Tessa Hadley: “An Abduction” from The New Yorker, 7/9/12

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.

It’s great opening, echoing the title, but it’s also misleading – there is no abduction. No actual abduction, anyway; there may perhaps be a more metaphoric one. The “nobody noticed” is the important part. It’s available online– third story in a row, thank you, TNY.

This story feels like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” with Arnold Friend recast as a clean-cut college boy on break (which is a little like saying it’s like Moby-Dick with a guppy instead of a whale). If you watch a lot of Law & Order, you’ll know it’s the clean-cut college boys who are the slimiest – but still, it’s short on fiendishness. There is an air of threat hanging over most of it, but the threat never materializes. And that made me, as the reader, feel cheated. I don’t mind a little bit of trickery, but this was too blatant. There is a story here – but it’s not malice, threat, or abduction.

The author interview concerns me: Hadley determinedly interprets the story. I’m all for giving some insight into where something came from, or the primary theme one had in mind, but this feels like the author, having released the story to the reader, wresting control back, demanding it be read in the one “correct” way, as she intended it. There’s also the issue of, why does she feel such a need to explain the story in such detail? Shouldn’t all that be in the story itself? It makes me a little nervous.

“An Abduction” takes place in the 60s in Surrey, England, amidst the gentry. There’s a lot of terrific description of family dynamics:

It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain. Jane imagined herself curled up with a bag of licorice beside a streaming windowpane, reading about the Chalet School. But her mother said it was a crime to stay indoors while the sun shone, and Jane couldn’t read outside with the same absorption; there was always some strikingly perfect speckled insect falling onto your page like a reminder (of what? of itself), or a root nudging into your back, or stinging ants inside your shorts.

I love that impatience with being shooed outside. It’s not quite like eating your broccoli because there are starving children in Europe (or Asia or Africa, depending on when you were of broccoli-hating age), but it’s similar; somehow it’s a waste of good weather if you aren’t out “enjoying” it. I appreciate nice weather when I have to go somewhere or have outdoor plans; I love not being rained on and not freezing/roasting my butt off. But other than that, going outside to “enjoy the weather” never made sense to me: how does one “enjoy weather,” exactly?

Jane’s a little behind her friends at school, a little socially younger than they are:

She should be like them, she reproached herself; or she should be more thoroughly embarked on her teen-age self, like some of the girls at school, painting on makeup, then scrubbing it off, nurturing crushes on friends’ brothers she’d only ever seen from a distance, cutting out pictures of pop stars from Jackie magazine. Jane knew that these girls were ahead of her in the fated trek toward adulthood, which she had half learned about in certain coy biology lessons. Yet theirs seemed also a backward step into triviality, away from the thing that this cerulean day—munificent, broiling, burning across her freckled shoulders, hanging so heavily on her hands—ought to become, if only she knew better how to use it.

In the yard, she’s playing with a paddle toy, rather than sunbathing or painting her toenails or whatever it is a teenager does. Again, I recognize a lot of myself in this girl, but I don’t really feel any empathy, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the British prose (which is lovely, by the way, if a little on the lush side- I’m including numerous quotes to do it justice). Or maybe it’s deliberate, and the author is keeping the reader at a distance here.

But I think I’m just on a different wavelength completely. In fact, at one point (when she disrupts her little sister’s tea party) I wondered if Jane was mentally ill, prone to hallucinations and delusions:

When Jane came near, the little girls melted into the undergrowth with hostile backward looks. She kicked their dolls over and hurled the pinecones as far as she could toward the flaunting patches of sky between the treetops (she had a strong throw, her father always said, better than Robin’s); but she lacked conviction even in her malevolence. “We hate her! She’s so ugly,” the witch-children hummed, drifting between the bald pine trunks, keeping out of sight. Jane remembered, as she often did, how once at a friend’s house she had overheard the dotty grandmother asking too loudly who the “plain” one was.

But no, I think it’s just that she’s an outsider in her own life, and she resents it.

While Jane is outside enjoying this particular beautiful day, a car of three college boys on leave from Oxford drive by, and she accepts a ride from them; she calls her mom to say she’ll be doing a sleepover with a school friend. The boys talk her into shoplifting some booze, and bring her to one of their homes where she goes swimming. There’s some great imagery here – Daniel, the most appealing of the three boys, uses a vulgarity that, to sheltered Jane, becomes “an entrance, glowering with darkness, into the cave of things unknown to her.” Fiona, sister to one of the boys and Daniel’s former liaison, shows up, taking the spotlight away from Jane, who swims alone in the filthy pool:

…all the accumulated rubbish (leathery wet leaves, sodden drowned butterflies and daddy longlegs, an empty cigarette pack) bobbing against her breasts and lips and knees as she swam. No one joined her in the pool. Jane had hardly expected them to; she had accepted immediately the justice of her defeat—right at the moment that she’d had all the boys’ eyes on her—by the older, prettier, more sophisticated girl. (Still, the word “woebegone” nudged at her, from a poem she’d read at school.)

