So, a while back, in one of the what-are-you-reading threads, I mentioned reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories from Robert Olen Butler, a professor from my alma mater, Florida State. In the comment, I provided that some quality in the writing made each story incredibly human and poignant to me but that I had not yet figured out what precisely that quality was. Now, I think I have.

Not until the penultimate story (in one published version, that is – in another it is fourth from the end), The American Couple, did I put this together and in doing so, not only found some insight into one of the laughable aspects of some prose, I discovered Butler's talent, and also gained some enlightening understanding of my marriage.

In the story, two American couples meet at a vacation destination. One couple is American by way of Vietnam, the other American by birth. The wife of the former couple narrates and, it is through her that I discovered these things. I'll forgo a synopsis here save to say the two men find that they are both veterans of the conflict in Vietnam and go on to represent all veterans for the non-military (represented by the wife) who views their interactions from afar.

First, some discourse on the aspect of writing I find hilarious. i am referring the largely comical way in which some males write women. We've all see the blogs, etc. that highlight this, often hilarious, harbinger of not-so-good prose making. Often, as of late, I have attempted to (maybe overly) scrutinize some writing of one sex portraying another looking both for these hilarious tells as well as uncover aspects that might illustrate a stronger artist. In Butler's aforementioned story, I think I found just that. And, it was in realizing this that I think I found his penchant for writing the human so accurately as well. For both, it is that he writes the person, not the characteristic. As simple as this sounds, it how he both avoids falling into that category of butchering the portrayal of the opposite sex as well as how he writes people humanly authentic.

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Throughout the stories, Butler writes the person, not the old Vietnamese man. He writes the individual, not the young wife. He doesn't write the son-in-law or the soldier, he writes the human being. In know, I know. Can it be that simple? Well, it is. Maybe it is due to this simplicity that I overlooked it for some 300-odd pages. I realized in this story, I think, more due to the limited viewpoint of this woman as she works to read the people around her, which she is talented at, but mostly as she attempts to discern the nature of the relationship between her husband and this former GI, that no matter the interpersonal dynamic we are, at our core, isolated completely from all others. While I guess I knew this all along, I think I'd forgotten what this means in day-to-day life. This led me to understand a bit more about my life.

Often, I'd surmise, "man, if I just understand how this lady (my wife) thinks, there'd be fewer problems at home". Or, "if I can try just one more time to convey how I process information, she'll be on the same page". Nope, doesn't work. That is to say, at least not all the time. We cannot fully understand another individual, spouse or no. Though we may try and, in doing so make life a bit easier, it will fail at some level. Yet, even in failing can locate some semblance of happiness for ourselves and just enjoy the other person.

Lastly, my next step is to prep my wife for some terrible-female-characterization-sleuthing and have her read the story. I want her to decide if Butler wrote the wife as well as I think he did. This is not merely to glean whether or not the man can write as it's safe to say he can, but more to take away the sharing of this with my "other" and maybe come a little to that understanding that shall remain unattainable but desirable nonetheless.

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Source: reddit post


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