Rebecca Curtis: “The Pink House”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rebecca Curtis’s “The Pink House” was originally published in the Jun 30, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Betsy

Rebecca Curtis doesn’t like to gussy anything up — make a story pretty, do the lyric trick on life, or put a gloss on a wart. She delights in the offensive as a purchase on trustworthiness. Nevertheless, she does think people need some help if they’re going to read about a jerk, and it’s quite apparent she thinks people need to read about what jerks we can be. “The Pink House” uses the ghost story told at the dinner party as the enticement people need to stay with a story that features a heroine who truly is a “self-righteous jerk.” I have to say I think the ghost story gimmick works, partly because the ghost story is being told as an after dinner entertainment at  a dinner party for writers. Thus, writing is the other preoccupation, and Curtis delivers — every so often, she zings it up with some good dish on the writing life.

And then, of course, there is the basic question: what is it to be successful? How do you get there?

The middle-aged writer is remembering how she might have ruined a man. Is it because she rented an apartment sight unseen that had a ghost? Or is it because she was a selfish, manipulative jerk?

I enjoyed this story far more than a recent one by her, “The Christmas Miracle” (thoughts here). This one feels tighter, even though it is a bit of a shaggy dog story. One of her dinner guests concurs with me: just when I thought “where is this going?” he surfaces to remark that the story’s overlong. But I liked the dish on the writing world so much I kept going. The narrator says, for instance, that she was rejected by Fiction in the Syracuse MFA program, could only get into Poetry.

But be warned. Curtis revels in the offensive. Her niche seems to be as the stand-up of short story writers: Will say anything! Dare me! It’s a fine line. As she says, if you can kick a beer can in just the right way, at just the right time of night, in just the right light, it can “flash like a star.” You be the judge.

14 thoughts on “Rebecca Curtis: “The Pink House””

  1. This post has been updated to include Betsy’s comments.

  2. rogerpincus says:

    I found this one clever and entertaining. I especially liked the next-to-last paragraph, where one of the party guests gives his cynical reaction to the ghost story and says that Paul should be pleased with his writing success, despite what he had to go through.

  3. Greg says:

    I liked that part too Roger!……..Overall, I appreciated how Curtis throughout the story described the perceptions of relationships (i.e. “Marriage seemed a bad deal: the man cheated, and the woman got fat.”).

  4. juliemcl says:

    Am I crazy or is there also a subtext about incest in this story? I’m surprised no one mentioned it, but it kind of slapped me in the face.

    The father is really an insufferable domineering jerk, and explicitly duplicitous & lascivious to boot. (The descriptions of these parents were so similar to my parents, it made me squirm.) When the parents stay over, the creaking of the doors in the house spurs the protagonist to dream “several times” that her father had left the bedroom and was standing menacingly over her sister. “Please don’t let it [him] take her,” she pleads, “if it has to take anyone, let it take me. She hasn’t done anything; let it leave her alone.” Is this not something an older out-of-the-parental-house sister might dream if she had been abused & had repressed the abuse, and would worry about her little sister left at home? Not for nothing is the sister described as having a tic. She’s pale and skinny, she reads fantasy novels (for escape?), she repeatedly jerks her head down. She pushed her own carton of food across the floor as if she knows what’s expected of her (she’s the only one who does this) and the father “pulled my sister’s lo mien towards him, stabbed a chicken gristle-blob with his fork, and ate it.” To me that reads as if he knows he can just take what he wants and she meekly knows to hand it over. The protagonist is 25, the sister is 13; is it possible the protagonist was being abused at about age 12 or 13 while the mom was pregnant and then busy with a newborn? Note again it was the creaking of the door that spurred the dream. She notes later that she always leaves the lights on when she sleeps: “it’s ridiculous but I’m afraid of the dark, if I’m alone.” Also, the protagonist mentions several times that she found it revolting for her parents to be in her space, that she didn’t want their presence to “infect her new life”. The father insists, over the objections of the mother and even though they had the money, in sleeping in and infecting his daughter’s bed. The mom is an incessant “fixer” and cleaner of things, wanting to always put things back in their proper order, as if that’s her form of control of events.

    To paraphrase Betsy’s insightful comments on Curtis’s last New Yorker story, ‘The Christmas Miracle’, this story is not really about ghosts, or houses, or boyfriends whom you string along, but about a familial pattern of incest and denial “and the inevitable result: identity confusion and dysfunction.”

  5. juliemcl says:

    Oh, and I also meant to say that the protagonist more than once says she rejects white or “pink-skinned” Christian men – like her father – as sexual/romantic partners. They repulse her. She knows she resembles her parents physically, “my father’s eyebrows, my mother’s round face, their pink skin.” Just the repeated use of the same words tips me off there.

