"Dido's Lament"
by Tessa Hadley
Originally published in the August 8 & 15, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

August 8 & 16, 2016I am always so happy to see Tessa Hadley’s work in The New Yorker, and at this particular time, when so many recent stories have really disappointed me, she’s particularly welcome. I can’t wait to see what she’s got for us this time.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts below soon. Please let us know what you think of “Dido’s Lament” or Hadley’s work in general.

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By | 2016-08-01T01:13:01+00:00 August 1st, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |50 Comments

50 Comments

  1. David August 1, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    (1) The two characters in this story are very nicely drawn. Just three paragraphs into the story we have a very full and clear presentation of who Lynette is. It takes a lot longer to get much of a firm grasp on Toby, but that is by design. When the perspective shifts in the story we are given just as clear insights into him as we are into her. There is some very strong writing here. However….

    (2) The plot is very thin and very unoriginal. A couple who were once married, now divorced, meet again after a space of years. They have an awkward reunion because they both still have emotional wounds from their marriage. Ho hum. As I was reading I kept hoping something more substantial would happen, but by the end I started thinking that maybe Hadley should have had less happen and make it more a study of the characters individually. Why not have Lynette realize that the man is Toby before she catches up to him and then decide not to speak to him. She might even follow him home anyway to get a glimpse of his home and his success. Then late in the story when the perspective shifts have Toby reveal that he recognized Lynette on the train and clumsily bumped into her as he tried to move away from her before she noticed him. Nothing really happens when they do meet and talk, so why bother? Oh, the leaving the bag behind bit? Yeah, about that….

    (3) The business of leaving the bag behind was poorly thought out. Toby has already erased Lynette’s phone number, so he has no way to return the bag and she will assume that he found it but chose not to return it rather than being stuck with it. That’s great except there’s one problem. The story describes for us a few times how Lynette has become quite the Facebook stalker of Toby’s wife, Jaz. So if he wanted to get the bag back to her he should be able to find her on Facebook in about 45 seconds. He could then message her and say something like “Hey, sorry I could not make out your writing and I texted the wrong number. Oh by the way you left a bag behind at my house. Let me know where to send it so you can get it back.” So he isn’t stuck at all. This is also why I think maybe less plot would have been better than more, because what little plot there is doesn’t make sense.

    (4) One more problem for the story is made starkly clear in the author interview that accompanied the story; so clear, in fact, I am surprised they printed it. Deborah Treisman asks, “Lynette and Toby seem so fundamentally different that it’s difficult to imagine a time when they ‘belonged to each other.’ What was it that drew them together?” Early in her reply, Hadley says, “I hope I’ve made that likelihood easy to imagine, in the story.” No, Treisman just said it was hard to imagine and I agree with her. But that is less of a problem with characters who have been apart for years and might grow in very different directions. It does, however, require a bit more awareness of their significant differences when they are talking to each other. Or else, if she uses my earlier suggestion and avoids them meeting then there is less need for such acknowledgement as the reader’s surprise that these two were ever a couple can be an interesting comment on how they might have changed over time.

    In general I am usually in the middle on Tessa Hadley’s short fiction. I have come to expect that I am not going to be too terribly disappointed, but at the same time I’m not going to get something I will find all that special. I think I probably liked this story more than I have liked some of her other ones, largely due to the the character of Lynette. She is both an original and intriguing person. But the characters alone are not enough to think this is a great story. The plot problems just kept getting in their way.

  2. Archer August 1, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    David, thanks for that fine close reading. Some of those plot issues hadn’t even occurred to me. My impression of the story pretty much lines up with yours. It’s a well-made thing, and Lynette is a fascinating character, one you’re not sure whether to admire or pity by the end. But the premise is well-trod territory, and I’m not sure the depiction of this estranged couple of opposites is all that convincing.

    It’s hard for me to read Tessa Hadley without thinking of Alice Munro, to whom Hadley is enormously indebted (a debt she acknowledges, to her credit). But Munro’s gift was to take to the quotidian and make it transcendent. It’s a sublime and singular talent. Hadley never reaches those heights. Her stories are well-written and well-constructed, composed with tact, taste and clarity. They’re admittedly hard to fault, but I mostly find her completely boring. I think this is one of her better efforts, though, for what it’s worth.

  3. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Okay, without having read the other comments here (though having skimmed enough to know they are not glowing reviews), I just want to say that I loved this. Finally! After weeks of being disappointed by the fiction in The New Yorker!

    I read this one twice today, because I found the characters so compelling as they conversed amicably with so much shadow from the past roiling around inside them. How a relationship one hates and wants to be rid of can continue to direct the course of your life, always roiling under the surface even if you don’t see that person for nearly a decade.

    And I think that Hadley’s direct, clear articulations of swirling emotions are at her best here. For example, the opening paragraph, when Lynette is caught up on Oxford Street at a terrible busy hour and, hating all around her, hates herself for being there: “It humiliated her to be caught out in this queue, branded with her own plastic carrier, stupid like everyone else.” And after she gets knocked down by a speeding man and starts to chase him down: “Ahead of her the tobacco coat dipped down the stairs into the Underground and she followed after it, wouldn’t take her eyes off it, couldn’t forgive it. Something about that turned back infuriated her — it’s broad unconscious strength, its serene unawareness of her.” I think there is so much going on in Lynette’s head at this point, and we feel years of anger.

    And then we get to Lynette and Toby’s conversation at Toby’s house, after startling Lynette by “coolly inviting her to trespass on the grounds of his second marriage,” saying so little of great significance on the surface, but saying so much underneath that is emphasized by the atmosphere — darkening London outside, the warm fire, the alcohol. Mr. Ferris: Please rewrite “The Abandonment” with this piece in mind.

    My main gripe with Hadley’s work in the past has been her endings. I often feel that she creates such an interesting drama that never concludes satisfactorily. That’s not how I felt this time. I found it profound and I found that Hadley’s delivery lives up to the piece’s namesake: “Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

  4. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Okay, now having written my response in relative ignorance to the comments above, I return to respond.

    David and Archer, I’m surprised you both felt this was unoriginal. I know we have stories that bring old couples back together, but this one felt fresh and invigorating. I’m doubly surprised by the alternate suggestions David gave, which I thought to be more unoriginal. I feel I would have been disappointed to have another story where the couple comes back in touch only by recognition and then we have to sit through their thoughts. I much preferred how Hadley made them sit in a room together, speaking platitudes, not really allowing either to acknowledge that, while they are thinking slightly of the past, they are also revising that past and looking out at a very uncertain future, a future that may have them meeting up again, that may have Toby’s wife upset at any perceived infidelity, etc. Yet polite behavior requires they pretend all is well and life has gone on just great and will continue along that course until the end.

    I also didn’t have the same reaction to any of the plot points, and didn’t find them hard to accept. I initially had a similar thought about Toby and Facebook, but there’s no way he’s going to use Facebook to get in touch with Lynette (the revelation that she’s looked him up on Facebook at all is an early implication that she has always been unable to let go fully, has not quite let that thread from her past go off on its own, but we don’t know that he’s ever looked for her). Whether he has or not, his understanding of this encounter makes any attempt to contact her by those means now absolutely impossible because, first, he wouldn’t dream of reaching out and giving his wife more reason to think he’s unfaithful (because in a way he wants to be, has been in his mind) and, second, because he wants to ignore what he now knows: what he’s done he’s done in preparation for meeting Lynette again, showing her he is fine, has done well without her, and he needs to pretend he needs nothing from her by ignoring any desire he has to contact her. Perhaps he also keeps the bag because he hopes it will bring her, by her own volition, back into his life — a bit of poison hidden away in his home — but I don’t think he’s capable of contacting her.

