Blackwell v. Bush

Ironically enough, my first encounter with Curtis Sittenfeld’s fiction was the short story “Gender Studies” in the New Yorkerknowing nothing but her name, I initially assumed she was a man. After reading the story, told from the close third-person point of view of a liberal woman who has a one-night stand with her Trump-supporting airport-shuttle driver, a man having captured a female perspective with such accurate nuance boggled my mind. I could not believe a man had written it. I turned out to be right. (Her full name apparently being Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld, one wonders if using her male-sounding middle name was to overcome publishers’ implicit biases against women.)

In her third novel, American Wife (2008), Sittenfeld boldly tackles the first-person perspective of a First Lady based on the figure of Laura Bush. Sittenfeld’s First Lady is named Alice Lindgren, and only the final of the book’s four parts takes place after she’s become First Lady.

Part I: 1272 Amity Lane:
The first part of the novel describes Alice Lindgren’s childhood, growing up middle-class in the small town of Riley, Wisconsin. She’s very close with her father’s mother, who lives with them. Her grandmother goes to visit her close friend, Dr. Gladys Wycomb, in Chicago, twice a year. When Alice is a teenager, her grandmother takes her on one of these trips with her to see the city, and one night when Gladys and her grandmother set her up on a date with someone, she ends up getting sick and coming home early, catching her grandmother and Dr. Wycomb kissing, though they don’t know she saw them.

Back at school, she has a crush on Andrew Imhof, whom her best friend Dena dated for four years (but whom Dena pretty much originally stole from Alice in the first place). They get in a fight about it, causing Alice to drive by herself instead of with Dena to a party where she’s meeting Andrew, when she ends up getting in a collision with Andrew himself, killing him. In her grief, she goes to the Imhofs’ farm to apologize, and only Andrew’s brother Pete is there, whom she ends up sleeping with several times until he eventually coerces her to give him a blow job, then calls her a “whore” for doing so. She ends up pregnant, and her grandmother, without telling her parents, arranges for Dr. Wycomb to give her an abortion.

Part II: 3859 Sproule Street:
The second section jumps ahead to when Alice is 31, working as a librarian at an elementary school in Madison. She’s still friends with Dena, who, one summer when Alice is making papier-mâché characters of children’s book characters to decorate the school library with, forces her to come to a party where Charlie Blackwell will be. Charlie is the son of the former governor of Wisconsin, loaded from the family business (Blackwell Meats), and gearing up for his own run for Congress. Charlie’s uninterested in Dena and is instead taken with Alice, whom he first meets at the party when he comes upon her reading a children’s book to someone’s kid. She turns down his request for a date, but he follows her home, ends up coming in, and loves her papier-mâché characters, which no one else has seen, and they end up talking, connecting, and making out. Because of Dena, Alice is still reluctant to date him, but he invites her to a speech he’s making, where she meets Hank, the force channeling Charlie’s charisma into a viable political career. Then they do start dating. When Alice tells Dena, Dena’s so angry she won’t be her friend anymore, thinking the situation is a repeat of when Alice liked Andrew after he broke up with her.

The day before she met Charlie, Alice bought a house, but then she finds out her mother lost twenty grand when she invested it with none other than Pete Imhof, who simply claims the deal went bad when Alice confronts him. Her mother gives her a family brooch to sell to recoup some of the money, but when it’s appraised at a mere $90, Alice backs out of buying her house and gives her mother the money for the down payment (seven grand), claiming that’s how much she got for the brooch.

After she and Charlie have been dating six weeks, there’s a bad storm that Charlie drives to her apartment in, and they decide they should get married. She goes with him to meet his family at the fancy Halcyon compound, an enormous but strangely shabby place where the massive difference between their upbringings finally hits home. Late in the trip it emerges that they’re engaged, to which Priscilla Blackwell responds “‘What a clever girl you are.’” They get married with a small ceremony. Her grandmother is happy to hear Priscilla Blackwell might not approve of her. After Charlie loses his Congressional race, they move to a house outside Milwaukee.

Part III: 402 Maronee Drive:
One night when their daughter Ella is nine, Charlie doesn’t come home from work at Blackwell Meats when they’re supposed to go to a play, and when Alice goes to his parents’ house to look for him she ends up inviting their servant Miss Ruby to go with her. Charlie’s been discontent lately, having disagreements with his brothers at work, tense about his upcoming 20th reunion at Princeton. When she gets home from the play, Charlie is home, upset about some tainted meat their company might be responsible for; he wants to quit. He’s always talking about his legacy, which Alice hates. She meets up with her sister-in-law Jadey, who talks about wanting to have an affair. Then her grandmother goes into a coma; when she wakes up, Alice confides that she’s worried about Charlie’s drinking and his mid-life crisis. At a Blackwell dinner, Priscilla reprimands her for taking Miss Ruby out to the play. Her grandmother dies; at the funeral Dena’s mother tells her Dena is dating Pete Imhof. Charlie comes home one night and announces he’s gone in with an investment group who’s buying the Brewers. Alice has Miss Ruby and her family over for lunch, which Charlie interrupts, drunk. At the end-of-the-school year party at their house, a daughter of some friends finds Charlie’s porn magazines. The Brewers deal is finalized that night, and when Alice says she doesn’t want to go out to celebrate because they need to pack for the Princeton reunion the next day, he takes their babysitter out drinking and he and Alice have a big fight before leaving. At Princeton, Charlie drinks a lot and, after Alice finds out he’s done cocaine, she kisses their friend Joe Thayer, but stops when it’s not as pleasurable as she imagined. Back at home, she tells Charlie she wants a trial separation and takes Ella with her to her mother’s in Riley for a few weeks. While there, she has a phone conversation with Priscilla in which she learns everyone thinks Charlie is incompetent, and that Priscilla always wondered why she married Charlie, not the other way around, as Alice had always assumed. A mysterious lady Alice suspects is Dena gives Ella a plastic tiara. Ella and Alice are about to meet Charlie for a picnic when his brother calls and says Charlie got a DUI.

Alice doesn’t talk to Charlie for awhile, and then Jadey tells her he’s befriended a minister. When he does call, he says he’s paid for Jessica Sutton, Miss Ruby’s daughter, to go to Ella’s fancy school, and he’s started running. Alice talks to Ella about Andrew Imhof’s death. When Alice learns that Charlie’s been having Miss Ruby stay with him at his parents’ Milwaukee house, she finally caves and goes home, visiting Charlie at his office at the baseball stadium, where he shocks her by revealing he’s been born again and stopped drinking. Things go well for the next few years, and then Charlie successfully runs for governor, and then president, based largely on his religious appeal. Alice isn’t crazy about the religious stuff, but realizes he couldn’t have quit drinking without it (and some people believe she’s responsible for his being President due to causing him to quit drinking via leaving him). Jessica Sutton will become Alice’s chief of staff.  

Part IV: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
One morning when Charlie and Alice first wake up and read the newspapers per their usual routine, they discuss Edgar Franklin, a protester of the Iraq War who’s gotten a lot of press since his son died in combat; he’s demanding to talk to the President, but so far Charlie has refused. Alice has refrained from interfering in Charlie’s administration not out of a belief that she should so much as being uncertain what the best course of action actually is, and she believes his reasons for invading Iraq are more complex than people make them seem. She was relieved when it looked like he was going to lose the presidential election, but now it’s four years after the invasion, nineteen months from the end of his administration. As she’s off for her day of First-Lady errands, Hank tells her that someone is claiming she had an abortion in October of ‘63; Alice thinks at first it must be Dena, but it turns out to be Gladys Wycomb, who’s 104. She wants Alice to convince Charlie not to go through with a pro-life Supreme Court nominee. Alice, who has publicly admitted to being pro-choice twice, without any elaboration, goes and talks to Gladys, trying to explain she doesn’t have that kind of influence. But Gladys will have none of it, and tells Alice off to her face, more than anyone ever has, for simply standing by.

Now that 31-year-old Jessica is Alice’s closest friend, Alice stops to see Dena, who lives with Pete Imhof; both are friendly (it was Dena who gave Ella the tiara) and, despite having had opportunities, neither have any inclination to talk to the media about her, which surprises Alice (many acquaintances have talked about her publicly, but the press has still not gotten much personal material on her). She can’t believe it’s possible that she really hasn’t done enough to stop all the carnage in the war, and wishes she didn’t have the pressure of the potential opportunity to do more; many people have written about her not having done enough to influence her husband. On the way home, she gets a call from Hank that Gladys Wycomb died, neutralizing the threat that her abortion will be revealed. Alice remembers how Charlie ended up picking the vice presidential candidate she was leaning toward over Hank’s pick and worries she’s at fault for the potential carnage caused by the VP’s influence, that Charlie won’t back out of the war because of how influential the VP has been, and that he’s foolish for not doing so.

Alice then declares she wants to talk to Edgar Franklin. He gets in her limo with her and eventually she agrees with him outright, saying she thinks it’s time to end the war and bring the troops home. We get a flashback to the night of the 2000 presidential election that ended up in the air, with Charlie believing he lost and admitting to her he was relieved to not have to do the work (he also wants to not finish the gubernatorial term he’d have to go back to). When she talks to Charlie on the phone, he is very angry about how she contradicted his position publicly with Edgar Franklin. They have to sit through a gala in her honor together that Ella, a Princeton graduate and Manhattan investment banker, comes for; Ella steadfastly agrees with her father’s position about the necessity of continuing the war. Afterward, Alice eats with Ella and debates whether it’s right to tell Ella about the abortion (Ella’s Christian like her father), and decides it would only make her imagine possible siblings, so she doesn’t.

After reading for awhile, Alice remembers that Pete Imhof gave her an envelope and sees it’s the apology note she went to the Imhof farm to give them, along with the pendant she’d left with it because Andrew had liked it. She finally talks to Charlie, who thinks she’s made him a laughingstock, and they end up having a more honest talk than they have since he’s been President about its difficulties, like the divergence in their beliefs. She says she’s only now figured out what she’s done wrong as First Lady. He insists, though not angrily anymore, that she’s not responsible for the casualties in the war. She knows she could have done more but that she’s married a man who would not “even be aware of [her] failings,” and that Charlie will forgive her if she doesn’t make a habit of acting that way.

That night, she dreams of Andrew Imhof, but instead of the one she always has where they are separated in a crowded room, this time they find each other, and she knows she could have had a life with him. She loves Charlie, but didn’t actually vote for him for President, and sometimes she thinks that she only married him—she’s not the one who gave him power. She’ll keep her vote against him a secret for now. The End.  

The four parts and their dramatic threads can be broken down more succinctly thus:
Part I: Alice’s childhood and adolescence: her grandmother’s relationship with Gladys Wycomb, Andrew Imhof’s death, and Alice’s abortion.
Part II: Alice’s meeting and courtship with Charlie and break with childhood best friend Dena.
Part III: Alice temporarily leaves Charlie, causing him to quit drinking and, indirectly, to undertake his ambitious political rise.
Part IV: A day in Charlie’s presidency: Gladys Wycomb threatens to out Alice’s abortion but then dies, Alice reconnects with Dena, and she breaks her promise to Charlie by publicly contradicting his beliefs.            

In a narrative that skips large chunks of time, Sittenfeld imbues tension in the overall arc by compressing the final section—the actual First Lady section—into a single day. The three preceding sections are spread out over longer periods of time. All four sections have, as they should, discrete narrative arcs, and by having the events covered in the first section (her abortion and everything that leads up to it) come directly into play in the final section, the discrete arcs become interlocking. (Before coming into play directly, the events of the first section come indirectly into play in the second section when Alice confesses them to Charlie to cross their final frontier of intimacy, and in the third when Charlie’s throwing them in her face shows how unbearable his discontent has made him to live with.) The first part’s events also come back in the fourth when Alice compares the tragedy of Andrew Imhof’s death, a death she caused, to the tragedy of the lives lost in the war, calling into question her culpability in the latter:

And yet if Andrew Imhof’s death was the singular tragedy of my life, if in some ways I have lived since then trying to compensate for my error, trying to be worthy of having survived—if his death was the worst thing I could have imagined, then what words are there, what space in my imagination, for the deaths of thousands of American troops and foreign civilians? If my critics are right that I share responsibility for Charlie’s administrative policies, including the decision to go to war, then Andrew Imhof’s death is the least of what I have caused; it is nothing, and utterly insignificant. What if I believed the consequences of the war were also my fault?

If the blood of these people were on my hands, if there were something I personally could have done to prevent such carnage, the loss of so many adults and teenagers and children who presumably wanted, just as I always have, to live an ordinary life—if I believed I could have made a difference but instead remained silent, then how could I bear it?

A big part of the conflict in the final section derives from Alice’s internal debate of how responsible she is for these lives. That she’s asking these questions at all makes her sympathetic; her conclusion might be more questionable. In the passage above, Alice seems to do something along the lines of acknowledging that she can’t face acknowledging her responsibility for these deaths, which would mean implicit acknowledgment that she is, in fact, responsible for them. But that Sittenfeld aptly captures intricate psychological maneuvers at work doesn’t mean she’s written a delusional, unlikable character here; quite the opposite. We won’t read Alice as unreliable because of how closely she’s examined the painful details of her past—if she was going to gloss over things, she’d need a lot more gloss. The primary evidence of this lack of gloss for me is the description of her sexual interlude with Pete Imhof. (Sittenfeld writes with a balder honesty about sex from the female perspective than pretty much any writer I’ve encountered; she’s like the antidote to Updike.) And so I sympathized with Alice’s inability to acknowledge the weight of what she’d done—or rather, hadn’t done—rather than meeting it with liberal scorn.

In terms of pacing, the first section covers the longest span of time (all of childhood and adolescence), while the second two seem to cover comparable spans of periods of several weeks (her courtship with Charlie and the period she leaves him, respectively) and then the final one shrinks to a single day. In Part I, we learn first that Alice’s grandmother has a secret relationship with Gladys Wycomb. Then, after Andrew’s death, she ends up with her own secret: the abortion. That Gladys Wycomb is the one to perform this abortion is the perfect intertwining of her and the grandmother’s secrets, and that intertwining the perfect resolution for first arc. In Part II, the courtship, the conflict is Alice reckoning with the divergence in her and Charlie’s upbringings, offering the final point of contrast before her life weaves away from ordinary. In Part III, we open in a scene on a day Charlie’s discontent with his job hits the fan, the same day, it so happens, that Alice makes a gesture toward Miss Ruby of the servant Sutton family that leads to her increasing influence over Jessica Sutton’s fate. We end with Charlie’s decision to stop drinking, the family reunited. In Part IV, the day we get, we get from beginning to end: from Alice’s waking up and reading the news with Charlie (discussing precisely the story she’ll end up interfering with later in the day) to the climactic fight she has with him at day’s end; the day is bookended with them physically together, and progresses through a series of more and less confrontational meetings: with Gladys Wycomb, with Dena and Pete, with Edgar Franklin, with Ella, and finally with Charlie himself as she confronts the burden of the role she’s been thrust into.  

Through the figure of Dena, Sittenfeld shows in a concrete way what Alice has lost by being with Charlie and entering his upper-class world: a connection to her more ordinary roots. In the final section, Alice’s reconnecting with Dena would then seem to indicate that she’s retaken something of her former self, thus providing a concrete impetus for her to realize, on this day of all days, that she could be acting differently as First Lady.

Aside from varying the time spans in the different parts, another way Sittenfeld imbues tension in such a long-ranging narrative is using the retrospective perspective to mention future events that pique the reader’s interest, and by contrasting the quaintness of past times with what we know is to come, like when she observes the meager crowds at the events for Charlie’s early Congressional run. By the fourth part, this perspective allows her to give us flashbacks of scenes that didn’t happen on the one day the part’s occurring.

Sittenfeld has used a lot of historical detail here, but at the same time she’s changed some basics: the Blackwells being from Wisconsin instead of Texas, into meats instead of oil, alums of Princeton instead of Yale. Another instance is the car wreck that kills Andrew Imhof—Laura Bush really did get in a car accident when she was seventeen that killed one of her classmates, though she was not alone in the car as Alice is in the novel. But there has been speculation about whether the classmate Laura Bush killed was her boyfriend or just a “close friend,” and Sittenfeld takes maximum dramatic advantage of this possibility with a powerful throughline and ending: the alternate life Alice might have had with Andrew. In real life, Laura Bush may or may not have become First Lady if she hadn’t gotten in that fatal accident; in Sittenfeld’s narrative it seems highly likely, especially with the conclusion, that Alice would have married Andrew if he hadn’t died, and led a happy ordinary life. We’re left to wonder about a chain of impacts and consequences that no doubt does have its parallel manifestation in the real world: if Alice marries Andrew and doesn’t marry Charlie, perhaps then Charlie is never driven to quit drinking and become President, and the Iraq War doesn’t happen, and then god knows where we’d be today…

Sittenfeld’s treatment of Alice is like a reading-between-the-lines of fawning biographies and news stories; Laura Bush is quoted as saying the accident when she was 17 caused her to lose her faith “for many, many years”; in Sittenfeld’s story, she’s never regained her faith, but the populace assumes she shares her husband’s. Her beliefs diverge from her husband’s much more significantly than her husband’s campaign team will ever allow to be revealed. Sittenfeld’s taken a pile of material with a dearth of substance and revealed a story behind that lack of substance that, though it can never be verified, seems entirely plausible.

A couple of glaring adjustments to the historical record here are that Charlie’s father himself was never President, and that Alice and Charlie only have one daughter. The conflict with this daughter in the novel is not that she’s a rebellious seeker of pleasure, as per the reputation of the Bush twins, but rather that Alice ends up producing a carbon copy of Charlie from whom privilege has eradicated any capacity for empathy. Fortunately, Alice has established for herself a liberal surrogate daughter in Jessica Sutton, as Ella calls her out for toward the novel’s end:

“No, I’m totally not threatened by this woman who’s close to my own age, who you spend all your time with and like better than me. Not one little bit!”

In this regard it seems like Alice almost gets to have her cake and eat it too; her relationship with Ella seems warm despite Alice’s reliance on Jessica and the divergence in their beliefs. This feels similar to her conclusion about whether she’s done enough as First Lady, how culpable she is for the war casualties. 

It seems possible that the change from meat to oil for the Bush-based clan could have been inspired by a famous Texas Ranger, Nolan Ryan, of the baseball team that George W. actually owned, now running Nolan Ryan’s Beef. And while she didn’t make the George H.W. stand-in a President, she does seem to capture a realistic characteristic of his in his “sentimental streak,” though Alice’s attitude toward it is one of the ways her perspective seems conveniently myopic:

…there was nothing else in the world as endearing to me as Harold Blackwell’s sentimental streak. It was enough to make me wonder if there were other elected officials I was as wrong about as I’d been about him. Were there men (and it would be primarily men) who, instead of creating personas that were fakely righteous and honorable, were the opposite: fakely cruel, fakely callous? Men who, through the distortion of the media or a perceived pressure to act a certain way, sublimated, at least in public, their own decency and kindness?

The juvenile competitive spirit Sittenfeld captures among the Blackwell brothers also rings entirely true and provides some critical insight into the general nature of politicians, driven to prestigious roles out of a petty desire to prove themselves and be perceived as better than others rather than to actually help others. The Blackwell brothers try to one-up one another about stupid, irrelevant things; this is the nature of the stubbornness and determination that takes them so far. The Halcyon compound that is their pride and joy also has an interesting detail: it only has one toilet, which doesn’t work very well, to accommodate eighteen people, a fact the Blackwells take perverse pride in. This seems potentially symbolic of an old world order crumbling, falling apart; despite George H.W. referring to the “new world order” ushered in during his presidency, political nepotism is hardly new, and hardly eradicated.

The current presidential era would seem to indicate that now more than ever we need the female perspective in politics. Ultimately Alice’s judgment of her husband, though tempered, seems to be that he wasn’t worthy of the job in the first place, and that he’s done significant damage in the role. There’s something somewhat disheartening about her apparent conclusion that she should have done more, but that really, she can’t. But she has at least borne witness to his foolishness, especially when she compares his insistence on continuing the war to the time she tried to use the restroom in an unfamiliar country club, walked past it, but didn’t turn around when she realized her mistake for fear of revealing to others that she was ignorant and didn’t belong there.

Alice, it seems, becomes the symbol for all American wives, not just ones married to Presidents—positioned to form the most accurate perspective on their husbands, sometimes able to influence them, perhaps, more often, not. Her realization at the end that she has sacrificed her ideals and loved someone else all along might symbolize that ultimately all wives wind up in a position they don’t really want to be in—subservient, identities subsumed. In her review of the novel for the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates begins by asking “Is there a distinctly American experience?” and concludes that the novel shows how “[t]he ideal American wife can only retreat into a kind of female solace of opacity.” 


Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Book 1 of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend, first covers Lila and Lenù’s childhood, which culminates in the decision that defines the diverging paths their lives take: Elena getting to advance to middle school while Lila goes to work for her family in the shoe shop. It then covers adolescence, which involves Elena’s relationship with Antonio and culminates with Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the wealthy neighborhood grocer Stefano Caracci.

Book 2, The Story of a New Name, covers the struggles in Lila’s marriage, her affair with Nino Sarratore, having his son (or so she believes) before leaving Stefano and moving into an apartment in a poor neighborhood with Enzo and going to work at a salami factory while Nino vanishes. Concurrently, Elena graduates from college, has a novel published, and is about to get married to the son of an important well-connected family.

Book 3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, begins with another leap ahead in time, this time to the last time Elena saw Lila, in 2005, when they come upon a crowd looking at a dead body that turns out to be Michele’s “ex-wife,” Gigliola Spagnuolo. Lila tells Lenù never to write about her, Lila, and that if she does, she’ll find the files on her computer and delete them.

We then pick up from Book 2’s end with Nino’s appearance at Elena’s first reading for her novel at the bookstore in Milan. After Elena signs some books, Adele invites Nino to dinner with them—with her and Elena and her assistant Tarratano—and he accepts. On the way, he makes a comment to Elena that Lila “was made badly…even when it comes to sex.” Elena is contemplating seducing him when Adele announces she has a surprise: Pietro has come, and has accepted a job as a professor in Florence, where they’ll move. Elena encounters both good and bad reviews of her book; people keep focusing on “the dirty pages” and she realizes that’s the main reason the book is selling well. She travels to give more readings and Adele sends Tarratano with her, who encourages her not to be apologetic about the book’s risqué passages, shortly before he creepily tries to sleep with her.

At a university in Milan, Elena ends up skipping her reading after following some students to some sort of demonstration, and she sees a girl there nursing her baby, then runs into her old boyfriend Franco Mari, then Pietro’s sister Mariarosa, who invites her to stay with her, which Elena accepts. Sylvia, the girl with the baby, also lives with Mariarosa, along with an older painter. They discuss revolution and Elena finds out Silvia’s baby, whom she feels surprisingly maternal toward, is Nino’s. Franco insults her novel as frivolous for the times. That night she is disgusted when the older painter tries to sleep with her. Back in Naples, Pietro comes to meet her parents, who are angry about his decision to not get married in the church and only have a civil ceremony, but the visit is relatively successful and her family takes to Pietro. They even go out to eat at a restaurant, where her brothers start a fight with a table of people they think are making fun of the way Pietro looks.

Adele helps get them an apartment in Florence and some new clothes. Pasquale and Enzo show up outside her parents’ place one night and say Lila wants to see her. At her apartment outside the neighborhood, Lila receives Elena and recounts what she’s been going through at the salami factory since she burned The Blue Fairy in the courtyard bonfire at the end of Book 2. She’s been anxious and having trouble sleeping. She helps Enzo (whom she’s not sleeping with) study for a correspondence course related to computers. The men she works with at the factory grope and harass her, but when she goes to Bruno to complain, he tells her not to make trouble for him. Then, a bit later, he comes on to her, but she manages to rebuff him. She does computer diagrams with Enzo but won’t tell him of the bad conditions at her job. Then Pasquale starts hanging out with them regularly and telling them about his Communist activities fighting the Fascists, who are headed in the old neighborhood by Gino, the pharmacist’s son.

One day Pasquale brings Lila’s mother Nunzia over, but it doesn’t go well, Nunzia blaming Lila for the family’s downfall. Pasquale gets Lila to go to a couple of Communist meetings, at one of which is Nadia, Professor Galiani’s daughter. She convinces Lila to speak, and Lila tells everyone in vivid detail about the horrible conditions at the salami factory. A few days later, someone from the meeting is outside the gates at the factory and gives Lila a pamphlet with everything she described at the meeting written up in it. She denies her involvement to her coworkers and to Bruno, but gets harassed by the guard Filippo. Her conditions at work worsen and her heart starts pounding in her throat and she starts seeing figures and feels her mind collapsing. Then Gino and the fascists show up to beat up the communists outside the factory gate and Gino recognizes her.

Unable to find Pasquale, Lila goes to Professor Galiani’s to find Nadia to tell them to stop their activities. She talks to the professor awhile before Nadia shows up with Pasquale. Gino and the fascists show up at the gate again and just as Gino is about to beat Lila up, Pasquale pulls up and intervenes. A small group of people at the factory get together with Lila and make a list of demands to improve their working conditions. At a meeting with Nadia and Pasquale, Lila’s dissolving sickness comes on and Armando (a doctor) examines her and says she has a murmur and needs to see a cardiologist, but she refuses. That night, afraid of what her mind will do while she’s alone, she asks to sleep with Enzo.

The next day, when Lila goes to take Bruno the list of demands, Michele Solara is in his office. He tells her about the neighborhood and about how they’ve expanded and now Stefano’s practically ruined. He goes on about all the impressive stuff Lila’s done before making some crude remarks about her character that induce her to try to attack him; he says she doesn’t work for Saccavo, she works for him, since Saccavo is in debt to the Solaras. Bruno calls her back in after he’s seen the list of demands to yell at her, and she quits. That’s when she sent Enzo and Pasquale for Elena. They talk about sex, Lila saying it was always unpleasant for her and Elena saying it’s not like that for her, and Lila referencing Elena’s book for the first time, saying it must be like that for her if she wrote those things. Lila says she wants to move back to the old neighborhood.

Before Elena leaves for Florence to get married, she tries to do everything she can for Lila, including getting her to a cardiologist, who says she’s fine but might need a neurologist, who says her body needs rest, and then they both go get birth control pills. Elena also gets Pietro to get a lawyer to get Bruno to pay Lila what he owes her, and a potential job connection for Enzo who turns out to be impressed by the diagramming Lila made him do. Adele convinces Elena to write a newspaper article about the factory conditions that’s well received. Elena finds an apartment for Lila in the neighborhood and finds out Michele is moving to a richer one, which she thinks bodes well. She goes to try to talk to him at his house but only Gigliola is there, who winds up opening up to her about how Michele sleeps around and mistreats her and how he’s always been in love with Lila. Then Elena goes to see Alfonso, who’s managing the fancy shoe shop for the Solaras that Lila used to; he tells her he’s marrying Marisa, who’s pregnant, because Michele wants him to—but that he’s actually queer.

Back in the neighborhood, Lila and Elena run into all the people they know, including Melina, who is watching Stefano’s daughter that he had with Ada (Melina’s daughter). Melina remarks that Gennaro looks just like Ada’s daughter and that they both look just like Stefano; Lila realizes it’s true and that Gennaro isn’t Nino’s. Elena goes to say goodbye to Professor Galiani, who tells her to bring Lila, and there they run into Nadia and Pasquale, who give Elena shit for helping Lila out with her bourgeois connections and abandoning everyone else involved in the struggle. Galiani finally arrives and is rude to Elena but praises Lila. When they part, Lila tells Elena she expects great things from her and loves her, but Elena is bitter about how she seems ungrateful for what she did for her, and how she still feels inferior to her, and secretly wishes Lila would become ill and die.

