Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ben Shattuck, “The History of Sound” from The Common #16

I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
My doctor suggested I write this story down, due to the recent sleeplessness that started when a package from a stranger arrived at my house: a box of twenty-five wax phonograph cylinders, with David’s and my names written on the labels of each, sent from Maine. A letter taped to one of the cylinders read, “I found these in our attic years ago. I saw you on television. Figured these must be yours.” Of the three books I’ve written on American folk music—with moderate success and thus the recent television interview—I’ve never written about that summer with David. So, here we are.

Complete story available online at The Common

You’ll find few surprises or plot twists here: everything you expect to happen, happens. No narrative tricks or structural quirks, either. Yet, when I was done, I found that, rather than knocking my socks off, this story had grown into me and found a warm, gentle place in my heart.

But first, let’s do some vocabulary so we’re all on the same page (don’t worry, there won’t be a test). When people who aren’t musicians hear the words “folk music” they might think of Bob Dylan or whoever the popular present-day singer-songwriter is. The folk music in the story is a little different: much older, often by centuries, existing in many versions, passed down through generations rather than written on music paper. There is indeed a field of ethnomusicology, and it does involve visiting diverse places and recording songs that might otherwise be lost. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection (you can order a download of some selections for $10) as do many universities. I can’t find either of the songs featured in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there somewhere.

Another term that came to mind while I was reading this story is ekphrasis.

An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.

I would call this story ekphrastic, though there are obvious deviations from the strict definition. Of course, it isn’t a poem. And we’re not dealing with visual art, but music. The story itself doesn’t focus on description, though there are a couple of detailed passages. Two songs are described in some detail, and there’s a lovely description of the genre of folk music itself that I think fits the bill:

I liked the songs, but didn’t love them, not like David loved them. I don’t know exactly where the passion came from—he didn’t grow up with the songs, not like me and my brother…. now, at seventy-two, I know that most things we love are seeded before we’re ten. When I asked what he liked about the songs, the ballads especially, he said—I remember his words exactly—that they were the most warm-blooded pieces of music he knew. I see what he means, that the songs are filled with the voices of thousands who’ve sung and changed them, and that they are always stories of people’s lives. Not like the baroque music I began to love at the Conservatory, sharp and abstract and ornate like a coldly glittering piece of perfect jewelry. The folk songs had soft underbellies, could put a lump in your throat just by the melody. Emotion in song; nothing fancy.

And that is what really strikes me as ekphrastic about this story: it embodies the qualities of folk music. As I said above, it’s a low-key story without surprises. That’s folk music: because it was written and rewritten by ordinary people, the melodies and chords are fairly predictable, and the lyrics describe their lives. Some folk songs are lullabies, some are sociohistorical tales such as protest songs (I did a post on “The Gray Goose” several years ago) and some, as in this story, are love songs. Or, rather, thwarted-love songs. This is where the story excels: it is the prose equivalent of a folk song, in tempo, in tone, and in plot.

The structure is as familiar as the chord progression of “Down in the Valley”: an envelope story. Lionel, a retired musician, receives a box of wax recording cylinders left in a Maine attic back in 1917. He and a friend, David, had recorded them that summer, and fallen in love. They went back to their lives in the fall, planning to make another tour the following year, but never saw each other again. Here the story of that summer is inserted. Then we return to the present of the story, as Lionel listens to the cylinders.

David and Lionel experience something beyond friendship. I balk at calling this queer lit, however. As difficult as it might be in this era, let’s get our attention off the genitals and lift our sights higher to see this as a love story with all the yearning, joy, pain, and regret that love entails, no matter who is involved:

I didn’t experience the guilt that some men at my time would have. I just loved David, and I didn’t think much beyond that. My error was that I thought David was the first of many. That I’d tasted love. I was eager for my future. How could I have known that all the rest—Alex, William, Vincent, Clarissa, Sam, Sarah, and most recently George—were only rivulets after the first brief deluge.

Love is love. And first love, lost, has a bittersweetness that’s familiar to all who experience it.

Since the story is online, I won’t go into details of plot. The first song described in the story does that pretty well, come to think of it:

It’s an old English ballad from, I’ve since researched, the Lake District, that tells the story of two lovers lost in the woods on a January night, having run from their homes to meet by an oak tree to then elope. A blizzard comes, and they can’t find each other. In the chorus they call each other’s names, but the wind shakes the trees so loudly that they can’t even hear their own voices—so they die alone, huddled under separate trees: “Over snow’d floor two tracks did mark / One going west, the other east / Two still figures at trees’ roots / On a dead winter’s night, they never meet.”

Several plot elements pull together the overall story: fluffy white seedpods that appear in the opening and closing sentences, mimicking the snow of the song; a cantankerous woodsman who refuses all requests to share his songs, the reason becoming apparent when he accedes to their request for water; secrets revealed past the point of meaning. Even the more factual elements work towards unity, as when Lionel remembers that Edison had not really thought of his invention as a musical medium, but as more of a general audio record:

Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:
1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
3. The teaching of elocution.
4. Reproduction of music.
5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
6. Music-boxes and toys.
7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

The family record. Preserved for family, however briefly that family might have existed. Family, with all its misunderstandings, secrets, and bonds that last beyond a lifetime.

But in spite of all those plot elements, it’s a story that lives on tone, that sings in a particular key. I’m sure my fondness for it has something to do with the use of folk music as an element, and with a Maine setting, but I think it’s more than that. It’s always good to remember your heart has a warm, gentle place, especially now, when there’s so little warmth and gentleness around.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Maureen Stanton, “The Human Soup” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.2

In ancient Rome, bathing was practically an art form, a religion. After temples, bathhouses were the most common buildings. A fourth-century census recorded 856 public bathhouses for Rome’s million or so citizens, which would be the equivalent of 900 public bathhouses in Dallas, Texas, today….
On a typical day in ancient Rome, a tintinnabulum rang to summon men and women to the baths—mixed-sex bathing was common. Entrance fees were free or low, so the poor could bathe, too. They soaked in the warm tepidarium or the hot caldarium, or dipped into the bracing frigidarium, all while being entertained by jugglers, acrobats, musicians, and poets. Vendors hawked wine, pretzels, cake, eels, and quail eggs. You could hire a depilator to pluck unwanted hair, or someone to oil, sand, and scrape your skin. All this bustle created a cacophony that “could make you hate your own ears,” wrote Seneca, the first-century rhetorician.

Complete story available online at NER/LitHub

Who would have expected that an article about baths could be so enjoyable to read? Stanton layers together a general history of Western bathing, particularly communal bathing, with her own extensive experience in spas and Ys across America. These are both wrapped around a backbone anecdote about her acquaintance with a particular hot tub bather which opens, closes, and appears periodically throughout the piece. It’s a very effective way to combine the information-heavy piece I like, with material having emotional resonance, while maintaining a strong forward narrative drive. Mind + heart + body: this is a piece I wish I’d written

I should say that I am not a bath person. While I realize others find it heavenly, the benefit of sitting in my own human soup escapes me. The necessity to take a shower before and after (and quite possibly the need to clean the tub pre- and post- as well) makes it anything but a relaxing experience. I can’t get comfortable enough in a bathtub to read or listen to music or smell candles or do any of the relaxing things others seem to love. I had the opportunity to use a Jacuzzi once, and while it was more interesting than a regular bath, it still isn’t something I want to do again. Even if everyone is clothed in swimwear (which is not a given), the idea of getting into a hot tub, with friends – or, heaven forbid, strangers at the Y – is repellent to me. But I still loved this article. Even the gross parts. And boy, there were gross parts.

The general history section starts with the Roman bathhouses and proceeds through medieval Europe to pre-revolutionary America and more contemporary times. There is a brief mention of Japan’s communal traditions, but the Western world is clearly the focus. It seems European Christianity changed its tune a few times, discouraging bathing at some points while encouraging it later. It’s all remarkably interesting, considering there’s a lot of discussion of effluvia.

The sections on American bathing include a nod to the present, in the form of washing immigrants clean:

The People’s Bath in New York could accommodate 500 bathers daily, but the poor didn’t flock to the bath, in spite of 100,000 promotional flyers promising free Colgate soap. In the first year, just 10,504 people bathed there, about six percent of its capacity….
Perhaps the people understood that the baths were meant to “cleanse” more than their bodies. The New York Sun editorialized that public baths would transform “grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans.” Public baths were necessary for elevating the “moral and physical well-being” of the poor, said Dr. August Windolph to the American Association for Promoting Hygiene and Public Baths. Boston’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, asserted that when “physical dirt” was banished, then “moral dirt” would be, too.

Interestingly, “When bathhouses offered swimming and recreation instead of just cleansing, the people came.”

Stanton’s more personal history uses a technique I’ve tried to include in this blog: she tucks little clues to the essence of her being into long passages, so that only the careful reader will draw closer to her. We learn about a moment in her marriage when she realized her husband was an alcoholic; we follow a relationship that would end in death; and we watch her tour the hot tubs and spas of America in another relationship. One of the most striking moments for me came early on in the piece, when she admits her annoyance with a fellow bather: “I disdained this man, but my feelings were disproportionate to my annoyance, and so I wondered, what aspect of myself did I see reflected in him?” That’s a very honest and self-aware attitude, one I think I need to become more familiar with.

She admits to some squeamishness in various situations, from seeing hairs floating on tub foam to an episode of staph mastitis, acquired, she believed (though it couldn’t be proved) from a session. And yet she finds the practice so pleasant, she continues. I believe in her enjoyment, even though I can’t share it. Empathy across an experiential gap. I’m sure there are those who don’t understand how I could so enjoy an article like this; I hope you too can cross that gap.

On the most bitterly cold January nights in Maine, the hot tub at the Y feels exquisite. One such night I sat in the tub with two men in their early forties, one craggily handsome, the other small and wiry, all of us silent in the bubbling water until the large man appeared. As he stepped into the tub, the craggy man slid over, ceding his place. “You don’t have to move,” the large man said, but the craggy man smiled. “That’s your spot.” Vacating the spot was a sign of respect, as if the large man were an elder or, if this were ancient Rome, an esteemed philosopher.

The structural backbone story follows a man she sees often at the Y hot tub and pool, waiting for his Russian mail-order bride. Over the course of the article, the woman arrives (he brings her to the Y, in fact, which generates some emotion for Stanton), to his once-again solitary state whens he apparently is no longer in the picture. Stanton finds herself feeling a distant fondness for him, and ends on a sweet, hopeful note: “He had not died of a broken heart, after all.” Following her lead, I, too, disliked the man in the beginning, and began to feel some fondness for him towards the end. Empathy across the experiential gap, again. He, too, has his story, and she reveals it at just the right pace.

This is one of those pieces that makes Pushcart so special: it puts these improbable reads in front of me, and they’re fascinating. There’s very little erotic in the piece, though the propensity for eroticism is discussed as one of the primary objections to the practice in various times and places. Cleanliness isn’t really the purpose, either. We discover an interesting aspect of shared hot tub culture: they function something like neighborhood bars, where people get acquainted and chat, and strangers find willing audiences for their stories. Surprisingly, there’s a social function.

After prayer failed to relieve St. Augustine’s sadness over his mother’s death, he thought to “go and bathe” because he’d heard that bathing “drives the sadness from the mind.” A recent study in France found that a hot bath more successfully eased anxiety than paroxetine (brand name, Paxil), a prescription antidepressant….
A pair of Yale researchers found that hot baths can ease loneliness. “Feelings of social warmth or coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness,” they wrote. Their study showed that people who rated higher on loneliness scales bathed or showered more often, longer, and with hotter temperatures. Bath-taking, they suggested, is “an unconscious form of self-therapy,” in which people substitute physical warmth for “social warmth.” We literalize the metaphor: warm the body, warm the heart and soul.

And then, if you will forgive my repetition, there’s the empathy across the experiential gap. That may be what saves us all, if anything can at this point.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Roll Under the Waves” (poetry) from Love’s Executive Order, 6/15/18

LEO art by  anna_croc01

LEO art by anna_croc01

we roll under the waves
not above them we body surf and somehow we lose
the momentum there are memories trailing us empty orange
and hot pink bottles of medicines left behind
buried next to a saguaro there are baby backpacks
and a thousand shoes and a thousand gone steps
leading in the four directions each one without destinations

Complete story available online at Love’s Executive Order

In my introductory post to this year’s Pushcart, I said I would include only the poetry I could find something to say about. I confess, I’m not sure what to say about this poem by a recent US Poet Laureate (but the poem itself is not why I’ve included it; more on that to come).

The grammar is uncertain; maybe the sentences connect one way, maybe another (are the medicines left behind buried next to a saguaro, or the baby backpacks? Does it matter? The implications of either are horrible). Uncertainty and tension are part of the fabric. It hits all the painful images of the current – and longstanding – immigration issue (“men laying face down forever”, “children still running with / torn faces all the way to Tucson”, “a stolen life branded and / tied and thrown into the tin patrol box”, “vigilantes with skull dust on their palms”).

But there’s hope, too, tied right into the fear and misery. The moon has “pocked hope and its blessings and its rotations into the spikes”. And:

there is a road forgotten with a tiny sweet roof of twigs
and a black griddle threaded with songs like the one
about el contrabando from El Paso

The hope has to be part of the fear, because – and here’s what’s lost in all the ranting about who is legal and who isn’t and who belongs here and who doesn’t – nobody would do this if they weren’t leaving something worse. Compassion gets tamped down, because if we faced it squarely, the argument would all be over.

But, as I said, the poem itself isn’t why I chose to include this. It’s included, first of all, because this US Poet Laureate, this graduate of the finest writing program in the country, this teacher and poet and activist, is the child of migrant workers who our current administration would keep out.

More than that, I include the poem because of where I found it. Love’s Executive Order is an online litmag run by poet Matthew Lippman; what I’ll call it’s mission statement reads as follows:

In 1980, I was 15 years old when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of The United States of America. My European History AP Teacher, Donald Morrison, began to grow a beard. He vowed not to cut it off until Reagan was no longer president. It stayed on his face for eight years.
January 2017: Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of The United States of America. This site is dedicated to posting one poem a week that is directly related to the presidency of Donald Trump. A protest. A commentary. A running rumination on this part of our American story.
This site will be terminated when Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States of America.

It’s not enough, of course (I keep wondering what would be enough). But it’s something: a poet’s resistance.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Homeschool” (nonfiction) from N+1 #33

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: "The Teacher"  Cover art for the Everyman edition of Rousseau's Emile

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: “The Teacher”
Cover art for the Everyman ediiton of Rousseau’s Emile

For most of my childhood — from kindergarten until tenth grade — I did not attend school. Homeschooled is the term I used as a kid, the term I still use today for expediency, though it has always seemed misleading, since schooling is what my mother meant to spare us from by keeping us at home. We lived during those years on a farm in Vermont that sat thirty miles outside the nearest functional town and was, in a lot of ways, autonomous…. I spent most mornings doing the chores I shared with my brothers: feeding the chickens, stocking the woodbin, hauling hay bales out to the sheep pasture. After that, the day was my own. Sometimes I read alone in my room, or sat at the kitchen table drawing comics in my sketchbook. As the oldest, I was often responsible for the younger kids, but like most children in large families they were easy — hungry for attention, game for whatever task I invented.

