In People Like You, the title story of Margaret Malone’s first book of short stories published late last year, a couple goes out to a party. It’s an ordinary night, they treat the party like an errand or at most, like a job interview for a position neither want. A page in, I relate to the reluctance Cheryl and Bert feel, like the story is straight from fresh memories. I relate to the feigned indifference, and I’m not sure if anxiety or exhaustion keeps them from being excited about going. It’s amusing and unsettling. I roll with it because it is comfortable too.
They joke, while getting ready in their bedroom, that they’ll show up at the same time as the birthday boy (it’s a surprise party) and how awkward that’ll be. It’s obvious that they’d rather miss it, but what’s not obvious is why they don’t want to go. They’re not apathetic people, but maybe just self-conscious of the triviality of the motions they go through.
When they get to the party after getting lost on the way there, we follow them from room to room, through awkward exchanges. We’re in her head, Cheryl’s. She wonders, “…it’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I’ve just never figured out how it all works. Is everyone faking it, like I’ve always suspected?”
Margaret has been told that her characters are unpleasant and unlikable — Cheryl and Bert being popular for provoking these feelings. At a book club recently, someone said that they already feel crappy at a party, why do they want to read about it? Margaret smiles as she tells me this sitting across from me at Floyd’s coffee shop in Old Town where we met last week. It’s a smile like one you show after you eat the last piece of candy your friend said they didn’t want. It’s not a sorry one, nor is it devious. That book group happened to be the night before we met, so the feedback was fresh. “I get it…” she says, not defending the likes of Cheryl and Bert. “I’ve always been a fan of unlikable characters. They’re human. I certainly don’t do the right thing all the time.”
There are others who second this feeling about her characters. “Okay, so I’ll just tell you this story. I don’t know how many years ago, a few years ago, a while ago…” I watch as she stretches back in time, propping her elbows on the table which makes her taller, as she remembers herself as a young writer, thirteen years ago when she first began to write the stories in People Like You.
“When I finished a story I would always submit it to the New Yorker, because you can submit for free online. I knew it was ridiculous…” She pokes fun, but seems to admire that spunk, the silly regimen. “But it was this way of saying I’m done with it, when I’m done with it, the first place I send it to is the New Yorker and once it’s off, then I can submit it everywhere else.” She laughs. “It was my ritual.”
The New Yorker wrote her back after she submitted “The Things We Know Nothing About” which is in People Like You. The brief note stated that they love the voice but it wasn’t right for them to publish. “But what else do you have?” the note asked. So Margaret submits “People Like You.” Her voice becomes grave when communicating the New Yorker’s response to this: We do not like this story at all. The characters, I didn’t like spending the story with them at all.”
I’ve always been a fan of unlikable characters. I certainly don’t do the right thing all the time.
I don’t like the people you’ve invented is a critique I admit to Margaret that I’ve overlooked as one writers could get, thinking instead that the feedback dealt mostly with technical things about form or style, how characters are written, not who they are. “That note was deflating,” Margaret says after I ask her about receiving this specific type of criticism. She has always liked her characters, and remembers thinking that she was doing something wrong when she got that note. Now, she feels differently. She’s been doing it for a while. “Some people think they’re sweet and tender in their own dysfunctional way. When I get that reaction, I think, yes I did that right.”
The characters in these stories are ordinary people. They have jobs and routines; they’re funny, resilient and helpless for no reason at times. They drink wine and seem at odds with that habit sometimes. They are private people, but the reader is privy to all their thoughts. The reader is not spared of the character’s mundane or deep-seated distractions. The protagonists could be easily described as distant, but getting to know them here, that distance becomes so narrow, like the space between you and a reflection. The stories make the private lives we all have public and yet, I want to keep roaming my neighborhood in my private world. I didn’t feel connected or less alone by this book so much as I felt reassured about not sharing everything, about still keeping a little to myself.
In the thirteen years since beginning People Like You, “a lot of life happened” and after reading “The First Week Of After,” a non-fiction essay about her husband, Brian, I begin to ask about that bulk of her life. At 32, Brian was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was 30 at the time. I am 30 now and I sit across from her, my gut telling me I wouldn’t be able to handle something like that. She later says that the experience was like being “skyrocketed to another universe, you’re just there.” So I sit across from her thinking, I’d probably find my way through it, and I think she’d agree. But I think she’d also say she hopes I’d never have to find out.
We’re going to write the book we couldn’t find.
It wasn’t just some of life, it was all of life. “It takes over. I couldn’t write fiction,” she says. Fiction is all she had written before the diagnosis. I ask her why. “I couldn’t escape it — it was inescapable. It didn’t seem healthy to try and escape it. It was happening to him so I had to stay in it because it would have been too scary to have him be there alone.” So maybe writing kept her in it; vigilant, caring, questioning, hopeful and also, let the necessary tedium still have a place to breath in such a severe situation. Read this essay, you’ll know what I mean.
Margaret and Brian are writing a memoir about their experience. “The first thing we did after we heard was go to Powell’s to find a book. There was nothing,” she says. “Two things existed in that world: super medical, written from a nurse’s perspective, or super new-age, ‘you can heal your body’ kinda stuff, which is fine, but we couldn’t find any book by someone who had went through this, certainly not from a young person’s perspective. We’re going to write the book we couldn’t find.”
She goes to books at times like these, and at many others. We start talking about influences and peers. She loves the French novelist Marguerite Duras. I like Duras too, and I’m drawn to Margaret’s writing for a similar reason: they both want to tell a story.
When I read those writers I forget they are such; they don’t assert their crafts, they just want you to see the place, to hear the story. We talk about the influence of contemporary female writers. A few lines in People Like You remind me of the uncut and somatic concise speech of Lidia Yuknavitch.
And then I read lines from the essay about Brian, “The First Week of After”:
I wash the dishes, walk the dog and begin to understand that if I disappear into each small moment, each action, if I become the action itself, I will not have to think about what is happening. I won’t think about you alone at work, struggling with the impossible, about you fighting to stay positive, then being dragged down into the hopeless, lonely, black well of fear, a cycle that repeats moment after moment. While all I can do is shop for a trash can.
And I don’t hear anyone but Margaret Malone.