-structure: episodic chapters
Ann Patchett has more than proven herself a master of the omniscient perspective that seamlessly interweaves the interior lives of an ensemble cast; see Bel Canto (2001) and State of Wonder (2011). Her newest novel Commonwealth (2016) is no less ambitious in terms of perspective, but even more ambitious in covering a span of roughly fifty-five years rather than just several months. Patchett handles this daunting time span episodically; each of her nine chapters is set in a different time and place, providing an anchoring scene that exposition is then threaded into with a light touch, covering, minimally, the things that happened between chapters.
When Patchett came to Houston this past October to read with Lauren Groff for the Inprint reading series, she said Commonwealth was about divorce, an interesting complement to Groff, who said her novel Fates and Furies was about marriage. There was also discussion of whether the episodic chapters could function in a way as short stories; Patchett was adamant that while there might be similarities, they are chapters that ultimately can only work together. (Patchett doesn’t write short stories; the novel is her form.)
More specifically, this novel is about two people who leave their spouses for each other, creating a group of six stepsiblings. When one of them dies in a tragedy as a teenager, the other siblings lie about their involvement in what happened. As an adult, one goes on to tell the story of the tragedy to her lover, a famous novelist who writes a book based on it called Commonwealth, the release of which forces certain characters to reckon with the past. The episodic chapters are not in chronological order, forcing the reader to gradually put together what happened in the tragedy, which essentially functions as the chronic tension for all the episodic chapters except the first. Despite the fact that in most of the chapters the tragedy is an event that happened in the past, finding out what actually happened is in large part what provides the narrative momentum that propels the reader forward.
Franny Keating’s christening party at Fix and Beverly Keating’s house in Los Angeles, 1964. Albert Cousins arrives uninvited with a bottle of gin. A district attorney, Albert (aka Bert, aka Cousins) heard about the party from a friend he has in common with Fix, a policeman (the friend being a former policeman who’s now a DA). Cousins came to the party to escape his pregnant wife and three children. After Fix returns from a brief errand to get ice, Cousins is in the kitchen with Fix’s wife Beverly, juicing oranges to mix with the gin; the alcohol shifts the tenor of the party, which goes on for hours. Cousins fantasizes about Fix’s wife Beverly while he juices with Fix, who asks him to go check on his baby Franny. Fix finds Franny in her bedroom, being changed by Beverly, and with Franny squeezed between them, they kiss. Cousins then takes Franny to Fix, and they discuss what Cousins should name his unborn son.
Franny joining Fix for his chemo treatment in a hospital fifty years later. He’s just told her the story of how Albie, her stepbrother, got his name (via the discussion at the end of Chapter One), and now he tells her how he sprang Albie from juvenile hall for starting a fire when he was fourteen. Franny’s heard the second story but didn’t realize that Fix knew Cousins before her mother Beverly did. We learn that Beverly is on her third husband and that her second husband was Cousins (Bert). Fix tells Franny he’s been thinking about his partner Lomer lately, who died fifty years ago; as he tells the story, he remembers how Lomer was shot in a gas station convenience store by a robber that Fix, seeing it from out in the parking lot, was convinced was the man they had just come from arresting and booking at the police station. Beverly stayed with Fix for two years after Lomer died, even after she’d promised to leave with Bert; Franny has a memory of her mother explaining this to her and her sister Caroline when they were teenagers. Fix questions whether he or Lomer has gotten the better deal.
A summer in Virginia, 1971. Bert and Beverly moved to Virginia after marrying, while Bert’s ex-wife Teresa stayed in L.A.; Bert has custody of the kids in the summers. This is the first year the four Cousins kids are old enough to fly from L.A. to Virginia alone. There’s Cal, a sullen teenager who abuses the authority he’s been bestowed as the eldest child of a single parent, Holly, an overachiever who “lived for  positive reinforcement,” Jeanette, who’s retreated into almost utter silence, and Albie, the youngest and most obnoxious. This time Teresa doesn’t pack any of their luggage, but they neglect to tell Beverly this and wait forever at the baggage claim. After a couple of weeks they’re joined by Franny and Caroline, returning from their short annual summer visit to their father in L.A., where both would prefer to live. Bert makes himself scarce when the kids arrive, and they tyrannize Beverly. When they take a vacation, Bert and Beverly neglect the kids utterly, and the kids, united in their hatred of the parents, get a gun and gin out of the glove box of Bert’s car and sneak off to a nearby lake, leaving Albie asleep in a field after they give him some pink pills they tell him are Tic Tacs.
