BASS 2010 – The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris

As I read through this story, I kept wondering how it was in The New Yorker. It just doesn’t seem like a New Yorker story. It seemed like a 30’s screwball comedy – no, it doesn’t, well, yes, it does, except the only reason I say that is because there’s a snippet of conversation in the book about 30’s screwball comedies and how they didn’t have to say F-this and F-that every other minute and here’s this 30’s screwball comedy about an old man, a Russian prostitute, and Viagra, which is also a bit incongruous with a 30’s screwball comedy.

I had a lot of problems with the way this was written. Well, no, I didn’t have problems with it – I found it easy to read and enjoyable – but I don’t understand how this is a “best” story. It was rather routine, actually – of course his buddy gets him a hooker for his birthday, of course he takes the pill, of course he’s happy about it, so while it was a fun romp to read, it was fun because it was quite predictable once the 30’s screwball comedy vibe was set (which took a while). This is the second story I’ve read in this volume where it seemed like it was two stories, one that was exposition and set-up, and then the actual story. Maybe I’ve been reading too much flash. Or maybe this whole get into the story immediately and grab the reader from the first line is only required from neophytes, and the Joshual Ferrises of this world can do whatever they want.

There’s only a page of true exposition before we get to the birthday, which is when the action starts. The kids call. Then he calls for a pizza. Then the hooker shows up, which is when things start to happen. So it wasn’t really that long, it just seemed long, but I think maybe that was the point, the interminable calls from the kids and the grandchild showcasing his life, that this is what he’d been waiting all day for, and he harps on his health knowing the kid doesn’t want to hear it and no one really listens to him anyway.

I don’t know, this is where I start to worry about my “taste level” to use the infamous phrase from Project Runway. I thought this was a fair story. Not a New Yorker story. Not a BASS story. There was nothing surprising in it. It was mildly entertaining at best. What the hell is wrong with me? Let me revise: I wouldn’t say there was nothing surprising in it – I was surprised he took a casual attitute towards whether the hooker accepted his offer of financial help or not, that he was content once he made the offer, and he let go of her hand to wave at Mrs. Z – so he wasn’t a complete fool. And the ending was kind of nice, except it’s that wrap-it-all-up-upbeat kind of ending that’s not common in well-ranked stories these days.

I’ve read elsewhere the ending is almost identical to another end-with-a-baseball-memory story, I forget which, and it’s possibly an homage to the other author (I have to make note of it and read it). Maybe I’m just not well-read enough to appreciate this.

The POV is something I can learn from, I think. Starts off very general, clearly an omnisicent 3rd narrator, lots of psychic distance, a wide shot as it were. Then it moves in to details and becomes 3rd person Arty. And just when the hooker scene is getting interesting, it shifts to Mrs. Zegerman and her snoopvision. After his somewhat miraculous recovery from his fall and heart whatever, they really share the POV, the most poignant paragraph for me being, not Arty’s decision to take the blue pill, but Mrs. Zegerman giving up her fantasy of being a hero and tending to him for a year as he slowly recovers, probably with hopes of becoming Mrs. Arty, all blown apart when he leaps from the car without his cane. Then he sees her later in the car, crying, which felt false to me, how could he see that far? The end goes back to a wide shot, clear narrator info about the hairline fracture in the baseball game. This makes very clear the difference between character, narrator, and author – the author isn’t really there at all, the narrator is clearly distinguished from the characters of Arty and Mrs. Zegerman. But… while I liked it, I didn’t see greatness in it. I saw Eclectica rather than The New Yorker (which is not a swipe at Eclectica, they’ve pubished some really good stories, but they aren’t The New Yorker). Which gets back to my dubious taste level. Ay.

What if? 84 – Five Different Versions – and one of them is not a lie

How we tell our own personal stories often depends on who we’re telling them to. We might exaggerate, minimize, dramatize, leave out or amplify certain details.

Exercise: Here is the story: you are coming out of a movie theatre at seven in the evening when you are mugged, he asks you for money, takes it, pushes you down and runs away. Now, tell this story to your mother, best friend, romantic partner, therapist, police officer.

Now this is fun.

Mother: “Oh, it was nothing, some guy asked me for money and then I slipped on something, there must’ve been some stick or something on the sidewalk. I didn’t have hardly any money on me anyway, so he sure picked the right time to rob me! Well, the wrong time for him! [mom: where was husband] “I wanted to see this movie, and Paul really didn’t so I went on a night he was working late.” [you've got to be more careful or you'll get raped running around the way you do] “There were people right around the corner, I should’ve just screamed and he’d have run off but I guess I thought it’d be easier to just give him the ten bucks and get rid of him.” Minimizing, avoiding the issue of fight with husband.

Best friend: “It was all Paul’s fault, we’d had this huge fight that morning and then he called to say he was working late and we had another fight right then, so instead of going home I went to see the new movie, I left before the end and I was crying so I went down a side street by mistake, oh, it was awful, and all I could think was it’d suit him right for me to be killed and he’d know the last time we talked he was being such a pisspot.” Blaming husband.

Romantic partner: “It was awful, this horrid man, he was dirty and ugly, he looked mean, and I thought he was going to kill me so when he asked for money I was almost relieved but I thought he was going to rape me, he kept looking at me, my legs and my boobs, and he smiled a little bit, but other people were walking by up at the corner so I guess he figured he wouldn’t be able to get away with it, he’d get caught so he pushed me down, he was so rough, he shoved me by the arm, look, is there a bruise? I’ll have to wear sleeves for a while, and I scraped my knee on the sidewalk, see, I’m going to have a big ugly scab, but at least I’m alive, wow, when I think of what could’ve happened.” Garnering sympathy, exaggerating trauma, hoping he’ll feel bad.

Therapist: “I feel a little weird because I wasn’t more scared. I mean, it just wasn’t that scary. He asked me for money the way panhandlers do, if I’d said no he might’ve just shrugged and walked away, he wasn’t a big guy. I don’t know why he pushed me, maybe he was afraid of me, I don’t know, it was strange, but I should’ve been paying attention to where I was going and used the crosswalk and gone down Forest instead of cutting through the alley. I know better. You know how you’re always telling me I make it a habit to set myself up? Well, I think I did it again, this time.” Relative honesty about her own role, insight.

Police officer: “I can’t really describe him, he looked like a street guy, he wore a jacket over a flannel shirt and his hair was kind of long, like over his ears but not on his shoulders, I don’t know what color his eyes were, he was a little shorter than me, average build, I don’t really know, I doubt I’d recognize him again, he looks like all of them, the panhandlers and the bums on the street.” Relative honest victim account, downplayed because she doesn’t want to be bothered with police.

What If? 83 – Sunday: Discovering emotional triggers.

