From Sea Lovers: Selected Stories
Of the archetypal plots in fiction, among the most enduring is: a stranger comes to town. One of the attractions of this scenario for writers is its malleability. Inserting an intruder into any situation is disruptive; the interest arises out of the unique way a writer chooses to exploit this disruption for dramatic effect. In “The Unfinished Novel,” which first appeared in the 2006 collection of the same name, Valerie Martin adapts the scenario by having two strangers appear in town. More precisely, she has two characters return to the place where they first met, an innovation that immediately complicates things, because their shared past allows for an increase in the level and complexity of the drama.
The town in this case is New Orleans, where we first encounter Max, a writer who has long since decamped the Southern city and returns “only long enough to convince [himself] it’s time to leave, which usually takes between two weeks and three months.” The comment appears on the second page of this long story – clocking in at just under sixty pages, the story pushes bodily against the territory of the novella – and immediately provides the reader with useful information about the first-person narrator. His antipathy toward the city can’t be arbitrary; one core principle of a short story is that anything the author elects to include must serve a purpose, either moving the story forward or deepening the reader’s understanding. In this case, we know that Max is uncomfortable in New Orleans; we keep reading in part to discover why.
A portion of the reason is contained on the previous page, in the first two words of the story. Those words, spoken by Max’s friend Malcolm, are: “Rita’s back.”
It’s useful to pause here to make a few observations about Martin’s opening gambit. The declaration that Rita is back in the city – Who is she? What is her importance to the story? Where has she been? – is placed in the mouth not of the first-person narrator, but his companion. The pair are at a café where they drink iced coffee and “watch the traffic ooze through the heat haze.” We note Martin’s use of the verb “ooze,” and might perhaps pause over its uncommon deployment to describe the traffic. Unlike the opening statement about Rita, this is cast in Max’s direct narration, which offers us another glimpse into why he dislikes the city: it’s too bloody hot. Indeed, as Martin unfolds her narrative, the heat becomes increasingly oppressive, serving as a kind of objective correlative for Max’s unsettled interior state.
The first paragraph, focused on Rita and the heat, gives way to a memory that is almost diametrically opposed:
Rita. My God, Rita. She came at me from the past, from that first winter in Vermont, her thin woolen coat blowing open over a short cotton skirt, bare legs, picking her way across a snowbank in her high-heeled, open-toed shoes. She won’t last a year here, I thought then, and I was right.
The first thing we may notice is the way Max recalls Rita. She “came at” him out of the past, a turn of phrase that is aggressive, verging on violent. It indicates an onrush or an assault, further solidifying the idea that the past relationship was far from placid. The second thing we notice is the reference to Vermont, where Max and Rita attended a creative writing class together, and its cold climate. After the heat haze and oozing traffic of New Orleans, this appears as a significant change.
It’s an alteration not confined to the weather in two different states – one in the north, the other in the deep south. Martin here provides the first in a series of dichotomies that separate past and present in the story. In Vermont, the woman is portrayed as shapely and vivacious, fully secure in her bisexuality and highly talented – she is the best writer in the class, far outstripping the less proficient Max. His jealousy is profound in the disparaging way he describes her as she was when the two first met: “She passed as an exotic when she got to Vermont, but in our sultry, provincial hometown she was just another tall, pretty waitress who slept around, drank too much, and never stopped smoking.”
But it is Max who goes on to success as a novelist. When he encounters Rita in a New Orleans post office, she is corpulent and grotesque, a dramatic alteration from the way she is presented in Max’s memory. We discover that despite her evident talent, she has not published a book; instead, she has spent twenty years working on a novel that remains unfinished. She keeps the manuscript, which now runs to more than 1,000 pages, in four stationery boxes. “It doesn’t take twenty years to write a novel,” says Max superciliously (and not altogether accurately in every case). “It might take five or seven, but not twenty.”
Against his better judgment, Max agrees to visit Rita at home; he discovers her living in absolute squalor, her house a dilapidated shotgun shack surrounded by feral cats. (Max, we learn, once owned a cat named Joey, now deceased; this serves as another point of comparison and contrast between the two characters.) In ill health and needing a quick infusion of cash, Rita asks Max to act as a go-between with a local gallery owner who deals in pre-Columbian relics; Rita has several pieces of pottery she claims to be authentic native American Zuni artifacts worth millions of dollars.
The idea that a woman in such evidently debased circumstances might have priceless pieces of Zuni craftwork just sitting around strikes Max as patently absurd, but his entire narration is highly disparaging toward Rita, something that should elicit suspicion on the part of a reader. As the story unfolds and the extent of Max’s antipathy toward Rita becomes clear – they were once lovers; she stole money from him and cheated on him with a woman she picked up at the local pool hall, with whom she subsequently ran off – so too does the relative unreliability of his narration. As the contours of their relationship are unravelled, a series of power struggles appear to dominate the poisonous dynamic between the two characters.
And hanging over it all like a literary albatross is Rita’s giant, unwieldy manuscript, typed on a manual Olivetti and sealed in the four stationery boxes. When Rita dies (the circumstances of her demise, and Max’s relative responsibility for it, are murky), Max finds himself the unwitting beneficiary of the unfinished novel. This leaves him with a final dilemma: what to do with the behemoth? Does he act as Rita’s Max Brod, posthumously handing the volume to a publisher? “If Rita’s book was published,” Max thinks, “my part in that process would be a feature of the packaging. Like Brod’s, my celebrity might rest upon it.” This is not an incidental musing on Max’s part: his notion of literary success is inextricably tied to public renown. Rita, by contrast, has toiled away in obscurity for twenty years, indicating that she is more obsessed with literary production than the trappings of fame.
At the outset, we noted that “The Unfinished Novel” was a story about a stranger coming to town. In the fullness of its telling, it resembles another archetypal narrative: that of artistic rivalry. Max, who portrays Rita as a harlot and a thief in the past and, in the present, an obese harridan (his word), refuses to admit to himself the hold the dead woman retains over him, a hold that is tied to his insecurity at the idea that she is more talented than he. “I‘m a much better writer than you’ll ever be,” Rita tells him the last time they see each other prior to her death. The comment enrages Max, largely because he suspects it’s probably true.
The key moment in the story’s final stages is contained in Max’s description of a dream he has, in which Rita challenges him to a race across a snowy field. “Rita was young again,” he says, “but I was as I am now.” She is dressed in high-heeled, open-toed shoes – a repetition of the image from the story’s opening paragraphs – and Max, in sensible boots, feels he has an unfair advantage. “If you’re so sure of yourself,” Rita goads him, “what have you got to lose?” The dream ends as a reader might expect, but for the cutting remark Rita makes that seems, in five brief words, to encapsulate the entire trajectory of their relationship as Max perceives it: “I win, Maxwell. I win.”