I came across “Pelican Song” by Mary-Beth Hughes within the collection Object Lessons, the recent Paris Review anthology. In the book, it is introduced by Mary Gaitskill who writes, “‘Pelican Song’ is one of the most convincing depictions of the horrors that only the wealthy can inflict upon their own…” I was certainly not surprised that Mary Gaitskill would select a story that involve an extreme account of horrors, but I was very surprised by the story. I read it twice in two days and will soon be buying everything Mary-Beth Hughes has ever written.
“Pelican Song” starts out: “I was the kind of thirty year old who had only recently left adolescence behind.” There is so much packed into that simple sentence. First, the reader learns that the narrator is both immature and self-aware about her immaturity, which paints a very particular character. She’s also witty–we can tell from her voice. But we also learn a bit about the vantage point from which the story is told. The point of view is retrospective; we aren’t in the moment even though the actions of the story are unveiled with immediacy and without much interpretation through the lens of the future. But, it isn’t until the last paragraph of the story that the reader understands the distance between the action and the present; it isn’t until the last paragraph that the story really becomes a story.
The narrator is a modern dancer about to transition into her new calling as a fiction writer, a fiction writer who writes only paragraph-long stories. She works a menial job at an art-house movie theater, surrounding by other “artists” in a community that provides support through mutual competition, self-importance and denigration. None of the artists are successful, but that allows them to keep plugging. The narrator is supported financially by her mother, her mother’s second husband, and his mean, recently-dead father. I loved her angst about this–she invokes Virginia Woolf, wondering if the five hundred pounds and a room of one’s own still counts if those 500 pounds are from her mother–and the fact that her angst doesn’t prevent her, at all, from taking the money. After an introduction to the narrator’s artistic and romantic states of affairs, the story evolves into something more suspenseful, once she and the reader become aware of the danger involved in her mother’s marriage. There are scenes in a hotel, a car, her mother’s friend’s guest house; there is blood, vile name-calling, middle-of-the-night visits from doctors. There is a thwarted nocturnal rescue, for which the daughter is ill-prepared and the mother is missing.
Throughout the incredibly horrifying vignettes of domestic abuse, the narrator still worries about her artistic career, still tries to get her mother to listen to her story recitations, still practices for her modern dance performance and deals with a malingering much-younger boyfriend. I found this to be so honest. This narrator is not a bad person–not to me, at least–she’s just honest. The nightmare of her mother’s life is something she takes seriously, but she doesn’t forget about herself and she admits it. I loved that.
As good as the rest of the story is–deadpan, particular, moving–none of it prepared me for the final paragraph. I want everyone to read it and have the same experience I did, but what Mary-Beth Hughes does in that paragraph is outrageous. She manages to change the entire story–the entire thing–by mentioning, in one sentence, two items of clothing. I wish I wrote this story!