Antonya Nelson: “Chapter Two” from The New Yorker, 3/26/12

Art: "Norma Desmond, Tormented Soul" by Gerry Caban

Art: "Norma Desmond, Tormented Soul" by Gerry Caban

Hil lied at A. A. meetings. There she led a life of sobriety; there she had not had a drink for eleven months now. Soon she would reach her fictitious one-year mark. When she told Bergeron’s story, she was at least telling the truth. But was it a story? Twenty years’ worth of half-known information, neighborhood gossip. She’d told it at two different meetings, starting at different places: the naked visitation, the phone call to Child Protective Services. She could also have told a version that began with Bergeron campaigning for city council, using Hil’s coffee table as a soapbox, she and her husband both horrified and amused by their new neighbor, still newlyweds themselves, their moving boxes barely unpacked, their son a few years in the future. Or she could have begun with the homeless man who’d been discovered lying beside Bergeron’s kidney-shaped swimming pool one night…who would have died had Bergeron not summoned an ambulance, had she not moved with surprising speed to get him aid.

There’s no better storyteller than an addict, and no better venue for storytelling than AA. The story we tell, and how we choose to tell it, is itself our story, saying as much about us as the story does about the subject.

I’ll admit, I was too entertained by the opening scene of Bergeron showing up at Hil’s door one night, naked except for a plaid porkpie hat and carrying a toothbrush “like a flag or a flower or a torch,” distraught by her inability to get arrested, to really think about narrative technique. So I was amused by the story, and interested in some astute psychological observations (and dismayed by other seemingly off details, like no one at the AA meeting calling her on her bullshit), but not really impressed. Until, that is, I read Nelson’s Book Bench interview where she explained the origin of this “layered storytelling” technique:

I had a difficult time figuring out how to capture the full range of her personality in a short-story format. To expedite this, I decided to give my own problem—summing up a character—to a fictional being. Now the problem is Hil’s. And she has a ready-made venue for storytelling, or trying, anyway.

That’s a major writing tip – having a problem with your character or your plot or something else in your story? Make the problem part of the story. I’ve actually done this, in very minor ways, before, but here is a solid lesson on the advanced technique.

The story is about Hil, of course, as much as she tries to make it about Bergeron. Bergeron is a great character – “some composite of Miss Havisham, Norma Desmond, and Scarlett O’Hara” – but like the hero’s sidekick in a movie, she’s the mirror, not the star.

Hil isn’t without insight, though it’s distorted and incomplete. She recognizes all the tricks Janine, the morbidly obese roommate acquired after her divorce, pulls: she’s never seen her eat, she keeps chocolate in the freezer to restrict access though she broke a tooth that way (“Addicts, Hil marvelled: so dedicated!”). All the while she picks her AA meetings by their proximity to bars, and has her little post-meeting drink with fellow AA member Joe (who hasn’t had a drink in years, but it’s been two hours since his last Xanax and he’s counting the minutes until his next one). Hil is very good at sniffing out lies and denials, perhaps because she’s so good at those techniques herself. She isn’t fooling her teenage son, Jeremy, who is required to attend Al-Anon as part of the custody agreement; he knows when he’s “the only unintoxicated person in the room” and he’s perfected the “sober, scornful glare” to convey that awareness. If only Hil realized it was meant for her, not Bergeron.

But the story is about the story, I think. The title “Chapter Two” within the story itself is what Joe calls the events of a few days after Bergeron’s naked visit:

Joe said, “You didn’t share the part about Bergeron Love being dead now.”
“Yeah, well, that part would kind of ruin the fun, wouldn’t it? Everybody would get all ashamed when they found out they were laughing about a dead person, right?…
…”You could tell the dead part next time, like it just happened. A follow-up on the first story. Chapter Two.”

