What's the Story? Reading Two Early Stories by Carol Emshwiller

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Every piece of literature is, in the literal sense of the word, dated. The historical context of its composition, the history of its appearance in print, as well as its critical reception all create competing frames of reference for its reading. In the case of canonical works like Shakespeare's, the sharp methodological debates they occasion often come down to an argument about whether great literature is universal and thus susceptible to a single, absolute meaning that should be immediately obvious to all human beings, or whether, on the contrary, human culture and therefore experience and understanding are so diverse and mutable as to require readers to pay close attention to the context constructing their own particular frames of reference.

When applied to a specific piece of literature, the word dated, however, is often used perjoratively. "Popular" fiction-- particularly science fiction-- is notoriously subject to the charge. Not only can slang, which carries such vitality and immediacy when it is fresh, change with remarkable swiftness, but, more critically, notions of what lies in the very near future do, too. In 1984 people all over the world made comparisons between Orwell's depiction of the world in his novel 1984 and their own perceptions of the actual world of 1984. A great many of science fiction's near-future scenarios, particularly those written in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, are set in years just past or coming into being. The world they describe often bears little resemblance to our world. In this sense, then, they are indeed "dated" and demand of their readers a different sort of suspension of disbelief than the usual, viz., our treating them as a sort of alternate reality rather than a supposed future reality.

When I saw Carol Emshwiller's Joy in Our Cause in the dealer's room at WisCon 25, I took no notice of its 1974 publication date. My tastes in reading might shift over the years, and certainly writers' styles do as well, but already familiar with early Emshwiller, I did not doubt that I would be in every way delighted with the collection. And indeed when I at last sat down to read it, my pleasure exceeded expectations. Interestingly, however, I found my enjoyment mediated by my awareness of the stories' (and the collection's) historical context. The historical context in this case included my personal as well as intellectual history. In story after story I picked up cultural resonances that I had not realized were still accessible to me. Repeatedly I wished I had known of Carol Emshwiller's existence in the late '60s and early '70s when, struggling to compose music while being told that women could only be mediocre and derivative creators, I was starved for the experimental work of other women.

Most surprising was my realization that I had undergone a significant shift in the way in which I constructed gender in the 1970s from the way in which I do now. Although I have changed greatly as an individual, it is more to the point that the gendering of narrative conventions that govern how we read has changed, also. The difference in our ideas, for instance, of what is plausible behavior or affect in female characters in some cases renders us unable to read the same story we read in years past. It is this particular difference in context that I would like to consider in reading "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison."

The plot of "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" is straightforward-- if deceptively so. Its narrator, a never-married woman old enough, she says, for her upstairs neighbor, Mr. Morrison, to have been her youngest son, watches him leave the house as he always does at 8:30 every morning. "The question is (and perhaps it is the question for today): Who is he really, one of the Normals or one of the Others?"(98) The narrator scouts out his room for likely places to conceal herself. She checks the closet and under the bed and the knee hole of the desk. She squats under the night table. She notes that "Mr. Morrison is big enough to be everybody's father. His room reassures with all his father-sized things in it. I feel lazy and young here."(99)

When Mr. Morrison returns, the narrator thrills at the close, intimate look she gets of him. She is hidden under his desk when he sits there to read the newspaper; she fairly swoons over his knees. "What a wide roundness they have to them, those knees. Mother's breasts pressing toward me. Probably as soft."(101) She eats cheese in "little rabbit bites"(101) and worries that he might undress like her "mother did, under a nightgown."(101) Seeing him in his underwear, she loses herself, "hypnotized." "My breath purrs in my throat in hymns as slow as Mr. Morrison himself would sing. Can this be love? My first real love?"(102-103) "I must love him as a mouse might love the hand that cleans the cage, and as uncomprehendingly, too, for surely I see only a part of him here."(103)