Franny working as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago in her mid-twenties, after dropping out of law school. She recognizes a patron at the bar to be the novelist Leon Posen, whose work she’s read and admires. She talks the bartender into letting her serve him so that they can talk, and at the end of the night he’s so drunk she has to help him upstairs to his hotel room, which she manages to find despite his being unable to recall the correct number; she helps him to bed. We get exposition about how Fix and Bert had both wanted both Franny and Caroline to go to law school, which has now left Franny in significant debt, while Caroline went on to become a lawyer; Fix also tried to become a lawyer but could never pass the California bar. Franny is currently staying on the couch of her friend Kumar from law school, whom she occasionally sleeps with and who she bonded with over liking the work of Leon Posen. A couple of weeks after she meets him, Leon Posen calls the bar and sends her a bus ticket to come to a party in Iowa City that turns out to be a reading for him.
Albie unexpectedly drops in on Jeanette in Brooklyn after nobody in their family has seen him for eight years. Jeanette lives in a tiny apartment with her West African husband Fodé and their baby Dayo, whose real name she tells Albie is Calvin. He needs a place to stay; she realizes the significance of his finally asking for help and lets him, despite the lack of space. We get exposition about what Holly, Albie and Jeanette’s life with Teresa was like “[a]fter Cal died,” at which point their childhood summer visits to Virginia stopped. Teresa asks her remaining kids what happened the day Cal died, and Albie claims he saw Cal get shot with the gun they took from the car, though Holly insists he was asleep and didn’t see anything. We go back to that day and see Caroline instructing the girls to tell everyone that they were not with Cal when he died, that they found him afterward. Teresa later tries to get Jeanette to admit that she was in fact there, and asks who gave the pills to Albie, and Jeanette admits it was Cal. We then get exposition about Albie’s adolescence in the troublemaking group the Goddamn Boys on Bikes; one Saturday they break into the high school and Albie flicks a match into a trash can in an art room that inadvertently starts a fire, and Teresa sends him to live with Bert in Virginia; eventually he comes back and drinks a lot and then claims to have a gig in San Francisco and leaves for eight years. In Brooklyn, Albie gets work as a bicycle messenger and stays with Jeanette for months; he’s kicked heroin but still takes speed. After he tells a receptionist at a publishing house he delivers contracts to that he lived in Virginia, she gives him a book to read called Commonwealth. It’s about two families who live next door to each other, and the parents have an affair and the kids become stepsiblings, and the youngest boy is so annoying they give him Benadryl tablets to put him to sleep that belong to the oldest boy, who’s allergic to bee stings. Albie goes home from reading the book and wakes Jeanette up.
Franny with Leo Posen at an actress’s extravagant summer house in Amagansett after he has written the highly successful Commonwealth. A succession of self-invited guests arrive: first Leo’s editor, then the editor’s wife, then an agent with another novelist, then a famous novelist and his wife. All expect Franny to cook for and wait on them, making her lament that she hasn’t found anything else to do with her life. Then, just as Leo’s daughter who hates Franny is about to arrive with her family, an unexpected guest arrives in the form of Albie, come to interrogate Leo Posen about how he acquired the contents of his life for his novel, getting the answer when he discovers Franny is there. Much as she’s previously enjoyed being Leo’s literal inspiration, Franny realizes that telling Leo the story of what happened to Cal and her family was a mistake. She recalls giving Albie the tablets the day Cal died. She leaves the party with him against Leo’s wishes. We get exposition about the summers the kids spent at Bert’s parent’s house, how that summer Bert had left to go back to work but really for an affair he was having, which Beverly discovered inadvertently because of Cal’s death (Bert, rushing off to the hospital, neglected a pair of panties Beverly later discovered in their bed). They managed to stay together for six years after Cal’s death; it was Albie’s later coming out to live with them after starting the fire that was the nail in their marriage’s coffin. We end with a scene of Albie first arriving in Virginia when he moves out there, and challenges Bert’s authority over retaining a lighter to smoke cigarettes and wins, and sits outside until Franny, who he hasn’t seen in five years, gets home (Caroline’s in college at this point) and she welcomes him and mixes them drinks with gin.
