The beige was better

Jessica Olin

  • Bending Heaven by Jessica Francis Kane
    Chatto, 208 pp, £10.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 7011 7517 6

In ‘How to Become a Publicist’, the liveliest story in Jessica Francis Kane’s first collection, Bending Heaven, a young woman moves to Manhattan to pursue a career in publishing, and as part of a family tradition: ‘All the women on my mother’s side have come to New York, lived, burned out, and eventually left.’ She falls into the enthusiastic world of publicity, where ‘Everything’s interrelated!’ and learns to write snappy press releases: ‘Who was Shakespeare? In this breakthrough study, the mystery is revealed.’ Soon she is cold-calling talk show hosts to promote Wistful Moors, a novel based on the life of Charlotte Brontë. Seeking authenticity, she moves into a grungy walk-up on the Upper West Side, learns to avoid the drug dealers, and begins to love New York, or at least parts of it: ‘the undulating expanse of Central Park, like actors offstage waving a giant green sheet in the middle of the city’. But when she calls home, her mother’s voice is ‘small and hard’, and when she tries to plot her next move, none of the scenarios she imagines has a happy outcome.

The women in these stories are singularly pessimistic. Earnest and anxious, they lack confidence in the choices they’ve made and worry about the future. In ‘Ideas of Home, but Not the Thing Itself’, Andrew and Lena are newly-weds for whom youth and good looks provide no reassurance. Lena is long-waisted, and has ‘a band of taut skin’ above her underwear, but Andrew’s soft body alarms her: ‘the beginnings of a belly’, she chides, and makes him exercise. It’s a particularly hot summer, they’re in a one-room furnished apartment. Lena scoffs at her landlord’s tacky interior decoration – seashells pasted to the coffee table; mint-green seahorses attached to the curtain rods – and imagines filling a house she owns with mahogany tables, ‘doors opening onto grass and light’. A house-sitting gig for a partner at Andrew’s firm allows her to explore these fantasies; roaming the mock-Tudor mansion, she rearranges the expensive furniture and watches the owners’ wedding video. At the same time, she is paralysed at the decision-making required to purchase a single item: ‘How do you know if it’s what you’ll want in ten years or twenty or thirty? You might think it doesn’t matter. In ten years you’ll buy another coffee table if you want to, but life doesn’t always work out that way.’ When the week is up, a wingback chair in watermarked silk is delivered to their own small apartment. But even this choice seems wrong: ‘I made a mistake,’ she says tearfully. ‘The beige was better.’

Another young wife, Tessa, finds herself labelled ‘the trailing spouse’ when her husband’s job with an investment bank takes them to London. She vaguely considers doing some freelancing, but her energy soon starts to dissipate. At a loose end, she wanders around museums and falls asleep in cafés, amazed at her husband’s sense of purpose: ‘While he left every day at eight o’clock, it was all Tessa could do to put on her hat.’ She joins a support group for expatriate women; together they plan ‘trips and outings’. But she cannot shake her loneliness. One day when Nick is late from work, Tessa decides to wash their windows:

Above her the sky was brilliant, the first clear evening in weeks. A mild breeze ruffled her hair. She looked at the windows, at the grey lines of dirt that traced the direction of the weather, right to left, across the house. All the other houses on the street were immaculate, several of them rented by other young couples. She started to cry.

Tessa seems unable to enjoy even her happy marriage, worrying that her luck in love must require trouble in some other area, the ‘disaster she had always expected’. In ‘Exposure’, Ellen is a neurotic author whose latest novel has won all three major American book awards. Tormented by her chipper publicist, who insists on the necessity of interviews, and the ambitious fledgling photographer who attempts to ‘draw out’ her ‘personality’ by posing her against a broken window-screen, she wonders: ‘Why were all the young women she knew so tedious?’ She imagines these girls’ lives as a series of in-jokes, ‘parties and photo shoots, dinner out with friends’, but the reader knows better, having seen the flip-side of this interaction.

Kane’s women are unhappy, certainly, but their defining trait is inertia. In ‘Evidence of Old Repairs’, Sarah drinks, though not enough for AA. Her afternoon rum-and-Pepsis leave her maudlin and weepy, to the disgust of her 13-year-old daughter. A misshapen honeysuckle bush can drive her to tears; looking at the ‘soggy confetti’ of a failed salad, she knows that ‘this was a metaphor for her.’ Resentful in the aftermath of her husband’s affair, she ignores their marriage counsellor’s permission to ‘Go into the world and love each other,’ but restricts her anger to a few sniping comments. ‘Wreckers’ features Elizabeth, who can barely get out of bed. Her husband’s inability to ‘look at her body . . . with the love and desire she craved’ is a product of her emotional isolation. Then there is Shelley in ‘Refuge’, who routinely embarrasses her teenage son with excessively candid revelations: ‘Great, Mom. So Dad’s a callous son of a bitch . . . What am I supposed to do with that?’ Having set her career aside for marriage and motherhood, she is now her law firm’s only 47-year-old associate, and the gap between her age and her status – her ‘irregular history’ – makes her a disturbing quantity to her colleagues. At a company retreat, the weekend’s final event, a formal dinner-dance, fills her with ‘the rising edge of hysteria moving . . . somewhere near the top of her stomach’. There is no indication that she will attempt a change: ‘If you hate the place so much, why don’t you leave?’ her son asks.

