“PS,” a short story by Jill McCorkle in the current issue of the Atlantic (and her collection Going Away Shoes, out in September), is a small but sharply written tale—a fuck-you letter to a therapist that cloaks a clear-headed confession about a failed marriage that in turn cloaks a deep anxiety about how badly things went off the rails. But though the narrator is unsteady, McCorkle is very much in charge, keeping its tone casually, bitterly comic. The narrator writes, “I think that marriage vows should include an escape clause that says the contract is broken if one party up and makes a big switch in religion or politics or aesthetic taste.” Later, as an aside in a story that’s largely a series of asides, she writes, “this drug that they give you with a colonoscopy is just a dream—you’re relaxed on one side, wide awake and watching television. I wanted to nominate myself for an Emmy.”
The narrator, it’s quickly clear, is going to tell her former marriage counselor (the impossibly named Dr. Love) everything, and McCorkle’s kitchen-sink strategy works double duty. It keeps the story moving as a work of fiction—we know the truth is going to explode out of this person eventually, and it’s just a matter of waiting for it. And it mirrors the narrator’s flummoxed condition of being forced to make sense of the constant shifts that her estranged husband has made, how she struggled with his transformation into an entirely different person. Making it an epistolary story only heightens the intimacy—we’re gonna hear everything, like it or not, colonscopies and all. (And titling a story “PS” isn’t a bad way to compel folks to read to the end too.)
The Atlantic‘s Web site includes an interview with McCorkle, which has the strange effect of making the story seem simpler than it is. The narrator of “PS” isn’t completely out of the woods, but the author is comfortable calling the story a redemption tale, saying it’s about “being able to shed all those things like anger or resentment or grudges that people often carry for way too long.” But McCorkle’s thoughts on writing routines and reading habits are interesting, as are her selections for underrated books:
Just off the top of my head, the book that I send students to again and again and again is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. I love that book, and I just learned so much from it. I recommend that to my students because so often when students are working on stories they are looking for threads that might weave a collection together, and it’s just such a wonderful book.
I would have said The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was wonderful, and then Oprah chose it. What Carson McCullers did in that novel was remarkable, especially given how young he was. And various stories, like “Old Mortality,” by Katherine Anne Porter—she’s a writer who also lately is getting a little more attention than she had in a long time, and I think deservedly so.
Strange, though, that McCorkle is the type to avoid recommending a novel just because Oprah did. Aren’t we done thinking that a Oprah sticker automatically takes a book out of the “high-art literary tradition?”
Update, July 29: Ms. McCorkle e-mails to point out that, contrary to what I suggested in my post, she was supportive of Oprah’s pick of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “What i meant to say is that by her picking it, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—which is one of my favorite novels out there—did get a great flurry of well-deserved attention,” she writes. The interview on the Atlantic‘s site also corrects the mis-gendering of McCullers, which was an editor’s error, not McCorkle’s.