Social relations are tricky. Sometimes you have a natural rapport with a person. Sometimes you wish for a stronger friendship than someone wants to give you. Sometimes you receive attention from a person you have no interest in being friends with. Lionel Shriver has an unerring knack for cutting through social niceties and portraying the psychology of her characters in a disarmingly candid manner. In her new novella “The Standing Chandelier” she presents Jillian Frisk: a loud, opinionated, colourful woman with an artistic sensibility. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way but forges on regardless. She’s close friends with Weston who is more of a natural introvert. After years of this friendship, he develops a serious romance with a woman named Paige who can’t stand Jillian. Weston and Jillian’s once reliable friendship becomes threatened. This story asks many tensely awkward questions about our social natures, the emotional risks of intimacy and the limits of friendship.
Something really fascinating that Shriver does in this short book is play upon the readers’ sympathy for her characters. It strangely feels like you’re meeting them in a social situation so naturally make your own assumptions and judgements about them. Jillian is prone to vociferously declaring opinions and attitudes without stopping to consider the feelings of other people. At one point she rants about how surprising it is that idiosyncratic people form romances and ends with “timid Filipina housemaids with wide, bland faces and one leg shorter than the other. It was astonishing that so many far-fetched candidates for undying devotion managed to marry, or something like it.” This casually offensive statement made me naturally side with Paige who has a politically correct and censorious nature. But Paige’s method for slowly severing the friendship between Weston and Jillian begins to feel so cruel, I couldn’t help but empathize with Jillian’s desperate attempts to maintain familiar intimacies with Weston even when it’s clear he’s emotionally pulling away from her.
The pivotal object at the centre of this tale is an elaborate lamp which Jillian creates using bits of memorabilia from her life. She christens it “the standing chandelier.” As someone who refuses to “acknowledge the artificial boundary between fine art and craft” this creation is a work that she simply pours her heart into. It stands as an expression of feeling for all she wants to communicate but can’t because of her own sloppy form of social discourse. As the novella develops, it acquires a powerful meaning in the way that people optimistically share their innermost selves hoping to form a close connection. When this connection doesn’t last we’re left feeling achingly bereft as if a piece of ourselves and all that inner feelings we’ve shared have been stolen. That woundedness leads to cynicism and a view that “Human relations had a calculus, and sometimes you had to add up columns of gains and losses with the coldness of accountancy.”
I was caught off guard by what a tender and particularly moving form of loneliness Shriver portrays in this novella. The story encapsulates a solemn acknowledgement about the challenging complexity of human relationships. There’s an aching kind of melancholy caused from an emotional intimacy which has been severed and a sense of freefalling now that a support network has been lost. Shriver gets at this form of loss which goes beyond friendship or romance, but hints at that inner longing for a reciprocation of feeling which has been rebuffed or withdrawn. For such a short book “The Standing Chandelier” contains many powerful statements about all our various social connections and misconnections.