An Analysis of Disruption in Carol Lucci Wisner’s Stonehenge and the Louvre Were Cool
Sometimes it happens this way: a story unfolds in a linear fashion. The author begins at the beginning and writes all the way through to the end. This approach makes particular sense in the case of autobiographies or memoir. The life being examined in the text unfolded in a linear fashion, so why wouldn’t the narrative follow suit? With a piece of writing, form and content are inextricably linked, a kind of narrative DNA. In Carol Lucci Wisner’s The Stonehenge and the Louvre Were Cool, the author presents us with a narrative that is structured, but the events are certainly not linear. This essay focuses on the distance between the author and her daughter, and how the passing of time has changed them. If one were to attribute a classical narrative form to this piece, it would be a “Confessional” essay. The author confesses to not liking her daughter, being envious of her, and that there exists a set of circumstances in which she might not love her daughter. Since this confessional essay does not wrap up neatly, Wisner disrupts this traditional form with forays into dreams, through time, and into the darkness of outer-space.
The entrance the reader is given to this story is not a gate or a doorway, but more like a murky cave-hole that beckons for one to jump even though the depth and dangers are unknowable. Wisner’s opening line is simultaneously inviting and disruptive, “Sometimes it happens this way….” The reader is driven onward by the vague language in an effort to determine what “it” is, what’s happening, and why only “sometimes.” Readers are immediately jarred, but also compelled to move onward into what is revealed to be a dream in which the author finds herself and her possessions either drowning or being washed away. The key to this passage is when along with the sound of rushing water the author feels, “that something I could have prevented is about to happen or has already happened. Then I wake to the sound of my daughter’s key in the door….” By invoking her daughter after describing a preventable nightmare, Wisner sets up the expectation that even though she is the parent, her child has somehow gotten away from her.
The author twice uses dreams to illustrate the situation with her daughter. The second time she invokes a dream, it is not her own nightmare, but instead her daughter’s dreams, dreams of flight. These are dreams the mother can share but only “when we haven’t argued and the day can still be perfect.” Yet, with the way that the author describes her daughter’s dreams – they are “wide-open,” “bright,” and “sharp and sudden like the ringing of a telephone” – the reader gets the sense that both of them find some hope in these dreams.
Preceding this moment in the narrative, the author discussed her daughter’s trip to Europe – the first flight from the nest? – and that they often argue, but the days that they don’t are “perfect.” The flight is a metaphor for a youthful confidence Wisner herself once possessed, but it got lost along the way. Not randomly, but “it went away when I had her.” There is, again, a confessional element to this statement, to this feeling that so differs from the feelings that parents are supposed to have with respect to their child. Were this plainly stated, it could come across as cold or uncaring. Wisner uses the disruption caused by the dream to instead make this confession about hard, practical realizations of the absence of youth.
If this is a confessional essay, and I believe that it is, it is not exactly apologetic. Unlike with St. Augustine and the others, there is no request for absolution or penance at the end. The author does not see her daughter off into the world with optimism nor does she return at the end to thank her mother for the years of wisdom, sacrifice, and love. Perhaps if either of these things had happened, the author might have chosen to present a more linear narrative. The essay is a series of disruptions because Wisner’s life has been a series of disruptions, the largest of which had been this baby-turned-hellion that so frustrates her. At the essay’s end, the author faces a changing landscape, resigned to her fate.
To best understand that fate, we need to examine how Wisner presents herself as a character in this piece. On page 257 the author explicitly asks the central Who-Am-I-? question that is at the heart of all memoir. Earlier the author uses pictures and idyllic memory to illustrate herself. This is opposed to the way in which she reveals her daughter’s character, through Wisner’s experiences as a mother. Wisner presents the reader with a number of different identities, “bride, young wife, mother.” She also shows that her childhood was lacking something. “In the pictures I look happy, though there were times I felt trapped,” although she admits that she had freedom and didn’t know what to do with it. In these pictures she is wearing the type of masks her daughter was sampling earlier in the piece, masks that made her “look like I knew what I was doing,” when in fact she doesn’t even know what she wants. She is unsure. What remains unclear is that by describing her past as she does, is she not somehow celebrating her success as a parent? Her daughter started out in the baby seat on the back of a bicycle going to the library to look at pictures of Stonehenge or the works of art that hang in The Louvre until she got to see them in person. They “were cool.”
We don’t get a description of the author until the end of the essay. Wisner begins by placing the audience directly in front of the mirror. The image of the mirror has appeared in the essay before: the lake over which her daughter’s imaginary blue heron flies is “dark and still and smooth as a mirror,” so it is a mirror into which we cannot see. Also, the daughter sits in front of a mirror (presumably) when she is trying out make-up, drawing “smudgy lines on her lids and studies the effect with her eyes half-shut, her mouth loose, pouting.” The daughter is looking into the mirror and seeing endless possibilities for herself. The description the author puts forth of herself reflected in the mirror is sparse when it comes to physical detail. The best we get is that she sees “a woman whose features seem less like her own, and more like her mother’s aunts.” By referring to her reflection not as herself but in the third-person, she establishes a distance between who is in the mirror and who is in the words.
If the author were writing a linear narrative, she might have repeatedly described herself, detailing the effects of time and motherhood. However, by placing these pockets of description here and there, the reader’s sense of the author is disrupted. It creates a sense in the reader that there is more to the story than is in the words on the page. In a linear narrative, the author might be able to convey the same message, but it would be far too neat and orderly.
The other benefit to this form of disrupted confessional writing is that the reader is unable to clearly lay blame upon either the author or her daughter. The daughter is described as somewhat insufferable, but not as a problem child either. The author admits on page 257 that she is unsure of the kind of adult her daughter is turning out to be. Wisner can’t “bear to see her unhappy,” but also doesn’t “trust in her instinct to survive.” Yet the ultimate lesson is one that Wisner seems to have only just learned herself, “that the test of a woman’s endurance may be her ability to withstand disappointment.” Wisner is aware not only that she’s aging, but that she has made mistakes. She’s let herself down and she’s afraid that she has let down her daughter, too.
The only conversation we actually see between the two of them happens on page 257. Rather than argue, they instead discuss words “people don’t use much anymore.” The italicized word, bereft, is a heavy word. It means deprived or lacking, sometimes specifically because of someone’s death or departure. The author thinks “it’s a good word, but one I’ve never used, never spoke out loud.” The daughter’s question, “What are you waiting for?” hangs in the air. Wisner is chest-deep in “bereft,” but the reader is left to ponder what the author is lacking. Or is the daughter warning her mother of her own departure? Is it both?
Wisner closes on page 258 by transporting the reader to the front yard of her home – almost as if in a dream, another disruption – where there are deer tracks around the crab apple tree. The deer are described as skittish animals that had to overcome their fear to eat from Wisner’s tree of (crabby) life. Winter is coming and times are harsh. The deer are wild, free animals that cannot be tamed or held on to, much like Wisner’s daughter. Whereas the dog – his grey back possibly matching the grey in the aforementioned great-aunts’ hair – comes trotting back. Wisner whisks us away, beyond her yard, her town, her life and out into the universe, facing a blank, ever-changing future. The author accepts her own mortality, her daughter gone, mere tracks in the snow. Wisner’s closing paragraph begins with “By the calendar, we have passed the year’s longest night.” She faces the sun along with nothing. If Wisner had brought us to this place via a linear narrative, this ending would be just as bleak, but would lack much of the meaning it gained because of the current structure.
Kitchen, Judith, and Mary Paumier Jones.In Short : a Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.