For more than a decade, Hawthorne Books, an independent press in Portland, Ore., has been on the cutting edge of hybrid literature. Writers such as Monica Wesolowska, Scott Nadelson and Lidia Yuknavitch represent varied approaches to the relationship between essay, memoir and narrative, and writers like these make Hawthorne a go-to small press for the playful and the deeply literary. Hawthorne now releases its latest contribution in the world of smart, genre-bending work: Jay Ponteri’s Wedlocked.
Wedlocked is a memoir-essay, an amalgam, a smattered discography of Generation X’s alternative rock icons, Michigan cultural landmarks and Ponteri’s formative artistic and emotional references. David Shields, author of the genre-bending Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, says, “mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.”
Wedlocked attempts to articulate that “unsolvable identity of self” in the grand tradition of 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, father of the pastiche personal essay. Unlike Montaigne, whose Essais run the gamut from formal to enigmatic, Ponteri does an admirable job of linking his short, essayistic chapters into a narrative about one man’s inability to prioritize his marriage over the life of his mind. His sentences come both scattered and controlled, and readers with a love for how lyricism can flirt with formal narrative essay will delight in his accomplishment.
Still, some readers may be distracted—nay, turned off—by the particulars of Ponteri’s exploration of self. The author presents himself in the role of the husband who desires other women, in particular, Frannie, the chain-smoking red-headed barista at his regular coffee shop. Ponteri’s wife discovers this desire when she reads the pages of an early draft of this very book, which he’s stashed in a mailing envelope in their garage.
So this is a book within a book, a hall of mirrors in which a writer attempts to lay himself bare and show the effect his writing has had on his wife and his life. To do so, he compiles the ingredients of his identity.
Neither Ponteri’s wife nor the redheaded barista can be said to be protagonists in this drama; the lead roles in Wedlocked are the writer, the thoughts that make up the writer’s identity and the ways that a writer’s work can inflict injury on real people. Ponteri turns out to be a product of his references: Zeppelin, The Who, Metallica, Cheap Trick. Nirvana, Archers of Loaf, Charlatans UK, Stone Roses, Superchunk. He cites painter Chuck Close, who says that you must expose your flaws in a self-portrait, and he cites writer Scott Nadelson, whose words he borrows when he tells his wife that their relationship has “run its course.”
The geography of the narrator’s sexual fantasy life—hands hovering over wet panty crotches, the Standing Power Fuck, the hipbone to buttocks rhythm—contrasts dramatically with the un-erotic, angry sex Ponteri and his wife have after she discovers his manuscript: “
no clit play, I’m not in the mood. Just fuck and lie
Mechanical, without feeling.” Ponteri withholds information about his wife—we don’t learn until half through the book, for example, that she’s a painter, an artist in her own right. By the time we find out, the discovery startles—for the first 100 or so pages she’s simply been an angry, micromanaging buzzkill to his daydreams who spends a lot of her time knitting sweaters for their relatives. Her competence insults Ponteri’s psychological paralysis: he admits that he had stopped truly “seeing” his wife long ago. His love for her is one of “endurance and accumulation.”
Over a beer, I shared passages of Wedlocked with a friend who proclaimed Ponteri (or the character he creates) a “jerk.” But I believe this is Ponteri’s point, if not his aim.
“I do not apologize,” he writes as if to preempt my friend’s name-calling. “I can hold your frustration.” If Ponteri had written about neglecting his commitments as a high school teacher because he was busy daydreaming of a career in investment banking, we wouldn’t be nearly as offended or implicated by the ways sooner or later, everyone’s desire can seep messily outside of their relationship parameters. Also, by hovering ceaselessly over the topic of adultery but never directly acting on his desires, the narrator forces the reader to spend time in this uncomfortable space as he traces current desires to early formative experiences, including the flawed model of marriage his parents provided.
It would be easier for more readers to distance themselves from discomfort if Wedlocked were a straight story of adultery—by staying in the space of wanting to commit adultery, Ponteri can pull many more readers into a universal situation of desiring someone other than your mate, and then dare us to identify with him.
Toward the end of Wedlocked, Ponteri reaches for larger indictments of marriage and whether or not lifelong romantic commitment can ever be an honest institution. If sexual and sensual desires remain uncontrolled in their nature, how can a legal obligation to another person claim to contain them? He calls for an end to the shame that keeps many silent about their failures at monogamy, and Wedlocked is certainly a direct call to truth-telling, in the great tradition of Montaigne. But because the story of his marriage remains partially obstructed, it might be difficult for some readers to make the leap from this painstaking study in self to larger political puzzles of the institution of marriage.
Thoughtful readers, if they can embrace this work for its honest assaying of the self, will surely find bits of themselves in the streaks of fantasy and detritus of lived experience that stitch together pain and disillusionment in Wedlocked. Ponteri writes, “I wrote this book as if nobody in the world would ever read it and here I am, wanting it to be read by everybody in the world, save for my wife. There’s the rub, that unsolvable mystery: To speak the truth we have to write for ourselves only, but our words are the means by which we connect to other people, to make our truths real outside of our heads. And if your desire, your side winding truths, fall outside of your marriage, that promise on paper, to whom do we owe our honest allegiance?”
Montaigne would answer: “We owe ourselves in part to society, but in the best part to ourselves.”
You may read parts of this book through your fingers, because Ponteri will make you squirm to get to his question: “Be honest,” he writes. “Haven’t the rules of romantic partnership silenced and scattered your own desires, as well?”
Alison Barker lives in Denver. Her work has appeared in Chicago Reader, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bookslut, Rain Taxi, Columbia Journal of Literature and Art, Monkeybicycle, dislocate, Fwriction: Review and elsewhere. Contact her at barkeralison.com. She blogs collaboratively at NolaStudiola.