Liars and Saints, the debut novel from UC Irvine M.F.A. grad Maile Meloy, comes on the heels of her celebrated collection of short stories from 2002, Half in Love. That first book—praised nearly everywhere for its precision of craft, its infusion of fresh energy into a set of decidedly unfancy realistic conventions, and its dedication to the unsentimental, sincere, dignified delineation of ordinary (complex, flawed) people—came as a reminder that straightforward humanistic storytelling could still be deployed in service to the aims of real art. It also functioned—and not so incidentally—as a quiet rebuke to those young writers and readers who've been overly wowed by the McSweeney's Group–i.e., the burgeoning followers of literary impresario Dave Eggers and his magazine–that you don't need to fuss up your prose with curlicue ironies, pop references, outrage, or self-consciousness to tell a good story. Somebody might even make the case—not Meloy, certainly, who seems too self-effacing and uninterested in manifestoes or trends—that Meloy is one of the "literary anti-rebels" David Foster Wallace (of all people) predicted, back in the mid-1990s, might be the next wave in American fiction: "The next real literary 'rebels' in the country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain and old untrendy human troubles in U.S. life with reverence and conviction."
Both of Meloy's books are anti-rebel in Wallace's sense. The very stubbornness of her traditionalism seems risky, the taking of a stand. Liars and Saints is a multigenerational family novel, tracing the fates of five generations of a Southern California family, the Santerres, from the early days of World War II to the turn of the millennium. If this sounds like one of the three-pound doorstop novels popular with the Oprah crowd, though, note that Liars and Saints covers 58 years of American life in only 260 pages, and tells the story through the eyes of nine different characters. (Meloy runs through the first 50 years by page 142.) It's a quick-sketch epic, filled with incident and brisk as hell, and if there's a price to be paid for that—in terms of some shallow characterizations, or Forrest Gump-y brushes with benchmarks of recent American history (Meloy dutifully, if mostly pointlessly, flavors the text with a character who witnesses the Robert Kennedy assassination, or with references to pop-culture icons, the bombing of Baghdad in 1991, etc.), or an overall sense that Meloy has the pragmatist's impatience with too much wallowing in emotion—well, that very briskness has its own mesmerizing effect. Watching her characters blaze through the decades, dealing with the consequences of secrets and lies that both hold the family together and blow it apart, you get a palpable sense of the mirage-like nature of California space and time, of minds and hearts blinded by white sunlight, summer heat and freeway distances, where loneliness and melancholy are pervasive, and where the ties of family history seem as brittle as filament, which holds briefly, then breaks, floats free, and only sometimes gets repaired.
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The characters feel a little suspended in this California ether, separated from each other and often from their own histories, much like you'd see in the California fiction of Joan Didion, Kate Braverman, or Meloy's fellow UCI grad Aimee Bender (An Invisible Sign of My Own). Only, she doesn't use their surrealism or shoot her novel full of the drug culture; Meloy does it all with her quickdraw realism. In fact, this ability to achieve relatively modern affects with traditional means might be what makes her traditionalism new, and makes Meloy the kind of anti-rebel Wallace talked about.
The novel hits the ground running, and hardly lets up. The prose isn't at all breathless–it's carefully and blissfully sane–but just to give you an idea, here's what happens by page 50: Yvette Grenier and Teddy Santerre marry in Santa Barbara and he goes off to fly bombers against the Japanese (we get some war action). When he returns, they have two children, Margot and Clarissa, and then he goes back to fight in Korea. While he's away, she's nearly tempted by another man, and confesses to a priest, who tells her she must tell her husband, which she does—a mistake, she realizes, as his jealousy sours their marriage for years afterward. Meanwhile, there is acute sibling rivalry between the two daughters, one of whom gets pregnant by a dance instructor at the age of 14. Margot, the pregnant daughter, tells her mother the bad news, and before anyone has a chance to discover the secret, Yvette ships her off to live with French relatives until the baby is born. Then Yvette informs her husband that she herself has become pregnant, picks a fight with him, and announces that she's leaving home to have her baby in a convent. Whereupon she moves to the convent, and we learn that she's not pregnant at all, but merely pretending, and that her plan is to go to France to help her daughter with her delivery, and then bring Margot's baby home and pretend that it is hers. This is fine by Margot, who wants nothing to do with the baby, and it is also fine, evidently, by God, who, when Yvette reveals her plan to Him in prayer, rewards her by giving her an out-of-body experience: "God had lifted her up to be with Him, just for a moment, and she was His." Yvette's deception is the first of the two big lies of the title; the second has to do with Margot/Yvette's son, Jamie, who falls in love and sleeps with his niece/cousin (family trees get awfully complicated when the woman you thought was your mother is your grandmother and the woman you thought was your sister is your mother), who, in turn, gets pregnant and has a child. Both lies, obviously, aftershock like crazy, particularly for Jamie, who, as an adult, learns, in the same 10 pages or so, who his real parents are and learns that Abby, the niece/cousin/lover who is carrying his baby, has a rapidly developing jaw cancer that can't be treated if she wants to keep the baby.
And while, amassed into a couple of paragraphs, this compressed summary sounds a little absurd, one of Meloy's achievements is to make the Santerre saga no more and no less extraordinary than what happens in the family lives of so many Americans, if only we had the audacity to tell the story. What was notable in Meloy's book of stories—an almost unnerving ability to be familiar and original at the same time—isn't always on display here. There are patches of the novel that feel like standard family-novel fare, places where Meloy's prose gets enervated and clichd ("There had been a rough spot, after Teddy learned the truth, but now things were better between them"), and an ending that too typically rounds up the novel's participants at a family gathering so everyone can reckon with the past. But overall it's a brilliant debut novel from a homegrown talent, and I look forward to what this anti-rebel comes up with next.
Maile Meloy, Liars and Saints, Scribners, 260 Pages, $24.