What inspired you to write “Reconsideration”?
This story is actually pretty autobiographical. I woke up one morning in graduate school suddenly, totally uncommitted to my commitments. Whatever emotional or habitual or obligational ties I had to the important things in my life (my girlfriend, smoking, Ohio, etc) were just gone. Melted away in the night. Like I had reprocessed all the data I had processed and reprocessed before and came out with the opposite conclusion. The data hadn’t changed, the variables hadn’t changed, the process hadn’t changed, yet the results added up differently, suddenly.
This isn’t so rare, really. It’s a thing that happens to most people trying to build a life, I think. An early life crisis. “Reconsideration” is an attempt to explain that phenomenon. That emotional shrug. Because it is impossible to explain plainly without sounding like a monster. One can’t just call in apathetic to work or break off an engagement for no reason. You can’t just lose faith in your narrative without an explanation. You need a metaphor. Like a melting husband.
In Reconsideration, Herbert and Marty have a classic academic argument: qualitative versus quantitative research. Marty argues for the superiority of quantitative research and wins despite the exception displayed by Herbert (point for qualitative research!). This is, of course, my interpretation and is clearly influenced by my own career choice. Is this something that was part of your understanding when you were writing this piece?
This is certainly part of it. In your set-up, Marty becomes the objectivist standing by her quantitative research, so firm in her historical argument (which she takes back all the way to the first lunged fish) that it doesn’t occur to her to look at Herbert or even reach over and feel his smoosh. Herbert, of course, takes on the qualitative side by default: though he is easily swayed by Marty’s logic and is convinced of the same basic definition of terms as she, he has found himself to be an exception to his own logic, which should prove his case handily. In this sense, it does look like a point for qualitative.
This starts to fall apart with examination of the qualitative side, though. There is no argument here. No indication of intent or meaning. Just a matter of existence. It counters Marty’s point, sure, but to no end beyond that. Herbert melting says nothing of why Herbert is melting; a change in the course of husbandly substance tells us nothing of the change. It is a mindless, pointless state weighed against a mindful, pointy argument. A lecture to a tree. This is why Marty eventually wins and Herbert is forced to battle with the hosiery: Herbert has no argument. All he can do is offer her a few handfuls of stomach-melt and let it stand for itself. That is outside the realm of an objective argument, though, so it carries no point with Marty, who can’t see or feel anything outside her logic.
In a more realistic version of the story, the argument would be simpler to see. Something like this:
“I’m not happy.”
“But you have everything you need to be happy.”
“I know. But I’m unhappy.”
Here, both parties agree to the terms of happiness (a house or money or a little dog or coffee at the door whatever they’ve asked of each other), they both agree that they have fulfilled these requirements, but have found that one of them has not achieved the logical result. That illogical response can’t be justified and the other person can’t be faulted. It’s just a thing that happened.
So the argument here is just a conflict of unarguable arguments. Logic versus existence. Theory versus practice. All that. Proof that the qualitative and quantitative sides are dancing different steps to different beats.
How do you interpret the image of Herbert melting?
Herbert has a neat and ordered life: everything from waking to coffee-greeting to dog-patting to work commute has been repeated into a neat, rarified perfection. To live this way, to wake to the same pattern in the same life everyday, requires that you somehow muster conviction to do so every morning. So dressing in a certain way must mean the same thing to you every time you dress, patting your dog must bring you the same joy every time you pat. Work, whatever it is, must be interesting and compelling everyday. It must give you a reason to get up, to do these things, to drive these routes. Or at least the money it gives you must continually provide the same benefits, the same piece of mind.
Herbert woke on the morning of this story without those convictions. Everything that had given his life structure and meaning had dissolved, leaving him a dissolved mess.
This is the literal interpretation. The rest of the story is figuring out why it happened, I guess. There is no explaining this. Instead, another metaphor: Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!™.
