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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "All Ahead of Them" by Tobias Wolff

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. It used to just be a weekend thing...you know: a review here, a review there. But now, I'm addicted....

Issue: July 8 & 15, 2013

Story: "All Ahead of Them"

Author: Tobias Wolff

Plot: A young man, Bud, sits alone in his hotel room on the French Riveria, where he has come on his honeymoon. He goes through various stages of mental anguish over a petty but worrisome scam his then wife-to-be, Arden, foisted on some of her close friends in the weeks before their wedding. The entire story takes place in Bud's head, as he thinks back to their history as a couple and the warning signs that might have suggested Arden had a rather large streak of larceny in her. Ultimately, he finds a shaky sort of peace with the whole incident. 

Review/Analysis: With the New Yorker's "Fiction Issue" hitting the shelves earlier this summer, and stories by Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas McGuane over the past couple weeks, the magazine has been on an unusually hot streak, offering up works from some of the heaviest hitters in contemporary fiction. This past week's fiction is no exception. Here we have none other than the great Tobias Wolff, a writer whose achievements (just a few) include the memoir-turned-DiCaprio-film This Boy's Life and Creative Writing Professorships at Stanford and Syracuse, two of the top 10 writing programs in the country. In "All Ahead of Them," Wolff presents a psychological study of a young man in love with a complicated, perhaps deeply disturbed, young woman and the course of his thoughts as he comes to grips with her complicated craziness. 

To put it in simple terms, there is a lot going on in this story. The character doesn't leave his room or speak to anyone (save for a one-sentence reply to a phone call) and yet this story is simultaneously a character study of both him and his young wife. Not only that, but the story deals with issues of Identity, Heritage/Inheritance, Gender Role Performance, Responsibility, and what it means to love someone. I want to go through everything, so here goes:

Identity - Both Bud and Arden are people whose current first names are not the names they were given when they were born. Bud was born "Thomas" but was given the nickname "Bud" by a doting aunt, and it stuck. Arden, was born "Nedra," after her beautiful but criminally-entreprenuerial grandmother, a college professor who was convicted and jailed for selling weed in the 70s, and killed herself in jail. The importance of this cannot be understated; both characters have identity issues, but those issues have different roots and different expressions.  Bud's new name was given to him, he did not choose it and, as an adult, he does not like his name. Arden chose her new name, out of embarrassment about where the name came from. Bud's identity issues express themselves as a passive discontent that linger's into his adulthood; he is perpetually trying to prove that he's "Thomas" and not merely "Bud." Arden's identity issues express themselves in the fact that she's trying to hide from something in her past, something that keeps coming up anyway. 

Heritage/Inheritance - Though Arden changed her name in an attempt to distance herself from her weed-dealing grandmother, she quite obviously retained some of her grandmother's taste for risk and bending the rules. Bud thinks back to numerous occasions when he knows that she lied to him, told little fibs about where she had been or why she was late for a rendez-vous, etc., as well as bigger whoppers, like failing to leave a tip for a $200 meal. However, the incident at question involved her blatantly trying to rip-off her bridesmaids by overcharging them for dresses that were on sale. Arden has some deep deceptive tendencies that seem to be getting worse as time goes on. Arden's attempts to distance herself from her heritage, instead of acknowledging it, seem to be backfiring. 

Gender Role Performance - This interesting issue comes up in a few ways. First, Bud has trouble performing sexually in the weeks before the wedding, and even on their honeymoon. Arden seems to be understanding about this, but after a while, Bud senses that she's becoming bored. Why is he unable to get it up? Is he afraid of her? Afraid of what he might be getting into? Is he having subconscious doubts? All of the above, is my guess. Bud also has some gender issues, relating to his own masculinity. The name "Bud," in fact, came from his aunt saying that he looked like a little flower bud when he was a baby. Bud has some not insignificant doubts about his masculinity, and Arden knows how to play upon these doubts. Arden does not have any of these issues. She is painted as at once sexy, innocent, mischievous, aloof, submissive, dangerous and, most importantly, not possessed of great self-awareness. Bud is wounded, and knows it, and tries to correct it. Arden is wounded but doesn't know it. This puts Bud at a woeful disadvantage in the relationship.

Responsibility - The level of responsibility Bud feels for Arden is a bit twisted. He says at one point that he feels responsible to her because she had left her previous engagement with an Austrian art dealer, which could have been a much more comfortable existence, to be with him. He feels that he must not confront her about her lies and deceit, or leave her, because to do so would betray her trust in him. This ties into the idea of "love" and what it means to love someone. Frankly, it seems Bud has some deeply flawed notions about women, trust, and love. To me, the act of "loving" his Arden would include his confronting her about her behavior and having an open dialogue, and working through those issues to a mutually satisfactory point. Instead Bud decides he will spend his life covering-up her messes, without her knowledge, to prove how much he loves her. This is a recipe for a one-sided relationship in which Bud uses his own energy and resources to protect and prop-up Arden's childish world, while he himself deteriorates into nothing. 

This story was scary and unsettling in many ways. I can't help but cringe for all the headaches and anxiety Bud has yet to face in his role as "Parent/Husband" to this exciting yet destructive woman-child. On the other hand, my sympathy is limited; he is a free man, he could easily walk away from the situation were he a complete, self-sustaining individual with better-honed survival instincts. 

In reality, I could see their marriage turning into a train-wreck that lasts barely a year or two. Given the rate at which Arden is going, Bud won't be able to keep up with her much longer. In fact, it's surprising that she has gotten this far in life already, acting as foolish as she has. If they manage to stay together, there's the recipe for a truly co-dependant and sick relationship. 

The real power of this story is the combination of all these elements to create a subtle and unsettling dual character study and to leave the reader wondering about the trajectory of this relationship, now that they're married and they've got it "all ahead of them." Now that they are married, it seems the real work has yet to begin. 

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