Mona Simpson is a serious, immensely gifted American novelist. Shrewdly aware of her literary forebears, she addresses big themes and tells powerful stories in engaging, graceful prose. Anywhere But Here (1986), her critically acclaimed first novel, borrows its title from Emerson–which requires a certain bravado in a debut novelist, not to mention an increasingly rare familiarity with Emerson. From the outset of her career, Simpson has enjoyed the attention and respect of the literary establishment.
She’s also the sort of quasi-famous person whose name shows up in gossip columns. She is the sister of the late Steve Jobs–a connection she and Jobs discovered as adults–and her former husband Richard Appel, a writer for The Simpsons, named a cartoon character after her. Talent and visibility have combined to make Simpson, who was born in Green Bay and now lives in Santa Monica, a celebrity artist, a kind of low-key Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe. The bestselling Anywhere But Here became a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, and her dust jacket biographies boast more than the usual number of prestigious grants and awards.
You expect a certain brilliance from such a writer, some eye-catching effects to justify the hype. Anywhere But Here, in which a mother and daughter leave rural Wisconsin to get rich and famous in Los Angeles, obliges with explosive scenes between unstable Adele and resourceful teenage Ann. Simpson excels at well-spaced similes that are startlingly apt without bringing the narrative to a screeching halt: “His hand felt dry and hard, like a foot.” “Our conversations were always like that, like lighting single matches.” “A smile formed slowly on her face until she was asleep and it seemed as unconscious and without meaning as a dolphin’s smile.”
Occasionally Simpson takes her artistic license down some self-indulgent roads. The Lost Father (1992), a sequel to Anywhere But Here, is a sprawling do-over of a novel, replacing Adele with the feckless John Atassi as the looming parent in Ann’s life. Ann no longer calls herself Ann. In this book she’s Mayan. Her first-person account meanders, pursuing each new thought that pops up, and the language has the baffling quality of drunken notebook entries: “I tickled her and made her shriek louder in a star of points.” “His face wobbled and his eyes scratched frantically through the air.” “Mrs. Fenwick stood a moment looking out the window to the still winter garden, her hands fallow on the front of her apron.” The word “fallow” chimes faintly with the garden the woman is looking at, but can hands at rest really be said to lie fallow? It seems the writer is testing the basic meanings of words, and the results don’t always succeed.
With her glamorous personal life and occasionally edgy prose, Simpson hardly fits the mold of the down-home writer who nurtures a sense of place. Yet in Anywhere But Here, when Ann and Adele take up their scrounging existence in LA, the city materializes as crummy apartments, rundown schools, and endless boulevards–a genuine locale embodied in numerous particulars. In all Simpson’s books that deal with Los Angeles, the details always feel authentic, including the rare send-ups of socialites and tycoons. People obsess over what to eat and wear, but there are few blatant caricatures of the Annie Hall variety (think Paul Simon inviting Woody Allen and Diane Keaton for a “mellow” get-together with friends). In My Hollywood (2010), Simpson evokes a lively community of immigrant nannies flourishing alongside the world of their affluent employers. Lola, Simpson’s memorably imagined Filipina narrator, ends up embracing California as her chosen place.
And when Ann summons up her childhood on the outskirts of Racine, she describes a mysterious, brooding Midwest. Once again The Lost Father disappoints, offering a sleepy stomping grounds to which people return only to overeat (“I got like that there. There was nothing else to do,” Mayan comments), but the Wisconsin of Anywhere But Here is gloriously specific and strange–strange in the best sense, as opposed to grotesque or “quirky.” “We only played made-up games,” Ann recalls. “We didn’t use anything bought. Around us, the country seemed so big.” Kids run aimlessly, roll down hills, kill time beside the railroad tracks. Finding her way home with a flashlight after dark, Ann discovers that “you could see one thing at a time, the fitted seeds of one weed, a rough milkpod stem.” A handful of episodes deal with life at school and in the small city, but mostly Ann remembers outdoor times: goofing around with her cousin Benny, rock-hunting with her grandmother on a trip up to Lake Superior. Her Wisconsin childhood holds an almost mystical power over her: “The years I grew up there, I spent time outside, hidden, where no one could see me, trying to talk to the trees. It seemed then that the land around our house was more than owned, it was the particular place we were meant to be.”
Simpson doesn’t idealize the place where Ann grows up, nor does she censure the uprooting she embarks on with her mother. “I didn’t want to leave,” Ann reflects, “but I didn’t want to give up California, either.” Torn by conflicting impulses, Simpson seems to suggest, people might ultimately decide to leave–sometimes to return, sometimes not. In Anywhere But Here, Simpson understands the magnetic pull of a particular place, but she doesn’t judge those who are drawn by something else. Sometimes you can’t give up California.
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The jacket flap of Simpson’s Off Keck Road (2000) says the novella is concerned with “the precise costs and rewards of staying”–an unsurprising theme, given the profound treatment of place in Anywhere But Here. It makes sense that Simpson would turn the page and tell a story about people who don’t leave.
What is surprising is the way she tells this story. When a writer of long novels produces a novella, admirers inevitably praise the economy and beauty of the book. Finally, it’s implied, the novelist has put her heroic labors aside, and crafted a small gem truly worthy of her talent. Off Keck Road is that rarest of small gems that doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that it’s a small gem. There’s nothing precious or pretentious about its brevity, nothing attenuated in its beauty. The word “spare” never comes to mind. In fact, Simpson conjures an unhurried sense of amplitude in just 167 pages.
