Fiction Issue #72

The Woman in the Novel

She knows it’s her. The hair color might have changed, a few mannerisms subtracted and added, but it’s her. He wrote her. He was her guest, and he wrote her. She feels violated. She tells people this. I feel violated. Some are sympathetic. Others pretend it. Only her husband actually voices dissent. Her husband, and an acquaintance from work. Not coworker, she won’t say coworker. He’s just Russell from accounting. Russell, lurking in the corner of their sterile office kitchen while she told Anne, Anne who pretended to be sympathetic but really was just delighted—Anne who would run out and buy the book as soon as she could, no doubt—and this man, this Russell, bobbing a teabag in his mug and saying, “Violated is a little strong, isn’t it? You were violated?” Questioning the word. And, below that, and not far below, either, “Aren’t you being a little sensitive?” That’s what Russell from accounting wants to say. Which is really a way of saying, “Don’t be hysterical,” and she is tired of men in corners saying, “Don’t be hysterical.” No, she tells him in a clipped voice. Violated is the right word. Violated is what she is. Something before sacred, a feeling before untouched, the pleasant underfoot of her memories, now ruined. And everything after it, every feeling about the memory, the moment, the dinner party, and her guest the writer. Ruined. Violated. To be made into words. Life as just words. She has not been able to read anything seriously since she read herself in the writer’s book. She feels violated.

She is not a major character. The major characters, the main characters, are an interracial gay couple moving into a suburb outside of Chicago. Adjusting. Fitting in. Fighting. Chicago is clearly named; the suburb isn’t. But it’s Naperville. The writer never lived there; he only stayed on with a mutual friend, Pam Gunterson, for a few months, almost two years before the book’s publication. He was leaving a teaching position at a university in California for one in Wisconsin. He had been very polite about the move, at least to the Midwesterners at the dinner table. At her dinner table. “Looking forward to the change,” was how he’d put it. She wonders if there was a reason for the change. If maybe he was driven out for the usual bad behavior. But she wonders this to herself. She knows speculating this aloud would lose her something in the opinion of others. Besides, Pam says they offered him much more money in Wisconsin, where he is to play mentor to a new generation of writers. He has written several books. She’s read two: the one he is famous for, and this new one, the one with her. It has been well received. This is what Pam says, anyway. The Times called it, “a welcome, if not wholly original, critical work.” She read that and waited for a vindication that didn’t come. Vindication seems a way, if not of healing, then at least of containing her hurt. But it didn’t come.

Her husband doesn’t understand. Her husband, in the book, is nothing but a noun. This, he claims—whenever the book is discussed in company, which seems often to her, so often—this is what bothers her husband. “I had one line!” As if it were a script. As if they had been actors. To be an actor would be to have a choice. They were — what? They were set pieces. They were playthings. “You’re taking it much too personally,” her husband tells her.

She is in the novel. She debuts on the second paragraph on page sixty-eight. The couple has been invited to the home of one of their new neighbors. The couple has just had a fight. A silly, pointless fight—so obviously pointless it feels like a hammer over the reader’s head—about their lawn. About what kind of grass they’re going to have. The grass they inherited now is inferior to what’s now available to them. Newfound wealth has shifted their priorities. They laugh together about it in the car, before they go to the dinner party. Before they go into the house. Her house.

Her name in the novel is Sarah. It comes across as biblical. Sarah has guests over for a dinner. She cooks a beef Wellington. Much is made of the beef Wellington; three whole paragraphs of description are given to it. She is told that is something the author is known for, something of his style. The sheer amount of words given to the beef wellington suggests irony, that so much attention to the subject belabors its purposelessness. Suggests that the author knows what he’s doing when he chose beef Wellington, that it’s an artifice she—the reader—is meant to recognize as an artifice, as much for the woman serving dinner as the author. Beef Wellington. Seared asparagus and butter potatoes from the side dishes. There is a simple but refreshing salad served before the meal. The writer writes that it felt like “a table at a high-end steak house.”