That’s a pretty amazing paragraph: she’s so used to being passed over, she just accepts swimming in trash.

A short time later, she and Daniel head off to a bedroom, where nature takes its course. Today this would probably be statutory rape. It’s hard to remember a time before “sexual assault” was a common phrase. Jane was a willing participant at all times – in fact, she was looking forward to another round. Did he take advantage of her? Sure. Does that make him despicable? Absolutely. A criminal? I’m not sure – and I’m uncomfortable with not being sure; it’d be easier to just file it in a box marked “crime” and move on, but I can’t. There’s some indication, when the boys first pick her up, that she appears older than she is (“She wasn’t plain in that moment, though she didn’t know it…. She seemed not fake or stuck up—and, just then in the dappled light, not a child, either. None of this was wasted on the boys”). It may not be politically correct to let him off this easily, but remember, this took place in the 60s, before “stranger danger” “sexual assault” and “pedophile” were part of the vernacular.

She later discovers him sleeping in Fiona’s bed; without waking him, she asks the other boys to take her into town where she can call her mother for a ride. “So now you know,” one of them says; I’m not sure if he means “you know about sex” or “you know who Daniel is.” She never speaks of this day to anyone.

The significance of the story, for me, lies in the closing paragraphs, when a fast-forward shows both Jane and Daniel, in their early 50s. Jane has lived a rather distant life (which may be why such distance is created in the reading), marrying and divorcing, then seeing a therapist to find out why she feels that she’s separated from “real life on the other side.” She explains what “real life” would be:

Haltingly, Jane described a summer day beside a swimming pool. A long sunlit room with white walls and a white bed. A breeze is blowing; long white curtains are dragged sluggishly backward and forward on a pale wood floor. (These women’s fantasies, the counsellor thought, have more to do with interior décor than with repressed desires.) Then Jane got into her stride, and the narrative became more interesting. “A boy and a girl,” she said, “are naked, asleep in the bed. I am curled on a rug on the floor beside them. The boy turns over in his sleep, flings out his arm, and his hand dangles to the floor. I think he’s seeking out the cool, down there under the bed. I move carefully on my rug, so as not to wake him. I move so that his hand is touching me.”
That’s more like it, the counsellor thought. That’s something.

This is not a precise replay of that day; it’s interesting she’s rewritten the part where she found Daniel with Fiona, in a way that’s terribly sad – stealing a touch from him, rather than having him stay with her that night, or at least show some kindness to her in some way.

Daniel, on the other hand, in a little sleight of omniscient POV, doesn’t remember the incident, which too is terribly sad:

It isn’t only that the drink and the drugs made him forget. He’s had too much happiness in his life since, too much experience; he’s lost that fine-tuning that could hold on to the smell of the ham in the off-license, the wetness of the swimming costume, the girl’s cold skin and her naïveté, her extraordinary offer of herself without reserve, the curtains sweeping the floor in the morning light. It’s all just gone.

The universe works in interesting ways. Just before I read this story, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months; she introduced me to Faith, whom she was with, and I said I remembered meeting her before, at a couple of parties. She was perplexed. I went on about how I’d met her at a birthday party for Hope (another mutual friend) , notable because of the names (needing only a Charity to complete the set), and described the afternoon pot-luck shortly before Christmas, after following a holiday barbershop quartet concert. Neither of them remembered either event, though both were there. These are busy people, very social, flitting around, “doing” things. I wonder about that. What’s the use of doing all these things, if you don’t remember them afterwards? It made an interesting backdrop to this story.

What does it mean that Daniel doesn’t remember Jane, since she has no way of knowing that? How is it that she has, in some way, been “abducted” from that one day of “real life” into a more stilted existence? These are the questions that interest me.

I should admit that I wasn’t looking forward to this story (for the record, I liked it better than I expected I would). It’s her fourth story to appear in TNY, and I remain perplexed as to why that is so. It’s the third about a little girl in the 60s, though a different little girl than in her first two stories.

Honor” and “Clever Girl” both featured Stella; about “Honor” I said:

This story is from the POV of a woman looking back at her childhood in early-1960′s England. It’s a great portrait of an ethos, of a time when women bore shame and men did not, when children were seen and not heard, when secrets were treasured and truth wasn’t very important – but concealing the truth was.

Sound familiar? It’s the same character, with a different name. “Clever Girl” continues Stella’s story; they’re two of a series of six stories following Stella.

I liked “The Stain” better, and again, it concerned a character who is “a bit of a misfit in her village” – and, much to my surprise (I don’t really remember the story), I said: “The ‘abduction’ she undergoes at the end of the story feels similarly false.” These themes and characters – girls in the 60s, lost and awkward, dealing with secrets, who understand it is women who bear the shame for the behavior of men – are powerful, but more than anything else, they make me wonder what Tessa Hadley talks about in therapy.

About “Honor” I also said: “I’m going to have to accept that I don’t care for this particular author. I’m sure it’s my loss.” I still stand by that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the elements.

2 responses to “Tessa Hadley: “An Abduction” from The New Yorker, 7/9/12

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