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Carole Maso Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New Jersey. Education: Vassar College, B.A. 1977. Career: Worked as a waitress, an artist's model, and a fencing instructor; writer-in-residence, Illinois State University, Normal, 1991-92; writer-in-residence, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 1992-93; associate professor, Columbia University, New York, 1993; professor and director of creative writing, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1995—. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Ghost Dance. New York, Perennial Library, 1987.

The Art Lover. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990.

Ava. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.

The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.

Aureole. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1996.

Defiance. New York, Dutton, 1998.

Short Stories

Contributor, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, edited by E. J. Levy. New York, Avon Books, 1995.

Other

Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.

The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.

Contributor, Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse, edited by Sven Birkerts. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1996.

* * *

The author of six novels (only the first and last of which have been issued by commercial publishers) and director of the writing program at Brown University (where the master postmodernist fiction-writers John Hawkes and Robert Coover preceded her), Carole Maso is very much a writer's writer. Although she makes few concessions to the ordinary reader, her work, for all its nearly high-modernist aestheticism, proves intensely emotional and engaging. Conventional plot and character development—two of "the enemies of the novel," as Hawkes once called them—hardly figure in Maso's fiction. At once erudite and lyrical, her work does not so much develop as deepen and is built upon the principles of recurrence and obsession, yearning and loss. Believing that conventional narrative "reassures no one," Maso pushes beyond the conventions "so that form takes as many risks as the content." Maso's preoccupation with form—with finding a form both enabling and provisional, appropriate to her subject yet self-consciously subjective and therefore provisional—is matched by her interest in, or obsession with, language. Rejecting both realism's self-effacing transparency and metafiction's self-regarding gamesmanship, she conceives language in sensuous terms and as an evocative rather than merely descriptive medium. Like Helene Cixous, she believes that language should serve to "extend" possibility rather than limit it and should "heal" as much as "separate." Consequently, her published fiction possesses the openness of a work-in-progress in which the connections are tenuous, lyrical, and erotically charged.

In Ghost Dance Vanessa Wing struggles with the deaths of her parents—one a Princeton philosopher, the other a famous poet—and with the disappearance of her brother. Torn between her dual paternity, seeking to reconcile order and freedom, the Jamesian house of fiction and the Romantics' bird of imagination, she attempts to weave scraps of memory and imagination into a protective ghost shirt as she searches for the missing piece/peace that will give shape and meaning to her troublingly disjunctive but deeply elegiac ghost dance. The elegiac quality is underscored by the novel's title, which alludes to the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee.

The Art Lover tells a similar story but in a much more complex manner. The recent death of her father, a painter and art historian, leads Caroline Chrysler back to her mother's suicide and from there to assembling the pieces of so many shattered lives drawn from a multitude of sources into a coherent narrative. The effort is further complicated by the novel's mise-en-abime effect. The life-story Caroline tries to construct mirrors the novel she is writing, a novel that mirrors the one Maso herself has written and in which she appears, grieving for her dead lover. In this complex rendering, writing itself is a necessary but ambivalent act. It is a way of remembering and of keeping the world at bay and of savoring the details that refuse to shape themselves into something final and whole.

The savoring is especially strong in Ava, Maso's best and riskiest novel. In this "living text" about a dying woman, Maso narrates the story of Ava Klein, thirty-nine-year-old professor of comparative literature, a "rare bird" (rara ava) dying of a rare blood disease. Dismayingly disjointed at first, the novel becomes increasingly lyrical as it progresses ahead ("Morning," "Afternoon," "Night") through Ava's last day while simultaneously and erratically back over her life. The brief, seemingly random sections—the bits and pieces of Ava's richly lived and cultured life—flash before her eyes and the reader's. As this ingeniously crafted novel "throbs" and "pulses," it takes on a coherence apart from the simple continuity that "reassures no one" to reveal a woman who was, and is, even in her dying, intensely alive, erotically, culturally, and intellectually.

After the immense if understated power of this "story without a message," in which the joyousness of Ava's life plays itself out against the backdrop of her dying and Maso's awareness that things "can go terribly wrong," Maso's next two books—The American Woman in the Chinese Hat (written before Ava, though published after) and Aureole—seem less intense and somewhat less effective. There are the "stories of love and love taken away" in the former and the more desperate erotics "of the woman who wants" in the latter. Defiance, however, even as it repeats Maso's most characteristic thematic and stylistic concerns, represents something of a new direction in her work. Its overall form and sensational subject help explain its having been published by a large commercial house and reissued as a trade paperback despite the novel's fierce language and dense interweaving of past and present. Defiance takes the form of a woman awaiting execution for murder. This is Bernadette O'Brien, the precocious misfit from a variously abusive Irish-Catholic, working-class background who became the youngest-ever professor of physics at Harvard before killing two of her undergraduate students/sex-partners. Neither the platitudes of the therapeutic society nor the mathematical equations of her profession help Bernadette understand and explain her difficult life. And so she becomes a latter-day Scherherazade, or Molly Bloom, desperately and determinedly longing for the ideal reader, the art lover, the dead or otherwise missing brother, in a world in which, for Bernadette, "the obsessive fear of our own erotic power has done us in."

—Robert Morace

Bobbie Ann Mason Biography [next]

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