Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A.L. Kennedy's "Wasps"

The vision of domestic motherhood in A.L. Kennedy’s “Wasps” is redolent of the former New Yorker writer John Cheever, except his hallucinations of patriarchal emancipation never expressed the misery or the loneliness of motherhood elucidated in “Wasps.” The story opens, like the mother’s morning, with the sound of two boys “thumping downstairs and straight out to the garden, Jimbo still wearing pajamas and Shawn in yesterday’s clothes, […] The first fight began as soon as they left the house: she has a memory of dozing through whole cycles of shouts and squealing.” This story’s mother drifts between asleep and awake, and her rambunctious boys, cascading down the stairs, penetrate even her dreams: “a place like a fishmonger’s shop, except all the fish in it were still alive –tethered by hooks through the bodies and heads, fluttering by the white tiled walls and hanging in strings of blood, staring at her while she kicked and wallowed.”

Except this morning is unique. The boys are bickering because “their Da was going away again,” and this is “how they dealt with it – the leaving – by giving each other reasons to cry and reasons to be angry.” The plot of "Wasps" is the chaos the father’s departure has on the boys and the mother, but its sympathies lay more with the mother than the boys. Often her sons – neither distinguishable from the other – have the petulant attitude of band mates. The mother says of them, “they were not speaking. Jimbo was tearful and Shawn brooding, each of them, she knew, on the verge of telling her how badly he’d been treated by the other.” Ray is leaving his boys as well as his wife, but the story knows he can’t totally abandon his sons the same way he can his wife. He's inside them. The mother alludes to this, saying “it occurred to her that [Shawn] would be an appalling teen-ager. Quite possibly Ray had been, too.” Another time she says, “the weight of an older brother’s responsibilities and trials hardened his jaw enough for him to look very much like his father.”

For the mother's sake, let’s hope they don’t become too much like him. Ray demeans his boys and his wife throughout the story. The night before his departure, for example, he tells his youngest son, “Well, Juggy, anyway – there would be no money to buy him if I didn’t go off and work. Your mother doesn’t earn any money. […] Your brother and you are both very expensive. […]Would you want to be a homeless boy with nothing?” The reader recognizes the cruelty of this transference: a boy being held responsible for his father’s departure. Ray does this again later in the story. He has overslept and tells his wife, “slept in. You should have woken me. I’ll be racing all the way now.” These moments of transference give a peak into Ray’s ability to remain blameless, which is important because the story suggests these supposed business trips admittedly involve other women. (This aspect of the story is never clear, likely because the reader - like the wife - never gets a straight story.) His damage, however, isn’t limited to the psychological. Right before leaving, the narrative shows him “play fighting, with easy strength in the thin forearms, wiry cunning. The boys squealed and he shook them more, going slightly too hard at it, the way he usually did, until their faces were still pleased but their eyes were very mildly afraid.”

At this point I had to stop. What the hell is going on? Last week’s story, this week’s story; neither presents a single redeemable quality in the male characters. Often Lit Up and I have agreed that male New Yorker authors have got kicks and giggles at the expense of the story's female characters, but both these authors aren’t giggling as they use these stories to kick these worthless men in the abdomen. This is where both stories fail for me. I know there are men with SOME positive qualities; therefore my sympathy for these female characters erodes. I ask: Why did they marry these assholes? Neither story offers any explanation. When the mother says, “I do believe that you still love me,” about Ray, the reader wants to roll the magazine and swat at her like swiping for wasps. What is she talking about? This guy hasn’t expressed any love for her or his children. He hits one of his boys with the door in the process of leaving and doesn’t break stride. No matter what this mother may think, her husband has nothing to do with Every Man. She has simply married a complete jerk.

Alas, similar to last week’s main character, this one feels paralyzed. So much so that her inaction has permeated the language to the extent that several sentences have no verbs. But, different from last week, this narrative uses the weather to express the turmoil the mother feels inside. The story’s third paragraph describes how “the house had grown disturbed – doors pestering at their frames whenever the weather drew breath, clatters on the roof, something twisting, searching overhead.” Later, “in the garden, wind was clawing at the flowers, breaking things; the trees wild with it beyond the fence.” And, finally the last image of the story provided some reprieve; I rejoiced as the weather punished the absent father/husband in a way I’d wanted the entire story: “it buffeted him, punched his tie against his face, slapped under his coat.”

This ending gave a minuscule of satisfaction to a story determined to illustrate the despair of domestication. (I am not making this stuff up people; these stories are filled with extremely unhappy people. One wonders if the writers aren’t guilty of a little transference.) I enjoyed the story , especially appreciating the intelligence of the writing and the willfulness of the vision. (The story made me want to send an email to female friends: your biological clocks may be ticking, marriage bells ringing, but those bells will turn to a deafening shrill, and children will mean the end of time.) But for the life of the New Yorker's fiction, I have to object to the domestication of the reader. Please, New Yorker, let’s take these stories outside for a change. The summer is almost over.

1 comment:

lit up said...

She could not say, because they had already discussed this issue...

Therein lies the kind of emotional constipation I find in a lot of NYer stories. Perhaps it’s a cultural/aesthetic preference on the part of the mag or too much subtlety on Kennedy’s part. Don’t know, maybe there’s too much salsa in my chips, though I’m not looking for AL Kennedy to play telenovela violins, either.

Instead, Kennedy uses weather and external events to illuminate internal turmoil or lackthereof. I find that in stories, this sometimes comes off as contrived, too consciously metaphorical. The wasps? Dead marriage. Encroachment. Okay. “Ridiculously fragile wings, perfect stripes and tapered bodies, altogether finely worked—they were like very tiny toys.” These are the details Kennedy chooses to zoom in on. Now, she doesn’t have much space in the frame she’s created. That Kennedy has chosen to fine-tune these particular details and not other more urgent ones (like, as AC asks, why she married such an a-hole) makes me wonder if the choice is deliberate on the part of the writer/narrator or if it’s just a way of deflecting the painful chore of wading in emotional waters. Then again, maybe this omission is intended to make the marital tension palpable for the reader. Bad marriages are about such silences and “could not says”.

I do admire the frame of “Wasps”: that heavy moment of a father’s departure (to go get the bacon—at breakfast time, no less). In that frame is the picture worthy of a future therapist’s examination, that moment when the boy(s) got fucked up. These are the kinds of life snippets that give parents pause, that conversation, that look, that action whose very brevity can very well define a lifelong trauma: “…don’t tell them that—don’t make it seem like their fault that you go away.” So I appreciate Kennedy’s ability to have articulated such a moment.

Now about the portrayal of men…hmph. Drop in the bucket, I hate to say. Still, I think what AC might be reacting to—and what I’ve previously reacted to—is when a writer generally displays the slightest lack of human respect for a particular character. All caricatures—be they of gender, ethnic group, sexual orientation, religion, etc.—do a great disservice to readers, writers, and above all, stories.

I like “Wasps’s” dialogue, that somewhat off-beat talk only the disturbingly intimate hold. I wasn’t too keen on Kennedy’s overall style, though. I kept wanting to push the details into the background, felt them to be more writer than character observations. And the ending? The main character entrusts her husband’s punishment for leaving to inclement weather: “The coming rain should swing down like a blade…She stood on the doorstep preparing herself. This was a way to be happy when he finally didn’t come back.” I couldn’t help but be left with the image of the exoskeleton of a wasp, lightweight and emptied of life. Yes, AC, extremely unhappy people.