Antonya Nelson: “First Husband” from TNY, 1/6/14

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “…Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers. Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he hath trodden upon, and to his children, because he hath wholly followed the Lord.”

Deuteronomy1:34-36, NIV

The Lord replied, “…No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.”

Numbers 14:20-25, NIV

I don’t do well with Antonya Nelson for some reason. That makes me sad, because a lot of people I highly respect love her writing (and, happily, this story is available online so you can see what you think, for yourself). For a story that didn’t particularly appeal to me, I nevertheless found a great deal of interest to me; she does a lot with “sick” families, and she’s got the family dynamics of alcoholism from the inside out.

What we have here is your basic Chain of Fools. Lovey (Evelyn) is married to the very stable William. She used to be married to another guy:

Her first husband had been forty-five, at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, when she married him but still moving through the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all but the first few—when he was a beginner, on the receiving end of a romantic education—younger than him; he was a serial seducer. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where two others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love—they made you arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.
If you paid attention to all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

As the story opens, Lovey wakes from a dream of a naughty naked party in a burning building with her ex-husband; throughout, she compares her life now, with the stable William, and then. Most of us would consider she’s moved up in the world, and Lovey does as well, but she also misses that thrill of excitement. At least the thrill from before her thrilling-charmer husband decided she wasn’t attractive enough to sleep with any more. Secure William thinks she’s just fine to sleep with. Everything has tradeoffs.

So this comparison of the Wild Side and the Stable Side goes on throughout the story, and we see the theme repeated in the middle-of-the-night emergency phone call from Bernadette that wakes Lovey out of her naughty naked dream with the Serial Charmer: Bernadette is Charmer’s daughter, so was during the marriage Lovey’s step-daughter, or, more accurately, the step-daughter of her ex-husband, which makes her an… ex-step-daughter? We need new family vocabulary, seems to me. Like the Eskimos and their nineteen words for snow (which, by the way, is at best an oversimplification and at worst just wrong, but it makes a useful analogy at times), we could become the culture with dozens of words to describe ex-relationships, two-ex-ago-relationships, steps and ex-steps and whatever you call your former mother-in-law, whom you like and want to stay in touch with, after the divorce, not to mention the woman who was your father’s first and third wife (I’ve had some personal experience with these issues).

Bernadette begs for help with child-care while she goes looking for Aaron, her husband (Lovey’s ex-stepson-in-law – we need those nineteen words now, please), who’s drinking somewhere the way he sometimes does. And Lovey is happy to oblige, introducing our second theme of the story: it’s nice to be needed, and being needed requires that you know someone needy who will turn to you from time to time and need you. Bernadette fits the bill for Lovey. Bernadette used to be a Wild Child. That’s why she ended up married to Aaron in the first place.

Then we have the third generation, Bernadette’s kids, specifically, Caleb, who, at seven, doesn’t quite realize Lovey is letting him win at his beloved Monopoly but knows exactly how to heat a bottle of stored breast milk for the baby and can explain why she tends to gag on it and just how gross it is to check her diaper until a swallowed foreign body shows up. At seven. He’s the perfect Adult – and that’s a loaded term in a chaotic family.

But the story seems to be more about projecting Lovey’s future, and whether or not she’ll tire of her stable life. Do Bernadette and Caleb supply enough neediness for her, enough excitement? What if Bernadette cleans up her act – will Lovey need to create other areas of chaos in her life to supply the excitement she craves? Or will she just have more naughty naked dreams with the Serial Charmer?

Without Aaron, there would be no Caleb. Lovey had to remind herself of this sad fact. Her ex-stepson-in-law caused a lot of trouble, but, because of him, here before her was a boy for her to love, who loved her. Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-. He would turn into a teen-ager and disappear, like his father, into the night.

Then there’s the discovery that changes everything. When I was on Zoetrope Virtual Studios about five years ago (how time flies!), there was a discussion about the changes cell phones had made to fictional plots, since you can no longer have someone stranded with no way to get in touch (similar complaints were probably raised when telephones were invented – for that matter, back when the wheel was invented a prehistoric writer probably bemoaned not being able to use multiple trips to carry three sabertoothed tigers as arrival delays anymore – but it’s a fun discussion to have with writers, anyway, who need to think up alternatives to dead batteries and phones slipping out of pockets, an issue that will go away once we’ve all got our biopowered implants). This story hinges on Facebook. I read something the other day about Facebook being obsolete with teenagers; see, we need another plot mechanism already.

I’m always intrigued by names, so I started with the Biblical Caleb; it’s a complicated story of faith, cowardice, and conquest with a lot of subtleties. The name Caleb has some interesting etymologies; depending on who you consult, it might mean “whole-hearted” or “faithful” or it might mean “dog.” I don’t see those as contradictory at all, but there are those who take offense at the idea that they named their son “dog.” It’s interesting that “dog” has both positive and negative connotations: loyalty and faithfulness, yes, but also, well, dog-dom, you dog, you.

The kicker: in the story, Caleb’s favorite Monopoly token is… no, not the dog; the hat. Maybe Nelson didn’t bother with etymology because she had a different symbolism in mind: The dog is for Lovey, so now consider her description of Bernadette:

Poor Bernadette. Had the girl ever not been miserable? Even as a child, she had cultivated hurtful friendships, had forever been suffering slights or neglect or flat-out cruelty, this girl like a loyal beaten dog.

Some people live up to the roles they’re assigned by their family. It’s often just easier. Others leave.