For years after Elena leaves Naples, she and Lila only talk on the phone. Elena marries Pietro, whom she thought would be okay waiting to have children so she can write, but he isn’t, and she becomes pregnant the first night they’re married—the first night they sleep together, during which Elena discovers that sex with him is painful and unsatisfying. Lila calls after she hears from Elena’s mother that she’s pregnant and says she thought Elena was on the Pill so she could write her book; Lila says she never wants to be pregnant again (“she seemed ready to consider any possible joy I found in motherhood a betrayal”). When Elena wins a prize for her book, Lila insults a pompous quote from her speech that appeared in the paper. The pregnancy goes well until Elena gets a pain in her buttocks that makes her start to limp (like her mother!). After the birth, when she tells Lila it was wonderful, Lila responds, “‘Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.’”

The baby, Adele, or Dede, won’t breastfeed or sleep well, and Pietro is utterly unhelpful, staying in his study until late. Lila calls at the moments Elena’s “particularly desperate” and Elena lies and acts like everything is fine, though she wants to yell at Lila for cursing her. As things deteriorate, Pietro finally gets Adele to come, who hires Clelia to help, against Pietro’s wishes. He takes his mounting frustrations at the university, where he’s not respected, out on his mother and tells his wife nothing. She realizes Pietro is considered dull, agrees with that assessment, and won’t sleep with him because she doesn’t want to get pregnant again. He makes an effort and brings some guests home to dinner that she flirts with and then even starts meeting with one (Mario), and Dede, though only two years old, threatens to tell Pietro. She can’t get her writing going again and considers marriage a prison and finds Pietro’s sister Mariarosa’s liberated tendencies enthralling. Eventually she starts messing around with Mario, but when he tries to get her to give him a blow job, she rushes home and makes love with Pietro and gets pregnant again.

She calls her mother and gets her to come help, and starts calling Lila every day to get her imagination going for her writing. Lila’s most enthusiastic subject is Enzo’s work with computers, and she’s gotten hired on to work as his assistant at IBM, trying to make the machine do things people do by punching diagrams of holes in cards. She says they’re rich now. She reports beatings in the neighborhood between the communists and fascists and speculates that Manuela Solara (Michele and Marcello’s mother) is the one who murdered Don Achille because she had the most to gain, taking over his loan shark business when he died. Elena tries to write that story as a novel, and to it finish before the baby is born. When she finally sends the manuscript to Adele, her mother-in-law calls and tells her it isn’t publishable the same day Elena later goes into labor. She then calls Lila and asks her to read the manuscript without mentioning the birth. Her mother leaves and Elena fires Clelia. Lila calls after reading the manuscript saying that she doesn’t know how to read books anymore, and when Elena demands she be honest, Lila starts sobbing and says it’s an ugly book and the first one was too and they aren’t her.

Abandoning the manuscript, Elena devotes herself to motherhood; the first baby prepared her, and the second baby, named Elsa after her sister Elise (instead of after her mother, which is part of why her mother left), is good—but she goes on the Pill. Pietro is sick from the stress of working late and not sleeping. She realizes he wants a subservient wife who will just listen to him and not speak, the opposite of his mother and sister, but she’s not driven toward others this time. Mariarosa visits, and hanging out with her and her friends inspires Elena to read some feminist tracts. She’s wants to talk about them with Lila but can’t in the face of her hard news from the neighborhood, and knows Lila would think them ridiculous. Elena talks with Mariarosa more, angering Pietro, who is contemptuous of feminism; one night she insults him and he slaps her in front of Dede. He leaves the house until five in the morning, and she’s relieved he’s come back and he says he doesn’t deserve her. One day Pasquale and Nadia unexpectedly stop by and spend the night, and are generally rude. She hears from Mariarosa that Franco’s been attacked by fascists and lost his eye, but when she goes to visit he doesn’t want to see her. She also visits Sylvia, who was also attacked with him, and raped. Her son Mirko resembles Nino.

Two months after Pasquale’s visit, Elena gets a call from Carmen—Pasquale’s disappeared and the police are looking for him. When Elena’s getting ready to leave on vacation, Lila calls and asks her to take Gennaro; Elena resists but gives in. Enzo brings him and when he’s a replica of Stefano, Elena is pleased Nino left Lila nothing. Enzo stays the night and talks about how he and Lila have moved to an even bigger company and are making even more money. Enzo tells her Michele has never stopped making Lila offers to work for him, and how Gennaro disappeared after school one day and wouldn’t answer questions about what happened when he turned up. Michele offered Lila a lot of money to be head tech of a System 3 computer he’s getting, and he also got Alfonso’s wife Marisa pregnant. When she asks Lila why she didn’t tell her any of this, Lila is cold and says she left and it’s none of her business, they’re too crude for her.

Elena goes to the beach with the three children while Pietro stays home and works; once she catches Dede and Genarro naked together and examining each other, and debates what to do but winds up scolding them. She wonders if she was ever attracted to Lila but pushes such questions away. Pietro shows her the news in the paper that two men and a woman broke into the salami factory and killed Bruno Saccavo. Gino’s also been shot and killed, and Elena starts to think Lila might be behind it. Awhile after she sends Gennaro back to Lila, Lila calls with the news that she’s head of Michele’s IBM data-processing center. When Elena says she can’t believe Lila gave in, Lila brings up Elena’s sister. Elena has to call her mother to learn that her sister Elisa is engaged to Marcello Solara, who’s also arranged jobs of a suspicious variety for her brothers. Elena takes her family to Naples for the first time since she’s been married.

When she arrives, she goes to the apartment where her sister lives with Marcello and eventually confesses to her sister, despite her sister’s excessive happiness, that she disapproves of the relationship. Then everyone comes over for a surprise party, and, much to Elena’s dismay, Marcello has their luggage brought from their hotel so they can stay with them. Gigliola shows up with her children and Manuela Solara comes; it’s her 60th birthday. Lila comes and it’s the first time that they’ve seen each other since before her marriage (they’re 30 years old), but they barely speak. Michele gives a long speech that winds around to praising Lila (and comparing her to his mother). He also gives Elena a German translation of her novel that she didn’t know existed from Antonio. Pietro spends a long time talking to Lila at dinner, then disparages her later to Elena, because he’s threatened by her, Elena thinks. They visit Michele’s IBM center and Lila tells Elena that Nino is back in Naples teaching. Stefano was arrested for having stolen goods and now Lila has to give him money, so she thinks it’s good she left him. She also talks about a comment Alfonso made about wanting to be a woman like her if he were a woman, and she talks about disappearing. Elena feels her life is motionless while Lila has complete freedom, and imagines Lila will get Nino to divorce his wife.

When she gets back to Florence, she fights with Pietro over an incident with a student and hangs out with feminists; Mariarosa encourages her to write about a perspective on men and women that echoes what Lila said about Alfonso saying he would be her if he were a woman—that Franco was only with her to mold her in the image of what he would be like as a woman. She starts writing about “the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds.” Then one day, Pietro brings home Nino, whom he encountered in the course of work at the university. Nino takes them out to a restaurant and charms the family. He tells Pietro he needs to give Elena time to write. He says he’ll be back in a month, and Elena, encouraged, gets a draft done and gives it to him the next time they go out to dinner (with his wife and son), and he calls the next morning praising it before she goes out shopping with his wife. Later, Nino comes and stays with them for ten days; near the end of his visit he starts goading and insulting Pietro, causing Pietro to take a sleeping pill and go to bed early, and Elena to finally sleep with Nino.

She and Nino start calling each other constantly, and arrange to see each other in her apartment in Florence while she leaves Pietro at the beach with the children. She soon says she’s ready to tell Pietro and leave him, on the condition that Nino leave his wife, but Nino wavers, causing her to say it’s over between them. Pietro catches her in a lie and brings up her flirting with the men he brought home years ago, then asks if there’s anything between her and Nino, and she shouts that she has no choice but to go now. But she stays. Then one day shegets Nino’s wife on the phone instead of him and she yells at Elena, so Elena knows Nino has told her. He presses her to go to a conference with him, and she confesses to Pietro that they’re lovers, and Pietro makes her tell the children whom she’s leaving him for. He makes them believe that if she goes to the conference she’ll never come back, and they’re so upset she promises them she won’t go, but then she does. Right before she’s about to leave, Lila calls saying first that Manuela Solara has been murdered and then that she’s going to send Gennaro to her because of the bad climate in the neighborhood. When Elena tells her she can’t because she’s leaving her husband for Nino, Lila contemptuously declares she’s a fool. Elena gets on a plane for the first time to go to France for the conference with Nino. The end. For now. 

In this installment’s opening chapter, Lila’s reference to her ability to infiltrate Elena’s computer files foreshadows the turn in her career path that will once again give her the upper hand in their shifting power dynamic. Their power struggle continues in the third installment, with Elena being able to use her connections to help Lila at her lowest point, losing her mind from the pressure to do something about the poor conditions at the salami factory. Elena makes the connection explicit:

In the past Lila had opened the miraculous drawer of the grocery store and had bought me everything, especially books. Now I opened my drawers and paid her back, hoping that she would feel safe, as I now did.

This period is the buildup to Elena finally getting to escape Naples, which in and of itself elevates her significantly above Lila in their struggle, and neatly coincides with the point Lila returns to the neighborhood. (Of course, Elena’s leaving and Lila’s staying are, according to the title, the defining events of this installment.) Elena gets married roughly halfway through the book, in chapter 62, at the same time Lila’s moved back to the neighborhood, is regaining her footing, and is starting to undo some of the damage done in her absence by the Solaras. Elena’s marriage marks the definitive point of separation for them even more than Lila’s did:

In Milan, encouraged by Adele, I bought a cream-colored suit for the wedding, it looked good on me, the jacket was fitted, the skirt short. When I tried it on I thought of Lila, of her gaudy wedding dress, of the photograph that the dressmaker had displayed in the shop window on the Rettifilo, and the contrast made me feel definitively different. Her wedding, mine: worlds now far apart.

While Lila’s wedding/marriage was the climax of the first installment, Elena’s is the center of the third. The arc of this installment is the buildup to and the subsequent letdown of this major event. Right before Elena leaves for Florence, she gets two challenges to the potential of her new life and its connections when she takes Lila with her to say goodbye to Professor Galiani. While there, Elena first comes under attack from Pasquale and Nadia for how she “resolved” the Saccavo factory situation by calling her connections (with Lila saying they’re right), and then Professor Galiani essentially ignores Elena and says nothing about her book while effusively complimenting the pages Lila wrote for their communist meeting about the factory that Nadia left lying around. Here, in the site of a power reversal that happened in the previous book—the party where Elena felt at home and Lila felt alienated—the power is reversed again when Professor Galiani seems to be pointing out implicitly that everything Elena has actually originates with Lila—the pages about the factory Lila wrote are the source material for Elena’s article in the newspaper about it; Professor Galiani, being one of the only ones to see both source material and article, would be able to tell how she’d taken it from Lila. But then when they leave her apartment, Lila tries to amend this reversal by saying Professor Galiani treated Elena poorly like that out of jealousy for Elena’s recent success and increasing prominence. Kind of like how when Lila is again in a position of power over Elena—issuing an opinion on her second book manuscript—she subverts it by saying Elena is the one who has to do what she couldn’t.

Of course, inevitably, leaving Naples is not the saving grace it was supposed to be. The lesson of the fulfillment of Elena’s lifelong desire is definitely to be careful what you wish for. What enabled Elena’s success and the possibility of her leaving is then debilitated by the act of her leaving—separated from Lila, her imagination is not sufficiently sparked for her writing. Even before the wedding happens, Elena is at odds with Pietro over having children, and motherhood is the struggle that Lila predicted (though of course Elena will never admit this to Lila). As Elena descends in the arc of her success, failing to replicate her early intellectual accomplishments as motherhood overwhelms her, Lila ascends in her arc, getting a job under Enzo working with computers and eventually getting paid even more than Enzo under Michele, whom she claims to be using rather than the other way around. Elena learns of Lila’s apparent capitulation to the Solaras at the same time she learns of her own family’s entrenchment with them—not only is her sister engaged to Marcello, but her brothers are now working for them. Elena hasn’t escaped the neighborhood so thoroughly after all.  

Book 3 begins and ends with Elena in the company of Nino, after her first reading in the bookstore at the beginning, and on a plane for the first time leaving her family to go to a conference with him at the end. This volume concludes with an objective correlative description of the effect of Nino on her life:

At times I had the impression that the floor under my feet—the only surface I could count on—was trembling.

Following the pattern established at the beginning of the first book, Elena follows in Lila’s footsteps by ruining herself and her marriage to be with Nino. It’s interesting to map the consequences of Elena’s infidelities in the narrative: fooling around with Mario drives her back into Pietro’s arms, resulting in the unwanted pregnancy of her second child, while her flirtation with and desire for Nino drives her to complete her first successful piece of writing in a decade. The subject matter of that writing project makes Nino’s influence even more ironic: the invention of woman by man. Elena thought Franco trying to make her more cultured in college was the primary example of this phenomenon in her own life, but many of the major events in her life have occurred because of men: her first novel would not have been published without her engagement to Pietro; she caved to Pietro’s wishes not to put off having a child; when she was able to put him off from having more children, Mario’s influence led her to conceive Elsa; and she only finished her second book because of the motivation of Nino. While the ostensible point of this entire four-volume narrative is to show how she would not be who she is without Lila, she’s also very much a woman invented by men.

A big moment for Elena and Lila’s relationship occurs when Lila summons Elena the night she quits the salami factory. Among other things, Lila confides details about her sex life, specifically that she’s never gotten pleasure from sex, not even with Nino. Elena refuses to return this confidence, though her novel has essentially already returned that confidence for her. But Pietro turning out to be a terrible lover almost seems like implicit revenge for this potential rejection of Lila, Elena’s wedding night offering its own parallel violence to Lila’s:

As soon as we got to our apartment and closed the door we began to make love. At first it was very pleasurable, but the day reserved for me yet another surprising fact. Antonio, my first boyfriend, when he rubbed against me was quick and intense; Franco made great efforts to contain himself but at a certain point he pulled away with a gasp, or when he had a condom stopped suddenly and seemed to become heavier, crushing me under his weight and laughing in my ear. Pietro, on the other hand, strained for a time that seemed endless. His thrusting was deliberate, violent, so that the initial pleasure slowly diminished, overwhelmed by the monotonous insistence and the hurt I felt in my stomach. He was covered with sweat from his long exertions, maybe from suffering, and when I saw his damp face and neck, touched his wet back, desire disappeared completely. But he didn’t realize it, he continued to withdraw and then sink into me forcefully, rhythmically, without stopping. I didn’t know what to do. I caressed him, I whispered words of love, and yet I hoped that he would stop. When he exploded with a roar and collapsed, finally exhausted, I was content, even though I was hurting and unsatisfied.

