"The Prairie Wife"
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Originally published in the February 13 & 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

Not a lot of regular commenters were impressed by Sittenfeld’s last offering in The New Yorker, “Gender Studies” (see that thread here), though it did engender a spirited conversation with some new folks who did Sittenfeld proud.

I’m curious how folks will respond to this one, about a woman who gets sucked into a celebrity social media swamp, which she hates but has no power to avoid, hoping instead to destroy it. You see, there’s a past.

Personally, I think this theme was done much better in Florence Noiville’s A Cage in Search of a Bird, published in English last year by Seagull Books.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts, as always!

By | 2017-02-06T12:58:13+00:00 February 6th, 2017|Categories: Curtis Sittenfeld, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |61 Comments

61 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang February 6, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Wow! That conversation on “Gender Studies” was “spirited” to say the least!! Now, tempted to go back and read the story to see what prompted all that passion. Great exchange.

  2. David February 6, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Sittenfeld seems to have an amazing ability to create characters I loathe and who, unlike the way Kirsten is obsessed with Lucy, do not make me want to know more about them. I don’t care any more about Kirsten than I did about the main character of “Gender Studies”, I don’t like them, and I did not enjoy the time I did spend with them. I did not find this story as poorly written as “Gender Studies” and the idea of this story is one that I thought could be interesting, it just wasn’t.
    .
    One aspect of the story that made me do a double take (as I am sure it did for others) was the revelation very late in the story that Casey is a woman, not a man. This only happens three quarters of the way through the story. This seems quite intentional. The name “Casey” is slightly more common as a male name than a female name, but close to 50-50 (I googled statistics on this to confirm). There is no use of a pronoun for Casey or anything that specifies her gender in the first part of the story. And given Kirsten’s seeming homophobia, including her insistence when she knew Lucy that she she was not gay, this is a surprise.
    .
    I don’t know why Sittenfeld decided to present the situation ambiguously and I honestly can’t be bothered to think about the story enough to try to figure it out. Kirsten (and her equally horrible friend Frank, for that matter) is someone I really don’t want to spend any more time with than I already have. Lucy seems alright, though. I’d have preferred to hear her story instead.

  3. Eric February 6, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    To me Sittenfeld is literary junk food, but good junk food, like caramel cheesecake from the dessert place that they’ve had downtown forever, or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Her prose style might politely be called utilitarian, and you are probably not going to find many Great Eternal Truths nestled in her oeuvre. But I find a lot to like in her writing–to me, she is very good at creating characters that are flawed but likable (OK, it takes a while for Kristen). She also tricks up her plots enough to keep things reasonably novel and interesting, and her middlebrow sensibilities seem a perfect fit for the times. And she is, yes, very good at writing about sex, gay or straight, without letting it take over the story (the interview has some nice thoughts on that).
    .
    This story ran on too long for my taste (Sean praised last week’s story as “efficient”, which is not a complement that anyone would ever pay to Sittenfeld). And, as probably is usual with her, the dialogue and behavior of some of the characters seemed a bit over-the-top, especially Frank–it’s probably true that her sensibility is closer to that of a sitcom script than a conventional short story. But enough happened to keep me reading, I found the resolution satisfying, and for me the gender twist about “Casey” was clever and amusing (yeah, she got me). Perhaps there is some stash of amusing, moderately insightful stories about lesbian relationships lurking out there in the vast infotainment landscape, but I hadn’t run across any before, so for me this was not just a fun read but a novel one.
    .
    Overall, quite the flavorful jelly doughnut, especially after last week’s kale salad.

  4. Roger February 6, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    I thought this, like the Gilbert story, was lively and interesting until the surprise ending, which spoiled everything for me.

    I think Sittenfeld was out to prank the reader. And she succeeded, with me anyway. And with Eric and I believe David, too. We are supposed to think Casey is a man because of our heteronormative biases and to feel “caught” when the big reveal happens. Which is exactly how it played for me. And because of this experience, I suppose,we are supposed to change and reexamine our assumptions, etc. etc.

    Well, my nose is definitely out of joint. I don’t like being coopted into the role of hamster in a writer’s sociology experiment. That’s not a cool thing for a writer to do to her guileless readers who intend to enjoy (or be moved by or otherwise appreciate) the work in front of them. I will be on guard the next time I read Sittenfeld, hoping for something better while treading lightly lest any trap door lay ahead.

  5. Eric February 6, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Oh, she was absolutely out to prank the reader, but I don’t think it was because of “heteronormative assumptions”. She’s clearly out to set us up, not just because I’ve never heard of a woman named “Casey” in my life, but because Kirsten proclaims that she isn’t gay, refuses to acknowledge the encounter, and has several straight relationships but no gay ones until The Big Reveal At The End. Of course, humor is a very personal and arbitrary thing, but I thought it was funny.

