A Postmodern Twist on Modernist Concerns

Cornelia Nixon, a professor of English on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, is a woman who practices what she teaches. I remember sitting, several years ago, in an undergraduate class she was teaching about modernist novels. She talked about how James Joyce and Virginia Woolf forever changed the way our inner lives are portrayed in fiction. She used D. H. Lawrence novels to illustrate how marriage became the subject of the modernist novel when it had traditionally only been the happy ending. Nixon talked about how modernist writers worked to reflect what she called the anomie, the chaos and fragmentation of a world where Enlightenment certainties no longer held true. As a late twentieth-century writer, Nixon can't really be called a modernist, but her writing explores this range of subjects.

Nixon has the visionary's habit of talking about her characters as though they are real people. She says she composes her characters' lives out of details drawn from her own experiences or from the lives of people she has met. She may take the mannerisms of one person, the profession of another, the background of another, and then layer these details one on top of the other until the character takes on a life of her own and starts "to talk and do things and become someone else." Nixon says her characters are "absolutely real" to her.

Nixon's first book of fiction, a novel-in-stories called Now You See It (1991), tells the emotional truth from the vantage of both the parents and the children of a family living in Berkeley, California, through the decades of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani praised the collection of seven interrelated stories as "a luminous and compelling book, a captivating photo album filled with vivid verbal snapshots of familial love and disintegration" and noted that Nixon "also creates a finely shaded picture of Berkeley and its noisy embrace of the 1960s counterculture."

For the last five years, Nixon has been at work on a novel that offers a postmodern twist on modernist depictions of marriage. She renders the first half of the novel in parallel narratives that chart the trajectories of two people toward one another and their eventual marriage. She says the novel is somewhat of a narrative experiment. "It used to be that novels about marriage ended with the marriage. Nowadays they almost always start with [it], and the novel looks at the marriage itself with a few little flashbacks to past relationships and events to show how they bear on what is happening in the relationship. The thing I am doing in this book that is scary, and may in fact not even work, is showing the reader [the characters'] early lives before they meet. You see [the woman's] life the way she experienced it. It's not the background for her marriage; it's her life."

Nixon's anxiety about the risk involved in her current narrative experiment must be somewhat diminished considering the praise published excerpts from the novel have received. "The Women Come and Go," published in Prize Stories 1995: The O. Henry Awards, is a story about her female protagonists' first experience of sexual self-consciousness. It won a 1996 Pushcart Prize and was named by the O. Henry judges as the best short story published in 1994. Nixon has also published three other stories from the novel: "Risk" (Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards), "Charm" (Ploughshares, spring 1995), and "Season of Sensuality" (The Gettysburg Review, summer 1995).

As a teacher of creative writing, Nixon helps apprentice writers discover and refine their ability to tell the stories that really matter to them. She says teaching literature is quite different from teaching fiction writing. "In a literature class, people aren't as implicated. It's not their work under discussion. You don't have to maneuver around the ego factor as much." Nixon explains that she remains vigilant about her students' vulnerabilities in part by repeating her own version of a writing teacher's mantra before going into a classroom or a tutorial: "I tell myself to be humble. Not to show off. To suggest criticisms rather than hammer them. And I tell myself that I don't have to be right. What I really want is to enable the writer to see what is wrong with her story without me pointing it out, because that means so much more."

--Susan Moke