BJ Novak: “A Good Problem to Have” from One Story #187, 12/30/13

When we were in the fourth grade, an old man burst into our classroom one day waving his rumpled little plaid arms and screaming. It might have been adorable if we had been old enough to find older people adorable, and also if it hadn’t been a little bit scary.
“Stop! Is he saying anything about trains? About train times? Stop!”

Ok, he got me. I swore he wouldn’t, but he did.

I’d been hearing about this story for a while before it arrived in my mailbox. B.J. Novak is, after all, one of the Famous People. At least he’s famous for actually doing something: acting, directing, writing tv scripts. I’m one of those people who’s never gotten into The Office, I don’t remember him (or anyone besides Russell Crowe) from Inglorious Basterds, and I haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks yet (I don’t get out much…), but apparently he’s pretty good at what he does. Still, I have this automatic resistance to anyone famous coming near my beloved short stories, even if they do have an English degree from Harvard.

But he got me.

Part of the appeal is content. I happen to have been peeking over the shoulders of a lot of mathematicians these days, thanks to the MOOCs that have kept me studying instead of watching tv and movies. I wish I could think of a way to get some of them to read this story, since they’d be able to speak to a few issues far better than I. Such as: who does write those math problems, anyway? I can tell you who’s doing the cool stuff now, in the age of the Internet: Fawn Nguyen has a whole website of classroom ideas, Vi Hart puts her insane spin on everything (“eight has a whiff of three”), Mike Lawler is homeschooling his kids about the area of four-dimensional spheres on YouTube (I’ve learned so much from the eight-year-old, and the ten-year-old can math me under the table), James Tanton keeps tweeting out strange problems about arranging numbers, ropes, stairs, all kinds of things, and Numberphile explains things so even I can understand them (sort of). And with all this: we’ve still got kids figuring out when a train from Chicago going 85 mph and a train from NY going 75 mph will meet?

“That’s my problem,” said the old man, sitting back down in the chair. “I wrote it. That was the one thing I did. The one thing. When you’re young, you think everything you do is just the beginning. But when you’re old, no matter who you are, you realize you only did one or two things.”
We were silent. We had never heard anything like this before.
Some of us wondered what the one or two things we would do would be.

The story succeeds, however, because it’s about something else: an old man’s reminiscence of a train ride to meet his wife after a long separation. For tone, we have a room of fourth graders who don’t quite understand what’s going on. For punctuation, we have his occasional whispering of his wife’s name: “June.” That whisper tells us everything we need to know.

Oh, I have a few quibbles. There is such a thing as approximation in math; there’s even a symbol for it (≈). And the guy would have to be at least 85 years old if he fought in WWII (inclusion of the Internet and the noted ubiquity of cell phones restricts the possible time setting), which is certainly possible, but that’s pretty old to be bursting into classrooms with arms waving. As for the core plot of someone inventing a math problem about two trains, I’m going to guess that was invented far, far earlier; that’s one of the things I’d like to ask a mathematician about. And for pete’s sake, tell me math book publishers never really took problem submissions like Reader’s Digest takes anecdotes. And frankly, while I can appreciate a story stripped down to a bare minimum, a technique that lets the reader upholster the frame with fabric of her own choosing, it’s possibly a little too stripped down (calling the narrator “Brainy Ben” at the end feels jammed in out of necessity rather than an organic part of character development, for instance, and there’s a definite two-dimensionality to the scene).

But it still works, because at its heart is a story about love and longing and remembrance, and the ways in which a person makes connections with other people, as unlikely as that possibility may seem. Because we can’t help ourselves, and even time and physics and reality can’t stop us.

In his One Story Q&A, Novak discusses his decision to use a child narrator. I’ve always liked the observer-narrator; it seems to me it allows the writer a great deal of flexibility in the pace of releasing information to the reader. Here, we don’t get many details about what happened to June, or what the man’s life is like now; but in a closing move that subtly and effectively shifts the focus of the forward momentum from the observed to the observer, we do get a good sense of how this day affected Brainy Ben:

I still don’t know what the one or two things that I do will be, but that is definitely one of the one or two things that I saw.

Yeah, he got me. I put a pre-release hold on his upcoming story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories at my library. I’m third in line. He got a lot of us.

Jen Fawkes: “Mastermind” from One Story #186, 12/2/13

Photo by Hillary Ryland

Photo by Hillary Ryland

This morning, as my gaze roamed over the assemblage of eye patches, graying temples, prosthetic limbs, and straining waistbands that filled the Central Control Room, I thought of you. Mowing the lawn, driving the station wagon, seated at the head of the dining table. Not that you’re anything like them, the members of our Organization, those aging international outlaws who stood around sipping the coffee and nibbling the pastries I’d had flown in from the Professor’s favorite Viennese bakery. To the best of my recollection, you never cared for sweets, an attitude you share with Rags Randall, our team’s computer and communications expert. Although none of us knows his exact age, it’s obvious that Rags is still a child, and when the Professor initially approached me about bringing him into the Organization, I was resistant. Children make me nervous. But the Professor insisted, and although I’d already seen evidence that my mentor’s mind was fraying, I obeyed. As I’ve always obeyed.

I didn’t think I was interested in this story, kind of sneered at it. Come on, Rags Randall, child computer prodigy and communications expert? Rappelling twins? Beatrice Bot, the Maneater of Manchester? Jiang Lau, The Tiny Terror of Taipei? I’m all for humor, camp, fun, but this seemed like imitation camp. But it got me in the end. Call me a sentimental fool, but you take an aimless depressive, water it with paternal conflict, fertilize with self-destruction – and it’ll grow on me every time.

The current project undertaken by this nefarious Organization involves blowing up Mt. Rushmore if 100 world leaders don’t immediately resign their positions. Ok, the reason given is unconvincing – I think it’s supposed to be. But the Professor, head of the Organization, is suffering from some Alzheimer’s-like condition, so to him, it probably seems perfectly logical. It’d be a better story if this element were more solid, sure; like, why now? Just what are the complaints? But maybe not, because the real story lies in the loyalty and dedication of the members of the Organization.

I first encountered the Professor twenty-five years ago, while working as an adjuster in your insurance office. You remember; this was after I failed out of college for the second time. I’d been on the job nine months when I started waking in the still dead of each night, sweating profusely, my heart a-hammer. Unable to slide back into slumber, I would roam the nocturnal streets of our city, and once, before I knew it, I snatched the purse that dangled from the shoulder of a woman walking toward me. The act filled me with a cruel concoction of purpose and self-loathing, and a petty crime spree ensued. After rolling a drunk one night, after striking the grizzled old man repeatedly in the face, I helped him to his feet, dusted him off, apologized, gave him all the money in my pocket. I heard someone left and turned to find the Professor seated on a nearby bench, decked out in a camelhair overcoat and fedora.
Son, the Professor said, I think you’re the one I’ve been waiting for. Stick with me. I’ll take you places. Show you things.

Everybody’s got unresolved father issues.

The only actual father in the story is offscreen; the story, addressed to him, is a kind of apostrophic monologue Carl composes in his head as events transpire. The story of destroying Mt. Rushmore (boy, is Fawkes going to end up on some NSA watchlist or what) is conflated with Carl’s biography (and, for a little over-the-top, a volcano eruption). Now, you might feel that weighs down Carl’s story; for some of us, a little faith is required to even get there. And Carl’s story isn’t anything we haven’t heard before; it’s not fleshed out enough. If you’re the right kind of reader, you flesh it out yourself as you read. If you’re not the right kind of reader, it’ll probably go flat. You have to want it. Interesting: sometimes, when I write about a story, I talk myself into it; this time, I’m talking myself out of it. But I had to talk myself into it in the first place, to talk myself out of it; if I wait long enough, I may talk myself back into it again. A worthwhile exercise, really, but perhaps more than the casual reader is willing to undertake.

Rags never speaks…His hand is small, and always sticky, and although my initial instinct is to pull away from his touch, I don’t. I can recall taking your hand the exact same way, thousands of times, as a boy, and I remember the images that would orbit through my mind as I clung to you – Rocky Mountains and giant sequoias and El Capitan, a granite monolith that stands in Yosemite National Park – thinks deeply embedded, enduring, solid. I cannot help but feel saddened by the thought of what Rags must see, as he clings to me.

What I was most interested in when all was said and done was Fawkes’ One Story Q&A. Fawkes (they really should’ve run this story in early November, don’t you think?) a movie fan, and mentions a host of films in connection with this story (Bond is the obvious one, I guess, but I’ve never been much of a Bond fan) and with her writing in general, but never mentions the two that I thought of as I read: Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 remake) and Sneakers.

I like that she appreciates “stories that are narrated from the margins;” I always liked observer-narrators myself. Anyone can write a story about the star of the football team, but it’s the equipment manager that has a fuller view of what’s going on.

Tom Paine: “Marlinspike” from One Story #185, 10/25/13

The blue ferry carrying Julia nodded through the waves to Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. Phineas sat under a tamarind tree above Cruz Bay in his tuxedo, watching it go. The five layers of wedding cake perched in his lap.
…Phineas taught scuba diving at the Westin with a sideline of shark diving off the North Drop. The crashing of shark populations worldwide kept him up at night. Sometimes he counted jellyfish to put himself to sleep. The cake had been a surprise for Julia. In the last month, he had secretly learned to bake in the kitchen of the hotel.

I’ve been putting this off for a week now, but it’s time to face it: I sometimes don’t like good stories. And I can’t seem to keep that out of my posts about them.

And this is a perfectly good story. The main characters are wonderful: Phineas, med student turned Virgin Islands diving teacher / shark diver/ baker, freshly jilted by his fiancée Julia for reasons neither he nor I understand (I’ll get to that); and a precocious ten-year-old girl, also named Julia, freshly bereaved by her mother’s death and mostly ignored by her father, the eye doctor, in the Islands at a medical convention. Don’t those sound like great characters? They are. A little too good, maybe…

It’s loaded with symbolism, and if you don’t believe me, just read the One Story Q&A where he’ll tell you all about the “deep thought” that went into the hitchhikers and the headlamps and complains that “it actually is kind of tragic to learn most people wouldn’t see a symbol in Gatsby’s green light if you waterboarded ’em. Writers do it like they breathe; they are always aware of the soul of things chattering away. But you do feel kind of lonely when you realize everyone else sees the seagull as just a fucking seagull.” I love it when a writer assumes off the bat that everyone’s just too stupid to “get” his work.

The problem might be that it works a little too well. Everything’s very meaningful and even symmetrical, with ferries coming and going and sharks and cakes and a cowboy hat and red aprons that look like “bloodstains on the beach.”

And then there’s the supporting cast. I’m as perplexed as Phineas about why his bride-to-be took the next ferry back to St. Thomas with her bridesmaids (when I said “bride-to-be” I wasn’t kidding, as in, within days) because he met her at the ferry wearing a tux and carrying a wedding cake he’d baked himself. There are, of course, women who would run from that. They might enter into a dalliance with a med-student-turned-shark-diver, maybe even a long one. But they don’t get engaged to one until he’s moved safely back to New York and started a Park Avenue practice (I’m a little behind on the current trends in fashion medicine, is that still where the rich and famous get their prostate massages?).

The child-Julia’s father is equally obtuse. He knows his daughter is grieving for her mother (whether he is or not can be inferred). It seems important to him that Phineas understand that his wife wore the cowboy hat the girl now treasures, not as “an affectation” but because she was a rodeo queen – she had legitimate claim to a cowboy hat. And during the trip to the Islands, he got on the plane without her, leaving her in the Charlotte airport. Presumably, that means he’s used to travelling alone. Because I’m afraid of missing some meaning here and thinking a seagull is just a seagull (I’m pretty sure it’s not by accident this guy is an eye doctor).

