Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Tallent, “Narrator” from Threepenny Review, Winter 2015

All I had to go on were the narrators of his books, rueful first-person failers at romance whose perceptiveness was the great pleasure of reading him, but I felt betrayed. Savagely I compared the ungenerosity I witnessed with the radiance I’d hoped for. How could the voices in his novels applied in the brain of that withholder? The women had not trespassed in approaching, the party was meant for such encounters.… From his work I had pieced together scraps I believed were really him. At some point I had forsaken disinterested absorption and begun reading to construct him I could love.… He had never meant to tell me who he was.

When Aristotle literally wrote the book on classical drama, he used the word hamartia to describe the tragic flaw in the protagonist’s otherwise honorable character. This flaw becomes the weak spot through which events lead to a tragic end. I wonder if there’s a corresponding romantic flaw for contemporary fiction. So much of it is about romantic relationships doomed by some quirk of personality in one of the participants: while harmless in most areas of life, in the context of a romantic relationship this flaw – lack of trust, or poor judgment about who is trustworthy, neediness, a refusal to show vulnerability – turns destructive. If so, I’d say the romantic flaw for the unnamed narrator of this story might be a tendency to see what she wants to see. In keeping with the title: she likes to narrate reality so that it meets her needs, or at least her desires.

Besides fitting the bill as a story about romantic tragedy, it’s also a story about writing. I’ve read that editors shy away from such settings, but I tend to like them. Maybe it’s like second person stories: because editors don’t want to feature too many, they tend to reject all but the best, so what gets to me is cream of the crop. This isn’t just a story about writers, though it is that, and it isn’t just a story about what the work of writing is, though it is that, too. It uses the process of writing, of narration, to allow a character’s self-reflection. She may have little insight as a person living life, but as a writer, she knows how to observe a character. Unfortunately, sometimes her observations are colored by what she wants to see.

The story begins with our unnamed narrator, a fledgling writer attending a workshop, finding herself swept off her feet and out of her marriage by an accomplished author whose work she’s admired. She first sees him at a party welcoming the workshop participants. Two women are speaking to him, but he is silent to them, which she sees as deliberate withholding; later, we find out this impression was wrong, but the point is that she was drawn to him anyway. Once in his life, she finds the withholding she’d thought she’d seen in the first place.

… the only book in this house full of his books that belonged to me, and when he admitted to not liking Eliot much I was relieved to have a book which by not mattering to him could talk privately and confidentially to what was left of me as a writer, the little that was left after I was, as I believed I wanted to be, stripped down to bare life, to skin and heart beat and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear of boredom sex. The immense sanity of Middlemarch made it a safe haven for the little insanity of the stolen photograph.

I’m tempted to think of this as her tit-for-tat revenge for his withholding, but it’s narrated as survival, keeping something about herself private. I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t have any books of her own, her existence pared down to nothing other than the subject whose job it is to observe the object.

A single moment finally snaps her out of it. It’s a lovely scene, the two of them tossing a football around, unaware of the lightning that is about to strike, a bolt created by a single word.

One bright evening as I cocked my arm back he cried Throw it, piggy! Shocked into grace I sent a real beauty his way, and with long-legged strides he covered the grass and leapt, the show-offy catch tendered as apology before I could call down the field What?, but I was standing there understanding: piggy was the thing he called me to himself, that had slipped out.

We’ve all had a moment like that (at least, I have), when we suddenly realized someone else didn’t see us the way we thought he did. Reality shifts; we realize we’re in the wrong story. It’s worse than a slap. A slap allows anger in response; all the epithet allows from her is shame, not the least of which is because she permitted this all along. We then see her, weak and sick, sitting on the floor begging her love for a bowl of rice: bland, soft, comforting. But she will get no rice.

After she leaves, he writes another book, and she sees herself in the pages. Is it really her? It’s amazing how we embroider reality with our own thoughts and needs: winged horses in the stars, Jesus on a tortilla, someone we love creating art out of the memory of us. She recovers from the affair, and her life becomes successful: she finds the academic post she always wanted, publishes her work, and finds a more fulfilling romantic relationship.

Until she quite unexpectedly sees the author in a bookstore one day.

This coda is marvelous. She makes her way back to her husband and his friend, who are discussing a man who didn’t want to have surgery for fear he would be left impotent. It was not himself he was worried about, the patient insisted, but his wife. The three present their own narrations of this: the guys don’t believe him; I immediately thought it was pretty arrogant, in the same way some men are convinced they can convert any lesbian with their prowess; but our narrator has an interesting take:

“You idiots, he adored her,” I said. “That’s what he was telling David. Not,’ My God, this woman, it’s unimaginable that I’ll never make love to her again.’ But ‘How can she bear the loss.'”
Josh took off his tie, rolled it up, tucked it in his jacket pocket, and then handed his glasses forward to me, saying, “Can you take custody?” I cradled them as cautiously as if they were his eyes. Once he was asleep, David said, “That was him, wasn’t it?”
I told him what happened. “After I’d gone he must have stood there thinking, but I know her, I know her from somewhere. Then he gets it – who I am, and that I walked away without a word. Which has to have hurt.”
“It’s generally that way when you save your own skin – somebody gets hurt.”

Somebody certainly does. Why not narrate it so that it’s somebody else?

