Catherine Lacey on Self-Inflicted Wounds
In “Cut,” your story in this week’s issue, the protagonist, Peggy, develops a mysterious “crotch wound.” There’s an element of body horror to the situation, especially with regard to Peggy being female and the attendant lack of information or answers for her unexplainable “cut-rip-gash.” Were these ideas that you were playing with when you were beginning the story, or did you come to the subject in some other way?
All I remember knowing early in writing this story was that a person had an unexplained groin injury that eluded her understanding. If I start thinking about a story in terms of its ideas, that usually means I am done writing the story or that the story will soon be abandoned, dishevelled, by the side of the road.
In an introduction to his brilliantly weird novel “Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall,” Ken Sparling wrote, “You can feel intent without having a specific intention. You can be intent without knowing what you intend.” I think this is the experience of a lot of fiction writers. The dramatic situations that interest us are usually the ones that smuggle in ideas we want to think about indirectly.
In terms of story structure, there’s a problem that’s introduced that has no immediate or obvious solution—at least, Peggy doesn’t seem to know what the solution might be. Were you writing with a way to the end of the story in mind?
Never. When the ending to this story arrived, I was so relieved, because I had even less of a clue where “Cut” was going than I usually do when writing fiction. I think I knew, whether consciously or not, that the cut would not heal, nor would it advance to an extreme, but beyond that I was happily lost.
Even after all the time I’ve spent with this story, I don’t know whether the cut is a real or imagined problem within the confines of the narrative. But what could be more modern than feeling both divided and united at once, of being pulled in opposing directions without actually coming apart? As an image and a predicament, that together-apartness seems to extend far beyond gender and has everything to do with our current era.
Peggy cultivates a relationship with an older woman, Elena, who tells Peggy about the difficulties of her marriages. There’s a desire for mentorship there, as well as a nod to the widely discussed theme of female friendship in recent literature. But perhaps there’s also some skepticism there. Do Elena’s experiences help us see something that’s contemporary —or traditional—about Peggy’s experience?
Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a lot of ostensibly progressive women (myself included) realize that, despite all the years of work and talk about gender equality, many of us still privately entrap ourselves with conventional ideas about what opportunities or limits are inherent to being female. Cross-generational friendships are uniquely suited for helping a person see outside the limits of her particular life span. The few friendships that I have of this sort are invaluable to me.
However, I think this idea that female friendship is a pervasive or important theme in contemporary literature is merely the result of someone in a marketing department deciding that “female friendship” is a quick way to promote certain books to a large block of women. Writers have been writing about friendships for as long as we’ve been writing about anything.
Peggy realizes that she’s developed a kind of interior monologue during sex, a man’s voice that is referred to as the “sex announcer.” Is he part of Peggy’s tendency to overthink things? A condensation of the patriarchy? Something more mysterious?
People tend to create their worst enemies.
Along with the sex announcer, there’s an undercurrent of male violence that runs through the story—the husband’s skinhead haircut is just one example. Is there a reason that this violence remains largely dormant in the story’s action?
There seems to be an internal logic within the story that makes actual violence unnecessary, but I don’t think I’m suited to describe that logic. I think most women are accustomed to living with the presence of male violence, even when it’s not explicitly visible, but I’m also interested in the wounds a person carries around that are self-inflicted, or at least self-aggravated. The story might be asking the question of how or why a person might participate in a kind of internal violence. Or maybe I’m asking that question of the story now.
The giving of advice is something that recurs throughout the story, from Elena’s friendship, to the episode of the student in office hours, to the corrections of Peggy’s husband. Is advice something ultimately insufficient or even futile in the story, or does it have a role beyond that?
Life continually reveals these fissures and contradictions in our otherwise carefully constructed identities, but, when seen a certain way, the instability and ultimate vacancy of the self can be downright hilarious. It’s the banana peel on which we’re always slipping, and when we slip it’s instinctual to grab on to something. That’s all advice is to me—a flung hand on the way down. The people who ask for advice the most frequently are often the worst at actually taking it, especially if it’s good advice! I would put myself in this category. I tend to suffer toward my own conclusions.
The story’s ending moves into the present tense. Where does that shift take us?
To the present!
I’m interested in that slimy place between dream and reality. Maybe that’s where fiction comes from, or maybe that’s where people tend to destroy themselves. Who knows?