Monday, November 16, 2020

Of course it works: "Halloween" by Marian Crotty

Two pages into "Halloween" by Marian Crotty, I was digressing in my mind to two other stories. One was "The Nanny" by Emma Cline, which was the story right before "Halloween" in Best American Short Stories 2020. It's not really fair to Crotty to be compared to Cline--who the hell wants to have to follow that act?--but it was hard not to think of Cline when Crotty also was giving us a young woman making questionable romantic choices. BASS goes in alphabetical order, so similarities between consecutive stories are always coincidental, but it was very hard not to see these two stories as a pair. 

The second digression was a little fairer to Crotty, and, to my mind, made her story shine brighter for the comparison. It was Lauren Groff's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners." Groff's story was about a boy raised in the aftermath of a civil war between his mother and father, a civil war that ended in a dissolution of the union. The boy in Groff's story maintains a "twisted loyalty" to his father, a loyalty he maintains although he understands that "the things you loved most could kill you."

Something never sat right about that story for me, but reading Crotty's "Halloween" (also, like "Round Earth," set in Florida), I suddenly had a better sense of why. It was a question of tone and attitude toward the subject of suffering being a necessary corollary of love. Groff's story was melodramatic, even down to its title. By playing it as a serious, tragic, almost Byronically romantic story, it gives too much weight to self-damaging ideas about love, like love should hurt. It treats this notion as a flawed but beautiful idea, one that deserves, if not our endorsement, at least our respect. 

Crotty's "Halloween" treats the idea of love equally suffering like the two-bit trailer-park philosophy it is, and it paints it with a comic brush rather than a dramatic one. The idea that love should hurt, or that "love was an undertaking that required constant vigilance and bravery," belongs to Jan, the grandmother of protagonist Julie. Jan's thoughts about love are similar to those of a woman who had been mauled by the tiger cub she raised: "We loved each other...I don't expect anyone to understand" was her explanation. 

Jan hasn't been mauled to death, but she did have a husband who tried to set her furniture on fire in order to kill her. And AFTER that, Jan lived with him for another year. 

Sing it with me: Love hurts, Love scars.
Love wounds and marks
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain
Love hurts
Ooh love hurts

Funny thing is, Jan's

Jan would seem a terrible person to take romantic advice from, but Julie comes to Jan for two reasons. First, Jan is available. She's lost her job at Nordstrom's, and she's more than willing to spend her time listening to Julie's love problems. Second, Jan is telling Julie what she wants to hear anyway, which is that she should fight for the love she wants. "When it comes to love," Jan assures Julie, "you shouldn't have regrets."

The object of Julie's affections is Erika, three years older than Julie and in college, and a co-worker with Julie at the froyo shop since summer. The two flirted, kissed, and touched a bit, but never quite had sex. Near the end of summer, Erika ended whatever "mostly chaste" flirting they'd been doing and stopped talking to Julie. 

Jan gives Erika advice that most people in love have probably received when they are rebuffed by the person they desire: "...wear revealing outfits and...behave as if (Julie's) life without (Erika) was surprising and wonderful." Julie should act happy, like she's fine without Erika. The motto for Julie, Jan says, is easy breezy, lemon squeezy

The amazing thing is that this act works. Jan isn't surprised. "Of course it worked. Why wouldn't it have worked?" she says. But Julie is amazed the whole time that nobody can see through her obvious act. "...(N)o one seemed to guess that this friendly, confident person was a lie. That you could just decide to be a different person, that you didn't have to actually change to convince people."

Eventually, Julie gets Erika's attention again, even finally getting Erika to have sex one night. Even when Erika ends it the next day, Julie feels okay with it: "I had found someone perfect, and she had slept with me. The fact that she had done so against her better judgment just proved that she was attracted to me in the same combustible way I felt for her, and attraction like that seemed rare and true."

But the fact that it works is the problem, kind of 

Julie could have ended here somewhat epiphanically, having gained a measure of power by learning about the power of dissimulation, of how acting like you don't care about someone can give you power over them. She could have tucked this away in her tool box for later in life, gone off to college better prepared for "even hotter and cooler lesbians." But Julie sees Erika with the girl she thought was Erika's ex and realizes that Erika was never really broken up with her ex the whole time. 

This undoes Julie, and she ends the story running off to a Halloween party she wasn't invited to in order to "just be around her." Jan, who has landed a job at a Halloween store, gives her a mask to wear and drives here there. 

Julie isn't ultimately satisfied with her relationship built on showing an outward person that wasn't really her. She wants a real relationship, one in which she can confess what she really feels and be herself. She wants what her mother has with her uber-boring new man, the thing she heaps contempt upon throughout the story. But she's already been set on the path Romanticism has been leading people down for centuries, one built on the mistaken belief that love is somehow more noble if it involves suffering.

The real hell of this mistaken belief is that it isn't far from the truth. In Hawthorne's "Maypole of Merrymount," two Quakers are dragged from their innocent life of happiness into the grim world of the Puritans, because, "From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth's doom of care and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount." Love means being tied to hard work and sorrow, because now you care about someone and can no longer easily walk away from all those pesky concerns like food, shelter, and health care. But that shouldn't mean letting the person you're with cause you to suffer.  

The story doesn't condemn Jan and Julie for their foolishness, though. It's mostly a comedy, but comedy doesn't have to show contempt for its characters. Jan is as wrong at the end as she is at the beginning, insisting that " be with the person you want is heaven. It doesn't have to be the right circumstances to feel good." It's still a flawed philosophy, but by the end, we see a little more clearly why it's so compelling to so many people. Boring Pete isn't wrong when he tries to sympathize with Julie by saying that even people who have suffered great trauma are more invariably troubled by love than by anything else they've been through. "Don't let anyone tell you a breakup's not a big deal," he says. 

There's a cliche in the industry I work in. It goes something like, "We need to stop admiring the problem." I think a lot of people who are impatient with the emotional logic of literary fiction might feel the same way, that literary fiction tends to give beautiful and accurate descriptions of the difficulties of  the human condition, but no real way out. Ultimately, "Halloween" doesn't show us a way out, either. It doesn't give us an answer, but it is an improvement of the question, which is a crucial step beyond "admiring the problem."  "The Round Earth's Imagined Corners" admired the problem of misplaced affection. "Halloween" doesn't admire it. It scratches at it, mauls it, and rips it apart to see what's inside.   

Other takes: Karen Carlson at A Just Recompense

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory


  1. Wow, I didn't pick up any comedic vibe on this story at all.

  2. I wouldn't go as far as comedic, but there was a certain lightness to it, mostly thanks to Jan, and to Jules' own self-awareness of the gap between what she should do and what she was going to do. It saved it from melodrama.

    1. Yeah, that's really all I meant by "comedic." Jan's a stock character fleshed out a bit and done well to lighten up the mood. It could have been melodrama (like I think "Round Earth" was), but I think Jan gives it something that would otherwise have really been missing. Pretty much exactly what you said.


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