, and in spring the potholes impede smooth travel. When it rains, the roads turn almost instantly to clay, so that only in a skilled driver’s hands and at high speeds can they be traversed successfully” (44). These things, of course, can be true, even now, but this description, in tandem with the priest’s old-fashioned rhetoric transported me back in time.

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Reading Caponegro: “The Mother’s Mirror”

The more I delve into Caponegro’s art, the more I see an anthropologist at work–a Joycean scientist who curls bright, unexpected words (like “obnubilating”) around common and uncommon questions of heritage, soul and civilization. Anthropologist but also philosopher–a Plato with the vocabulary of Keats. Consider this sentence of “The Mother’s Mirror,” a story of a family, but more an investigation into how the family keeps itself apart (written in first person plural, an incredibly apt tense for Caponegro’s investigation):

Perhaps we keep our disappointment to ourself or perhaps we voice it, and once articulated, it is all too seductive to make a ritual of the words, as if they were beads of a rosary and we gathered by each repetition indulgences instead of alienation. (32)

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Reading Caponegro: “The Daughter’s Lamentation”

Lamentation in Art: Giotto's "Lamentation over Jesus" 1305-6

The first story in Mary Caponegro’s book we are reading for February is “The Daughter’s Lamentation.” Caponegro follows the word to its root, as this “story” is more lamentation; that is a song, poem or piece of music that laments–expresses grief or regret.

The daughter, unnamed, is a women who has returned to her family house on the largest of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. She is the only “loyal sibling” to her father, a widower and architect of some renown. The woman spends a good part of the story recounting her childhood: her sad and weary mother, as well as the pedantic father who took the family all over the world to look at architectural wonders, including Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. Early on she says, “It is customary, is it not, in times of loss or instability, to cultivate an intimacy with memories?” (12)  But there is a tint she cannot take from these memories and  Caponegro subtly builds a menace into the story. Throughout she also recollects her early history as a ballerina and soon images from that past pop up: “…one is always leaping up from or into the arms of a man who sex is trapped in a stocking, like the squeezed face of a thief.” (15) Something else is going on as the story seesaws between paragraphs about the now quiet and decaying house on the lake the father built (and his loneliness in old age as he roosts there) and a childhood with a man part bully and part something much more terrifying.

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February’s Big Other Book Club – Mary Caponegro

This month we will be reading The Complexities of Intimacy by Mary Caponegro. It’s a book of 4 short stories and a novella. I will be posting on each story. Let’s try to do the first three short stories in the next ten days. The 120-page novella we can examine in the second half of this month. A wonderful resource is her Bookworm interview about this book.

Announcing the Book Club Schedule!

The votes are in, and the winner of the poll for the first book to be discussed in the Big Other Book Club is Tom McCarthy’s C.  Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hailed by many and knocked by maybe even more, McCarthy describes the book as dealing with technology and mourning.  I’m excited to have, as our first book for discussion, a contest finalist that’s merit has been argued.  All the more fuel for our discussion. I’ll start reading quite soon, and begin posting questions, comments and death threats in January.

In the  mean time, here’s the rest of the schedule for 2011:

January: Tom McCarthy C

February: Mary Caponegro The Complexities of Intimacy

March: Manuel Puig Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

April: Stanley Elkin Searches and Seizures: 3 Novellas

May: Djuna Barnes Nightwood

June: Lyn Hejinian My Life

July: John Barth The Sotweed Factor

August: Gordon Lish Peru

September: John Gardner and John Maier translation of Gilgamesh

October: John Hawkes Travesty

November: Helen Vendler Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries

December: Mo Yan Big Breasts and Wide Hips