  6. Trevor Berrett February 8, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    I don’t know, Eric, I think Sittenfeld is playing with heteronormative assumptions. I think that’s what the story is about, even. Sittenfeld knows we will have these assumptions if she hides the ball from us, and she knows the entire story will change when our assumptions are proven false. I think we’re meant to reread the story and see how Kirstens own heteronormative assumptions have made things so difficult for her.

    At first I didn’t think this was an effective way to explore the issues brought up in “The Prairie Wife,” but more and more I think it’s pretty effective.

  7. David February 9, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Trevor, I have tried to avoid thinking much more about this story as I truly did not enjoy any of it, but if your analysis is right it is far, far worse than I thought. Basically Sittenfeld gives us a loathsome character who we are supposed to think is motivated by homophobia and then *SURPRISE* she’s actually in a relationship with a woman and it turns out that her loathsomeness is based on assuming that Lucy is a hypocrite. But she’s wrong about Lucy so still is a horrible person, just for different reasons than you though and oh-by-the-way *GOTCHA*! What a load of garbage.

  8. Trevor Berrett February 9, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    A good point, David. I keep going back and forth myself. In the end, I didn’t “like” it, and I think it will quickly go into the place where my vaguest memories reside and I still see no reason to devote time to Sittenfeld. But I didn’t hate it, either, and when I think of Sittenfeld playing with assumptions I even start to admire it a bit.

  9. Eric February 9, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Oh yeah, the story’s definitely playing around with heteronormative assumptions (I guess I implied otherwise, my bad). But there’s a lot of room for disagreement about which assumptions she’s playing around with, and how she’s doing it. To me, the story barely changes at all when you find out that Casey is a woman, and perhaps that’s the point. I also think that Sittenfeld went out of her way to create a protagonist that was pretty much 180 degrees away from most lesbian stereotypes–a basically goodhearted woman, and fun to hang around with, but also kind of ditzy and superficial and irresponsible, and not really interested in the greater good of anything, instead obsessing over petty grievances and pop-culture junk. She could be the product of a million straight-guy moans about what his wife or girlfriend is like, and I don’t blame David for disliking her. But that’s what made the story funny, or at least I thought it was funny, especially the reveal part. In a sense, you could say that she is making the same point with humor that a zillion SJWs have made humorlessly.

  10. David February 9, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    Eric, you called her “a basically goodhearted woman, and fun to hang around with”? Wow that sounds nothing like the story I read. There in nothing goodhearted about wanting to destroy someone’s life, as she more than just contemplates doing. She is consumed with anger for someone who does not deserve it.
    .
    Trevor, as you can probably tell, I did hate the story. In fact, Sittenfeld wrote the two stories that annoyed me the most over the last few months. I should probably just put her on my “do not read” list, but I can’t help but think that the next time one of her stories shows up in The New Yorker morbid curiosity might well overtake me.

  11. Melinda February 11, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    During the early 1950-1960s, when my mother was young, she used to watch movies, which starred an attractive leading man, who was considered to be a “heartthrob.” Decades later he died from AIDS-related complications. The discrepancy between his movie roles, Hollywood persona and private personality was shocking. The young female public had fallen for an illusion—a hypocrite. What a betrayal! Not only was he disingenuous. He’d caused women to fall in lust with someone who was, in a sense, nonexistent.

    “The sureness of Lucy’s hooking-up personality, the way it might even have been more confident than her regular personality, impressed Kirsten; the nearest Kirsten got to such confidence was when things felt so good that she forgot herself.”

    Day to day life can be boring or scary, lonely, etc., causing individuals to “invent” various pretenses of themselves: the drama queen at work, the electronic icon/avatar, the virgin/whore mistress, dutiful spouse, etc. Perhaps these fantastic characters are protectors of the “real” self; perhaps they’re entertaining mutations warding off the mundane. Both? But then how can individuals meet and interrelate—trust?

    “’But do you ever feel like you’ll spend every day slicing cucumbers for lunchboxes and going to work and driving to Little League on the weekend and then you’ll look up and twenty years will have passed?’ (asked Kirsten)…
    ‘Do you want me to pretend to be Lucy at camp? Or Lucy now? Do you want me to make you a chocolate soufflé?’” (asked Casey)

    The writerly “trick” was certainly about heteronormative assumptions. But I think that was only a part of Sittenfeld’s point.

  12. Paul February 12, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    I would have preferred the story without the gender trick, and just given Casey an unambiguously female name like “Jenny”.

