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Touching on Grief: On the Story “Dreaming Before Sleep,” by Kathryn Chetkovich, and Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Due to a violent death in my family, I found myself unable to read or write for about five months. It’s as if being robbed of a person wasn’t enough: I was also robbed of the things that made up my identity, that gave me joy. I could sleep, loaded on booze and other drugs, and I could watch, blindly, endless movies. That was about it.
Slowly, I attempted to read again, after the complete uninterest and the inability to concentrate faded slightly. I read two short stories, but I could barely remember them. Still, it was a start. I read a great novella by my friend and colleague, Jen Michalski, called May/December (Press 53 Awards 2010). This was heartening and the very beginning of some opening up in me.

Then, I went on a vacation with my family to a tiny cabin in the Dominican Republic that we generally go to three times a year. It had been over a year since we’d been able to go. I read very little contemporary novels–contemporary short stories I do read—and for some reason I brought Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I had read both excerpts/stories in the New Yorker, and, like previous short pieces of his, also in the New Yorker, I had liked them very much. I had maybe even loved them.

And so, I read Freedom at the beach, on our shady porch, and then even in the car as we drove to the grocery store or the dusty tennis club owned by an Italian expatriate. After finishing it, I found myself on the verge of tears. And then next day, and the day after. That was about it–three days of intermittently fighting back tears. How could these people do these things to each other? I felt anger, frustration, remorse. Why couldn’t they love each other “better”? And yet, I knew that they were, like all of us, doing the best that they could. But why wasn’t it enough? Or was it?

I then bought Franzen’s two books of essays. I wrote him a three page letter and sent it along with my recently published short story collection to him via his agent, knowing full well it could end up in a garbage can next to her assistant’s assistant’s desk. Then I remembered he had a girlfriend who wrote an essay called “Envy” that had appeared in Granta. I subscribed so that I could re-read it–there was no way I would be able to find it on my bookshelves which seem to eat books rather than hold them.

Her name was Kathryn Chetkovich. The essay was good–not really as self-pitying as I remembered it (and I may be more sympathetic to humans than I was years ago); indeed, it ended on a positive note. At one point, comparing herself to him, she says to Franzen, “I feel so little.” And he says, “I don’t think of you as little.” And all I wanted was for Jonathan Franzen to say that to me. That if I could crack the reason why Jonathan Franzen likes his girlfriend, then maybe I could figure out if he’d like me. That maybe if I could understand why he didn’t think she was little, maybe I could figure out if he would think of me as not little, and that maybe that would bring me back from the suffocating Hades of grief. Of course, I now see that just reading, and obsessing, about these two writers, was a tiny hand up back to the planet of the living.

So I bought her book of short stories, Friendly Fire. I googled her, too. I looked at the pictures of her, mostly black-and-white, like the author photo on her book, wearing glasses, arms crossed against her chest, maybe too dark lipstick in an effort to be less bookish-seeming? In the photos, she has a presence of seriousness; I doubt anyone had ever mocked her for sounding stupid in her entire life. Her book had won the prestigious John Simmons Short Fiction Award which then garners publication by University of Iowa Press.

The stories were good. Polished. They often went somewhere slightly uncomfortable. But only one gutted its characters, skinned them and revealed the sorrow I was looking for. The story, “Dreaming Before Sleep,” is a third person narration that sticks to the point of view of Harry, an elderly man, husband to his wife of many decades, father to his three daughters, one, the middle one (I am the middle daughter of three) who causes him emotional turmoil, and whose son he adores, his grandchild. It’s an incredibly sad story and it lacks the feeling of polish, even if it is so. Perhaps because Chetkovich isn’t writing from a young woman’s point of view (many of her stories are written this way, although not all by any means, but I don’t think those are the strongest ones) she lets herself go in a way she can’t when she’s writing something to close to her own self.

It’s the story I’d been looking for. The story, in my mind, that explains why Franzen doesn’t think she’s “so little.” It details the endlessness of guilt and regret. It shows how a father and a daughter can be so hard on one another, how a married couple can stay together even while, quite often, not wanting to be. Here are some lines: “It had always been this way with his wife; the things he loved about her and the things he could not stand were the same. He had always assumed that he was smarter than she was, but her flirtatiously uncommitted relationship with facts left her free to think of things he could not imagine.” And later: “Those were the two things that angered him most—not being able to remember anything and being tired all the time.” It’s these sort of blatant, honest realities that I craved. We get old, we get bewildered, or worse, demented. Then, of course, we die, which is the most enraging thing of all. And that last quote made me think, painfully, of a passage from Casting Off by one of my all-time favorite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard: “It was odd, she thought, how much she had to pretend these days to hear what people said, to understand (sometimes) what on earth they were talking about, to feel a great deal more well than she did, a great deal of the time…”

At one point, Harry remembers having accidentally picked up the phone, then overhearing his middle daughter say to his wife, “If that’s the way you feel, I don’t see why you don’t just leave him.” And late at night, as the story and possibly Harry’s life, wind to an end, he asks his wife, in bed next to him, “’Did you ever think of leaving me?’” and she says, “’Daily.’” This is the second time she says “daily” in the story. The first time, after her grandson has a minor scare in the swimming pool and the daughter asks her if she and her sisters ever almost died.

As Harry falls off to sleep, a while after his wife does, he’s flooded with memory. This is where Chetkovich gets her title. The details of a life, a long life, full of births and deaths and seasons and emotion and lust and regret. I still often don’t understand how the human race stands it all. With great regularity I walk down the streets of Brooklyn and as I pass person after person, I can only imagine how complicated and precious their lives are.

I read these stories to find out what kind of woman Jonathan Franzen would find “not little.” I imagined having oysters with Franzen at an ex-boyfriend’s restaurant, imagined impressing both my ex-boyfriend and Jonathan Franzen. I can’t imagine what we’d talk about, perhaps about writing, perhaps about our families. And in all this imagining and holding onto memories of things that are no longer, which is a sort of imagining in itself, I found myself with another hand up from the ugliest place I’ve ever been, that place of all consuming grief. It’s been almost six months since my father died. I’ll never get over his death. I’ll never understand it. I’ll never accept it. But at least words mean something to me again and I find comfort in our universal suffering, even if it’s a fleeting comfort.

1 thought on “Touching on Grief: On the Story “Dreaming Before Sleep,” by Kathryn Chetkovich, and Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

  1. “I still often don’t understand how the human race stands it all. With great regularity I walk down the streets of Brooklyn and as I pass person after person, I can only imagine how complicated and precious their lives are.”

    I get floored by this exact thought probably about three times a month or so and sometimes more often. It’s probably depression but I can’t or won’t call it that because it feels like how could anyone not feel that way? I feel like, how can we have so much inside us and have built so much and yet still be so incredibly fragile, our lives so fleeting?

    Thanks for this. It was lovely. I felt less lonely just reading it. And I’m so sorry about your father. Truly.

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