On the shelf
By Mona Simpson
Knopf, 416 pages, $30
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When I contact Mona Simpson about setting up an interview for the publication of her new novel, Commitment, she responds in a brilliant way.
She suggests we meet in Glendale, not far from where I live and a long way from her home on the Westside.
Simpson, whose 1986 debut novel Anywhere but Here launched both a remarkable career and a refreshing way of writing about life in Los Angeles, also had a faculty meeting that day at UCLA, where she teaches creative writing for almost 25 years.
But he has a favorite restaurant in Glendale, Zhengyalov Hatz, which he assumes I’ll know. I do not. So when I arrive, Simpson explains: Zhengyalov Hatz only serves one thing.
The eponymous dish consists of Armenian bread wrapped around a bright green filling consisting of 15 types of minced herbs and greens. It’s fresh and delicious in a surprisingly complex way, with the light headiness of the soursop and the earthiness of the beetroot leaves crunching along with plenty of other flavors against the soft, yeasty-sweet bread.
“I love it so much,” says Simpson. “Just one thing and it’s always delicious.”
The original restaurant, in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, was founded by Vresh Osipian to preserve a specialty of his native Artsakh, located on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
So it makes perfect sense that Simpson would love Zhengyalov Hatz. He’s also built a career making a thing that feels like home, rooted in the past and full of surprising complexities. Something that seems simple enough – the story of a family – but it never really is.
Beginning with “Anywhere but Here” (later adapted into a film), Simpson’s seven novels explore the complications of childhood, parenthood, and personality, tracing the flow and impact of our closest and most dangerous relationships with the fervor of a a cartographer chronicling Nile tributaries 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 story, but the Simpson story has more than a few notable features. She was born in Wisconsin to parents who divorced when she was very young. Her father returned to his native Syria and her mother, who struggled with mental health issues, remarried, divorced again and eventually moved with her daughter to Los Angeles. Simpson later learned that her parents had a child before they were married and gave it up for adoption. she was in her 20s when she first met her brother, Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Simpson went to UC Berkeley and worked for a time as a freelance journalist before getting an MFA in creative writing from Columbia and working at the Paris Review. She published “Anywhere but Here” in 1986 to huge success and later followed her lawyer-turned-TV writer husband back to Los Angeles. they had two children and later divorced.
It may be reductive to tie an artist’s life too closely to her work, but in every Simpson novel there is an element of personal experience: her debut’s emotionally/mentally troubled mother. the Middle Eastern absentee father in its sequel, “The Lost Father;” the tech billionaire of “A Regular Guy”; the artist struggling with motherhood and a largely absent wife of a television writer in “My Hollywood.” The same goes for her last one.
The novel follows the lives of Walter, Lina, and Donnie Aziz shortly before—and then for years after—their mother, Diane, is committed to a mental institution.
Walter, who has just entered college at Berkeley, is haunted by financial worries and guilt – “after his mom went to the hospital, he never again felt like he should be where he was.” Lina, who, like a young Simpson, works in an ice cream parlor, dreams of going to Barnard and becoming an artist, but worries about Donnie, who is still a child. “So let’s go,” Lina thinks when she learns that her mother has been hospitalized. “The long terror had finally begun. They had to be kept. Eventually it would end.”
Their father, known as “the Afghan,” is unavailable emotionally or financially, but one of Diane’s fellow nurses, Julie, appears as an unofficial but increasingly important aunt.
The book’s title refers to many things—Diane’s decision to be hospitalized, her children’s struggle to find their own identities while remaining a family, and Simpson’s relationship to storytelling.
Their lives, like the lives of all the Simpsons characters, are described in vivid detail – studying for biochemistry finals and dressing for interviews and dates weigh as much as struggling to pay bills and monitoring their mother’s progress . This is life’s jumble of greens and herbs: bitter, spicy and sweet all at once.
For Simpson, “Commitment” is an exploration of what life would have been like if her mother had gotten the treatment she needed. “I grew up with a single mom who had issues,” she says. “No diagnosis but delusions. I wanted to see if there was a better way for her. My life would be worse, but maybe it would be better for her.”
As someone who grew up “in the institutional era,” Simpson says, she was interested in exploring institutionalized care — what it was like then and how it is now. “It started out so idealistically, government-sponsored care, and then people started throwing their old relatives in there.”
Over the course of the story, Diane receives various levels of care, but none of it could be described as abusive, which was important to Simpson. “Adults with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” he says, “and of course there were abuses, but a lot of people were very well looked after 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 so much Diane’s story as it is her children’s, following a disconnected family. Each child recounts their own experience of a life dominated by an absent mother.
Simpson’s strength as a writer has always been in capturing life as it really is. no matter how extreme the situation, her characters live in a reality of recognizable details that merge 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 the final edit. “I have a lot of ideas, but not all of those ideas get a door,” he says. “You have to find the door.”
“I think what I aspire to (and haven’t achieved yet),” he adds via email, “is to show people living their lives deeply affected by the forces of history, even if they don’t always understand it.”
I ask Simpson if she’s ever thought about working in another genre — sci-fi or fantasy, say — and I’m surprised when she says she’s never been “interested in full world-building.” As if world building isn’t exactly what he does.
“I like ghost stories,” he adds, “but only if it works both ways. If only it could be supernatural as well as psychological. Like “Turn of the Screw”‘.
There are indeed ghosts in Simpson’s stories, often in the form of missing or troubled parents, just as they are in Simpson’s life. Her mother is gone, as is the father who re-entered her life when she was an adult. Jobs left too. the two became very close, and after his death in 2010, Simpson’s excellent eulogy for him was widely circulated and published in the New York Times.
But the woman herself is anything but haunted. She makes short, sweet work of her zhengyalov hatz while encouraging me to get a few things. The interview is challenging because Simpson is very easy to talk to. the conversation has a way of slipping sideways, off topic, and into comparable notes about young adult children (she has two), the challenges of life in New York as a young journalist, and, yes, her life as a cartoon character.
In the early ’90s, her now-ex-husband, Richard Appel, left New York City — and his job as city attorney — to join the writers’ room of “The Simpsons.” Homer’s mother, Mona, was named for her. “She had taken a 10-week contract, then another, and suddenly our nursery is asking for a big donation,” she says. “I asked them why they thought we could afford it and they said, ‘Oh, didn’t you invent The Simpsons?’
Appel took a staff position on the show and Simpson joined him in LA, embracing the city where she had lived as a teenager. “Los Angeles is the great American city,” he says. “As a reader I can’t believe how stereotypes about LA still show up in fiction and non-fiction.”
Including and especially the notion that every novelist secretly wants to work in film and television.
“Never,” he says, laughing. “I’ve seen this world up close. My son writes for TV—he just sold his first pilot—and he’s changed. When I was coming up, no one would suggest that a novelist write for television. But it’s very cooperative, and I’m not used to it.
“I love being a novelist,” he adds. “I wish I could do it a little faster, but it’s what I do.”