Raven-haired, intelligent, and intense Mary kept after Roger for the first year. In the beginning “they” as a couple seemed to be her idea. Not that she was some John Hinckley, Jr., stalking his Jodie Foster. They got physical (and they howled each other’s praise) after dinners out, after movies, after bluegrass bands, after backgammon. That first Christmas Roger bought Mary a navy blue goose-down coat from Eddie Bauer’s that matched his. Mary could not imagine, she said to her two married sisters, that Roger would not marry her.
A friend who just turned fifty told me, “I’ve become nervous about introducing unmarried, younger friends. It’s as dangerous as taking sides in a marital spat. In a marriage breakup, the couple gets back together and hates you. When you make introductions between single people? They sleep together awhile then quarrel, or simply drift apart, and they blame you for bringing them together in the first place! ” Roger, as things turned out, did not marry Mary. When they met, he was a thirty-three-year-old newly hired physics instructor, a chunky, ebullient, blue-eyed, blushy, Irish blond who played shortstop on his department’s softball team and lined vicious drives into left field. Although he could be seen treating relatives’ children with reverence, that first year he begrudged Mary’s question, “Do we have a future?” Mary did not ask again. She cheered Roger’s home runs, and after she stacked the graded papers for her freshman scientific principles class, she stopped by the music store and picked up strings for Roger’s banjo. Before she left for school in the morning, she made potato salad for the softball team’s potluck. She appeared to those of us older women -— we matrons who watched — to be doing what we had once done. She was biding her time. We praised her, saying how admirably she behaved, how cleverly, how spunkily. She would get him, we said.
In my day (I am getting close to forty-five), girls were schooled to catch a man. When he was caught, he was congratulated. “Never,” etiquette manuals warned, “congratulate the bride.”
In the middle of the second year Roger proposed. Mary said, “Until I get my degree, I’d rather we played it by ear.’’She assured him, “It’s not that I don’t love you. ’ ’
Roger and Mary leveled into an eighteen-month protracted crisis. Week by week, Roger increasingly organized his life around Mary. He carried fresh coffee to her library carrel, where she worked on her Ph.D. in the history of science and her dissertation on Lamarck. He ran and reran her dissertation bibliography through his office word processor. He missed softball practice. The calluses on his left hand softened, and when his banjo picks accidentally went to the laundry (he also carted in Mary’s laundry) in the pocket of his chinos, he never got around to buying more. When they parted, Roger was thirty-six, an assistant professor, and a heartbroken man. “I did everything I knew to do,” he said, "and it wasn’t enough." His blue eyes and pink cheeks had faded. His once flat belly curved outward.
We matrons gasped. “How could Mary have treated him like this?” “Wasn’t he,” one asked another, "the perfect catch? What does Mary want? ” “Did she,” one of us suggested, “simply use him?” To which my twenty-year-old daughter, sitting by, simply said, “What if she did?”
In his posthumously published book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes that “human beings can hardly move without models for their behavior, and from the beginning of time, in all probability, we have known no greater purveyor of models than storytelling.” Stories have changed, Gardner notes, and this change reflects changes in the way human beings see the world.
We now have what Gardner calls “meta-fictions.” He mentions short stories by Donald Barthelme and novels by William Gass, Robert Coover, Italo Calvino, and John Fowles (whose French Lieutenant's Woman is supplied with two very different endings). Metafictions undermine what Gardner calls “fiction’s harmful effects.” One of those harmful effects, Gardner writes, is hero and heroine worship, a reader’s and a culture’s adulation of certain characters who have dominated our literary conventions. This admiration or adulation we feel subtly persuades us of the rightness of these characters’ behavior, Gardner points out. “Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction,” he concludes.
Along comes meta-fiction. It stops the “vivid and continuous dreams” of our accustomed fictions, it breaks into that dream and shows the reader what is happening to him or her as he or she reads. If the metafiction succeeds, it shoehorns the readers easily into the momentous discovery that his hero, let’s say, was a tyrant and his heroine perhaps only shoddy and manipulative, and not — in today’s mirror — truly beautiful. Caught as I am between love stories of twenty-year-old daughters and fifty . . . sixty . . . even eighty-year-old matrons, caught between Pride and Prejudice and The French Lieutenant's Woman, I did not need John Gardner to tell me life and literature are changing. But he helped me to see that current lovers, the Rogers and Marys, unsettle culture in the same way that what he calls meta-fictions unsettle readers. The Rogers and Marys undermine our old hero worship. The presence in our lives of Rogers and Marys — like the brooding presence of meta-fiction among fiction — throws an ironic reflection onto love and romance as practiced by older, earlier generations. How in peril we feel!
Oh, but it is puzzling, bewildering, and painful — metafiction and the new lovers. We do not understand their stories. We have lost, too, the happy or tragic but firmly conclusive finales, the satisfying endings that exacted punishment for what we believed to be wrong, and rewarded, lauded, decorated the right, the good. Mary received her Ph.D. with honors. Roger, who, after all, did learn in time that he loved, needed, and valued Mary — Roger, who learned unselfishness and walked five floors up to her nook in the library carrying quart-size paper containers of fresh-ground French roast coffee of the brand she liked most — Roger, we matrons concluded, was simply used, until he was all used up and then dumped, worn-out and deflated. And at the last moment, at that.