In light of Nino’s comment that Lila is “made badly” when it comes to sex, Lila’s confession that she’s never derived sexual pleasure from her experiences with men raises the possibility that she might be more attracted to women. While the scene near the climax of the first book when Elena bathes Lila on the morning of her wedding day is rife with homoerotic undertones, Elena seems to consider the topic most directly here in the third book when she comes upon her daughter and Lila’s son naked and examining each other.

With difficulty I reached the point of asking myself: had she and I ever touched each other? Had I ever wished to, as a child, as a girl, as an adult? And her? I hovered on the edge of those questions for a long time. I answered slowly: I don’t know, I don’t want to know. And then I admitted that there had been a kind of admiration for her body, maybe that, yes, but I ruled out anything ever happening between us. Too much fear, if we had been seen we would have been beaten to death.

She dismisses the possibility that they would have done anything because of the repercussions, not because the desire wasn’t there…

So now we wait to see just how well Elena’s choice or Nino over her family will turn out, and how accurate Lila’s assessment that Elena is a fool will be. Likely fairly accurate it would seem…



Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 2: The Story of A New Name

Book 1 of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels concluded with the Solara brothers barging in on Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, the original shoes that Lila designed and made and sold to Stefano on Marcello’s feet. Book 2 begins with a first chapter that functions like a prologue, jumping ahead to a moment in 1966, then circling back to pick up right where we left off.

We open with Elena describing Lila giving her a box of her notebooks for safekeeping from Stefano; Elena reads them after swearing to Lila she won’t, admires them with jealousy, then eventually dumps them in a river. We then return to the wedding. After seeing the shoes on Marcello, Elena immediately realizes the marriage is essentially over. Elena feels the need to provoke a semi violent confrontation with Antonio over her behavior with Nino to match what Lila’s going through with Stefano, and tries to get Antonio to penetrate her after they leave the wedding, but he won’t since they’re not married. Lila is furious about the shoes and after the wedding Stefano confesses he made some kind of business deal with the Solaras because it was necessary to make money, and that Marcello asked for the shoes so they gave them to him as a kind of good-will gesture to seal the deal. This makes Lila even angrier, and on the night of their honeymoon she tells Stefano she doesn’t want him and curses him, until he eventually beats and rapes her.

Elena has her ups and downs as a student, skipping school altogether for a period after the wedding, believing it’s not worth it to go on after the failure of her piece to get published in the journal Nino suggested. Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Elena’s books and Elena studies at their house when her grades dip again after she breaks up with Antonio, who was jealous of Nino and emasculated when Elena got Lila to go to the Solaras to try to get Antonio out of his army service. Elena’s still in love with Nino, who’s dating the daughter of her teacher, Professor Galiani, who one day invites Elena to a party; Lila accompanies her and they see Nino there. Elena feels far more comfortable with the students at the party than her friends in the neighborhood, but on the way home Lila mocks Elena mercilessly about the stuck-up crowd and how Elena sounds around them (out of jealousy really, since she didn’t go past elementary school and now works in her husband’s–really the Solaras’–shoe store in the rich neighborhood).

After working for a period at a bookstore, Elena eventually takes Lila up on her offer of paying Elena as an employee if Lila goes to Ischia on vacation, but only because Elena knows Nino is going there to study with his rich friend Bruno. They also go with Pinuccia, who’s married to Rino now and pregnant; Rino and Stefano visit on the weekends for the month of July, during which period Nino and Lila fall violently in love. Elena, who’s denied her feelings for Nino to Lila this whole time, is miserable in the midst of this development, and lets Nino’s creepy father Donato take her virginity on the beach after helping arrange for Nino and Lila to be able to spend the night together. When Michele Solara visits by surprise and sees Nino and Lila holding hands, resulting in a violent confrontation when Stefano shows up, they leave Ischia, and Elena and Lila don’t see each other for over a year.

When Elena graduates from high school and is getting ready to leave for a university in Pisa to study on scholarship (finally getting out of not just the neighborhood, but Naples), she goes to see Lila where she works at the shoe store in the rich neighborhood. Lila congratulates Elena on getting to leave, and then calls Nino out from where he’s hiding; they’ve been seeing each other at the store on the sly. Elena leaves for Pisa, where she gets a rich boyfriend, Franco Mari, who shows her some of the more cultured ways of the world, and everything that happens to Lila during this time, Elena finds out later: Lila gets pregnant by Nino, leaves Stefano and gets an apartment with Nino, where they live for 23 days until he gets annoyed by the way she’s abrasive when they’re in public and how she’s interfering with his studying, and leaves and doesn’t come back. Then Enzo shows up at her apartment after Antonio, who now works as hired muscle for the Solaras after being discharged from the army, finds Lila at Stefano’s/the Solaras’ behest. She goes back to Stefano and has the baby (whom she names Rino), and while she tells Stefano several times that the baby isn’t his, he refuses to believe it.

The Solaras start to essentially rip off Stefano and Fernando and Rino when they get a different shoe factory to manufacture Lila’s original design and these sell better than the shoes Fernando and Rino make in their factory. Then Lila finds out that Stefano’s been sleeping with Antonio’s sister Ada since before Lila got with Nino, and after she gets pregnant Ada eventually gets more demanding, showing up at the house, etc., until Stefano tells Lila he’s moving her to a house that Michele Solara claimed to have bought for her to move into with him when he tried to get her to leave Stefano, and she realizes her husband has sold her. She leaves with Enzo and they get a cheap place in a different bad neighborhood, and though Enzo loves her, she tells him she won’t sleep with him.

Meanwhile, Elena’s first boyfriend Franco gets kicked out of school for failing an exam, and she gets mocked for being from Naples and for being easy, but then a new guy, Pietro, starts pursuing her whom she eventually finds out is a university professor’s son. Meeting his family, she realizes she’ll always be fundamentally different from people who grew up with the advantage of a cultured upbringing. She and Pietro work on their lit theses together, but the professors treat Pietro with more respect. When they graduate, Elena gives Pietro as a gift the manuscript of her novel, generated from her writing about the episode of Donato Sarratore taking her virginity. Pietro sends her a letter when she’s at home after graduating saying his mother Adele knows someone who wants to publish it. After Elena, stunned with joy at this fulfillment of her and Lila’s childhood dream, signs a contract that will actually pay her money for her book, Maestra Oliviero dies before she can tell her about it, and she gets a box of her old notebooks from one of Maestra Oliviero’s relatives. In one of these she finds the novel Lila wrote when she was ten, “The Blue Fairy,” with comments from Maestra Oliviero all over it about how good it is, which angers Elena since Maestra Oliviero dismissed it at the time and never said anything good about it to either of them. Rereading it, Elena realizes that it provided the core of her own novel.

Elena goes to find Lila to tell her what she’s learned, but when she gets to her new neighborhood she finds out that Lila is working in a salami factory owned by Nino’s friend Bruno’s family. She goes to the factory to find her, and sees her working in brutal conditions. Lila doesn’t seem to remember “The Blue Fairy” when Elena tells her about it, and after Elena gives her the copy of it she turns around and sees Lila burning it in the courtyard bonfire.

When Elena’s novel comes out, her parents seem proud, but no one from the neighborhood actually reads it. She gives her first public reading at a bookstore, and Pietro’s too busy to come. The Q&A doesn’t seem to be going terribly well when a young bearded man stands up and praises “the modernizing force” of her novel–Nino Sarratore. The End. 

The second installment continues the power struggle between Lila and Elena that the first book established. Book 1 ends with Lila at her high point–her fairytale wedding–with the seed of its undoing planted: Stefano giving away her shoes. Book 2 ends with Lila approaching a low point, evicted from the marriage that propelled her so far ahead of Elena in their power struggle in Book 1, she’s now performing slave labor at the salami factory. Not coincidentally, Lila approaches her low point as Elena approaches her high one, the publication of her novel, the fulfillment of that dream that she and Lila had planned to do together. Of course, Lila was the one who betrayed that plan first by writing “The Blue Fairy” (though she only did that because Elena was too busy studying for the school entrance exam she wasn’t getting to take); the power struggle dictates that Elena reciprocate, and at the end of Book 2 she’s back on top–for the moment.

Money and education continue to define the terms of the struggle, especially when Lila takes on Elena as a theoretical employee:

On the road to the beach [Lila] made me carry her bag, and once we were at the beach she sent me back twice, first to get her a scarf, then because she needed some nail scissors. When I gave signs of protest she nearly reminded me of the money she was giving me. She stopped in time, but not so that I didn’t understand: it was like when someone is about to hit you and then doesn’t.

Then, when Lila wins Nino, leaving Elena with the sickening consolation prize of Donato Sarratore, Elena again feels the sting of their struggle:

Instead, as we were returning to Nunzia after our violations, I couldn’t get away from the usual confused sense of disparity, the impression—recurrent in our story—that I was losing something and she was gaining. So occasionally I felt the need to even the score, to tell her how I had lost my virginity between sea and sky, at night, on the beach at the Maronti. … I realized that to tell her about me and my pleasure didn’t matter to me, I would tell my story only to induce her to tell hers and find out how much pleasure she had had with Nino and compare it with mine and feel—I hoped—in the lead. (emphasis mine)

When Elena helps Lila pull off the deceptions that enable Lila to spend the night with Nino, she does it partially as a result of the pressure of Lila’s paying her. Books and education, too, become a weapon in the war for the son of Sarratore, when Lila uses the books Professor Galiani let Elena borrow and impresses Nino with her conversation about them.

The box of Lila’s notebooks provided in the opening chapter is the perfect device for the narrator Elena to be able to provide, in detail, descriptions of what happens to Lila when Elena’s not there. It’s also an action/gesture that’s inherently related to the prologue of the first book (that is, of all the books), in which we learn that Lila in the present is trying to erase herself, and these books that we’re reading are Elena’s effort to not let her do that. When she throws Lila’s notebooks away at the beginning of the second book, that is essentially an act of erasing Lila that in writing the current books she’s atoning for. The notebook device works in particular to allow a first-person narrative that has full insight to what other characters are doing when that first person isn’t around, and it works for this narrative in particular because the characters are writers. Even once we surpass the point when Lila gave Elena the notebooks, which happens in chapter 103, the details Elena knows will be attributed to Lila having told her about them at a later point, and we know that Lila is a vivid storyteller, whether in written or oral form.

The notebooks are also a perfect symbol for Lila’s influence on Elena’s life trajectory. Elena studies the notebooks like she studied the letter Lila sent her when Elena was vacationing on Ischia in the first book. Book 2 presents us with a couple of major life plot points for Elena–that is, moments that determine the path and outcome of the rest of her life: going to college, and getting her book published, the latter arising from the former in that Elena meets her publishing connection through her college boyfriend. Neither of these things would have happened to her without Lila’s influence. As we see in the detailed description of Elena’s entrance interviews, she continues her pattern of taking Lila’s insights and passing them off as her own. Here is Lila’s insight about a Samuel Beckett play in chapter 48:

But, [Lila] added, the biggest impression had been made on her by a Dan Rooney. Dan Rooney, she said, is blind but he’s not bitter about it, because he believes that life is better without sight, and in fact he wonders whether, if one became deaf and mute, life would not be still more life, life without anything but life.

Then, at Elena’s entrance exams in chapter 80:

 I was depressed, I quickly lost confidence in what I was saying. The professor realized it and, looking at me ironically, asked me to talk about something I had read recently. I suppose he meant something by an Italian writer, but I didn’t understand and clung to the first support that seemed to me secure, that is to say the conversation we had had the summer before, on Ischia, on the beach of Citara, about Beckett and about Dan Rooney, who, although he was blind, wanted to become deaf and mute as well. The professor’s ironic expression changed slowly to bewilderment.

So without Lila, Elena would not have gone to college, and if she hadn’t gone to college, she might well not have had her career as a writer, since she might not have met Pietro and through him Adele. While Elena no doubt went through great emotional struggle to produce her first publication, the ease with which she gets her novel published without even trying is a little sickening:

“…But I haven’t even reread what I wrote.”

“You wrote only a single draft, all at once?” she asked, vaguely ironic.


“I assure you that it’s ready for publication.”

Lila influenced the development of Elena’s novel in other ways; if Lila hadn’t gotten with Nino, Elena wouldn’t have had the beach virginity scene to write about. And then, she rereads “The Blue Fairy” and understands that she’s essentially copied it. Elena sums up the force of Lila’s influence on her in one of her retrospective passages:

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine: to accommodate them, I am compelled to return to the narrative concerning me (and that had come to me unobstructed), and expand phrases that now sound too concise. For example, if Lila had gone to the Normale in my place would she ever have decided simply to make the best of things? And the time I slapped the girl from Rome, how much did her behavior influence me? How did she manage—even at a distance—to sweep away my artificial meekness, how much of the requisite determination did she give me, how much did she dictate even the insults? And the audacity, when, amid a thousand doubts and fears, I brought Franco to my room—where did that come from if not from her example? And the sense of unhappiness, when I realized that I didn’t love him, when I observed the coldness of my feelings, what was its origin if not, by comparison, the capacity to love that she had demonstrated and was demonstrating?

Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

Elena in turn influences Lila’s trajectory by being responsible for directing her to Ischia, where Nino is. But other factors play a role in the downfall of Signora Carracci besides the son of Sarratore. The climactic gesture from Book 1, Stefano and Rino betraying Lila by giving Marcello her original shoes, returns to play a pivotal role in their fortunes when the Solaras screw over the Cerullos by taking the shoe Lila designed and having them manufactured somewhere else and selling them without giving any of the profits to Stefano or the Cerullos. As Stefano takes increasing refuge in his failures in Ada, Lila is not only brushed to the side but then essentially sold to Michele Solara, at which point she takes refuge with the steadfast Enzo. Her connection to Nino through Elena then manifests again when Lila runs into Bruno and gets a job at the salami factory. She probably would have had to get a job to help Enzo support herself and her son anyway, but the fact that it comes through this figure reminiscent of the Ischia period is all the more poetic.

