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The Past Is Present in ‘The Snare’

About two-thirds of the way through The Snare, Elizabeth Spencer’s seventh novel, the protagonist, Julia Garrett, has the following exchange with her uncle, Maurice (who speaks first):

“Don’t let the past pile up, darling. It’s bad, but it’s gone and we can’t help it. Think of the wake of the boat.”

“Oh, no, that won’t work . . . it’s all around . . . around. . . .”

The line is quintessential Julia, whose every word seems matched not just to the present moment but to a personal inquiry or revelation. In this scene, she is specifically grieving the sudden death of her former lover, a wealthy (and married) Mississippi man named Martin. More broadly, though, she is articulating the root of her existential problem—the thing that, in the course of 400 pages, carries her to the brink of self-destruction—which is that Julia cannot, perhaps does not want to, escape her traumatic past. 

Spencer’s gift for characterization reaches enviable depth in The Snare. On the surface, Julia Garrett is a society girl who pursues fulfillment in the seedy underbelly of post-war New Orleans. But this overarching plotline is anchored by the protagonist’s interior turmoil, which is both nebulous and rife with conflict. We spend a lot of time in Julia’s head, reflecting on her past and watching her cobble together abusive events with survivalist instincts. Chief among her preoccupations—what prompts her routine flashbacks and uncertain streams of consciousness—are her abandonment by her father and her relationship with her great-uncle and Maurice’s father, Henri “Dev” Devigny. 

Though long dead at the start of the book, Dev is the subject of Julia’s love and revulsion, the figure who inspires her to consider herself both a vibrant, sensual “creature” and a whore. For Julia, Dev is “a constant heavy sun along the horizon of her spirit self,” both illuminating and blinding, comforting and oppressive. The implication is that Dev sexually manipulated Julia from the age of six, but Spencer never states this explicitly. Rather, she hews to the intimate third-person perspective that dominates the novel, an authorial choice that creates narrative tension and feels authentic to the way many women process sexual trauma. Julia cannot name what happened to her, so Spencer resists rendering it in categorical terms. 

Spencer, who died in December, at age 98, had a penchant for writing characters who are concerned with their pasts. Frequently, they conduct themselves within their own historical contexts, recalling family sagas and ancient grievances amid ordinary affairs—an engagement party, a Christmas pageant, a vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Often, they are Southern, reflecting Spencer’s own heritage as a native Mississippian, and as a person who, like me, was born into a cultural obsession with bearing and unravelling legacies. Early in her career, critics likened her to Faulkner, though she resisted the comparison, citing her subject as the sole similarity. In 1989, she told The Paris Review, “If my material seems like his, as I say, it must be that we are both looking at the same society.”

When she left the South—for Italy and, later, Canada—her fictional landscapes shifted, too, though her interest in familial burdens and societal constraints remained constant. For some readers, it was this focus that cemented her as a next-generation Faulkner. Others saw glimmers of Henry James in her tales about Americans abroad. As I make my way through her astonishing body of work, I find myself thinking most often of her friend Alice Munro, so penetrating is her insight into female experiences of complex class structures and rigid social mores. 

And yet, despite the fact that her name often appears in grand company, and despite her prize-winning canon that includes nine novels, a memoir, and six collections of short stories, Spencer is largely overlooked in contemporary literary circles. Her best-known work is The Light in the Piazza, a novella she published in 1960 and later called her albatross. “It probably is the real thing,” she said. “But it only took me, all told, about a month to write, whereas some of my other novels—the longer ones—took years.” 

cover of The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer, a woman standing in a lush courtyard

The Snare is one such novel. It was published nearly five decades ago, but I first encountered it late last August, while entrenched in a reading cycle that seemed pulled from a graduate seminar in #MeToo-era literature. Piled with books like Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth, my desk signaled my devotion to contemporary examinations of gender and power. In this sense, I was primed to appreciate The Snare as a significant book, one that explores female identity with nuanced precision, and one that captures the messy and prolonged impact of sexual trauma. Immediately, I was drawn to Spencer’s deep exploration of Julia Garrett’s psyche and the way she wields narrative ambiguity to convey the detachment and confusion with which many women internalize abusive events. For all the broadening of conversations around sexual violence that has occurred over the past two years—for all the brilliant books I’ve consumed that deal explicitly and painfully with the subject—I am aware that navigating the aftermath of such a trauma is confusing and, often, intensely private. As she considers the qualities that separate her from her upper-crust society and propel her toward an electric yet dangerous and ultimately violent lifestyle, Julia Garrett struggles in isolation to understand her past. It is not surprising that Dev finds his way into her tortuous musings. “What was it Dev, the old man, had said?” she thinks, at one point. “‘Passion is what you’ve either got or haven’t got. . . .’ Out of such scraps she had stuck her own truth together.”

