“Funny Little Snake”
by Tessa Hadley
from the October 16, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Over the past decade, Tessa Hadley has become one of my favorite authors. I think The New Yorker editors agree that her work is exceptional and valuable, because they steadily publish her work. I wish, though, that I saw more general attention thrown her way. Ah well. Some day, hopefully. Until then, I am thrilled we keep getting to enjoy her work. Her last story to appear in The New Yorker was “Dido’s Lament,” and we had a nice long exchange about that story here. For me, it was one of the best stories published in the magazine last year; others appreciated the writing but not the story.

I haven’t even looked to see what “Funny Little Snake” is about. I’m planning to read it over lunch today. I look forward to seeing what we have this time, and to the conversation below!

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By |2017-11-02T17:17:08+00:00October 9th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |26 Comments


  1. William October 14, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    This was the 2nd New Yorker story by Tessa Hadley that I liked (the other was “The Swan”). I like this one because — although it started out with stereotyped characters and internal rumination — it eventually developed action and interaction (two elements that I listed in my theory of god writing in the Danticat exchange). It is not a pale imitation of William Trevor, as many Hadley stories seem to me to be. Here is my favorite sentence:

    “Valerie liked Robyn better with her face screwed into an ugly fury, kicking out wit her feet, the placid brushstrokes of her brows distorted to exclamation marks.”

    Yes! I want to read more stories about that woman.

  2. Roger October 15, 2017 at 10:36 pm

    I found this brilliant and moving. The kind of fiction the New Yorker should publish much more often. It would probably make sense to stop reading New Yorker stories and use the time saved to read everything Hadley has written.

  3. Trevor Berrett October 16, 2017 at 11:52 am

    I agree with Roger: it’s “brilliant and moving.” I need to put more of my thoughts together and, with delight, plan to reread the story later today.

  4. William October 16, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Roger –

    In my memory this is not a typical Hadley story. Most of her main characters don’t take action like Valerie did. If you go back and read some of her others, let me know if you agree or disagree.

  5. Eric October 17, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    William–please share with us more of your “theory of god writing”. OK, I know that’s probably just a typo, but I’d like to hear more about such a theory anyway.

  6. Eric October 17, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Wow, just wow. Is this our greatest living prose stylist? OK, I no doubt exaggerate, but this was the most fun I’ve had reading a story in a long time. The plot here is nothing special–I guessed the ending in the middle of the first paragraph–but I enjoyed getting there anyway. I love Hadley’s eye for both personal and linguistic detail, and the way the two play off of each other.

    Are there any Hadley fans out there who can suggest the best place to start in reading some of her other work? The only other thing of hers I’ve read was her previous TNY story, “Dido’s Lament”, which was good but not on this level.

  7. William October 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Eric —

    I wrote my ideas of good writing on Oct 9 in the comments to “Sunrise, Sunset”.

    As for “god writing”, you have to go to the bible.

  8. David October 18, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    I was surprised to see in the author interview that the story is supposed to be set in the 1960s. I looked at the story a second time and other than the absence of modern electronic technology and Valerie sending a telegram, nothing I could see in the story seems to even suggest it is not set in the present. In fact, the description of Jamie’s clothes as “hipster”, a term that was not used before the 1990s and really not common until the 2000s, suggests it might be a much more recent setting than the 1960s. But more than this, Hadley says in the interview that she was particularly interested in the 1960s and wanted to tell a story of that era, so I have to wonder what she thinks is distinctive of that decade that is central to the story. If it was her goal to evoke the 1960s, I would have to say she completely failed to do so as I had no reason to think it was not set in the 1990s or even more recently just from reading it. That is, unless you think having a character send a telegram is a big deal. Did I miss something? Is there anything else in the story that tells us when it is supposed to be set?

  9. Bree140 October 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    A few more clues that the story isn’t set in the present:

    Valerie doesn’t recognize the smell of marijuana at first, thinking that Jamie “smelled like a zoo animal, of something sour and choking”, then later “guessed that they were smoking pot — that was what the zoo smell was”. Would any 24-year-old today not immediately recognize the smell of pot?

    Marise says to Valerie, “I can hardly read and write. Whereas I expect you can do typing and shorthand, you clever girl.” Thinking of typing and shorthand as skills that a clever young woman might have is not (thankfully) a characteristic way of thinking today.

