Table of Contents
Praise for Sheila Heti’s
THE MIDDLE STORIES
“By cross-pollinating fairy tales with the awkwardnesses of contemporary life, Heti makes the familiar uncanny and the uncanny familiar, all in delightful, perfectly crafted, shimmering prose.”
—BRIAN EVENSON, author of
The Open Curtain and Immobility
“It’s hard not to look for a key or a moral in the stories collected in Sheila Heti’s widely-praised first book,
The Middle Stories
. A little dumpling falls from the pot to the kitchen floor below. A plumber woos a princess, taking advice from a frog. A small girl is very unkind to a mermaid in a jar that she found at a flea market—there’s just got to be a lesson in that.”
“This keen sense of the arbitrary extends to Heti’s approach to the implied social structure typically contained by the world of fable. For example, Heti employs a repeating female character—obsessed with beauty and her superficial power over men—who’d be the princess in a fairy tale. In Heti’s fictional world, she’s a typical, self-obsessed urbanite who has been granted an arbitrary position of authority by society.”
“Heti’s overall sensibility is reminiscent of a remark Brassai once made about his photographs: ‘I never sought to express anything but reality itself, than which there is nothing more surreal.’”
“The Middle Stories
heralds in a New Nihilism, a smack in the face of conservative fiction. Sheila Heti’s stories are fantastic, strange and bleak.”
Literary Review of Canada
For my family
THE PRINCESS AND THE PLUMBER
A REGIONAL MAN who was just a plumber asked the princess to marry him. He was from the region so it was okay, partly, but he was a plumber, and he knew that even if she loved him her father would say no.
She did not love him. She didn’t even know him. When he went to present himself to her, leaning over the garden gate, she looked up from her book, over her sunglasses, and said, her legs long and bare in the sun, “Can’t you see I’m a princess? I have no time for any common boys. I have no time for you. If you are a prince one day, then you can come back and see me. Until then, I have no more words.”
The plumber, being a modest fellow, was quite distressed. He was a good man, he thought, even a handsome man, and he deserved better than this.
“I’m strong,” he said, “and I have a good sense of humor. You will see that if you will only spend one night with me. I can give you whatever you desire. I will make you very happy.”
“I have said all I have to say and I’m not going to say any more,” the princess replied. “I am not happy to talk to you.” And she turned her head and picked up from the grass a sheet of metal tanning foil and blocked his view of her with it.
“All right for now,” he said. “But I’m coming back.”
That evening he went home and, using a hammer and some wood, built the most marvelous marriage contraption the world had ever seen. It takes a special kind of man to invent something new, something never before thought of, and that night, inspired by her rejection, he did just that.
The next day, after only seven hours of sleep, he returned to the princess’s castle and rang the front bell. A maid answered.
“I am here to see the princess,” he said. “I have a present for her. I must see her at once.”
“What is your name?” asked the maid.
The plumber waited and waited, and waited and waited, but the maid did not return. He rang the doorbell again and still the maid did not answer. He started to go, but before he could reach the bus stop a voice came calling after him.
“Come here! Come back! You give up too easily, man!”
The plumber turned but could see nobody. “Who is it?” he asked. “Who’s following me?”
“It is I!” came the voice, and the plumber traced it and came face to face with a frog in a tree. “I have been watching the whole thing,” said the frog, “and it’s a shame the way she’s been treating you. Why don’t you find yourself a nice girl? There are many beautiful girls in this town.”
“I don’t want a nice girl,” he replied. “I want the princess. Only she won’t give me a chance because I’m a plumber. She doesn’t see what I can do. Here, I made this,” he said, and held out the wooden contraption, inspired especially by her. “If she saw it she would know what kind of man I really am.”
“I know what kind of a man you really are,” said the frog. “You’re a crazy man! What is this contraption? That won’t make her love you. Women don’t care for bits and gadgets. They want you to prove you’re better than them. Building this ridiculous machine makes you no better than her, I say that.”
The plumber looked at the frog a moment longer, then turned and walked toward the bus stop. He was upset with what the frog had said and disinclined to believe him, but the frog had spoken so persuasively, and with such assurance. Still, what did a frog know about love? He was about to return and ask for his credentials, but the bus arrived and it only came once every twenty minutes.
On the bus there was a beautiful girl of about seven or eight. She was carrying a rubber doll and sitting next to the only empty seat. The plumber sat beside her and her blond pigtail rested against his bare arm. She couldn’t help it; they were flyaway curls.
“Your celluloid doll,” he said. “What’s her name?”
The girl smiled a little smile, then turned her sad watery eyes out the window and with a faraway look said, “I’m in the middle of a very bad nightmare. Don’t speak to me, sir, please.” She saw the world going by at a very high speed, and outside everything was dark and gray. Cities and towns just whooshed on by, and beside her was a giant skyscraper of a man with big burly hands. She whispered into her doll a secret that the man could not hear, but as he was afraid of saying anything more, he did not ask.
He got off at his stop, but her hair somehow followed him. Three little bits of it had stuck to his arm, and in bed that night they pressed against him and softly lulled him to sleep.
That night he had a sad sad dream, and when he woke in the morning he remembered the princess. The three hairs of the girl from the bus had wound themselves into the shape of a heart above his own heart, and he lifted it with his finger and recalled what the frog had told him: “Woman wants a man who is better than herself.”
He got up and went to the shower. He did not shower, though. He didn’t want to start the day with such an unexceptional activity. So the plumber turned and dressed and stepped out straight into the fresh sunny air. It was springtime and still each sunny day was a present. “Hello!” he called to the birds that swooped down around him, and went straight to the castle to call on the princess.
When he arrived he could tell something was the matter. Whereas before in the air there had been riches and gaiety and pomp, on that day there was something thick and skeletal and musty. The plumber rang the bell. The maid answered, but the maid was all of a sudden quite a skinny woman.
“What happened to your body?” he couldn’t help asking, aghast.
“Oh me.” She looked down at the ground and her eyes welled up with tears. “I have become this way in only a day. There seems to be a plague upon the castle. All of us are shriveling away. The butlers, the cooks, even our little princess.”
“The princess!” cried the plumber. “I must see her.”
“No!” said the maid. “You must stay away from this house. It is quarantined. You will get sick if you come in, plagued with whatever plague has befallen it. Plus, she is too weak to take visitors.”
“She’s dying,” he said softly, and immediately knew whose fault it was. He gave his condolences and pulled a few blades of grass from the lawn and threw them on the bricks that made up the castle walls.
When he had wandered far enough away he called out, “Frog!” and patrolled the tree where he had met the frog the day before. “Come out! I know you’re there! You’re probably camouflaging yourself! Come out, come out!”
The frog reluctantly climbed onto a low branch from the bramble of leaves where he had been happily shading himself.
“Why are you killing the princess?” the man demanded.
“What? Who? I? I am not killing the princess. It is
who are killing the princess.”
“What are you talking about,” said the man who was a plumber and had forgotten all about his job over the last three days. If he didn’t go to work soon he would surely have no job at all, and that would not be right.
“Pay attention to me now,” the frog said. “The world is changing. It’s a different place from when you were a boy. All of a sudden there are going to be large corporations with robots to do all the work. People will have no jobs and no use. The money the corporations make will be taxed heavily by the government, and the government will give all that money to the people. It will be a complete welfare state. At the same time, people will be living up to two hundred years, what with the advances scientists are making in aging. The whole way we look at living will be radically altered. Nothing we know about how to live a life will apply anymore. People will have two hundred years of leisure and never have to work or do anything.”