This is not a bad story, though somewhat second gear for William Trevor, which means it’s still very readable and elegantly written. It’s a first-person piece, my feelings about which I have already discussed ad nauseam. The (nameless) narrator details his gray and lonely childhood, the unexpected only child of older parents, intensely religious people who vacation at a relative’s boarding house where priests live. One day, the narrator goes to town with a priest, who takes him to lunch and then to an “adult” Hollywood movie. The experience excites the narrator’s imagination, and he fantasizes about a schoolgirl whom he likes dying the same romantic death as the actress in the film he’s just seen—the narrator, we are given to know, is a bit of a fantasist, with an outré imagined life of vice and danger, in understandable rebellion against his home life. When, back in school, he learns that the real Peggy Meehan has died of diphtheria, his life is forever altered: he becomes haunted by her memory/ghost, and the sense that he is under Satan’s power; at 46, he is unmarried and forever alone save for the occasional visitation by Peggy Meehan.
As I read this sad, agreeable tale, I had that less agreeable feeling you sometimes helplessly encounter while reading: namely, that I was reading something essentially false. And more than that, that this falsity is of a category I’d encountered before in Trevor’s work. I don’t think this is unusual—most writers have little moves, little conveniences of storytelling and character-building that ring false at times, that perhaps do not match the overall greatness of the writer’s work or power. Take, for instance, the almost absurdist way that Iris Murdoch’s characters magically appear at each others’ doors. Or, for another more aesthetic example, take Denis Johnson’s proclivity—a poet’s proclivity—to detour from conflict, the concrete, into lyrical flights.
The falseness I’m naming here is Trevor’s tendency to imagine characters who remain more or less absolutely static throughout their lives, arrested in a position of shame or incapacity—sometimes by what we would now describe as childhood trauma; sometimes by innate nature. I’m thinking here of John Joe Dempsey and his village idiot compadre; I’m thinking of Quillan in “Memories of Youghal.” Also: Mr. Jeffs in “The Table,” Edward Tripp in “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp,” Raymond Bamber in “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch,” the Middleton siblings in “The Distant Past.” It’s not just that these characters are flat, in E.M. Forster’s formulation, though they are. It’s that they are conceived as being immutably flat for a lifetime, structurally flat for the purpose of the story.
What is this purpose? Mostly, I think it’s two-fold. First and most obviously, it alleviates the need to do a ton of character work. The character’s old, fatal flaw is established in a simple way the reader immediately gets: they can’t love, they can’t have sex, they can’t forgive themselves, etc. More importantly, this type of character allows Trevor to gloss decades without needing to do much back-story work, as we are given to understand that the 60-year-old version of this person is not any different from the 20-year-old. These rigid, adamantine characters are like tentpoles holding up the canopy of time, allowing the author/narrator to elegantly move forward and back without much impediment.
The problem is, as I said, this type of character often rings untrue. My objection isn’t that people aren’t like this in real life. It is not the dull business or responsibility of fiction—thank God—to “be like real life,” whatever that means. Further, some people in real life really are like this. But there is something on an artistic level that is too easy, too neat. And more problematically yet, this knight’s jump often results in formally sound yet unsatisfying stories. In “The Death of Peggy Meehan,” we are given to know that this one day has forever altered our narrator’s life, despite the fact that he knows on a logical level that he did not kill his classmate. The story posits a man capable of articulate self-knowledge who is still bound to waste his life on a fantasy of supernatural guilt. The last paragraph in the story, to me, gives the game away:
In the town I am a solitary, peculiar man. I have been rendered so, people probably say, by my cloistered upbringing, and probably add that such an upbringing would naturally cultivate a morbid imagination. That may be so, and it doesn’t really matter how things have come about. All I know is that she is more real for me than anything else is in this seaside town or beyond it. I live for her, living hopelessly, for I know I can never possess her as I wish to. I have a carnal desire for a shadow, which in turn is His mockery of me: His fitting punishment for my wickedest thought of all.
This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense on stilts, although elegant ones. The part that rings most untrue, though, is the innocuous little bit in the middle: it doesn’t really matter how things have come about. Actually—and, of course, Trevor knows this—it matters entirely how things have come about. It is the central job of fiction to tell how things come about, especially unlikely things like an otherwise sane man becoming sexually obsessed with the memory of a dead schoolgirl. There is a tremendously interesting story here, but the interesting part—how this morbid psychological drama occurred—is elided. Like Indiana Jones substituting a bag of sand for the idol, we are given a child’s day at a movie theater and subsequent passing fantasy in exchange for a lifetime of complex misery and self-denial.
This type of story, it strikes me, is almost more the précis of a story, the dramatic outline of a narrative, rather than an actual story. Or perhaps it’s a story that wants to be a novel. At any rate, it is not enough—it does not convince. And to convince is another central job of fiction, no matter how outlandish or “unreal” the story.
Next time around: the great “Mrs. Silly”!