    No one seems to have pointed out that the gender surprise is mirrored at large in the author’s own work. How many women are called Curtis?

    So the reader assumes a male writer until eventually googling or reading the table of contents, and discovering the writer is in fact female.

    Paul

  13. David February 12, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    Paul, I knew that Sittenfeld was female from reading her previously, but it was my thought that the reason she played the gender trick in the story was based on her experience with a typically male name. I would presume that over the years there have been more than a few occasions when people have read her work, seen her name as the author, and thought the author was male. That would be a fairly boring fact except if her work was, at least on some occasions, criticized based on the belief that the author were male. A criticism like, for example, that as a man the author does not fully understand some aspect of a female character or female experience, is one I can imagine she might have received. It is a criticism that loses all its teeth once the critic realizes that the author is, in fact, a woman.
    .
    In the context of this story I suppose she was hoping we would think that Casey is a man and that Kirsten is a homophobic heterosexual who only had the one same-sex experience with Lucy as a youthful fling. (She says in the story that she thinks she would have hooked up with just about anyone, suggesting it was personal sexual gratification she wanted and not anything to do with Lucy being female.) The goal was (I think) to have the reader make one assessment of Kirsten based on this reading only to have that reading undercut by the revelation that Kirsten is in a long term relationship with a woman, so something else is going on. But the problem (for me, anyway) is that it didn’t change my assessment. Kirsten toys with the idea of ruining Lucy’s life because she believes that Lucy is a hypocrite pandering to conservative homophobes. That makes Kirsten reprehensible regardless of her own sexuality, so finding out that she is in a relationship with a woman was just beside the point. It changed nothing.

  14. Melinda February 12, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    I agree with most of David’s post when he refers to the context of the story. For me, after I understood that Casey was a woman, I figured Kirsten was upset about being misled by Lucy. When they first meet, Lucy is adamant about her sexual orientation and beliefs regarding being who you are. She claims to be a lesbian not bisexual while Kirsten remains ambivalent.

    “Back then, Lucy weighed probably twenty-five pounds more than she does now, had very short light-brown hair, and had affixed a triangle-shaped rainbow pin to her backpack. The first night, at the counsellors’ orientation before the campers arrived, she said, “As a lesbian, one of my goals this summer is to make sure all the kids feel comfortable being who they are.” Kirsten knew a few gay students at her Jesuit college, but not well, and Lucy was the first peer she’d heard use the word “lesbian” other than as a slur.”

    “Lucy’s apparent lack of anger surprises Kirsten more in retrospect than it did at the time. Lucy explained that she was a gold-star lesbian, which meant one who’d never had sex with a guy; in fact, Lucy added proudly, she’d never even kissed a guy. Kirsten asked how she’d known she was gay, and Lucy said, ‘Because, even when I was in grade school, the people I always thought about before I fell asleep at night were girls.’”

    Kirsten feels betrayed by Lucy’s flip-flop claims, especially to such a large audience. But Lucy’s lack of sincerity isn’t just about her sexuality. Kirsten resents Lucy’s “prairie wife” claim when she actually lives in the city. She hates the silly way Lucy speaks to avoid cussing, and so on.

    Yes, I think Kirsten is obsessed with being obsessed. But I also think she’s upset about being “played” by Lucy, nothing more than a little excitement in her day. Kirsten was genuinely affected by her encounter with Lucy. When she finds out that Lucy isn’t who she’d imagined, she becomes angry—just the same as Curtis’s reader, when we find out that Casey isn’t who we thought Casey was. We’d been played.

  15. David February 12, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Melinda, first, I don’t know what you mean by “Kirsten remains ambivalent”. When Lucy comes on to her she says “I’m not gay” and is described as homophobic. I don’t see anything ambivalent there. Second, you say Kirsten feels betrayed by Lucy’s flip-flop, but as “the Prairie Wife” she never claims to be heterosexual and never says negative things about people who are not heterosexual. She does not flip-flop. But Kirsten does flip-flop. She goes from being the young woman who is homophobic to being the older woman in a relationship with another woman. So Kirsten is both wrong about Lucy and she is the real hypocrite.
    .
    Third, Lucy really does live on a farm. Her husband is a farmer. We are told this in the TV interview to make the point that Kirsten is wrong. Kirsten just assumes that it’s not really farm country because it’s “forty-five minutes west of St. Louis”. But 45 minutes from a city is clearly not the same as being in the city. Again, Kirsten just assumes, is wrong, and bases her hatred on these false assumptions. Fourth, you call it “nothing more than a little excitement in her day”, but that is not true. Her fantasy is about ruining Lucy’s life. Kirsten thinks that if she outs Lucy that it would destroy her career. Kirsten thinks about how she might do it and keeps in touch with people from the camp “conveniently” so she can call on them as back-up if need be. She also has told Frank all about her and Lucy and thinks about using him to get the information out there to ruin Lucy. But even with Frank we are told “she didn’t really trust him” even though “she tried to think of reasons that not trusting Frank mattered and couldn’t come up with any.”
    .
    Kirsten is not a harmless woman looking to spice up her day. She is a horrible, hate-filled person who thinks the worst of people – even Frank, despite thinking she and Frank are “close friends”. She spends her time planning to destroy the life of another person. But Lucy is not dishonest or hypocritical. That is all just something Kirsten makes up to justify her hatred. In fact, Lucy is rather heroic in coming out as bisexual despite the potential backlash she might (and to some extent does) get.