“Most of the time it doesn’t matter on what day a story happens, except for Sunday – people are at loose ends, oversleep, overeat, overreact, it’s an odd day with emotional triggers. Certain words or ideas – retirement, in-laws, boss, vacation, pneumonia, fraud – serve as triggers for stories or scenes. unday is one of them. Try to think of others.”

Really? I think all days have emotional triggers. There is something about Sunday – it tends to be purely recreational, very few people work, church day, family day, football day, picnic day, go sledding day, whatever. But there’s something about Saturday, too – errands and party night. And Friday, end of the workweek. And Monday, oh god I have to go to work again. Tues, Weds, Thurs, run together but they’re marked by ordinariness. For that matter, just about any word or idea has an emotional trigger. Retirement, certainly – either as setting free or as the end of usefulness – but boss? Pneumonia? Fraud? There are emotional triggers, sure, but so are there with cat, dog, baby, boots, pot roast, school, bells, hamburger, gentle, war – I don’t see that pneumonia or fraud means more or less than anything else.

Exercise: 550 words, title it Sunday.
The hush was almost tactile. It wasn’t the quiet before a storm, or that awkward silence after an unwittingly rude or obscene remark is splayed out on the conference table in a meeting, or the tense pause between serious question (“So, what did the biopsy show?”) and equally serious, or opposingly refreshing, answer. It was worshipful, respectful silence, relaxed rather than enforced. Even the machines dispensing IV fluids seemed to beep more quietly, and the televisions were for once all off or on mute. A nurse entering a room with a swish of rubber soles on tile might have floated in, the blood pressure cuff pumped up with minimal puff and hiss, and when she was finished she replaced it in the bedside basket by turning, walking, reaching, laying it gently on the wires rather than tossing it as usual. It was Sunday, and everything respected that. Everyone. Mrs. Alfonso kept her usual complaining to herself, and Mr. Bronsky tolerated the aching in his chest even as it crescendoed to pain. It was only his sweat, pimpling his forehead and neck, that spoke, but the nurse did not hear it.

Handicapping the upcoming Top Chef:All Stars season

I’m embarrassingly excited about the impending start of the Top Chef All-Stars season. My take on the competition below. Everything depends on what everyone’s been doing since they last appeared – have they been cooking? Experimenting? Did they analyze where they had trouble and work on weak areas, or just figure the hell with it, they had a bad day? Without knowing most of that, and fully aware that I have no idea what’s involved in real cooking, here’s what I think:

Casey – She does better with fewer choices, gets confused easily. I always thought she had a very professional showing. I don’t like her new hair.
Richard Blais - He’s my pick. He is the #1 woulda-shoulda-coulda of all the almosts. He needs to keep the tricks (smoke gun, alginate) down to a minimum – and if he breaks out the microwave sponge cake, he should be PYKAG’d immediately.
Spike – please. Go home and make a burger. Or butcher something.
Mike Isabella – see Spike. But much worse.
Tre – I’ve seen him on ICA, though I’m not sure when he was on, before or after his season. He probably is one of the top contenders, but I never got it, his insistance on redoing everything in the RW do-over, the apple bread pudding fiasco, the horrible salmon dish. I have my doubts.
Tiffany from S1 – She’s my runner-up to Blais. But she could use some insight and some interpersonal skills.
Tiffany from Texas – I don’t see her going far with this crowd. But I wish the best for her.
Antonia – I think she kinda was the beneficiary instead of the victim of being mediocre, she got swept along instead of being left behind because she never did anything outstanding except a one-pot family meal and short-order eggs.
Stephen – I’m very interested to see if he’s been cooking or if he’s been pretensiousing. If he got serious about cooking at any point in the past 5 years, he could be a threat, because he had some breadth of skill. But I suspect he’s been admiring his sabering skills.
Marcel – Again, it depends on what he’s been doing. I think he’ll do fine, now that MG isn’t something to sneer at any more. I do think he’s grown into his asshole reputation.
Jamie – when she’s doing what she likes, she’s great. Soups, stews, combined flavors, blending. When she has to do something she doesn’t like, or doesn’t know, she’s a mess. I think she’s too limited to go beyond the low-middle.
Carla – she’s my sentimental favorite. And, if she’s had this resurgance of confidence in herself, it could work, wouldn’t that be great.
Dale from the venison finale – I never got what others saw in him. He seems earnest, loved his story. I’m clueless about what he’s got.
Dale from the misbegotten butterscotch scallops – He was #1 in the Raw Deal department, and Anthony Bourdain, for all my admiration of his shows, was responsible for that miscarriage of justice. I’m not sure, however, he has the personality to handle the stress, especially with a lot of high-powered and temperamental people around. Late mid-season.
Angelo – he could be a contender if he keeps his head on straight. He gets sidetracked by interpersonal issues.
Jen – I love her, and she’s got the chops, but she gets muddled. Late mid-season.
Elia – She has some advantage in that she isn’t afraid of dessert. I think it’s because I don’t like her that I don’t see her measuring up past mid-season.
Fabio – I was somehow immune to his all-pervasive “charm”. Unless he’s been practicing, I don’t think he has a chance.

So my top 3 – Blais, Tiffany S1, Angelo.
My wish list, Carla, Blais, Marcel (hey, I SAID it was a wish list!).
My bottom 3 – Jamie, Stephen, Elia.
My get-off-my-tv list: Mike I, Spike, Fabio, Elia.

Edits after episodes: how’d I do?

Episode 1 – Angelo wins, Elia is out. Angelo is in my top 3, Elia is on both my bottom 3 and my get-off-my-tv list.  Batting 100. The rest of the top 3 and bottom 3 weren’t quite as perfect, but we’ll ignore that.  Call it – 90%, since Spike and Jamie ended up in the top. But so did Blais, and Stephen and Fabio rounded out the bottom, so over all, I did pretty well.

Episode 2 – The trio of Blais, Marcel, and Angelo wins, and Jen is out. Two of three winners is in my top 3, and two of three are on my wish list. Jen was a bit of a surprise, I missed that entirely. Still, I’ll call it 75%. And no, there no mathematical rationale for these numbers, it’s just how it feels to me.

A post-episode-six (fishing) retrospective: How’d I do?
After six episodes, here are the departees:

Elia
Jen
Stephen, DaleL
Spike
Casey
TiffanyF and Jamie (Tiffany was in my Top 3. Oops).

My Top 3 list is down by one. Blais and Angelo are still there.
My Top3 Wish List (Carla, Blais, Marcel) is still intact.

My bottom three – Jamie, Stephen, Elia – are all gone.
My Bottom 4 Wish List – Isabella, Spike, Fabio, Elia – is only half gone.

