Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tessa Hadley's "Married Love"

There's a lot to like about this Tessa Hadley story in the latest New Yorker (the one that landed in my mailbox with the sickening thud that indicated another utterly horrifying piece of Sy Hersh reportage)--she is a highly skillful composer of sentences, and arranger of sentences into paragraphs. The story is about a young woman of 19 who marries a man 45 years older than she (and who is also already married); and about (more about, really) her large family and its reaction to the match. The wedding goes off, the couple has three kids, and the girl is ultimately disappointed and embittered, but only a little bit.

A few choice lines. About the protagonist's father: "He was...stocky, densely and neatly made, with a wrinkled, ugly, interesting head." About her angry mother, seen by her brother: "His mother's high heels scraped fiercely in the empty street as she crossed to the car." Later, the poor girl "never recovered her neat boxy little figure, or that dreamily submissive phase of her personality." Overall, the story is sophisticated, compact, and nicely fitted together, and it is more or less a pleasure to read.

So why is my jaw so tight as I think about it? It isn't Hadley the prose stylist I object to--and that is usually my first objection to just about any writer--but rather Hadley the observer of humanity. Taken as collections of individual details, these characters are lively and well drawn, but taken together they reflect a certain class smugness, a lack of perspective, a lack of humility. They are very, very clever--they bicker, but they do so in well-prepared exchanges, as though they're reading from a beautifully crafted script. Their foibles are offset by interesting and precious careers--violinist, teacher of "special-needs kids," composer, English teacher, student. Such people exist, of course, and many of them are nice to be around. It isn't who they are that bothers me--it's the way I fear that Hadley feels about who they are. They are never made to confront anything truly upsetting about themselves or each other. They are comfortable. They belong.

I am not eager to give the impression that I fundamentally dislike stories about privileged people. But the ones here don't really think about their station in life at all--it is as though privilege, to them, is the default state of human existence. Congratulations to anyone for whom it is, in fact, the default--but I don't really need to read a story about people so cozy in their own skin. Hadley's mind is interesting, but, to judge from this piece, there is a disconcerting smoothness to her worldview. I would love to see her lay down the paintbrush and pick up the knife.


5 Red Pandas said...

Depending on where you teach, being an English teacher might be a precious job, but being a special needs teacher never is. Those are not "gifted kids," those are the special education students, but they've just come up with a kinder euphemism for them. It's one of the most difficult teaching assignments out there, and all the good teachers I know who do it are the most patient, dedicated and consistent teachers. They have to be to do their jobs well, and there is nothing precious about what they do or the students they serve.

That said, you might be right in what you say about Hadley's assumptions about these people. She might believe being a special needs teacher is precious. She never really goes beyond assigning each of them their careers, which stand in as shorthand for the kind of people they are.

This is one of those stories where the characters aren't supposed to have 3 babies in quick succession because of their class- that is certainly one of the points of the story, and that is the source of the violinist's downfall. What always drives me crazy about these stories is that they seem to be in a strange vacuum where condoms and other forms of birth control don't exist. Once, maybe, but 3 unwanted babies? She gets her tubes tied after the third one? Also, if they're so unhappy then why are they still having sex? The story would have been more interesting if it was about those two rather than her family's disapproval.

jrlennon said...

I didn't mean that special-needs teaching was easy--the precious part is Hadley's giving this job to a fictional character, for no good reason. We don't need to know what she does for a living, but making her do this is kind of cheap way of showing how wonderful/generous she is. It feels fake. If this difficult job actually figured somehow into the story, it would be amply justified, but here it's just a disconcerting little filigree.

I should have worded that differently, sorry. My putting it in quotes was an indication of my frustration with Hadley, not to mock the work in question.

jrlennon said...

Oh and that's a good point--that having three babies in quick succession is somehow "low-class" is one of the unspoken assumptions here that made me so uncomfortable.

rmellis said...

The British obsession with class is what makes their fiction sometimes great, sometimes unbearable. Almost EVERY British novel is about class, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. When it's good it's because the writer can see it clearly and doesn't mistake it for the natural way of things. When it's bad it's (often) because the writer either refuses to acknowledge its power and/or is too caught up in it to be objective.

5 Red Pandas said...

I wasn't sure what you meant, so I'm sorry if I jumped to conclusions.

I've been writing stories about teachers and school staff lately, but in general my teachers aren't particularly generous characters, or at the very least they are more complicated than that.

breathedeeply said...

It was Lottie's father who was the special ed teacher.

Her mother, Hattie, however, was longing to retire, graying because of the stress. But she preferred it to being back-up child minder to her three small grandchildren.

And there is nothing shallow or painted about Lottie's analysis of the possibility of having three children in quick succession to "punish" her grandfather of a husband.

And it is sad, and this reader wondered what she lacked in her relationship to her family of origin, to hang onto the kitchen symphony at the end. One could almost hear the crumbs of affirmation, from Edward, dropped for her nourishment.