The William Trevor Reader: “The Death of Peggy Meehan”

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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”!

The William Trevor Reader: “Angels at the Ritz”

This story is the apotheosis of the “People at a Party” story that we’ve encountered several times already, in pieces like “The Penthouse Apartment,” “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” and “The Mark-2 Wife.” “Angels at the Ritz” concerns Polly and Gavin Dillard, a young middle-aged married couple in the London outer suburbs, attending a party thrown by their old friends, Malcolm and Sue Ryder. The Ryders, as has become the custom among this class and age of early-’70s suburbanite, intend to end the party with a game of wife-swapping: car keys thrown on the carpet and scarves tied around the wives’ eyes. We follow the Dillards to the party, where they are duly hit on by their old friends. Polly avoids the advances of the rather disgusting Malcolm, but Gavin ultimately succumbs to Sue’s wiles, telling Polly he has been rude to Sue and needs to return to the party after bringing Polly home. Polly accepts this—a kind of passive, Trevorian acceptance is her strength and flaw—and lies in bed thinking about how she has fallen.

Fallenness is the subject of this story—”Angels at the Ritz” refers to a song played at the party that reminds all of them of an evening they spent at the Ritz for Polly’s 22nd birthday. In the interim, they have all been corrupted: Malcolm and Gavin by age and philandering; Sue by bored, suburban malaise; Polly, in the end, by acceptance of Gavin’s discrete and respectful faithlessness (as opposed to Malcolm’s reckless cheating) as an unavoidable aspect of the life she’s chosen. Again and again, we are returned to the evening in question, going for martinis they couldn’t afford, their futures ahead of them.

The portrait William Trevor paints of suburban adult life here is extraordinarily bleak—not just among the four principals, but all of the sodden and seedy bit players as well—and one strives unsuccessfully to imagine a version of married adult life in this place that is not curdled by gin and sexual boredom. Trevor’s outer suburbs are similar, in many ways, to John Cheever’s Shady Lawn, but Cheever was crucially a fantasist and fabulist—his suburbs are a place of drunken misery and infidelity, yes, but also a locus of myth and extraordinary, numinous vision. Cheever, in his way, loved the suburbs and the rhythms and rituals of married life they imply and abet. Cheever’s heroes and heroines are also fallen, but they sense a sumptuary wholesomeness—a truly good life—that is attainable in little ecstatic moments if not in toto. As I discuss in this essay, many of Cheever’s most famous stories—for instance “The Country Husband” or “The Chimera”—describe a dramatic arc in which placid suburban happiness is disturbed by erotic energy, but returned to tenuous serenity at the end.

Trevor’s bleak suburbs are in keeping with a larger bleak vision of married life in The Collected. It is difficult to think of a happy marriage in Trevor’s oeuvre. Happiness, to the extent it exists, is usually only attainable by eccentric individualism, and only attained by dignified monastic celibates like Mrs. Whitehead in “Nice Day at School,” or else fantasist loners like John Joe Dempsey. Anyone who wades into the murk of adult matrimony and its attendant material concerns gets what’s coming to them: infidelity, brutality, misery—disillusionment, at the very least. Disillusionment, as represented in this story by the memory of that perfect young evening evoked by “Angels at the Ritz,” is posited as something unavoidable, a natural milestone of marriage. As the story puts it early on:
In the outer suburbs [wife-swapping] was most popular when the early struggles of marriage were over, when there were signs of marital wilting that gin and tonic did not cure.
Up next: “The Death of Peggy Meehan”

The William Trevor Reader: “In Isfahan”

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I count this story as the fourth stone-cold masterpiece we’ve encountered so far, a list that in my estimation includes “Access to the Children,” “The Grass Widows” and “The Ballroom of Romance.” It may be that, at this third-of-the-way point in The Collected, with some of the earlier and arguably more minor stories behind us, we will encounter these stories at a more frequent clip. I may be forced to recalibrate my standards for greatness, but regardless, this is a great story.

