- The Good Old Days in The Good Mother
Our Sense of the Avant-Garde has Certainly been confused by the retrotrendy, and the cutting edge in all the arts has been blunted by the pillaging of the recent past. We are surrounded by Elvis Presley songs piped into supermarkets, books about Niagara Falls as icon, and slick, urban restaurants that look like roadside diners. Garter belts and suspenders are back, and Calvin Klein's jeans ads look like stills from Rebel Without a Cause; even the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was done in 1950s style, complete with yellowed programs advertising console TVs. There is in all of this marketing of our youth something arch, campy, half-parodic. "Nihilistic nostalgia," as it has been called,1 uses the emotional power of the cherished object while desecrating it; it tugs at our heartstrings while it spits in our eye.
Nihilistic nostalga can be more than ultra-chic Downtown style. Consider the nostalgia and simultaneous ironizing of nostalgia inherent in Twyla Tharp's dances Nine Sinatra Songs, in Woody Allen's film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in Audrey Flack's paintings of tear-bespangled Madonnas and dew-bespangled roses, in Robert Venturi's "decorated sheds," just to construct a preliminary list. The disturbing ambivalence and ambiguity of tone is found as well in Sue Miller's novel The Good Mother. Anna, [End Page 405] the novel's main character, is nostalgic in straightforward, sentimental ways that make her a recognizable personality of our times, whereas Miller's view of Anna's nostalgia is more complex, more "nihilistic."
Early in the book there is an exchange between Anna and her grand-father that can be seen as a paradigm of all her confrontations with men, both in its content and in its dynamics; Anna is backed into a corner, and her own words are used to defeat her:
Suddenly my grandfather interrupted me.
"Of course," he said to the table at large, "Anna is really a pianist."
There was a little silence. My grandfather went on eating, as though he didn't anticipate any argument, any response to his assertion. I smiled. I tried on his smile, a gracious, condescending one. "Well, I've never made any money at that, Grandfather. I thought we were talking here of how I made my living."
". . . You make your living at least in part from teaching the piano, isn't that so?"
"Yes," I answered. I felt a sheepish blush rising.
"In that sense, anyway, surely you can call yourself a pianist," he said. He looked around our end of the table with his smile, as though to get all those listening to agree I was being silly, perverse, cute.
"Perhaps I could," I said, my voice audibly edgy. "Though I think piano teacher would be more accurate then." He took a breath, as though to answer me, and I hurtled ahead. "But rat trainer is at least a substantial part of it right now too."
"Anna, Anna," he said, shaking his head. "Why this nostalgie de la boue? It's tiresome in a woman your age."(73)
The French phrase here is instructive and many-layered. It literally means "homesickness for the mud," although its resonance suggests a longing for the primitive as a mode of rebellion against the civilized world. This usage seems to be how Grandfather contemptuously means the phrase. But the phrase in general usage implies a need for that which is vile—a perversion of the primal; The Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases in Current English defines "nostalgie de la boue" as "the yearning of civilized man for physical degradation, usually for sexual intimacy in sordid circumstances." Grandfather, patriarch of a family that regards "incarnation, even having flesh . . . as a form of mortification" (128), has unwittingly provided us with society's version of the novel's plot.
The first thing we learn about Anna is that she is nostalgic. The long reminiscence about the trip to the Post Office, a memory that Grand-father dominates, is followed by her nostalgic enjoyment of the jukebox music at the Tip...