Inevitably, Mr. Morrison discovers the narrator's presence. "His eyes are not even wistful and not yet surprised. But his belly button... here is the eye of God at last.... The stomach eye recognizes me and looks at me as I've always wished to be looked at."(103-104) And yet his eyes proper are "girlish."(104) At last, though, she gets a look at the stated object of her voyeurism:

The skin hangs in loose, plastic folds just there, and there is a little copper-colored circle like a quarter made out of pennies. There's a hole in the center and it is corroded green at the edges. This must be a kind of "naked suit" and whatever the sex organs may be, they are hidden behind this hot, pocked and pitted imitation skin. (104)

The narrator flees to her room and hides under the bed-- waiting for him. She imagines telling him "that we accept. Tell them it's the naked suits that are ugly. Tell them the truth is beautiful."(104) "Isn't," she says, "the truth always more lovable?" (105) But Mr. Morrison never comes, and the narrator's final sentence is plaintive: "Why doesn't he come?"(105)

"Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" first appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). The story’s dangerous vision would seem to be Mr. Morrison's genitals-- or his "naked suit." The narrator tells us that "the question" arose when she attended a performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, in which the dancers wore "naked suits" concealing their genitals, "like a sort of Emperor's New Clothes in reverse" (100). It occurs to her that perhaps there are more than two sexes. And "that there must be Others among us."(100) The story comments on the strangeness of modern habits requiring the concealment of sexual organs, thus rendering them exotic, unnatural, and ultimately unknowable. How can we know whether there really are only two sexes (this question is, of course dated, since intersexes are no longer always mutilated at birth to conform to genital norms) when we see with our own eyes the genitals of relatively few people?

What in 2001 strikes me as exceptionally daring and curious about this story is not, however, the question it raises anent an epistemology of genital norms, but its presenting us with a narrator that psychoanalysis had always told us is impossible. Did anyone in 1967 find a female paranoiac engaged in sexual peeping credible?[1] How did most people read the story so as to make the narrator psychologically plausible? What the narrator sees when she peeps on her upstairs neighbor's genitals-- and the reader can never be certain whether what the narrator describes seeing bears any relation to reality--is ultimately less disturbing, radical, or amusing than the narrator's presentation of her own character. If the narrator's gender had been left ambiguous, we would likely have assumed the narrator to have been male, since for most human societies peeping and voyeurism are activities coded as distinctly masculine. If we had so assumed, the narrator's determination to view his elephantine neighbor's genitalia would have fit all too tidily with Freudian theories of paranoia (and thus have implied his homosexuality--making it a story about the narrator's deviance).

Emshwiller, though, gives us a middle-aged woman with a history of watching everything going on around her and speculating about it. (Does anyone besides me think that she sounds like a writer? Or like an aging Harriet the Spy?) The sight of dancers wearing "naked suits" disturbs her-- as the sexual violence of that particular ballet apparently does not. She can't stop thinking about "the question." Before checking out Mr. Morrison, she has "spent all night huddled under a bush in Central Park and twice.... crawled out on the fire escape and climbed to the roof and back again" but hadn't "seen much" and couldn't "be sure of the Others yet" (98).

Gender obviously looms large in this story. If the narrator were male, would any reader be inclined to take seriously the stated object of the narrator's reason for peeping? And would it matter whether Mr. Morrison were Ms. Morrison (for either a male or a female narrator)? After all, the narrator revels in the "nest" of Mr. Morrison's dirty shirts and socks. The sight of his underpants inspires extravagant flights of fantasy. His very largeness entrances her. Perhaps most telling, she confesses to having the habit of "keeping track" of him as he moves about his room, which is just above hers, of "aping" his movements and imagining him, imagining his legs sliding into his pants, his legs with "their godlike width," "those Thor legs into pants holes wide as caves."(97) The reader presumes she has been doing this "aping" and "imagining" for a long time-- well before the sight of "naked suits" ignited her concern about genitals. Just what is this woman up to? Does she even know herself?