“In Isfahan” concerns a chaste romance between two principals, Mr. Normanton and Miss Iris Smith, who first meet on a guided bus tour of Isfahan, Iran. Mr. Normanton is older and upper class, and he immediately identifies Miss Smith as lower class by her dress and half-concealed cockney accent. “Nothing about her,” he peremptorily judges, “was smart.” Nonetheless, Miss Smith is attractive, possessed of eastern features, and Mr. Normanton meets her later at a shopping bazaar, after which they get dinner and drink too much. Miss Smith finds Mr. Normanton a figure of great elegance and presumes him a rich architect; she wants to stay with him, sleep with him, but Mr. Normanton demures, walking her back to her cheap hotel. That night he cannot sleep, and we finally learn the occluded truth about Mr. Normanton, why he is in Isfahan by himself, and why he won’t sleep with Miss Smith: he has been twice cuckolded and feels cursed. The story ends by imposing the same kind of harsh summary judgment on Mr. Normanton that at the story’s outset Mr. Normanton inflicts on Miss Smith:
He stood by the window, watching nothing happening in the street, knowing if he stood there forever he wouldn’t find the courage. She had met a sympathetic man, more marvelous to her than all the marvels of Isfahan… knowing nothing about a pettiness which brought out cruelty in people. And he would remember a woman who possessed, deep beneath her unprepossessing surface, the distinction that her eyes mysteriously claimed for her. In difference circumstances, with a less unfortunate story to tell, it would have emerged. But in the early morning, there was another truth, too. He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none.
One of the things I find almost cleansing about reading William Trevor, is how unafraid his stories are of taking a clear position on their characters and their lives. The modern short story is almost reflexively ambiguous, and this is not necessarily a bad thing—I love a productively ambiguous ending—but the impulse itself becomes tiresome, and it’s invigorating to read an author who writes conclusive conclusions. “In Isfahan” features a particular type of Trevorian end, one that, as in the brutal summation of Bridie that closes “The Ballroom of Romance,” seems to slam a book shut on the character’s entire life. I think of this as a “Way It Is” ending: you read 20 pages about a character’s life, and the story closes by telling you in no uncertain terms what you read, the way it is. Mr. Normanton is a reflexive snob and coward, a cuckold almost in character, and though Miss Smith is vulgar and common, she possesses the strength and solidity to share her true self with him. He cannot and is a shadow. That’s the way it is.

The blunt simplicity of this type of ending would not work so well for Trevor, if it weren’t for his elegant mastery of free-indirect discourse. For those unfamiliar with the term, FID is, simply put, the blending of authorial and character POV in third-person. Trevor’s unassuming narrative voice slides into and out of close third-person sometimes melding with and vanishing entirely into character, sometimes standing slightly apart. The gut punch ending of “In Isfahan” and “The Ballroom of Romance” are shaded with complexity by free-indirect discourse, as the reader is forced to ask: who is saying this? Author or character? Both presumably, but a shadow is cast over the statement. To what extent does Mr. Normanton realize this? Is it mostly the story’s opinion? Alternately, is this character sense more purely self-hatred, a feeling that emanates from Mr. Normanton himself? It is unclear. “There was another truth” seems carefully calibrated to maintain this narrative gray space, like the gray dawn Mr. Normanton peers into, and the reader is left to wonder what kind of and how much knowledge Mr. Normanton will return with to England.

On the subject of close third person, here’s a small moment that struck me as emblematic of Trevor’s absolute mastery of the technique. The bus tour stops at a mosque, and Mr. Normanton wanders away into a marketplace, observing the locals:
Crouched on the dust, cobblers made shoes: on a wooden chair a man was shaved beneath a tree. Other men drank sherbet, arguing as vigorously as the heat allowed. Veiled women hurried, pausing to prod entrails at butchers’ stalls or to finger rice.

“You’re off the tourist track, Mr. Normanton.”

Her white high-heeled sandals were covered with dust. She looked tired.

“So are you,” he said.
A lesser writer—myself certainly included—would have described the figure of Miss Smith cutting through the throng. But since Mr. Normanton does not notice her, that would have drawn us out of his consciousness, into a more distanced narration, however momentary. We hear her voice first, as he does, and we see her feet before we see the rest of her—as he identifies her via her cheap footwear.

Next time around, “Angels at the Ritz.”

The William Trevor Reader: “The Distant Past”

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“The Distant Past” is the first story in The Collected to directly address the conflict in Northern Ireland, aka The Troubles. The Middletons are an elderly brother-sister pair who live in an unnamed Irish town some 60 miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. They live in the ruins of a formerly grand estate named Carraveagh and are well-known in the town as loyalist Protestants, but they are more generally and fondly known in town as eccentrics. They have little money and survive by selling eggs from their farm and receiving little lagniappes like free mince for their old dog from Fat Cranly, the butcher. Despite impolitic choices like driving about town with the Union Jack in the back of their car for Elizabeth II’s coronation, they are tolerated and indulged, almost loved. Tourists to the town marvel at the Middletons: “It was a pleasant wonder, more than one of them remarked, that old wounds could heal so completely, that the Middletons continued in their loyalty to the past and that, in spite of it, they were respected in the town.”

