Dec 4, 2009

On "No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

This concise short story is charged with characterization. Tallent's authorial voice is assured; not a word is wasted. She strikes a balance with regard to imagery and dialogue. And her details are motivated by action. The 18 year old girl narrator remembers this day vividly for one obvious reason: it is her birthday. Her older married boyfriend Jack has given her a diary (another reason to be writing and observing). And in the first paragraph we are treated to a host of telling details about the inside of Jack's pickup: it is dirty, the ashtray filled with butts, country music playing on the stereo, a bottle of tequila between his legs, his nearly new denim jeans bleached white, his crotch zipper golden. None of the details appears extraneous; it is all motivated by the opening tension marked out by Tallent's plot device: Jack's wife's Cadillac approaches in the distance. He pushes the girl's head down. This is what she sees.
Not only the description of Jack gives his character away. The dialogue is revelatory. We hear of the things that bug him about his wife: leaving the headlamps on during the day, driving the speed limit, her relentless predictability.
After noticing Jack's old boots with the stitched-in elk heads, scuffed toes, and wedged-in clod of manure, the narrator remarks on the pop tops littered on the floor, which she says a kid could cut a foot on. This triggers the central action of the story: a debate of sorts, in part gently romantic and flirtatious, in part sarcastic and cyncial — a conflict between Jack's vision of their future together and the narrator's. As the narrator prepares to hear Jack's version first, we have a nice block of description: the butterfly of dust on her jeans (butterflies being an apt image to associate with an 18 year old). She looks out and we have some exposition of the setting, a warm Wyoming day, the fawn and yellow wheat fields and their hidden irrigation ditches. Note the appropriateness of the adjective "fawn" to describe not only the color of the wheat (light yellowish brown) but its associated noun, referring to a young deer, or the verb form "to bring forth young". From her youthful, innocent perspective, the world is a fertile, dazzling, romantic place about to come into flower.
Jack's vision though is a dramatic contrast. While both their visions start the same way ("I can't imagine anybody loving anybody more than I love Jack."), Jack — the older, more cyncial, world weary, unchangeable, and fatalistic male — spins off into a prediction of a relationship that will have gone bust in a year. In two he will have been forgotten. Her vision is a foil is his. She sees devotion, domestic bliss, a quick wedding (to which Jack sneers, it must have been a quick divorce), followed by babies and happy days of child rearing. For a moment, Jack's cynicism is arrested, ever so briefly, as he admits to her "That's nice." He likes her vision, but he is quick to add, he believes in the certainty of his. The narrator wants to believe that deep within, in his "heart of hearts", Jack is redeemable, that a romantic lies dormant, waiting to be roused. With his parting shot in the story (Jack gets the last word), he tells her that the smell of the baby's breath wouldn't be vanilla, but a bittersweet one.
And so the story finishes. Open-ended, inviting us readers to decide on their fate. The story's central themes are left for us to ponder. How predictable are we? Can people change their ways? Are young people fated to be perpetually naive? Are older people doomed to fatalism and cynicism? Whose version of the future is truer? What are the implications of your answer to that question? This brings us around to the story's title. Is it true that No One's a Mystery? And we also need to reconcile the title with the John Hiatt song "It Hasn't Happened Yet", covered by Rosanne Cash. In the lyric, she sings "Nobody's into Me / No one's a mystery". Which character is going to take ownership of this lyric? At first take we might say Jack, but in time, the narrator might appropriate it for her own therapeutic purposes.
Reading further into the story, we see some intriguing complexities. Jack, who expects to be forgotten, has given her a diary, which is used for writing and for remembering. Does Jack, cynic that he is, secretly want to be remembered by her, to be memorialized? One would assume he would like not to be forgotten, but he fears with a crass certainty that he will. Note also the foreshadowing in the first line of the sotry, that the lock on the diary "didn't seem to want to work," an ill omen for their relationship. We might also speculate on the narrative occasion for writing the story. At one point is the narrator sitting down to tell us this story? Is it the first thing she writes in the diary? Is it later? Is she still with Jack at this point, or is already part of her past?
Jack's character needs certainty, predictability. He doesn't change. His character is static. The narrator, we assume, is going to be dynamic. She probably wouldn't, and shouldn't stand by her man. At some point she will see it Jack's way, but this is going to be a pyrrhic victory for Jack, who will have either been found out by his wife or dumped by the narrator. We imagine the narrator might look back on her times with Jack with regret and shame. Her overcoming of this first affair with an older man, if it goes as Jack predicts, will very possibly be the acid that corrodes her romantic, idealized visions, but it also means the loss of something likeable, endearing, and special. Hence the bittersweetness. Tallent has taken a snapshot at the critical moment in this relationship, right before it turns from sweet to sour.