Author of two novels and story collections, Christine Sneed is a master of short as well as long fiction. It’s the inner spaces where Sneed truly excels, with a riveting prose style that captures the depths of her characters’ thoughts, feelings, and conflicted selves. The stories that make up her most recent collection The Virginity of Famous Men reveal an extraordinary range of types. Two stories revisit a theme played out fully in Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts: the issue of fame.
How does fame affect the famous person? This is the question posed in “The First Wife,” which appeared in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. Emma, the narrator, thinks, “The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics—refinements or corporeal variations—that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.” Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Sneed’s prose style is one of her greatest attributes as a fiction writer, allowing her to flesh out interiority in a polished, elegant voice. Much of “The First Wife” is expository, delineating with fine precision the many complexities of Emma’s problematic marital situation. Being married to an uber-famous actor, Antony Grégoire, may make Emma’s world semi-magical, as when he proposes to her on The Tonight Show, but it also makes Emma realize several disturbing things about this relationship—all of them psychologically and emotionally detrimental to her.
Antony’s of a special breed, and being with him has its indisputable allure: “ordinary concerns, ordinary disappointments and sorrows, had less to do with me than they did with other people. This is what celebrity signifies more than anything else—it is the strict refutation of the banal.” If Antony is “extraordinary,” Emma herself can bathe in his aura only as long as he wants or needs her. But therein lies the problem: as a famous man, Antony has an immeasurable sense of privilege, utterly fathomless to so-called ordinary people. In a heliocentric universe, Emma’s but a satellite, basking in his regal glory for a short spell—and then expendable.
The title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” reintroduces famous actor Renn Ivins, a character from Little Known Facts. Ivins comes to Paris to visit his son Will and Will’s girlfriend, Jorie. Will had left the States to get away from his father, who, ironically, had been in conflict with Will over two women. Since then, Will hasn’t wanted to see his father, though it’s been a year and a half, and only within the last month has he started returning his father’s phone calls. Yet he’s realized he “couldn’t keep saying no,” and he prefers “a scheduled visit to an ambush.” Renn, a man who clearly makes his presence known, arrives loaded down with gifts, with offers to get the three of them a table at “short notice” at Taillevent, “France’s most celebrated restaurant”—or even to fly them down to Aix-en-Provence. As Jorie says, “He sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the room.” Something of a benevolent despot, Renn is unwittingly a “virgin” in the sense of never coming into knowledge—experiential, that is—of the world ordinary people live in. His is a protected enclave, sheltered by his great money and fame and everything that goes with these.
The rest of the stories in this fine collection deal not with the uber-famous but with ordinary people and their life struggles. One of the best is “Beach Vacation.” Here, Jan Wright wishes to reward her teenage son Tristan for making all As by taking a family vacation. But just before leaving, a serious work matter causes her husband to cancel, forcing Jan to deal alone with moody Tristan, who, like the average teenager, is easily angered by any interference from his mother, especially when it comes to romantic liaisons. Sneed’s treatment of the characters is nuanced and allows readers to be divided in their sympathies. We certainly find Jan a sympathetic character, offended by Tristan’s ill temper and concerned about any sexual misadventures he might have, potentially affecting his very promising future; yet we also realize that his mother tends to be too untrusting, as well as too self-regarding, expecting Tristan to spend time with her instead of his girlfriend.
But Sneed digs deeper. For Jan, there’s more at stake: the psychological makeup of character itself, the very footings of what makes a person who he or she is—or will become. Jan holds that she and her husband have allowed Tristan to “cultivate the least appealing characteristics of a privileged teenage boy.” Her husband chalks his disrespectful behavior up to hormones, but Jan feels like this explanation doesn’t get at the root cause. Because of Tristan’s irritable and disrespectful behavior toward her, she informs her husband, “He’s not a good person.” This thinking, as Sneed cleverly reveals, seems to slate her for what ultimately happens when Jan can no longer abide her son’s insolence; her epiphany is a disturbing, painful one. What she has done is “irrevocable”: a seemingly ordinary problem—handling a moody, foul-tempered teenager—has become a very serious one in Sneed’s insightful probing into the stormy relationship of a mother and her son.
This collection represents a compelling range of characters and provocative plots. In “The Couplehood Jubilee,” a woman who has spent a considerable sum on wedding gifts for friends plans her own ceremony—a “jubilee”—to celebrate six years of living with her boyfriend. In “Older Sister,” a young college student who suddenly learns she has a half-sister is about to share with her “the most shameful secret of her life.” In “Clear Conscience,” a divorced man with a vengeful ex-wife is “at loose ends romantically”—and left with one major goal: not to be “stupid.”
The stories that make up this volume are powerful testaments to Sneed’s sharp sense of the nature of inwardness, of carefully delineated internal conflicts. A psychological realist, Sneed creates a rich array of characters who become filters for many of life’s ordinary experiences and problems—and some of its less ordinary—and she demonstrates admirable reach in her convincing portrayals of both.
The Virginity of Famous Men
by Christine Sneed
Bloomsbury USA, September 2016
$23.40 hardback; ISBN: 9781620406953