BASS 2018: Curtis Sittenfeld, “The Prairie Wife” from The New Yorker, Feb. 13/20, 2017

I joined Twitter in 2013 and, as someone who had been a social media skeptic, was both surprised and a bit alarmed by how quickly I took to it…. If a person from my own past about whom I had ambivalent feelings emailed me, the truth is that I might ignore the email. But if the same person reached out on Twitter, with a jokey username, I might, in the spirit of being a pleasant author, engage in a back-and-forth while having no idea who the person really was. Although I certainly am not famous like Lucy Headrick, it was this strangeness that inspired me to write “The Prairie Wife.” Of course, this story ended up being about a few other things – celebrity culture, forty-something sadness – but its origins are in how weird I find Twitter.

~ ~ Curtis Sittenfeld, Contributor Note

This story keeps a lot of its own secrets, meta-secrets, some for only a paragraph, and some for nearly the whole story. That fits, since it’s a story about keeping – and revealing – secrets.

The opening paragraph of the story provides a scene of domestic tranquility: a family getting up in the morning, breakfast, getting two kids ready for school and two adults ready for work. Any reader of literary fiction will suspect something is going on underneath that placid surface, and indeed, by the second paragraph, we find out what it is:

The reality is that, at 6:17, as soon as Casey shuts the bathroom door, Kirsten grabs her own iPhone from her nightstand and looks at Lucy Headrick’s Twitter feed. Clearly, Kirsten is not alone: Lucy has 3.1 million followers. (She follows a mere five hundred and thirty-three accounts, many of which belong to fellow-celebrities.) Almost all of Lucy’s vast social-media empire, which of course is an extension of her life-style-brand empire (whatever the fuck a life-style brand is), drives Kirsten crazy.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

The story takes its time filling us in on the reasons for this. Years before, Lucy had a crush on Kirsten when they worked together as camp counselors in college, and they had a very brief affair. Although Lucy was, as she puts it, a “gold star lesbian” – she’d only had relationships with women – for Kirsten it was a new experience. That was decades ago, and both have moved on – until Kirsten discovered that Lucy is the Prairie Wife, a TV cook handing out recipes and shilling for various household items.

Digression: I spent a few years recapping various skill-based reality shows, including The Next Food Network Star. The premise is given in the title. The idea was not to find the best cook, but to find a personality and, most importantly, a “point of view.” You can teach someone to cook, but you can’t teach camera presence and the gift of gab. They’ll take a high-energy Sandwich King or Rachael Ray over a highly trained but boring chef any day (at least, they did at the time I was watching), and create a line of overpriced kitchen items tailored to please a particular fan base. It’s QVC, reimagined. The Prairie Wife as a TV and marketing concept seems based on the Food Network’s Pioneer Woman. End digression.

Kirsten’s obsession with Lucy, once she discovers her fame, goes well beyond remembering five days of fun at camp: Lucy’s downhome country brand, as they call it (you can’t be famous without a brand) is not particularly consistent with gold-star lesbianism, and it pisses Kirsten off:

If Kirsten leaves the house at 7:45, she has a fifteen-minute drive; if she leaves at or after 7:55, the drive is twice as long. But, seriously, what else is she supposed to do with her Lucy rage?
Kirsten’s commute is when she really focusses on whether she has the power to destroy Lucy Headrick’s life. Yes, the question hums in the background at other moments, like when Kirsten is at the grocery store and sees a cooking magazine with Lucy on the cover—it’s just so fucking weird how famous Lucy is—but it’s in the car that Kirsten thinks through, in a realistic way, which steps she’d take. She’s figured out where she could leak the news, and narrowed it down to two gossip Web sites, both based in Manhattan; she’s even found the “Got tips?” link on one.

Kirsten’s hostility seems grossly exaggerated for the circumstances at this point. Destroying someone’s life, based on such a brief involvement years ago? Like the bland family scene that opened the story, it seems likely something else is going on; the picture of Kirsten as moral knight ridding the world of hypocrisy one celebrity at a time just doesn’t make sense. Maybe the crush went the other way? Or Kirsten is worried about her own privacy being violated? At this point, it’s unclear.

The story has some clever elements. Kirsten works for a digital map data company; her job doesn’t feature prominently in the story, but provides a coworker who joins in her obsession, and a crisis involving an inadvertent data breach. It’s a few sentences at most, but it’s thematically harmonious with the secret Kirsten is considering leaking.

Another nice detail is a comment Kirsten makes about Casey when one of the kids forgets his violin and the parent confer on who should interrupt their day to get it to him: “This is how Casey wins, Kirsten thinks – by not insisting on resolution, which compels Kirsten toward it.” This seems consistent with how Lucy is described in the camp scenes. She has a laid-back air that conveys not so much a powerful crush as casual interest, again casting doubt on Kirsten’s version of events from the past.

In those scenes from the past, Kirsten discounts the sex with Lucy, who challenges her in an amused, rather than offended, way: “You think if there’s no penis it doesn’t count?” This attitude goes way beyond sex. Ask any woman working in a male field. Ask Hillary Clinton.