  16. Melinda February 13, 2017 at 11:40 am

    David, your thoughts are very interesting. Why did the writer mislead the reader?

  17. Tangible February 15, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I don’t even know where I am, having arrived at this site by googling “review prairie wife sittenfeld” after reading the nyer story. You’all don’t seem too scary so I will add my two cents.

    “Casey” fooled me until it was time for the Mom/Mama double take. Casey Jones, Casey at the Bat…they’re clearly guys, and I thought Kirsten’s Casey was too. A very long time ago I heard a riddle: A boy is in a car accident and is brought to the hospital by his father. The surgeon sees the boy on the operating table and says, “That’s my son!”. What is going on?

    That 1950s riddle has been stripped of mystery, of course, but is denial still lurking within us? If Sittenfeld had made Casey a middle school teacher rather than the principal would she have tipped her hand? If so, why?

    I liked the story, with all that, but I wanted to know more, and not in a good way. What motivates Lucy to come out? Was it a threat from another Kirstenish character, or was it somehow “time”? I feel like the story really was about Lucy, but she remains almost completely hidden from our view.

  18. William February 18, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    I enjoyed reading this story. It started slow, but it had a clear narrative line without clutter or distractions and was easy to read. Sittenfeld quickly establishes the couple’s domestic routine, with the hitch that one person is infatuated with a Twitter celebrity. Then we learn that she knew the celebrity way back when. And that she has a fantasy of exposing her.

    In the early going, Sittenfeld expresses well Kirsten’s ambivalence”

    “Every night Kirsten swears that she won’t devote another minute to Lucy, and every day she squanders hours.”

    “This made Kirsten feel such rage at Lucy that it was almost like lust.”

    Later, a similar statement about the equivalence of anger and lust, when Kirsten masturbates after her family leaves: “But, seriously, what else is she supposed to do with her Lucy rage?”

    Then the Lucy/Kirsten backstory, interesting on its own, which provides context.

    Frank is a counter character, as the sister in “Most Die Young” and the cousin in “Spiderweb”. He is funny, as when he says:

    “‘What if she’s carried a torch for you all this time and she looks directly at the camera and says, “Kirsten, please make haste to my quant rural farmstead, pull off my muslin knickers, and lick my evangelical pussy”?’”

    Then Lucy comes out on national TV, suddenly and radically changing the direction of the story. And Kirsten’s feelings. As when she thinks:

    “What if Lucy isn’t a greedy, phony hypocrite? What is she’s still herself, as surprised by the turns her life has taken as Kirsten sometimes is by hers?”

    A nice realization, which I think lies at the heart of the story.

    Then we learn that Casey is, like the early Lucy, a “gold-star lesbian”. And, unlike Lucy, an authentic farm girl.

    While Casey’s being a woman is a surprise, Sittenfeld handles it smoothly and simply and the story just rolls along. Nothing really changes, except our perception – and Lucy’s. With her new knowledge about Lucy, Kirsten revises their history and realizes something about her present:

    “‘I just wish there was someone excited about me. Or that when someone was excited about me, I wish I hadn’t taken it for granted.’”

    Casey responds in her grown-up, responsible, realistic way:

    “‘We have full-time jobs and young kids,’ Casey says. ‘This is what this stage is like.’”

    The ending is quiet:

    “They don’t have sex. They don’t reach any resolutions. But, for the first time in a while, Kirsten falls asleep with her wife’s arms around her.”

    No radical changes. Later, Kirsten stills checks for a tweet from Lucy. But now her feelings are out in the open where she and Casey can deal with them. And they are more about her than being deflected to envy of Lucy.

    About Casey being a woman. I wrote all the above before I read other people’s comments. I see that some people didn’t like that Casey was revealed to be a woman more than halfway through the story rather than being so identified at the outset. I didn’t feel that way. I admire Sittenfeld’s ability to write most of the story without tipping us to the lesbian marriage. By doing this she shows that lesbian partners can be like hetero partners – one serious, one less so; one earning more, the other less; one lenient with the boys, the other presumably stricter; both often too tired at night to have sex.