Then there’s the marlinspike of the title. I’ve never heard of a marlinspike before. It’s “a tool used in marine ropework” – Phineas explains it’s used to undo knots, but I’ve discovered it’s also used to make ladders, an even more interesting symbolic function given the story. And by the way, the single-sentence paragraph “Phineas wept” brought to mind the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Don’t mess with me when it comes to symbolism. I can overread a nursery rhyme into dust.

So, I guess I don’t like good stories. Like Phineas, I think I prefer my life a little messier. If that means someone takes the return ferry outta here, so be it.

Amy Brill: “ReMem” from One Story #184, 9/30/13

"Connected" : sculpture by Kasey McMahon

“Connected” : sculpture by Kasey McMahon

One step, two, and my wife of seventeen years comes into view. She is curled on the floor, her ReMem nodes still attached, like tentacles. Unbreathing, unseeing, nothing but a square of light, a green cursor blinking on a blank screen. I drop to my knees beside her, the timeless posture of grief. Elleni’s auburn hair is rich in the winter light, as if it has absorbed all the lost color of the world. My cries echo through the empty house. I hold my dead wife, rent by love, fear, longing, guilt, regret. My wife, her systems deleted by her own hand. A husk in my frail arms. Asway, adrift.
… I’m shaken by the dream in which I found Elleni’s body, though I have it often enough. I have found her over and over, re-living the same moment but failing, each time, to change its outcome. As if such keystrokes as hers could be Control Z’d, Clear All’d. A sadistic game, this: dreaming one’s worst moment again and again, with no command to make the remembering stop.

As long as there is something new, there will be the obsolescence of something old; as long as there are people who love, there will be broken hearts, since loss, of one kind or another, is virtually inevitable. As long as there are parents, there will be children who are impatient with and feel superior to the older generation; and as long as there are children, there will be parents whose greatest wish is to protect them as far as they are able.

The story is set in an almost Matrix-like foreseeable future, when plugging in allows access to everyone’s memories and mind functions: “Shared consciousness. The MainLine: hivemind manifest.” Alfred was a researcher in the field 40 years ago, but his contribution, significant at the time, has been overshadowed many times over, and his daughter regards his loyalty to older devices with disdain. I know a lot of people who retain a great fondness for their old TRS-80s and Commodore-64s with their floppy disks – floppy disks that were actually floppy! – black and white screens, and command codes; I know no one who is still using such a dinosaur. It seems Alfred is, however, and daughter Lauria is trying to get him to upgrade.

He has reasons for his reluctance, however; there are some memories he wishes to keep private.

As far as Lauria is concerned, Elleni died of cancer. And that is all. A one-word answer, the sound of a door closing. When one says, “Cancer,” no one asks, “Why?” or “How?” or “Who would do such a thing?”

Brill discusses the story with Hannah Tinti in her One Story Q&A. The narrative follows the path of Alfred’s troublesome headache to the realization of what that headache means, what the technology means, what spending so much time in memories means. Along the way come many considerations about interactions between people and technology.

It’s a world where people no longer touch (Alfred’s doctor, a former student, is amused when Alfred reaches out to shake hands) or talk (Lauria surprises Alfred by saying several sentences in a row, as she communicates with everyone else by plugging in). Alfred and Lauria have reached a state that can be best described as a truce. Then the headache starts.

Much of the prose is lyric and lovely, as Alfred considers the value of “life-as-lived versus life-as-remembered.” There are several nice vocabularic touches: as Lauria condescendingly explains to Alfred the benefits of TreeMem, he thinks: “I did not tell her that when I consider a tree I still think, maple, oak beech, fir. The word “thrumming” is used to describe the sound of both a machine in the doctor’s office, and Lauria’s laugh, something I didn’t notice that until I read the story out loud.

Alfred recognizes that he and Lauria are separated by more than years:

“Some of these people, they go up and that’s it – they don’t even have bodies.” It’s the most I’ve heard her say months, and there is a gleam of awe in her eye, as if to add, They are amazing.

The resolution comes as no real surprise, but it was well-realized, and surprise isn’t everything. Some of the jargon is a bit confusing – multiple memory technologies, different hardware interfaces – but understanding those details isn’t important. The heart of the story comes through loud and clear. A cautionary tale? Maybe. Or just a love story.

Elizabeth Gilbert: “The Signature of All Things” from One Story #183, 9/5/13

William Birch, "The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton" 1809

William Birch, “The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton” 1809

She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry….What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother had not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance.

Watch out – I’m about to take One Story, my favorite literary magazine, to task.

In a way, the best thing about the magazine contains the seeds of occasional discontent. The editors go out of their way to present a wide variety of authors – never publishing anyone more than once – and literary styles, from narrative experimentation to fable to romance to spec fic to realism to, most recently, a comic book (the formal term is “graphic story,” but I still hesitate to plop that phrase down without reassuring those over 50 that we’re not talking obscenity, but a more visual approach to storytelling). This is something I love about One Story. But it’s pretty inevitable that at some point, someone with even the widest range interests will encounter something that doesn’t appeal. It’s akin to free speech – you’re going to occasionally hear something you don’t like, but that’s the cost of having the right to say something someone else doesn’t like.

This latest issue had one strike going against it from the start. I’m not really a big fan of historical fiction. One Story‘s variety-pack approach has been helpful in that regard, truth be told, since it occasionally exposes me to historical fiction I end up enjoying very much, as with “World’s End” and “The History of Living Forever” and “No Flies, No Folly.” Still, I start out skeptical.

Skeptical, I can take in stride. I don’t expect every story to be my cup of tea, and One Story has a terrific batting average as far as I’m concerned. Even the stories I don’t particularly “like” offer something, this one included. But then came the final straw: this is an excerpt.

One Story has published excerpts before, and I’ve been patient, but now that they’ve published three in the past 12 months, I’m officially annoyed. I have to be annoyed, to be consistent: I grumble when TNY does it, after all. Maybe I hold One Story to a higher standard. Maybe I feel like a magazine that uses the name “One Story” should be honoring the short story tradition – allowing for a rare exception just to mix things up – instead of publishing chapters that may be excellent exposition for extraordinary novels, but are terrible examples of the short story.

There must be a reason litmags do this; I’m going to assume the reason isn’t a dearth of submissions of excellent stories. Is it the name factor? Is there some cost benefit involved? Is the idea that this will lure new readers? If you know, please tell me. I have some vague sense of the grim economic realities of publishing, and I’m grudgingly willing to accept some compromise may be necessary. And by the way, who am I to second-guess Hannah Tinti, who knows far more about the short story and literature in general than I ever will. But I don’t have to be happy about it.

Both Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, equally intolerant of dullness, encouraged the spirit of investigation in their daughter.
…If other people’s toddlers could be taught to lisp prayers and catechisms as soon as they could speak, then, Beatrix believed, her child could certainly be taught anything.

The “story” presented here is virtually all exposition. There is a bit of narrative towards the end, culminating in a delightfully visual (do I smell another movie?) scene of a houseful of high-IQ guests enacting the motions of the solar system on a sprawling early-19th-century Philadelphia estate lawn. But the energy of the story is almost entirely directed towards establishing a background for Alma Whittaker, who will, in the novel that follows, grow up and become a world-travelling botanist.

The excerpt focuses on Alma’s childhood influences, from her loving but demanding parents and the housekeeper who provides comfort when needed, to the intellectually demanding dinner parties for the intelligentsia of the era. It’s nicely written and fairly pleasant reading, though a bit of the standard cookbook recipe for the precocious child who becomes a successful adult. I should probably be more impressed by the historical detailing of the estate and the circumstances of the family, including the father’s involvement in what passed for medical chemistry of the era. It could well be that for historic fiction buffs, this is a winner; Gilbert based the White Acre estate partly on Philadelphia’s The Woodlands, and they’ve included a comment from her on their blog (“The Woodlands has now become so intrinsically entwined in my mind with White Acre that I can scarcely tell the two apart”). Gilbert discusses the origins of the excerpt – a combination of gardening and the inheritance of a 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages – as well as some of the features of the novel from which it comes, in her One Story Q&A.

Nobody stopped her. She was a comet.
She did not know that she was not flying.

For me, it was a somewhat more high-end chapter out of, say, Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself; it was only in this past summer’s bookshelf purge that I parted with my own collection of Sidney Sheldon. It’s especially not a bad thing when offered as one of the many varieties the One Story smorgasbord includes. But this one wasn’t my cup of tea. Is that the story, or is that me, sporting an attitude? Undetermined.

I still love you, One Story. Next issue, please.

Matt Madden: “Drawn Onward” from One Story #182, 8/11/13

One Story hyped this issue: “Our First Graphic Short Story!” I didn’t expect much. Yes, I’m an old fart who still thinks “graphic novel” means smut.

I have been schooled. Thank you, One Story, and thank you, Matt Madden. Thank you very much.

If you’re an admirer of interesting narrative structure, and, yes, of discovering a new world of technique that has more depth and intricacy than you ever realized as you sat smugly back and sneered at an entire genre, you’ll love this.

Madden describes it as a “star-crossed love story” in his One Story Q&A. Once I “got” it (which took me longer than it should have, but that’s what happens when you underestimate), I thought, if Borges wrote graphic stories, this is one he would’ve written (I’ve been obsessed with Borges lately; my grocery list makes me think Borges). Then I thought, Möbius strip; I was very happy to see a reference to that last in Madden’s interview.

I should’ve been clued in to the palindromic structure by the title, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. Shame on me. Madden explains why storyboarding (the graphic version of a first draft) took so long: “every page and panel had to be plausible and more or less natural in four different contexts.” The drawing style, the lettering, the layout on the page, the composition of each panel – who knew it was so complicated, other than everyone under 40?

If you’ve read a lot of graphic novels (I’m getting to the point where I can use that term without quotes), it’s possible this is all old hat to you. Still, you’ll enjoy the Easter eggs; Madden enumerates them in the Q&A for those of us who are clueless, but the serious aficionado will no doubt want to discover them for herself.

For a novice, it’s a complete revelation. I now know how Van Leeuwenhoek must’ve felt when he first saw all the wee beasties in his drop of pond water: there’s a whole world in there, an amazing world, a world I just wasn’t able to see before.

Chelsey Johnson: “Between Ship and Ice” from One Story #181, 7/17/13

He was thirty-six and he still felt as lost and awkward as a child sometimes, gawky when he leaned an elbow on a bar and tried to look like he belonged. He had narrowed himself for so many years that coming out was like emerging from one of those miles-long fjordside tunnels – out of the mountain and into the daylight, blinded. He did not know where to look. How to look. Before last year, she had hardly considered her body, just lived in it.… Something had begun to tighten around the middle of her, forcing her perfectly fine, straight body to bulge from the pressure. It cinched and tugged her down harshly-lit corridor of constant scrutiny: her mother remarking on her darkening hair, warning her about an extra potato chip; the boys giggling in art class; the girls clustered into tight buzzing molecules along the hallways.
Nowhere felt safe anymore.

Remember adolescence? It’s that time when we run away from our parents as fast as we can while looking over our shoulders to make sure they’re still there keeping us safe. A time of conflicting feelings: fear and eagerness, independence and neediness, joy and despair. A time for learning when to rein in your desires, and when to dive in headfirst, while mistakes are still something you learn from and not something that destroys you. It’s a wonder anyone survives it.

Imagine going through that years later – with your teenage daughter next to you on a trip to Arctic Norway. The title of this story captures the in-betweenness both Synneva and her father, together for their first visit since the divorce, are experiencing.

It’s a story full of in-betweens: extremes of temperature, threat and safety, confidence and insecurity, secrecy and revelation. I think it’s a story about finding a comfort zone in the middle of those extremes, in the middle ground of transition, and in the middle ground between two people.

Erlend felt a shameful relief that he’d swept his daughter immediately northward so he could spend time with her without being truly alone. He had no idea what was going on in Synneva’s head – what she knew, what she didn’t know.

“Quality Time” loomed, time set aside from regular time, which meant that it had a start and an end. “Quality Time” was an empty room you walk into and were expected to fill.… She missed regular time.

So many observations here feel pitch-perfect; when Dad mentions to their dinner table companions his daughter’s collection of plush polar bears and posters, she reacts with all due teenage disdain: “That was when I was little“; but she later rebukes his offer of coffee and has cocoa instead. Dad keeps touching his cell phone; we know why, but Synneva doesn’t. Until, aboard the icebreaker (how perfect, a story in which an icebreaker makes sense), Dad in his lower bunk talks in his sleep.

And there is one of the trickiest things in fiction: how does one character accidentally discover another’s secret? Do people really talk in their sleep? I’ve been told I do, but of course I don’t quite believe it; in any case, no one’s ever heard anything interesting (or for that matter, even intelligible, and trust me, there’s a lot I might’ve revealed). The overheard conversation or phone call is another method of revelation, expanded by today’s technology into caller id and email lists. If not handled correctly, an unexpected revelation can feel downright hokey.

The solution used here rises above that because it’s an incomplete revelation; that incompleteness leads right into the transition from the innocence of youth to the wisdom of adulthood: “To know or not know, for once, was her choice.” Adolescence: that time when we learn how to choose. It’s an interesting rehabilitation of what could have been a tired trope into a thematic element. I should have expected no less from a One Story writer.

The setting of the story also brings with it some interesting material; when was the last time you read a Norwegian fairy tale? I was heretofore unaware of “Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon” (The White Bear King Valemon); it’s kind of odd that I read my second Norwegian novel ever just a few months ago, and now here’s a story about Norway; does this mean something? Johnson’s a Minnesota native, but her One Story Q&A outlines her ties to Norway and the influence of Skogfjorden (Norwegian camp) on her writing. And, by the way, the roots of her fascination with alternating points of view, used so effectively here to put the reader between Erlend and Synneva.

It took me a second read to fully appreciate the craft of this story; time well spent.

Michelle Seaton: “The Prospects” from One Story #180, 6/22/13

Via Deadspin

Via Deadspin

But for now the prospects still live at home, in football-fervent cities and towns, among the hollowed-out factories, the vacated office parks, under the care of their parents, the unemployed and the over-mortgaged, the downgraded part-timers, the patriotic, the doggedly informed, the God-fearing and peace-loving, the green-thinking and Internet-surfing, but most of all, the hopeful…. And in these homes, each prospect is still a boy who seems to ingest his body weight in food five or six times a day, whose use a pizza or roast chicken as an appetizer, a boy who can down a quart of milk while standing at the open refrigerator door, a child who cannot look both ways before crossing the road, who cannot be trusted with the car or the television remote because he has no impulse control, no sense that others also exist. Yet, this child seems tailor-made for the triple-XL world which he will inhabit, a world of super portions, mega-churches, and 56-inch plasma screens…

I’m not usually big on sports-recruiting stories: the exploitation, the lying, the haves having more while the broken bodies of ruined young men (and women; I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) pile up. I feel like if you’ve seen one “prospect” story, you’ve seen ‘em all. I suppose I’m a bit jaded about it all. It’s a system beloved by exploiters and exploitees alike, even by those chewed up and left by the wayside in many cases, so who am I to sputter.

That unanimity may be changing, though, and that’s why this story has a certain relevance: a former student athlete is suing the NCAA, and cutting players in on a piece of the pie is a minor cause célèbre for the Left (sandwiched between analyzing mass shootings, single shootings of unarmed teenagers, and voter suppression, not to mention the occasional Royal Baby vs Poor Baby comparison; I don’t think anyone at MSNBC has slept for the past six months).

Michelle Seaton, a former sports reporter, understands the ubiquity of the issue; in fact, she credits her selection of POV to that very ubiquity in her One Story Q&A: “A third-person plural narrator is in a position to emphasize how many of these conversations go on every season and how interchangeable they are.” But she wants to show me I am wrong, that there is another way to write about it. And she does a great job.

This piece (it’s closer to creative non-fiction than a short story) hangs out with the kids and their parents at first, as in the quote above. But it earns its keep when it then shifts its focus to the recruiters – not the guys raking in the big bucks, but the front-liners doing the hard work, just trying to survive on the fringes of a sport that’s left them unable to do much else – and suddenly becomes a narrative with a past, present, and grim future:

A recruiter in a small program is a man who stocks shelves and collects tip money for each delivered pizza and sells athletic shoes in a sporting goods store.… He is a man who once dreamed of greatness as a coach, but whose dreams have shrunk to one goal, that of a paid position at any program.
On rainy days these recruiters limp with little reminders of injuries…. Each man can narrate the whole scenario of his injury, can tell it with a smile that hides some other, more complicated feeling, that hides the vivid remembrance of lighting out on the grass, on the turf, gulping for air and try not to puke from the throbbing, the stinging, the skin tightening around the swelling, the others crowding around as the pain comes in waves, sharp and then tall and thin in a long, shrill shout when the trainer palpates the hot skin, squeezing the accumulating blood and marrow, crunching the dislocated bits of tendon or cartilage between thumb and forefinger, then waiting for the trainer to glance up at the sad and knowing expression, before giving a quick handshake that hurts everyone that this bone, this joint, this ligament, this tendon, this body, this tool so carefully tended will never again be what it was just a few minutes ago.

I have to admit this isn’t my favorite One Story offering (but there’s pretty stiff competition, since they’ve been hitting it out of the park lately; I’ve found the past six stories, going all the way back to February, extraordinary). Still, I can appreciate the structural composition, and I give Seaton a 10 for style: long sentences that peak at just the right moment. If I weren’t so tired of the institutionalization of sport next to the marginalization of teaching, health and child care (as per the map above, the highest paid state employee in 40 states is a university sports coach), I might be more enthusiastic about content.

Jodi Angel: “Snuff” from One Story #179, 5/28/13

After the accident, I would wonder if I had seen it coming, the shift in shadows, the sudden definition of a shape, a thickening in the air like a premonition, because when something goes terribly wrong there is always a before and always an after, but the moment itself is vague and hard to gather, and time jumps like a skip in a record, and so I tried to remember the before, tried to trace what happened during, but in the end, it all came down to after and we were spun hood up into a dry drainage ditch, the broken headlight suddenly finding its too little too late and pointing straight and strong at nothing more than wide open sky, the windshield shattered and fracturing the night into a thousand webbed pieces, and Charlotte bleeding from her nose and me with my mouth open to say something, but instead everything just hung quiet and still.

The teen brother-sister relationship takes many forms, from hero-worship and protectiveness to hostility and avoidance. I think, though, there’s a special kind of bond, regardless of the surface, that forms in kids dealing with a troubled adult. In this case, Shane and Charlotte live with their dad who frequently “talks to Johnnie,” as in Walker. He doesn’t sound like a total loser, since he’s concerned about Charlotte’s burgeoning sexuality and tries to lay down some pretty standard ground rules, but while we don’t get specifics, it’s strongly implied that he’s handy with a belt or a slap; the threat of him hangs over the kids for a good part of the story.

Shane’s coming-of-age all happens in the course of a few hours. He’s just seen his first snuff film, and may be as traumatized by the callous reaction of his friends as by the violence in the film. He leaves, and calls sister Charlotte to pick him up. She’s reluctant, but agrees for twenty bucks. These best laid plans go awry when Charlotte hits a deer. But that’s just the beginning: she thinks the deer she’s killed is pregnant, so she gets to work on a roadside c-section.

And there was a sadness in her voice that made me want to get back into the car and shut my door and slide onto the floor, let Charlotte deal with it and wait it out, because Charlotte was older and had always been the one to take the brunt, but I wouldn’t do that this time. I was the one who had called her out here. She came for me.

Charlotte shows great concern for the baby – she never calls it a fawn, but a baby – and great confidence that she can do the impromptu surgery because she’s going to be in Advanced Biology next year in school (amazingly, the photo above, from the UK’s Daily Mail, claims to be of a fawn delivered by c-section after the mamma deer was killed by a car). Shane has flashbacks to the snuff film as she sinks a knife into the carcass. In her One Story Q&A, Jodi Angel says: “I wanted to keep the relationship between Shane and Charlotte complicated and built more on what isn’t being said between them, rather than what is” and invokes Hemingway’s “iceberg theory.” I think she succeeded. She certainly created an atmosphere where reality is uncertain.

This is my second Jodi Angel story, following “A Good Deuce” from the Summer 2011 Tin House. I’m fascinated by a question about gender in her Q&A; it seems that in the first draft of “Snuff,” Shane’s gender was unclear most of the way through the story. When I read “A Good Deuce,” I’d thought the narrator was female until about halfway through. Seems she likes to write stories with teenage boy narrators, and her forthcoming collection, You Only Get Letters From Jail, will feature more – one of which, by the way, is available online right now at the Tin House blog.

For me, the most heartbreaking moment in “Snuff” was the fantasy:

Part of me hoped everything would happen like something on TV and we would make breakfast even though the sun had not begun to rise, and we would be inspected for injury, turned this way and that under the kitchen light, and our dad would take the fawn and come up with a way to feed it, make it a bed in a box, and he would look at the car and shake his head and be happy both of us were fine, and we would tell the story of how Charlotte had delivered the baby on the road from the deer we had hit and our dad would be so impressed that he would put his arm around her shoulders and say, That’s my girl! and he would repeat the story to his friends, too proud to keep from telling it over and over again for the rest of the week.

Amidst all the blood and violence and risky behavior both siblings have exhibited, this shoots out like a laser beam: this simple thing Shane wants, this quintessential scene from some family-friendly TV show. It’s obviously not going to happen this way – it would never happen this way, in any family outside of the Waltons – yet it leaves me hopeful for Shane: if that’s the dream, I think he might just be able to survive his adolescence and find his way to a safe place.

Susan Perabo: “Indulgence” from One Story #178, 5/3/13

“I wanted to write a love letter to cigarettes. I wanted to write a story that genuinely, without irony, celebrated smoking… now, ten years after quitting, I recall cigarettes with an affection that I feel for no other nonliving thing.”

~~ Susan Perabo, One Story Q&A

You’ve got to read this story.

I’m not going to say much about it. I’m not going to trace the plot, or explain how I identify with the characters, or guiltily admire the structure, or even relate my experience of reading it (with one exception). I’m not even going to link to the author’s interview at the One Story website as I usually do (the quote above will have to suffice unless you want to go googling) because I think it’s too spoilery, even before you get to the capital SPOILER ALERT warnings. And, above all, I’m not even going to talk about why I won’t talk about it.

But you’ve got to read this story. Trust me on this. You should probably read it at a time and place where it doesn’t matter if you melt into a sobbing puddle of goo for a while afterwards. Not, say, on your lunch hour.