Eventually, the story reveals its secrets – and its meta-secrets – as key details, and Kirsten’s motivation, are clarified. In his post on the story, Jake Weber is less than happy with the developments, considering them part of an “unearned surprise”; as always, his analysis of the technique is well worth reading, but read the story first, if you haven’t yet, to see if you agree with him. I had less trouble with this aspect. Because spoilers are involved (I’ve been horribly neglectful of spoilers all along this year, I don’t know why I’m so protective of them now), I’ve made some comments about this on Jake’s blog rather than here.

Of all the story elements Sittenfeld mentions in her Contributor Note, the one that barely registered, was the use of Twitter. That’s mostly because I don’t seem to use Twitter the way everyone else does. I have nothing to market, so I don’t care about followers; I block anyone who doesn’t seem to have a reason to follow me, or who follows thousands of people, since they won’t be reading anything. I don’t follow any celebrities. Well, unless you consider Neil Degrasse Tyson a celebrity. So Twitter isn’t that weird to me. It’s like a coffee shop where I can overhear interesting people talking about interesting things, see beautiful stuff, stay informed, and enjoy the occasional laugh. And nobody’s plotting how to ruin my life. It’s one of the benefits of obscurity.

This is the third time in about a year that I’ve encountered Sittenfeld. She had a story, “Gender Studies”, in last year’s BASS; I’d initially been annoyed by it, but I liked it better and better the more I thought about it. I read her earliest novel, Prep, this past summer as part of my prep-school series, because it was listed as a favorite on another readers’ blog; I was a bit less enthusiastic. Both this story, and “Gender Studies”, are included in her April 2018 collection You Think It, I’ll Say It.

2 responses to “BASS 2018: Curtis Sittenfeld, “The Prairie Wife” from The New Yorker, Feb. 13/20, 2017

  1. There are really only three questions to ask yourself with any work of art: Do I like it? Is it good? Is it great? I think my answer to the first two on this one is yes, but no to the third. I think that’s because the surprise is the whole story. “People can surprise you” seems to be the entirety of the theme. Which is fine. It was worth reading. If it were a movie, I wouldn’t be sorry I spent $8 to see it at a matinee. I just wouldn’t watch it again on cable. That sounds like I’m running the story down, but I’m not. Not every story is meant to be great. Some are just meant to be what they are, and what this one is is just fine.

    • I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it either; my only motivation would be curiosity to see what was adapted and what was dropped. But for totally different reasons. As I said when I wrote up “Suburbua!”, I had a strong emotional reaction (pleasant) there, but worried about the “is it good” question. Here, appreciated how it was done, but had little emotional involvement; my strongest connection was with the TV chef angle, which mildly amused me.

      However, I didn’t think the story was about the “surprise” at all (and, warning, anyone who’s still reading, I’m hereby abandoning the spoiler-guard mentioned in the post). I thought that was at most a seccondary, more likely tertiary, element of the story (and I did think it was well-handled; it had to be, after all, to surprise you; had it been more clumsily written, you would’ve spotted it instantly). But I thought the story was focused more on the psychology of the marital relationship, with gender being irrelevant.

      The question I wanted answered was: Why is Kirsten so obsessed with Lucy? Jealousy, moral outrage at hypocrisy, the desire for her own fame, fear of being exposed? The answer was, as I said, quite different, and somewhat disappointing: she feels unappreciated in her marriage, undesirable, and wants to feel that same sense of being immensely attractive to someone, preferably Casey.

      What kind of shocks me is Casey’s response to “I don’t blame you for not finding me exciting”: “This is what this stage is like.” Well, yeah, it is, and everybody knows it, but it’s callous and uncaring and surprmely emotionally distancing to say it so baldly when your wife is begging to be seen as desirable. And the hand on the hip and sleeping with their arms around each other doesn’t really cut it, which is why Kirsten checks Twitter later.

      If there were a sequel – or if this were the first act of a movie – I’d say within three months, Kirsten is going to attempt to hook up with Lucy. That may or may not work (I suspect not) and she’ll then spin out of control trying to get someone to desire her, Casey will get pissed off and leave. In a Hollywood version, they’ll get back together sadder and wiser, with a soulful soundtrack about lost youth playing. In the European version, Kirsten will die in the gutter on the streets of Paris from abysnthe after she can no longer turn tricks.

      In any case, the story plays out the same, whether Casey is male or female- and that’s an important point, but not because it’s a surprise. It’s because people reading the story can’t tell the difference between a gay marrriage and a straight one. In the same way that, until we stop hearing things like “women writers” or “women’s fiction” and think of just writers and fiction and have it include men and women, we don’t have gender parity, until we stop talking about gay marriage and just refer to marriage, marriage equality is in the future. It’s like dropping in a character, even an extra or a bit part, in a wheelchair or using a guide dog or cane or signing when the story has nothing to do with disabilities; it almost never happens, but there are indeed people in offices and stores and on the streets in wheelchairs and using canes and signing; they’re just invisible in movies/tv – and fiction- unless it’s a targeted episode.

      Ok, now I’m ranting.

      Anyway, I just see “the story” as living somewhere else. I almost wish I could see the surprise as important; I loved the “Suburbia!” surprise, though of course that was very different. I’ve read two stories and a novel by Sittenfeld, and while I appreciate several aspects, I have yet to really grab on to anything. Yet her career is soaring. I sometimes think I don’t belong on this planet at all.

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