Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Michelle Wildgen’s "You’re Not You"

Michelle Wildgen is senior editor of Tin House Magazine, an editor with Tin House Books, the author of the novel You’re Not You, and the editor of the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to You’re Not You and reported the following:
I was pretty sure page 99 would be a description of gorillas or something random, but actually the page opens on a scene that — to me, anyway — is pivotal in terms of the relationship between the two main characters, its underpinnings, insecurities, and shifts, and the reasons why it’s shifting in the first place.

So: Kate and Bec are in the bathroom. Bec is applying makeup to Kate, and hearing, bit by bit, about why Kate has just asked her husband to move out. The relevance of the separation for Bec is that she is Kate’s caregiver (Kate has advanced ALS) and the departure of the husband will eventually mean more responsibility for Bec, and a much tighter bond between the two women. For me, however, the significance is in the way the conversation proceeds:

“But do you think this is temporary?”

Kate opened her eyes. “No,” she said. “It’s probably permanent.”

I stopped sharpening the eyeliner and watched Kate’s lips carefully. “’Permanent’?”

Kate nodded. She shut her eyes again so I could smudge the gray eyeliner near her lashes….

“He thinks,” Kate said, “he should have another outlet.”

From there Bec hears the rest of the story, in the singular way she and Kate communicate throughout: Kate, whose illness has left her hard to comprehend, gives a few words at a time and Bec translates and repeats for confirmation. What she learns is that Kate’s family disagrees with her choice to ask her husband to move out if he insists on sleeping with someone else, that Kate herself has had mixed feelings about the idea, and tried for awhile to accept the situation. Throughout the scene Bec keeps revising her own opinions: realizing she had assumed Kate and Evan’s marriage proceeded with just this kind of accommodation, shock at how suddenly a marriage could be ended (which is of special relevance to her given that she has slept with a married instructor for months), and her own attempts to comfort Kate and bond with her by insisting that she, Bec, understands the complexities of the marriage between the older couple. What seems like an intimate moment falls apart when Kate understands that Bec is telling her she too has been in a complicated relationship — but as the other woman. Kate closes down the conversation and the moment.

The page feels like the book in a nutshell because it glimpses the ideas that develop throughout the novel: the issue of sexuality and sexual rules for both women, Bec’s attempts to connect emotionally with Kate, whom she deeply admires, and Kate’s mercurial willingness to open up to her, her constantly changing feelings about how much of herself to bare. Their intimacy grows, but only haltingly, uncomfortably, and for Bec it is forever in question, just as it is here.
Read an excerpt from You're Not You, and learn more about the author and her writing at Michelle Wildgen’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue