Thursday, June 02, 2011

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "Clever Girl"

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 6, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 7.

"I unbuttoned the skirt and stepped out of it, still staring at the book. Something had happened; I could see all of the elements of the problem differently now, as if they had arranged themselves naked under a bright light." A minute ago, the "sulky stepdaughter" Stella had been attempting to solve her physics homework, and Norbert had been attempting to help her. Though Nor doesn't particularly like Stella (he truly loves her "mum"), he recognizes, in the cool logic of the accountant, that the sooner she grows up, the more of her mother he'll have to himself. (This seems silly, considering that the mother's currently in the hospital, waiting out the high-blood-pressured final week of her pregnancy.) But that's not what this story's about: it's about building to this titular moment, the moment at which the girl, fed-up at being blamed for things she did not do, tired of this minor tyranny, decides to apply herself after all: to grow up.

And yet, I'll admit that there are long stretches in any Hadley story in which I'm not entirely sure what's going on, and I'm often too bored to attempt to suss it out. Here's the final paragraph:

At first this cleverness was like a sensation of divinity; then, after a while, it ate itself and I couldn't turn the mind-light off, couldn't stop thinking through everything, couldn't sleep. I saw Nor--and my mother and my school--as if they were tiny, in the remote distance. I believed that if I wanted to I could solve all the problems in the physics teacher's book. When eventualy sleep came, I seemed to hear the soughing of trees outside in the empty air. I understood all about those trees. I grasped what they were: how they existed and did not exist, how both contradictory realities were possible at once.

The reference to trees ties back to an earlier interlude in which Stella, having just been uprooted "from the center of Bristol to a suburb, a house in a new cul-de-sac called Beech Grove" befriends the girl next door, Madeleine (more out of boredom than actual interest), and invents an elaborate series of rites with which to appease the god of the beech trees that the developers have paved over in the name of progress and the community. But what such existential games and far-too-adult-for-a-young-first-person narrative have to do with Stella's actual growth? Lines like these don't exactly butter this story's very dry bread: "Outside time, after all, the vanished trees were still printed on the air somewhere."

Hadley's a clever writer herself, setting out with such confidence that, lost as I am, I still assume that she's got an actual story wrapped up in there somewhere, something about the tenuous relationship between a daughter, stepfather, and mother who each want to leave their own marks on the house and the town. (Well, perhaps not so much with the mother, who is mostly absent.) But I'm not convinced that she's a good writer: this marks the third of her New Yorker stories that I got little-to-no enjoyment out of. As with her other work, there are simply too many disconnected observations coupled with not enough concern for the story's arc, which lacks rising, falling, or climactic actions. You could pick up any paragraph and start spinning a story out of it: it's when you put them together than things get all confused.

No comments: