Nationality: American. Born: Green Bay, Wisconsin, 14 June 1957. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A. 1979; Columbia University, M.F.A. 1983. Awards: Guggenheim award, 1988; Whiting prize, 1989; Lila Wallace Readers Digest award, 1996-99; Hadder prize, Princeton University. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Anywhere But Here. New York, Knopf, and London, Bloomsbury, 1986.
The Lost Father. New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1992.
A Regular Guy. New York, Knopf, 1996.
Off Keck Road. New York, Knopf, 2000.* * *
In Anywhere but Here and The Lost Father, Mona Simpson has created characters who are oddly likable, benignly to profoundly troubled, and eerily familiar, though rarely predictable. Simpson fashions powerful, simple prose and tackles awkward subjects with straightforward grace. Her settings—though ranging from California to Egypt to New York—capture the manners and mores of the American Midwest, particularly exploring how "heartland" sensibilities mix with those of either coast. Her novels center on Wisconsin small-town life and the inhabitants who fled, searching for glamour and opportunity, as well as those who stayed in all of their mediocre and eccentric glory.
The primary narrator of Anywhere But Here, Ann Stevenson, lives out an adolescent tug-of-war with her unstable and needy mother, Adele. The novel's opening sentence, "We fought," only scratches the surface of their bizarre rapport. Adele, abandoned by her husband, spends much of her adulthood chasing living beyond her means and emotionally abusing her daughter. The word "abuse" is never used in the novel, though Adele's habit of dropping Ann on the side of the highway and driving away (only to return in search of her an hour later) should qualify. It is often difficult to determine who is parenting whom.
Ann recognizes Adele's emotional and financial immaturity. But Adele sometimes becomes the more sympathetic character, as when we see her difficulties as a single mother, trying to provide her daughter with a cosmopolitan, advantaged life in California rather than an ordinary one in Racine. There are moments when it becomes difficult to approve of Ann as well. Readers are not left with an easy identification or an easy hatred.
Adele ostensibly leaves her kindly, aging mother's home to allow Ann to pursue a Hollywood acting career. In the process, she leaves a stale marriage with a washed-up figure skater in search of glamour in Beverly Hills. The title's lament of "anywhere but here" signals not only Adele's restlessness but Ann's, too. Adele and Ann's understanding of what it means to be "have-nots" among the "haves"—and their attempts to pretend otherwise—provide many painful and humorous episodes. The novel is rightly acclaimed for its complex treatment of familial relationships and its keen rendering of mother-daughter bonds.
Simpson's second novel, The Lost Father, although still exploring the same modern family, shifts focus to a father-daughter relationship. This time Ann Stevenson is transformed into Mayan Amneh Atassi—her birthname, reflecting her Egyptian heritage. We hear very little from Adele during the course of the novel; she is primarily a reflection of Mayan's often self-destructive and fruitless quest for "Joh" Atassi, a washed up college professor, gambler, swindler, and ladies' man. Again, we follow Mayan's journey, this time from medical school to near madness, as she shuffles her loyalties and her priorities in search of lost origins.
This adult "An" is every bit as savvy and wise as the child. Her desire for the father she never had becomes the focal point for all of the other problems in her life. She questions her search for and wish for a father, but each time she gives it up the desire returns to consume her, poison her romantic relationships, and prevent her from feeling "normal." Mayan's wish for her father is never naive, however. She recognizes that finding her father may be "beside the point"—that she may not want him after all. We follow her hiring detectives, badgering distant relatives, and making friends with telephone operators. Mayan ruminates over her fear of being abandoned by men, her fragmented cultural heritage, and her status as a contemporary American middle-class white woman. She is obsessed with her beauty and weight, her ambition, and her intelligence, never sure precisely how each talent might be put to use or downplayed in the name of her desire to be "like anybody else."
Simpson's novels are remarkable for their unsentimental versions of contemporary womanhood. Her female narrators are strong characters but not invincible heroines; they are victimized but not merely victims. Simpson's prose is insightful but not preachy, eccentric but not outlandish, and entertaining but not simply comedic. Her novels read much more like memoir, providing readers with intricate and painful windows into her characters' psyches. With A Regular Guy, which retells the story of the biblical Genesis and Exodus through the tale of a slightly dysfunctional Silicon Valley family, Simpson showed her ability to extend her themes into a broader landscape. The project was an ambitious one, yet Simpson more than succeeded, primarily by relying on the underlying strengths that have served her so well throughout her career as a writer.
updated by Judson Knight
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