In her Page-Turner interview, Nelson discusses her interest in the “sweet, gentle boy” character. I believe that; in fact, I think the story lost me because I don’t care about Bernadette. I am curious about Caleb, though. Just figuring out the ex- and step- relationships of this family is chaotic enough; then add saving Bernadette from her Wild Child past and giving Lovey some needing. This seven-year-old has the emotional structure of the entire family depending on him; no wonder he looks tired – and Lovey did keep him up all night to play Monopoly and need her, just to add a little more chaos to his life. I wonder if he’ll continue to accept his role, or if he will run away into the night. I’m hoping for the latter.

Antonya Nelson: “Literally” from The New Yorker, 12/3/12

TNY art by Jeanne Detallante

TNY art by Jeanne Detallante

“She’s always late!” the sixteen-year-old sobbed. She’d set up the ironing board and its accessories like a shrine to housewifery. Heat shimmered in the air, had already slightly compromised the plastic of the spray bottle. Only Bonita could master the pleats of Suzanne’s ghastly uniform skirt. Other girls did not care. Still others had punctual housekeepers. Or parents who ironed.
“Suse is so anal,” her brother, Danny, noted from the table, where he and his father were studying their computer screens over breakfast, sharing news items and a bowl of pineapple. “She takes three showers a day, which is more than some people take in a year. In the future, that will be illegal. Seriously, I skip showers so that our carbon footprint won’t be so terrible.”
“Do you know there’s a second part to that expression? The ‘retentive’ part?” his father asked. “It’s amazing how comfortable people are tossing that around—‘anal retentive.’ People are very casual with the psychology. So blasé about the butt.”
“God damn it!” the girl cried. “Please please please!”
“Also,” Danny said, “she exaggerates. Constantly.”
“Literally,” his father said. Richard liked to make his son smile by using his favorite word incorrectly.

I struggled with this one. Not because it’s a difficult read – it isn’t, not at all (go ahead, read it online for yourself and see – but because I seem to be missing something the good folks on my usual round of TNY blogs (The Mookse and the Gripes, Short-a-Day, I Just Read about That, and Perpetual Folly) saw. I put it aside and moved on, then came back to it.

The opening paragraph, quoted above, does a great job of setting up the chaotic household. Am I the only one who heard it as a script from a 90s family sitcom? The story moves on to introduce Bonita, the housekeeper, and her son Isaac, who is initially described as having some unspecified issue along the lines of hypersensitivity:

Isaac’s brothers and sisters had put Bonita through many trials—arrests, pregnancies, car accidents—but Isaac’s trouble, its invisibility, was new to her….
Bonita’s other children had been toughened by their bad dad and their rough neighborhood and their over-all hard luck, rendered sturdy by duress, but Isaac had been made too tender.

This just so happens she touches on one of my pets, Peeve III: contrary to Nietzsche fans, what doesn’t kill us doesn’t necessarily make us stronger, sometimes it just cripples us for life. So I was hopeful.

Everything’s a little off, to me: a 16-year-old who can’t iron her own skirt; a widower who lets his kid play hookey with the housekeeper’s son and considers marrying the housekeeper for convenience; the boys’ trip to the wrong side of the tracks to find a character with just the right feet. Maybe I’m inflexible. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little strange. I don’t know. I can’t really tell what’s going on beneath the story.

Many little events swirl through the story to carry the reader along at a pretty brisk pace, but it really comes down to the family’s continuing grief over the loss of the wife and mother. The loss of Suzanne’s cell phone, a crisis since her mother’s message was still on it, becomes a concrete symbol of this limbo. Richard’s silent consideration of marriage to Bonita strikes me as somewhere between bizarre and offensive. Nelson explains: “The most enduring battle is between head and heart; what would be efficient and logical is nearly always trumped by what is messy and illogical” in her Page-Turner interview, but I find it one of Richard’s less noble moments. As a sign of his befuddled mental state, it’s fine; that he might assume she would jump at the chance simply because he would improve her economic circumstances is disgusting. But maybe he’s more befuddled than I realize.

Two things strike me as very important. First, there’s Danny’s evaluation of the day:

“This has been a terrible day,” Danny said. “Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

Second is, literally, the title (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Introduced in the opening section quoted above, it’s only directly referenced once again, when Danny explains why he and Isaac went looking for a particular toy: “We were making an amusement park in the town, and this is literally the only guy who fits in the cannon. Nobody else has the right feet.” That got me thinking: why is it used for the title, then? There’s this scorn at the incorrect use of “literally” as an intensifier (a pet, Peeve VI, of the late great William Safire, whom I always admired for his linguistic derring do if not his politics. He’s also the one who introduced me to the idea of having a pet named Peeve, but some of us need more than one) rather than in the correct sense of “actually.”

But how do these two things relate? And how do the two of them, within the context of the story, create meaning?

I don’t really know. In her interview, Nelson says: “I hoped to unveil the complicated and competing ways that parenting consumes a person—the chronic issues, and the presenting ones. Arriving home intact is sometimes success enough.” It was an exhausting story to read – opening with the crisis of the unironed skirt, the bomb scare, the boys’ disappearance, the revelation that Isaac hears voices, and capped by the loss of Suzanne’s cell phone containing her dead mom’s messages – so I think she accomplished that. The progression works. There’s a definite structure and build, and a stunning revelation at the very end that casts a new light on everything. It’s a well-crafted story. But there’s something else there, something about what is literally true, and what isn’t, about things feeling really bad even when really bad things aren’t happening, about not being able to move on, and thus moving absurdly. Me, I just can’t move from story to meaning. Maybe in a year, it’ll be clearer.

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]