Holly Goddard Jones, “The Right Way to End a Story” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Tin House cover art: "Annie Duels the Sun" by Angie Wang

Tin House cover art: “Annie Duels the Sun” by Angie Wang

Juliet had been tending a fantasy about the famous photographer who would be lodging with her at the college’s guest house. She knew that he was older than she – twenty years at least – but that was perhaps a good thing at this point in her life, as recently separated as she was, as recently thirty as she was. An older man, an artist, a jet-setter in (she imagined) khaki trousers and a vest: she’d seen his self-portrait on the Internet and felt very kindly toward him.

This is the third story in the past couple of months (see “The Golden Vanity” and “Sweet Dreams“) in which there’s a close relationship between the main character and the narrator. I’m not complaining – I like it. I just hope it’s not suddenly a fashionable trend, because I’d like to continue to like it. It’s also about a writer, which is so often considered a litfic taboo (probably because teachers and editors see so many of them). Jones acknowledges this in a blog post:

This is a very different story for me. It’s about a writer — I long swore to myself that I would never write a story about a writer, because doing so seemed like such a navel-gazing act of indulgence — and it’s quite barbed. It’s a little bit satirical and a littler bit metafictional, and it’s a perhaps-dangerous mix of stuff I’ve really thought about this writing and academic life I’ve chosen and stuff I suspect other people think about it and stuff that I find outright wrong and offensive, all in the perspective of a character who’s superficially enough like me to get me in trouble. But that was part of the fun and the experiment, too…

I happen to like stories about writers – and again, I probably wouldn’t if I encountered it in every third story. And academia just begs for barbing. I enjoyed this one. Just a few months ago I was debating dropping Tin House when the next renewal came around, and here they send me an issue that makes me reconsider.

In addition to the lost-ness in her personal life described in the opening paragraph above, Juliet’s career isn’t taking off, either. She published her debut story collection and has been working on a novel, but she’s working as a lowly adjunct, and picking up random visiting-artist classes like the one in the story. She had an affair with Evan, her thesis advisor, before meeting her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and he thinks this gig is beneath her, but then, he’s got 5 novels plus poetry and story collections (just ask any MFA about the job market; it’s tough out there as colleges embrace vocational education and dismiss anything that isn’t engineering, computer science, or business admin). He’s scolded her also for publishing in an online magazine, for god’s sake – just once. This little touch is so perfect, it would’ve won me over by itself, since it’s a topic that frequently comes up on writer-oriented message boards.

She was self-aware enough to hate all of this hate, to recognize how pathetic and bitter she’d become, and the awareness only angered her more, because she couldn’t fix herself right now. She was homeless and nearly broke and her marriage had failed, and the only comfort she’d been able to find was through her laptop, on pirated Wi-Fi: the image of her famous photographer and the fantasy of what three weeks with him in a quaint guest cottage would be like.

You can imagine that the reality doesn’t match up to the fantasy: as she’s shown around the guest house she’ll be sharing with famous photographer Paul Sacca, she finds out quite abruptly from a cold encounter with his wife that they do not want to share a kitchen with her, so she hardly meets the guy for the first week. She’s assigned his lecture to her class, and she makes a bit of a fuss there, calling bullshit on the artistry in a photograph of a plate titled “Afghani.” She’s very specific and makes a perfectly good argument, but I’m not sure it’s ok to for one visiting artist to challenge another, and he slaps her down pretty good. I sympathize so much with her here. She goes to a nearby tavern, gets drunk and calls her thesis advisor, stumbles around in the snow – and who should drive by but the photographer, helpfully offering a ride.

What makes this story, though, isn’t that plot (which I’ve just sketched; the scenes are wonderfully drawn, and there are many more significant details) but the relationship between this story and the comments made throughout about writing. She hates exposition:

“Readers don’t want to wade through pages of backstory,” she would say. “They want to know the problem and know it quick. It’s the writer’s job to deliver the problem.” She was good at delivering problems, she had decided. Good at zeroing in on trouble.

This is after seven pages of backstory. And to be honest, the backstory was my favorite part. Of course, the “problem” is framed in the opening paragraph, which is pretty much the standard structure – start in media res, then flashback to fill in the colors, and proceed. I like how she works this into the story.

It’s fun to match up all the opinions on writing – hers on her husband’s stories, her husband’s on her stories, Evan’s recommendations – with the story. It’s more complex than a one-to-one system; she seems to take Evan’s advice over her husband’s on pov-shifts then maybe violates her own on story endings. I can see some elements of her husband’s characters in her, and Evan’s offhand remark that her stories are “too domestic” to be appreciated by male editors – an opinion he seems to have revised, or at least softened – seems to have been heeded. So it was a bit of a game as well as a story – trace that character, what’s that technique. I’m not always sure whether she’s following the given rules, or breaking them – but that’s on me.

It’s a good read, and the academic barbs (which are perfect) and writing commentary give it energy it might not have had otherwise – brings it out of the realm of the “domestic drama” while still keeping her personal emotional turmoil the nucleus. I haven’t read any of her work before, but I think maybe I should.

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