Peter Orner: “You Can’t Say Dallas Doesn’t Love You”

12/16/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 14, 2011.

I’m not sure if this is an excerpt or a leftover from Orner’s recently published novel, Love and Shame and Love, which takes a more expansive and multi-generational look at the Popper family; that is, each of the the sixteen sections read well, spanning 1976 to 2000, but they’re not entirely unified around any theme or character, nor do they have much to do with the title, the last words supposedly said to President Kennedy before he was assassinated. (The story takes place in the Chicago suburbs, mostly.) Since we’re here to read into things, these are perhaps glimpses at the last “words” spoken before the end of a marriage — that of Philip and Miriam Popper — an act that slowly boils up through an affair Miriam has with Philip’s legal partner, the highly intellectual Hal Rosencrantz, before exploding in an act of violence, and then slowly simmering away as the years pass by. You can make a strong argument for Orner’s placement of the pivotal act, too: “The Green Couch” subtitle repeats for both sections 7 and 8 (bridging the exact center of the story) and offers two slightly similar takes. It’s an aesthetic choice:

(Or maybe it was Alexander who leaped on Philip’s back and Alexander who teethed him in the neck, and it was Leo who called 911? Alexander and his father and his mother gumbling off the couch to the hardwood floor, the floor waking them up, and his mother standing and his father on his knees, hoarse and half-crying. Then, not long after, all of them, the whole tattered family, in the front hall, the two blue oafs, shifting their weight from foot to foot, hands fidgeting, looking at the floor not looking at Miriam, trying not to look at Miriam, staring at Miriam. We are not the kind of people who)

Not only does this pivotal section loop back into where the previous section was going (the unfinished “we are not the kind of people who”), but it leads into the next, which is filled not with one silence, but many, “building on themselves, multiplying like cells.” Should we want to, we can feed back into an earlier scene, too, in which Miriam spends time with Hal’s strongly feminist, cultured wife, Martha (the sort to throw Hal out on the principle of adultery, only to quickly then take him back out of efficiency). She listens to lectures in French that she cannot understand, but it’s enough to help her dream of other things — implying unhappiness with Philip, who will later note to his grown-up son, Alexander, that they simply had so little in common — and she notes that she enjoys “the music of the language.” In contemplation, that’s much the effect of Orner’s writing, too: on a first pass through, much goes over our heads, particularly the initial focus on the Rosencrantz kids (to be fair to Shakespeare and Stoppard, these are characters renowned for their insignificance to the pl0t). In second and third reads, it becomes clearer that Miriam’s unhappy, both from the way her kids act around the wildly gifted Rosencrantzes (sobbing for no particular reason, astonished by Martha’s welcoming hugs), and from her discussion with her husband about “class,” which she feels she lacks. (“Class is defined not by those who have it but by people who are worried sick they don’t. How can you buy it if the whole point is you can’t buy it?”)

Orner is an educated author, with a soft hand and plenty of imagination. It shows in his quiet, efficient explanations:

Maybe they wanted to be caught. But for Miriam, the truth was it was less those Tuesdays in Martha and Hal’s extra bedroom (the old maid’s room in the back of the townhouse)–fumbling and graceless but somehow untiring, years since it had been untiring–than the coffee after. Miriam was in her mid-thirties by then. It had been a long time since anybody asked her things about her life.

The significance of the term “old maid,” the perfectly chosen word for this sad sort of sex (“untiring”), and the one piece of small talk Orner gives us — lists of names Miriam’s father collected, for “knowing there was so many people he’d never know, never meet, somehow made him feel less alone” — it’s all lying right there in the open. It’s just, like the mostly unconnected sections, been left partially unassembled. Which, come to think of it, is another clever way to show a disassembling (and dissembling) marriage. So, too, with the ending, which leaps back from a chance encounter between a grown-up Alexander and Leah (one of the precocious Rosencrantz children) that’s the one particularly off-target “Where are they now?” part of the story, to a clear morning in 1979, the moment — we can assume, since we’re only given a sidelong glimpse — at which Miriam makes up her mind to leave her husband (by means of an affair). I’m not a hundred percent sold on the trimming that Orner appears to have done to get from a novel to this short, but so far as the parts focusing on (or providing details about) Miriam go, this is solid stuff.

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