But 1968 arrives, and the bombings, and that respect quickly fades. What had seemed like harmless eccentricity in peacetime is immediately recast as enemy allegiance in war-time. The owner of the large hotel in town no longer acknowledges them, the rich woman who throws parties at the hotel will not reply when they speak to her, and the butcher wishes he had never given them free meat for their dog. Denied the little gifts and graces that had previously floated them, they are forced to sell their farm animals, and, grimly anticipating the difficult road ahead, they understand that “because of the distant past, they would die friendless.”

I found “The Distant Past” to be an elegant introduction to The Troubles in Trevor’s work. It’s a simple idea, rendered with poignant acuity: the past seems distant, until it isn’t. The phrase is worked through the story several times, first in the sense of the Middletons’ allegiance to a pre-independent Ireland, an allegiance that they themselves feel 40 years on to be at least partially mere habit. When The Troubles begin, the phrase rings with an ironic tone—the past is, of course, never really distant. Faulkner’s famous formulation comes to mind: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Especially true in a new country with the wounds of civil war still alive in living memory, when the Middletons remember Fat Cranly along with two other local men, hiding from British soldiers in Carraveagh. The town’s progressive tolerance, in which its people take great collective pride, is shown to be flimsy and contingent: on continued peace and also on the town’s post-war prosperousness, an economic growth from which the Middletons have been usefully excluded, their poverty making them harmless and pitiable.

“The Distant Past” provides a good example of story form following function. The majority of this very short story, really until the last few paragraphs, is rendered in exposition broken only by brief snatches of dialogue. We have nothing in scene until the Middletons have been shunned by the town and discuss the hopeless precarity of their situation:
“It will never cease,” He spoke disconsolately one night, standing by the dresser where the wireless was.

She washed the dishes they’d easten from, and the cutlery. “Not in our time,” she said.

“It is worse than before.”

“Yes, it is worse than before.”
In this way, the first five pages of the story not only describe the past and the terms of the past in the present, but they feel like the past: peppered with remembered scenes, but largely impressionistic and summarized. So, while the Middletons and the town have underestimated the political importance of the distant past, they have also overestimated the durability of their former détente and resultant happiness. That happy moment is indeed distant, and likewise Trevor moves us at speed to The Troubles, and we leave the Middletons in dramatic scene—in their charmless and hopeless present.

Next time, “In Isfahan.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch”

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It seems possibly axiomatic to say all great writers—and all great artists—have a kind of complacent default setting that they click into in the absence of bigger or better ideas. Think Scorsese’s “Gimme Shelter”-tracked montages; think, for that matter, of Jagger doing his Sylvester-the-Cat falsetto over a phased bluesy vamp. In the arena of short stories, think Carver’s dinner tables and bottles of gin and long, bleary conversations going into the night.

So it is with William Trevor and embarrassing party conversations. Depending on if you count “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp” in this genre, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch” is the fourth or fifth such story in the first third of The Collected. As mentioned in a previous entry, the man had a great fondness for this set-up, a set-up that enables and activates some of his great themes: sexual frustration, class anxiety, pervading isolation even—or especially—in social spheres, and the danger of having one’s true self revealed to others (and oneself). This last point is perhaps the most important—Trevor’s characters often have very little of value in their difficult lives besides whatever brittle self-conception they have been able to rig up, and the fragile dignity of its preservation.

As is the case of the titular Raymond Bamber, who is invited every year to an autumn cocktail party at the Tamberley’s where we meet him, talking to the the titular Mrs. Fitch. Bamber is 40ish, virginal, a bachelor living a Bayswater bedsit who has lengthy vocal opinions about how to properly polish a sideboard. A grinding bore, in other words—the words of Mrs. Fitch, an unhappy alcoholic whose chronically philandering husband is cheating on her on the other side of the room. After taking down four quick martinis, she proceeds to nab the conversational baton from Bamber, accuse him of being a sexual pervert, inform him that he’s only invited to the party because the Tamberleys knew his father, and that everyone considers him a grinding bore. Mr. Fitch rescues Bamber from his wife, takes her away, and Bamber spends the remainder of the story in psychological self-defense, imagining that Mrs. Fitch is crazy and projecting, only to have this theory destroyed when Mr. Fitch returns to continue romancing the woman who is not his wife.

This latter part of the story—Bamber telling himself and other people that Mrs. Fitch is delusional and herself an unwanted bore—goes on far too long, in my estimation. It has the quality of the same joke told several times, of hearing a not-especially-funny punchline over and over. We get it: the poor guy is a dullard. We, in fact, know this on the second page of the story, when Bamber is telling Mrs. Fitch about his nanny and restoring furniture. The story is guilty of something a professor of mine once memorably warned the class about: don’t be smarter than your characters. You must know more than them; you must understand more than them. But the spectacle of an author being ostentatiously smarter than their dumb protagonist is unseemly and can feel bullying, as it does here.

