The Resolution Project Book Forty-Four: Housekeeping (1981)

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books / the resolution project

“Since my grandmother had a little income and owned her house outright. she always took some satisfaction in thinking ahead to the time when her simple private destiny would intersect with the great public processes of law and finance – that is, to the time of her death.” (p. 27)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

Housekeeping cover

The Elevator Pitch: Ruth and Lucille are two children sent to live with their surviving relatives in Fingerbone, Idaho after the suicide of their mother. They end up first with their grandmother and then eventually their aunt Sylvie in their grandmother’s home, which rests on the side of the lake that claimed their grandfather and mother’s lives. The house eventually starts to be reclaimed by nature somewhat, which justifiably angers Lucille who wants to live more conventionally. Ruth, the book’s narrator, tends to side with her aunt Sylvie in this debate.

I really disliked this book, so I’m going to change up my review style a bit here, as I don’t have too much to say about it other than what it is not. I will say that if you for any reason decide to pick this one up and give it a try, this review will probably be even spoilerier than normal, so do us both a favour and read a different book. I recommend Brideshead Revisited.

Housekeeping is not a bildungsroman, even though it kind of looks like one: the bildungsroman is a literary genre that follows the upbringing and moral development of a young person over the years. The classic example is David Copperfield, which follows that character’s life as he goes out to seek his fortune and eventually reaches maturity. A lot of the books I’ve read so far on the Time 100 list could be thought of as having elements of the genre, like The Adventures of Augie March, A Clockwork Orange and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Where I feel that Housekeeping only sort of fits this criteria is that in the archetypal bildungsroman, the young person blunders through their early years and eventually becomes wise in the ways of the world, carving out a niche for themselves in the process; in Housekeeping, the main character Ruth learns that society is sort of bullshit, being a hobo of all things is awesome, and much more fulfilling than a “normal life”. She is entirely possessed by the spirit of her aunt Sylvie, who was herself a an itinerant until right before coming to the girls’ aid. The house in which they live, and the lake that surrounds it, both of these places weigh down so much on the characters that they give in and run away forever. I just couldn’t believe the book’s arguments as to why this would be a satisfactory idea.

CJ on a bike in GTA San Andreas

Tangent time! I’ve always wanted to write an article on how Grand Theft Auto San Andreas is the best bildungsroman of recent years. CJ’s character arc is a perfect example of how the genre works, and the game is one of the best of all time. Maybe once I finish reading all of these (supposedly) great works of literature I can give that a whirl. I just need to find enough time to play through it again…

Housekeeping is a terrible textbook on how to raise children: so Ruthie and Lucille are in kind of a spot at the beginning of the book, it’s true. Their mother has killed herself, taking a page from the Laura Chase playbook and crashing her car into the lake, the site of the train crash that also killed their grandfather. They get shuttled about from family member to family member, and eventually Sylvie is found from who the fuck knows where and drafted into service. She essentially lets the girls live as feral children for the most part, as she is far too busy wrestling with her own internal demons and her itchy hobo feet to take care of them properly. Housekeeping is that rare novel where the title eventually becomes antithetical to the action found within, as it eventually starts to resemble an episode of Hoarders (bonus fun joke for those of you who don’t follow me on twitter yet: Housekeeping is marginally less boring than the mundane task it’s named after, as well. *rimshot*).

Housekeeping is not a great novel: what it is, though, is an excellent tone poem. Robinson is an excellent stylist, if perhaps maybe a little too drawn to descriptions of local flora (a quality shared by another book on the list I really hated, Blood Meridian). She’s great at crystallizing little moments of the human experience for all to see. Here’s a few of them, they’re pretty self-explanatory.

“We walked the blocks from the lake to our grandmother’s house, jealous to the point of rage of those who were already accustomed to the light and the somnolent warmth of the houses we passed.” (p. 35)

(That’s as good of an articulation of the experience of walking home through a Canadian winter as I’ve ever heard.)

“Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” (p. 62)

“I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.” (p.116)

“I do not think Sylvie was merely reticient. It is, as she said, difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.” (p.53)

It’s this last quote that I feel sums up the novel as a whole. It’s difficult for Ruthie to impart to the reader why she decides to go down the path she does, and I never really felt the book itself gave her much of a chance. When I look at it now as a tone poem, though, I kind of get the point. You can’t really ever describe someone enough to make these things make sense, that would imply that you’re omniscient somehow. It reminds me now of The Heart of the Matter, where no one could understand why anyone else did anything, but with the added difficulty level of first-person narration sunk in the mix. I guess I’m a reader that usually enjoys a strong narrative than just beautiful writing and a few good jests.

Who would I recommend this book to?: People that really love old houses, and perversely to people who really hate old houses. People who worship the whole Walden thing. Wanna-be hoboes.

Total pages read since January 1st: 14459 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 51/113, or 45% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Herzog, by Saul Bellow (1964)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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