Kane’s families exist somewhere between the middle and upper-middle class, a position which causes them no small measure of anxiety. Her characters travel, but off-season, ‘the only way they could afford to come’. They are ‘not the kind of people who ever had a summer house, or ever expected to have one’. Nevertheless, here they are, in beautiful Nags’ Head. Andrew and Lena’s aspirations are reflected in their desire for genteel simplicity, and they resolve to avoid ‘clutter’ at all costs:

They had both come from middle-class, overstuffed homes; houses straining at the seams from all that had been acquired in the pursuit of happiness. None of it, once assembled, had made anything even resembling the original dream. Curtains and carpets were never the right colour . . . It broke their mothers’ hearts and confused their tired, disappointed fathers.

Tessa’s position as the wife of a banker gives her the ‘gift of time’ and allows her to hire Katia, an immigrant housekeeper, but face to face with this arrangement, she is appalled:

She’d come home recently, exuberant from an afternoon in the city, to find her scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees. Tessa, horrified, bought a mop and a bucket, but the kitchen was small and Katia seemed to prefer her method. Tessa would run to the closet and hold out the mop, but Katia, kneeling, would focus somewhere halfway between the floor and Tessa’s eyes. ‘I think there must be no problem,’ she would say.

Her extreme discomfort results in a ludicrous attempt to bond with Katia over tea – ‘We’re really both expats,’ she says – and causes her to rationalise the mounting evidence of Katia’s misdeeds: bathroom towels smelling of cigarette smoke, empty wine bottles in the bin, her eventual stealing. Still, she cannot conceive of true poverty, imagining Katia’s existence solely in her own context: ‘What she saw, actually, was a room much like the one she’d had in college, her only reference for impoverished living. She didn’t mind helping someone in such circumstances.’ On a mission to retrieve their house key from Katia’s council flat, Nick locks Tessa in the car, for safety.

Kane wrote most of Bending Heaven when she was living in London, and her stories directly address ‘the expat experience’. She is a careful, observant writer, watching her American characters as they adapt: ‘How cultured and European they all felt, saying petrol.’ At times, however, her love of European things seems to cloud her judgment. Shelley’s nostalgia for England serves no purpose in ‘Refuge’, and seems gratuitous. Tessa, vacationing in Paris, finds herself attracted to a flirtatious crêpe vendor. He has ‘beautiful hands’, of course, and the following exchange is presented straight-faced:

He would not give Tessa the crêpe she’d ordered unless she tilted her head back, opened her mouth, and allowed him to feed her one bite, the warm chocolate perhaps dribbling down her chin. He did not speak but gestured all this, touching his throat and chest. Then he winked again and laughed.

Tessa looked at his dark hair, his green eyes. The sunlight played over his face and she felt a pull low in her stomach. Her smile eased. Was this temptation? Or something like it?

We are heading into dangerous territory here, as neither Tessa, for all her self-consciousness, nor her creator seems to find anything a bit silly about this clichéd encounter between an Anglo-Saxon woman on holiday and an earthy foreign type. Given Kane’s capacity to micro-analyse her characters’ motivations, this lapse seems inexplicable, except perhaps as a conflation of wish fulfilment on the part of author and character.

Another problem is Kane’s tendency to repeat herself. Nick and Tessa’s experience with their housekeeper turns into

a colourful escapade, an amusing story . . . They told the story in tandem and developed an appealing mixture of humour and self-mockery. Nick had a funny part when he described the wine bottles in the trash bin; each time the number grew . . . People shook their heads and smiled. How awful for you, they said.

In ‘Exposure’, the previous story, Ellen fears that her experience with the photographer will be reconstructed at

dinner out with friends, where she would begin the process of working the story into her life, choosing the dramatic and humorous details she would tell over and over again. A story that would feature her own patience, understate her own talent, and leave the listener wiping away tears of laughter at the idea of Ellen and her odd behaviour.

Here is a description of publicity-speak in ‘How to Become a Publicist’:

‘Enthusiasm is contagious,’ she beams.

Then, seriously, a whisper creeping into her voice, ‘It’s a bit like being a midwife.’ (Later I will understand that these are pitches. If one angle doesn’t work, quickly try another. Adjust tone and volume.)

And another, very similar, in ‘Exposure’:

She had a bright, happy voice unless she was trying to be persuasive or sincere. Then she toned it down and her vowels lengthened and her diction became more precise . . . The publicist Ellen had had before this one spoke the same way, leading her to believe the affectation was endemic.

How many publicists can one short-story collection stand?

At other times, Kane resorts to emotional shorthand, often combined with obvious, and perhaps ironic, bids for resonance: when Sarah’s daughter takes a sip of her mother’s spiked Pepsi, Sarah wonders whether soda ‘would be for Amelia what madeleines were for Proust, opening up whole chapters of memory, most of them painful’. And in ‘Paris’, a woman idealises the sleep of her children: ‘her daughter languid on her back, one slim arm carelessly tossed above her head; her son on his side, somehow still the sleep of a child’. Underlying the description is a romantic notion of youth as the ‘time before, when the days were brighter and different’. But these are college-age children, who certainly have their own angsts: their mother may be about to leave their father; and among the hyper-sensitive population of Bending Heaven, it’s unlikely that anyone’s sleep is untroubled.