I’m always surprised at how a personal essay can take a topic that’s emotional or controversial and clarify the issues involved. It’s also possible to ramp up tensions, of course, but it’s a lot more interesting to inform all sides from a place of “this is my life” and not scare the horses.

O’Gieblyn’s mother chose to homeschool her children for primarily sociopolitical reasons tinged with religious reasoning: she felt schools were more interested in turning out docile and obedient workers, and inculcating beliefs environmentalism and sex education. She’s not wrong about either, though whether either of those are good or bad depend on where you sit. “We were to be in the World but not of it,” a phrase associated with Christian fundamentalism but not that far from Buddhism either.

The homeschooling was rather informal, dependent less upon a curriculum than on life at the farm. Her mother would send the required reports in, calling it “delight-directed integrated study”, a phrase that would have education reformers drooling eagerly. We get a sample of these reports:

On the topic of comprehensive health, she wrote: “Meghan had a great introduction to the health care system this past spring when she spent four days in the hospital having her appendix out.” On Citizenship, History, and Government: “We hope to have contact with a family of Russian immigrants through friends of ours who will be sponsoring them. This should help make real to Meghan some of the freedoms we enjoy in this country.“ All of the letters were written in the same shrugging, breezy tone that was her primary mode of defense, and barely concealed her hostility towards state intervention. On sex education: “Presently she is gaining a good base of information by being involved with the life cycles in our barn, and some sheep we will breed this fall.“

I’m dubious – these could indeed make great topics for exploration, but would require guidance and additional resources – but it’s hard to argue with results. Then again, while O’Gieblyn seems to have learned something along the way, it’s possible the same approach would be disastrous for someone less self-motivated. That’s the problem with systems, isn’t it, whether a national school curriculum or a mother’s idea of what learning is: they always work for someone, but rarely work for everyone.

While covering her own experience, O’Gieblyn also includes some material about the origins of home schooling, typically rooted in Rousseau’s Emile. She also introduces us to John Holt, who, during the 60s, discovered his imagined audience of hippies and peaceniks was augmented by religious fundamentalists.

This broad spectrum of home schooling is amusingly evident in Homeschool Day at Six Flags, an event conceived in capitalism; that is, it was a way to draw crowds after the start of school in September:

The Christian Reconstructionists were easiest to spot (patriotic T-shirts), as were the macrobiotic hippies, who overlapped somewhat with the anti-vaxxers, the anarchists, and the preppers. There were the rich suburban kids whose parents had pulled them from school to better facilitate backpacking trips to Mongolia, and Mennonite girls in long denim skirts, plus the occasional Quiverfull family numbering twelve, fifteen, twenty-five. The full spectrum, In other words, of American private dissent. But even then, it didn’t feel like a community so much as a summit of isolated tribes.

I happen to know three families that homeschool (or did). None of them are religious, nor are they anti-socialization. One father, a mathematician, wanted to convey his enthusiasm for math to his kids, and they ended up learning at home; after a move, they were given a choice and started regular middle school. In another family, a move generated a casual question – “Do you think you’d like to go to school at home?” – and the answer was yes; that mother used printed curricula, organized groups, and even a few moocs. The third family started homeschooling when they became alarmed at their son’s falling grades, and the seeming inability of the school to do much about it. All three sets of parents are great people (admittedly, I only know them online, but I’ve known them for several years and they haven’t ended up on the evening news yet). So I understand the wide variety of homeschooling families, and that it includes those without agendas other than giving their kids the best education possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece comes when O’Gieblyn discusses her transition, at age 15, to regular high school. Uneven academic performance would be no surprise, but she indicates a sense of otherness as well: “I was wholly ignorant of the social scripts that governed large groups of females.” I find this interesting not because it triggers some vengeful aha, but because so much of how she describes herself sounds like how I felt throughout my twelve years of public school education. And even now. People want to talk about things I can’t chime in on: their families, trips, parties, favorite restaurants or clubs. I brand myself a hermit to belong to something, as I too have this sense that I have no idea what I’m supposed to talk about with others.

Another thread that interested me a great deal dealt with Tara Westover’s recent book, Educated. Westover was part of a religious survivalist family, and she left by studying and going to college, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University. But that isn’t the interesting part; it’s the reaction to her book that raises my eyebrows. Apparently she isn’t hard enough on her parents:

Several critics found it unsettling that’s for parents or occasionally characterized, in her memoir, with a note of affection, and that’s the descriptions of her childhood landscape we’re undergirded by a sense of longing. …Westover once hinted that the early iterations of her book had a lighter tone. When she first began writing, she confessed in one interview, she regarded her family’s behavior as harmless and eccentric ….Her authority as a narrator – and more fundamentally, as a witness to her own life – was for many readers discounted by the brain washing she’d experienced as a child….In the end, Westover, who has described her life as a process of regaining “custody of her own mind, “ was subjected, again and again, to the insistence that she did not actually know her own mind.
This is the predicament of people who were raised in highly controlled environments: any ambivalence about your upbringing is proof of its success, a sign that you are not yet completely free period

I have to wonder why she changed the tone of the book, if it was her own decision, or pressure from a publisher who knew what was marketable and what wasn’t. For the record, O’Gieblyn’s tone towards her upbringing is quite positive. For her, it wasn’t so much of an escape as simply a growing up and making decisions about what kind of independent life she wanted to lead, which might be called the true objective of all parenting.

The essay finishes off with a very nice closure, showing where all this has brought her. I’m very fond of circular shapes in essays, and this one not only returns to the personal, but shows the results of this particular homeschooling we’ve been reading about:

It is impossible to anticipate how a person will interpret the lessons of her childhood, whether she will find them an impetus for violence or a source of creative inspiration. In my own family, my siblings and I have proved the outcomes of my mother’s pedagogy wildly unpredictable. Despite her best efforts to raise us deliberately, each of us has negotiated, in idiosyncratic ways, the legacy of our childhood, and our lives have veered down such divergent paths that when we are all together, it is difficult to imagine we were reared under the same roof. My mother raised a writer, a musician, a missionary, a hotel manager, and an accountant; a progressive, a centrist, two moral Conservatives, and a Libertarian. I do not have children, but my siblings have collectively produced half a dozen. All of them go to school.

For any mother, that’s quite a record of success, and the diversity of outcomes strikes me as one of the primary objectives.

This is O’Gieblyn’s third appearance in Pushcart since I’ve been reading it. She’s appeared in some of the most prestigious magazines around, and she published a collection of essays a little over a year ago. I’d say that gives her a certain authority as a success story.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Cally Fiedorek, “The Arms of Saturday Night” from Narrative, Fall 2018

“The Back Yard” by Otis Huband

“The Back Yard” by Otis Huband

Stoppin’ on the red
You’re goin’ on the green
‘Cause tonight’ll be like nothin’
You’ve ever seen
And you’re barrelin’ down the boulevard
Lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night

(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night”, Music & lyrics by Tom Waite

I couldn’t get the song out of my head as I read this. Given the words, it could have been full of the energy of anticipation, but instead, the slow, gentle tune and the emphasis on the hook makes it nostalgic: the memory of host of Saturday nights spent looking, but not finding, some magic that maybe doesn’t even exist.

Fiedorek could have titled her story “The Heart of Saturday Night” if she’d wanted to (at least I think she could have, but a lawyer or editor might differ), but she didn’t. Using “arms” has a different feel to it. Open arms can welcome; crossed arms can protect and repel; arms can restrain, attack, or comfort. All of these elements come into the story in different ways.

Janie’s looking for her own Saturday night, if she can get around the little detail of her uncle’s wake first:

There’d be no traffic on the turnpike, not on Saturday. She could get her dad to drive her to the city, though at the risk of being pushy, and insensitive, really, considering the circumstances, but wouldn’t some part of him enjoy it in a way, like, was it not a source of comfort in a time of grief, a welcome sign of life’s renewal—the death-proof, scrappy ways of teenage lust?
There was this party in the city later. And she had it on pretty good authority—not immaculate, but strong—that Adam Donovan would be there. Adam Donovan. His name, a neon light, electric-blue.

Complete story available online at Narrative

Janie’s dad, John, has been looking for his own version of Saturday night. He’s an academic who wrote a few columns for Newsweek and has been trying to get a book published, essays on “semiotics, or technology and the soul, or something” as Janie puts it. His “career as a public intellectual had been looking, in the past year, pretty private”.

“I should’ve gone to trade school, Robbie. Electricians, contractors, do satisfying work. Me, I feel like I’ve spent my whole adult life standing in the middle of an intersection, trying to play the harp, and all this time I’ve been saying, it’s the traffic that’s the problem, it’s too loud, I can’t focus, but it’s not. The problem is—the music—the music that’s inside of me—it’s not good.”

Janie’s mom, Robbie, is more concerned with the bikers attending the wake, friends of John’s brother Murray, the honoree. In spite of having what John might consider a more satisfying life, a carefree element he hopes to see in Janie, Murray was the one who died young. His cocaine habit might have had something to do with that.

But back to Janie, the point-of-view character of the story. She’s something like a symbol of the vanishing middle class, alone and adrift in her high school between the working-class immigrants and the kids with “genetic wealth”. I love that term, genetic wealth; it used to be called old money until new money took off. And there’s Adam, who’s finally shown an interest in her, but is leaving for California, where he’ll do something exotic, but she has this one Saturday night party to connect with him, to experience the heart of every teenage girl’s Saturday night.

But there’s this damn wake, and her mother wants her to stay home and be with family, because that’s what family does. Janie sees the wake a little differently:

It was strange to Janie, watching them all, how nothing could be more radical, more awe-inspiring, really, than someone dropping dead, and yet people were often at their most perfunctory at an event built explicitly around the fact of doom. It just seemed like a waste. A waste of Murray’s memory, of the cocktail napkins, of the possibilities of language. There was no love, no vibes. There was nothing to talk about, least of all him. Everyone would drink responsibly, talk superficially, then go home. She just wished they would do it, you know, soon.

Don’t go looking for the heart of anything at a funeral, in other words.

For all her desire to flee, Jamie in the end discovers the arms of Saturday night literally in her own back yard, in two ways. First, there’s the connection she makes with a “rookie biker” (dang, I like that almost as much as “genetic wealth”) who she first views as instrumental – his pickup truck might be the way to get to the party – but comes around to seeing him as intrinsic when he starts talking sense and then reveals a secret. And then her father offers a second surprise. The sulking teenager she was fades behind the thoughtful adult she might one day become if she remains able to accept the arms that are offered, and lets the swords become plowshares:

That smell was in the air, warm and mulchy, almost tropical. That smell of total summer. It made you pause. It made you pity the dead even more than usual.

I always pay close attention to the opening story of Pushcart editions; they’re usually chosen with care, bringing thematic implications that carry on for a while until the waters change. I’m not sure which theme that will be: connecting across class lines, abandoning teenage toughness for cooperation, finding what you want in a surprisingly close place, or this melancholic nostalgia that still sticks with me. Because I’m sure Janie is going to remember this night, and the party will have little to do with it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Start All Over Again

For forty-for years this series has been dedicated to new and established authors and editors. Somehow they have kept the faith in a culture that often does not care about the heart, mind and soul of what they represent.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

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For the past couple of years, the Pushcart introduction has been focused on thanking people who have been instrumental in getting the series started and keeping it going. While this is of historical interest (and perhaps presages an impending end of something?), it doesn’t do much to set a tone or give an indication of what the year in reading was like, let alone if there is any theme or set of themes in the pieces. In other words, unlike BASS, it doesn’t give me much to bounce off of in prepping myself for the read ahead. But that’s not their job.

I still write my own introductory post, for my own benefit. I always seem to start off these projects in a state of confusion: I don’t know what I’m going to encounter, and fear I might not be up to it. That’s probably true of most things worth doing, even in times more settled than the present. “The best way out is always through” wrote Frost, so I just start.

Last year’s collection was somewhat disappointing. The year before was spectacular. There’s really no telling in advance. I see some intriguing titles in the table of contents, but who knows if “The Arms of Saturday Night” will match the bittersweet nostalgia of the Tom Waits song those words evoke, if “Erl King” will work with or against my familiarity with the original poem, if “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” will clarify or further confuse me on the issue, if “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” will be funny or sad or bring to mind “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie” or something else entirely, if “Dante on Broadway” will be anywhere near as interesting as it sounds. Julia Elliot, Mary Szybist, Fady Joudah, Natalie Diaz have all delivered for me in the past, but I don’t seem to take to authors en bloc the way so many readers do. “Who is your favorite author?” is a nonsensical question to me. For that matter, my favorite anything is always a group: a set of books, movies, even colors that rotate as favorites-of-the-moment, like that old Magic 8-Ball, depending on mood and environment.

This year, I have made a decision to change how I approach the poetry. Over the summer I read the late Tony Hoagland’s book Twenty Poems that could Save America, and discovered that he, too, found a lot of contemporary poetry rather uninspiring. There is a limit to how many times I’m willing to type “I have no idea what this poem is doing”; I exceeded that limit some time ago, but have kept trying because I thought maybe I would learn through the process. Maybe I would if there were someone knowledgeable and open to modernity to work with me (I still hope someone will take me up on that someday), but it’s just me, and I don’t seem to be learning much. So this year, I will read all the poetry in the anthology, but I will only blog those that make sense to me in some way: maybe as a memory tripwire, or maybe in content or form (and in occasional blessed moments, both).

And by the way, Hoagland has a poem in this volume with an intriguing title, hooking me on two fronts.

As a dedication, Henderson has cited “A Coney Island of the Mind” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I could reference a lot of things in connection with that: recent news has Ferlinghetti’s 2006 poem “Pity the Nation (After Khalil Gibran)” making the rounds. Doom of our own making seems to be on the doorstep.

But this space is supposed to be about the heart, mind, and soul of verbal art, and I’m struggling enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other to dwell on what may or may not turn into catastrophe. So I’ll dig into the first story, and have faith that, one way or another, we will get to the last.

A Lot More Than Windmills: Three Months with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

In short, our hidalgo was soon so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep and the excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad. Everything he read in his books took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities. The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him….
And so, by quite insane, he conceived the strangest notion that ever took shape in a madman’s head, considering it desirable and necessary, both for the increase of his honor and for the common good, to become a knight errant, and to travel the world with his armor and his arms and his horse in search of adventures, and to practice all those activities that he knew from his books were practiced by knights errant, redressing all kinds of grievances, and exposing himself to perils and dangers that he would overcome and thus gain eternal fame and renown.

Don QuixoteI.1, Rutherford

Three months, one thousand pages of source text, two additional critical/historical texts, one mooc and one OCW later – I have some idea of how that madness feels.

It’s all Salman Rushdie’s fault.

