Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage” from The New Yorker, 5/21/12

Finally, he started working again. Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe. It was a peculiarly freeing state. He didn’t worry about whether the music he was writing was good or bad. Sometimes he seemed only to be channelling it. He thought about Bridey’s mother’s psychic, calling up past lives, and wondered if the music was coming from somewhere else. Sometimes he knew that he was actively composing—thinking about what a bassoon could do, how long a note could be sustained, how long dissonance could be tolerated before it had to resolve into something sweet. But even then he felt cut loose from his critical sense. He was making something, and it gave him pleasure, and it didn’t matter if it ever left his apartment, or if he ever left his apartment. As long as he never went out, there was no crashing self-consciousness, no awareness of the outside world.

I’d never heard of proxy marriage before reading this story. There was that episode of M*A*S*H where Klinger married his childhood sweetheart by shortwave radio (she later divorced him, having never spent a single minute in the same hemisphere) but I never thought it could actually happen that way. Meloy discusses her use of this and how it came about in her interview.

The story (which is available online) follows Bridey (named after Bridey Murphy) and William (secretly in love with her) from the end of high school into their early careers, as their lives weave around each other. Bridey’s father performs occasional proxy marriages for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the two kids serve as the proxies.

He thought he would be either a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally….But William could imagine another kind of life.

I found this particularly important to me, given my reaction to Wendell Berry’s story a few days ago. Bridey – “confident, even a little vain, and she was good at school, except for math, which didn’t interest her” – has boyfriends, and William pines for her but never asks her out or indicates any interest beyond friendship. They go off to school, both to study music, and keep in touch as friends, returning home at intervals, and, once in a while, serving in proxy weddings. William changes from performance to composition, and Bridey finds out she’s too old for her face – that she’s just not pretty enough to be a performer, just like her mother said.

They fall out of touch for a while, and William discovers to his dismay that Bridey has married, leading to the scene quoted above. I like the use of music as a metaphor for the relationship. I love the relationship William has with girlfriend Gillian, an ambitious oboist hoping for an opening in a Tampa symphony:

…he realized that he wouldn’t go to Tampa if an oboist dropped dead and Gillian got the job. He wondered if this was how other people plumbed the secrets of their own hearts, with tests like “Will you go to Tampa?”

The whole story is predicated on the wars, since that necessitates the proxy marriages in the first place. After Abu Ghraib is exposed, Bridey’s father refuses to perform further ceremonies.

William thought there must be a long compound German word for the way that large events in the world could affect your personal life; the scale was reduced to the point of insignificance, but the everyday effect was amplified.

I won’t reveal the resolution, but with stories of unrequited love there are only two possibilities.

What struck me about this story more than anything else was timing. I typically use the story art, rather than cover art, but I made an exception because I don’t think it’s an accident this story appeared in this issue; and I think it makes an interesting statement.

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