New Yorker illustration by Josh Cochran
Ever since his wife had left him – but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop – Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality, and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations, leaning close but not too close, listening in while gazing out vaguely over their heads in order to seem distracted and inattentive, waiting for the conversation to wind down, so that he can weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.
He was at it again.
I’ve noticed that when I connect emotionally with a story, I miss a lot of details; I might not even know the names of key characters, the setting, the tense or person of the narration, until I go back and think about it later, because, like with great sex, in the moment I’m lost in the experience. Then there are those stories that are so cleverly woven that I’m enthralled with the brilliance of a writer who has used the same 26 letters and 9 punctuation marks we all have access to, in such an interesting and unique way. And sometimes, like this time, I sense little hints left like breadcrumbs, but I get lost anyway.
This story of a cocktail party, like Antrim’s story from last May, contains some wonderful elements. There’s a choreography that’s absolutely masterful; in his Book Bench interview, he says “Traffic control, for me, can be a pleasure” and he’s good at it. For example, right after the opening paragraph quoted above, protagonist Jonathan does his “lurking man” bit with a cluster of fellow party attendees, dropping his gloom, and the cluster reacts to enfold him:
“What you’re saying, if I’ve heard you right, is that the current rates of city government spending will eventually bankrupt the public schools.” He was speaking to a group of young parents – presumably, that’s what they were – at a book-publication party for a novelist he’d never read. He’d come with his friend, his date, he should say, who worked for the novelist’s publisher. He added, “My ex-wife, well, not my wife, but, you know, she might as well have been, taught eighth grade in the Bronx for two years.”
“Really?” a woman in the group asked. The man next to Jonathan turned sideways as if he were a door swinging open to let him in.
Jonathan stepped forward.
I love that detailed social ballet; it feels so accurate. It also starts two of the themes that run through this story: belonging, and the ex-not-wife Rachel. I’m trying to ignore the ex-not-wife thing as much as possible, since it’s the most blatant part of the story (at every turn he’s reminded of her), and thus the least interesting (though, since it’s the crux of the story, I can’t ignore it completely).
The theme of belonging, however, dovetails nicely with the religious imagery I found in the names used throughout. I’m not sure if I’m overreading. I went hunting in all my usual places for confirmation, and found it only in a comment on Cliff Garstang’s Perpetual Folly which also brings up the Biblical Jewish names. It isn’t just the Jewish names, though.
The Jonathan of the Old Testament is best known for his friendship with King David. I’m interested in how Jonathan describes Sarah as his friend first, then his date, and later we find out they’re more like a couple who’ve been together for a while.
The ancient Sarah was, among other things, associated with laughing at God’s assurance she’d have children when she was in her 80s; in the story, she’s the “friend/date”, and Jonathan sees her as playful; he also associates her with his old age (just what every young woman wants):
When they walked down the street together, and he rested his arm on her shoulder, he thought sometimes about how essential it would be in old age to have someone to lean on. And though his old age was a long way off, and he felt, the majority of the time, that he would never reach it anyway, he nonetheless considered it often when he was with Sarah.
Deborah was one of the few women of power and strength in her own right (not through her husband, father, or brother) in the Bible. At the party, Jonathan meets and possibly flirts with a strong Deborah, who tells him: “I want you to know that if we sleep together and I get pregnant I’m keeping the baby.” Which, by the way, splashes some cold water on the flirtation (which may be accidental on his part) and sends him skittling back to Sarah.
And Rachel, the omnipresent ex-not-wife, is the name of the woman Jacob wanted to marry when he was tricked into marrying Leah instead. Jacob spent seven years working for her father to win her hand; unlike Jonathan and his Rachel, however, the biblical pair did marry and fathered the Twelve Tribes. Our fictional Rachel, on the other hand, left Jonathan and married Richard Bishop. Now, maybe that name is a coincidence. And maybe it’s a coincidence Jonathan is standing on Church Street, taking a break from the party, when he calls Rachel and discovers she’s moving to LA and he finds himself sort of free of her (at least temporarily). And maybe it’s coincidence that one of the editors at Sarah’s publishing house who’s pursuing her ardently is named Fletcher, who is described as “thinner than he – in better shape all around, no doubt – with sharp cheekbones and a widow’s peak” or that, if we think mutiny instead of arrowsmith, another Christian is trying to take away Jonathan’s girlfriend when he is slow to propose. But I don’t think so.
The “belonging” theme rings throughout as well, from the initial sense of belonging to the circle at the party, to his diasporic longings for his place of origin:
Jonathan was extremely conscious of his origins, which were Southern…. he regarded himself as oddly and bravely homeless, imagining, from this city he’d chosen to live in, a lost, green place – Charlottesville, where his parents had been professors, and the nearby Blue Ridge, where he’d camped as a boy.
(no, “Next Year in Charlottesville” doesn’t quite sound right) to the difference between his and Sarah’s backgrounds:
…this drawn-out, vague acquaintance had given them each the subtle feeling, once they’d begun seeing each other and sleeping together, that they somehow shared common origins, though in fact she’d grown up on the Upper East Side, the daughter of psychoanalysts, and showed a dedication to European fashion magazines – Rachel had rejected fashion as a malignant form of commercialism – that he would never, throughout their long life ahead, their marriage, come to fathom.
That paragraph contains a wealth of substance besides Sarah’s New York roots: Rachel again, and a quick little flash-forward, slipped in so quickly it’s hardly noticeable, moving the narrator into the foreground as he spills the beans on Jonathan’s future. But if your mind wanders – and it might, given the intricate detail of who’s standing where talking to whom smoking what that suffuses this story – you might miss it. I’m fascinated by that trick of narration. There must be a word for it.
I think – I’m not sure – the climax of the story comes when Jonathan, having talked to Rachel on the phone and believing now he is mostly free of her, give or take a few slips he expects to happen – gets a jar of cherries from the bartender (cherries? really?) and winds a stem around Sarah’s finger while kneeling before her:
“Are you proposing?” Sarah asked.
He said, “I’m not sure that I can propose without a real ring. But at least you’ll know.”
“I’ll know what?
But he was afraid to say.
He stood and kissed her on the cheek.
I have no idea what that means – we already know they do indeed get married – but I hear violins and see soft-focus lighting. They then disappear towards Broadway, his arm around her shoulders, perhaps thinking about his old age.
Ok, I’m making all this up as I go along. Maybe it’s just a New York cocktail party story about a committment-phobic young man, and I’m just sensitized to religious symbolism because it’s the time of the year when everything from the wine on special at the supermarket to the onslaught of ads for Filet-o-Fish sandwiches at Burger King is grounded in religious practice. After all, Jonathan, Rachel, Sarah, and Deborah are not necessarily Jewish names at this point. So yeah, I’m overreading (but… why then are the novelist’s books titled Abel Kills Cain and The Strictures of My Love?). It’s what happens when a story doesn’t really connect with me: I torture it to find meaning. Sorry.
But hey, it was fun… 😉