    I realize David didn’t hate this story, but I’m not sure the plot problems are problems. Or maybe I am so thrilled to get a competently written piece of fiction that I’m willing to completely overlook them.

    Like Archer, I also think of Munro whenever I think of Hadley, but that’s generally getting to be less and less the case the more I read Hadley and Munro. They are each interested in women characters and have opened up my own eyes more than most other authors, and they are each remarkably talented at articulating, no, illuminating inner lives, especially as they respond to those around them. Stylistically, though, I feel that Hadley is a great torch-bearer for the older style of the British modernists. Her stories are usually straight-forward, where Munro’s go in circles before shooting out into the atmosphere, and she tells them with an attention to atmosphere that is, perhaps, superior to Munro’s own ability to use objects around a room to underline her stories. For me, Munro is the greatest, and Hadley does great by looking to her for anything she can get, but I’m more and more thrilled with what Hadley is doing.

    Man, I wish I could have said any of that better and with more confidence. I need to step back and think a lot more on this, but that’s a rough idea of what unformed thoughts are going through my head as I start to sift through Hadley and Munro. I leave it here so that others may respond and perhaps help build some better ideas of their relationship/differences.

  5. David August 2, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Trevor, I can see why my alternative suggestion is not impressive. I was barely convinced by it as I came up with it (this would be reason #59 that I am not writing fiction for the New Yorker myself). I guess I was just so underwhelmed by the conversation at their meeting that I wanted more of the bits I did like a lot, which was the individual reflecting.

    As for the matter of contacting by Facebook, I agree 100% that there is no chance he would ever want to do that. The point I was trying to make was that having him erase the number before he discovers the bag left behind created an inauthentic problem for him. Even if he still had the number he wasn’t going to call it, so for Hadley to pretend he needed it is misleading. It would have been more honest to have him see the bag before erasing the number.

    The discussion of comparisons to Munro I find interesting. I have little to say about that because I have never really been much interested in Munro’s work. I never get the feeling that her stories are not good, but I often feel like the things that interest her are just different from the things that interest me. On second thought, that’s not too far different from how I have typically reacted to Tessa Hadley’s stories. So maybe there is some connection there after all.

  6. Roger August 6, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    This is a sad story of two broken-hearted, emotionally scarred ex-spouses and in that sense, at its bare essentials, I can see why one might call it unoriginal. But it is Headley’s stylistic virtues, the way she uses them to bring us into Lynette’s (and, briefly, Toby’s) inner lives, that makes it outstanding. As Kerouac reportedly said, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This is beautifully written, whether Lynette is taking in every piece of furniture and other item in Toby’s home or whether either is recalling what each meant, and did, to the other.

    I join the consensus that, based on how Toby feels at the end, there is no way he is going to friend her on FB to get her contact info.

  7. Sean H August 7, 2016 at 12:59 am

    I was immediately drawn in by the first few sentences but that’s where the story peaked. The scenario was just so unoriginal and this is such well-trod ground. It’s also coincidental to the point of really straining credulity. Also, originality isn’t everything but without it the benchmark for execution gets set very high. The writing is smooth and fluid, yes, but doesn’t rise to the level of truly striking, beautiful or trenchant prose. There’s a workmanlike quality to Hadley’s approach (especially noticeable in the sections of dialogue) which does put a heavy burden on the actual content. The ending manages a nice inversion and the glimpse inside Toby’s house (and head) is a refreshing dessert, but this one read like just that — a good appetizer, a good dessert, but with a completely drab and uninspired main course. So, not enough to recommend the restaurant/story as a whole but there were some high quality moments and the chef is far from a nincompoop.

  8. Trevor Berrett August 8, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    I’m not making an argument that this is original ground, but I’m a bit surprised at how many of you whose major problem was that it was unoriginal. Is this treading on Casablanca?

    I really didn’t find it unoriginal, so I’m curious what stories this brought to mind.

  9. Parker August 9, 2016 at 3:54 am

    Every story is original to some degree in its detail, and “Dido’s Lament” (which, like Trevor, I liked very much) is exemplary in that regard, it seems to me. Perhaps this story can be seen as “unoriginal” in the broad sense that many New Yorker stories recently seem to follow a similar pattern: Boy/man meets girl; boy/man wins girl; boy/man loses girl. All these seeming unfortunate liaisons followed by the same predictable, sad denouement for boy/man: He loses his taste for the “simple” life (Toby in “Dido’s Lament”); he loses his money (James Duke in Annie Proulx’s “A Resolute Man”); he loses his religion (Sander in Kevin Canty’s “God’s Work”); he seemingly loses all hope (Leonard in Ann Beattie’s “For the Best”). To name a few of the recent stories I’ve managed to get through. Judging by New Yorker fiction, the American male is in a sorry state, indeed.

    Still, Tessa Hadley in “Dido’s Lament” seems more nuanced in depicting of her sorry male character (Toby) than most of the above, though Beattie is not far behind. For that I give her high marks.

  10. Ken August 9, 2016 at 4:39 am

    I don’t feel that the supposed lack of originality here is a problem. I liked the story because it was a good exploration of ambivalence–both are still scarred yet I’d say both are also doing well enough also. They are bound to think a lot of each other, bound to want to impress each other, but this is how people are and yet they can still be o.k. I don’t think either is in terrible shape. My only problem was what I’d call pointless adjectival description. Is it necessary that trees be “penitential” when the main point is she’s fallen in the rain and won’t cry out for Toby. Similarly, do we need to have his back described as having a “serene unawareness of her”? The description of their bodies both remembering each other naked is whimsical in an irritating way unless one believes in such magic. Nevertheless, I was fond of this story and am in general a (moderate) fan of Hadley’s work.

  11. David August 9, 2016 at 8:26 am

    Trevor, I think you are missing the main point of the criticism that I, Sean, and perhaps others are making. You agree that the plot is not original. So far so good. Sean put the problem so clearly I’ll just quote him: “originality isn’t everything but without it the benchmark for execution gets set very high”. For me this is where the story failed. I read it a week ago and the parts of the story I remember well now are the part before Lynette realizes that the man who bumped her is Toby and the part after she walks out his door. The conversation they have when they meet seemed relatively uninteresting when it happened and not memorable now.

    As I said in my first comment, I really like the characters, especially Lynette and I still do. But I didn’t see the point of their reunion. Hadley didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say about it and didn’t need it to give us these two people. So either have them do something else or something less, like not meeting at all. As it is one-sentence description of the story is “a divorced couple meet again by chance for the first time in years.” This seems to prompt the question “What happens then?” but the answer is “not much”.

    If something more substantial came from their reunion or if their conversation were needed to give us interesting insights into their characters, then the lack of originality would be inconsequential. But when the conversation is dull sometimes you end up looking at the wallpaper and thinking about how you’ve seen that pattern a hundred times before. That’s what happened here.

