Antonya Nelson: “Literally”

12/04/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 3, 2012.

There’s a great sucker punch at the end of Nelson’s story, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should probably go do so. Of course, the risk of a sucker punch is that it may render much of what precedes it moot: isn’t it all just feinting, the art of distraction? To Nelson’s credit (and detraction), then, the lead-up to that ending is filled with so many small and wonderful observations that I wish they didn’t feel so readily dismissed, though I suppose the metaphoric feeling that one has changed horses midstream fits with what our protagonist, Richard, was forced to do in the wake of his wife’s sudden death. He wasn’t, after all, the one with the overly charitable heart, the one who could speak fluently with their beloved housekeeper Bonita, the one who would have had the good sense to ensure that Bonita’s literally silver-toothed son, Isaac, would have instead gotten an ivory replacement. Taking negatives in a positive, too, one can read into this build-up for what’s not there: the profound absence of Richard’s wife, as he keeps reminding us, coupled with the central plot, in which Richard and Bonita search for their missing, hooky-playing sons. (There’s a third sort of absence here as well, of the spiritual sort: Richard’s eleven-year-old son Danny casually noting that he’s never seen Isaac’s home; Richard feeling a displacement when driving through Bonita’s neighborhood — these are the unseen, sometimes unknown barriers that divide us, make us absent from one another, the larger, more robust humanity as a whole.)

There’s plenty then that works, and self-deprecating Richard feels like a fleshed-out character, even if his overly dramatic teenage daughter, Suzanne, does not. (She’s an absence to be, though, so she’s at least structurally relevant: “These days, she spent more time apart from her family than with them. That would be the story from now on, Richard thought, the incremental move away.” Nelson also uses her to reflect on the special bond forged between father and son, what with their jokes around the term “anal retentive.”) Less effective and more plotty, however, is the appearance of Bonita’s ex-husband, who only serves to once again emphasize the ways in which Richard is not nearly as attentive as his wife would have been, since he not only allows the man to enter Bonita’s apartment, an act that jeopardizes his own child, but also he waffles around calling the police. (To be fair, despite Richard’s wife helping Bonita to get divorced, to change the locks, to get a restraining order, even she has to admit that sometimes Bonita does want him hanging around: “That was the tricky part the law couldn’t touch.”) Likewise, there’s the tangential ruminations, irrelevant to the specifics of this tale, on Isaac’s unconscious sexuality: surely, assumes Richard, because the boy gets nervous stomach cramps, cries a lot, and is sensitive, he must be gay. I’m not sure what that says about either character: both instances are resolved off the page and neither has any impact. This is doubly true of a late confession by Danny, where he tells his father that Isaac hears voices — though as we’ll soon see, mental illness is something that should trigger alarm bells in Richard’s mind, his reaction to it here is both reassuring and dismissive, which only seems to emphasize that it doesn’t quite belong in this short. The one argument for these non-events ties back into the title and to something that Danny says: “This has been a terrible day. Even though nothing exactly bad happened.” Literally — and remember that the story makes a point out of the misuse of this word, so I don’t mean “actually” — it’s been terrible.

All this hedging and analyzing brings us to the truly potent stuff at the end, which speaks for itself. When we first see Suzanne scrambling around the house, cursing and sobbing at not being able to find her cell phone, we’re meant to assume that it’s just more sixteen-year-old-girl theatrics. Even her father, at first, believes that she’s just “high-strung, particular about details, a self-critical perfectionist like her mother, unconvinced of her beauty, easily flustered. On her forehead a crease from premature concern, a skeptical tuck of her lip when she deflected a compliment.” As Danny tells him, however, the real loss — and we’re talking a double whammy of absence here — is that “Mom’s messages were on it.” And the real kicker is what follows, as Richard feels “a plosive pure fury at his wife for not being here where she was needed.” And as Nelson then abruptly reveals — there’s been no foreshadowing, though two mental cases have been referenced from a plot perspective and there’s an early joke about how “people are very casual with the psychology” — that’s not just a psychic plea: Richard’s wife died in a car “accident,” but when he’d proposed to her twenty-five years ago, she’d mentioned a game she once played as an unhappy teen driver: “Closing my eyes. Turning off the lights. Speeding. I was pretty out of control. I was that unhappy. I really didn’t care if I lived or die.” Is it possible, then, that this unhappiness revisited her later in life? Is it possible that their daughter shares some of these anxieties? “You can change your mind about me. Just forget marrying me and move on,” Richard recalls her saying. Here’s how the story ends: “But that had turned out not to be true. He couldn’t.” Can’t change his mind. Can’t forget. Can’t move on. It seemed like a joke, earlier, when he mused that it would be so convenient if he could simply marry Bonita and shelter Isaac “like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard’s house . . . if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.” Things are hardly ever so easily literal, are they?




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