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W-3 by Bette Howland

Hosted by Lynn Steger Strong
Began on October 19, 2022 (12 Days)

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Memoir presupposes the primacy of the “I," but in W-3, as in most of Bette Howland’s fiction, one of her great accomplishments is to consistently elide and deemphasize the self. Set in a psychiatric ward (W-3), the book concerns the period in Howland’s life just after she, a single mother to two small children in her thirties, has attempted suicide. The first paragraphs, astonishingly, recount our narrator, not yet mentioned, listening to the sound of another person’s (likely faulty) heart: “In the intensive care unit there was a woman who had undergone open-heart surgery. A monitor was implanted in her heart; it beeped every second of the day and night, a persistent tempo, never racing or slowing down as a human heart seems to, unaccountable times on the most ordinary days of our lives.” Instead of the “I” Howland is attuned to the interests and complexities, the struggles—dare I say, the hearts—of those with whom she inhabits this sometimes scary, always liminal, and uncertain space. It is a master class in the power of attention; crystalline and sharp, too smart to offer certainty or redemption, the book offers, instead, something close to what it is to be alive.
—Lynn Steger Strong

Join us on November 1 for a virtual conversation of W-3 with Lynn Steger Strong. 

Lynn Steger Strong

is the author of the novels Hold Still, Want, and Flight. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York, the Paris Review, Time, and elsewhere. She has taught writing at the Pratt Institute, Fairfield University, Catapult, and Columbia University and is currently a Visiting Fiction Writer at Bates College. Her essay on Bette Howland, “Stories Straight from Life,” appeared in Epiphany.

Bette Howland

(1937-2017) was born in Chicago. She published three books in her lifetime: W-3, and the story collections Blue in Chicago and Things to Come and Go. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, after which she did not publish another book. All three of her books have been reissued in new editions from A Public Space Books.

Daily Reading

Day 1

W-3. Chapter I (p. 1–13, through "no one was home")

October 19, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Every time I read this opener I feel a thrill: is there a more perfect entrance to a book than the close proximity to another person's beating heart? Add to that that this one is faulty, maybe passed saving; add to that the "I" doesn't enter until the second paragraph...

Day 2

W-3. Chapter I (p. 13–23, to end)

October 20, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

"NOW," Henrietta says. Only employees and externs speak in all caps. An incredible move, jarring and abrasive, just as, I imagine, these directives must have felt. Howland is so of the world, the ward so often a "we" but never with those tasked to watch over and care for them.

Day 3

W-3. Chapter 2 (p. 24–45, to end)

October 21, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Iris drying her nails! The breezy ease of her. We ended the last chapter with Bette, but now she's disappeared herself. Iris is "new to W-3," but also new to us, and so we are getting more fully embedded in the ward, into watching, looking, learning with the other residents.

Day 4

W-3. Chapter 3 (p. 46–66, to end)

October 22, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Trudy! Her brashness, "like a cuckoo," standing on the table and pulling up her skirt, and then Howland's insertion, in the middle of this portrait, almost out of nowhere, "Try a little tenderness." A sentence seemingly from another world.

Day 5

W-3. Chapter 4 (p. 67–81, to end)

October 23, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Dissent and assent on W-3 have little to nothing to do with wants or needs: Fran says no and gets appointed anyway, until she slips into wanting yeses all the time; Flora refuses the outing nobody wanted to begin with, only to eventually, inevitably, be convinced otherwise.

Day 6

W-3. Chapter 5 (p. 82–93, through "Cootie would be out")

October 24, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

I'm obsessed with the middles of books, and this one is electric in the way it escalates and expands: the first prolonged coming together of two characters within "W-3"—it always feels to me like a love story: Cootie, the large and silent, and Simone the sinewy and loud.

Day 7

W-3. Chapter 5 (p. 93–106, to end)

October 25, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Observation both does and doesn't equal understanding: Bette listens to the late night talk between Cootie, Simone, Frankie, and Henry; watches Simone get ready to leave for nowhere; as Cootie finally talks: What has happened to our relationship to cause and effect?

Day 8

W-3. Chapter 6 (p. 107-124, to end)

October 26, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

"Nights were the primitive hours on W-3": Davy shooting pool, Jeffrey's radio, Trudy's solitaire, Maurice's prowling, the sirens and the flashing lights: the constant rattling of never enough sleep. Maurice saying to Bette maybe he's crazy; Bette thinking she might also be.

Day 9

W-3. Chapter 7 (p. 125–145, to end)

October 27, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

The book keeps asking us to look, but what for? It is asking us to inhabit this murky, awful middle space. How is it asking us to experience time's passing? How is it recalibrating our relationship to mental illness both as it is treated and its embodiment?

Day 10

W-3. Chapter 8 (p. 146–163, to end)

October 28, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

Halloween is here! Time has passed and Bette is helping with preparations, but this is also a chapter about variation, difference, and extremes: Bette is lucky enough to get letters, to have photos, "My sons were my home." 

Day 11

W-3. Chapter 9 (p. 164–179, to end)

October 29, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

This chapter always makes me almost forget this isn't fiction because the choice of this role swap meeting is too good, too terrible. There's so much swapping: the externs traded out; the inmates pick one another's names out of a hat to show each other what they think the other is.

Day 12

W-3. Chapter 10 (p. 180–204, to end)

October 30, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

There are lots of boundaries and borders broken in this last chapter: Bette transgressing the limits of the Pass zone; these stories of visitors, the first mention of them since her mother and her sons: the outside world is suddenly upon us, we are about to leave and so is Bette.

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