I’ve recently finished reading Sue Miller’s “The Lake Shore Limited“.
“The Lake Shore Limited” looks at the relationship dynamics between a group of people, all more or less connected by the death of a man named Gus in the events of September 11. His lover, his sister, his brother-in-law and two men that his lover gets involved with. These characters are all linked not only by Gus but by the incredibly complex emotion of guilt over secretly wishing a lover was gone, even though they’re a good thing.
For starters, I have some mysterious aversion to the use of September 11 as a plot device. Particularly in a poorly-written novel. I’m not even sure what this is about, really – I don’t feel this way about the use of world war 2, or even using more recent stuff from Afghanistan and Iraq. But somehow, the use of September 11 in this novel left a really sour taste in my mouth. It may be the way it was executed… I’ve also recently read Melina Marchetta’s “The Piper’s Son“, which used the following year’s bus bombing in London as part of its story. But somehow Melina Marchetta’s use of such a sensitive subject didn’t seem disrespectful – Sue Miller’s writing feels somehow like she’s laying claim to the emotions of the September 11 victims in a way I really don’t feel comfortable with.
A lot of this book was internal dialogue. The feeling I get is that Sue Miller wrote it as entirely internal dialogue, and then an editor told her that she’d written a bath story. Sue Miller gasps in shock, and promptly plugs in many “as he opened the window, he thought…” and “scooping dog food out of the tin, Billy recalled…” -type things to force her characters to do things rather than just be pensive all day long. With all these obviously forced actions, the writing process Sue Miller’s gone through becomes absolutely plainly visible. When I realised what had happened about three-quarters of the way through the book, I found it so distracting I had trouble reading past my frustration.
When action occasionally genuinely happens, it doesn’t feel strained – the book really might have benefited from a lot more of it.
I have no big problem with books that look at complex emotions. “Lolita” looked at pedophilia in an amazingly empathetic way. “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” looked at guilt and family dynamics beautifully. “Notes From Underground” features a torn-up and incredibly changeable narrator. I’m totally down with all these books, and many others that tackle really big and difficult feelings: it’s one of the most interesting and important things that literature can do. “The Lake Shore Limited” however, made a really difficult emotion one-dimensional by over-using it.
I like linking characteristics in characters, and maybe Sue Miller had a good idea in doing this. It’s a nice way of creating some continuity in a story, and as far as people go I belive there are those parts that all of us have in common. What’s happened though, is that all the characters have exactly the same feelings. The same reactions, the same guilt, the same struggle. And while I’m sure it’s a somewhat universal emotion, I don’t think that people could possibly all feel it in the same way like the characters of “The Lake Shore Limited” do.
Sue Miller has tried to tackle some really tough things with this book – September 11, universal emotions, the complexity of human relationships. There’s some really strong ideas, but Sue Miller’s limited writing of them means the story falls on its face. Hard.