While I’m surprised by Jen’s very early departure, I’m more surprised by TiffanyF leaving in Episode 6. I don’t dispute either decision, however. I’m thrilled that Carla has two wins and seems to be owning her own style, her own food, and it’s really working for her. I’m ready to let go of my Marcel-as-victim stance, though I think he’s playing a role here, possibly at the urging of the producers (“come on, guy, give us something juicy for the tape”). I’m impressed by the change TiffanyF and DaleT have shown, both recognizing how they came across the first time around and taking effective steps to counteract that impression. I’m more impressed with Antonia each time, she seems to have a grasp of “what needs to be done” and she executes well. And I like her, I liked her before, I just didn’t see her skills in evidence at all times. I’m a little worried about Blais, he isn’t doing as well as I would’ve expected. He seems to still be in the throes of wanting to do everything on every dish.

So I didn’t do too bad a job. I’d give me a B+. But I’m an easy grader.

Osing to Auden to Kramer

I had an interesting little tour in my head this morning, courtesy of Burke’s Books of Memphis, TN, owned by my recently-discovered friend Corey Mesler (whose novella, “Publisher” is listed on my Online Fiction to Read and Love page). Wow, that was a mouthful of a sentence.

Anyway: I received the Burke’s Bookstore newsletter, including their Poem for Monday: “Auden,” by Gordon Osing, included in his newly released book of poetry titled Slaughtering the Buddha which I think I will now have to order. Now, I’m not a huge poetry reader. Most of it goes by me. But what sticks, really sticks, and this stuck – and not only did it stick, it stuck to some stuff that’d stuck years ago.

Osing’s lines from his poem “Auden” stuck today, particularly:
“If Eve’s libido gamboled with sin, how does that leave
The rest of us at love that slaughters to forgive.”

Those lines stuck to Auden’s “September 1, 1939″ :
“What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart…”

“We must love one another or die.”

Which stuck to And the Band Played On, a magnificent journalistic account by Randy Shilts of the heroes on the front lines of the beginning AIDS epidemic in the late 70’s/early 80’s, including Larry Kramer’s use of Auden’s phrase, and the role of the poem as inspiration for the title of his now-legendary play, The Normal Heart.

A lot of sadness, tears, and of course the stopped clock crept in there (“He was my North, my South”) but a lovely tour of mental stickie notes nonetheless. That’s what we have memory synapses for, isn’t it?

Ha Jin – “The Beauty” and reconsideration of “The Bane of the Internet”

Since reading more of Ha Jin’s stories, I’ve reconsidered “The Bane of the Internet.” No, that isn’t exactly true – I discovered something I hadn’t seen before, and now I feel stupid that I didn’t see it immediately. It’s the irony. The sister who has come to America, the one who is in China. The ant and the grasshopper. The planner and the flirt. The goal-driven and the status-driven. The perennial immigrant and the soap-opera star. And how that will change, once the sister in America has her own shop and her kids will live the soap opera. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but there is something clever there.

This came to me after reading “The Beauty” where I see a similar cleverness, couched in a story that is, well, not much. It reads like something out of a 40’s pulp mag. Or a fable – or a Zin story! A real estate agent has a beautiful wife and is so concerned because his child is so plain, and he is beautiful, his wife is beautiful, so where did this ugly child come from, this child who cries all night and keeps him awake? The wife is friends with an ugly man and that raises suspicions. It’s the focus on beauty, the disappointment that his wife’s beauty isn’t genuine but artifical via plastic surgery – and thus tarnished – that makes it interesting. He’s so focused on status. There’s a couple that wants to move from Switzerland to Flushing so they can get real Chinese food (a notion that made me giggle). He wants to leave Flushing because there are no English bookstores. I didn’t realize Flushing was now predominantly Chinese, but I guess it is. This guy left China once, and he isn’t happy to find it being recreated around him. I found myself wanting to know about his daughter, in the coming years, whether they became close or whether he continued to see her as ugly and disruptive, if he ever changed. This was more of a character portrait. Aha! I think that’s the thing, in these stories, there are plots, but the characters do not change, they never have any insight, their efforts are driven to keeping things the way they are. Then there’s the whole aspect of him publicly renouncing his Communist party membership after Tiennamen Square. I didn’t realize that was possible, at least not if one wanted to live outside of a political prison, and certainly not if one wanted to emigrate. I come back to something that was said, I believe, on The West Wing (“everything I needed to know about politics I learned from The West Wing”) – that China started out 100% communist and America started out 100% capitalist, and now China is 80% communist and America is 80% capitalist, and one day they will meet in the middle (uh oh, don’t show that to any Tea Partiers, they’ll think it’s cause to shoot somebody).

A Just Recompense

Someone asked me if “A Just Recompense,” the title of this blog, was a quote from something or the title of a novel or story. Not exactly. It’s a quote from me. A very crazy me. More crazy than usual, even.

In the summer of 2009, I was quite sick with high calcium and low potassium – the dreaded electrolyte disturbance, due to taking too much over-the-counter pain medication for a ruptured disc in my neck. One of the things most sensitive to electrolyte disruption is the nervous system (the other is the heart, though mine never missed a beat). I went crazy for a few days, lived in a universe where the hospital had an art gallery and performance theatre on the first floor, where I travelled to block shows nightly, where I was gang-raped and hidden in the basement to keep me away from reporters interested in President Obama’s impending visit. Apparently I kept trying to get out of bed, something that rang alarms and required a great deal of paperwork. One of the nurses was quite angry with me after I recovered enough (though not completely) to stay put, and I wrote her this apology:

“I apologise for the trouble I caused and whatever I said and did earlier this week. I offer my apology, not to obtain any sort of merit for it, and certainly not to earn your forgiveness for what must have been horrible offence, but so you may have the just recompense of telling me to stuff it where the sun don’t shine, and in the hopes that that you will find comfort in knowing it wasn’t much of a picnic for me, either.”

I still have the scribbled copy of this. It was so 19th century, so male, so ridiculously phrased, I just had to keep it, and the phrase “a just recompense” became the working title for the written account of this period. I have not worked on it for some time; it’s very difficult to work on since I still don’t know what was real and what wasn’t (other than the events above which I’m almost certain were not real).

Addendum: Turns out, the phrase “a just recompense” does occur in the Bible – of course, where else? KJV, Hebrews, Chapter 2, verses 1 – 4: 

“Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?”

It’s been a while since I studied the Bible, but I think this means hellfire and brimstone to those who don’t believe. I must’ve encountered this at some point in my misspent youth as a Southern Baptist, so I’ll have to stop claiming it’s my original phrase.

What If? 80 – Illustrations

Exercise: drawing pictures can be useful at various stages. Start by drawing picture to illustrate your own work from the last couple of years. If you’re part of a writer’s group, try illustrating each others’ stories.Turn to a work in progress and draw an illustration for each scene or section.

Objective: A useful map of the energy of a story and what has stayed with you as author and reader. Provides info not accessible by verbal discussion.

