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A novel end to a love affair

July 19, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

In the traditional recitation of the seven capital sins, envy is preceded by lust and anger.

So, too, in California writer Kathryn Chetkovich's extraordinary essay, "Envy," which appears in the current issue of the London-based literary magazine Granta and already has created something of a minor sensation in Britain. It seems likely to attract even more attention now that it is available in the United States, where the identity of the unnamed object of her jealousy is more easily discerned.

Chetkovich, 45, is an award-winning short story writer who received her master's in creative writing from Stanford, taught briefly at UC Santa Cruz and now lives in the nearby mountain community of Boulder Creek. The envy she so unsparingly describes was aroused by the success of her onetime lover, Jonathan Franzen, 44, whose bestselling novel, "The Corrections," won a National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001.

In 19 pages of coolly elegant but rawly confessional prose, Chetkovich charts the inner arc of her relationship with an unnamed novelist, beginning at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where both had gone to work through difficult literary projects, and ending with her final resentment of his unexpected celebrity.

"This is a story about two writers," the piece begins. "A story, in other words, of envy.

"I met the man at an artists' colony, and I liked him from the first story I heard him tell, which was about how he'd once been jilted by a blind date, after which he went right out and bought himself some new clothes. He was working on his third book when I met him, but he had no particular interest in talking shop. He read the paper and watched sports on television. He was handsome in a shy, arrogant way, dressed safely but deliberately in his white shirts and black jeans.

"He was, I soon learned, struggling.

"There may be women out there who do not love this beyond all else in a man, but I'm not one of them."

No names are mentioned, but by her candid account the relationship deepened over a period of years. Chetkovich finished a collection of short stories that was published by a university press after being rejected by the same New York editor who ultimately guided Franzen's novel into print. As she recalls, the usual critical silence ensued, though she does not mention that the volume ("Friendly Fire") won the prestigious John Simmons Short Fiction Award in 1998.

Meanwhile the relationship -- already marked by small stirrings of envy over his steady work and unself-conscious sense of writerly purpose -- took a turn for the worse:

"Because the man, who had been struggling so agreeably when I met him, had finally found his key, the way in. In the months it took me to produce a drifty 15-page story about the end of a marriage, a short play about a woman who sleeps with her best friend's husband and 70 pages of a screenplay that had the desperate signs of 'learning experience' written all over it, he piled up several hundred pages of his new novel.

"It was, alas, good. My own reading told me this, but I had independent verification as well -- because as sections were finished they flew almost immediately into print, and just as immediately, the phone would begin to ring with congratulatory messages, comparisons to dead writers and to living writers whose reputations were so established they might as well be dead."


Moment of truth

One night, the man came home from a difficult day "and asked if I would read some pages that were giving him trouble. I was immensely relieved to think that he, too, could produce bad work and grateful that he was willing to show it to me."

Unfortunately, Chetkovich found the pages good and herself unable to tell him otherwise: "'I think it's perfect. Funny, true, interesting.' I managed to shove the words up my throat and out my mouth....

"I was 40, then 41, then 42 years old. I had no children, the husband I had thought I would be with forever was gone, the father I had always assumed would one day really want to know me was dead, and I had no career to speak of. And now I was with a man who could do this."

Worse followed:

"Over the next several months, what had at first seemed like a pathologically extreme anticipation of the man's success on my part began to look like nothing more than a reasonable prediction. Advance copies of the book were released and, suddenly, he was being interviewed, photographed, written and talked about by, it seemed, everyone. Clearly, his book was on its way to becoming not a book but the ...."

The man's book has been out about a week when Sept. 11, 2001, dawns. Chetkovich wonders, as she imagines the man must, what effect the tragedy will have on his book but says nothing: "The truth is I didn't mention his book because I didn't want to. Because for one day, at least, for the first time in what felt like months, he and his work had been eclipsed -- and I was relieved.

"That was the place envy had delivered me to."

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