Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Tallent, “Narrator” from Threepenny Review, Winter 2015

All I had to go on were the narrators of his books, rueful first-person failers at romance whose perceptiveness was the great pleasure of reading him, but I felt betrayed. Savagely I compared the ungenerosity I witnessed with the radiance I’d hoped for. How could the voices in his novels applied in the brain of that withholder? The women had not trespassed in approaching, the party was meant for such encounters.… From his work I had pieced together scraps I believed were really him. At some point I had forsaken disinterested absorption and begun reading to construct him I could love.… He had never meant to tell me who he was.

When Aristotle literally wrote the book on classical drama, he used the word hamartia to describe the tragic flaw in the protagonist’s otherwise honorable character. This flaw becomes the weak spot through which events lead to a tragic end. I wonder if there’s a corresponding romantic flaw for contemporary fiction. So much of it is about romantic relationships doomed by some quirk of personality in one of the participants: while harmless in most areas of life, in the context of a romantic relationship this flaw – lack of trust, or poor judgment about who is trustworthy, neediness, a refusal to show vulnerability – turns destructive. If so, I’d say the romantic flaw for the unnamed narrator of this story might be a tendency to see what she wants to see. In keeping with the title: she likes to narrate reality so that it meets her needs, or at least her desires.

Besides fitting the bill as a story about romantic tragedy, it’s also a story about writing. I’ve read that editors shy away from such settings, but I tend to like them. Maybe it’s like second person stories: because editors don’t want to feature too many, they tend to reject all but the best, so what gets to me is cream of the crop. This isn’t just a story about writers, though it is that, and it isn’t just a story about what the work of writing is, though it is that, too. It uses the process of writing, of narration, to allow a character’s self-reflection. She may have little insight as a person living life, but as a writer, she knows how to observe a character. Unfortunately, sometimes her observations are colored by what she wants to see.

The story begins with our unnamed narrator, a fledgling writer attending a workshop, finding herself swept off her feet and out of her marriage by an accomplished author whose work she’s admired. She first sees him at a party welcoming the workshop participants. Two women are speaking to him, but he is silent to them, which she sees as deliberate withholding; later, we find out this impression was wrong, but the point is that she was drawn to him anyway. Once in his life, she finds the withholding she’d thought she’d seen in the first place.

… the only book in this house full of his books that belonged to me, and when he admitted to not liking Eliot much I was relieved to have a book which by not mattering to him could talk privately and confidentially to what was left of me as a writer, the little that was left after I was, as I believed I wanted to be, stripped down to bare life, to skin and heart beat and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear of boredom sex. The immense sanity of Middlemarch made it a safe haven for the little insanity of the stolen photograph.

I’m tempted to think of this as her tit-for-tat revenge for his withholding, but it’s narrated as survival, keeping something about herself private. I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t have any books of her own, her existence pared down to nothing other than the subject whose job it is to observe the object.

A single moment finally snaps her out of it. It’s a lovely scene, the two of them tossing a football around, unaware of the lightning that is about to strike, a bolt created by a single word.

One bright evening as I cocked my arm back he cried Throw it, piggy! Shocked into grace I sent a real beauty his way, and with long-legged strides he covered the grass and leapt, the show-offy catch tendered as apology before I could call down the field What?, but I was standing there understanding: piggy was the thing he called me to himself, that had slipped out.

We’ve all had a moment like that (at least, I have), when we suddenly realized someone else didn’t see us the way we thought he did. Reality shifts; we realize we’re in the wrong story. It’s worse than a slap. A slap allows anger in response; all the epithet allows from her is shame, not the least of which is because she permitted this all along. We then see her, weak and sick, sitting on the floor begging her love for a bowl of rice: bland, soft, comforting. But she will get no rice.

After she leaves, he writes another book, and she sees herself in the pages. Is it really her? It’s amazing how we embroider reality with our own thoughts and needs: winged horses in the stars, Jesus on a tortilla, someone we love creating art out of the memory of us. She recovers from the affair, and her life becomes successful: she finds the academic post she always wanted, publishes her work, and finds a more fulfilling romantic relationship.

Until she quite unexpectedly sees the author in a bookstore one day.

This coda is marvelous. She makes her way back to her husband and his friend, who are discussing a man who didn’t want to have surgery for fear he would be left impotent. It was not himself he was worried about, the patient insisted, but his wife. The three present their own narrations of this: the guys don’t believe him; I immediately thought it was pretty arrogant, in the same way some men are convinced they can convert any lesbian with their prowess; but our narrator has an interesting take:

“You idiots, he adored her,” I said. “That’s what he was telling David. Not,’ My God, this woman, it’s unimaginable that I’ll never make love to her again.’ But ‘How can she bear the loss.'”
Josh took off his tie, rolled it up, tucked it in his jacket pocket, and then handed his glasses forward to me, saying, “Can you take custody?” I cradled them as cautiously as if they were his eyes. Once he was asleep, David said, “That was him, wasn’t it?”
I told him what happened. “After I’d gone he must have stood there thinking, but I know her, I know her from somewhere. Then he gets it – who I am, and that I walked away without a word. Which has to have hurt.”
“It’s generally that way when you save your own skin – somebody gets hurt.”

Somebody certainly does. Why not narrate it so that it’s somebody else?

When I mention reading as one of my favorite activities, I’m always asked, “Who’s your favorite writer?” I seem to be alone in that I don’t really have one. I have some tendencies, but I can’t seem to find the writer whose every word I adore. For example, this is the third Tallent story I’ve read, all of them in prize anthologies. One I didn’t care for at all, one I liked, and this one I liked most of all. I prefer to like individual works rather than writers or genres. I sometimes say I prefer “weird” fiction to romantic realism (I did just say that, in fact, one or two stories ago) but a story like this one works great for me. I do wish I could find a favorite author, though. It would give me an easy answer to the common question, and fit in better with others’ narration of who I am.

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4 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Tallent, “Narrator” from Threepenny Review, Winter 2015

  1. My advisor in my writing program begged us not to write about writers. She assured us there were more interesting things in the world than writing for us to write about. Even though this is Elizabeth Tallent writing, and therefore a tolerable story about writers, I don’t love it. I think in trying to avoid saying something about writing’s relationship to life that hasn’t already been said, it almost avoids saying anything. Your Aristotelian reading is a pretty good run at finding some gold in it, though.

    • It’s an unusual “writer” story in that the theme required a writer – at least as I read it. I wonder what level you have to be to write about writers. In second person 😉

      • I was thinking about that second person bias this week, because a story came into the journal where I work and I had a knee-jerk reaction against it. But we talk in idiomatic English in second person all the time. (You’ve got to be careful with sure bets. Who? Me? No, just anyone.) Why couldn’t “you” be the norm and third-person be the weird, self-conscious outlier?

      • I’m so glad to hear that! I love second person, probably because (like stories about writers and academics) it’s something you’re forbidden to do in classes and workshops (didja see what I did there, huh?).

        Did you accept the story?

        I have a whole string of posts around here filed under “The Second Person Study”. Most of the posts were written by Zin Kenter, so they’re kind of annoying to read (or fun, depending on your point of view (I promise, I’m not doing this on purpose). Included are some casual discussions with litmag editors and writers.

        Brian Richardson (Unnatural Voices) and Monica Fludernik (“Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist”) are the Gods of Second Person, as far as analyzing types and uses. I have my own classification, though “instruction manual” comes in handy. I often see it, in conversational style, as a modernized or casual form of the archaic-sounding “one” – substituting in such structures as “depending on one’s point of view”.

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