Interesting. Zin drew a lot. In fact, I have a lot of Zin drawings from the Nightingale story and Harold. And of course “Doodle” has illustration as part of the story. I wanted that very badly and Ellen was cool with it, changed it a little but still, it worked. That was from the Gahan Wilson story I’d read years and years ago!

I love the illustrations in Aimee Bender’s “The Three Elevators” – only the cover and one inside, line drawings, very simple, but charming. I often have pictures in my head of the people in my stories, and I can see something like movies of certain scenes – the wharf scene in Drowning, for example. But for me it’s titles – I still think of “That Season of Madness” as “Glasses”, and “Drowning” is still “Drown” unless I concentrate on fixing it. I never expected to use “Green” as a title (I have a very clear picture of Jamie and Michael from that story) but that’s what happened.

I can’t draw pictures here, but if I were to illustrate the Mourning story, it would be hard because I’m resisting making the mother Asian, though I see her as Asian. I’ve noticed a lot of the afternotes in BASS indicate the author started with a vision – Danielle Evans saw a man in uniform with a little girl on his shoulders, knew she was not his daughter but almost, and that’s how the story started. Mourning, I see the scene where the kid returns her credit card to the car very clearly. Also her face as she says, “I lost my son, too” – anger, shame, grief, relief. I don’t draw well enough to capture those things, though.

When I read some edits to the Notes story in the writing group a while back, several people there said they could see it as an illustrated book with pictures of the notes, with Max playing with them, the old lady leaning out of the window, etc. I see the same thing, though I see it in live action, not drawings. The note coming out of the Victrola horn, actually was an image before it was written into the story. and now that I know I want to add a villain, I can see Max going into the Victrola after him.

Failbook

I’ve just found a new way to waste time. Failbook.

I was on Facebook for a few months back when I was still on Zoetrope. A lot of Zoetropers had Facebook accounts, and it’s become almost mandatory for literary magazines to have accounts. We, of course, were sophisticated, mature people so we only posted status updates when there was something important, like a publication or an acceptance (yeah, and if you believe that one…). Massive time sink, but I have to admit it was a good way to know what was going on everywhere. I no longer care what’s going on anywhere, including right here where I am. So I don’t have a Facebook account.

Zin had one, briefly, but never really used it except to look up other accounts. And lo and behold, Zin got a message last week about a security violation and fixing it required Zin to send in a phone number. So Zin no longer has an account. Which is too bad, there are some interesting people on Facebook but I’m sick of it and Zin is sick of it. I would like to see the movie though. And this Failbook site is hilarious.

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

I did not want to read this story. As soon as I saw it was about a soldier going to Iraq and leaving his girlfriend behind, I thought, uh oh, it’s either a PTSD story or a she-done-me-wrong story. It couldn’t be a she-did-me-right story because, well, those aren’t found in literary fiction – happy stories do not exist. But neither do cliched stories, at least not in BASS, so I shouldn’t have worried.

And there is some PTSD and some relationship stuff, and it’s important, because it feeds into the main story about the main character, Georgie, and his girlfriend’s five year old daughter, Esther. It gets into how pretend-just-to-make-us-feel-better turns into complicated lies, and how that has consequences. It’s about how obscene war is, how obscene Iraq was, how obscene the mall is, how obscene Hannah Montana is (I don’t actually know which $500 a pop celeb Mindy is based on, the muppets? Do they cost $500?), how obscene the news media is. It gets almost funny towards the end – it would be actually funny if it weren’t for the fact that this is all about Georgie who really wasn’t out to hurt anyone, let alone this little girl, and just like the little girl in Iraq, he did hurt her. By the end of the story I admired it, though it took a while to get there.

Best line: the reporters demanding how this could have happened – “there were so many things they could never understand about how, so many explanations they’d never bother to demand. How could it not have happened?” I wanted to stand up and cheer. The reporters are part of how it happened, and why aren’t they demanding to know how Iraq happened, or how a $500-a-ticket show for children happened, or how manicures for 3-year-olds happened, or how any of it happened?

As a writer, I need to adjust my thinking about in media res, because I think I’m misinterpreting it. The heart of this story starts when Georgie returns, but the situation with Lanae when he left – how she told him she wasn’t waiting for him, and he knew she wouldn’t – is of course crucial, as it sets up the oddness of his relationship with Esther. The incident in Iraq with the girl in the house is crucial. And his early discharge is crucial. I’ve been interpreting structure as using flashbacks for these things, but I think maybe I need to look at starting stories earlier. This one skips over a year in a few pages.

One final note of irony – I was poking around looking for comments about this story, and came across the author’s website. She has a note there, explaining that she isn’t the Danielle Evans who won America’s Next Top Model, “if you got here by accident”. To be fair, she also explains she isn’t the martial arts champion or the, um, something else accomplished by another Danielle Evans. I wonder if the ANTM winner has to put a note on her website that she is not the author (since at 26 Ms. Evans has accomplished quite a bit more than winning a modelling reality show). And then I want to go back to obscenities above, because, well, of course not.

What If? 79 – It’s All In Your Head

Time to get back on the horse. Break’s over.

Avoid the obvious cliches (“heart jumped”) when describing strong emotional reactions, find new ways to describe physical sensations, new images.

Exercise: write 3 paragraphs: fear, anger, pleasure, avoiding cliches and the usual emotional indicators.

Fear
Was it a sound that woke her? Probably, though it could be just the end of a nasty dream, all tangled in webs or stabbed in the belly button, thesewere things that might have caused the pounding heart, the dry mouth, the buzzing in the ears. The urgency to hold still; not even to breathe, lestsome intruder nearby sense she had awakeded and would now need to slaughter her to remain undiscovered. She concentrated: slowly in, slowlyout, pay no attention to the lungs screaming for more air, they are reacting to adrenaline and if the mind can find a safe place, it will pass. But agulp is necessary, tongue thick with old saliva as the glands shut down. Maybe I can just move a little, it will be like I am rolling over in my sleep, she believes so in the intruder she tailors her actions to him. The tremors are too much, though, and cramps force her legs to straighten, her feet to flatten, and she knows she has failed and deserves to die.

anger
“I know what I’m doing.”
Not much of an offense, just an offhand statement. And looking back on it, I realized he might’ve meant no harm, just that he was trained and I wasn’t and that’s why he could set up the machine and I couldn’t. But at the time, I heard my brother’s voice sneering at me, my joystick impotent against his (he had five years on me, after all): “I know what I’m doing!” followed by a gleeful cackle. I went from pleasant housewife to deranged maniac in a matter of seconds. That feeling, the curling heat in my chest, the clench of fists, the grit of teeth, and then the words, oh, what words, the poor kid (and he was a kid) never knew what hit him as I unloaded my inner eight-year-old’s helplessness, shame, incompetence, on him, and saw the look on his face change from bored just-doing-my-job to almost – almost – fear, that almost my one regret, that even though he was on my territory, even though he was wrong and I was the customer and I was, to any observer, out of my mind, I still could not have that much of an effect. That’s when the pressure started, like my body was containing a multi-megaton explosion, and when action was unstoppable. I think someone will understand that, won’t they?

