Contents May Have Shifted, by Pam Houston. Norton, 2012. $25.95, 303 pages.
I have been reading a lot of contemporary literature lately about helpless women. Women trapped in unhappy marriages, women in psych wards, women exploring their sexuality to violent ends, young women caught up in porn rings. These are gorgeous, intelligent books—but what else can being a woman look like?
In Pam Houston’s latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, we have a female narrator, but you better believe she isn’t helpless, and she isn’t trapped in anything.
Rather, here is a book about freedom. Houston articulates this late in her novel, in a scene in Corrales, New Mexico, where her narrator muses, “In my twenties I pretended I wanted a long-term relationship but just kept picking wolfmen by mistake. In my thirties I thought my marriage phobia was something chronic I needed to get cured of, like back pain or herpes, but now that I’m almost fifty I suspect freedom is the secret pleasure girls born in the sixties won’t fess up to. What if Janis was wrong, and it’s actually a whole lot better to be free?” (262-263).
In Houston’s novel, there are no victims. There is only an honest-to-god heroine, named Pam: world traveler, adventurer, teacher. Pam has been a river guide, and she can drive a dogsled. She travels alone, or with female friends, or with her various love interests. She owns a ranch, digs through snow to reach her horses during Colorado winters, grows calm when the plane plummets (as it occasionally does).
There is love in this book, yes. We begin with Ethan, a failing romantic relationship. We end with Rick, and the complications of his previous partnership with Sofree and their joint custody over daughter Madison. Of course, Pam falls in love with the family she, Rick, and Madison become. Of course, any reader is rooting for Pam and Rick when things grow difficult. In this complex relationship—not just between a woman and her partner, but his daughter and his ex and his ex’s husband—lies the obstacle, the arc of the novel. Not much else happens, besides many trips and small vignettes of cultural exploration and self-discovery.
But therein lies the deep, poignant beauty of this book. This isn’t a traditional book—it’s a novel in a series of fragments, which take place across the U.S. and the world. This isn’t a traditional novel—it walks the line between fiction and non-fiction, with a narrator very much like the author. In the same way, this isn’t a traditional female protagonist—she isn’t pining for a man, for a marriage; she hasn’t chosen to have children, hasn’t succumbed to the myriad societal pressures about how women should live their lives.
In a tiny plane above the Wrangell mountain range, Pam thinks and Houston writes what the adventuring individual knows, and what the helpless individual needs to hear (and do): “Instantly I feel that old surge come back, that seizing of my own life on my own terms. It is such a physical thing, like the time I had my forearm shattered and the nurse came in every four hours on the dot to give me a shot of morphine—that’s how physical—and I look down at the glacier and the ice-ridged peaks that go on forever behind it and say, Remember this remember this remember this the next time you think it’s over, because some man, or some hope, or some life takes away instead of gives. Remember this and get on an airplane, a small one if possible, because it always works” (51-52).
In other words: this, this is what being a woman can look like: flying above a mountain range near the Yukon border. Or watching a sky burial in Drigung, Tibet.
During a trip to Tsedang, Tibet, a local masseuse is aghast at the fact that Pam and her girlfriend are both single and childless. As with every difficult or culturally sensitive topic that comes up in this book, Houston tackles the masseuse’s question with grace and humor: “The masseuses didn’t really speak English so I did a ten-minute charades routine where I acted out our imaginary husbands saying, ‘Clean the house! Fix my dinner! What do you mean you want to go to Tibet! You have to stay home and take care of me!’” (92).
It is with this humor and sensitivity that Houston also addresses the struggles of loving one’s self, the pain of loving others, the power of art to heal. The myriad healers and body-workers Houston’s narrator visits become a motif, juxtaposed with the enthusiastic tirelessness of her traveling. In other words, we see Pam’s flaws. A heavily-accented “psychic masseuse” tells Pam, “You are always so hateful toward your body, but you can’t be who you are without zis body” in Sedona, Arizona (217). A stranger in Provincetown, Massachusetts, tells Pam as he jogs by: “You’re a good person. […] It’s all going to be okay” and we get the sense that even the strongest people need to hear that once in a while (120).
The “psychic masseuse” who announces Pam’s hatefulness towards her own body also, during the same exchange, calls her a “big mothering presence” (217). I’m not sure that I get a mothering vibe from the Pam of this book, or from Houston. Mothering, perhaps, in the sense that Gertrude Stein was the mother of modern poetry. Houston, through this novel and through this character she either created or simply wrote down from her own life, is the mother of doing. Of action. She is the role model and the mother and the author of get out there, get on a goddamn plane, or in a cab, stop complaining, and just go:
“I know I am supposed to only think this about outdoor adventures, but there is something about flying down Fifth Avenue in a cab, after dark, barely making lights, you know, like everybody’s life depends on it, maybe a fine coating of rain hissing under the tires, the driver screaming in Tigrinya into his cell phone, that makes me feel like I could round a corner and turn my life into just about anything at all” (117).
Turn my life. Notice the verb, the active possibility of it. Notice that no one besides the speaker is in charge of her life. This is the opposite of helplessness.1