BASS 2019: Sigrid Nunez, “The Plan” from LitMag #2

The first story I ever published was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and though I did not go on to write fiction in that genre and I’m not even a big reader of such fiction, I have often found myself wanting to write about a crime. For “The Plan”, I wanted to write about a certain type of criminal – violent, murderous, misogynistic – and I wanted to write from his point of view. The fierce anger and resentment that appear to consume so many men today was likely among the influences on my desire to explore this killer’s vision of society and his place in it. Also, I have vivid memories of what New York City was like during the seventies, how crime-ridden and seedy and dangerous it was – a very noir place, it seemed to me – and I saw this as the ideal setting for my crime story.

The first couple of pages give no hint of the elements mentioned in the above Contributor Note; it seems like a reminiscence by an ordinary young man with a mild impulse to improve himself:

He wanted to have more culture. This was what he always thought when he found himself at Lincoln Center. He remembered coming here on a school trip once, about ten years ago, when the complex was still partly under construction. ….He’d never been back. He’d never even thought of going back. But earlier that summer of ‘76, on one of his long city walks, he happened to arrive at the Plaza.

As a kid, he’d been a big reader. Later, for some reason he lost the habit. Now he thought he would like to read more, not just newspapers and magazines, but big, interesting books – books that a lot of other people were also reading.
Get more culture. He put that on the list. The list of things to do after.

So we get to know Roden Jones via unremarkable aspects of his musings: the fountain that, at a distance, displays rainbows that only disappear when he approaches to see them more closely; a memory of his mother spray-misting shirts before ironing (I remember this! Does anyone do this any more?); and this list of things to do after. After what? We’re drawn forward to find out.

Even when we find out the event for which he is planning an after is murder, we continue to be drawn forward to find out the details of who and why. The story takes us through Roden’s pedestrian observations of people around him – panhandlers, a teenage girl whose eyes shine through the filth of the rest of her, a pub, a visit to a hooker masquerading as a palm reader. We’re still waiting for the details: who does he want to murder, and why?

We find it on Roden’s train ride home, via his observation of a dozing woman in a very short skirt who takes offense when she discovers she’s attracted the attention of several nearby men.

Wearing a skirt that all but exposed your crotch when you sat down, being outraged when men took notice – that was women.…
When he got up to move to another seat she shot him a smug look , as if she’d scored a triumph over him.
She is a candidate, he thought. What a joy it would have been to go back and make her choke on that gum, just squeeze her neck until the pimples burst.

I started off this scene wrapped up in the question I often ask, maybe a question that isn’t very well-received these days: does it make sense to dress to accentuate one’s sexual attractiveness and then take offense when that attractiveness is noticed? That would’ve been an interesting story. I almost resented the actual story in front of me for shifting the focus back to Roden, who it now seems is not planning a revenge murder, or a profitable murder, or a cover-up murder, but is simply a psychopath who wants to murder someone, and his wife is the most sensible target.

In his Intro to the volume, Anthony Doerr points this out as a successful story with an unlikable protagonist. It’s an issue I’ve come across before in these pages. Criminal psychopaths can be fascinating characters: Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter. But these characters have something in them – sorrow, intelligence, loyalty – that allows us to connect. Roden has a traumatic childhood, a keen eye for observation (I keep coming back to the rainbows: as soon as he married his wife, he realized he hated being married), but is more than anything else the poster child for the banality of evil. A slacker murderer? Or, more accurately, a slacker murderer-wannabe, since he’s still planning his first murder.

I rather lost interest in the discussion of all the details, the planned trip to Aruba where the murder would take place (never murder at home; this was set in the 70s, remember, which was well before Aruba became known as a destination murder site), and his impatience over the intervening months. Jake Weber goes far more into the possible motivational models for murderers in his blog post.

Yet a few things did leap out at me in the middle part of the story. One was what seemed like a shout-out to Jane Austen, apropos of nothing:

He’d always thought a woman couldn’t wait to have kids. Though she was never a loving mother herself – though she heaped sarcasm on her son and beat him with an extension cord – his mother had always assured him this was a universal truth.
But it meant nothing to him, either, that Harley wanted to put off motherhood. His cousin and best man, Ryan, warn him that, wedding accomplished, everything would change. This was another universal truth. –

Presumably, Roden’s lack of reading keeps him from recognizing the phrase “a universal truth”, and his lack of engagement with the world keeps him from wondering that it turns up twice from two very different people. Using his mother’s assertion as irony, that would mean not all women desperately want to have kids, which is far more true (I being a prime example), and in fact Harley shows no particular interest in having children. It also provides a basis for a future scene about women wanting babies, a scene that reveals Harley to be just as self-focused as Roden. Ryan’s comment would entail that everything does not change with the wedding; this I’m a bit less sure of, in the context of real life. In the context of the story, however, I think it’s probably borne out: while Roden immediately regrets being married, he is not substantially changed. Only time has moved him down the road, closer to experiencing his first murder.

