On the shelf
by Mona Simpson
Knopf, 416 pages, $30
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When I contact Mona Simpson to set up an interview scheduled for the publication of her new novel, “Commitment,” she responds in a way that can only be described as extraordinary.
She suggests we meet in Glendale, not far from where I live and a long way from her house on the west side.
Simpson, whose 1986 debut novel, “Anywhere except here” launched a remarkable career and a refreshingly clear way of writing about life in Los Angeles, she also had a faculty meeting on the day in question at UCLA, where she has taught creative writing for nearly 25 years.
But she has a favorite restaurant in Glendale, Zhengyalov Hatz, that she supposes that I will know. I don’t. So when I arrive, Simpson explains: Zhengyalov Hatz is only good for one thing.
The dish of the same name consists of Armenian flatbread wrapped around a bright green filling made up of 15 types of chopped herbs and vegetables. It’s fresh and delicious in a surprisingly complicated way, with the light tang of sorrel and earthiness of beet greens crunching along with many other flavors against soft, yeasty sweet bread.
“I love it so much,” says Simpson. “Just one thing and it’s always delicious.”
The original restaurant, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, was established by Vresh Osipian to preserve a specialty from his native Artsakh, located on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
So it makes perfect sense that Simpson would love Zhengyalov Hatz. She’s also built a career doing something she feels right at home, rooted in the past and full of surprising complexities. Something that seems quite simple, the story of a family, but in reality it never is.
Beginning with “Anywhere but Here” (later adapted into a film), Simpson’s seven novels explore the complications of childhood, parenting and personality, tracing the flow and impact of our closest and most dangerous relationships with the fervor of a cartographer who narrates the tributaries of the Nile and the delicacy of a surgeon trying to locate and repair an aneurysm.
Despite the difference between happy and unhappy, every family story is an epic tale, but Simpson has more than a few notable characteristics. She was born in Wisconsin to parents who divorced when she was very young. Her father returned to her native Syria and her mother, struggling with mental health issues, remarried, divorced again and eventually moved with her daughter to Los Angeles. Simpson later learned that her parents had had a child before they were married and put him up for adoption; she was in her late twenties when she met her brother, Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Simpson went to UC Berkeley and worked for a time as a freelance journalist before earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia and working at the Paris Review. She released “Anywhere but Here” in 1986 to enormous success and later followed her husband, a lawyer-turned-TV writer, back to Los Angeles; they had two children and later divorced.
It can be reductive to relate the life of an artist to her work too closely, but in every Simpson novel there is an element of personal experience: the emotionally/mentally challenged mother of her debut; the absentee father from the Middle East in her sequel, “The Lost Father”; the tech billionaire from “A Regular Guy”; the artist struggling with motherhood and a largely absent television writer wife on “My Hollywood.” The same goes for the last one of her.
The novel follows the lives of Walter, Lina, and Donnie Aziz just before, and then for years after, their mother, Diane, is admitted to a mental hospital.
Walter, who has just entered college at Berkeley, is wracked by financial worries and guilt: “after his mother was admitted to the hospital, he never felt like he should be where he was.” Lina, who, as a young Simpson, works at an ice cream parlor, dreams of going to Barnard and becoming an artist, but worries about Donnie, who is still a child. So here we go, Lina thinks when she finds out that her mother has been hospitalized. “The long terror had finally begun. They had to endure. It would eventually end.”
Her father, known as “the Afghan”, is emotionally and financially unavailable, but one of Diane’s fellow nurses, Julie, steps in as an unofficial but increasingly pivotal aunt.
The book’s title refers to many things: Diane’s decision to be hospitalized, her children’s struggles to find their own identities while remaining a family, and Simpson’s relationship to the narrative.
Their lives, like the lives of all of Simpson’s characters, are described in vivid detail: studying for biochemistry finals and dressing for interviews and dates are just as important as struggling to pay the bills and monitoring their mother’s progress. This is the mix of vegetables and herbs of life: bitter, sour and sweet, all at once.
For Simpson, “Commitment” is an exploration of what life might have been like if her mother had received the treatment she needed. “I grew up with a single mom who was struggling,” she says. “There are no diagnoses but delusions. She wanted to see if there could have been a better way for her. My life would have been worse, but maybe it would have been better for her.”
As someone who grew up “in the age of institutions,” Simpson says, she was interested in exploring institutionalized care: what it was like then and what it is now. “It started out so idealistically, state-sponsored care, and then people started leaving their elderly relatives there.”
Over the course of the story, Diane receives various levels of attention, but none of them could be characterized as abusive, which was important to Simpson. “I came of age with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” she says, “and of course there was abuse, but a lot of people got really good care in these places, people who now have nowhere to go. Our society is not equipped to deal with people who cannot take care of themselves.”
But “Commitment” isn’t Diane’s story so much as that of her children, who follow a family gone wild. Each child narrates his own experience of a life dominated by an absent mother.
Simpson’s forte as a writer has always been capturing life as it is actually lived; no matter how dire the situation, his characters inhabit a reality of recognizable details that coalesce into a story, rather than a story to which details have been added.
It’s slow work, he says. “Commitment” took about six years to write, including a lot that didn’t make it to the final edition. “I have a lot of ideas, but not all of those ideas have a door,” she says. You have to find the door.
“I think what I aspire to (and have not yet achieved),” he adds by email, “is to show people living their lives, deeply influenced by the forces of history, even if they don’t always understand it.”
I ask Simpson if she’s ever considered working in another genre—science fiction or fantasy, for example—and I’m surprised when she says she’s never “been interested in building whole worlds.” As if world building isn’t exactly what she does.
“I like ghost stories,” he adds, “but only if they work both ways. If it could be supernatural but also psychological. Like ‘Another twist’”.
In fact, there are ghosts in Simpson’s stories, often in the form of missing or troubled parents, just like in Simpson’s life. Her mother is gone, as is the father who re-entered her life when she was an adult. He also left Jobs; the two became very close, and after his death in 2010, Simpson’s extraordinary eulogy for him was widely circulated and was published in the New York Times.
But the woman herself is anything but bewitched. She does a short and delighted job with her zhengyalov hatz as she encourages me to get some to take away. The interview is challenging because Simpson is so easy to talk to; the conversation has a way of slipping sideways, off-topic and into comparative notes about young adult children (she has two), the challenges of living in New York as a young journalist, and, yes, her life as a character. cartoon.
In the early 1990s, her now-ex-husband, Richard Appel, left New York — and his job as a city prosecutor — to join the writers’ room on “The Simpsons.” Homer’s mother, Mona, was named after him. “He had gotten a 10-week contract, then another, and suddenly our preschool is asking for a huge donation,” she says. “I asked them why the hell they thought we could afford that and they said, ‘Oh, you didn’t make up ‘The Simpsons’?”
Appel landed a position on the show’s staff, and Simpson joined him in Los Angeles, embracing the city where he had lived as a teenager. “LA is the great American city,” he says. “As a reader, I can’t believe how stereotypes about Los Angeles keep appearing in fiction and nonfiction.”
Including and above all the notion that every novelist secretly wants to work in film and television.
“Never,” he says between laughs. “I have seen that world up close. My son writes for television, he just sold his first pilot, and he has changed. When I was starting out, no one would have suggested that a novelist write for television. But he’s very collaborative, and I’m not used to that.
“I like being a novelist,” he adds. “I wish I could do it a little faster, but it’s what I do.”