BASS 2017: Jim Shepard, “Telemachus” from Zoetrope, 20:1

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

To commemorate Easter Sunday, the captain has spread word of a ship–wide contest for the best news of 1942, the winner to receive a double tot of rum each evening for a week. The contestants have their work cut out for them. Singapore has fallen. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been sunk. The Dutch East Indies have fallen. Burma is in a state of collapse. Darwin has been so severely bombed it had to be abandoned as a naval base. The only combatants in the entire Indian Ocean standing between the Japanese Navy and a linkup with the Germans, who are currently having their way in Russia and North Africa, seem to be us. And one Dutch gunboat we came across a week ago with a spirited crew and a crippled rudder.
We are the Telemachus, as our first lieutenant reminds us each morning on the voice–pipe: a T–class submarine—not so grand as a U, but not so dismal as an S. Most of us have served on S’s and are grateful for the difference, even as we register the inferiority of our own boat to every other nation’s. The Royal Navy leads the world in battleships and cruisers, we like to say, and trails the Belgians in submarine design.

Some of us might find it hard to remember, but there were many hopeless moments in WWII, and this was one of them. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, with the destruction of a big portion of the American naval fleet, isn’t even mentioned because the focus is on Great Britain, but add that to the list, and these were dark days, especially for the British, who saw their empire disappearing, as well as their homeland at risk. When I get into a funk these days, when it seems like Democracy and all the promise of America has been irrevocably lost to a gang of amoral thieves determined to roll back, not just to the 50s or even to the 1850s but to the 1150s, I remember how hopeless WWII once looked. And yet we survived.

Little did the crew of the Telemachus realize that while the Empire was indeed gone, Great Britain would survive – with less grandeur than before, but perhaps a necessary taking-down. But enough navel-gazing; on with the naval-gazing.

Shepard has a way of constructing detailed pieces of reality that sometimes seem to go off into hyperbole, whether it’s an expedition across the Australian desert or up Mount Everest or a mission on a wartime submarine. Usually there’s a personal story embedded within, here with our very young and introverted narrator “The Monk” dealing with his illicit but persistent attraction to cousin Margery.

But it’s a long story, and I got pretty bogged down in the details. I can do submarine stories – I re-read Wouk’s War & Remembrance often and have no trouble with Briny’s adventures under the sea – but I couldn’t find a track to follow here, whether it’s recounting old tales or current tensions. The gist of it is: The food’s awful, it’s cramped and stinky, and they figure they’re gonna die.

The last paragraph, a single long sentence, is gorgeous. The sub has finally come upon a target for their last torpedos, and they fire, knowing this will reveal their location and most likely doom them to the return fire of a surviving enemy ship:

And the image of what I wish I could have put into a letter for my cousin at once appears to me, from the only other time I was allowed at the periscope, along with the rest of the crew, when on a rough day near a reef in a breaking sea we found the spectacle of porpoises on our track above us, leaping through the avalanches of foam and froth six or seven at a time, maneuvering within our field of vision and then surging clean out of the water and reentering smoothly with trailing plumes of white bubbles, all of them, flowing together, each a celebration of what the others could be, until finally it seemed as if hundreds had passed us, and in their kinship and coordination had then vanished into the impenetrable green beyond our reach.

It’s a lovely not-that-ambiguous close, and I went back and gave the story another try; but again I was overwhelmed by the detail, which is I recognize the very strength of the story. I’m wondering if I should take a break – I’ve been struggling with the past few stories – but there are only a couple of stories left. And besides, I was really looking forward to this one, first because I often like Jim Shepard, and second because I was hoping my recent study of the Odyssey would come in handy given the title.

The relevance of the name of the ship, as stated in the story, is its Greek meaning, “far from war”, rather than the quest Odysseus’ son took to find out the truth about his father’s role in the Trojan War, a compressed and reverse parallel to Odysseus’ trip home (and a rather clever way for the storyteller to include events relevant to the father’s problems). But towards the end of the story, Monk daydreams about a letter he could write his cousin: “how some part of me anticipated the Pacific as if a way to discover my father’s fate.” That’s pretty on-point, and, as his father was on a cargo ship that went missing, somewhat likely. Both the Odyssean Telemachus and our Monk grow up in their respective stories – though only Telemachus gets the chance to do something with his newly acquired wisdom.

In his Contributor Note, Shepard cites several inspirations, among others, his affection for “the combination of intrepidness and lunacy” he’s always found in British military history. Then he says something I can’t quite place:

And then my wife, Karen, and I were talking about the kind of guy who likes to blunder through the world pretending that he doesn’t know things and who needs to be reminded every so often that his igrnorance is causing other people pain, and suddenly I had my protagonist.

