Scandalous mourning in the work of Amy Bloom
In bereavement counselling they use the term- complicated grief and I often wonder what other kind there is. Well of course I know. It is the neat and tidy secret pain that shows enough of itself to suggest love but not enough of itself to disturb. This paper will briefly explore the work of the American short story writer Amy Bloom, who evinces a striking fascination with the whole messy experience of grief, a fascination that refuses easy judgement and accepts that complicated grief must require complicated healing.
‘For fifteen years I saw her in my dreams. When my father got sick in the spring of my junior year dying fast and ugly in the middle of June. I went to Paris to recover, to become someone else, un homme du monde, an expert in international maritime law, nothing like the college boy who slept with his step-mother the day after his father’s funeral.’ Amy Bloom, ‘Night Vision’
‘In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.’ Amy Bloom.
‘Love is not a Pie.’
In his essay ‘Coming to grief’ Adam Phillips suggests:
‘If grief doesn’t have a sharable story, if there is no convincing account of what happens to people when someone they know dies, grief will always be singular and secluding: as close as we can get to a private experience without it sounding nonsensical. When someone dies, something is communicated to us that we cannot communicate. Hence the urgency that goes into making death a communal experience…’
Phillips’ insights are particularly helpful when we consider the peculiarly resonant registers of Bloom’s protagonists. For if society encourages grief to be finite, a process that as we work through it, becomes ever nearer a resolute and stoical ‘end’ of mourning, then what will remain of the essentially private, incommunicable experience of loss? And what testimony can be given to the bizarre and uncontrollable thoughts that arrive unsolicited from grief’s amoral dimension?
This tension that exists between the unerringly personal aspects of mourning, and the more ‘public’ and observable and quantifiable ‘stages’ of mourning, receive repeated attention in the work of Amy Bloom. Characters show seeming irreverence for their absent, or impendingly absent loved ones, as they transgress the prescribed limits of their original affection, improvising new means to assuage the overwhelming solitariness of the human condition.
In Bloom’s story ‘Rowing to Eden’ Ellie, an avowed lesbian, struggles with her own knowledge of breast cancer, whilst trying to support her best friend, Mai’s own fight against the disease. Ellie finally finds Mai’s husband needs some very practical insight into his wife’s condition in order to face the ensuing horror of her mortality:
‘On the left side of Ellie’s narrow chest, a hand’s length below her small, pretty colour bone, a few inches from the edge of her sun tan, there is a smooth very square of skin bisected by a red-blue braid of scar tissue. In the middle of the scar is a dimple.
“That?” says Charley, pointing without touching.
“Where the nipple was.”
ace=”Times New Roman”>“Ah.” Charley wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He cups Ellie’s breast in his palm and leans forward, his other arm around her waist. He lays his cheek against the scar.
“Can you feel this?”
“I can feel pressure. That’s all I feel right there.”
Displacement here is a tender gift masquerading as a near betrayal.
For earlier in this story we have been made aware that Mai’s cancer has made Charley a fearful fool whose utterances seem inappropriate and estranging. Here, Ellie’s quiet acceptance of Charley’s transference, and her own implied counter-transference, privileges the resourcefulness of the individual in coming to terms with their own mortality as well as that of the other.
Charley and Ellie are implicated in a scene of tender remembrance, so that at some point, in the future, they can begin to forget. This unique gift between friends reveals the precarious and unconventional ways that secular grief might seek to manifest itself, where grief is not sanctioned by any tradition or coherent symbolic system.
Ellie’s gift to her friend Mai is thus act of intervention within Charley’s blind despair. Significantly Ellie’s wound though visible, has healed. Significantly also however there remains an irreplaceable loss. This scene therefore seems to work as a trope on the whole process of grief as well as being a very powerful exploration of localised consolation between specific individuals.