    Sorry, I’m not too used to a deep kind of textual analysis, I hope I got some of my points across above without too much stretching of the point.

  6. avataram says:

    I felt that the entire ghost story was a bit of a rationalization – why the narrator spent six years with a person she wasn’t physically attracted to. Paul wasn’t the narrator’s type, he was the ghost’s girlfriend’s type – “You can’t tell by looking at me,” he said, “But my brother has blond hair and blue eyes.”.

    If the incest angle is true, as juliemcl points out, then she feels the need to rationalize her relationship with Paul, the move to Nebraska and the need to rationalize away the entire incest thing. And also to feel that she ruined Paul’s life, whereas it is possible her father ruined hers.

    The only hope that her father wasn’t preying on the younger sister comes from the fact that the sister didnt know what a U.T.I was. But towards the end, the sentence, “So, if there was a ghost, the ghost didnt choose you” – seems to have a second meaning in the light of what juliemcl says.

    Finally, I thought I found a Rebecca Curtis story that didnt make me uncomfortable…I read it first as a story inspired from her own life – Curtis has a MFA from Syracuse… but I guess that wasnt the case and this is as dark as “The Christmas miracle”, if not darker.

  7. Betsy says:

    Wow, Julie. I see it.

    This is truly in tradition of “The Turn of the Screw”. I read right over the family visit. I found your take on the story really convincing. Now I have to read it again! Great stuff.

    (And by the way, given that there is a whiff of “The Turn of the Screw”, there would also be a plausible deniability to this darker reading….a kind of set of mirages… but I buy your reading,

  8. Betsy Pelz says:

    After re-reading “The Pink House”, I notice that Paul the boyfriend appears to have a series of double identities. First he is a fiancee and then he jilts the fiancee; next he is the lover of the story-teller and then he’s a lover who gets no sex; next he’s a writer who becomes a ghost writer, and then he;s a man whose been parasitized by a ghost. – that he has been taken over by a ghost. All these doublings serve the ghost story, and but they also also serve the incest theme that Julie has identified. An incestuous father has a double identity – first, the public identity he requires that everyone, even his children, maintain, and then there is the second identity, lascivious and secretive, The child, the object of his desire, must also have a double identity – the public one and the secret one.

    Curtis uses the word “pink” to describe infection – the pink skin of her parents and herself, skin that seems fevered rather than healthy, the pink of the underdone (phallic) pork loin, the pink of the ghost infested house. There is a wormlike quality to the color as she uses it, as opposed to the pink of being in “the pink of health”. Again – the emphasis on the double life – even for the word “pink”.

    The story teller is in the company of six other unmarried, unsuccessful artists. they are not exactly in the pink of health themselves. They don’t protest the story teller’s ideas about marriage and coupledom. The storyteller sees marriage as inevitably loveless, and sees it as natural that she would live with a man and not have sex for long periods of time. She says that a woman always pees after sex, as if the natural result of sex is not pleasure but infection. No one challenges her on her idea that it was natural she would choose to live with a man she was not attracted to, that she would always turn away when her lover touched her shoulder. So that’s a doubleness as well: what the story teller views as a relationship and what the reader imagines instead. And then, there is the dead man who loves his beautiful fiancee so much that he would ghost himself into another man to get back to the beloved. More doubling.

    The word “ghost” also has a double life – one the ghost in this story, but another, the sense of the ghost writer that Paul becomes while in thrall to the woman from Maine.

    I go with Julie’s interpretation, qualifying only that the story is a series of mirages, and that the reader is purposely distracted with the ghost story, most likely becasue the topic would be otherwise impossible to talk about. The storyteller needs to be in the position of being able to deny that she has said anything about her secret life.

    That her writing is “ghostwritten” is like he self having been ghostwritten by her father and mother.

    One problem the story presents for me is that it is so repellent I found it hard to read. I wouldn’t say that about “The Turn of the Screw”, but perhaps that story’s first readers found it repellent as well. After all, both stores are talking, possibly, about molestation or appropriation of children by unsavory adults.

  9. Roger says:

    I, too, am convinced by juliemcl’s points. I was creeped out when the father invited the ghost to “have his way” with whoever he finds in the house, then added that he could “speak generously: because he was “pretty sure the ghost will choose one of my young attractive daughters.” But then I just let it go and missed the additional indications that Julie points out. The mother is definitely a fixer and also an enabler who tries to compensate for the horror that’s gone on in her household by being hyper-religious, with an emphasis on how the evil will burn for their sins.