The theme of dissolving margins that originated with Lila’s New Year’s Eve 1958 episode in the first book continues to have its dimensions elucidated as Lila’s life as constructed at the end of the first book crumbles and dissolves across the arc of the second:

That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what most frightened Lila in the course of her life. The loss of those boundaries in her brother, whom she loved more than anyone in her family, had frightened her, and the disintegration of Stefano in the passage from fiancé to husband terrified her. I learned only from her notebooks how much her wedding night had scarred her and how she feared the potential distortion of her husband’s body, his disfigurement by the internal impulses of desire and rage or, on the contrary, of subtle plans, base acts. Especially at night she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dripping, and with it everything around, the furniture, the entire apartment and she herself, his wife, broken, sucked into that stream polluted by living matter.

Ferrante reinforces this theme with the episode of Lila redecorating her wedding portrait to hang in the shoe shop in the rich neighborhood, which she enlists Elena’s help with, foreshadowing how Elena will help Lila dissolve the boundaries of Signora Carracci in setting things up so Lila can spend the night with Nino. The theme also arises in the question of the boundaries between the different generations, when Stefano’s father Don Achille emerges from him after the wedding, and his true nature is revealed.

Having Nino show back up after his long disappearance to defend Elena’s novel is the perfect cliffhanger to segue to the next installment.


Illustration by Shonagh Rae


Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 1: My Brilliant Friend

Perhaps you’ve heard of the four-book series known as the Neapolitan Novels, published in English from 2012-2015, under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In one of the interviews this elusive author has given, she’s said that she intended the series to read as a single novel. It tells the story of the narrator Elena (Lenù) Greco’s relationship with her friend from childhood, Rafaella (Lila) Cerullo. It’s a complicated relationship. The first installment offers us their childhood and adolescence, as well as a hook from the present day of old age to justify the need to tell this particular story.

In the prologue, “Eliminating All the Traces,” we learn that our first-person narrator is writing this story after she gets a phone call from Rino, her friend Lila’s son, who tells her that Lila had disappeared. Elena recalls when Lila long ago expressed a desire to not just disappear, but erase any trace of her existence; she realizes Lila has disappeared on purpose. Angry, Elena starts writing down everything she remembers of her.

We start with childhood, “The Story of Don Achille.” Elena knew Lila for several years in their relatively impoverished and violent Naples neighborhood before they became friends; Lila was a troublemaker in school who then turned out to already know how to read and write. One day, when they finally play with their dolls together, Lila throws Elena’s down into a dark cellar they’re scared of; Elena, who copies Lila in all things despite being scared, follows suit with Lila’s doll, but when they go down to look they can’t find them, and Lila claims that Don Achille, an ogre-like man in the neighborhood whom everyone is terrified of, took them. In the meantime, Elena receives a proposal of marriage from Nino Sarratore, whom she likes but rejects in her depression over her lost doll. Lila and Elena then go to Don Achille’s door, Lila taking Elena’s hand on the way, the gesture that changes everything between them forever. Don Achille gives them money for new dolls, which they end up buying the novel Little Women with, harboring the dream that they’ll become rich writing novels. The two are competitive in school, though Lila’s better, but then Lila’s parents don’t let her advance to middle school, while Elena’s, despite reservations, do. When Lila pesters her father about letting her go, he throws her out a window, breaking her arm. Elena and Lila are friends with Carmela Peluso, and are at her house when her father, a degenerate gambler who used to have a carpenter shop that Don Achille apparently turned into a grocery, is arrested for murdering Don Achille.

At this point we transition to adolescence, “The Story of the Shoes.” We begin with Lila’s “dissolving margins” episode during New Year’s 1958—during which she momentarily sees physical boundaries as permeable, including those between people—then circle back to earlier, when Elena goes to middle school and Lila starts to work in the shoe shop. Elena hits puberty first, but continues to be aware of Lila’s influence and importance to her. She finds out Lila is secretly reading and is angry Lila will only talk to her about shoes. Lila comes up with a plan for her family to start making shoes at the shop, and designs some, in the interest of getting rich like the Solaras. Donato Sarratore publishes a book of poems that he dedicates to Elena’s neighbor Melina, an unbalanced woman whom this dedication further unbalances; Elena is more preoccupied with the fact that someone from their neighborhood published a book. Lila helps Elena pass her Latin exams. Lila hits puberty. One day, the Solaras try to get Elena and Lila to ride in their car, and Lila pulls her shoemaker’s knife on them. Elena sees the greater city of Naples for the first time when she starts high school. Lila’s beauty causes tension in their neighborhood social group (Ada, Antonio, Pasquale, Carmela, Enzo, Elena, Lila, Rino) when she attracts attention when they leave the neighborhood. Pasquale tells Lila about fascists and the black market, the origin of the money behind Don Achille’s—now Stefano’s—grocery in the neighborhood. Nino Sarratore is at Elena’s high school, but she becomes Gino’s girlfriend. Stefano the grocer invites them for a New Year’s celebration at his house, where he promises they will set off more fireworks than the Solaras, and Lila thinks he’s making a gesture that their generation should move past the violent history between the generation above them (Don Achille et al). They all go (we return to the starting point of Lila’s dissolving margins episode, which Elena only learns about when Lila tells her about it much later), and in their firework competition, the Solaras start firing guns at them. After this episode, Lila stops going to the shoe shop, and Rino shows Fernando the shoes he and Lila made, which infuriate Fernando, who told them he didn’t want them to make shoes. Elena breaks up with Gino for laughing at Alfonso, her classmate, friend, and Stefano’s younger brother. Pasquale and Marcello Solara both make proposals to Lila; she rejects both but only tells everyone about rejecting Marcello. Elena does well in school by studying a lot but also by writing about ideas she’s discussed with Lila. When the gang goes out to the rich part of town one night at Lila’s insistence, the gulf between them and the rich becomes glaringly apparent; Rino gets in an altercation and he and Pasquale are almost beaten up badly but are rescued by the Solara brothers. Marcello comes over to Lila’s and asks Fernando to see the pair of shoes Lila made, but Lila hides them instead of retrieving them for him. At the arrangement of Maestra Oliviero, Elena goes to spend a month of her summer vacation on Ischia, where the Sarratores end up coming to stay in the same house she is. Nino tells her he proposed to her as a child because he wanted to become friends with her and Lila and was jealous of their closeness. After an extended silence, Lila sends her a letter that Elena is jealous of the fluid writing style of before she absorbs the contents that Marcello has been coming over to Lila’s house and her parents believe them to be engaged. In the house on Ischia, Donato Sarratore, Nino’s father, kisses and molests Elena, and she leaves for Naples the next day. Lila gets her to ride in Stefano’s new car with her, and then Stefano buys the shoes Lila made from the shop. He also buys the shop next door for Fernando to expand and have a shoe factory. He then asks for Lila’s hand in marriage and she accepts, happy to be rescued from Marcello Solara’s pursuit. Back at school, Elena rebuffs Nino because he reminds her of his father. Lila starts throwing around Stefano’s money and lording about like a lady. When the Solaras spread rumors about Lila giving Marcello blow jobs, Stefano and Lila decide not to respond, conduct unheard of in their neighborhood; Pasquale, Enzo and Antonio take revenge for them, beating up the Solaras and trashing their car. In an attempt to keep up with Lila, Elena becomes Antonio’s girlfriend. She helps Lila deal with her antagonistic mother- and sister-in-law during the wedding preparations. At school, she challenges a religious idea by repeating something Lila said to her, and gets in a dispute with a teacher that Nino asks her to write about for a local journal; Lila helps Elena write the piece that induces Nino to say she writes better than he does. Elena uses Antonio to make Nino jealous, letting Antonio go into debt for clothes to take her to Lila’s wedding. The newly produced Cerullo shoes, which Fernando, against Stefano’s wishes, modified somewhat from the original design, don’t sell. When Stefano tells Lila that Silvio Solara is going to be the speechmaster at their wedding, she almost calls it off until Elena manages to convince her not to, but she makes him swear Marcello won’t come to the wedding. The morning of the ceremony, Elena bathes Lila and helps her get ready. Nino turns up at the wedding because his sister is Alfonso’s date. Pasquale drives their car to the reception so violently it makes Elena realize that thanks to school she doesn’t belong among this group anymore. At the reception, Elena’s mother has figured out that she’s with Antonio and forces her to sit with her until Elena escapes and sits with Nino, pissing Antonio off. Nino tells her they decided not to publish her article about her dispute with the religion teacher, crushing Elena’s dream about rising above and escaping the neighborhood by seeing her name in print. Just as Nino leaves, the Solara brothers enter, Marcello wearing the original pair of shoes that Rino and Lila made and that Stefano bought before proposing to Lila.  

Part of what reels you in with this book is that Ferrante is spinning two distinct narrative arcs—Elena’s and Lila’s—that complement and weave in and out of each other.

It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.

Hints are dropped along the way that these arcs will diverge by Elena leaving and Lila staying; we’re told in the prologue that Lila “had never left Naples in her life.” What’s fascinating about these arcs is the way they mutually impact each other; if you remove one, the other would necessarily be different; it’s precisely because of Lila that Elena is able to leave. But the prologue also offers a perhaps more subtle hint for where the direction of the entire series is headed: 

To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.

In addition to their interdependency, the first book’s title, My Brilliant Friend, underscores the pair’s interchangeability when it makes an appearance in-text. Since the title is in first person and our first-person narrator is Elena, the likely initial impression of the term is that Lila is Lenù’s brilliant friend, but in the text, it’s Lila using it to refer to Lenù:

“No, don’t ever stop: I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.”
I gave a nervous laugh, then said, “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over.”
“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

This is late in the book (chapter 57 of 62), and here we see each near the climax of their arcs, for this installment anyway: Elena’s arc is defined by her success in school, which is irrevocably influenced by Lila; Elena would not have done as well in school as she does without Lila intellectually challenging her. Lila, cut off from school early, pursues wealth, first in the form of trying to design and make shoes, then in a relationship with someone prominent in the neighborhood, Stefano the grocer; she’s described as plotting this outcome with Elena as a means of escaping Marcello. The question that keeps us going (in addition to the well-drawn characters) is will Elena and Lila be able to escape the toxic suck of their neighborhood and upbringing? How will their neighborhood’s influence and history impact their trajectories and manifest in their futures?

In their neighborhood, there’s a pervasive awareness of class, of people defined by their jobs and children defined by what their parents do: 

Carmela couldn’t believe that I had refused the son of the pharmacist, and she told Lila. She, surprisingly, instead of slipping away with the air of someone saying Who cares, was interested.


But above all it was now clear that I wasn’t clever: the young son of Don Achille had passed and I hadn’t, the daughter of Spagnuolo the pastry maker had passed and I hadn’t: one had to be resigned.

There are also certain rules and standards, which are upheld and enforced by violence. As Elena explains when she refuses to ride with the Solaras:

I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car, even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death, while at the same time my little brothers, Peppe and Gianni, young as they were, would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers.

Lila tries to escape by remaining in the neighborhood but changing its codes of conduct, to varying degrees of success—her father throwing her out the window for trying to insist on continuing school is, at the least, foreshadowing the fate of most of her most vehement efforts. Elena will try to escape literally through education, which is why an entire chapter is focused on when she gets to see the city outside the neighborhood for the first time going to high school. This pattern of school being her literal escape will continue (we see it in play when Elena gets to go to Ischia while back home Lila suffers through Marcello’s pursuit). What shifts and keeps the narrative going is Elena’s confidence in whether she’s capable of escaping or not. The climax of Lila’s wedding cements Lila in the neighborhood, possibly in a role where she might be able to change things, while on the way to the wedding reception, Elena realizes from Pasquale’s violent driving and the boys’ crude behavior that she doesn’t belong among the people who come from her neighborhood anymore. At the reception, Elena is pulled between the competing forces that define her—her school life, through the appearance of Nino, and her neighborhood life, via her date, her boyfriend Antonio. We see that Elena’s preference here is clearly Nino—and thus the life that school engenders. But then when Nino tells her her article wasn’t published, it makes her question everything—she’s not so sure she doesn’t belong among those of her neighborhood anymore. (In the beginning of book 2, when Elena begins to skip school, we’ll see the threat this publication failure poses to her trajectory.) Lila’s position is also challenged, in her case by the appearance of the Solaras at her wedding, which necessarily indicates betrayal on the part of the husband who was supposed to be the key to escaping her circumstances. 

Despite the fact that they’re pursuing different life paths—education versus wealth—Elena copying or attempting to copy Lila will be a pattern that recurs in different ways throughout the series. Elena attempts to define herself both through Lila and in opposition to her, but from the first book we understand that reacting to Lila, in one way or another, is the engine of Elena’s motivation; Lila gives her life meaning and is essentially the reason Elena does everything that she does. Lila is an essential part of her identity. (As a Telegraph review of a play adaptation of the series puts it, “both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.”) In the first chapter, this pattern is set up when Elena tells us:

I immediately did the same [as Lila], although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.

This before they’ve even spoken to each other yet.

In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway, paraphrasing novelist Michael Sharra, describes narrative arcs as “a power struggle between equal forces,” and tension rising by “shifting the power back and forth from one antagonist to the other.” A lot of the tension in Ferrante’s twin arcs is caused by Elena’s shifting relation to Lila—she’s second to her in elementary school, superior to her in middle school and her own puberty, inferior again once Lila hits puberty and Pasquale becomes interested in her, superior when she gets the opportunity to go to Ishchia, inferior again when Lila snags Stefano and money. Elena’s primary motivating force is to keep up with Lila; sometimes she lags behind, sometimes she perceives herself to be ahead. This power struggle is perfectly embodied in the chapter 57 quote from earlier when Lila orders Lenù to keep studying, telling her she’ll pay for it. Studying and school are Elena’s sources of power over Lila, and Lila attempts to control Elena’s studying, that source of power over herself, via wealth, her source of power over Elena.

