BASS 2017: Curtis Sittenfeld, “Gender Studies” from The New Yorker, 8/29/16

Nell and Henry always said that they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case—it’s August, 2015—but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget. Bridget is twenty-three, moderately but not dramatically attractive (one of the few non-stereotypical aspects of the situation, Nell thinks, is Bridget’s lack of dramatic attractiveness), and Henry and Bridget had been dating for six months. They began having an affair last winter, when Henry and Nell were still together, then in April Henry moved out of the house that he and Nell own and directly into Bridget’s apartment. Nell and Henry had been a couple for eleven years.
In the shuttle between the Kansas City airport and the hotel where Nell’s weekend meetings will occur—the shuttle is a van, and she is its only passenger—a radio host and a guest are discussing the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. The driver catches Nell’s eye in the rearview mirror and says, “He’s not afraid to speak his mind, huh? You gotta give him that.”

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Last week, all Twitter was talking about a New Yorker story. It seems some people thought it was the perfect allegory for the times, and some thought it was about a random sexual encounter. I learned a while ago that reading everything someone thinks is the greatest thing ever written is a huge waste of time, so I didn’t bother, but some of the reactions-to-the-reactions were interesting. Eventually, it turned into a war between good story/bad story, a dichotomy I reject.

Halfway through this current story, I realized I’d read it before. I’m guessing it, too, took Twitter by storm, but I don’t clearly remember reading it, so it didn’t seem to make much of an impression at the time. It seemed a lot more interesting this time, although it is, when you get down to it, another story about a random sexual encounter. It’s the context in which it’s read that makes it interesting.

I get a lot of flack for that kind of thinking from the text-must-stand-on-its-own people, but there is no such thing as art that stands on its own; there’s always a context, and here, the context shifted between readings, and that changed the reading experience. It’s the shift, rather than the story itself, I find most interesting.

Nell’s heart, already wounded by her earlier breakup with Henry, is now stinging as his recent marriage rubs salt into the wound. She’s a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, in Kansas City for a conference. I suppose it’s the effect of the blow to her ego that makes her the most unfeminist feminist in history, or maybe I have too narrow a view of feminism (didn’t I just rant about that a few stories ago?). With every current event, she thinks of something her ex said or did. She’s unable to stand up for herself with the cab driver, and gets wrapped up in worrying about whether or not she’s being elitist. Then the politics start.

I find it fascinating that this story was originally published in mid-2016, when, as Sittenfeld says in her Contributor note, “I and everyone else believed Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election.” Um, almost everyone. She added only four words (I compared copies for relevant sections, and found them) to the post-election version.

The plot of the story hinges on Nell’s lost driver’s license.

With CNN on in the background, Nell hangs her shirts and pants in the hotel-room closet and carries her Dopp kit into the bathroom. The members of the governing board will meet in the lobby at six and take taxis to a restaurant a mile away. Nell is moving the things she won’t need at dinner out of her purse and setting them on top of the bureau—a water bottle, a manila folder containing the notes for a paper she’s in the revise-and-resubmit stage with—when she notices that her driver’s license isn’t in the front slot of her wallet, behind the clear plastic window. Did she not put it back after going through security in the Madison airport? She isn’t particularly worried until she has searched her entire purse twice, and then she is worried.

I recently had a similar surprise when I noticed my credit card wasn’t where it usually is; the panic was overwhelming, since I had no idea where I’d lost it (credit where it’s due: Capital One was extremely soothing, and took care of all of it). But a driver’s license is something else; it’s one’s proof of identity, particularly important in these times, and doubly so for someone who has to board a plane for home in a few days.

Among the calls she places is one to the cab driver. Of course, he has a different understanding of what’s going on, and those cross-purposes drive the story. They end up in bed together, because when you lose your identity, you might as well become someone who has some fun. It gets weird when they both realize they have different ideas of what’s going on: she thinks he has her identity (her license), but he doesn’t, and thought this was a pickup all along. After throwing him out in a rage, she finds her license; it just slipped through a hole in the lining of her jacket pocket. It’s all a fairly clever conceit, this play on having, losing, rediscovering identity.

And, by the way, she isn’t thinking about her ex any more.

As per my usual round of pre-post research, I wandered over to The Mookse and the Gripes to see what Trevor and his gang had to say, and found a very interesting exchange between Avataram (who happens to be a long-time Twitter follower of mine, though I didn’t make the connection until now) and Roger, giving the story a more political twist:

Avataram August 23, 2016 at 8:55 pm
A dark allegory on how Trump and his supporters have made America lose her identity and have screwed her.
Roger August 24, 2016 at 7:47 pm
Wait, Avataram … in the story, the main character only thinks she loses her identity (driver’s license) – it turns out she had simply misplaced it! And she enjoys her time with the Trump supporter (“you had fun,” he says, sullenly). And she leaves him frustrated and disappointed. So maybe it is a bright allegory about America thwarting Trump’s supporters, after toying with them a little?

