Contemporary American Landscapes
A comparison of The Sorrows of an American and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Siri Hustvedt’s recent novel, The Sorrows of an American, shares an array of intriguing concepts with other recent literary and cinematic works that attempt to portray the contemporary American landscape. It seems as though we can describe contemporary America as a mixture of disillusionments and hopes: the decades of optimism and of economic expansion have nevertheless failed to free many people from “entrapment;” that is, the state of being trapped either inside of oneself or inside of one’s social boundaries (for the ultimate example of the trapped suburban nightmare, see American Beauty). The Sorrows of an American fits into this context of disorientation and isolation while simultaneously describing a tenuous, but important, sense of hope. The novel’s structure, as well as its use of modern psychology, are quite reminiscent of the 1993 Lasse Hallström film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; by comparing the two, I hope to reveal a better understanding of this confused, stuck, but hopeful “contemporary American landscape.”
The Sorrows of an American chronicles the story of Erik, a prominent psychotherapist living in Brooklyn, and his experiences following the death of his father. The various characters of the novel, as well as their stories, are connected tenuously through Erik—his father and his diary, the mysterious doll-maker recluse, Erik’s tenant Miranda and her daughter, Miranda’s ex-boyfriend, Erik’s sister and his sister’s daughter, who are coping with the death of her husband, Erik’s psychotherapy patients; his friend Burton and Burton’s homeless alter-ego Dorothy. This extensive list of characters (there are numerous others) are somewhat involved with each other, but mostly through their connection with Erik. Hustvedt’s character Inga, Erik’s sister, tells us, “We want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces” (p. 276); Hustvedt purposely does not grant us what we want. The loose ends of her novel don’t “tie together” at the end of the book; rather, they continue to be loose ends. Hustvedt is not interested in providing a traditional story with a climax and resolution so much as she wants to explore the development of people through their interactions and their past experiences. This interest is most clearly expressed in Erik’s role as a psychotherapist; he not only analyzes his patients, but the people around him, as well as himself. Past experiences are of critical importance: Erik seeks to understand what is happening around him by exploring his father and his family’s past.
The character Magda’s citation of Hans Leowald is particularly useful for understanding Erik’s method of analysis; as she quotes, “The work of psychoanalysis can turn ghosts into ancestors” (p. 296). Hustvedt constantly implies that without learning to come to peace with their ghosts, neither Erik nor his companions can move forward and remain constantly stuck inside of their chronic problems: Erik’s sister cannot seem to come to terms with the death of her husband, her daughter Sonia has not yet come to terms with the tragedy of September 11, Miranda cannot seem to reconcile her problems with her boyfriend, and Erik cannot seem to move away from his fixation on Miranda. By the end of the novel some of these themes become somewhat resolved, but none of them are totally finalized.
The theme of ghosts and entrapment within one’s chronic problems is equally evident in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Also a work that relies heavily on modern psychology, the movie chronicles the situation of Gilbert Grape, a young man who lives with his family in a small town in Iowa. Since his father’s death, he has been forced to help support the family by working at a local grocery store and to constantly care for his mentally ill and physically weak younger brother Arnie. His father’s death broke his mother’s spirit; in the years that have passed since, she has become increasingly morbidly obese and has never moved from the lower floor of her house. Although as Gilbert describes her, she was “in her day was the prettiest girl in these parts,” she becomes a hysterical and weak recluse, dependent entirely on her daughter and on Gilbert (p. 5-6). While the ghost of Gilbert’s father looms around the house and the town (a regular tells Gilbert, “The way you say that makes me think I’m talking to your father” [p. 8]), his mother has also become a kind of ghost, weighing down and draining those around her. When Arnie begins to repeatedly scream “Dad’s dead!” at the dinner table, his reminder causes his mother to beg him to stop (p. 29-30).
Gilbert and those around him are both trapped by their social constaints and by themselves. The film opens with Gilbert and Arnie sitting by the roadside, watching tourists drive by with their campers; Gilbert comments, “They’re doing the right thing, just passing through...Endora’s [his town] where we are. Describing Endora is like dancing to no music. It’s a town where nothing much ever happens and nothing much ever will” (p. 3-4) Arnie also understands the situation; as he says to Gilbert, “Goodbye is for when you’re going away, and we’re not going anywhere, are we?” (p. 21). Arnie is the only person actively trying to escape: he is notorious around town for constantly trying to climb to the top of the town’s water tower. It is through his actions that the other characters begin to move forward; when he is arrested for climbing, his mother leaves the house for the first time in seven years, and despite the mockery she encounters on the street, goes to the police station to find her son.
Hustvedt’s novel is written in pieces, influenced by psychological conceptions of memory and the brain. According to Erik, ““Memory offers up its gifts only when jogged by something in the present. It isn’t a storehouse of fixed images and words, but a dynamic associative network in the brain that is never quiet and is subject to revision each time we retrieve an old picture or old words” (p. 80-81). Furthermore, as Inga says to Erik, “We’re fragmented beings who cement ourselves together, but there are always cracks” (p. 139). Hustvedt illustrates these points through her “bits and pieces” technique; the novel is composed from Erik’s mixed-up memory, as well as the mixed-up memories of the people who talk to Erik. He jumps from brief interactions with Miranda and Miranda’s daughter to conversations with his patients to visits with his sister and his sister’s daughter.
Gilbert Grape is structured similarly: Gilbert thinks about fixing cars, about his job at the supermarket and his dream job at the new burger joint, as well as his siblings and parents. He is simultaneously having an affair with a married woman whose husband later drowns in a pool, and he begins a romance with a girl named Becky whose trailer broke down in Eudora. All of these events occur around the time of Arnie’s eighteenth birthday; we also see the family struggling to prepare the birthday party while Gilbert attempts to protect his younger brother and his unstable mother from the cruelty of town gossip. Weighed down by his various responsibilities, Gilbert spends a romantic night with Becky only to come home to find that due to his negligence, Arnie spent the entire night sitting in the bathtub.
Both works, though, end with a sense of possibilities and of change. Erik, who has been helping his sister fight for the ownership of her husband’s letters while keeping track of Miranda and her daughter, has a peaceful and fulfilled moment outside of the hospital. As he describes the snowflakes moving, he comments, “It struck me as a moment when the boundary between inside and outside loosens, and there is no loneliness because there is no one to be lonely” (p. 301).
This same sense of possibilities and hope occurs in Gilbert Grape after Gilbert’s mother climbs the stairs of the house for the first time in seven years and dies peacefully in her old bed. Gilbert’s family decides that rather than face the humiliation of arranging a funeral for a several hundred pound woman mocked by the community, they’ll burn down the house with her body still inside. When Gilbert tells Becky that it is “incredibly frustrating to be stuck here in this place, in Endora,” Becky responds, “This place is as good a place as any,” suggesting that what is really important is to accept who and what you are (p. 43). At the end of the movie, Becky returns to Endora to see Gilbert and Arnie and Gilbert assures himself, “We can go anywhere if we want” (p. 98). Here also we see the importance of accepting what has happened and moving forward.
Hedges, Peter. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Drew's Script-O-Rama: free movie scripts and screenplays, baby!. 18 Apr. 2009 <http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/w/whats-eating-gilbert-grape-script.html>.
Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American: A Novel. New York, NY: Picador, 2009.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Dir. Lasse Hallström. Perf. Johnny Depp, Leonardo di Caprio. Paramount, 1993.