On not making do
For better, but more often for worse, realism reigns in current magazine fiction. For the most part, editors choose stories whose characters and conflicts mirror those of their readers. The wedding of fiction with ''real life'' frequently results in formula stories populated with stock characters addressing the latest media-hyped ''problem.''
On the other hand, stories that attempt to portray complex characters engaged in struggles more timeless disappoint in a different way. In magazines directed at mature adults, such as Redbook, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, intelligent characters retreat from challenge. Burnouts at 30 or 40, they shun action. They cultivate resignation, instead, and take what comes.
To these, Mademoiselle stories provide an inspiring alternative. Thanks to the youthful optimism of its readership, realism does not signify resignation in Mademoiselle.
The most appealing quality of its excellent fiction is the energy of its protagonists. These young women and men dream large dreams. They expect thrilling adventures to overtake them; they count upon accomplishing heroic acts. Characters as wholehearted and original as these are hard to find.
''Easy Money'' (June), by Nadja Tesich, matches one of these hungry-for-life enthusiasts with a member of the over-40-and-established set. Tesich raises the question: When is ''settling down,'' ''settling for? '' The year is 1964. The narrator, a footloose European graduate student, is slogging toward her PhD at a university in the American hinterlands. A minor illness sends her to the hospital, where she encounters a firmly rooted doctor.
Married, 40, the father of two, the doctor limps with the permanent effects of a wound sustained in France during World War II. The wound prevented him from marching into Paris, the city of his youthful dreams. It serves as a metaphor, also, for the reduced options of his life. In the narrator's eyes, at least, the doctor's responsibilities - a wife, children, his medical practice - represent limiting handicaps.
The doctor hires the narrator to tutor him in French. She applies herself, but he never studies. He ignores the lessons altogether at their weekly coffeehouse meetings. Instead, he buys her pastries and plies her with questions about her boyfriend, her adventures, her expectations. He pays her $5 an hour, she comes to realize, for the vicarious pleasure her youth and options afford him. He has abandoned hope of reaching Paris; she is his proxy.
Taking the doctor as her model of the toll that security exacts, the narrator reassesses her own future. Her boyfriend's marriage proposals evoke alarm; her PhD program, claustrophobia. She cancels the doctor's lessons, packs her bags, and takes flight. Winging toward Paris, she swears never to make do with such meager expectations as the doctor's: ''No, not me; never.''
''Easy Money'' inspires mixed reactions in the reader. The doctor who so repulses the narrator, appears to readers as highly sympathetic. His settled life may limit options. In seeking out the foreign (in every sense) acquaintance , however, he acts with modesty, an open mind, and a healthy appetite for the new and strange. In contrast, the narrator tends to preen. She displays, as well , the intolerance which youth so often exhibits but fails to recognize.
The narrator tells her story from the distance of 20 years' experience. She has achieved the doctor's age, but Tesich neglects to show us what, if anything, age has taught her.
Has she abandoned adventure for security? Has she maintained her ''no, not me'' resolve? Or has experience refined her perception of what constitutes adventure; what, stagnation?
Tesich does not tell us. Nevertheless, she writes of characters in pursuit of engagement. Her story raises provocative questions; her positive outlook refreshes; her fluent style charms.
In these respects, ''Easy Money'' typifies Mademoiselle's brand of realistic fiction. Although the magazine reaches an audience primarily female, aged 18-26, its stories make satisfying reading for all who prefer resilience to resignation.