    For instance:

    “’Who’s Lucy Headrick again?’

    “Oh, to be Casey! Calm and methodical, with a do-gooder job. To be a person who isn’t frittering away her life having vengeful thoughts about people from her past!”

    Roger felt co-opted, fooled, by the gender reversal. Clearly he thought he had been manipulate and was abashed by it. I didn’t feel that way at all. I also didn’t feel that “we are supposed to change and reexamine our assumptions”. It’s not the main point of the story.

    I think Eric nailed it: “To me, the story barely changes at all when you find out that Casey is a woman, and perhaps that’s the point.” Except that I would say that it’s one of the main points.

    I also sensed that this story contained a thread of what was so marked in “Quarantine” – that disappointed feeling of life being random and never quite as much as we want.

  19. Paul February 20, 2017 at 7:46 am

    As a tennis buff, the famous “Casey” that most jumps to my mind is Casey Dellacqua, a pro tennis player. Coincidentally, she is also a lesbian mother of two children. Her partner gave birth to both daughters.

  20. Paul February 20, 2017 at 7:47 am

    Sorry, not “both daughters”. One’s a boy and one’s a girl.

  21. mehbe February 20, 2017 at 9:53 am

    I imagine that Sittenfeld’s first name means that “oh, surprise, she’s not a man” jolt she so carefully engineered into this story for the reader to experience would be a frequent event. Except that she would be seeing it happen in others, when they met her. The false gender assumption her name can provoke happened to me when I read her earlier story “Gender Studies” and at first thought it was by some male writer trying to show off how well he could write from a woman’s point of view. And then, when I found out “he” was a woman, the thought soon occurred to me that if Sittenfeld wasn’t going by the name of Curtis, she likely never would have written a story with that title.

    I wonder when and why she chose to use her actual middle name (a fact I got from Wikipedia – I assume it can be trusted) as her professional first name. I also wonder if that is also what she uses as her first name in private life. It’s a little strange to be thinking so much about a writer’s name, but it does seem to provide her with considerable fodder for her stories.

    Anyway, in general, I enjoyed reading this story, and was only a little annoyed when I realized the author had deliberately thrown me off about Casey’s gender. It was a low trick, sure, but I think it still helped the story do what Sittenfeld wanted it to do. I thought the way the spilling of the beans was handled was a bit clumsy, though. And the story seemed too long. I’m not sure exactly why, but it seemed to drag in a few sections.

  22. David February 20, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Mehbe, this answers your question about her name. From an interview in The Guardian in 2013:

    —————————

    Your real name is Elizabeth. Why on earth did you ditch such a fantastic name?

    [Laughs] I’m like the seventh or eighth “Elizabeth Curtis” in my family. My mother is Betsy. So when I was born, my parents made the choice to call me Curtis…

    Literally to this day, I’ll have people come up to me at readings and say: “I thought you were a man.” One of my favourite online reviews of Prep said something like: “This is a novel about boarding school clearly written by a man who’s never been to one.”

    —————————

    It seems my Feb 12 comment on this subject was right, not that it was difficult to predict.

  23. Eric February 21, 2017 at 4:43 am

    Well, this conversation certainly picked up after a rather slow start! I really like Melinda’s comments, I agree that this story had a lot going on in it beyond the gender reveal surprise and it is wrong to get too hung up on that part of it.

    David, I disagree that she is “consumed by anger”, though I wouldn’t argue that she is harmless either. She strikes me as someone more like the nosy neighborhood gossip of yore, who likes to spend her time meddling in (and sometimes ruining) others’ lives because she is bored with her own life and wants to have some judgy fun at their expense. Nowadays such people tend to focus more on celebrities than personal acquaintances, but of course when she realizes that there actually is someone who is both, it is like the proverbial catnip to her.

    Regarding her being “ambivalent”, of course she’s ambivalent, and not just about her sexuality. As William points out, ambivalence is a repeated theme of the story. She just doesn’t realize it most of the time because she is, seemingly, not very bright, at least when it comes to emotional intelligence. Or maybe she’s happier, or thinks she’s happier, if she goes her life without ever taking her brain past second gear, except at work, where she’s apparently competent. The rest of lthe time she seems to prefer to float through on a comforting cloud of denial and simple-mindedness. It seems to me that the yearning boredom she expresses at the end of the story is a likely consequence of this superficiality, and that to some extent she is beginning to realize that.

    In both her TNY stories Sittenfeld seemed to want to write a perceptive story about someone who is not herself very perceptive, and this time at least I thought she was pretty successful.

