“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe
Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine
2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word
I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.
The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.
I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.
It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.
A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.
The meaning of the tale consisted / In discussing if it existed.
I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:
- The narrator notes that some of the girls in the Pie Club photo have their backs turned. He wouldn’t mention that fact if he didn’t consider it significant. Therefore, we can infer that the number of names in the caption of the photo is greater than the number of visible faces. (The only way it makes sense for the two numbers to be the same, or for the names to be fewer than the faces, is if there are faces in the background, where the photo captioner would have had the option of leaving them nameless. The narrator doesn’t mention any background faces, so there probably aren’t any.)
- Assuming the captioner didn’t make a mistake, Suzanne is visible in that photo. No photographer has the patience to take notes on everyone present in a group photo; it would make far more sense to note “Pie Club” and let the yearbook editors work out the details. Therefore, we can rule out the theory that Suzanne is supernaturally impossible to photograph.
- If someone deliberately expunged Suzanne’s picture from the yearbook, they must have been interested only in removing her face. The yearbooks still contain her name and, almost certainly, a photo of her facing away from the camera.
- The Spanish influenza isn’t enough information to reliably date this story. The narrator seems vague about what kind of epidemic it was. Furthermore, we know he has been married and separated amicably twice (he never actually says divorced). Would that really have been acceptable and “mundane” in small-town America before 1960? He says he has “lived nowhere else”; where, then, did he find two women who were willing to end a marriage for no reason except boredom?
- Even post-1960, was it conventional for people to end marriages so lightly? Perhaps he’s fudging the truth a bit. His wives left him because he couldn’t give them children, or for sexual reasons.
- Speaking of culture questions, when and where do Americans customarily visit each other “for tea”? I associate that phrase with something more elaborate than a mug of Lipton or a Southern glass of iced tea, but the discussion of textiles places us in North America.
- The rules of the small town setting seem to ensure that, if Suzanne had been involved in some scandal, the narrator would have known something about it. He admits to knowing “the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones[.]”
- Robert Borski’s “Snow White” theory doesn’t hold up. His interpretation of the narrator’s role is good and he points out some tantalizing connections, but the apple and mirror allusions are too faint and too ambiguous to be convincing. It would be just as plausible to connect the textiles with Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, or the yearbook to the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Besides, Suzanne’s daughter isn’t described as having anything like “lips as red as blood,” and there’s no one to fill the roles of the huntsman or the dwarves.
- Here’s a theory: The narrator’s mother, or some other adult, actually conspired to keep the narrator and Suzanne from meeting. Perhaps she was trying to protect him from something she knew about Suzanne, or to protect her friend’s daughter from something she knew about her son. Perhaps he and Suzanne were secretly siblings or half siblings, and their guardians were terrified of accidental incest. The widowed neighbor’s grudge was an invention, the yearbook photos were destroyed deliberately, and the narrator’s and Suzanne’s classes were carefully scheduled to keep them from even passing each other in the halls. (It’s unusual for a mother to see a good marriage prospect for her child without at least making introductions, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t seem to notice the oddity of that omission.) But no, a parental conspiracy makes no sense. If their parents wanted to separate them, the obvious thing would be to send them to different schools. The narrator implies that there are at least two elementary schools in town, so it would be odd for there to be only one high school, even an “overgrown” one.
- Hasn’t anyone suggested a time travel theory yet? No wild mass guessing session is complete without Purgatory, a gay romance, and time travel. So, in another timeline, the narrator knew Suzanne, and their relationship had disastrous repercussions. He caught the flu from Suzanne; he passed the flu on to someone important (perhaps to all the “pilgrims from other towns” who visited his mother!); he and Suzanne, young and foolish, did something terrible together; Suzanne infected the main quarterback with flu, thus giving the narrator his chance to shine (or to get horribly injured); the widowed neighbor turned against him and his family; whatever. At some later date, somebody (the narrator, Suzanne, Suzanne’s mother, or someone else entirely) decided to overwrite the timeline, giving the narrator a dull, peaceful life.
- The Purgatory theory should be easy to come up with. Actually, the narrator’s mediocrity might place him just outside the gates of Dante’s Hell, among “the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
- The mothers’ obsession with textiles is extreme, even manic—more passionate than anything in the narrator’s own life. A hint of what he’s missed out on, and/or been protected from?
- Neither the narrator’s father nor Suzanne’s is ever mentioned.