I’ll be honest. I remember reading Jenny Williams’ “The Fisherman’s Wife,” published in LitnImage, during the nomination period for the Million Writers Award, and I didn’t like it much. It’s an unfortunate truth that more accessible stories have an advantage, even though less accessible stories sometimes give a large reward for careful scrutiny. I believe it’s important to work at reading literature, but I don’t always have the energy for it, and “The Fisherman’s Wife” needed more energy than I had at the time.
I still find this story difficult, and I’m going to lay out why. As a note, I generally only write on stories that I think are good. Even if I’m critical of them, their quality is what makes them worth dissecting. It makes no sense to kick a story when it’s down, so to speak. In this case, I’m trusting that all 10 finalists are really good stories. Explaining my difficulties with this one, though, touches on a longstanding confusion I’ve had about certain types of stories.
There are two stories in “The Fisherman’s Wife.” One is the story of the writer’s relationship with the main character:
It shouldn’t be this hard to tell a story, but the characters keep getting in the way. Stella wants to be twenty, then eighty, then twenty again, and she refuses to answer when I ask where she was born. I try to write and she slams a book over my hands.
The second is the story of a selkie married to a human man:
Because if this story was ever about anything else, it was about an old Scottish legend that goes something like this:
Selkies were mythical sea creatures in the shape of a seal. The females could shed their sealskins and come ashore as beautiful women; if you managed to successfully capture a Selkie woman’s pelt, she would stay in human form and be an obedient, if melancholy, wife.
However, if she ever found her skin, she would leave her husband and children, and return to the sea.
According to legend, she always found her skin.
Now, my first problem is that I’m more interested in the story about the selkie, and I’m disappointed when I find out that this is, perhaps, what the story used to be about. My second problem is that I have trouble accepting the writer’s story, which the story is now about, as fiction. The “I” narrator fools me. The fact that it’s about a writer fools me. Why does this matter?
If the story is nonfiction, then this is the story of how a writer gave up on the deeper story that was trying to emerge:
You see, when I started thinking about Stella, she was indeed twenty years old, a fisherman’s brand new Selkie wife. All I wanted was to understand her. I wanted to follow her through the years of her marriage, to the point that she found her skin and went back to the sea, and ask if she would know the meaning of regret. And what of the years between: did she know her fate? Did she miss the sea? Or simply yearn for something better?
The frame story, of the writer and the character, seems like a copout, an admission of failure to fulfill the promise of the paragraph I just quoted. I suppose one possibility is that the story that was actually written is better at answering these questions than a traditional story would have been. I’m skeptical of that. I have given up on stories this way before. I couldn’t cut it as a writer for the school newspaper because, the first time the administration stonewalled me on something, I gave up and wrote a humorous column about how the administration had stonewalled me. I told that story because I didn’t have the drive to tell the story I wanted to tell. The idea that the writer gave up on her deeper story to tell the story of craft disturbs me and disappoints me.
So I have to set this feeling aside to read this story. Instead of believing that the story is nonfiction, I have to believe that it’s fiction. The difference is that, if this story is fiction, the writer thought about what to write, and decided that she wanted to explore the relationship between a writer and a character. That would be the goal, then, and this story was then designed and structured to reveal that to the greatest extent possible.
It’s hard for me to maintain this faith in the story’s fiction, since the “I” voice fools me so much. If I try, then I have to believe that the author made the character a selkie for a reason. A selkie is a slippery, magical beast that’s hard to hold. It can be tamed temporarily, but it’s certain to slip away. If this character is a selkie, then all characters are selkies in some way. All of them are “obedient, if melancholy” in the grip of the writer, and all of them are waiting for the moment when they can find their skin and slip away.
In their selkie selves, they are fluid. They don’t need to be pinned down. They don’t have to make sense or be consistent. This is their preferred state. When a writer catches a selkie-character’s skin, the writer forces the selkie into domesticated existence, making demands, such as wanting to know where the character was born.
This is the final section of Williams’ story:
Tonight I will dream of being a seal—muscles solid and lean, sinewy and taut in the beats of swimming. I dart back and forth in great zigzags through the water, cutting lines across the shallow ocean floor with my shadow, clean and new and bold.
As the waves close overhead, I might take one last look at the shore, white and gleaming. But I have no need for that now, no need for air. The sand falls away beneath me and the abyss is near. With wet eyes and seamless skin, I let myself slip, slip away into that great deep blue.
The story begins now.
The “I” voice so far has been the writer, but now the writer and the character have merged.
To trace the writer’s story, then, the writer begins by capturing the selkie and wrestling with it, domesticating it. The selkie eventually gets away and steals her skin, ready to return to the unconscious from which she came. The writer has been fighting this, but finally she gives in. When she does, however, she finds that she goes with the selkie, into the greater, more fluid story that exists outside the world of human domestication. She becomes one with the character.
To return for a moment to the more traditional story wrapped inside, it’s interesting to think that the selkie’s husband might be bound to the selkie in this way. In other words, that when the selkie escapes him, she frees him somehow in addition to freeing herself.
One other puzzling piece: In the beginning, Williams tells us the following about the story to come:
It also begins in a bathroom, in a state of slow epiphany.
It also ends in a suicide.
I’m not sure what’s meant to be the suicide. Is it the writer, as she slips into the character, or vice versa? Perhaps another explanation is that the selkie-character actually can’t find her skin, and so can’t get away. After her suicide, the writer can take the skin herself, or the husband can, becoming a selkie in turn.
That’s my best effort to take the story as a story. I’ve been pushing myself lately to keep reading difficult stories and see what I can find in them, and I often feel rewarded for this. If I’m on the right track about what’s in the story, I see how it’s good, and it’s certainly well constructed. Despite the respect I have, however, I’d still prefer to read the selkie story, the one that isn’t told.