New York-based culture writer Alana Massey summons ghosts and goddesses in her debut collection of essays, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers. It’s the only party where you’ll find Lux Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides sashaying past Fiona Apple and Anjelica Huston. Massey regales readers with essays about these famous women using playful syntax and startling anecdotes to craft a collection both familiar and revelatory.
Massey spoke with The Millions by phone about her book, the allure of celebrity, and a reworked battle cry, “bitches: be crazy.”
The Millions: How do you feel about this thing that you have been obsessing over for the past year or so in different ways?
Alana Massey: I finished it in December 2015. I didn’t look at it really again until maybe last summer…Then I didn’t read the book in full until mid-November when I recorded the audio book. That was when I sat down and didn’t just read it for the first time, but read it for an audience of people in a sound group — who don’t mean to look intimidating [but] they’re staring at you talking your own words.
Next week it comes out and that’s when the bigger kerfuffle around it happens. There are going to be straight reviews that have no emotional connection to it and are going to be completely based on the style and prose and the merits of my authority to tell certain stories this way. I understand that’s going to come but the stuff that has happened so far has been so affirming.
My second book is overdue. I changed the deadline for it. I want so badly to have the full breadth of reactions to the first book [first] to make sure if there are glaring errors in the way I write or approach things, that I can make up for it in the second book. I do believe in feedback. I do believe that writing is a service in certain capacities. Some people write because they have a story inside them and they want to be creative people. They do it for their own artistic expression. Maybe it’s my Protestant blood for hundreds of years but I’m just like, “No. There should be use in it. It should help people. It should have an action item at the end even if that action item is ‘think differently about yourself and others and be kind to women,'” which is a very shortened version of what I hope happens from [this book].
TM: That was sort of my take away with it. This book does tell a lot of different stories. Anything that has a personal element can be a little navel gaze-y. I think that this has an empowering overall message primarily to young women and women who are in their late-20s to mid-30s who grew up with a lot of the book’s subjects. I thought the essay on The Virgin Suicides was really helpful; that story resonated with me too — their obsession with death, the way they were reduced down to plot devices to bring these anonymous men to maturation.
AM: I don’t know if you had this experience of The Virgin Suicides, but I was obsessed with it as a teenager. I wanted to surrender to that narrative of just being a fantasy object in a teenage boy’s mind. Watching the movie later, I realized, “Oh no, I shouldn’t want that. This shouldn’t be written in a dreamy way. This is a tragic, horrible thing these boys are doing — and not in a cute-horrible way. In a really insidious this-is-boys-in bootcamp-for-being-in-the-patriarchy kind of way.”
TM: Why do you think that it is young women are so drawn to these fucked-up characters, be it Lux from The Virgin Suicides or Sylvia Plath — or even Courtney Love? Why do you think we want to find some sort of identity in them? Why do we want to be like that?
AM: I think that so many of us feel like we have as much rage inside us as Courtney Love lets manifest in her life. We think we are the saddest girls in the world when we are sad.
The way that celebrity functions now…they have this exclusive deal with the elements in that they’re special. They’re different. Their skin glows differently. There is just something special and anointed about famous people. I feel like there are people — like the Kardashians or people who get famous of their own volition, like Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid. Justin Bieber started on YouTube. The idea of celebrity used to be that you could never be like these people. I think now it’s more if you just have the right voice trainer and the right tummy tea and you use this makeup, you can absolutely be famous and glamorous and all of these things.
I think there is an impulse inside of us that’s like if I just got angry enough and met the right rock star, I could be Courtney Love. My thing with Lux Lisbon was: I am definitely as sad as her and probably smarter than her. If I just get skinny enough, people will be in love with me the way they’re in love with her — and that was barrier to entry.
The way that people have responded to the book has been interesting in that there’s been multiple reviews that say, “Oh, you know there is definitely some filler in these essays.” I can handle criticism — okay yeah, I know that some are stronger than others. But everyone I talk to is so certain that the essay they like the most is the strongest one. That’s really heartening because it means people who do have those attachments are really gravitating to particular pieces. I think that that’s what’s exciting because what I hope happens is you came for the Britney and Winona but you stuck around for the Dolly Parton and the Anjelica Huston. You came for Amber Rose but you learned a lot about Nicki Minaj. That’s important. I hope the entire universe of it is an opportunity for empathy and forgiveness both of the self and of the celebrities we have punished for things that are not punishable offenses.
