BY TIANA REID
Whether my malady is that I’m too hot, too stressed, or too sober, the symptom is still the same: I haven’t been able to finish a new-to-me novel in months. I’ve started many, reread a few, but have not for the life of me been able to read a fiction book from cover to cover. It hurts, mostly because I’m doing everything right. When my therapist talks about my “healthy behaviours”—running, cooking, taking it easy—she puts it in scare quotes because they are just that to me: scary. And doubtful. Even if I am doing everything right, an objective state, everything they say to do, I feel sick.
On July 4th, I planned to read all morning but instead turned to business-y tasks—bills, taxes, opening the mail, registering the vacuum warranty. I was home, for once, and trying to at least feel on top of my life, which exists in a large amorphous crater between the personal and the professional. I called some family in Canada and realized that my life was not entirely mine, but ours. I spoke to my uncle over the phone. I said it’s a holiday here. He said, oh yes, last year he was in Brooklyn on the Fourth. There were 15 shootings, he said. He said something else, about gun violence, but I blocked it out. If I am not reading novels, I am not practicing listening. I need practice. I need practice. I need practice. He did not mention recent shootings in Toronto, that I do know.
Later that afternoon, when I realized via Instagram that everyone else had taken the day off, I opened a book I had never opened, a book taken from my mother’s old collection that had landed somehow in my father’s possession, who I’ve never seen read a book. The book’s cover is a deep turquoise, with orange and white type. The spine is dirty and creased. It’s a collection of short stories and I gravitate to the last one: “Dance of the Happy Shades” by Alice Munro, which was published in the eponymous collection of stories, Munro’s first, published in 1968 and won the Governor’s General Award for fiction.
I haven’t been able to finish a novel but I can finish a short story. Short stories are defined by economy. Short stories attract the restless, those who are carefully trying to manage available resources, one hour at a time. This does not mean that short stories don’t take a lot of out of me. The intensity of the short makes binging what it is: reckless. The intensity of it makes me feel like my own mind is a stranger. For once in my life, I stick to one at a time. I read Munro in a bath so cold that the salts stay gritty under my ass. What “Dance of the Happy Shades” is “about” does not matter much to me. What matters is that I disappeared.
Start at the beginning, I thought, the first line: “Miss Marsalles is having another party.” I keep reading “Miss Marsalles” as “Miss Marseilles,” because I always prefer to be somewhere else. I read the first line then flip to the last page. Okay, thirteen pages to go. My breathing quickens. The first paragraph is almost claustrophobic with punctuation: two pairs of parentheses, four em dashes, some colons, semi-colons, eager commas. I love this. Where words are not enough, and they are never enough, rhythm needs to be choreographed and reinforced.
Miss Marsalles is a piano teacher and this “party” is not a party. It’s a recital, where obligation is the only reason for attendance. This old woman is not quite Nietzsche’s Baubo or the grandmother-next-door. She’s poor, slow-witted, and dowdy and the decorous middle-class characters in the story can’t be around her without wanting to die. Maybe this party is like almost every party I’ve been to. I never know what to do with my hands. I was the same way when I played piano, this feeling of not knowing what to do with my hands when I had perfectly sound activities to choose from: drinking at a party and pressing on the piano keys at my piano lessons. My teacher was not like Miss Marsalles but perhaps, in the last ten years, she has become that way. But with fiction, I don’t compare, I identify.
“There is a feeling that can hardly be put into words about Miss Marsalles’ parties; things are getting out of hand, anything may happen,” writes the Canadian teenager narrator who, like most teenagers, has her politics right: life is empty and boring. But life has good adjectives: a family home is “dark, pretentious, poetically ugly” and a lunch is “dressed-up nursery food.” What’s the thing about that quote? I can just substitute a word or two and make it mine: there is a feeling that can hardly be put into words about my own life; things are getting out of hand, anything may happen. This unmanageability has structured my relationship to the world. The prescribing doctors call it anxiety but I’ve stopped going so I don’t know what they’d say now.
The end of Munro’s story comes quickly and is so painful in its civilized amorality I can’t even… Through performance, Munro gets after how totally okay people close their eyes to the beauty of others. I get out of myself. I can no longer pretend my socialized blankness or my staunch refusal to answer texts is a political stance; it is an inheritance of a suppressed fear that the problem indeed starts with me.
Tiana Reid lives and works in Manhattan, New York. She is a writer, editor at The New Inquiry, PHD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Follow her thoughts and like her images.