Franny and Caroline visiting Fix in L.A. for his 83rd birthday. A joint visit is unprecedented but necessary since he’s dying of cancer. Franny has been talking about Albie and how she and Leo Posen broke up, not that he put the nail in the tire of their relationship, but that he “‘identified the fact that the tire had a nail in it’” as Caroline puts it. They’re on their way to see the movie adaptation of Commonwealth, which has finally been made now that Leo’s died (when he was alive he kept his promise to Franny never to sell the rights) and which neither of the girls wants to see, but Fix is insisting on. When he demands to leave in the middle of it, Caroline insists they visit the beach for something more pleasant, where he tells them their mother wasn’t like the way she was portrayed in the movie. Franny gets a text from Albie asking her to look in on his mother Teresa, who’s sick but won’t go to a doctor. Fix insists on coming, having met Teresa once when he got Albie out of juvie after he set the fire, and they get Teresa to a hospital, where Franny lists herself as her local next of kin as Teresa’s stepdaughter. Teresa mentions that she brought Cal to the hospital once when he was stung by a bee years before he died. On the way home, with Fix asleep, Franny and Caroline talk about Cal’s death and their hiding the gun afterward and whether they should have told Teresa that Cal wasn’t alone when he died. When they finally get home, Fix asks Franny to get a gun out of his drawer and asks her to help him shoot himself; she refuses and takes the gun. Early that morning, after a dream in which Holly tells Franny she didn’t do the wrong thing by hiding the gun after finding it on his dead body, Franny gets a call from the hospital informing her her stepmother has died, and is confused, thinking it’s Fix’s wife Marjorie, until she realizes it’s Teresa.
Teresa visiting Holly in Switzerland shortly after her (Teresa’s) retirement. Teresa recalls her honeymoon with Bert in Paris during her layover there, and is proud of herself for getting to Holly and impressed with Switzerland’s beauty. Holly’s been living at a Buddhist zen dojo there for the past twenty-five years; she abandoned her job as a striver at a bank after she mistakenly heard her doctor recommend “meditation” instead of “medication” for her striving-induced anxiety. Teresa “sits” with Holly during their meditation sessions, which she does not because she’s actually interested but because it makes Holly proud of her. On the eighth day of sitting, Teresa sees Cal, and watches the scene of his death play out (Jeanette told her long ago the true story of what happened): the girls were trailing Cal to the stables, and started singing, and he told them to shut up, but they didn’t, and as he turned around and charged them a bee stung him and he collapsed and died. The others did not go over to him for a long time because they thought he was faking it so he could hit them. As Teresa sits there, she feels Cal’s presence fill her.
Franny and her family visiting Beverly in Virginia for Christmas. Franny’s married to Kumar, her friend from law school, and stepmother to his two kids; his wife died of a heart ailment right after their second son was born and he reconnected with Franny at the Palmer House, where she was still intermittently working after breaking up with Leo Posen. When they arrive at her mother and her husband Jack Dine’s house, there’s a huge party going on nobody told them about. Jack Dine has dementia and treats Kumar like a servant, while his sons, Franny’s latest stepbrothers, are obnoxious. Franny, after thinking about how her parents’ divorce essentially led her to Kumar and her current life, sneaks out of the party and goes to visit Bert, who lives nearby in the same house they did when she and Albie lived with him. He’s happy to see her, and is leaving the next day to visit Jeanette, whom he’s no longer estranged from; he’s on good terms with everyone except Albie. When Franny leaves she stops on the porch thinking about “the night she couldn’t find Albie” and eventually finding him high in a sleeping bag in the snow, and staying with him until she could talk him inside. It was a story she never told Leo Posen.