I saw some comments about his newest novel, Quichotte, and thought, yeah, it’s time I read him, and that sounds kind of interesting. But I’d never read Don Quixote, and knew nothing about it beyond windmills, Sancho Panza, and To Dream the Impossible Dream. I remember observing a high school English class, a multi-level experiment that had the “smart” kids reading the original work (in English translation) and the “regular” kids reading/watching Man of La Mancha, which struck me as a really good way to grind teenage egos into dust. One of my favorite movies of all time, They Might Be Giants (the band took their name from the film) was a big reference to Cervantes, turning a crazy judge into Sherlock Holmes instead of an hidalgo into a knight errant.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.
Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

They Might Be Giants, James Goldman, screenwriter

It’s such an intimidating work: a thousand pages, written four hundred years ago in a language not mine (two years of college Spanish and 121 days of Duolingo don’t really count). Fortunately, there’s a mooc for that – or rather, a series of twenty-four one-hour lectures from Yale’s Open Courses (not quite a mooc, but close enough) by Prof. Roberto González Echevarría. This course not only cover the entire text but throw in a few other of Cervantes’ works, and uses a casebook of academic essays on various literary aspects of the novel (which was great), plus a history of Renaissance and early modern Spain (which was a little too detailed for my purposes). The Rutherford translation of Quixote – or, more accurately, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” but I’m going to abbreviate where I can – was recommended as Prof. González wrote the Introduction, but the lectures often quoted the Jarvis translation, which is available online.

And then there’s Overly Sarcastic Production’s humorous version (part 1 only, unfortunately) which was useful for solidifying plot points in a book that has so much plot, so many characters, it’s easy to forget them when they come back around 400 pages after they first blew through. And I just love Red’s style.

And oh by the way… since I was watching both OSP and the Yale lectures on Youtube, other Don Quixote videos cropped up, and I discovered a mooc offered by Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, featuring Prof. Eric Clifford Graf. This course focused more on scene-by-scene events and characters with brief mentions of literary and historical elements; it also included numerous original illustrations of various scenes (I’m including several in this post), which was helpful in visualizing exactly what was meant by certain descriptions. It was a very nice complement to the Yale OCW, which took a much broader view and discussed selected literary and historical features more deeply, rather than plot.

I was surprised that the book, while huge, was so readable. Some of that might be the translation, though Prof. González mentioned that the original Spanish, while quaint to contemporary readers, is less arcane than Shakespeare seems to today’s American readers. It’s also divided into fairly short chapters, which made it easier to read in short sessions. I also found the chapter headings useful, as they set up what would follow (usually; once in a while, there would be a goofy “Which relates what will be in it” kind of thing). But mostly, the characters and their activities just carried it right along.

Contemporary editions of DQ almost always include both Parts I and II, but Prof. González points out that Cervantes did not originally intend to write a second book. Given how well Part II recapitulates, and un-enchants (I’ll get to this), part I, it’s hard to believe this was not in the works, but he finished Part I and did some other things before realizing he’d written a best-seller, and a sequel might be a good idea. They were published ten years apart, but another writer, using the pseudonym Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda, wrote a “False Quixote” in between. Cervantes became aware of this as he was writing Part II, and – this is where I get goosebumps – references it several times. It’s part of the self-reflexivity of the novel, a feature I particularly enjoyed.

And about that reflexivity: the first printing of Part I contained errors, most notably, the disappearance and reappearance of Sancho’s donkey, and the misalignment of several chapter headings. Apparently it’s great sport to assign blame to the printer or to Cervantes. Part II mentions these errors. And in the most amusing example, combining reflexivity with metafiction and just plain weirdness, DQ happens across someone mentioned in the False Quixote and demands that he sign a statement that, having now met the real DQ, the history in which he appeared featured someone else.

“In short, Don Alvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks – not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you Sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of his village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part, nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.”
“I shall be delighted to do so,” Don Alvaro replied, “Even though it amazes me to see two Don Quixotes and two Sancho Panzas at the same time, as identical in name as they are antithetical in action; and I repeat and confirm that I have not seen what I have seen and that what has happened to me has not happened.”
….And the mayor took all the appropriate steps; the deposition was drawn up with all the legal requisites, as is proper in such cases, which delighted Don Quixote and Sancho, as if such a deposition were vital to their welfare, and as if their deeds and their words didn’t clearly show the difference between the two Don Quixotes and between the two Sanchos.

Don Quixote II.71, Rutherford

That’s the thing that most intrigues me about this book. It’s often considered the first Western novel, building on a foundation of piquaresques, romances, and chivalric novels. It incorporates those genres in tales related by characters in Part I (Cervantes avoided this technique in Part II, as it apparently drew complaints). It’s full of self-referential material. There’s a lot of metafiction going on. The narration is triple-layered. In short, it’s a mid-20th century novel that somehow kicked off 17th century fiction, which then took took 400 years to find its way back to the fun stuff.

I love the layered narration. The text has a narrator, of course. But this narrator, at the end of Part I, Chapter 8 (remember, Part I has 52 chapters) announces that “at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished, excusing himself on the ground that he hasn’t found anything more written about these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has narrated.” In Chapter 9, this narrator tells us he came across a street vendor selling notebooks written in Arabic. A Moorish passerby translated the title: History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian – a relative of whom, by the way, may be one of the minor characters in one chapter. Our in-story narrator hired the anonymous Moor to translate the whole thing, which the narrator has set down. And of course all of this is written by Cervantes. It raises the question of the God-like status of writers creating worlds, and also leads to the question, so who, or Who, wrote Cervantes? From the little I’ve read about it, this technique features prominently in the Rushdie work as well.

This narrative technique, linked to the Master Pedro puppet show (II.25-26) is featured in the George Haley essay in the Casebook, appropriately titled “The Narrator in Don Quixote: Maesa Pedro’s Puppet Show.” Prof. González also put a little sketch on the board in his Lecture 17; it’s one of my favorite elements in the lectures.

This is one aspect of the composition en abîme, the hall-of-mirrors effect, which, coincidentally, Jake Weber had just mentioned in a BASS 2019 post. Prof. González further used the story-within-a-story structure of some parts of the novel – in one case, a character tells a story that includes a character telling a story – as another example of this composition en abîme, using Spanish painter Velázquez’ Las Meninas as an extended metaphor.

Another of my favorite elements was that of the journey from enchantment, or illusion, or engaño, to disenchantment, disillusionment, desengaño. This is not disillusionment in the negative sense; this is more of an awakening to truth. Don Quixote starts out in a state of illusion, enchantment: he’s a knight errant, out to right the wrongs of the world. This is Part I, and corresponds to the Renaissance humanist vision that the world can be fixed by people acting morally. Part II moves to the Spanish Baroque, which is characterized by the loss of that illusion, the realization that the world is grotesque and we are only ornamenting our sarcophagus. Or, in Christian Neoplatonic terms, we leave the cave through the grave and enter the really-real of God. From the Yale lectures:

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’
This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.
….Deceits are all of Don Quixote’s illusions, and those of the other characters in the novel. While desengaño is what they wind up or what they reach, disillusionment, realizing that it is all vanity of vanities. This is the reason why so much of what happens in Part II is staged. Deceit is the theatricality of so many events which are made up, constructed; deceit is the dream of books that Don Quixote dreams, it is the unbroken chain of texts masked in reality, and even of language also masking reality.

Prof. Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW, Lecture 14 10:13

I got so carried away with this idea I saw it in my other reading, particularly the BASS 2019 story “Natural Disasters” which I read just after I encountered this section.

The feminism of some of the female characters also makes the novel seem more modern than it is. Throughout the book, women come up with clever solutions to problems, design intricate plots, and decide what they want and then go after it. But one of the most contemporary instances occurs early, in Part I, chapters 12 through 14. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a group of shepherds holding a funeral for their fallen comrade Grisóstomo who died of a broken heart (there are hints it might have been suicide) after the beautiful Marcela rejected his love. The bros are all hanging around complaining about Marcela, calling her a basilisk and blaming her for all the woes of mankind, when she shows up and gives them a piece of her mind:

You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her.
….Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside…. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.

DQ I.14

Marcela, 1; incels, 0.

While he creates a new form, Cervantes drew upon a wide variety of literature in his plots, particularly the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the penultimate chapter, in fact, DQ and Sancho stay in a room decorated with sub-par paintings of Helen and Dido, and Sancho predicts: “I bet that before long there won’t be a single eating-house or roadside inn or hostelry or barber’s shop where there isn’t a painting of the story of our deeds. But I’d like it to be done by a better artist than the one who painted these.” And of course, he’s right; not only visual artists, but writers (such as Borges) and thinkers (Freud was obsessed with DQ) have used this work as a springboard.

There’s so much more. Every aspect of Spanish political, religious, social, and economic culture is brought into the tale, either symbolically or literally. Sancho turns out to be a natural logician, as he solves a problem closely resembling the Liar’s Paradox. Don Quixote offers a good deal of advice to writers in various places, mostly following Aristotle, which is particularly ironic since Cervantes left Aristotle in the dust. The Cave of Montesinos as an analog of Dante’s Inferno; Sancho’s ceremony at Altisadora’s catafalque as an analog of the Inquisition. George Mason Professor of Spanish Literature Antonio Carreño-Rodríguez’ paper (“Costello + Panza = Costanza: Paradigmatic Pairs in Don Quixote and American Popular Culture”) citing DQ and Sancho as the original comedy team, leading to Abbott & Costello, and later, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. The death of Don Quixote, which Borges considers the reason for the entire book. And the opening question: can books drive one insane?

And here I thought it was just about windmills.

About those windmills: Just as I was finishing up the last chapters, a Presidential rant about the evils of windmills made the rounds, and every pundit who wasn’t on Christmas vacation dragged Don Quixote into it. I got a bit upset. Ok, the windmill connection is funny, but when you spend three months with people who make you laugh, who have a core of kindness and decency even though they’re sometimes selfish or greedy or make things worse, you find yourself caring about them, even if they exist only in the pages of a book. And you don’t want them compared with someone whose only yardstick is personal gain and grandiosity. So I got a bit snippy with a good friend, and I apologize for that. But maybe now he can see why I’m a bit protective of these characters, and don’t want them seen in shady light.

And I wonder if I’ve gone a little crazy, too. Books can do that to you, I hear.

The History Of The Book In The Early Modern Period MOOC

Course: The History Of The Book In The Early Modern Period: 1450 To 1800
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk (self-paced)
School/platform: Trinity College Dublin/FutureLearn
Instructor: Drs Elizabethanne Boran, Mark Sweetnam, Jane Carroll, Joseph Clarke
Quote:

The early modern period was an exciting time for invention and innovation. On this course, you’ll explore book production using examples from Trinity College Dublin and the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
You’ll discover how books were made, bound and illustrated, and will study rare treasures including the engravings of Anthony Van Dyck, and early editions of Aesop’s Fables.
You’ll also consider how books were read and how the invention of printing impacted on religion, medicine, science and politics.

It’s hard to imagine a world where books aren’t readily available or easily ordered at local bookstores and libraries, let alone Amazon and other online sources. This course takes us back to such a time when the printed book joined, and eventually took over from, manuscripts.

It’s not a comprehensive history since it’s a short course and focuses on materials in the Trinity College library, but consider it an overview that can be expanded in breadth and depth as one wishes. Given most of us watched first-hand the introduction of online media reading, it’s fun to see how book technology began and developed hundreds of years ago. It’s emphasized several times that, just as ebooks have not replaced paper books, manuscripts and print books coexisted for quite some time.

The four weeks are arranged thematically: How books were made, sold, read, and changed the world:

• Week One outlined the process of bookmaking from printing, types, and bindings to illustrations; Aesop’s Fables plays a leading role.
• In Week Two, we looked at auctions, catalogs, major collections, and the Index of books banned by the Catholic church; my favorite topic was printer’s devices.
• Week Three covered provenances, annotation methods, musical printing, and in particular the Fagel Collection from the Netherlands, now housed at Trinity, including the intricately illustrated works of entomologist Maria Sybilla Merian from her travels to Surinam.
• Week Four looked at the impact of books on religion, science, and politics.

The material was largely in the form of written articles rather than the videos that typically comprise moocs. I usually object to this, but because there’s so much visual material, it works well here. I had no trouble completing each week in the predicted three hours, and there’s plenty of further reading suggestions on all topics.

I took the free version of the course, which included brief quizzes at the end of each week, but no formal evaluation. FutureLearn’s policy is that access to free courses expires several weeks after the course ends. An upgrade to unlimited access, graded material, and a Certificate of Completion would have cost $59; an Unlimited option, offering access to all courses for one year plus Certificates of Completion, is available for $249.

I greatly enjoyed Trinity’s previous mooc on the Book of Kells, so when I heard about this one (one of my twitter peeps mentioned it, but I can’t remember who) I signed up to take a look. I found it a very nice, light introductory course, offering many avenues for further exploration.

BASS 2019: Well…

But the amazing and beautiful thing about the short story is the elasticity of the form. As soon as you complete a description of what a good story must be, the new example flutters through an open window, lands on your sleeve, and proves your description wrong. With every new artist, we simultaneously refine and expand our understanding of what the form can be.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

We started and ended with something like a game of Mean Tweets. First, blogging buddy Jake Weber interpreted my “time for another round” as referring to chemotherapy, to Heidi Pitlor’s horror (I was thinking more about a drinking game; Jake was thinking of the time sink). And last, Pitlor highlighted a particularly clever negative Amazon review.

And in between were the stories. We read them, found different ways of thinking about them, related them to our lives and to the current moment, and wrote about them.

When I wrote my opening post for this year’s volume, I admitted I was worried since the bar was set so high by last year’s edition. And yes, this year felt like a bit of a letdown. In terms of expectations, maybe it was something like a stock market correction, which is what they call slumps these days. There’s something to find in all these stories, even though none of them blew my socks off.

What’s interesting is that, while I was a bit meh about many of them while reading, some of them grew on me over time: Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Jamel Brinkley’s “No More than a Bubble,” and Kathleen Alcott’s “Natural Light” in particular. Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object” with its unsolvable problem haunted me for a while. I think Weiki Wang’s “Omakase” might be another, but it’s too soon to say. I’m not sure why that is; maybe some connection finally snapped into place, or maybe I just acclimated to a lower level of stimulation.

The two stories I liked most while first-time reading both use humor. One was Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption,” a pleasant surprise since I’ve had a lot of trouble with his stories in the past. Then there was the hilarious satire “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva. Oddly, I’ve barely thought about these stories since reading them, but now I recall them with a smile.

Reva’s story had me find a little Russian film, an animation about a hedgehog who gets lost in the fog on his way to tea with his bear friend. It was the second foreign film I found in this volume, the first being Taste of Cherry in Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi”. I also found a connection between my current long-term project/obsession, Don Quixote, and several of the stories, Karen Russell’s “Black Corfu” and, more subtly, “Natural Disasters”.