I recognize Monk’s longstanding feeling of being worthless, of having no abilities except for running, and it made a sort of perverse sense to me that he’d end up on a submarine where running is impossible. But I’m not sure what ignorance is causing people pain. The only clue I find is the boat’s doctor chiding him for not helping out a new crewman, but I suspect it rather has something to do with his cousin, I’m just not sure what.

This story is part of Shepard’s collection The World To Come (the title story is a One Story offering from 2012, when I was still subscribed to One Story), and despite, or maybe because of, the overwhelming detail of this story, I’m tempted to read it. He has a way with words, and a way with historical fiction that reveals humanity as it reflects on the present.

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BASS 2017: Maria Reva, “Novostroika” from The Atlantic 12/16

“Next!”
Daniil took a step forward. He bent down to the hole in the partition and looked at the woman sitting behind it. “I’m here to report a little heating problem in our building.”
“What’s the problem?”
“We have no heat.” He explained that the building was a new one, this winter was its first, someone seemed to have forgotten to connect it to the district furnace, and the toilet water froze at night.
The woman heaved a thick directory onto her counter. “Building address?”
“Ivansk Street, No. 1933.”
She flipped through the book, licking her finger every few pages. She flipped and flipped, consulted an index, flipped once more, then shut the book and folded her arms across it. “That building does not exist, Citizen.”
Daniil stared at the woman. “What do you mean? I live there.”
“According to the documentation, you do not.” She looked at the young couple in line behind him.
Daniil leaned closer, too quickly, banged his forehead against the partition. “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street,” he repeated.
The woman considered an oily spot on the glass with mild interest. “Never heard of it.”
“I have 13, no, 14 citizens, living in my suite alone, who can come here and tell you all about it,” he said. “Fourteen angry citizens bundled up to twice their size.”
She shook her head, tapped the book. “The documentation, Citizen.”

Complete story available online at The Atlantic

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that life was tough in the USSR. I kept wondering why I was reading another story about it, though I suppose every story goes over well-trod ground in some way. But this came at an interesting moment, as so many of these stories have: I’d just seen a story about which countries feel they’re better off than 50 years ago, and which don’t. It seems half of Russians feel they’re better off; about a third feel they’re worse off. Americans, on the other hand, have more people thinking they’re worse off than better. Maybe that’s why we turned our government over to them (oh, yes she did).

I felt very much suspended between two poles while reading this. Many of the events are funny. Come on, being told the building you’re living in doesn’t exist, because it’s not on the city ledger? And then we have Daniil’s job, which seems to involve fitting more food into less tin can:

He set to work drawing diagrams of food products in 400-milliliter cylinders. Chains of equations filled his grid paper. Some foods posed more of a packing problem than others: Pickles held their shape, for instance, while tomatoes had near-infinite squeezability. Soups could be thickened and condensed milk condensed further, into a cementlike substance. String beans proved the most difficult: Even when arranged like a honeycomb, they could reach only 91 percent packing efficiency. In the middle of every three string beans hid an unfillable space. Daniil submitted a report titled “The Problematics of the String-Bean Triangular Void” to Sergei Ivanovich’s secretary.

The official reply to his report: “TO FILL UNFILLABLE STRING-BEAN TRIANGULAR VOID, ENGINEER TRIANGULAR VEGETABLE. DUE FRIDAY.”

Now, packing problems are a neat little subset of mathematics, simplified versions of which show up on geometry, algebra, and calculus tests all the time. Vi Hart even made a green bean vector Matherole for Thanksgiving a few years ago (displaying one of the many reasons why she was just named, along with Matt Parker, named Math Communicators for 2018 by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics). And I have no doubt that, though there is a biological reason botanical products tend to be round, it is possible to engineer – or, breed, as we used to say before genetic engineering was a thing – a vaguely triangular green bean, though it would take much longer than the end of the week (and possibly techniques that were unknown at the time of the story). But it’s funny nonetheless.

This is all tucked around the human story, which is not so funny. Sometimes that works out great; here, I just felt disoriented, by the coffin coming down the stairs and breaking the space heater purchased with the life savings of one of the 14 people living in the apartment. I think I was supposed to cheer when Daniil carved out the building number to show the Office so they would believe the building existed – but I just didn’t feel it.

