What’s the Story? Reading Carol Emshwiller’s “Peninsula”

by L. Timmel Duchamp

Sun 11 Nov 2001 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Reviews | Leave a Comment

The first part of this column on Carol Emshwiller‘s “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison” can be found in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no.9

There is an odd significance beginning to make itself felt and I must stay open to it. I must understand it when it has finished unfolding itself to me. I see that now, and that I must put together each incident to form a whole. I must not look at things separately. (121)

The narrator of Emshwiller’s “Peninsula” is apparently talking to herself, but these words might also be an admonition as to what reading this story — and perhaps all of the author’s fiction — necessarily entails. “Peninsula” dates from before 1974, the year of publication of Joy in Our Cause, in which it was reprinted. The significance that is “unfolding itself” to the narrator, though heavily dependent on the connections she needs to “form a whole” and however strongly it insists that no one incident be taken in isolation from that whole, is not of the cosmic, Pynchonesque variety endemic to literature contemporaneous with “Peninsula.” This “odd significance,” while arguably more mysterious if intro-cosmic than the significance one seeks in Pynchon, is strikingly domestic (though certainly not domesticated). “Peninsula” teases us with a mystery that the narrator finally chooses to avoid elucidating. At narrative’s end she tells us she “is beginning to see the pattern” and that she is “a part of it.”(127) She leaves it to the reader to see what she has begun to see. She has learned that “it is more interesting to try to understand this slowly revealed pattern” than to think about the hand lying on the Persian rug in her living room and “whatever obligations I may have toward it.”(127)

The narrator privileges one pattern, in other words, over another which would explain the significance of the hand lying on the rug and the reason that her father, mother, brother, daughters, and maid deserted her. She gives us fragments with which to assemble a story of how she came to be alone, but while she tells us that we “must not look at things separately,” the whole to be formed from these fragments is not what a reader could call “plot” precisely because the pattern of connections the narrator is beginning to see, rather than the pattern of connections that readers can use to construct a plot, is “more interesting to. . . . understand”.

Although the narrator withholds data points and connections that would allow us to solve the mystery of the hand on the rug — that would, in fact, enable us not to take it in isolation from the pattern in which it could be seen as part of the whole, she lavishly provides the materials for discerning other patterns. The very first thing she tells us is her preference for one kind of connection over another:

Do you realize we are all connected by telephone wires? I do not mean that our voices go through the wires to each other, though, of course, that is true, but that we are physically connected by the wires we talk through. We are actually physically wired to every house with a telephone as though there were a roadway set out for wingless birds. Except for the underground wires in some cities, a bird could walk from a house in New York to one in California, so, when we speak to someone, no matter how far away, we are wired, literally, ear to ear. We are connected, we are touching through wires, across whatever difference.(117)

The narrator muses at length on the comfort her awareness of this “connection” grants her; she returns to this (now dated) image repeatedly throughout the narrative. This “connection” she celebrates is the material concretization of what is ultimately only an impersonal abstraction. She loves that the connection of wires provides a line for birds to walk and sit on and acrobats — girls holding pink parasols, boys white poles — to dance on; they are for escape, travel, and art, not a direct means of communication. This distinction is underscored when she admits that she would like to “get away from the telephones altogether.”(118) “Actual telephone conversations can sometimes be quite distressing,” she says.(118) When she describes the obscene calls she receives, we must acknowledge that the direct, person-to-person (albeit disembodied) connection of an isolated woman contacted by someone from the world outside can take the form of an intrusion into her most personal, private space. The technology of wires enabling “physical” connection, on the contrary, demands nothing of her personally but is simply there, confirming her connection to the rest of the world — and underscoring her assertion that the house she lives in is on a peninsula, not an island (as her husband had always insisted): and by implication that she — as the Jefferson Airplane joked in response to John Donne’s line of verse around the time of this story’s publication — is (metaphorically speaking) a peninsula, not an island. Ultimately, the technology of wires provides her with an escape route off what may in some mysterious, figurative sense be an island after all.