Dispensing with daring figures of speech, and Ann/Mayan’s jaded, deadpan narration, Simpson surveys some four decades of Green Bay life using a third-person narrator and a limited point of view. The narrative technique and the elegant voice show Simpson working with a quiet, assured confidence. Objective but not aloof, she switches from the mother-daughter melodrama of Ann and Adele to the relatively uneventful lives of two single women. Bea Maxwell, a Green Bay physician’s daughter, attends college in Madison, works briefly in Chicago, then returns to Green Bay when her mother’s health deteriorates. She discovers a knack for selling real estate, and the years go by. Eighteen years younger than Bea, living on raw, sparsely inhabited Keck Road, a loner named Shelley works obscure jobs, lamed and disfigured by polio. She’s devoted to her grandmother, and when her grandmother dies Shelley thinks of herself as “a person one other person had loved once.”
The novella opens in 1956. Sorority girl Bea, home from Madison on Christmas break, drives from her upper middle-class home to Keck Road, where she picks up her friend June Umberhum. Bea has never seen this remote, untamed edge of the city. She’s awed by the expanse of snow and the majestic trees, the “magnificent” land. She notices the many children playing outside, and clucks inwardly over their inadequate clothing and lack of supervision. In the succeeding decades this visit takes on a frozen, mythical quality, cementing the contrast between Bea’s crowded, genteel Green Bay and the semi-rural neighborhood where Shelley grows up.
Bea’s and Shelley’s lives intersect sporadically, now and then through the Umberhums of Keck Road but more often through Bill Alberts, Bea’s boss, for whom Shelley also works as a live-in nurse. Throughout Bea’s years establishing a reputation selling houses, she dreams vaguely about Bill, who is unhappily married. Shelley, meanwhile, has a rather brutish affair with the neighbor she helps to install a swimming pool. Never far in the background, the city of Green Bay consumes the rest of the narrative. The Packers are mentioned only once.
For Bea, who never marries, Green Bay is a comfortably navigated system of golf dates, lunches, and shopping sprees. She and June Umberhum “felt that they could see Green Bay society, the way they could in fact see Green Bay topographically from Dr. and Mrs. Maxwell’s front window.” Simpson never patronizes the conventional Bea, neutrally sifting the layers of rumor and family lore that constitute one’s knowledge of a place. Bea’s Green Bay thrives on handed-down ceremony: the solemn formality of old department stores, the charitable projects Bea incessantly chairs, the ritual stops for treats at a downtown tea shop. Working in real estate, she learns the dense social strata of the city.
Working-class Shelley gapes at the sprawling houses and upscale restaurants that Bea Maxwell takes for granted, but class only begins to distinguish the two women’s Green Bays. Shelley, we’re told, has “a love for northeastern Wisconsin”–which is to say she likes the unspoiled country just beyond the city. “Spring out where they lived reeked,” with “a smell of rot you could feel in your teeth,” but Shelley finds compensations in the open spaces and the familiar taste of well water. Growing up, she absorbed the natural rhythms of her native place, on walks between her home and her grandmother’s: “Between the two houses, there was old land. To Shelley, that undivided land meant the seasons.” Making her way as an adult, forming ties with city people like Bea, Shelley retains a persistent love for the wildness on Keck Road.
Although Simpson empathizes with these characters who stay in place, their Green Bay is no static Arcadia. To remain in a place is to witness change and, inevitably, loss. When Bea’s physician father dies, she and her mother find a cabinet marked “EXTREMELY CONFIDENTIAL. DO NOT OPEN.” The contents–records of scandalous pregnancies, suspicious deaths–might once have been sensational, but now they seem faded and dull. “Most of the parties by now were dead or moved,” Bea and her mother realize. “Apparently, secrets expired, too.” More pervasively, developers and changing tastes transform the face of the city. At one point Bea notices a proliferation of steak houses. “Was it possible that the West Side of town was actually western enough to eat more meat?” she muses. Her home town, with its venerable traditions and institutions, is becoming a strange and baffling place.
As the novella nears its end, the twenty-first century approaching, some places don’t just change. They get obliterated. The Keck Road neighborhood falls victim to a Walmart, and out of professional interest Bea visits the site. She finds homes razed or nearly razed behind a chain-link fence. A towering oak–one she admired in 1956–has been set ablaze, to afford practice for the fire department. Bea and Shelley climb into Shelley’s Jeep to “head north, look at some land.” “Anywheres with well water,” Shelley says. “I don’t like the taste of Green Bay water. And it’s getting too crowded for me around here.” Bea will presumably stay and grow old in Green Bay. Shelley’s Green Bay no longer exists.
“Off Keck Road” is a haunting, enigmatic title for Simpson’s bittersweet novella. On would seem, after all, a more fitting preposition than off, since Shelley’s home and those of her neighbors face each other across Keck Road. Perhaps “off Keck Road” is simply a local, colloquial way of saying “out there on Keck Road,” with off serving just as well as on. Or maybe “off Keck Road” has an elegiac sense, accurately naming the condition of exiles like Shelley who don’t live there anymore, whose place has been taken from them.