Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams” from The New Yorker, 5/14/12

New Yorker illustration by Victo Ngai

New Yorker illustration by Victo Ngai

The corkscrew was shaped like a girl in a pleated frock, of the sort that Lara knew from childhood photographs of her mother, a short, light-green summer dress. Only the red collar didn’t really fit; it should have been embroidered tulle, and white. Lara could see the pictures – big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, full of people she didn’t know. Even her mother didn’t know all their names. “That man was a neighbor – what was his name again? And aren’t those my mother’s cousin Alberto’s children?…” The colors were faded which somehow made them more garish. It was as though the photographs had captured the sun, the sun of childhood, pale and ever-present. Thereafter the family had fallen apart and people had gone their separate ways. When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only afternoons spent in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

The first thing that grabbed me was the corkscrew – a good sign, since that quote above is the opening of the story. What great use of the old saw Show, Don’t Tell – instead of writing, “The corkscrew unleashed memories of a time I only knew from pictures,” he shows exactly how those memories pop out at Lara and stream over her, like… well, like champagne bubbles, or the aroma of fine wine, pouring out after uncorking. Or – even better – the genie let out of the bottle.

And what terrific detail, familiar to many of us, those family pictures we’ve seen but don’t really understand, making us feel maybe like we, through only the accident of timing, missed the good part.

I’ll continue along with my experience of this story, but let me warn you: it’s a story that, once spoiled, cannot be unspoiled. It will be far better if you experience it yourself – if you read it, rather than read about it. So stop here, if you haven’t read your copy yet. If you don’t have a copy, you might want to get one.

The story continues, telling us more about Lara. She and Simon are a young Swiss couple, early 20s, not yet married but living together four months. It’s the first time either of them have lived outside their parents’ homes, and they’re feeling that first flush of independence:

…[A] full shopping cart was like the emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them. When Simon wheeled it into the underground parking garage, with Lara at his side, she felt deep pride and a curious satisfaction in being grown up and independent.

I remember that (and, from his interview, I see the author does as well). I remember the first groceries I bought for my first meal in my first place: fish sticks and frozen peas. I remember one day buying a cheap cut of meat, having no idea what it was or how to cook it, and repeating, “Blade steak, blade steak” so I could get the casual tone right when I talked to my parents: “Oh, I had a blade steak for dinner.” My parents, however, had no real interest in anything about my new life, preferring to assume I was making a mess of things. Which I was, of course, that’s what 18 is for, but it’s also how we learn to be 19 and 25 and 58.

Lara and Simon are making their home together in a small apartment over a seedy restaurant (the landlady-restauranteur has a sign: “PLEASE DON’T THROW BREAD AWAY” over a box in the hallway always full of stale bread, used for who-knows-what: bread crumbs? Bird feed?) in a not-terribly-nice part of town near where Simon grew up. They add things little by little: a mattress and box spring (no frame yet, that’ll come), a used coffee maker, and towels. Quality towels. Simon isn’t sure about the expense for those quality towels, but Lara is:

“It’s a mistake to economize on quality – these towels will last us forever,” Lara told him. “Forever is a long time,” Simon answered.

So maybe they are on the same path, maybe not. Maybe Simon is worried about being stuck forever; maybe he’s just not interested in using the same towels forever (even Lara has settled for the color, a not-too-pleasant mustardy yellow).

They ride the bus home from work, sitting in their favorite seat (it’s not as bright, and their conversation is covered by noise). Just as they are getting off the bus, Lara notices a man in a black coat. Ah, a sinister note enters the story, a minor chord thrown in. Their eyes meet. “…Lara saw and attentiveness and a kind of hunger that she found a little disagreeable, but at the same time provocative.” He goes in another direction, and she returns her attention to Simon as they go home.

She shows him the corkscrew; predictably, he’s mildly concerned about the cost, but they plan to get a bottle of wine from the restaurant downstairs to put it to use. She draws a bath, and Simon tries to come in but she blocks him. She’s shy, still in that not-quite-comfortable-with-casual-nudity phase of a relationship which for some people lasts microseconds and for others, decades.