What I was looking for were fictions that walked the tightrope between control and exuberance, that exhibited not so much the flawless consonance that Rust Hills (and Poe before him) admired as, to borrow a phrase from Edmond White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, a “cat’s cradle of tensions.” I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s interesting that Doerr’s Introduction – which I still say is the most charming in years – focuses on rule-breaking. He lists these individually in many cases: multiple protagonists, unlikeable characters, overly-long exposition, first-person-plural narration. None of these stories, or the broken rules, struck me as particularly innovative or unusual. I don’t expect every story to be a new experience – that would be silly – but I did miss that moment of “oh, wow, look what she did here” that BASS often contains. Maybe I’ll see it differently in time.

I realized, after I’d written my introductory post for this year’s edition, that this is my tenth time blogging BASS. On October 17, 2010, I started BASS 2010, guest edited by Richard Russo. I’m embarrassed by those posts; I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what I wanted to be doing, but it was a start, and I think I’ve matured a bit since. I could delete the old posts, but I keep them to remind me that, in ten years, this post will embarrass me – I hope, since the idea is to keep growing.

By the way, I also have BASS 2008 and 2009 on my bookshelves though that was before I started blogging; I recognize a couple of stories in each, but barely remember any detail. If nothing else, blogging helps me go beyond “I liked this” and retain more by putting plots, characters, and my reactions in a network with other memories so they are more accessible. I may re-read those volumes at some point, not to blog them in detail, but to recapture something I may have lost when I had less of a network to fit them into.

Regarding the dissatisfied customer’s rather eloquent review: in every volume, either Pitlor or the guest editor mentions the pitfalls of calling something “Best.” What I like most about these anthologies is the deliberate variety, not just the diversity of authors but a difference in style, focus, setting, character, purpose. Variety is a double-edged sword: there’s always one chocolate in the Whitman Sampler that you can’t stand (for me, it’s the one with the jelly-like stuff in it). But I confess, cover cardboard with enough chocolate and I’ll eat it; likewise, even a story I don’t like becomes an adventure when I have to articulate why I don’t like it in a blog post. And sometimes, I end up liking it after all.

Teaming up with Jake Weber has also helped; he often helps me see things a different way. I’m still mulling over a story from last year – Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles” – which he liked a great deal more than I. We’ve also had a lot of fun (at least, I have) comparing which stories from last year get the most page hits, and speculating as to why that might be.

I confess that in the past few years, I have found my own attention span fractured. We are now, many of us, moving so quickly from task to task, from texting to life to work to social media, it has grown a little difficult to engage in something that requires our minds to slow down for an extended period of time.
….A good narrative can slow a mind that’s moving too quickly. A great story is its own kind of meditation, and at the risk of sounding even more woo-woo, its own kind of out-of-body experience. A ceding of one’s heartbeat and focus to another place and time. What a gift this is, especially now.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I find reading has been turned into a competitive sport, with people posting how many books they’ve read as if it’s a race. My process of spending three months with 250 pages of short stories doesn’t impress anyone, but I get so much more out of a story when I let it sit after reading, even for just a day or two, then look at it again. Another day or two to get my thoughts in order for a blog post is nearly essential.

But we’ve accelerated life in general, haven’t we. A few years ago, I read something about an overstimulated generation: kids who were not only shuttled from one scheduled activity to the next, but had video games and cell phones and tablets to keep them occupied in between; adults who learned to multitask so three minutes on the toilet could be used to answer an email. Just sitting and thinking seemed wasteful; a train commute spent gazing out the window was anathema. I recently added Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, on my reading list, because I feel like such a lazy slob sometimes.

The book title caught my eye, but also Odell’s name, since a quote of hers on the value of art as a political act featured prominently in my Pushcart XLI opening post: “By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not ‘productive’ in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.” I’ve re-used that quote many times since December 2016, a kind of prayer for these times, when even reading and writing about reading can create pressure. It’s worth repeating again now.

So it’s time to pause before I move on. I’ll be back in January with Pushcart (I’ve made an executive decision about my approach, stay tuned). I may have a few tidbits to post between now and then: a book history mooc, a math book that blends poetry and calculus, and maybe I’ll even finish Don Quixote. Mostly, it’s time for a break, to enjoy the fun part of winter (after New Year’s it just gets old fast), to hope the world holds itself together long enough for something to heal.

BASS 2019: Weike Wang, “Omakase” from The New Yorker 6/18/2018

Stories come to me in waves. I will have an idea, usually a setup, and then in the months after, build out and then in ….
For “Omakase”, my husband and I had just gone out for sushi ….what was odd about the meal was that for the entire night my husband and I were the only customers. I just found that setup interesting and rich. What could happen if a couple came here and chef was slightly off – jilted, perhaps – and overshared as people do when no one is around? How intimate could a conversation get? How much do we really know about each other? And what kind of history goes into an interaction that seems fine and easy on the surface? I thought about the story for over half a year. When I sat down to write it, it was done in a week.

Weike Wang, Contributor Note

Jake Weber’s post on this story tells us he found it frustrating; he even provides a handy-dandy list of the most frustrating moments. Frustrating? I found it enraging. I wanted to smack The Man – and The Woman, for that matter – around, and towards the end, I wanted to grab a box of toothpicks and hand them to her one at a time, as fast as she could handle them (the story is available online if you haven’t read it and don’t know what I’m talking about). But, as usual, blogging about these stories makes me calm down, pick up the book I’ve thrown across the room, and see if I can see something deeper, or at least articulate my annoyance in literary terms.

The couple decided that tonight they would go out for sushi. Two years ago, they’d met online. Three months ago, they’d moved in together. Previously, she’d lived in Boston, but now she lived in New York with him.
The woman was a research analyst at a bank downtown. The man was a ceramic-pottery instructor at a studio uptown. Both were in their late thirties, and neither of them wanted kids. Both enjoyed Asian cuisine, specifically sushi, specifically omakase. It was the element of surprise that they liked. And it suited them in different ways. She got nervous looking at a list of options and would second-guess herself. He enjoyed going with the flow.

That first paragraph tees up the story better than I’d realized on first read. Each element is examined further in later paragraphs, and the rather sparse introduction blooms into something much more informative. I particularly like that she is looking to relieve her anxiety, and he is looking to have fun.

My first problem is just a personal preference. Some people hate second person, some dislike dialect; for me, constructions such as “the man” and “the woman” feel so unnatural, so contrived as to poke a stick in my eye. I accept that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of narration, and it works, particularly when there are very few characters to worry about. Here there are four active characters, and none of which have names. But I really dislike it.

My second problem is that a lot of issues come up – racism and ethnic conflict, differences between how immigrants, their children, and their children’s children interact with the US, privilege of race and sex, parental and societal expectations, the urban landscape. These come up, but they’re merely toyed with then batted away by another issue, as if merely mentioning them is enough to generate some insight in the reader, while all the while we’re dealing with The Man’s asshattery.

The relationship between The Man and The Woman had me by the throat, and didn’t leave much room for worrying about Chinese-Japanese relations (which I would have liked to have known a lot more about) or what it feels like for a rule-following first-generation American from China to see a (maybe) second-generation American from… well, somewhere in the Far East, wearing purple nail polish and sporting a nose stud and a lip ring (something else I’d like to know a lot more about).

And playing in the background is this intriguing stuff about Asian pottery, both Chinese and Japanese, which of course makes me want to go look up all the unfamiliar terms and learn more about the stuff. While it’s used here to emphasize The Man’s know-it-allness, both in relation to the chef and to The Woman’s mother, it serves to distract me from those relationship issues and send me googling yunomi and sancai glaze. I was sure I would use teacups as the header image, but in the end, I felt the toothpicks were more central to the heart of the story.

And of course omakase, a sushi service similar to a tasting menu in Western restaurants. I’d never heard of it (sorry, I appreciate the idea of sushi, but don’t ask me to eat it).

…[A]n omakase chef determines at the spur of the moment what will appear on the plate. This is typically driven by the ingredients available to them, which are customarily selected based on both quality and seasonality.
That being said, the philosophy of the chef will also guide what they serve, and this is important for diners to keep in mind. The omakase experience can vary dramatically depending on the philosophy and cooking style of the chef.
At Sushi Taro in Washington, D.C.—about which Michelin inspectors say, “The overall experience at the omakase counter is truly stellar”—chef/owner Nobu Yamazaki says, “We start off with a few appetizers to see how the customer reacts to our food, then if we think they can go for [dishes] a little more adventurous, or a little more of something they’ve never had before, we’ll try to put those out there little by little.” According to Yamazaki, his most pressing concern is whether or not a diner is enjoying their meal. “Sometimes we might just completely change it in the middle of the course,” he explains. “It really depends on the customer.”

Guest editor Anthony Doerr plays on this in his Introduction comment: “a story as meticulously structured as any omakase dinner and which will wake you up to the minute-by-minute realities of white privilege as well as anything you’ll read this year.” I see part of what he means: the story procedes in small bites, each having their own flavor, working towards a climax. I wonder if I would have thought of that had I not read his comment. Probably not. But there’s a lot more going on here than white privilege. Male privilege, for one.

You worry too much, the man said whenever she brought up the fact that she still didn’t feel quite at home in New York. And not only did she not feel at home; she felt that she was constantly in danger.
You exaggerate, the man replied.
At the restaurant, he gave the woman a look of his own. This look said two things: one,you worry too much, and, two, this is fun—I’m having fun, now you have fun.
The woman was having fun, but she also didn’t want to get food poisoning.
As if having read her mind, the man said, If you do get sick, you can blame me.

The literary omakase leads to a penultimate victory but ultimate defeat… maybe. Because we don’t know what reaction The Woman, already piqued to the point of toothpicks, has to the final pat on the head and that condescending advice to stop overthinking. Which, in this case, means stop thinking and let The Man do and say whatever he wants without objection. Does she fall back in line to think about it some more? Or, already feeling something, does she let him have it? I fear the first; I hope for the latter.

I found the heart of the story in the relationships: not just The Man and The Woman, but also The Man and the chef, The Woman and the chef, and both of them with the waitress; and then there’s The Woman and her mother, The Woman and her friends. They all bounce off of each other in different ways, showing different expectations of women, of Asians, of daughters. At one point, it seems there should be some rearrangement: The Man should be with the waitress, and The Woman should be with the chef. I’m thinking the waitress is humoring The Man and subtly making fun of him – which he can’t recognize because he assumes all flattery is earned – and then the chef makes what might be an anti-Chinese slur. Good for The Woman, she immediately speaks up (after pulling some egg from her tooth) and tells him she’s Chinese. The Man, again, decides she’s making too much of this. This is his shining moment of white privilege.

But not the only moment. The Woman wonders if he is attracted to her Chineseness; no, she decides, it’s not yellow fever, they’re “merely one out of a billion or so Asian girl–white guy couples walking around on this earth.” Yeah. Exactly. But she doesn’t want to overthink things. In her TNY interview, Wang says, “Not having to think about one’s race is, I believe, a privilege. This woman is more preoccupied with race than the man is, because race has permeated more aspects of her life.” And heaven forbid The Man might have to consider someone else’s point of view. This is perhaps the foundation of contemporary racism: it’s so much easier for white people to not have to think about race if there aren’t not-white people pointing it out all the time. Giving up even a little white privilege – telling those jokes, making those generalizations – seems like an unacceptable infringement for some. Getting rid of not-white people seems like a solution. The other solution, learning basic manners and getting to know not-white people as individuals, is just too much work.

As I said, there’s much more than white privilege here, too. The waitress pulls a stunt by bullshitting about wine, a trick The Man falls for – partly because he’s flirting with her, and parrtly because he must always show he Knows Everything – but not The Woman. She keeps her silence, though. As does the chef, when The Man makes more of a fool of himself by insisting he’s seen the man working there on prior nights. The chef is taciturn, letting out information in small bites (again). He answers more freely when The Woman asks him, indicating more of a connection between them. Maybe it’s partly because she isn’t acting like a fool, but there’s an implication it’s more of a racial connection. Until he brings in what well could be a slur about the Chinese manager at his former job. It’s interesting that The Woman stands here ground for the first time in this exchange, prepping her for the toothpick scene.

So again, the effort to look beyond my initial reaction paid off. I appreciate a lot more about the story having screened out the overwhelming noise of The Man and taking some advice from both the author and editor.

BASS 2019: Jenn Alandy Trahan, “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s 09/2018

Art by Hueman

Art by Hueman

I had been rereading The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris to get pumped before a graduate workshop deadline. At the time, I was reflecting on how I killed the majority of my twenties making self-destructive decisions, befriending people who didn’t really care about what happened to me, and trying to impress people who would never see or value the real me….I wanted to conjure what I had lost over the years: a sense of pride about who I am and where I come from.
….
The story is very much a valentine to Vallejo, a valentine to the people I grew up with at St. Basil School, and a valentine to my best friends who have stuck by my side through the years no matter what ….You could say it’s also a valentine to Brett Zaleskys everywhere – people who inspire you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, people who show up to watch you play and convince you of your strength and value when others want to insist that you are weak or that you don’t belong.

Jenn Alandy Trahan, Contributor Note

The connection to the two works Trahan mentions above is obvious: she uses first person plural here, one of those unusual narrative voices I find myself so drawn to, yet often have trouble distinguishing from a singular observer-narrator. Somehow that wasn’t the case here. Maybe it was all those “we”s or maybe I’m just getting better at reading.

The story reads more like a memoir. It starts with a white boy and ends with a group of brown girls who follow him into basketball, with consequences straight out of that Nike “If You Let Me Play” ad.

It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.

The girls’ parents aren’t anywhere near as impressed with Brent as the girls are. But the story isn’t about Brent; it’s about the effect he had on the narrative we, the Filipino girls at his school.

The girls are second-place in their families – “We weren’t worth much, not as much as sons” – and one paragraph sounds much like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as mothers complain about every aspect of their daughters. But Brent starts dating Marorie, she tries out for basketball, her friends go with her, and that’s the story there.

On the court, we felt proud. During games, we took hits and threw elbows like champs. Who cared about girls from Napa who put their fingers in our faces and timed their pregame team chant with ours so you couldn’t hear our voices? Who cared that we would grow up to have all kinds of girls interrupt us, correct us, cut us, talk over us, throw shrimp cocktail at us? Could we blame them? We were brown like their nannies, brown like the big eyed dirty kids in those Save the Children commercials, brown like hotel housekeepers….We were brown like their daddies secretaries, brown like the women their daddies beat off to and sometimes left the family for, brown like me love you long time, brown like I need to apologize for offending you, Brown like may I take your plate, brown like you think I need your charity, and brown like how can I help you, sir? Back then, we helped ourselves. We dove out of bounds. We broke bones. We didn’t care about sweat-slicked ponytails. Didn’t care about the skinned knees or bruises or scars, didn’t bother with bandages in the mornings before school. We got hard. All the marks on our faces and bodies said, So what, I’m still here.

Brent Zalesky may have been the light, but it’s the girls who followed the path and found what had value for them. By the way, Jake Weber has an insightful view of Brent Zalesky as White Savior and the implications of that, something I hadn’t considered.

It’s the kind of story that’s called heartwarming and inspiring, and I have no doubt it was very much true for Trahan. I’m dubious about its applicability in general (sports are where I was regularly humiliated) but that doesn’t diminish its value.