TM: I had a couple of different favorite essays. I think that the ultimate favorite was one about the ex-girlfriends. I really, really appreciated the line about, “We like our ex-girlfriends and ex-wives one dimensional. We like them to act alone.” That really does call back to misogyny and the way it demonizes these women. You never hear shit about ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands in the same way that you hear it in the feminine sense. Why do you think that is? Is it just because of misogyny and the patriarchy?
AM: In the same way you hear about how women in the workplace are more likely to spearhead a project and credit their friends, their colleagues. “Oh, it wasn’t all me. These people helped.” I think that happens with women’s relationships, too. They don’t lay 100 percent of the blame on their ex in a way that men do and have been taught is acceptable. I do think that misogyny does have this way it functions socially…I think this happens in the Winona Rider essay. Women are supposed to be characters in a hero narrative rather than themselves.
Because men are so routinely socially rewarded for basic decency that has always been the responsibility of women, they have a skewed sense of what kind of behaviors they are entitled to. When women butt up against those behaviors and say, “No, I’m not going to act this way. I’m going to assert my power.” When we talk about a woman in a breakup, we catch her in her breaking point. We crystallize her in the moment she broke rather than in the long period of time before it got to the point that it got to. We forgive women less frequently.
We believe in the validity of male emotions more than we believe in validity of female emotions. We are a society that doubts women who report their own experiences of what a man was like or what an experience was like. That’s rape culture, too. It functions across numerous variations on how relationships work. Maybe he’s this. He’s a good guy at heart…We make excuses for men left and right, back and forth. It’s really not a courtesy we do to women…
If I was in a relationship and we broke up and I went into my bedroom and cried for a month and didn’t eat but didn’t bother my boyfriend or didn’t talk shit about him…That is like a really unhealthy state of mental health. We don’t call that woman crazy. We call her crazy when she calls out a man for what he did. We don’t call her crazy if they break up and she moves to Paris and doesn’t talk to him. It’s only when she says, “Fuck you. You did a horrible thing. I’m getting back at you. I’m doing a thing. I’m asserting my power. I’m taking your money. I’m taking your land. I’m burning down your house because you have wrecked my life,” that we consider them crazy because they are breaking the mold of we-don’t-talk-about-what-men-do-wrong. We forgive men. We understand masculinity is complicated thing. These women are like, “Nope.” They have crossed this social line that they get punished for. That’s why I view that essay as a battle cry. “Bitches be crazy” should have a colon in it. Go buck wild. Make them afraid that you will fucking tell on them — that you will not go quietly because ill treatment is ill treatment.
TM: You said that you are already halfway through your second book. What’s that about?
AM: I’m working on a reported narrative about the function of emotional language and how it informs gender experiences and perceptions in the workplace and what it could potentially mean for the future of the workplace given today’s demographic.
TM: I think that the sentiment of men just wanting to be loved echoes in All the Lives I Want, as well — speaking to your experiences dancing and with other sex work with these men who seem to want to be cradled. They want this intimacy. It was really interesting because like you had said before, society paints women as being the hyper-emotional ones, the ones that are weeping because they don’t have a boyfriend. But men are the ones who are willing to even shell out money to have these experiences that feign intimacy while women are finding camaraderie with other female friends or other projects. It’s interesting.
AM: We are so used to not getting what we want. We are kind of okay with it. We don’t panic. I don’t want give away everything that is in the upcoming book. Sex work is one of those ones that you have pretend so hard that you’re not doing it for the money to the point that it becomes dangerous. You can make the most money pretending you don’t want the money or you don’t need the money or that, “Oh, it sucks that we met in these circumstances because I would totally be into you — but we met in these circumstances, therefore, you have to keep paying me.” Men really have become horrible about it.
Men are much more likely to believe sex work is not work. They don’t want to believe that loving them is hard. They don’t want to believe that it is laborious to engage with them. They believe their beating hearts are fascinating and that they should fascinate whomever they are fascinated by. They don’t understand how ordinary they are. It’s really dangerous for the person who encounters that person who has to keep up the lie for as long as they can.
They think they’re the first person who ever wanted to connect with you. It’s like, “Dude. look at me. I’m a hot young girl who can clearly string several sentences together. You’re not the first one who thinks they know the real me.” They have such a concept of themselves as special.
