By Bailey White © 1998
Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 220 pp.
Bailey White has been around long enough to garner some pretty impressive reviews of her columns, both printed and in radio commentary. Her nonfiction would make any would-be essayist humble. She has an instinctive grasp of how to be funny, even intensely personal, without being unsympathetic.
Her first novel invites comment from its characteristically quirky title Quite a Year for Plums to its structure, or rather lack of it. You expect a novel to progress in some way from a beginning, through a middle to an end. This is apart from stylistic individualities or themes that might or might not be predictable. It's a surprise to find by page 64 that if the story has a trajectory, you haven't perceived it.
There is a clue in the first item under the Table of Contents, "List of Characters?" A little bit unusual after the 19th Century casts of thousands, but it really proves to be a help. This isn't so much because there are so many people in the story as it is because the characters are so oddly connected (or perhaps disconnected) from one another. Their relationships are what make up the book — a connected string of odd-shaped beads like short stories, connected by an often knotty thread. It's a hard book to get into if you think it will be a single narrative, or even have a quickly identified protagonist.
Almost every one of these must be read right through to the last sentence for those headings to make complete sense. By the end of the chapter, they always do. One inescapable fact is that either an uncommon amount of research went into the book, or Ms. White has an encyclopedic mind. Entomology, botany, history, ancient music, early US manufacturing — she appears to know it in detail.
Perhaps every reader will be wishing that there had been an ending to help with how she should be feeling after the last page. Bailey manages to be sometimes so funny as to make you laugh out loud, and often so heartbreakingly perceptive as to bring tears to the eyes, yet at the end, she leaves it up to her reader to decide whether the conclusion is upbeat or the reverse.
In some respects, this book falls squarely in the center of the group of writers termed "Southern." The setting is southern Georgia, the characters are a collection of psychologically peculiar scarred individuals their inventor has endowed with flaws that in spite of being exaggerated don't become burlesque. The oddities displayed by every single one seem like the kind that would never show up north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Still, no one without a heart of stone could fail to respond to these people and the completely quotidian narrative of Bailey White's Quite a Year for Plums.
Those of us who are voluntarily nested in their homes in front of a computer screen (after a lifetime of leaving home to commute to a city like New York), are happy to find websites that take us out and about quite figuratively.
One such destination is the University of California, Berkeley site that celebrates Shakespeare's Staging. The stated goal of this site is to provide: "a survey of current information, opinions and visuals about ... the original nature of Shakespearean performance during his lifetime, and of its development through four centuries thereafter."
The Performance Galleries section allows viewers to explore ten albums of more than 900 images, such as Productions from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, Productions in Britain 1960-1998 (with As You like It, 1961; starring as Rosalind, Vanessa Redgrave), and Unusual Representations of Shakespeare Performances. Several pages of performance videos are available for downloading.
©2009 Joan L. Cannon and Tam Gray for SeniorWomenWeb