Exploring the art of prose


“Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?” by Jonathan Durbin

An often-used technique in fiction is to allow a major conflict that exists in a story to play itself out with other, secondary characters. Jim Shepard refers to this technique as using surrogates, and, in his workshops and lectures, he cautions writers to be careful with this technique. While often helpful and illuminating, if the transition is not made back to the main conflict and characters, the point of using the surrogates will be lost.

In “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?”, originally published in The Indiana Review, Jonathan Durbin places the final section of the story on the eve of Halloween, and some children, dressed for Halloween, come into contact with the main character, who is a guest at a wedding. One of the children is dressed up as a bride, and so Durbin uses that child and her sister as a surrogate for the conflict at hand. The story succeeds beautifully, in part because of the way in which Durbin weaves together the children’s story and the main story, never simply allowing the surrogate story to stand on its own.

And suddenly then everyone was getting married. In October alone I had three weddings in the woods three weekends in a row. To each I wore the same nude heels but different backless dresses and elegant plum gloss that made my mouth into a bruise. I faced my women while they marched their aisles and clapped at the ends of their crumple-faced speeches and smoked so many cigarettes at the corners of their dance floors my hair smelled of campfire ash for days. But overall and despite my feelings of course I kissed them again and again, these women I once thought of as my sisters, as kind as ever I was or could have been. I did my job.

Agatha went first. She drifted through her reception with milky lips and eyes that slid from face to face like we were part of a past she’d already begun to forget. On Monday she was to move to Los Angeles, closer to her in-laws, and start a new life: work for NBC Universal, drive an Audi, wear large sunglasses and puffy down-filled vests, plan a baby. Agatha was a planner. Since second grade she beat back her anxieties with spreadsheets and timelines and lists she used to handwrite in her journals and now stored in her cloud. But on Saturday her wedding still required a checkmark. Us loved ones had been invited to watch her tick it off. She wouldn’t return to the East Coast until Christmas, something she made sure we all knew.

“Do you need help with the move?” I asked. I found her seated on a chair in the rented farmhouse’s master bathroom, studying her phone, long white dress gathered about her knees. “You know I’ll take off work if you need the help.”

Agatha smiled her onionskin smile and placed her phone screen down on her thigh. “Atlas confirmed for seven. They wanted to pack, but everything is packed. I’ve been packed for a week.” She gave a short shake of her head. “Feels like a month.”

I pictured the hallway in her Chelsea one-bedroom choked with cardboard boxes, sweaters and dresses and boots and books arranged within them just so, a neat and organized suffocation of her things. Then I saw Agatha padding to the bathroom in the middle of the night, wrists floating in front of her, feeling her way through the strange new darkness of an apartment she’d called home for seven years. Or was that dark the dark of a house in Culver City which weeks ago belonged to a stranger?

“Two more days,” I told her. “They’ll go fast.”

“Monday.” Her hands fluttered to her face. “Can you believe it? Monday.”

“It’s a big one.”

“A very big one.” Agatha hung her head, knuckles of spine stretching the skin of her neck. The bathroom bulb gave her hair a dull amber gleam. “Sometimes I think I’m ready.”

“Oh honey.” I crouched beside her chair. “You know it’s not about being ready. It’s just what’s happening.”

“What if I don’t know if I want it to happen?”

I put my hand on her leg and leaned into her, rested my cheek on her shoulder, pressed the sharp light bones of her arm and side to my breast. Agatha had always tried to be bigger than she was. When we were girls together at summer camp, she was first to pack styling products and a hair dryer and made all of us twelve-year-olds ache for giant chemical manes. By mid July we had become a cabin of tiny women with supercharged hair. Photos from that time had survived. Agatha ran them in a slideshow during cocktails, blown up and projected on the side of the barn while staff arranged tables for dinner inside. People laughed.

“Think about the beach.” I stroked her thigh. “The sun. No more winter. No more snow.”

“No fall either. Almost no weather at all.” Agatha’s stomach went rocky as she straightened up, pushing me off her. “I should probably go back.”

“Right,” I agreed. “It is a party.”

