SEPTEMBER 9, 2022
A MOTHER’S INFLUENCE is undeniable; we can’t escape it. Jill Bialosky, the poet, writer, and publishing executive, knows this firsthand. In her critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, she often writes in an urgent, first-person, confessional voice that seems unconsciously to resuscitate her mother’s heartaches, which have now become her own.
Bialosky was born into a Jewish home that imploded when her father died unexpectedly, leaving her mother to take care of her and her two sisters. Her mother, sadly, was not up to the task and would take to her bed with crushing migraines; Soon, she was taking pills to go to sleep and get up. Bialosky was a terrified witness to her mother’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities, and she escaped by obsessively reading and writing poetry. When her mother finally started dating again, Bialosky would see her spending inordinate amounts of time getting ready for men who weren’t worthy of her. Often, her mother would come home drunk and spend the following day waiting for a phone call that never came. Soon enough, she remarried and gave birth to a precious little girl named Kim, but the marriage didn’t last, and Kim would die by suicide before her 22nd birthday. Bialosky, who seemed to have already accepted that her life would be bereft of happiness, married and soon had two brutal miscarriages, both babies dying within hours of birth. She finally got her precious little boy, Lucas, whom she adopted just after his birth. Bialosky continued to write and work while raising her son, confessing that she would watch over him a bit too closely as a result of the family traumas she has endured.
There is much of Bialosky in the pages of her engaging new novel The Deceptions, in which an unnamed narrator, who seems a lot like the author herself, speaks to us directly about a life in severe distress. Her first-person voice has the same compelling nervousness we recall from an earlier work, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life (2011), in which Bialosky tried to come to terms with her half-sister’s untimely death. This new work, being fiction, gives her more latitude to stretch, but in some ways it also constrains her, for she seems deeply wedded to the personal truths of her own life, and when transforming this into fiction, she sometimes runs amiss.
Her unnamed narrator teaches poetry and prose in Manhattan at a private academy for boys. She loves teaching but struggles with her prudish male colleagues, seeking the respect they show one another but never herself — except for the visiting poet, that is, who flirts with her shamelessly, leaving poetic notes he hopes might move her. She doesn’t trust him for reasons she can’t identify but does relish the way he makes her laugh and his incessant attention to whatever pretty dress she is wearing that day. She hasn’t slept with this man, but the possibility has occurred to her, and this alone sets off warning bells about the state of her deteriorating marriage.
Her son has just departed for college, leaving her and her husband together in an apartment that has grown more solemn and silent. They haven’t slept together for almost a year, and she has no desire to do so. He sleeps in her son’s room now, and she suspects she can hear him speaking with women in chat rooms late at night. But she no longer cares. When they are eating supper or cleaning up afterwards, he seems to almost hiss at her, criticizing her for being lost in her own thoughts. But whenever she tries to speak to him, he tells her he isn’t the least bit interested. Nor does he wish to share with her anything about his workday. Bialosky’s rendering of a marriage on the brink is enhanced by her ability to allow her protagonist ample room to ruminate about how things became as awful as they are now. She lets her ramble on.
The narrator recalls a sweeter time when she felt differently about her husband. He had just finished his medical studies and was starting an internship in infectious diseases. She remembers liking to think about him as some sort of magical healer — as she felt she was too, with the way she could spin her words into poems and stories. But now, she finds herself sitting in the living room watching “[s]hadows from swaying trees dance across our wall.” She thinks to herself:
Does he not know that my mind spins and spins with nowhere sensible to land? On the weekends, he lives for the games, football in fall, basketball in winter, baseball in spring and summer. I don’t mind. I hold my obsessions dear and therefore must let him hold his, and yet I don’t know how to reach him. What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he need more? I turn back to the piece on Plath biting Ted Hughes’s cheek the first time he kissed her at a party.
She misses the closeness she had with other writers at graduate school, and the writer friends she had afterwards that her husband subtly, and later on not so subtly, orderd, finding fault with all of them. He discouraged her opportunities and gaslighted her for seeking a literary career, seemingly afraid that her attention would be diverted from him. But strangely, he doesn’t even seem to want her attention or to share intimacies with her. He wants her obedient passive presence, something she is no longer willing to give.
At times she tries to justify his obtuseness. She recalls how difficult his childhood was, growing up with a drunken father and a sister who did drugs in an unhappy home mired in poverty. But she too suffered greatly. Her father ran away from her family when she was small, disappearing into Europe without a trace. She recalls the stigma of being a “fatherless girl” with a masterful poignancy that seems to come directly from the author’s own life experiences.
Bialosky has drawn a complex composite of a middle-aged, attractive, accomplished woman who nonetheless is torn in half. There is a part of her that believes in self-sufficiency and professional accomplishment, that insists a woman can make it on her own, can be secure in her own personhood. But Bialosky’s narrator is burdened by terrifying insecurities and feelings of inadequacy that seem to come directly from the author’s own memories of her mother’s warnings to her as a child. Her mother would often tell her and her two sisters that a woman without a man is nothing, no matter what she may have accomplished. And her children are daughters of that nothingness: a burden to others, carrying the corrosive stigma of aloneness. Bialosky gives both of these voices equal airing, and we watch her narrator sway back and forth, trying to find some solid ground.
Throughout the book, the narrator makes several unplanned visits to the Metropolitan Museum, the only space where she finds a degree of solace. It is not always clear why. When she is mourning her son’s twin, a daughter lost at birth, she goes to see the Temple of Dendur, which was commissioned by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, around 15 BCE, who believed the structure would appease the Nubian people after a military campaign. When she longs for the daughter she has lost, or tries to imagine what she might have been like, she goes to see the Renoir portraits of little girls, charmed by their luminous skin and antiquated femininity. When she is yearning for love, she stars at the statues of Rodin’s lovers, whose lifelike figures unashamedly embrace their physicality. It bothers her that she never explored the more reckless side of her own sexuality. Somehow, she always felt hindered. At times, the narrator just stars at the statue of Heracles, mesmerized by his enormous strength; Once, magically, he seems to come to life before her, only to turn back into stone again.
These trips to the Met carry much meaning for Bialosky, but what exactly they do for her narrator is unclear. Perhaps they confirm the wickedness and cruelty of the world. Or perhaps the museum has replaced the synagogue of Bialosky’s childhood as a place of worship. Is the narrator looking for some sort of absolution for past sins? Or does the male-dominated world of the ancient gods confirm her sense that men have always controlled everything and not much has really changed? These questions linger unspoken in the margins of the novel’s haunting pages. We perceive that the narrator is adrift in a toxic cloud of anger and contempt and confusion, but does she have any agency in all this? The subtext behind many of her reckonings seems to question her own role in her lingering unhappiness, to ask what she could do to change the situation. But it never changes.
Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in manys, including The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.