    When Valerie and Robyn go shopping, they have “tea at the cafeteria in British Home Stores, which had been Valerie’s treat when she was Robyn’s age”. Not being English, I can’t be certain about this, but I suspect that English children of today probably don’t think of tea at the cafeteria in British Home Stores as a special treat.

  10. Eric October 19, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    The author grew up in the 1960s and, like most people, for her the most vivid stories probably hearken back to when she herself was young. I think she just didn’t want to bother to update it to incorporate cell phones and social media and whatever people drink today instead of bloody marys.

  11. Dennis Lang October 19, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    PS: An unrelated procedural question if the Mookse staff is around. For some reason I’m not getting notified of new comments despite checking the appropriate box. Also not getting the customary email to “confirm follow”.
    I’m afraid I’m missing some good stuff from all the regulars.
    Thanks, Although if you comment here I won’t know it.

  12. David October 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    Bree & Eric, I agree that these are good indicators that the story is not set in the present, but there really is nothing about them that says the story is in the 1960s. None of those details exclude the story being of the 1990s, which would also be a better fit for a use of the term “hipster”. My point is really more that in the interview Hadley seem to say that the story did not just happen to be set in the 60s, but that setting it is the 60s was part of what she was trying to write about. That is, she saw this as somehow distinctively a story taking place in the 60s. But if placing the era is nothing more than picking up on clues that are incidental and in the background, then the story is not really one about the era when it is set. So in that sense she really hasn’t written about, as she puts it, “the themes and the style and the mood of the time”.
    Ultimately, I think the story resonates in a different way if the reader knows it is the 1960s than if the reader thinks it is set in some other decade. The idea that Valerie is a 24-year-old second wife to a 50-year-old academic who she met because she was working as a secretary at the university where he works locates her in a social reality that might be importantly different in the 1960s than the 1990s. The fact that she seems to realize that this marriage might not have been a good idea and that it is something she might eventually need, in her words, to “escape” one day plays differently depending on when this takes place. So it seems that establishing the era is important to the effect of the story, yet she really does not ever do that clearly. If the era matters, as Hadley says it does and as it seems to me it does, why be so coy about it? The only reason I had for even suspecting it might be set in the 1960s came after finishing the story and reading the author interview. Crucial information for understanding the story really should be in the story itself.
    Not for nothing, it is also worth remembering that the 1960s was a decade of tremendous social change. A story set in 1962 and one set in 1967 would have significantly different social contexts. When this story takes place seems to matter enough that she should have taken more care to clearly indicate it to the reader. It’s not like it is a difficult thing to do.

  13. Bree140 October 19, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    David, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree about this one. You say, “if placing the era is nothing more than picking up on clues that are incidental and in the background, then the story is not really one about the era when it is set.”, and “When this story takes place seems to matter enough that she should have taken more care to clearly indicate it to the reader.” I would much rather read a story in which the reader is required to pay close attention, and to pick up on “incidental clues” like the ones Hadley skillfully planted in this story, than one in which the reader is hit over the head with a flashing neon sign that reads, “This story takes place in 1962”. (I’m sure that isn’t exactly what you had in mind by “clearly indicate”, but I exaggerate to make my point.)

    I also don’t feel as strongly as you do that “establishing the era is important to the effect of the story” — at least, not if by “establishing the era” you mean “establishing it to within a year or two”. For me, the story worked just fine as it was, with just enough information to establish that it took place some unspecified number of decades ago. Maybe that’s because, to my way of thinking, a young woman’s dawning realization that her “marriage might not have been a good idea and that it is something she might eventually need, in her words, to ‘escape’ one day” is a timeless theme, not one that “plays differently depending on when this takes place.”

  14. William October 19, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    I hadn’t read the author interview when I read the story. I only knew that it was intended to be in the ’60s or ’70s when I read David’s post. Then I thought about some of the scenes in a book I just read, “Season of the Witch”, about SF in the ’60s and ’70s. It has band members living in shabby old unreconstructed Victorians — just like Marise and that guy. And we all know about drugged-out bohemians neglecting children from Joan Didion’s classic essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. So that makes sense. HOWEVER. I don’t think it’s necessary to know the intended time frame to appreciate the story. Knowing it was set earlier didn’t add anything for me.