She tugged at her wedding dress and the white silk hem fell heavy over her shins. I stood and offered her my hand. She took it with cold fingers and said, “You know you can visit whenever you want.” Her voice had gone knife-thin, serrated and quivering at its edges.

“I know,” I told her.

I led us out of the bathroom and we staggered back to her reception, picking our way across the lawn between the farmhouse and barn, holding each other for balance when our heels sank into the earth. But as we arrived at the barn door and I made to take us back into her party, to face the flushed heat of her open bar and the obnoxious tender eyes of these people she’d known forever, she struggled against me. At first I thought she’d lost her footing again so I turned to catch her, but caught her muttering to herself instead, steady on her feet, steady as she ever was.

“There were so many things I wanted to do.” That’s what she was saying.

“Don’t worry.” I pulled her into the light. “You’ll do them.”

Jasmine went second. She had dark Spanish eyes and a rough deep voice and no trouble making herself heard at all, which we loved ones counted among her blessings. The week following her ceremony she told us she would clean herself up and go clean at the same time: toss her Oxycodone, delete her doctor from her phone, throw out her ripped black jeans and pull the stud from her nose and place her snakeskin cowboy boots in a box and seal that box off inside a locker at the Manhattan Mini Storage on Second Avenue. Jasmine was dramatic. She told us she was going to use this time to perfect her baking, which didn’t sound like her, because Jasmine didn’t know how to cook and never had any interest in learning. The Jasmine we knew was first among us to have sex and first to do drugs and first to flirt with dropping out—first to play at all these high school things we did. Following Agatha down the aisle upset her, which, in a way, was reassuring—that was the Jasmine we knew. We understood our roles when it came to helping that woman.

“Isn’t it a little crowded for that?” I found her leaning against the windowsill of the rented country house’s master bedroom, lighter in one hand, glass vial of hash oil in the other. “What about the smell?”

Jasmine flashed me a grin, advertised her straight clean teeth. “You’ll have some too. We’re going to do a little more of the wrong thing before we do the right thing.” She smoothed a rolling paper out on her white silk lap. “Before anyone makes us do the right thing.”

I imagined her at the end of next week or the week after, lying on her couch or in bed or stretched out in her underwear on her East Village floor, not smoking or drinking or doing much of anything else—trying hard not to think about wanting to do anything else. Then I saw her prescriptions refilled and old Jasmine in her bleached kitchen shaking pills onto the counter from bottles labeled with her name. I pictured her dry-swallowing them right there in the open, like she wanted to be discovered or accused or maybe both of those together. Who would she think she was kidding? Us? Herself?

“You’re making me nervous,” I told her.

“It’s my party.” She waved me over with a kempt brown hand, showed me her almond-shaped adult nails. “Come on.”

“Everyone’s going to know.”

“Maybe. But who gives a fuck.” She moved to the side to allow me space at the window, snicked her lighter and ran the flame along the vial to loosen up the hash by heating the outside. Then she reached into the black fishtail at the back of her head and removed a bobby pin. “No one knows we’re here.”

I shuffled in beside her. “We’re still going to hang out, if that’s what this is about. We’re still going to be normal. Marriage doesn’t change anything, you know.”

“Of course I know that.” She rolled her eyes twice as if what I’d said was obvious beyond belief. “You and me, we’re going to live forever.”

As she unscrewed the cap and dipped the bobby pin into her vial and painted the paper on her lap black with tar, I leaned out the window to taste the night air. It was brown and autumn and dark outside, clear sky filled with mustard-seed stars, guests gathered in the yard below us to dance and laugh and click glasses together in Jasmine’s honor. I closed my eyes and for a moment her reception sounded like a high school party, like one of those long raw tenth grade evenings in the woods when sharing a six pack of watery beer and someone’s parents’ stolen Parliaments felt hushed and right and good. On evenings like those Jasmine always made someone make a bonfire. She’d say she was cold, and maybe she was, but you could tell she just liked moving around in the firelight, liked the way the night smoke shrouded her, made her seem like a secret worth knowing. Later on tonight she had promised a fire also and during cocktails a few of the guests who had been kids with us told me how much they were looking forward to it. They asked if I’d help gather wood.

