Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Outward Room / Millen Brand
New York: NYRB Classics, 2010, c1937.
This is a reprint of a 1937 novel by Millen Brand, part of the NYRB Classics series (with one of their lovely covers). It is still a good read after 75 years...still appealing and relevant.
The main character, a woman who eventually chooses the name Harriet, is in a mental hospital as the book opens. She's suffered a nervous breakdown at age 15, after her brother's death. She can't bear to see her parents when they try to visit, and her recovery seems a tenuous hope. She's been there seven years and her doctor seems to be getting impatient with her. She begins thinking about escape...then miraculously circumstances conspire to make it a possibility, one she takes advantage of.
From this small institutional room, the next section of the book details the surreal circumstances of her escape and her flight to New York City -- she feels that she could get lost in such a big place and secure her freedom. She does so; and she finds a small room that she boards in for a short while until her money runs out. This section is brief, and gives the feeling that Harriet is a scared rabbit hiding in a hole until everything calms down. Unfortunately, even in 1937 her little bit of money doesn't go very far, and she is out on the street, taking advantage of the all-night subways to keep moving and not attract notice as a vagrant. This doesn't work as well as she'd thought it would, and finds her exhausted in an all-night diner.
Then she moves to the next room...the third and last. She is rescued in her extremity by a kindly man who takes her in ostensibly for a day, but she ends up staying permanently. They develop a friendly relationship that is based on equality and give and take. He's a former miner, currently a machinist. She gets a brief job in a dressmaking factory but the work dries up and she is at home once more. There is a lot of talk about the living conditions, the lack of work, the focus on money, and such things, not only between Harriet and John but also in his extended family and among the friends she makes in her brief job.
Throughout the book, there are wonderful descriptions of daily life, told laconically and without much emotion. The struggle to survive physically parallels Harriet's detemination to see whether she can heal herself. The calm, equitable relationship she builds with John seems to help her, though at one point he asks her to marry him -- and she refuses, on the grounds that she is insane. She holds to that identity, afraid she will have another episode, until something happens which makes her realize she is actually helping someone else face the kind of thing that sent her into nervous breakdown. And she realizes that she is well again and that there is hope for the future.
This is a rather vague summary of the storyline; the quiet glory of it lies in its voice. Harriet's surroundings are carefully drawn, but don't feel like filler or like the appearance of excess research. It is simply the atmosphere in which she lives. The particular variations of how people live are finely delineated, giving tantalizing partial glimpses of the people Harriet interacts with, both in the asylum and in New York. The smallest scenes are full of import, and though the story seems quiet, with Harriet continually testing herself, there is a lot going on. Harriet moves from hopeless to radiantly hopeful, and it is wonderful. As she says near the end:
Yet the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.
This is a book full of small changes, incremental changes both in Harriet and her society, that end up making a big difference. It was a wonderful find.