If you, like me, are an ex-smoker, you might find it a difficult story to read. As is obvious from the Q&A quote above, Perabo is an ex-smoker. I could tell, as I read, it was written by a smoker – not someone who lived with a smoker or observed smokers – because she got so many of the tiny details right. The “musical wheeze.” Missing cigarettes between cigarettes. And the best one of all:

What I loved about smoking, after my first day as a smoker, maybe even after my first puff, was that a cigarette was a thing to reach for every time I wanted to reach for something. It was a permanent answer to the persistent question now what?

That was the best thing about smoking for me: it gave me something to do. I’m so glad to know I’m not alone.

Now, it may seem a little narcissistic (a little?) to write about myself, instead of addressing the story this post is ostensibly about. But I can’t discuss the story – even a little, even in an abstract way, which would be the best way to discuss it, talking about form, about rules, about my experience of reading it – without spoiling it, I believe. So I’m left with smoking.

Ok, that’s just ridiculous. Let me try to get a little closer:

Don’t go away thinking it’s a story about smoking. It’s a story about indulgence on many levels (I never realized the depth of the word before). It’s a brilliant love story in form, content, and effect. It’s a story that will get you thinking about the decisions you make, the ones that seem pretty shaky at the time, and how, even if you make a decision with love, you may not know if it was the right one for a long time. In fact, you may never know it at all, unless someone tells you. And inversely: someone else may never know, unless you tell them.

You’ve got to read this story. It costs $2.50, the price of about eight cigarettes. It’ll last a lot longer.

Douglas Watson: “The Messenger Who Did Not Become A Hero” from One Story #177, 4/8/13

Art by George Fuentes

Art by George Fuentes

There was a messenger who was stuck working for a no-good King. That the king was no good had been proved by numerous studies. His intentions may have been good, but results-wise, he was not good. The delivery of kingly services to subject/consumers had grown markedly less efficient since the death of the old king. Also, the new king was not really handsome enough to be a king. He was duke material at best, according to the studies.
For a distinguished messenger nearing the end of his career, it was embarrassing to be working for so mediocre a king.

If you started out writing a fairy tale that turned into a humorous version of Les Miz, morphed into the Odyssey, and finished off with The Death of Ivan Illyich and tied it all together with social satire, you might end up with something like this story. Of course, you would never do such a thing. But Douglas Watson would.

Watson first came across my radar when I read his flash, “Life On The Moon,” on the Tin House blog, and couldn’t add it to my Online Fiction Sampler page fast enough.

But this is not a love story.
It is a philosophical story with a surprise ending.

Our non-hero messenger (with a passion for good coffee) does, however, fall in love. He also joins a revolution, un-revolves eight days later, heads for Sumatra and doesn’t quite make it. He does discover the benefits of self-employment, and eventually… well, you’ll have to read the story.

I suspect there are many philosophical references here that just go past me; my knowledge of philosophy begins and ends with Sophie’s World. But I’m sure there’s something very deep and analytical here about messaging; your own, vs. someone else’s. I’ve been rather obsessed with messaging over the past week or so, but come on, it’s right there in the title. This was a great story to run into right now.

In his One Story Q&A, Watson describes his approach to narrative distance:

I think it’s a way of trying to fold my own self-consciousness about the act of writing into the product itself—you know, like: Now add three tablespoons of self-consciousness. Beat until almost smooth. Melt the protagonist over medium heat. Add a dash of conflict and just enough sugar to make the reader care about the character. Mix well and bake for a million years in the Oven of Remember, This Whole Thing Is Kind of a Joke! Let cool before serving.

That’s the attitude.

Halimah Marcus: “Running Alone” from One Story #176, 3/14/13

"Outside Yourself" by BiyoArt

“Outside Yourself” by BiyoArt

In the cafeteria, at a table full of people, Hunter feels as if he is sitting alone. Perhaps this loneliness is a condition he has acquired from being nearly twice as fast as the second-best runner at his school; he is in a class unto himself; he must be comfortable getting out in front. Yet his talents have earned him no notoriety. His classmates do not care about middle distance running.

When I was in high school, I somehow read a lot of fiction about running. I’m not sure why; I never ran unless a gym teacher made me (still don’t, and I’m thankful there are far fewer gym teachers in my life now). As I read this story, I remembered my intrigue. I still don’t know where it comes from, but whereas fly fishing – so popular in fiction – leaves me cold, I can somehow identify with the demands racers put on themselves, and the psychological and emotional factors involved in winning a race. And I just happen to be finishing up a calculus course right now, so I was thrilled to encounter a few terms that were somewhat familiar.

But this story isn’t about running, or about math. They provide the setting for the story, and are expertly used (at least it seems so to me, a non-expert), but it’s a story about a family of isolated people trying to connect. It’s about using talent and motivation to isolate. To protect. Or to connect.

The three members of this family – runner Hunter; father, mathematician, coach Albert; mother Irene – live in isolations of different origins. Hunter is “on the spectrum,” to begin with. His talent, and his drive, have further isolated him. I recall something from an old Educational Theory class: achievement/affiliation conflict. Altering his running style, or his interests, to fit in, is not on Hunter’s radar.

Dad has a similar fixation with mathematics; he’s probably “on the spectrum” himself, but in his case, he parlayed his obsession into academic success and a lucrative high-tech career, until cutbacks convinced him to teach high school. Here he discovered the connection between running and math: if you accelerate correctly, if your curve works right, you win the race. He teaches Hunter to train his body to follow that curve. This is where their curves intersect.

Mom is alone in her normality, perhaps. Hunter was a runner from the time he was very small, and this has served as a source of pain and guilt to Mom: ” She couldn’t help but feel rejected when Hunter didn’t want to read a book in her arms, couldn’t help but wonder what she had done to cause him to run from her.” But that pattern – someone close obsessed to the point of shutting her out – isn’t new to her; she encountered it when she was dating Dad:

The thesis was the product of such profound isolation that Albert was nearly lost entirely. It was an experience not unlike popular depictions of dying, in which a comatose patient must choose between the voices at his bedside and the distant, beckoning light. The truth was, while working on his thesis, he almost lost her. She arrived before he was ready, and Albert could barely look up from his calculations long enough to keep her. Foolishly, he risked making her wait. But along with his foolish actions came a fool’s luck. She remained patient…

And one more isolating factor: Mom’s just found out she has breast cancer.

Now, that’s kind of a deal-breaker for a lot of readers who are tired of cancer stories, but the narrative style of this story saves it. It’s a bit on the cold, clinical side, actually, but it rescues the story from any hints of sentimentalism while letting the reader still experience the loneliness, pain, and fear of the three characters. An excellent match, this particular style and this particular story.

A shining example of this can be found in a scene where Dad, unable to figure out how to help his wife, instead does what he does best: he works out the complex equation that earned him his doctoral thesis. He starts writing on the school chalkboard, and when he runs out of space, he finds a roll of oaktag used for a children’s class, lays that out on the floor, and continues there.

He uncaps a marker and tries to think of a problem, the conventional kind: difficult yet familiar. Something that will fill up the board with squeaks and blue marks, functions of x, limits approaching zero, series that never end, paradoxes with theoretical solutions. He wants a problem that will fill his mind with satisfying frustration, a problem he can attack at a steady pace, an equation he can systematically untangle for hours until he is left with one lonely and self-satisfied integer…
He is kneeling on the floor in what has become the evening dark, discovering the very thing he invented, and entire scroll in front of him, ready to record for as long as it takes.

So many religious references in that sentence: kneeling in the dark, the scroll, eternity. Some people in his situation would pray. He is praying, in his own way. And putting off picking up his wife after her chemo treatment. I truly believe most people, annoying and unreliable as they can be, do the best they can, and for him, this is the best he can do.

The intricate connections between these three characters is multidimensional, difficult to capture in a summary. Mom seems almost incomplete, but she is complete in that incompleteness, I think. She is the plane, the field on which the runner and the mathematician intersect. In that, the possibility of her loss is to them, quite literally, unthinkable.

In her One Story Q&A, Marcus describes the origins of the story and provides more insight into the depth of the running scenes. I still find it fascinating that there’s an entire philosophy behind running – several different philosophies, in fact. And it added to my understanding of the story to realize the shift involved in the story’s ending, the shift from father to mother.

I’ve seen a lot of very positive tweets about this story over the past few weeks, so I was surprised to see no one had commented on the One Story blog. I guess tweets are superseding blogs. I couldn’t do a story like this justice in 140 characters. Then again, I can seldom do anything in 140 characters.

Emma Duffy-Comparone: “The Zen Thing” from One Story #175, 2/17/13

"Family Day ~ At the Beach" by KJ Carr

“Family Day ~ At the Beach” by KJ Carr

Each year, like a shifty circus in a truck, the family unpacks itself for a weekend on a beach and pretends to have a good time….Expectations are low.

I didn’t particularly like this story the first time I read it. But since I have faith in One Story, I put it aside, and came back to it after a few weeks. That doesn’t always work, but this time, it did.

Initially it seemed like another dysfunctional family exposé, with one quirky character after another. To some degree, it is that, though who’s dysfunctional and who’s not is debatable, an interesting feature in itself. But more importantly, there’s a reason for these characters; their quirks serve a purpose beyond humor. They’re deliberately constructed, of course, and maybe that’s what put me off at first. But I have to admire what’s accomplished: a young woman in a tough situation looks at all her futures – and all her pasts – embodied by her family on a day at the beach.

Anita’s boyfriend, Luke, seems to have it all – movie-star looks, charm, earnestness, Rumi quotes – and then some. It’s the “then some” that’s the problem. He’s older; he’s married. He was her art professor; they moved in together five months ago following a two-year affair:

Luke has taken to drinking each night before he calls his daughter, Matilda, who is eight and who, because he cannot bear to tell her, and because his wife is certain he will come back, still thinks he is on a business trip.

It’s odd how an earnest guy who’s “gentle and curious and frequently undone by factual tidbits from the BBC” can look different in another light. Say, beach light. It’s quite a trick to make someone look sensitive when he’s being brutal. The scene reminds me of the quip about the guy who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Anita’s pushed up against her family on this beach trip, each of whom have little tendrils into her situation. Sister Theresa was a wild child, but recently started flying straight and is now married to a rich Libertarian insurance agent and takes parenting her two-year-old very seriously. Through her, Anita sees what it is to grow up, but also what Easy Street costs in human terms. She isn’t sure she likes what she sees:

She has turned into an important, scolding mother. Anita liked her sister better when she wore a Budweiser bikini and made great mix tapes, when they stayed up late watching movies and scratching each other’s back for ten minutes apiece.… Theresa sits down, too, picking grains of sand, one by one, off her arm. She is most likely afraid they will interfere with her tan. Her diamond is a sparkling mouse on her finger.

Anita’s grandmother married Frank five years ago; through them, she discovers her horror of aging, all the while acutely aware that Luke is 25 years her senior. Her mother has her quirks (she still gets hot flashes, “which make her stop whatever she is doing, unhitch her bra, and whip it out of her sleeve like a rabbit from a hat”), but when Frank has a problem, she’s the one who, though her dislike for Frank is well known, steps up. And her mother is also still bitter about her own father, who left the family when she was eleven.

Amidst all this, Anita finds herself thinking about Ben, her former boyfriend.

She has been thinking about this situation more than she would like to admit. She has been trying to remember what was so bad about him in the first place. True, he pronounced supposedly “supposably.” He gave her noogies sometimes. Once, when she asked him if he found her attractive, he said, “I like the buttons on your jacket.” Still, when she is fifty, he will be only fifty-two.