As a side note, if there was any question of who Patchett studied to cut her omniscient chops and learned how to do large-scale party scenes, she answers it for you in the first chapter:
Fix said he would buy the ice himself.
If you have one of those coffee mugs with famous first lines from literature, then this might ring a bell:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
In terms of structure, some of the points Patchett has chosen as the acute tension of her episodic chapters are more intuitive than others. The first chapter feels especially satisfying in terms of narrative significance. The novel’s opening line provides us with the event without which the rest of the book could not exist, identifies the ultimate ground zero of the plot’s trajectory:
The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.
If Bert had not come to this party he would not have met Beverly; if he had not come with gin then the attraction between them might not have bloomed so recklessly. Patchett’s episodic focus allows her to avoid the melodrama of such scenes as Beverly breaking up with Fix, of the children’s tears upon being told their parents are getting a divorce, etc. We can intuit the obvious and clichéd events that must have occurred if we skip to a point after they have happened where we can see their effects manifest in a less obvious way. (Notably, gin will also recur throughout the novel.)
The second chapter picks up at a point where the characters are rehashing the events that happened in the previous chapter. The third chapter (the second half of which Patchett chose as her selection to read for Inprint) goes to the point at which the stepchildren realize the true freedom of their situation–that is, when they first access the gun (alongside gin) in Bert’s glove box. Cal will be wearing this gun around his ankle when he dies in a situation that is unrelated to the gun, but the gun’s existence provides ongoing tension via the question of whether and how it might have been involved in Cal’s death.
Though it’s difficult to attribute chronic and acute tension in the standard sense to something episodic, one way to look at it is that the novel’s chronic tension is Cal’s death, happening when they’re kids, while the acute tension is Posen’s novel being written about it when they’re adults. The novel’s time span is so encompassing that the chronic tension ends up being rendered acutely (which novels frequently have the space to do), and which chapters 1 and 3 are acute setup for. The fourth chapter gives us the setup for the acute tension, the starting point for how the novel within the novel will come to be written–Franny’s first meeting Leo Posen. The fifth chapter leads us to a point of acute fallout from that acute tension–Albie reading the novel, leading him to understand the truth about the chronic tension (that he was drugged with what should have saved Cal’s life). The sixth chapter is an acute point of fallout caused by chapter 5’s initial acute point of fallout–Albie confronting Franny about the novel’s existence. The seventh chapter follows the second chapter’s model of taking up a point where the characters are rehashing events from the previous chapter, though it has a more substantial acute event in that Teresa dies, in addition to it being the day they see (some of) the movie adaptation of Commonwealth. (With the only acute events in the second chapter being Fix getting chemo and past-rehashing, it seems that this chapter could be lifted out entirely and not all that much would be lost.)
In the eighth chapter, we finally get to see the tragedy unfold; as such it offers the climax, while the ninth chapter offers the resolution. Franny’s concluding visit with Bert in the last chapter provides a certain symmetry (Bert carried her around her christening party for a portion of the first chapter), but seems for the most part to be providing exposition–the state of Bert’s relationship with his kids now–and then a platform for Franny to have a memory, a memory that seems markedly unrelated to the event that most of the memories have been contributing to the arc of–Cal’s death. The point seems perhaps to be that this event that seems unrelated to Cal’s death–Albie’s getting so high he’s afraid to go inside, Franny’s helping him–is related to his death, because everything that happened to them after it is. Franny’s having this memory, then, seems to be the major important acute event of the final chapter. Franny’s emotional closure provides the narrative’s closure; if this book has a main character, it’s her.
