THE KING'S COUNCIL
In which your Sovereign Majesty gets an earful on contemporary literature from your loyal councillors
[PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES], Bill Henderson, Ed.
"Cocktail Hour," by Kate Braverman
Benjamin Chambers: Figure I may as well move right along to the second story in the Pushcart anthology, “Cocktail Hour,” by Kate Braverman. There’s much to enjoy here – so much wit flying around between the two main characters that you think, Ah, this is going to be good. We meet Bernie and Chloe, middle-aged and rich, on a day when Bernie’s dream of a recognition plaque at work has crumbled to nothing, and he’s come home to find Chloe packing to leave him. Bernie floats around in a haze, while Chloe peppers him with her tart complaints. The house is a nightmare of a la mode decoration, adding to his sense of disorientation:
”The ceiling is a sequence of Douglas fir beams somehow procured from a derelict church in New Mexico. Bernie assumes her decorator hires bandits.”
Meanwhile, Chloe talks about why she’s leaving. Now that they’ve got their children safely off to college, she’s saying she’s free to go, she’s done. And boy does she go to work on the stupidity of their lives:
“Soccer did me in. Soccer, for Christ’s sake. How does soccer figure? When did that make your short list? …It’s just crap.” Chloe is vehement.
“We accepted division of labor as a viable vestigial tradition. But you could have refused,” Bernie counters.
“You can’t say no to soccer. It’s the new measure of motherhood. It’s the fucking gold standard. I sat in parking lots between chauffering [sic], feeling like Shiva with her [sic] arms amputated.”
The whole story is like this, practically, with Bernie mostly playing straight man, though they both have their moments of diamond-hard lucidity. Here’s one of Bernie’s:
“Just gain a few pounds and let’s stay married,” Bernie spreads cream cheese on a bagel …
“I’m leaving a few pounds early. I’m one of the last original wives. Do you realize that?” Chloe asks. “I’m forty-six. Let’s just skip menopause and the obligatory trophy wife syndrome. We did our jobs. Now the task is finished.”
“We had a deal. We agreed to be postmodern,” Bernie points out. “No empires with historically disastrous ends. No mistresses with unnecessary dangerous complications. No tax fraud. No start-ups or IPO’s. Just us, with plausible defendable borders.”
It’s wonderful, this banter, but it feels like Braverman was so bored with the trappings of suburban life that rather than have her characters actually grapple with longing or the hollowness at the center of their lives, she had to create characters who were bored too, always shielding themselves from true feeling with irony and amphetamines. I mean, Jesus, if Bernie and Chloe can agree to “plausible defendable borders” as a plan for their lives, and Chloe can sum up their life together as a “performance-art piece,” then how can one believe that they’d ever end up in La Jolla, imprisoned by their overconsumption – or that they’d ever split up?
It’s not really them talking, though, is it? It’s Braverman, lecturing (however amusingly):
“Piano. Cello. Guitar, Ballet. Gymnastics. Basketball. Karate. Theatre arts. Choral group. Ceramics. Mime. What kid has that plethora of aptitudes? … Activities are another form of consumption. Now a video. Now a violin. Now Chinese. Now a chainsaw.”
Bernie considers the possibility that he may pass out.
And there it is, right there: Bernie’s supposedly pole-axed with disappointment about the fact that he will not, after all, be making a lasting mark at the hospital where he’s given so many years of his life; you’d think, under the circumstances, that he’d take his wife’s imminent departure seriously, but he doesn’t, he’s distant and zoned out. True, late in the story he’s supposed to be desperate as he realizes she’s serious, but it’s not believable. His approach to desperation is to offer her amphetamines, and then morphine laced with cocaine, which she – amazingly – accepts as if the whole purpose of her tirade was to elicit such offers.
All one can say after a ride like that is, Huh? “Cocktail Hour” is a beautiful story, entertaining even, but there’s nothing to it, really. Offered as a portrait of a marriage, Bernie and Chloe’s smarts undercut it – it’s hard to know what moves them. At the end, one has to conclude that Chloe was never serious about leaving, which is why Bernie never took her decision to leave very seriously, but so what? Their answer to the possessions and wealth that swaddles them is drugs, irony, and more drugs – and in the end, I don’t care. The story of privileged people entombed in their wealth and detachment is an old standby of fiction. That’s not necessarily a problem, but even a skilled writer like Braverman can be unable (as she is in this instance) to rescue such a story from cliché. “Cocktail Hour” is not the worst way to while away an hour, in my view, but not a memorable story, either.
Bill Bukovsan: Fascinating. But before I get to why this is fascinating, let me clear up one thing: the reason I thought Oh no, not another Iraq piece on page two of “Refresh, Refresh” is because I had read the previous Pushcart anthology, in which, by my count, there were at least four stories that dealt, directly or indirectly, with our bungling in Baghdad. Telling, don’t you think?