  24. mehbe February 21, 2017 at 6:24 am

    Thanks for that explanation.

    I’m not sure that tells me why she would want to use what the family’s informal name for her as her professional name, as opposed to what they actually named her (or, for that matter, why her family does this thing with names). But, whatever – she seems to be getting some mileage out of the gender confusion it engenders.

    I don’t feel particularly guilty for assuming she was a man when I first saw her name, but I did take a little time to contemplate the nature of that assumption, and how it changed my perception of the story she wrote. That’s all good. And now that I know that she is a woman with a name that is more commonly used for a man, that colors my understanding of this story and why she might have written it. And that also seems worth giving some thought.

    Changing the subject – the Lucy character is based on a real person, I think, but I’ve forgotten who it is. There is a hazy recollection floating around in my brain of reading a profile of a farm wife who had achieved some fame through her blog, but it was during an earlier phase of the internet/social media revolution. I don’t remember that she came out as bisexual, though.

  25. mehbe February 21, 2017 at 6:41 am

    I forgot to indicate that I was responding to David’s post with the interview quote. Sorry.

  26. Tangible February 21, 2017 at 8:23 am

    In the early days of the dial phone there was something called an Exchange – two letters and a number – at the beginning of each phone number. One could make some inferences about a person from their exchange: Manhattanites with PLaza 9 or BUtterfield 8, for instance, were likely what we now call the one percent.

    In the 1950s came the Area Code. 617ers were Bostonians; 415 was LA. When people in the outer boroughs of New York were stripped of their 212 and given newly created area codes there was great bitterness; it was part of their identity. But then in the early 1990s came Mobility: Your phone number belonged to you, not the phone company. The number you got with your first phone was yours forever, and so now it’s just 10 random digits, conveying nothing.

    Perhaps it is time to start thinking of names, too, as arbitrary, telling us nothing about the person to whom they’re attached. Your name doesn’t tell me if you’re short or tall, nearsighted or eagle-eyed. Why should it tell me your sex, your race, or your religion?

    As this story teaches us, using names to make these assumptions makes chumps of us. George Lucas may not have been as dystopian as we thought with “THX 1138”. We all have Social Security numbers. Instead of hiding them maybe we should use them as our primary identity, calling our closest friends by their last three digits. Or, as we can in places like this, make up names that are free of any meaning at all, like Tangible.

  27. David February 21, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    “I’m not sure that tells me why she would want to use what the family’s informal name for her as her professional name, as opposed to what they actually named her”
    .
    Mehbe, I think you misunderstand her explanation about her name. She is saying that for her entire life, starting in infancy, she has always been known as “Curtis” rather than “Elizabeth”. It’s not just the family’s informal name for her. She grew up and went through school with the name “Curtis”, so it’s not like she made any decision about what name to use when she started writing. Just as James Paul McCartney has always been “Paul”, Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld has always been “Curtis”.

  28. William February 22, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Hey guys — let’s get past this name thing. There is no reason to feel embarrassed or guilty about assuming that “Casey” is a man. That’s what Curtis intended. On the other hand, it was not a “gotcha”. She did it to invoke a certain attitude in the reader so that we would not make any gender assumptions about the characters based on our immediate knowledge that they are lesbians. She wanted us to see them as just folks – then show us that they are normal people with retrograde fantasies (Kirsten) and dedication to family (Casey) just like hetero folks.

    I’m with Eric:

    “I agree that this story had a lot going on in it beyond the gender reveal surprise and it is wrong to get too hung up on that part of it.”

    Thanks to Tangible for pointing the way to a new attitude:

    “Perhaps it is time to start thinking of names, too, as arbitrary, telling us nothing about the person to whom they’re attached.”

  29. Dennis Lang February 22, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Hah! I haven’t even read this story yet but from the back row have totally enjoyed this wonderful discussion! Dissected with sympathy for the author’s work and understanding. I think Sittenfield also provoked an animated exchange on another of her stories some time ago, She knows the buttons to push!

  30. William February 22, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Dennis —

    I noticed that you hadn’t commented. If you do get a chance to read the story, I’d be interested in your response.

  31. Nala February 22, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    With regard to the gender reveal, I’ll add two things:

    First, not revealing the gender of a character requires Olympic-level linguistic gymnastics. In the LGBT community, it’s commonly known as “the pronoun dance,” and anyone who’s ever had to do it will tell you it’s really difficult and stressful. That Sittenfeld was do this without astute New Yorker readers catching on (or even saying after the fact: “yeah, there were some awkward phrasings in there, now that I think about it”) is pretty impressive.

