1 November 2012

Connie May Fowler: The Problem with Murmur Lee (2005)

Being unfamiliar with any of Connie May Fowler's work, I looked at her Wikipedia entry, and was intrigued by this paragraph:
'Fowler’s work has been characterized as southern fiction with a post-modern sensibility. It often melds magical realism with the harsh realities of poverty. It generally focuses on working-class people of various racial backgrounds. She has been cited in sources such as Sharon Monteith's Advancing Sisterhood?: Interracial Friendships in Contemporary Southern Fiction and Suzanne Jones's Race Mixing: Southern Fiction Since the Sixties as belonging to a “fourth generation” of American writers, black and white, that explodes old notions of race, segregation, and interpersonal racial relationships.'

This novel is set in Iris Haven (for which we should read Summer Haven), St Augustine, Florida. I don't think I'd apply the terms 'postmodern sensibility' or 'magical realism' to The Problem with Murmur Lee, though, although there are certainly elements of fantasy in it. The preliminary quotation is by John Berger: 'There is never a single approach to something remembered', and this novel is a multiple narrative consisting (if Father Matthew Jaeger's two unsent letters are excluded) six voices:

Murmur Lee Harp: This is the dead Murmur speaking – she died in her mid-thirties, a saint manqué(e), a witch manqué(e), but who was (and still is) loved by almost everyone she knew.

Charleston Rowena Mudd (Charlee to her friends): Murmur's executor and a 'Self-Loathing Southerner' who moved to Boston to 'escape redneck culture' but has returned (probably for good).

Edith Piaf: A former soldier and a great friend of Murmur's, Edith has had a sex change and peppers her narrative with French expressions as much as Lucinda (see below) peppers hers with 'fucking'.

Dr. Zachary Klein (or simply Z – and that's pronounced 'Zee' not 'Zed', of course – to his friends): A well-loved (but deeply troubled) character whose dying wife Katrina was cared for by Murmur, whom he deeply loved.

Lucinda Smith: A walking disaster area, a nicotine addict yoga teacher who paints seagulls she hates in order to sell to tourists she hates, and is beautifully summed up by Charlee – 'fucked-up from top to bottom'.

William S. Speare: The pseudonym of this writer is probably description enough, but the title of his novel The Sex Life of Me really hammers the point home: more ego even than, say, Martin Amis.

This is a very funny and at the same time very moving novel.

But Murmur Lee's problem? Charlee says it could be her pride for not telling anyone about her musicogenic epilepsy (information which could have saved her life), but then recognizes that if people didn't have pride they'd be scratching their asses in public. No: Murmur, as she says in the last sentence in the novel, 'loved this world': the problem is that she is dead.

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