  12. Trevor Berrett August 9, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    You agree that the plot is not original. So far so good.

    Hold on, hold on! I don’t agree: “I really didn’t find it unoriginal.” I did not waive that portion of the argument, sir!

    It’s not that I vehemently disagree, either, but my question above is genuine, even if I couched it facetiously. I am curious what stories the plot in “Dido’s Lament” brought to mind. Is it just the general premise of a separated couple coming back together? I’m curious because it seems those of you who didn’t like the story started out with the premise that it is unoriginal and, therefore, had to do quite a lot elsewhere to make it up. I do understand that that’s not the entire foundation of your case against the story and do not think that, oh, if you only could see how original it was you’d love it.

    I understand that you don’t think the story did much, and I tried to respond to some of that above. I’m on the opposite end, though. I am very happy that Hadley didn’t have much happen in the story. It is an exploration not of their particular meeting or that particular conversation but of the context and subtext of all of that. It’s about all of the days they pass only sub-consciously aware of the other and of their presence in the world. I also do not remember what they talked about specifically (I don’t think they will, either), but I remember well the atmosphere: him not closing the curtains, London darkening outside, the deep sense of trespass, the ambivalence — I appreciate Ken’s comment here — that allows us to consider how these two functional people still have deep scars and unconscious motivations influencing their lives . . . like most of us.

    On the latter half of Ken’s comment, I think Hadley’s use of adjectives is nice. For me, they are not gratuitous, there only to fill up space and showcase her “talents,” as is often the case with lesser writers. Rather, for me they open up the close third-person perspective even more. It’s Lynette who sees — no, feels (I don’t think these are conscious thoughts) — the world that way, with her at the center of it.

  13. David August 9, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    Trevor, when you wrote “I’m not making an argument that this is original ground” I thought you were waiving at least some of the argument. But ok.

    “I am curious what stories the plot in ‘Dido’s Lament’ brought to mind. Is it just the general premise of a separated couple coming back together?”

    Well, given that this is really the entire plot of the story, that would be it. This is a pretty common idea in fiction, so when someone says that this is the story the response isn’t “Oh, that’s a clever idea” but “Yeah? Then what happens?” The devil is all in the what-happens-next.

    Actually, the first story that “Dido’s Lament” brought to mind was a rather awful movie I saw recently. If you have not seen “Young Adult”, don’t bother. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not funny, so it just seems a mess. But the story is about a woman who has not really matured and is not really as successful in her desired career as a writer who reconnects after many years with her former boyfriend. He has since married and had a child and basically moved on with his life, but puts up with her return out of pity. Then other stuff happens, but by now it should sound a lot like the bare bones of the structure of “Dido’s Lament.”

    Recently I also read the quite good novel “The Watch That Ends The Night” by Hugh MacLennan. In that novel George and Catherine are a young couple in love, but their relationship is blocked by George’s domineering aunt who disapproves because Catherine has a heart problem that will make it dangerous for her to ever have children (this is set in the 1930s). After a number of years apart, George finds out that Catherine got married to a doctor and has had a child. He is not over her and wants to meet her again, which he does, and becomes a part of her family’s life. She is not tempted to be unfaithful, but still has affection for him. While there is a lot more to the plot of the novel, this element looks a lot like “Dido’s Lament”.

    Of course lot of details are different, but in general plot structure these three are the same in this regard. MacLennan’s novel is excellent, Hadley’s story is ok, and the film “Young Adult” is awful, so there is nothing about this structure in and of itself that is make-or-break for a story. Even in the film something significant comes from the former couple meeting again, so while not being worth watching it was at least trying something. I still don’t know why Hadley bothered to have these two people meet again. Or how she resolves the problem, one that Deborah Treisman also points out, that they are not believable as a couple, even a former couple.

  14. Roger August 9, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    One aspect of the story that interested me, and that ties in to the discussion of originality (more about that below), is the initial appearance of Toby. There is a physical recklessness about the way he behaves – “A man came pushing through the crowd from behind her, accidentally striking her hard with his shoulder as he passed.” So here we have this stranger, pushing people (not just Lynette; he is pushing through the crowd), colliding with Lynette with such force that she loses her balance and hurts herself. He doesn’t care or possibly even notice. His behavior is borderline brutal and it seems to continue after the collision: he is “forging on through the crowd [perhaps continuing to push others aside?], oblivious of any trouble he’d left in his wake.” When Lynette shouts after him, he doesn’t respond, leading her to “push[ ] furiously herself” through the crowd to gain on him. The use of “herself” reinforces the image that the stranger, too, has been “pushing furiously” even after he’s gotten past Lynette
    .
    As a reader I’m feeling a sense of potential danger from him, wondering if he is an ordinary man who is having a bad day or someone who behaves this way habitually, which would suggest a lot of anger. I wondered and worried about what would happen to Lynette if she caught up to him.

    When Lynette discovers that the stranger is her ex-husband, looking “more definitely, heavily, his good-natured self,” and when his expression “crack[s] open into such spontaneous, friendly pleasure,” the threat of physical danger dissipates so much that a reader might even forget about the sense of menace in the opening scene. However, back at his home, when Toby insists on cleaning Lynette’s muddy coat (reminding her of the “delicate way he touched things” and of his “scrupulous solicitousness”), I found myself thinking about the incongruity between this man as we’ve now come to know him and the rough, inconsiderate stranger back at the subway station.

    And soon after, we enter Toby’s point of view. There we learn how badly his failed marriage to Lynette has caused him to suffer, to the point where he’s put his post-divorce world together “all so Lynette could visit it someday and see that he’d managed to have a good life without her.” This struck me as a devastating revelation – despite Toby’s outward prosperity and contentment, he is damaged by the tragedy of his failed marriage, just as Lynette is. Hadley doesn’t come out and say this, but I’d bet Toby often barrels through the subway, propelled by his suffering into a kind of callous indifference that is at odds with the delicate, scrupulous person he is, or rather, used to be. The reason for the incongruity is revealed and the dramatic impact of that opening scene comes back to hit the reader hard.

    I’m inclined to see all this as bold and creative on Hadley’s part. But there could be an argument that it’s unoriginal. After all, haven’t we read plenty of stories where something mysterious and troubling happens in the beginning, only to fade away and then manifest itself in some fashion later? Maybe it’s just a variant of Chekhov’s gun-on-the-table? The problem with these kinds of analyses is that they operate at such a high level of abstraction. They are the kinds of points made by those who argue there are only seven kinds of plots (a stranger comes to town; boy meets girl and loses her; etc.). From 60,000 feet in the air, many stories may look alike. But it is in its particulars that a given story can stand out, and I found that to be the case with this one.

  15. David August 9, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Roger, I’ll be brief here. I like the things about the story you mention, but, for the purpose of my ongoing discussion with Trevor, I should point out that the specific parts of the story you mention come from either before they go back to his house or after she leaves, the parts of the story I liked. You don’t mention bits from the middle section. I am beginning to think my original suggestion was not so bad after all: Have Lynette recognize Toby after chasing him, but not speak to him and then after the switch in perspectives have Toby reveal that he recognized her on the train and knocked into her as he was trying to quickly move away so she would not notice him. It preserves the bits we both liked and leaves out the forgettable conversation.

