Sunday, November 02, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #304: Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse

Thirty years is enough time to bring a bit of clarity and distance: things that seemed high and impressive (like Bright Lights, Big City) have dwindled, and things that didn't have so loud a clangor at the time are still as interesting, though perhaps getting even less attention that they got then. But it's still soon enough that all of the peaks are familiar, even if the whole territory isn't: we recognize the #1 bestseller of this week in 1984 (The Talisman, by King and Straub) and most of the rest of its company on that list as well. But we don't recognize the books that didn't become bestsellers that year, unless we had a special reason to know them -- there are hundreds like them, rushing out enthusiastically every year and being mostly forgotten by the time that year was done.

Dancing in the Dark is one of the non-bestsellers. It had a decent chance, since it was chosen as one of the seven books for the inaugural paperback list of the Vintage Contemporaries series, but it just didn't click. (Three older books -- call them modern classics, ten or fifteen years old. Three reprints of new 1983 books, including Dancing. And one original, Bright Lights, to draw attention.) Maybe Dancing was too much of its time, a social novel set in Manhattan club society in the early '80s, and maybe that focus was too much like Bright Lights, which stole all of the attention available. Maybe it was because the author, Janet Hobhouse, only wrote three novels, all during the 1980s, and died soon afterward, too early, from ovarian cancer. Maybe Bruce Springsteen came along and stole the title out from under her, right in between paperback and hardcover. Maybe something else happened: an editor left at the wrong time, a chain-store buyer hated it, a major review was too sour. But these days even a search for "dancing in the dark vintage" brings up someone else's novel first -- and even Amazon links Hobhouse's book as "another edition" of that twenty-years-newer novel.

Or maybe Dancing in the Dark was just a chilly, interior novel, deeply urban and urbane, of the kind that couldn't be expected to travel too far. It's the story of one marriage that almost broke, and the two equally culpable people who didn't quite break it, almost despite their efforts. Morgan and Gabriella Callagher are sophisticates in the early thirties: together since college, married ten years, no kids or sign of any coming along soon. In the early part of the novel, their strained relationship seems to mostly be Gabriella's fault: she runs off to clubs nearly every night of the week with three gay friends, sometimes with Morgan in tow and sometime not, though he never enjoys it. One of those friends, the charming and endlessly ingratiating Claudio, is even living with the Callaghers. (As is a friend of the couple's, Kate, who has just been dumped by her husband Richard -- both of those guests clearly trace back more to the gregarious Gabriella than the saturnine Morgan.)

But there's plenty of responsibility for Morgan as well: he's distant and passive-aggressive, and never says what he wants or needs. And he has a cruel streak as well, which we see later in the novel. There's nothing essentially wrong with either of them: they're decent enough people, capable of love and friendship and caring and living up to their capacity about as often as any of us. But they've drifted in different directions, and gotten into a disruptive pattern. Dancing in the Dark is the story of that pattern, about how they were turning on each other and then found a different way to turn later on.

It is all more than a bit cold and distanced: there's no dialogue at all in the first chapter, and Hobhouse is more of a precise writer than an embracing one. She tells us what Morgan and Gabriella and their friends are like, but keeps us out of their heads, and walks us through their world without giving us a lot of sensory cues to feel that world. This is an intellectual novel, a sophisticated novel, a novel about a particular society and a particular collection of people, a novel concerned with anatomizing a certain kind of marriage and seeing what makes it tick. It is not a famous novel, and never will be, but it's an interesting novel in its chilliness and particularly fascinating seen in parallel with Bright Lights, a much warmer (but, I think, less successful) book about a similar milieu by a younger male writer with a flashier style.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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