Joan Silber on the Mystery of the Body

In your story for this week, “Evolution,” a teen-ager named Cara hitchhikes from New York to Arizona with her older boyfriend, Brody, in 1980, and experiences both liberation and disappointment from her newfound sexual freedom. Reflecting on the story’s events, an older Cara says that “people believed in sex in a way that they don’t quite anymore,” and wonders, “Did we run that idea into the ground, overplay it?” One of the main themes of your story is the existence (or not) of evolving ideas about sexual relationships over the generations. Have you seen any evolution in the sexual dynamics in the world around you?

This story partly came out of my reading a spate of articles this spring about how young heterosexuals (especially but not exclusively female) currently report more wariness about sex, less sexual activity, and more confusion about rules. (Also more worry about the effects of porn). Of course, this is a great change from eras when freedom itself was lauded. And it’s very much a live and ongoing discussion.

It was freshly striking to me that this most intimate and private of experiences bears the effect of social assumptions—though this is just a human fact. We are used to noticing this in every nineteenth-century novel. In our own era of accelerated change, we see celebrities facing charges of sexual misconduct as standards shift, and any look at old TV shows—from “I Love Lucy” to the original “Sex and the City”—provides examples of behavior that would be unpresentable now. I wanted, of course, to look at this in subtler ways, to hear what the sixteen-year-old Cara says to herself about this at the time. She is pledged to being sturdy, to being equal to what happens.

I’ve often written about desire and longing, and this was a new way to see how these elements shape a story.

Cara and Brody’s relationship isn’t exactly abusive, but it isn’t equal, either. The story exists in a world before terms like “consent” might have been fully formed, and an older Cara admits that she “had other terms for it, other measures.” Do you think this vocabulary would have helped her at all?

It’s true that it doesn’t occur to Cara to object to most of what Brody does. She genuinely wants adventure—hitchhiking across the country is glamorous to her—and she has an investment in herself as being not so delicate. (When Brody tells her they will sleep on the benches of picnic tables, she’s primarily sorry they won’t be sharing a bed). By the time they reach their destination, his treatment of her has edges of humiliation in it, which she is well aware of but also tries to brush off. Having terms for what’s happening would have given her categories of thought, ways to parse out what’s wrong, a different judgment. It certainly could have saved her some trouble. (And given me a different story.)

But terms can also be reductive. Every era has its own clichés, and they’re never enough for what really happens.

There’s a delicate balancing act in your story between humor and heartbreak; we can both laugh at Cara’s nonchalance and worry for her when she encounters a creepy driver or is taken advantage of by her boyfriend. Likewise, the narrator, reflecting from a later date on her teen-age escapade, finds both comedy and pathos in her former naïveté. How did you manage that balance, and how did you decide to set the story in the retrospective mode?

I like to work in retrospect, to cover long spans of time. (I once wrote a book called “The Art of Time in Fiction.”) Here, the further perspective lets me go beyond what a sixteen-year-old might know. But my focus through most of the story is on the intensity of her theories about what she’s doing. The young Cara has the notion (which has some merit) that her new life of keen sexual activity allies her with the forces of nature, that she and Brody are nature’s “glowing initiates.” She is, after all, fairly new to sex—she’s been with two other boys, just a few times—and the power of the enterprise has led her to an intuition of its spiritual force.

She doesn’t voice this to Brody, but Brody, for his part, makes an acerbic remark recalling a priest saying that nature was “how God revealed Himself to us.” Brody points to the scorching temperatures in a Tucson June as signs that the God of nature is not so nice. I like the habit of young people to openly puzzle out the great questions of the world, and I wanted to give these characters that.

The story’s title, “Evolution,” also leans on retrospection. It’s first mentioned when Cara has the idea (uttered often in the seventies) that smoking marijuana is superior to drinking alcohol and represents an evolutionary advance. She later wonders what evolutionary need is served by the “pounding, pounding” mechanics of intercourse. And having her own daughters makes her see the great changes in attitudes toward desire and freedom.

One of the things I most appreciate about your story is the way it captures a certain youthful insouciance, a willingness to put oneself in situations of danger or discomfort in order to make life a little more interesting. In the story, there’s an inkling of how Cara will or will not evolve from that instinct later on in her life, as an adult. Is there something specific about Cara’s age that pushes her toward certain things, or is it more a trait of Cara herself?

We are following Cara through key moments in her understanding of her life as a body. In the very beginning, she is physically showing off—displaying her dancing skill and also rehearsing her future sexiness—and she manages to break a bone. Later, we see her coming into her own as a sexual being, taking pride in her adventurousness. There’s a shift again when death enters the story, and her history with Brody, which is over and done, alters its meaning in her mind. The mystery of the body is also the mystery of its dissolution, its impermanence. She half knows this when she’s young—waiting in the bloody chaos of the emergency room—but the older Cara has settled her memories within this longer view.

The story begins and ends with a scene in the hospital, when Cara fractures her tibia after showing off for her childhood friend. How does that experience in the emergency room change her and lead her toward her later explorations of love and lust?

This story is part of a novel I’ve been working on. It begins with a tale of the two young guys Cara sits behind in the emergency room. As Cara sort of sees, one man has taken his dear friend, who’s overdosed on heroin, into the hospital for help—and then leaves him there alone. The long saga of this (the man keeps it a secret his whole life) is in the first chapter, but I also wanted to get the effect of it on someone who is there at the time; I’m always interested in the side consequences of things. Seeing the betrayal, Cara reaches the not-so-obvious conclusion that she will have to look out for herself in this life. Her running away with her boyfriend, some six years later, has some roots in this. She takes off without worrying about her perfectly good mother, and she’s decided to expect herself to cope with whatever happens, which is a useful but not always accurate idea.

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