Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Paul Theroux’s “The Furies” was originally published in the February 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Furies” reveals why so few people go to their 40th high school reunion — the badly treated old friends, girlfriends, boyfriends. There is history, for sure, but not all of it is good.
In “Dear Life,” published this past fall, Alice Munro ended: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”
This feels like the story Paul Theroux wrote in response. If it is in conversation, I like the totally different tone, the tip of the hat to Dante, Bunyan, Dickens, and Wilde, the numerous one-liners, the audacious precision of the his hero’s trial, and the hallucinatory quality.
Dr. Ray Testa (think test, testes, protest, testament) throws over old Angie (think angry, think angel) for the beautiful new model, his dental hygienist, Shelby (think silent, catlike, overpowered for the road, wildly indulgent, expensive, supercar).
Angie unexpectedly lays a curse on him, just when he had thought she might wail about how much she would miss him. Angrily, she says, “I made it easy for you.” Not this time.
Determined to show off at his 40th reunion, Ray insists that he and Shelby must go. Instead of triumph, however, Ray begins a journey of reunion with people he had forgotten he’d wronged — three girlfriends from his hometown, a college fling, a night in med school, the wife of an artist he “admired,” a pass in the hallway. Each one of these women appears to him in hallucinatory haggery; they seem to him much older, inexplicably, maybe even unjustifiably bitter.
The reader recognizes some of these situations: lies, broken promises, denials, casual appropriations. Ray doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of what he is hearing; it doesn’t seem to him that these women have the right to claim he has ruined their lives, or that they have a right to remember what he has forgotten.
I love the fact that he has been called to task. I couldn’t put the story down. I recommend the story to you.
But I’m not sure I could recommend it to my two good, beautiful friends whose husbands did a Ray Testa on them. From this vantage point (almost 70), it feels as if the Furies have let this guy off easy.
To have him merely lectured, to have him merely realize he is old, to have him merely lose his trophy wife — not enough! Ray’s Furies are not furious enough!
I agree, Betsy. Ray gets off easy, despite the fact that in the end he is alone. Still, I enjoyed this story, which I took to be a rather straightforward with no “message,” just revenge and the grotesque.
The story begins thus:
“I now belong to an incredibly exclusive club,” Ray Testa said in his speech at his wedding reception. He savored the moment, then winked and added, “There are not many men who can say that they’re older than their father-in-law.”
It’s chuckles all around. People seem fine with the fact that Ray, fifty-eight, is marrying his thirty-one-year-old hygienist, Shelby (his father-in-law is fifty-six). Ray and Shelby havce known each other for a while and their love is true.
Well, it’s not all chuckles. Ray is about to find that the curse his discarded wife Angie muttered when he divorced her is to come true:
I know I should say I wish you well, but I wish you ill, with all my heart. I’ve made it easy for you. I hope you suffer now with that woman who’s taken you from me. These women who carry on with married men are demons.”
And vengeance (and demons) come. It’s almost time for Ray’s fortieth high school reunion, and he’s anxious to take Shelby. She’s much less anxious. At first, running into people, even those with whom he had a past, is no big deal. Soon, though, three of his old girlfriends are almost shrieking at him: “Everything that he’d forgotten was still real and immediate to them — the prom, the lake, the yearbook, Miss Balsam’s third-grade class.” It’s even more terrifying when these women follow him and Shelby when they try to escape the party.
Naturally, Shelby is terrified. At first, her terror might be directed to these women, but it doesn’t take long before she fears Ray himself. After all, women from his past just keep popping up, always old and slightly grotesque.
At first, Ray takes some pride in the fact that these women have aged so poorly. It allows him to dismiss them as pitiful creatures who allowed their disappointment to warp their bodies. And, after all, he is with Shelby. But Shelby, after weeks of torture, says “They all look like you.”
He’s built a life on taking advantage of the present and and forgetting the past. Why can’t Shelby forgive?
He wanted to tell her that most people have flawed pasts, have acted selfishly at some point in their lives, and then moved on. New experiences take the place of the old ones, new memories, better memories; and all the old selves become interred in a forgetfulness that is itself merciful. This was the process of aging, each new decade burying the previous one; that long-ago self was a stranger.
Of course, these past selves have all combined to create the present self, something Shelby understands.