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The Self as Seen from a Distance: The Work of Jane Bowles

We are all familiar with Paul Bowles, that expat icon who gave us Let It Come Down and The Sheltering Sky. Bowles is one of my heroes. During times in my life when I was alone and very down and out I would read a book of his interviews over and over and it would always make me feel all right. It seemed that no one possessed the detached clarity and poetry of Paul Bowles. Except maybe his wife — whose work most of us don't know because she burned nearly all of it. If people are aware of Jane Bowles, it is usually as the inspiration for some of her husband's characters. But her prose, what remains of it, stands on its own.

Jane Bowles's writing is disturbing. Her stories have little if no plot. They hint at broader psychological meanings or subtle epiphanies. In the collection My Sister's Hand in Mines, Bowles uses close third-person narration, making the thoughts of her protagonists, the tones of their dialogue, and their often bizarre psychological motivations drive the narrative.

I particularly love the way she employs this in the short story "A Stick of Green Candy," in which a little girl named Mary spends her days in a clay pit beside the highway pretending to be the leader of a group of soldiers. Mary's family would like her to play at the playground with other children, but she detests it. I can't say that I am inspired by Bowles's style in this story. The fact is it resonates with my memories of childhood, with the afternoons I spent lighting army men on fire and throwing them off the garage roof, or walking along the riverbank lost in some Ridley Walkeresque dystopian fantasy.

In "A Stick of Green Candy," Mary's soldier's training camp is invaded by a little boy who lives across the street from the clay pit. He simply stops by to play with her, and she ends up leaving "her men" to follow him home. The little boy's mother explains to her that he is not like a real boy — but has "got some girl in him thank the lord." Then the boy gives Mary a stick of green candy. An interaction inspires Mary to do something she has never done — to view her "training camp" from above, on the highway.

Bowles writes:

After gazing down at the sparkling lights for a while, she began to breathe more easily. She had never experienced the need to look at things from a distance before, nor had she felt the relief that it can bring. All at once, the air stirring around her seemed delightful; she drank in great draughts of it, her eyes fixed on the lights below. She felt her blood tingle as it always did whenever she scored a victory.

The next day this feeling of perspective and distance has made her change her soldiers' schedules. They all wait for the little boy to come back to the clay pit. There is something about the little boy that is just like Mary — he has "some girl in him." And she in her mind is clearly a soldier.

Bowles writes: "Surely...he would come out soon and join her on the steps, and they would go away together."

But the little boy doesn't show up to play, though she believes he is watching her through his window. Mary eventually walks away from her soldiers alone. Just the knowledge of the boy and the fellow feeling she has with him is real enough for her to leave her imaginary soldiers: their work is done; they'll serve no purpose now.

Jane Bowles illustrates very subtly, sweetly, and without any overt narrative analysis the isolation and yearning and understanding of children who don't feel at home with expectations that come with their gender.

÷ ÷ ÷

Cara Hoffman grew up in an economically depressed town in upstate New York. In the 1990s, she began working as an investigative reporter at a daily newspaper, covering New York State's rural and rust-belt communities for over a decade. In 2000, she received a New York State Foundation for the Art Fellowship for her writing on the aesthetics of violence and its impact on children. So Much Pretty is Cara's debut novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. My Sister's Hand in Mine: The... Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. The Sheltering Sky: A Novel (P.S.) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Let It Come Down New Trade Paper $15.99

  4. Riddley Walker
    Used Trade Paper $10.00

Cara Hoffman is the author of So Much Pretty

One Response to "The Self as Seen from a Distance: The Work of Jane Bowles"

    adrienne March 25th, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Cara, excellent blogs this week, I really enjoyed them!
    Love Paul Bowles and thanks for writing about Jane Bowles.
    I found a used copy of "Girl Among the Anarchists" at Powell's! And your book looks good, too.

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