The Critical Mass

Joanna Scott’s new novel shows its metal

Master typist that I am, in the midst of a series of email exchanges with Joanna Scott a few months ago I misspelled “fiction” as “faction.” A typo that, in a literature context, lends new meaning to an otherwise serviceable word. In subsequent emails, we’ve adopted this new word, faction, as a handy reference for a fusion of fact and fiction.

Scott’s smart and inventive new faction, Careers For Women, is a tale of consequences that cleverly solves one of the singularly most-important tasks for a novelist, find the villain in the story. And it’s really not spoiling anything, hopefully it’s just stoking your interest, to reveal here in the second paragraph that the villain in Careers for Women is… aluminum.

Scott will undoubtedly explain why she is picking on this stalwart of the Periodic Table of the Elements during her 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24 reading and book signing at the College Town Barnes & Noble, followed by cocktails at the nearby restaurant Grappa.

A professor of English at the University of Rochester since 1987, Scott writes high-concept fiction. Her 1996 novel, The Manikin, is dominated by the gothic western New York home of an obsessed taxidermist, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her first 11 books – novels and story collections – have accumulated a smattering of other literary awards and shown an interest in plundering from history and its landscapes. Her first novel, 1988’s The Closest Possible Union, was set on a slave ship. Her 1990 novel Arrogance was about the early 20th-century Austrian painter and moral-standards wrecking ball, Egon Schiele. Tourmaline, published in 2002, takes place on Elba, the island where Napoleon was exiled.

None of this is unusual, of course. But Scott seems to pay particular attention to the details that set up her tales. In fact, when she began writing her last book, De Potter’s Grand Tour, it was intended to be a non-fiction exploration of a distant relative of hers who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When she couldn’t uncover enough as to why he got on a steamship and wasn’t on board when it arrived in port – Suicide? Murder? Whoops, he just fell overboard? – it became a novel.

Joanna Scott.

Careers For Women does indeed open with a gathering of those young career women that the title promises. Except, “It was 1958,” Scott writes, “and we had come to New York in search of husbands.”

Those words, the title of the book and the dust-jacket depicting women from the legs down in wool skirts and high heels reflect the influential HBO television series Mad Men. These women are being mentored by Lee K. Jaffe, or Mrs. J as she’s called by everyone. And that name immediately brings to mind the 1958 novel The Best of Everything, which became a Joan Crawford film, about five young women working in the publishing industry, as Scott herself did as a young woman. The Best of Everything was written by Rona Jaffe. Is Scott coyly referencing Jaffe’s book? The parallels seem obvious.

But no. The historical details accompanying Careers For Women are once again in place. Lee K. Jaffe was an actual person, the head of public relations of The Port Authority in New York City. And as Careers For Women moves through the 1960s, we begin to see Jaffe’s significant role in the development of the Port Authority’s most-ambitious project. The development and construction of the World Trade Center.

Some interesting techniques come into play here. As a teacher, Scott is worried that the novel is dying. Readers can’t seem to train their video-game focus to stay on the job long enough. So Careers For Women is broken up into little subheads. These sections are sometimes a few pages long, or a page, and one is even a single paragraph.

Scott plays with chronology as well, darting back and forth in time. One of her characters, writing a dissertation on William Randolph Hearst, explains what Scott is doing: “It occurred to him that he might organize the story in a different way, in accordance with the force of association rather obedience to the order of time.”

Alongside Mrs. J, Scott adds to the Cuisinart of characters Maggie Gleason, a young woman from Cleveland who serves as a narrator with an omniscient view of the story. And a prostitute, Pauline Moreau, with a young child. And just as Mrs. J doesn’t seem to care that small businesses will be swept aside to make way for the World Trade Center, the director of an aluminum plant takes no responsibility for the disaster he is overseeing in St. Lawrence County. Aluminum provides the good life for he and his wife; they even live in a house where virtually everything is made of aluminum. As Scott writes, aluminum “is the most-abundant metal in the earth’s crust.”

A sense of doom surrounds all of these characters, and the landscape itself, as Careers For Women is also a story of the desecration of the environment. It’s depicted in Scott’s use of a legend of the indigenous people of the region, a creature that has been “born only to kill.” And that doom is fulfilled. As of course is the fate that awaits the World Trade Center, which was constructed with a lot of, yes, aluminum. But Scott interestingly, and wisely, skips a re-telling of that tragedy. It has been done enough, this is another story.

In fact, when Careers For Women skips ahead to post 9/11, Scott’s faction finds its unexpectedly upbeat conclusion as Mrs. J gazes at the fountain and park that has been created where her Twin Towers once stood. Rather than sadness, she sees beauty.

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