Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What an awful, awful family.

Lie Down in DarknessLie Down in Darkness by William Styron
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Lie Down in Darkness is William Styron's first novel. It provides an exhaustive (and exhausting) portrait of a world-beating dysfunctional family. Milton Loftis, a middle-aged lawyer who has missed out on his youthful fantasies of parlaying his military background and law practice into a political career; Helen, his wife, who suffers from extreme, debilitating depression, and whose family money subsidizes Milton's inadequate legal practice; Peyton, their beautiful, smart, spoiled daughter; and Maudie, their physically and mentally handicapped younger daughter.

The novel starts and ends on the day Milton is driven to the train station to meet the coffin carrying Peyton, dead in her mid-twenties of an apparent suicide in New York City; Helen, who has always hated Peyton, doesn't come along, but he is accompanied by the family servant and his mistress. Throughout the ensuing 400 pages the author draws a believable but repellent portrait of the failures of this family and the way that Milt and Helen in particular make each other miserable.

Helen hates Peyton, who is Milton's favorite, and closes herself off to any positive relationship with either Milton or Peyton, devoting herself to the care of Maudie. Milton, partly in response to rejection by Helen, becomes an alcoholic and establishes a long-lasting affair with a woman, leading to her divorce and unrequited dependence on Milton. Peyton, meanwhile, exhibits an uncomfortably flirtatious relationship with her father, possibly implying some earlier sexual contact between them.

Although the novel is not primarily plot-driven, the author vividly portrays five pivotal days in the life of the Loftis family: a birthday party Milt throws for a teenaged Peyton at the country club, where he provides her with liquor while Peyton and her mother frankly express their hatred for each other; a trip Milton takes to Charlottesville to see Helen and the dying Maudie in the hospital in which he descends into drunkenness in an hours-long side trip to his old fraternity house and the UVA football game, which he rationalizes as an attempt to connect with Peyton to tell her of Maudie's condition; Peyton's wedding day, when Milton's theretofore successful resolve to lead a sober and responsible life falls apart; the last day of Peyton's life, fifty pages of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury, in which Peyton's first-person account veers between a reality-based narrative and her psychotic interior experiences; and the day of Peyton's burial, which opens and closes the novel.

Although the Peyton section is the only one told in the first person, Styron gives plenty of information to provide a good sense of the motivations, thoughts, and emotions of all the main characters. Milton, the alcoholic father, may be the most sympathetic because each time he starts to lose control of his drinking, seeing one drink slide into two, three, and then beyond counting, the reader keeps hoping he'll stop. The portrayal of Helen is unremittingly negative. Given Styron's later and well-known problems with depression one wonders whether his portrayal of Helen's depression comes from personal experience (he was writing this from ages 23-26), and why he couldn't muster a scintilla of sympathy for her.

In addition to these three main characters there are outside characters who are able to see this family for the disaster it is: Helen's ineffectual minister, on whom she develops an excessive dependence (it being easier to complain about her life than to do something about it); Peyton's Jewish husband; and the Black household servants, barely more than racist caricatures.

Although slightly over 400 pages, the paucity of true narrative action, the excess of description and inconsequential incidents, and the unremitting grimness of the life of this family made Lie Down in Darkness a burden to read pretty much from beginning to end. For this reason it is hard to recommend it, although readers who favor (hard to say "enjoy") novels based almost exclusively on the interior workings of their characters are likely to find this rewarding.

Finally there's an interesting side note. In the last couple of years the novel has been optioned for a movie and is said to be "in development". There's been a quite public rivalry between two prominent young actresses for the Peyton role, and they could hardly be more different: Kristen Stewart, whose main acting skill appears to be her ability to maintain an unchanged facial expression regardless of the situation and emotions her characters are faced with; and Jennifer Lawrence, who has already shown herself to be a gifted and versatile actor. You can understand why either one of them would want the part, but it's hard to understand why a director with the chance to cast Lawrence would ever choose Stewart.

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