The richness of the history we’re provided with as the backdrop to these events is in large part what imbues them with their emotional power and provides the novel a texture of complexity. Ferrante excels at balancing the retrospective perspective of her narrator, who already knows everything that’s happened, with the decidedly restricted perspective of a child and adolescent; these two different modes are almost like the pedals that propel the bicycle of the narrative along. As children, Elena and Lila experience the violence of their neighborhood as the state of normalcy and, based largely on what they’ve heard their parents say, are terrified of Don Achille. Take the description of Elena’s childhood perception of Don Achille taking the Pelusos’ carpenter shop and turning it into a grocery:

For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made up Don Achille. For years I saw his body—a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials—emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto.

Later, the reader will understand that Don Achille was so hated by the generation of Elena and Lila’s parents because he was a loan shark, and that he took the carpenter shop because Peluso was in debt to him that he was unable to pay back. The path that Don Achille’s dirty money takes after his death is what makes Lila’s actions relevant in a larger context. By marrying Stefano, she’s profiting from one of the neighborhood’s most violent defining forces, and she herself is aware of this fact. 

So a big part of what provides this complex texture is the movement between vividly, sensorily occupying a specific moment in time, and reflecting on the implications of such moments from a future vantage:

“It seemed to me—articulated in words of today—that not only did [Lila] know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realized, with pleasure, that, as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily.” (emphasis mine)

In this retrospectively enhanced passage, we see that what is ultimately Elena’s interest in writing, that which will dictate her scholastic, career, and life paths, originates with Lila. We see more of Lila’s writing ability when she dramatizes in story the formative event of their childhood—the murder of Don Achille—making the murderer a woman and embellishing with another detail:

The blood spurted from his neck and hit a copper pot hanging on the wall. The copper was so shiny that the blood looked like an ink stain from which—Lila told us—dripped a wavering black line.

It is no coincidence that the comparison of the violence at this definitive moment invokes writing. The development of the symbol of the copper pot effectively dramatizes the elements of the writing process that Lila is best at, elements which we study through Elena’s eyes in the manner of a student.

The copper pot reappears in Lila’s letter to Elena when Elena’s on Ishchia, another defining moment for her and in particular her writing; we later observe the import of this moment when, during her exams, the teachers praise Elena’s fluid writing style, which she essentially learned by studying Lila’s letter. Part of what she finds so enthralling about this letter, in addition to its as-if-spoken voice, is, essentially, its symbolism.

A few evenings earlier, something had happened that had really scared [Lila]. … She had turned suddenly and realized that the big copper pot had exploded. Like that, by itself. It was hanging on the nail where it normally hung, but in the middle there was a large hole and the rim was lifted and twisted and the pot itself was all deformed, as if it could no longer maintain its appearance as a pot. Her mother had hurried in in her nightgown and had blamed her for dropping it and ruining it. But a copper pot, even if you drop it, doesn’t break and doesn’t become misshapen like that. “It’s this sort of thing,” Lila concluded, “that frightens me. More than Marcello, more than anyone. And I feel that I have to find a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.”

Elena is jealous of Lila’s writing ability, though her own ability to articulate what’s so great about it is no less enviable:

My gaze fell on the copper pots.

How evocative Lila’s writing was; I looked at the pots with increasing distress. I remembered that she had always liked their brilliance, when she washed them she took great care in polishing them. On them, not coincidentally, four years earlier, she had placed the blood that spurted from the neck of Don Achille when he was stabbed. On them now she had deposited that sensation of threat, the anguish over the difficult choice she had, making one of them explode like a sign, as if its shape had decided abruptly to cede. Would I know how to imagine those things without her? Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?

The answer, of course, is no.

The copper pot comes up one more time, when Elena thinks she sees Donato Sarratore in the neighborhood after his taking advantage of her on Ischia:

Whether that apparition was true or false, the sound my heart made in my chest, like a gunshot, stayed with me, and, I don’t know why, I thought of the passage in Lila’s letter about the sound that the copper pot had made when it burst. That same sound returned the next day, at the mere sight of Nino.

Elena admires Lila’s ability to connect events, to trace lines through things, to provide some sort of order in the chaos of their world. Elena does the same after reading Lila’s letter, thinking about the period she attaches herself to Stefano’s brother Alfonso during Lila’s engagement:

…it seemed to me right that the duty had fallen to two Carraccis, Stefano and him, to protect, if in different forms, Lila and me from the blackest evil in the world, from that very evil that we had experienced for the first time going up the stairs that led to their house, when we went to retrieve the dolls that their father had stolen.

Thus ends chapter 34. Then chapter 35 begins:

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.

Elena has two parallel plots of her own playing out, one with Lila and one with Nino, each contributing to a kind of a French braid if the central thread is her school trajectory. While the Lila thread is more prominent in the first book, the Nino thread will gain increasing traction. In the first book, his major plot points are: he makes Elena a proposal of future marriage when they’re children; he’s almost killed when his family moves out of the neighborhood after the melee with Melina; they end up in high school together; they end up on Ischia together—at which point he tells her he proposed as a child not just because he liked her but because he liked her and Lila; his father molests her and so she rebuffs him when they return to school after Ischia; he asks her to write the article about the dispute with the religion teacher, offering her a chance to see her name in print and thereby escape the grip she imagines the neighborhood holds on her; he turns up at the wedding, telling her the article was not published, crushing her dream.

Part of what the retrospective perspective enables Ferrante to do is jump to different points in time. She will repeatedly manipulate chronologies to increase tension, as is apparent from the prologue told from the present day. Then when childhood starts, the structure of the order we get events in resembles a slingshot of sorts: we start with the defining moment, going up the stairs together to Don Achille’s, then pull back to when Elena first met Lila in school, then pull back further to their playing with their dolls together without actually speaking, then to Elena helping Lila in the rock fight that started because of the school competition (still without speaking), then meet back up to the stairs moment and go from there, though still with some little jumps back and forth in time here and there. Writers who are afraid of exposition could take a page from Ferrante, who loves to offer a general (while engaging and vivid) description of a time period then tell you that two different important episodes occurred then, and here are the scenes of what they were. We are not simply shown Elena’s actions and left to interpret them for ourselves; rather, frequently, motivations are elucidated:

Why do you behave like that, the father isn’t the son, the son isn’t the father, behave as Stefano did with the Pelusos. But I couldn’t. As soon as I imagined kissing him, I felt the mouth of Donato, and a wave of pleasure and revulsion mixed father and son into a single person.

The question of whether fathers are like sons, referenced most overtly with the pairings of Don Achille and his son Stefano and Donato Saratorre and his son Nino, is one that the series will continue to explore as Elena continues to waver over it. It’s also symbolic of the larger question of how much their generation will resemble that of their parents. Lila supposedly marries Stefano thinking that he’s not like Don Achille, while Elena is hindered from getting with Nino by her inability to separate him from his father.

In addition to the complex sequencing of her scenes, the structure of Ferrante’s sentences also deserves mention. So many imbedded clauses! There are many qualifiers for sentences that are what Annie Proulx called “architectural marvels” when she read here in Houston this past January. The retrospective perspective seems to be part of what enables her to pack so much into a single moment. Just look at all the commas, and feel the rhythm they supply:

Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.


The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 4: The New Yorker

Techniques tracked (or nice “moves”):
-sarcasm/humor masking and revealing emotion
-objective correlative
-use of objects 

Had this series started with the publication that was both the most difficult and most desirable to publish in, that publication would have been The New Yorker. For a fiction writer, it’s probably almost impossible to get your unsolicited work picked up from the magazine’s slush pile, but we can still analyze the moves made by what’s supposed to be the best work in the country.

Luke Mogelson reported on the conflict in Syria and and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the magazine before publishing his fiction in it. His story “Peacetime,” which appeared in the April 27, 2015 issue, begins with the first-person narrator—referred to only ever by his last name, Papadopoulos—telling us he’s living in “the armory on Lexington Avenue,” where he planned to stay for only a short time, but he keeps putting off reuniting with his wife. He works as a paramedic in between drilling for the National Guard; his ambulance partner Karen wants to be a cop, which bothers him since he steals something on every call they make. He frequently gets drunk with Sergeant Diaz, whom he served in Iraq with, then connects to a bag of saline so he’s not hungover. His unit has recently gotten a new, stricter captain, Finkbiner, who keeps the jawbone of a camel he shot in Iraq on his desk and whom Papadopoulos butts heads with; Finkbiner would not let Papadopoulos live in the armory if he knew about it. Papadopoulos and Karen visit a regular, Mrs. Olenski, who calls once a week for alleged chest pain but is really just lonely after her husband died. Papadopoulos and Karen frequently use the phrase “Don’t cut my leathers,” quoting an injured man’s response to the trauma shears when they needed to cut his pants off after his motorcycle accident; the meaning of the phrase is “elastic,” invoked in annoying or painful situations. Once, Papadopoulos overreached when he stole on a housecall, taking a handwritten note from the nightstand of a guy who’d taken too many of his wife’s painkillers, and the guy’s “sort of” son saw him take it. Soldiers come in to the armory for weekend drill training, and one lets the “Human Patient Simulator” die. Karen passes the civil-service exam and will soon attend the police academy. They get a call for an “emotionally disturbed person” who ran into a couple’s house and slit his throat in front of them, resulting in an absurd amount of blood. Papadopoulos mails a biohazard bag full of “lung butter” to the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund that wanted documentation of a disease he claimed he had. Karen lets on she knows about his klepto problem. When Mrs. Olenski doesn’t call, they eventually go to her house and find that she’s died; Papadopoulos steals her dentures. Then the next drill weekend someone steals Finkbiner’s camel mandible, prompting Finkbiner to get a surveillance camera, meaning Papadopoulos probably won’t be able to live in the armory much longer, which prompts him to finally visit his wife. He discovers she’s moved out; his neighbor tells him it was with another man, months ago. Karen’s getting ready to leave their job, and on one of their last days together, they get a call from the same apartment in the projects where the boy saw Papadopoulos steal the note. After they drop him off at the hospital, Karen realizes their drug box is missing. When they go back to the apartment, the box isn’t there, but Papadopoulos sees a group of boys near the building, who scatter when he approaches, and he chases one he thinks is carrying something. After a long pursuit, he eventually follows a shadow into a building and ends up on the roof, from which he has a view of the city and thinks he can hear someone calling his name.    

The story’s acute tension situation is introduced in the first sentence: Papadopoulos is living in the armory. The chronic tension is introduced in fourth sentence (still in the first paragraph): he’s estranged from his wife. The fact that he has recently—though we don’t know exactly how recently—served overseas is also a big part of his chronic tension, and seems to be the cause of the situation with his wife, which we are told very little about directly. This restraint—both about his time overseas and his wife—is one of the story’s nice “moves.”

The piece is largely structured around a series of calls Papadopoulos makes as a paramedic—these are what we get the most detail about. In the interview he gave to The New Yorker when the story was published, Mogelson, once an EMT and National Guardsman (though he went to Afghanistan as a reporter, not a soldier), comments on this episodic structure:

The story is told episodically—it’s a sort of a “scenes from a life”—instead of strictly sequentially. What effects does that allow you to achieve as a writer, and are there stories that you admire that take that narrative form?

It’s a mode that I definitely borrowed, or stole, from other stories: for instance, “Bettering Myself,” by Ottessa Moshfegh; “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” by Deb Olin Unferth; and “Beverly Home,” by Denis Johnson. Each of these uses concise, evocative scenes to cumulatively express the particular mood of a particular phase of its narrator’s life, while also managing to unfold gripping plots, as if incidentally. There’s a way, too, that they employ the conditional to describe things done habitually during the concerned period of time. The effect is a nostalgic kind of tone that suggests the phase (and whatever temporary circumstances defined it: a job, a relationship, a living arrangement) ends after the action of the story concludes but before the narrator’s present. In the hands of Moshfegh, Unferth, and Johnson, the tone is extremely moving.

The violence of what’s happened on these episodic paramedic calls imbues the story’s title and the repeated line: “It was peacetime, more or less” with much irony. That the descriptions of the violence he sees as a paramedic stand in for, or correlate with, the violence he saw overseas is a nice move that’s also known as the objective correlative. This correlation reinforces that for someone who’s been through war, dealing with its aftermath can be as much of a battle as the original battle itself.

For the reader to connect/correlate these two different realms of violence, peacetime’s and wartime’s, Mogelson does have to make sure the reader knows definitively that Papadopoulos’s time overseas was not spent in anything resembling a cushy post. There are two instances that confirm this. The first is relatively early on, in his description of going to bars with Sergeant Diaz, whose limp helps him get women when Papadopoulos uses it to comment: “‘Fucking Iraq.’” But Diaz didn’t get injured in the heat of battle, as we (but not the women at the bar) learn:

as a squad leader, Diaz contracted a bacterial infection while masturbating in a Port-a-John; how the infection spread up his urethra, into his testicles; how that made him lurch, causing a herniated disk, which resulted in sciatica.

This description presents us with a causal chain of events—a chain with rising action, each event in the chain more extreme than the last—that thematically echoes the larger and subtler causal chain the story is presenting to show us why Papadopoulos is the way he is now. It is the specificity of this description that is utterly convincing. What it might convince us of initially is that his time in Iraq was actually not all that bad, but he immediately undercuts this possible conclusion when he adds his commentary on what he does tell the women:

Instead, I’d say, “We lost a lot of good men over there.” Which happened to be true.

It might seem counterintuitive that his hardly discussing the loss of these men directly for the rest of the piece helps convince us of its truth, but it is emotionally true for the character that he would be avoiding it, which is further emphasized (or shown) by his obviously excessive drinking (which is itself shown rather than told via the details about his using a saline hookup). It’s roughly two-thirds into the story when we get a much more direct reference to what he went through over there, although direct as it is, it’s notably conveyed via the indirectness of parentheses:

At some point, the private from Long Island, the one who’d let Harvey die, asked Sergeant Pavone, “What’s the worst, craziest, most fucked-up thing you ever saw?” And Sergeant Pavone (whose two best friends had been crossing a bridge when an R.P.G. engulfed their Humvee in flames and knocked it into the river—who, after learning that their skin had been charred and their lungs filled with water, had asked me, over and over, with a kind of awe, “Burned and drowned?”) said, “Your mother’s box.”