  15. David October 19, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Bree: ” I would much rather read a story in which the reader is required to pay close attention, and to pick up on “incidental clues” like the ones Hadley skillfully planted in this story”
    But the problem is she does not do this. Her clues are consistent with the story being in the 60s and with it being in the 90s (and, actually, with it being in the 40s). Her “skillful” clues only allow you to know it was some time in the 20th century. And also, as mentioned, he use of the word “hipster” – which is a term that only came into use in the 90s – contradicts the idea that her clues are at all clear or consistent.
    William: “I don’t think it’s necessary to know the intended time frame to appreciate the story.” and Bree: “I also don’t feel as strongly as you do that ‘establishing the era is important to the effect of the story.’ “
    You guys realize you are not just disagreeing with me, but you are disagreeing with Hadley, too. Her interview answer makes it clear she wanted this to be a story that is about life in the 60s. So saying the era didn’t matter is to say she failed in her attempt to make this a 60s story.
    Bree: “a young woman’s dawning realization that her ‘marriage might not have been a good idea and that it is something she might eventually need, in her words, to “escape” one day’ is a timeless theme, not one that ‘plays differently depending on when this takes place.’ “
    It plays differently depending on the era not because it is something that only happened in one era and not another but because the limitations on a woman’s ability to leave an unhappy marriage and the implications – both social and economic – for doing so vary greatly depending on what era we are talking about. A young woman leaving an unhappy marriage can and did happen in the 60s and the 90s (and even in the 40s), but what it meant to consider doing this and how difficult it might be to do (both the act itself and the aftermath that would follow) does play very differently depending on the era. Quite simply, we cannot know what the significance of her considering this is for her if we don’t know the social context in which it happens. So the era matters.

  16. William October 19, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    OK, I disagree with Hadley. She wrote a good story despite herself. I am reminded of the poker dictum: the cards speak for themselves.

  17. David October 19, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    William, that’s fair enough. Author’s are can authoritatively say what they were trying to achieve, but what they actually achieve can be a very different thing. Sometimes its better than they think it is, sometimes worse, and sometimes just something quite different from what they thought they created.

  18. mehbe October 21, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Did I miss the reason why Gil suddenly wanted his child Robyn to visit, after apparently not even seeing her for some years?

    Thinking back, that was only the first of several clunky plot devices that bothered me. The too-convenient snowfall was another. Jamie being pressed into functioning as a sort of hippie boy toy deus ex machina to deliver Robyn into Valerie’s arms was laughable.

    I also just didn’t believe Robyn’s sudden, unseen transformation from a seemingly clinically depressed robotic child into a frantically desperate kid making a grab at changing her own fate, seemingly based on her somehow “knowing” that Valerie would return to rescue her. Really? It makes a nice scene, I guess, but it seemed to belong to a different story.

    The entire story seems to be dancing around with the idea of being some kind of fairy tale in design, ending up with the child being rescued from the wicked witch. And to make it nicely modern, it has a flip-flop against tradition by allowing the stepmother to be the good fairy. That’s all fine, but the problem with it for me was that it seems unsure of just how realistic a story it wanted to be.

    And what was the deal with Robyn’s weird little bear imitation, performed on cue? That was probably the most interesting thing in the entire story for me, but I didn’t understand what it was supposed to mean.

  19. Eric October 22, 2017 at 4:06 am

    Perhaps the “hip” 40 year old woman shacking up with the guitar player young enough to be her son was supposed to be one of the things that placed the story in the sixties? I don’t really know what the sixties “Swinging London” counterculture was actually like, but I have the vague impression that this kind of thing would have seemed more “cutting edge cool” in those days than today.

  20. Eric October 22, 2017 at 4:18 am

    Mehbe the spoilsport pokes a number of holes in the plot of my beloved story, many of which I have no answer for. However, I don’t think there’s necessarily a special reason why Gil would abandon his family completely, then belatedly reach out years later to try to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Men do that all the time, probably even more nowadays than back in the sixties, as a few googles seems to confirm. The fact that he’s a deer in the headlights when his daughter actually shows up also seems reasonably plausible to me; he could well be the kind of man who fights to get his daughter back to rekindle the relationship and then has no idea what to do when she actually shows up, fleeing to real or imagined job responsibilities in confusion.

    Either that, or he just wants keep his wife busy at home while he spends the week getting hot and heavy with one of his graduate students.