Pleasure
She didn’t want to touch the chicken – cold, wet, sticky, salmonellous- but it was required for baking that it be slathered with butter. And what a surprise. Once she got her hands dirty, she knew they would get no dirtier so she might as well slather the hell out of it, get that butter tinged with garlic and onion and lime and salt all the way into those nooks and crannies, under the skin, over the skin, inside outside around up down, and the butter melted with the heat of her hand and the surface of the skin warmed, and she slid her hands over slippery surface and glided back and forth, feeling plump flesh curve into her palms and pushed her flavored fatty fingers between skin and meat and knew this, this would be one helluva chicken, juicy, tender, a little sweet, a little salty, not the kind of chicken they mean when they talk about what strange meat tastes like (Oh, armadillo? Tastes just like chicken!) but a pullet of moist flavor and gluttinous taste, nourishment for soul and stomach, a chicken a man would remember the next day, the next week, whenever he drove by her street or walked past her office, for years to come.
(hmmm… I don’t think this is exactly what they had in mind, but who cares)

Typekit Fonts for WordPress

Now listen: I used to be a geek.

Really. In the 80’s I was a hotshot systems programmer specializing in IMS DB/DC. Is that gibberish to you? It was grammar school to me. I was the one the phone company called when the bills stopped printing. I was the one who installed IMS 6.0 at New England Life and wrote the XICS manual.

Which makes me… about as useful as an expert on dinosaur training.

IMS, and the rest of the mainframe stuff – MVS, DASD, all the acronyms we threw around so casually to show how IN we were – is gone, of course. And I have no clue what I’m doing with this basic Dell thing. HTML? Do I have to? 

So I thought I’d get fancy with fonts. The promo said, “It’s easy! Just a few clicks away!” Well, it ain’t that easy. The first time I tried to “publish” a font, my computer hung up for a half hour. Seriously. I washed the dishes, read a chapter in Anthony Bourdain, fed Lucy, before deciding it wasn’t going to happen. It did happen on the second go round, for all the good that did me.

Then it wanted to know what theme I’m using on WordPress. And of course it offered a handy-dandy dropdown of… about 10 themes, of which Dusk was not one.  So it wants selectors. And it talks about paragraphs and headlines and CSS. I don’t know from CSS.

I found a “really great” tutorial. Which tutored me nothing. Yes, I can find the source code for a blog page. Yes, I see the h2. What good does that do me? Just what am I supposed to paste into the little box? And what if I do it wrong?

I’m a coward.

Help me.

Help me, please.

Five hourse later: Aha! I think I’ve got it! You know what? The tutorials – both the Typekit one and the geek blog one, are overly complicated. It’s not that hard. “H1″ means the title of the blog. “H2″ measns the title of the post and the headings of the stuff on the right. “p” means the text of the post. “l” means the entries under categories, pages, etc. Since I can have 2 fonts on the “free” package, I can use one for H2, a bold, goofy one if I want, and a more readable one for everything else. All the fonts are really small – there is no size control with the “free” package, and I had to delete several “styles” to get the thickness “Regular” instead of “light”. I still don’t know if bold and italic work – we’ll find out right now, how’s about. Yes, they do, though italic is hardly noticeable. That’s ok, good enough.

I feel a little better. A little less stupid. Now it’s just a matter of toying with it.

Aimee Bender – “The Third Elevator”

I’ve had a bad streak going – illness, busy-ness, rejections pouring in – so I read this little story today while waiting for the bus. It’s adorable.

It’s a teeny-tiny book published by Madras Press (www.madraspress.com, no I don’t have any connection with them but I love their books). Aimee Bender tickles me anyway, and this is just great.  A swan who falls in love with a bluebird, their baby cloud, a logger who can’t cut down trees, the three elevators in the woods, a miner who discovers the surface… well, you get the idea. It just makes me smile.

The cool thing about Madras Press is, the proceeds from the book sales go to charities designated by the authors – in this case, an LA writing group for teens in  juvenile hall.

Today – pure reading and pure writing

The important thing is this: I think I really want to write nonfiction, which may be why I’m having so much trouble with plot – I don’t want to make up stories. And I’m not very good at it.

Ok, so this came about because of a mixed day. I had a dental appointment for a cleaning. The hygienist I’ve been getting stuck with lately is, I think, a frustrated kindergarten teacher. She loves to scold. Her first few looks at my teeth gave her the willies. Receded gums, bone loss, something called furcation. Ok, I did a lousy job taking care of my teeth for 50 year, but for 4 years I’ve been incredibly stringent about brushing, flossing, rinsing, and all that, and it drives her crazy that my teeth aren’t falling out. She finds new ways to torment me every once in a while. The first couple of times I saw her, she wouldn’t let me lick my lips so they wouldn’t split, because “I might slip and cut you.” Well, in that case I’d rather see the hygienist who is able to clean my teeth with my lips moist and doesn’t slip and cut me, thank you very much. It takes forever for a split lip to heal. Then she started on “You need to see the dentist” and I’d go “No, I don’t” because she was reacting to old stuff, nothing new. Today she’s learned how to pull my lower lip away from my jaw with gauze so it rips the mucous membrane lining that attaches to the gums. It hurt like hell so I was maneuvering my jaw and lip to take the pressure off and she said, “Now relax your lip” and I said, “You’re pulling my lip off, it hurts.” She sulked for the rest of the cleaning. I have to figure out how to get back on the other hygienist’s schedule.

And this was all surrounded by a bus ride from hell. It must’ve been national Teenage Moms Take Their Babies On the Bus day. On the way to the dentist, there were 3 of them with these enormous strollers. The driver made them all take the babies out and fold up the strollers and pack them out of the way, which was good. But on the way back in, the bus was jammed and they all crowded at the front so no one could get past them. And then a guy got on with a busted hand, and another guy with a shopping cart, it was absurd, they just stood there talking about babies and how awful the fathers were. A few more bus rides like that, and I may become a Republican.

Before I came home, I stopped at the library to pick up Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw. More on this in a minute.

After all that, I got home and I had a wonderful surprise in my mailbox, the copy of the short story “Publisher” from Corey Mesler. That was fast! I’d already read the story but I was happy to have it.

I read the Bourdain book, and the intro had me spellbound – about some kind of secret midnight feast with a bunch of top-drawer NY French chefs, the Who’s Who of true cookery (not the TV version), where they ate (illegal) birds cooked whole, guts and all. It was amazing, kind of reminded me of that Godfather spoof. I’m trying to figure out if he was serious or made it up because it was really similar – the birds are from France, it’s some kind of ritual delicacy in rural Provence, all the peasants roast these birds, a finch of some kind, then pour boiling oil over them to crisp the skin and pick them up by the head and drop them in their mouths feet first. The passage is really terrific. It’s that specificity thing.