Here we also see that Papadopoulos is hardly the only one unwilling to talk about what he went through over there directly. We also see that Papadopoulos is not the only one who uses humor/sarcasm as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about it, which we see Papadopoulos do not just in dialog, but in the narration itself:

She was in the driver’s seat, one hand draped on the wheel, the other gloved by a bag of jalapeño Combos. Someday she was going to make a fine detective.

Here he’s not masking his pain about what happened overseas, but his pain that his partner Karen, whom he is obviously fond of, will leave him behind for the police academy. His sarcasm both simultaneously masks and reveals his pain, a very nice move indeed, and one Finkbiner comments on directly when Papadopoulos uses sarcasm with him:

“Papadopoulos,” he said. “What is that?”

“My name,” I said.

“Cute,” Finkbiner said. “So now I know who the joker is. The jackass. The clown.”

We see the objective correlative at work again in the description of the private who lets the “Human Patient Simulator” named Harvey die; death is described, but indirectly:

Sergeant Pavone articulated the elbow hinge and pressed two fingers to Harvey’s wrist, feeling for whatever widget was supposed to throb.

There’s a layer between between real death and his experience of it, representing the layer that exists in his psyche: he is not dealing directly with what he experienced over there, but every experience is an indirect reflection of it; it is all-pervasive for him at the same time he refuses to deal with it.

This story can help us distinguish between the use of objects and the use of the objective correlative, though these will sometimes overlap. We see objects used in the story when Papadopoulos steals them from the residences he visits as a paramedic. By the time he steals Mrs. Olenski’s dentures, he doesn’t have to tell us he stole them:

What was I looking for? I was about to leave when I noticed, there on the nightstand, the dentures soaking in a glass of water.

And that’s all he has to say for us to know what happens next; he does not need to actually describe it. The section ends with that line, and then a new section begins with this one:

Next drill weekend, Finkbiner was on the warpath. Seemed somebody had stolen his mandible.

This is an even more indirect way of telling us he stole something, but we know, or strongly suspect, that Papadopoulos is the one who took it. There’s an interesting similarity between these two adjacently stolen objects, the jawbone and fake teeth—both are pieces of something that was once living, are symbols of death. The theft of the mandible will induce a causal chain that will bring a resolution to the acute tension that we project after the story’s end: in reaction to this theft, Finkbiner will get a surveillance camera, which means he’ll discover Papadopoulos is living in the armory and will kick him out. Papadopoulos’s apparent mode of dealing with his problems—his kleptomania—doesn’t actually help solve his problems, but ostensibly makes them worse, a tragic pattern.

The dentures appear again briefly when a private starts playing with them during training:

The private from Long Island had something in his hand. A set of teeth. The private was clacking them. When I sat up, the private aimed the teeth at me, clacked them, and barked. I must not have looked amused. The laughter stopped; Pavone cleared his throat. “Are they yours, Sergeant?” the private asked.

I lay back down. I went back to sleep.

This is an interesting moment in that the “joker” and “clown” is not amused; he does not use humor or sarcasm as a defense mechanism. (It’s also the first time we learn his rank.) This is getting closer to the end, when his defenses have started to wear down. Much earlier, Karen makes a comment that enables us to see the lonely Mrs. Olenski as an objective correlative for Papadopoulos himself:

Later, in the bus, Karen said, “You think you’re being a good person, but you’re not. What you’re being is afraid. You’re afraid that’s you.”

His lackluster response to the private playing with the dentures would seem to confirm this: he does not answer the question of whether they’re his; rather, the prospect of the question seems to exhaust him. To admit they’re his would be to admit, in effect, that he is Mrs. Olesnki, who died alone trying to distract herself with the television.

We can again see object use and the objective correlative overlapping in the note that the boy sees Papadopoulos steal:

The note was all run-of-the-mill, derivative material. A lot of I love you so much, a lot of I’m so sorry. Still, after that day I carried it with me everywhere.

He does not tell us why he feels the need to carry it with him, but we might infer that it’s because it expresses the emotions he wishes he could to his estranged wife. Object use is extra important in this story to communicate the emotions of a character who is so adamantly trying to distance himself from them. It’s also a nice move that he’s reading this note the moment his attention is called to the fact that he’s missing something important:

I took out my wallet. I felt the note. I rubbed the paper between my thumb and finger. I brought the paper out. I smelled it. I unfolded it. I was just about to read it—I don’t know, I wanted to read it—when Karen, wild-eyed, hopped down from the back of the bus.

“Where’s the drug box?” she said.

That Papadopoulos then has something stolen from him—and not just stolen, but stolen by someone who saw him steal, and whom he was ostensibly stealing from—is the perfect action that this character needs in order to provide his arc some sort of resolution. The sense of closure the object use provides is directly connected to the use of sarcasm in resolving this arc: through all of the violence he has witnessed as a paramedic over the course of the story, he’s kept up his sarcastic shield, until the theft of the drug box:

Not until we were racing back to Ridgedale did the full magnitude of my blunder begin to impress itself on me.

The use of the object crosses into the objective correlative here, with this “blunder” standing in for the bad things he experienced off the page that we don’t get to see—that is, what he experienced overseas. Only now that this bad thing has happened—the theft of the drug box—does the magnitude of the other bad things start to impress itself on him. We can tell because after this point, there’s little sarcasm, except for possibly a reference to what he coughs up in the course of the chase as “beautiful black samples.” But past this point, the narration has achieved a new rawness:

I was so tired.

He’s tired from the immediate chase, but he’s also tired in general from a larger metaphysical chase—what he’s chasing in that sense we’re not exactly sure (nor is he: “What was I looking for?”), but whatever it is, it seems he won’t get it, as symbolized by his losing the object of his pursuit here, the boy who may or may not have the drug box. It seems significant also that what he’s lost are drugs—he’s lost a way to dull his pain. The final image also takes up the objective correlative:

I walked to the edge of the roof. Far away, on the opposite side of the projects, I saw the blue-and-red lights of squad cars, the white beams of flashlights sweeping bushes and dumpsters. Beyond that was the river, a slick of oil in a phosphorescent sea. And beyond that?

When he asks what’s beyond what he can immediately see, he’s really asking what is beyond for him in general, beyond this particular time in his life, his time in the armory. And the answer?

Somewhere someone was calling my name.

This is most likely literally Karen, but the larger answer to his metaphysical question of what’s beyond this immediate point in time for him is that he will have to find his own identity again. One might recall at this point the use of his last name exclusively throughout the piece (as well as Finkbiner’s references to it), but the “name” referred to here could be his first name, that part of himself he seems to have lost.  

The narrative stance here is one that is almost laser-focused on what’s happening in the present. We get a mere two references to his time in Iraq, and zero details about what happened with his wife, zero information about who he was before he was a soldier. This shows rather than tells us the emotional trauma he’s been through, the pain incumbent for him in thinking about anything but what’s going on right now. Unfortunately for him, what’s going on in the present for him doesn’t seem to be much better, capturing the tragic plight of those who’ve come back from war.


What’s Your Reality?

Naked and Afraid. Toddlers and Tiaras. Big Brother. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. My Super Sweet 16. Jersey Shore. Inked. The Bachelor. The Bachelorette. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Amazing Race. America’s Next Top Model. 16 and Pregnant. Teen Mom. Say Yes to the Dress. The Real Housewives. The Real World. Shark Tank. The Apprentice. The X Factor. Fear Factor. Fixer Upper. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So You Think You Can Dance. Dancing with the Stars. Dance Moms. John & Kate Plus 8. 19 Kids and Counting. America’s Got Talent. American Idol. Top Chef. Master Chef. Food Network Star. Kitchen Nightmares. Cupcake Wars. Chopped. Face Off. The Voice. The Biggest Loser. Intervention. Survivor. Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Pawn Stars. Hoarders. Deadliest Catch. Hell’s Kitchen.

Reality television has technically been around for decades—think Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos or Cops—but it became a dominant force in viewing around the turn of the millennium, with the trifecta of Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol. (With the election of Donald Trump, reality television has arguably proven itself one of the most influential forces on the face of the planet.) There have been book-length studies on why this genre is so popular; I will hazard a guess that a predominant reason, in addition to the business incentive of the low cost of not having to pay actors, is our fascination with “real” people, as opposed to mere portrayals of them. Of course, at this point most of us are aware that the majority of “real” people portrayed on reality television shows are, in fact, acting, or at the least, being manipulated or portrayed in a skewed manner via editing. As Rebecca Makkai, describing a current (fake) reality show’s contestants in her fictional piece “The November Story,” puts it:

But now they’re savvier. They like to think they’re in on the production aspect.

And, as per an article on the golden age of reality tv,

Reality television, for lazy media critics and beltway pundits alike, is shorthand pejorative for tawdry and cheap.

I’ll admit to sharing this opinion. The blatant un-realness of reality tv was for a long time the reason I personally couldn’t stand it. But my perspective changed when I came across Sherman Alexie’s flash fiction piece “Idolatry,” in which a young Native American girl is called, after a long wait, to audition before some judges, and, once she does, “the British man” tells her to never sing again. When she protests that many people, including her mother, have told her she’s great, the British man replies simply, “‘They lied.’” The girl rushes back into the green room, into the arms of her mother, and cries. The piece concludes with the line:

In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.

Of course, most readers will recognize that the girl is auditioning for American Idol and that “the British man” is the notoriously cruel judge Simon Cowell. (How many dream-balloons has this man popped over the years? How many sugary insubstantial pop careers launched?) Alexie’s piece is as pithy and powerful as one of Cowell’s judgments. First, there’s the title, “Idolatry,” addressing at the macro level what we’ve come to worship as a culture: fame, fortune, our face on a screen. At the micro level, we might worship our personal dreams, for many a false idol in the sense of  not being realistically achievable. Then there’s the pun on the title of American Idol itself, a seeming nod to how the show established the entrenched reality-tv sub-genre of competing contestants being judged. But what really pulls the narrative together, what makes it a story rather than a mere set piece, is that final line—the lesson the main character derives from the experience. The girl is put in the difficult position of having no one to appeal to for comfort in this painful moment except someone who helped contribute to the pain of that moment in the first place—her mother. The character has learned multiple lessons at once—not just that she is in fact not a good singer, but that you can’t necessarily take what people say—even—especially—your mother—at face value. This story, then, follows a fairly typical narrative model of building toward the climax of an epiphany (or, in this case, epiphanies). The official definition of “epiphany”: “an experience of sudden and striking realisation.” Another way to put it: it’s a change in your reality. At the beginning of the story, this girl’s reality is that she is a good singer and that her mother is trustworthy and honest with her. By the end of the story, her reality has changed entirely.

Considering your characters’ relationship to their own personal realities—for really, to get philosophical here, there is no all-encompassing objective reality that exists without human brains to filter it—can be helpful in constructing a meaningful narrative arc for your character. Characters undergo changes based on their experiences; by the end of a story, their reality should have somehow, to some degree, shifted. Their reality at the beginning of the story would constitute the chronic tension; the event(s) that will change it is the acute tension.

The audition Alexie describes actually might not have been one ideal for ratings, as viewers might have felt too sorry for the obviously crushed girl. This American Idol audition clip, fairly typical of the bad auditions that viewers seemed to eat up, shares in common with Alexie’s character’s experience that other people told him he was good and that he should audition. But the clip diverges in a major way from Alexie’s when this guy does not, on camera at least, have the epiphany that the girl does. While Randy has been very blunt that “singing ain’t your thing, dawg,” this contestant emerges from his audition thinking—or claiming to think—that he failed not because of his voice, but because of his choice of song. While this maintained delusion ought to theoretically make viewers even sorrier for this contestant, the opposite seems true. He may be delusional, but he hasn’t been crushed, and we find that easier to watch. It doesn’t make as interesting of a story, though, unless we were to follow him to the moment where his delusion is finally popped, and/or explore the possible source of his delusion in the first place. (The life of a Revolutionary-War era tour guide seems rife with dramatic possibility. One also has the feeling that his coworkers’ encouragement to audition might not have originated out of love, as it does in the Alexie.) To an extent, we understand and sympathize with his impulse to shield himself from reality, and by preferring such narratives to Alexie’s, we too are shielding ourselves. But if it’s reality tv’s job to make us feel good about ourselves by looking down on others, it’s (good) fiction’s job to rip away that shield holding reality at bay.

Reality TV shows themselves cling fiercely to their own version of story when it comes to showcasing their contestants and participants. As the aforementioned golden-age article puts it,

Reality TV has learned to resolve its innate flaws with dedicated character development and well-crafted storytelling.

Having an interesting “background story” is what determines the selection of many contestants. What constitutes an interesting story, by reality TV standards? Typically, obstacles and hardship. The bigger the better. If viewers believe you’ve overcome some immense difficulty—or better yet, will overcome that difficulty by competing and ideally winning on the show—then viewers will sympathize and be hooked right in, continuing to watch. The golden-age article provides a typical example of such a story, along with what constitutes a supposed subversion of it:

Survivor winner Adam Klein had the most pat background story. Early in the season, the show revealed that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The Mortally Sick Family Member is a morbid but familiar story arc of competitive reality television, so Survivor viewers had beats to expect. At some point, to draw sympathy and trust, Klein would tell his allies of his hardship, and provide producers with a dramatic, episode-long throughline. But that moment never came. Instead, Klein revealed his personal battle to one other contestant: his biggest adversary, Jay Starrett.

What’s interesting to probe for the purposes of fiction is digging deeper than these typical trite cliches with their shallow mass appeal. What’s the story behind the story? How might some contestant or participant, knowing what we know so far into reality TV’s heyday about what the audience wants, exaggerate or fabricate parts of his or her own story? Or, conversely, how might producers make them do so? How might the contestant feel about exploiting themselves and letting some tragedy/obstacle define them? What kind of blowback might such an action incur in the outside world when the cameras aren’t rolling? What are the real conflicts surrounding the production of conflict for the camera? What is the camera not showing us?