Her name is Sarah. She serves dinner. She swats away compliments. She is dressed in loose, dark clothing. Everything about her—her fashion, her makeup, the way she moves—is appropriate, nothing less and nothing more. The reader is made to understand she has done this many times. Offered the same half-hearted remonstrations of her own cooking. Waved away dull conversation. Challenged the shyest dinner guest to conversation. Rested back in her chair as the evening comes slowly and gracefully to its finish, rebuking anyone who tries to put a dish or glass in the sink, assuring everyone that she’ll clean later. Don’t trouble yourselves, Sarah repeats several times. Don’t trouble yourselves. It’s unclear whether Sarah, in her role as hostess, is meant to be taken as ironically as the beef Wellington. Her sincerity is either presumptuous or troubling. 

But that’s not the insult. That’s the fiction. She could have taken the fiction with appreciation, a laugh, a gentle explanation — believe it or not, I’ve never made beef Wellington! The point is, beef Wellington would have been something to hang her hat on. No. The violation is what comes after the beef Wellington, when the conversation turns to a pair of neighbors not seated at the table. The Andersons. The Andersons have just adopted a baby of color. That is how one of the guests describes it. “Of color.” And then laughs a little uncomfortably behind her hand. Then the hostess, Sarah, begins to speak. Sarah understands, of course, that some couples must adopt. And Sarah understands that there are many children in need of adoption. Sarah, her glass of wine held comfortably in hand, explains these understandings with a gentle expression. But, Sarah goes on, there is something about the whole process, the whole idea of adoption, that is off-putting to her. There is always something of the changeling in it. Even after all the papers, even after the little celebration you put together with family, the photos you post on the Internet — as proud parents do now — even with all of that, the child is not yours. It is not yours in this crucial, fundamental manner, that is of you. It is not yours. She keeps repeating this, Sarah does.

At the real dinner party, at her dinner party, she did not repeat herself that much. And she never used the phrase off-putting. She’s sure of this. Why would she use that word? What she was saying or, fine, what she was trying to say, was — isn’t it funny? Adoption. Isn’t a funny way to have a child? To point and say, “That one.” She was posing it as a question. She meant it as a question, as an ambiguity the novel is missing. If the writer, who sat at her table, will have this Sarah mimic her, at least mimic her properly. She is only there in parts, not the whole. It’s her but crueler. Far crueler. Distasteful. She’s certain — she’s nearly certain, as certain as one can be after a night of drinking — she did not use that word. 

Now, of course, everybody in the neighborhood, the people she lives with, thinks she thinks this. Not thinks it. Said something like it. Said it. There are no Andersons, thank God, the Andersons are a piece of fiction whole or, at least, she doesn’t know the couple that the Andersons are of. She only knows Sarah. Sarah is of her, but not her choice. It’s a rape, really. It is. She insists this, but when she uses the word rape, they start to turn away from her. “I don’t know about that.” And in their heads, she knows — oh, she knows — they are thinking, But didn’t you say that awful thing? Didn’t you say it?

Friends and family, her husband at their head, encourage her to stop bringing it up. Laugh it off. Let it roll off the shoulders. The best revenge is a life well lived and other complacent bullshit. She had a chance to confront him. He came to Chicago for a reading, a few months after it was published. A very big reading. They were all talking about it. She didn’t go. She knows she will never see the writer again. She will choose, in as much as she can choose, to never see the writer again. The writer is not deserving of her, well, her anything. Anger or nonchalance, it doesn’t matter. Either is a reaction she will not give him. She will not plot her vengeance like some neurotic woman in one of those awful books labeled “women’s fiction.” She won’t do it.