When I first read this story many years back, I was incapable of recognizing the narrator's aggression. Her description of herself as a mouse, creeping about spying on her keeper, resonated powerfully with traditionally gendered conventions. I found the story unbearably suspenseful because I knew and feared that this woman would be caught by Mr. Morrison in his room and be liable to humiliation if not violence-- even though the narrator remarks on the gentleness of Mr. Morrison's hands as he closes the front door in the morning. Until recently, fictional women characters were, de facto, objects--and often victims-- in most situations sexual. When at the end of the story the narrator expresses surprise and disappointment at Mr. Morrison's failing to pursue her, my imagination connected with the Gothic-romance scenario of the heroine unconsciously wishing to be pursued, captured, and subdued. Above all, I believed the narrator's object had been to suss out an alien, someone who was only pretending to be human. Only an alien, I thought, would be wearing a "naked suit" under his underwear or have genitals as peculiar as those the narrator describes seeing. That, for me, entailed the shock of the ending.

I read "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" entirely differently now. I feel no trepidation lest the narrator be discovered; I feel no particular fear of Mr. Morrison simply because he is a man and a very large one at that. He seems almost pathetic now, and I imagine his bewilderment, embarrassment, even sense of betrayal at finding the narrator examining his genitals (whatever they might be, poor fellow) and Lucy Ricardo-like covering her head with a magazine as though that will help mitigate the outrageousness of her intrusion. Where, I now wonder, did I get the idea that Mr. Morrison was an alien? Why did I find myself so shocked by what the narrator saw (or, more properly speaking, didn't see)?

The reader's impulse will always be to make a story work. When I first read the story a couple of decades ago, I did not see the narrator as a stalker closing in on her prey. Her obsession with others' genitals was, simply, a suspicion that the world was not as it seemed, that Others-- aliens-- walked among us, only pretending to be human. Her behavior-- nibbling Fig Newtons and cheese while spending the day in her victim's room, pawing his possessions-- was merely eccentric and reinforced the mouselikeness of her behavior; it did not occur to me that the author might be offering us Fig Newtons as a domestication-- or even a sly infantilization-- of that most erotic of fruits. The narrator’s willingness to put herself at risk I thought brave, calling to mind romantic thrillers where the heroine goes to work for the villain as a governess, risking life (and virginity) to get the goods on him. In other words, I meshed two tropes to construct a story I could understand emotionally: the sf convention in which the protagonist discovers a conspiracy of aliens pretending to be human and the romantic-thriller convention of a heroine who ventures into the lion's den to expose the evil machinations of the bad guys.

A bevy of Anita Blakes, Amelia Peabodys, and other sexually assertive female narrators who openly relish ogling the men they find attractive, dwelling lovingly on abs and pecs and tight, shapely buttocks, populate the popular fiction of our day. No one is shocked when in her edgy "This Is Love" PJ Harvey sings "I wanna chase you round the table" "wanna watch you undress". We have no difficulty imagining a sexually voyeuristic female or female sexual aggression. The ending of "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" seems now to argue the hollowness of prioritizing sexual safety over sexual pleasure and serves up the narrator's frustration as an acrid, what-else-could-you-expect lesson in how not to pursue either genital truth or a sexual partner (depending on which of these one takes as the narrator's object). If sexual pursuit is her object-- which in 1967 would have been either scandalous or ridiculous-- we in 2001 know that a passive-aggressive approach is, if not cowardly, certainly apt to fail. If scientific research is her aim, hiding under bushes in Central Park and in piles of dirty laundry in a rooming house no longer seems a credible methodology; nor does her assumption that what she sees when Mr. Morrison has stripped cannot possibly be the truth seem a reasonable judgment.

Emshwiller's signature ambiguity still leaves a great deal to the reader, but the story I read twenty-odd years past is probably gone forever. That, I think, is a tribute to the power of gender and the narrative conventions that tell us how to read-- and to how greatly our constructions of gender have changed since Emshwiller wrote the story.