    That said, when I re-read the piece to figure out why I assumed Casey was a man, I did notice that Sittenfeld refers to Casey’s hair being “combed.” And I usually think of women brushing their hair, not combing it, even if it is super short. But that’s the only thing that I noticed that felt purposefully misleading.

  32. Eric February 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

    I don’t know about anyone else, but the reason that I assumed the relationship was hetero was not because of anything to do with Casey, who barely features in the first two-thirds of the story. It was because of Kirsten’s teenage proclamation that she wasn’t gay, the casual insertion of the word “homophobia” to describe her attitude toward Lucy, and the references to multiple relationships with men, both before and after the week with Lucy. It wasn’t that the author made me think that Casey in particular was a man; I think she set us up to believe that, for Kirsten, *all* of them had been men except Lucy.

  33. Paul February 24, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    Nala’s point about the combing doesn’t hold up. The relevant phrase is “wet hair combed”. Brushing
    wet hair is not considered good technique by experts in fashion and beauty, and it is totally
    in-character that Casey, who comes across as very conventional, would rather comb her hair than
    brush it when it is wet.

    Paul

  34. Greg February 25, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    WOW – A 34 comment gem. Thank you to everybody for giving me so much insight and pleasure!

    And William, your detailed posts will especially stay with me. My favourite observation of all from you was this:

    “Then Lucy comes out on national TV, suddenly and radically changing the direction of the story. And Kirsten’s feelings. As when she thinks:

    “What if Lucy isn’t a greedy, phony hypocrite? What is she’s still herself, as surprised by the turns her life has taken as Kirsten sometimes is by hers?”

    A nice realization, which I think lies at the heart of the story.”

  35. William February 25, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    Thanks, Greg. I think that Kirsten’s mental change does make up the core of the tale.

    Here is something else I realized upon further reflection: Kirsten bemoans that she didn’t appreciate Lucy’s passion when it was happening. But, by staying stuck in the Lucy-past, she is not appreciating Casey’s steadfast devotion and responsible caretaking in the now. Poor Kirsten! Will she ever get to live in the present?

  36. Greg February 27, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Excellent further observation William on Kirsten living in the past!

    I also liked how you originally highlighted this following part, which made me believe that Kirsten may not be that big on domesticity and thus may make the “leap”:

    “‘I just wish there was someone excited about me.”

  37. Madwomanintheattic February 27, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    I want to go way back to the beginning post where someone says CS creates unlikeable characters. I think it’s one of Sittenfeld’s strengths: she managed to do it even in Prep, her first published novel, where the fact didn’t get a lot of notice. When, however, she managed, in American Wife, to make the Laura Bush roman-a-clef character wholly sympathetic, her character-creating ability shone. I have been thinking about whether or not to teach this story (in a lifelong learning class); the intensity and sheer number of comments here have convinced me to do it hoping it will generate same. Full disclosure: Curtis (who was indeed always Curtis, always female, and always challenging my assumptions and everyone else’s) was the most talented high school writer I taught in thirty plus years.

  38. Greg February 28, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Nicely done Mad Woman – You should be very proud of having being Curtis’ teacher!

  39. juliemcl March 2, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Madwoman, whenever I see an image or picture of Laura Bush now, smiling her Stepford-wife smile, I always think, “Ahhh, but I know the real her” …and then I remember that’s only because I’ve read American Wife. I’ve had a soft spot for LB ever since, and I’m decidedly not a Bush-sympathizer. Sittenfeld is talented, indeed. Good job.

  40. Eric March 2, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    There’s one more thing I really liked about this story–the implicit connection that Sittenfeld draws between the character’s personality and her dull, unrewarding and abstract (but apparently lucrative) job. The implication is that Kirsten would be a better person, more happy with her own life and kinder to others, if she had a “do-gooder job” like Casey’s. It would be nice to see this theme touched on in other contemporary fiction.

  41. William March 2, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks, Greg, for those nice comments.

    And thanks to all for your continuing excavation of this story and your continuing insights. Madwoman, I liked your highlighting of the fact that a writer should be able to create both likable and unlikable characters and that Betsy Curt does this. Also this:

    ” the intensity and sheer number of comments here have convinced me to do it hoping it will generate same.”

    I hope it works.

    Eric, interesting observation about the relation between life satisfaction and work. Except that I would turn it around: If Kirsten were a better/happier person, she could be satisfied with a do-gooder job. It’s a form of the old Protestant argument about the primacy of faith vs. actions.

  42. Paul March 3, 2017 at 8:08 am

    Eric is wrong that Kirsten’s job is “lucrative”. Casey earns far more than Kirsten does. There’s a lot
    of rather precise detail about Kirsten’s work life. In the UK (where I’m from), that very typical IT role pays in the £30k to £40k per year bracket. I don’t know about Minneapolis salaries though.

