Thursday, July 19, 2007

Antonya Nelson's "Shauntrelle"

I guess I was expecting more out of this New Yorker story, as its premise is right down my street--a middle-aged woman divorces her husband for a younger man, who then rejects her; and she is forced to live in "corporate housing" with a weird roommate for a spell. Out of such a setup, great things can come. I don't think they do here, though.

Now, there's nothing less fair to a writer than to compare her unfavorably to Alice Munro. But I've got Munro on the brain thanks to "Fiction," and I can't help it. One possible way of summing up Munro's work is: people aren't what you think. Or, more specifically, people are more than you think. This is what I like in fiction--surprise. A new way of seeing the familiar, if you will. Munro's characters are deceived by their preconceptions, and are shown, time and time again, the uniqueness of others. But in this story, the rule seems to be that people are nothing more or less than they seem. Mysteries remain mysteries; the way things look is the way things are. Nelson's protagonist, Constance, is never surprised by anything, although she has done something rather unsavory and is due for some kind of awakening. Her roommate, Fanny Mann, is a grotesque neighbor-lady kind of character, blowsy, loud, and vain, and that's the way she stays, right to the end. The husband and boyfriend remain murky, though consistently so. And then, later, Constance moves on and resumes her life.

The title comes from a running motif--people keep calling and knocking, thinking somebody else lives in the apartment. One of these people bangs on the door, demanding "Shauntrelle." Oh God, how I wish Constance had opened that door and something had happened. Instead, she lies in bed, thinking. "The woman's determination to find Shauntrelle had made Constance aware of her own desire to be found, to be sought after."

Really? Didn't we already know that? The unknown, I am afraid, is a tabboo in this piece, and I wish to hell it weren't. My feelings on this matter are all uncomfortably jumbled up by the fact that, aside from Constance and Fanny, this is a black neighborhood, and blackness, and urbanness, and poverty are all things waiting outside the story, demanding to be let in. The woman seeking Shauntrelle is black, and we're to assume Shauntrelle is too. But they stay outside, and so do these issues, which seem to me far too weighty to be used as mere engines of personal narrative, rather than mirrors of morality and character.

Nelson is not a bad writer at all, but this story feels half-baked. I kept wanting both character and author to break out of it and sprint to the finish. They never got around to it.


bhadd said...

Why would urbanity leave a deep impression where the general formlessness implicated everybody! I agree that she had some "wha?".

Amanda said...

Hey, stranger! I read "Shaunterelle" last night, and when I woke up with the baby, I was still thinking about it. How wonderful to come upon you 3 when I did a web search to see if anyone was talking about the story. Headed off to read the rest of the site. Much love, Amanda