Using an image to convey what a character is feeling.
Most of the stories in Hilma Wolitzer's newly published collection were written in the nineteen seventies, but the humor and wit that electrifies each one feels timeless, and relative to our present, necessary and important. They are about the many ways the extraordinary inhabits what appear to be ordinary lives. Her brilliance, as a writer, is the deft and easy braiding of the internal with the external so that a reader's knowledge of a point of view character quickly becomes intimate. Not only do we know what the character thinks and says, we also know, especially in "Bodies," my favorite story in the collection, what she sees. All of these stories are written in a close third person perspective, but "Bodies" is the darkest and the richest in visuals.
Images become the language of the story. They express Sharon's unspoken feelings in a way that never feels labored or attenuated because revelations, when they occur, are pictures. They are shape and color and reveal the author's signature irreverence. Though "Bodies" plumbs a well of darkness, Wolitzer's narrative pace is still light and quick footed, so that in this 25 page story, we know not only what the problem is by page 3, but also that it's one that will challenge the basic trust that Sharon, the point of view character, has in Michael, a man she has been married to for many years. You're thinking that he had an affair. Not at all, and that is the other reason I love this story.
What Michael did elicits an entirely different kind of shame, panic, and anger in Sharon. We are told that as a child, he suffered severe privation in the care of an ailing, sadistic father because his mother, who worked as a traveling nurse, was often absent from the home. But as an adult, he seems to have emerged from that early abuse unscathed. He works as a social worker and is a good and dependable husband. When his mother dies, he flies to Ohio to take care of business and while he is there, he is arrested. Sharon gets a phone call telling her that he has been jailed for exposing himself to a woman in the parking lot of a supermarket.
This news, of course, is deeply unsettling. She flies out with their good friend, who is a lawyer, for the arraignment, and as she contemplates seeing Michael for the first time when he is brought into the courtroom, she wonders if she will experience "a complete failure of love, even of charity" knowing what he has done (111). That question is posed at the mid-point of the story, setting up the expectation that it will be answered by the end.
But how can such a question be answered without sounding heavy and pedantic, which is everything Wolitzer's style is not. Has she set up a difficult, maybe impossible challenge for the story? If she uses a direct expression of feeling, everything that the story has achieved—its mystery and shock--would be lost. But Wolitzer shows us that there is another way to report on what a character is feeling: describe what she sees. It is more surreptitious and maybe even more efficient. And so, from the first page, Wolitzer prepares us for the role images will play in this story.
We are told that Sharon is an artist; her currency is visual language. Appropriately, the story begins with an image from a Lenny Bruce performance in which he describes a flasher "who opens his raincoat and displays a bunch of lilacs instead of a penis" (95). (An aside: "Bodies" was published in 1979, before streaming, before YouTube, before even computers were ubiquitous. Lenny Bruce performances were saved on records. My parents had one.)
But that image, gentle and harmless as it is, does nothing to assuage her horror at the fact of her husband's act. She remembers "the singing corduroy of his trousers as he walks, that yellow shirt" (100), but the familiar fails to create a generous feeling. She tries to minimize the aggressiveness of his act. "Other men did that sort of thing in subway passages, or in dark alleyways. The parking lot of a supermarket seemed foolishly domestic" (102). Hopeful maybe, but not forgiving.
The story takes us through the process of Sharon getting herself to Ohio and staying in the same motel where her husband had been arrested. The police found him because the woman in the parking lot reported the license plate on his car and his car is still parked outside of the room he had rented, a fact that, by itself, causes a shiver of feeling the reader shares with Sharon. Other images appear. Growing up in a household of females, the first time Sharon saw a naked man was when she stumbled into her friend's parents' bedroom and caught a glimpse of the father she had always been afraid of sitting naked on the edge of the bed. "In that quick and brilliant moment—she is sure she remembers sunlight in the bedroom—she saw his melancholy in the droop of his genitals, and felt a rush of knowledge and anguish" (108). Wolitzer takes care to deliver a complete image, giving us the man illuminated by a ray of light, and though anguish is a big abstraction for such a brief glimpse, this is how children operate, they pick up any ragged, awkward clue that will help them traverse the inscrutable adult world. And, indeed, maybe it has, gaining sophistication as she's grown up, guiding her to this moment with Michael.
Another image comes towards the end of the story. It becomes the foundation for the final image that will answer the question the story posed mid-way. In her motel room, Sharon reads in the newspaper that an infant has been born with his heart in the wrong place, outside rather than inside his chest. "Sharon…thinks about men and how they always wear their parts on the surface of their bodies, indecently exposed and vulnerable, appendages of their joy and despair. She realizes that she has never regretted being female, as a girl or as a woman" (119).
That misplaced heart focuses our attention and prepares us for what Sharon will discover about herself. Her feelings could go either way. But we also know, by this point, that when her husband is brought out of the holding cell, Sharon's reaction will take the form of an image, something we will see with her, that will tell us what she's feeling.
Is the marriage doomed? Or will she feel the possibility that love will join them once again? The image will give us the answer.
Wolitzer, Hilma. Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. New York: Bloomsbury. 2021.