In the game, of course, you start off dodging and jabbing and select-upper-cutting your way through all the easy guys. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser and King Hippo and Soda Popinski, etc. It’s easy and fun and you figure out the moves and patterns and try not to get knocked down. When you do go down, you have to A/B as fast as you can to get back up. There’s a meter there telling you how well you’re doing and if you’ll get up in time. The harder you’re hit, the more often you’re knocked down, the harder it is to button yourself back up.
At some point when you’re playing, though, for no reason, even though you’ve been playing intently all this time and you enjoy playing and have been proceeding from fight to fight on the assumption that you will continue playing until you have to eat dinner or you beat the game or you’re A/B blisters pop, suddenly, probably around Mr. Sandman, you get knocked down and you don’t feel like tapping yourself back up. You tap for a few seconds maybe, then just throw down the controller and let Little Mac fall and the timer count out. Maybe you start over again, maybe you go outside, maybe you put in Maniac Mansion instead.
The point is, you break the narrative of the game: that whatever silly drive that had made you care about winning inexplicably quits. This is Herbert melting: against the entire narrative flow of his relationship, of his job and life, he just can’t tap himself into the game anymore. His resolve fails, Little Mac falls, the game ends.
In the course of their argument, Marty and Herbert lay out some constructed aspects of the roles of husbands and wives. These descriptions have an air of negativity, but the fact that Hebert and Marty care for one another is evident, which is what gives the story its power. Did the underlying strength of the relationship between Hebert and Marty come naturally? Or was it something you had to work at? Essentially, how did you manage to craft a believably strong relationship, while maintaining a surrealist-experiment steeped in a rhetorical argument?
This story is kind of an exception for me. I very rarely name characters or give them believable or relatable personalities. I usually try hard to avoid even gender. My stories are all just metaphors or odd moments or, as you said, surrealist thoughtscapes. Having “real” characters not only contradicts that aesthetic, it muddles up the flow of the story with useless descriptions of made-up people and all their gender traps and subcultural whatevers. I’m writing about ideas and I like them to stay that way.
When I do need characters, like in “Reconsideration,” I try to find some that have already been worked out for me. Stock characters. Here, I just went to Nick-at-Nite and pulled out the prototypical bickering 1950s couple. So Herbert and Marty seem fleshed out and natural because we know them already. We know them well. They are Fred and Ethel, Barney and Betty, Stanley and Helen Roper (who were from the 70s, sure, but it’s the same point). Bringing this in allows me to write in the most unnatural language I want without losing that relationship grounding. I hardly even have to describe them.
Even using characters as unoriginal as this has a consequence, though. They have their own baggage. Here, it gives the story a very old-fashioned feel. Something about the hair curlers and the meeting at the door with coffee. The whole man-to-work / woman-makes-rules pattern of it. This is an outdated relationship model, and that really shaped a lot of the story. For example, in a more contemporary relationship, the melting thing would have been dealt with very differently. Herberts are allowed to melt now. We shirk our responsibilities all the time. I was a shirked child and I have shirked plenty of things in my life since. I’m sure you have too. If these were modern characters, Herbert would have probably just melted off the bed and through the cracks in the floor below them while Marty lectured on unaware.
The Nick-at-Nite Herberts, though, don’t have that luxury. A Nick-at-Nite Herbert, melted, has no choice but to hosiery himself up, to walk proud in surrender, dripping all over the sidewalks, carrying on like nothing is wrong. For the old-fashioned Herbert, melting isn’t the crisis. The crisis is carrying on despite the melting. And that’s much worse, I think. And there’s the story.
While your bio says that you’re unmelting, I wonder if that is true? If it is true, what do you think would make you melt? And what is it that keeps you solid?
I have this brilliant wife who defies the entire universe everyday and a 5½ month-old daughter who called me Dadda for the first time this morning. I’m taking this shit all the way to Tyson. No hosiery required: I have my Power Glove™ on and my Game Genie™ codes in. There is no melting here.