Pushcart 2014: Sigrid Nunez, “Imagination” from The Sun, April 2012

An inventive imagination was a gift of the gods — or a curse if you couldn’t control it.

Everyone in this story, set mostly at a suburban neighborhood party, has a great imagination. Problem with teenage Elsie is, she hasn’t learned to rein the resultant behavior in to a socially acceptable level.

Where her mother is within normal limits in calling their summer home as a “country house” though it’s, intentionally, within a convenient drive of the city, Elsie likes the acoustics of a sneeze in a school corridor and wonders what it would sound like if she screamed; so she finds out. While her father imagines himself the foremost authority on everything and delivers any opinion he’s read as his own idea, Elsie sees her parents’ friend Dick as a warlock, with “furry eyebrows like mice” that bump noses when he frowns (reminding me of Kathy Fish’s great flash, “The Cartoonist”), then as a dog lifting his leg when he goes into the bathroom; poor girl can hardly be blamed for laughing at him.

When Elsie, unable to find a place to put olive pits, stuffs hers into her bra, then, thinking of the breast cancer her friend’s mother has been diagnosed with, strokes the pit through her shirt, her mother is quick to scold her with “Do you have any idea how that looks?” Mom’s concern stems from double imagination: 1) people imagine Elsie is caressing her nipple over the buffet table at a party, and 2) mom is imagining people imagining that. Elsie herself recalls a moment:

(Once, after passing two elderly men sitting together on a bus, Elsie had heard one of them say to the other, It’s when they’re stacked like that and still just kids that thy really ought to be declared a public nuisance.”)

Obviously this was written a few years ago, but it rang out in this week that saw #YesAllWomen trending and scorned by men who want to control neither their imaginations nor behaviors. But here it’s Elsie, fourteen years old and full of burgeoning sexuality, who pushes the limits.

I love the apple reference towards the end of the story; come on, she trips over an apple in the front yard? Shades of Eve! Poor Elsie has been tripping over apples for a while now. Sometimes she seems to go out of her way to find apples to trip over, in fact, as when she changed into a bikini in the middle of the party, claiming she just wanted to go for a swim when the lightning started. From there things go downhill, behaviorally for Elsie, imaginationally for everyone else. I began to wonder if she were acting out some trauma, having the psychotic break her parents feared during the scream incident, or just pushing passive aggressive over the edge.

What is she to do? Do tell her.

That authorial intrusion – “Do tell her” – appears three times in the story, once in the second paragraph, once in the middle of the story, and once at the end:

But how were you supposed to stop thinking something once it popped into your head? Do tell her.

And she had apologized. Several times. What more did they want? Do tell her.

…and then how on earth would Elsie go on living? Do tell her.

I’m a little uncertain about the purpose of this device, baffled at the pattern of use; the last one concerns me, since it seems to hint at a suicide lurking past the close of this story, projected into the future. Is the purpose to distance the reader from the story, a meta-note to remind the reader that this is a story, maybe even a parable or extended metaphor, not a person? Because that’s the effect, though it’s an effect most fiction writers go to great lengths to avoid. But maybe that’s the point here: the story itself is the product of imagination. Maybe it’s Elsie telling the story, in fact. Maybe it’s a story she’s telling in her head as she lies in the grass waiting for the fox to eat her face off.

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