The narrator poses a list of questions she claims not to know the answers to. Where has her family gone? How had she failed them? Did she marry too young? Did they have an accident that “wiped them all out silently and quickly,” or did someone come at midnight and murder them? Or did they, perhaps, murder her? This last question she particularly likes.

Yes, they have left me half dead here, all of them driving away over the gravel that sounded like ice as they left. They have murdered me with their backs turned, taking away even the little black dog that was mine, taking away the setter that was his, and the hound, and the two myna birds, and every small bit of life except these wild birds that sit so blackly upon the wires and that have never belonged to anyone.(118-119)

The narrator has clear and vivid memories of the many places she made love with her husband. And yet she asks

How old was that brother of mine, I wonder, twelve or sixteen? . . . Sometimes it seemed I saw him in a mirror and he was my other, my male, self, my face atop his bony body, the real me, and never had I been so lovable as in him as he walked barefoot in the woods or came inside the house bringing the smell of the woods with him.(122)

The reader wishing to construct a plotted story might consider any number of conventions: the Gothic heroine abandoned in a large house on an island (or peninsula) after some mysterious calamity that oddly spared her; the insane woman with a persecution complex; the ghost of a murdered woman haunting an isolated deserted mansion. But the tone of the narration cannot support them and what the narrator tells us of her current existence and actions contradicts the scripts of all the conventions we can call to mind. A ghost, for instance, does not put the dead mouse she finds on the kitchen floor into the garbage and then take a “cold chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg from the refrigerator for [her] breakfast.”(123) And later she tells us outright that “they” haven’t murdered her and she hasn’t cut them up and hid them in the cellar; and for some reason we cannot believe she is lying (except, perhaps, by omission).

And yet we must ask, is the narrator lying and if so, to whom? Who exactly is the narrator’s addressee? Sometimes the addressee seems to be herself. And yet her first sentence begins “Do you realize”(117) and her tone is one of constantly explaining and exhorting and expounding. Perhaps most significant, the narrator’s list of questions not only serves to pique the reader’s desire to learn the backstory rather than providing the means for piecing it together, but also insidiously brings the reader to identify with the narrator — making us suspect the narrator of being disingenuous. She presents herself as a quaintly old-fashioned girl, one who may have married a very rich man “too young,” who “brought my family with me when I married. . . . I was daughter, sister, wife and mother all in one and even to this very ornamental house I was an additional ornament.”(120) She describes herself “languish[ing] by the garden doors in green brocade”(120), “waiting up and down the hallway in a little feathered hat”(120). She has “dancing shoes” and recalls that she “used to dance balanced on [her] toes”(119). What could such a traditional, conjugally, and familially-cherished woman have possibly had to do with the hand on her rug? By offering competing explanations she seems to be saying that she, like the reader, doesn’t know anything, either. She and we share the same quest for answers.

As for the “friendly, perhaps beloved hand” on the rug — “It was like a person whom one cannot remember the name of or exactly where one is used to seeing them, a person met completely out of the usual context.”(126) All that she will confidently assert about the hand is that “it was certainly not his”(126) and that “the hand belongs distinctly with the mouse. I must not let myself think of it alone.”(127) The hand “tells a wordless story, answers all questions if one wished to consider it, to face it.”(127) But she “will not face that hand” because “I’m sure it tells too much.”(126-127)