There’s a scene in the restaurant, where she goes looking for him after her bath; he’s fixing the television, and she hears a news story about a dead body found at the lake. Something overheard about an animal hater; a creaking staircase, a dark silhouette, a pot left to boil and a tiny scolding, adding little dark notes, but it’s all good, overall, and Lara and Simon end up back in their kitchen with their bottle of wine and they make love on the floor in ways that leave marks from the coconut mat on Lara’s back and scrapes on her knees, her bathtub shyness not a factor.

After dinner, Lara watches television for a while (I begin to wonder, is that it? It’s the last page, is it another slice-of-life-exposition story?) and sees on her screen the man in the black coat on an interview show. Turns out he’s a writer. He talks about his work:

Only today, on the bus to the studio, he added, he’d seen this young couple, two perfectly ordinary young people, sitting together and talking terribly earnestly. “They reminded me of my youth, of a woman I wanted to marry and have kids with,” he said. “Then something got in the way. But I’ve never felt so sure of anything as I did then, before I really knew the first thing about living.”
He imagined that the couple had only just moved in together; they were still furnishing their apartment and buying things for it and maybe, with slight astonishment, contemplating the years that lay ahead of them, asking themselves whether their relationship would last. “It was that blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out that interested me,” the writer said. “Maybe I’ll write a story about it.”….

Aha, I thought. So Lara and Simon are fictional characters, I didn’t see that coming. The writer’s television interview is full of insight: “He talked about how young couples sometimes resembled very old couples, perhaps because both had to deal with uncertainty.” Yes, the uncertainty, the forever towels in mustard yellow.

I’d been thinking all along, yes, this is how it was, way back then, it was all so familiar and warm and the story fit my memory (or did I change the memory to make it fit because it was such an inviting past?) and now I find it was the memory of the writer. The writer in the story.

But it isn’t that simple (if that can be considered simple); the writer isn’t done yet.

The host asked if it wasn’t tricky to write from life. The writer shook his head. He wouldn’t be painting a portrait of these two individuals. They had given him an idea for something, but they had nothing to do with the people he’d write about in his story. In actual fact, they weren’t a couple at all, he said. They’d got off at two different stops and kissed goodbye on the cheek. Lara heard the last train pull in.

So Lara and Simon are fictional characters created and freed and now of independent will, as writers know characters sometimes can be. It’s like the theory of parallel universes, where everything that can happen, does happen, in one of an infinite number of universes that have been spawning innumerably since the beginning of time. And in Lara’s universe, the universe of this story, she is watching the writer on television, whereas in the writer’s universe, he wanted to write about a couple he’d seen, but really about his own memory, his own story.

The writer would have gone home a long time ago, even as he continued to speak on the TV. For a month, the channel would keep replaying this conversation with him, in an endless loop, until he himself had become just as imaginary a figure as Lara or Simon.

And this completes the circle, this increased narrative distance of the third-person narrator explaining the story I’d just read: A reality as a fiction.

I went back to the beginning and looked for clues, and found only one: the lead-in to the shopping cart quote:

“Do we need milk?” “You know, the coffee’s almost gone.” “We’re out of garbage bags.” Sentences like that had an unexpected charm, and a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them.

The use of the word “sentences” is, now that I think about it, just a bit unusual. It’s the phrasing a writer, writing about someone, would use. Giving another level to the reality. Everything – Lara and Simon, the writer, the reader – as the observation of someone else. Reality: a recursive puzzle that turns inside out on itself; something like Robert Coover’s “Matinee“, a series of zoom-outs in which the subject becomes the object over and over again. And where will it end – who is the final, ultimate, un-objected Subject?

That’s what happens when you uncork the bottle.

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3 responses to “Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams” from The New Yorker, 5/14/12

  1. Pingback: Peter Stamm–”Sweet Dreams” (New Yorker, May 14, 2012) « I Just Read About That…

  2. Pingback: Holly Goddard Jones, “The Right Way to End a Story” from Tin House, Summer 2012 « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Illustrations | A Just Recompense

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