The New Yorker Reader: “She’s the One,” by Tessa Hadley

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03/19/2009 9:00 AM |

Returning this week after no fiction last week because instead they went with John Updike’s (harrowingly, beautifully eloquent) deathcasting.

For as much as this story’s ending reads like a workshop-aided fulfillment of its themes — narrative as therapeutic, literature as healing — it also works to parody its own impulses; sort of a self-conscious (not quite meta) self-effacement, as if the importance of literature is something to be redeemed, rather than affirmed.

Like, yes, the protagonist’s foil is able to cope with her adolescent trauma and heartbreak by thinking of it as a story (even if she can never tell it), and yes, our protagonist achieves something of the same distance from her brother’s suicide in the final sentences (“The whole scene, the sad story that had brought them together, was framed for her for a moment as if from some far-off future perspective, and her rage against [her late brother's awful girlfriend] washed out of her”), straightforward enough.

We’ve already seen how reading novels is not just an escape for her (“the act of reading enclosed and saved her”), but also productive (“Sometimes when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else”).

This works, and comes off as genuine and fresh, partly because, well, the protagonist works at a retreat where un-self-aware adults go to try to hammer out the novel they’ve been carrying inside them their whole lives, and there are some really, really funny bits in here about bad writing (and the real writers who’re shockingly cruel about the real and important need to tell one’s story). Just one favorite bit among many:

"She does this awful folksy thing: he’s called the Guitar Player. ‘The Guitar Player did this,’ ‘The Guitar Player did that, stuck a spliff under his strings, sent out his lonely song into the night, across the lake.’ Imagine writing about a crowd of egomaniacal hippies doing drugs and it’s not funny? Also, there’s too much nature in it. One tree will do, as far as I’m concerned. Symbolism. One tree can stand in for the whole caboodle."

Some of the writers who came to tutor the courses were nice, but not all of them were. Some were funny about the students, especially the crazies, the ones who brought the two thousand handwritten pages of their novel in a plastic bag, or wrote from the perspective of a donkey abused by its owner.