The narrator suggests that there are two possible patterns to be discerned. One of them is the “pattern of whiteness and twoness, of strange phone calls, lights upon police cars and white, hard-boiled eggs.”(127) The other pattern holds the dead little mouse and the hand on the rug. I’d like to propose a third pattern, one the narrator does not seem to notice. By calling the story “Peninsula,” the author draws attention to the narrator’s statement that “If there ever was a difference between us, that was certainly the only one, whether this was an island or not, for he could seem as young as I was.”(121) According to the narrator’s description of herself and her husband, they held sharply (and traditionally) gendered roles. Cars come and go freely from the mainland to their home; the narrator knows that she can leave the peninsula by the road — or even by a line of stepping stones crossing the “little river.”(121) The second element of my proposed pattern is the image of the telephone wires connecting every house in the country, the image with which the author begins (and ends) the story. The third element is her brother’s resemblance to her, he being her other, “male” self: “Never had I been so lovable as in him as he walked barefoot in the woods”(122). The fourth element is the enigmatic smile her husband once observed on her face after they made love in a grassy hollow and which she herself cannot “fathom” whenever she happens to look in a mirror or into a nocturnally reflective window:

such an isolated me, a me who wears a strange smile. . . . Did he know? Had he guessed something then, and if he were here now could he tell me what he really thought of that smile so that I, too, might get some idea of what it was about? Yet it does seem to me that I used to know what was in my head at those times.(124-125)
The last element in my pattern is the item held by the narrator when in the last sentence of the story she ventures out onto the telephone wire. The narrator genders the item when she fantasizes the boy and girl acrobats earlier in the story, such that the girls hold pink parasols, the boys white poles. The narrator puts on her dancing shoes and carries a white pole (actually a white piece of molding). Before venturing out, she imagines walking out on the wire, “miraculously stepping over the crucifixion, Christ hanging there below [her], each upper wire at the ends of the crosspiece coming from a palm of his hand and the lower wire piercing his side.”(127) Her Christ “looks like one of those acrobat boys that walk the wires at night.”(128) “I feel young,” she says. “I am young and I am beautiful.”(128)

Stories aren’t always like jigsaw puzzles containing a full complement of pieces or like an algebra problem requiring one to solve for X. But when I put together all the pieces I’ve selected for making a pattern, the story I find myself constructing is one the narrator has not suggested. In this story the hand is a red herring, perhaps an image hallucinated or dreamt by the narrator or a magic-realist symbol. The narrator’s husband and parents are dead. Her brother has long since moved away. Her daughters are grown up. One day she wakes up and finds herself all alone on the fist-shaped peninsula and immerses herself in memories of time long past. Perhaps she does run through the woods for the sheer joy of movement, or perhaps she only fantasizes doing so. She receives two obscene phone calls and finds a small brown mouse dead in her kitchen. Does her sense of her brother as her “male self” — her “real self” — have anything to do with her choosing a white pole over a pink parasol or with the strangeness of her smile? Shortly before she ventures onto the wire, she hears the phone ringing somewhere below. Deliberately she chooses the abstract network of wires over connection to another human being (who may well be her obscene phone caller). Does she fantasize stepping over the crucifixion because she is preparing herself for death? (Significantly, she imagines the wires piercing Christ’s side and passing through the palms of his hands.) Or do the telephone wires represent an abstraction like art, which she chooses over whatever the obscene phone and hand calls represent? And is that why she chooses the white pole and imagines herself androgynously merged with her brother?

Likely no amount of puzzling over these pieces will give me clear answers. My story may well be wrong, since it requires my excluding the hand as an extraneous detail. It’s possible that a few weeks from now I’ll come up with an entirely different interpretation. And yet I haven’t felt a moment of frustration in all the times I’ve read “Peninsula” or lain daydreaming about it in the bathtub. The story’s fluidity of style allows its ten pages to run so quickly through one’s reading self’s fingers, like the slipperiest of silk, that the story can be read again and again and again without exhaustion, one of those rare pleasures that neither satisfies nor palls.

One’s pleasure in a story need not depend upon narrative certainty. What matters is the reader’s intuition of a powerful underlying logic binding the story’s images and data points. “Peninsula” accomplishes the nearly impossible: giving the reader a mystery that will always remain deliciously intriguing without ineptly or spitefully thwarting the reader. Fingering the story’s fabric, handling its images and details and assembling them into a meaningful whole is what reading fiction is all about.

©2001 L. Timmel DuChamp. All rights reserved. Please do not print without permission.


Leave a Reply