BASS 2019: Mona Simpson, “Wrong Object” from Harper’s, 11/2018

Until then, I’d reflexively assumed the logic of the final two lines of Auden’s stanza: Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.
But damage, it turns out, is not always reciprocated. My friends, the young therapists, told me about the vast number of people, a majority, they believed, who spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.
My interest in the idea of this containment of destructive desire started there, with this work to which my friends have now devoted their lives.
….
Of course, much of what I learned did not make it into the story.

Mona Simpson, Contributor Note

Stories impact readers in different ways. A clever structural or narrative technique often tickles my fancy. Humor and satire can make us smile or find our way to solutions we hadn’t thought of. Beautiful sentences are art forms in themselves. And then there’s a story like this one, that leaves the reader with a burden, a question that maybe we never thought to ask, a crack in something that always seemed so clear. To my way of thinking, this is the power of a story: to use a character, someone we can connect to, to shake us up, make us look at our attitudes and our certainties, and say, Really? What about now?

I found the way the information is revealed to be particularly interesting, and important to keeping us connected to both characters. The story is about a therapist and a patient; the narrator is the therapist. That means the patient feeds information to his therapist. The story could be told so as to make the therapist a kind of observing narrator, but that isn’t what Simpson does. The therapist is also feeding information to us, via asides and additions, and she is feeding information to her supervising therapist. This puts the therapist in the middle, and forces the reader to also pay attention to her. We are firmly placed in her chair.

He is a nondescript man.
I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.
The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?
I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

Complete story available online at Harper’s

The first sentence is about the patient, but it makes him almost invisible. Then we’re given information about the therapist. We know right away – this quote is the opening of the story – that she’s female, she’s a newly-minted therapist, she values being helpful, and she hasn’t lived in an ivory tower all her life. We know a little about the patient: he plays it close to the vest, and he’s nondescript. That nondescript rather twanged my antennae; it’s been my experience that nondescript characters eventually descript all over, in one way or another.

Next, we learn something about what brought him to the therapist.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.
His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.
It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.
Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.
I don’t feel what I should for her.
What do you feel?
Gratitude, I suppose. And when I think of leaving, pity.
What do you wish you experienced?
He slumped in my old chair. (I’d just signed the lease; the furniture I’d ordered hadn’t come yet.) I don’t feel enchantment . . . or the hope that we can make each other better. Married ten years, together thirteen. But I never had that.
That being enchantment.
He shrugged. All the things people say about being in love.
I never felt she was necessarily the one, he said.
The one, I repeated.
That we were destined for each other.

I find the detail of the office furniture interesting, not in itself, but that Simpson chose to put it there. A further indication, perhaps, that this therapist hasn’t been theraputing very long; she doesn’t even have her furniture set up. Since this is the second mention of her greenness, it must be important.

The patient is pretty unusual, it seems to me. A lot of people might see a therapist because they’re unhappy in their marriage; most complain that their spouses don’t understand them, or aren’t the person they married. He’s pretty clear that he is the problem, and wants to work on that. He’s not in love. We find out a few other details: the couple has kids, he’s well-off, he’s about 40. We find out he’s a lawyer not because he tells this to the therapist, but because she googles him. That feels… intrusive to me. What a person doesn’t reveal is as important as what they reveal, and that she conducted outside research may be the result of her inexperience. She sees a supervising therapist, an interesting detail; I wonder if she told him she googled her patient. I wonder if that’s considered solid therapeutic procedure.

I’m curious that she calls him K. It connects immediately with Joseph K in Kafka’ The Trial. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it, though it’s generally mentioned in most classes involving modern philosophy or literature. I am aware it involves a trial, and a lack of clear information, which seems like a potentially strong connection to this story. I must put The Trial on next summer’s reading list, but too late, I fear, for present purposes.

Then just when we’re feeling pretty safe and secure with this boring situation of a therapist trying to figure out this nondescript, self-aware man who seems sincerely motivated to improve himself for the sake of his marriage, he drops a little piece of information that shakes the foundation beneath us and begins the story in earnest; the inciting incident, if you will.

And then he told me. At the time I had a pencil in my hand, and I wrote down the date: January 28, 2012.
I’m a pedophile, he said. The problem with my wife isn’t . . . I’ve never been enchanted with anyone her age. Which is to say my age.
The light in my office made him look dangerously thin, pretzeled on the corduroy chair. (My furniture had finally arrived. K was the only one of my clients to notice.) I was aware of the narrowness of his shoulders in the gray, collared sweater, the niceness of his socks.

Everything is the same – he’s still very honest, dressed the same – but everything is different. The new office furniture is here – aha, that’s why it was mentioned before. Before and after January 28, 2012. I told you it’s the nondescript ones that’ll get you every time.

The “wrong object” of the title refers to the psychological idea that a child abuser needs to shift from children to adults, just as, in the past, it was believed that gay people needed to shift the object of their attraction (this is a highly controversial connection, as it involves consenting adults rather than the abuse of children, but I can see the therapeutic idea behind it). Here, it isn’t just K who has a wrong object. The therapist seems to have a wrong object as well, and hiding the facts from her supervisor turns it almost into a kind of conspiracy, or maybe a game is more appropriate. She isn’t exceptionally young – she refers to having a few grey hairs – but she seems somewhat childlike in this, almost like a victim herself.

The story is available online, so I’ll leave it for readers to follow events to their end. There’s one other detail I’d underline, however. When the therapist finally gets around to revealing her patient’s underlying problem to her supervisor, she tells him the patient has not acted on his impulses. “According to his own report.” That gave me a shiver. Child abusers are notorious for winning the confidence of their victims with charm and deceit. But given the lack of action or intent, what really are the options here, regardless of the odds of future actions?

This is an intriguing story, not for its imaginative plot or moving prose, but for the question it leaves for the reader: Does K deserve admiration and support for having resisted his impulses (at least, as far as we know per his own report), or does he deserve condemnation for having them at all, and conviction based on the likelihood that, some day, he will indulge? I have the impression at the end that the therapist still doesn’t really know, so we are on our own.

Given Simpson’s Contributor Note, I have the sense some admiration is in order, though caution would also be wise. I have a personal observation as well. I’ve been in therapeutic situations of many kinds over many years, and I’ve known many people who suffered trauma and abuse, who only did harm to themselves. It may be that all abusers were abused, but it is not the case that all those abused become abusers.

As is my usual procedure, I went googling for other insights into this story. Jake Weber has done another solid analysis, as did Paul Debrasky, another blogger buddy from days past. But I was surprised that, given its appearance in Harper’s, which has a wider readership than most litmags, and the controversial nature of the story, that there wasn’t more discussion. Maybe too controversial?

BASS 2019: Jim Shepard, “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.1

I was just doing what I usually do – reading bizarrely arcane nonfiction, in this case men’s and women’s Civil War letters – when I was struck by an aspect of them that seemed shockingly relevant to the unhappy position in which we find ourselves today. Even in the very last days of the war, after all of that suffering and all of those losses, letter after letter articulated its conviction that come what may, the South and the North would never reconcile their positions when it came to race, and that the abyss that had opened up in American civic life was never going to close.
….How had we managed as a country to go through five years of agony with more than three-quarters of a million casualties while still ending up having learned so little? That kind of maddeningly self-destructive mulishness has always attracted me as a subject. It’s also starting to seem, dispiritingly, like one of our central characteristics as a country. There followed, then, one of my usual bathysphere descents into more focused arcane reading, afterwhich, I found myself doing what I could to imagine myself inside that recalcitrant Southerner’s position.

Jim Shepard, Contributor Note

I like Jim Shepard. I’ve read two of his story collections, in addition to the stories that crop up regularly in BASS and Pushcart. He has a way of taking a real situation and turning it into an insanely enveloping read, courtesy of details that ramp up the aesthetic reaction to eleven. Most of the time, those aesthetic reactions are uncomfortable, or downright agonizing, as when a teenager plays high-stakes football, or an explorer crosses a desert. And there’s always a crucial decision in there somewhere, something that hits home. That’s why I have to say that in general I far prefer having read a Jim Shepard story, to reading a Jim Shepard story. I actually had to stop reading Like You’d Understand Anyway, a book written to capture the essence of machismo suffering. It was that painful. But they were great stories.

I didn’t have that problem here, at least, not exactly. Although some of the material was grisly – we are talking a bloody, murderous war – these were letters written from a more intimate place. We have William and Lucy, who seem to be young sweethearts (she is just turning 20); and Hattie and C.W., married nine years. We never see a letter written by C.W., we only hear of his actions and comments via William’s letters to Lucy.

Dear Lucy,
It commenced snowing at about dark here, & the wind is as cold as the world’s charity & blowing at a terrible rate. Some of the letters I sent came back. It is very uncertain about letters nowadays, though I suppose it will do no harm to write more & I wanted you to know that I’m still right-side up, though you ought to see me now if you want a hard-looking case. Whiskers have grown out all over & I am ashamed to scan a looking glass.
….
I’m happy to hear my Georgie stories charm Nellie in particular. Tell her he is so small some of the boys like to call for him to come out of his hat because they can see his legs….He regularly announces to one & all that if he can just get an eye on Lincoln with his musket he’ll make a cathole through him. C.W. says that anyone who can make us smile so much is like loaf bread & fresh beef all the time and that he is always hunting for something to raise his spirits given that he’s forced to sojourn in these low haunts of sorrow.

One of the things that struck me about these letters is how beautifully written they are. Yes, they are fictional, but they are based on real letters, and I don’t doubt Shepard’s ability to mimic reality. Some of that is the old-fashionedness of them, but there’s a level of care here, as though the writers know they will be cherished, so they put heart and soul into each word and phrase. Here is Lucy’s birthday meditation, written a few days before she turns twenty years old:

How long I have lived on this sphere for all the good I have done. I am older than I am wise, and wiser than I am beneficent, and now a woman, decline the unwelcome thought as I might. What good has all my schooling done me? However much I wish to stay careless and free I am a woman not only according to the hunger of my heart but because I can now measure my deficiencies in every respect, from my awkwardness to my self-indulgence to these flashes of temper. Winter’s harvest is nearly ended and I have planted few seeds of improvement in the meantime, so that the future will likely prove barren of the fruits of firm resolve or self-control. At least those we love, most of us, have been preserved and protected, but who knows what will come with another revolution of the year’s wheel.

And Hattie writes to C.W.: “We women are told that our fragility is our strength and protection our right, but this War no longer allows us our frailty, or to assume the presence of guardians that are supposedly our due.”

I have no knowledge of contemporary wartime letters; are they also so beautiful, even in this age of LOL and OMG?

Maybe it’s because the letters are written in what would be the closing months of the war, as the Confederacy’s situation grew more and more hopeless. Words might be chosen with more care when there is the sense that days are short. Also, the Civil War wasn’t just a war; there was a layer of pain on top of the grimness of the battlefield, the sense of a country tearing itself apart from the inside.

Here I have to thank Jake Weber for his knowledge of the historical context (his analysis is wonderful, I highly recommend it): the (fictional) letters are dated in the week before the (very real) Battle of Nashville, which was disastrous for the South. Thus, William and C.W. and Georgie were probably dead by the time these letters were read by Lucy and Hattie, and they probably never got to read the women’s final letters.

The title comes from something C.W. said to William, as he relates it to Lucy:

I have seen more depravity in the last month then in all my days previous. This war is a graveyard for virtues.
…[C.W.] Is very low & says that it requires the faith of a prophet to see any good resulting from so much mayhem, & that perhaps both nations must be destroyed when we consider how much corruption runs riot in high places, & that it may be that our country’s day of grace is passed. but he also says that he will all the same see the thing play out or die in the attempt.

I would wonder if there ever was a day of grace, as the nation was conceived in slavery. There are those say slavery was America’s original sin; I think it was more like a birth defect, scoliosis or a club foot, something that could have been largely corrected in infancy but wasn’t, and thus resulted in a far more traumatic procedure later, a procedure that was less than successful. It took about a dozen years for the hopes of reconstruction to be abandoned, and for the South to reestablish racism as culture. And every fifty years or so, we fight the same war all over again, in a different guise.

What Shepard does here is create sympathy for people who are cold and hungry and lonely and are about to lose their loved ones and/or their lives. That’s not a difficult task, until you consider the context. I find myself unable to really enter this story fully because of current events. That isn’t Shepard’s fault. But I have to say that this time, I enjoyed reading it more than I enjoy having read it.

BASS 2019: Alexis Schaitkin, “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone #24

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Jen’s job writing descriptions of houses for a realtor is very similar to the job I held for a few years in graduate school. To be honest, it was a job whose potential as material I was aware of from the very beginning. Architecture is such a classic metaphor for story. And this job – stepping into someone else’s home and observing, tiptoeing in the dark through a house where people are living their inimitable lives – was so like the writers task.…
Then, one day, my boss gave me an address way out of town. The house was completely dazzling, and it had an observatory, just like the house in the story. After years of visiting nothing but suburban sprawl, it was surreal to step into this incredible house out in the middle of nowhere. That was the very obvious inspiration for the story.
But as the story came together, it was all of the other houses I’d visited that fueled its essential questions: what makes something authentic versus imitative or ersatz, and does this distinction even matter, and if so, how and why – in architecture, in writing, in life?

Alexis Schaitkin, Contributor Note

Is it better to live an unpleasant reality, or create a fantasy that makes the reality bearable? That seems to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume. Here again, we have a protagonist who prefers her reality to be held at bay by some internal narrative. When that fails, she analyzes it as a writer would a plot. And it’s all very meta, all very distanced from any emotional core.

Just a few pages in, I was thinking, these are some beautiful lines, some interesting ideas, but is there a story here, or is it going to be a collection of these clever turns of phrase? Just in time, Jen gave me an answer of sorts by way of describing the way in which she was a good writer: “I could give the impression of meaning and insight, of grand convergence, and if you weren’t paying careful attention you might not notice that beneath the rhythms of thought the argument was facile. even specious.” I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Let me show you what I mean (lest I make a facile, specious argument here):

We were living in Oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party.

After starting the story with the delicious sentence about New Yorkers living ironically in Oklahoma, she immediately tells us how false this idea is, and how useless even recognizing it is at this point. So we’re left with an opening line that’s sound and (muted) fury, signifying nothing. But it’s not edited out of the story, so it signifies something.

Jen pulls this same facile-narration-over-absence about her husband’s job. She gives us a fairly detailed description – he’s a chemical engineer working on oil processing – then admits “I don’t mean to suggest that I understood any of this period I didn’t, nor did I try to. I delighted in letting the particulars of Stevens work – all that science, all those numbers – sail over my head. I suppose I thought my mind too pure to be sullied by such things.” Jen seems to enjoy undercutting her own arguments, not even waiting for us to find them specious. Maybe this is a post-epiphany tic; it leaves us with the sense that anything she says should be held in abeyance for a while, because she might tell us in a minute how wrong it is.

Her ironic approach to Oklahoma – “savoring the delicious irony of a place that conformed exactly to my hackneyed expectations” – isn’t working very well for her, in any case. She’s depressed, and starts having physical symptoms that Freudians might classify as a conversion disorder. As a sign of progress, the Mayo Clinic (and, presumably, contemporary medicine as a whole) now calls them functional nervous disorders, symptoms without a physical cause. And she’s afraid of the wide open spaces, of the tornadoes, and of the earthquakes, recent events brought on, presumably, by fracking.