And twenty minutes later I’d gone through about a quarter of the book. No struggling, no worrying if I missed a word or a comma that changed the direction of the piece, no fretting about where the exposition was or the voice or tense or person. I just read. I love reading. I realized, as much as I’ve enjoyed many of the stories I’ve read lately, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed reading, pure reading, as much as that twenty minutes when I wasn’t reading fiction.

And right now, typing this post, I’ve enjoyed writing. Not worrying about word choice or voice or if I need more action or if the character is believable. Just writing, pure writing.

I think this is important. I think this means something.

What If? 71 – The Pet Store Story: Exposition (Ron Carlson)

This is the second Ron Carlson exercise in this book, and I didn’t like the other one either. I remember reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and I didn’t quite get it because it seemed he just wrote the first sentence and then went from there. Maybe I’ll be able to do that some day (I pretty much did here, and the result is, well, let’s call it disappointing). 

Hah, I just looked at my notes from his book (library book so I took notes) and I said: “God, I love this book.  It’s exactly what I needed to read right now.”  I think it was the “write what you want to read” idea: “If you don’t want to read the story, then it is not worth writing. ” I didn’t want to write this story in this exercise. I think that’s evident.

It’s interesting I had to work to get more than a few sentences in the first part. This whole specificity thing, describing what things feel like, just goes by me. Maybe if the story mattered, the setting would matter. Sometimes it’s incredibly important how someone feels in a situation; but in the beginning of a story, all that atmosphere is stuff to skip over, I want to know what they’re thinking, who they are, what they want or don’t want, why they are there, not how hot they are or how desolate it is. I must be misreading this becaus I can’t believe other people want to know that stuff, either.

Three part story. 600 to 1000 words. Two people approach a pet store; we find out their recent and not-so-recent history; they go into the pet store.

1. Write one page in which 2 people approach a pet store, any pet store. The duty is to convince us this is an actual place and these are actual people. 90 percent outer story – the day, the sounds, the imagery through which two people approach the pet store.

Lucy dragged Bob by the hand. He hung back, sweat dripping in his eyes, but her grip was firm and she was determined so he knew he was going with her even though his feet resisted. “Come on, ” she siad, “You’ll see.” Out in the middle of nowhere, a sleepy sauna between Morganton and Fryville, nothing here but All Things Bright and Beautiful, a tiny shack that could use some paint and maybe some repairs to the porch, maybe someone’s home back in the Depression but now just a blot on the steamy landscape, air thick enough to swim in. Nothing bright, nothing beautiful, even the hot sun was just a smear muted by the moisture in the air.

Lucy glanced both ways as they crossed the narrow roadway, but Bob suspected it wouldn’t have mattered if a convoy of army truck had been bearing down on them, or a parade of elephants aronded with pink tulle and red fezs. Lucy was getting him into that store, one way or another. He tripped over some gravel that had somehow made its way onto the asphalt, but Lucy’s grip pulled him along. They ran up the rickety wood steps, and she put her hand on the tarnished doorknob.

2. Write one page in which we discover where they’ve come from rrecently and their larger history.

Bob wondered how a brunch date turned into this.

He and Lucy had been eyeing each other for weeks over the stacks in Modern History and sometimes Architecture, depending on which shift it was. She worked in Circulation – high status, bright and chipper attractive people persons, people who knew how to answer any question from “Where can I find Stephen King on audiodisc?” to “Is it true the Periodicals Storage room is haunted?” without pause. He, on the other hand, stayed in Processing, ordering new books and putting jackets and call letters on them as they came in, entering their vital statistics into the computer.

She’d come to him last week on Wednesday, the last day of her workweek, and asked if he’d like to have brunch on Friday. “But brunch, that’s a Sunday thing, isn’t it?” he’d said. “Well, there’s no reason it HAS to be on Sunday, it COULD be on Friday, right?” she’d answered with a sweet smile.  He’d asked Mrs. Strout, the library manager, about her, and found out she’d lost her husband a couple of years ago in some kind of freak accident while on vacation, that she was friendly and a great employee and didn’t have any type of scurrilous gossip following her, which probably meant she didn’t sleep around with other library employees. He was surprised Mrs. Strout would know such things, but was grateful for the information.

As they nibbled bagels and champage at a Congress Street cafe in the wamr summer sun, watching toursts in lobster T Shirts go by, he said something about the afterlife. Nothing serious, really, just small talk, rather than a philosophical exegesis, something along the lines of “That’ll be something I can work on in my next life” when she teased him about his lack of flirtatiousness.

“What about animals?” she said, suddenly very serious.

Sure, he agreeed animals are great, he had a dog once though now he lived in an intown apartment that didn’t allow pets. She pointed out that was his choice, to live somewhere with that restriction, and if he’d really wanted a pet he would’ve found something else, made a different choice, cut back on other priorities. He had to agree, she had a point. “But still, I like animals,” he insisted, feeling it was important.

“You must come see this pet shop, come on!” Lucy cried, and pulled him away by the hand, barely giving him time to throw his pocket change on the table for a tip.

And they ended up here, this sticky desert populated only by the misnamed All Things Bright and Beautiful.
3.  Write one to two pages in which they enter the store and pursue their objective. Either fulfill or not.

Lucy swung the door in and stepped over the threshhold, Bob still clinging to her sweaty hand. They took a few steps forward and the door clicked behind them, leaving them in semi-darkness. “Are you sure they’re open?” he asked timidly. Lucy pulled back a curtain.

As his eyes adjusted, Bob began to see things.  A fish tank, a big one, he thought, lit gently. They stepped forward and looked at the tank, big as a refrigerator turned on its side. Not fish. People. Tiny people. People the size of a grain of rice. Buildings the size of a pack of cigarettes. Cars the size of thimbles. The little rice-people going about their business, obviously intent on whatever it was they were doing – driving, walking, going into buildings, coming out, talking to each other, walking in pairs and threesomes, a cluster of people on a coaster-sized hill, under tiny trees. Bob bent closer and peered at the person nearest him, a tiny man dressed in a tiny business suit carrying a tiny briefcase. No doubt going to a tiny business meeting to sell tiny products.

“What is it?” Bob whispered.

“The afterlife,” said Lucy.

He snapped his head around to look at her. “What are you talking about?”

But she was gone.

New Friends

I have made some new reading/writing friends, which makes me very happy. Quite some time ago, someone on Z mentioned “Short Story Reader”, a blog of story reviews. I bookmarked it but things being how they are, I didn’t do much more than pay a visit once or twice. A couple of weeks ago I started paying attention, and this past week I actually started reading things. I discovered a wonderful short story – a long short story – by Corey Mesler, titled “Publisher” which tickled me enormously. I loved the somewhat florid voice (the narrator is a young expert on the 20th Century British Novel, and wannabe book editor, making the voice completely plausible), the content, the subcharacters, the references. I emailed Mr. Mesler via his website and ordered a signed copy of this story, which is in transit. We have had a pleasant conversation.