Her trauma exists in the backdrop of her quest for self-actualization, an honest reflection of how many women move through their lives.  

In many ways, The Snare is a feminist novel, far ahead of its time in its handling of female sexuality and desire, as well as the influence of early and unwanted experiences. Among works aimed at deepening mainstream discussions about sexual exploitation, it becomes essential reading; but one cannot claim the subject as the book’s central concern. Probably, this is why I like it so much. What occurred between Dev and Julia slinks through her mind, never revealing itself as a certain memory and yet never receding completely. Her trauma exists in the backdrop of her quest for self-actualization, which strikes me as an honest reflection of how many women move through their lives.  

It is worth noting that what is so potent to the contemporary reader barely registered with the book’s initial critics. One needs only a cursory grasp of cultural history to imagine why. The Snare was first published in 1972, a year before the term “domestic violence” entered the American lexicon, and two years before Barnes v. Train attempted to tackle workplace power dynamics. Issues of child sexual abuse hardly resonated in the public consciousness and would not garner substantial legal attention until the enactment of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, in 1974. Spencer’s novel incorporates these themes to varying degrees, usually with the type of subtle probing that suits the introspective Julia. Specifically, Spencer’s deliberate blurring of Julia’s past trauma elicited confusion among reviewers in an era when American’s had, at best, an inchoate appreciation for the sexual autonomy of women and girls. 

The novel received a lackluster review in the New York Times and a misogynistic one in Kirkus Reviews. (What the Times described as narrative complexity Kirkus labeled as melodrama, declaring that The Snare was not far removed from “Southern belle lettres.”) The Georgia Review picked up on the necessity of Spencer’s painstaking attention to her protagonist’s history and interiority—elements the Times alternatively described as “the novel’s most damaging flaw”—but determined that the structure was too elevated for the book’s thematic content. This, too, has a sexist ring, considering the great extent to which female desire propels the storyline. 

Spencer’s deliberate blurring of Julia’s past trauma elicited confusion among reviewers in an era when American’s had, at best, an inchoate appreciation for the sexual autonomy of women and girls. 

Among these pieces of criticism, what was largely agreed upon was the plot. In great or spare detail, each described the events of the book in a similar fashion: Julia Garrett, the adopted niece of Maurice and Isabel Devigny, a respectable New Orleans couple, is tired of her well-bred lifestyle. She seeks excitement with Jake Springland, an aspiring musician and somewhat ambivalent disciple of a religious zealot. With Jake, Julia enters a world of late-night jazz shows and drug dealers and, soon, murder. The novel begins in the 1950s and spans at least a decade, thrusting a clash of societal standards into the backdrop of Julia’s experience. (Her roommate, Edie, a girl from “some dusty little dried-up town,” is her prudish foil.) Julia is, as the book’s title suggests, resisting the snare of the stifling and polite realm in which she was raised; but she is caught nonetheless by a confluence of her own impulses.

The preeminent Spencer scholar, Peggy Prenshaw, further elucidated the central themes of The Snare in 1993, when she wrote an introduction to the book on the occasion of its paperback release. “Julia Garrett,” Prenshaw writes, “seems a misfit, a woman enlivened by sexual experience and nearly destroyed by it, a woman bored by status-seeking and acquisitiveness, whose indifference brings her to the edge of hunger and homelessness.” She goes on to explain that the novel’s setting in New Orleans mirrors Julia’s seductive power and dueling instincts. Like Julia, Prenshaw says, the city is steeped in manners and tradition, but beneath its glossy exterior it is an exotic, indulgent place.

Prenshaw also references the novel’s mixed critical reception, noting the issues reviewers had with narrative ambiguity, but she does not fully explore the resonance of this authorial choice with the book’s violent plot points. Spencer’s rendering of Julia’s darkest moments is frenetic and fragmentary, allowing certain mysteries to rest in the reader’s mind as uncomfortably as they do in Julia’s. In these scenes, the events are clear, but their details are often foggy, punctuated by an image here, a sensation there. We see, for example, the flash of a blade held to Julia’s neck and glimpse, through euphemistic language, the shame she associates with what follows. As in, “After that . . .” and “I’m just going to call it an awful headache.” For Julia, what is contained in the words that and it is unspeakable, even as it holds dominion over her identity.

