“The Winged Thing”
by Patricia Lockwood
from the November 30, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
I don’t believe Patricia Lockwood has published any fiction, but I have certainly heard of her and have read some of her poems that showed up in The New Yorker over the past decade. Her memoir Priestdaddy also made waves a few years ago. She’s intelligent and her perspective on online culture is in demand. Indeed, her interview with David Wallace for The New Yorker is much more about the internet than it is about this story, though this story is about being online so it fits nicely.
In February, Riverhead is publishing her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This. “The Winged Thing” is an excerpt from this forthcoming book.
This story is a series of instances (and it sounds like the book is as well — the interview brings up Renata Adler’s work), and I find them quite lovely. Here is the first:
Everyone at gate B6 was bathed in gold. She sat there with one foot off the edge of the earth, close to falling, until she saw the couple with matching extravagant mullets that hung down past their shoulder blades. The man took out a brush and began to fight through his mullet until it was free, and then he handed the brush to his wife and she began to fight through hers with the same consecrated look; these mullets were their acre and when God came down he would not find a rock, a stump, a weed. They shook out their hair together, as if it were all on the same head, joined hands, and rested. She sat in the gold that made them the same and felt a little less like dying.
And, because I like it as well, here is the second:
The cursor blinked where her mind was. She put one true word after another and put the words in the portal. All at once they were not true, not as true as she could have made them. Where was the fiction? Distance, arrangement, emphasis, proportion? Did they become untrue only when they entered someone else’s life and butted up, trivial, against its bigness?
These short instances coalesce quickly into a story. The narrator’s sister is having a troubled pregnancy that threatens her life: “Could the person in all those Facebook pictures, the blinking three dots in the text window, could the ringtone that startled her whenever her sister called simply disappear?” The narrator mourns just the potential loss of her sister’s originality. The narrator also wonders about the baby that might not live:
If the baby lived — for the doctors did not believe she would live. If she lived, they did not believe she would live for long. If she lived for long, they did not know what her life would be — she would live in her senses. Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched. All along her edges, just where she turned to another state. Tide pools full of slow blinks and bubbles and little waving fronds. The self, but more, like a sponge. But thirsty.
This subtle connection between the sister and this unborn and potentially unknowable being that lives “along her edges” is thought provoking.
“The Winged Thing” does not focus solely on this potential — and dreaded — abortion. It is there, but so is the tragedy that seems to be leading to it, so is the narrator’s return home to Ohio, to conservative parents who have to change how they say Obama Care once it steps in to help them understand a little better what is happening to the unborn child. The narrator, driving down the roads, thinks she also might have become addicted to pills had she stuck around. And here she is trying to help her sister who is ill and living through one of the worst things imaginable.
This story, as I’m sure is clear, will not connect with a large part of the American electorate, if the recent election is any indication. “The Winged Thing” is not shy about its criticism, but nor is it solely about that criticism. In other words, it’s reason for being is not to call out the other side. For one thing (spoiler alert) the baby is born and loved. The big-hearted story is about quite a bit. I found its look at this harrowing situation to be empathetic to the pregnant sister as well as to the father, who is learning that the world he fought for is not actually a place he wants to live. I found it complex in the way it presented the narrator who works hard to escape to the internet but who finds that it does not have the answers she is looking for.
As the story gets closer to the end, we get some more instances that are similar to those at the beginning of the story, instances where something transcends the expected:
The great gift of the baby knowing their voices, contentless except for love—how she turned so wildly to where the pouring and continuous element was, strained her limbs toward the human sunshine, would fight her way through anything to get there.
I wonder if this is the start of the forthcoming book. If so, it is a solid start and suggests an interesting story to come.