Antonya Nelson: “Literally” from The New Yorker, 12/3/12

TNY art by Jeanne Detallante

TNY art by Jeanne Detallante

“She’s always late!” the sixteen-year-old sobbed. She’d set up the ironing board and its accessories like a shrine to housewifery. Heat shimmered in the air, had already slightly compromised the plastic of the spray bottle. Only Bonita could master the pleats of Suzanne’s ghastly uniform skirt. Other girls did not care. Still others had punctual housekeepers. Or parents who ironed.
“Suse is so anal,” her brother, Danny, noted from the table, where he and his father were studying their computer screens over breakfast, sharing news items and a bowl of pineapple. “She takes three showers a day, which is more than some people take in a year. In the future, that will be illegal. Seriously, I skip showers so that our carbon footprint won’t be so terrible.”
“Do you know there’s a second part to that expression? The ‘retentive’ part?” his father asked. “It’s amazing how comfortable people are tossing that around—‘anal retentive.’ People are very casual with the psychology. So blasé about the butt.”
“God damn it!” the girl cried. “Please please please!”
“Also,” Danny said, “she exaggerates. Constantly.”
“Literally,” his father said. Richard liked to make his son smile by using his favorite word incorrectly.

I struggled with this one. Not because it’s a difficult read – it isn’t, not at all (go ahead, read it online for yourself and see – but because I seem to be missing something the good folks on my usual round of TNY blogs (The Mookse and the Gripes, Short-a-Day, I Just Read about That, and Perpetual Folly) saw. I put it aside and moved on, then came back to it.

The opening paragraph, quoted above, does a great job of setting up the chaotic household. Am I the only one who heard it as a script from a 90s family sitcom? The story moves on to introduce Bonita, the housekeeper, and her son Isaac, who is initially described as having some unspecified issue along the lines of hypersensitivity:

Isaac’s brothers and sisters had put Bonita through many trials—arrests, pregnancies, car accidents—but Isaac’s trouble, its invisibility, was new to her….
Bonita’s other children had been toughened by their bad dad and their rough neighborhood and their over-all hard luck, rendered sturdy by duress, but Isaac had been made too tender.

This just so happens she touches on one of my pets, Peeve III: contrary to Nietzsche fans, what doesn’t kill us doesn’t necessarily make us stronger, sometimes it just cripples us for life. So I was hopeful.

Everything’s a little off, to me: a 16-year-old who can’t iron her own skirt; a widower who lets his kid play hookey with the housekeeper’s son and considers marrying the housekeeper for convenience; the boys’ trip to the wrong side of the tracks to find a character with just the right feet. Maybe I’m inflexible. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little strange. I don’t know. I can’t really tell what’s going on beneath the story.

Many little events swirl through the story to carry the reader along at a pretty brisk pace, but it really comes down to the family’s continuing grief over the loss of the wife and mother. The loss of Suzanne’s cell phone, a crisis since her mother’s message was still on it, becomes a concrete symbol of this limbo. Richard’s silent consideration of marriage to Bonita strikes me as somewhere between bizarre and offensive. Nelson explains: “The most enduring battle is between head and heart; what would be efficient and logical is nearly always trumped by what is messy and illogical” in her Page-Turner interview, but I find it one of Richard’s less noble moments. As a sign of his befuddled mental state, it’s fine; that he might assume she would jump at the chance simply because he would improve her economic circumstances is disgusting. But maybe he’s more befuddled than I realize.

Two things strike me as very important. First, there’s Danny’s evaluation of the day:

“This has been a terrible day,” Danny said. “Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

Second is, literally, the title (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Introduced in the opening section quoted above, it’s only directly referenced once again, when Danny explains why he and Isaac went looking for a particular toy: “We were making an amusement park in the town, and this is literally the only guy who fits in the cannon. Nobody else has the right feet.” That got me thinking: why is it used for the title, then? There’s this scorn at the incorrect use of “literally” as an intensifier (a pet, Peeve VI, of the late great William Safire, whom I always admired for his linguistic derring do if not his politics. He’s also the one who introduced me to the idea of having a pet named Peeve, but some of us need more than one) rather than in the correct sense of “actually.”

But how do these two things relate? And how do the two of them, within the context of the story, create meaning?

I don’t really know. In her interview, Nelson says: “I hoped to unveil the complicated and competing ways that parenting consumes a person—the chronic issues, and the presenting ones. Arriving home intact is sometimes success enough.” It was an exhausting story to read – opening with the crisis of the unironed skirt, the bomb scare, the boys’ disappearance, the revelation that Isaac hears voices, and capped by the loss of Suzanne’s cell phone containing her dead mom’s messages – so I think she accomplished that. The progression works. There’s a definite structure and build, and a stunning revelation at the very end that casts a new light on everything. It’s a well-crafted story. But there’s something else there, something about what is literally true, and what isn’t, about things feeling really bad even when really bad things aren’t happening, about not being able to move on, and thus moving absurdly. Me, I just can’t move from story to meaning. Maybe in a year, it’ll be clearer.

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