In Antonya Nelson’s novella Some Fun, a mother instructs her teenage daughter in the facts of life: “There is no equal relationship. Either you love him better or he loves you better. Either you’re getting dumped or doing the dumping… The other fact is: everyone has a secret life. It’s the only thing you absolutely have to hang on to. Someone’s always trying to get at your secret life. Don’t let them. Those are the real facts.”
No matter their age, socio-economic circumstance, or geographical location—each character in the latest collection from Nelson, a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, has a secret life that routinely eclipses the life they long to create or the life society might choose for them. It is this secret existence that both sustains and destroys, from a young girl’s stealing habit and her first impulsive sexual experience in Some Fun; to a woman’s addiction to alcohol and a family secret in “Heart Shaped Rock;” to an artist’s odd but healing relationship with a homeless young woman in “Eminent Domain;” to a teenage boy who believes he is guided by his dead mother’s ghost in “Flesh Tone.” Nelson’s unlikely heroes and heroines often get stuck in the mess of their secret lives and remain there, flailing—but not unaware and not entirely unhappy. When teaching her son the facts of life, a mother is careful to remind him “that heartbreak was part of the package.” In this collection, there is plenty to be had.
Throughout this brilliantly written book, Nelson communicates this: In these dull, depressed, terrible, and sometimes unremarkable moments in our secret lives, we are most human, most alive, and most honest about the truth—the facts—of life. Although her characters occasionally break out of their carefully constructed private worlds, most retreat inside the restricting walls they’ve created—out of habit, comfort, and even a strange kind of love. They get close to their demons and look them in the eye, and choose to live with them rather then send them away.
In “Dick,” Ann Ponders, a woman in her mid-40s, is moving her family from “the toxic beauty” of Los Angeles to Colorado. While Ann clings to her 12-year-old son Cole, he is busy clinging to other things: in this case, Dick, a boy from “the blue-collar world of his father, who installed heaters and cookers in addition to breeding dogs.” Cole’s attachment to his slightly off-putting friend threatens his mother’s hold on him. When Dick disappears one day and never returns, an inconsolable Cole assumes that Dick simply lost his desire to live. Together with Cole, Ann feels the loss of her son’s innocence, an innocence that had sustained her in a dull, passionless marriage. “Had Cole arrived at his insight concerning Dick because he shared the opinion of turning twelve, because he didn’t find life, anymore, all that worthwhile? Ann couldn’t bear to think so; she squeezed her eyes shut and hoped—it seemed a weak thing, hope, and it was all she had—with all her heart not.” Ann realizes that Cole has become more of a grown-up when he has insights that he cannot share with anyone else—his tormented thoughts, his secrets, are his alone.
In all these stories, the characters ruminate over the departure of loved ones, who evolve, separate, or die, as with Evan’s mother in “Flesh Tone.” For all of Nelson’s biting prose and her ability to render a boy’s thoughts of suicide darkly humorous (“He looked nonchalantly upon railroad tracks and busy intersections, curious about his fate before the pill bottles in the medicine cabinet, the knives in the drawer, the car in the garage…”), there are still touches, sometimes blasts, of magic. “This happened. He and his mother might carry on a conversation as if commenting on a film or a stage performance, as if Evan were in her world instead of his own.” The reader senses that the author believes her character’s delusions, if only for a moment. Evan, on the verge of puberty, must literally give up his mother’s ghost before he can become a young man, but not until he takes from her valuable lessons that would seem to communicate Nelson’s credo about how to survive in the world: “His mother had taught him the beauty of a secret life, the one unmeasured by others, and if unmeasured, then also unjudged, unknown in the most fundamental way, something held close as a heartbeat, a phantom voice near the ear, that most intimate of places.”
