Marry or Burn by Valerie Trueblood
Counterpoint Press, 2010
Valerie Trueblood’s book of short stories, Marry or Burn, makes substantial demands on its readers’ attention, for which they are repaid manifold. Unlike the seven non-consecutive chapters of Trueblood’s Seven Loves (Little, Brown and Co., 2006), these twelve stories, as a whole or even separately, do not concern a central character and his or her varied couplings. Instead, each story works with the possibilities for life in the interweaving of multiple couples’ lives (married or not), though one person usually dominates the complex Jamesian point of view. The ultimate reward for repeated re-readings of the stories individually and all together is a greater and more profound understanding of what happens or may happen within and among the lives of these men and women. The persistent reader develops a fuller, if uncertain, sense of Trueblood’s basic and continuing “intuitions.” These are suspicions about how life works and can be understood, a poetic sense of what’s happening, what matters, here especially among couples or individuals involved with marriage, with love and passion, with commitments to others and to themselves.
The book’s title, an allusion to St. Paul’s stern Biblical admonition, is, of course, ironic: the burning is as often within or despite marriage as outside, though there’s plenty of that too. More crucially, burning is an ending while marriage is a beginning, each of these temporal aspects also containing mysteries. Nevertheless, these stories of love and longing leave no doubt that life is better than death, though two doctors (both men) consider the question, and several suicides, even murders, are more than threatened. Within that perspective, ancient and contemporary questions about determinacy and indeterminacy, fate and fortune, chance and change, about biological, inherited and learned attitudes and behaviors, notions about place and time in the space we presently inhabit and in our collective and individual experiences —whatever the tentatively identifiable issues, they arise as mysteries and remain mysterious without expectation of complete understanding. A persistent reader recognizes the power of these mysteries, their worthwhile contemplation, as may be deduced from some of her stories’ titles: “Choice in Dreams,” “Invisible River,” “Taken” (such an ambiguous and ambivalent word in reference to marriages), just plain (?!) “Luck,” and the last and longest title for the longest (fifty-page) story, “Beloved, You Looked into Space,” from the Alan Hovhaness art-song that draws its title in turn from the medieval Sufi mystic poet, Hafiz.
Several stories revolve around weddings, and several more involve split-ups, and, whether central or not, widowhood and widower-hood. Often enough a tangle of these situations develops, for each story is replete with characters variously coupled. In “Mance Lipscomb,” five couples operate, not counting the extra-marital affairs of the two major men. The last story in the collection brings seven couples together for a small wedding in a mountain retreat, some as securely coupled units, others not, including the Lesbian one, and among the couples there are, as well, two pairs of siblings, a situation which gives rise to unavoidable sibling rivalries. Inevitably in these stories where time and change (“plot”) occurs, fatality or chance is an issue and is interwoven with unpredictability. The tissue where these operate (or are operated on) is primarily marital fidelity and infidelity and irresistible or suppressed passion, but seen not as a fabric for romance as much as for risk and possibility, seen positively, an evaluation not always actively tested in the plots where they often remain uncommitted hopes. The hazardous process of discovering future possibilities necessarily means coming to terms with the past—though, as one of the imperiled women says: “Have mercy! Truth is not necessarily what we’re after.”
In “Invisible River” another such woman, younger, called simply the Reader, is introduced with this caveat: “Groundless near happiness doesn’t do anything for the Reader…. She is looking for something with an edge.” “Having worked on publications for years, ever since high school,” she has become, to the higher ups, a perplexingly canny, yet ultimately respected reader of fiction manuscripts, sensitively attuned to “the notes struck by some of the newer writers.” The Reader’s supposed generation-bound skill in reading newer, riskier forms of fiction allows Trueblood to reflect on the crucial, esthetic and moral difference between romance and possibility as well as on the tastes and inclinations of today’s fiction readers. “Possibility is not the same as romance,” the Reader knows, although, she laments, the subjects of most of the fictions she rejects are exactly the middle-class, mostly middle-aged women, often widows, who roam bookstores, looking for romance as if it were a serious possibility.