  21. David October 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Mehbe, I think that Gil was not actually interested in seeing Robyn. We learn that he has expressed his desire to see her in the course of an argument on the phone with Marise. I imagine that either Marise said something about how Robyn doesn’t miss him or want to see him as a way of hurting him and his response being to insist that she visit. Robyn is just being used as a pawn in their hostilities. This would explain his saying he wanted her to visit and then never spending time with her.
    The fairy tale idea is interesting, but Valerie is much more like another victim of the toxic relationship between Gil and Marise. Valerie is much closer in age to Robyn than she is to Gil or Marise, who are old enough to be her parents, too. Valerie is more like someone who gets kidnapped in the fairy tale forest and finds someone else already being held captive she needs to help escape. I also thought Robyn’s change in character made sense. At first she thinks Valerie might just be another adult like her parents who doesn’t really care about her, so she is not engaged at all. But when she finds out that Valerie is different and genuinely sympathetic, she opens up and changes. That seemed right. I agree that is it a bit much to say that Robyn knew Valerie would come back. It sounds more like something Valerie would think to make her feel better about leaving Robyn with Marise in the first place.
    I also agree that Jamie seems an all-too-convenient character whose only real role is to allow Robyn to go with Valerie without the scene being an actual kidnapping. But there is a further problem with this rescue / escape scenario. What can Valerie do now? Take Robyn back to Gil’s house, where she is not wanted? Is Gil really going to suddenly agree to have her stay? And will Marise just suddenly decide it is ok for her daughter to be with him and not come back? It seems very unlikely, so the “escape” at the end seems entirely pointless. It is bad to have a contrived ending, but worse when the contrived ending is not very logical as an ending.

  22. william October 24, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Many provocative ideas in the ongoing discussion of this story. I was motivated to go back and read it 2 more times. Here are my thoughts, in random order. Some pertain to the questions raised by other people, some don’t.

    First, lots of good phrases and sentences:
    “Her tiny, bony shoulder blades flickered with repressed movement.”
    “She was gasping for her solitude like a lungful of clean air.”
    The whole description of “the washed-out numb winter landscape’ seen through the train window.
    ‘”Hello, Mrs. H.,” she sang out in her brightest telephone voice.’
    Marise: “as austerely handsome as a carved ship’s figurehead.”
    ” . . . as they drove on, the colored lights from the shops wheeled slowly across their faces, revealing them as strangers to each other.”
    And others.

    Also some clunky adverbs and adjectives: “statuesque”, “primly”, “gloatingly”, “wafting veils”, “alarmingly”, “awkwardly”. I’m not saying that one should never use these words or never use adverbs. Just that in this story these words seemed clumsy.

    “Are we escaping?”, Robyn asks Valerie as they leave. It struck me that there is much escaping going on; Robyn escaping from her mother and Jamie and that weird, cold house; Valerie escaping from her mother; Valerie thinks that eventually she will escape from Gil; Gil trying to escape from his lower-class upbringing.

    On re-reading I was struck how creepy that whole shtick is between Valerie and Gil with him talking about himself in the third-person. He’s unable to speak as himself except when he’s talking about history. “He misses you,” Gil tells Valerie on the phone. Sexual implication here, I think. One thing that Marise has right about Gil is how he’s “sitting there, steering along in the cockpit of his own cleverness.” Dead-on.

    There are also a ton of references to Valerie not saying something to Gil or not telling him or Gil not perceiving something. Dead-end communication. Just on the first page: “It was lucky that Gil wasn’t witness”; “Valerie didn’t tell him”; “Valerie didn’t ask Gil”; “she wasn’t listening”.

    Also — as in all upper-class British fiction, a lot of the action springs from differences in class and education. Like when Gil says he wants “one of the rambling old mansions” whereas Valerie “enjoyed all the conveniences of their modern home”‘. Also Valerie seeing through Marise’s pretensions: “If you owned so much, you could afford to trample it underfoot in a grand gesture, turning everything into a game.” And much more in this vein.

    “[Robyn] was pressed full length against the glass”. Like the girl at the end of “Likes”.
    No doubt coincidence.

    Why did Robyn come to visit? “Gil had made a lot of fuss about having his daughter to visit, as a stubborn point of pride . . .”

