Ellen Gilchrist: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981)

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Ellen Gilchrist’s acclaimed 1981 debut collection of short stories, introduced readers to a remarkable Southern voice which has sustained its power and influence through her more than 20 subsequent books. Gilchrist has a distinctive ear for language, and a deep understanding of her flawed, sometimes tragic characters. These fourteen stories, divided into three sections — There’s a Garden of Eden, Things Like the Truth, and Perils of the Nile — are about mostly young, upper-class Southern women who are bored with the Junior League and having babies, and chafe against the restrictions of their sheltered lives. Talented and bright, but living in the shadow of men — their husbands and fathers — they resort to outrageous actions in pursuit of freer lives and uncompromised love, despite the consequences. This collection first introduced readers to some of Gilchrist’s most beloved characters, such as Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington

I came across Ellen Gilchrist by chance. I was looking for books set in New Orleans and saw one of her short stories Rich in an anthology. I wasn’t familiar with her and looked her up and finally ordered a used copy of her first collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. It’s very rare that I read a whole short story collection in a few days, but I did in this case. There was a unity of setting, mood and atmosphere, and even one returning character that it read almost like a novel in stories.

Most of the stories are set in New Orleans, only a few take place in other places. The first or third person narrators are all women. Some are still small girls, many are teenagers, a few are grownups and some are elderly. About 50% of the stories are set in the 40s, the others in the 70s.

Hope and failure, perversion and innocence are some of the themes. The descriptions are rich and lush, the tone ranges from lyrical and  dreamy to bitter and sarcastic. Some of the stories have the atmosphere of a humid, stuffed boudoir, others exude an air of rich elegance.

In a few sentences Gilchrist can capture a whole life, including its tragedy and beauty. I liked the beautiful, hopeful stories, in which the protagonists were heading for a life full of intense and sensuous moments best. But I can’t deny that the more cruel stories like “Rich” – in which people get richer and richer and finally end in tragedy – or the stories Suicides and Indignities were powerful and even made me gasp.

To give you a taste – this is the beginning of Indignities

Last night my mother took off her clothes in front of twenty-six invited guests in the King’s Room at Antoine’s. She took off her Calvin Klein evening jacket and her beige silk wrap-around blouse and her custom-made  brassiere and walked around the table letting everyone look at the place where her breasts used to be.

She had them removed without saying a word to anyone. I’m surprised she told my father. I’m surprised she invited him to the party. He ever would have noticed. He hasn’t touched her in years except to hand her a cheque or a paper to sign.

My favourite stories were There’s a Garden of Eden in which a fortysomething woman and her young lover take a boat and navigate the flooded streets of New Orleans to get to her mother, 1944 in which a young girl meets a glamorous war widow who shows her to make the most of live. I also loved Traveler in which a plain girl travels to her beautiful cousin in the South. The cousin has just lost her mother who’s left her wardrobes and wardrobes full of expensive clothes, underwear, perfumes and make-up. The plain girl reinvents herself on this vacation and doesn’t want to return home. Summer, an Elegy is a story with a languorous mood, but it made me feel uncomfortable as it describes the love affair of two eight year-olds. It contains one of my favourite passages.

The afternoon went on for a log time, and the small bed was surrounded by yellow light and the room filled with the smell of mussels.

Long afterward, as she lay in a cool bed in Acapulco, waiting for her third husband to claim her as his bride, Matille would remember that light and how, later that afternoon, the wind picked up and could be heard for miles away, moving toward Issaquena County with its lines of distant thunder, and how the cottonwood leaves outside the window had beat upon the house all night with their exotic crackling.

I haven’t read anyone quite like Ellen Gilchrist but she still reminded me of a few authors. Tennesse Williams came to mind – A Streetcar Named Desire as much as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – because of the setting and some of the older characters. But she also reminded me of Julie Orringer whose intricately woven sentences and lush descriptions are similar and there’s some of Yoko Ogawa’s cruelty in this collection as well. Funny enough Ogawa’s last short story collection has the English title Revenge. One of Gilchrist’s best stories is called Revenge as well. Coincidence? Who knows.

If you like rish, complex short stories, full of allusions and sensual descriptions, sometimes mean, sometimes dreamy – then do yourself a favour and get a copy of this wonderful book.