Antonya Nelson: “Chapter Two”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Antonya Nelson’s “Chapter Two” was originally published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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Antonya Nelson’s “Soldier Joy” was one of the first New Yorker stories I posted about on this blog; it was published on January 19, 2009 (my brief thoughts here).  I started my brief thoughts on “Soldier Joy” by saying, “I both liked and didn’t like this story.”  Well, let’s just say I feel the same way about “Chapter Two.”

Hil is a member of A.A. who celebrates fictional milestones.  Sure, she’ll celebrate a year being sober soon, but after the meetings, she usually goes out with another member for a beer (he doesn’t drink, but he checks his watch to see when he can take his next Xanax). 

Recently, at the meetings, rather than talk about herself too much, Hil tells the group stories about her eccentric neighbor, Bergeron Love, a fifty-something-year-old woman who is “some composite of Miss Havisham, Norma Desmond, and Scarlett O’Hara.”  So, yes, an eccentric with a noble (at least subjectively) past, refusing to see yet mourning the fall of such a legacy.  Just the other night, Berge showed up at Hil’s house drunk, naked, and a bit upset because what does one have to do to get arrested on this street?

“Chapter Two” then introduces a fairly hefty load of side characters: there’s Janine, Hil’s overweight roommate; Jeremy, Hil’s fifteen-year-old son who prefers to be alone in his room; Allistair, Berge’s sensitive son who has grown up and moved away; and Boyd, Berge’s passive boyfriend.

But what is “Chapter Two” about?  The title brings to mind a narrative.  Hil herself is telling her A.A. group a story, which, we learn later, is basically “Chapter One.”  Hil doesn’t want to tell her group Chapter Two of that story because then no one could laugh at Berge’s personality. 

But there’re other narratives here that haven’t played out fully, nor will we get their Chapter Two here.  First, Hil, who prefers to tell other people’s stories rather than her own — “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective” — what will happen to her?  Her husband has left her (we don’t know why).  Jeremy is kind to her and possibly will remain loyal to her, but, like Allistair, he will probably be moving out someday soon.

Which brings me to what I liked most about the story: trying to figure out Chapter Two for Jeremy and Allistair.  Neither is fully present in this story (Allistair never physically shows up), but it’s obvious much of what Hil and Berge go through will affect them in the long run.  It’s their Chapter Two that’s interesting to contemplate.

So that’s what I liked about this story, but I didn’t actually enjoy reading it.  Liking the story at all came only upon reflection, which is one of the good things about blogging.  Perhaps there’s hope for me and Antonya Nelson yet.

3 thoughts on “Antonya Nelson: “Chapter Two””

  1. Ken says:

    I agree with your comments about the story’s title and about wondering about the two sons’ fates. I actually enjoyed reading this because I found it compelling and well-written and funny (yet sad). Obviously, not a happy tale but I found the ambiguities intriguing and the story within a story structure also provided interest.

  2. jerry says:

    I have never cared for Nelson at all but I did enjoy this story so I am exactly like Trevor, maybe she is getting better or my tastes in literature are changing or both!

  3. Aaron says:

    This story is very much about what comes next, but it’s also haphazardly written, much as you’d expect from a lush who is just attempting to keep it together by always standing beside someone slightly worse off than she is. Now that her drunken beard, so to speak, has died, will she completely fall apart? Such is the implication of her final line, in which she considers changing the story to talk not about her eccentric neighbor’s foibles, but the struggles of her teenage son to reel her in — she knows all too well, now that she’s got that convenient pub on the route to AA — that her own son might have to step up even more, and we’ve already seen how frustrated he gets with a room full of drunks.

    In any case, I liked individual descriptions and sections, but the structure wore on me to the point of me hoping for an intervention; more thoughts as always, here: http://shortaday.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/antonya-nelson-chapter-two/

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