    I don’t get exactly why Eric thinks the family has a lot of money (I’m sure I missed something).
    Perhaps the assumption is that it’s a luxury to be able to work in a shed that’s detached from
    the family home?

    Paul

  43. Eric March 3, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    My overall impression was that Kirsten was making a high enough salary to live quite comfortably, but also a low enough salary that she’s far from wealthy, and feels chained to a job that she now dislikes. A quick check of salary.com indicates that your salary estimates for, say, a QA engineer or SRE are rather low for the Minneapolis area. It seems likely that Casey would be making more money now, but was making quite a bit less until she got promoted from teacher to principal, and that Kirsten is accustomed to thinking of herself as the primary provider.

  44. Greg March 3, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    Eric and William – You have re-opened a long standing dilemma for me! It is this question:

    “You are what you do, or you do what you are?”

  45. Paul March 5, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Eric,
    I interviewed for an SRE position recently BTW (but didn’t get it). You are correct about
    salaries for QA engineer and SRE, but I don’t see Kirsten as an “engineer”.
    The roles you mention would be for employees who design the structure of the filing system,
    and the architecture of how the directories and subdirectories are organised.

    Kirsten doesn’t seem to be involved with that type of process. She is a user of the filing system
    who follows instructions to put data in the correct file — a more junior and less well-paid role.
    Her job title might be Systems administrator or Server administrator so these are terms you
    could research if interested.

    Assuming the reader doesn’t have specialised knowledge like myself, Eric, and the author, there
    are two major indications of Kirsten’s non-seniority. 1) She is well under the thumb of her boss,
    Sheila. 2) When there’s a problem, she’s worried that she’ll be accused.

    On a technical note, if you have the requisite knowledge and seniority, it’s quite possible to prove exactly which files and folders you moved and didn’t moved, using source control, OS commands etc., and you don’t have to worry about this type of false assumption. Sheila certainly could
    have fingered exactly who was responsible as an individual, but apparently preferred to treat
    it as a shared responsibility among all team members.

    Paul

  46. tangiblevisions March 5, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    We’re descending from literary criticism into casuistry. Is there such a thing as a cloture vote on this forum?

  47. Trevor Berrett March 5, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    Nope. People are encouraged to comment as they see fit.

    Too many great insights have been born of even the most casual of comments for me to ever wish to invoke a rule or close comments. This is not a site intended to encourage academic debate only, or even at all.

    It’d be more useful, then, if you wish to engage, to bring your own arguments to the forefront rather than to simply say others are not being reasonable or sound. No need to respond to each commenter’s point, of course, but at least let us know your own thoughts. We’ve had plenty of long, tangential discussions here about how to approach short stories, as well, so your comment could even treat how you think folks should be looking at literature in general if that is the real point you wish to raise.

    Otherwise, take what good you care to and discard what you find unsuitable.

  48. Dennis Lang March 5, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    With Trevor all the way. As one of those in the bleacher seats, totally welcome all the diverse commentary this author (and blog) seems to stimulate. Fun,engaging and very often insightful. The more the merrier. Thankfully, being a “literary critic” isn’t a requirement to offer a nicely considered view point or just toss in a passing thought.

  49. tangiblevisions March 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    I, too, agree with Trevor and Dennis. I was just kidding about the cloture vote (lamely, obviously). And I have indeed contributed my own somewhat tangential thoughts on this thread, under the name Tangible; for some reason WordPress has changed my visible name here.

    My real point about casuistry: As a long-ago devotee of sci-fi fanzines, going back to when they were produced on mimeograph machines, I would often encounter something like:

    “In Chapter 16 the author wrote that the sun glinted off the space trooper’s bright blue blaster. Of course, we all know – or should know – that blue blasters are only manufactured at the penal colony on Grafulon 7, which has never had a trooper supply depot. This proves that the so-called trooper must actually have been a Galactic Police spy, and therefore….”

    If you’ve seen Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons you’ll recognize this sort of commentary.

    In the current instance, by discussing whether Sheila as a system administrator would have had access to syslogs we’re getting way out in front of Sittenfeld, who I think only wanted to provide a rough sketch of Kristen’s job – one which creates more anxiety than satisfaction for her.

    I apologize for any offense my earlier post, or this one, may have caused.

  50. Eric March 5, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Isn’t the general rule of thumb here that for the first week or so we keep our comments closely associated with the story and, after that, anybody who wants to go off on a tangent is free to do so?
    The only reason we’re still here is because almost nobody wants to talk about (or, probably, read) this week’s Billie Holiday “fiction”.

Comments are closed.