Pushcart XL: Zadie Smith, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” from Paris Review, #208

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bill, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place.
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. “I am looking for a corset.”

I’m interested in how this story starts, both because of where it doesn’t start (hint: it doesn’t start with the above paragraph), and because of the context in which I’ve read it.

It serves as a beginning, in itself – the first story in the 2016 Pushcart anthology. Unlike BASS and the PEN collections, which order stories alphabetically, Pushcart chooses the order in which material is presented. I spent some time wondering about last year’s choice, since Henderson’s introduction made a particular point of using a first-published-story to lead off. I wonder now why this one was chosen, what it says about the material to come. Maybe by the time I’ve read a few more selections, I’ll have some ideas.

But in the context of the story itself, what interests me is how different a story it would be, if this were the opening paragraph, how different our snap judgment of what this story will be about, would be. The paragraph above sounds a bit like a 40s movie, doesn’t it, with a prim Miss Adele, dressed with her proper hat and gloves, entering a store to request service from polite staff waiting to help. A very white Miss Adele. A very female Miss Adele.

But that ain’t the Miss Adele of this story, and it ain’t that kind of story at all. The actual beginning gives a much clearer picture of just what’s happening here:

“Well, that’s that, ” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.
“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”
“Bitch. I’m on in ten minutes.”
“When an irresistible force like your ass…”
“Don’t sing.”
“Meets an old immovable corset like this… You can bet as sure as you liiiiive!”
“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”
“Somethings gotta give, somethings gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”
“You pulled too hard.”
“Pulling’s not your problem.”

Come to think of it, the prim and proper 40s may have more in common with Miss Adele’s life than one might think at first (not to mention a cleverly wicked nod to Scarlett O’Hara’s famous corsetting scene, trying to get her 20-inch post-baby waist into her 18-inch corset). The crooner ballad. The corset. The need to dress properly before leaving the house. The expectations and rigid roles. And, indeed, as in the 40s, something, for Miss Adele, had to give. Her corset was merely the first thing that gave on this day.

It’s not a particularly easy story to orient to. The clues are all there – the theatre references, the stage name, the song. But it’s all going by very quickly; dialog tags are dispensed with in the interests of pace, perhaps, and I was a bit lost. The corset’s about the only sure thing, and that’s torn in half. That metaphor persists throughout the story: lives, neighborhoods, experiences, all depending on the supporting undergarment that has now been rendered useless. Replacement comes at a cost.

As Miss Adele heads to the corset shop, we find out a little more about her:

Aside from the nights she worked, Miss Adele tried not to mess much with the East Side. She’d had the same sunny rent-controlled studio apartment on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third since ’93, and loved the way the West Side communicated with the water and the light, loved the fancy galleries and the big anonymous condos, the High Line funded by bankers and celebrities, the sensation of clarity and wealth. …. Her brother accused Miss Adele of turning rightward in old age. It would be more accurate to say that she was done with all forms of drama—politics included. That’s what she liked about gentrification, in fact: gets rid of all the drama.
And who was left, anyway, to get dramatic about? The beloved was gone, and so were all the people she had used, over the years, as substitutes for the beloved. Every kid who’d ever called her gorgeous had already moved to Brooklyn, Jersey, Fire Island, Provincetown, San Francisco, or the grave. This simplified matters. Work, paycheck, apartment, the various lifestyle sections of the Times, Turner Classic Movies, Nancy Grace, bed. Boom. Maybe a little Downton. You needn’t put your face on to watch Downton. That was her routine, and disruptions to it—like having to haul ass across town to buy a new corset—were rare. Sweet Jesus, this cold!

I confess to not knowing much about the inner lives of drag queens; The Birdcage and that episode of Project Runway’s about it. In fact, I was reminded of the conflict between Hedda Lettuce and… was it Kayne? No – Suede… during this story, a very similar kind of misunderstanding that just escalated, though everyone really had good intentions, but was merely focused on a different goal, and lost sight of the other’s needs and reactions. That’s pretty much how Zadie Smith, in a BBC interview, sums up the conflict in this story: “Nobody really offends anybody, but everybody already feels offended,” in part because of a longstanding cultural divide between people like Miss Adele, and people like the corset shop owners. Add in the RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS playing on the radio, and a sales staff overwhelmed by too many customers, plus the general impatience and abruptness endemic to NYC (and, let’s be honest, most cities, my tiny city included), and you’ve got a pot just waiting to boil over. A theme most appropriate to the current moment, when everyone seems angry, and most people are angry at someone who’s angry about the wrong things.

I very much liked the progression of this story: from the torn corset that leads things off, to the store, to the conflict that grows so quietly I didn’t even realize it was going to explode until it did, to the ending that seems to sum up Miss Adele’s life:

…surely looking to everyone she passed exactly like some Bellevue psychotic, a hot crazy mess, an old-school deviant from the fabled city of the past – except every soul on these streets was a stranger to Miss Adele. They didn’t have the context, didn’t know a damn thing about where she was coming from, nor that she’d paid for her goods in full, in dirty green American dollars, and was only taking what was rightfully hers.

Haven’t we all been there – the public fight that’s the headline, but nobody sees the story of where it came from? Miss Adele limping away from the store, wig askew, face scraped, clutching her new corsets, that’s the headline, the viral Instagram. How she got to that moment is the 6000 word story no one on the street has time to read before making their judgments.

That, for me, is the crux of this piece: the violence of snap judgments based on a single image. We have all paid in full for our goods, in some currency. Everyone, every moment, has a unique story beyond the headline. It may go back an hour, or twenty years, or four hundred, or four thousand. Maybe we need to take time to read it, before jumping to conclusions.

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