Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)
As poorly read as I am I had not heard of Peter Taylor, or at least could not remember him, until the Library of America dropped the first of his two volumes of collected stories at the door this week. I must have read some of his stories in the New Yorker in the 80s and 90s, but none stand out clipped in memory. “A Spinster’s Tale” begins when the girl telling the story is 13 years old. Like William Trevor’s Mr. Jeffs she has too vivid an imagination but is not as cruel. She sees Old Mister Speed the drunkard hobble by below her window regularly, “persistent yet, withal, seemingly without destination,” building up anxieties about him in her mind. He is a threat to her. Entirely imaginary, but consequential. She ends up calling the cops on him when he seeks the house’s shelter from a storm. Along the way there are psychologically tantalizing parallels between Mr. Speed and the girl’s older, often drunk brother (“my desire form him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”) and with the girl’s father: “I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.” The girl grows up a little, asserts herself, asserts herself too much: “I felt I had acted wrongly, with courage but without wisdom.” And then the call to the cops: “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage. I looked at him lying out there in the rain and despised and pitied him at the same time, and I was afraid to go minister to the helpless old Mr. Speed.”
This is where the future handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale go when they’re 12 to 14 years old, where they’re required to learn how to be a woman, to write letters to their future husband and learn all the ways of being with him (no gender traitors allowed), or when they’re caught playing X-rated versions of Barbie and Ken, as Josephine, or Fin, the narrator, was. A camp where girls are sent home for faking their periods. There are even “ceremonies,” as in handmaid, but not quite involving penetrative inseminations. Close enough though: “We had to put on our camp whites for the ceremony, and before we went into the lodge the female counselors told us stories about menstruating girls who were inhabited by demons. The demons could make the polish on our nails turn rotten. The smell of blood could bring snakes slithering into our cabins.”
“Everything here is a competition. Tampons versus sanitary napkins. Bras versus undershirts. On the first night, the Beav divided everyone into two teams: the Cubs versus the Colts. (I am, fortunately, a Colt.) Also, older girls versus younger girls, even though everyone at this camp achieved menarche in the past year. No one talks about the menstruation requirement. I only know because I found the brochure on Mother’s desk. The older girls are called Evening Primroses. The younger girls are called Morning Glories. (The camp is called Camp Moonflower. I am a Morning Glory.) The camp motto is Dignae et provisae iucundae, which we are made to chant three times at the beginning of each meal.” The latin translated: “Worthy and provided enjoyable.” There’s a great deal of competition between the girls. There’s meanness. There’s Fin’s crush on counselor Andrew, who takes her on a nighttime horseride intended to get her to orgasm, as it does him, though Fin seems oblivious both to the intention and to Andrew’s orgasm behind her. “My butt hurts,” is all she tells the disappointed, glassy-eyed Andrew. In the end Fin is made to swim a large distance in the lake in some form of representative ceremony, she representing Woman. She swims in the wrong direction.
‘Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite’ at the Liverpool Museum. See details.
A 12-year-old girl’s caustic, aggravating, proud, funny observations about her two 14-year-old girl cousins visiting from Mount St. Scholastica, a convent school. The title is taken from Corinthians 6:19 (“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself) and anticipates in remote ways The Handmaid’s Tale. The younger girl, who takes to the notion that she could be a temple of the holy ghost and becoming a saint but for the tortures she might have to endure, makes fun of the older, seemingly more simple-minded girls. The older girls go to a fair and see a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite shows them his genitals and says repeatedly, “God made me thisaway… and I ain’t disputing His way.” O’Connor would like us to think that he represents the acceptance of god’s will. Of course that implies that there’s something wrong with the hermaphrodite–a prejudicial, a priori judgment by O’Connor necessary as a premise for the story to “work.” The judgment is a distasteful construct. This being O’Connor, the girl has an epiphany at the end, accepting grace, letting go of her pride, embracing Catholicism. Drench the ending in sun all you like, it’s a preachy, flimsy story saved by its humor and the girl’s curious insights. But it’s no “Keela.”
Fifteen-year-old Connie: “she knew she was pretty and that was everything.” But her mother’s a nag, cruelly easy to fool, and her sister June her mother’s “plain and chunky” pet with whom she’s constantly unfavorably compared. Her mother is jealous of her prettiness. She has friends, she has music: “the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.” A Sunday morning the family leaves for an aunt’s barbecue. Connie declines to go. (She’s a younger Adela Moore in the Henry James story: “yet now that he was at a distance she felt a singular sense of freedom: a return of that condition of early childhood when, through some domestic catastrophe, she had for an infinite morning been left to her own devices.”)
She dreamily, sentimentally thinks of the boy she spent the evening with. He House seems to shrink in proportion to her daydream, the eroticism of her music. Two boys drive up, one of them the shaggy-haired boy who’d made promising eyes at her the night before that she tried to ignore. Arnold Friend, the kind that paints the name in big letters on the side of his car, his nose “sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke.” But it isn’t: he sounds as informed about Connie as a stalker, creepily, down to family details. No red flags for Connie? This line doesn’t seem to fit “His smile assured her that everything was fine.”
Friend’s friend Ellie is in the car. Connie wants him to think she knows him. She doesn’t want to seem the dope. But he looks 30. She’s nervous. He lies, claims to be her age. “He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material, the tar an echo of the black lettering on the car. Ellie looks creepy, old, “he had a fair, hairless face, cheeks reddened slightly as if the veins grew too close to the surface of his skin, the face of a forty-year-old baby.” Connie attempts to desist, “faintly.” She’s in a trance. He presses. He’s aggressive, resentful. Now she’s fearful, “and she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.” But now he’s describing to her how he’ll take her virginity in terms indistinguishable from a rape: “I’ll tell you how it is, I’m always nice at first, the first time. I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me.” She panics, retreats into her house that doesn’t seem like her house, nor her home, anyway, as he continues his sinister deadpan advances, verbal and literal, a man in complete control of the idea of control, the lust for control, this weird little man: “Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.” He is beginning to seem like Flannery O’connor’s Misfit: “This is how it is, honey: you come out and we’ll drive away, have a nice ride. But if you don’t come out we’re gonna wait till your people come home and then they’re all going to get it.” The seduction by way of threatening murder, guilt-tripping the victim into submitting to a rape. She reaches for the phone: Oates’s description of her fear as she is overcome by Friend is out of Poe:
Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.
And this, the pedophile’s manifesto: “Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” (She uses a line here, “she felt her pounding heart. Her hand seemed to enclose it. She thought for the first time in her life that it was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body that wasn’t really hers either.” It reminded me of the image from Malamud: “All day Sam’s heart beat so hard he sometimes fondled it with his hand as though trying to calm a bird that wanted to fly off.”)
The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.
Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.