BASS 2017: Kyle McCarthy, “Ancient Rome” from American Short Fiction #62

We might as well begin with the homes. The condos, the townhouses, the penthouses, the classic sixes and sevens. Let’s begin there and with the servants that cook and clean them, though “servant” is not the term used. The wealthy prefer “housekeeper.”
This one time, I was called for an emergency paper intervention, dispatched on twenty-four hours’ notice to Seventieth and Park, where Isabel Shear led me past her snowy-white bedroom, a capacious boudoir whose proportions easily exceeded my Brooklyn studio, and into her office, a tiny little space by the back staircase dedicated solely to the serious intellectual work of eighth grade.
The assignment that had caused Isabel Shear so much grief read as follows: Compare the impact of the cult of domesticity on an upper-class woman, a working-class woman, and a slave during the last years of the Roman Empire. If you send your child to a top Manhattan independent school, she will complete essentially this assignment for the next twelve years of her life. Note the nod to historical relevance, the dutiful attention to women and minorities. Note, too, that Isabel must complete this assignment using only primary documents, because Trinity wants to train her to be a real historian. How many primary documents from 100 AD, do you think, discuss the housekeeping practices of slaves?

There’s a great deal lying just beneath the surface of this story: the social benefits and liabilities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. I find it particularly interesting that the gender of the narrator is left vague for the first half of the story, until she’s revealed to be female, and her race is never specified, though there are subtle hints (what I call “othering” in that she specifies her student is white; if there’s a more sophisticated term for this, please let me know) that she’s not white.

The story reaches across millenia to connect a contemporary 8th grader with her Roman counterparts: Isabel is as clueless about the Filipino servant who brings her a sandwich, and the educated but unsuccessful writer who helps her with her paper (which, by the way, seems astonishingly sophisticated for 8th grade; do upscale middle schoolers really read Marcus Aurelius?), as she is about the slave class in Rome, who, she insists, can’t have feelings of domesticity since they don’t have homes. That in itself is a pretty loaded idea. Can a slave make a home in quarters provided by her owner?

Layered on top of that is our narrator, a failed writer (another failed writer; how many is that in this volume now, three, four?) who got into Harvard on the strength of a play she kind of accidentally wrote in high school; she tutors the children of the rich to pay the rent. This, I learned from the Contributor Note, is something McCarthy actually did herself for a while. I recognize myself in her attitude towards her education: “During my teenage years I conceived of my intelligence as a natural phenomenon, like the sea. The sea does not try to get better. The sea is.” That’s an attitude math’s growth-mindset people have done their best to challenge, but it remains: smart is something you are or aren’t, not something you can be. And if intelligence works that way, what about the rest of it? Is self-improvement in any facet possible, or must we remain what we were born?

Another line I found intriguing: “All thirteen-year-old girls want to be seventeen, unless they want to be ten again.” I’ve always thought teenagers want to be (or at least look) older, but I can understand how tempting it might be to turn back the clock and not worry about growing up for a while. Hence the references to
Reviving Ophelia
and the self-destruction that often besets girls when they hit puberty. The retreat-into-childhood goes along with the tutor’s story of her attitude towards sex in high school: “But I wanted him to pressure me; I wanted to have sex without choosing, fully, to have sex; I wanted to avoid responsibility, just a little bit, for my wanting.” This is a terrifying thought, since it’s pretty much the defense of every rapist. Adolescence seems to have become a very dangerous game.

She says,”Are you a feminist?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you?”
She hesitates. “Yes.” She looks both bashful and proud. “But I don’t do any feminist work.”
“Me neither,” I tell her, and we grin at each other, like two housewives who’ve just admitted that we don’t iron the sheets.
Later, though, I keep thinking about it: feminist work. What is feminist work?

This exchange is wonderful. I know there are women who claim they aren’t feminists, but that usually means they are pro-life and want to be stay-at-home moms and let hubby worry about the money. To have those choices is a byproduct of feminism; to make those choices is in itself a feminist act (but to legislate those choices to force them on others is another matter, and no, we’re not going to fight about that here). But then these two feminists are defined by a distinctly unfeminist metaphor, housewives ironing sheets (oh, the irony?). For the record, I’m in my 60s and I’ve never ironed a sheet; I can’t believe it’s a guilty secret in the age of permapress.

But the puzzle of “feminist work” is what I take with me from this story. What is feminist work? I suppose the phrase brings to mind political action, but it’s really embedded in all our lives, men and women alike. I’m on my 4th repeat of the TV series Mad Men, and boy do Peggy and Joan do feminist work in an era when feminism meant lesbians in orthopedic shoes reading Gertrude Stein. And by the way, Don Draper has his feminist moments, though he more than erases them with his distinctly anti-feminist moments.

And the story overall? American Short Fiction is a highly prestigious publication. So again, I’m puzzled, since I found this story to be more beads on a string – a collection of interesting points with a vague connection in the relationship between the tutor and student – than a narrative fabric highlighting interwoven ideas around a main theme. I seem to be missing the boat a lot these days.