I didn’t expect to recognize myself in a short story collection that centers on an HIV-positive ex-heroin addict who moves to Minnesota to get her body clean and her life in order. I own a lot of skirts that hit below the knee and the only thing I’ve ever really been addicted to is other people’s approval.
Emily Carter knows what it’s like, whatever “it” is. She knows the sweet seduction of willed failure, the feeling that makes you want to “go have a drink, or . . . eat an entire Philadelphia cheesecake, which will make it impossible to think about anything but [your] intestines for the next three hours,” immediately after meeting someone accomplished. She knows that “There is no man anywhere so psychotic, so drunk, so evil, so helpless, so brutal, indifferent, or even just annoying that some woman somewhere won’t keep him warm even if she freezes to death doing it, just for a chance to wipe away the invisible tears she thinks she sees on his face, like clear ice on a cold windowpane.” She knows that this is especially true if other people are helpfully pointing out that there are, really, no tears. Glory says, “But I didn’t want to get what I deserved. Who does?”
Near the end of the collection, as Glory’s marriage is falling apart, she narrates this gem of an encounter: “Well, I had to drink, I said to my former AA sponsor. If I didn’t drink I would feel too guilty to enjoy the cheating sex I was having. ‘You’re not thinking clearly,’ she said. ‘Trying to avoid pain is making you think like a crazy person.’”
I think a lot of people—myself most certainly included—spend a lot of their time behaving in roughly the same way that Glory does: trying, first, to avoid pain, second to avoid hurting other people (“The thought of hurting anyone made me sick to my stomach with shame” Carter writes), and third, to avoid getting what they deserve. In some cases, numbers two and three are reversed. In far fewer, numbers one and two are.
When your two most common emotions are anxiety and guilt and your favorite activity is reading, it is not uncommon to begin to view your life as a narrative, and yourself as a character in one. This is genuinely helpful in hindsight—that Didion line that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” continues to resonate for a reason, that reason being that, for a certain sub-species of human, it is impossible to understand events of the past unless they can be shaped into stories that have, if not precisely a beginning, a middle, and an end, then at least chains of causality, some kind of overarching theme.
But imagining that you are writing a narrative instead of living a life can be disastrous. You start trying to manufacture neat endings that can really only be created in retrospect. You are unable to end things that are no good for you at all because of a desire for a final scene that has a certain kind of aesthetic resonance. You make decisions based on what would be best for the plot. And you start to worry about whether you will get what you deserve because poetic justice is, well, poetic. I know; I’ve played this game before.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I read Speedboat. Its author, Renata Adler, is best known as a writer of nonfiction—perhaps most notably the bilious Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker—but she’s also a master of plot-less, elliptical fiction. My life was stagnating, and the collection of sharply observed, often bitter scenes, which sometimes don’t even involve the nominal protagonist, matched my mood perfectly. “Sometimes it seems this may be a nervous breakdown,” the narrator thinks, before describing my own not infrequent symptoms: “sleeping all day, tears, insomnia at midnight, and again at four A.M.”
At that moment in my life I was also actively seeking literary justification for the foolish sexual decisions I had been making for the previous two years and would continue to make, with a renewed vigor, for the following two. I found what I was looking for in one specific passage: a plot I could hang my romantic life on. At a certain point in the novel, the narrator describes a period during which she lived with a graduate student. They sleep on a mattress on the floor. They have no lights or electricity. She doesn’t, at this point, seem to have a job. Instead, while he teaches or reads in the library, she cooks a meal, carefully following the recipe and then tasting it to make sure it is good. Then she throws it out. “A trial run,” she calls it. When he returns home for lunch, they have sandwiches and beer, and a nap. Later, when he has returned to his students or his books, she cooks the same meal again. He returns, they eat, smoke cigarettes, and drink gin neat. And then, of course, the end comes, expected and unexplained: “I got a job reporting. Then we left each other. Here I am.”
The summer after junior year I took up with a grad student whose most attractive attribute to me was his possession of a studio apartment. When I moved to New York, he stayed with me for a week. We shopped together for groceries at Trader Joe’s and I wore men’s shirts with no pants around the apartment and though I couldn’t bring myself to drink gin neat, it was as close as I ever got to the ideal.
Since I read Glory Goes and Gets Some, I have been obsessing over that line: “But I didn’t want to get what I deserved. Who does?” But lives are not narratives. People do not get what they deserve because it is tidy or symbolic, or coyly meaningful. Events do not congeal into stunning still-lives, as they do at the end of perfectly crafted short stories. If they were, I would never have seen that grad student again, but we kept sleeping together, occasionally and half-heartedly, into the first few months of my Senior Year. In retrospect I would understand that his casual rejection of me was what made me want to continue to see him; at the time I saw his behavior as more proof that I would never be loved.
Our actions have consequences, and sometimes they are revealed immediately and sometimes we do not see their full impact until much later, when even the time for feeling anxious or guilty has passed, and the best one can do is attempt to continue, you know, breathing. And that is what Glory does. She does not “get what she deserves” because the logic there is false; she makes her choices and she survives her life.