Stories written in the first person are supposed to be more intimate and allow us greater access to the emotions and thoughts of the narrator than second or third person. But what about the characters who aren’t eager or able to articulate their feelings? What happens when we give them the mic and ask for a story?
The first-person narrator of Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, in Converse” in issue 209 of The Paris Review seems to be just this character—she’s reticent and she doesn’t always use her words to get how she feels. Divided into eighteen numbered sections, “My Wife, in Converse” is about a curtain maker whose wife is in the process of leaving her. The story opens in a cooking class. The couple decides to take this course together (or more accurately, the narrator’s wife decides and she chooses to come too), but the narrator, an incompetent cook, gets booted out early and takes the suggestion of the instructor to enroll in a poetry class instead. Through the following weeks, the narrator watches as her relationship with her wife deteriorates.
The first person narrator of “My Wife, in Converse” is a solid lady. I like her. That’s not always very important, but Oria gets at me with this character. I feel a lot of tender-hearted sympathy in her direction, which occasionally manifested as a desire to hulk out at the other characters on her behalf. I was a little surprised too, since in real life pretty much all I want to do is talk about feelings, and our narrator does not want to do that.
The narrator takes what other characters say too literally, which has the peculiar effect of making her seem both earnest and insincere at the same time. The scenes set in poetry class are especially effective in illustrating her inability or unwillingness to understand the non-literal language that makes up much human conversation, and hats off to Oria for putting her character in the environment most likely to exacerbate her flaws.
What happens in the poetry class makes for fun fiction, especially since, I’m gonna go ahead and say it, we’re all a bunch of writers here and we like to hear stories about us. (In the words of Birds Rights Activist, “I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?”)
Although other sections reveal the narrator, I was drawn to what Oria is able to do by using this class. After a few weeks, the narrator describes the teacher’s lecture on mastering the quiet, which in the narrator’s estimation “has something to do with space breaks.” After workshopping one woman’s poem in class, the narrator concludes, “This woman is very good at space breaks, if I understand it correctly, and is quite close to mastering the quiet altogether.”
I love this scene. The narrator’s sincerity is so straightforward and unadorned that we can see her vulnerability; she wants to be good at something. She wants to understand, even though her attempt to “get it” lets us see just how little she does. (Also, Oria, wherever you are, I dig your dry sense of humor.)
By this scene, we’ve already been introduced to the poetry teacher, a dude with too much hair gel who describes himself as “a poet before a teacher and a poet before anything” so we know already that he’s a little exhausting. It’s fun to watch the narrator misunderstand him because what he wants, above all else, is to be the kind of man who is taken very seriously, hardly a crime, but certainly a reason to be mocked if you’re going to be a pretentious jerk to a bunch of beginners. The gleeful, justice-loving part of my heart enjoys the take-down of this character because even though the narrator isn’t laughing at him, we sure are (we, the readers of The Paris Review! exactly the audience the poetry teacher would aim to impress!), and dang, if that isn’t satisfying.
Because that’s the thing—I have a lot of empathy for this character. Her wife leaves her. We don’t wonder why. We know why. We know why because Oria writes a first person narrator who cannot hide her flaws from us, in large part because she can’t even recognize or articulate what they are. The narrator’s inability to be self-aware certainly contributes to the end of her marriage, but this trait also makes her likeable.
How does Oria turn this character’s flaw into something we love? Well, to start, we’re not the ones married to this lady, so that helps. And to clarify here, I would argue that what we have in the narrator isn’t a loveable fuckup—a character loved in spite rather than because of her flaws. No, instead the narrator endears herself to me precisely because of her obliviousness; she may lack self-awareness, but she also lacks the self-centered arrogance so often tethered to introspection in excess. You want an example? See: the poetry teacher.
I’m kinda hating on this dude, but his presence in the story is part of what makes Oria so successful in writing the narrator as unaware without turning her into an obnoxious, frustrating, and annoying character. The poetry teacher is the narrator’s foil. His condescending, prescribed persona betrays a man who spends too much time thinking about himself and how he appears, unlike the narrator, who seems incapable of understanding or noticing what others think of her. His interaction with the narrator illustrates this further—at the end of this scene, she asks him how she can tell if a poem is ready, a pretty typical question for anyone learning to write, and he tells her “the poet stops writing it.” When she asks, “So I just stop writing it?” he immediately clarifies: “I said the poet.”
I’m not sure how anyone could read that line and think anything other than, What a dickbag, but still, this interaction shows how the narrator doesn’t think about how she’s perceived; the poetry teacher does—and he’s eager to tell her. (What’s an easy way to appreciate a week of rain? A particularly nasty sunburn.)
As readers, we don’t have to like characters in order to enjoy a story. I get pretty bored when the conversation turns to “But I didn’t like this person. All these people were terrible. So I didn’t like it.” Yawn. Nothing will make me quit a book club faster. However, I am interested in how writers like Oria are able to manipulate a narrative to turn our sympathies and affection to a character that might otherwise garner our disdain, and I suspect you might be too. So pick up a copy of issue 209 to see what Shelly Oria can do in her story “My Wife, in Converse.”
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.