“Just a little,” I said, taking the joint. The hash was sweet but bit my throat and when the smoke got in my eyes I began to well up. “Okay. Wow. Thanks. I’m good, thanks. Here you go.”

She took the joint from me and sucked on it, smoke leaking from her nose and from between her teeth, spilling over her lips. “Now it’s a party,” she said.

“It is,” I replied.

She kept it going a moment more before stubbing out the roach on the sill and leaning over to blow flakes of ash and embers out the window. Then she stood and straightened the gown around her middle so the cloth fell properly on her lower half.

“I’m going to have the first divorce,” she said, looking down at her dress, her voice strong and certain and stoned.

“You can’t know that,” I told her, but I don’t know if she heard. I said it softly because my throat was very dry and because what do I know and because yes I believed that was exactly what would happen. Jasmine was still bent over, examining her skirt, scratching the cloth with her fingernail, holding her finger to her nose. She glanced at me, eyes alive with horror and delight.

“Look at this,” she said.


“Take a look.”

I held her hip with one hand and brought my face close to her waist, the better to see. There on her skirt where her lap would have been was a line of tar three inches long. It was big and black at the center and brown at its sides and had the wet forest smell of strong drugs. Against the white of the fabric it stood out in high relief, a viscid mistake drying there, bleeding into her dress, gaining permanence by the second.

“Jasmine,” I said. Then I repeated her name louder, as if I could yell the stain out of her clothes. “Jasmine.”

Her hip shook under my hand. At first I thought she’d started to cry because her eyes were wet. But she wasn’t crying. She was laughing. She held in the sound of it for as long as she could before it burst from her in a choked bark. Her laughing made me laugh, and my laughing made her laugh harder, and for a few terrible minutes we found ourselves locked in an escalating hilarity that only stopped when she ran out of air.

Jasmine held her stomach and when she spoke I could hear the funniness still working its way through her, her voice round and curled up at its sides. She composed herself as much as she could before continuing on:

“I am so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I feel like I should apologize. Don’t you think I should apologize?”

“Oh no.” I wiped my eyes. “You should never apologize.”

When it came to gifts I hadn’t been too worried about what to get Agatha. She registered at Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn and Sur La Table, her online lists filled with all these sensible handsome things she thought she’d need when she moved across the country. Most of the items were sandstone-colored or made from raw wood, or else they were of a mute dark steel that would look good in rooms with large windows and plenty of sun. I put some money toward an extendable dining table with a white pine finish. When the site asked me to personalize my gift with a message in a dialog box onscreen, I wrote Agatha that I loved her and that I was planning my first trip out. But I wasn’t.

Jasmine’s registry was confused. She listed specialty appliances like an electric fondue set and a touch-screen mini-fridge for storing good wines, which, knowing her, she’d chosen at random. But she also requested basics like towels and trashcans, none of them particularly fancy. Why did she need new towels? Her old towels were fine. Maybe she’d thrown them out in her rush to molt into a new woman, a balanced and happy woman, a woman who wore sensible flats and owned ultra-soft towels and operated quiet new trashcans by means of their foot pedals. How could I know? Anyway, I bought her crème brûlée dishes and a butane blowtorch. Thinking of Jasmine working a blowtorch bothered me, but I couldn’t bring myself to help her out with a set of placemats or a new duvet cover, nothing like that. The simpler her requests, the sadder I became.

Actually, shopping for both of them made me sad. All these gifts they’d requested, necessary or not, things that maybe once had stood as hallmarks of somebody’s idea of being grown, felt to me like clutter, stuff that would one day find its way into an estate sale or landfill or re-gifted to some other woman after some other sad wedding. If it had been me I like to think I’d have been different, that I would have found a way to ask for something big and nice and romantic, like a trip to Senegal, without that seeming dumb. What could you do to make a trip like that not seem so dumb? Maybe ask for airfare and then spend part of the time working for human rights or environmental conservation, or pack a camera and blog about it for a website everyone pretends to read but no one really does. Maybe take the trip and never come back, or at least let everyone know you had no plans to come back, because then they’d understand just how serious you were about Senegal, that you weren’t a dilettante, that you had no desire to be a tourist in your marriage.

