Unlike the turbulent 1970s she lives in, Polly Wainwright is determined to be calm, competent, and professional. She’s got a boyfriend making a name for himself as a war correspondent in Vietnam, close friends, and a steady (albeit boring) job in the Illustration Department at Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Chicago location. But once upon a time Polly also had dreams, and, when her steady (and boring) life begins to implode, she finds herself returning to what has gone unfulfilled in Chicago photographer and novelist Lynn Sloan’s vivid, elegant novel Midstream (Fomite Press).
Polly is herself a fascinating heroine, sometimes deeply frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always intensely believable. At one point, as her own life starts to unravel and her boss’s privileged niece starts her own ascent in England, Polly has the sort of moment many of us have probably shared, as Sloan writes: “She, Polly Wainwright from Peoria, Illinois, would make a contribution to the world. She, Polly, would preserve the wisdom of the elders that was slipping away in the film world. She, Polly Wainwright, would make a difference. She, Polly, would not be just like everyone else.” That she, like almost everyone else (except the feminists and the anti-war protestors), is slipping into averageness and obscurity, facing insecurity and low pay, makes her desperation more touching—and, in truth, sets the stage for her own forward propulsion.
Perhaps because Sloan is a photographer, and Polly Wainwright is deeply invested in cinema (never mind that she is, at novel’s start, working on barbed wire for the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Illustration Department), the writing throughout Midstream is vividly cinematic. Polly periodically narrates her life, from her commute to her dreams; it is perhaps particularly delightful when she thinks about how she’d film the scenes in which she finds herself. (The novel starts with a commuting scene, which should, she thinks, be filmed from above, maybe even from Tribune Tower, and which should involve a trained pigeon with a camera.)
Sloan moves, at times, between eras. She makes these switches quite clear, and moves fairly consistently between the present (1974) and 1962, as she is fighting to be taken seriously as a member of the crew at a seedy film production company. Sloan sprinkles the seeds of Polly’s activities at the film production company throughout the past, carefully coaxing them into blossoming as Polly moves through the summer of 1974. It is an elegant maneuver, well crafted and a pleasure to read.
Polly, back in 1962, was still naive and hopeful. Polly in May ’74 is still a bit hopeful, too. But, by August, she has undergone a profound change: “…a shift had occurred in Vanessa’s office. Her last direct look at Polly suggested respect that hadn’t been there before, because Polly had learned to play the game, a lesson she should have learned long ago. Getting ahead required not ability, not energy and commitment, but the recognition that it was a game, a game with rules with its own language and strategy.” But, at the same time, Polly maintains her dreams—and, when given the chance, she makes her own big play.
Midstream is available at most bookstores and through the Fomite Press website.