    Why did Jamie give Robyn to Valerie? “Jamie was coming down the path, with a curious gloating look on his face”. He is gloating because he is scoring a point on Marise. He gives the sleeping bag to Valerie “as if he and Valerie were caught up in some game together”. There are several references to upper-class people treating life as a game. See 3 grafs above, for instance. Who would treat a child as a pawn in a game? Marise and Jamie would. I wonder if Gil had so much trouble with Marise because they were different classes — he very earnest, she considering everything a sport. “I don’t have any plans for Robyn’s tea. I don’t make those kinds of plans.”

    Why did Valerie take Robyn? She kind of backed herself into it, jousting with Marise. “Valerie didn’t even know why she’d come back. Perhaps she’d had some idea that if she saw Marise today she’d be able to behave with more sophistication, say what she really thought.” Which to some extent, she does. But during the visit she gets snagged by Robyn, who interacts with her strongly: “I knew you’d come back”; “Have you come to get me? Are you taking me to your house again?”; Now! I want to come now!” Valerie got herself into a situation from which she wasn’t able to extricate herself. She was touched — this is the only person in the world who wanted her for herself. It’s hard to resist someone who wants you and needs you so much. And — she sympathizes with Robyn’s need to escape, as she realizes obliquely later. She feels guilty about leaving Robyn with her vengeful mother: She unwittingly encouraged Robyn to like her — “And without genuinely liking in return.” But once she has her, she acts the full mother part, spending her money that she intended for a dress for their tickets. And being prepared to face down Gil for the girl’s sake. And her own. In that moment she realizes the fracture — she and Gil are not really a couple and she will eventually leave him. Action and consequences. What more could you want in a story?

    Things I still haven’t gotten — the orange and purple door. And the implications of Jamie in his underpants with Robyn.

    This is the first Hadley story about which I’ve had so much to say — the first I’ve thought had content. I hope she continues in this vein.

  23. Greg October 25, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you William for your wonderfully passionate post…..what a treat to digest!

    David, your methodical analysis provides us with a precise and objective view into this work of art.

    And Eric, I recommend to start your Hadley journey with “The London Train”……it’s so well constructed! I read it twice to fully appreciate it.

    With Alice Munro now retired, we now have Tessa to continue on with exquisite domestic fiction. Here is my favourite quote from the story:

    “She thought, with a flush of outrage, that Gil was truly selfish, never taking her needs into consideration. On the other hand, important men had to be selfish in order to get ahead. She understood that – she wouldn’t have wanted a softer man who wasn’t respected.”

  24. mehbe October 26, 2017 at 3:42 am

    Eric – yes, I agree that the story doesn’t need to establish a special reason for Gil to want to see Robyn after a long absence in her life. What bothered me was the sense of sudden randomness I got from it, not that it happened at all.

    But David helped me out – yes, it makes sense to me that some provocation from Marise did it, which could have happened instantly. I should have understood that while reading, I guess, but my experience with divorced folks needling each other long after the separation is, thankfully, quite limited. I may lack the background necessary to truly appreciate some of the themes in this story. It could be that the reason some things in the story don’t ring true for me is just because I have trouble imagining the characters in a complete way.

  25. Ken November 13, 2017 at 4:50 am

    I had trouble imagining Valerie as a person with any major qualities or characteristics besides being good at character analysis of others. What is it she’s interested in? Her hobbies, passions? The other characters seemed more fully realized BUT it’s because they are sort of (but not completely) stereotypes–the emotionally stunted yet brilliant academic, the dissolute fallen aristocrat (she reminds me of the character in the song “Play with Fire” by The Rolling Stones–“You’re mother she’s an heiress, owns a block in St. John’s woods and your daddy’d be there with her, if he only could.”). The story does have narrative drive and action and is well-written, but I found the character at its center a bit too enigmatic or just underdeveloped.

  26. William November 13, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Good call on the Stones song, Ken.

    I think Valerie is underdeveloped as a character because Hadley wants us to think of her as underdeveloped as a person. She comes from a lower-class family and was picked out of the secretarial pool by what’s-his-name, the professor. Her development begins in this story as she makes a decision and takes action. It will continue as she confronts the professor when she brings Robyn home. Now that’s a scene I’d like to see.

    I know the above comments are elitist. I stick with them. Everything is British stories is about class.

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