Friday, July 20, 2007

Antonya Nelson's Shauntrelle

The most elegantly hypnotic aspect of Shauntrelle is the setting. Never lifting to a bird’s eye view of the Texas town, the narrator’s observations show a Houston in transition: the wealth is spreading, the neighborhoods changing. This place, a limbo between poverty and wealth, is the new home of our recently divorced main character, Constance. Her first night at Laventura corporate housing, she looks “directly below, six floors down, [at] people waiting for a bus.” These cursing neighbors are part of the “empty businesses, their doors padlocked, […] while on the street loitered a fleet of people pushing grocery carts. This detritus, man-made, earth-grown, was a kind of moat surrounding the building proper, this modern fortress.” A castle surrounded by a wasteland is the narrator’s metaphor for gentrification, and the characters are aware of their tenuous residence. Constance’s new roommate, the renovating Fanny Mann, notes “the neighborhood’s gentrifying, but somebody forgot to tell the winos.”

The displacement of New Orleans – antithetical to gentrification – isn’t forgotten by the story, either. One night, Constance dreams of a town “with unsteady buildings teetering up its sides, a body of water lapping at its base.” And out of the detritus of New Orleans comes Fanny Mann. But, instead of suffering the alienation of dislocation, “she was taking advantage of the exodus to have her nose sculpted, her face vacuumed, her tummy tucked, her breasts bolstered, her neck tightened, her teeth veneered, and the spare skin around her eyes snipped away.” The story uses Fanny’s plastic surgery binge to literalize its metaphorical theme: transformation. Constance and Fanny Mann are both abandoned women – Constance from her daughter, husband, and lover; Fanny from her dying best friend – and the story illuminates the potential loneliness of their lives. They weather this coming storm, however, with different colored umbrellas. I want to say Fanny Mann is in the tradition of the elegant, bitter grandmothers of Faulkner’s Mississippi, but really she reminds me of the sad and swanky housewives of Dallas – a show Nancy Franklin’s television review mentions. We are told Fanny Mann “worked hard to make people laugh. Or at least smile, if only at her effort. It was Fanny Mann’s most appealing characteristic; she was a flirt, down to the makeup and heels.”

This is the opposite of Constance, a character as dry as Houston, she depresses the story. What is it about this woman that drove me to the brink? I didn’t understand how she could have partaken in an affair for five years and been unaware of her lover’s lack of interest in a relationship. People’s personality shifts can hit us like blindside blitzes, but her paralyzed desperateness made her voice stifling. My frustration reached its peak when Constance opened her computer, hoping “it would sparkle like a treasure chest, perched here on the windowsill of the living room. The screen would be radiant, flooding the dark apartment, and a hundred messages would await her. She longed for every single space to be filled with Kendal Kirkendoll.”

Truthfully, one wonders if Fanny Mann isn’t actually worse off. Despite her sanguine personality, Constance comes to see Fanny as a “person built of incongruous parts, her calves too fine for her feet, her neck too brief, her chest too broad.” The story may joke about this character’s quixotic belief in plastic surgery, but it reminds the reader this dream is Fanny’s fortress against the sadness gathering, spiraling, and waiting to destroy her castle. At the story’s end, Fanny tells Constance, “You visit and I’ll introduce you to my future sugar daddy’s unmarried son. I have the whole fantasy worked out!” This exchange stings the reader with its emptiness, because Fanny likely shared similar ones with her recently deceased best friend. These single older women, white and privileged, seem to be in an emotional limbo as well as a physical one. Beneath them is a crushing loneliness that haunts the characters and the story.

Like many New Yorker stories, this one uses a metaphor to imply the story’s theme. Constance is reading the book her daughter loaned her, and the narrator describes its plot as “two gay girls, runaways, [who] were making their living as prostitutes. One, Jo, was a heroin addict. The other, Deezy, merely drank. […] When they reconvened, after desperate nights, they wanted only to abuse their respective substances.” This novel's plot speaks directly to the situation of Constance and Fanny. They have come here together, both addicted to a drug called fantasy. Fanny dreams of a fairy tale husband as a reward for her desperate attempt to recreate her body, and Constance is waiting for a prince charming she knows isn’t coming.

Up till now, I have ignored the most mysterious device in the story: the several cases of mistaken identity. Two times Fanny Mann leaves Constance home alone, and a visitor comes to the apartment looking for its former residents. The first is a woman knocking on her door, asking for the Shauntrelle of the story’s title, next is a man calling, pretending to be downstairs, and yelling to see Gerald. The story is cluttered with these former patrons of the apartment: Ray, Shauntrelle, Gabrielle, Felicia; and these ghosts become the shared identities of Fanny and Constance. So much so, that at one point Constance calls Fanny, Felicia, and later Fanny does the same, mistaking Constance for Shauntrelle.

Yet, towards the end I wondered about Constance’s husband. Couldn’t she return to him? The reader is told he has too much pride, but doesn’t loneliness await men same as it does women. Constance remembers a time when Kendall, her lover, complimented her college aged daughter, and realizes, Kendall “was of an age, his mid-thirties, that had sexual rights on either side of it – to both mother’s and daughter’s generation.” This is important, because this story focuses on these two women gone with the wind, rain, and levees, but doesn't allow the reader or the characters any vision of a Clark Gable to save the two Scarletts up in the burning mansion.


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Scott said...

I thought your analysis of the story was very insightful. I read the story, then read your blog, and then read your blog again, and I think you are absolutely right about the connection to the transformation of the characters and the transformation of the setting. However, I found it interesting that the tone of the story and your analysis of the tone depicted gentrification as negative. Whether that is true or not is another discussion, nevertheless, does this mean the transformation of the female characters, both dealing with the realization of possibility lonliness and holding on to the possibility of a salvation--boyfriend coming back or friend beating cancer--is negative. I didn't think the characters were as weak as they were vulnerable. And isn't everyone vulnerable to change? Is vulnerabilty to negative? For example, I thought the scene with the women getting up late and hoplessly checking her email was very honest and in a lot of ways I was proud of both characters by the end of the story. They had preserved. And in like, doesn't that sometimes feel like the only thing one can ask for.

So, I was wondering what were your feelings about whether the characters transformation was positive and negative?

On a closing note, my inital feelings about the story were ambivalent, but subsequent to reading your blog, I really enjoyed it. This, I suppose, is what your blog is suppose to do.

P.S. My favorite line was when the narrator describes her former lovers as, "dead, disappointed, and dissapointing, respectively."

A. Colom said...

Whew, in a way I think you got me here Scott. Truthfully, I think the line about her checking her email struck me so strongly because – similar to you – I related to it, but I was hoping that sort of desperate grasping for contact dissipated with age; guess not. Damn. Alas, I will admit that moment is tragically honest. Also, in retrospect, I do see what you mean about holding on in the face of change, and Fanny Mann is doing more than holding on, she is fighting against the change – no matter how desperate ones sees plastic surgery, it is a way of taking one’s physicality into his or her own hands; an assertion for control. So to answer your question, I think Fanny’s changes are positive in that despite the loss of her best friend she still exerts hope, and (of course) negative, in that her hope is dependant on capturing the munificence of some robber baron. The main character, however, doesn’t seem to have changed to me. She made an ill conceived decision to leave an aloof husband for an aloof mistress (what’s the male synonym for mistress?). She hasn’t changed, which is why her character, in my opinion, is the worse of the two, at least the most painstaking for the reader.

If I had thought to pick a favorite line in the story, the one you quote would certainly have been it. Great choice.

I will post on A.L Kennedy’s “Wasps” very soon.

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