Cornelia Nixon brings to life a story that challenges the role of class in academia and America, that questions the limits of language and the boundaries of love.
Abigail McCormick and Ray Stark are both poets, married nearly twenty-five years in what has always been a passionate relationship despite deep class differences. Ray is the son of West Virginia coal miners; contemptuous, riotous, too wrapped up in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, sure that he’ll soon receive a more distinguished position at Brown, where he teaches part-time. Abby grew up riding horses in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights. Now, having recently abandoned poetry, she spends her energy on a new teaching position at UC Berkeley, on the opposite coast from her husband. Abby’s decision to accept the job sets the stage for Ray’s infidelity, especially as he struggles with a heart condition.
Ray falls in love with Tory Grenier, a graduate student. He’s tortured by his affair, but determined to stay married, and he fights privately to get over Tory for years—even after Abby discovers the relationship. While his health worsens, despairing Abby goes back to riding and writing poems. As she struggles privately, she becomes dependent on sleeping pills and alcohol, rambling through their apartment, forgetting the things Ray says to her at night.
Alternating seamlessly between Ray and Abby’s perspectives, The Use of Fame is a gripping exploration of how closeness and despair can warp a lover’s perception.