Lillian Ross’s death at the venerable age of 99 has been widely noted, starting with Rebecca Mead’s obituary in Ross’s beloved The New Yorker. A number of her more successful books, including Portrait of Hemingway, have been reprinted in recent years and I suspect more will follow now. Less likely to be reissued is her one foray into fiction, Vertical and Horizontal (1963), which has been variously described as a novel or a collection of short stories.
Vertical and Horizontal portrays a world that some of us thought only existing in Woody Allen’s jokes: the classical Freudian psychoanalyst whose office on the Upper West Side, complete with couch, sees a recurring cast of patients whose treatment plays out, several times a week, for years at great expense and, perhaps, to some therapeutic benefit. In nine stories, all previously published in The New Yorker, Ross shows the handsome and much-sought-after bachelor, Dr. Spencer Fifield, and his mentor, Dr. Blauberman.
Fellow The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean called Ross “the consummate reporter, listener and observer,” and Vertical and Horizontal often shows off Ross’s remarkable ear for voices. As in this description of how people laugh at a cocktail party:
“You’ll love this! Tell him, Soph!”
“The latest on why people in Great Neck aren’t building any fallout shelters,” Sophie said.
“This’ll kill you!” Freisleben shouted.
“Because they figure they won’t need them,” Sophie said. “They figure if war comes the men will all be at their offices in New York, the women will all be out shopping, the kids will be in school. So why build? For the help?”
Everybody laughed the same kind of laugh, united and exact, a laugh that was divided clearly into two parts, two syllables–an “ah” that went uphill quickly moving into a knowing “hah.”
Critic Granville Hicks felt that “one could only judge” Vertical and Horizontal “harshly as a novel, whereas the stories as stories are fine,” and, indeed, two of the nine stories are only loosely connected with the rest. He described Fifield and Blauberman as walking compendia of “breezy attitudes, pseudo-clinical jargon and second-hand upmanship.” Playwright Edward Albee was even blunter: “Both men are near-monsters. They are hollow men; they are insensitive, small, mean, are amoral; they are climbers, these men, and it is their effect on each other, and on the people whose lives touch theirs, that is the core of the book.”
Yet, Albee wrote,
… the most astonishing thing about Vertical and Horizontal and the most extraordinary of Lillian Ross’s enormous gifts, is that we care. Spencer Fifield is, for lack of a better word, the hero of the book, and we truly care about this man, about this hollow, hopeless man, and we care because Miss Ross makes us see that he is helpless–the monster is victim, that the hopeless man cries out hopelessly, that the emptiness can never be filled, only circumscribed, that the most miserable of men, the man who knows he suffers but cannot grasp his suffering, cannot feel it, is not any less a human being, only a much sadder one.
It is Miss Ross’s compassion that surfaces. Without it, the book would be cold, cruel, and distasteful. With it, the book is a triumph.