Tobias Wolff: “All Ahead of Them” from TNY 7/8-15/13

TNY Art by Michele Borzoni

TNY Art by Michele Borzoni

Thomas’s mother had told him of a recurrent dream, in which she woke in her own bed, in her own house, and descended the stairs to find a strange man sitting at her kitchen table; he was wearing a military uniform and for a livid scar across one cheek. Upon seeing her in the doorway he rose, and greeted her as his wife, approaching her with arms outstretched. She’d told Thomas this story twice, both times with a bemused smile. Now he felt as if he had somehow entered such a dream himself. Who was she? Who was this woman?

In his Page-Turner interview, Wolff postulates “[I]n marrying, we all wake up with strangers.” I’m currently taking a literature class titled “The Fiction of Relationships,” the basic thrust of which is that we construct our notion of another person, and sometimes of ourselves, that often has little to do with reality; that we can’t truly understand another until we become them. Thomas is an object lesson in these concepts.

On the sixth day of his honeymoon, just following the resolution of an annoying impotence that’s cast a shadow over things, he discovers his wife is “a liar and a thief.” Most of the story is spent in his recollections of other times when she lied, and his gradual acceptance that he has been in some kind of denial all along, but the money scene comes when he decides what to do about it. I was surprised by his reaction, but not shocked. Having had some personal experience with this kind of thing, I can testify that the course of action one takes is more predicated on one’s personality (in my case, a complete lack of self-esteem; for Thomas, it’s more a matter of an adrenaline rush) than on logic or on the exact events.

It was as if she didn’t expect him to believe her, as if it were part of the game he’d bought into – as he guessed he had, because he never called her on any of it.
No. That would’ve spoiled what he took to be an understanding between them: that she could spin transparent yarns and he would indulge her, would even be amused by their transparency. This arrangement afforded him the pleasure of the silent, paternal chuckle, while keeping things honest between them – with Arden leaving her tales and knowing, as she did so, that he understood them to be concoctions and would forgive her little deceptions in light of her willingness to offer him alibis. Or so he’d imagined.

Both Thomas and Arden have trouble with their names. His given name is Thomas, he thinks of himself as Thomas, but everyone calls him Bud. Her given name is Nedra, but she spells it backwards for reasons she may or may not be accurately relaying; her mother still refers to her as Nedra. My pathological liar suddenly started using his middle name when he was in his 30s; his sister, who also had a “casual relationship with the truth,” though for her it was more a matter of delusion than outright lying, used a name she preferred to her birth name, and her daughter made up a name as a child… I wonder if deception and name dissatisfaction are genetically linked, or if it’s just another way of pulling one over on people.

I find the idea of Thomas becoming a willing but secret collaborator – and enjoying that idea – to be fascinating. Not only did he not know his wife – he’s been living in a fictional relationship all along – but now that he has some inkling of what’s going on, he decides to, in effect, become her. It’s more than just turning a blind eye to her flaws; he makes his own deceit and secrecy a fundamental part of their marriage. It’s a complicated passive-aggressive dance: he can profess innocence to others when Arden does her thing, while at the same time he’s enabling her to continue her practices, and quite possibly enjoying the view.

I wonder if he’s ever heard the fable of the scorpion and the frog: “It is my nature.” I’m willing to bet that at some point, he’s going to get stung.

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2 responses to “Tobias Wolff: “All Ahead of Them” from TNY 7/8-15/13

  1. I felt much the same thing, only not as clearly! Indeed, a complicated, complex psychology here….. Thanks.

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