I wasn’t even that interested when, In the end, a switcheroo took place, leaving Roden without a suitable victim. But he needs to murder someone. I won’t spoil it, in the interests of readers who may find the story more engrossing than I did. I will say that Roden has a rather interesting realization afterwards, regarding the difference between murdering men and murdering women.

I’ve always said I love a story that teaches me something. Not only did I learn the term “rubber husband” (it’s nowhere near as kinky as it sounds), but I corrected my longstanding misperception of the meaning of noir. For me, noir always brought to mind femme fatales, smoky jazz dives, and rough-edged detectives. I was surprised to find out that detectives are not a necessary element of noir, though crime is usually involved. The key elements are cynicism, alienation, and pessimism, leading to the inevitable downfall of the protagonist.

In a Lithub interview, Megan Abbot explains how the hard-boiled detective story and noir are often conflated, but are in fact different: the hard-boiled detective is ultimately moral, if flawed, cynical, and unable to fix the world; “In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable.” In The Guardian, Otto Penzler explains: “noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.”

This explains the difference between Dexter and Roden. And leads to the question Doerr asked: can a character like Roden, possessing no redeeming qualities whatsoever, work as a protagonist? Is he just too unlikable?

The thing is, I didn’t find him unlikable; I found him uninteresting. He sort of had me at first, but then lost me. Am I fooling myself? Did I lose interest because I learned about his misogyny, his psychopathy? I don’t think so; I still find the incident with the short-skirted woman on the train to have some interesting overtones. And I’m really interested in what Jane Austen is doing in the story; it can’t be by accident, though it seems so random. What if Harley had been more likable, would I have felt some rage at his targeting her, some relief at her safe, if treacherous, departure? Must a story give me someone I care about, for me to care about the story?

Sometimes a story that doesn’t interest me can raise questions that interest me very much, and that’s not bad.

Pushcart 2014: Sigrid Nunez, “Imagination” from The Sun, April 2012

An inventive imagination was a gift of the gods — or a curse if you couldn’t control it.

Everyone in this story, set mostly at a suburban neighborhood party, has a great imagination. Problem with teenage Elsie is, she hasn’t learned to rein the resultant behavior in to a socially acceptable level.

Where her mother is within normal limits in calling their summer home as a “country house” though it’s, intentionally, within a convenient drive of the city, Elsie likes the acoustics of a sneeze in a school corridor and wonders what it would sound like if she screamed; so she finds out. While her father imagines himself the foremost authority on everything and delivers any opinion he’s read as his own idea, Elsie sees her parents’ friend Dick as a warlock, with “furry eyebrows like mice” that bump noses when he frowns (reminding me of Kathy Fish’s great flash, “The Cartoonist”), then as a dog lifting his leg when he goes into the bathroom; poor girl can hardly be blamed for laughing at him.

When Elsie, unable to find a place to put olive pits, stuffs hers into her bra, then, thinking of the breast cancer her friend’s mother has been diagnosed with, strokes the pit through her shirt, her mother is quick to scold her with “Do you have any idea how that looks?” Mom’s concern stems from double imagination: 1) people imagine Elsie is caressing her nipple over the buffet table at a party, and 2) mom is imagining people imagining that. Elsie herself recalls a moment:

(Once, after passing two elderly men sitting together on a bus, Elsie had heard one of them say to the other, It’s when they’re stacked like that and still just kids that thy really ought to be declared a public nuisance.”)

Obviously this was written a few years ago, but it rang out in this week that saw #YesAllWomen trending and scorned by men who want to control neither their imaginations nor behaviors. But here it’s Elsie, fourteen years old and full of burgeoning sexuality, who pushes the limits.

I love the apple reference towards the end of the story; come on, she trips over an apple in the front yard? Shades of Eve! Poor Elsie has been tripping over apples for a while now. Sometimes she seems to go out of her way to find apples to trip over, in fact, as when she changed into a bikini in the middle of the party, claiming she just wanted to go for a swim when the lightning started. From there things go downhill, behaviorally for Elsie, imaginationally for everyone else. I began to wonder if she were acting out some trauma, having the psychotic break her parents feared during the scream incident, or just pushing passive aggressive over the edge.

What is she to do? Do tell her.

That authorial intrusion – “Do tell her” – appears three times in the story, once in the second paragraph, once in the middle of the story, and once at the end:

But how were you supposed to stop thinking something once it popped into your head? Do tell her.

And she had apologized. Several times. What more did they want? Do tell her.

…and then how on earth would Elsie go on living? Do tell her.

I’m a little uncertain about the purpose of this device, baffled at the pattern of use; the last one concerns me, since it seems to hint at a suicide lurking past the close of this story, projected into the future. Is the purpose to distance the reader from the story, a meta-note to remind the reader that this is a story, maybe even a parable or extended metaphor, not a person? Because that’s the effect, though it’s an effect most fiction writers go to great lengths to avoid. But maybe that’s the point here: the story itself is the product of imagination. Maybe it’s Elsie telling the story, in fact. Maybe it’s a story she’s telling in her head as she lies in the grass waiting for the fox to eat her face off.