When I mention reading as one of my favorite activities, I’m always asked, “Who’s your favorite writer?” I seem to be alone in that I don’t really have one. I have some tendencies, but I can’t seem to find the writer whose every word I adore. For example, this is the third Tallent story I’ve read, all of them in prize anthologies. One I didn’t care for at all, one I liked, and this one I liked most of all. I prefer to like individual works rather than writers or genres. I sometimes say I prefer “weird” fiction to romantic realism (I did just say that, in fact, one or two stories ago) but a story like this one works great for me. I do wish I could find a favorite author, though. It would give me an easy answer to the common question, and fit in better with others’ narration of who I am.

BASS 2013: Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2012

Here come the students. Why do they love it? What do they want? Is the end of such love inevitable – will there be a last English major?… They come. They are enthralled. The professor likes how enthralled they are. It is an odd thing, a deep thing, to be enthralled. While enthralled they are beautiful. She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth… Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure that ought not to have understood at their age. They had gotten it from books – books with their intricacies and the things they wanted you to know about love and death that you could have gone a long time not knowing if you had not been a reader, and which, even when you were a reader, you saw as universal truths that did not apply to you.

Given the current emphasis on STEM disciplines (I’ve already done my rant), the question “Will there be a last English major?” is not an idle one.

I’m not sure this is so much a story as an extended prose poem, the musings of a literature professor who finds joy when her students light up at a single sentence. Her descriptions of the way students interact with their “machines” starts off the piece, and it’s truly astute:

Students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety. Machines are sometimes lost, sometimes damaged, and this loss, this damage deranges existence until, mouseclick by mouseclick, chaos can be fended off with a new machine, existence regains confidence, harmony, interest, order, connectedness. Sleeping, certain machines display a dreamily pulsing heartbeat-like white light meaning this machine is not dead.…

As someone who’s pretty devoted to my own (very limited) cache of machines, I see myself everywhere in that description. I’m frantic when my internet connection goes out, and, indeed, the last thing I do before I go to bed is check the lights on the computer to be sure it’s 1) asleep, and 2) unplugged, as one without the other overnight is courting disaster. For the record: I get frantic when I can’t find a book I need to read, too. But my books behave themselves far better than my machines and need far less coddling, so that occurs more rarely.

The central metaphor of the piece is withheld until the end: Walmart is trying to buy up a patch of wilderness, a Civil War battleground, for its next superstore. This happened, in fact; Walmart bought the land, decided to build elsewhere, and just a month ago, donated the fifty acres back to Virginia; I’d love to know how that went down, because I suspect PR wasn’t the only benefit. Then again, when it comes to Walmart, I’m a supercynic.

If you’re looking for a traditional story with a narrative arc, this probably won’t do it, but it’s beautiful reading nonetheless. Then again, I was an English major, one of those enthralled. But: I was a computer programmer who became an English major. Two of my three favorite MOOCs so far have been math classes. The third was poetry. There’s room for everything – math, poetry, Walmart, wilderness, machines, people – if we just stop thinking it has to be all one or the other, if we stop setting it up as black or white. If we value the gray areas as much as the black and the white.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Elizabeth Tallent, “Never Come Back” originally from Threepenny Review

He rubbed at mirror fog and told the dark-browed frowner (his own father!) to get ready; she’d had her Victor look. Whatever this development was, it fell somewhere between failing grade in calculus and car wreck, either of which, he knows from experience, would have been announced as soon as he walked through the door. This news, while it wasn’t life or death, was bad enough that she felt she needed to lay the groundwork and had already set their places at the table and poured his beer, a habit he disliked but had never objected to and never would. As a special treat, Daisy’s father had let her tilt the bottle over his glass while the bubbles churned and the foam puffed like a mushroom cap sidling up from dank earth, and if she enjoyed some echo of the bliss of being in her daddy’s good graces while pouring his beer, Sean wasn’t about to deprive her of that.

I found this story to be a game of ping-pong, a sort of exercise in “who’s the bad guy now.” First it’s teenage Victor, son of hard-working Sean and soother Daisy, when twin girls show up and claim to be pregnant by him (as it turns out, only one of them, Esme, is actually pregnant). And if there’s a bad guy, there must be a good guy, and first it’s Sean. Mill employee, hard-working, blue-collar, solid American. When I read the opening scene – he comes home from work, sees there’s some kind of trouble, and takes a shower before facing it – I kept flashing back to the auto industry bail-out a couple of years ago, Wall Street vs Detroit and the fight over “the people who shower after work” vs “the people who shower before work” and rationalizations about why it was ok to bail one out and not the other. I was on Sean’s side right off the bat.

But the Bad Guy shifts over time from Victor to Sean to Esme, and then through them again. In her contributor’s note, Tallent says: “My secret ambition in this story was to kindle empathy for characters whose actions are, on the face of it, indefensible, but which make the deepest kind of sense to them.” I think she succeeds for the most part, though maybe Esme needs more buttressing in that regard.

I like how Sean and Daisy’s parents, their backgrounds, are brought in early. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I also liked the bracelet, the competing loves. There’s a lot of that in this story, and it set off the ping-pong game, or at least signalled the start of it.

I’m not crazy about the way the gun is handled. It appears twice, and the first time it’s as if neon lights are highlighting the paragraph saying, “Remember this!” So when it appears later – even before it appears – it’s pretty obvious. I don’t think surprise or suspense is the point, but it seemed a bit clumsy to me. Seems the editors of Threepenny Review, PEN/O.Henry Prize, and the Pushcart committee disagree (it will appear in the 2012 Pushcart volume). I have a lot to learn.