Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers





















The blurb on the back of my Penguin Modern Classics edition comes from Edith Sitwell, who writes that Carson McCullers has ‘a poet’s eye and mind and senses’. This is true. Like Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor, she’s preternaturally gifted. The Member of the Wedding was written before she’d even hit thirty.

The Member of the Wedding tells the story of Frankie, a twelve year old motherless girl who ruminates on her older brother’s upcoming wedding. She sees the actual wedding as a kind of club that she can become a member of. Naturally a marriage only involves two people, and Frankie lets her imagination get way, way too far away from her. It can only all end in disappointment.

Carson McCullers is one of those ironic, dark, humorous southern writers who specialise in strange gothic confections. She writes very intimately about a small group of people, Frankie, Berenice the black housekeeper, and John Henry, Frankie’s young cousin. You get the impression that they’re all living too close together for their own good and thinking and picking each other’s brains too much. As Edith Sitwell notes, the novel is more like a prose poem, finely and evocatively written.

I really liked some of the more humorous lines in the novel, like when Frankie ruminates on her future:

‘If the train went to Chicago, she would go on to Hollywood and write shows or get a job as a movie starlet – or, if worse came to worse, even act in comedies.’

Or this line about John Henry West, Frankie’s young cousin:

‘For John Henry West the wedding had only been a great big show, and he had enjoyed her misery at the end as he had enjoyed the angel cake.’

Plus there is much that is downright bizarre in the novel, like when Frankie goes to a bar and a soldier tries to pick her up. After spending so much time masquerading as an adult, she picks up a jug of water and knocks the man out! Later on she nonchalantly asks her father if it’s possible to kill someone in such a manner.

What’s the moral of the story? I guess that imagination unchecked will lead to trouble. No, I take that back, because this story doesn’t moralise, it rather sympathises with such overly imaginative and yearning characters. The Member of the Wedding is a tragedy, the tragedy of life being unable to fulfil our dreams and expectations. And to think, Frankie is only 12 years old!

If you’ve ever felt a ‘little outside of life’ (Edith Sitwell’s description of herself), then this slow moving, thoughtful novel is for you.

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