In Carolyn Cooke’s recent novel, Daughters of the Revolution, Cooke set the mark of her anger, along with her exquisite sentences, on the ultimate crucible of American male power. The book drew opposing reactions from critical circles. In The San Francisco Chronicle, Susanna Sonnenberg literally ordered people to read Daughters of the Revolution, calling it “ferocious” and “astonishing.” Cooke, she wrote, “can reinvent the known with imagery so fine and excruciating it feels like a dare.” But Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post blasted Cooke’s novel, comparing it unfavorably to the 1964 Louis Auchincloss novel The Rector of Justin, and accused Cooke of ham-fisted political correctness.
The novel’s inciting incident is a boating accident in the early 1960s that kills a young father while sparing his wealthy companion. Although the novel’s action spans decades, it never reaches beyond the geographic confines of New England and New York. Yet Daughters of the Revolution’s epiphanic ending calls down all the tragedy of the North and South. We recently spoke at her home in northern California.
The Rumpus: When I read your short story collection, The Bostons, I had a sensory hit of New England: the old floorboards, the smell of summer. But you’ve been living on the north coast of California for quite a while now. Is California culture where the novel’s surreal sensibility comes from?
Carolyn Cooke: I think Hawthorne is pretty surreal. Most New England writers are echoing a little bit of Hawthorne’s surrealism. Someone in a negative review called my book an example of hysterical realism. He cited me along with Zadie Smith and some other writers I really respect. It was a negative review, but great company. I know the review was meant to be negative, but I liked the description. I understand the impulse to not be a realist. I don’t think I am fundamentally a realist even though I’m interested in reality. I’m interested in texture, I’m interested in commentary, I’m interested in the meta story. I think realism can be tedious. I’ m not interested in writing it.
Rumpus: It’s laborious.
Cooke: I have a hard time having characters pour milk in their coffee. I’m pleased when people say that it’s not quite in a realist tradition.
Rumpus: In terms of place, Boston is the epicenter of the American class system, isn’t it? Louis Auchincloss and Ward Just were categorical in their descriptions of Boston.
Cooke: It used to be. That was one of the differences I noticed when I came to California. In New England, it was so hard for people to move beyond cultural assumptions that people made because you were black, or you were a woman, or you lived in a certain neighborhood or you were poor.
Rumpus: And you were poor.
Cooke: (hesitates) My mother and I were poor, yeah. She was a substitute teacher for most of my childhood. A single parent.
Rumpus: Where did you live?
Cooke: We lived in a number of places. We sometimes housesat for people. We lived in Newton, Massachusetts most of the time when I was very young. When I was 10 we moved to Bar Harbor, Maine. My mother’s father was a Swedish immigrant who built houses there. He built her a house based on a design she made in a home ec class in eighth grade. She still lives there. It’s a fabulous house. It has a tower. It’s very whimsical.
Rumpus: Daughters of the Revolution focuses on a specific period of time in a specific place, when New England prep schools were taking cautious steps toward integration and co-education. Around the same time, Boston was in the throes of a violent controversy over school busing. The violence in South Boston was after your moved to Maine, wasn’t it?
Cooke: Yes, but I was aware of it. Initially I wanted to write a book about busing.
Rumpus: I can see how that idea morphed into Carole, the African-American girl who is admitted to the boys’ prep school by mistake. It’s remarkable how much the discussion of school integration has changed, isn’t it? We seem to have given up on integration in the schools. Now we talk about identity, which is fine, but I wonder if the price we pay is further fragmentation of the polity. Do you think an obsession with race can blind us to issues of class? Is there a vacuum in the arts and the national debate when it comes to class?
Cooke: I’m really disturbed by the increasing emphasis at elite schools and elsewhere on meritocracy. You look at the Ivy League colleges, which are so racially and ethnically diverse, and yet so filled with wealthy, privileged kids from all over the world. It’s also true at the California state schools, increasingly, as the tuition goes up. It’s called “merit” and it means the kids whose parents are wealthy enough to get them the preparation they need to get into those schools. I’m fearful of a world that loves those who have merit and ignores those who don’t.
Rumpus: What’s the index of “merit”?
Cooke: Right, right. There’s a phenomenon of what my friend David Rothkopf calls the super class, and it’s international. This is who rules the world. They’re all colors and all creeds and it’s just as egalitarian as it could be, except they’re all the super people, the people who make the decisions, who run the corporations, who create the culture, who hold the money. The issue is no longer “Are people treated equally because of their background?” The issue is that most people aren’t treated equally and only a few people are.
Rumpus: The intensity of that comes through at the ending of your book. I was so angry after I finished that book, I was a total bitch for three days.
Cooke: Why, thank you! (laughs)
Rumpus: (laughs) The ending of the book, to me, was about global inequality. I don’t know if that was what you intended. This isn’t an historical book, it’s not a curiosity, it’s not limited to the 60s and 70s, or drawing a self-conscious parallel between an earlier time and ours. The surreal aspects of the book gave it a larger scope, I thought, without confusing the reader. Were you thinking about these larger kinds of inequality or was I projecting?
Cooke: We all have a different lens, or several lenses. You’ve spent a lot of time looking at the world through the lens of the environment. How does the environment get affected in a poor country? A colonized country? I’ve always seen the world through the lens of class.
Rumpus: My lens also tends to be political. The political novel gets a bad rap as being by definition didactic or second rate literature, but I wonder if there’s a new urgency now, with two wars going on and economic hard times that wasn’t there before? Are American writers are looking beyond the suburban cul de sac?
Cooke: Oh, yeah. I remember all these stories about men in some huge indescribable existential struggle. Just like anybody else, I read Philip Roth, and Updike, and Cheever, and Raymond Carver. Carver brought the class card to the table, but kind of relentlessly. And they’re very male, and they’re very much about their mortality, and the women are unreal. It was such a breath of air that there were people trying to tell weird, big stories from all around the world.
Rumpus: A few of those guys wrote great sex scenes. Richard Ford. That guy could make it new. Yours are very good, too. How do you write about sex?
Cooke: I think it’s hard, too. With Daughters of the Revolution, I wanted to write a book about the sexual revolution, and I realized after a certain point that I had to write about sex. I wanted to explore the history of bad sex.
Rumpus: That would be a great book title.
Cooke: I did it very diligently, the way I do everything. I had a certain amount of experience, which I brought to bear. (laughter) I think it’s of service to the book, even if you’re not a realist. Because the way they look at sex changes over time. Your characters, I mean.
Rumpus: So the actress does a nude scene if it’s artistically merited. Makes sense. I do see a common ground in your novel, despite its brevity, with the large canvas novels you’re referring to. What are you reading now?
Cooke: I’m reading nonfiction, because I’m interested in the intersection of sex and drugs and how drugs lubricated things in New England at a certain time. In fiction, I was just reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was thinking that there are such giant stories that people from Africa or India are telling. Adiga does such a great job at showing multiple facets of a country but also telling a Dostoevskian story about a criminal. It’s literary and character-based but also doing this hard work of illuminating culture and society, and looking into the present and the future.
In English, there haven’t been these giant stories that try to explain a nation, explain these huge historic events, at least recently. I think of young people coming up, and feeling there’s this huge obligation to tell stories that haven’t been told before. But in some sense that’s what every novel does. Every novel has the lens that grabs at you.