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'So Often We're Performing': Vt. Author's Debut Novel Explores Multiple Realities We Live In

Two images of women, one upside-down and one right-side up
Milkweed Editions, Courtesy
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Glancing at the surface, it might seem the protagonist of Makenna Goodman's debut novel, The Shame, leads an idyllic Vermont existence.

At her bucolic rural home, Alma raises chickens, tends to a garden where she grows her own organic vegetables, tries to be a loving mother to her two young kids, and strives to be the kind of wife that her husband, a college professor, is proud to bring with him to attend faculty dinners.

But those face-value impressions mask an inner dialog that reveals instead Alma's striking sense of self and self-loathing, her resentment at submerging her own identity under the relentless, menial tasks of modern motherhood, and her obsession with a woman she discovers online whose life she so wishes she could emulate. Alma is drawn, moth-like, to a flame of rebellion that uproots her everyday existence.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb recently spoke with author Makenna Goodman. Their interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb:  We come away with a sense of like, two lives here, because there's the life that Alma shows to the outside world and the one that she pines for that's hidden inside. Is one of those lives more real than the other, according to the character you know Alma to be? Or are they both equally real?

Makenna Goodman:  That's a great question. The book is really an exploration into psyche and into what happens inside of the mind, and in particular the female mind, I would say. But I think I've had a lot of male readers say, "This is exactly how I feel." But there's always various realities playing out at once, and at different points in time, one version of reality rises to the surface as the most dominant one.

You know, of course, the internet is this sort of hologram universe that's not really real. But when people are on it, is that as powerful as physical reality? The answer is, I don't know. But I think that various universes can exist at one moment in time.

This is such an intense delve into the mind of this one woman. I'm sure you do want to see her as a singular character. But do you feel that a lot of women, especially women with children, will relate to and perhaps see themselves in Alma?

I think so, yes. But even now in contemporary, you know, "progressive culture," it's tempting to see a woman character and say, you know, "Oh, well, then this book is just for women." And I do think that women will identify with the feeling of, you know, ambivalence about motherhood or grappling with what it means to be ambitious and how that kind of can affect the family unit and what it means to the value of a woman's labor, both in the world and in the home, and as it relates to childhood.

It's easy for those to be pitted as like, books for women. But I think it's about the human psyche and projection for me, and this idea of, "What is this elusiveness of happiness? What are the tools with which we can achieve happiness?"

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There is a scene in which Alma finds herself at one of her husband's faculty dinner parties. And I want to set this up because it's such a remarkable scene. She's been anxious about this, because she is a stay-at-home mom, and she wants to impress the academics in this home that she's going to. And, you know, Alma's a smart, savvy woman. So she prepares for this dinner. She reads the news. And she's ready to talk on any topic.

She gets to this dinner. And sure enough, she is confident. She's charming, she's witty. She's holding court. And then while everybody's eating dinner, she's talking again. And she just thinks she's nailing this. You know, she's absolutely crushing this whole dinner. And yet there's this moment where she hears all of a sudden one of the guests stifles a laugh. She doesn't understand why. And she looks up and she suddenly realizes why.

I wonder if you could just pick up for us and read from that moment where she realizes that something's gone wrong.

Sure.

"I took a breath and reached for my water glass to buy some time to slow down and regroup. But my hands, I found, were occupied. Distracted by my own pontificating, I had been for who knows how long, but clearly long enough, cutting the president's filet minion. And when I looked down at his plate, I could see that I had done a very good job indeed. The pieces were spaced evenly apart and in neatly arranged cubes, just large enough to spear with a fork, but not too big to choke on."

And that's the president of the college. And she's been cutting up his food for him like he's one of her kids, because she's so used to doing it. Cringeworthy. And it's the way you slide it in there. It just comes at you from out of nowhere.

You were talking before about the depiction of social media. I wonder what you were trying to say about the influence that social media sites like Facebook or Instagram have on people like Alma and perhaps have on all of us.

Yeah, to me, the social media and the internet live sort of on this kind of parallel plane with art and performance. It's not art, but it is a performance, and it's a performance that we're all putting on for each other. Most of us who have access to the internet and devices are experiencing many different performances at once and interpreting them at a rapid rate. And I think like, the speed at which the human mind can process images is so much faster than the human mind can process words. We are triggered.

So you see, you know, the scene of the perfect vacation and yes, it triggers a feeling of "I want that." But it might also remind you of some horrible family vacation that you had growing up, and then it reminds you of like, how you can't afford one now. All those emotions are happening at a split second, but then you're moving on to the next image. And how does that then affect the way we interpret our own realities?

And I mean, back to your question about the dinner party scene where Alma finds herself the center of attention. She's succeeding. She has managed to, like, rise above this sort of life of a domestic, invisiblized woman while her husband is celebrated. And meanwhile, you know, she is an intellectual, but she had kids and someone had to stay home, and it was her, and at some point it'll be her husband, she says, but right now it's her.

So she gets to this party, and she's performing, and she's putting on her best show. And in the end, she put herself too far out on the line, and then she fell over the cliff. And I think that artists feel that way so often, when you spill your guts into a project and you put yourself on the line and then, you know, it depends on how it's critically received.

So often we're performing and wanting praise and worried we're not going to get it. And then when we sort of experience what the world thinks of us, there we are faced with our true humanity, our darkest hour.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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