In Antonya Nelson’s collection of short stories, Female Trouble, characters are often firmly placed within families or marriages despite the disconnection, if not active rebellion, they feel toward these emotional settings. No surprise the title, I suppose.
The trouble her characters get into is as much against themselves as it is against others. They thirst for love, but they’re usually unable to quite give themselves to another. Sometimes they hesitate, as if they have to hold back in order to maintain their wholeness, even if they’re so obviously not whole. Other times her characters are jarred back and forth in a game of tug of war–strong muscles of selfishness wrapping around the rope and pulling against marriage or motherhood.
In fact, Nelson’s daring as an author particularly shows as she reveals the rather puerile tendencies of mothers in several of her stories. They aren’t bad mothers (no need to call Child Protective Services), but they are women drawn as much to the magnet of self as they are to any sort of motherly self-sacrifice or tendency to nurture.
This is most marked in Stitches, when a daughter calls in the middle of the night telling of a disturbing sexual encounter, but even in these deep moments of confidences exchanged, Edith, the mother, drifts in and out of her thoughts, as concerned at times with the though of making a gin and tonic for herself (at an earlier hour than she’s ever had a drink) as she is with her daugher’s predicament. Consider this passage:
“It was unnerving to be this girl’s mother. She was so forthcoming. So frankly healthy…how had she gotten this way? Ellen felt somehow excluded from the process. She (Ellen) kept secrets–not in drawers or closets or diaries, but in her heart, behind her eyes, on her lips. Tracy’s admirable openness seemed not to have been inherited from Ellen, so it must have come from her father.”
In another story, a couple make love “like two people performing simultaneous monologues, each with a sense of what had to happen next.”
Again, in “Lonely Doll” the lovers can’t cross an emotional chasm, even while they lie next to each other. Marco hesitantly reveals himself, but his revelations, despite their vulnerability, make him seem more dangerous than loving. His stories have made a ruin of him, and telling them to a lover won’t salve the wounds. Nonetheless, Edith, who doesn’t believe in love, tries to love Marco. It is Nelson’s characters’ tendency to act out against themselves that’s always interesting–acting out that is at once impulsive yet quite deliberate, in pursuit of short-term salvation.
It’s her characters’ consciousness of themselves as severed from others, unlikely to be joined, despite their attempts, which makes Nelson a thought-provoking author. And yet, and yet. She doesn’t have the mysterious, arresting voice of Denis Jonson or the piercing intricacy of an Alice Munro story. Antonya Nelson is a good storyteller, but not a great one. She has the potential to be “great,” but so often, her stories droop to their finish.
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