Ramona Ausubel: “Atria” from The New Yorker, 4/4/2011

Detail Estate of Larry Gianettino

Perhaps, if she opened her arms to whatever came to her and stopped turning it all away, she might arrive at adulthood earlier. Adulthood was a place Hazel pictured as a small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk creates and exactly one full place setting.

A weird story. A lot of terrific elements. Many common threads – growth, people as animals, outsiders looking in, and of course atria – empty chambers, rooms open to the sky. But… well, I’m fine with absurdity and surrealism, but here I kept wondering if we were talking psychosis instead. Analytically, it worked. Emotionally, not so much, for me.

Hazel was an accident in an otherwise orderly, well-planned family. Her father became ill and died during her gestation, and there was great surprise that she was a girl, not a replacement for her father. Maybe that accounts for how unconnected to anything she is.

Looking at her classmates, Hazel wonders: will these people look more human when they are grown? She sees the boys as children, beasts, helpless baby rats. She does not want to be invested in adolescence, just to survive it. She wants – she wants – to feel her life is a thread in a tangled mess and nothing she does matters very much. As opposed to her mother, who is invested in everything from campaigns against potholes to grating almonds.

So she makes the above wish to accept growth. She walks around the neighborhood most of the time. One day she goes to the 7-11 for a lime fizzy. Just at that time, Johnny, 7-11 employee, comes out with a beef jerky and a Miller Lite. He sits with her. He asks if she wants to lie down behind the bushes, and since she’s just decided to open herself up to growing, she says yes. Things keep going in that direction and they have sex, and she thinks, “Is that all there is?” No, not so Peggy Lee, but almost. She’s disappointed with the whole thing.

On another day – we aren’t given a real time reference except that it all happens during the summer after school has let out – she is in the church parking lot when a man approaches her. He wants to talk to her; she says she has to go but he puts his hand on her arm – not hard – and says she has to stay. He won’t hurt her if she doesn’t scream, so she doesn’t. She feels underwater. She asks herself why she is here, growing up, instead of with her friends. Her heart – a heart has atria – takes over her body. The man wants to have sex with her, will not hurt her if she has sex with him. She says, Please. Wait. Help. She hears two words: And yet, and yet, and yet. I keep thinking, this rape is very similar to the supposedly consensual prior act. She didn’t seem to care much about either. I wonder if this rape was real or imagined, a sort of reliving of the original act.

She becomes pregnant and visualizes the baby as a spine, light, with fur, claws, teeth. Things get very weird from here on in.

She tells her mother about the rape but not about Johnny. The community reacts. Vigils. Police patrols. Self-defense classes. Her sisters come over and bring Poor Hazel cookies. The town has a terrific time dropping off casseroles and meat loaf and cakes marked “Condolences”. People bring presents. Hazel thanks them though her fur baby won’t be able to wear such things. The town’s reaction is perhaps my favorite element of the story.

The pregnancy continues. Hazel sees the baby change from furry to bird of prey to a giraffe. She makes a list of the skills she will need depending on what kind of animal her baby is. A lion: lie under trees cook rabbits, braid its mane. She doesn’t know what to do with a platypus. She makes a list for a human baby which includes moving to a deserted island at age 13, and sled. I have a hard time with this. It’s hilarious. But it’s a little too realistic to be surreal; it feels more like pre-partum psychosis, if there is such a thing. So it’s hard to enjoy the absurdity.

The baby is a girl which surprises her family; they still thought it would be the replacement for the father. Her body is a tight, empty globe, more emptiness. She looks at the baby and decides it is a seal. She upends a bucket of mop water onto it so it can swim. Just when we think she’s drowned the baby, she recognizes the arms and legs but still considers it a seal, and it begins to suckle.

This last scene is another place where it is too realistic to be read as surreal, and thus is horrifying rather than enjoyably bizarre. Oddly, I found the idea of dirty mop water to be more repulsive than the idea that she might be drowning her baby. I think it’s a good thing I’ve never had kids.

The story just felt off to me. I put it aside and reread it later, and it still didn’t quite work as a whole for me. I just couldn’t enjoy the craziness because it felt like actual craziness, horrific craziness, rather than fantasy. And while there are all these threads tying it together and every event led to the next, it still felt strangely disjointed somehow. I suppose ending is a good sign, unless the suckling was also in her imagination, but I still wanted to call a social worker.

This story is from a forthcoming collection of surreal stories about birth and parenthood, A Guide To Being Born. In spite of my misgivings, I’m curious.

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2 responses to “Ramona Ausubel: “Atria” from The New Yorker, 4/4/2011

  1. Thanks so much for visiting my ‘Careann’s Musings’ blog today via Freshly Pressed. I love meeting new people here in cyberspace. As a writer I keep my blog’s focus mostly on writing, but I post on other topics, too. I’ve enjoyed having a peek at your blog. This story seems more bizarre than surreal. Not everyone does fantasy well, and maybe this is one that fits into that designation??? It doesn’t sound like one I would have chosen to finish reading, anyway. So many good books out there and so little time! :)

    • Hi Carol. I have so many books to read. I’ve been focusing on short stories lately, and just a few sources (One Story, Tin House, The New Yorker, BASS) are overwhelming me – then I get distracted by something, a novel by someone who wrote a story (The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier is tempting me as I speak…) and I get behind in my “schedule” – but it’s fun trying to keep up!

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