Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

“I’ve had to deduce that women grow hard over time while men grow soft.”

A few years ago, I read Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound, the story of a woman who unexpectedly finds that she’s the guardian of a teenage girl. Bound explores the issues of obligation, responsibility and loyalty through the lives of its characters, and while I enjoyed the novel, I have to say that these short stories in the author’s latest collection, Funny Once, are truly superb.

If there’s a common thread in the nine stories and novella in  Funny Once, then that common thread must be the unexpected links we make with people, and once again obligation, responsibility and loyalty are issues at play.  These stories are not about dysfunctional families, but rather it’s fractured families that are examined here. What sort of stew do you get when someone has been married 3 or 4 times, has children and step-children from various marriages, and old relationships with former in-laws? Move over the theme of dysfunctional families and instead let’s look at a very common scenario, at least in my part of the world, the crazy quilt of fractured families.

Funny onceIn Soldier’s Joy, Nana, a woman married to her much older husband returns home to Kansas following her father’s accident. There she meets a former lover,  a man who was a crucial factor in her much later marriage.  Nana’s husband is her former professor:

She and Helen had met Dr. Shock at an apex, his as a certified celebrity, theirs as nubile acolytes. He had then been a casual tenant of his attractive still-young body, but now was a fearfully vain and anxious one of the older model. For two consecutive years he had gone about claiming to be sixty-nine, not even consciously, so averse was he to the number seventy.

Nana and her husband  don’t have children, but they own dogs.

Lacking children, Nana and her husband had settled for dogs; their friends no doubt pitied their misplaced affection. This was the third pair of siblings they’d owned. First black labs, next Cocker Spaniels, now the Corgis–each set a slightly smaller breed. “We’ll die with Chihuahuas,” Nana had once told her husband.

“You” die with Chihuahuas,” he’d corrected her. “”I’ll die during the dachshunds.”

Nana’s parents have never really understood her marriage or why all of her education “led her no further than housewifery.” When Nana returns home, she discovers that her parents have become surrogate grandparents to the children of the neighbours, and that the neighbour is her first boyfriend. This difficult situation is fraught with might-have-beens and fantasies of a possible future. There’s a shock in store for Nana, but it’s not what you expect.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, and it’s hard to just pick a few favourites, is The Village. In this story, Darcy, now middle-aged recalls how a car wreck she caused as a teenager led to a strange confession by her father of an extra-marital affair with a woman named Lois. He begins with the sentence “sometimes people do things that other people might call mistakes.” Circumstances lead to Darcy meeting Lois, and she becomes one of the formative people in Darcy’s life. When Darcy goes to Lois’s funeral, she thinks she’ll finally be able to acknowledge exactly what her father’s long-time mistress meant to her, but she learns otherwise. This is a wonderful, and curious story, as Lois is a shadow figure. We never actually meet her so we only see her reflected in the mirror of various memories. To one lot of people, Lois was a remarkable woman, while to her own family, she’s something else entirely.

In IFF a woman finds herself living with hairdresser Gloria, her ex-mother-in-law, detritus from the divorce from Nathan.  Gloria is Nathan’s stepmother, and while he’s moved on, and is about to remarry, there’s simply no room in his new life for his step-mother, and Nathan seems to think Gloria is an -ex too. Like unwanted baggage, Gloria is left behind, yet she and her former daughter-in-law share a bond that goes beyond the tenuous bond of a wobbly marriage.

In First Husband, Lovey now married for the second time, deals with her step-daughter, Bernadette, her “ex-husband’s youngest most difficult girl.” While her other step-daughters found Lovey “lacking,” Bernadette, was “needy” and formed a relationship with her young stepmother which continues in spite of the divorce and remarriage. Lovey and Bernadette share a complicated bond of loyalty and disappointment stemming from their relationships with the same man–Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex-husband.

When she married him, he was at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, it’s fulmination, at forty-five, still moving in the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all of them except the first few–when he was a beginner, when he was on the receiving end of a romantic education–younger than himself; he was a serial seducer. “Handsome men are dangerous,” Lovey’s mother had warned her. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where those others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love, to make one arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.

If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

Now Lovey has moved on to a very placid, comfortable re-marriage to William, a doctor, but still the past intrudes through the obligations she feels to Bernadette. Bernadette was her step-daughter, and now she has children. Is Lovey a grandmother? Are these her grandchildren? And what of Lovey’s second marriage to William?

And she understood that William, too, had been disposed of, that his ex-wife had had a similar nuclear potency, and that he loved Lovey with the same conscious intensity of somebody exacting a kind of revenge, or, perhaps, simply forever behaving with the belief that his ex was paying attention, that he had need to prove he’d survive and thrive, the victor. A victor, anyway.

The novella, Three Wishes, follows the lives of the three Panik siblings, Hugh, Hannah, and Holly, and the story begins when they deliver their father, duct-taped into his recliner, to a nursing home. With their father in a home, the siblings return to their lives. Hannah, the only one who’s married, is the one who seems to have her life together whereas Hugh and hopeless single-parent, Holly are visibly stunted. There’s a great scene when the siblings enter a bar called Ugly’s:

Hannah had a nervy awareness of her femaleness, the way the den of men had vaguely stirred, straightened its collective spine–math nerds, slackers, divorced professors–when she and Holly had entered. Her older sister looked like a woman who knew how to have fun in the world, whose smile came from zealous desire, whose mind was worth investigating, who wouldn’t reject you without a test run.

His little sister looked like somebody who’d threaten to kill herself if you broke up with her.

Hugh, who’s been living in the ramshackle family home (with hippies next door), and works a marginal job, returns there and begins attending creative writing classes at night at the local college–“his current attempt to curtail his drinking.” Over time we learn that there should have been a fourth sibling, Hamish, who died, “animation suspended at age nineteen.” Even though he’s been dead for decades, Hamish’s shadow lingers over his siblings who never quite connect with their lives.

The characters here are aging and trying to come to terms with the mistakes in their lives even as they mull over the invisible crossroads that took them to unintended destinations. Even Ms. Fox, the bitter creative writing professor in Three Wishes doesn’t seem to know how she ended up in Kansas. Antonya Nelson’s stories are relevant to today’s family situations where the nuclear family is riddled with fault lines–multiple marriages and divorces, step-children, step-parents, & step-grandparents. We know that responsibility doesn’t end with divorce, and with great sensitivity and insight Antonya Nelson explores the reaches of loyalty which trumps legal obligation. This is a marvellous collection and comes highly recommended.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Nelson Antonya

6 responses to “Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

  1. Brian Joseph

    Indeed families have gotten complicated and some the situations that are part of these plots are not entirely unfamiliar to me. In a way it is oddly comforting that we have literature that helps mirror a changing world.

  2. Especially difficult when it comes to weddings and holidays. Who do you include? Who do you leave out?

  3. Very interesting. I like that she explores fragmented and not dysfunctional families – or not only. I’d like to read Three Wishes, that sounds right up my street. I wonder what it’s like to live in a family like that. I come from the opposite – a family which is nearly non-existent because everyone died too early or too willingly.

    • Sorry to hear that Caroline.
      The novella is excellent, and since you liked Ellen Gilchrist, I think you’d also like this author. They’re not, by any means, the same, but they are both excellent short story writers.

  4. “If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.” True, I should think about this more often.
    This sounds marvellous and spot on about new families. Like Caroline but for different reasons, I wonder how it is to live in a family like that.
    This one goes directly on the TBR

    • It was refreshing to move away from dysfunctional families to fractured families–although I think the novella was more about the former. All of the stories here are very strong, and now I want to read all this author’s work.

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