I had developed a twinned obsession with tornadoes, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. They seemed to me to be part of a unified system, connected by some mystical sinister energy. The tornadoes funneled destructive force down from the sky, the oil wells pulled it up from the ground, And I was living where those forces met, on the perilous surface of the earth.

In the middle of this distress-beneath-the-irony, Jen lands a job that is perfect for her: she writes those little blurbs describing residential properties for sale. It’s not as much writing as rearranging a particular set of words, sort of like using refrigerator magnet words to make poetry.

I would draw up a list of evocative words and phrases that were more or less germane to the house at hand. Say: curb appeal, mint condition, stately, pristine. Or: stunning, sought after, the very best in country living, charmer. Then I would string those words together with the pertinent information. This pristine three-bedroom ranch oozes curb appeal, from its stately front lawn to its mint-condition brick facade. Or, For home-buyers looking for the very best in country living, this stunning charmer in sought-after Castlegate is a must-see. The copy was like candy floss – voluminous clouds that dissolved to sweetness, to the idea of substance.

It can’t be by accident that her neurological symptoms disappear after getting this job. At last, a way to bask in full ironic glory without the side effects. Embrace the meaninglessness.

She pulls the this-but-not thing again: she says there are anecdotes about visiting these houses she will not share –“and I would feel pretty good about myself, both for bearing witness and for keeping their secrets – and proceeds to tell us one of the anecdotes, about an elderly woman in a run-down property who keeps insisting she must write about the garden, which turns out to be a small patch of empty dirt that, if it ever held the snapdragons and bluebells the woman rambles on about, holds no evidene of them now. This is the kind of anecdote that would grip my heart, but Jen not only violates her own ethic about revealing secrets, she tells it in a way that removes the life-force.

Jen is then sent to a home unlike the others she’s seen. It’s in an isolated spot rather than in the town; it’s inhabited by a man; the owner shows no interest in her presence. “This story, the one I’ve been getting to all along, is the story of that single instance.” And I’m already braced for the denial. But it doesn’t come. Her experience changes her.

Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret. A girl left the city and learned a thing or two. A silly young woman hoped to be ravished by a man who was not her husband. A marriage fell apart, and afterwards a wife was wiser, though in some ways no better, than she had been before. Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that a life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us. It is amazing, it is exquisite, it is a stunning charmer, and it is noted in water and jotted in dust and the wind lifts it away.

Except… does it? I’m still not convinced. Yes, she looked up the background of the house at the City Hall archives, giving some indication that she is serious about uncovering reality beneath the beauty of the house and the slick story she constructed about it. But I’m suspicious of such sudden, complete reversals. Even as I’m struck by exquisite phrases, charmed by the inclusion of all the real estate buzzwords, and mesmerized by the final line about water and dust and wind that ties together earthquakes and tornadoes, I’m resisting buying into it. I wonder if seeing life as “the disasters we carry within us” instead of as a story is merely a change of object, not a change of view.

Yet the story of this last house feels so much more real than the preceding, it’s as if it’s a different story entirely. Or maybe I’m just projecting that onto it because I want to believe it, following a narrative of my own.

And here I go off onto a wild tangent; brace yourself. I’ve been reading Don Quixote for the past month or so. The primary feature is a poor old guy who, unhappy with the way life is unfolding personally and politically, immerses himself in chivalric stories of knights-errant, who travel the land and help out all who are oppressed or in distress. It’s usually considered the first modern European novel, and employs a number of wonderful narrative techniques that were abandoned until the twentieth century, like layering of narrators and self-referentiality. I just started Part II, published ten years after Part I, and there’s a crucial switch from enchantment and illusion to disenchantment and disillusion – in Spanish, desengaño – which parallel the transition from Renaissance humanism to the Baroque period, from a loss of optimism that human reason and knowledge can prevail, to seeing the world as ugly and grotesque and overly complicated. I’m using an OCW and a mooc to get the most out of it, and since this is all quite new to me, let me quote from some of the lectures of Professor Roberto González Echevarría of Yale University, to avoid misstatements:

Part II is going to be that of Baroque desengaño….When the games prove to be nothing more than that, games of illusions, Renaissance optimism gives way to Baroque disillusionment.

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’ This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.…It signified a passing from ignorance to knowledge, and awakening from the falsity of one’s dream.

Professor Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW

There are major differences of course, but there’s this similarity of motion from self-deceit to awakening. In the same way Jen’s engaño, living ironically or in the context of some narrative from outside, wasn’t really working for her and caused physical problems, Don Quixote’s engaño by way of living chivalric stories caused a great deal of suffering for him: beatings, losing teeth, hanging by his wrists, all presented in comedic absurdity, but nonetheless painful. And in the same way Don Quixote moves from illusion to disillusionment – from fantasy to reality – so does Jen, in her last adventure.

The story seems to be a lightning rod for other stories I’ve read. Compare Jen with the character of Laura in Mary Gordon’s story “Ugly” from BASS 2017; she, too, goes from New York to elsewhere, and after a period of trepidation, embraces it to the point where she feels her ugliness rather than the ugliness of Missouri. I’ve also recalled Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Anyway?” from Pushcart XLIII, a full-throated cry for authenticity in place of cynicism. And there are the other stories in this volume that touch on fantasy vs reality, such as “Audition” and “Letter of Apology”.

In another thought-provoking post, Jake Weber addresses, not for the first time, the question of whether literature is good for us. Which, I’m dying to tell him, is one of the many core questions raised in Don Quixote. But I think I’ll back off; I can be a little evangelical about whatever I’ve read that’s had an impact on me.

Addendum 12/4/19: This story has been hanging with me, and I think I may have been distracted by Don Quixote and overlooked something important: the observatory.

He stopped at a door I had assumed to be a closet and opened it to reveal a narrow spiral staircase.
“It’s all one tree trunk,“ he said, sliding his hand along the banister. The wood was exquisite – intricately grained and polished to a whispery smoothness. I had the sense, then, that I was about to ascend into the house’s “essence.“…
There were no walls, only windows, and through them the Prairie stretched in every direction.

This may be what Schaitkin was thinking of when she referred to architecture as a metaphor for story: the path to true observation is hard to find, and in the best cases, is fashioned with exquisite care. But there’s something else speaking to the conflict between living ironically, and living, between cynicism and engagement: the observatory is all windows. What a fragile structure here in tornado country, yet it must be so in order to provide complete observation of all that is. Risk is an inherent part of engaging with our surroundings. But clear observation also makes it possible to notice the approach of danger in time to take precautions.

BASS 2019: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “Audition” from The New Yorker, 9/3/18

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

This piece began as nonfiction, which is to say, as the truth. I had originally intended to title it “How Cigarettes Saved My Life,” because if I had not become addicted to smoking cigarettes at the age of nineteen, I would not have been self-aware enough to realize that, two years later, I was following a similar trajectory with crack cocaine. This guiding principle comprised the final four pages of the story, and the final four pages of the story were eventually, with great reluctance and remorse, completely cut. Many other facts were cut as well, and many others were bent and reshaped in the interests of make-believe. Even so, I continued to try to cleave as closely as I could to reality, perhaps as a way to make direct use of what I’d experienced, but also because I’ve always believed that the truth is generally more compelling than invention.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Contributor Note

This is one of those stories where I really wasn’t sure what it was about until the final paragraph, at which point I had to go back and read it again to make sure. Jake Weber put it beautifully in his analysis by comparing it to Michael Jordan: “It goes one way, crosses back, fakes again, pulls back, and before long the would-be critic’s ankles are as broken as Craig Ehlo’s” (no, I have no idea who Craig Ehlo is, but it’s such a good metaphor and fits the read so well, I know exactly what he means). And then, a couple of days later, it grew broader than that. Maybe a little too broad.

It starts out with a nineteen-year-old son of a rich man working construction incognito on one of Daddy’s housing developments. Oh, I thought, a kind of paying-your-dues story. Except this kid had planned to go to college and study acting. Oh, I thought, a breaking-away-from-family-expectations story. Exactly why that breaking away was delayed wasn’t clear, but now his plan is to go to LA and work his way into acting that way. Why that plan isn’t being put into action isn’t clear, either.

When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers—the softened consonants and the dropped articles—lest I reveal myself for the outsider that I was. No hard “k”s, “x”s, or “f”s. The irony was that my father’s specified plan of self-improvement for me dovetailed with my own: experience real life up close and personal.

Eventually he ends up giving Duncan, one of the other construction guys, a ride home. Duncan has some books on carpentry, but figures “they won’t give a guy like me a chance.” I don’t know what “a guy like me” means. One thing Duncan is very good at is fashioning a crack pipe out of aluminum foil and a piece of Chore Boy. Oh, this is going to be a descent into darkness story, drugs, crime, rich kid’s fall. The first line of the story kind of set that up – “The first time I smoked crack” – but I’d pretty much forgotten about that. Or maybe a coming-out story when eyes meet over the crack pipe. None of that happens, either.

His former acting teacher gives him a tip about an audition he should take for “a central role as a character who would be onstage for all three acts but had zero lines. I could not tell if this was a step backward or forward for my career.” More dues, or is this payoff? I find the question fascinating, but that’s easy to say when you don’t have skin in the game; it’s not my acting career on the line.

The story ends with the second time the kid smokes crack, again with Duncan, and the story starts to pull together. He moves between Clarity and Delusion as reflected states, always seeing himself from the other. In a couple of spectacular paragraphs, he moves through space for three acts:

It was nine o’clock. I had entered a strange dimension of time—it was progressing both slowly and quickly, as marked by the ticking of that basement boiler. Nine was early for night. It would be night for many more hours to come. I was nineteen. Nineteen was young. I would be young for many more years to come. What exactly had I been so troubled by a few minutes before? Light and airy clarity descended upon me. Ah, this was clarity, and the other, delusion. I had reversed things, silly, overstated them, compounded them, turned delight into cynicism. I was going to be onstage for three acts, moving through space, another credential to have on my résumé when I arrived in L.A. It was ten o’clock. Was ten o’clock early for night? Was night moving slowly or fast?…. This is the last time I’m doing this, I said to myself, even as I knew that saying so implied its inverse. At the A.T.M., I took out another forty dollars. I noted my balance. My savings account was still large. It was midnight. Midnight was still young.

I started to think this is a story about addiction, a thought that was strengthened by the Contributor Note. And the opening line. The essence of addiction: to be able to convince yourself that this is the last time, that it’s necessary, that it’ll be ok even though you know there will be interpersonal, medical, and/or legal consequences. This is why Twelve Steppers will tell you it isn’t about willpower, because the addiction is in control, not will or logic or character.

So I started to wonder if these guys are addicted to being stuck, in addition to crack. Our protagonist, pre-crack, has choices. He could go to college and study acting (if Dad won’t pay, there are alternatives, just ask all the poor kids in college). He could go out to LA. Duncan could study carpentry. But it’s easier to go to work and come home and smoke crack, forgetting all those “long-term, existential, and impossible” problems. And whatever time it is, it’s still plenty early. Until it’s too late.

I had a moment when I realized I wasn’t young any more. People who know me, who knew me back then, would be very surprised because it seems so out of character for me. When I turned 35, I realized I couldn’t join the Air Force any more. Yes, back when I was about 20 and was particularly lost and confused, I thought I might do better in a more structured setting like the military, and the Air Force seemed less… war-like, or something, than the Army or Navy. This was the first time I heard a door closing. That it wasn’t a door I really wanted at 20, and certainly wasn’t a door I wanted at 35, didn’t matter; it was the sound of the slam that shook me, that made me realize I would be hearing more doors slam as time went on.

A day or so after reading the story, I saw Duncan as the future for the protagonist: a little less sure of a future, the dreams of acting being tossed on a chair because he wasn’t ever going to get his chance. Not getting his chance would have nothing to do with who he was; it would have to do with never really going for it. But “guys like me” or “a town like this” or “my father wouldn’t let me” is easier. Not exactly addiction, but maybe somewhat related.

I just happened to be watching Season 3 of The Crown as I read this. I kept wondering about all these people trapped in their royal lives, unable to fly planes or breed horses or marry a particular someone or express an opinion about something important. And yet they all stay; the one who got away years before was viewed within the family as a tragedy, a cautionary tale. Why do they stay? Is it the same insecurity our protagonist feels, that keeps him from chasing his dream, because he might fail? Is the frustration that draws him to crack similar to that which results in so much royal misbehavior?

I realize I took this far afield, but the story’s multiple foci allowed that. It could be, probably should be, taken as a story of addiction (I realized, literally as I was putting up this post, the similarity of the title, “Audition”, to “addiction”). It can be taken as more.

BASS 2019: Karen Russell, “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.2

I wrote the original draft of “Black Corfu“ in a feverish season of hope and fear; while I was pregnant with my son and considering the unlevel landscapes that children inherit from a new vantage point…. How many people today feel trapped in their orbits, unable to ladder out of poverty, despair? Condemned to work in the shadows while they watch others enjoy health, wealth, safety? The vukodlak seemed like the right vessel for a story about a father’s “zombie” hopes – those undead dreams of freedom that stalk a world where they are as yet unfulfilled.

Karen Russell, Contributor Note

I haven’t read much horror fiction, What I have read has come to me via literary fiction – Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, some of the short stories of Manuel Gonzales – where monsters may appear only very briefly, or even not at all, yet they set a stage for some remarkable human contemplation and drama. Add this story to that list. It’s much less about the supernatural monsters that form so much of the plot, than about the human monstrosity we experience every day.

Don’t let the setting of a 17th century Croatian island scare you away. If you’re aware that doctors and surgeons of that period were not exactly as we know them today, and if you’re familiar with the suspicion surrounding Shakespeare’s famous Moor, Othello, you’ll have no trouble. The monsters the plot revolves around – vukodlaks – seem to be something like zombie werewolves, the dead come back to life as a threat to the living, particularly those who loved them most.

The primary theme of the story is clearly racism, but several other ideas weave in and out quite effectively: rumors as disease, the Other Man, the commonality of perpetrator and victim. But let’s slow down a little; unlike the story, which begins in the middle, let’s start with our (takes a shot*) unnamed protagonist at the beginning.

His wife is very proud of the doctor’s accomplishments. Because he loves her, he never shares the black joke. Not once does he voice an objection to the injustice of his fate, or rail against what the island has made of his ambition. Above ground, the chirurgo practices medicine in his warm salon – performing salubrious bloodlettings, facilitating lactation for the pretty young noblewoman. Whereas this doctor must descend into the Neolithic caves, under the cold applause of stars.
His formal title is the Posthumous Surgeon of Korčula, yet all the bereaved know him by name….He operates on the dead – the only bodies an occupant of his caste is permitted to touch. Before his good reputation was gutted by his accusers, the doctor had a perfect record: during his twenty-three-year tenure on the island, not a single vukodlak had been sighted. Everyone slept more peacefully for his skill – the living and the dead. Whose relief was manifest in the verdant silence of the woods, in the solemn stillness of the cemetery air. Inside that pooling quiet he could hear, unwhispered, thank you, Doctor. Bless you, Doctor.

