‘The Surrogate’ by Tessa Hadley

The Surrogate by Tessa Hadley, 2003

The magic trick:

Giving the narrator everything she dreamed of, and then showing how she still prefers imagination to reality

We begin Tessa Hadley Week on SSMT with a great story.

Hadley’s narrator here looks back to her college days, when she was smitten with a professor and spent large portions of her days dreaming up scenarios in which they get together. She even plays out one such scenario in her real life when she finds a man who looks a little bit like her crush.

The story pushes these ideas to another level when it becomes clear toward the end that the narrator’s dreams actually came true. Almost casually, she reveals to the reader that, oh by the way, I did marry that professor. It turns out he had a crush on me as well.

Wow, OK. That’s a development.

It’s one thing to write a story about fantasy and daydream. You’ve probably read several such stories where the majority of the action takes place in the protagonist’s mind.

But in “The Surrogate,” the fantasy comes true. In fact, the reality is even more romantic and fairy-tale-esque than anything the narrator was conjuring up in her imagination before. Remarkably, the narrator ends the story back in the dreamworld. She’s been married to her professor now for awhile, and, though not unhappy, she can’t help but be attracted to a kind of inverse of the imagined world she had when she was 20. That says a lot about the power of imagination, and the motivations people have for escaping the everyday.

And that’s quite a trick on Hadley’s part. 

The selection:

I could only really sustain the stories up to this point. After that, his face came closer, he put his arms around me, there was kissing, there was a pressing together, and the narrative failed—it lost its sequence. I could—and did—imagine plenty of what happened after, but not in any clear way. It came in a hallucinated muddle that I would try to disentangle. I’d return again and again to the gate, the threshold, the movement with which he reached across the distance between us. I’d start again from there. But it was never any good. The dream beyond that point was a loop of film repeating itself. Exhausting, after a while. Dispiriting. Because in truth it was nothing at all.


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