Pinkerton's Sister By Peter Rushforth a book review
The best books are secrets, whispering their disclosures to one reader at a time, and for many readers, Peter Rushforth's "Kindergarten" is a treasured secret indeed. Published in 1979, the novel continues to cast an unforgettable shadow, and like most cherished novels, it's a strange one: Two young English brothers, on the anniversary of their mother's death in an airport explosion, uncover some insurmountable truths of the Holocaust while celebrating German Christmas with an old woman, herself a survivor, who once illustrated the most sinister stories of the Brothers Grimm, and all the while a terrorist situation with child hostages plays out on TV.
The bitter lessons of fairy tales, the transformative power of art, the timely and timeless rattle of skeletons in the closet and the mercurial and unchanging history of cruelty: It's a heap of material, but what might be overambitious in another novel seems quite modest in Rushforth's quiet, unrushed hands.
"Kindergarten" has been called a perfect novel, which is something to argue over at cocktail time, but certainly it's perfectly made: The mysterious jigsaw fit of the novel's themes and concerns show a workmanship one thought you couldn't get anymore, like handmade lace or real absinthe. "Kindergarten's" shadowy appeal -- all the spookier these days, when a schoolroom terrorist scenario isn't nearly as imaginary -- was made all the more alluring by the fact that the author was something of a shadow himself. Despite the critical acclaim the novel garnered, the author produced nothing else. By the time someone passed me the book in the early '90s, Rushforth had become a mini-cult version of Salinger: an esteemed writer who, for one reason or another, was not going to give us anything more.
Resurfacing after a 26-year gap, Rushforth gives us "Pinkerton's Sister," a novel so long awaited that most readers stopped awaiting. Immense and zigzaggy where "Kindergarten" was compact and stark, in many ways this new book is the opposite of its predecessor. But it is also, finally, exactly the same. A puzzle of a book, "Pinkerton's Sister" offers an array of secrets that rattle the reader long after the book is back on the shelf.
The heroine, however, is the most rattled of readers. It's the dawn of the 20th century in New York City, and Alice Pinkerton has decided to celebrate the way she has her entire life: by staying in her room and reading. Known in the neighborhood as "the madwoman in the attic," Alice defends herself by inscribing a world concocted out of literary trickery; while modernity looms outside, Alice keeps the fading centuries alive through eternal and internal cross-reference, knocking reference against memory and, dimly, the touchstones of her present life.
The novel is a quilt of puns and quotes, exclamations and parentheticals, references and memories, all laid out according to the mental schemata of a woman whose turbulent past and meditative present remind her of, well, everything. It might be best to let Alice explain it herself:
"It was time to wander about the house, ignite a few bed-curtains, rend a few wedding-veils, that sort of thing. Another busy day in the life of a madwoman. [...] What wond'rous Life is this I lead/ Ripe Apples drop about my head;/ The Luscious Clusters of the Vine/ Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine. .. . She might even manage an enthusiastic demoniac laugh as she staggered berserkly about, though it would be wasted in the absence of visitors. If she had never started the attempts at finding some sort of 'cure' for herself (she heard the quotation marks click cozily into place around 'cure' like comforting hands patting shoulders) -- Dr. Severence of Staten Island, Dr. Wolcott Ascharm Webster (above all, Dr. Wolcott Ascharm Webster) -- perhaps she would not have been thought of (by some people) as being a madwoman. She was surely well within the permitted range of strangeness, particularly when she paused to compare herself with some of the people she knew, the acquaintances around her, the neighbors? (The word 'neighbors' had something folksy and apple-pie about it that was at odds with the reality.) [...] She could never lapse into broken inertia, as Laudy Audley had done at the end of the novel, as she looked around the suite of apartments that was to be hers for the rest of her life in the private lunatic asylum, dreary in the wan light of a single wax candle. She really ought to have a candle in her hand as she went downstairs, to continue the Lady Macbeth motif that had come into her mind earlier."
It's a mash-up of literary contrivances: the sarcastic use of an Andrew Marvell poem to indicate her own despair, the self-conscious punctuation in an internal monologue, the mention of some apparently real doctors with suspiciously odd, literary names, a tribute of a heroine of a popular 19th century novel, a Shakespeare reference and all those parenthetical accentuations and softenings, the linguistic digressions, that make Alice's connections between what she reads and what she lives all the more tenuous.
It is astonishing how such a little passage can go such a long way, but it must be said that many readers may find, also, that a little of this kind of passage goes a long way. "Pinkerton's Sister" is 729 pages long, each of those pages as wondrously unsettling as the next, and over the course of the book, one can't help asking if Rushforth, like his heroine, is laying out a path few can follow.
I started this book with pen in hand, mapping references on a piece of paper; I stopped when I found myself wondering if "E-I-E-I-O" counted as a quotation. This book is best if you surrender. Then, over the hum of Alice's card catalog, a slow, narrative arc emerges, one of family scandal and cold, male cruelty. Her actual freedom constrained by the tenets of the time, Alice -- whose birth, she is quick to remind us, coincides with the first publication of "Little Women" -- could only find a safe place for herself within the confines of the written word. Now, as New York City expands, people are beginning "to live in places that were not yet on the map, did not really exist."
Alice's whole life has driven her into imagination; with imagination proclaiming itself as a new frontier, she might find liberation if only she could get up the nerve to leave the house. It's a gorgeous conundrum, the result of a lifetime of close reading -- and some 25 years of close writing. Such a maddening situation as Alice's can only be conveyed through a maddening book, but a maddening book, like a maddening woman, may be mistaken for mad.
Alice's sensibilities have isolated her from the 20th century; in the 21st century, a book so stuffed with well-aged ephemera -- Show of hands: Who's read "Lady Audley's Secret"? -- may isolate itself from readers, even those who've been waiting since "Kindergarten." This would be a shame. After 26 years in the wilderness, I'd hate to see Peter Rushforth locked up in the attic