The William Trevor Reader: “A Complicated Nature”

Perhaps any story following a masterpiece like “Mrs. Silly” would feel like a letdown, but “A Complicated Nature” strikes me as an especially low-energy effort, the Trevor story engine puttering along in first gear or perhaps rolling in neutral down a long drive. All of the usual elements are here: a perverse and/or sexually inexperienced protagonist; an unpleasant encounter with a stranger that reveals home truths to the protagonist and reader alike; a quietly brutal ending that leaves the protagonist exposed and bereft—and all with a dash of antisemitism thrown in. Unlike “The Table,” the antisemitism pertains to a particular character, rather than the story as whole. In this case, the antisemite is the titularly-complicated protagonist Mr. Attridge, whose hostility to Jews allegedly derives from the fact that his ex-wife was Jewish. The bigotry is nonetheless unpleasant and feels somewhat recklessly tossed in.

We join Mr. Attridge on a winter afternoon, when his neighbor, Mrs. Matara, phones him to ask for his help. He says no, but she descends to his apartment regardless, informing him that a man is dead in her bedroom. She has carried on an affair with this man for years, and she implores the stoney Mr. Attridge to come upstairs and help her clothe and stage the body so that her infidelity remains secret. He refuses again, but finally assents under the influence of brandy they are drinking and the burgeoning awareness that his participation would supply him with a riveting story to tell friends. But the real allure, to which the reader is alerted, is deeper than this, having to do with his failed marriage to a Jewish woman, reminiscent of Mrs. Matara, which he was unable to successfully consummate. She accused him of not liking women, and some part of him vaguely sees the opportunity for redemption in helping a woman caught in the kind of tawdry sexual peccadillo that his repressed sexuality saved him from. As it turns out, however, the man in question is not dead, and he and Mrs. Matara have a laugh about the whole mess as Mr. Attridge skulks off wishing the man had, in fact, died.

While “A Complicated Nature” is not my favorite Trevor story, I admire its extended exposition, introducing Mr. Attridge and the various aspects of his complicated nature. Trevor tarries pleasurably with these preliminaries, showing us Mr. Attridge’s unpleasantness—what he thinks of as his “sharpness”—from a the point of a view of a female partygoer we never hear from again. In a few careful paragraphs we are provided nearly everything we need to know about this man.

This kind of character precis is a bit of a lost art. “Show don’t tell” long ago attained the dubious status of universal writing maxim—many of my Intro to Fiction students come into class equipped with very little in the way of writing (or reading) experience, yet confident that whatever else may be true, they should show things and not tell them. But modern fiction could probably do with a good bit more telling. In her excellent New Yorker essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Parul Seghal discusses the way traumatic character biography is used as a kind of simplistic shorthand for explicating personality and behavior. A further problem with this mode of storytelling—and with a huge portion of contemporary fiction, traumatic or not—is the way it reflexively withholds history and backstory, doling them out as little revelations along the narrative way. This storytelling technique is at least partly influenced by the wrong belief that all extant characterization must be doled out in dribs and drabs through ongoing action. In fact, very often the simplest and most elegant approach to a story is to do as Trevor—and O’Connor, Cheever, Yates, Malamud, and all the greats of mid-century short story craft—do, which is give the reader the vital information right at the beginning. 

In doing so, the story is free to take shape and not merely exist as a vessel for the revelation of personal history. “A Complicated Nature” continually gives us Mr. Attridge’s history, circling back to it in sharper and sharper detail, but the basic terms are set after page one, and the story can go about its business. That business may, in my reading, be a bit disappointing by Trevor’s standards, but the craft instincts throughout are impeccable and worth stealing from nonetheless. 

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

One comment:

  1. While I am learning a lot about William Trevor’s oeuvre, this is also a great class about modern writing and storytelling techniques. Re: “A further problem with this mode of storytelling—and with a huge portion of contemporary fiction, traumatic or not—is the way it reflexively withholds history and backstory, doling them out as little revelations along the narrative way.”

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