Although gender matters in "Peninsula," the gendered narrative conventions governing how we read it have not altered as greatly (if at all) as those that govern how we read "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison." Paradoxically, though, while "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" does not really feel dated, "Peninsula," to my aesthetic sensibilities, is a story very much of its day, and its reading is full of moments of cultural resonance that I had all but forgotten.

There is an odd significance beginning to make itself felt and I must stay open to it. I must understand it when it has finished unfolding itself to me. I see that now, and that I must put together each incident to form a whole. I must not look at things separately. (121)

The narrator of Emshwiller's "Peninsula" is apparently talking to herself, but these words might also be an admonition as to what reading this story-- and perhaps all of the author's fiction--necessarily entails. The significance that is "unfolding itself" to the narrator, although heavily dependent on the connections she needs to "form a whole" and however strongly it insists that no one incident be taken in isolation from that whole, is not of the cosmic, Pynchonesque variety endemic to literature contemporaneous with "Peninsula." This "odd significance," while arguably more mysterious if intro-cosmic than the significance one seeks in Pynchon, is strikingly domestic (though certainly not domesticated). "Peninsula" teases us with a mystery that the narrator finally chooses to avoid elucidating. At narrative's end she tells us she "is beginning to see the pattern" and that she is "a part of it."(127) She leaves it to the reader to perceive what she has begun to see. She has learned that "it is more interesting to try to understand this slowly revealed pattern" than to think about the hand lying on the Persian rug in her living room and "whatever obligations I may have toward it."(127)

The narrator privileges one pattern, in other words, over another which would explain the significance of the hand lying on the rug and the reason that her father, mother, brother, daughters, and maid deserted her. She gives us fragments with which to assemble a story of how she came to be alone, but while she tells us that we "must not look at things separately," the whole to be formed from these fragments is not what a reader could call "plot" precisely because the pattern of connections the narrator is beginning to see, rather than the pattern of connections that readers can use to construct a plot, is "more interesting to.... understand".

Although the narrator withholds data points and connections that would allow us to solve the mystery of the hand on the rug-- that would, in fact, enable us not to take it in isolation from the pattern in which it could be seen as part of the whole, she lavishly provides the materials for discerning other patterns. The very first thing she tells us is her preference for one kind of connection over another:

Do you realize we are all connected by telephone wires? I do not mean that our voices go through the wires to each other, though, of course, that is true, but that we are physically connected by the wires we talk through. We are actually physically wired to every house with a telephone as though there were a roadway set out for wingless birds. Except for the underground wires in some cities, a bird could walk from a house in New York to one in California, so, when we speak to someone, no matter how far away, we are wired, literally, ear to ear. We are connected, we are touching through wires, across whatever difference.(117)

The narrator muses at length on the comfort her awareness of this "connection" grants her; she returns to this (now dated) image repeatedly throughout the narrative. This "connection" she celebrates is the material concretization of what is ultimately only an impersonal abstraction. She loves that the connection of wires provides a line for birds to walk and sit on and acrobats-- girls holding pink parasols, boys white poles-- to dance on; they are for escape, travel, and art, not a direct means of communication. This distinction is underscored when she admits that she would like to "get away from the telephones altogether."(118) "Actual telephone conversations can sometimes be quite distressing," she says.(118) When she describes the obscene calls she receives, we must acknowledge that the direct, person-to-person (albeit disembodied) connection of an isolated woman contacted by someone from the world outside can take the form of an intrusion into her most personal, private space. The technology of wires enabling "physical" connection, on the contrary, demands nothing of her personally but is simply there, confirming her connection to the rest of the world and underscoring her assertion that the house she lives in is on a peninsula, not an island (as her husband had always insisted): and by implication that she-- as the Jefferson Airplane joked in response to John Donne's line of verse around the time of this story's publication-- is (metaphorically speaking) a peninsula, not an island. Ultimately, the technology of wires provides her with an escape route off what may in some mysterious, figurative sense be an island after all.

The narrator poses a list of questions she claims not to know the answers to. Where has her family gone? How had she failed them? Did she marry too young? Did they have an accident that "wiped them all out silently and quickly," or did someone come at midnight and murder them? Or did they, perhaps, murder her? This last question she particularly likes.

