If you reduced the novels, short stories and poetry of Elizabeth Cox to a bumper sticker, it would read: "Life is messy." It is the very untidiness of our ordinary lives, filled with unpredictable and uncontrollable acts of both cruelty and kindness, that consistently grabs her attention, worms its way into her subconscious and eventually springs to life in her work. This distillation process takes time; try as she might, this assured and patient Southern literary voice has managed to produce just three novels and a short story collection during the past two decades while teaching creative writing at Duke, MIT and elsewhere. A poem she recently published in the Atlantic took her 12 years to write. All of which makes the appearance of a new Cox novel a welcome surprise on the order of the Hale-Bopp comet.
In her new novel, The Slow Moon, Cox transports us to South Pittsburg, Tennessee, where the lives of teenage friends will change forever in a single night. When young lovers Crow and Sophie slip away from a late-night party to make love for the first time, the deep wood seems a perfectly romantic setting. But life is messy, and Crow has left his condom in the car. He leaves the disrobed Sophie to retrieve it, only to be delayed again by circumstances. When he returns 20 minutes later, he finds her unconscious, raped and badly battered.
Although most of the close-knit town folk doubt that Crow, the clean-cut scion of the wealthy sawmill owner, had any part in the brutal attack, the traumatized Sophie can't recall and he's charged with the crime. Cox uses the days leading up to the trial shrewdly by winding the narrative through the viewpoints of Sophie and Crow, Crow's younger brother Johnny, Crow's rock-band mates and their parents. In the process, she wins our empathy for all, even as we slowly realize that the guilty may be among them.
"It's fascinating how one thing can open up so many different people's lives, and in fact the life of a whole town. It opens vulnerability everywhere," Cox says from her home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "It seems like if it's not vulnerable, it's pretending; we're all pretending to be something in front of the world and then something happens and it shows us who we are, hopefully. The beautiful thing to me is when we take a hard look at it and then live with that. If we don't, then it seems like we're lost."
The mystery that drives The Slow Moon took seed in Cox's subconscious seven years ago.
"I watched the Columbine school shootings and I wanted to write something about that and I didn't because every time I tried to make those boys gothic it didn't work for me. So I made them regular boys who did something horrendous," she says. "I know that very often motives are looked for, but I'm not sure if we ever really understand. I think what drives people to do something like that is so deep that to apply a motive feels a little bit pretentious. We look for it and want it, but if we really look at it, it's the need for something from the father or mother or for some connection within the family that comes out in violent ways in the community. But boy, that is a tight wire to walk."
Cox has long taught her students to "listen to their story" and let it develop organically. She neither plots nor prods her own fiction, but instead lets it linger in her subconscious until it is ready to make its appearance on the page.
"I read a lot of Carl Jung, and as I move into this, I just trust the unconscious and the messiness of it," she explains. "I have to stay with it long enough to find the sense of it, but it's always deep sense. It doesn't always make sense intellectually, but it does gutturally, and that's the sense I always trust, the sense of the gut. That's the deep pleasure of writing. It takes me a long time so I don't have as many books as other people, but that's what I do."
When her narrative threatens to become prosaic, Cox will inject a passage of stream-of-consciousness free verse to jolt herself and her readers awake. Here's one: "She got up and went to the closet, lifted one of Carl's sports jackets, trying to imagine where she would go if she left him. The idea lay in her mind like an egg, broken, its yolk running through her body, making yellow the dreams that came with leaving."
Huh? Cox laughs at the mention of her sneaky passages.
"If it's going along too smoothly, I like to ripple the water," she admits. "You know how a poem hits you in the same place a joke hits you, not quite the gut but the midriff? If I'm going along and haven't been to that place recently, I don't do it on purpose but I know the words come in from the side and I write those down and think, yeah, that's right for here. It doesn't make all that much sense but it's right for here. It's a sign to go deeper. I've always thought that my job in life is to tell people that it's more complicated than that."
Cox's frustration at her own snail's-pace process may be coming to an end. In January, she and husband C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor at the Atlantic, moved to Spartanburg to become co-chairs of humanities at Wofford College, freeing up more time for writing. She now has not one but two new novels in progress for the first time in her life.
"They're very different and I have no idea if it's the same book or if one precedes the other or if in understanding one you will understand the other," she says.
In short, it's another fine mess, and she wouldn't have it otherwise.
Jay MacDonald lives to write and writes to live in Mississippi.