THE BREAKUP | Sarah Gailey.
(You have to fill out a quick form to download the issue as a pdf–the story is on page 28)
S P O I L E R S B E L O W
There will be spoilers aplenty. As always, I highly encourage you to check out this great story first, then come back to finish reading.
I have been reading a bit of Nabakov lately. Pale Fire. Lolita. American Nabokov, as opposed to Russian Nabokov. Through his books, I’ve become especially alert to certain qualities in leading fiction characters, traits like obsessiveness, moral flexibility, and manipulative tendencies–negative traits, sure, but they sometimes add to the reader’s interest in the character. There has been a lot of discussion/controversy on the interwebs lately over whether or not a protagonist must be “likable,” and I suppose the consensus from this conversation–if anything resembling consensus can be achieved on the internet–seems to be that readers don’t need to adore a central character, but we do need to care.
The protagonist/narrator of Sarah Gailey’s “The Breakup,” like Nabokov’s elegant sleazeball Humbert Humbert, crosses some obvious ethical lines, but does so in a way that makes emotional sense. To further complicate the discussion of character likability, we can talk about both traditional logic and emotional logic, the latter being perfectly irrational but compelling just the same.
I’ll come back to that idea.
The unnamed narrator of “The Breakup” is basically a cipher, a fawning best friend, but her actions and psychological makeup are portrayed in a way that’s far more nuanced than one would expect for a lapdog sort of character. The unnamed protagonist of this story exhibits Nabakovian levels of obsession toward her best friend Laila, through a series of beautifully rendered observations about her friend’s tendencies and a hypersensitivity to the most minute of Laila’s traits and gestures. She straddles the line between nuanced eroticism and creepy fixation.
Consider what we know about Laila through her admiring friend’s narration:
- Laila limits herself to three drinks on Thursdays, four if she’s at the bar on a Friday (unless she’s super-stressed out, which she is)
- Laila prefers X type of lipstick
- Laila will blow her a kiss at the end of their girls’ night out
The imagery and metaphors this narrator uses to describe her friend are incredibly rich, indicating both the author’s stylistic prowess and the character’s having spent way too much time thinking of what food object her friend’s lips remind her of (a coffee bean, as it turns out). Sure, gaining an affinity for a person’s more nuanced behavior (noting one’s lover’s tendency to toss her hair a certain way, or eat grapes a certain way, or whatever) is a sign of affection and familiarity. But when the focus and language take on a worshipful tone, that’s a good sign (in fiction land, at least) that the character’s more than just a little smitten.
Just because of how beautifully they’re written, take a look at a couple of the narrator’s emotional responses when she and her unfortunately-still-platonic best friend are having a conversation at the bar:
I watch her teeth bite her lower lip to form the “F” in the word “knife,” and I think of sliding my hand into a puddle of melted wax and feeling it harden around my fingers.
This beautifully emotional non sequitur captures the narrator’s agonizing obsession with her friend, every gesture that Laila performs creating havoc in the mind of her admirer. I wish I wrote that sentence.
Then consider this erotic little moment:
She idly plays with the cartilage piercing in her left ear and I think of taking it gently between my teeth just to hear her inhale sharply.
The narrator, as a character, is virtually devoid of detail throughout the story. (Okay, we do learn at one point that the narrator wears glasses, suggesting we’re dealing with the tried-and-true geek in love with more attractive best friend scenario, though that would be reading pretty heavily into a brief mention of glasses.) The narrator is a blank space, an anti-character, yet the scene and her friend are so carefully painted around her that the absent narrator comes alive through sheer implication. Like we see in erasure poems and visual art that privileges blankness, the empty space can be incredibly powerful by virtue of its contrast.
The very fact that Laila is portrayed with such detail and eroticism and idiosyncratic imagery makes it abundantly clear that the unnamed narrator is irrationally in love with her, floating along on a Laila-shaped puff of clouds and totally not listening to Laila’s story–her confession of sleeping with a married man for a long time and then, when things got complicated, murdering him.
Yes, there is a murder. No, it’s not important.
Well, it is and it isn’t. Laila’s murder of the married man puts the narrator in an ethical bind that her emotions must override. And they do.
So the narrator starts out as the Smithers to Laila’s Mr. Burns but ends up as an accessory to murder. Is it worth it? In her book, probably: Laila kisses her.
The reader may go back and forth over just how sincere Laila’s kiss truly is. While we can certainly hope and wish Laila is genuinely romantically interested in the narrator, the timing of this kiss is suspicious; the reader will likely conclude Laila is cognizant of her friend’s infatuation and exploiting this attraction.
Funny thing is, if the narrator knew her friend was playing her, odds are she’d do everything exactly the same way. In this story, as in real life, obsession trumps everything else.