The same thing happens in [the essay looking at Lost in Translation,] “Charlotte in Exile.” Guys thought, “Yeah. Bill Murray, what a cool, sexy guy that I want to be.” I’m like. “He’s a horrible husband and father–”
TM: Hasn’t that also been the status quo, too? A lot of the sitcoms that we grew up with in the ’90s starred a blubbering incoherent, overweight, kind-of-old dude married to this hot sharp lady who is just fawning over him.
AM: I mean, The Simpsons. How did Marge Simpson end up with Homer Simpson?
TM: Because a man wrote it.
AM: Yeah. I mean in the same way there’s just so many of these stories that you hear about Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old to play — I think it was Harrison Ford’s wife…It was preposterous…
I think it’s really funny that, as much as I dislike Melania Trump, when she married Donald Trump and they were having a press conference some reporter was like, “Melania, would you be marrying Donald if he didn’t have a ton of money?” Without missing a beat she was like, “Do you think he would be marrying me if I wasn’t exceptionally beautiful?” She was very aware of that. There’s this idea of the gold digger. It keeps coming back to the book where it is like, “Do you think that that old man who came into the strip club and who had been like a sharp business man — made his billions, was involved with the Koch brothers — do you think he went in there thinking that, ‘Maybe these nice girls will think I’m attractive? Maybe we will really connect.’” That was transaction. A billionaire man always has more power then a young single mother. I don’t care how brittle his bones are. He is the person who has power in that dynamic and the optics of it suggest otherwise.
TM: We talked a little bit about how you want women to walk away from reading this book feeling empowered, feeling less alone, feeling that they have been understood. How do you want men to walk away from this book? What do you hope that they take from it?
AM: It’s interesting because I honestly thought men would really hate it. Then I have encountered several men who haven’t…I have been using the word “forgiveness” a lot. I think that self-love has a really high threshold but that self-forgiveness is a more gentle way of being with yourself…When it comes to men, I want them, if they were people who have participated in contributing to the narratives of how we talk about celebrities and how we think celebrities but then also how that has been reflected in their personal lives, to see the body of evidence. When they return to relationships with women, whether those are romantic, friendly, professional, familial, and seeing why women felt a certain way, acted a certain way, and trying to better know the interior lives of women.
The impetus and expectation for women to be doing the introspection on behalf of themselves and on behalf of men is so unfair. I hope this book can be manual for being…Like case studies in here’s why not to tell your girlfriend she could get her body back. Take Britney Spears. Here’s why you shouldn’t be calling an exceptionally angry woman who has been treated poorly crazy. Maybe anger is a rational response to the world…
I think celebrities are our modern-day fables. They don’t just have to be cautionary tales. They can be instructions for better living. We know the stories. I think that right now we use the stories really haphazardly and really poorly when we could be using this really well to make the world more gentle and more empathetic and more rich with the full dimensions of women’s experiences.
Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city.
And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better — bucolic, quiet, safe — or worse — insular, bland, blindingly white.
When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara — drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it’s the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies.
“Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over $100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is $42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other.
In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger — school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface.
Hog Barbecuer for the World,
School Segregator. Mower of Lawns,
Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper;
Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting.
Suburb of the White Collars…
So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book.
“Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over.
A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest’s 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments.
Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes:
He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world.
Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man’s Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world — the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape — cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities.
White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s.
There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as “The World’s Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses.
It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in “Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us — a sense of style, of experience-collecting — seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in?
Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism — she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem — to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”
We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her.
If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career.
This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not.
The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles — among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce — spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice.
Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age.
While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between.
The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales.
This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)
Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and there’s no better way to prepare yourself than by taking a look at this list of ten fictional mothers who will have you thanking God for yours. From Emma Bovary of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Mrs. Lisbon of The Virgin Suicides, these mothers will remind you that it could always be worse.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.
In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.
The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard
Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?
When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together… We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking.
It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death — all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. “It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents.” The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy’s elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel.
Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, “an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness…grown up too soon.” When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate’s friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy’s trust fund babies — Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going “wild,” of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities — all are present in Swan River, and so there’s plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against.
If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate’s older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, “not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless…the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips.” A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding “the outline of Maggie’s body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch.” Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a “wild girl” — she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught.
It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don’t interest Atwell — and it’s problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their “good-girls-gone-bad” miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire.
A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as “Hell House.” This “scared straight” performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons — instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave — she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you’ll later be served up as a human sacrifice.
Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Jeffrey Eugenides became a household name among many readers thanks to Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Eight years after Middlesex, Eugenides has quietly become one of the most admired American novelists working today, and it’s likely that many fans are looking ahead to October, when Eugenides’s next novel, The Marriage Plot, is set to be released.
FSG’s catalog copy describes a campus/coming-of-age/love-triangle novel (some may recall the protagonist Madeleine Hanna from an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker in 2010), but the The Marriage Plot’s first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel, with some serious literary name dropping and a mention of John Updike’s Couples.
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”
In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.
Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination.
Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.
“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionist, called the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source.
In a June interview with The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, Eugenides said, “You might say that ‘Baster’ is to The Switch what cello is to cellophane.” Besides pointing out the differences in plot and the like, that comment captures the slide from a rarefied form to something made for mass consumption. The Switch is not an Oscar-bait, “serious” literary movie: directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck made a splash directing the cavemen commercials for Geico, and their first feature film was the Will Ferrell figure skating spoof Blades of Glory.
The movie is less broadly comedic than their resume would indicate. But it’s striking how, on the road to the Hollywood happy ending, the story has been shaved of the barbed edges that make it worth revisiting in the first place.
The plot of “Baster” takes up only the first act of the movie. The story ends just after the baby is born, with Wally’s betrayal undiscovered, still hovering and threatening like an airborne grenade. The screenplay, by Allan Loeb, sends Kassie (renamed from the story, where she’s Tomasina) from New York City home to Minnesota to raise her child, then picks up seven years later, when she moves back to NYC with her neurotic son.
Loeb, who also wrote the Halle Berry/Benicio Del Toro drama Things We Lost in the Fire and the upcoming Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is currently a hot-shot screenwriter, with 11 scripts in production or development. He is sure-handed in expanding the story, and the best parts of the movie are his own: the tender relationship between Wally and his son; the amusing character of Wally’s friend/mentor/boss, played by Jeff Goldblum; the virtuoso scene in which Wally, on a first date with a younger woman, spins the imaginary tale of the next 20 years of their relationship, ending in depression and resentment.
But overall, the movie feels like those “sequels” to Jane Austen novels. Some curiosity may be satisfied, but the original author’s voice, characterization and specific vision have been distorted. And the deep essentials of “Baster”—the main characters’ chemistry, history, motivations—get lost or softened under rom-com formulas and the golden glow of Aniston’s hair. The biggest example is Tomasina’s past abortions, which are absent in the movie and vivid in the text:
She thought about them, the little children she never had. They were lined at the windows of a ghostly school bus, faces pressed against the glass, huge-eyed, moist-lashed. They looked out, calling, ‘We understand. It wasn’t the right time. We understand. We do.’ … But with three abortions, one official miscarriage, and who knows how many unofficial ones, Tomasina’s school bus was full. When she awoke at night, she saw it slowly pulling away from the curb, and she heard the noise of the children packed in their seats, that cry of children indistinguishable between laughter and scream.
Crucially, one of those children was Wally’s, conceived during their brief, intense fling (which is muted in the movie). Abortion remains more of a taboo in Hollywood than even five young women killing themselves, as in The Virgin Suicides. It’s a shame that the movie just won’t go there. Wally and Tomasina having a child together resonates differently if they’ve aborted one, and their history creates more motivation for the switch—it’s not just Wally passive-aggressively acting out because Kassie doesn’t think he is attractive enough to want his sperm. The story makes the switch an insidious violation, done intentionally and knowingly (though under the influence of alcohol). Wally is spawning the “little heir” that he had “waited ten years to see.” The movie plays the switch as a bumbling drunken accident, and the blacked-out Wally doesn’t even remember his transgression.
In “Baster,” Wally casts relationships and procreation as a Darwinian struggle: “It was becoming clear to me—clearer than ever—what my status was in the state of nature: it was low. It was somewhere around hyena.” And such is often the status of the fiction writer. In the New Yorker interview, Eugenides says, “As a novelist, I pity film directors their lack of autonomy. And I’m sure film directors pity just about everything about novelists.” But while The Switch is a middling dramedy, it’s Eugenides’ story that has the power, sinewy calculation and bite of a wild animal.
In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”:
I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary:
The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year. Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble?
The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review: “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.”
During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise. I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well. During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall. It felt unfinished.” To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?”
Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.” If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness. And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this. Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation.
It’s tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings. What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers? I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write?
Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.” I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts. I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.” Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph.