The end of the story, however, gives us what I think is a better look at the real Chapter Two. After all, that is the pattern here: Hil has an insight about someone else and never relates it to herself, but it’s there for the reader to ironically connect. So Chapter Two is fully revealed only by the last paragraph:

Meanwhile, Hil had found a new meeting to go to, one so close to her house she could walk there. Handily, there was a pub situated on the route home. Maybe at this meeting she’d start the story of her eccentric neighbor by talking about the son as a teen-ager, Allistair trying to keep his mother from trouble at two or three or four in the morning, calling to her uselessly, “Please come back inside, Mom! Please get ut of the street!”

Does Hil see Jeremy in that scene? Of course not; it’s only Chapter Two. But maybe before they get to the end of their story, she will.

[Addendum: This story appears in Best American Short Stories 2013]

Jim Shepard: “The World To Come” from One Story #161, 3/4/12

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

Sunday 6 May
My mother told me once in a fury when I was just a girl that my father asked nothing of her except that she work the garden, harvest the vegetables, pick and preserve the fruit, supervise the poultry, milk the cows, do the dairy work, manage the cooking and cleaning and mending and doctoring, and help out in the fields where needed. She said she’d appeared in his ledger only when she’d purchased a dress. And how have things changed? Daughters are married off so young that everywhere you look a slender and unwilling girl is being forced to stem a sea of tribulations before she’s even full grown in height.

We think we’ve invented everything. No one has ever known the hardships we’ve had in this time of economic woe; we’ve learned it all about love and relationships and sex and psychology and poetry and letters; when we have it bad, no one has ever had it as bad as us, and when we have it good, it’s a kind of good never before experienced.

Jim Shepard is here to tell us: Not so fast.

I’m not a big fan of diary format for stories, but he uses them frequently, and effectively, on his expeditionary stories. And this story can be seen as an expedition of sorts, into uncharted territories for the unnamed diarist, working with her husband Dyer on their upstate NY farm. We’re privileged to see her weekly writing at least of this period from January through June of 1856. It’s interesting this is the period chosen.

Sunday 1 January
With little pride and less hope, and only occasional and uncertain intervals of happiness, we begin the new year. Let me at least learn to be uncomplaining and unselfish. Let me feel gratitude for what I have : some strength, some sense of purpose, some capacity for progress. Some esteem, some respect, and some affection.
Yet I cannot say I am improved in any manner, unless it be preferable to be wider in sensation and experience.

After the calamity of Nellie’s loss, what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come.

So we see her recovering from the death of her little daughter. I find it wonderful that this period is more interesting than what has already passed. Then again, given the parade of deaths and other tragedies in this little corner of the world during the six months we read of, death is not an unusual event. I’ve always wondered if parents who expected to lose a child grieved any less than we do today, in a time and place where a child’s death is fairly rare. It seems not.

The diarist and husband Dyer are rather distant, though kindly so. She is resistant to the idea of having another child, so has refused sexual relations. Dyer is rather solicitous: “My heart to him is like a pond to a crane: he wades round it, going in as far as he dares, and then attempts to snatch up what little fish come shoreward from the center.” He brings up plans to make a sleigh, a perennial project that apparently holds some delight for her, though she is less than interested. Theirs is not a marriage of love and compatibility, but of possibility. And if she is overworked and not content, he too has lost some dreams along the way:

As a suitor he was generous but not just, and affectionate but not constant. I was appreciative of his virtues and unconvinced of his suitability, but reminded by my family that more improvement might be in the offing. Because, as they say, it’s a long lane that never turns. And so our hands were joined if our hearts not knitted together.

As a boy he made his own steam engines… I have no doubt he would have been happier if allowed to follow the natural bent of his mind, but forces of circumstance compelled him to take up a business for which he had not the least love.

Tallie, the wife on a neighboring farm, comes to visit in January, and our diarist feels… something: “There seems to be something going on between us that I cannot unravel.” The evolution of their relationship is told masterfully, in slow motion with great detail, beginning in February with a cold, wet foot, after Tallie has broken through the ice into a brook on her way over:

I made her remove her boot and stocking and warmed her toes and ankle in my hands. For some few minutes we sat, just like that. The warmth of the stove and the smell of the applesauce filled our little room, and she closed her eyes and murmured as though speaking to herself how pleasant it was.

