Antonya Nelson, “Literally”

121203_r22886_p233A day of minor inconveniences reminds a family that no day could ever be as bad as the worst one.

(from The New Yorker)

Bonita’s shoulders heaved. Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita’s wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard’s house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.

A friend and I recently decided that we would reread Female Trouble together, Nelson’s collection that was published in 2002. She loved it when she read it; I did not. I don’t remember what I didn’t like about it, exactly, but I think it’s something along these lines: the stories often felt like stories to me, like made up people doing made up things. She uses dialogue tags like “sobbed” and “fretted” and “cried” as opposed to the unobtrusive “said” and “asked.” She uses simple language with the occasional odd/obscure word thrown in, taking me out of the story.

Anyhow, this is a long way of saying that I wanted to give her another chance. As I began “Literally,” I was reluctant to like it: it began with a family around a breakfast table; was told in third person; there were all these offensive dialogue tags. But I ended up really digging it (this story is not in Female Trouble, btw). “Literally” is about a father navigating a world without his wife, trying to hold his family together and do the right thing, be a good man. In the end, it’s a really affecting portrait of a day in these people’s lives. I’m looking forward to getting started on Female Trouble soon. Maybe today.

Read it here.

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