Reviewed by John Biscello
In many respects a window is a writer’s best friend. It can give the unrelenting “I” a break from inner-space-gazing, extend depth and perspective, offer slice-of-life unscripted cinema, frame the world in manageable portions. It is also the voyeur’s privileged peephole, and this is the spy-glass through which Ann Nietzke covers the whirligig waterfront of Venice, California.
Windowlight, Nietzke’s debut novel which came out in 1981, is a work of autobiographical fiction comprising six chapters. Its narrator, a woman in her mid-thirties, bearing the unscabbed wounds of a recent divorce, has moved to Venice (the Venice of the late 70s). Adrift in a rudderless fugue, the narrator confesses: “I came here because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Things fall apart and you move to California—it’s taken for granted, an American cliché. You read Joan Didion and maybe things fall apart for you and you begin slouching toward Los Angeles.”
The narrator’s westward slouching lands her in a tiny apartment overlooking the boardwalk, and it is there, in her Venice-inflected room of one’s own, that she becomes the voyeuristic witness to nocturnal squalls and colorful bombast, with a cast inclusive of “professional” derelicts, survival artists, briny raconteurs, insomniac preachers. Locked in a tenuous claustrophobic bubble, the narrator vows “to establish myself in their eyes as resident of Venice and of the boardwalk and not a ‘tourist’.”
That is one of the powerful driving tensions of the book—the narrator confronting not only the ghosts of her past, which still have their spectral claws sunk in, but also her estrangement from the people around her, from reality. Her homesickness, like all true and deep homesickness, has less to do with place and more to do with state of being, i.e., the malady is spiritual and not geographical. In this regard, Windowlight is a lucid testament to the adage: As within, so without. The “characters” she spies from a place of intimate remove are also the people with whom she interacts, some more fleetingly than others, and they become a part of her everyday life.
Nietzke’s exacting prose is the great leveler of the chaos to which she bears witness. There is a mute stillness at the center of her writing, a needlepoint stringency that brings to mind a hummingbird’s stasis while its wings continue to motor. In one scene, a black woman is delivering a scorched litany as if she’s being burned from the inside, and the narrator notes: “Her delivery is mesmerizing, but the message hurts too much. It is somehow the blues twisted inside out . . . I feel it all the way down in my gut and I want her to stop. But I cannot close my window against her. Sometimes, attention must be paid.”
Amidst the wreckage of dereliction and hard-bitten lives, Nietzke finds and shines light on pockets of tenderness and grace, such as when Danny, a combustible regular, reaches out to the wailing woman, “the kind of reaching that we all do when we come face-to-face with someone whose suffering is greater than our own—or just the same.”
Recalling Carson McCullers and Diane Arbus in her tinted attraction to “grotesquerie,” Nietzke’s work never devolves into sideshow caricature, never loses its dignity or humanness. This is something the writer is conscious of and grapples with: “How to create some fiction that nature won’t belie? All the stories I’ve started about Danny and had to abandon because he became too stereotyped or maudlin or heroic. How to give the right form to the lie, so that it not only does not seem false but actually reveals the truth and something beyond?”
In this regard, Nietzke’s struggles with how to write lends another dimension to the narrative: the process of form, of discovering one’s own voice (which sets it teeth against the narrator’s conservative Southern background, and her mother’s declamation that telling stories, which was equivalent to making up lies, was one of the worst things a person could do). This lesson is underscored by the narrator’s fascination with Joseph, a rogue muralist, who works diligently on a mural on the wall of nearby building, and when it is done she realizes: “Only Joseph could have painted that particular mural with its particular intent, particular richness, particular strengths and weaknesses. And nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail. Someone no doubt could write it all the more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.”
Humor—more tart than sweet, more sty than wink—is also an integral part of the novel. There is the narrator’s ongoing battle with her unvanquishable foes, cockroaches, and her philosophical acclimation to public urination, almost regarding it as one would a sport or art form, with studied emphasis on different styles. Or finding unexpected moments of romance between piss-mates, “hoping the French-looking man and woman will return for an encore performance. Something so nasty and wonderful and sexy in the way she stood there with him and how they talked to each other as they pissed, and then the tenderness in the way her turned to her, exposed, so that she could watch him put himself away before they moved naturally into each other for the deep kiss.”
Windowlight is also a weathered postcard to a bygone Venice, a crumbled fragment in a moveable feast. When one of the old-time Venice residents complains, “Venice is changing,” the narrator muses, “I suppose every artist in Venice—writer, photographer, or painter—wants to capture and hold the place in some way up to the light or close to the heart. And it eludes the grasp, like a teasing lover, this merely serves to increase desire.”
Yet Niezke, in distilling small, incalculable griefs, back-lit with tenderness and compassion, does indeed capture her Venice through a window-sized perspective that expands into something so much bigger.