Of the three of them that month, Isabel handled her registry best. In lieu of gifts she requested donations be made to a fund she set up to help preserve the Adirondacks, which is where her mother had spent her childhood and where her family owned property. All us women used to go up to Isabel’s place in the woods at least one weekend a year. We went more often when we were younger, before there were jobs and lovers and other scheduling conflicts, but we still went. We’d drink and talk and swim, build bonfires and eat outside and watch the land grow so dark at night we could imagine we were in outer space and not plain old upstate New York. But that property couldn’t accommodate all her guests, so Isabel held her ceremony at a hotel farther south that had two wood-burning fireplaces in the lobby and a view from the stone deck out back of steely Lake George. Some of her older people commented on the beauty of the water, how deep it was at its center, the rumors of prehistoric fish drifting around under its surface. But the women I knew spent their time hovering around Isabel.

She was married the last weekend in October, the day before Halloween. We loved ones gathered in the lobby for photographs around four, which was also when the hotel had arranged a children’s costume parade, both for those children who were staying at the hotel and children from town. The route was to take them across the lawn and down to the water to light paper lanterns and set them adrift on the lake, and so the lobby teemed with members of the wedding party as well as little fortune tellers and witches and tiny priestesses clutching candles. One girl of about eight came dressed as a murdered bride: skinny body wrapped in white lace, eyes raccooned with charcoal shadow, purple stage blood dripping from her mouth and chin and onto her bodice. Isabel crouched beside her for a photo, holding the girl’s waist with outstretched arms so as not to get any of that stage blood on her gown. Both of them grinned at the camera.

It was a beautiful affair. Unlike other women whose ceremonies I’ve been to, Isabel never rushed, never harried. She made time for all her guests, found natural entry and exit points from conversations so that when she left our minor gatherings none of us felt awkward, like we’d somehow made a black mark on an evening she was never supposed to forget. She wore a long backless white sheath with mid-length sleeves, dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, her lipstick a nude shade that matched my shoes. She carried herself with grace, every gesture lissome, as deeply content as I’ve ever seen a person.

“I’m so happy for you,” I told her. I found her on the deck outside at dusk receiving guests after the ceremony. Lanterns floated out on the lake behind her, costumed kids huddling by the shore to watch their flames gutter in the October dark. “This couldn’t be more perfect.”

She pulled me close, laid a warm hand flat on my back, and said, “I wish we were at my parents’ place.” Her lips whispered against my cheek. “But this isn’t so bad.”

It would have made for a beautiful wedding, her house in the woods, but like I said, it wouldn’t have been big enough. She hadn’t invited too many guests—there were maybe eighty of us all told—but she would have had to concern herself with sleeping arrangements and catering and renting a dance floor, and she didn’t want those worries eating at her nerves. She told us she wanted to be in the moment as much as she could. Even so I could picture it: Agatha might have flown in for the celebration and she’d be nervous and funny and drunk, and we’d smoke Jasmine’s joints and of course obey her when she made one of us light a bonfire, and at the end of the night all of us would take off our shoes and hold the hems of our dresses and wade into the cold pond on the eastern side of the lot to watch the bonfire burn, see the wood snap and crack and throw up sparks to light the evergreen branches overhead. Wouldn’t Isabel’s wedding have been better that way?

“Let’s go up there,” I said. “We’ll take the girls and go up there soon.”

She placed her hands on my shoulders and held me in my place, soft black eyes searching me for something that maybe I lost but actually I don’t think I ever had. “Maybe sometime,” she said. “But not for a while.”

“I know.” I gave her a weak smile. “I was just saying it would be nice.”

She curled her fingers around my neck, the tips of them tapping the skin of my jaw, and touched my face in a way that must have looked like love to anyone who was watching. “We haven’t had a chance to talk tonight,” she said. “How are you, really?”

“I’m fine.” I picked her hands off my neck and held them in my own, making mine into fists just to feel her bones wrestle in my grip. “Don’t worry about me. Everyone’s here for you. It’s a lot. Are you overwhelmed?”

She nodded, glancing around the reception. “It’s making me wish I could be everywhere at once.”