To return to the question implied earlier, why does Trevor favor this situation so heavily? Many of the non-party stories still essentially feature two people caught in close proximity and forcibly revealing unpleasant truths: “Going Home,” for example, or “Memories of Youghal.” Trevor’s primary dramatic tool is denial—the leveraging of narrative stakes via a character’s inability or refusal to acknowledge their (often reduced) circumstances—and this sort of social interaction offers a platonically ideal means of probing that denial. Parties, in particular, seem to have a special appeal precisely because of their ostensible pleasure; they offer the sadistic spectacle of watching a character walking into the lion’s mouth.

I will say that, for my money, I prefer the stories in which there’s more dramatic action, more event and shape to the proceedings, more context surrounding the inevitable felling conversational stroke as in “The Grass Widows” or “The Ballroom of Romance.” I want, I suppose, to see the condemned person’s entire walk, from jail to gallows.

Up next, “The Distant Past.”

The William Trevor Reader: “O Fat White Woman”

Realist fiction is an interesting proposition to consider. Hopefully it’s interesting, anyway, since it’s what I’m considering this week, vis-a-vis William Trevor’s “O Fat White Woman.” The strangely, Cheeveresquely named “O Fat White Woman” concerns a Mrs. Digby-Hunter, whose husband has founded a successful remedial preparatory school, a stately ivy-covered institution in which he and the other head, Mr. Beade, savagely beat the boys for their own pleasure, a ritual abuse from which one of the boys has suddenly died. Before we get to that, though, we get Mrs. Digby-Hunter, sunning herself on the British equivalent of an Adirondack chair, and a two-page précis of her life and the choices that have led her here. The writing in question is a marvel of stylish economy, a supremely elegant and effective example of psychological realist exposition, wherein the coal of three decades is compressed into a diamond of summarized existence. A few of the representative sentences that take us through Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s life:
Determined at all costs to make a success of her marriage and come up to scratch as a wife, she had pursued a policy of agreeableness: she smiled instead of making a fuss, in her easy-going way she accepted what there was to accept, placing her faith in her husband as she believed a good wife should.

In a bedroom of a Welsh hotel she had disguised, on her wedding night, her puzzled disappointment when her husband had abruptly left her side, having lain there for only a matter of minutes.

Just occasionally Mrs. Digby-Hunter wondered what life would have been like if she’d married someone else… She imagined, occasionally, being married to a clergyman she’d known as a girl, a man who had once embraced her with intense passion, suddenly, after a dance in a church hall.

But Milton Grange was where she belonged now: she had chosen a man and married him and had ended up, for better or worse, in a turreted house in Gloucestershire. There was give and take in marriage, as always she had known, and where she was concerned there was everything to be thankful for.
After reading the story, I found myself both satisfied by it—Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s biography, in particular—as a piece of realist fiction and wondering what it means to say that. It is commonplace to point out that realist fiction is not actually realistic. As a genre of writing, realism encodes a set of literary moves that we accept as “realistic”—that we accept as somehow faithfully representing “real life” on the page, but which is very unlike real life in its focus, its aesthetic rigor, its thematic coherence. Nonetheless, this kind of writing feels real or real adjacent—a human mind and life seem rendered on the page.

But are they? No, what is faithfully rendered is the adherence to realist tropes itself: the adamantine yet tenuous self-knowledge, the strategic blindspots, the sense of turning-points, the little mental catchphrases—no less than eight times during the story, Mrs. Digby-Hunter thinks about “coming up to scratch” as a wife; the story, in fact, ends on this phrase. These realist tics gesture at something true about real life: we do have incomplete self-knowledge, and we do—however incompletely and occasionally—tell a story about our lives. But real-life consciousness and memory are both more intent and more diffuse than what is rendered here.

The conventions of realism and the psychological realist narrator act, in all fiction but especially short fiction, as a kind of deft caricaturist, giving us a person in a few brushstrokes. Just a great cartoonist can suggest character, embodiment, action, and emotion with a few boxes and not much more than stick figures, so can a deft writer of realist fiction like William Trevor suggest life via extreme and exaggerated shorthand. For example, in real life, people mostly do not have internalized catchphrases—they do not repeat mantras like “coming up to scratch.” This is shorthand, shorthand for the very real experience of repetitive mental processes, for the feeling that one’s thoughts are on a hamster wheel. We recognize this helpless reiteration in Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s catchphrase, and we sense that it stands in for the kind of murky psychological swirl that would be more or less impossible to capture in a few pages. This holds true, I think for other features of the narration, for example and more generally, the cleanness of Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s remembered past, the little way stations of surrender that stack up to equal her present helplessness. Again, real life isn’t like that, isn’t really close to being that way—what this quick, neat sketch stands in for is our muddled sense of these turning points, a totality that would more realistically involve accumulated feeling, hesitancy, compromised decisions, regret and relief, and the further fuddling doubt that time brings. But you can’t do that in a story.