  16. Trevor Berrett August 9, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    For the record, I’m not just saying the middle part is okay because the rest works so well: I liked the middle part! I think it is strong and at the heart of what the story is exploring.

  17. Lee Monks August 9, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    David: will we ever agree on ANYTHING?! I liked Young Adult! :-)

  18. Roger August 9, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Like Trevor, I enjoyed the middle part, too. It was interesting and tied together the mysterious physical action in the beginning to the later revelation about Toby’s true state of suffering. In my comment above, I noted that foe me, a key moment occurred when Toby cleaned Lynette’s muddy coat (reminding her of the “delicate way he touched things” and of his “scrupulous solicitousness”). This moment, firmly in the story’s middle, is what prompted me to focus more on the seeming mismatch between Toby as the reader now experiences him and the earlier Toby we witnessed at the train station. I find it hard to imagine the story achieving its dramatic effect if we didn’t see Toby’s present action (cleaning the coat) and experience, with Lynette, the triggering of her memory about the Toby to whom she was married. Their interaction struck me as essential.

    It seems to me that a close read of the entire story (beginning, middle, and end) will yield rewards for many readers.

  19. David August 9, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Lee, if this were the 1700s I think we would have to fight a duel now. Perhaps we can nominate two Olympic fencers to stand in for us? Or perhaps a battle of rapier like wits in stead of actual rapiers? Defending one’s honour in the age of the Internet can be rather difficult….

  20. Sean H August 10, 2016 at 4:40 am

    Almost totally unrelated but the Diablo Cody scripted/Jason Reitman directed Young Adult from 2011 is one of those half-hit half-miss movies. It’s got a crappy premise (not quite as cliched and silly and straining credulity as the one that mars the Hadley story, but pretty crappy) that undermines a lot of its strengths but it’s a truly, genuinely subversive script featuring a complex and “unlikeable” lead (with an immersed performance by Charlize Theron). Her character and the script are really, really rare in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
    Here’s a quick link to a really good Slant piece about the screenwriting on that film and how it manages to avoid cliche and “pet the dog” Hollywood norms:
    http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/understanding-screenwriting-88-young-adult-a-dangerous-method-the-palm-beach-story-more

  21. Lee Monks August 10, 2016 at 7:34 am

    David: as long as I can ‘make use’ of ‘Russian training techniques’ I’m in!

    Sean H: it does have a crappy premise but, perhaps a la Hadley, it transcends it…and I’m still hoping to spot a down-on-their-luck local author in Waterstone’s furtively scribbling signatures in their (as good as decomissioned) books…

    Young Adult is superbly scripted and spot-on performed. You could obviously see, for example, a Reece Witherspoon turning it into a bit of witty fluff, but Theron is brilliant (as she tends to be when given something decent), as is Patrick Wilson. Without those two turns I’d probably much prefer Cody’s script.

  22. Eric August 11, 2016 at 4:14 am

    I should acknowledge up front that I’m a much more middlebrow guy than most of the rest of the gang here. I had never heard of Hadley before, have read very little Munro, and to me Dido’s lament is “there’ll be no white flag above my door.” That said, I was thoroughly charmed by this story. To me, it read like a million answers to the single man’s age-old cry, Why Don’t Women Like Nice Guys? Toby is the stereotypical Nice Guy, and the laundry list of things she found irritating about him seemed to me to be amusing and insightful and quite elegantly written (“She felt a spasm of exasperation that Toby had stored up all the nonsense she’d ever spoken and taken it so seriously.”) I suppose that there are stories by Munro and others which already cover similar territory equally well, but not having read any of them I found the story enjoyable and interesting.

    I also disagree with the conclusion that Toby is a sad figure; to me, this seems like something he regards as a poignant interlude in the generally solid, satisfying life he has made for himself, nothing more. Perhaps if he were to dwell on what might have been it could haunt him, but he doesn’t think that way, much; he is neither blessed nor cursed with his ex-wife’s restless imagination. The way that the emotional “balance of power” between them had shifted over the years also rang true, with Toby wiping Lynette’s number off the board not out of anger or sadness but practicality; there are a lot of things in his life that are more important to him than maintaining contact with Lynette, so he simply doesn’t. It’s just the kind of level-headed, risk-averse thinking that probably drove her away in the first place.

  23. Parker August 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Nice comment, Eric. I think Toby is a “sad figure” only if we accept the thesis (as I tend to) that much of what Lynette calls his “material accumulations and accretions– and children, too….” are largely a display to impress her. This seems to be the realization that dawns on Toby near the story’s end and he doesn’t want to think about, but does. This is hard to imagine, but it seems to be a point the author is intent to make. (Otherwise why put it in?) It is the moment of truth that all the story’s action moves toward– and that puts everything else into perspective, including as Roger aptly points out, the bit at the story’s beginning about Toby “forging his way through the crowd, oblivious of any trouble he’d left in his wake.” Toby obviously is one of those men that Lynette feared he might be: a man “marked for life when they were hurt.” But, equally obvious, Lynette is also hurt and marked for life by their failed relationship– despite her lack of possessions, her vaunted inwardness, and her freedom. In truth, probably both Toby and Lynette can be seen by some as “sad figures”– easily sympathized with, but sad.

  24. David August 11, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Parker, if your read is right Toby is not just sad, he’s pathological. I took the claim that “he’d put everything together—family and work and home—all so that Lynette could visit it someday and see that he’d managed to have a good life without her” as a claim about his initial motivations to live the life he has now. At the point of the break up it’s the “I’ll show you!” impulse. This impulse set him on the road to having the life he has now. But if he maintains this life now motivated by that “I’ll show you!” impulse then he is just insane, not merely sad. His resistance to thinking about his former “I’ll show you!” motivation is because, I believe, having built the life he has now he does truly value it for what it is – he really does love his wife and children – and he does not want to taint that love with a reminder that his initial impulse had been some combination of pride and revenge. Tony seems to have a good life and to be happy. So I don’t see him as a sad person, just someone who had some old woulds briefly opened again by meeting Lynette.

  25. David August 11, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    Old “woulds”??? I mean “wounds”, of course. Although “old woulds” sounds like an interesting idea too….
    :-)

  26. Roger August 11, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Eric, Parker, and David, these are interesting comments. I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that everything Toby has accomplished during the nine years since the divorce has been motivated by a desire to impress Lynette. And it makes sense to suppose that his motive to “show” Lynette was presumably much stronger in the aftermath of their breakup than in the present moment. At the same time, I think Parker has a point in observing that “much” of what he’s done is still “largely” motivated by that purpose, perhaps not entirely at a conscious level. Now that he’s achieved his purpose, he’s reminded of how much it meant to him – and he is repelled by that reminder.

    I don’t think the story would have much dramatic impact if all that happens is the brief reopening of old wounds. Look at how shaken up Toby is after Lynette’s visit is over. He is so stunned and numb that he has to force himself to go through the paces of his normal routine, which ends up including eating an omelette without being able to taste it. He marvels that “Lynette had been here, in this house, printing her presence everywhere so that it haunted him wherever he looked.” He can’t bring himself to answer the phone when his wife calls. And of course, he confronts the terrible reality about how he’d put everything together “all so that Lynette could visit it someday and see that he’d managed to have a good life without her.”