The diarist looks forward to her weekly visits (“When she arrived my heart was like a leaf borne over rock by rapidly moving water”) and is distressed when they don’t happen. Eventually, they kiss: “Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy.”

That’s about as far as things go, really; there’s no steamy sex scene. But Shepard does a lot with just a couple of episodes of kissing, let me tell you. Especially with the dog keeping watch for Dyer or other intruders. Because this must, of course, remain a secret. Which is why she’s writing it down. I suppose reading someone’s diary was considered unthinkable in that time. Or perhaps Dyer has read the diary. He does seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on:

Opened the mudroom door this afternoon to Dyer having returned from the fields, and he said with some asperity that it was pleasant to be greeted by the smile one values above all others only to see that smile vanish because it’s been met by one’s own presence, instead of someone else’s.

Aside from the tortured syntax (it is a diary, after all), this is to me where the real story lies, where the real love is. Is that shocking, for a woman to read a story about an overburdened, artistically imprisoned woman (more on this in a moment) and feel for the man in her life? Or is that part of the design? Because we are introduced shortly to Tallie’s husband, when she invites them over to dinner:

Finney said that no matter what misfortunes arrived at his doorstep, he would seek improvement of his lot with his own industry: he would study his options closely and attend to everything to which he’d believed he had already adequately attended, but with more venehymence….Finney said as an example that when he’d first begun farming he’d been so vexed by his inability to stop his dogs barking one January that during a storm he’d held the animal round the corner of his barn in a gale until it had frozen to death.

In his fiction, Shepard frequently relishes all manner of harshness and brutality while keeping love, passion, and light center stage, and he has done so again. If it wasn’t evident before, in comparison with Finney, Dyer is a prince. Both men seem to know what is going on between the women, and they have very different reactions.

In fact, Finney’s reaction, foreshadowed at that dinner, becomes even more extreme. He and Tallie move away suddenly; she isn’t allowed to say goodbye or even notify her friend of the move. All that’s left behind are a few pieces of furniture and a bloody handprint. The sheriff declines to investigate. Our diarist pines. Dyer waits patiently by. At last, a letter arrives…

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s the diarist’s story. And there’s no denying the hardship women faced in this era. It was handed down to them:

My mother told me more than once that when she prayed, her first object wa to thank God that we’d been spared from harm throughout the day; her second was to ask forgiveness for all of her sins of omission and commission, and her third was to thank Him for not having dealt with her in a manner commensurate to all of the offenses for which she was responsible.

And there’s always the question, what would the diarist, who is quite a writer (including the poem she wrote for her dead child), have been if she’d been able to continue in a setting more conducive to artistic ventures? But also, I can’t help but wonder, what might Dyer have invented had he become a builder, inventor, engineer? Two lives, two talents wasted. It’s also interesting that at one point Tallie shows the diarist her own poetry; it’s bad, really bad, and the diarist “could not support the rhyme,” which is a moment I love.

While on one level it’s the story of a woman awakening one spring, it’s a lot more than that. And when I read Shepard’s One Story Q&A on why he chose to use diary format, I was surprised by this:

I wanted to catch if I could the moment-to-moment and day-to-day nature of 19th century farming lives, as well as how seasonally based those lives were: the importance of the weather, and their meals, and of course the drudgery. But the journal nature of the story also seemed crucial when it came to capturing all of the little ways in which the narrator has let her Tallie down.

I don’t understand at all how she has let Tallie down. I’ve been thinking about it for several days now, and I’ve re-read the story several times, and I still don’t understand. Is he being facetious – that the woman is so used to taking the blame for everything, she will find herself to blame for this as well? I think this will require re-reading at a future point, to see what I have missed. My favorite kind of story, one that evolves over time.

[addendum: A nice addition to Best American Short Stories 2013]