Then I posted on the blog itself (at http://shortstoryreader.blogspot.com) to thank the reader, Jon Morgan Davies, who turned out to be a writer (what were the odds) and has some wonderful stories around. So I have had another nice conversation about stories, books, and reading, which I’m hoping will continue as I read more stories he’s recommended (I have quite a backlog to go through).

There is yet another blog which has intrigued me, I Read A Short Story Today (which can be found at, you guessed it, http://www.ireadashortstorytoday.com/ ), the product of Patrick Rapa who I have also left a comment for, as well as emailing him with suggestions on future reading. I may have made a third new friend. That would make this a marvelous week. He is reviewing the stories in BASS 2010, and I discovered his blog by googling for comments on the Ha Jin book.

What If? Separating Author, Narrator, and Character

When the protagonist is the observer of action – first-person feels like a once-removed narrator, third-person feels like a brain in the room. – flat story, writer is merged with the character who never becomes the focus of the action.

Aha, that sounds important – the narrator (first person) or protagonist (third person) must be the focus of the action. This is where I missed on Money from the Sky, maybe, I made him an observer – but only for the first section, then he became a participant, trying to give it away.

Maybe this is why Drown works because it is happening to Russ, not to someone and Russ is watching. I do like narrators as observers, though.

“…the function of the narrator is to present and somehow translate the action of the story, such that the reader can understand objectively what’s happening, even if the protagonist does not.”

Example, Emma – the third person narrator presents the drama in such a way that the reader understands Knightly is wooing Emma, not Harriet, though Emma thinks he’s after Harriet. I wish I could remember enough of Emma to know what that means – maybe I have it around here somewhere.  For first-person, see Catcher in the Rye. Ok, that I get.

Exercise: Write down “Once upon a time there was” and write a story for 5 minutes. Do it again.

um, ok….

First: once upon a time, there was a Lady of the Monument. She sat in Monument Square on warm sunny days, at the base of the WWII monument for which the square was named, and greeted people who walked by, calling out, “Good morning, sir!” and “Good evening, madam!” and offering help whenever needed – for instance, if a child was crying, she would pull a balloon from her pocket and blow it up for the little one, and then she would dance until the child smiled or at least stopped crying – most often as he looked at her over his mother’s shoulder since the parents never stopped. For the Lady of the Monument was considered crazy. No one who was normal would do such a thing, of course.

Except the Lady was not crazy, she was in fact a sociologist and the bag she kept by her side at the base of the monument was not full of smelly old clothes and worthless mementos but video recording equipment, and she recorded every encounter she made. At the end of the Summer, she stopped appearing in Monument Square because, of course, she had university courses to teach and, also, she had data to collate about her summer on the street. She learned that women feared her, young men ridiculed her, older men were amused by her, and only children accepted her for what she was, a lady who spoke politely and was helpful. She realized that this is the way of the world, that people expect the Lady of the Monument to be crazy, and that saying “Good Morning!” would be considered a sign of madness, and helping people by picking up dropped items and returning them, or distracting cranky children, was not something considered “normal”. This made her tremendously sad, but it also made her a full Professor of Sociology at the university, and thus it was a mixed blessing.

Second: Once upon a time, there was a chiropodist who arrived at his shop every day at 10a.m. and left every afternoon at 5 p.m. But on one random Thursday in September, he left instead at 4:45 p.m. and lay down on the sidewalk outside his office to look at the sky. Although the ground was hard and a bit chilly, and his head hurt where it rested against a crooked brick in the sidewalk and his back did not like the straightness of the ground, he found the sky to be beautiful, and he called out what he saw: “A small white cloud, it looks like a bunny rabbit, oh, now it’s changing, the ear is moving down and it is becoming a greyhound, no, a car, and I think I shall lose my mind if I have to shave one more callous.” He began to cry.

A woman walking by heard what he said, and she lay down on the sidewalk next to him and said, “The sky is the color of a robin’s egg under a tree, not in full sunlight, and I think I shall lose my mind if I have to type ‘Thank you for your cooperation in this matter’ one more time.”

Another woman saw them and also lay down over their heads, and called out, “The sun is pouring warm honey through the sky and if I have to ask ‘Paper or plastic’ one more time I shall go mad.” And person by person, everyone lay down on the sidewalk and noticed something about the sky and admitted what they were most tired of in their lives: “If I have to make love to a man I do not love one more time,” “if I have to talk my parents into letting me have money for jeans one more time,” “if I  have to grade one more paper on William Makepeace Thackaray,” “if I ever am chased out of my country by thugs who would otherwise rape my wife and slice me open like a goat and have to walk across the sand to another shore and spend years in a camp where clean water is the highest hope until at last my name is called and I am brought to America where it is safe…”  And all the people became silent, and ashamed, and they got up and went about their lives remembering how important it is to sometimes look at the sky, even when you are in a terrible hurry.

Then: Rewrite the first paragraph of your favorite fairy tale, removing “Once upon a time” and adding in modern syntax and details to make it realistic.

Huh? What does this have to do with narrators not being the center of attention, merging the author and narrator?  And I don’t really know any fairy tales well enough to rewrite them, and, yeah, I’m being stubborn because I just don’t want to.

Objective: “Once upon a time” creates a discourse that automatically separates us from the characters…
1. We do not mix ourselves up with the narrator
2. We do not mix the scene up iwth our present day lives
3. We are oriented outward and cued to invent characters and/or place distinctly envisioned in our imagination.
Um, I don’t think so – I was creating characters that were basically me, and using Monument Square as the setting.  I don’t see what the exercies has to do with the teach, but I think the chapter is worth it for the “narrator as the center of the action, not the observer” alone. I think this is one of my tendencies, to think I’m the Gatsby narrator. Hey – why did it work for Fitzgerald?

Now, Glasses had elements of real life, and the first draft, as T pointed out, was pretty dismal – “here’s what happened to me”. At that point I changed it and the character became someone else – how I wish it had happened –  and that improved it, I gave her something to do, she became a participant instead of a victim. Yeah, I need to remember that, the protagonist is a participant, the story is about what he does, not about what happens to him.

What I’m writing (today’s version)

I started reading Ha Jin’s “A Good Fall” yesterday, and I had the same reaction as when I read the collected works of TC Boyle or Amy Hempel or Aimee Bender:  This is going to change my (writing) life. Of course, none of those did, but maybe this one will. I keep hoping.

I’m always getting mired in these dramatic, sensitive, emotional, sad, touching, heartbreaking drafts that I slave on and find out they’re crap and I still don’t know why. Then I write what I think is crap and lo and behold, everyone loves it (Harold, for example). 