    We readers now see how badly damaged he is, to this day, by the failure of his marriage to Lynette, and this comes as a surprise since we, like Lynette, have been exposed to his lovely family, home, and his seemingly overall “prosperous” condition, which has largely been concealed from us by the outward appearances he maintains. Though he doesn’t always maintain those appearances – not, at least, when he’s in a position of relative anonymity, such as back at the train station.

  27. Trevor Berrett August 11, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    Yeah, I don’t think he is consciously achieving anything on the hope that one day he’ll show Lynette just what she’s missed out on. I think, like many of us (really? just me?), he has old wounds and when he is brought to view them it isn’t that they’ve re-opened: it’s startling to see they have never healed in the first place. He’s adjusted his motions to protect himself from the pain as well as he can, and most days he probably can do this so well he doesn’t even remember the wounds are there, but, importantly, the wounds forced the adjustments in the first place.

    I’m a big fan of Roger’s astute analysis above. It shows how much is in this story and just how much of that is achieved by Hadley’s artistic touches.

  28. Trevor Berrett August 11, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    But, seriously, where are the women commenters?

  29. Parker August 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Yes, excellent points, as usual, Roger.

    David, as an aside, I must say I very much like your earlier suggestion that the story would be improved if, toward the end, we got Toby not only admitting (to himself) the dubious nature of the motivation behind his apparent post-divorce worldly success, but also admitting to himself that he had recognized Lynette in the crowd on Oxford Street and pushed past her and everyone else in the vicinity to avoid confronting her. I must admit that, in my own mind, I can’t seem to get beyond that possibility, though I see no hint of it in the story. That really would be, given Toby’s subsequent sweet and solicitous behavior toward Lynette at his place, behavior approaching the “pathological”– or, at least, behavior most would see as deviating from the norm. But whether “pathological”… “sad”… or something else….it’s probably safe to say that Toby and Lynette are, judging by the volume of comment they have elicited here, two of the more interesting characters in recent New Yorker fiction.

  30. Margaret August 16, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Here’s a woman’s perspective! I’m a little behind with my New Yorker reading these dog days…

    Trevor, I agree with you—I always look forward to Hadley’s work and this did not disappoint. From the beginning I was hooked on this character, Lynette, whose “idea of her own separateness from others was essential to [her] dignity.” This is as much a story of an artist, however minor, who, like all artists, claims a bit more sentience than average folk, and lives either slightly outside of life to better see it, or enacts a life worthy of art, and her relentless loneliness in that insistent “separateness,” as much as it is a story about the chance meeting between a long-divorced couple. Hadley expertly stages that metaphorical injury of having what has been tucked neatly into your memory and imagination nearly knock you down when you encounter it in the flesh.

    I relished the opportunity to watch through the uncovered, nightfallen windows these characters reconnect in painful ways. Yes, I wish more New Yorker stories held insights like this one: “How strange that Toby was so simple and yet his simplicity had had all these solid, complicated effects in the real world… Whereas her own complexity seemed to have had no consequences. It was all wrapped up inside her—she had nothing to show for it.” Toby offers her protection from danger—the colliding car that sent them spinning across three lanes, recounted in the middle. But Lynette doesn’t want that, preferring to slip and slide and fall through the rest of life. She’s still wrapped in her “necessary” freedom in the end—the pain at the story’s start worse now, but accepted as inevitable.

    That story arc is rich enough for me, with the added satisfaction of sharing Toby’s sightline, discovering how his statement at the end of their marriage, “Everything you’ve touched is spoiled for me now,” reenters the story in his description of Lynette “printing her presence everywhere so that it haunted him wherever he looked.”

    And I, too, found that the delivery lived up satisfactorily to Dido’s lament.

    I had no problem with the plot points of the telephone number or Facebook access. No claim is ever made that Toby had access to Facebook.

    Just a point of clarification: in Hadley’s interview, she says it’s “easy to imagine what drew him to her,” which I interpret as different from—and just as true as—Treisman’s statement that it’s “difficult to imagine a time when they ‘belonged to each other,’ the latter being Lynette’s perspective.

    One way that Munro outshines Hadley—and, well, every other writer I can think of—is that she allows for much more unspoken mystery; Hadley tends to over-explain. But I always learn something from her exposition so I don’t want it to disappear. I thought that such a tendency would make her a greater novelist—and maybe it does—but I didn’t enjoy The Past as much as I have her short stories. I haven’t quite put my finger on why, except perhaps that the messiness of a novel is bound to dilute the acuity found in a story like this.

    In any case, the next time I see Hadley’s name in TNY’s contents, hers will be the first piece I read.

  31. Greg August 16, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks Margaret for all of the wonderful quotes from the story!

    Your observations on ‘separateness’ and ‘necessary freedom’ were a treat to read!

  32. Trevor Berrett August 17, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for your thouhts, Margaret! They are very welcome!

    I’m intrigued by all you wrote, and found myself nodding in agreement as you articulated so many of the things that I loved about this story. I am also glad you brought up Munro, and I think you’re exactly right about one of their major differences. It’s actually one reason I don’t quite relate Hadley and Munro as much as I used to. They are not the same stylistically or structurally. I place Hadley more in line with her peers and forebears in British fiction. I also agree that I wouldn’t want her to change!

  33. David August 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    After all the discussion of the story I decided to read it again to see if I had any different view of it. I didn’t and was not going to comment again, but I have to respond to this sentence in Margaret’s comment: “No claim is ever made that Toby had access to Facebook.” Now I don’t know what this could mean, since anyone with access to the Internet has access to Facebook and we know his wife is on Facebook, so it seems to go without saying that he has access to Facebook.

    I make this point because when I reread the story I was more convinced than ever that Hadley has a problem with the bag-leaving. The picture that accompanies the story very prominently shows the bag and the entire end of the story is about her leaving the bag, Toby trying to decide what to do with it, and Lynette trying to decide how to reply when he calls her about it, as she expects he will. The emphasis on him erasing the phone number before he sees the bag and his seeming to have only two options as a result (throw it out or hide it) is meant to be important to the story.

    But if he is not really stuck and unable to contact her, whether he decides to do that or not, then the situation is completely different from the one Hadley has tried to arrange. His options are not just hide it or throw it out. He still has the option of contacting her so he can mail it to her. It seems Hadley wants Toby, in the end, to be forced to symbolically keep a piece of her (through the bag and whatever it contains) hidden away in his home, hidden from his wife and somewhere he does not have to look at it.

    It is a far different situation if he chooses to keep it rather than being forced to keep it. That’s why Hadley makes a point of him erasing the number before he discovers the bag. But so long as the Internet and Facebook exist, his not contacting her was a choice to keep the bag. So this shopping bag, that the picture accompanying the story and it’s repeated mention and it’s placement centrally at the end, does not work as the symbol Hadley is trying to make it work as.

    Ok. That dead horse is well and truly beaten now. I should stop.

  34. Margaret August 17, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks, David. I should have been clearer. By “access,” I mean that there is no mention in the story of Toby’s being a Facebook user. I happen to have a Facebook account, but my husband does not, and there’s no way that he would use my Facebook account to contact someone—it would never even occur to him. In order to send someone a message on Facebook, you must at least have “access”—an account.

