Friday, May 30, 2008

The Housewife Is in the Kitchen

I wrote this piece in 1979, while I was studying in the graduate writing program at Columbia. I had previously been writing pieces that could comfortably be categorized as short stories, albeit experimental ones. However, I was veering toward a more minimalist style at the time, and the following year I began writing "Bagatelles," which was a major breakthrough piece for me. "The Housewife Is in the Kitchen" was part of the process that got me there. To some degree this was a result of my own changing artistic inclinations, but it was partly written épater la bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie in question being both the faculty and most of my fellow students at Columbia. This was written for a class conducted by editor Ted Solotaroff, one of the truly mediocre minds of the New York publishing world (credentials notwithstanding) and one of the most detestable individuals I've ever "studied" (I use the term loosely) with. But if Ted was surprisingly vapid and reactionary, my fellow students were at least as bad, and my experimental stories met with scorn and derision from most of my classmates. Among the few who did support what I was doing were Jon Scieszka, who went on to a wildly successful career as a children's book writer, and Judy Lopatin. I decided I'd write a piece that was somewhat nihilistic, but also process-oriented, and see what kind of reaction it got from my aesthetically conservative peers. I was quite pleased by the outrage it inspired. For some reason my classmates, the majority of whose greatest wish was to be published in The New Yorker, took this piece as a personal affront. It was hardly worthy of their outrage. While it is similar in form to Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, I was not yet aware of that masterpiece when I wrote this. The "story," to the degree that there is one, was inspired by the fact that Chinese restaurants always required that Peking duck be ordered 24 hours in advance. The piece was first published ten years after it was written, in the April, 1989 issue of New Observations, edited by Mike Topp, a kindred spirit.


I
The housewife is in the kitchen preparing dinnner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking duck. The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

II
(The Housewife's Side of the Story)
I'm in the kitchen preparing dinner. My husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. I say Peking Duck. My husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. I say tomorrow.

III
(The Husband's Side of the Story)
My wife is in the kitchen preparing dinner. I come home and ask what's for dinner. My wife says Peking duck. I say great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. My wife says tomorrow.

IV
(The Duck's Side of the Story)
Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack tomorrow.

V
The housewife [1] is in the kitchen [2] preparing dinner.[3] The husband [4] comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking [5] duck. [6] The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

1. A woman who manages the affairs of her own home.
2. A room specially set apart and equipped for cooking food.
3. The principal meal of the day.
4. A man joined to a woman in lawful wedlock.
5. The capital of the People's Republic of China, pop. 8,000,000.
6. Any of various aquatic birds, both wild and domesticated, with short legs, webbed feet, and broad bills.

VI
The woman who manages the affairs of her own home is in the room specially set apart and equipped for cooking food preparing the principal meal of the day. The man joined to the woman in lawful wedlock comes home and asks what's for the principal meal of the day. The woman who manages the affairs of her own home says the capital of the People's Republic of China pop. 8,000,000 any of various aquatic birds both wild and domesticated with short legs webbed feet and broad bills. The man joined to the woman in lawful wedlock says great I love the capital of the People's Republic of China pop. 8,000,000 any of various aquatic birds both wild and domesticated with short legs webbed feet and broad bills when will it be ready. The woman who manages the affairs of her own home says tomorrow.

VII
(The Polish Joke)
The first Polack is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The second Polack comes home and asks what's for dinner. The first Polack says Peking Duck. The second Polack says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The first Polack says today.

VIII
The duck is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The duck says housewife. The husband says great I love Peking housewife when will it be ready. The duck says I didn't say Peking housewife I just said housewife.

IX
The husband is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The housewife comes home and asks what's for dinner. The husband says Peking duck. The housewife says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The husband relates the following anecdote:

X
The housewife is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking duck. The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

8 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

This is a wonderful piece. It's a classic. If this story were a man, I would take it to California and marry it in two weeks.

9:17 PM  
Blogger m.fairfield said...

ouch if yr Ted Solotaroff.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Clint said...

But the guy never found out what was for dinner that very evening.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Steph said...

That's awesome!

11:12 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Steph, if I'm not mistaken you've lit up my day before. Thanks.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous eric said...

I'm surprised anyone would find something so hilarious to be a 'personal affront'. Maybe surprised is the wrong word ...

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Markus said...

Good Job!: )

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Great stuff!

9:04 PM  

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