What Can We Steal From Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Man and Wife,” short story
Author: Katie Chase
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Missouri Review, one of the best journals for fiction.  TMR has been kind enough to post the story on their web site for free.  “Man and Wife” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor.

Bonuses: Here is “Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears,” a story Ms. Chase published in Narrative.  Here is “Babydoll and the Ring of Chastity,” originally published by Five Chapters.  And here is “The Sea That Leads to All Seas,” a story originally published in Prairie Schooner.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
Hooray!  Mary Ellen just got engaged to be married to Mr. Middleton, a wealthy man with a sweet moustache.

Oh no!  Mary Ellen is nine-and-a-half years old.

Ms. Chase offers us a wonderfully disturbing story in which Mary Ellen is promised to Mr. Middleton.  Her friend Stacie comes by to play Barbies on occasion and Mr. Middleton comes for respectable Sunday evening dinners.  Mary Ellen’s mother tells the young lady some of what she’ll need to know to be a good wife.  I don’t want to ruin everything.  TMR has the story up for free…just go read it.

The story reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in a few ways.  Don’t get me wrong; the stories are very different, but Ms. Chase is able to create a similarly delicious sense of foreboding in the piece.  The story is so much “fun” that I made marginal notes that demonstrate how deeply I engaged with the story: “WTF world is this?” “Say WHAT?” “Awesomely disturbing.”

Perhaps the biggest reason Ms. Chase engages us so deeply is because she treats the world of “Man and Wife” as utterly normal.  Now, every single person who reads “Man and Wife” is repulsed by the idea of preteen children being sold into marriage.  Ms. Chase doesn’t allow Mary Ellen (narrating what happened eight years ago) or any of the other characters to violate the conventions of their society.  Can it be tempting to remind a reader that it’s super gross for a grown man to play Barbies with his preteen fiancee?  Sure.  But it’s not necessary and it’s undesirable; such a scene is NOT super gross in Mary Ellen’s world.

Ms. Chase also follows Shirley Jackson’s lead by slowly layering in the “weird” stuff.  In the first few pages, Mary Ellen tells us that we’re going to read the story of HOW EVERYTHING CHANGED FOR HER.  Okay, normal.  Then her parents say they have big news.  Okay, normal.  Then the parents toast the good news and there’s a little bit of ooh-child-getting-a-sip-of-alcohol stuff.  Okay, normal.  We know SOMETHING is up, but we’re not quite sure what it might be.

Then Ms. Chase hits us with the crazy: “He’s gone ahead and asked for your hand.  And we’ve agreed to it.”  This was the point at which I knew I was going on a “fun ride,” as I wrote in the margin.  Ms. Chase successfully immersed me in a different world and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next because the world functioned according to rules so different from ours.

I have some cinematic examples!

The film Happiness disturbed the crap out of me, so much so that I am a little scared of Dylan Baker, even though I know Mr. Baker was simply reading words from a script.  I simply don’t live in a world in which it makes sense that a father would drug his child’s friend for…unpleasant…purposes.  I was immersed in the film because it was like looking through a telescope into an alternate universe.

The great Alexander Payne (with co-writer Jim Taylor) shook me from real life and dragged me into the world of Ruth Stoops in their classic film Citizen Ruth:

Ruth (Laura Dern) begins the film huffing patio sealant behind a hardware store.  Then she is arrested and discovers she’s pregnant…again.  The judge offers her a choice: have an abortion and go free or have the child and stay behind bars.  Ruth begins bopping between soldiers on both sides of the abortion debate.  While I certainly understand the political landscape and all of that, Mr. Payne immersed me in a life I don’t want to inhabit: that of a person whose only goal is to get their hands on some spray paint.

Further, Ms. Chase addresses an occasional problem of first person narration in a graceful manner.  Think about it: how many times have you read a first person narrator representing a character who isn’t very smart or eloquent…but the story contains beautiful turns of phrase and features flawless craft?  If you’re doing “Flowers for Algernon,” it’s really hard to pop in some Harlan Ellison/Ray Bradbury sentences.  (Especially during the sections early in the story…and late.)

But gosh, Ms. Chase offers us some underline-worthy turns of phrase and powerful images:

I pushed a chair to the cupboards and climbed onto the countertop. Two glass flutes for my parents, and for myself a plastic version I’d salvaged from last New Year’s, the first time I’d been allowed, and encouraged, to stay up past midnight and seen how close the early hours of the next day were to night.

 

“Take a good look at that pie, Mary.”

The crust was golden brown, its edges pressed with the evenly spaced marks of a fork prong. Sweet red berries seeped through the three slits of a knife.

“It’s perfect,” she said, with her usual ferocity.

 

“Of course, he’ll probably let you go back soon. He’ll want you to. That’s what Mr. Middleton told us—that he admired your mind. He said he could tell you’re a very bright girl.

“I should be so lucky,” she added darkly. “Your father only saw my strength.”

Here’s the (prospective) problem: the story is being written by the seventeen-year-old narrator.  A young lady who, we discover, was taken out of school at nine.  Who was bright at nine, but isn’t depicted as being a huge reader.  Why aren’t we jarred from the story when we read the highlights of the story?

Well, Ms. Chase is careful to point out that Mary Ellen is seventeen when writing the story.  This happens in the first second paragraph.  (And it’s the last sentence of the paragraph, so it stands out all the more.)  Ms. Chase makes it clear that Mary Ellen doesn’t go to school, but does have a tutor that allows her to become educated while fulfilling her wifely duties.  We don’t mind that Mary Ellen is such a beautiful writer because she seems very smart and interesting; we’re told Mary Ellen is an apprentice of sorts in her husband’s business and we’re sure the woman can pick up just about anything.  Ms. Chase also benefits from perhaps the writer’s greatest gift: readers want to suspend disbelief…within reason.

What Should We Steal?

  • Leave your morality at home.  Look, we’re ALL against preteens getting married.  You’re preaching to the choir.  Just tell us a cool story about what happens in a world in which people DO disagree with us.
  • Layer in the crazy like and don’t apologize.  It’s your job as a storyteller to tell tales we haven’t heard before about exceptional characters.  Think of your reader like the proverbial frog in the pot: turn the heat up slowly and we won’t even notice until the water is boiling.
  • Ensure that your narration fits your narrator.  Odds are that your five-year-old narrator is not going to whip out a reference to War and Peace.  Just saying.

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