Hester Kaplan is an award-winning writer whose short story collection The Edge of Marriage won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her new novel, The Tell, about a young childless couple living in Providence and the troubles simmering just below the surface of their marriage, is on sale now. Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You, says, “It’s hard not to use the word genius” about The Tell, and Booklist says it’s “highly recommended for readers who enjoy the psychologically complex work of Annie Proulx or Stewart O’Nan.”
Inside The Tell by Hester Kaplan
Over the past decade, I managed to find myself (as though by accident) in a few casinos, both the enormous, glitzy ones and the sad, down-on-their-luck ones. It’s not because I enjoy gambling. In fact, I dislike it for the same reason some people love it: the excitement of risk. But there I was, wandering the floor, watching people at the tables, listening to the chiming of the machines and the sound of metallic rain as someone won at slots. I was especially drawn to those people playing the slots hour after hour, and wondered what enticed them and kept them there through their wins and despite their losses. I’ll admit that playing the slot machines can be thrilling for a moment, but for me, it’s not a good kind of thrill. It’s like standing at the edge of a chasm, looking down and realizing that it wouldn’t be so hard to fall.
I studied anthropology in college. I was in awe of Claude Lévi-Strauss. I heatedly discussed structuralism and Tristes Tropiques. I devoured Yanomamo: The Fierce People, a case study in cultural anthropology, as though it were a novel, and gobbled up other ethnographies. But I knew I was never going to be an anthropologist because my interests weren’t scholarly. What interested me was more social, more personal, maybe more intimate: how people interacted; what happened when they strayed outside the norm and broke their contracts; how they understood, misunderstood, and formed their relationships with others. How a particular arrangement, formal and informal, small and large, functioned, and how it was different from any other. I also realized that my study didn’t have to be of the Yanomano or the Dinka of Sudan; it could be of the people around me—family, friends, strangers on the subway, a boyfriend’s parents, teachers, the women on my basketball team. Married couples. And, later, casino goers.
Casinos have their own particular culture. And for the women who play the slot machines—the majority of women who go to casinos choose the slots as their primary game—there is an inviting dynamic at work. Many women prefer the slots to table games because it allows them to be alone, to think or meditate, to go at their own speed without criticism or hassle. In The Tell, I wrote about Mira, a woman I thought I might know and admire in real life, and then I put her in front of a slot machine. I wanted to find out what would keep her going back to the slots, how she might get into money trouble, how she might hide the truth from her husband, Owen. Many of the women I talked to in researching the novel began playing the slots because it was fun, a way to release stress, an easy night out. For others, playing the slots blanketed their grief or offered addiction’s instant gratification. Like so many of these women, Mira never imagined she was going to become a compulsive gambler or lose control of her life. She could not imagine how it could happen to a woman like her. Compulsive gambling can be devastating in any number of ways, and in The Tell, I wanted to know how it might test a marriage.
Every marriage is different, and The Tell looks at a single one. Mira’s addiction, with its lies, betrayals, and secrets, threatens to destroy her marriage, which is built on the opposite notions of trust and honesty. Marriage is sometimes the context in which life happens; sometimes, as in this novel, it is the story itself. Marriage takes place within a room—and in The Tell, a large house of many rooms—a reminder of constancy, even as the marriage changes. As Owen deals with the damage Mira has done, their house, filled with a conflation of memories and responsibilities, holds and confuses him. Wilton, the seductive and ruthless new neighbor, wants what he thinks exists between Owen and Mira, but he can’t ever really know what this marriage, or any other, is truly like as long as he’s on the outside of it. Writing, like marriage and gambling, can also be a thrilling risk. Are you willing to see how far you can lean over that chasm?