In her One Story Q&A, Duffy-Comparone shows us the process behind this story: it was inspired by her own awkward family beach trip, so she “thought of something Very Awkward and then put everyone in a bathing suit.” It was also written very quickly, in one night – “I couldn’t get precious about every sentence.” Though I’m sure it’s undergone significant editing since then, I think perhaps my initial reaction to the story might have been related to this; some sentences read awkwardly, like the one about Anita’s mother: “She has been talking a lot about death lately, and her own father, who left the family when she was eleven and years later got drunk, drove up an off ramp and was killed before Anita’s mother got around to forgiving him.” I’d assumed this was a stylistic choice for that particular sentiment, since in other places, the prose is positively poetic:

She watches children crouch and slap their hands in the tidepool that is winding across the flats. All the women, breasts heavy and tired in their suits, pull wagons and strollers across the sand and begin to set up shop. Everything is a production. There is sunscreen. There are so many toys.

I had some issues with the story. There’s a lot of character exposition up front (the story is all about character; there’s virtually no plot) and all that quirkiness gets a bit wearing. I found the ever-popular ambiguous ending less than satisfying; it felt more like additional character exposition. Maybe that’s the point: our lives are one long character exposition. Or maybe it goes back to the title. Or maybe it’s an ironic twist, and Anita remains in her rut, because breaking out of it, even with all the evidence around her, is just too damn hard. But I still found myself intrigued and impressed by this parade of complex people – people who are both good and bad, people who are doing the best they can, people who have a lot to teach Anita about the road that lies before her – and was glad I watched them spend a day at the beach.

Kindall Gray: “Break Me In and Out” from One Story #174, 1/23/13

He says he walked forty miles through a black desert full of mysterious cacti and broken glass and empty bottles in order to get here. He says that by the tenth mile there was no water and he thought he would die.…The land ahead of him began to remind him of a sky. Especially at night. He says he yelled words in Spanish, which are hard for him to translate into English. But, they went something like this: “BREAK ME IN AND OUT! He says he stared at the mass of land and sky and yelled “BREAK ME IN AND OUT!” (in Spanish) to God over and over, and that is why he lived and that is why he lights the candles now.

Kids and parents often live in different universes. When I was seven, I desperately wanted a quarter to buy Big Red at the school book fair. My father said no: “Books! You’ve got plenty of books.” I was ashamed of both my want, and my greed. We weren’t anywhere near poor; he was President of Dictograph Electronics, we lived in a rural Connecticut niche upscale of Westport. It wasn’t until much later I realized my father had other things on his mind: my mother’s cancer, and the discovery of embezzlement by the treasurer of his company (and a friend, someone he’d personally placed in the job). We were in different universes.

Toby and her mom are in different universes. In Mom’s universe, she’s cleaning houses all day, and trying to stretch three chicken breasts a week between her and her two kids with a lot of ramen, and worrying about her ten-year-old daughter too-frequently visiting the illegal alien down the hall. But all Toby sees is the upcoming Reptile Show, with its star attraction: the monitor lizard.

Monitors are my favorite animal – enormous, iguana-looking creatures with pointed spikes along their spines and sharp-slithering tongues. They seem slow and lazy, but once they start running nobody can catch them. If attacked, they use their swinging tails as a weapon. They’re also geniuses and can count to six. I’m not sure if they count on their fingers or if they thump their feet like horses. If I had a pet monitor I’d let it stay wild. I’d take it out to the desert. I’d teach it to count higher than six.

Toby makes a deal with her mom: she’ll stay away from Edilio for the month until the Reptile Show, and her mom will take her. At least, Toby thinks that’s the deal. It’s a hard deal, especially when there’s no food in the pantry, but Edilio, for all the suspicion Mom throws his way, surreptitiously feeds Toby leftover Chinese food even though his nasty girlfriend tells him not to.

Toby knows a lot about poverty, though she hasn’t quite figured out truth yet.

Steam from the noodles has fogged the window above the sink. A crack runs sideways between two corners. It has been that way for a while. When it rains, water beads along the crack and then trails down inside the window. My mom called the landlord. She said that’s why we rent. So we don’t have to fix things ourselves. But the landlord hasn’t come. And the crack is still there.

This little girl seems to understand the limitations of her world:

The red carpet is coming up so the cracked tiles show through underneath. I press a foot down over the curled fabric as hard as I can. I release my foot and the fabric pops up. There is no fixing that.

This reminds me of an image from Marc Watkins’s “Two Midnights in a Jug“: “Her bare feet touch cold linoleum beneath her bed, some of the tile edges curl upwards till their ends make a knife of plastic. She walks to the kitchen, avoiding the painful tiles, without looking….” As did Watkins, Gray effectively uses the mundane details of Toby’s life – the curled carpet, the cracked window – to link to the thematic exploration.

In her One Story Q&A, Gray explains that the characters of Toby and Edilio arrived to her “as a pair” and turned the story from a light fun piece to something with more depth. I’m glad they led her where they did.

As for the Reptile Show and the monitor lizard… well, Toby learns more about the limitations of truth, and that justice doesn’t always happen. At least not on an obvious timeline. But somehow, from the way she’s written, I just know she’s going to make it through her desert, and she’ll light a candle on the other side.

Addendum: About the Art –

I started with monitor lizards, of course. But the photos I found were uninspiring, not good enough for this story.

So I started searching for things like “man crossing desert” and this ended up buried deep in the results. I had no idea what it was, but I got the impression of Emilio shouting, “BREAK ME IN AND OUT!” and little Toby standing behind him, listening and learning about how to get through a desert. Turns out, it’s a snow sculpture from 21st International Snow Sculpting Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, run by, sadly, a real estate developer trying to coax people to move there by providing fun and games. But the accomplishment of Team USA/Vermont still intrigued me. This isn’t the first time I’ve swapped sand and snow; the photo for the Harry Crews essay “We Are All of Us Passing Through” is sand that looks like snow, so I was happy to reverse the process. Then I read the text explanation of the sculpture, titled “Marco!” provided by Team USA/Vermont:

One child is emerging from the water nearby to another in a game of Marco Polo. The entomology of the game has its roots in the Venetian explorer, but the origin of the game is hard to pinpoint. This excerpt from Marco Polo’s diary provides a clue – he writes about crossing an expanse of desert – “When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions, and afterwards he wants to rejoin them, he then hears spirits talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes they even [hail] him by name.”

This fit so perfectly with Gray’s story, I felt I had been led to it.

Amity Gaige: “The Soul Keeps the Body Up” from One Story #173, 12/25/12

I want to address the first question that many observers are asking about my case:
Did the accused premeditated the abduction?
I’ll tell you the answer. The answer is no.
Or, not really.
Besides, the word “abduction” is all wrong. It was more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance.

My experience with this story was altered by my penchant for research. If I’d just read the damn thing, I would’ve been fine: The story read nicely, I enjoyed it, and was buried deep in thought about the father and the possibilities allowed by ambiguous ending. But no, I had to go check out the One Story Q&A and then the blog entry, which took the story I’d just read and turned it into something else. But, I have to admit, I also started thinking about some meta-issues, and that’s never a bad thing, is it.

But first, the story before us. Be forewarned: there will be spoilers. Not that it’s a surprise-dependent story. But I’ve been scolded in the past.

The opening paragraphs establish a divorced father (whose name we never learn) picking up his six-year-old daughter Meadow for weekend visitation, the existence of a contentious custody battle that could limit such activity in the future, and a covertly hostile relationship with the father-in-law. We also learn this is a recollection, that Dad is now involved in a “case,” and that the visitation will become abduction. Or adventure. It was an accident – Holy shades of The Borrower, Batman.

The abduction starts off innocently enough as a day trip, with the possibility of an overnight stay, to Lake George. But when Dad notices his father-in-law is following him, he gets a little stubborn. After all, his wife’s lawyer is better than his lawyer, so he may lose these weekends, be required to conduct visits with Meadow under supervision. No real reason for this is given, no abuse, no reckless behavior. In the past, that is. I suppose the abduction counts as present reckless behavior.

That Dad loves his daughter is pretty clear. But it gets perhaps a little needy:

The only thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t bear it anymore, not just the suspense but the way the wind went out of the world on those Sunday afternoons when my father-in-law arrived to take Meadow away in his terrifyingly large SUV. When she left, the yards, the parks, the streets of Albany all seemed abandoned. The life went out of things, and I would experience a spasm of grief, a kind of spiritual lockjaw.

I’m not a parent, and my parents never seemed to give a damn about whether I was around or not, so I’m not sure if this is intended to be slightly pathological, but that’s how it reads to me. It could also be that his daughter, and her absence, has become a symbol for the loss of his family, and with it his self-image of The Family Man, which he later acknowledges: “I realized that my situation was irreparable – the loss of my marriage, the loss of custody, the loss of who I thought I was and who I thought Laura and I could be; none of this could be retrieved intact.… I would never be that man, walking to the ice machine in his boxer shorts with a bucket.” Funny, I knew exactly what that image meant. The ice bucket, symbol of so many summer vacation stops in tacky roadside motels, on the way to some exciting destination. It’s a great image. All the losses are telescoped into his daughter leaving on Sunday afternoons.

[Digression: I also compared my reaction to his "neediness" with that of the title character in "Demeter," a mother who compared her six months without the custody of her daughter with the grief of the mythological Demeter that causes winter. I didn't make any notations of pathology there; why not? There are a few differences: first, the separation was for six months rather than a couple of weeks, and second, the character was drawn as a little flaky, with this just one manifestation. That's more than balanced out by Dad's concern in this story that he could lose his daughter forever. So I'm left with wondering if I've just assumed a mother who grieves over an absent daughter is normal, but a father is pathological, which seems pretty sexist to me. It’s something to keep an eye on.]

The overtly pleasant images of the day are all tinged with dark edges. First, in an effort to ditch Pop Pop, he swaps out his Saturn for the Mini Cooper a friend has entrusted to him over the summer. This twangs my coincidence meter, but just a little, and it’s worth it to get a Mini Cooper into the story. Not to mention it introduces the first note of doom:

When he decided to go away for the summer, who else did he call to watch over his property, and occasionally run the engine of his new Mini Cooper and keep the battery from dying, but me? I had already visited this friend’s house once and had sat in the garage with the Mini Cooper running, noticing with dispassion that it wasn’t just a Hollywood plot device: you really couldn’t smell carbon monoxide. And it was this Mini Cooper that came to mind – with wonderfully changed function, as an Escape Car – as I headed west…

That’s pretty effective use of an image, a prop, so I’ll forgive it for just happening to be available when needed. It is a short story, after all, and there’s a limit to how much backstory can be covered.

The dark edges to the other bright and lovely images of the day continue. At the lake, Meadow heads out into the water, first to wade, then to swim. A neighboring beach-goer is concerned; Dad notices she’s going farther and farther into the water, calls her back, but doesn’t seem alarmed. I was alarmed. It was written, I believe, so I’d be alarmed. Even when Dad heads into the water to retrieve her, he describes the water as “heart-stoppingly cold” and reiterates, “I mean, I think my heart just stopped.” It’s artfully done, this blending of pleasure and threat: the subtle hint of danger in an otherwise charming scene, like the music in Jaws during the swimming scene.