Though subsequent events support the more pessimistic interpretation, some still feel it’s possible that “everything will be ok eventually”, allowing for the brighter outlook. Anyone who reads here frequently knows I’ve been in despair for a year now, and it only grows worse as new events unfold; the recent Alabama senate race is being touted as a victory, but I still think it’s going to go sour, then there’s the tax scam and, if the tea leaves and twitter feeds are correct, a massive miscarriage-of-justice upheaval about to happen, probably on Christmas Eve. And by the way, nobody “made her” lose her identity; she lost it herself, due to a combination of factors, including greed, inattention, and faith in the light that failed.

Aside from politics, the main thing on my mind as I was reading the story was: What the hell is she doing? Granted, the cab driver seems reasonably normal, and presumably licensed (!) thus identifiable, but that doesn’t rule out threat of physical violence, or, for that matter, the more mundane disadvantages of one-night-stands with strangers like pregnancy or disease. Then there’s the child-of-the-shoemaker-goes-barefoot angle: if, as I suspect, she actually knew exactly what she was doing all along, but had to hide behind a fake misunderstanding, what the hell is she teaching in Gender Studies? Even as I type that, I realize maybe I need to lose my identity once in a while myself, because I’m a real downer. But hey, if a feminist (or a non-feminist for that matter) wants her Uber driver to go down on her, that’s fine with me – it’s none of my business – but a feminist would own it, not look for ways to dodge responsibility.

In any case, all of this made a story I wasn’t particularly interested in, interesting. And gave me a solid metaphor for the times: America has indeed lost her identity. And we’re all screwed.


7 responses to “BASS 2017: Curtis Sittenfeld, “Gender Studies” from The New Yorker, 8/29/16

  1. Since I did take the bait and read “Cat Person,” I couldn’t help but draw a lot of parallels. Here again, alcohol is involved in a bad decision to have sex. Again, the man is reading signals all wrong. So is the woman. The entire decision to have sex is based on misreading signals.

    So why is the story called “Gender Studies”? Because this story itself is a study in gender and identity. I can see some critics saying the symbolism in the driver’s license is too on point, but I dug it. It takes all the wisdom of a Ph.D. in Gender Studies and boils it down to this: You don’t need a man to give you your identity, because you’ve had it the whole time.

    In some ways, she’s maybe not that pathetic. She gets sexual gratification and he doesn’t. How like a man of her. She even acts like it’s a treat for him: “You can go down on me.” Maybe getting what she wanted even if it meant lying to herself was part of what she needed to find herself again.

    I’m a little less happy with the political aspects of the story. There’s the coastal, superior liberal barely holding back her disdain for middle-America conservative, and hating herself for her own awfulness and hubris. But I don’t feel like that is resolved the way the identity issues are resolved. Fuck him, he supported Trump. We don’t get beyond that.

    • I have a feeling “Cat People” is going to show up in next year’s collection.

      I think the condescension is part of the point rather than a flaw. She even discusses it in her TNY essay, how do you write condescension. She seems to find her way to make peace with it by sleeping with him. And then of course getting angry at him.

      I keep trying to imagine the story with the genders reversed, and keep changing my mind about whether or not it works.

  2. Thank you for the shoutout. I always ask the question, “Why is this story being published now?”- in case of Cat Person, I feel that it was timed for the Alabama elections., which hadnt yet taken place. While Treisman chooses the stories, I am sure that David Remnick, the editor (who is very politically savvy) has a big say in when these stories are published.

    When I wrote the allegory comment, I was thinking of this fabulous review by James Lasdun of a Mohsin Hamid novel:

    The specific allegory bit of the novel is in these lines of the review –

    But after a while you realise you’re not in the realm of psychology at all, but of allegory (and if you don’t, a nudge or two from the narrator – “it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia” – soon sets you straight). It dawns on you that Erica is America (Am-Erica) and that Chris’s name has been chosen to represent the nation’s fraught relationship with its moment of European discovery and conquest, while the narrator himself stands for the country’s consequent inability to accept, uh, changez.

    I would have been much happier if the Sittenfeld story had turned out to be a bright allegory as Roger said, but unfortunately, we are where we are.

    • That Lasdun review is what I’ve been looking for in BASS, and why I feel my commentaries come up short, that if I understood literature better, I’d see more – i’m going to deal with this more in my wrap-up post, but maybe I’m asking too much from BASS stories. Maybe the on-the-nose losing identity is the point. And, as Jake adds, the woman looking to the man to give her back her identity (after a broken heart) just isn’t going to work. Successful, if surface, symbolism.

      And yeah, here we are.

  3. Pingback: BASS 2020: Selena Anderson, “Godmother Tea” from Oxford American #106 | A Just Recompense

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.