That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending. Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly). Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention? If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them? Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again? If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion? Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide. As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version — the most minimal and the most poignant — is the right one, the best one.
Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings:
surprise / twist
heartbreaking / tear-jerking
cheesy / sentimental
Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples:
Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately:
“The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount. In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as “surprising but inevitable.” (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.)
In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you. The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct. You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along.
In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future. It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax. When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully.
In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist’s (April Wheeler’s) narrative point of view. Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head. As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully.
Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation:
John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of. Cheever does this with that stunning final image:
I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense.
Endings that cannot be summed up in words:
Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first. Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies). “You’ll be all right,” she said. “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.” This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie. It’s emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.”
Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way:
When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that’s what I call masterful. I am thinking of Walter Kirn’s story “Hoaxer,” a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head. On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection. Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s intricate characterizations to that point. Amazing. The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway’s notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way:
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this “ending,” mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it. As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly.
Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good:
The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength. I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene). The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful). I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way. I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.” The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated.
How to end an essay about endings? Hmm… at this point, I take off my reader’s hat and don my writer’s (in this case, it’s a Chilean chupalla — a cheap imitation, of course). I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person). As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject. Will this satisfy the reader? The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care. In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End.
[Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]
I just discovered that HBO is going to turn Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex into a series. Immediately all was untrammeled rapture. I love Middlesex, and I am a big fan of HBO series generally. The Sopranos. The inimitable Wire. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rome. Deadwood. And yes, Sex and the City. I know that Sex and the City oppresses women and is an embarrassment and there’s no way she can afford those outfits on that salary and all of that. I still like it. I have a, uh, friend who once bought a DVD boxed set of dubious authenticity in China because it cost a very low, but not actually as low as she thought, number of Chinese yuan. It soothes me to have it playing in the background on the rare occasions when I try to perpetrate a hairdo on myself. The fun thing is that the episodes are not in order, and Chinese characters can show up at any time! But that’s neither here nor there. Soon my untrammeled delight was tempered with anxiety. I have very low expectations of television, so when a show is even remotely entertaining, I am swiftly ensnared. It makes me nervous, though, when beloved books are threatened with The Screen Treatment. I didn’t love the Virgin Suicides (novel), so I was dazzled by an Air soundtrack and Josh Hartnett in a mullet-type thing. But I loved Middlesex. I read it when it came out, and immediately read it again. Then for a while afterward I was in a lather trying to find out whether J. Eugenides was working on a new book, and when I might be able to read that. One thing I loved about the novel was what I believe is called “the scope” (typically accompanied by adjectives like “breathtaking”), which is not easy to achieve on the screen (easier with a series than a movie, but still not easy). How will they pace it? How many seasons? I hope they don’t truncate the beginning, wherein Calliope’s grandparents make haste, and then incest, out of burning Smyrna. Or the long and sort of gross courtship of Calliope’s parents. What of Lina, and Jimmy Zizmo, and Marius Wyxzewizard Challouehliczilczese Grimes? Who will play the Obscure Object? Will she have freckles and heavy thighs? Who will play Apollonian Calliope? And then Dionysian Calliope? And who will play Cal? The show is going to be written (adapted?) by playwright Donald Margulies. It’s embarrassing how little I know about theatre, but I see that he won the, whaddaycallit, Pulitzer Prize. Presumably, then, he is good at writing things that are meant to be performed. So that’s a solace. Unfortunately, since my worldview has been warped, no doubt, by Sex and the City, the main thing I knew about Rita Wilson is that she is married to Tom Hanks and she looks great. However, I subsequently learned that she has produced a number of things. And that she, like Cal, is American-born to Greek parents. Not only is she Greek Orthodox, according to Wikipedia, but her father is a Greek-born Pomak convert to Orthodoxy, and her mother grew up on the Greece-Albania border. Not that ancestry need define a person, but Ms. Wilson would seem optimally placed to understand a thing or two about the complexities of identity on and around the Balkan peninsula. And since Middlesex is a lot about the complexities of identity (defined or not defined by ancestry), and not a little bit about the complexities of identity as they pertain to the Greek nation, I feel optimistic about her role as a shepherd for this project, even if Middlesex deals with significantly weightier issues than earlier (and also Hellenic-themed) projects like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia!, and My Life in Ruins.As we collectively wrote about in a recent post, not all screen (big or small) adaptations are an exercise in futility. The fundamentals here seem strong. What do you think?