Pretense & Sensibility
Carolyn See on the memoir, the Age of Anxiety
and the sentient universe -- and her fear
of sounding pretentious
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, July 21, 2000

Carolyn See writes — in longhand! — lovely books in which terrible things happen to good people, and to bad people, and to all sorts of people, things as localized as a hit-and-run accident and as all-encompassing as the Third World War. As in the acclaimed Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, the 1995 memoir of her variously alcoholic, drug-addicted, depressed, disappointed, mutually abusive, self-destructive, giddily dysfunctional family — a book she describes as “a comedy” — they have a way of turning cheery at the finish, as tragedy works around to something like a happy ending, “which I think just means taking a longer view, making your camera go up farther.” The essence of See’s work is expressed by a character in Making History, her 1991 novel of life and death and the invisible strings that connect them: “The whole point was that you were supposed to see life, and love it too.” (Though when I mention this to the author, she reminds me of the line that follows it: “She was afraid she wasn’t going to be able to do it, not in this life.”)

Not too much too terrible happens in The Handyman, See’s latest novel — “written in a major key instead of a minor key” and recently issued in paperback by Ballantine Books — but here again order is drawn out of chaos. The story of a temporarily unaspiring artist and free-ranging fix-it man and the women he rescues from loneliness and disarray over the course of a summer — and the one who rescues him back — it’s a kind of Southern California version of Cold Comfort Farm, a coming-of-age story about people whose age has been slow in coming, and a romance novel from the point of view of the handsome stranger, as well as a kind of reminder to clean up your room. And, like her other books, it’s also about Los Angeles, her hometown, full of familiar place names and places of business, and evocative of the scattered and unhurried way we have of doing things here.

See arrives at our oceanside meeting in a blue New Beetle, a small curly-haired woman whom a passerby might register only as the grandmother she is, not as a woman who learned to write “off of negative energy — just sheer hatred and revenge.” She is pre-emptively self-critical; her word for the day is pretentious: “I don’t want to sound like a pretentious jerk,” “It sounds to me very pretentious to be making these large declarative sentences,” “I’m always writing about very pretentious subjects.” Of The Handyman, she says, “I tried very hard to make that book very simple, and I may have gone four steps too far into the simple-minded.” She says that “nobody” reads her books (“I am not above going into neighborhood libraries and seeing if people have checked them out”), but the fact is that The Handyman went into a second hardback printing within a month of its release, and as of this writing, there are 60-some mostly positive reviews of it posted on

In that book as elsewhere, she writes plain, pre-postmodern prose, with engagement and without irony. Hers is a refreshingly excitable sensibility — she does not fear (nor overuse) the exclamation mark — and she has the strange gift for arranging mere words in an order that moves the heart; suddenly you’ll find yourself in tears. She makes literature seem useful. Of the novel as a form, See says, “I think it’s the scripture of the thinking man and woman — oh, man, talk about pretentious.”

L.A. Weekly: When you wrote your memoir, Dreaming, in which the reader may recognize the places and people of your novels, were you concerned that afterward people would say of your fiction, “Oh, she’s just writing about her life”?

Carolyn See: That’s what everybody writes about.

Not everybody gives out the key.

Oh, yeah, they do. They sort of are hoping that scholars will find out, but if they don’t, they write a memoir — think of Hemingway and A Moveable Feast. They’re putting crumbs there like Hansel and Gretel: Come on . . . This way . . .

So you basically approve of the vogue for memoirs?

I would say I’m in favor of regional literature; I’m in favor of not everything happening in New York or New England. And I think I’m in favor of memoirs for another reason, which is gender-based. And forgive me if I sound pretentious — the model for the English-American novel is a masculine model. But a lot of what women write about, there’s no model for it. So you get all these feminine models where you’re married to an idiot and then you â leave and then you call your girlfriend. And that’s the plot. And the guys’ novels are: You’re married to an idiot and then you leave and then you call your girlfriend. There aren’t plots around for women novelists to draw on, because the novels have been by guys. So memoirs are really different, they don’t fit the mold. They’re open enough that you can just write what happens. I think we get a lot of awful memoirs, but then there are some, you read them and you think, “Jeez, this is amazing.” And if it weren’t for the memoir form, it would never see print.

