• Marginalia: Christine Schutt

    Sonia Feigelson


    For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Sonia Feigelson—whose story “Maroon” appears in our Winter 2024 issue—examines a passage from Nightwork by Christine Schutt.

    Whenever I teach fiction, I open by talking about openings. I borrowed this trick from the writer Noy Holland, whose talent for taxonomizing beginnings reignited my passion for writing at a time when fiction still felt to me like someone else’s job.

    The opening two paragraphs of “You Drive,” the spine-shivering first story in Christine Schutt’s collection Nightwork, follows:

    She brought him what she had promised, and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, “I like your skin,” when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottled white of his arms and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms. Long hair along his arms it was, hair bleached from sun and water—sun off the lake, and all that time he spent in water, summer to summer abrading the wild dry hair on his head, turning the ends of his hair, which was also red, and deeply so, quite white. “You look healthy,” she said to her father, and he did, in high color, but the skin on his face also seemed coarse to her—not boy’s skin, her father’s, not glossy, close-grained skin, but pitted and stubbled under all that color, rashed along his jaw and neck, her father’s skin: rough. She touched him, and it was rough skin, his cheek. “Just testing,” she said, and smiled at her father. “Shaving,” she said. “I used to watch Mother’s guys at it.”

    Her father said, “My youngest daughter still”; then he took hold of her hand and kissed it. He was quiet. Holding her hand against his leg and looking out at a roof where a fat woman waited for her dog, her father was quiet. “What a dirty place this is,” he said. “That poor dog is ashamed of himself.”

    “You Drive” is as much a salute to perversity as it is an unflinching characterization of intergenerational dysfunction. Its protagonist, an adult daughter, engages in periodic trysts with her father, during which they discuss the emergence of her sexuality and the other male and female lovers who have surfaced across her and her parents’ lives. It is the kind of story built to make the reader uncomfortable, a product of Schutt’s pleasure in forcing her readers to examine cultural taboos. To the reader familiar with Schutt, this should come as no surprise. Her work is often concerned with the taboo; this collection includes stories about a romantic relationship with a vast age gap, one in which sons practice kissing with their mothers, and one about having sex in the same room as a dead body. Nightwork is not, in other words, for people whose experience of sexual trauma has understandably made them reticent to revisit the topic in literature.

    First sentences, according to Stanley Fish, have “an angle of lean; they lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” In the very first clause, Schutt seeds not one but two mysteries: what the unnamed protagonist has brought this man (drugs), and the identity of the man to whom she has brought it (soon to be revealed). Not stopping to answer these questions, the subsequent clause proceeds directly to action. “They did it,” the narrator explains, not in a bed but in a car on the top floor of a car park, implying that the world into which the reader has followed Schutt is one where sacred acts are routinely defiled, where the ceremonial is treated unceremoniously. The view here isn’t pretty, but Schutt paints it with adept detail and soundwork; notice the slant rhyme of “black flats,” the way the k in black, the t in flat, and in roofs carry us from plosive to fricative, the back of the mouth to the front. These are guttural noises, expletive noises, made for sad landscapes both out the rearview mirror and in the protagonist’s bleak psyche.

    Schutt moves fearlessly forward in dialogue that is nearly simultaneous with interiority; she “says, or she thinks she says.” In other words, we don’t know what is real here, only what the protagonist thinks is real, that which comprises her experience of reality. She says she likes this mystery man’s skin, but not really, because in the same moment that Schutt announces one truth, she undermines it. The protagonist is not thinking of the man she is talking to, whose body she is even now caressing, but of her father, of the skin that to her is most closely associated with the act of creation. Here, Schutt smartly moves the narrative lens to the specific, to bodily detail, showing us how closely we should be prepared to look in this story, which will be unsparing in its observance of the father and of the twisted relationship he shares with his child.

    In the construction of the next sentence, we hear the rhapsodic cadence of the daughter’s memory—the repetition of “hair” keeps the camera discomfortingly stuck on her father’s body—and in the intensity of that focus she lets time fly by; whole summers pass while we are looking at his hair, seeing its tips change color. When we emerge, we are back in the opening scene, one in which the protagonist is speaking directly to a man we now understand is her aged father, assuring him that, despite her internal differentiation between his current flesh and the flesh of her memory, he hasn’t lost his health. At this point the repetition shifts, and we are back to skin—not young skin, but old skin, skin whose decrepitude is described with unpleasing reverence. In just two sentences, Schutt uses the word “skin” four times.

    In the first verbal interaction we have seen between father and daughter, daughter addresses father with the playfulness of a child; she is “just testing.” This physical intimacy doesn’t count, she seems to say, it is a form of play, and in this way the taboo is sanctioned between them. But, maybe restless in the falsification of what has passed between them, the daughter reminds her father of something else unpleasant—she has witnessed her mother with other men, usurpers of her father’s erstwhile kingdom. He needs a shave; her mother’s men don’t. The father replies with tenderness, but that tenderness has a sharp edge; through the reminder that she is his “youngest daughter still,” he reclaims his role as an authority figure. Daddy is daddy, baby is baby. No amount of witnessing Mom’s other lovers in compromising and private situations will change the fact of their relation, the absolute power he holds over her.

    Now for the first time in the passage comes a simple three-word sentence: “He was quiet.” All this time, we have been whirling in Schutt’s run-ons and complex subject-object inversions, but once the father has made his declaration, there comes a silence. Not only once, but twice. In the three-word version, we get the immediacy of the protagonist internalizing her father’s abrupt silence, and in the longer sentence that follows, the discomfort of that silence continues, which she registers as a reoccurrence, all the while waiting for him to take his eyes off happenings in the street.

    Schutt is smart to allow the reader to catch their breath. We take in what we have read so far, and so too do the characters take in the maladaptation of their love for one another. When the father speaks at the end of this silence, it is about a shitting dog, but in fact his words apply to the predicament in which daughter, father, and reader find themselves. Having indulged in nightmarish proceedings and voided the excrement from our bodies, we are all of us revolted and ashamed.

    Sonia Feigelson is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, and Passages North, among others. She is a Senior Editor at Joyland and teaches at Gotham Writers.

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