What’s fair to say about realist fiction, I think, is that, in large part, as veteran readers of realist fiction, what feels like successful narration in terms of “realism” is more accurately a successful enactment of the moves and the codes, the tricks and shorthands and smoke signals of the form. Writers and readers of psychological realism are like other experts in specialized and cloistered pursuits, like judges watching a gymnast on the uneven bars. We know the little moves, the extensions and symmetries and arabesques that constitute a successful performance of the form, the form having achieved a consensus on its aesthetics over centuries of effort and advancement; we know when the performer falls, or as Trevor does here, when they stick the landing.

Next up, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch.”

The William Trevor Reader: “A Choice of Butchers”

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When I began this project, I was both attracted to and concerned about William Trevor’s seeming irrelevance to modern literature. As I mentioned in the introduction, an undeniably appealing aspect of the Trevor oeuvre is how absolutely unconnected it is to what is being written and discussed in the 21st century. Because I spend a fair amount of my time on literary Twitter, I am buffeted by daily storms of taste and outrage, and there is something deeply soothing about spending offline time with someone utterly detached from—dead to—the Discourse. It would be difficult, as a thought experiment, to think of someone published in the last two decades further away in their aesthetics or subject matter from Lauren Oyler. The third-person POV, the elderly people, the largely apolitical concerns, the damp fustiness: I found these irrelevancies an enticement.

And yet, to spend over a year reading and thinking about the stories of someone who manifestly does not matter to the present moment felt daunting. I realize, of course, that in one sense Trevor matters in a non time-bound way, as all great writers do—great writing always matters, always has something to say. But would he be too uncontemporaneous for people to care? That, I suppose, would be for readers to say, but I have found it surprisingly to not be the case.

Trevor’s fiction is, in its essence, queer fiction. The monolith of the Catholic Heteronormative Domestic-Life Industrial Complex is, more or less, the great foil and antagonist of his stories. The Trevor oeuvre is populated by people at the fringes, if not entirely off the map, of mainstream sexual society. Lifelong virgins, spinsters, alcoholics, the mentally ill, isolated country folks: characters excluded from the world and therefore excluded from both the advantages and—more often—the degradations of married sexual life. This division, over an extended reading of Trevor’s work, begins to feel like a critique of heterosexual society.

“A Choice of Butchers” arrays the narrator’s grotesque and brutal butcher father against his assistant and lodger, Mr. Dukelow. The father is loud, large, boorish, drunken, unfaithful, and clumsy, missing two fingers and a thumb due to his inexpert way with the butcher’s blade; Mr. Dukelow is small, quiet, decent, sober, empathetic, and elegant in both manner and slicing of chops. The narrator, a seven-year-old boy, sees his father kissing the maid and confides in Mr. Dukelow, who, as the narrator says, would have made a better father for him, a better partner for the maid, a better husband for his mother. Perhaps needless to say, the father—representing the traditional domestic world—wins out, and the story ends with Mr. Dukelow fired and banished from the house.

At several points in the story, Mr. Dukelow’s possible homosexuality is referred to. The narrator tells us:
Once, saying good-night to me, Mr. Dukelow had unexpectedly given me a kiss, but it was a kiss that wasn’t at all like the kiss I had observed in the hall [the father kissing the maid]. Mr. Dukelow had kissed me because my mother was too tired to climb the stairs; he had kissed me in case I felt neglected.
Later, regarding the affections of the maid, the father says to the postman, “Henry Dukelow wouldn’t be interested… he’s not a marrying man. Amn’t I right, Henry?” The father’s hostility to Dukelow is expressed, here and elsewhere in the story, in coded and suggestive reference to Dukelow’s putative queerness. But what he is really hostile to, what the narrator expresses in the quote above, is Mr. Dukelow’s sensitivity and tenderness, qualities that seem inimical to a well-adjusted married man of this period.

Whether Mr. Dukelow is meant to be a gay character or not, he is arrayed outside the heteronormative domestic culture that, in addition to the father’s loathsome masculinity, is embodied by the maid’s engagement to a man who works at the bank and the narrator’s sister’s surprise pregnancy. Mr. Dukelow, the narrator correctly perceives, is too good for this, too good for the squalor and bullying and drinking and consolatory orgasms that comprise the straight world’s workaday life. This is a theme we see repeated throughout the Collected Stories, for instance in “Nice Day at School,” in which the Dukelow role is assumed by Miss Whitehead, a virginal schoolmarm who exists in a plane above the miasma of married life.

