Antonya Nelson: “First Husband” from TNY, 1/6/14

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “…Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers. Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he hath trodden upon, and to his children, because he hath wholly followed the Lord.”

Deuteronomy1:34-36, NIV

The Lord replied, “…No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.”

Numbers 14:20-25, NIV

I don’t do well with Antonya Nelson for some reason. That makes me sad, because a lot of people I highly respect love her writing (and, happily, this story is available online so you can see what you think, for yourself). For a story that didn’t particularly appeal to me, I nevertheless found a great deal of interest to me; she does a lot with “sick” families, and she’s got the family dynamics of alcoholism from the inside out.

What we have here is your basic Chain of Fools. Lovey (Evelyn) is married to the very stable William. She used to be married to another guy:

Her first husband had been forty-five, at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, when she married him but still moving through the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all but the first few—when he was a beginner, on the receiving end of a romantic education—younger than him; he was a serial seducer. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where two others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love—they made you arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.
If you paid attention to all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

As the story opens, Lovey wakes from a dream of a naughty naked party in a burning building with her ex-husband; throughout, she compares her life now, with the stable William, and then. Most of us would consider she’s moved up in the world, and Lovey does as well, but she also misses that thrill of excitement. At least the thrill from before her thrilling-charmer husband decided she wasn’t attractive enough to sleep with any more. Secure William thinks she’s just fine to sleep with. Everything has tradeoffs.

So this comparison of the Wild Side and the Stable Side goes on throughout the story, and we see the theme repeated in the middle-of-the-night emergency phone call from Bernadette that wakes Lovey out of her naughty naked dream with the Serial Charmer: Bernadette is Charmer’s daughter, so was during the marriage Lovey’s step-daughter, or, more accurately, the step-daughter of her ex-husband, which makes her an… ex-step-daughter? We need new family vocabulary, seems to me. Like the Eskimos and their nineteen words for snow (which, by the way, is at best an oversimplification and at worst just wrong, but it makes a useful analogy at times), we could become the culture with dozens of words to describe ex-relationships, two-ex-ago-relationships, steps and ex-steps and whatever you call your former mother-in-law, whom you like and want to stay in touch with, after the divorce, not to mention the woman who was your father’s first and third wife (I’ve had some personal experience with these issues).

Bernadette begs for help with child-care while she goes looking for Aaron, her husband (Lovey’s ex-stepson-in-law – we need those nineteen words now, please), who’s drinking somewhere the way he sometimes does. And Lovey is happy to oblige, introducing our second theme of the story: it’s nice to be needed, and being needed requires that you know someone needy who will turn to you from time to time and need you. Bernadette fits the bill for Lovey. Bernadette used to be a Wild Child. That’s why she ended up married to Aaron in the first place.

Then we have the third generation, Bernadette’s kids, specifically, Caleb, who, at seven, doesn’t quite realize Lovey is letting him win at his beloved Monopoly but knows exactly how to heat a bottle of stored breast milk for the baby and can explain why she tends to gag on it and just how gross it is to check her diaper until a swallowed foreign body shows up. At seven. He’s the perfect Adult – and that’s a loaded term in a chaotic family.

But the story seems to be more about projecting Lovey’s future, and whether or not she’ll tire of her stable life. Do Bernadette and Caleb supply enough neediness for her, enough excitement? What if Bernadette cleans up her act – will Lovey need to create other areas of chaos in her life to supply the excitement she craves? Or will she just have more naughty naked dreams with the Serial Charmer?

Without Aaron, there would be no Caleb. Lovey had to remind herself of this sad fact. Her ex-stepson-in-law caused a lot of trouble, but, because of him, here before her was a boy for her to love, who loved her. Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-. He would turn into a teen-ager and disappear, like his father, into the night.

Then there’s the discovery that changes everything. When I was on Zoetrope Virtual Studios about five years ago (how time flies!), there was a discussion about the changes cell phones had made to fictional plots, since you can no longer have someone stranded with no way to get in touch (similar complaints were probably raised when telephones were invented – for that matter, back when the wheel was invented a prehistoric writer probably bemoaned not being able to use multiple trips to carry three sabertoothed tigers as arrival delays anymore – but it’s a fun discussion to have with writers, anyway, who need to think up alternatives to dead batteries and phones slipping out of pockets, an issue that will go away once we’ve all got our biopowered implants). This story hinges on Facebook. I read something the other day about Facebook being obsolete with teenagers; see, we need another plot mechanism already.

I’m always intrigued by names, so I started with the Biblical Caleb; it’s a complicated story of faith, cowardice, and conquest with a lot of subtleties. The name Caleb has some interesting etymologies; depending on who you consult, it might mean “whole-hearted” or “faithful” or it might mean “dog.” I don’t see those as contradictory at all, but there are those who take offense at the idea that they named their son “dog.” It’s interesting that “dog” has both positive and negative connotations: loyalty and faithfulness, yes, but also, well, dog-dom, you dog, you.

The kicker: in the story, Caleb’s favorite Monopoly token is… no, not the dog; the hat. Maybe Nelson didn’t bother with etymology because she had a different symbolism in mind: The dog is for Lovey, so now consider her description of Bernadette:

Poor Bernadette. Had the girl ever not been miserable? Even as a child, she had cultivated hurtful friendships, had forever been suffering slights or neglect or flat-out cruelty, this girl like a loyal beaten dog.

Some people live up to the roles they’re assigned by their family. It’s often just easier. Others leave.

In her Page-Turner interview, Nelson discusses her interest in the “sweet, gentle boy” character. I believe that; in fact, I think the story lost me because I don’t care about Bernadette. I am curious about Caleb, though. Just figuring out the ex- and step- relationships of this family is chaotic enough; then add saving Bernadette from her Wild Child past and giving Lovey some needing. This seven-year-old has the emotional structure of the entire family depending on him; no wonder he looks tired – and Lovey did keep him up all night to play Monopoly and need her, just to add a little more chaos to his life. I wonder if he’ll continue to accept his role, or if he will run away into the night. I’m hoping for the latter.

2 responses to “Antonya Nelson: “First Husband” from TNY, 1/6/14

  1. and for a story that didn’t appeal to you, you write a really nice post!
    Poor Caleb indeed! It makes me sad to read about a 7 year old playing ‘mum’ like that. To help is fine, but taking charge like that, it’s clear it’s not a first.

    • Yeah, he was the character I was drawn to. I wanted Lovey to get out of the way, but she was the POV character, so I guess we were seeing Caleb through her eyes for a reason – maybe the relationship was the “main character,” rather than the people.

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