Trueblood sets these ruminations on stories in the context of the Reader’s wedding to a rich young man in a high-class New York hotel, where “everything even the closet is [merely] a space,” including, explicitly, the long wedding reception room where her new life will begin. Contrast this commercial space with Hafiz-Hovhaness’s beloved’s ‘space’ of limitless possibilities, those spaces being interlaced with uncertainties about past and future times. The hazardous enterprise of this particular wedding is heightened by the bride’s being raised in West Virginia by her long-widowed mother, a lower class, perilously recovering alcoholic for whom events at (and very briefly just after) the wedding may also bring a change of life and attitude. This older woman, potentially wiser, constitutes the dominant narrative point of view steeped in concerns about time and place, contrasted with the bride’s youthful optimism. The canny Reader theorizes that the groom’s wealth enables him, unlike Midas, “to touch things to life” because the rich “think what they are doing is real, and so it is. They don’t get stuck in the wet mud of was.” Again optimistically, dangerously, she gracefully forgives him for not being a good “judge,” not making careful discriminations in his personal behavior and relationships. The mother, isolated at the wedding by her previous way of life, is quite surprisingly asked in the reception room to dance, this man being, we alone realize, the bride’s former, much older “father figure” lover. Asked where and when she acquired or merely developed her dancing skill, she repeats, jokingly but also optimistically to her unknown partner, “You never know, you never, never know.” The mother’s openness to possibility and her innate canniness about people we can hope at the end (based on the very brief and mysterious opening scene in a railroad station’s woman’s restroom) may well signal a new, quite positive future for her, without overtly romantic alliances.
In most stories, the loss of a beloved, whether difficult or easy, dreamt or enacted, which then gives rise to various inter-generational, marital or extra-marital passions, generally leads to the testing and transformation of a central protagonist’s character or at least his or her state of mind. But for Trueblood, often enough our understanding of the character, not the character herself, is what changes, opening them out to us positively, hopefully, and us out toward the characters. For Trueblood’s intuitions, suspicions, uncertainties and fears about life are by no means obdurate or dire. After all, these mostly middle class people are unlikely to slip into disaster. The real dangers are mainly from their failing to be open to life’s possibilities. Most of the marriages are fraught not by class, status or age but by individual temperament, the invisible river, occasionally hard-driven by passions, that runs through each coupled or potentially coupled person. Dealing with these almost fatal, learned or inherent forces is not easy, especially when change and difference sets generations apart, whether within a family or in the general population, as in the brief and potentially shocking “Tom Thumb Wedding.”
Among Trueblood’s densely provocative stories, “Taken” is a prime contender as the most beautiful, most poetic story, in a contemporary way—simple, yet complex, intensely suggestive. Relevant to appreciating Trueblood’s underlying concerns and their formal means is a passage in “Taken” regarding the central protagonist, Jane, a painter who deals with spaces and their meanings. “You’re a bit of a Fauve,” comments the officiating rabbi whom she meets at another hazard-filled, cross-cultural wedding, and he adds that she does not seem to be interested in faces, in people. “Well, of course, portraits are about more than just the face,” she explains tolerantly to this new appreciative admirer. Jane’s most understanding critic has been her long-time beloved, Karel, foreign-born, who has returned to fidelity, for fear, he says, that his wife might commit suicide. This apparently clichéd evasion, she realizes, taken seriously, must imply the wife’s previous attempt at suicide for a similar reason. So practically she must accept it.
Just such comprehensions of what is happening, what is revealed in apparently obvious remarks and moments shape not only some of Trueblood’s characters’ consciousnesses and lives but our own as we develop our understandings of her stories and of our own lives and stories. For a specific esthetic underlies all of Trueblood’s short stories, as she sharply, poetically, asserts in “What’s the Story?: Aspects of the Form,” (The American Poetry Review, July/August 2001). The essay begins with an epigraph from poet Louise Bogan, “I believe in the short story and the long short story. The novel never. To hell with the novel,” and then goes on to complain of critics’ condescension to short story writers, climaxing with:
The power of the short story is not the click! Not the moment ‘pulled off!’ Not ‘it’!
What’s the story?
The short story is an art form. It is not a smaller edition of another art form, a bike on training wheels, a dry run, a “turn.”
Later in this essay Trueblood offers an image suggestive of Jane’s intuition in “Taken” about explanation, beginning and endings, and artful form:
Many a reader of short stories has passionate favorites but trouble saying what happened in them. If somebody comes up with a summary, that doesn’t seem to be it, exactly. And of course that is not it. The short story is like those Flemish paintings that go back from a vivid center, blur the middle ground, and stop at a far mountain range unmatched to the rest of the landscape, dim, rocky and formidable. There’s a subject all right, but behind it, way out there—the high rocks.
The “subject” of a great short story is not what we gather from even a careful reading. In Trueblood’s stories it is an underlying, obscure intuition—here of something in space; but in Jane’s painterly understanding also mysteriously in time, as occurs to her when her new sympathetic rabbi friend explores what may be a new possibility, a new connection:
“So. You like him maybe a little. Mayhew. This guy who gives up everything. And for what does he do this? For a woman.”
“A woman!” she said. But she didn’t argue. There was more to it than an explanation, however long, could cover. Often it seemed to her the explanation of anything that came to pass would have no beginning and no end. If you painted a thing, that was the shortened explanation of it.