The Doctor’s job is to perform surgeries, involving cutting the hamstrings, on the newly dead, to prevent them from turning into undead vukodlaks. He had once hoped that his service, his skill, would be noticed and rewarded by allowing him to become a doctor to the living. But such is not to be for a Moor in a Christian land. His religion is not the issue (he seems, in fact, to be Christian), but his ethnicity is. I’m currently reading Don Quixote along with a period history of Spain, so I’ve been somewhat immersed in this prejudice for a couple of months. Sangre limpieza – clean blood, untarnished by Moorish or Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity generations earlier – became an obsession for Spain, a requirement for government positions by the middle of the 16th century. From the story, it seems a similar restriction was in place along the Adriatic coast. The Doctor will not be allowed to rise, literally or figuratively. He makes the best of it: “We treat the living. We treat the fears of the living.”

The events of the story are set in motion by the arrival of Jure, a teenager from an elite family on a neighboring island, an island overrun with vukodlaks. They need a Doctor of the Dead, and he was chosen to fill the role. Why? The Doctor speculates that, while he is from a privileged family, he is too dull to fill any other role. Jure, however, is ill-suited to this role, as becomes evident: he doesn’t study, doesn’t learn, and is constantly afraid of the dark, the cave, the dead bodies, the howls in the night.

The boy stiffens. “Oh God,” he says, jerking back with a shudder. “There has been some mistake. I do not belong down here with you. Please, I want to go home.”
“Home” being synonymous, for this lucky young man, with the sunlit world above.
Blessed are the living, thinks the doctor, his scalpel poised.

When rumors of a vukodlak begin, the boy sees his chance to get out of the dark: he claims the Doctor made a mistake on one of his patients, the daughter of the most elite family on the island. Later he embellishes the story to add an illicit romance. The Doctor’s years of service, his perfect record, no longer matter. All that matters is who is the Moor and who is not. There’s a twist in that the boy’s complexion hints that his family may not have clean blood, but it’s cleaner than the Moor’s.

What I really like about this story is how Russell moves beyond mere plot. The Doctor views the rumors of his incompetence as illness, a contagion; today we’d call it infection, but this was before germ theory, so such spreading illnesses are attributed to miasma, bad air.

So the rumor has penetrated the walls of his home, the mind of his child. …
What if the miasma of the rumor is already changing? Becoming even more poisonous,contagious –
I will have to keep the girls indoors from now on, to prevent their further contamination
What will happen to him, if he cannot stop the rumor from spreading, transforming?

What better way of considering racism as a societal norm, than as bad air, an atmosphere that affects everyone though it can only be seen from outside? Jake Weber’s post looks at the story in the context of the recently released movie Parasite, which, in a darkly comic way, deals with a similar stratification by class rather than by race; I went to see the movie myself, and it’s an interesting comparison.

I’m not sure if it’s related to the racism, but there’s a great deal of color in the story. Mostly red and blue – suggestive colors in a contemporary setting, if not the 16th century – but also black, white, and a sprinkling of others. I don’t see a pattern offhand; I’m tempted to take a few days and look more closely, but prior trips down rabbit holes like these have not really been worth the time expended, so I’ll pass for now at least.

The Doctor’s wife suggests he confess and beg forgiveness, and he is devastated that she has succumbed to the contagion of the rumors. “In an act of spontaneous reformation, his wife immolates her image of him as a perfect man, resurrects him, and forgives him.” But it goes beyond that: he becomes enraged with her, because how could she be so loving, reaching out her hand, if she believed he had caused the vukodlak to emerge? It’s an interesting twisting of threads: he is shocked and ultimately disgusted by her forgiveness. In spite of efforts to find the monster, no one has reported actually seeing it, but the rumors grow. Can you say “fake news?” The townspeople dig up the girl’s casket and find her body is missing, seemingly confirming the horror. But the Doctor has a good idea how this could have happened, and though it involves a monster, it has nothing to do with any vukodlak.

The Doctor sees himself now as the Other Man in a different way: he has become a vukodlak, roaming the hills in the darkness. In a heartbreaking scene, we see him climbing up the hill to the home of the girl who has risen as a werewolf, the most elite home on the island, where the boy Jure is now staying, secure among the elite; he watches the luxurious dinner, the gentle company, through a window from the dark, cold outside:

It is suddenly all too easy to understand why the boy from Lastovo which moved the countess’s body.
We are in the same predicament, then, the doctor considers. You do not want to be a liar, anymore than I wanted to be a monster.

The final scene is ambiguous enough to require re-evaluation of both the Doctor’s story, and the story itself. I spent a long time thinking about it, and I still haven’t made up my mind.

This is one of the stories in Russell’s collection, Orange World, published this past Spring. Between BASS and Pushcart, I’ve read half of the eight stories.
 
 
 
 

* Jake and I have a little drinking game going, and unnamed protagonists are one of the triggers.

BASS 2019: Maria Reva, “Letter of Apology” from Granta #145

A few years ago I read that the KGB had to stop arresting citizens for telling political jokes in the 1960s, due to the Khrushchev thaw, but also because it was impossible to lock up the entire Soviet Union. Instead, officers were to engage offenders in a (re)educational conversation and have them submit a letter of apology.
Shortly after I learned this, my father told me that the KGB tried to recruit him to the Honor Guard in the 1980s. He was a model student and athlete, but the last thing he wanted was to guard Lenin’s Tomb. …
These two sources inspired “Letter of Apology.” I’d already written a story from the perspective of a character who suspects she is being trailed by the KGB, but not one from the perspective of a KGB agent doing the trailing. I wanted to explore the loss of power a Secret Service agent must have felt, having to chase after citizens for a chat and letter. Finally, I wanted to examine the mechanisms of self delusion: how does a person escape a terrible truth?

Maria Reva, Contributor Note

The story starts with a joke. It ends with a joke. In between, it uses irony, sideswipes, descriptive humor, and deadpan silences. And woven into that humor is so much more: a deeply symbolic Russian cartoon about a hedgehog, Schrodinger’s Cat, and Bolshevik sloganeering. I kept thinking of the pre-disco BeeGees: “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me.” The joke is definitely on Soviet agent Mikhail Igorovich, but if he doesn’t get the joke, does anyone laugh?

News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in a suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading, Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage. Following Directive No. 97 to Eliminate Dissemination of Untruths among Party Cadres and the KGB, my superior could not repeat the joke, but assured me it was grave enough to warrant our attention.
One can only argue with an intellectual like Konstantyn Illych if one speaks to him on his level. I was among the few in the Kozlov branch of the agency with a higher education, so the task of re-educating Konstantyn Illych fell to me.
Since Konstantyn Illych was a celebrated poet in Ukraine and the matter a sensitive one, I was to approach him in private rather than at his workplace, in case the joke had to be repeated. Public rebuke would only be used if a civil one-on-one failed. According to Konstantyn Illych’s personal file (aged forty-five, married, employed by the Cultural Club), the poet spent his Sundays alone or with his wife at their dacha in Uhly, a miserable swampland thirty kilometers south of town.
Judgment of the quality of the swampland is my own and was not indicated in the file.

Complete story available online at Granta

The story is online, not very long, and very readable (and, by the way, it will be in Reva’s forthcoming collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear), so I’ll focus on the peripheral issues. Like how underappreciated humor is, and how effective. Chances are you’ll remember a Trevor Noah bit long after a well-researched PBS piece on the same subject has faded from memory. Humor shines a spotlight on the sore spots, the rusty hinges, the wobbly underpinnings we overlook while gazing at the magnificent edifice. Like a good massage, humor pokes us where it hurts, so we know where we have to heal.

Konstantyn Illych broke the silence. ‘So what’s the joke?’
‘I haven’t made a joke,’ I said.
‘No, the joke I supposedly told about the Party.’
Already he was incriminating himself. ‘The term I used was “wrongful evaluation”, but thank you for specifying the offense, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, unexpectedly. ‘What was it?’
‘I cannot repeat the joke.’ I admit I had searched Konstantyn Illych’s file for it, but one of the typists had already redacted the words.
‘You can’t repeat the joke you’re accusing me of telling?’
‘Correct.’ Then, before I could stop myself: ‘Perhaps you could repeat the joke, and I’ll confirm whether or not it’s the one.’
Konstantyn Illych narrowed his eyes.
‘We aren’t moving any closer to a solution, Konstantyn Illych.’

Mikhail is just aching to know what the joke is. But Konstantyn is nobody’s fool. That’s Mikhail’s job.

I found two of the scenes in the story highly cinematic. It’s not the description; I often get bored with detailed lists of colors and materials, cleverly chosen similes acting to reinforce an atmosphere. But these scenes don’t depend on such writing techniques, they depend on stark contrasts between characters, between expectations and realities, and on freight trains of emotion in simple actions and words. First, there’s the rowboat in Konstantyn’s dacha. Second is the poetry reading featuring Konstantyn’s challenge to Mikhail, so proud of his education and his position, so dismissive of the presented poem, “Who, whom?” until it is revealed that those are the words Lenin chose decades before as a slogan framing the conflict between capitalism and communism as the essence of the Bolshevik movement.

The animated Soviet film The Hedgehog in the Fog, where Mikhail follows Konstantyn on the day before the deadline for the letter of apology, is well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch. It’s a constantly shifting metaphor that seems to be, in a couple of ways, a blueprint for the story. The hedgehog, lost in the fog, can’t tell what is danger and what is safety. He resigns himself to the river, until an unseen fish brings him to dry land, and he finally joins his friend the Bear for tea and raspberry jam. But most importantly, it brings up the white horse in the fog: if the hedgehog can’t see her, is she alive or dead? She could be either! I was thrilled to see this thinly-veiled reference to Schrodinger’s Cat in the story, and was all set to dive in up to my neck, but Jake Weber does a great job of laying it out so I’ll just refer to his post and move on.

The film ends with our little hedgehog, comfortably situated with the Bear awaiting tea and raspberry jam, staring numbly into the night and wondering about the horse: “How is she, there in the fog?”

The question is whether Hedgehog would prefer to keep the fog or have it lift to discover what is behind its thick veil. I would keep the fog. For instance, I cannot know the whereabouts of my parents because they are part of me and therefore part of my personal file and naturally no one can see their own file, just like no one can see the back of their own head. My mother is standing proud among the Honor Guard. My mother is standing elsewhere. She is sitting. She is lying down. She is cleaning an aquarium while riding an elevator. Uncertainty contains an infinite number of certainties. My mother is in all these states at once, and nothing stops me from choosing one. Many people claim they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true – it is uncertainty that gives freedom of mind. And so, while I longed to be reassigned to Moscow, the thought of it shook me to the bones with terror.

Looks like Mikhail has an inkling of what selection to the Honor Guard really means, he’s just choosing to stick his fingers in his ears and yell “nyah nyah I can’t hear you.” Because what’s the alternative? And now, unable to get the Letter of Apology on which his own selection to the Honor Guard may depend (one way or another), he’s just floating down the river, clutching his raspberry jam, maybe to drown, maybe to be rescued. This is the central question of the story: is it better to live in ignorance – that is, to believe a comforting lie – or to face a devastating reality? And his family, his mother: How is she, there in the fog?

A dramatic scene with Kostantyn’s wife follows. It’s just a little too Man from U.N.C.L.E. for my tastes (though I once was all about Illya Kuryakin), with touches of Boris and Natasha. But it forces Mikhail up against his deepest fears, as Steve Almond puts it, and leaves him staring ahead in numb shock, like our little hedgehog friend. It left me, as well, wondering about Mikhail: how is he, there in the fog?

And if you think this is a period piece all about the Soviet past, you haven’t been paying attention to a world where the fog is designed by and for power. I see a strong connection to my favorite tweet encapsulating the current era in the U.S.: Adrien Bott’s pithy “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” from October 2015, a sentiment that only gets more true every day.

The story ends with a recapitulation of the original Joke, to remind us how all this started and to reintroduce the humor in a wonderfully self-referential typographical pun. Konstanyn’s wife makes the understatement of the century: “It’s not even that funny.” I’m sure Mikhail agrees.

BASS 2019: Sigrid Nunez, “The Plan” from LitMag #2

The first story I ever published was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and though I did not go on to write fiction in that genre and I’m not even a big reader of such fiction, I have often found myself wanting to write about a crime. For “The Plan”, I wanted to write about a certain type of criminal – violent, murderous, misogynistic – and I wanted to write from his point of view. The fierce anger and resentment that appear to consume so many men today was likely among the influences on my desire to explore this killer’s vision of society and his place in it. Also, I have vivid memories of what New York City was like during the seventies, how crime-ridden and seedy and dangerous it was – a very noir place, it seemed to me – and I saw this as the ideal setting for my crime story.

The first couple of pages give no hint of the elements mentioned in the above Contributor Note; it seems like a reminiscence by an ordinary young man with a mild impulse improve himself:

He wanted to have more culture. This was what he always thought when he found himself at Lincoln Center. He remembered coming here on a school trip once, about ten years ago, when the complex was still partly under construction. ….He’d never been back. He’d never even thought of going back. But earlier that summer of ‘76, on one of his long city walks, he happened to arrive at the Plaza.

As a kid, he’d been a big reader. Later, for some reason he lost the habit. Now he thought he would like to read more, not just newspapers and magazines, but big, interesting books – books that a lot of other people were also reading.
Get more culture. He put that on the list. The list of things to do after.

So we get to know Roden Jones via unremarkable aspects of his musings: the fountain that, at a distance, displays rainbows that only disappear when he approaches to see them more closely; a memory of his mother spray-misting shirts before ironing (I remember this! Does anyone do this any more?); and this list of things do do after. After what? We’re drawn forward to find out.

Even when we find out the event for which he is planning an after is murder, we continue to be drawn forward to find out the details of who and why. The story takes us through Roden’s pedestrian observations of people around him – panhandlers, a teenage girl whose eyes shine through the filth of the rest of her, a pub, a visit to a hooker masquerading as a palm reader. We’re still waiting for the details: who does he want to murder, and why?

We find it on Roden’s train ride home, via his observation of a dozing woman in a very short skirt who takes offense when she discovers she’s attracted the attention of several nearby men.

Wearing a skirt that all but exposed your crotch when you sat down, being outraged when men took notice – that was women.…
When he got up to move to another seat she shot him a smug look , as if she’d scored a triumph over him.
She is a candidate, he thought. What a joy it would have been to go back and make her choke on that gum, just squeeze her neck until the pimples burst.

I started off this scene wrapped up in the question I often ask, maybe a question that isn’t very well-received these days: does it make sense to dress to accentuate one’s sexual attractiveness and then take offense when that attractiveness is noticed? That would’ve been an interesting story. I almost resented the actual story in front of me for shifting the focus back to Roden, who it now seems is not planning a revenge murder, or a profitable murder, or a cover-up murder, but is simply a psychopath who wants to murder someone, and his wife is the most sensible target.