Yes, they have left me half dead here, all of them driving away over the gravel that sounded like ice as they left. They have murdered me with their backs turned, taking away even the little black dog that was mine, taking away the setter that was his, and the hound, and the two myna birds, and every small bit of life except these wild birds that sit so blackly upon the wires and that have never belonged to anyone. (118-119)

The narrator has clear and vivid memories of the many places she made love with her husband. And yet she asks

How old was that brother of mine, I wonder, twelve or sixteen?.... Sometimes it seemed I saw him in a mirror and he was my other, my male, self, my face atop his bony body, the real me, and never had I been so lovable as in him as he walked barefoot in the woods or came inside the house bringing the smell of the woods with him. (122)

The reader wishing to construct a plotted story might consider any number of conventions: the Gothic heroine abandoned in a large house on an island (or peninsula) after some mysterious calamity that oddly spared her; the insane woman with a persecution complex; the ghost of a murdered woman haunting an isolated deserted mansion. But the tone of the narration cannot support them and what the narrator tells us of her current existence and actions contradicts the scripts of all the conventions we can call to mind. A ghost, for instance, does not put the dead mouse she finds on the kitchen floor into the garbage and then take a "cold chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg from the refrigerator for [her] breakfast."(123) And later she tells us outright that "they" haven't murdered her and she hasn't cut them up and hid them in the cellar; and for some reason we cannot believe she is lying (except, perhaps, by omission).

And yet we must ask, is the narrator lying and, if so, to whom? Who exactly is the narrator's addressee? Sometimes the addressee seems to be herself. And yet her first sentence begins "Do you realize"(117) and her tone is one of constantly explaining and exhorting and expounding. Perhaps most significant, the narrator's list of questions not only serves to pique the reader's desire to learn the backstory rather than providing the means for piecing it together, but also insidiously brings the reader to identify with the narrator-- making us suspect the narrator of being disingenuous. She presents herself as a quaintly old-fashioned girl, one who may have married a very rich man "too young," who "brought my family with me when I married.... I was daughter, sister, wife and mother all in one and even to this very ornamental house I was an additional ornament."(120) She describes herself "languish[ing] by the garden doors in green brocade"(120), "waiting up and down the hallway in a little feathered hat"(120). She has "dancing shoes" and recalls that she "used to dance balanced on [her] toes"(119). What could such a traditional, conjugally and familially cherished woman have possibly had to do with the hand on her rug? By offering competing explanations she seems to be saying that she, like the reader, doesn't know anything, either. She and we share the same quest for answers.

As for the "friendly, perhaps beloved hand" on the rug-- "It was like a person whom one cannot remember the name of or exactly where one is used to seeing them, a person met completely out of the usual context."(126) All that she will confidently assert about the hand is that "it was certainly not his"(126) and that "the hand belongs distinctly with the mouse. I must not let myself think of it alone."(127) The hand "tells a wordless story, answers all questions if one wished to consider it, to face it."(127) But she "will not face that hand" because "I'm sure it tells too much."(126-127)

The narrator suggests that there are two possible patterns to be discerned. One of them is the "pattern of whiteness and twoness, of strange phone calls, lights upon police cars and white, hard-boiled eggs."(127) The other pattern holds the dead little mouse and the hand on the rug. I'd like to propose a third pattern, one the narrator does not seem to notice. By calling the story "Peninsula," the author draws attention to the narrator's statement that "If there ever was a difference between us, that was certainly the only one, whether this was an island or not, for he could seem as young as I was."(121) According to the narrator's description of herself and her husband, they held sharply (and traditionally) gendered roles. Cars come and go freely from the mainland to their home; the narrator knows that she can leave the peninsula by the road-- or even by a line of stepping stones crossing the "little river."(121) The second element of my proposed pattern is the image of the telephone wires connecting every house in the country, the image with which the author begins (and ends) the story. The third element is her brother's resemblance to her, he being her other, "male" self: "Never had I been so lovable as in him as he walked barefoot in the woods"(122). The fourth element is the enigmatic smile her husband once observed on her face after they made love in a grassy hollow and which she herself cannot "fathom" whenever she happens to look in a mirror or into a nocturnally reflective window:

such an isolated me, a me who wears a strange smile.... Did he know? Had he guessed something then, and if he were here now could he tell me what he really thought of that smile so that I, too, might get some idea of what it was about? Yet it does seem to me that I used to know what was in my head at those times.(124- 125)

