Was W. B. Yeats right that the poet “is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work”? Do the demands of creation make a good, happy life impossible? Is poetry a zero-sum game?
Such questions drive “Forty Rooms,’’ Olga Grushin’s new novel of romanticism tempered by realism. Grushin uses an inventive if frustratingly restrictive structural conceit: Each of the novel’s chapters centers on a different room in which the unnamed narrator, the daughter of Russian intellectuals, had a meaningful experience. The first six chapters, for example, move between six rooms from the narrator’s Moscow childhood. In the bathroom, she hears her grandmother’s stories of “a hidden kingdom of manifold marvels.” In the kitchen, she witnesses a clandestine poetry recitation and speaks with a strange man: Is he Apollo, as he claims, or one of her parents’ friends, or a figment of her childish imagination? The man tells her of the pain that the poet must endure to achieve immortality; the young narrator, precocious in matters of the imagination, decides she will be a poet anyway.
This structure repeats itself through the 40 rooms of the narrator’s life, from Moscow to the United States. Though the spaces differ, the experiences share a common thread. Each chapter leads to a moment when the veil of the ordinary parts to reveal the extraordinary beneath: mermaids, ghosts, and parallel universes all make appearances. And most chapters dramatize the seductive power of poetry, how it promises access to other worlds while it demands sacrifices in this one. While the first chapters powerfully imagine the intersection of the timeless with time, the magic soon begins to fade. The reader is perhaps charmed to hear, the first time, how art makes the narrator “giddy with the premonition that somewhere, somewhere out there, a place so vivid, so alive, really exists.” By the fifth go-round, the charm has lessened.
Yet this fading of magic and dramatic tension largely seems Grushin’s point. The unnamed narrator’s adult life, we soon learn, is one of regret and lowered expectations. Living in America, she marries a successful college acquaintance, has six children in rapid succession, and moves into a suburban McMansion. Suddenly, the narrative switches from first- to third-person. No longer unnamed, the narrator now is identified as Mrs. Caldwell: not a poet but a wife; not the teller of her own story but a character following a clichéd script — a woman gives up her art to make a family — that has been given to her.
Mrs. Caldwell continues to dream of writing poetry — a cycle on laundry, for instance — but she doesn’t sit down to the “hours and hours of mental acrobatics spent juggling sounds and walking the tightropes of meanings.” The intoxication of creation is replaced by midafternoon gin and tonics. It’s a sharp narrative shift, as if we started off in Neverland and ended up on Revolutionary Road.
“Forty Rooms’’ is really a tale of two lives. The first half represents, in language that flirts with purplishness but doesn’t succumb, the drama of the poet’s self-conception — how, for her, language isn’t a distraction from reality but a deeper engagement with it: “it is through the power of words alone that the world can be truly captured, truly understood.” The second half, though, moves toward middle age and prose. Grushin focuses on the banal details of suburban existence, as in this acidly funny description of a group of college friends reunited years later: “Everyone stood smiling at everyone else with the shared consciousness of being broad-minded and civilized and mature, and achingly insincere.”
This is a flawed book. The novel’s structure, in moving from one moment and room to another without connective tissue, makes several decisions seem unmotivated. Grushin’s dialogue also often falls flat. A young American musician ends a love affair with the narrator thusly: “I will finish packing and go. I will stay somewhere else tonight. I don’t know where.” An animal control officer, in a three-page cameo, manages to solemnly pronounce, “Poets are the true blood of their people.”
But this novel isn’t after perfection, either of life or work. Rather, it shows how life is built out of adjustment — dreams tempered and poetry transformed into prose.
By Olga Grushin
Putnam, 342 pp., $27
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.