This happens again, during a boat ride, when Meadow insists she can fly:

She said, “but I can fly. Watch.”
She climbed a metal bench on the deck. Stretching her arms out for balance, she placed both sneakers on the armrest “careful,” I said though she was well clear of the railing. She wheeled her arms, exposing her belly in front, looking ungainly, the whole sky behind her. She longed out into the air, a blur of tangerine, her hair in streamers.
“I’ll eat my hat,” I said. “You can fly.”

This calls on a host of images from newspaper stories to bad TV dramas – I can’t be the only one who vaguely remembers, not specifically but generally, an entire army of kids draping towels and sheets around their shoulders and declaring themselves Superman, only to crash to earth broken when the fantasy is over; did those kids actually exist, or is that just a cultural memory? This segues to the day as a whole, to the abduction as seen from the safe distance of time and rationality. I’m sure that while this was going on, Dad believed he was Superman, a towel draped over his back, and that he would land safely again, with Meadow in his arms, when it was over.

These incidents set up the appalling final scene:

I carried her out and later in the truck, checking the towels around each limb. She looked comfortable enough. I patted her shoulder. She would sleep through it, I told myself. The journey over the border would be less than fifteen minutes and then we would have all the time in the world, a much or how little of it we wanted – no, we’d be outside of time, we’d be free of it. I returned to the backseat for Meadows backpack and tiptoed through the gravel to place it at her feet, only to find her open eyes staring up at me.
“What are we doing, daddy?” She whispered. “Why am I in the trunk?”…
But tell me, isn’t that what childhood is? An involuntary adventure? Something one never agrees to?…
Tell me, because I want to know what you think – and I’ve got all the time in the world to mull it over now. Tell me, when did you consent to your own life?

Somehow I flashed on the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who here: “Why are you taking our Christmas tree, why?” Gaige has set up three prior scenes with hints of tragedy that never happened, but this, this is different. There’s nothing inherently threatening in the fun-filled images of the Mini Cooper, a swim in the lake, or a boat ride; it was all in the telling. But there’s simply no warm-and-fuzzy charm to putting a child in the trunk. And that phrase “all the time in the world” – which appears several times throughout the piece – in conjunction with Dad’s “case” seem to point to a tragic outcome beyond parental abduction. If there is a tragedy, is it deliberate, in the “if I can’t have you no one can” sense? Accidental – in the “it’ll only take fifteen minutes” but something goes wrong and extends that sense? Is it even possible to suffocate in the trunk of a Mini Cooper? Or even a more metaphysical sense, as in “all the time in the world” actually equals eternity? I couldn’t leave out the possibility that, since in the other scenes where shadow intruded onto light, all was well, that was the implication here as well: that they would cross the border and live happily ever after in Canada, at least until Meadow remembers she misses her mother and her friends and her school and wants to go home, and this loving father (and I believe he is loving) would have no choice but to take her and face the consequences for his actions.

I was mulling over these possibilities, checking for more clues to a single intent, weighing the evidence to decide if one outcome is more likely, and considering the possibility that I’m just twisted to see all these hideous scenarios in the first place (I don’t think so; there’s clearly an intent to lead the reader into darkness, and if I get overanalytical about it, well, that’s what you get for handing me a story with harsh bass notes and an ambiguous ending). I also considered whether the end was annoying or not. I didn’t find it so; I’m getting more and more down with projecting the story beyond the last period.

Then I read the Q&A.

It’s not a story at all. It’s an excerpt. An adapted excerpt, from the forthcoming novel, Schroder.

I was pretty outraged; for the second time in a few months, One Story has snuck a novel excerpt into their lineup of what is supposed to be, ahem, ONE STORY. Maybe I was especially annoyed because I was tricked; it read like a short story, if one with an ambiguous ending. I felt that the material provided allowed enough information for the reader to draw her own conclusions, and resolve the story in a satisfying, if horrifically tragic, way. But all my possible projections are wrong, if one looks at the synopsis of the novel. There’s even an element of Dad’s life that was hinted at, in a vague way, but becomes so specific to the novel, it’s crucial and (probably) changes my evaluation of the character. And I cry foul over that.

Which leaves me wondering: Does it matter whether or not the novel exists? Is it ok to use an excerpt of a story in a way that changes the experience? Should it be viewed as separate aesthetic experiences, or do they have to exist in tandem? Is it a different point of view, or is it a marketing trick?

I don’t think I’ve encountered this before. Most excerpts don’t end up in different places as stories than they do as chapters… do they? Or is that necessarily a function of excerpting, with things missing and an end point that isn’t where the story puts it? If a novel ends badly for a character, must an excerpt end that way, too? Would it be just as much of a lie to have this pair ride off into the sunset – which, in fact, they do in the novel, as they spend a week vacationing before it all hits the fan. Is it possible that this excerpt really worked as a story – it ended where it ended, as a requirement of the story form – and that’s why it feels like deception, because that isn’t where the novel ends? Is it artful to bring in the element of threat, a child in the trunk looking up trustingly, the trunk about to close – or is it just a tacky manipulative gesture designed to get people to read the book to see what happens?

I have to reluctantly give props to this excerpt for raising such questions. Reluctantly, because I was duped (but really, really well). And is that really how you want to treat a reader?

Then again, if the reader is dupable…

E. B. Lyndon: “Goodbye, Bear” from One Story #172, 12/4/12

Josy Hilton: "Word Art"

Josy Hilton: “Word Art”

He was a koan, my boyfriend, a paradox who, when confronted with great heights or large bodies of water, would fall on the floor in fright – yet he had no problem standing in the spotlight on a stage in front of large, skeptical crowds until they laughed out loud; he could lift mankind out of the misery of their own personalities into the white expanse that is everywhere and nowhere at once – if you can picture that, if you can picture the feeling of falling like a stillness like a bridge in the sky held up by nothing but laughter – and this is what Blago was to me, he was the white space between the lines of my life.
I tried not to resent him for it.

This is one of those stories that’s a lot harder to write about than it is to read. It’s full of important details too wonderful to leave out, but too interconnected to explain in a blog post; they amplify plot lines that run straight without them but become more complex in situ. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

We have main character Bam and her boyfriend Blago, PhD students in Linguistics and a long-distance couple. “Bam” and “Blago” are the names they call each other. Bam’s mother calls her “Seed” which may or may not be her given name, and Blago, well, who knows. Bam’s brother, who recently found Jesus on a ski lift, is marrying into a family of born-agains, leaving Bam et al a bit puzzled. The wedding festivities, from engagement party to lingerie shower to the nuptials themselves, form the structure of the plot.

… because their love, declared, would become barbed wire circles no one else could penetrate and it seemed to me the whole room should be standing up to object.

Bam’s surface problem: acrophobic Blago can’t fly to the wedding in the Midwest. Blago’s surface problem: Bam won’t masturbate for him on Skype. The real problems go a lot deeper. She cheats on him with a woman she meets at a meditation retreat between the engagement party and the lingerie shower. And she finds herself in Blago’s shoes: wanting more from someone who isn’t about to give it.

That night, buzzing from excessive meditation, we brushed our teeth side-by-side. The feeling was a loss of limits, which was unsettling, because ordinarily, limits were my thing.
“Is that really us?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “That is joy. Don’t ruin it.”
In the dorm room she muffled my squeals with a pillow, and the ache that followed became a whirling ride I never wanted to leave. We made a non-verbal agreement of non-attachment, which was fine by me – words rarely did what you wanted them to.

The One Story blog includes this question: “How can someone so initially repellent become so damn charming?” I was glad to see that; I couldn’t agree more. On first read, I wrote in the margin on the first page, “He’s so controlling,” then again, in the next paragraph, “CONTROL!” When I went back for a second read, I got a kick out of those notes, because there is no controlling Bam, none, not at all. There is only surviving her.

And that’s where linguistics comes in. Throughout the story, there’s a subtext of symbols and language and how they reflect, obscure, or twist reality. Skype, the long-distance relationship, travel, Jesus on the ski lift: It all fits together in a way I find difficult to articulate. And when Blago asks Bam how it was after they have sex for the first time following her affair, after he travels from the West Coast to the Midwest by train for her brother’s wedding, she explains it this way: “You know when you’re walking up the stairs carrying something,… a laundry basket or something, and you can’t see your feet, so you miss a step?” Scary part is: I know exactly what she means. And I admire her, and hate her, for saying it out loud, at that moment.

“It has nothing to do with what’s true or not true,” I said. “If the narrative moves through multiple characters’ minds, this is the language of fiction.”
“So, if you tell a bunch of lies, but are speaking in first person, it’s nonfiction?”
“It’s the language of nonfiction,” I corrected.

Of course, I’m a sucker for linguistics. Just mention the word, and I’m all yours.

I’m a little confused by her One Story Q&A, in which she says, “Initially the story was about a girl who’d convinced herself that she was already dead.” I’m assuming that because she used that “initially,” that means it didn’t end up that way. I hope not, because though that’s part of the opening paragraph, and it gets referenced again, it just seems kind of a small point. It isn’t something she says a lot, or thinks a lot. She’s got a lot of angst going on, and the dead thing gets lost. And it’s amazing that something like that –

It was a week before my brother’s engagement party. I was on the phone with my mother. She was grilling me about the guy I was seeing – was he the real deal, or just another fine-for-now? I told her my feelings weren’t reliable at the moment.
“You,” she said. “Always a finger on your emotional pulse.”
“But that’s what I’m trying to tell you,” I said. “No pulse. I think I’m dead.”
“Count yourself lucky, Seed. I’m so exhausted I could do a head-plant in floral samples. She went on about the wedding. “The Born-Agains don’t get it. Toddlers at receptions corrupt the joy. But it’s her wedding,” she sighed, meaning: wedding ruined.

- in the opening paragraph, could get lost. Maybe that’s poor reading on my part. I underlined it; I copied it into the “quotes to include” section of my notes. But I was surprised to see it was the starting point of the story. Maybe it’s great writing on Lyndon’s part – to put so much into a story, you can lose some of it and still come out of it with an intact whole.

I’m also intrigued by Lyndon’s blog. Or, more accurately, what I assume is her blog. There’s none of the usual “writer stuff” on it – no list of stories published, no proclamation of the writing life other than one post about using, guess what, a pseudonym . It’s only a couple of months of posts from last Spring, covering various aspects of Buddhism, writing, meditation: It’s Bam’s blog.

Have you ever put yourself in something, really drowned yourself in it, just to have another place to call home for a little bit? Only to realize the new place was no different than the last place? What I wanted: to find the love who would give me the freedom to evolve – without fearing I’d lose everything if I changed.
Two years later I would be with another man. I would place my heart in the mouth of a lion for him, and he would say, “I just don’t know if you’re well of love runs deep enough,” and there would be my insight. What a coward I’d been!

Wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you call yourself.

Jason Ockert: “Still Life” from One Story #171, 11/9/2009

Self-Portrait by Carol Peace (altered)

Self-Portrait by Carol Peace (altered)

Everett Zurn had grown accustomed to his station at Strand High. He wasn’t an athlete or an anarchist. He had never given the counselor any reason to include his name on the “At Risk” list. He came from a modest family: his mother cashiered at the Handi-Mart and his father worked two-week stints in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The boy was often left alone, but he did not mind it. He was not smart and was not stupid, did not really try or rebel – just another of the vast minority of through-the-crack slippers.
Once he finished high school, he’d become a miner. It’s what Zurn men did. He was mostly fine with this. It didn’t matter that teachers overlooked him; he be underground soon enough. All the same, Everett sometimes felt the future waiting for him pressing down, making it hard to breathe. And the only time this pressure let up was in art class.