In his Intro to the volume, Anthony Doerr points this out as a successful story with an unlikable protagonist. It’s an issue I’ve come across before in these pages. Criminal psychopaths can be fascinating characters: Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter. But these characters have something in them – sorrow, intelligence, loyalty – that allows us to connect. Roden has a traumatic childhood, a keen eye for observation (I keep coming back to the rainbows: as soon as he married his wife, he realized he hated being married), but is more than anything else the poster child for the banality of evil. A slacker murderer? Or, more accurately, a slacker murderer-wannabe, since he’s still planning his first murder.

I rather lost interest in the discussion of all the details, the planned trip to Aruba where the murder would take place (never murder at home; this was set in the 70s, remember, which was well before Aruba became known as a destination murder site), and his impatience over the intervening months. Jake Weber goes far more into the possible motivational models for murderers in his blog post.

Yet a few things did leap out at me in the middle part of the story. One was what seemed like a shout-out to Jane Austen, apropos of nothing:

He’d always thought a woman couldn’t wait to have kids. Though she was never a loving mother herself – though she heaped sarcasm on her son and beat him with an extension cord – his mother had always assured him this was a universal truth.
But it meant nothing to him, either, that Harley wanted to put off motherhood. His cousin and best man, Ryan, warn him that, wedding accomplished, everything would change. This was another universal truth. –

Presumably, Roden’s lack of reading keeps him from recognizing the phrase “a universal truth”, and his lack of engagement with the world keeps him from wondering that it turns up twice from two very different people. Using his mother’s assertion as irony, that would mean not all women desperately want to have kids, which is far more true (I being a prime example), and in fact Harley shows no particular interest in having children. It also provides a basis for a future scene about women wanting babies, a scene that reveals Harley to be just as self-focused as Roden. Ryan’s comment would entail that everything does not change with the wedding; this I’m a bit less sure of, in the context of real life. In the context of the story, however, I think it’s probably borne out: while Roden immediately regrets being married, he is not substantially changed. Only time has moved him down the road, closer to experiencing his first murder.

I wasn’t even that interested when, In the end, a switcheroo took place, leaving Roden without a suitable victim. But he needs to murder someone. I won’t spoil it, in the interests of readers who may find the story more engrossing than I did. I will say that Roden has a rather interesting realization afterwards, regarding the difference between murdering men and murdering women.

I’ve always said I love a story that teaches me something. Not only did I learn the term “rubber husband” (it’s nowhere near as kinky as it sounds), but I corrected my longstanding misperception of the meaning of noir. For me, noir always brought to mind femme fatales, smoky jazz dives, and rough-edged detectives. I was surprised to find out that detectives are not a necessary element of noir, though crime is usually involved. The key elements are cynicism, alienation, and pessimism, leading to the inevitable downfall of the protagonist.

In a Lithub interview, Megan Abbot explains how the hard-boiled detective story and noir are often conflated, but are in fact different: the hard-boiled detective is ultimately moral, if flawed, cynical, and unable to fix the world; “In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable.” In The Guardian, Otto Penzler explains: “noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.”

This explains the difference between Dexter and Roden. And leads to the question Doerr asked: can a character like Roden, possessing no redeeming qualities whatsoever, work as a protagonist? Is he just too unlikable?

The thing is, I didn’t find him unlikable; I found him uninteresting. He sort of had me at first, but then lost me. Am I fooling myself? Did I lose interest because I learned about his misogyny, his psychopathy? I don’t think so; I still find the incident with the short-skirted woman on the train to have some interesting overtones. And I’m really interested in what Jane Austen is doing in the story; it can’t be by accident, though it seems so random. What if Harley had been more likable, would I have felt some rage at his targeting her, some relief at her safe, if treacherous, departure? Must a story give me someone I care about, for me to care about the story?

Sometimes a story that doesn’t interest me can raise questions that interest me very much, and that’s not bad.

BASS 2019: Manuel Muñoz, “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA #113

I’m learning to listen to the stories as they want to tell themselves: I know that sounds odd, but it comes from years of listening to my mother’s stories and only now realizing that I haven’t been fully understanding them. Most of my recent fiction has come from delving again into the stories she has told me, particularly of the deportation years, as I call them, when my father was repeatedly sent back to Mexico before the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act changed our lives and many of those in our Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. I used to think that my parents’ reunification was the only story but, as the first line proved to me, sometimes other pressures took over. When that line came to me, it snapped me out of my recurrent doubt that the “domestic” or the “realist” story can’t do much in a fraught and complicated world. It reminded me that the infinite ways in which we struggle to keep or make family is more than story enough.

Manuel Muñoz, Contributor Note

It’s all in the details: the choices of which perceptions to present, which details to leave vague, what language to use, and bang! Muñoz creates a sense of caution and foreboding deeper than the mere plot might allow to explore the conflict between suspicion and need.

The first sentence referenced above is “Her immediate concern was money.” Even before we have any idea who she is or where/when this is taking place or what the circumstances are – it could be a recent widow in a Park Avenue penthouse or a noisy tenement, or a suburban teen planning to run away from home, or a business manager who just lost her job – we are all familiar with money problems, so we can feel an immediate sense of affinity with the protagonist, some empathy for what she’s feeling, even if it turns out her concern is losing the vacation home on the beach rather than having nothing to give her kids for dinner that night. And something else besides: we know there are other concerns, behind this first, most immediate concern. This is not a make-it-til-payday crisis; this is deep shit.

When the street fell silent at dusk, the screen doors of the dark houses opened one by one and the shadows of the women came to sit out on the concrete steps.

We soon get the setting: Delfina, and the other women of the neighborhood in agricultural California, have realized their husbands aren’t coming home from the fields tonight, which means they’ve been rounded up in an immigration raid and might not be home for days – or ever. I didn’t realize, until I read Doerr’s brief comment in the volume Introduction, that this was set back in the 80s, the time of the stories Muñoz’ mother told him. It’s hard to read anything about immigrants right now without referencing current events; I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in any case.

She was alert to her own worry, to be sure, but she felt a resolve that seemed absent in the women putting out last cigarettes and retreating behind the screen doors.…The longer she held her place on her front steps, the stronger she felt.

We don’t know a few key details, details that may be part of the current moment or just as much part of the 80s. We don’t know how precarious anyone’s immigration status actually is. We don’t hear about green cards or citizenship. Delfina defines herself as being “from Texas”, an identity borne out by her car’s license plate, which seems deliberately nonspecific. It’s understandable she doesn’t discuss details with her neighbor Lis, whom she’s just met, but it’s a writer’s choice to not inform the reader. This accomplishes a couple of things: without a way to easily categorize, therefore judge or pity, the family, it strips away some of the tendency to read politically, and keeps us focused on a woman whose husband is, for an uncertain period, gone. And it keeps us wondering about the source of this sense of resolve.

Wariness best defines the interaction between Delfina and Lis; they come across as two boxers in a ring, sussing out the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Delfina is nobody’s fool; “On the long drive from Texas, she had learned that strangers only approached when they needed something.” This emphasizes that, although they are physically neighbors, they are strangers. This is not a cozy neighborhood where someone drops in for coffee or you can ask someone to keep an eye on your kid while you run to the store.

Lis twanged my antennae from the get-go; I’m surprised Delfina doesn’t cut her off and go back inside, and that has to mean something. We already know she’s not naïve; maybe desperation? A willingness to entertain suggestions so she can feed her four year old son? Maybe even a longing for the kind of relationship that would entail neighborliness, a willingness to see if that’s possible. But still, the caution.

Lis suggests they go pick peaches for some quick cash. She offers her ten-year-old daughter as babysitter for Delfina’s son – “if you trust her.” She says this trust thing twice, which had me screaming, “No, don’t go!” It’s almost a dare, isn’t it. You mean you don’t trust my kid? In the meantime, there’s the whole issue of trusting Lis.

And, surprise surprise, Lis earns all the wariness, and then some.

Delfina looked down the road to soak in that blessed quiet and the longer she looked, the emptier and emptier it became. The empty row where, she realized, Lis had disappeared like a faraway star.

The language here emphasizes Delfina’s solitude again. No man is an island, but a woman often is. And yet she must depend on the kindness of strangers, a kindness that, as I read, I doubted. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. The surprise is that it wasn’t, that sometimes, kindness, even from a surprising source, is kindness, not a trick. Her gratitude and relief takes the form of a bottle of Coca Cola.

When I read Jake Weber’s post, I found a lot to chew on, so I’m gonna go over there for a while. I think this story worked – where others have failed – because it kept me focused on exactly what Muñoz intended per his CN: how we make a family, whether on Park Avenue, Maple Street, or the dusty edges of the fields.

BASS 2019: Ursula K. Le Guin, “Pity and Shame” from Tin House #76

Tin House art

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her esteemed 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” And what a fierce truth our Portland neighbor told, right up until her journey’s end. Whenever we had the great fortune to publish her, we would take page proofs up the hill to her house, where she would chuckle at our foolishness over tea. In this issue we present a last, long short story, “Pity and Shame,” which is filled with her trademark inventiveness and dark humor….She will be deeply missed. Luckily for all of us, her words and spirit live on.

Tin House Editor’s intro to Issue 76

In his Introduction to this edition of BASS, Anthony Doerr praises the ability of this story to “embrace dual protagonists as well as any short stories I can remember reading.” After the epigraph that precedes the story itself, we see one of the protagonists through the eyes of the other. This becomes something of a theme, as each sees the other quite differently than the other sees themselves, and that view has consequences for both the viewer and the viewed. That sounds a bit garbled, but think of it in terms of the observer effect of physics: to observe a phenomenon changes that phenomenon. In physics, this only has a significant effect with very small things or extremely accurate measurements, but it’s more obvious in real life when it’s people who are observing and observed.

Let’s start with William Cowper, a mine engineer. The time period of the story is uncertain, but it’s somewhere post-Gold-Rush and pre-automobile in a small California town. Cowper was severely injured when a mine he was inspecting caved in.

There was a black rectangle in front of him. Just black, just there. Light around it, so it was like a hole in the light. It didn’t move. At the same time he saw it, a rhythm began to beat in his head like a hammer. It was made of words.
I, fed with judgment
The black rectangle was right in front of him but he couldn’t tell how large it was, how close or far. There was a great pressure on him, paralyzing and sickening him, holding him so he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get away from the black rectangle. It was there in front of him. It was all there was. The words beat at him. He tried to cry out for help. There was nobody to help him.
to receive a sentence
to re CEIVE a SEN tence
WORSE than a BI ram’s

Whether he opened his eyes or shut them there was the black space, the bright glare around it, and the words in the terrible rhythm.
The timbers creaked, he saw the glimmer on them overhead. He tried to cling to that because it was before the judgment, before the sentence, but they were gone, there was dirt in his mouth and the words beating, beating him down.
I, fed with JUDG ment
in a FLESH ly TOMB
AM

Complete story available online at Tin House

This is the poetry of William Cowper, 18th century British poet, no relation to our Cowper. We eventually find out that our Cowper, as a teenager, had been orphaned, and another relative ran off with whatever inheritance should have been his. A lawyer untangling the mess became his mentor and sent him to mining school. When Cowper graduated, his mentor presented him with a book of Cowper’s poetry, which includes “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” the epigraph and the poem Cowper thinks of as he is trapped in the rubble.

I confess, the story of Abiram was new to me; I’d assumed it was an alternate spelling of Abraham until the story directed me to Numbers 16, where the God of Love has the earth swallow up those in the Exodus who start complaining to Moses (yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but they still end up dead). Now Cowper imagines himself “in a fleshly tomb” after being swallowed by the mine. Later, he will see a black rectangle of a Bible on a table, and recall the sensation of being crushed in the mine.

He is rescued and brought to Rae Brown’s home. She’s had her own troubles: a man who took her away, at age eighteen, from her dead-end life where everyone regarded her as the daughter of a slut. Turns out, he wasn’t exactly reliable, and when this boarder/patient shows up, Petey takes off. This similarity between her situation, and Cowper’s at a similar age, is unmistakable.

The local doctor shows Rae how to care for the still unconscious Cowper – “….this man was so broken, so beaten, he had been treated so rough that for a while you couldn’t see him for his injuries.” And here is where we get introduced to the pity and the shame.

First, the pity.

It didn’t sound like much, but when you came to the edge between life and death where he was, and she with him, she saw how strong pity was, how deep it went. She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and fulfilling. It had made everything else unimportant. But the ache of tenderness she felt for her patient did just the opposite, it made things more important. What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze. This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.

And then, the shame, when she admits out loud that she and Petey were never married:

In the kitchen she stood there for a while and felt her face burn red hot. Going around announcing her name, as if being Rae Brown was something to be proud of. It didn’t make any difference if she wasn’t ashamed. Other people were. They were ashamed for her, of her, that she lived among them. They blushed for her. Their shame was on her, a weight, a load she couldn’t get out from under.

Shame pushes her inward; pity extends her outward. Shame changes the observed; pity overwhelms, outshines shame, changes the observer, and through the outstretched hand, the observed. Which brings us to another Cowper poem, which is introduced late in the story: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Maybe you need to get crushed in a cave-in, be lost to your family, to find your way to a better life. The twelve step folks call it hitting bottom.

I had a few hurdles to appreciation of this story. One was my immediate reaction to the word “pity”. It’s a word with a long history in literary discourse, going all the way back to Aristotle, who expounded on pity and fear in tragedy as a means to catharsis, emotional cleansing. I happen to have just run into Aristotle’s Poetics in, of all places, the OCW on Don Quixote that I’m running through, so maybe it was just in the front of my mind at an opportune moment. I went looking for something that would break it down in simpler terms than the Stanford encyclopedia, and found it at the IEP, not as prestigious but a lot easier to understand for those of us who aren’t PhDs. I think I also found the root of my discontent with this story: pity abounds, but there is no fear. Maybe the fear is meant to issue from shame. Who among us doesn’t fear being called out, shamed.

The article also goes into some depth about the difference between condescending pity, and tragic pity. We can pity Cowper because we can see ourselves in his place. Our pity for Rae is harder, since it’s easier to feel superior to her. Something happened to Cowper; Rae did something that brought about her shame. I have to wonder if this is a male/female divide, since Rae had few options, and Cowper did see signs the mine was unsafe and kept going. In any case, the term pity carries a lot of baggage; I’m pretty sure Le Guin intended it that way.

I also found William Cowper, the poet, to be an interesting figure, thanks to a Slate article by Robert Pinsky. And by interesting, I mean a little crazy, actually committed at one point. One surprise for me is that he wrote one of the most grotesque hymns in Christendom: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Christianity revels in blood imagery, but this first verse is more explicitly anatomical than most.

Jake Weber’s post also shows some barriers to his appreciation of the story – and in true Workshop Heretic form, he elucidates them clearly – but keeps due respect for Le Guin’s highly regarded body of work. I’ve never read Le Guin. As a salute – or an apology – to this story, I may add her to next summer’s free-reading list. So, to experienced Le Guin readers: what book would you pick as the best place to start, and why?