In “Bedtime Story,” your fiction in this week’s issue, a couple is putting their child to bed, and, in the process, they launch into relating and thinking of a series of memories from when they were in their twenties. What begins as nineties nostalgia—Julia Roberts rollerblading in Manhattan—becomes the story of a tense betrayal. One thing that struck me when first reading the story was that, though the man is named and the woman referred to as his wife or girlfriend throughout, we gradually come to learn that the perspective through which the story is told is contested territory. Why did you decide to make the perspective less obvious than it first appears, and, as you were writing, how did you feel your way through the challenges this represented?
A warning: this answer may get a little wonkish on the subject of point of view, which is one of my favorite things to think about.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Basically, I was trying to create the effect of a peripheral narrator, even though the story is told in third person and not first person, the perspective that’s usually associated with peripheral narration. The story names Ezra emphatically in the opening sentence in order to establish right from the start that he’s our protagonist; he is and will be at the center of the action. His wife, on the other hand, goes unnamed; hers is the focalizing consciousness, yet she thinks of herself as an unseen onlooker, a listener and observer standing off to the side.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Later, when the “story within the story” begins and the character of Meg Sand is introduced, it appears as if the narrative reins have been handed over to Ezra. It appears as if the close third-person narration is now aligned with our protagonist, following his experiences and mapping his interiority. The use of third-person makes this shift in perspective easier to pull off.
But there’s an awkward element in the telling of Ezra’s story about Meg Sand: Ezra is named, Meg is named, but his not-yet-wife is referred to cumbersomely throughout as “the girlfriend.” It would have been so much simpler just to give her a name! And there’s no reason why Ezra wouldn’t think of her by name.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Yet it felt important to preserve this awkwardness, this sense of something being slightly off or amiss, because it anticipates the story’s eventual admission that Ezra hasn’t been holding the narrative reins, after all. Once we return to the present frame, the story reveals that what seemed to be Ezra’s perspective was in fact his wife’s imagining of it, her attempt at re-creating a chapter in his life that she wasn’t privy to. And, even in this reconstructed version, her impulse is to keep herself unnamed.
So going back to your question: why all this shiftiness with point of view? I think it’s maybe because the wife doesn’t want their past to be contested territory. Maybe there’s a hope that by inhabiting Ezra’s perspective she can make peace with a memory that was once intensely painful. My sense is that this extended act of imagination is an act of reconciliation, undertaken out of love.
A remarkable thing about the story is that, by the end, it seems to find a connection between the familiarity of family life and a somewhat transgressive sexuality. That seems difficult, and novel. How did you approach writing about that territory?
I didn’t realize the story was heading in that direction when I started out. But maybe it ended up arriving at this connection because fiction lends itself to the relaxing of boundaries. The distinctions that allow us to function in the everyday world—the lines separating self and others, fantasy and reality, private and public life, etc.—can be tested, sometimes dissolved, within the space of a story. And the boundary that keeps sexuality at a strict remove from family life—a boundary that emerged, I’m guessing, during a period in history when increasing prosperity meant that families no longer had to sleep in the same room?—interests me because it seems inherently contradictory. The sexual closeness and trust that Ezra and his girlfriend develop as a young couple give rise to the two children they’re now putting to bed, many years later. And I don’t mean that simply in a biological sense; there’s a causal relationship at work that goes far beyond the act of reproduction.
You mentioned to me that the story was partly inspired by Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” which ran in The New Yorker in 1963. I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t told me. What elements of that story were you inspired by, and what made you want to play a variation on it?
2020欧洲杯体育投注网It is an extraordinary story, the ending of which affects me newly every time I read it, which has been many times at this point. There is so much I love in it, Gallant’s language most of all—distilled and crisp, yet also nimble, ever-shifting, ready to swerve toward humor or tenderness or frank estimation—but her style is inimitable, out of reach. Thank goodness for plot, which is much easier to borrow: in this case, a long-married couple reminisces about their past, which prompts one of them to remember a young woman of a different social class whose life briefly intersected with theirs.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网The element that inspired me most was Gallant’s use of a frame narrative, something that at first glance seems like a rather old-fashioned device, but in her hands it feels fresh and necessary and not mannered at all. Without its frame, the story in “Ice Wagon” is interesting enough on its own—expat life, status anxiety, a failed romantic encounter that leads unexpectedly to a profound, fleeting moment of connection—but, by placing it inside the frame of the couple’s shared ritual of remembering, Gallant enlarges its scope immeasurably. It becomes about so much more.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网A frame is a wonderful means of incorporating into a story the effects of time—and not just months or years but decades. In the case of my story, the frame allowed me to think about time’s passage and its unpredictable effects: how it can play tricks with memory, and make technologies obsolete; how it can soften or intensify feelings; how it both illuminates and obscures the past; how it deepens a marriage.
(And one last note of indebtedness: the breathtaking shift in point of view that occurs in the final paragraph of Gallant’s story completely inspired the handling of perspective we talked about above.)
This is a very particular kind of bedtime story, one that’s probably not appropriate for the child that the couple is putting to sleep. What are some other favorite bedtime stories for this period we find ourselves in now, the long enforced nap of the coronavirus lockdown?
Well, I wasn’t sure if I should say this—only because it sounds embarrassingly like product placement—but here is the most truthful answer: I’ve been listening to the magazine’s fiction podcasts when I’m in bed at night. The whole ongoing disaster has made it very hard for me to concentrate on anything, even reading, but there’s something about turning off the lights and closing my eyes and listening to a single voice that quiets my thoughts and lets me enter into a different space.
I especially love listening to Tessa Hadley read her stories aloud. I’m comforted by the unflustered sound of her voice, its steadiness and warmth, the pleasure it finds in the words. And of course there is the great comfort offered by the stories themselves. After long exposure to the staggering scale of this crisis, I find myself drawn to Hadley’s human-sized narratives, and her close, unwavering attention to individual lives. She brings so much subtlety and control to everything she does that I always feel held by her stories, if that makes sense. I always feel that I’m in safe hands, no matter where the story may take me, no matter what darkness or difficulty it may be going toward.