It is fascinating how, on this point, Trevor’s fiction stands apart from many of his post-war contemporaries across the pond, the Bellows, Roths, and Updikes—fiercely straight writers who take domestic life, with all of its nagging and cheating and screaming children, as a given. Trevor’s fiction does not, and in this way, despite all its musty trappings, it feels more contemporary than most of the fiction of its day.

Next time around: “O Fat White Woman.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Going Home”

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This is the 22nd installment of The William Trevor Reader, and I must admit to experiencing the first real moment of fatigue with the project—fatigue with Trevor’s work, if I’m being completely honest. And this is not Trevor’s fault, but rather the fault of reading one story after another, week after week. I am, of course, reading other novels and stories during the course of this project, but The Collected is always there: mostly like an old friend; occasionally like a guest who will not leave. In a way, I think my first experience of this collection—opened at random, scattershot, read in intense bursts and then left alone for months—is the right approach.

Inevitably, with any short story writer of sufficient prolificity and concentration of theme, a reader will experience… if not fatigue, a kind of intense reiterativity. Yates’s emasculated TB sufferers; Carver’s drunken dinners; Munro’s underestimated Ontarian women. This reiterativity of character and theme is, in fact, often a hallmark of greatness in the short story form, but the experience of reading the stories en masse can feel a bit like being lost in a forest and running into the same tree over and over again.

So it is with Trevor and his outcast characters, and their primal screams. “Going Home” features one of Trevor’s preferred dramatic set-ups, a forced tete-a-tete between two characters, Carruthers and Miss Fanshawe. Carruthers is a 13-year-old boy and Miss Fanshawe is an undermatron at the boarding school he attends—as the title suggests, they are going home at the end of the term, sharing a train compartment as they ritually do every year. Carruthers is preternaturally adult and cruel in his assessments of both their unfortunate waiter and poor Miss Fanshawe, “thirty-eight, fair-haired and untouched by beauty.” Somewhat predictably—if you have just read 20 other Trevor stories, I mean—the second half of the story cedes Miss Fanshawe the stage, and she breaks down, weeping about the loneliness of maidenly seaside life with her two aged parents, her lack of sexual prospects, and a kind of persistent mother/wife fantasy she has about Carruthers, while a chastened Carruthers must hear her out. In the end, Miss Fanshawe watches Carruthers exit the train where he is picked up by his glamorous mother, “laughing his harsh laugh.”

I wrote in an earlier installment about Trevor’s mercilessness, and the need for a kind of sadism in short fiction. But there is a fine line. Certain Trevor stories, like “Going Home,” are so airless and bleak that dramatic movement and effect are squeezed out. Mercilessness is a good quality in the service of tracking a character and their possibilities to a final place, as Trevor does, for instance, in “The Ballroom of Romance.” But mercilessness for mercilessness’s (apologies to Stephen Merritt) sake is anti-dramatic, as the possibility of dramatic action and change are foreclosed at the start.

Miss Fanshawe is never allowed any agency; she is as trapped in the circumstances of her life as she is in the train compartment with Carruthers. In a larger sense, Trevor’s characters are never allowed much agency, but there is a crucial difference between the dead-end Bridie encounters in “The Ballroom of Romance” and the dead-end of Miss Fanshawe’s family home. Bridie has chosen to visit the ballroom for two decades, she has substituted the ballroom’s nostalgic fantasies of romance for the real thing, for marriage. And the story tracks her through a final night, a final disappointment that brings her to a final knowledge and grief: she will marry the drunken bachelor who courts her and accept a dismal marriage to stave off loneliness. The reader is privy to the falling away of her scales, and as hers fall away, so do ours.

Miss Fanshawe has no fantasies to begin with—no truth with which to grapple or denial she must push through to reach acceptance. Carruthers goads her into her primal scream and scream she does. This is not mercilessness—it is torture. It is the narrative equivalent of poking a caged animal with a stick. But this begins to sound like critical judgment on a moral level, as though the very writing of this story is wicked, and it isn’t—the problem here is not moral but artistic. Because the narrative is only interested in demonstrating Miss Fanshawe’s loneliness and pain, it is dramatically inert. The effect of reading it is more or less an affirmation of something we all know, some of us too well: pain exists.

Yes, pain exists, but the charge of fiction is not to simply to capture a character’s pain. It is to show us how they came to this pain, how they seek to avoid it or anesthetize it, how they succeed or fail. Further, it is to show us, in their avoidance or struggle with pain, how, irrespective of their failure or victory, they may have in some small way changed (or not). Fiction is a dynamic form, and this type of story is fundamentally static—if I want to encounter expressions of pain in static form, painting offers centuries of art, from Goya to Munch, that capture a precise moment and measure of pain far better than any story could.

