Body Language is a short story by Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen. You can find it collected in The Best American Short Stories 1998. The story comes ‘illustrated’ with anatomical drawings: of the head and larynx, the eyeball and nose cavity, the ribcage, musculature of the arm, a sperm, a brain.
This story is an example of an alternating plot shape. Katherine Mansfield used this shape to write “See Saw”, one of her less enduring stories (if my blog stats are anything to go by — no one is looking that one up.)
Schoemperlen’s 1998 story very obviously alternates with the repetition of paragraph openings:
On a good day…
On a bad day…
But Schoemperlen doesn’t stick rigidly to this pattern. It actually goes like this:
On a good day…
On a bad day…
On a good day…
Or (on a good day)…
On a bad day…
On a bad day…
With other paragraphs spacing them out. This takes us to about the midway point of the story (just after) and Schoemperlen puts the good day/bad day pattern to one side.
Here’s the thing about plot shapes such as these: The shape of the story itself is part of the symbolic or thematic web. In the Mansfield example, “See saw“, an actual see-saw at a park goes up and down as the narrator focuses first on children playing, then on an elderly couple nearby, then back to the children. The entire story is about the juxtaposition between youth and old age, so she shapes the story around that.
What about this one? Why did Schoemperlen decide to ‘see saw’ her readers like this? This story is about the ‘life and death’ and swing of emotions as they occur within a romantic relationship.
Schoemperlen also creates for us a parallactic experience by repeating scenes (not actually repeated, but repeated by virtue of the main character leading a repetitive commuter life). In a good mood, he will smile at a baby in a stroller. But when he sees the same(?) baby next time he is in a bad mood, and is annoyed to find the stroller in his way.
Some writers are more adept than others at conveying how the body feels under different emotions. This may be to do with the writer’s own interoceptive abilities. We all need to learn (hopefully in childhood) that this feeling means hunger, that feeling means we should put another layer of clothing on. As we get older we (hopefully) learn to divide various types of bad feelings into something more nuanced than ‘anger’ (too many adults can’t manage this, and the rules of masculinity actively discourage it). We are told on the page that this guy has been ill-influenced by a toxic form of masculinity because he is afraid to tell his wife certain things.
Perhaps she would think he is weak. Perhaps she already thinks he is weak. Perhaps he is weak.“Body Language”
“Body Language” by Diane Schoemperlen takes emotions and connects them in an almost grotesque way to body parts. You could go through with a highlighter pen: His throat goes loose with happiness, his throat freezes into formality. There is a knot in his stomach, he cannot fill his lungs with breath. His stomach is ‘a tight hot drum of gray worry and black bile.’ If you’re a little squeamish, this story may be challenging.
Whether readers are squeamish or not, this emphasis on the inner body parts achieves a piercing of the body, into the unseen layers, creating an abject experience by penetrating the (usually) sealed envelope of the body.
SETTING OF “BODY LANGUAGE”
Much of “Body Language” is set inside a house. Aside from around their house, the third person narrator takes us along with the husband viewpoint character to the subway station, to a city office…
The house is your typical gleaming, cold, glass house. (In fiction, the surface materials and degree of clutter says something meaningful about the psychology of the people who live within.) There is an optimal degree of clutter, which is why real estate agents get you to rip down all your curtains and hire a crate for your daily-use crap, but also tell you to bake cookies, fill your spa pool and place a glass of fresh flowers on the kitchen bench.
The house when he gets there is empty. Although he has expected this, still he goes from room to room searching. The kitchen is ominously immaculate, as if it will never be used again. Every surface shines, as if even the fingerprints have been wiped clean. The living room is a well-appointed museum, entirely free of clutter, dust and oxygen.“Body Language”
But note that the bedroom is different:
Only the bedroom is in disarray, the sheets and blankets in a rumpled pile, three of her silk blouses tossed among them, her white nightgown discarded in a puddle on the floor, her earrings scattered sparkling across the black dresser.“Body Language”
This suggests whatever problems they’re facing manifest in the bedroom.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BODY LANGUAGE”
I’d like to emphasise here that because the viewpoint character is the husband, and the narrator prioritises the man’s point of view, we only get his side of the story. Whenever I encounter a parallactic story of any kind, I’m primed to look for unreliable narration.
Most examples of parallax in literature achieve the refracted effect by switching between characters. This story does parallax it differently. The author shows us the same character on his good days and his bad days.
Towards the end of “Body Language” we are told that the wife is ‘moody’. At that word, I am instantly on high alert. How many husbands describe their wives as ‘moody’ (a take on ‘crazy’) as justification for domestic abuse? It’s part of a pattern of coercive control, which is gendered.