II. Chekhov’s Gun
Patchett, as she does early in Bel Canto when she baldly announces that it will be the terrorists who do not survive, essentially gives away the whole ball of wax in Commonwealth as well, albeit much more subtly, with chapter 3’s conclusion that after stealing the gun and gin the kids “never got caught.” Hearing her end with this line at her reading, it was hard not to think she was undercutting the gun’s possibilities to raise tension. What can be intuited from this omniscient line–though not on first read, since at this point in the book we don’t yet know that Cal will die–is that the gun could not have figured in Cal’s death, or the parents would have found out about it.
Patchett seems to be breaking Chekhov’s rule–the gun planted early on never goes off. Perhaps she’s able to get away with this because the misdirection it provides allows her to perform a sleight-of-hand that satisfies like a magician’s trick; we get something better than what we were promised. A death by accidental shooting perpetrated by kids with their neglectful parents’ gun would be predictable. A death by bee sting that may or may not have been prevented if the kids hadn’t been using the allergy pills to drug one of their own–their being as neglectful in their responsibility to supervise as their parents are–is more tragic. The kids “never getting caught” encodes much more tension than it initially seems; never getting caught entails a network of lies about the circumstances of Cal’s death that will bear its own psychological fallout. Getting caught might have provided more closure and fewer subsequent questions that the kids instead will continue to struggle with for decades–though Patchett paints this struggle with equal subtlety, letting the reader largely infer it, imagining for themselves the potential difficulties the character’s have struggled with in the unseen interims.
III. Objective Correlative
If Patchett’s episodic structure subverts melodrama by avoiding clichéd moments, her use of the objective correlative allows her to instill a sense of the gravity of those moments by describing them indirectly. In the first chapter, Fix picks up on a particular interaction between Bert and his wife:
But Cousins tilted his head towards the disbeliever, and there was Beverly, handing her husband a drink. For all the world it looked like she and Cousins had a code worked out between them. Fix held the cup in his hand and stared at the uninvited guest.
“Cheers,” Beverly said in a low voice, not as a toast but a directive, and Fix, still thinking there was a complaint to be made, turned up his paper cup.
What’s being described literally–Beverly making Fix drink a cocktail Bert’s mixed–is also describing the larger situation that will start to unfold from this point, none of which we ever see in scene: Beverly will tell Fix she is leaving him, a situation that’s been initiated, or mixed, by Bert. Fix is not going to like it, but he’s going to have to swallow it anyway.
Also in the first chapter, a woman who’s upset her husband’s been hit on (the husband being the colleague Fix and Bert have in common) issues Fix a warning:
“Keep an eye on your family,” Mary Spencer said.
Fix was on the couch, his older girl Caroline stretched out across his lap, sound asleep. He mistakenly thought Mary was complimenting him on watching his daughter. Maybe he had been half asleep himself.
Mary is really warning him about the woman who was dancing with her husband, but what she’s really warning him about is Bert Cousins; Fix, half asleep, doesn’t realize he’s at ground zero of his family being destroyed.
In the third chapter, we get a brief glimpse of Bert and Beverly reckoning with the lives-altering decision they’ve made as directly as they ever will:
It hadn’t been a mistake, Bert kept telling her as they lay on their backs afterwards, staring up at the ceiling. Beverly counted five places where the glass crystals on the chandelier were missing. She hadn’t noticed it before.
The missing crystals in the chandelier are all the cons about marrying Bert that Beverly did not consider or notice before. It’s only being in this exact position–lying on the ground looking up at the chandelier; married to Bert and now dealing with this children–that enables her to notice.
In the fourth chapter, the larger significance of Franny’s meeting Leo is hinted at when they discuss what Franny owes the bartender for letting her do his job and serve Leo his drinks:
“So what do you owe him?”
“I’m not sure yet.” She put down the napkin, the glass.
“Always ask the price. That can be the lesson of our time together.”
It will indeed be the lesson of their time together, their “time together” here literally referring to their time in the bar that night, but also referring to their future time together in their relationship. (The irony is she won’t be able to learn to ask the price–the price that’s also being referenced here being that of her time together with Leo–until she’s spent the time with him.) Patchett correlates a surface description of the financial to the ultimate larger emotional significance of their meeting again later in the chapter:
That’s where the money was, and as soon as she had given the night away she felt the loss of [her Friday night shift]. Even if she wasn’t paying for her ticket or her room, the trip was going to cost her.
In the fifth chapter, Patchett offers a description of Leo Posen’s Commonwealth that becomes a description for basically all of literature:
It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.
In the sixth chapter, Patchett develops dinner lobsters as an objective correlative for Franny’s having given their story away being a ticking time bomb:
There were six cardboard boxes on the long wooden table in the kitchen, a half a dozen ears of corn still in their green sleeves. She heard the sound of scratching, and then one of the boxes jerked abruptly forward.
“What’s in the boxes?” Franny said, though of course she knew exactly what was in the boxes.
“Marisol thought it would be fun to have lobster.”
Franny turned and looked at him. “She said she was a vegetarian. Does she know how to cook them?”
The fact that Franny has given the story away has been lying there still, but now, it’s starting to stir, as Franny must have inevitably known it would. What she might not know is how to deal with the fallout. Earlier in the conversation, Leo was quoting Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which Franny tries to return to:
“Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Franny asked the lobsters.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Leo said.
Franny shook her head. “Nothing. It’s the next line.”
“It’s not the next line,” he said, and took his wine out to the porch.
The moment is indeed being forced to its crisis, though Franny is still trying to resist:
Franny found a parking spot two blocks from the water and carried the six boxes down to the end of the pier, past the fishermen with their buckets and lines, past the tourists holding hands. She wanted the lobsters in deep water. Maybe they’d be stupid enough to crawl into someone else’s pot tomorrow but she didn’t want them walking straight up on the beach minutes after their exoneration. She set the six boxes out in a line and opened them up. Christmas at the pier. Christmas for crustaceans. They were a dappled black and green now, not the electric red they would have been after boiling. They were still frisky, energized by their proximity to salt water, waving their bound claws in impatience. They would never know what they had missed, though being lobsters, they would probably never know anything. She took the scissors and stuck them in the box, doing her best to cut off the wide rubber bands without nicking a claw or losing a finger. (The first band on each one was easy, the second a challenge.) When she finished, she tipped them one at a time out of their boxes and into the ocean, where they made a pleasing smack against the water and then sank from view.
In the acute tension of this chapter, Franny has been dealing with one strain of unpleasant fallout from having given the story away: finding herself having to wait hand on foot on several obnoxious entitled houseguests. But this itself is an objective correlative for the larger unpleasant fallout that’s the real acute event of this chapter: Albie’s appearance. Once Albie appears, the lobsters return:
Marisol came in the kitchen through the swinging door, Eric behind her. “Franny, where are my lobsters?” she said.
Franny couldn’t think of what she was talking about at first or why she was even still in the house, but then she remembered. “Go,” she said. She kept her eyes on Albie.
“Do you even know what lobsters cost?”
Albie’s appearance is the exact moment Franny has to face what the lobsters (i.e., giving her story away), really costs, though it turns out she did already know:
That first moment she saw [Albie] she knew exactly what it was she’d done, how serious and wrong it was to have given away what didn’t belong to her. She had known it at the time, too, but she hadn’t cared.
It’s worth noting that sometimes the objective correlative can’t carry all the emotional weight by itself, that sometimes the thing the objective correlative stands in for can itself be described more directly. Patchett here also uses a different version of the objective correlative in the way she reveals that Albie has appeared at the house this night:
She started carrying the boxes and bags into the kitchen. She’d made three trips when Leo came in with a tall young man with a long black braid.
Franny has at this point not seen Albie as an adult, but the readers have in the previous chapter, so we know who the long black braid, the object now correlated to an individual, denotes.
In this chapter we also get an objectively correlated explanation for why Franny gets so much of the material:
Franny, who felt herself to be without talent, was very adept at carrying more things than anyone would have thought possible.
She is the narrative linchpin of the novel’s acute tension event. Much is made in exploring her character about her lack of purpose in life, about how her only interest is in reading; she is redeemed (and thereby redeems seemingly purposeless people everywhere, as it must surely be one of literature’s tenants to do) by having the most narrative importance.