The William Trevor Reader: “Teresa’s Wedding”

It occurred to me, beginning to read this story, that a William Trevor tale called “Teresa’s Wedding” might as well not have any further text: if you are acquainted with Trevor’s bleak M.O., the title alone presages the minor-key tragedy to come. And I was not wrong—”Teresa’s Wedding” follows the expected plot and tonal contours. Teresa and Artie Cornish have just gotten shotgun-married due to her nascent pregnancy, and we float around the joyless wedding reception, learning that long ago she slept with one of Artie’s friends, seeing the groom drunkenly interrogate his bride on the matter, and understanding in the end—as we may have intuited in the beginning—that this will not be the happiest of unions.

The story is enjoyable—as enjoyable as the observation of abject human misery can be, which is to say, pretty enjoyable. But I’m most interested in Trevor’s narrative technique, in particular, the unusual way he jumps between multiple characters in a story.

It’s become conventional wisdom that third-person short stories should generally contain only one point of view. Possibly, this is a product of the hegemony of first-person narratives—we are accustomed to only hearing from one person per story space. It may also be some musty cant originating in 1950s Iowa. Certainly, one professor of mine (who, now that I think of it, did go to Iowa) warned me against writing third-person stories with multiple perspectives. Whatever its provenance, it’s pretty good advice, advice that I often give my students. One of the main challenges of the short story form is creating an absorbing and convincing psychological landscape in the matter of a few pages—this is hard enough when the perspective is focalized through one character, let alone two, let alone multiple. My only personal success with multiple third-person points of view has been to bifurcate the narrative, giving half to one character and half to another.

In “Teresa’s Wedding,” we get nearly a dozen perspectives: Artie Cornish and Teresa née Atty; Mr. Atty and Cornish, who get silently drunk together at the bar; Teresa’s friends Philomena, who hopes to marry, and Kitty Roche, who does not; Teresa’s sisters Agnes, who has married and escaped her small town, and Loretta, who was spooked by sex with her own momentary husband who now plans to join a nunnery. Add to this the non-interior narrative proximity to Artie’s groomsmen Screw Doyle and Eddie Boland, Agnes’ teetotaling husband George waiting outside the pub in the car with their children, and Father Hogan, who oversees the “festivities,” and the story bursts at the seams with points of view. How could this possibly work?

It works thanks to the organizing force of Trevor’s calm consciousness overseeing the proceedings. For me, it’s helpful to think of the story, and those in the collection like it, as being told by an invisible first-person narrator. Of course, if you exchange the term “narrator” with “author”—as most readers seem to do reflexively these days—this formulation is literally true. The narrator/author is the ghost sitting at the bar overhearing everyone’s thoughts and conversations. The interstitial tissue holding the piece together is the narrator’s deep knowledge of this town, these people, and their problems. The individual minds plumbed by the narrator amount to a chorus of despair, a fugue of voice after voice that describes how people get by in this sad place. The answer is: alcohol, sex, dirty jokes, anger, religion, foolish optimism, and utter surrender to circumstance, as expressed in the story’s last lines:

For a moment as Teresa stood there, the last moment before she left the lounge-bar, she felt that she and Artie might make some kind of marriage together because there was nothing that could be destroyed, no magic or anything else. He could ask her the question he had asked, while she stood there in her wedding-dress: he could ask her and she could truthfully reply, because there was nothing special about the occasion, or the lounge-bar, all covered in confetti.

Something I have come to believe is true about great short story writers is that they tend to have an overwhelmingly strong view of life that organizes their material. Novelists, in contrast, may be more diffuse, more circumspect; uncertainty may, in many cases, profit a novelist. Novels are long, and in their writing they afford the writer a chance to think things through, to turn situations and characters around and around, seeing everything from different angles like a careful painter. But short stories do not offer their author this ruminative space, and the greatest short story writers come equipped with a readymade philosophical viewpoint, whether it’s O’Connor’s retributive Catholicism, Yates’ fatalistic misery, Cheever’s and Malamud’s moralistic fabulism, or even Saunders’ gently humane dystopianism. A story like this could only be successfully organized by Trevor’s quietly assured and brutal view of small town hopelessness.

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.

2 comments:

  1. One of Trevor’s bleakest tales. The glimmer of hope at the end is no more than that. For me the most interesting aspect is the role of Father Hogan as the person who had to deal with the pregnancy and make happen a marriage that nobody really wanted. Maybe the last generation in Irish history that the priest could play such a pivotal part? By the way, I’ve reached ‘Henry’ in The Hotel Neversink and am hugely enjoying it!

  2. Hi Norman,

    You’re right, there’s a whole other essay to be written about Father Hogan’s genial, sinister presence in this story. And thanks so much for the kind words about my novel, glad you’re enjoying!

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