Charley traces the contours of Ellie’s lost breast and by implication that of his wife and thus traces the contours of his own suffering, engendering a place he can mourn from. If the scene shocks the unsuspecting reader because of its indeterminate eroticism and power, then Bloom is clearly advocating resourcefulness above prurient ‘good taste’ as a means of embracing some tentative future where ‘successful’ mourning has been achieved.
In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the character Caravaggio admits to another, that ‘he/I shall have to learn how to miss you’ an admission that calls into question the very possibility of mourning itself, and suggests that any representation of loss must be at best, tentative, and must depend on some readdressing and retracing of the I/thou dichotomy. For the evocative admission of Caravaggio, ‘I shall have to learn how to miss you’ suggests that mourning is tentative and always in a sense provisional.
Indeed Caravaggio’s acknowledgment that his missing of another is a form of self-education, underlines the tension between the intense privation of loss and its necessary ‘publicisation’. This concern resurfaces in Bloom’s latest collection, A Blind Man can see how much I love you, In the story, ‘Light into Dark’ where Julia, the step-mother from the stories ‘Night Vision’ and ‘Sleepwalking’ tries to speak about her lost loves and finds she is engaged in some strangely relativising process, where one’s loss is set against another in some unwarranted hierarchical emotional puzzle.
‘Julia would like to say that missing Peaches does not cover it. She misses Peaches as much as she missed her stepson during his fifteen year absence. She misses Peaches the way you miss good health when you have cancer. She misses her husband, of course she misses him and their twelve years together, but that grief has been softened, sweetened by all the time and life that came after. The wound of Peaches’ death will not heal or close up; at most the edges harden some as the day goes on, and as she opens her mouth now to say nothing about her lost love, she thinks that even if Lionel is wrong about what kind of man Peter is, he is fundamentally right. Peter is not worth the effort
“I do miss Peaches too of course.”
Bloom’s narrative mirrors the processes of Julia’s intimate admissions. Her sons’ assumption that their father will be missed most is privately thwarted by Julia’s own thoughts. However Julia publicly subscribes to her sons’ need for such a hierarchy of affection, whilst privately admitting otherwise.
No one can organise and plan their grief any more than we can organise and contain those we will fall in love with. Love auctions are very dangerous affairs as Lear once learnt to his cost.
The reader is also aware of the incendiary admission behind the apparently sanitised acknowledgement that ‘She misses Peaches as much as she missed her stepson during his fifteen year absence.’ For of course her stepson, Lionel’s absence was due to his sexual relationship with his stepmother and the narrative affects an emotional symmetry that is far more complicated than may first appear.
Once again Bloom uses juxtaposition to reclaim private testimonies of loss, from public consumption. In Bloom’s work, Death may liberate the signifier from the signified, so that old relationships become reconstituted through unsparingly new and improvised registers of loss.
Thus Julia misses Peaches the way those with ‘cancer might miss good health’ and the way a woman might miss her stepson if she had slept with him after the funeral of his father, her husband. Characters in Bloom love beyond the boundaries of the permitted and this is reflected in the arresting juxtapositions within her narratives.
These admissions engender dignity as they underline the need for authenticity and the personal in mourning, so that their grief cannot be just hijacked away from them by the public mechanisms of grief.
Intimacies are redrawn in Bloom they seem never quite resolved, and this lack of resolution highlights the painful reassurance engendered by mourning that we are intransigently attached to others and that it is not easily possible to attach ourselves to new love objects.
Perhaps the rawness of Julia’s grief for Peaches is perpetuated further by the possibility that Julia is mourning both Peaches and the possibility of loving Peaches. This is suggested by the clear social sanctioning of Julia’s relationship with her husband above that of Peaches, even within an obviously supportive family structure. The parallel therefore between the missing of Peaches and the missing of Lionel, the stepson is all the more revealing as it places one socially ‘disadvantaged love’ as the literal bedfellow of another. Once again Bloom underlines the very complicated processes of mourning and their infinite capacity to disturb.
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