Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole” from The New Yorker, 9/10/12

New Yorker Art by Victo Ngai

New Yorker Art by Victo Ngai

While we crossed, my wife stood on the ferry deck, looking out at the river, smiling and sighing at the swallows circling the current. I told her that they were just after the bugs. She said she understood that, but they looked beautiful whatever they were doing, all right? I’ve long had trouble with people picking out some detail of the landscape and pretending it’s the whole story, as though, in this case, the blue light around those speeding birds could do anything to mask the desolation of the country north of the river, a land I traverse holding my nose.

I don’t think it’s by accident that Victo Ngai chose this paragraph to create the illustration for this story. It pretty much captures the narrator, a man who sees the world in one way, and figures everyone else either sees it the same way, or is just plain wrong.

It’s a very short story about a man and his wife visiting her parents’ ranch on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. It’s also not by accident that the story is told in first person from the man’s point of view; it’s really the only point of view that exists for him. The couple doesn’t talk much on the drive, but he narrates explanations of everything from their childlessness (“There were children everywhere, and we saw no reason to start our own brand. Young couples plunge into parenthood and about half the time they end up with some ghastly problem on their hands”), to their lack of interest in inheriting the ranch (“But even if my wife had had siblings she would not have been part of this sort of trouble, as she had never – at least, not since adolescence – wanted to pursue ranch life, rural life, agricultural life…. [s]he was very attached to the land; she just didn’t want to own it or do anything with it. Either did I”) to the hard, sad life of her parents (“The ranch was going to eat them alive, and they knew it. The fences would fall down; the cows would get out; the neighbors, old friends, would start to think of them as a problem”). And he assures us: “Once across this river, we’d be heading for a very sad story.” He doesn’t know the half of it.

He does recognize some difference of opinion, mostly in the area of finances:

The thing was that we were quite poor. We were both grade-school teachers, and owning a house had been the extent of our indulgences. We loved our house and our work and were suitably grateful for both, though Ellie felt that if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on retiring the mortgage we might have done a few more things for fun.

What was becoming a comfortable nest egg would have disappeared in jaunts to Belize or some other place, where Ellie could show more of the body she was so proud of to anyone and everyone.… She was going to have to settle for wiggling her butt in the school corridors until the inevitable day when the damn thing sagged.

That’s an interesting writer’s choice. If McGuane had made him completely tone-deaf to his wife, I don’t think the story would have the same pull; his character would be a caricature. So we’re left to wonder, does he not remember his wife’s disagreement on certain issues, or did she stop disagreeing with him a long time ago after seeing it did no good? Is his refusal to go to Belize out of jealousy (not wanting other men to see her butt on clear display at the beach) or just for the petty meanness of refusing her something and attaching a plausible reason to it? For that matter, why is it impossible that they did in fact agree on children and the ranch? I’m trying to figure that out; I feel a distinct implication that his speaking for her is more than the routine requirements of first-person narration, that he’s using the “domineering we” (sort of like a more domestic “royal we”) but I can’t pinpoint anything specific to indicate that.

I find the illustration paragraph especially significant because of his comment about people picking a detail of the landscape the focus on. When the twist finally comes, he focuses on ridiculous details: “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?” This only echoes the bigger issue of his focus on his point of view, what he thinks, rather than what’s actually going on. It’s also pretty cool that in his Page-Turner interview, McGuane tells Deborah Treisman, “I’m a big fan of synecdoche!” I’m just as big a fan of clever, and there’s no escaping that the title plays on that particular figure of speech.

It’s a very simple story, and you can see the end coming miles away, but it’s very well done nonetheless, not for the surprise of the twist, but for the astute, if brief, behavioral portrait of the character’s narcissism. In this way it reminds me a bit of “The Widow’s Cruse,” another story about a man who felt he knew a woman’s mind, and found out, to his surprise, that he was wrong.

This feels like the most intricate McGuane story I’ve read so far. Then again, maybe I’m just getting better at reading.

7 responses to “Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole” from The New Yorker, 9/10/12

  1. I, too, liked the story very much: the way the author drops hints here and there that this is not an altogether happy relationship. As the story develops the hints accumulate and then, though I wasn’t expecting that particular ending, the author had artfully prepared the reader for a surprise.

    • Hi Townsend – interesting, even though I was pretty sure what was going on as soon as he started talking about what “we” had decided, I still found the ending worked. For me, it wasn’t the surprise but the way he worked the casserole into it, made it about something other than a twist ending. Maybe that’s the key to a good “twist” story, it works whether there’s a surprise or not.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Just read this story over my morning tea and agree it was a quite amazing portrait of narcissism & blindness. Like you, I saw the ending a mile off (all the wife’s stuff crammed in the car–hello?!), which diminished my enjoyment a bit, but I agree too that that detail of the casserole was perfect. I kind of can’t wait to read it again.

    • Hi Naomi – I’m so glad you liked it too. The nice thing about there being no surprise is that it’s re-readable, I think – some stories are all about the ending, but this one seemed to be about the guy. If it’d been a longer story I might feel differently.

      I’ve been very much liking TNY lately.

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

  4. It’s funny that I may be the only experienced reader who didn’t “see it coming,” because I have been reading fiction — professionally and vocationally — for a long time. But I think I was swept up by the voices, heard and unheard, created by McGuane, and that the story moves both so quickly and with a kind of agonizing slowness that it caught me up in its momentum and I didn’t think to make my usual English-professor predictions and anticipations. I am also a longtime jazz fan, and I wrote my own slanted blogpost about this story, or a bit of it, which might amuse or perhaps irritate someone: With every good wish and thanks for the analysis / discussion above. Michael Steinman

    • Hi Michael – one of the benefits of blogging these stories is that sometimes someone comes along and has a completely different perspective. I’m delighted by your different reading – more a question of pace – and downright excited by your blog post (I have to admit, the passage you quote isn’t one I remember off the top of my head from the story; I want to read it again since the story is short), and I’m going to reply over at your place later on when I’ve had time to get my thoughts together. And I think I have another story to recommend to you. 😉 Thanks for making this a really good day in the blogosphere.

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