As Rebecca Makkai’s aforementioned “The November Story” shows, reality tv offers more than just the contestants’ perspectives to explore. Makkai’s piece, which she read an edited-down version of for NPR’s This American Life, is told from the point of view of a producer (for the made-up reality show Starving Artist) whose boss wants her to manipulate two contestants into falling in love (the acute tension) while, in the meantime, her own relationship is falling apart (the chronic tension). While the characterization of the producer-character’s personal relationship is, perhaps intentionally, somewhat lacking, the details about how producers manipulate contestants are intriguing and feel, ironically enough, very real:   

Kenneth is a genius. He lines the five remaining artists up in front of the book shelves where they’ll be judged and then tells them we won’t tape for a few more minutes, when really the cameras are already rolling.

He tells them to stand still for the light guys and then says, “We’re having more digital issues. We’re going to be here pretty late tonight folks.”

And the sleep deprived artists, dehydrated and trying to hold still and awaiting judgment, give the most beautiful looks of disgust and despair. The cameras are getting it all. The editors will splice it in with shots of their work being critiqued or a competitor winning. They always fall for it.

Once Kenneth had one of the camera guys give all the contestants some incomprehensible direction in a thick accent while the other camera guys captured the grimaces of confusion. At the third judgment, he directed Inez to have a loud phone argument with a boyfriend in the corner of the room. That time we had enough snickering and eye rolling to manufacture an entire rivalry between Leo and Gordy. It became one of our best plotlines.

Makkai’s producer’s acute-tension situation of having to manipulate what people will see on the show (filming contestants describing their thoughts about an elimination round as though it’s about to happen when really it’s already happened) causes her to have an epiphany about the chronic-tension situation of her own relationship:

“I’m so excited for the judges to see my work!” cry the artists who’ve just been mocked and upbraided and grilled for two hours. As if, by trying hard enough, they can convince us to love them again.

They remind me of someone.

The character sees that in her relationship, she is behaving like these contestants, trying to earn love that it’s a foregone and definitive conclusion they can’t get.

It’s important to keep in mind that we the viewers are being manipulated every bit as much as the contestants. Really, there are multiple perspectives reality TV can offer a springboard to explore: the contestants’ (as Alexie does), the producers’ (as Makkai does), the judges’, and the viewers’. The episode “Litchfield’s Got Talent” from season 5 of Orange is the New Black nicely characterizes the reality-TV-judge prototypes that one might work to subvert:

– Do you wanna be one of the judges?
– Finally. Someone appreciates me for my biting wit and of course, impeccable taste.

-Oh, see, the thing is, we need one of those, like, just-edging-outta-cool, needs-to-pay-the-mortgage types who can say useful things, but with a tinge of sadness.
-I’m the tell-it-like-it-is judge.
-But I thought I was tell-it-like-it-is and you were gonna be, like, comforting and supportive.

I met a guy on a plane once who said his brother was a producer for one of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows. He told a story about how at one point his brother was ordered to go out and buy a certain kind of cake one of the housewives specifically hated for a party she was throwing. That story might have ended with her flipping a table; I can’t remember (though I could make it up). The point is, it turns out the drama doesn’t come from the contestants as much as the producers. But what kind of conflict does this create for the producers off-screen, as Makkai explores in her story? What’s the conflict behind the manufactured conflict? Being forced to piss someone off is a great acute-tension situation to force a producer’s ongoing chronic-tension issues to a head. Consider the potential for dramatic expansion of this anecdote:

Playwright Annie Baker reveals that she worked as a handler on The Bachelor during some unidentified season when the women were staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. She told Vulture she quit because producers “told me to tell all the girls that they could sleep in, and then the cameras came into the room at five in the morning,” and “they were so upset that I had lied to them inadvertently. So I left. I loved them. … I felt very protective of them.”

This scenario is rife with dramatic and thematic possibilities. Is there something Baker, as a fictionalized character, might need to “wake up” and realize? Does it have to do with another situation in this playwright-producer’s life in which she might have inadvertently lied?

So, a reality-TV-inspired writing exercise could explore a) a potential behind-the-scenes conflict on an established show, or b) a new reality-show concept altogether, or c) a story about someone who’s appeared on a show without referring to their appearance on the show at all, instead showing some other aspect of their life, the underside of the iceberg we only saw the tip of on TV. How about this lady who appeared on Shark Tank peddling “Fat Ass Fudge,” named for the seemingly less-than-affectionate nickname her brother had for her growing up with seven siblings, six of whose names started with D? What about this alleged Hell’s Kitchen elimination round in which one teammate throws another under the bus but then he doesn’t end up being eliminated?

“I didn’t come here to make friends” is an oft-repeated phrase on shows from The Bachelor to Survivor to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. What this phrase essentially means is that contestants on such shows disregard one another’s humanity for the sake of competition. Fiction is about exploring and showcasing humanity. What happens when that humanity is suppressed? What could happen to make such characters have the epiphany that they and their fellow contestants are, in fact, human?


The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 3: One Story

One Story, founded by writers Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002, is a unique journal in that each issue presents exactly what it sounds like: one story. As such, one might think its acceptance rate is automatically lower than at many other magazines, but the fact that they publish eighteen issues a year mitigates this discrepancy. Their rule is that they never publish the same writer twice. On their website you can find excerpts of current and past stories, editors’ commentary, and Q&As with the authors about their work. You can also find the description of the type of work they’re looking for:

One Story is seeking literary fiction. Because of our format, we can only accept stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words. They can be any style and on any subject as long as they are good. We are looking for stories that leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.

Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains” appeared in Issue 188, published January 16, 2014. The story explores the discovery of a corpse through a series of different characters’ points of view, characters who share some connection to the deceased, whether peripheral or direct.

The story begins with Sergeant Bill Marshall and his partner responding to a call and discovering a fully decomposed but still clothed skeleton in the foyer of a row house in Queens. The skeleton is wearing a coat that Marshall observes indicates the deceased is a “refined woman.” Examining her books and photos, one picture reminds him of his own wife, and he remembers how he recently went to a lot of trouble to get her a ring that she later wanted to trade for one she liked better. We then jump to Annie Moffatt’s point of view, the next door neighbor of whom we now learn is Mrs. Constantine. She’d thought Mrs. Constantine was gone on a trip, but then eventually started to get suspicious and finally called the cops. Once the corpse is discovered, Annie can’t believe she’s been so close to it this whole time. Watching the cops work, she remembers how she invited Mrs. Constantine to her daughter’s third birthday party, and Mrs. Constantine declined. Annie thinks that she’ll tell her husband she’s pregnant again tonight. Then, we jump to Leila Turani, who works at a tailor. When someone comes in and tells her a body was found that was “the lady who always wore that red beret,” Leila recognizes that it’s Mrs. C, one of their regular customers, who used to be one of her deceased mother’s favorites and whom she noticed hadn’t been in in awhile even though she had clothes to pick up. Mrs. C had brought food and a card when Leila’s mother died; Leila recalls her mother’s death and how she told her she’d take care of her father, which she wishes now she hadn’t. She folds up the clothes Mrs. C left behind. We then jump to Bob MacMillan, Sophia Constantine’s boss at a law office library, who cleaned out her desk a few weeks afters she stopped showing up for work. They often talked about books at lunch, which he immensely enjoyed. When she stopped coming to work, he filed a missing persons report and realized how little he actually knew about her. He hopes she created a new life for herself, remembering how she always took her vacations at the beach and one time when they calculated how far she was able to see on a ferry. When Bob gets the call from the detective that she’s dead, he has a drink and recalls how he never told his wife about her. Finally, we go to Mel Constantine, who divorced Sophie twelve years ago and hadn’t seen her in a long time. He’s returning to the house where he used to live with her to get it ready to sell, and Sergeant Marshall lets him in, warning him the cleaners were unable to get the stain out of hallway floor where she died. He finds her collection of airplane mini bottles, including the one from their honeymoon, which he thinks about before thinking about how they met in high school and reconnected after college. He then goes into the room of the baby they had, Zoë, who would be 22 if she hadn’t died. He’s relieved Sophie’s changed the room, since she left all the baby stuff in it for the eight years after the death before he left. He goes through a box of Zoë’s clothes and finds a tube in it of the baby’s ashes he takes with him. At home that night, he mixes the baby’s ashes with Sophie’s.                 

The story’s chronic tension is that Sophia Constantine has died, as this occurs before the story starts. The acute tension is the fallout/aftermath of her death. The story’s structure is one of its most unique “moves.” We do have a main character, and we are following that character’s trajectory, but in an unusual way, looking at her exclusively through the eyes of others, which means a common narrative model of the acute tension being the main character’s has been upended here; the acute tension is instead spread across several characters. (Sophie does technically have her own chronic and acute tensions once we learn her full story: chronic would be the death of her baby; acute would be how she lived her life after that tragedy.)

The pattern of the order in which we meet these characters is part of the story’s power. Each character we’re introduced to knows the main character, the deceased Sophia Constantine, better than the last. We start with the guy who finds her, a total stranger who doesn’t even know her name; then the next-door neighbor, who knows her as “Mrs. Constantine” and seems to have had exactly one direct interaction with her; then the girl at the tailor’s, who, being more fond of her than the neighbor and having had multiple interactions with her, knows her as “Mrs. C”; then to her boss, who knows her as “Sophia” (and whom he remembers specifically made him call her that when he tried to call her “Sophie”); then to her ex-husband, who knows her as “Sophie.” The use of the names shows us definitively that each of these characters knew her better than the last: no name, Mrs. Constantine, Mrs. C, Sophia, Sophie. Hence, by meeting them in this order, we learn more about her with each point of view shift.  

Part of the pattern of each character we meet is that their reflections on Sophie (or however they know her) provide a springboard into their own lives, giving us a glimpse of their personal vulnerabilities. We learn about the distance between Marshall and his wife, about Annie’s nervousness to tell her husband of her pregnancy, about Leila’s mother’s death, about Bob’s intense feelings for his employee, and about Mel’s new life with his second wife. Getting these glimpses into each of these characters’ lives makes us want to see even more into our main character’s, which, by the time we get to Bob, we’re getting to see more of, until Mel’s section finally reveals the full picture, the key to Sophie’s reserved secrecy that we witnessed in the other sections. But also, the snippets of these characters’ lives that we get which don’t involve Sophia Constantine directly do involve her indirectly–which is to say, thematically. What these snippets reveal are actually things these characters have in common with Sophie–more specifically, with her defining trauma: distance in a marriage (Bill), nervousness about pregnancy (Annie), the death of a party in a mother-daughter relationship (Leila). By our last two sections with Bob and Mel, we’ve progressed from indirect connections to direct, which is how the rising action operates in this nontraditional narrative.

Another nice “move” is the way Spence-Ash integrates the characters’ reflections, how thinking about dead body/Mrs. Constantine/Mrs. C/Sophia/Sophie leads them to think about other things in their lives. Trains of thought are prompted by objects in the external environment, whether the current environment or a remembered one. For Marshall, it’s a photo in Sophie’s house that prompts him to think about his wife. For Annie, recalling the air freshener she used to cover up the smell of decomposition and how her husband always unplugged it gives us a hint to potentially more significant strife in their marriage. For Leila, it’s the physical artifact of Mrs. C’s clothes. For Bob, it’s a photo of sky blending into sea that he found in Sophia’s desk. For Mel, it’s the collection of airplane bottles that leads him to think about their honeymoon.

Spence-Ash slyly lets us know that her nontraditional narrative model is not unprecedented when she refers to a text that Bob and Sophia were reading together: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a family struggles to bury its dead matriarch in the location she desired. Sophia’s comment about this text is actually commentary on the structure of this story:

“Don’t you see?” Sophia had said, her brown eyes meeting his. “Addie is the center. Addie is what makes it all hold together.”

Notably, however, Addie is not already dead when Faulkner’s novel starts, so it’s a bold “move” of Spence-Ash’s to have the main character be dead from the outset. This text also seems a thematically appropriate one for this story in that more than one character wonders how long Sophie might have been lying on the floor of her house by herself before she actually died.

The stain that Sophie’s body left behind is another nice “move” in the story:

“I don’t think they got the stain out in the front hall. Just so you know.”

This stain is a physical manifestation (which is to say, a symbol) of what Sophie’s left behind–of what remains of her. The fact that she’s left a stain shows that the impact of her life has not been entirely erased by her death, which we’re shown throughout the story through the different characters’ memories of her. Hence, the title gains layers of meaning–there are Sophie’s physical remains, emphasized by the stain and the powerful final gesture of Mel’s mixing her remains with their baby’s, then there’s the range of impacts she’s left on others’ lives. Mel’s mixing gesture nicely encapsulates how the story blends Sophie’s physical and ephemeral remains. It’s also a nice move to end with a physical gesture in the story’s present, rather than lingering in memory. This physical gesture, coming at the end, must necessarily provide some form of closure; this gesture is ideal closure for Sophie in particular because there’s been so much emphasis on how alone she was. The story’s most fundamental scenario reinforces her loneliness, since if she hadn’t been so alone she wouldn’t have been a skeleton by the time her body was discovered. By the end we’ve discovered the source of her loneliness–her dead baby. Some writers might have ended the story with this revelation, but Spence-Ash makes another “move” with the physical gesture. At the end of the story, Sophie isn’t alone anymore; she’s literally joined to the one whose departure caused her loneliness in the first place.

But if you’re going to catch an editor’s eye when he/she is reading hundreds of manuscripts, it’s ideal to have a nice “move” in the very beginning, so let’s revisit that opening line: 

Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.

The nice move here is the use of the word “nestled.” This is a word with positive connotations, which places it in stark contrast to the negative connotations of the larger situation: discovering a dead body, one that’s been decomposing for so long, no less. This contrast automatically injects the narrative with tension. It also encapsulates the story’s structure: nestled within this seemingly horrible occurrence is the potential for human connection. Nestled inside Sophie are all the lives she’s touched.