The last element in my pattern is the item held by the narrator when in the last sentence of the story she ventures out onto the telephone wire. The narrator genders the item when she fantasizes the boy and girl acrobats earlier in the story, such that the girls hold pink parasols, the boys white poles. The narrator puts on her dancing shoes and carries a white pole (actually a white piece of moulding). Before venturing out, she imagines walking out on the wire, "miraculously stepping over the crucifixion, Christ hanging there below [her], each upper wire at the ends of the crosspiece coming from a palm of his hand and the lower wire piercing his side."(127) Her Christ "looks like one of those acrobat boys that walk the wires at night."(128) "I feel young," she says. "I am young and I am beautiful."(128)

Stories aren't always like jigsaw puzzles containing a full complement of pieces or like an algebra problem requiring that one solve for X. But when I put together all the pieces I've selected for making a pattern, the story I find myself constructing is one the narrator has not suggested. In this story the hand is a red herring, perhaps an image hallucinated or dreamt by the narrator, or a magic-realist symbol. The narrator's husband and parents are dead. Her brother has long since moved away. Her daughters are grown up. One day she wakes up and finds herself all alone on the fist-shaped peninsula and immerses herself in memories of time long past. Perhaps she does run through the woods for the sheer joy of movement, or perhaps she only fantasizes doing so. She receives two obscene phone calls and finds a small brown mouse dead in her kitchen. Does her sense of her brother as her "male self"-- her "real self"--have anything to do with her choosing a white pole over a pink parasol or with the strangeness of her smile? Shortly before she ventures onto the wire, she hears the phone ringing somewhere below. Deliberately she chooses the abstract network of wires over connection to another human being (who may well be her obscene phone caller). Does she fantasize stepping over the crucifixion because she is preparing herself for death? (Significantly, she imagines the wires piercing Christ's side and passing through the palms of his hands.) Or do the telephone wires represent an abstraction like art, which she chooses over whatever the obscene phone calls and the hand represent? And is that why she chooses the white pole and imagines herself androgynously merged with her brother?

Likely no amount of puzzling over these pieces will give me clear answers. My story may well be wrong, since it requires my excluding the hand as an extraneous detail. It's possible that a few weeks from now I'll come up with an entirely different interpretation. And yet I haven't felt a moment of frustration in all the times I've read "Peninsula" or lain daydreaming about it in the bathtub. The story's fluidity of style allows its ten pages to run so quickly through one's reading self's fingers, like the slipperiest of silk, that the story can be read again and again and again without exhaustion, one of those rare pleasures that neither satisfies nor palls.

One's pleasure in a story need not depend upon narrative certainty. What matters is the reader's intuition of a powerful underlying logic binding the story's images and data points. "Peninsula" accomplishes the nearly impossible: delivering a mystery that will always remain deliciously intriguing without ineptly or spitefully thwarting the reader. Fingering the story's fabric, handling its images and details, and assembling them into a meaningful whole is what reading fiction is all about. _________________________________________________________
[1] Attributing such a masculine psychosis as paranoia to women was unthinkable until 1981, when Naomi Schorr first attempted to argue that women (in fiction), too, might be paranoiacs. See Schorr's "Female Paranoia: The Case for Psychoanalytic Feminist Criticism," Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 204-19.

Seattle
September, 2001
©2001 L.Timmel Duchamp

This essay first appeared in the Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, No. 9.
Publication Date: 
2001