The Review recently spoke with Lea Carpenter about her story “Candy Cane” from our Summer 2019 issue. Carpenter, author of the novels Eleven Days and Red, White, Blue, explains the connections between intimacy, empathy, and grief in two of her stories, both narrated from a male perspective. We also find her exploring the complexities of Greek myths, the #MeToo movement, and the shifting symbolism of The Great Gatsby, as well as offering a recommendation for your weekend playlist.
SR: Your story, “Candy Cane,” explores the psyche of Mark, who is reeling from the unexpected death of his wife, Virginia. There’s a moment where Mark, thinking about her passing, realizes: “He had never really seen her.” Of Mark’s estrangement, the narrator says, “Mark took his grief and carefully hid it somewhere totally inaccessible.” Mark is troubled both by his inability to grieve and his inability to see his grief performed. How do you understand or think about “being seen” in this story?
Carpenter: There is that great Robert Irwin quote, “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” which to me means that truly seeing another person is not about naming but rather about understanding them. About feeling, about empathy. Mark lives in a world of almost pathological privilege, where things constantly have to be named—the Range Rover, those Purdey shotguns, Verdura, Hamptons, Vicodin. These are all symbols of a certain life. And symbols can, for a certain kind of person, constitute identity. What I tried to catch in the story is that moment in a marriage—in a life—when your symbols cease to matter. When you are suddenly unable to see symbols because you start to feel. It is only when Mark starts to feel the loss of his wife that he can see her. Seeing was something Virginia craved but that her husband was unable to do. He did other things. He’s not a criminal. Making money doesn’t mean you have no soul. But he is lost. Because he can’t remember what the goal is, he’s lost the thread. I opened with them arguing about the meaning of Gatsby because of course they’re not arguing about literature at all. Literature is a cover. Once a marriage passes the point where two people can sit alone in a room with no things—the marriage is over. At least in my experience. How many times have you lain in bed with your lover and looked him or her in the eyes for five minutes without talking? When was the last time that happened? These are important questions if you’re interested in intimacy. Though some people aren’t, which is fine. Intimacy doesn’t put bread on the table. This is a story about the end of intimacy. Killing Virginia was the most radical metaphor I could think of for the end of this marriage. She’s literally gone. And he has to begin to try to understand why.
SR: In light of the #MeToo movement, there’s been a push to tell and to make space for women’s stories. However, “Candy Cane,” as well as your story “Look Up,” published in A Public Space, have male protagonists and give primacy to their perspectives, their struggles. In “Look Up,” the opening lines read as the beginnings of a Greek myth or fairy tale—of a man powerful and even godlike in his pursuits: “Put him up against any opponent and he would simply eviscerate her. In work, in love. Part, seas, he seemed to say, so the sea parted. Age, race, nothing defended or discriminated against his gifts.” What compels you to write about male consciousness, and in particular to imagine the inner lives of privileged male characters?
Carpenter: A few months into #MeToo I was asked to write about it for a publication I admired and would have loved to be in. Only I couldn’t think of what to say. It’s not my nature to disclose experiences I have had, though of course I have had them. Nor is it in my nature to comment on the experiences of others, particularly other women. So I declined. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What do I have to say? So then I thought maybe I do it differently. Maybe I try and say something about women’s experiences of pain, or abuse, by getting inside the minds of men. Maybe I can look at the spectrum of bad behavior by writing about some of these guys, from the playboys to (in my upcoming story) men who engage in outright, systematic abuse. And yet once I started developing these characters, I weirdly wanted them to evolve. In “Look Up,” my main character was inspired by a friend who told me he hated “pretty boys,” which made me wonder what happens to pretty boys when they hit the expiration date of pretty. I wrote of that character, “someone once said he was born on third and would slide into home on his looks, but someone else said he was born on second and would crawl to third until he hit sixty when he would go dark, boom, a solar eclipse.” Men made arrogant by looks or money alone, in my experience, have very fragile internal architecture. The truly gifted men I have known (my father, my boyfriend, hopefully my sons, if I raise them right) are humble. Humility comes from confidence. Arrogance is not confidence. So, maybe I was trying to take my “bad boys” to a place where they could experience humility. For Mark, it comes too late. He is about to kill the boar when it occurs to him that, in a way, he had a role in killing Virginia, too. Duh.
SR: Both women in “Candy Cane” and “Look Up” have either died or are on the verge of death. Meanwhile, the women who inhabit their lives, deceased or not, still leave a haunting presence. Why do you choose to make the central female characters so tragic?
Carpenter: I am not sure it was a choice. It might have been needing to leave the men alone so that they could have that moment of reckoning. In “Look Up,” the guy who can’t commit finally falls madly in love. And he has such apocalyptic arrogance (he thinks he’s “Curry at the three-point line”), he can’t imagine he can’t get the girl. Men who excel in one thing often place themselves in league with men who excel, period. But they’re not. Just because you IPO’d your tech company does not mean you’re Roger Federer. There is no league of exceptional men. There is only the league of exceptional character. When the universe says no to a man who has only ever heard yes, it can kill him. When you’ve been deploying and weaponizing the word “no” your entire life, you’re rarely prepared, ironically, to receive it—you risk only truly understanding what you want the minute it’s gone. It’s cliché, actually. Listen to Joss Stone’s “Wicked,” her remix of Bacharach’s “What’s It All About, Alfie,” with Mick Jagger and Nadirah. Just listen to that. That’s basically what I was trying to say.