I gave up on Glee last week. I’ve hung in there, hoping it’d recapture the absurd irreverent humor I loved when I accidentally stumbled across the “Think of the mail!” scene three years ago while channel surfing towards something more dignified but less entertaining. But no more. It was “Dynamic Duets” that finally did me in – the plot of two arch-enemies, rivals for the same girl, becoming all buddy-buddy in the space of 43 minutes (minus songs, which have gone downhill, too, since someone decided to ban anything from the prior millennium). It was just too pat, too convenient, too easy.

I didn’t care for this story for the same reason. But I feel really bad about it. First, because One Story is my favorite litmag. And second, because Jason Ockart, from his website, seems pretty cool: I’m crazy about his “boxing rabbits” GIF, he’s a featured author at Dzanc Books, and his CV contains some high-rent litmags. But this story, gee, I don’t know. He’s got some terrific elements here. But he’s also got a cardboard cutout of a character, and an ending that’s not only straight out of Hallmark, it’s unearned.

In his One Story Q&A, he says he likes to “take disparate characters, clack them together, and see what sparks. Part of the joy comes in the surprise of discovering undetected similarities.” He did that here, I’ll admit. He did it a little too well, for my taste. I could almost hear “cue the violins” in the stage directions at the end when lonely man and lonely boy find themselves less lonely together.

The lonely boy is Everett Zurn, ignored by parents and teachers alike, including his art teacher, lonely Mr. Ralph. But while I had some sympathy for Everett Zurn – being the sort of kid who got ignored a lot myself – I found Mr. Ralph, failed artist turned disgruntled, unenthusiastic teacher, to be whiney and void of redeeming qualities, yet not particularly interesting in his inadequacies. He’s in a special funk at the time of the story because girlfriend Millie has taken off for Albuquerque to make dreamcatchers with someone named Spirit (a detail I love, though it’s unsupported by the other information we have about her). I say, good for Millie; it’s a step up from Ralph.

Mr. Ralph assigns a self-portrait to the art class, and Everett completes it at home, his parents off somewhere doing something more important than parenting:

Outside, he slumped into a green plastic chair on the front porch in the dwindling evening. He hid inside his brown hoodie. His father’s portable Coleman grill reclined next to Everett, and the distorted image staring back resembled the Grim Reaper. He drew a grinning skull peeping out of the hood. Mr. Ralph had mentioned that the face should come alive. So Everett added flesh to the mouth and flushed the cheeks. Wheat-colored hair cascaded across his forehead. He had always been good at noses. The eyes, though, were difficult. Not the shape, the depth. He tried and tried. Then, fortunately, it was night. Life somehow felt more natural in the absence of light. Without thinking about it, he rummaged through the grill and rubbed charcoal briquette lightly over his portrait. He entitled it, Me, in the Dark.

This portrait is so wonderful I was tempted to give the rest of the story a pass just on the strength of this one paragraph (though I could do without the cascading wheat-colored hair). But I couldn’t; it is good – sketching a self-portrait, then covering it with charcoal? It’s spectacular – and it deserves to be seated in a story that lives up to it.

Mr. Ralph, of course, doesn’t “get” the portrait; he’s too busy mooning over Millie, and gives it a D.

Did you ever imagine your own funeral, maybe when you were a kid, one of those “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone” things? Everett finds a way, during a field trip arranged by Mr. Ralph, to manage that, while also getting back at Mr. Ralph for the dissing of his artwork. He places the carcass of a road-kill deer on the railroad tracks before the train comes through, at first just to see it burst open in a bloody explosion. This is all a little overcomplicated and doesn’t quite ring true, but just when he’s about to lose me, Ockert throws in my other favorite element of the story: Everett starts talking to the dead deer. And the deer talks back.

I could be something more, the dead deer said.
Everett squinted at the carrion in the wavering afternoon balm. “Like what?”
A lesson. An expression. A way out. You adopt me, I adopt you.
At first, this didn’t make sense to Everett – a coy riddle conjured from a dead deer.
And then it did.

As Ockert says, “It’s true; there are not a lot of stories with reanimated and conversant buck carcasses.” And as I said about the self-portrait: it’s a great element, and it deserves to be in a better story.

Everett puts his hoodie with the mangled carcass, and hangs out in a cave while everyone assumes it’s him in the carnage. Then he heads home, keeping up the conversation with the deer: at last, he’s found someone to pay some attention to him.

The narrative switches back to Mr. Ralph, on the hook for the field trip and thus Everett’s supposed death, telling himself it’s Millie’s fault, wondering how he’s going to get out of this mess. A nasty character is one thing, but this guy isn’t even a villain, he’s a sniveling coward; he doesn’t deserve redemption. He heads to Everett’s to deliver the bad news to the (still absent) parents, and finds, instead, Everett. Epiphany: and here’s where the music starts. He’s going to be a better person, a better teacher, (neither of which will be hard since the bar is set so low), blah blah.

The theme of invisibility is so appealing here, and rendered so well in the drawing, it’s a shame what happens to it. There’s an attempt at symmetry by having Ralph see himself in the same grill cover that Everett used to create his art, but for me it fell flat; it’s too obvious. Like his insight, his change of direction, it’s unearned. Ralph’s struggle is too simplistic, his angst too self-centered, to count towards his redemption. A couple of hours of whining is not the same as a tortured night of the soul. It’s cheap grace.

I wonder if it’d be better if, instead of switching narrative points of view, Ralph was described through Everett’s eyes. That way, he could be just as limp a dick, but the reader would assume the view was skewed and might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That wasn’t the choice Ockert made, however, and the story is the worse for it.

But, ah, that portrait, and oh, that deer – they give such lovely light!

Erin McGraw: “The Imaging Center” from One Story #170, 10/15/12

Love cracked across Pete Wender two days after his forty-seventh birthday, when the medical center he worked at as a technician held its June picnic, an event Pete liked for its ruthless, middle-aged softball and numberless margaritas. At least one person usually brought a dog, and Pete liked that, too. He and his wife, Katherine, lived in an apartment that prohibited pets, so he looked forward to taking a drag off somebody else’s dog. Katharine’s phrase. No animal lover, Katherine let Pete go to the picnic by himself.

Sometimes, when I’m truly amazed by a story that encompasses a pet theme of mine in a crazily effective and innovative way, I’ll say: “This was a story I wish I’d written.” Like Alathea Black’s “You, On A Good Day” or “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” by Seth Fried; that happens fairly often with One Story. And at the other end of the spectrum are the stories, like this one, that read like something I might have written: there’s some possibility there, but it just doesn’t work. I don’t run into many of those in One Story, and when I do, I’m perplexed. What did I miss? Add to that a second story, upcoming later this week, that I didn’t get at all, and I’m worried: am I in some kind of phase?

This story is the examination of a marriage. We have X-ray tech Pete and his wife Katherine, now two uneasy years into the reconciliation from their earlier separation. And out-of-towner Marnie, visiting her cousin. She and Pete have a moment at the Imaging Center picnic, and she decides to stay, to apply for work as a radiologic technician at the same imaging center where her cousin and Pete already work, just in time for Katherine’s annual mammogram at that same imaging center to reveal, on second look, cancer.

Wow. Some reality-tv producer at Bravo is saying: “We need to send a crew to that imaging center!”

It’s all just a little too convenient. There’s nothing wrong with any one of these coincidences (the out-of-town cousin who’s also a rad tech, the attraction, the sudden decision to move, the wife’s diagnosis) but all of them together begins to feel a little put-on. Yes, there’s some symmetry there: the second try at the marriage reveals maybe the reconciliation wasn’t a good idea, just as the second look at the mammogram reveals cancer. Maybe a little too symmetrical?

Then we have the characters, each of whom has at least one characteristic I should appreciate, but none of whom hold any interest for me. Pete is in the throes of a middle-aged crush. This should be an excellent connecting point with this character for me. In her One Story Q&A, McGraw cites the middle-aged crush – how humiliating and destructive they are, as opposed to the teenage kind (“he or she has to be aware of how stupid this whole thing looks….If you’re 15 and you get a crush, about the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll listen to a lot of emo music. If you’re 45, you can wreck some lives”) as the genesis of the story. Great idea: I’ve suffered through such a thing myself, though, thankfully, without the life-wrecking part.

He knew what came next. The sleepless nights, the restlessness that would compel him, at two in the morning, to review old magazines for articles on the importance of smell in physical attraction. If he rode out this night’s insanity, and the next, and the one after that, he could eventually return to his friendly, rubbery life with his mostly pleasant wife.

I was all primed to feel sympathetic to this guy, though I didn’t really have much to go on beyond that paragraph. Then when Pete ends up in a car making out with Marnie the day they meet, without informing her that he’s married, I pretty much cut bait on him. And that’s Page 3. And it’s not that he’s unlikeable; it’s perfectly fair to expect a reader to be interested in a complex flawed character, to believe in the possibility of his redemption or appreciate the genesis of his unlikeablility or even the intricacy of his deviousness. But Pete isn’t even unlikeable enough to be interesting.

Katherine, his wife, should also be sympathetic, seeing as she’s got breast cancer and her husband’s almost-cheating on her. But she’s painted as such a sour, hostile person, it’s hard to see anything to cheer for in her, either.

Katherine lived inside of lifelong, ironclad disappointment – no pleasure was ever grand enough, no stroke of good luck lucky enough. When they were young, he had admired her standards, but now he was just tired.

Marnie isn’t a bimbo by any means, though I wondered mildly what out-of-towner jumps into a clinch at a company picnic with someone she’s just met, having exchanged little but what would pass for witty repartee on any of the current crop of sitcoms. I figured I was just naïve, but then the next day she announces plans to move to town, which seems some combination of presumptuous and foolhardy. Not to mention, in writing parlance, unearned.

At this point – the coincidences, the characters – I think the story lost me, so anything else is probably just an overlay of dissatisfaction. Like the imagery and metaphors. The Imaging Center – x-rays, MRIs, CTs, etc. – generates all manner of moments involving looking, seeing, not seeing, looking again, not wanting to look, dissecting, looking inside, etc, like the symmetry I’ve already noted. There’s also a bit about whether or not of broken vases and cups can be glued back together. This is the sort of thing I usually love, but it seemed heavy-handed and simplistic. That isn’t to say there aren’t some good moments. The broken-vase story Katherine tells has real possibilities, particularly when we find out she’s made it up to squelch someone’s congratulations on their reconciliation. But it’s all alone there, a grain in a wilderness of chaff (see, I know a thing or two about heavy-handed metaphors).

Then there’s the writing itself, which may have a cadence and style I’m simply not picking up on, but just seemed unusually – how should I put this – bad. Unpolished. For example, this scene which takes place early on, the day after the picnic but before cancer becomes an issue:

“How was your day? Anything interesting happen?” he said from the doorway, juggling his car keys.
“Aside from the big vulture that swooped down and plucked Jon away? Nothing much.” Jon was Katherine’s boss at the small fabric store where she worked part-time. Once, when Katherine was lugging a sewing machine from the back of the store for a customer, Jon said that he was the brains behind the brawn. Katherine set down the machine and invited Jon to show them how to thread it, which he did not know how to do. “Brains,” Katherine said to the customer, who laughed and bought enough fabric for an extra jumper. Pete had liked the story when Katherine first told it, but now he imagined how Marnie would have handled things. By the time she was finished, not only would the customer stay, but she would bring friends and Jon would give Marnie a raise.