But something about the whole situation leaves a harshness in waking. An anger in the morning cup of coffee. The writer has left her exposed. A way to be violated by others.  She has become a joke. She has become known to people she will never even have the chance to face. It might be infamy, but even she doesn’t think the situation, or what people think of her, quite rises to that. No, not infamy. But . . . Sarah. People look at her and see Sarah. That isn’t fair. That isn’t right. That’s what she’s trying to tell them. It isn’t right. Why use her? Why not do what he was supposed to do, the writer, her guest? Why not make up Sarah? Why take Sarah from her?

It can’t be that hard. So many of them do it, don’t they? It can’t be that difficult. And she thinks on this one evening, alone, her husband swimming laps at the gym, her children in distant cities, she thinks about the writer and the way he watched and yes, yes, she might have performed a little, with him at the table, but it wasn’t just that he made Sarah of her, but it was her home. Her home. Filled with her choices. Winter Gray on the living room wall. Peach Parfait for bedroom. The Salman Toor she bought years before his popularity. The equally beautiful woodcut she rescued from a flea market in Boca Raton. Her grandmother’s piano. Her mother’s soap dish. And not just home as thing, but home as event, the great procession of birth, death, boredom, and little league baseball, the surprises and suspicions and worries and unexpected joys, where she has lived—this is where she lives—and the writer came in and took it. He just took it. He took it and flattened it into a page and that isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. 

And how hard would it have been to come up with someone? Someone with a different home. Why Sarah? Why not — and she thinks it, absentmindedly swirling a sauvignon blanc on her deck, the distant sound of traffic and wind coming over the oaks and she thinks to herself — why not instead a girl, flat-chested, pale skin, very pale skin, blindingly white, to the point one wonders if she’s unhealthy in some way, and why not give her blond hair, a true natural blond, yes, why not? And she wears a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee and a thin cotton t-shirt from some metal punk band concert, why not? And maybe if it’s cold out a dark denim jacket, and her hands are very large, they seem to explode from her wrist, and her nose is a little crooked, there’s a scar just across the bridge, but you would only ever see it if you were fucking her face-to-face, her skin is so pale. And her eyes are brown. Not blue, eyes are always blue in novels it seems but no, this girl, this young woman’s eyes are brown and dark and there’s a dusting of freckles on her left cheek, more so than the right, and the hair is straight and cut at her neck and pulled tight into a short ponytail and a pair of sterling silver earrings, hoops, no, she’s double pierced on her left ear, her left, and her large hands and she is skinny, of course, she is skinny skinny skinny, a rail, this one, and she can see her, the woman in the novel can see her and call her, yes, Lena. No. Not Lena but Lin. Just Lin. 

Was that so difficult? Was that so hard? This is Lin and she can say whatever is needed, except—except Lin wouldn’t say that about adoption, would she? Lin has anger in her, and she wears it openly, defiantly, Lin is proud of the hole in the knee of her jeans, she’s proud that it’s there because one night, out late, and someone in a bar, yes a bar, a bar with a name like Tavern at 5th or something ubiquitous like Rogers’, some place where there are no cocktail menus and lit inside by neon beer signs, in a bar like this someone knocked her to the ground and she landed on her knee and got back up and shouted, “Fuck you!” at the crowd, angry yet laughing and the next day she discovered the hole in her jeans. This woman, Lin, wouldn’t talk about adopted children as changelings. Lin would have sneered at Sarah at the dinner table, no, Lin would have argued with her right there. Lin would have said, Sarah, you’re so full of shit. And the woman in the novel is still swirling the wine, this god awful sauvignon blanc, listening to the distant traffic and thinking, God, it had to be Sarah, and feeling such a pity for Sarah and Lin and even the writer, these thoughts in her head, and, too, a great sadness at abandoning them, if only for the moment, if only because her husband has come home, is inside, calling her name, and asking if they shouldn’t order in tonight.

By William Hawkins

William Hawkins has been published in Granta, ZZYZYVA and TriQuarterly, among others. Originally from Louisiana, he currently lives in Los Angeles where he is at work on a novel.