Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole”

12/07/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 10, 2012.

An alternate title to this extremely short story: signs that your marriage is about to end.

  1. You begin telling the story of yet another visit to your wife’s parents and the ranch they all love so much by speaking in the first person plural: “We both liked children; we just didn’t want any ourselves.” Halfway through, while making a literal crossing on a ferry across the Missouri River, you switch to the first-person singular: “I looked away from my wife and turned on the radio: no signal.” 
    • There’s an unusual amount of luggage in the car: “The back seat was filled with her belongings, as was the trunk. I had no idea why she’d felt called upon to bring this exalted volume of luggage….”
      • You note that “I could have asked, but I just didn’t feel like it.”
      • Your wife is filled with “a peculiar cheer.”
  2. It’s your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but rather than stressing the connection such longevity brings, you note that “In recent times, we had talked less and less, which begged the question: what was there to talk about?” 
    • On the ferry ride over, your wife leaves you alone in the car to speak with a stranger, and takes her sweet time getting back in long after the ferry’s docked.
  3. Your wife’s excitement grows along the route, and you record her outbursts in a bullet-point list, much like this, but without assigning any real important or significance to her mood. Your analysis goes no further than casually wondering “if the situation called for a pill.”

I think I might have enjoyed this story more had it been written in the above style; it would feel more nakedly honest about being an outline of a collapse. But what I appreciate in McGuane’s writing is the way that he’s perfectly captured this oblivious narrative, even though doing so is a bit of a cheat to us, to the readers, who have no choice but to be surprised, even if some of us guessed what as going on long before they arrived, long before “Dad” (as the narrator calls his father-in-law) greets them in full regalia: “Stetson hat, leather vest, cowboy boots, and–this was new–a six-gun.” Before Mom sends us on our way with the titular and, quite frankly, laughable casserole, “to eat on the way home,” which the dumbfounded narrator can only later wonder about as “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?”

Perhaps McGuane is playing too close to the vest, and while I applaud the nonplussed reaction — sign number four that your marriage is about to end: your first thought, upon your wife leaving you, is that you must preserve your dignity — do we really know enough about these circumstances to care? Surely the narrator deserves it, since he so clearly doesn’t understand or appreciate his wife’s interests (he saves, relentlessly, despite his wife’s desire to live a little wild in the present). But the implications that he might be violent or that this is about mismanaged money don’t line up with any facts. (In actuality, his wife’s described as someone who would never get involved in a “bitter inheritance battle” and though their car is increasingly described as a “piece-of-shit,” they’ve also got a “comfortable nest egg” and have paid off the mortgage on their home.) The reliability of the narrative begins to become a concern, and with that, any lasting effect of the story. It’s a quirk, an odd scenario that’s executed well enough, but also eerily, eerily empty. And, apparently, purposefully so, since the final line references a ripple-less, no-drama river. So. No wonder more authors don’t write about all the gentle bends in one’s life.

Here’s one final shot at analysis: McGuane’s using this story as a warning to those of us who are less than observant, less than present, less than caring. Hm. Is anybody else hungry for some casserole?

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§ 3 Responses to Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole”

  • RK says:

    “Signs your marriage is about to end”–hilarious stuff!

    I too didn’t take much away from the story. The surprise ending is clearly “earned,” but it feels, on a second read, like the story has been written just to earn it. It’s as though McGuane began from the ending—”Wife unexpectedly leaves husband at wife’s parents’ doorstep”—and worked backwards to shade the rest of the story in, a fairly straightforward thing to do for a writer of his technical ability.

    I did get the sense, though, that McGuane was trying to capture a certain grammar of repression. That little rhetorical question at the end: “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?” is one of only two places the title of the story occurs (the other is when the casserole is referred to by the mother in-law). When I read it, I went: “Is *that* what you say when your wife of twenty-five years leaves you, her father toting a shotgun, her mother making passive-aggressive peace? Where’s the anger, where’s the bitterness, where’s the bargaining, where’s the anything?” To which the correct answer is, of course, that writerly originality would demand the absence of all these things (not to mention that the story itself would become bottom-heavy and lose a lot of its punch). But let’s see if the story tries to answer this question.

    For instance: “Twenty-five years and no children; her parents had stopped interrogating us about that.” The narrator then goes on to explain why this was the case. To whom is he explaining all this? Why would such an explanation, after twenty-five years, be even necessary? Clearly the wife doesn’t care, and he doesn’t care if she does or not.

    The way in which he explains it is also instructive. He uses, as you say, the first person plural, presuming to speak for the wife. On the first read, before we encounter the ending, we don’t question his right to do so—twenty five year marriage etc. On subsequent reads, though, it’s possible to interpret his character as (A) Delusional and oblivious, OR (B) Repressed but actually aware of his wife’s feelings, using her manufactured opinions to lend credence to his repressive self. The question to ask here, then, would be: “how much does he actually know? How much of a surprise is the ending to him? (It seems that first-person narration always throws up interesting epistemological questions.)

    There are some clues that he actually knows more than he’s letting on, i.e., letting on to himself. (I don’t know if it makes sense to think of the narrative as “written” by the narrator after the event occurred; far simpler to think of it as a representation of his thoughts in the present.) For instance, the line: “Once across this river, we’d be heading for a sad, sad story,” and the instant reassuring “maybe not that sad.” These phrases can be thought of as “structural”, important to the story because they portend the way it will end, but they can also be read as his brief attempt to cross—and maybe I’m a being a little fanciful here—the river of repression using the slow but reliable boat of objective reality (I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t a very durable or rewarding metaphor, but at least something tangible in the story supports it). In this context, perhaps the ending doesn’t surprise him a great deal; that rhetorical plaint about the lunch pail, followed by the poker-faced “I felt this could have been handled a different way,” are both hints that he came to terms with his marriage’s failure a long time before the story began, and was just waiting for the specific way in which the failure would manifest itself. (This itself, also rather fancifully, can be interpreted as an allegory for the problem of Realistic story-telling: how can an abstract idea—”the end of a marriage”—be dramatised?)

    McGuane thus solves the problem of keeping the tone of the ending flush with the rest of the story, and, doing so, discovers something rather deep about the human self. Perhaps it is a more rewarding story after all.

    Or perhaps I’m full of s*** :)

    Anyway, thanks for your readings of Nelson and Millhauser. (I haven’t gotten around to reading either yet, but it seems you liked Nelson’s story a little more).

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      If good ideas are shit, then you’re indeed full of it :)

      I had a blast going back through with the thought you gave me that the narrator may have been repressed rather than oblivious (unreliable either way), and while I’m sticking to my interpretation, I love that a story this slight has so much wiggle room.

      Regardless of durability, the river is certainly meant to mark a transition; the first time for the wife, who detaches herself from him on the ride over (and grows increasingly excited by her old neighbors, the familiar pastoral scenes), and then for the bitterly embarrassed husband on the way back (which is why I assume he didn’t know — his defenses would have been stronger; he’d perhaps have had a scathing last word). And while there’s certainly surprise, I like the thought of that “maybe not that sad” hinting even more at the future. Yes, it’s the end of a marriage, but why do so many people assume that to be a bad thing? Perhaps now they’re both free to be the people they’d been stifling — or, to use your word, repressing — for the last quarter-century.

      Like you, I’ve no idea how realism handles abstract concepts in a dramatic way, but I do enjoy watching the struggle to do so. I think that may be why I appreciate Millhauser so much (and I guess Romantic literature, though I tend to think of him as a magical realist), and to some degree Boyle, who finds the most interesting situations to begin from.

  • RK says:

    Sorry, I meant “Millhauser’s story a little more,” in the previous comment.

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