    Regardless, in this world of hyper-connectivity, anyone can track down anyone, so there is always a choice now, isn’t there? For purposes of this story, I like the way Hadley characterizes Lynette as someone who perhaps trolls a bit on Facebook, looking at Toby’s wife until the children make it too… painful? I also appreciate the way Toby holds the world at a distance—by not, as far as the story tells us, subscribing to that world of Facebook to see what his ex is up to; by finishing his omelette before he even picks up the forgotten bag, holding it “stiffly away from his body,” not even looking within; and by not answering his wife’s phone call. That all fits together beautifully as first-rate characterization. (Just as Lynette’s bold writing of her number on the family’s chalkboard speaks to her character.) In Toby’s world, the erased number means that it would now require a greater effort to find Lynette, which he will not endeavor to do. As the story ends, Lynette fully expects him to call her about the shopping bag; and Toby knows that she must expect him to. But he will not—which will send an ambiguous message. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see her again, or is saving her number for another day, or would rather hold on to some material possession of hers than have nothing at all. The narratives that they have been telling themselves for years about their failed relationship will continue, which I think is very much intentional on Hadley’s part.

    So yes, ultimately, the fact is that Toby, as you say, “symbolically keep[s] a piece of her”–when at the end of their marriage he didn’t want any (physical) part of her left behind. To interpret that as a choice on some level makes the story even richer.

  35. Greg August 17, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    Thank you David and Margaret for further exploring the plausibility surrounding the return of the forgotten bag. I learned a lot!

    Also, sometimes when I watch movies I am told to “suspend my disbelief” in order to better enjoy the show….hmm….should we also apply this to literature?

  36. David August 18, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Greg, the idea of the “willing suspension of disbelief” was originally proposed by Coleridge talking about supernatural elements of stories. Our rational selves know magic isn’t real, but for the sake of a story we pretend that it is. The phrase has also been applied to the theatre, which often cannot faithfully recreate the kinds of events that are supposed to be happening. In the opening speech of Henry V Shakespeare’s chorus says,

    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
    Into a thousand parts divide one man,
    And make imaginary puissance.
    Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
    Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,
    For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

    No stage can hold “the vasty fields of France” or show thousands of soldiers in battle, so Shakespeare acknowledges that and asks the audience to indulge him with their imaginations. But the phrase also gets (mis)used by people who want to deflect legitimate criticism from a work of fiction. If, in the context of a murder mystery a character is exonerated because he is too short to have been able to hide the gun on the top shelf and it never occurs to anyone he could have stood on a chair or if the solution to a mystery literally requires that one person be in two places at the same time, that’s very bad writing that cannot be saved by asking the audience to suspend their disbelief.

    In the case of this story, I really do think Hadley went to some effort to try to construct a situation whereby Toby was stuck with keeping the bag without choosing to keep it. It does seem to me that she wanted this to be the final image we are left with as a significant metaphor for his emotional state – he cannot forget her and so keeps his feelings for her hidden inside, unable to be rid of them. But that ending is badly flawed if the construction does not work and asking me to suspend disbelief is a cover-up for poor workmanship, not for magic or the limitations of a stage.

    Margaret, I am not convinced that the ending is made richer by the idea that he really did chose to keep the bag rather than being stuck with it involuntarily. I also don’t believe that this is the way Hadley wanted us to read the story either. She never says anything that indicates he had more than the two choices of throw it out or keep it. Had she not made such a point of describing how Lynette stalked Toby’s wife on Facebook then there would have been no reason to doubt his being stuck with the bag rather than choosing to keep it, but once it is introduced (and not even just in passing – being able to reach each other by Facebook is made to be an important part of how we understand Lynette’s feelings about Toby’s new family) asking us to forget it exists for the finale to work is asking too much.

  37. Trevor Berrett August 18, 2016 at 9:52 am

    I think there are other aspects of the story you don’t like though, right David? I find it hard to believe you’d love the story more but for Hadley’s use of Facebook and Toby’s seeming ignorance of it.

    For those of us who found so much, we can very easily overlook what to you is a major hole in the mechanics of the story. If it’s “overlooking” at all. After all, we’ve tried to explain it away in pragmatic terms: he doesn’t use Facebook, if he did he’d never use it anyway, Facebook isn’t the only way he could find her but it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t want to, etc. But perhaps it is simply us “overlooking,” using Coleridge’s term because it fits in the current context regardless of how Coleridge used it, because for us — or for me, at least, I should say — the story does not hinge on this pragmatic solution to disposing of the bag. Indeed, it isn’t about any solution to disposing of the bag at all. It’s about the presence of the bag, in that moment, and in the coming weeks, months, years, as Toby both moves on and fails to move on.

    I’ve reread the story three times now, and each time I find more to admire. This is one of Hadley’s best stories. I find not a jot of it unbelievable, but if I did (do? unconsciously) I’d manage to overlook it.

  38. David August 18, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Trevor,

    “I think there are other aspects of the story you don’t like though, right David?”

    I just went back and re-read my original comment on this story at the top of the page and I think it still sums up well both what I liked and didn’t like about the story: Interesting characters, especially Lynette, that I like a lot, but a weak plot. I mentioned there that the meeting of the two seemed a bad idea because it seemed to me to set up expectations that something would happen to justify the meeting. All the descriptions of their internal feelings could well have happened without the meeting, thus the original recommendation to cut the meeting. Then I spent some time talking about the bag because leaving it seemed to me to be the only justification in the end for having her come to his home. So if that bit of plot is flawed, then really the whole meeting up is problematic, so the story might have been better had they not actually met and talked.

    Everything up to the point when they meet and the internal reflections we get from both that result from seeing each other after such a long time are all good and I enjoyed those parts a lot. It just seemed that their conversation was inconsequential (as I think you agreed above … let me check … “I also do not remember what they talked about specifically” … yes?) and the payoff was the bag leaving which does not create the dilemma Hadley wanted. So overall I would call it a good, but not great story.

    ” Indeed, it isn’t about any solution to disposing of the bag at all. It’s about the presence of the bag, in that moment, and in the coming weeks, months, years, as Toby both moves on and fails to move on.”

    But the only reason the bag will be there in the coming weeks, months, and years is because he does not have a way to dispose of it (or so Hadley wants that to be the case). If he actually did have a simple way to return of the bag, and he does, then the significance of it still being present is completely different. It becomes a choice to be saddled with a piece of her rather than something he cannot escape. For the symbolism to work it cannot be something he chooses, so there being a way to easily return the bag does matter.

  39. Diana August 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    I thought this story was very good if not as subtle as Alice Munro’s stories as several commenters mentioned by way of comparison. But yes, it did remind me of Alice Munro. I don’t think it was about plot at all, (and one commenter’s plot point suggestions would in fact have made this sketch far more cliched) The old relationship is a fly in amber now. But their lives since and inner landscapes have changed, despite both protagonists’ efforts not to address it. The point of the story, to me, was that Lynette, who thought herself, when young, so much more complex compared to Toby, and now is struck by the complexity and and at least outwardly seeming depth of the life he has created compared to her own – one in a series of insights it appears she is beginning to have about herself. While Toby has decided to handle this fraught encounter by not thinking about it. Reminds me of the Woody Allen statement in Cafe Society ” The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is not so great either”

  40. David August 18, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Ok, I have to ask this. A while back when I and Archer mentioned that the plot is unoriginal, Trevor asked what stories “Dido’s Lament” brought to mind. I offered a couple of examples. But to my suggestion that having the couple not meet and talk Trevor commented that it was “more unoriginal” and now Diana says it would have been “far more cliched”. So I have to ask: What other stories are you two thinking of when you think of a story of two people who used to be a couple and have broken up see each other after a gap of years, but neither acknowledges that they have seen the other and each reflect on the relationship on their own. Over the last few weeks I have tried to think of one, but not come up with any with that structure.

