Private Habits and Private Selves in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Short Stories

Sittenfeld explores class, gender, privilege, and Midwestern angst in her first short story collection, which will be adapted to an Apple TV show.

You Think It, I'll Say It
Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
Apr 2018

The two stories book-ending Curtis Sittenfeld’s new short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, feature Trump as a point of contention between the respective couples. In the first, ‘Gender Studies’, a professor, Nell, has recently separated from her cheating husband and has a sexual encounter with her Trump-supporting airport shuttle driver despite her elitist antagonism toward him. Things do not go well and later, as the election cycle plays out with primaries and debates, she keeps remembering the earnest young man along with thoughts of what she could have done differently.

In the last, ‘Do-Over’, a 40-something divorced man, Clay, goes to dinner with a visiting high school friend. When their conversation veers to Trump and the growing awareness about everyday sexism, Clay confesses that the election has made him see things in his past life differently, including the school election he won against her.

In both of the above, the past — recent for one, and distant for the other — is far from pleasant. The weight and shape of the memories revealed by the protagonists also depend on their conflicted and evolving self-identities in the present, where significant internal and external upheavals are occurring.

The same could be said for the other *eight stories here: the past does not so much haunt them as they haunt the past, recollecting select details and re-experiencing negative emotions. Each main character has his or her reasons for being unable to let go of their private past purgatory even when, as in the case of a doctor, Dana, in ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’, the present is a happily married existence. Sometimes, the reason is unfinished business as with a married mother, Julie, lusting for her husband’s coworker in ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and a successful lawyer, Maggie, running into a high school connection while both are on their honeymoons in ‘A Regular Couple’.

Sometimes, it’s an ongoing bewilderment or lack of comprehension as in ‘Off the Record’ with the single mother and journalist, Nina, interviewing a celebrity who had acted like her buddy years ago. There’s even jealousy as happens for new struggling mother, Rachel, when she encounters the perfect, ideal version of motherhood in ‘Bad Latch’. Mostly, though, it’s a kind of vengeful bitterness as in ‘The Prairie Wife’ with Kirsten who, though settled in family life, stalks her first lesbian lover on social media because the woman is a celebrity hiding behind a more socially-acceptable hetero-marriage. As for Frances in ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’, only 23 and without much of a past yet, it is resentment toward a new, older volunteer who switches things up in her well-ordered world.

More than half of the women-driven stories are also about female friendships and their many textures and contours at different life stages. At the other extreme, what the two male protagonists have in common are their emotional distance from the people in their lives and their lack of true self-awareness about, well, their own assholery. Clay, as mentioned above, has come to some sort of epiphany about his own past sexism but, as the dinner and the evening unfolds, we see that not much has really changed with him after all. In ‘Plausible Deniability’, William is a successful 40-something lawyer who, despite three women in his life, is unable to get close to anyone due to what he describes as commitment issues resulting from the early divorce of his parents. Still, his yearning for a kind of closeness is apparent when he talks of his growing attachment to one via an email-driven relationship as “…I’d embraced the existence of another consciousness with whom to exchange observations and experiences.”

If the above sounds tragically dismal, it’s actually not ― Sittenfeld’s stylistic prose is always wryly satirical in its observations of the many facets of human nature. Overall, her fiction has specialized in a particular milieu: the educated, urban, middle-class, Midwestern white woman. Previous novels have varied from the coming-of-age of a Midwestern girl at a posh Massachusetts prep school (and two of the stories in this collection also feature boarding schools) to a fictionalized version of the life of former first lady, Laura Bush, reset in the Midwest. There has also been a contemporary retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, again set in the Midwest and dealing with Sittenfeld’s pet themes of class, gender, and privilege. This first short story collection focuses on just such women whose whirling inner lives are in sharp contrast with their surface Midwestern ordinariness. Even the men here are professionally successful and reasonably respectable by general standards but trying to cope with dark, turbulent weather inside. More on Midwestern literature later.

One other constant in Sittenfeld’s writing is the depiction of sex. She does not shy away from describing the physical act in detail and is careful about how it fits into the overall story. In a 2017 interview with The New Yorker, she talked about it as follows:

At times, I myself have wondered why I include sex in fiction and whether it’s just a hassle and not worth it. In 2012, I read these lines in an article in the New York Review of Books, by Elaine Blair, about Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and they helped me understand something about my own work: “If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.”

The strongest stories here are the two that were published in The New Yorker: ‘Gender Studies’ in 2016 and ‘The Prairie Wife’ in 2017. The women in these stories are not necessarily likable but they are honest about their inabilities to let the past remain in the past. The title of the collection comes from the second story, ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, where the protagonist Julie plays a game of that name with Graham, her husband’s coworker, when they meet at some children’s parties. The stories that don’t work as well as the rest are the two with the male protagonists. While Sittenfeld captures their voices well enough, the characters come across, at times, as stereotypes or caricatures. That said, one of these, ‘Do-Over’, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award — in part, no doubt, because of the Trump and sexism angle.

Some reviews of this book have lauded Sittenfeld’s spotlight on middle-aged, married mothers in fiction. This is definitely much-needed in contemporary literature where the middle-aged woman is still not being explored as a fully-realized and complicated individual with her own needs and desires. As Julie describes in ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ of her meetings with the man she thinks she loves, “It had been a happiness wholly unattached to her children; it had been a grownup happiness.” Sittenfeld does well to hold up an unflinching mirror that reflects to all of us how such women can remain so imprisoned in their past as to avoid taking any radical or unconventional actions in their present. Might it have been more relevant, given the past couple of years, to open a window instead and show us all how things could be different? It’s an old-school idea, perhaps, to use literature as a way to present “how to be in the world” but not entirely out of place, given our socio-political concerns today. And, surely, the best fiction ought to give us not only new awareness but also new possibilities?

Closing with some thoughts about the Midwestern literary tradition mentioned earlier: it doesn’t have as established, popular, or cohesive a canon as, say, the Southern Gothic or the Western. Yet, as journalist and writer Anna Clark has pointed out in the Chicago Tribune, it does thrive in plain sight in varying forms. And it will continue to grow and evolve because, culturally, economically, and politically, this large part of the country has undergone some of the biggest changes in the last three decades and especially in the last three years as the last presidential elections have shown.

For me, having lived in the Midwest (Western Michigan; Northern Ohio) for ten years, Sittenfeld’s characters are highly recognizable people. They were my neighbors, classmates, coworkers, working women standing in the grocery checkout line and keeping a watchful eye on their children, and carefully-suited men walking along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. That middle-class Midwestern politeness and niceness is no myth. And, for the most part, these folks are not ardent Trump supporters. Generally speaking, as we know now from the voting results of middle-class voters in key Midwestern states, the majority are not true liberals, either, who would have supported Hillary or even Bernie out of sheer choice. Job losses, growing immigrant communities, and the post-election resistance movements have left a lot of them confused about the country and their own lives. I was hoping some of these stories would have reflected more of that — though I understand that at least a couple were probably written before the seismic shifts of 2016.

There’s going to be an Apple TV show based on this collection, produced by Reese Witherspoon and starring Kristen Wiig. This middle-class, middle-aged angst of the average American woman may well reflect a certain reality of the endless focus on “our private habits, our private selves — how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.” The question is whether that is the reality we need to dwell on right now or a more powerful one of communal unity.

*NOTE: This review is based on an advance review copy featuring ten stories. The released book version has an additional fictionalized story about Hillary Clinton but it’s not mentioned here.

RATING 6 / 10