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.