  41. Trevor Berrett August 18, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Good and fair question, David. Nothing is coming to mind right now, but I will have a think as I look back at the NYer archives. When I read you initial comment, without putting much thought in it, to be honest, it just felt like the kind of thing a million NYer authors would do before sending their character off to have sex with some stranger after smoking some weed. At least, that’s how I felt when I first read your comment, before realizing that I should back myself up as much as I asked you to.

  42. David August 18, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    “…before sending their character off to have sex with some stranger after smoking some weed. ”

    You just made coffee go up my nose. I need a kleenex here!!!

  43. Greg August 20, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Diana – Thank you for sharing that great quote from Café Society. It was stuck in my head since first seeing the movie last month and now you have added to my appreciation of it by relating it to this story!

    David – Thank you for providing me the complete background and meaning of “suspending disbelief”. Also, I understand why you are suggesting the two characters not interact, but rather reflect…..Alice Munro chooses to have the main character in her Russian epic “Too Much Happiness” do just that near the end and it is very effective!

    Trevor – Thanks for fighting the good fight. You and Roger have carried the ball admirably here on enjoying all three parts of this story!

  44. smsfanclub1 August 21, 2016 at 12:23 am

    I’m coming late to this discussion – 43 thoughts. Quite a provocative piece. I’m going to ignore many comments and approach this in my own way. However, I will address some of the previous observations.

    To understand this story better, I compiled a list of phrases that the author used to describe Lynette, who is the main character and the focus of the story:
    “fuming inwardly and shuffling in half steps” as she goes to the train
    She thought of herself as “original”, she felt she had been stupid for going into John Lewis,
    She “believed that she despised the kind of clothes you could buy in department stores like John Lewis”
    “stupid like everyone else” because she had a carrier bag
    “She held herself apart from the mainstream” –an “essential” part of her “dignity”
    In Toby’s house, “She was too full of her own performance”
    “She had everything she wanted.” (She told Toby.)
    “which was another lie”
    “afraid that his loving kindness might enclose her too entirely” (when they were together)
    “making her resentful”
    “Displeased” – at being compared to Jaz
    “anguish” over singing “It made her sick”
    “she had failed”
    “Everything was desolation”

    What a crescendo of negativity! I would say that Lynette is a miserable person, who bases her self-image on externals and on being trendy. She despises the lonely crowd and has cut herself off from it. Also, she feared commitment when she was with Toby, and she used her singing and her need to pursue it as an excuse to break up with him. Now she is “free” to pursue her career, but she has failed at it. (More on “freedom” below.) Still, she tells Toby she has everything she wants.

    So she is unhappy and self-deceived. And she deceives Toby during their conversation.

    In addition to not understanding herself, she doesn’t know or understand Toby, despite thinking that she does. She thinks:

    “Toby had opted for an easier chummier life, turning his back on certain kinds of difficulty.”

    But that’s crap, she can’t know that, it’s just her excuse for Toby’s apparent happiness with the “sparky” Jaz.

    She also calls Toby simple and herself complicated. That strikes me as more rationalization. Certainly in Toby’s section he is revealed as a more complicated person than she gives him credit for being.

    And she assumes that Toby will be “surprised by how cheap it was” when he finds her blouse. More of her own fascination with image. In reality, as we see, he thinks no such thing.

    What’s the point of the short section with Toby? One, it shows us that Lynette has entirely missed out how he feels about her. Two, it shows that they were both lying. Three, it attempts to create a sense of ironic tragedy. Personally, I thought this last feature was trite and unsuccessful.

    Which is related to the Dido reference. As Trevor noted, this is about Purcell’s opera, and the aria that Dido sings as she expires from suicide:

    Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me.
    On thy bosom let me rest.
    More I would, but death invades me.
    Death is now a welcome guest.

    When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
    No trouble in thy breast.
    Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

    A typical passionate female opera character, like La Boheme. Now, I hate opera as much as the next person. But at least this is a full-throated cry of despair. She is carrying out what she believes to be her fate. How anemic Lynette’s resolution to “action” sounds compared with this lament:

    “She might not tell him anything, might not even get back to him. She might just take an Uber home.”

    Yeah, take that, Toby. Incredibly wimpy relative to Dido. It’s especially ridiculous when we know that Toby has erased her phone number.

    And what is Lynette’s fate? To go back to working as a temp and singing in student opera productions. Don’t worry, Lynette, we can forget your fate. Hadley is really stretching by invoking the Dido reference. Lynette is NOT a dramatic heroine.

    So what was Hadley’s point in creating this character and telling this episode? To contrast the old ways of the heroes and heroines with their pale shadows of today? I don’t think this would be a justification for a story. But anyway I don’t think this is what she’s doing. In fact, I have no idea what she’s doing. And after reading the 43 thoughts, I still have no clue what she’s doing.

    Contrast neurotic, emotionally repressed Lynette with the Mom in “Mother’s Day”. Here is the passage near the end where she has died and is in a kind of holding pen or waiting room and she tries to save her children from the hyenas but her hands are too hot because she doesn’t understand why she has failed so miserably in her life:

    “Whose?” the girl baby said. “Whose fault?”

    “I don’t know,” she cried desperately. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I really don’t! Mine? My fault?”

    “No,” the girl baby said.

    “What the hell? Fine, forget the babies, she’d keep the hot hands. She was what she was. No one could blame her. As long as she was Alma, she’d be mad. She had a right. Did she want to be mad? No. What she wanted to be was her, younger. Her, non-mad. Her, not yet mad. Pre-Paul. Smelling lilacs, swinging that diploma. No, even before that: so young she wanted nothing yet, liked nothing, disliked nothing. No, before that: before she was even Alma, because Alma would always find Paul, love Paul, and Paul would always be Paul.

    “It came to her, and then was happening: it would be fixed when she stopped being Alma.

    “Her arms and hands went cool and pale, perfectly normal.”

    Here is a character who cares about something, who is not trying to be fatally cool, who is desperate to find a solution. And she does – she makes a deep realization. What a contrast with Lynette, who understands no more about herself at the end of the story than at the beginning.

    For some reason, when I read “Dido’s Lament” I thought of “A Bit on the Side”. So I went back and re-read it. Two lovers, who start out lying to each other – “lies of silence”, the woman says — like Toby and Lynette. But then – they become honest. In seriously restrained language (“the delicacy of their reticence”), Trevor relates their attempts to make their parting as good as the time they had together. He uses just flashes of emotion:

    “I mind. You’re everything to me. You’re the world.”

    How much more powerful this quiet parting is, how much more evocative of the sadness of an affair ending, a valuable companion lost, than all of Lynette’s and Hadley’s heavyhanded maundering. I felt sad – actually choked-up — by Trevor’s people’s plight. I felt nothing for Lynette at the end of Hadley’s story. I think this is because Trevor’s people care, and allow themselves to be open to their feelings – including loss and sadness – if only in a subdued way. Whereas Lynette is too self-absorbed and insecure to allow herself to feel anything strong either way.

