Christine Schutt’s Prosperous Friends

A couple of months ago I read Christine Schutt’s Prosperous Friends. I thought it very fine but was unable to find sufficient words to write about it. There were echoes of James Salter’s excellent Light Years, though Schutt’s style is sparser and more impressionistic. David Winters’ review is out today, which I urge you to read:

The consequence is that Isabel can’t articulate how she feels, only feel it. Thus, she identifies with a blind, deaf dog that Ned gets euthanized. She, like the dog, is “purely a heart […] a beating heart,” insensible but alive and in pain. In this, her condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of “melancholia.” For Kristeva, chronic depression is “incommunicable” — melancholics can’t connect feelings with reasons, can’t sum up their suffering in speech. Like Isabel, they’re locked out of “symbolic” language; their words slip away from fixed points of reference. Instead, their verbal world is what Kristeva calls “the semiotic,” where words are submerged in emotions, in inexplicable bodily drives. This is Isabel’s realm, but not only that; it’s also the place of what I’ve called, with Steiner, linguistic “music,” poetry. So if the plot of Prosperous Friends, the trope of a couple in nebulous conflict, sounds pedestrian to you, listen closer. Semiotic, not solely symbolic, the book’s beating heart lies hidden beneath its ostensible “sense.”

In Kristeva’s account, there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making. This is why Kristeva claims that “depression is at the threshold of creativity.” If it “becomes creative,” she explains, “it is overcome.” So the condition contains the seed of its cure. One way of recovering from melancholia is to craft an “independent symbolic object” — a work of art. Seen in this light, Prosperous Friends tells the story of Isabel’s struggle to cross such a threshold. As we will see, her failure is brought into focus by others’ success.

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