Monday, April 25, 2022

Laird Hunt's quiet Zorrie - and soft green passages and blurry lemon highlights

Nancy Pearl, America’s librarian, asked Twitter to recommend favorite “quiet” novels, and what surprised me is that people responded as if they knew what she meant, which I did not, only in part because the recommendations were almost all books I have not read.  So I asked what “quiet” meant – “domestic fiction, but not too melodramatic” seems to be what “quiet” means.  Along the way Pearl ordered me to read a book:

I do think that [Laird Hunt]'s Zorrie [2021] is the gold standard of the kind of novel I'm thinking of, and if you haven't read it, you should.

And who am I to say no to America’s librarian?  Plus the novel is only 150 pages, really.

Zorrie covers the life, from childhood to just before (if I read the book right) death, of a rural Indiana orphan whose experiences are what ordinary people might well experience: school, the Depression, the loss of a husband in World War II, that kind of thing.  There is some melodrama, but it is all within plausible bounds.  Early on, Zorrie takes a job in an Illinois watch factory, applying radium paint to the dials, and I thought, ah, this is what the novel is about, but she soon leaves the job and it instead becomes one of many sources of imagery and themes that are carried through the novel.

The first words of Zorrie are a quotation from Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (1877), another story of a life compressed into a few pages, simpler in language and conception than Flaubert’s longer novels but a good place to see his methods.  Hunt follows those methods, moving through episodes that are not always so exciting  – “quiet” – but provide motifs that recur as plot or memory or imagery, until a final chapter pulls the threads together in a way I found quite artful.  There is nothing half as audacious as the end of A Simple Heart, the transfiguration of the stuffed parrot; I am not saying that.  But the last chapter changed my idea of what the book was doing, and it does include a thoughtful, tasteful use of The Diary of Anne Frank, something not every author pulls off.

I guess I did not ever find the prose too exciting, and the novel has almost no humor, but it is written, with metaphors and adjectives and surprising verbs and rhetorical devices and all of that, not the exaggerated plain style that for some reason is so common now:

Later it seemed like a mist had fallen in front of Zorrie’s eyes, and when it cleared, whole herds of years had again gone galloping by.  This troubled her more than it had in the past, this coming wide awake to the evidence of time’s ruthless determination: this figure thrown back to her from the mirror, with its splotches and thick ankles and twisted fingers and thin gray hair.  For the first time she registered that she had started to move gingerly, was creeping almost, that her balance had gone somewhat haywire, that she sometimes even dreaded the morning and the tasks that lay ahead.  (145)

The chapter epigraphs, read together, form a poem.  I took the post’s title from one of its lines.

Thanks again to Nancy Pearl.  I still have some doubts about “quiet” as a genre.  Zorrie often reminded me of another novel covering the life of a woman farmer that I have meant to write up for years, Ellen Glasgow’s 1925 Barren Ground, so I should do that tomorrow.


  1. I like the paragraph on aging. From personal experience, I relate to it, that is realism in a more artful form than I could put it.

  2. Hmm. I wonder if there are any "quiet" novels about male characters. Stoner, maybe.

    1. Ah, I was just going to comment that "Zorrie" gives off "Stoner" vibes.

  3. The confident respondents to Pearl mention Stoner as well as the novels of Kent Haruf and Marilynne Robinson and Jayber Crow, so there are some possibilities for male characters.

    I have not read any of those, but they make me wonder if one necessary criterion for "quiet" is some kind of earnestness and perhaps some stylistic flatness. Like people are imagining a certain kind of audiobook narrator.

    Thus Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, despite the minimal melodrama, are not quiet, because they are told with too much gusto.

  4. Stoner is certainly earnest and flat. It has one scene that gets most readers excited, where a college student discovers literature and his life is pushed in a new direction, but after that it's dry and bitter. Quietly bitter, I guess.

  5. The minimal irony and ambiguity is my greatest artistic doubt here. Nor does the quiet genre seem inventive. "Irony and ambiguity and invention" is close to what I think literary art is.

    But someone else nominated Tove Jansson's Summer Book, which is ironic and ambiguous - too ambiguous for many readers, I have observed - and could use a lively audiobook narrator; i.e., it did not strike me as "quiet."

  6. Yes, absolutely, Stoner is definitely earnest and flat… and to me a lot worse than that. The character Stoner is treated as a hero by readers for his dedication to literature. Meanwhile, he gets a physically handicapped student kicked out of university for challenging his authority. He may have brutalized his wife. He drives his daughter into alcoholism. Some hero. I don’t get the love for this novel at all. I’ve even noticed one woman on Goodreads quoting Thoreau’s “many lead lives of *quiet* desperation” in praise for the hero, even as Thoreau wrote it in a spirit of contempt for the kind!

  7. So few understand - I did not until I read him more seriously - that Thoreau is a great ironist, full of paradoxes and satire.