BASS 2012: Jennifer Haigh, “Paramour” from Ploughshares, Winter 2011

"In Bed" by Ron Mueck

“In Bed” by Ron Mueck

She watched him cut through the crowd of great talents: actors performing at each other, directors thinking aloud, playwrights testing out speeches, auditioning their own words. Theater people were born to be looked at, though it occurred to Christine – not for the first time – that they were more impressive from a distance, observed from the mezzanine, the house lights dimmed. Their intricate private lives – Ivan’s and Beth’s and Tommy’s – were best left in shadow. Only Racine and Corneille, dead three centuries, could be safely studied, their strange passions consigned to the past.

Back in the 50s, scopolamine was the drug of choice for women in labor. It didn’t do a thing for pain, but instead eliminated memory; women thought they’d slept through childbirth when in fact they’d been screaming in pain and hurling obscenities.

What has more impact on our lives: the event, or our memory of it?

Time and distance greatly affect how we remember things. But other intangibles affect how we interpret reality. Someone we admire – or love – might have to really try to go outside the bounds of what we consider acceptable. Those who have accomplished greatness in their fields, particularly artistic endeavors, tend to be allowed more slack than those of lesser import who’ve abided by societal rules. But, if we’re lucky, there does come a place in space and time when our vision clears and we can see things for what they are.

The present of the story is a tribute dinner for a famous dramatist; we’re filled in on the brief relationship twenty years earlier between Ivan and Christine, when she was a student and he a Visiting Professor, via flashback. “She felt caught by him, mounted like a butterfly, held fast for his consideration and delight.” But they never slept together; he was married with a young baby, and adultery was beyond the pale for her. Not that it mattered: “That he had loved but not desired her was a truth she confided to no one. She carried the shame like a disfiguring scar.”

He instead had her come to his room, undress, and lie on the bed in various poses, as if he were a painter and she the model. She thought that was safe, acceptable:

Later she understood how gravely she’d miscalculated. That with every lover for the rest of her life, Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room.

What we imagine, remember, how we consider what’s been done in the past, can be as important as the actions themselves. If we remember an event as warm or frightening or cantankerous, it doesn’t really matter exactly what actually happened. At least, not until we have to confront the reality, as Christine does when she discovers she was invited to the tribute by Ivan’s wife:

After he sent her away, what had he done with the images in his head? She’d believed, always, that the pictures were for him alone. Now she imagined him calling his wife in the city. The girl was here. She sat for me.

In the last scene of the story, the last sentence, the narration forces an alternate interpretation of the past. Considering how matter-of-fact the language is, it’s amazingly creepy. This reminds me of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” in that only a piece of information (the grey hairs on the pillow, in “Rose”) is narrated; the reader has to interpret the meaning of the information to the characters in the story, and thus participates in the story and projects a bit beyond the written ending. In this story, the narration is unclear about whether Christine knows the information in the last paragraph or not.

What is more real: the Ivan she’s carried with her for twenty years, lived her life remembering, or the one she would now be able to see without the veils of youth, inexperience, and hero-worship? And – does it matter?

2 responses to “BASS 2012: Jennifer Haigh, “Paramour” from Ploughshares, Winter 2011

  1. I really like Jennifer Haigh’s novels, but had no idea she had other writings out there. Will have to check this out as I think she is a terrific writer.

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