Christine Sneed: “The First Wife” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

06/06/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in New England Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2011)

“The famous do resemble the unfamous,” opens Sneed’s story, “but they are not the same species, not quite.” You wouldn’t know it by reading Sneed’s story of Emma, a screenwriter who is married to an insanely attractive superstar male actor, Anders; instead, the tale of their divorce is just like any other. Sneed tries to tart things up by throwing out these broad statements about the difference between Them and Us (“It is not a question of if but when. When will he be unfaithful, if he hasn’t been already?”), but it feels as glossy and artificial as the business itself. I’ll give Sneed credit for one thing: despite speaking about the “writer’s most reliable trick to seduce us with the details of a marvelous and improbable coupling while hinting darkly that things did not end well,” she doesn’t play games with the foreshadowing. From the title to the tone, things are straightforward, and the breakup occurs (by phone) on the third page. On the other hand, this leaves her with seventeen more pages to fill, which leads the author to retreat into the past, explaining how they met and often citing other relationships as a means of rationalizing the protagonist’s shattered life. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and it’s all so ordinarily chronicled that it almost feels normal — Joshua Ferris writes in a similar mode.

Except . . . a closer look doesn’t allow one to get any deeper. Her previous boyfriend, James, loved attention (“and not surprisingly, I did too”), and, as anecdotal evidence, once invited her to dinner, dressed up as a cop (he’s a far-less famous actor, riddled by his own depression), and handcuffed her to him for the duration of the meal. Is this original? Yes. Is it revealing? No; in fact, it all but contradicts the image of Emma that we get everywhere else: the shy girl from the Midwest, lonely, cynical, initially starstruck. The same goes for Emma’s choice to take up, post-divorce, with Otik, “a Czech man who directed commercials and music videos.” Admittedly, she cites revenge as a factor in pursuing a larger settlement in the divorce, but it’s unclear as to why she’d want to hurt another woman, much less why she’s attracted to this man. (It doesn’t help that Otik’s not much of a character: he idolizes Dostoyevsky and Milan Kundera; his wife runs a Montessori school; is that really what passes for character these days?)

A closer look also reveals a lot of floundering — which explains the unnecessary and debilitating length of the story. Sneed has a lot to say about Hollywood and rejection and the American Dream, or at least, she thinks she does, because she crams in little tidbits wherever she can, regardless of relevance or momentum. The narrative Sneed’s chosen doesn’t help her curtail this habit: numbered sections, not in any particular order, allow for just about anything, and puts the onus of “getting it” on the reader. Here’s an example: in (9), Anders proposes to Emma on The Tonight Show, while she watches on television from home with a friend. (10) opens with two of Anders’s favorite childhood jokes — a lame segue into the line “For a while I thought that he didn’t take himself too seriously” and the conclusion that “It was inevitable that he would meet another woman” (which we’ve heard already). (11) then flashes back to when Emma broke up with James: two paragraphs to talk about the reality of rejection, and the fantasy that everything will be easy. (Again, something we’ve already heard.) That’s the sort of shallow, disconnected storytelling that Sneed is doing; we know the story is about this first wife, and yet we still hardly know anything about her. The final section, (13), is a flashback to the moment when Anders first moved in with her, and it ends with the following: “This isn’t real, I kept thinking all that night and the next morning. This is a joke, isn’t it?” Is this supposed to be romantic? Is this supposed to make us feel sorry for what she’s lost?

Christine Sneed on “The First Wife”

Sneed talks about how real people can become famous overnight (thanks to reality TV) and how none of these people — talented or not — has any understanding of what it’s like to be a celebrity. Sneed to the rescue, then, because she has friends in Hollywood and knows all about our irrational fixations on fame. Her story, which I assume is based on Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston (though that hardly matters, and I hardly care), is supposedly “somber,” which makes me think that Sneed doesn’t know what somber means, or sees the word only as gently reflected through a television set. She writes that she feels compassion for Emma, but not pity — “She knows that she took an enormous risk by marrying a movie star” — which shows an inescapable bias from the author and her own star-studded issues, in the way she so easily excuses Anders (simply by being a movie star) and basically churns out a story that makes him out to be the good guy. Sneed’s story might work as an extremely subtle and cynical view of Hollywood, the way in which it creeps into and corrupts the story and the author, a living warning, but as she shows no conscious knowledge of what she’s actually written, one has to accept it at face-value, as an unimaginative, unrevealing “dream” of what romance in Hollywood looks like. Good concept, maybe, but I find the fact that Sneed spends her time talking about how much fun she had writing this story, and how she arbitrarily chose the somewhat backward-chronology of the story as a “challenge” as further proof that there’s no soul or substance here to be worth further analyzing.

Karen Carlson on “The First Wife”

No real dissent between us on this one; we both felt lectured to, which is a sign of a poorly disguised message, which is itself a sign that the story is a message, you know, rather than a story, with real, living, breathing characters who might surprise you, irritate you, or make you realize something about yourself. Like Karen, I’m a fan of the reverse narrative (Merrily We Roll AlongMemento), so perhaps we’re just even more disposed to dispose of this story as falling far short of what’s capable within that form. In any case, the most important thing is not that we see change — for yes, the bitter Emma at the beginning is the different from the swept-of-her-feet “Is this a dream?” romantic of the ending — but that we understand how that change came about, and the sense I get from the narrative tone (which maybe needs to be pared back, and far less forcefully jocular) is that she’s always seen this coming. (Re-reading the final section, it’s the fact that although the events run in reverse, Emma does not: she’s looking back at these events and commenting on them from her present (future) position, which robs us of the opportunity to really see and empathize with her. Above all else, that may be what I’m reacting most negatively to.)

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