Jennifer Haigh, "Desiderata"
Jennifer Haigh’s “Desiderata” (One Story 125, August 30, 2009) deserves a very brief note. The story is about Joyce, a widow who gets by in the absence of Ed, her husband. Albert Chura, who worked as a janitor in the school where Ed was a principal, helps Joyce with random chores around the house. Albert asks Joyce for Ed’s old bicycle, and she grudgingly gives it away. While unpacking Ed’s things, Joyce finds boxes full of pictures. They suggest Ed may have had an affair with a woman he urged the school to hire as a teacher. Some of the pictures involve a bicycle; Ed had always begged Joyce to learn how to ride, but she never did. Those images convince Joyce that she has wasted her life through her unwillingness to take risks. She asks Albert to give her back Ed’s bike. After some grumbling, he does. The story ends as Joyce is pained by regret.
Haigh is fond of parentheses (you find asides in parenthesis often in the story). That doesn’t bother me. What does, though, is the double stitch. This technique I find often in the prose writings of people who write mostly poetry. (I don’t know if this is the case with Haigh.) It’s unnerving, and passages that use it can usually be reduced to a single sweep that culls the best of both descriptions. Here’s an example: “Presumably Albert had called Ed by his first name too; when had that started? After they’d both retired, probably, and were no longer principal and janitor. When the school’s stiff hierarchy, like so much else, was made irrelevant by age” (3). Notice how the story comes back for a second glance? Principal and janitor said enough. But the same idea is rephrased—restitched—by referring to a stiff hierarchy. Another example: “It was a private joke, one of many between them; a complex web of shared silliness that, now that Ed is gone, means nothing to anybody” (4). Again, there is the notion of a private joke, and there’s a double take to describe a complex web of shared silliness. Both could’ve been compacted into a single, leaner description. Same goes for the first example.
I don’t know if people grow the habit of the double stitch out of a drive to rack up words, or because describing something in multiple ways becomes an obsession. Whatever the reason in Haigh’s case, it’s certainly there in the story, and it slows it down considerably. As no one can deny its presence in “Desiderata,” how can one refuse to see the action grinding down with each occurrence of the double stitch? (See how annoying it is?)
The narrative itself advances in a haphazard manner. There is a narrative present from which memories keep sprouting. Often, I got the feeling that the sidestories were fillers, or at least that they distracted us from those aspects more germane to the central storyline. Sometimes, information was too obviously dispensed (the explicit reference to widowhood on the second paragraph, for instance, or the unsuccessfully sly way to introduce Joyce’s troubled son on page 6). Gardner would probably call them “clumsily inserted details” (The Art of Fiction, p. 114).
The One Story interview shows that Joyce’s story is a spin-off from one of Haigh’s novels.