Sanity by Tobias Wolff, 1991
The magic trick:
Disguising the story’s central conflict
It would seem to follow that when a story begins by announcing a man’s mental breakdown and subsequent admittance to a psychiatric facility, the reader can rest assured that he now knows the story’s central crisis. “Sanity” doesn’t follow this particular line of logic, though. I’d argue the mental breakdown in the opening paragraph is not the central crisis but rather a response to the central crisis, the central crisis being the impending dissolution of the marriage and Claire’s departure.
The story then shows itself to chronicle April’s response to this crisis. She doesn’t have a mental breakdown as her father has; but instead has some kind of sexual awakening. She has long been studying her stepmother, and now on the eve of Claire’s departure, April learns the power of control and self-possession, desperately cribbing the final notes she needs before her stepmom exits her life. It’s all a very fascinating study in the art of power during crisis. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.
Mary arrived at the committee room exactly on time for her interview, but the room was empty. Her book was on the table, along with a water pitcher and some glasses. She sat down and picked up the book. The binding cracked as she opened it. The pages were smooth, unread. Mary turned to the first chapter, which began, “It is generally believed that . . . “ How dull, she thought.