In Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson delves into the intricate, and often times quirky relationship between love and occupation. Wilson’s “Grand Stand-In” explores the issue of the narrator’s identity as she becomes caught up in the artificial and family-fragmenting nature of her job. The narrator works as a stand-in grandmother for “new families popping up, upwardly mobile couples with new children, . . . [who] feel their children are missing out on a crucial part of their life experience, grandparents” (2). In order to “love” all of her “fams” equally, the narrator must emotionally remove herself from her interactions with them. The stand-in grandmother disconnects from her own identity by falsifying her relationships with others until she realizes she must be “killed-off” from her fams in order to begin to live.
The narrator of the story is “the queen of disconnect” first within her own life, then within her job. (4) She has the ability to fabricate her emotions and quickly remove any sense of attachment following encounters with her fams. She contributes her disconnecting skills to the unimportance of family and lack of love in her own life. The narrator explains that “people who actually are grandparents seem to have the most trouble with this, this belief that family is forever” (4). The stand-in grandmother poses a contradiction in that she has lived most of her life without the desire for love or family yet works to fulfill a role as intimate as that of a family member. With any true emotion, there is the risk of heartbreak. The narrator is trying to escape the pain and danger of real life by completely fabricating one; she is seeking control and emotional protection through a false identity.
The grandmother possesses a false and fragmented identity due to her emotional disconnectedness. Wilson best illustrates the narrator’s lack of identity by not telling the reader her name. However within the job, she answers to many names, “Gammy, MeeMaw, Grandma Helen, Mimi, and weirdly enough, Gammy once again” (3). Yet, even these false identities as an actress are fluid and always changing. Furthermore, the stand-in grandmother has no identity apart from her work. She is a member of a book club “made up only of stand-ins, though we never read and only ever talk about our fams” (5). Also, the word family is truncated to fam throughout the story. In this way, Wilson fragments even more of the meaning and likeness of the stand-in’s assignments to an actual or complete family.
Wilson exploits the word love to illustrate the narrator’s inner struggle to truly disconnect from her own emotions and the affection she has towards her fams. Wilson juxtaposes love and truth in a way that is clearly ironic: “‘I love all of my grandchildren exactly the same.’ Which is the truest thing I’ve ever said” (19). In a family visit, her granddaughter tells her that she loves her, and she admits to herself that she “[loves] her too. And the truth of this strikes me so much that it takes almost four hours before I can forget about them . . .reminding myself the entire time that I love four other families as well” (8). The stand-in grandmother contradicts herself when discussing her love for her families: “I don’t miss them when they are gone. I love them, but I know what kind of love it is” (5). The narrator does not permit herself to feel a genuine love and becomes alarmed at the honest attachments with her fams. Likewise, she doesn’t allow herself to feel real love outside of the job. Cal, the narrators love interest, tells her that he loves her to which she replies “’Oh, please don’t say that word’” (24).
The Beamers’ case causes a transformation in the stand-in. Previously she was content with the fragmentation of family and fragile sense, and even took pride in her jobs. However, the Beamers are too shallow, artificial, and seemingly heartless. The name ‘Beamer’ alludes to a