by Kate Walbert
from the September 2, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
We all have those vivid memories of reading a book in a certain place at a certain time, and I have one of those with Kate Walbert’s debut novel The Gardens of Kyoto. And, I think in part because of that experience, I actually have a similarly strong memory of reading her story “M&M World,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2011. I liked The Gardens of Kyoto and, though my post on it at the time registers as disappointment and suggests the story has gotten better in my memory, I can safely say that I liked “M&M World.” I’m quite excited to see if “To Do” creates another vivid memory — perhaps I’ll have to read it while out on a late August hike or something.
I don’t remember a lot about The Gardens of Kyoto, but I do remember “M&M World” quite well. I think it has stuck with me because its intense situation as well as the setting. I also remember thinking Walbert is a fine writer. I like the way this story begins, though I must admit I had to read the second paragraph a few times before I knew quite what it was saying. Perhaps that’s just my Monday morning mind, though.
Her mother had been a beauty, a green-eyed blonde who wore a long braid down her back in high school and then college (Vassar ’57), in New York (Katie Gibbs ’58), and her job in the typing pool at Westinghouse, before she was asked (actually, told) to adopt the more stylish updos of the time. She refused, her boss accusing her of hysteria though the origin of the word (do you know this?) is the once-belief that the uterus could reach up its bloody hands and grip the throat.
Constance addresses the mostly silent women, many from her department, who have gathered in the Antlers Bar on Elm, near the Loop, for the new Storytelling Wednesdays, the audience’s silence not silence but agitated, bored distraction as Constance closes with a recitation of her mother’s to-do list, one of many she found among her mother’s things last spring upon her passing, she’s explained. Cirrhosis of the liver, but that’s another story.
This list was picked at random from a drawer in the condo’s kitchenette, her mother in one of those retirement communities haunted by women and men at the end stage, although who ever saw the men? The men were parked in different hallways—narrow, wallpapered corridors lined with orchids, Constance says, miles and miles of orchids, she continues, the wallpapered walls hung with Wyeth and Rockwell and Turner prints, the corridors labyrinthine, windowless. I was always lost, she tells the silent women. They gave me three weeks to clear everything out. Presto pronto. Goodwill, hello. No condolences from the staff. And these lists. Everywhere: on the backs of envelopes and cardboard coasters, pharmaceutical notepads, Post-its in different colors and scraps of watercolor paper, she likes to paint, liked to paint, and, anyway, everything. So much to do. Lists and lists.
While it took me a minute to follow, I like the rhythm here, and I like the frenetic pace. It seems to match Constance’s state of mind as she talks. And the next few sections — as far as I’ve gotten upon writing this post — continue to impress. I’m very interested.
I’ll finish it up today — like I said, maybe I’ll take it somewhere unique in an effort to create another of those reading memories and further solidify Walbert’s work as part of my reading life — and post more thoughts. In the meantime, share your feelings below.
And I hope your week is starting out wonderfully!