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New Yorker Fiction Review #127: "Jelly and Jack" by Dana Spiotta

Issue: Dec. 7, 2015

Story: "Jelly and Jack" by Dana Spiotta

Rating: $$$

Review: This week's story is kind of an interesting case, because it is "derived" from Spiotta's forthcoming novel Innocents and Others, which is set to be released in two days, actually. Jelly and Jack are characters in the upcoming novel, but this story is not an "excerpt" per se. I find the whole notion a tiny bit odd, but whatever it's origins, "Jelly and Jack" stands alone as just about as powerful a piece of short fiction I've ever read in The New Yorker and possibly ever.

Jelly is an overweight woman who lives in upstate New York and develops entirely phone-based relationships with complete strangers, usually Hollywood types, that play out over months or years, before they inevitably have to end when the counter-party asks to see her and Jelly is confronted with her own deeply crippling lack of self-esteem. She has never gone through with a meeting of one of her phone "lovers" because she can't; not only has she mis-represented her identity from the start, but she feels that her weight -- her actual appearance -- would be such a disappointment to the person on the other end of the phone, that there's no way she can reveal herself to him.

What did I like about this story? First thing is, it is carefully wrought and patient. Spiotta has really nailed the pacing and the slow, measured reveal necessary to unravel a good a story in a very short amount of space. From the very, very beginning of the story, she hooks us by immersing us into Jelly's world, which we can tell immediately is a foreign and strange one; however, it's not foreign or strange because it's in another country or something, it's foreign and strange because Jelly sees the exotic in the mundane, and we are forced to see that too.

What do I mean by this? Jelly is obsessed with sound and with phone conversation, something which "normal" people take for granted. Jelly gets a deep satisfaction from every step in the phone calling process, the dial tone, the pushing of the numbers, the waiting for the person to answer, the way he says hello, the pauses between words. Since the romances of her live take place entirely over the telephone (p.s. in this story it's 1985 when phones meant something pretty different than they do now) she approaches the telephone and telephone conversations, with a deep and loving reverence, as when she makes her initial break into Jack's world one Sunday morning, with a phone call:

"She closed her eyes and focused on the white of ease, of calm, of joy. The pure and loving human event of calling a stranger, reaching across the land and into a life."

And later, as when Spiotta gives us a valuable and well-timed look into Jelly's psychology and her emotional philosophy of listening:

"Jelly had a different purpose in listening to anything or anyone. It had something to do with submission, and it had something to do with sympathy. She would lie back and cut off all distraction. The phone was built for this. It had no visual component, no tactile component, no scent wafting, no acid collection in the mouth, no person with a hopeful or embarrassed face to read. Just vibrations, long and short waves, and to clutch at them with your own thoughts was just wrong. A distinct resistance to potential. A lack of love, really. Because what is love, if not listening, as uninflected---as uncontained---as possible."

Very astute readers might guess that Jelly's deep love and attention to sound might betray some sort of visual handicap, and they'd be right; Jelly is not blind but she is "low-vision."

The real inflection point in the story comes when, again in what I consider to be perfect timing, really
the work of a brilliant story-teller, Spiotta reveals to us the real underlying "problem" in Jelly's life: she is overweight, probably obese. Or rather, to be more specific, the problem is not necessarily that Jelly is overweight, it's that she has not accepted herself or discovered how to find real emotional connection with another person. This is borne out by her need to pretend she's someone else, even going so far as to send her "lovers" fake photos of herself to prolong the charade, before collapsing the house of cards in one fell swoop.

Why can't she find someone in real life? Why does she need to pretend? Well, there I suppose is the crack in her conception of reality, a crack which over time has become a canyon, and which it does not seem like she can even hope to cross any more. She no longer loves herself, and so she'll be unlikely to find love as herself.

"What to do if what you look like is not who you are? If it doesn't match?" ...this is a question Jelly asks herself when she looks in the mirror. The question ties into the very problem of Jelly's non-acceptance of reality. She is the person in the mirror. And sadly there is no untying ourselves from our physical bodies. This is the sad truth which, instead of accepting or working toward accepting, Jelly has turned away from 180 degrees. Instead she favors the world of fantasy, in which she finds a way to envelop herself in a waking dream, as close as one could possibly get to the real thing -- being loved -- before she must wake herself up. It must be torture.

The other thing I loved about this story is that Jelly is not completely a victim, and she's not pitiable. This is another pretty amazing feat of character crafting on the part of Spiotta. You'd think this kind of character would evoke a sort of sad, sympathy and she does; however, if you read closely, Jelly is actually very clever and manipulative. She has worked out the entire process of currying along a man's curiosity, interest, infatuation, and love, all over the phone, to almost a science. She knows precisely when to resist and when to yield, and she is in full control of the reins of the relationship, right up until the very, very end:

"She was reserved about overt sexuality, and the men she talked to got that somehow. They knew that some women were butterflies in your hands. You didn't say crude things to them. You breathed gently and you didn't make sudden moves."

This kind of careful manipulation might border on the sociopathic, but it is not the work of a weak, powerless individual with no weapons or defenses. On the contrary, I see Jelly as, in some ways, a very shrewd and powerful individual who has sharped one particular aspect of her life to a razor's edge of sharpness. If she were ever to accept herself and turn this power outward into the "real" world, she might accomplish a lot more.

Dana Spiotta
This story succeeds because precisely because it's scope is limited to Jelly's psychology during one particular phone encounter, which tells us so much about Jelly's entire life story. Much like the old "tip of the iceberg" example; show the 10% that tells the story of the other, hidden 90%. I'm sure Spiotta could have written for pages and pages about Jelly's history or some other aspects of her life during the process of currying Jack's affections, but she didn't. She limited the story to the phone relationship and dug as deeply as possible into that. This is a lesson for would-be fiction writers: and inch wide and a mile deep more often than not beats a mile wide and an inch deep. And I don't think it matters whether we are talking about short fiction or long form. We can learn more about characters from delving deeply into their psychology and probing their motivations in a limited scenario, than by being told their life stories in the same amount of space.

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