Matt Bell on Christine Schutt


Waiting for the Blow

In the same paragraph where his more-famous quote “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea with us” appears, Kafka wrote that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us… we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.” Talking about this quote with my students recently, I joked that no one would buy a book with this for a blurb, but of course that’s not true: I would, and perhaps you would too.

Christine Schutt’s story “You Drive” is such a story for me, her collection Nightwork such a book. In the ten years since I first experienced “You Drive”—in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, possibly the single most important book I read in my early twenties—I have not yet recovered from what her story did to me, and what the story allowed me to do for myself. Let’s consider this stunning opening paragraph:

She brought him what she had promised and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, ‘I like your skin,’ when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottled white of his arms, and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms. Long hair along his arms it was, hair bleached from sun and water—sun off the lake, and all that time he spent in water, summer to summer abrading the wild dry hair on his head, turning the ends of his hair, which was also red, and deeply so, quite white. “You look healthy,” she said to her father, and he did, in high color, but the skin on his face also seemed coarse to her— not boy’s skin, her father’s, not glossy, close-grained skin, but pitted and stubbled under all that color, rashed along his jaw and neck, her father’s skin: rough. She touched him, and it was rough skin, his cheek. “Just testing,” she said, and smiled at her father. “Shaving,” she said. “I used to watch Mother’s guys at it.”

As one example of what Schutt does so well, watch the move she makes at the very beginning, starting with these unnamed characters—just she, just him—then offering a reveal that is also a withholding of detail—”She brought him what she had promised and they did it in his car”—before landing that first sentence with a series of increasingly more discomfiting clauses: “she said, or she thought she said, ‘I like your skin,’ when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottled white of his arms, and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms.”

She said or she thought she said. She liked his skin, or else her father’s skin, a seemingly extraordinary conflation. An incredibly sensual sentence follows—the skin in closest detail, and then the woman speaks again to this man in the car, this him, now her father. The pronoun game of the first sentence disappears from the story, as if it were only necessary to get us started, to allow the reader a safe point of entry before the story asserts its reality, this consensual relationship between a grown daughter and her once-estranged father. Throughout “You Drive,” Schutt does not play this relationship for shock value, does not focus on the prurient. And by the end of the story, it seems clear that the father is once again going to leave the daughter, that she is going to be bereft of his affections for the second time in her life: “No,” he says, “I don’t feel like it today.” Once about the drugs, once about her want to escape with him to a place in “a big-enough town where a lot went unnoticed,” before the story ends with the daughter about to be devastated once again:

“No,” her father said. “No, I have no place to keep it. Just let me kiss you,” he said, which she did. Arms crossed and eyes shut tight in the cold of the car, she moved a little closer to him and waited for the blow.

Christine Schutt is perhaps best known for her incredible ability with the sentence, but it’s her unflinchingness before all our complexities that always emboldens me. By the sixth page of my first novel, the narrator commits a horrible act so grotesque that readers can perhaps be forgiven if they put the book down. But for me, what has always justified that act (as a node of the story, not a model for right living) is that it’s not motivated out of the grotesque but out of great need for a love refused: Like the daughter in “You Drive,” my narrator desperately craved a relationship denied to him—and who has never been denied love they wanted?—and so I continued to follow him, even as I hoped he would stop doing so much damage, even as I wished to write a story in which his definitions of love could be revised. Some of the bravery I needed to write such a difficult character came from writers like Schutt, and I am eternally grateful for the way her words have steeled my own.

Around the same time I read “You Drive” for the first time, I was reading Nietzsche too, who argued that “what is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” I don’t want to accept that claim too easily—it might too often excuse too much—but surely motivation matters, in fiction and in life, and Schutt’s unforgettable characters do much to complicate obvious responses. Perhaps, for want of love, more can be forgiven than we can easily accept. Or even if some acts are unforgivable, perhaps we are willing to be unforgiven, if it means finally gaining what we surely need even more than we need to be redeemed: all the glorious difficulty of love and affection, without which we surely cannot live.

Recommended Reading: Nightwork; A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer; Florida; All Souls; Prosperous Friends

Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, as well as two previous books, How They Were Found and Cataclysm Baby. He teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.