The Art of Time in David Gates’s “Banishment”
By Amber Wheeler Bacon •
David Gates doesn’t recommend flashbacks to new writers when he’s teaching fiction. When line editing a student’s piece, he cuts pretty much every flashback he sees. I know because he cut plenty of mine when he was my MFA advisor at Bennington College. Imagine my surprise then to find so many flashbacks in his work. His novella “Banishment,” from A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, dives into one on the first page. The story begins with our narrator, an aspiring writer, in the bathroom preparing for what we know is her second marriage. But we don’t really get to care yet about the second marriage, because the narrator kneels in the shower to pray “that [her] ex-husband would find love again” and that “whatever pain [she] had caused in her life would be forgiven.” A broken-hearted ex-husband and a prayer for forgiveness? Gates knew he’d have to tell us that story before moving on to the next one.
When I read that page again, though, I think maybe it’s not a flashback, but something more sophisticated. Here’s the opening in its entirety:
On the morning I was to be married for the second time, I found myself going to my knees in the shower and praying: that my ex-husband would find love again, that I would always love my new husband and that whatever pain I had caused in my life would be forgiven. Just one of those maudlin premenstrual moments; I suppose the wedding could have been better timed.
I washed and conditioned my hair, toweled off, blow-dried the fog from the mirror and laid out makeup on the ridge of the sink. The pictures from that afternoon show a bride who might still have passed for thirty.
The first two paragraphs almost straddle time; they give us both the past marriage and the marriage to be. In fact, they give us a more distant future, too, because there’s an undertone of regret about both marriages. And we know from the last sentence that the narrator can no longer pass for thirty, and is probably far beyond it. We are in three different times at once—allowing Gates to move backward or forward along the timeline he’s created without jolting the reader.
The novella is structured in five parts. Section one covers the first marriage; section two introduces the architect who breaks up the first marriage; and in section three, we meet the architect’s daughter who will break up her father’s marriage. Any guesses as to what happens in the narrator’s relationship with the architect’s daughter? Although the sections are sequential, within each Gates moves around in time, creating a symmetry and self-contained arc that satisfies the reader (just enough so that they keep reading), but also creates momentum.
By the end of the first section, despite the order of the telling, we know the first marriage, how it came to be—yes, the narrator stole him from another woman—and we know the first husband: “a boy,” the narrator calls him. We realize that he was never going to be enough. We also find out that he did find love again, with a woman who “hasn’t lost her looks.” Gates can move on with the story because the reader is in a position to understand the narrator’s infidelity with the architect. We know about more than the marriage, too. We’ve come to know the narrator.
The deeper we go into the novella, the more we see that it’s as much about the narrator’s state of mind now as it is about her failed relationships. She accuses herself of sounding maudlin. She’s not, of course, because even when Gates is depressing—and this story does get depressing—he’s never sentimental. By the end, three relationships are gone and we find the narrator working in ad sales for a women’s magazine. So much for writing anything of substance as she’d planned to do when the architect gave her a “room of her own.”
In The Kite and the String, Alice Mattison says that one reason people write stories out of order is that we think out of order. One thing leads us to another. This way of writing isn’t always easiest on the reader, but it’s partly this disordered structure that gives “Banishment” its authenticity. The narrator chooses how to tell her story and in what order.
Not every writer could do it, but I think Gates makes it work because his narrators become familiar to the reader. We’re so intimate with the narrator in “Banishment” that we can follow her streams of consciousness as if they were our own. We understand why and how one thing leads her to another. (Gates talks a lot about Beckett and Dickens—maybe he learned this from them.)
About halfway through the novella, the narrator references her prayer in the shower again:
And before we leave the wedding day behind, just one final word about my little moment that morning; I don’t want to keep coming back to this as if it were some big motif, though I might be tempted to hit it one more time near the end, for the sake of symmetry.
Toward the end, she tells us, “I don’t know what all this is supposed to add up to…” At its heart, “Banishment” seems to be about love and redemption, or the absence of it. The narrator loved, or tried to, but it wasn’t enough. She hurt people. Maybe she’s arranged her story in the order of hierarchy for which she’ll be judged for the pain she’s caused. Harold Bloom, who taught the narrator as an undergrad at Yale, made his students read the Paradiso. “It turns out to be Love that’s moving the sun and the other stars. That’s the big kicker,” the narrator says. But what happens if you’ve failed at Love?
The narrator’s brother is introduced as a “saved” man. “[H]e knows the moment when his old life ended and his new life began.” The only moment our narrator has like that is her “stagy little prayer in the shower.” But she decides against ending her story there because it sounds as false, or “bogus,” as the narrative her brother had created about his salvation. Her story, her life, is messy—like our thoughts and memories. Why should it be told sequentially or brought full-circle back to the shower?
Instead, Gates ends in a flashback, with a small act of generosity toward the narrator’s first ex-husband. There’s just the tiniest sliver of redemption here for the narrator. She tells us she’s ending her story, but then follows with one more scene, a flash-forward to a few years later right before the third break up. In the final sentence of the novella, Gates again puts us in three places at once. The narrator and her girlfriend—the architect’s daughter—walk the beach on the Outer Cape. It’s too cold. The girlfriend says, “Somehow this has lost its allure.” She’s talking about the beach and their relationship. Later when they’re warming up in the car, she asks the narrator if she misses her life. The narrator answers, “Not yet.” This works both to bridge the reader back to the relationship with the architect (it’s his line originally), and also to acknowledge the life that’s still to come. The real redemption hasn’t happened yet, and maybe won’t, but there’s one thing the narrator has left: a little time.
AMBER WHEELER BACON is a writer, teacher, and literacy specialist. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is on the board of directors of the South Carolina Writers Association. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany, Ruminate, Post Road Magazine, and the Ploughshares Blog. She is a Pushcart nominee and the recipient of the 2018 Breakout 8 Writers Prize sponsored by Epiphany and The Authors Guild. She grew up in the Atlanta area, and now lives on the South Carolina coast.