I pulled my plummy lips into something like a smile. Isabel had always been one of the women we went to when things went bad; I’d been the other. In our early twenties our women would spend hours with us talking out their problems on her old gray couch or at my dining room table: Agatha’s money stresses, Jasmine’s nighttime errors, all the troubles of all the rest—the inconsiderate families, sour loves, pits of debt, coarse worries about their futures. Isabel and I made tea and filled our places with plants and offered them open ears. The two of us, me and her, we provided balance. We were supposed to be even. Measured. Smooth. It wasn’t that long ago but right then being measured and smooth seemed distant and foreign, like something I’d read about once in a guidebook.

“I know the feeling,” I said. I gestured at the lawn, the lake, the clutches of women murmuring to each other over glasses of white-blonde champagne. “But you’ll get a chance to see everyone. They’ll make sure of it.”

“I hope so.” She laughed and took her hands away from mine and then stroked my arm as if to say she was sorry to let me go. “Thank you for coming.”

“Well, you know. ‘Where’s the party?’ That’s me.”

She laughed again. “You’re in the right place.”

From across the lawn and down by the shore I heard shouting and for a second I turned from Isabel to look. The little murdered bride I’d seen earlier struggled against an older girl dressed as a skeleton who I thought must have been her sister, judging by how the taller girl tugged at the smaller’s white-lace skirt. The skeleton snatched the bride’s wrist and pulled, dragging the girl up the grass toward us, toward where we stood on the hotel’s back deck. The little murdered bride cried out in frustration. No, she told her sister, she didn’t want to go for dinner. No, she didn’t want to leave everyone else down by the lake. No, she didn’t want the evening to end, not now, not like this, not because someone else decided that the evening was over when clearly it wasn’t.

“I should talk to some of the others,” Isabel said. “I’ll see you inside?”

I nodded. “We’ll catch up later.”

“It means a lot that you’re here.”

“Of course,” I said, but right when I said it that little bride let out a scream and so I don’t know if Isabel understood how grateful I was. “Will you listen to that,” I went on.

Isabel tilted her head but she must have been hearing something else—the fireplaces roaring inside, the wind-muffled conversations of her women, something, anything—because what she said was, “It’s a good sound.”

She glided across the deck to speak with groups of three or four of us, the curve of her back glowing in the firelight from the lobby, shoulder blades flexing like cosseted wings when she touched the arms and waists of her other guests. She spoke to each for a few easy moments before going on to the next, farther and farther away from me, until she was just a white spot in the dark. She moved with such elegance. If she wanted she could have shamed the whole party into silence, that was how squat and ugly the rest of us were by comparison. She had never settled for anything less than she felt she deserved. Is that what refusing to settle can do for a person? I massaged my lower back and thought about it, hoping that if I ever got around to something like this, I’d refuse to settle too.  But you never know about these big things until you’re doing them.

“Come on,” said the skeleton. The girls had reached the edge of the hotel’s deck, the older one still pulling.

“Stop.” The bride pushed her sister away, slapped at her sister’s arms with tiny fists. “Stop it.”

The skeleton wasn’t having it. “Everyone is waiting,” she said.

“Leave me here. Leave me alone.”

“You are just the most stubborn. It is not very becoming.”

I didn’t know the skeleton so how could I tell, really, but to me she sounded like she was mimicking someone older—her mother probably. And maybe it was because of exactly that the little bride wouldn’t listen. She dug herself in by the stone steps leading up to the deck and began to shriek. She grew so loud I began to wonder if I should help. Then I wondered if it was my place to help, or if I’d only be getting in the way, but I couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied me. I tried to get the attention of the other women gathered beside me outside there on the deck, women I knew very well, to ask their opinions. I pointed at the costumed girls and said, “Look—are you looking at this?” but the other women didn’t listen. They didn’t notice me point and they didn’t turn around. None of them saw what I saw: that little bride’s mouth a wet circle of howls, lips glistening with stage blood like the ragged edges of a wound. So before I went to the bar for a glass of champagne and drifted off to join one group of my women or another, before I found some other conversation about the things we’d been up to or what we’d be up to next week, about who had a new job and who a new plan, about who had fallen in love and who had been kidnapped by it, I walked down the deck toward the little bride, hiked up my dress and knelt on the lawn beside her, the grass cold and damp against my knee.

This is what I did: I pushed her sister out of my way and I put my arms around the girl’s thin little body and I held her tight to my chest. Then I kissed her and kissed her and kissed her again, everywhere all over. At first when I placed my hands on her she cried even louder, but when she felt my lips on her cheeks and forehead and the tip of her nose, she fell suddenly silent, as if she understood how I was trying to tell her the way things would be, the good and the bad and the loving and the lonesome, without me having to ruin either of our evenings with words. Then I pulled away, waiting to hear her agree with me or shriek some more—waiting to hear her make any sound, anything at all—but she just stared at me in silence. So I stared her back. And wasn’t it funny? I couldn’t help remarking to myself how that torn purple mouth on her looked so much like my own.

“Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?” was originally published in The Indiana Review, Winter 2016 Volume 38, Number 2.

JONATHAN DURBIN’s fiction has been published by One Story, Crazyhorse, New England Review, The Masters Review, Catapult, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in The Village VoiceEsquire and Interview, among others. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is a former fellow of the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of stories.

Author’s Note

Repetition in fiction is often viewed as a negative, but I’ve always felt that when done well, it can create a productive disonance. There are only so many times you can read a word or phrase before it loses cohesion in your mind; enough repetition and whatever is being repeated will become a device, dissociating itself from both its original meaning and its meaning as its initial use in a story seems to intend. It can transform portions of a text—or even a whole story—into something else entirely, allowing language to take on secondary qualities of consciousness, repetition being a relatively subtle method of allowing a piece of writing to comment on itself. It evokes the space between what the story understands to be true, the literal narrative as it exists on the page, and whatever inferences the story points the reader toward making—its emotional resonance, its success or failure in conveying intelligence, mood, feeling, vitality.

In concrete terms, when I refer to “repetition,” I mean that it can be as simple repeating words or phrases, or expressed in more complex forms: circular dialogue, patterns of interaction, a story’s structural elements. In real life repetition is frequently irritating, but in fiction it can be revelatory—see, for instance, Joshua Ferris’ brilliant story “The Breeze,” in which so much hinges on that mundane relationship question, “What do you want to do tonight?” Like anything else, using it successfully depends on what you want to do with it, and how well you’re able to pull it off.

Legends and folklore are, of course, nearly always grounded in repetition, and “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?” owes them some inspiration. Shortly before writing the story, I’d been reading about feminist versions of the legend of Bluebeard, older forms of the tale in which the young wife, upon unlocking Bluebeard’s chamber of murdered exes, reanimates the women by placing their heads back on their bodies, and then, together with her zombie sisters, regains her freedom by killing the old man. Something about how that telling of the story, apparently once common, has become an alternate curio version, subsumed in popular consciousness by the one in which the young woman is effectively punished for disobeying the orders of her husband, struck me in unexpected ways. On an emotional level, it prompted me to consider marriage as a kind of loss, both of individual identity and as a fracturing of the trust and sense of possibility that exists between old friends.

That’s certainly the perspective of the narrator in “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?”, whose views on three weddings of women with whom she was once close comprises the whole of the story. Each wedding-sequence mini-story resembles the other in that the narrator deploys similar language to describe what happens. By repeating slightly altered versions of descriptions and interactions between sections, the story begins to take on a rhythmic quality—a sometimes arcane syntax that fits with the overall tone of the piece, and, I hope, speaks to how mysterious she finds her feelings without sacrificing clarity in the piece as a whole. In many ways it’s a story about fear of change, and how love (or, in the narrator’s view, “love”) operates as a catalyst for that change. If the repetition in the story works, then it serves to underscore the narrator’s discomfort, and to illustrate her yearning to influence matters outside of her control. I suppose that sounds a little like jealousy, but if she’s jealous then it’s for something stranger, not love or money, but the ability to start over, anew.

JONATHAN DURBIN’s fiction has been published by One Story, Crazyhorse, New England Review, The Masters Review, Catapult, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in The Village VoiceEsquire and Interview, among others. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is a former fellow of the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of stories.