BASS 2010: Rebecca Makkai – “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

Jane Morris as Rossetti's Proserpine

This story originally appeared in Ploughshares 2009/2010.

In her afternotes, Rebecca Makkai says the origin of this tale was an idea to write a series of stories about English professors hoisted on their own petards, so to speak. I love that concept!

And I loved the story while I was reading it, and, like strip-mall Chinese take-out, for about an hour after. Then I started seeing some issues. Mainly, that the Ancient Mariner shot his Albatross on purpose, in a fit of spite, after the bird had been so helpful; thus he deserved his penance. Alex, the character here, shot her albatross purely by mistake. And bad luck? Where is that part of the Rime? An English professor should know better. Though I suppose it is clever enough, to have an accidental albatross shooting (a unique event, to be sure) become the beginning of a turn of bad luck, to loosely follow the story rather than stay true thematically. Am I picking nits?

Well, here’s another one. Her encounter with Eden Su is complex and interesting. I have to admire the multiple layers here. I’m a little bewildered by how the situation began, however. Why does she assume an Asian student is an exchange student from Korea? It seems bizarre to me. Maybe this university is a really popular place for Korean exchange students, but that wouldn’t be the first assumption on my list. The offense taken at her remarks seemed out of proportion as well, and turns out, it was. But… I’m still a little confused, because Eden was on track for a B and could’ve ended up with an A if she’d spoken out in class. Are we to presume her papers were not hers, and she hadn’t read anything the whole semester, so she couldn’t earn the A? Would she go to such great lengths to avoid a B? It doesn’t quite play for me.

The story is, by the way, chick lit. No man would feel any remorse about the albatross. A man would bribe someone to smuggle it out of Australia and have it stuffed and mounted on his living room wall, wings spanning the full six feet. Men do not worry about how their women see them. They don’t have to. Their women reassure them constantly, because men do not, um, function without such props. And no man would sit still for the Grievance Committee lashing.

Still, Alex does remedy all these things. She pays the fine for the albatross. She probably could’ve wept her way out of it, but more power to her, she didn’t. And eventually, with the help of Tossman (a wonderful character, sadly overlooked by me until the very end, which is impressive because that’s exactly what should have happened), she realizes it is not a curse, and deals with the other troubles in her life. She faces fiancé Malcolm and gets one of the sweetest reassurances I’ve read. Guys, next time your woman asks how she looks to you, draw a stick figure with wavy lines emanating from it, and tell her, “That’s your awesomeness.” Benefits will ensue, I promise. I was ready to do Malcolm after reading that and he isn’t even a real person. See? Chick lit.

Ah, Tossman, the man with the crush on the unattainable Alex, the man with the lucky cards. In another BASS story – “Safari” by Jennifer Egan – I was critical of a super-fast flash-forward that occurred at the end; it felt disjointed and tacked-on. I have no problem with this one; it flows smoothly from the story. And Bill Tossman had for me the opposite of the Chinese Food Effect: I wasn’t sure what he was doing in the story until I thought about it for a while. I’m still not sure I can articulate it – sure, he provides an axis on which Alex turns her luck around. And he provides the third option for her closing comments on her penitential telling of the story to friends later: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it, kill it, or at least fail to save it.” But you know what? Sometimes people have to make some effort to make themselves recognizable.

So Alex corrects her perceptions: the albatross was just an expensive accident, Malcolm thinks she’s beautiful, sometimes a quiet Asian student is a shark in disguise. While I was reading, I was charmed, so I’d call it successful. I’m not sure some of the details hold up to scrutiny, however. But hell, do you scrutinize your Kung Pao, or do you just enjoy it?

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6 responses to “BASS 2010: Rebecca Makkai – “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

  1. Pingback: BASS 2010 – Final Thoughts, and what’s next: 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories « A Just Recompense

  2. “The story is, by the way, chick lit. No man would feel any remorse about the albatross. A man would bribe someone to smuggle it out of Australia and have it stuffed and mounted on his living room wall, wings spanning the full six feet. Men do not worry about how their women see them. They don’t have to. Their women reassure them constantly, because men do not, um, function without such props. And no man would sit still for the Grievance Committee lashing.”

    You must have only experienced men in black-and-white films.

  3. I found this story specious, uninteresting, and inherently raicsrt. It portrays a professor’s mishap in her misprception of an Asian student based on her over-generalization and stereotyping of thisparticular group. Though I do understand it is not written as a first person commentary essy, but a fiction; I do see in the tone of the author, the inherent perception of Asians seen through a colored glass. Also, the analogy of a mishap surrounding an endangered species with that of an Asian student in itself denotes racism. The story is over reaching in the author’s attempt to create a readable story. Except for the central theme of the endangered species and the Asian minority, it is a prosaic at best.

    • Hi, Jinju, thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I’d agree that the author’s attitude is conveyed through the character, but I haven’t read the story in a long time so I can’t say I disagree either. In any case, thanks for raising the issue, it’s something to consider. You’re not the only one who wasn’t impressed by the story; most of the people I know who’ve read it were mystified by its inclusion in the volume. I did enjoy reading it, though. Makkai seems to be a favorite of BASS, she’s in it just about every year.

  4. Pingback: Rebecca Makkai: TheBorrower (Viking, 2011) | A Just Recompense

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