My Homework: Judy Budnitz’ “Nadia”
(For those who don’t know, nypl.org is available to anyone, and free to those who live or work in the 5 boroughs. It’s my new Amazon. And Netflix. All you have to do is go online and order any borrowable material, then keep checking the account, and when the item comes in, go to the local library to pick it up. Confession time: I have my library card number memorized, but not my mastercard. This is helping greatly in our ongoing book-clutter problem at the house.)
Back to my autoassignment. In her collection, NICE BIG AMERICAN BABY, Judy Budnitz’ “Nadia” does some of what I am exploring. If you haven’t read the story, you might want to stop here, there are spoilers.
The teller is a spokesperson from a group of women who are not-so-passively observing their friend Joel and his new mail-order bride. I initially thought it didn’t even qualify as “collective narrator”—the speaker is indeed an individual—but Budnitz accomplishes some subtleties of group identity with the voice that are worthy of attention.
“Nadia” is the teller’s nickname for the bride, the first clue to a group/individual identity schism. The narrator says she is changing the name to protect her, “She came from a place where that is necessary.” But the choice of name is fraught with us/other: “Nadia brings up images of Russian gymnasts. Or is it Romanian? Bulgarian?” While curious about Nadia’s history, the speaker is also quick to lump her into an Eastern European cliché, having no other categories to access. The altruistic, protective impulse is consistent in the story, in moments when the narrator speaks for herself. But when the friends get together, the groupthink takes over.
When speaking for the group, the curiosities and projections border on vulgar. Alone with the groom: “We asked if she was different from the women here, if she had a way of walking, an extra flap of skin, a special smell. Did she smell of cigarettes, patchouli, foreign sewers, unbathedness?” To the collective identity, Nadia’s an alien, a puzzle, a project. “Then she began smirking in an awful closed-lipped way so we thought she didn’t like us. It took us awhile to understand that it was her smile. Eventually we discovered the reason: her teeth were amazing, gray and almost translucent, evidence of some vitamin deficiency.”
But the moments of “I” expose a conscience and insecurity that would probably never be confessed to the group. Considering the groom’s kindness in bringing Nadia from her war-ravaged country, the narrator wonders if she should adopt a child. A haunting memory of her sister’s pet rabbit prevents her: “I remember holding him tightly to my chest until he stopped kicking. I was keeping him warm, but when I let go he was limp. We put him back in the cage for our father to find. I still dream of white fur, one sticky pink eye. I worry I might do the same to a baby.”
The narrator suggests that all members of the group are acting from the same conscience, but when the heads get together, nothing works. The women attempt to help Nadia overcome depression and fever with their idea of Eastern European cure: a dip in the icy river. Hidden agendas emerge as the idea goes awry:
“It was an accident.”
“It doesn’t look like one.”
“I can’t be involved in this,” I said.
“Well,” I said, “you know how Joel and I…how we used to…People might think I had a motive. They’d think I wanted to get rid of her.”
“That’s no reason.”
I looked at them all and wondered, not for the first time, how many had slept with Joel too.
Funny how the narrator truly protects the identities of her groupmates, none of whom are given names, nick or otherwise. Maybe her conscience is another mask, one of confession, that she gives us, to justify her unacceptable behavior in the mob context. No different than the group goal of “helping” the poor bride, but specific enough to give clear impetus. The narrator’s authority as spokesperson for the group is never faulty, but her altruism turns out to be a tenuous platform.
Budnitz made a wise choice in the abrupt ending: she gives Nadia the last word, reinforcing that the “truth” of the story is far from the account that the narrator provides. I find the ending satisfying. Leaves me wondering what the same story would be from Nadia’s point of view, but doesn’t make me wish it was executed any other way.
Strategies to recycle/steal in my story? I like how, by picking a self from the mob, Budnitz manages to amplify the denial necessary in groupthink. Had she gone with “true” collective narrator, making the classic “town” do the talking, she would not have brought in the individual obsessions and insecurities that fuel mob behavior. And had she made the narrator more generic, it would be far harder for me to identify with the actions of the group.
Time to hit more books. I’m getting a better bead on this idea.