Antonya Nelson: “Chapter Two”

03/28/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 26, 2012.

Nelson’s not talking about bankruptcy, or some sort of weird fiscal code, but about second chances — the things that follow the first impressions you get (after judging the book’s cover), you know, in Chapter Two. This is pretty clear from Nelson’s rip-roaring (and calculated) opening, in which Hil, a long-time (and presumably embarrassing) alcoholic herself, “tired of telling her own story,” brings up the comparative, shocking story of her neighbor: “I go to the door and there she is, fifty-something, a totally naked lady standing under the porch light.” It’s a hook that’s designed to get you reading the story, but also something that’s flashily meant to distract from Hil’s own failings, or as she puts it, something  that “seemed designed to charm, her coy drunken neighbor sporting a plaid porkpie hat and holding a toothbrush like a flag or a flower or a torch.” But what does Hil and through her Nelson accomplish with these stories within stories, the flourished details about this moment in nude neighbor Bergeron Love’s life, the extra comments about the blind man at the meeting who always smiles encouraging unless someone says the word “Fuck,” or any of the other seemingly hastily inserted facts — this is not a linear story, by any means — about Bergeron’s mousy husband, her put-upon and now grown-up and long-absent son, or Hil’s overweight roommate, and her own Al-Anon attending son?

It’s hard to say. The story’s so reckless and jagged — intentionally, because that’s the sort of intense alcoholism on display here — that it’s hard to really get a reliable handle on these characters. (Unlike, say, a television show like Shameless, which grows on you, or a play like Long Day’s Journey Into Night that’s more focused on a specific place and time.) If you want to judge by the title and the premeditated ending (it’s always a bit rough on a story when the ending seems to have been inevitable; why write a story if you know how it ends?), the point is that Bergeron’s actually dead; she died of a heart attack five days after this whole comically nude interlude. By that withheld information, we learn a little more about Hil, and her goals in telling this story, or in living with a morbidly obese woman: “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective.” Hil, in other words, has been hiding her own alcoholic lapses and the potential shame she’s put her own isolated son through (“He wasn’t ready, quite yet, to go unguarded into the night”), by comparing herself to a “mysterious yet commanding black sheep.” She omits this woman’s death, then, because that doesn’t hide her own inadequacies so much as expose the point to which they are leading. If Chapter One was a comedy, Chapter Two is a tragedy, and Hil doesn’t want to turn the page.

As we see in the story’s conclusion, Love has long been a benchmark for Hil, all the way back to their first meeting, when Bergeron campaigned for city council, back when she had a husband. When Love was a surprisingly good person, saving a homeless person drunk beside her pool, Hil could imagine that she, too, could be that generous. When Love, drunk at a cocktail party, flirted with Hil’s husband, it was a means for Hil to rekindle her own romance with her man: here is what makes her better. Now, however, that mirror has cracked, and it isn’t just seven years’ bad luck that threatens to follow. In that last line, Hil considers telling a new story, in which Love’s teenage son attempts to get his eccentric mother back inside the house at “two or three or four in the morning,” and in the next chapter of this story that Nelson hasn’t written, I imagine we’d find out how Hil’s own teenage son stacks up in reining her in. Instead, like Hil, we’ll use our imagination, and hope for the best — which is a passable way to write a story, I guess, although not the most satisfying.


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