31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 10: “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” by Barbara Gowdy

August 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From We So Seldom Look on Love.

9781883642006In Canadian literature there are those writers who focus on the quotidian and the ordinary: Carol Shields springs immediately to mind, as do Bonnie Burnard, Alice Munro, and Elizabeth Hay. Mary Swan and Margaret Atwood both employ Gothic elements in their writing, pushing the envelope in various directions. But Barbara Gowdy is a rarity in CanLit: not just a practitioner of Southern Ontario Gothic, but a writer who lives on the extremes of experience and subject matter. Gowdy’s fiction is populated by grotesques and eccentrics, and the stories in her collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, resemble a carnival of circus freaks: a two-headed man; a female necrophile; and an exhibitionist who persistently masturbates for a stranger who watches her from the window of an apartment opposite hers.

The last of these, Ali, the protagonist of “Ninety-three Million Miles Away,” is an empty vessel looking to be filled up. Her only problem is that she doesn’t know what will fill her. Ali doesn’t worry about money; her husband, Claude, is a cosmetic surgeon who provides her with a generous allowance. Yet, “aside from trying on clothes in expensive stores,” Ali is at a loss to settle on anything that might potentially fulfill the void she feels in her core, or, to invoke a more explicitly religious term, her soul. As Philip Marchand has written of Gowdy’s characters:

[Their] prayers are never answered except in darkly ironic ways, [and they] behave as if they are, in fact, damned. Something in the desperate way they cling to their distractions, whether knitting or woodwork or compulsive sex, is suggestive of people who know that they are missing the answer to an overwhelmingly important question in their lives.

Ali attempts to find her answer first in music, then in learning: “she began a regimen of reading and studying, five days a week, five to six hours a day. She read novels, plays, biographies, essays, magazine articles, almanacs, the New Testament, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Harper Anthology of Poetry.” None of this works to fill the chasm she feels inside her, and she decides to take up art, specifically self-portraiture. Responding to the signs she sees in a dream, she paints in the nude, and eventually notices a man observing her from the window of the apartment across from her. She begins to perform for this man, engaging more and more what she sees as her exhibitionist nature.

The sexual acts that Ali performs under her observer’s watchful gaze are initially exciting for her, but Ali’s excitement increasingly becomes confused with her idea of self-abnegation at the stranger’s hands. She becomes “so devoted to his appreciation that her pleasure seemed like a siphoning of his, an early, childish indulgence that she would never return to.” Her episodes at the window “were completely display, wholehearted surrender to what felt like the most inaugural and genuine of all desires, which was not sex but which happened to be expressed through a sexual act.”

And, importantly, Ali is only comfortable with her performance so long as the man in the window remains anonymous to her. When she finally meets him, she is repulsed by “his shoes, his floor, his formal way of speaking, his voice, his profile.” In order to provide her with heat and light, he must remain like the sun, ninety-three million miles away.

This is not really surprising, given the ways in which Ali – significantly the wife of a cosmetic surgeon, who earns his not inconsiderable salary by providing women with the artificial veneer of beauty – obsesses over her own appearance. The voyeur’s appreciation of her nakedness stands in stark contrast to the way she sees herself, as “a pathetic little woman with pasty skin and short legs.” She paints herself with “flat eyes and crude, wild proportions,” and when her husband tells her that she is lovely, she thinks that perhaps he means “lovely when [she’s] in the next building.”

In the story’s final stages, Ali sits on the sofa with her husband watching TV, and she prays, “Let this be enough.” But, like so many lost and dissatisfied souls, she realizes that the possibility of finding succor, of grasping anything that will ever be “enough,” is most likely an illusion:

As Claude was always saying, things looked different from different angles and in different lights. What this meant to her was that everything hinged on where you happened to be standing at a given moment, or even who you imagined you were. It meant that in certain lights, desire sprang up out of nowhere.

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