Crucially, vagueness distinguishes Julia’s memories of her relationship with Dev. Speaking of her protagonist in 1990, Spencer said, “Her early experience with her guardian mentor, . . . a French Cajun man who may or may not have seduced her, had a profound effect on her.” Prenshaw interprets this effect decisively. “The indisputable fact seems to be that Julia does not regard the relationship with Dev as injurious. If corrupting, it was a necessary and inevitable introduction to the ‘crooked world.’” This statement aligns imperfectly with my own impression, because it ignores the yearning that is so critical to Julia’s idea of herself. She does not want to regard the relationship with Dev as injurious. She wants to imagine it as inevitable.

Spencer makes clear that, for Julia, it is easier to live with a terrible thing when it is remembered indistinctly. Julia’s past with Dev haunts the novel because it is essential to how she views herself, and yet she is unable to define it. Violence and sexual exploitation pervade her adult life, too, and yet she never names it as such. Rather, she absorbs it all with a pronounced detachment, as though each experience is the logical conclusion of who she is in the world. After the doctor for whom she briefly works as a receptionist chases her around the office, she thinks: “. . . life was more peaceful than not with him, now that he’d made his pass.” After Jake Springland, her musician boyfriend, rapes and beats her, she thinks: “Why didn’t I find somebody good?” and then concludes that “she hadn’t because she hadn’t wanted to.” She is kidnapped twice, thanks to her association with Jake, and subjected to torture. After the first time, she thinks: “It was something in me . . . Something that wanted to go down forever, to hit the absolute muddy bottom where there’s nothing but old beer cans, fishhooks and garbage.” After the second time, she thinks: “She would gladly live like an animal, simply, instinctively, for the day only.” 

Julia’s enthusiasm for New Orleans and its various vices—her sensual and subversive nature—is palpable and seemingly within her control. From the start she is an intelligent woman who knows her sexual power. But as we navigate the conflicting aspects of her mentality, we learn that her empowerment is marked by shame. At times, she reduces herself to her sexuality. Dressing for a courtroom gallery: “Might as well try to de-sex herself, she thought, as stamp out her natural looks.” Her early sexualization by Dev forms a critical aspect of her identity and self-worth, convincing her that she is incongruous with anything virtuous. She thinks, “The idea of goodness beckons forever to those who can’t have it, but once they catch up to it by luck or accident, they immediately feel uneasy, restless, miserable.” 

This vivid interiority is what is largely missing from any summary or critical analysis of The Snare. How Julia decodes her own experiences is a vital aspect of the novel that seems only to have puzzled reviewers in 1972 and failed to thoroughly engage scholars in the following decades. I only learned of the book because several people recommended it to me. Each had read my work and assumed I would appreciate Spencer’s meticulous characterization of Julia Garrett. But at some early point in my first reading, Julia began to resonate as more than a technical feat. We are wildly different people, and yet I identify with her tendency toward self-examination through imperfect recollections. I possess the kind of memory that blurs even the recent past. It recalls the worst things dimly and everything else with rosy nostalgia. This has the effect of making me suspicious of my negative or painful emotions. I am unskilled at relaying the detailed origins of my deepest wounds without a large amount of ambiguity. Spencer captures this deficiency, too. After Jake assaults and abandons her, Julia says, “I don’t think I was even born a virgin.” Her effort to make sense into the plainly nonsensical seems to me like an inherited impulse, something derived from generations of cultural stagnation around gender-based violence. 

Months before her death, I spoke with Elizabeth Spencer over the phone. She talked about the months she spent in New Orleans, researching the novel’s setting, and recalled her use of narrative ambiguity as the deliberate choice I had assumed it was. And yet, I absorbed from her a sense that her fixation on Julia’s past diverged from my own. “I don’t spend too much time psychoanalyzing,” she said. I felt somewhat disappointed by her answer, at first. So much of Julia’s persona appears drawn from an intellectual understanding of the functional ways in which human beings process trauma. But maybe Spencer’s more intuitive approach is what accounts for her novel’s brilliance. Perhaps her resistance to determining direct cause and effect is what allowed her to craft such a complicated and authentic character. Julia is not whittled into a particular set of psychiatric ailments, and her interior current is rich and evolving, never cyclical, never wholly diminishing. Spencer allows her protagonist a limitless quality, that of a woman constantly interpreting and reinterpreting her place in the world through her experiences. Who among us isn’t?

The post The Past Is Present in ‘The Snare’ appeared first on Electric Literature.

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