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.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005)

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
 
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
 
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
 
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
 
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
 
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
 
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
 
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
 
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

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.