By Jack Lawler
Set against the backdrop of New Orleans, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel deals with the relationship between the two protagonists, Michael and Kelly, and explores how issues such as emotional withholding and miscommunication lead to the disintegration of their marriage. Butler constantly moves between past and present, as Michael and Kelly sift through memories, trying to make sense of how it all went wrong. Each of them repeatedly returns to the memory of their first meeting, at Mardi Gras some 20 years earlier, where they fell in love. Butler uses this cultural icon, Mardi Gras, and applies it in a psychological way in order to illuminate Michael and Kelly’s relationship and illustrate how their mutual reticence initially drew them to each other. Butler then uses costumes, which both literally and metaphorically cloak one’s true self, to represent the concealment of thoughts and emotions that stems from this reticence and ultimately destroys their marriage.
Michael and Kelly’s mutual desire to be alone during Mardi Gras, known for its huge parties and massive crowds, leads to their original, chance encounter and illustrates their natural inclinations towards solitude. Kelly explains how at Mardi Gras she is drawn, not to the drinking or partying that the event is known for, but to the sense of invisibility she feels in the throngs of the crowds. She “wonders if this is one of the allures of Mardi Gras, to feel this way: unseen, unseeable, unknowable in the midst of the tumult of many others. And the more intense the crowd, the more comfortably bound inside herself she feels”. (20) This behavior illustrates Kelly’s tendency to withdraw from others, to retreat to her inner world of thoughts and emotions. Her desire to disappear, to remain unknown at the biggest party of the year, is also seen in Michael. When he comes across her being harassed by three drunks, he himself is alone, just like her. He is dressed simply, “wearing a Tulane Law sweatshirt” (16), and is not noticeably intoxicated or involved in the party scene. This initial impression of Michael and Kelly that Butler gives us establishes the characters as loners of sorts, and is repeated throughout the novel, as we see Michael “just wanting to be left alone” (88) at Laurie’s dinner party, and Kelly spending more time at the bar than with other people at cocktail parties (152). These tendencies not only illustrate their compatibility, but also serve as a plot device to allow their worlds to collide: had either of them been in a group of people, they never would have met.
Michael and Kelly’s desire for solitude leads to their attempts to remain unknowable, a theme that Butler explores through the use of costumes. Costumes serve to mask someone, to allow them to act like someone they are not, a parallel with the general theme of the novel: the concealment of one’s true self. Yet, what the costume represents is different in each instance. Michael and his young girlfriend Laurie attend a party at Oak Alley plantation, where they dress up as old plantation owner, with Michael in an “antebellum tuxedo” (47), and Laurie in a “hoop skirted gown” (48). Their outfits suggest the old school romanticism and stoicism that is emblematic of the personality Michael strives to cultivate, the default “mask” that he puts on for the world. Yet these costumes are, for both of them, uncomfortable, and Michael spends the entire time with a “niggling unease” (46). Despite the ideal that the costumes represent, which Michael strives to attain, he remains unnatural, much like his relationship with Laurie. He should be perfectly happy with her, a “beautiful young woman who seems quite comfortable with him,” (183) yet he can’t shake the feeling that something is off. No matter how hard he tries, the costume simply does not fit.
In the same way that Michael’s costume is unnatural, Kelly struggles to be comfortable in her Catwoman costume at Mardi Gras and the image of sexuality that it portrays. Her costume consists of “black stiletto boots and black leggings and a black mock-turtle tee and black cat ears” (16). This costume sexualizes Kelly and attracts attention from men, attention she rejects several times before Michael steps in and saves her. The costume projects confident sexuality, even promiscuity, an image that Kelly is not really comfortable with. We realize this when she discusses the women who flashed the crowd of men, saying “she never quite identified with the two young women” (25), ultimately running away to escape the same fate as them. The costume is a front that she puts up to avoid vulnerability, one that only comes down when she is alone with Michael, and “her black mask is gone so she can cry and her painted cat whiskers are streaked down her cheeks from tears.” (16)
With her costume destroyed and her mask literally gone from her face, Kelly drops her guards and allows herself to be weak in front of Michael, a vulnerability that is reflected life in New Orleans in general. From this vulnerability comes their first sexual encounter, and the two quickly fall in love. It is no accident that New Orleans is the site of this vulnerability: according to Butler himself, “the life of openly expressed feeling is what New Orleans really represents (…) a city that is very conscious of its own vulnerability. One reason the partying is so hard and the life so intense is that everyone knows that at any time, on any given summer day, the city could vanish” (Berry 1). Kelly and Michael continually return to room 303 at the Olivier House, in hopes of recapturing the magic of that first Mardi Gras. However, they are never able to do so, as Michael and Kelly are unable to find the same vulnerability, to remove their “masks” and reveal their true feelings: Michael cannot tell Kelly that he loves her and Kelly is too proud to tell Michael her emotional needs, because, as she tells her sister, “if you have to ask, it doesn’t count” (99). Ultimately, the silence that once drew them together now drives them apart. Butler suggests that only once we throw off our masks, both literally and metaphorically, and expose our true selves, can we find the emotional satisfaction that we desire.
1. A crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras. (2012) Image Courtesy of “That Girl” Blog. http://adoseofla.blogspot.com/2012/02/happy-mardi-gras-new-orleans-tradition.html
2. The parlor to room 216 of the Olivier House (2013) Image Courtesy of Olivier House Hotel.
Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove Press, 2011. Print.
Berry, Lorainne. “Interview with Robert Olen Butler: The Danger of Wanting to be A Writer”. Talking Writing. (2012) http://talkingwriting.com/robert-olen-butler-the-danger-of-wanting-to-be-a-writer/