“. . . we must beware Greeks bearing books.”
To begin reading Janey: A Novel by Richard Matturro is to sort of jump into a trilogy of sorts in media res. I say “of sort of” because the connections among the three books are somewhat sparse:
They were all published by the same company.
They are set in three upstate cities in New York, and the title of each is simply a woman’s name.
Luna, the first of the three, set in Albany, was published in 2006. The second, Leslie (2008), called Troy, New York, home.
And the third, our girl Janey, is largely set in Schenectady, as well as various spots in nearby Massachusetts, Boston, and the towns dotting the Berkshires in the western part of the state.
There the connections end. Except for the rather odd blend of Greek mythology (our author has a PhD in English with a specialization in Shakespeare and Greek mythology and an apparent need to put it to use) and the sorrows of womanhood. Luna is a boyish girl with a fixation for wooden rollercoasters. Leslie is a highly sexual librarian on a leave of absence. Janey, by contrast, is an odd girl out in that her name does not begin with an “L” like one of Superman’s girlfriends.
Janey is an artist who migrates to Boston, gets married, and then, 24 years later, divorces and lives in what was once her art studio in an old factory building. There she makes oversized plaster sculptures, mostly in the shape of genitalia.
There she drinks a good bit, creates from time to time, and patrols the halls of the empty industrial building when the rest of the tenants take to their homes as she once did when married:
“It was nearly midnight. The last of her fellow tenants would have gone home by now, relinquished whatever inspiration visited them today, shut off the lights, descended the staircase. Janey never listened for the final slamming of the big steel door that lead to the street, but she always knew when she was alone. The empty building became hers at night, and if it contained terrors, they too were hers. What you own, she calculated, you master.
“A foxhole is the traditional setting where a man’s mettle is said to be tested, but an empty loft can also be such a crucible. It’s not trial by fire. Rather it is trial by dust. And courage is sometimes just deliberate nonchalance. Janey slipped off her apron. Then, barefoot and dressed only in her oversized T-shirt, she stepped out into the corridor.
“Her constitutional, as she called it, a circuit of the warehouse she made very evening. She was the unofficial sentinel, the unpaid night watchman.”
Note that “the mettle” tested in the quote above is “a man’s.”
The statement is deliberate in that much of the novel rests on the fact that Janey, heterosexual woman that she is, has no interest in experiencing motherhood. This is the cause of her divorce, as her husband, after 24 years of marriage, feels the need for children.
Thus this detail of character is portrayed in a Lady Macbeth gender-bender kind of way, as if it’s a classic flaw, writ large, even though the writing is actually rather small.
There is something restricted in the manner in which the author commits words to the page. In fact, it seems likely that the letters on his laptop’s keyboard are quite worn with use, so heavy handed is his prose.
As here, in the moment in which Janey’s husband Andy tells her he wants out of their marriage:
“He waited until they got home, until they’d changed into more comfortable clothes and poured a nightcap. Andy joined her at the kitchen table, asked her a couple of perfunctory questions about inconsequential things, and then, very calmly, almost sweetly, said, ‘Janey, I think I’d like to have a trial separation.’
“It wasn’t a punch in the gut that she felt, or a tightening of the muscles in her throat. There was no sudden nausea, no urge to run to the bathroom to disgorge the contents of her stomach. No, it was just a low-grade emptiness, as if a party had broken up long ago, and this was merely the last departing guest, some poor soul who’d lost track of the time, had been wandering in a far wing of the house, and had finally found the front door.”
While indeed the “low grade emptiness” adequately describes the reader’s experience of the book as a whole, the rather swell image of the “last departing guest” seems, as written, rather like a jab from a poorly wielded knife—the thought behind it intrigues, but the wording deflects the joy of discovery: Is poor old Andy the one who finally found his way to the front door?
Here was an opportunity for the author to be able to present a moment so rife with emotion that, despite the fact that he has chosen, in Janey, to create a central character lacking in humor, charity and humanity, someone very hard to like and harder still to read about, the reader, for the moment at least, cares.
But then the moment is tossed aside.
Worse still is the potential wasted in the presentation of Janey’s inheritance.
She and her sister Laura, you see, have an old hotel in a tiny backwater Berkshire town of Thebes (there’s that Greek mythology at work again) that was built by their grandfather, much loved by their father, that now, on his death, has come into their hands. Only the thing has been standing empty for years, like Brideshead after the war. So the sisters must come to grips with it, strip it of its old memories and treasures and part with it.
Here the reader yearns for more allusions to Chekhov and fewer to Edith Hamilton. Lacking is the sense of the place as an object of yearning, something worthy. Missing is the sense that the loss of it represents something more than a task penciled in at the top of Monday’s “To Do” list.
Sad to see real potential reduced to plot point.
The same may be said of the mythological references themselves.
They, like the grand old hotel representing all that has been loved and lost, are reduced to the simplest of narrative references. Thus the section of the book titled “Mares of Diomedes” (a reference to one of Hercules’s Twelve Labors, in which he rounded up some maneating mares) presents us with this, a conversation between Janey and her artist friend Stanislav:
“’I used to draw horses all the time as a kid,’ Janey said. ‘I had a horse then.
“’I didn’t’ know you were in the horsey set.’
“She leaned back, could feel the mellowing effect of the alcohol. ‘His name was Nutty. He was a big, brown gelding that my father had bought for my sister and me, but he became mine alone. I was the one who took lessons, and pored over horse books, and brushed him and cleaned out his hooves, and I was the one who rode him for those endless afternoons that happen before you turn thirteen.’
“’It was really. He’s dead now, long ago rendered into whatever they render horses into. I still miss him sometimes.’”
Poor old Nutty.
In the same manner, the section called “Cretan Bull” (another labor of Hercules, more on that in a moment) introduces a character named “Mr. Torro” who has come to buy the hotel.
I mean, come on.
And more, the biggest mythological reference has to do with Janey herself and her last name—it’s Heracles, get it? As in the Twelve Labors of?
As presented, the conceit of presenting the novel as a retelling—however awkward—of the Twelve Labors of Hercules is at once overburdening and underdeveloped.
Had Mr. Matturro truly allowed his Janey to struggle through labors instead of merely bitching about them, he might have been onto something here. Instead, the story as presented seems to come to the reader as something overly-familiar, almost Lifetime movie-ish with standard characters in standard relationships, for all its mythological trappings and its opening quote Sophocles, presented to the reader in untranslated, unGoogle-able Greek.
While Janey meets a new man (a morning deejay named “Bugs”) and runs into her old husband at an art opening, and while the whole of the thing may fairly be described as “labored,” the whole point of it, that Janey’s life may be likened to the fabled Labors of a demi-god, has gone missing. That, once again, a solid idea for a narrative has not been developed, merely alluded to. Which is something that a good editor might have rightly suggested.
But what are we to learn from this?
What conclusions may be drawn?
Perhaps that the oldest of saws, the cliché of clichés is most certainly true:
That we must beware Greeks bearing books.