Saturday, February 19, 2011

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "Honor"

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 7, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 23.

I declare a war on storytelling terrorists like Hadley, you know, the sort of people who insist on hijacking their narratives. Unless a short story writer is using a parenthetical style to some greater effect, such actions can only lead to a dulling bloat, the sort that drains from what would otherwise be a meaty story. It's the same stylistic problem Hadley faced in her last New Yorker piece, "The Trojan Prince." In this case, the story begins with a full page (out of five) detailing the relationship between Stella and her Mum and her Nana. Despite her knack for short, implicating sentences (e.g., "We were pretty happy leaving a deux--at least, I was"), she insists on drawing out these points, and frequently rambles off with narrative tics that are irrelevant, like the constant use of literal parenthetical asides ["(There's another thing: didn't I wonder why we never visited any grandparents on my father's side?)"], or inconsistent, like the jarring tone of this paragraph, so distinct from the rest of the story:

I can remember being flooded with happiness once, alone in Nana's bedroom... My chest swelled with the full awareness of the moment, as if I were breathing in a different medium, thick and heady. Dust motes swam in the air. I turned my hand in them, and thought, I'm alive! In this world! Was this before I went to school? It must have been. I didn't hate school, but it put an end to that rich, slow, expansive time, when I was free.

These represent the embers of a reflective, somewhat wizened voice, and it works to instill an intimacy and camaraderie between mother and daughter ("We deluded ourselves that we were alike, and would always be the best of friends") -- but it's got nothing to do with where the story is going, which is the arrival of Auntie Andy, who has been scarred by some traumatic event, one we are (correctly) led to believe being the death of her son, Charlie, at the hands of her husband, Derek. The story lingers, for a little while, on how mother and daughter avoid bringing up the subject, and then jumps into a summary of what happened during the trial and what happened to Andy over the next ten years, including a hysterical pregnancy that ends the story: "Exacting our sympathetic good will, under false pretenses, she claimed some latitude, some indulgence, in return for the magnitude of what she had undergone, and what she had lost, which could never be restored." This is pretty weak, and so far off the topic at this point that it's almost embarrassing.

Far better to have ended with (and to have followed the advice of) this passage:

The little despotism he installed inside the four walls of his home mattered only because it derived its authority from the whole towering, mahogany-colored, tobacco-smelling, reasonable edifice of male superiority in the world outside. And mattered, of course, because of its consequences in other lives.

Consequences, particularly to our narrator -- so opinionated and vivid in the first section and muted throughout the rest -- are what are missing from this story. So's the ability to form a consistent voice or to edit oneself: I mean, really? "Mahogany-colored, tobacco-smelling, reasonable edifice of male superiority"? There's little honor to be found in passing off a series of well-written sketches, and even less in publishing it.

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