In “Strike Anywhere,” Ivan waits for his father outside a bar in rural Montana with a box of matches for entertainment. As he watches a drunk weaving down the street, he realizes this is what his father will be like in a few hours. He does not shrink from this realization, but notices it unfold in his mind as if he could watch the idea take shape from afar. Even as he takes action—”His fingers trembled on the horn, ready to alert people in the street, who would turn and rescue him from his nightmare, this desperate drunken figure”—Ivan is deeply aware that he will not be saved. This story is so strong because it feels as though it were generated by a snapshot, a fleeting image of a boy in a truck, parked outside a bar in the rural West, chewing on a book of matches. Like many of the characters in this collection, Ivan holds his breath and braces for the worst—when the worst has already occurred.
In “Eminent Domain,” Paolo, a visiting artist in Houston, develops a strange relationship with a privileged young woman who has become homeless as a form of rebellion and as an experiment. “She’d grown up in West Texas, tough from her childhood ranch rearing and larger-than-life father. Pampered in a peculiar way, she was expected not only to perform all of the typical female functions but to cultivate an additional set of skills, the bawdy, tolerant sense of humor, the whiskey voice, the distinct and disarming impression she left of knowing your weaknesses in advance… Texans: they were a breed apart.” This young woman’s courage to strike out against the traditional life prescribed for her forces Paolo to question his own existence as a middle-aged man, living in a garage apartment, looking forward to this time spent with a pill-popping teenager instead of with his university colleagues. He looks around at others his age and wonders, “Would his life ever resemble that life? House, pool, wife, routine?” But his secret, benign conversations with a punk girl half his age are what sustain him most of all—not the idle chatter of other patrons of the arts and women his own age. He finds courage—and a renewed sense of hope—in this entirely secret encounter.
We tend to develop our secret lives as we near adulthood, and Nelson is at the top of her form in her rendering of adolescence. The novella Some Fun spans one year in the teenage life of Claire, beginning with “a desiccating June desk in El Paso, Texas; sweat dries before it has a chance to surface.” Nelson has a gift for describing the swings and turns of adolescence. In one moment, Claire “wanted her brothers’ company; during the night, she had taken the baby monitor from the night table by her mother and put it beside her own bed, listening to their wheezing and sniffling over the humming white noise.” In another, she needs to steal things. “In the moment of theft, it seems imperative to possess them. Having them, the urgency evaporates. Stealing is an impulse like eating sweets: afterward, she can’t quite account for the greedy need, in fact feels a little ill.”
Despite the title, no one is having much fun. Claire lives in El Paso, a city she despises with “its brown emptiness and its clutter, its poverty and despair, its smoky yellow sky.” Her mother, Eve, is a barely functioning alcoholic; her Aunt Lolly recently shot herself at home with her own handgun; her father has moved to a new house where “he lives with a Christian cheerleader, doing yoga.” For entertainment, Claire and her friends take painkillers and watch the graffiti artists decorate the neighborhood; she takes driver’s education with classmates who drop Vicodin before they get behind the wheel. As Claire aptly states, “The advantage of El Paso is precisely that: you can’t sustain high expectations of anyone’s private life.”
Yet Claire does have a secret life. Without her mother’s permission, she crosses the border to Juárez, the place of her mother’s private nightmares: “It used to be a place where the family went on Saturday afternoons to shop for piñatas and masks and spices, to hear mariachis, to eat dinner at their favorite fancy restaurant. But now it is a place where hundreds of young women have been discovered in shallow graves…”
After her first drunken sexual experience in the back of a van in Juárez, Claire returns home with a new perspective on her parents’ relationship and its demise. She believes she has learned something about love: “Eve has lost her ability to charm him; he has been transformed, and she is therefore reduced. Beauty is in part reflected, Claire sees, something perceived and beamed back to the object of delight.”
The true facts of life, brutal as they are, still have moments of grace. Grace surprises the characters in a Nelson story when, instead of trying to change their situations, they embrace them. These are men, women, and children who sit in the middle of the mess they’ve made—and claim it as their own. In a lesser writer, it would sound like cynicism and bitterness. But Nelson’s frank treatment of the human condition is never cynical or bitter, but strangely uplifting. These are characters who hold their sins, their mess, and their secret lives together by a feeble hope, “as close as a heartbeat.”
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, which will be published early next year by Bloomsbury Press. She is a 2004 graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin.