A critique often heard in creative writing workshops is that the protagonist of a story is too observational—read: passive—and not enough involved in the action, rendering a story that is either too “quiet” or a protagonist with too little at stake in the outcome of the plot. I think that this critique is often valid, but not necessarily because the narrator is too uninvolved with the action at hand. Where these stories fail is that the author has failed to give a compelling reason why the protagonist stays on the outside.
From the opening paragraph of “Nashua” (Virginia Quarterly Review), Sara Majka presents a character bent on staying on the outside, even of her own life.
“When I travel, I often visit towns other than the one intended, some place that otherwise I wouldn’t bother seeing. The trip to Nashua, I think, was like that. It was after Christmas, and I was housesitting west of Boston for a while, keeping an eye on a teenager and two dogs for a family friend…There was, as always, the relief of living within a life that wasn’t mine, of raising the heat, of walking barefoot across the bathroom’s stone floors.”
The unnamed narrator visits a place because it isn’t a place she’d want to visit. The narrator feels relieved not to be living her own life. This is someone who is trying to escape herself, or rather, her desire to connect with others. But why? Majka chooses to put that question on hold, and instead offer an obstacle to her desire for escape from herself in the form of a love interest.
“Around this time, I realized I had fallen in love again—now with a man named Ansel, who was a drinker. I remembered a story by Alice Munro in which a woman, sensing she is falling in love, and fearing what had happened to her in the past, gets in a car and starts to drive and keeps going…But for what other reason are we alive? I thought.”
So will she follow the character of the Alice Munro story and flee desires for a loving relationship? Or will she follow the argument she makes with herself, and take on the risks that love brings with it? She continues on with Ansel, but cautiously. And as we get to know Ansel, we find he shares many similarities to the narrator, hinted at in the previous paragraph. They are both big drinkers, if not alcoholics, and we find that he has a similar drive to the narrator in terms of wanting to leave himself.
“Though I feared I was falling in love with Ansel, little happened between us physically. Most nights we were with each other, Ansel would be drinking and would softly fade out.”
This notion of “fading out” is repeated in the next section, when describing how she imagines he experiences the world while drunk.
“I though of that forgotten art film and its speckled, flicker light, of the moments when the images played over each other and of the end, when the images just faded out.”
Majka sets it up so that when the narrator begins exploring the reasons why she’s drawn to Ansel, the reader recognizes that she’s at the same time asking questions about her own conflicting desires. “Perhaps what drew us together was the way life felt to us then,” the narrator says, and then—once they begin to again drift apart—
“I never understood why Ansel drank like that. He would drink until falling down. In a sense, I was mesmerized, drawn in, and he must have known that. It seemed the cruelest thing to ask, so I never did, but I wondered if he understood why he did it.”
As we near the end, Majka returns to that question of why. You could argue that the question of why was still driving the story, even in the midst of the relationship with Ansel, as the narrator’s fascination with him seems so deeply enmeshed with her own questions about herself.
The story ends symbolically, when one day, a few months later, the narrator thinks she sees him in the street, most likely after recovering from her own alcohol problem (a guess on my part, though it’s hinted at in the text). She calls out to him on the street multiple times, but he doesn’t respond, and in the end she decides “…it was both him and not him.” And, curiously, she doesn’t go about finding out whether it really was. Notice her reasoning, which ends the story.
“It was a way to hold something—the memory of him—lightly enough so that all possibilities were true, and to not crush anything by asking if I loved him or not, and, if I loved him, trying to understand why.”
Majka’s exploring how human connections blurs ones visions of others—and oneself. So when a character is bent on holding an accurate vision about themselves and others and the world, they must hold those objects, lest emotion and desire muddy the waters. Disinterest clears one’s vision, but at the cost of relationships. In the end, the narrator chooses distance from the world—and perhaps also herself—rather than the blurring confines of deeper connection.