Next week: “A Choice of Butchers.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Kinkies”

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A young woman who works at an apparel company is invited to her boss’s (the wonderfully named Mr. Belhatchet) apartment to look at designs. He makes her drinks, they go to dinner, and afterward, while they’re working, he surreptitiously doses their drinks with acid. They trip extremely hard together, during which time he tells her about his dead mother, with whom he’s obsessed. She leaves the apartment and passes out on the street, and she’s discovered by a policeman who brings her into custody. At the station, she has a screaming fit about her fear of sex and Mr. Belhatchet’s mother, and she’s thrown into a cell. The cop shakes his head at the depravity of people like her and Mr. Belhatchet, summing up his feelings in a single, dismissive word, the title of the story: kinkies.

The stories in this collection mostly feel timeless, but occasionally there’s a piece that feels especially of the ’60s/early-’70s. Covert acid dosing is certainly a bygone practice. The story’s clothes are redolent of Carnaby Street, all rainbow colors and wide lapels. The narrative ends on a musty note of intergenerational divide without adding much to the conversation. The policeman has misjudged Eleanor, as Eleanor misjudged Mr. Belhatchet—people misjudge each other, it seems.

The most noteworthy thing about this minor piece is actually Mr. Belhatchet’s clipped mode of speech. Here he is in the cab after the restaurant, convincing Eleanor to come back to his flat:
‘Age you now, Ellie?’ he asked in the taxi, and she told him she’d become twenty-seven the previous Tuesday, while he’d been in Rome.

‘Lovely,’ he said. ‘Fabulous.’

He was still smiling and she thought he must be drunk except that his speech was in no way slurred.

‘It’s really so late,’ she said as the taxi paused in traffic. ‘Perhaps we should leave the designs for tonight, Mr. Belhatchet?’

‘Andy.’

‘Perhaps, Andy—’

‘Take morning off, Ellie.’
This mode of speech is both comic and menacing, and in tandem with the etymology of Mr. Belhatchet’s name, foreshadows a violence that arrives, unexpectedly, in the lesser form of a bad trip. When the acid takes hold, Mr. Belhatchet suddenly begins speaking in full, almost flowery sentences, and this too is disconcerting. There is something deeply unnerving about a character with established speech rhythms suddenly speaking like another person, as disquieting as an outright physical transformation.

It seems possible that in 2022 we have forgone many of the narrative possibilities offered by dialogue. We know better than to write dialect, and that’s mostly for the good. But most realist literary novels and stories that I read—and write, admittedly—tend to feature a kind of flattened, stylized speech that is conspicuous for its inconspicuousness. Characters in modern fiction tend to largely speak the same, interchangeably, and while this is good for avoiding amateurism and tastelessness, it limits what dialogue can really do beside advance plot and reveal character emotion.

Raymond Carver’s stories, for example, feature more dialogue-weirdness than a reader is likely to encounter in the average New Yorker story. Think of the “bubs” in “Cathedral,” for example. An exception here, and an author I teach sometimes in my classes is Bryan Washington, who makes greater use of dialogue than most writers working today. In “Visitor,” the narrator takes in a man who claims to be the narrator’s father. They have lunch in a deli and this exchange occurs:
That’s what I told you, the man said.

I opened my mouth, and then I closed it. My visitor tugged on his ear.

I know what’s in your head, he said. Plenty of Chinese all over the island. Everywhere. Even if you didn’t know that.

I didn’t say there weren’t, I said, although it’s exactly what I’d been thinking.

Eh, the man said.

And then: Your father and I were just kids, he said. Lasted five years, on and off

Five years, I said.

One, two, five.

And then you stopped?

Stopped? In Jamaica? Of course we stopped.

Did you stay in contact?

Ai-yah, the man said. How would we do that? We stopped. Do they have orange juice?

Maybe, I said. Fuck.

Your father swore, too, the man said.

Fuck, I said again.

Rude boy.
This verges on dialect in places, but in being willing to explore individualized speech patterns Washington manages to seamlessly create this Chinese-Jamaican voice, a highly personal patois. Washington’s stories are dialogue-centric, perhaps as much as eighty percent dialogue, so he depends on differentiation and idiosyncrasy in speech more than most writers. There’s a lesson to be taken from this, and from “Kinkies”—as writers, we hew to professionalized tastefulness at our creative peril.

Next up: “Going Home.”

The William Trevor Reader: “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey”

As previously mentioned, William Trevor is underestimated as a horny writer. Among the titans of the short story form, his perv quotient is probably only matched or exceeded by Updike (Cheever’s work is also very horny, but it’s mostly a diffuse horniness that grades quickly into anxious fabulism). Sex, and the desire for sex, are an animating and surprisingly omnipresent feature in Trevor’s work—surprising given Trevor’s staid reputation, the woolen, dowdy aura of elderly Irishness. Why is this?