To me, there’s an awkwardness on a macro- (late introduction of Jon, clumsy transition to a remembrance, and a good one, that doesn’t seem to fit the context of the casual greeting) and micro- (so many clauses, haphazardly strung together as though once written they can’t be changed; events jumping through time on the backs of auxiliary verbs) level. And again with the heavy-handed imagery of the man-eating vulture.

I’m kind of surprised here. Erin McGraw is neither a neophyte (she’s got four well-received books and a smattering of stories in high-end places) nor famous enough for her work to be accepted for the name alone. But is this really a good story? Maybe she’s just not the writer for me. Maybe I’m in a bad mood. Maybe I need to re-read the story in six months or a year and see what I think then.

Susan Straight: “Something Like Sanctified” from One Story #169, 9/20/12

Image via Mnikesaspeaks

Image via Mnikesaspeaks

They brought her a body. They brought Glorette in and laid her on a Marie-Claire’s couch. Like it was Louisiana, when she was a child and their neighbor Michel got thrown from the mule and kicked in the head and they brought him to Auntie Viola’s house and she told Marie-Claire, Sit here with me, bebe, so I don’t lonely while he don’t left alone.

I was pretty angry with One Story when I read the author Q & A with Susan Straight and found out this is a novel excerpt, not a short story.

But I got over it. I had to; it’s a powerful excerpt. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and call it part of a novel-in-stories.

It’s about a tangle of extended family, originally from Louisiana, now in California. I can’t quite figure out when the present of the story is – recent, at any rate – but main character Marie-Claire is an old woman whose job it is to cleanse niece Glorette’s dead body while husband Enrique makes the coffin and hunts down Glorette’s murderer.

The piece is an extraordinary juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness. In one paragraph, we’re learning about the two men Enrique has already killed, and now he will kill a third; then we see Marie-Claire gently, sorrowfully, lovingly taking care of Glorette, remembering her as a child, observing the scars from both picking oranges and from having been burned with cigarettes. In most cultures this work of preparing the dead for burial fell to women; professional morticians and embalmers are a relatively new concept in human history. For Marie-Claire, it’s one more part of life.

I love the title, the tie-in to the song, the metaphor of the love it takes to do what Marie-Claire must now do for Glorette:

1965. The year Glorette was born. Marvin Gaye singing, How sweet it is to be loved by you. And then years later, on Glorette’s visits, they still listened to Marvin Gaye. The man’s voice the same but also different. More sorrowful. Like a girl just before she turns beautiful, like a woman who keeps a body from being alone. Girl you give me good feelin’ – sugar – something like a sanctified.

Based on Straight’s One Story Q&A, the piece is a central point in the novel. I don’t get that from the excerpt itself, since I had no idea from reading it that Glorette’s body had been taken to two other places before reaching Marie-Claire’s couch. In fact, my biggest complaint is that while it serves as a riveting introduction to this cluster of people, their pasts, commonalities, and differences, it’s rather stationary. There’s some momentum in Enrique’s direction via the mention of vengeance, and sure enough, he is where the novel next heads. Am I interested enough to read on? Not really; and so, while the excerpt succeeds in bringing me to Marie-Claire’s house, and while I’m honored to have been permitted there, it doesn’t give me any reason to go further.

Emma Donoghue: “The Widow’s Cruse” from One Story #168, 8/26/12

"The Widow's Cruse"by J. Adams Acton, After 1875 (Engraving)

“The Widow’s Cruse” by J. Adams Acton, After 1875 (Engraving)

The sight of the widow’s weeds made him keep in his bow. Her hoops were so wide that she had to execute a sideways maneuver to get through the door; the skirt was excellent black satin, pulled up through pocket slits to keep it out of the mud. Linen mittens hid her hands, except for the narrow fingertips. Under the hood of her cape, the widow’s face was sharply boned – not an Englishwoman, and no more than twenty-five, Huddlestone reckoned. At the edge of her crisp white cap, the darkness of her hair shone through the blue-grey flour.

One Story seems to be running a lot of historical fiction this year. We had “World’s End” in August, “The History of Living Forever” in June, and “The World to Come” last March. Three stories in nine months isn’t really a lot, of course – four now, with “The Widow’s Cruse” – but you’d have to go all the way back to “Snow Men” in April 2011 the find the last one before this calendar year.

I’m afraid this story didn’t really work for me. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its good points; I found a great deal of interest to consider, in fact. But it was more fun to analyze than to read. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction, so that has to be taken into account. It’s quite possible that in my ignorance, I’m just overlooking what makes it special.

The setting – pre-Revolutionary New York – is exquisitely detailed and extremely well-researched. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d recognize a poorly-researched piece set in this time, but it reads quite authentically. And it’s always fun to see attitudes from the past in action. For example, look at Donaghue’s explanation, in her One Story Q&A, of her use of the phrasing, “the young widow was going to be a very great fortune indeed.” I hadn’t even noticed that tiny thing when reading, but she’s right, it’s telling of the era. So it’s valid to wonder what else I missed.

I think my main complaint is that I “read” the twist at the end long before it came, so I was expecting a different twist, or a second twist, or something to raise it above my expectations. When that never came, I was disappointed. It reminded me more of something that might be taught in junior high school: a simple story with a clever ending.

I can’t really comment on the story without somewhat spoiling it, so be forewarned.

The point-of-view character is Huddlestone, a young attorney in pre-Revolutionary New York City. Mrs. Gomez is a young widow who comes to him for help claiming her husband’s estate. They both have goals and motives hidden from the other. The story is told from Huddlestone’s point of view; it’s pretty clear that his motive (for marrying the widow; he doesn’t really cheat her at all, the way it turns out) is greed. We never really find out for sure what the widow’s motive is; it could be greed, of course, but she could be escaping what today we’d call an abusive husband. That’s not just me inserting that from a feminist reading; I’m sure Donoghue includes the following paragraph at the very beginning of the story for a reason:

There was a paragraph about some females down in Chester County who’d formed a sort of secret court to arraign a man who’d battered his wife over some trifle. They’d sentenced the fellow to be ducked three times in a pond, and shaved off half his hair and half his beard to make a laughingstock of him. Huddlestone grinned over this story but was not convinced; newsmen today would invent any nonsense to fill an inch of paper.

In her One Story Q&A, Donoghue says the inspiration of this story came from this “one-sentence news item in the New York Weekly Journal (26 May 1735)”:

We hear that the wife of a certain Merchant of the city, while her husband was in the country, broke open his scrutore, and took out his will, of which she was the executrix; and went in widow’s weeds to the Doctor’s Commons, under pretense that he was already dead, and prov’d the same; by virtue whereof she receiv’d all his money in the stocks, and is gone over sea.

In general, I find the story a bit underdeveloped from this starting point, outside of the establishment of the time period, and adequate, though not intricate, creation of the point-of-view character. And it’s clearly his story. If the goal of historical fiction is to create a realistic setting authentic to the time period, it was a success. Maybe that’s my problem: I just wanted a different story.

After Huddlestone discovers the widow’s deception, he spends some time pondering and investigating – but not that much. The aftereffect is: “He would always be puzzling now, always doubting. Never understanding the real story.” The notion that he would always question just what the truth in front of him is, is an interesting one, but it didn’t feel strong enough to me; based on the text, I don’t see this interfering in his life in any significant way in the future. Maybe that’s because of perfectly authentic Colonial-era reticence. Maybe that’s why I don’t like historical fiction. He also decides, as most of us have at one time or another, to remain a bachelor forever. It seems like a weak payoff. I think I’m spoiled by Jim Shepard (whose work is so intense I sometimes can’t finish it; dang, I’m hard to please) and Anthony Doerr; I wanted more. As it is, I found the story straddled humor and drama, never really feeling firmly one or the other. Are we making fun of Huddlestone, or sympathizing with him?

Aha – there’s no better source to learn from than an experienced writer, and Donoghue, having published novels, story collections, literary history, and drama, is definitely that. In the same One Story Q&A, she refers to the point of view as “the Austenian mode of the third-person-with-ironic-distance (i.e., hovering over a character’s shoulder and occasionally delivering a swift kick in the pants).” I have a lot to learn about the fine points of POV. I can see irony in the situation: he thinks he’s manipulating the widow, when actually she is manipulating him. I can see irony as a function of time: to most modern readers, Huddlestone is an almost comically self-important young man out to get what he wants from a woman he perceives as inferior and helpless, simply because she is a woman, albeit one with a lot of money coming to her. And, I can see how the story requires that Huddlestone be the point of view character. But I’m not sure how narrative distance and irony get tied together. Maybe this is that sense of straddling humor and drama? Is the narration poking fun and sympathizing at the same time? As I said, I have a lot to learn.

I wonder how the story would read to someone of that time: where we might chuckle at his buffoonish assumptions and feel satisfaction as he gets his just desserts, would his contemporaries instead be outraged on his behalf?

Two other elements drew my attention. The title “The Widow’s Cruse” is from a biblical story and “refers to that pittance which can be eked out forever, by good management and God’s grace” as the Widow Gomez explains to Huddlestone. But of course it seems like a mistake (Will Allison at the One Story blog thought it was a mistake when he first saw the printed issue) and introduces, from the start, the idea that something can be easily mistaken for what it isn’t. But there’s more: in written form, “cruse” is most easily confused with “curse,” but aurally, it’s closer to “cruise”; the widow herself seems to be something of a curse on Huddlestone, and as part of that curse, she does eventually go on a cruise. That’s pretty cool.

I was more troubled by Donoghue’s choice of Mrs. Gomez’s heritage:

Huddlestone should’ve guessed it; there was a certain tint under her pallor. Of course he’d heard of the Gomez clan: Sephardics from the West Indies, and among the more substantial fortunes in the little Mill Street congregation who’d recently erected the first purpose-built synagogue in the New World.

The history of the Sephardics following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 is complicated, and I’m not going to deal with it here. Though he notes Mrs. Gomez’s ethnicity several times, and comments on differences, Huddlestone shows little if any anti-Semitism; he’s planning on marrying her, after all, if for financial rather than romantic reasons. We really don’t know, at the end of the story, what Mrs. Gomez’s motive was, but we’re very clear about her ethnicity – an unexpected ethnicity for the setting. I was concerned about a very ugly connotation which has appeared in literature from the time of Shakespeare (and probably earlier). When I’m concerned, I e-mail. Happily, Ms. Donoghue was able to completely assuage my fears:

I wanted to invent a woman who would be almost utterly opaque to my lawyer narrator – whose educational level, attitudes to everything and general savvy he would misread through his own fantasizing about her; the cultural blinkers he’s wearing. So I chose Sephardic Jews because of their image as a mysterious, secretive, closed community. The more modern ‘scheming Jew’ cliché would not, I’m pretty sure from my research, have been applied to an eighteenth-century Sephardic lady like Mrs Gomez. I was hoping that this comes across in the story through the way the lawyer thinks about her as a frail prisoner of her husband’s family. And as for how readers assess her, I was also hoping that she comes across as a desperate escapee from a bleak marriage rather than some ha-ha schemer; tragic despite the fact that she gets away with it.

My bad. And my thanks again to Ms. Donoghue for taking the time to answer my stupid questions. And within minutes, at that (don’t you just love the Internet?).

All of which means I feel extra-bad that I’m not more enthusiastic about the story itself. But the only real rules I have for this blog are to complete what I start and to always tell the truth, the matter how embarrassing, and no matter how badly I expose my own ignorance. So we’ll all just have to accept that, in spite of the fun I had playing with this story, historical fiction not really my cup of tea.

I really don’t expect that Ms. Donoghue will lose any sleep over that.