What about the model of George Eliot, or the Brontés?

But even those are romances with hard-to-get guys, and guys that are impossible. I don’t want to sound doctrinaire, but they’re defined by “This is a world where men are all-powerful and the best thing you can do is to get one of them.”

In the prologue to The Handyman, which looks back on the action from 2027, you foresee an art that “cast[s] off the debilitating angst of the 20th century, and the ever more conceptual art that had become the emblem of its anomie and affectlessness, so popular then, so dated now.”

I think that we’ve had it with the Age of Anxiety, just simply because it’s been going on for 85 years. I don’t know, but I would think that 85 years is long enough. Unless things happen that are so much worse — AIDS begins to spread like the common cold, something like that. But even then, during the plague years, for instance, London was a very jolly place, they had a great time. So I just think there might be a change in mood. I postulate that. I speculate on that.

What would you like to see come after?

Just something where it doesn’t start at depression and get worse. I’ve got nothing against depression. I come from a family of depressives. I’ll match suicides with anyone. But it’s just because of that, that I think it might be interesting to try something else. To see what would happen.

I’m not really an optimist, I just think it would be nice to hypothesize that we could . . . do things a little better. But that’s just a hypothesis. I don’t know if that’s true.

You write a lot about suffering and the possibility of choosing not to suffer.

I think The Handyman is a very subversive book, because what if — and again, here I am sounding pretentious — but what if everybody just took that kind of “My ego is in abeyance” attitude? Because he comes from a position of despair: “My ego is in abeyance, I can’t get to it right now, so I’m just going to address the matter at hand, whatever it is, and see what I can do.” I mean, that would be almost a post-Christian society. And we have the ability to do that — we just don’t feel like it.

Again, I know how pretentious this sounds, but I was lecturing my students to go out with the keen, trained eye of a novelist, and one came back and said, “I don’t think I want to do that, because I went into Target, and there was a deaf salesperson trying to help someone buy something, and they were yelling at the deaf salesperson — it was so horrible I couldn’t bear it.” And I said, “Well, one thing you could do is get out of Target and look somewhere else.” But the other thing is, once you start looking, it’s all there. It’s all there. But most of what we try to do is not pay attention, because it’s too disturbing.

I went to some alternative-medicine skin guy last week just for the hell of it. I told him my mind raced, and he said, “What you need is calming cream to put on your ankles and your wrists.” But you don’t need the calming cream. Your mind races for a reason — it’s not a bad thing.

You have to wonder whether a perfectly contented person would become an artist. In a really happy world, maybe no one would make art, and that might be fine.

That’s part of the dynamic I don’t understand: If you were contented, would art come out? If you were ecstatic, would art come out? Actually, I’m thinking of John Donne — not that I often do — but he appears to have been exceedingly contented, and in control — whatever that means — of his life, and this wonderful stuff came out of it. Frankly, I don’t even know how that works. And I think that’s partly what The Handyman is about: We don’t know what it would be like to be exceedingly happy and with an artistic vision. We don’t know what that would be.

I’m not very capable of abstract spiritual thought, but I saw Shirley MacLaine on Good Morning America today, and they were calling her “Squirrelly Shirley,” and Charlie Gibson was saying, “The great minds of our generation have wrestled with these spiritual things and they still doubt and how can you be so sure?” And she was like, “There’s nothing to it.” And I began to think, If you’re asked to believe in one god, three divine persons and the 12 disciples and the parting of the waters, that’s kind of a stretch. But if you’re asked to believe that this is a sentient universe, that’s no stretch at all. You’d have to be pretty stupid not to — it’s a sentient universe. It’s no biggie. You don’t have to believe in it — it’s here.

© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011