CJ Hauser: “The Shapeshifter Principle” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012

Tin House art by Nannette J. Stevenson

Tin House art by Nannette J. Stevenson

I wanted to go to John Jay and study criminal justice so I could learn how to be like the ladies on the paranormal shows. I wanted to wear a gray jacket and explain to men about science. I wanted to run fast in tall shoes and carry a gun and when some monster hit me I wanted to get right back up and keep fighting. Partway through I wanted to find out that I was wrong, that the paranormal did exist after all. I wanted to make all the clues add up inside sixty minutes and protect happy people from the ugly truth I’d seen.

Have you ever felt completely alone with a problem – something so scary, so shameful, you couldn’t even talk about it to yourself, let alone another person? That’s the kind of profound isolation Tina’s experiencing here. And whether she realizes it or not, she’s doing all of those things she wants to do above. Except the gray jacket and the tall shoes. But she’s got the courage of a hundred TV investigators.

The story is available online until the next issue comes out [too late]. I recommend reading it rather than reading about it, since the way the story is told adds to its power. It’s a story about a teenager who thinks her mother might have deserted her and her blind brother, told via a canvas of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and goalball.

“It’s like the fatal flaw of comics and sci-fi. They go to all the trouble to build a badass world with strict bizarro rules for how things work, and then suddenly in episode thirteen this guy shows up who can look like anybody? Anybody!”

Tina keeps on keeping on, keeps taking brother Joey to goalball practice – he’s a possible Paralympic contender for 2016 owing to his ability to sneak around silently on the court – but as the days go by and Mom doesn’t return, she starts looking for clues. She starts learning some things she didn’t know about her mother. Like though she quit smoking a couple of years before, she still sometimes buys a pack of Newports. She has a turquoise-and-gold bathing suit on layaway at the local discount store. And she’s pawned all her jewelry, including the Ankh ring once given to her by the father of her children.

Tina’s got a blend of casual street sophistication and complete naiveté that’s authentic and completely endearing. She assumes her father was Egyptian because of the ankh. But she knows to check the pawnshop, and she knows what it could mean.

And she knows Joey’s goalball coach is someone she might like to know. She accepts his offer of dinner after practice; he tells her the history of Ebbets Field, since he lives in the apartment building built where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play. In fact, he figures they’re eating roti right over where the pitcher’s mound would’ve been. On the 14th floor – the one right above the 12th.

Don’t you fucking know better than this? Bulldozed baseball field? Thirteenth floor? They’re never gonna let you into college if you ignore the clues that easy.

So here’s this girl, eyes wide open, surrounded by people in the neighborhood, her brother, a fledgling boyfriend – and still completely alone with the thought that her mother might have taken off for good with the pawn money to someplace she planned to wear a turquoise-and-gold bathing suit.

Back in time for us to catch another of my favorite shows. The one with the girl who’s so tough she’s always staking people in the heart. The girl lives on a hellmouth, so all sorts of weird shit happens. And every week she fixes it, whatever it is, even though she doesn’t want to. Even though she’s always telling everyone she just wants to be a girl in high school.

I won’t spoil the ending, which is as beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful as anything I’ve read lately. Go read it for yourself (like I said, too late).

This issue of Tin House is devoted to their bicoastal homes of Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York. Not just the Portlandia and hipster places – the darker corners as well. Since I come from the “other” Portland, I’m a little jealous, but so far it’s a great issue. And it comes with a poster and a free downloadable mix tape that’s a lot more interesting than I expected.

Addendum: The Tin House blog’s got a nice interview with author CJ Hauser covering science fiction, goalball, and Brooklyn.

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One response to “CJ Hauser: “The Shapeshifter Principle” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012

  1. Pingback: Vanessa Veselka: “Just before Elena” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012 Portland-Brooklyn | A Just Recompense

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