    I am abashed by my initial reaction to the story as clever and entertaining. It may be those things but it is a lot more, including, paradoxically, dark and disturbing.

  10. juliemcl says:

    Betsy, those are some great notes about the dual identities and I think it’s true what you say about her using the ghost story to disguise the real story because she finds it otherwise impossible to talk about. It’s maybe a form of therapy for her to tell the story (even of she can’t explicitly say what happened), just like writing stories may be for some people.

    I read the story again more carefully and a few other things popped out at me as things I should look up. The protagonist mentions putting the ring on a charm necklace she keeps around her neck. Other charms on the necklace are a rose quartz and a silver goat head. A couple websites say that among other things a rose quartz can be used to “heal and release emotional wounds and traumas, even original childhood or sexual traumas.” (Also, it’s pink!)

    The silver goat head seems to be a Wiccan or pagan amulet – or, in other words, anti-Christian.

    When the family is eating Chinese food, after the scene Roger just mentioned, the father starts humming “Runaround Sue”. Do you know the words to “Runaround Sue”? I had to look the, up. He appears to be making a comment about his daughter and her sex life. Very creepy.

    “Here’s my story, sad but true
    It’s about a girl that I once knew
    She took my love, then ran around
    With every single guy in town…
    I miss her lips and the smile on her face
    The touch of her hair and her warm embrace
    So if you don’t want to cry like I do
    A-keep away from a-Runaround Sue”

    Finally (at least from my second reading) she is talking about when Paul left the house for a bender right before his birthday dinner. This is right after she tells him how many people she’s slept with in her life. She says “…I felt betrayed. I’d seldom experienced such revulsion directed my way, and I felt vulnerable, as I had when I was a child.”. So the vulnerability is all tied up with sex and childhood and revulsion.

    Oh, and something else popped out at me as a little odd. She’s talking about Paul’s mother and says the mother “was in love with him. She tied pink ribbons around her slender waist whenever he visited, and repeatedly told him that he was the kind of boy she wished she’d met at his age.”. I havent studied Freud or psychology or anything but this is rather Oedipal, no? And hints at unstated subterranean sexual currents within families. Also, a PINK ribbon! There’s that pink worming it’s way into the story again, as Betsy notes, and making the reader feel uncomfortable.

    Yes, the story is dark, but I really think it’s an impressive feat. I appreciated “the Christmas Miracle” too and wil be seeking out some more of Curtis’s work. Thanks for the affirmation from those who responded to my comments!

  11. Betsy says:

    Great stuff, Julie. Brilliant. You give Curtis the respect she deserves – and she certainly fights the reader every step of the way. That bit on the necklace and its rose quartz and goat head amulets are central to the theme, to the mysteries, and to pink. Rose is pink, after all. But your work is so deserving of the author’s intention. It feels absolutely right. You are her ideal reader – open – despite the hurdles. Your reading feels absolutely spot on..

    Great stuff.

  12. Roger says:

    Agreed – this type of insight is what makes a blog like this so worthwhile, helping readers appreciate layers of additional meaning in a story.

  13. Betsy Pelz says:

    Julie and everyone – another angle on the story has occurred to me after all this discussion.

    If this story is about incest, then the narrator is a victim.

    But if this narrator is a victim, she is not given the halo that victimhood often has. Compare this voice, for instance, to the voice in Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”. In Sebold, we have something disembodied, cerebral, angelic.

    In “The Pink House”, we have a victim at the height of her PTSD illness – blind, vulgar, angry, frightened, self-involved, selfish, frozen, withdrawn, manipulative, mean, lacking in empathy for almost everyone, except her sister, but, in the case of her sister – paralyzed. And above all, frozen.

    It is as if Curtis is pointing out that that victims are more often irrational and angry than they are angelic and cerebral – although we would prefer them angelic and cerebral, like say, Maya Angelou. It is as if “The Pink House” is a passionate argument about how not to represent the victim. The lyric voice, in this line of thinking, would be a sentimental take – what we want rather than what is.

    And Curtis herself is angry rather than pitying – and it is this stance that I struggle with. Because, of course, I want my victims angelic. But this line of thinking explains why Curtis is hard to read. She is subverting expectations. It took me quite a while to understand her narrator as first a victim, and second, everything else that flowed from having been victimized.

  14. juliemcl says:

    Yes, Betsy! I can’t agree with this more. Wow. She also seems to bring more victimization on herself too, or even to crave it, for instance, the type of sex she enjoys now – described on two different occasions – as well as one of the writers at the end describing her as nothing but a “ho-bag”. She’s deserving of much sympathy, yet the way she tells the story, she’s never going to get much.

Leave a Reply