    In truth, I’m not even sure what Hadley wants us to feel – Sadness? Admiration? Tragic irony? Who knows? As Archer said, “you’re not sure whether to admire or pity by the end.”

    BTW, with regard to whether Hadley’s plot is original or not, Trevor’s tale is a forerunner. And much better done.

    With regard to Toby’s section, and whether he has spent his life trying to prove himself to (his mental image of) Lynette, I agree with Parker: “This is hard to imagine”. I agree with Trevor‘s subtle and beautifully worded interpretation: “He has old wounds and when he is brought to view them it isn’t that they’ve re-opened: it’s startling to see they have never healed in the first place.”

    I agree with these two comments:

    (about Hadley’s stories): “I have come to expect that I am not going to be too terribly disappointed, but at the same time I’m not going to get something I will find all that special. (David)

    “Munro’s gift was to take the quotidian and make it transcendent. It’s a sublime and singular talent. Hadley never reaches those heights.” (sorry, don’t remember who wrote that)

    One more comparison/contrast – Checkhov’s “Big Volodya and Little Volodya”. How is this related to Hadley’s story? Checkhov writes of the plight of a woman, Sophia Lovovna, in 19th century Russia who is circumscribed and bound by social restrictions. She is married to an older man, whose wealth provides her with copious creature comforts, including servants. However, she is frustrated and dissatisfied and is having an affair with a younger man, who treats her with contempt. Through incidents with the woman’s female relatives – a nun, a spinster — incidents that are interesting in themselves, Chekhov shows us that the alternatives for a woman in that society are bleak. Compared with the character in the Chekhov story, Lynette’s complaints about freedom and career and relationships are revealed as the whining of a woman who can’t face reality, which could be pretty good for her. Instead she continues to live in a self-deluded state. FWP.

  45. William August 21, 2016 at 12:26 am

    sorry, that last long comment was from me — William.

  46. Madwomanintheattic August 22, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Later even than William! I liked the story, and I thought entitling it Dido’s Lament enlarged its echo and made the piece especially poignant. It is not only Purcell’s lyric that makes the aria one of the saddest in the repertory, but the music, the music (remember Lynette is a singer). The unhappiest and most resonant line for me was not Lynette’s but Toby’s, the realization that he has created a scenario for Lynette and now she’s seen it. What emptiness. I appreciate all the other comments and especially the exegeses that lead us to other writers, but I think that trying to tell Tessa Hadley how a story should have been written is an exercise in egotistical futility and makes me laugh. Hate opera? Work on that.

  47. Trevor August 22, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for your lengthy comment, William, and thanks for bringing the music of the aria up, madwomanintheattic! I’m so happy this story has prompted so much — as I was with Andreasen’s a few weeks ago.

  48. Greg August 23, 2016 at 12:49 am

    WOW William – Your dissection of the story and of our comments was a real treat to read!

    My favourite part was your contrasting to William Trevor’s “A Bit on the Side” and to Alice Munro’s “Mother’s Day”…..you may laugh, but I believe that one day Hadley will come close to reaching their high level.

  49. Patricia August 25, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    I’m so behind in my TNY fiction, and I finally just got to this story. I’m with the camp that loved it, but I’m partial to Hadley’s work. It was one of the best stories I’ve read in TNY in a while. (And I think the runners up would mostly be Hadley’s, plus the much-criticized McEwan.)

    There are so many insightful comments here that made me think about the story in greater detail. Personally, I didn’t find the forgotten bag/erased phone number to be a hole in the plot at all, and like some other readers, I didn’t see FB as an alternative for Toby to contact Lynnette. I hadn’t even thought about the bag being a too-obvious device until I read the commentary here. To me, it seemed more like Hadley decided to use the bag after the fact as a metaphor for the relationship. It would be interesting to find out whether she had planned that aspect of the story from the start or not (I haven’t read the IV with Treisman yet). One of the most magical and surprising aspects of writing fiction is letting the story unfold on its own once the characters have been given life.

    Funny that Treisman couldn’t see the two protagonists as ever having been attracted to each other. Doesn’t everyone know at least one couple like this? I had next door neighbors like Toby and Lynette. She was a cynical, blunt Goth wannabe, dark and Amazonian, and he was a slight, blond, blue-eyed pediatrician. She said when she first saw him, it was at a summer party, and he was dressed in tennis whites. She didn’t have people like him in her circle and had never had a boyfriend like him either, hence the attraction (perhaps more about possessing something or experimenting than love, and they were, indeed, divorced after a difficult breakup).

    I didn’t find the premise of “Dido’s Lament” trite either. I do believe that there are only so many stories in the world (17? 26?), and every tale since the dawn of man boils down to one of them. Play the game, and you’ll wind up saying, “Oh, that’s Cain and Abel,” or “It’s the same as Oedipus.” Since handling a chance meeting with an ex is nearly as necessary a skill as negotiating the relationship itself, saying the protagonists’ circumstances were a cliche is to me like saying, “All right, love stories have been done. No more of that now.”

    The craft in the story was superb, in my opinion, and I actually don’t think Hadley plays second fiddle to Munro at all. Perhaps because this wasn’t about a post-apocalyptic society or a jazz bar in Japan, I could see Toby’s beautiful home, taste the white wine, and feel the rain when Lynette heads to the bar at the end of the story. There was some lovely and even formidable prose–a few of my favorites, especially the last passage, which seemed to me to perfectly express the overriding theme of the story:

    “But he had more force now than he used to have, as if his bones had thickened and hardened: something unfinished in his face had been completed and closed.”

    “In the old days, he was always anxiously searching her face to see whether she liked things or didn’t like them; his subordination to her will had dragged at her, making her resentful. Now she couldn’t see past some new barrier in his eyes, as if behind it he were placid and settled, hardened.”

    “The wine was very cold, delicious; her body was relaxing in the thickening warmth of the room, while the clarifying alcohol flashed through her blood like ice. Reminiscing, avoiding treacheries, she and Toby seemed to be treading on safe stepping stones above dark flowing water.”

    “In the firelight the wiry hair on his forearms and the down on his ruddy cheekbones had a russet glow: she’d felt distaste in the past for that gingery coloring. Now it seemed like a signal sent up from Toby’s passionate, secret life, from which she was shut out.”

    “How strange that Toby was so simple and yet his simplicity had had all these solid, complicated effects in the real world, these material accumulations and accretions—and children, too, the branching out and infinite complication of children. Whereas her own complexity seemed to have had no consequences. It was all wrapped up inside her—she had nothing to show for it.”

  50. Greg August 28, 2016 at 2:11 am

    Thanks Patricia for sharing your thoughts. I especially enjoyed your past personal observation of a couple not truly being attracted to each other.

    You also stated, “I actually don’t think Hadley plays second fiddle to Munro at all.” Well, the way I see it is that Hadley is being complimented when mentioned in the same company as Munro. Hadley is a big fan of Munro, and I am certain she would agree that she isn’t at Munro’s level yet.

    And I love the last quote you shared Patricia! It illustrates Hadley’s focus on the inner life in her fiction. She has emphasized over and over again that the material world is simply a shell.

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