For me, reading this story was like a little journey of corrected expectation. Curtis Sittenfeld doesn’t seem to be a likely choice to represent contemporary short fiction. She’s published three novels and writes essays that seem pretty politically bent. When I took a cursory look at her website, I saw titles like “I Still Love Obama. Love. Love. Love” and “Why I Love Laura Bush.” She had a story anthologized in This is Not Chick Lit which is also the story available through her website which is the story we are reading. So maybe I had reservations against her. When I scanned the long story, my eyes picked out “…worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” and I kind of didn’t want to read the story. Weren’t there any other stories by Sittenfeld out there? But I knuckled down and gave it a chance.
The main character is a volunteer as the title tends to indicate, and there is something weirdly ironic that gives volunteers a sense of entitlement. It is bred from white guilt. It reminds me of those movies like Please Give that prey on the upper middle class trying to repent for having money without impoverishing them or actually affecting them. I still hadn’t even gotten into the story yet really.
I think I was being conditioned by Sittenfeld’s novel covers which were clearly targeting someone who is not me.
I’m not going to say that I have been converted to a Curtis Sittenfeld champion. Or that she actually does write short stories, because I am not convinced of that. But something happened to me over the course of the story while something was happening to the main character. And maybe they were cross-arcs of identification. While Frances was letting the intrusion of an “other” allow her true self to come forth and becoming more antagonistic against a projection, I started seeing in the story all sorts of things I never expected to find there, a darkness that enamored me to it.
“Wouldn’t you just rather be alone?” Frances asks. Her devolution has nothing to do with the new girl, but is merely self-exposure. I love this whole paragraph:
Sometimes I’d pass couples eating brunch at the outdoor cafés or inside restaurants with doors that opened onto the sidewalk, and when I looked at them (I tried not to stare, but rarely did any of them look back anyway) I felt a confusion bordering on hostility. Flirting with a guy in a dark bar, at night, when you’d both been drinking — I understood the appeal. But to sit across the table from each other in the daylight, to watch each other’s jaws working over pancakes and scrambled eggs, seemed embarrassing and impossible. The compromises you’d made would be so apparent, I thought, this other person before you with their patches of dry skin and protruding nose hairs and the drop of syrup on their chin and the way they spit when they talked and the boring cheerful complaints you’d make to each other about traffic or current events while the horrible sun hung over you. I could see how during the night people preferred the reassurance of another body in their bed, but in the day wouldn’t you just rather be alone, both of you, so you could go back to your apartment and sit on the toilet for a while, or take a nap without someone’s sweaty arm around you? Or maybe you’d just want to sit on your couch and balance your checkbook and not hear another person breathing while they read the newspaper five feet away and looked over every ten or fifteen minutes so that you had to smile back — about nothing! — and periodically utter a term of endearment.
There was this darkness brooding inside of Frances that had nothing to do with Elsa, that had been hiding under the surface for a long time, just waiting for an opportunity. Elsa was just the catalyst.
Frances saw something in Elsa that she didn’t have. “…Something in the situation had made her giddy in a way I myself had never, ever been…” It unhinges her. She thought that her volunteerism could save her in some way. To give her life a meaning that she hadn’t found yet. She thinks that by identifying with the women in the shelter against a woman more like herself, that she will be able to empathize or be a better person. But she still is disconnected. “[I didn’t understand] how people made the leap from not mattering in each other’s lives to mattering.” And she saw that Elsa did understand this, or at least was capable of it.
I think at some point during this course, I will want to address depression as a common theme in the authors that Tao Lin has picked out. Because I think what I am identifying with in this story is an unexpected depression, which gives it value for me over turning out to be a tale of politics or modern feminism.
Questions for the class: Is this story about volunteerism, depression, or something else? What kind of a story would you say it is? Does the story have a moral?
Apparently, Sittenfeld does have some short short stories, and she talks about them here.
Nest week’s story is “You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore.