New Yorker Fiction Review: Experience

Innocence, specifically the departure from it, is the yarn that holds Tessa Hadley’s ‘Experience’ together, but I found myself more intrigued by the idea of self-renewal.

Laura, a 28-year-old British woman, has been married for a half-dozen years but finds herself packing her things and moving out after the relationship falls apart. She never fully explains why the marriage fell apart, just that it did. She admits that she could, and without great labor, picture a future without her husband – a sign the marriage was always a crack or two more from crumbling – but you get the sense this is partly a veil of faux confidence and partly her way of telling herself that the falling out of love was a mutual affair, not a one-way disintegration of intimate feeling that she did not initiate.

Through a mutual friend, Laura is put in touch with Hana, a middle-aged single woman with a salacious and secretive side. Hana is traveling to America for (as far as we know) business and leaves her London town house all to Laura, rent free. The home has a young energy to it, with art fixtures on the walls and an owner who uses it for play. It is not a family home, and perhaps that is what first appeals to Laura. It very much feels like a place of escape rather than a place for her to rest and cope with a failed relationship. She revels in this energy, bringing only a few things with her from her old home – items with personal and nostalgic value, such as her deceased mother’s perfume bottle – which she initially sets out on a counter in the bedroom.

She immediately hates what they stand for – her weaknesses, her splintered past, her confusion of who she is and what the hell has happened to her. So Laura stashes the mementos away and moves on in her search for whatever is missing inside her.

In an empty house, she finds herself poking around and winds up in the attic where Hana has locked up personal things. In a journal, Hana writes earnestly about a lover named Julian, a married man who’s masking his own marital problems with infidelity, a pain-killer until he later works up the courage to actually split with his wife (this is rumored towards the end of the story but does not actually occur in the text). Laura knows she shouldn’t be reading, but she can’t help it. She isn’t turned on by the lust of the pages as much as she’s turned on by the thought of feeling such lust.

Later, she meets Julian. He stops by the house, saying he needs to get some camping gear, and Laura takes him in. Julian wasn’t anything like the lover she envisioned from reading the journals. He was short and thin with a receding hairline – something like a common man. Laura was expecting, well, something different. A masculine, powerful, alpha-figure perhaps, a beast picked out of the pages of a magazine.

Still, this didn’t stop Laura from wrestling with the desired image in her mind, and when Julian comes back to the house later on to store some boxes, Laura is prepared. She showered and dressed and put on some makeup, sipped a little wine. She didn’t know what would happen between her and Julian, but she thought she wanted something to. She was already deep into this dream world – fantasizing about the words of an intimate journal in the house of a woman she didn’t even know, unemployed and freed from responsibility – so why not finish the fantasy? And she would have.

But as we find out, nothing did happen between Laura and Julian, which Hana didn’t believe. Julian had called her in Los Angeles to ask where she kept the keys to the attic, which irritated her. She didn’t like that Julian was around her home when she was gone, but when she found out that he was cooking dinner for Laura and doing something more than dropping off boxes or picking up camping gear, she didn’t like that Laura was keeping him around. Her suspicion grew as she thought of what could be going on back home in London, in her home.

Laura senses Hana’s irritation on the phone, and, without admitting so, she takes pleasure in it. Her careless and casual tone suggests she’s enjoying the anxiousness and helplessness Hana must be feeling so far away. We see this manifest itself in the final scene, after Laura has found a job as a receptionist for a publisher and moved out of Hana’s house. Hana comes to visit her and says, “I need to know about Julian.” Laura offers her explanation, and without anything being said, she can tell Hana doesn’t fully believe her. But Hana isn’t upset – there’s an odd sense of respect between the two, as if Laura has suddenly climbed up to Hana’s level of lustful maturity, of experience.

And that is the image we are supposed to be left with, that Laura has closed this inner gap, that she entered our world broken and vulnerable and left it empowered and reassured. She wasn’t some soft woman raked away with the autumn leaves by an ex-husband. She still had her fastball.

But, to me, that was a façade, a superficial layer of healing. After Julian left the house for the last time in the story, Laura went back into the room and took out those items she had stashed away. She held a pebble that she took from a beach during a teenage vacation with her parents, clinging to it as she watched a movie she liked. She had a sense of comfort and peace that existed nowhere else in the story. She had been stripped down by her marriage. She had been aroused by the idea of a strange lover. She had been intrigued by the thought of Hana’s carefree life. But she hadn’t been fulfilled by any of it.

Maybe she did gain an “experience” through those things, and maybe she did shed some innocence along the way. But in the end, as she held the pebble she picked up on a beach as a teenager, what made her feel normal again was that innocence. Her innocence seemed to be the commodity she was trying to secure.

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