So when I started reading Ha Jin, the first story, “The Bane of the Internet” was very short and I thought, hmmm, I’m not sure what this is, it’s not beautifully written, I’m annoyed with both characters, I don’t quite get the story. Aha, maybe that’s the point! Maybe I’m supposed to be as annoyed with Longsuffering Sis as I am with Catastrophe Sis. I don’t quite see the whole immigrant-experience thing going on – I see that relationship every day with different people, those who count on no-goodniks to supply them with superiority, who claim to want to be out from under the burden of their lazy spouses, diletante boyfriends, copeless relatives, but can’t quite bring themselves to say, “NO” because then they wouldn’t have anything to complain about. The glimpse into Chinese life, where a car is becoming essential and a specific kind of car more so, was interesting, but the whole thing could’ve been written about two sisters in Portland and the emotional context would’ve been the same. And maybe that’s the point.

But the more important point to me – after I read “A Composer and his Parakeet”, is that these stories are valid even though they are borderline surreal, in plain language (that is, as I understand it, his signature style), and more narrative. I love these stories. They are what I’ve been afraid of for years – just writing, what Duncan Nelson used to call “write what happened”. I have to do more of this.

Except, I will backslide, I know. I love to write moody, elegant prose. I love to wallow in doubt and second-guessing and self-obsession. I will return to my Mourning Mom story and try to figure out a way to get her to say, “I lost my son too!” in a way that makes the reader cry, because I think it is important someone feels what I felt in the days after Virginia Tech, when they kept talking about the 32 dead when there were actually 33.  And that isn’t going to be an easy sell. Maybe impossible, which is why I’m having so much trouble with the story. why I’m getting lost in plot mechanics. Because the emotional mechanics are impossible.

Anyway, I’ve embarked on something else. “I see dead people,” a flash chapbook of dead people I have known. One murdered. One suicide. One dead while breathing. Maybe a natural death. Maybe an internet death, since I seem to be accumulating them too. A church death. Deaths I feel connected to in some way, not by grief, but by coincidence, humor, guilt, surprise, whatever. I wrote the murder this morning.

Which means I wrote today. Actual writing. That makes it a good day.

What If? The Enemy’s Life

Exercise: Write a scene bringing to life someone you hate – personally, or on a grand scale. Make the reader hate her.Then, write the scene in 1st person from the POV of the nasty.

He loved what he did, and no one was safe. The charming family in their cozy home, the poor laborer in his communal tent waiting for the next day’s chores, the student, the earnest, the lazy, the bright. All were targets for the scythe of his tongue, and all were mowed down, night after night, simply because this is what he did. And he was well-paid for it, earning over a million dollars every week, simply for making fun of the gentle and belittling the powerless and skewering the upright. He did not care for truth, or for consequences. Only for the line.

I don’t know how it started. I made fun of someone, and I got a laugh, so I made fun of someone else. It felt good, to get a laugh. I felt part of things, for maybe the first time in my life. It was me and my audience, and I gave them what they wanted. I never meant to hurt people, but suddenly I was doing character assassination on a grand scale, saying things even I didn’t believe, because the laugh is a more powerful high than heroin and I simply had to have it, no matter what the cost.

[this is interesting, it's part of what I call "finding my compassion" - when someone pisses me off, I try to find a way to see their side. Like the cashier who is rude or stupid, how she would like to be stocking shelves but her back went out and she has to take this job to pay the rent and she's worried about her child who is home sick and she'd like to be with him but can't because she can't afford the time off. It doesn't always work, but sometimes it does. I never realized it was a writing technique.]

BASS 2010 – “Safari” Jennifer Egan

BASS 2010 – “The Safari” Jennifer Egan

(I have skipped Charles Baxter’s “The Cousins” for now because I’m scared of Charles Baxter)
I’ve read that this story is an excerpt from a novel, apparently a related-short-stories-about-the-same-people novel. I have bookmarked “Found Objects” which I’ll get to soon.

I enjoyed a lot about this – the “structural” laws Mindy has, apparently believing that everyone’s behavior is driven by some higher law rather than their own individual flaws and perceptions. The POV is very omniscient and switches from character to character throughout, which is pretty cool. It’s interesting I read this shortly before reading the What If? chapter about how transportation is boring and should be avoided, since the most action-laden section of the story takes place on a Jeep in the African bush travelling around on, you guessed it, safari. In fact, everyone’s position in the Jeep is clearly laid out, and characters are described thusly. I was amused by Dean, who tends to state the obvious a lot: “It’s hot.”

I was intrigued by Rolph noticing Mindy was angry when Albert joins her to tuck him in at night in the hotel, and I feel very stupid for not being sure if she’s actually angry, or if the point is that she’s very aroused and Rolph isn’t old enough to interpret it correctly. I think that’s the case since later it’s mentioned she joins Albert in Room 3 later that night, so at that point I figured it wasn’t anger at all. And that’s interesting in and of itself, a boy can’t tell the difference between lust and anger because the symptoms are so similar and he doesn’t know what lust is yet (though by 11 one would think he would, but I don’t understand the time setting of this story – Lou says someone kept him out of Korea 20 years ago which would put it in the 70’s, though I suppose it wasn’t necessarily the Korean war he had to be referring to – there are soldiers still in Korea, after all. No one has any cell phones or computers so maybe it is set in the 70’s. Anyway, back to Rolph and anger, he can tell his dad is angry when he tells him about Mindy and Albert later, and that leads to his dad marrying Mindy to “win” which is pretty interesting.  And Rolph feels anger at his father, leaving people aside, which might be the most important sentence of the story.

The flash forwards are handled strangely, not only are they super-quick but they’re interspersed with present-moment in a way that gets a little disorienting – is Charlie saying that now or then? Everyone’s fate is interesting, I wonder how it fits into this novel as a whole.

The central event of the lions is really interesting, with all that’s going on, there’s the flirtation with Mindy and Albert and one of the birdwatchers is in the jeep and they don’t even realize it, and then the lioness and the discussion about who will take care of the kids, it leads to a lot. This is what they’re talking about when they say an inevitable but surprising progression, I think.

The end was odd, the ladies aren’t bird watching at all, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the story as a whole since they don’t seem to have much to do with what happens to the family at the core of things. Maybe it’s just that grown-up thing, now that she’s grown up she realizes that things are not as they seem and people say one thing and do another.

From the afternotes I see she wrote this story years before the novel in which it appears, and retrofit it because she had a character who said he went to Africa years ago (it is set in an earlier time, maybe not the 70’s but not current). And it was the “structural” thing that she saw as the building block of the story. She knew the boy would die young and wanted to explore why. Hmmm. Yeah, that anger Rolph feels, depression is anger/suicide is rage turned inward.