An interesting feature of this exercise, as I may have already alluded to, is that you begin to notice a taxonomy of story. This is one of my least favorite categories of William Trevor’s tales, call it the “Person Losing Their Shit in Front of Other People for a While” story. Anna Mackintosh, waiting for her late husband at a party, neurotically unloads her fears of being left for the “Mark-2 Wife” on an elderly couple. Mrs. Mackintosh talks to her therapist, leaves, and the husband arrives with a mysterious woman, possibly confirming what we previously saw as Mrs. Mackintosh’s silly fears. We leave with the elderly couple resolved to speak to Mr. Mackintosh on Mrs. Mackintosh’s behalf.
Trevor has a fondness for this set-up—in particular, for a dialogue-heavy version of this set-up, wherein the person losing their shit does so for many pages while their unfortunate interlocutor says things like “My heavens,” and “Don’t be ridiculous.” I have to think that this situation has a particularly British appeal—it feels like a cousin in a lineage of British comedies like Fawlty Towers and The Office that mostly hinge on people relentlessly misunderstanding each other. “The Penthouse Apartment,” discussed earlier, is more obviously in this mold and actually got a few chuckles out of me, but “The Mark-2 Wife” is mostly just uncomfortable and batteringly relentless (although I will admit to a grudging laugh when the drunken man forces Mrs. Mackintosh to dance and begins eating her hair).
Part of the appeal of this set-up for Trevor also obviously seems to be the way it invites perspectival shifts: the person losing their shit transitions naturally to the people watching the person lose their shit. The story is a sort of concentric circle of consciousnesses, with Anna Mackintosh in the middle, the Ritchies outside her, the Lowhrs outside that. It’s structurally interesting, but I much prefer when Trevor’s consciousness-skipping omniscience is yoked to a more linear story, and when the perspective shifts are occasioned by narrative necessity. The perspective shifts in “The Mark-2″ Wife” and similar stories do not really advance the plot or our understanding of the person losing their shit. Mostly, in my estimation, they simply gratify Trevor’s desire to see and speak through different characters—this admittedly produces readerly pleasure, but it’s a relatively modest one.
The story is not without its virtues, one of which being the interesting turn at the end—the reader has been led to believe, as have the Ritchies and the party’s hosts, the Lowhrs, that Anna Mackintosh is delusional, if not insane. When Mr. Mackintosh arrives, mystery woman in tow, there’s a small, satisfying click. Likewise, the way Anna’s neurosis has been offloaded onto the Ritchies by the end of the story. It’s a fine story, a functional story crafted by an expert, and it mostly hits the right or “right” craft notes. It might be fair to say that this is mostly a personal thing—I’m simply not a great lover of extended dialogue sections, especially in short stories. Or, for that matter, in TV and film. There’s a certain kind of comedy, Flirting with Disaster, for an old example, that depends on extended ad-libbed comic scenes between actors, and that’s what this story mostly feels like. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
An additional note: while “The Mark-2 Wife” is fairly long, and I did not crave a longer version of it, I nonetheless felt it ended before it might have. This is likely a point I’ll return to, but in my fiction classes, I often advise my students to “write through their endings” (an admonition I discuss further here). There’s a tendency in literary fiction to abbreviate stories before their actual conclusion, in the name of tasteful forbearance. Trevor is not usually guilty of this sin—as previously mentioned, he is a merciless writer, and typically tracks his characters to the ends of their stories—but he may be guilty of it here. We leave off with the Ritchies going to talk to Mr. Mackintosh and his mystery woman—does the story profit from ending before we hear the conversation? Don’t we want to know who she is, or how he responds to these strangers? Possibly not—an argument for the logic of ending before that conversation would be that it reiterates Mrs. Mackintosh’s neurotic uncertainty, but I’m not sure about that. We end with General Ritchie, who has wanted no part of Mrs. Mackintosh’s breakdown, clearing his throat to speak on her behalf. Why? This would suggest that the story is about transference of emotional responsibility, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. If Mrs. Mackintosh was ultimately right about her longstanding fear—and if, more importantly, the story is ultimately about the possibility of irrational fears being founded à la “just because you’re paranoid/don’t mean they’re not after you”—I’d personally rather the story speak directly to that point.
Up next: “An Evening with John Joe Dempsey”