There’s no on-the-page evidence of abuse on his part, not in this story. But at the very least, he is culpable of this: A co-dependence in which he gives too much of himself away to his romantic partner. Did she curse ‘him’ or did she curse at the coffee? Is she actively ignoring him in the morning when she doesn’t look him in the eye? Or is she simply getting on with preparations for work? Could he perceive her inattention as a personal sleight on him?
Is he violent? He ‘pushes past an old lady’. He ‘elbows his way around a young mother’. Is it possible to be this physical with rank strangers and to never, ever be violently physical with your intimate partner? Why does a stranger who doesn’t know him at all shrink away? We are only offered the sideshadowing of ‘perhaps’. (Literary sideshadowing is a type of parallax.)
When the wife is in the kitchen, wearing her black kimono with the red dragon on it, she sometimes lets him initiate sex, and sometimes doesn’t. (“On a bad day”.) He feels entitled to sex. If she let me last time, why not this time? To him the situation is exactly the same — the kitchen, the cooking, the attire; ergo, his wife’s reaction to his offer of sex should be exactly the same. He can’t seem to grok that he’s not entitled to her body at all times. So, that’s another take.
If we read the story again assuming this variety of unreliable narration, we experience a second layer of parallax, as explored in the Showtime TV series The Affair, in which a married man has a far more rosy take on what actually happens between himself and a younger waitress. The audience doesn’t see the unreliability of his experience until the story repeats, this time affording us the point of view of the waitress. This time: The waitress didn’t exactly invite him to watch her showering in the outside cubicle; he invited himself, and he’s a creepy-ass prick.
In short, I don’t know if this man in “Body Language” is unreasonable, or if his wife is.
The man wants closeness with his wife. Either that or he wants to control her, and to have her undivided attention at all times. You decide.
A man and woman are each other’s romantic opponents. ‘On a bad day’ everyone feels like the man’s opponent.
Rather than communicate with his partner, using his words, he’ll wander round the house for a bit and lie naked on their bed, hoping she’ll be persuaded by his apparent vulnerability and offer up the attention he craves.
The man is so internally bruised that he ends up lying naked on the bed, reminiscent of babyhood. He is either genuinely vulnerable, or giving the appearance of it. This is the imagery of death which all complete stories go to at this point in the story.
For me it was the word ‘moody’ applied to the wife which made me read the story differently, and when I read it a second time, it really was completely different.
Even details such as the man wondering which of his ribs God took to make Eve suggests, now, that he sees women as less than human. Worse, he feels the existence of woman (as a category) takes something away from Man.
‘His hands upon her are clumsy and large’ take on a different heft.
When he smells ‘something sweet and fermented’ on her breath, is it really liqueurs (that she’s been drinking with another man) or is it whatever she ate for lunch? These details take place in his imagination, not in hers.
Finally, ‘He cannot help but enter her’. This comes after he thinks she’s having an affair. He hasn’t spoken to her about it. He finds the idea exciting. Perhaps the idea of infidelity is the very thing that turns him on: That another man might want her is the thing that makes him want her. Imaginative cuckolding.
There are many popular songs about lovers who notice details and construct a narrative of infidelity. “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” by Bill Withers is your tentpole example of a man who’s walking down the street with his girlfriend, the girlfriend looks at the ground as another man passes by. The boyfriend gets paranoid. Eye movements and the glance of a random passer-by are literally all he has to go on. The most disturbing thing about this song is the (very catchy) beat, which sounds like the singer pounding his fist, or preparing to.
The author uses the interesting technique of making universal statements at this point. (The paragraph about ‘the tradition of wearing the wedding ring’ and then the paragraph about the sperm cells.)
What’s the purpose of these informational chunks of text? And what are they doing here?
At first I wondered if authors use this technique to link a story about individuals to a greater, even universal, pattern. And sometimes informational passages are used in this way. But not here.
Here, I believe these chunks function as dissociation. The husband is having sex with (or doing sex to) his wife, but he’s not there in the moment with her, or she’s not there in the moment with him. Probably both.
Why has the author created this abject, grotesque experience for us? Why so much about the inner body? Why the illustrations of physiological cross-sections? Is that because the man of this story has decided to prove he is not, in fact, weak, and has beaten his wife up, making her bleed, exposing the insides of her body? Raped her, in fact? Did we just read a rape?
There are enough clues to justify this reading, though it’s sure not the fun one.
This short story is the grandmother to The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which too many readers failed to read as a critique of men like Nathaniel P, believing the author meant readers to like him.
Fuckbois of Literature have something to say about that. (There’s a short episode and a long one for subscribers.)
Few storytellers use such an experimental form as this to structure their work, but readers of lyrical short stories generally appreciate something a bit different. I appreciate how the author made use of parallax to facilitate my reading of another kind of parallax (one with an unreliable narrator). It’s an especially useful way of getting us to consider violence within relationships, and stories such as The Affair, and also Big Little Lies, likewise explore the nuances of intimate partner violence by telling their stories from various points of view.