Monday, December 6, 2010

Entry 23: "The Keepers of the House" by Shirley Anne Grau (1965)

I think I may have found my newest favorite form of literature: Southern Gothic. I am, of course, referring to the literary movement that is a subgenre of gothic fiction (with authors like Anne Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley) that is specific to the southern United States. Southern gothic literature got its start in the early 1900's, during the Modernist movement, and has blanketed authors like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, the infamous John Kennedy Toole, and, as I've recently discovered, Shirley Anne Grau.

I can't quite put my finger on one specific reason I've fallen so in love with this genre—there are so many things about it that absolutely enchant me.

There's a certain sense of mystery that prevails throughout the novels, an eerie suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat, a darkness that lurks in the woods surrounding the property, a ghost in the closet, an endless highway that stretches long into the night, the devil playing blues music on acoustic guitar at the corner of two dusty crossroads. The novels bring me into this dark, demented, spiritual place that terrifies me, but hypnotizes me; I don't want to be there, but I can't bring myself to ever leave (which is the reason why I'll be reading A Fable, by William Faulkner, next).

So far, every example of Southern Gothic I've read has been fantastic—Shirley Anne Grau's 1965 Pulitzer-winning The Keepers of the House is no exception.


I had pretty high expectations for this book going in because of the amount Joshua—who read this book at the outset of this project—hyped it up and I'm happy to report that I was not let down. It took me a while to get through it, just because I kept putting it off, but the only reason I kept putting it off was because I wanted the book to last longer. Normally, with a book like this (like Now In November and Gilead, for example), I love it so much that I race through it because I can't put it down. This time, I wanted to savor the book. I wanted it to last. I didn't want to leave the titled house that Grau invited me into. I had kicked off my shoes, reclined on the couch, and watched the family drama unfold from one generation to the next from that one place on the couch, and despite the discomfort that Grau put me in with her narrative, I felt obliged to be there.


The Keepers of the House is the story of a family through three generations and uses the family home as the pivot point of the novel—even though the story is epic in scope and far-reaching, telling story after story after story through these three generations, by keeping the house as the central "character" in the novel, the character that all of the stories and other characters revolve around, their stories, and the overall arc of the novel, are easy to follow and understand. This is a concept I earlier discussed in my review of Philip Roth's American Pastoral—the novel is even more epic than Grau's, but it's still accessible because of Roth's maintaining his focus on one specific family and the stories that surround them. The same is true of The Keepers of the House—in this novel, Grau confronts racism, interracial relationships, war, group violence, motherhood, fatherhood, family, religion, politics; she runs the gambit of hot topics of her day (this book was written just as the American Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam) and she does so in a really accessible, easy-to-follow fashion, never getting off track, never disinteresting the reader, and never getting preachy.

And, true to Southern Gothic fashion, she creates a world so full of mystery, so full of intrigue, so full of regrets and hopes, dreams and nightmares. This quote, from Wikipedia, really sums up quite nicely what Southern Gothic is and, after having read it, I can say now that The Keepers of the House is almost a prototypical representative for Southern Gothic literature—it has all of the basic elements:
One of the most notable features of the Southern Gothic is "the grotesque" - this includes situations, places, or stock characters that often possess some cringe-inducing qualities—typically racial bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness—but enough good traits that readers find themselves interested nevertheless. Southern Gothic authors commonly use deeply flawed, grotesque characters for greater narrative range and more opportunities to highlight unpleasant aspects of Southern culture, without being too literal or appearing to be overly moralistic. Tennessee Williams described Southern Gothic as a style that captured "an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." However, the genre was itself open to criticism, even by its alleged practitioners. As Flannery O'Connor remarked, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."
In this novel, Grau introduces the reader to some of the most twisted and perverted characters one will come across. The racism and bigotry that pervades this novel is almost overwhelming, and the racial tension keeps the reader in suspense all the way up until the culmination of the tension results in a near-deadly fire set by an angry mob at Abigail Howland's homestead. The ugliness of some of the events and characters in this book truly are grotesque.


Despite the grotesque, though, there's something quite moving about this novel. There's something to be said for the loyalty to family, for the coexistence of two races, for the ardent desire to be free from social norms and dictations. I really have discovered my new favorite subgenre and I want to stay in this place for a while.

1955's Pulitzer-winning novel, A Fable, by William Faulkner—you're next.

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