Updike is an instructive example. Updike writes directly at and about sex, as Trevor often does, but it means something different in Updike’s stories. Sex—which is to say, the successful completion of the act by a male protagonist after talking a woman into doing it—represents self-actualization, often artistic self-actualization. The most vivid example of this is in the (good, incredibly) story “Unstuck,” in which a man and wife team up to get their car out of a horrible snowdrift. At the same time, we learn of their problems in the bedroom, his of the erectile variety; hers of the orgasmic. By the end of the story, you may not be surprised to learn, sexual gratification has been achieved, and the car is free.

The problem of sex in most of Updike’s stories is mostly the problem of not having it. In “A+P,” Updike’s most enduringly famous story, the narrator Sam simply watches three girls in bathing suits in the grocery store where he works, watches the manager talk rudely to them, and quits because of it. The passivity of this set-up is more Trevorian than most of Updike’s canon, but the emotional-sexual fulcrum is still characteristically Updikean: the girls represent sex, which represents the fulfillments of adulthood, and further, the hope of class-mobility, and Sam quits in a kind of desperate solidarity with the (potentially false) promise of his own future.

In Trevor’s work, however, sex is virtually synonymous with loneliness, and this is spelled out more clearly in “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey” than any story yet. It’s an extremely simple story: John Joe Dempsey goes to the grocery for bacon, finds the proprietress, Mrs. Keogh, is at church, is given beer by the man, Mr. Lynch, watching the store and listens to his stories about prostitutes during the war, goes home for a depressing fifteenth birthday celebration, and goes to bed—all the while thinking about having sex with townswomen, and related, about his friendship with Quigley, the village idiot, with whom he spends his free time sharing peeping-Tom fantasies.

In almost any other author’s hands, the material would come off as dirty, but it does not here, and the reason for this is best expressed in its last lines:
He travelled alone, visiting in his way the women of the town, adored and adoring, more alive in his bed than ever he was at the Christian Brothers’ School, or in the grey Coliseum, or in the chip-shop, or Keogh’s public house, or his mother’s kitchen, more alive than ever he would be at the sawmills. In his bed he entered a paradise: it was grand being alone.
Characteristically, in the story, Trevor offers a bleak spectrum of occupiable places on the spectrum of sexuality. You can be a married man who lies to his wife in order to go to dances and flirt with other women; you can be a bachelor like Mr. Lynch, who, haunted by his brushes with the erotic, has forsworn sexuality to live with his mother; or you can be an outcast like Quigley, whose freedom to fantasize John Joe Dempsey deeply admires and envies. Having a sexually gratifying partnership is not offered as a possibility, as it so often is not in The Collected Stories.

The normal domestic situation, as typically illustrated or referred to in passing, is one of boredom and infidelity and commonplace deceit. Trevor’s view of sexuality in mid-century Catholic Ireland is one of essential hypocrisy and unhappiness—his characters often stand outside the adult sexual realm, and their pent-up sexuality acts as a sort of index of their solitude and therefore honesty. And to some extent, their freedom. John Joe Dempsey and Quigley, and Mrs. Whitehead in “Nice Day at School,” and even Mr. Jeffs in “The Table” all possess an essential simplicity of existence that the other characters have sacrificed in the name of access to the sexual marketplace. This monastic impulse, the privileging—however dubiously—of asceticism, morally counterbalances the general, pervading perviness.

Sex, for Updike, is freedom. There is no freedom in Trevor’s world, but sex is one more shackle. In sexlessness, which is to say, in silence, a person might at least maintain the freedom, or the free imagining anyway, of their personal dignity.

As a sidebar, Trevor is interesting and fairly singular in his sexual fixation on middle-aged and older women. Again, comparing him to Updike (and some of the other horny mid-century masters) is instructive. “A+P,” like much of Updike’s projected fantasy realm, is all nubility, all sleek calf and pert breast. Here is the introduction of Mrs. Keogh, a figure of erotic fascination, in “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey”:
She came breathlessly into the bar, with pink cheeks, her ungloved hands the colour of meat. She was a woman of advanced middle age, a rotund woman who approached the proportions that John Joe most admired. She wore spectacles and had grey hair that was now a bit windswept.
I suppose objectification is objectification, but the way Trevor’s fiction grants erotic status to older women—and to be clear, despite what sex may represent in Trevor’s stories, the depictions of these women are unmistakably, strongly erotic—is refreshing.

Next week, more Trevorian perviness, with “Kinkies.”

See Also: All Installments of The William Trevor Reader