Okay, so back to fascinating. I didn’t read your response to “Cocktail Hour” before I read the piece, but when Chloe drank her third scotch I wrote in the margin: It occurs to me that this is all fake. What I meant is that it seemed possible that Chloe was only acting, only pretending to leave Bernie because she wanted something from him. As far as I’m concerned, Braverman confirms my suspicion on the last page of the story, when “[Chloe] removes her beige dress with the thin shoulder straps,” which she’s changed into some five pages earlier, and isn’t wearing anything underneath. Since she doesn’t appear to be dashing out to meet a lover—since she’s had time to down three Laphroaigs (these people have taste—you’ve got to give them that) and an unknown but evidently sizeable quantity of amphetamines, all the while letting Bernie have a piece of her muddled mind—we have to assume that her intended audience is her husband. But what she wants, as you so astutely point out, is not really sex (although it’s clear that sex is what Bernie wants, or at least part of what he wants—at the very beginning of the story he wants a drink and for Chloe to lie down with him, in that order, and at the end of the story, his fantasies have taken on a more explicit, albeit hallucinatory, character) but drugs. This, I suppose, is supposed to be the story’s big payoff, the revelation that Bernie and Chloe are in fact junkies, as evidenced the contents of the safe in Bernie’s office and the collapsed veins in Chloe’s left arm.
So let’s play along for a bit—let’s take it for granted that Chloe never really intended to leave Bernie. Let’s assume that all Chloe was after was her two parts heroin to one part cocaine. (This bugged me, by the way: Braverman harps on Chloe’s affection for mid-seventies Bob Dylan, and on Bernie’s complementary affinity for bebop and cool jazz—but then it should have been Chloe who preferred cocaine and Bernie who wanted heroin….) There would then be a formal elegance to the whole piece; I, certainly, would have appreciated the late revelation that all was not as it seemed, that what I was witnessing was not the dissolution of a marriage but instead a dance that (I think) has been danced before. Surely, there is a staged quality to the whole thing, extending not only to Chloe’s bon mots but to the very voice of the piece. At the beginning, for example, Bernie gazes at his own bedroom “as if he’s never quite seen it before.” At first I thought that this was merely a clumsy transitional sentence, a way to begin a paragraph that was really about the extravagant furnishings of the bedroom and therefore the immense wealth of this sad little couple, but then I began to wonder if something more interesting were going on: you can only look at something “as if” you’ve never quite seen it before only if you have, in fact, seen it before—otherwise, there’s no “as if” about it. So maybe, I found myself thinking, this is all a game: not only did Chloe never intend to leave Bernie, not only is her whole show of packing and hiring lawyers and whatnot a pantomime, but Bernie knows it—he has known it from the moment he walked in the house, has even, perhaps, been expecting it, because he has seen it all before.
And yet—and yet. What are we to make of the moments where Bernie seems to be genuinely uncertain of what’s going on, the moments where he “entertains the notion that this is a ghastly practical joke, or the consequence of an anomalous miscommunication. A faulty computer transmitting a garbled fax designed for someone else entirely, perhaps.”? It seems to me that Ms. Braverman lacks the courage of her convictions: either Bernie and Chloe are really breaking up, or they are engaging in a sort of pellucid drug/sex-play. And yes, both can be true (in fact, the story is only good if both at least threaten to be true), but, working with what we are given, it is neither. I think you have put your finger on the problem: Bernie’s missing plaque. For, like it or not, the day the story takes place should be a momentous one for Bernie—everything for which (we are led to believe) he has worked the past twenty years has been abruptly denied him. One would think, therefore, that this would add at least soupçon of something or other—desperation, urgency, poignancy, something—to the proceedings. But, as you have said, he doesn’t seem to be particularly upset. I assume that his self-medication and his (initially muted) sexual desire for his wife are supposed to telegraph his disappointment, but if that’s the case, then there’s a lot of static in the wires.
In the end, I think the piece is a noble failure – braver, certainly, than “Refresh, Refresh,” with its slavish chasing after the fashions of the moment. I can almost believe that Braverman saw two potential directions for “Cocktail Hour”. In the first, Bernie and Chloe’s marriage is teetering on the edge of collapse, and the reprieve afforded by the contents of Bernie’s office safe is only temporary at best; in the second (more interesting) scenario, the marriage is secure, held together by a potent admixture of alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin, and spiced by occasional improvised (but ultimately unreal) bouts of playacting. These two possibilities seem to compete with one another throughout the piece; in the end, neither wins, and the piece crumbles into exactly the cliché that you named in your response: rich people who use drugs and irony to shield themselves from the emptiness in their own souls.
Next time: therapy and mitzvahs in Western Massachusetts. Till then…
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