I tried to look at it as pure metaphor, a State that has lost all sense of the humanity of its people, and yes, I figure that connects to today, where what is said has more impact than what is real. But I just ended up back in the USSR.

I see from the Contributor Note that this is part of a linked-story collection now in progress; that could be interesting, to see different points of view – no doubt, the stubbornly dubious bureaucrat has her story, too – or maybe move back or forward in time.

BASS 2017: Eric Puchner, “Last Day on Earth” from Granta #134


“We’re going to the animal shelter, “ my mom said one afternoon. She was sitting at the kitchen table, holding a glass of white wine. I’d never seen her have a glass of wine before six o’clock. I inspected the bottle on the counter – it was half-empty, sweating from being out of the fridge.
“What?”
“I told your father that if he didn’t come get the dogs this morning, I was taking them to the shelter. I’ve been asking him for six months. It’s past one and he isn’t here.”
“They’ll put them to sleep,” I said.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No one’s going to adopt some old hunting dogs. How long do they try before giving up?”
“Seventy-two hours.” My mom looked at me, her eyes damp and swollen. “Your father won’t deal with them. What am I supposed to do?”….
“We should do something for them,” I said, “before we take them to the shelter.” I needed time to think.
“Good idea,” my mom said, looking relieved. “Where’s the happiest place for a dog?”
“The beach?”
She smiled. “Of course. The beach. My God, I don’t think they’ve ever been.”

You know what’s going to happen right from the start of this story. You know the kid’s going to run to Dad, tell him about the dogs so he can heroically save them from the cruel fate Mom has devised. And you know the kid’s going to be disappointed, because Dashing Dreamers with Big Ideas never come through in the day-to-day crises; that’s why they married Practical Partners in the first place. And you know the dogs are going to be vivid symbols of the Family Left Behind.

This could be turned into a routine tearjerker, but Puchner steers clear of the biggest pothole: now an adolescent, the boy has little attachment to the dogs. Now all he has to do is outgrow the hero-worship for his father. As an additional inoculent against sappiness, the story handles the crucial scene with a subtle, bittersweet innocence, as if seen through the lens of additional experience that underlined how important this day was.

To me, the heart of the story had little to do with the dogs, but about a shifting of loyalties. A coming of age (as much as I hate the term), as the kid realizes not just that he’s outgrown the dogs and the uncritical admiration of the big-dreaming dad, but how valuable – and even amazing, superheroes who can walk on their hands – a practical, reality-based mom can be.

I was surprised to find, via the Contributor Note, that this story was mostly autobiographical. It takes some discipline to find a way to move away from the personal, bring it to the universal; to keep the emotion from sapping up the later recollection from tranquillity (apologies to Wordsworth).

I have a soft spot for Eric Puchner; his “Beautiful Monsters” from BASS 2012 was one of my favorite stories from that volume. I’m glad to see both stories are included in his collection, published earlier this year, that uses this as the title story, a collection focusing on all the perturbations of family.

BASS 2017: Kyle McCarthy, “Ancient Rome” from American Short Fiction #62

We might as well begin with the homes. The condos, the townhouses, the penthouses, the classic sixes and sevens. Let’s begin there and with the servants that cook and clean them, though “servant” is not the term used. The wealthy prefer “housekeeper.”
This one time, I was called for an emergency paper intervention, dispatched on twenty-four hours’ notice to Seventieth and Park, where Isabel Shear led me past her snowy-white bedroom, a capacious boudoir whose proportions easily exceeded my Brooklyn studio, and into her office, a tiny little space by the back staircase dedicated solely to the serious intellectual work of eighth grade.
The assignment that had caused Isabel Shear so much grief read as follows: Compare the impact of the cult of domesticity on an upper-class woman, a working-class woman, and a slave during the last years of the Roman Empire. If you send your child to a top Manhattan independent school, she will complete essentially this assignment for the next twelve years of her life. Note the nod to historical relevance, the dutiful attention to women and minorities. Note, too, that Isabel must complete this assignment using only primary documents, because Trinity wants to train her to be a real historian. How many primary documents from 100 AD, do you think, discuss the housekeeping practices of slaves?

There’s a great deal lying just beneath the surface of this story: the social benefits and liabilities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. I find it particularly interesting that the gender of the narrator is left vague for the first half of the story, until she’s revealed to be female, and her race is never specified, though there are subtle hints (what I call “othering” in that she specifies her student is white; if there’s a more sophisticated term for this, please let me know) that she’s not white.

The story reaches across millenia to connect a contemporary 8th grader with her Roman counterparts: Isabel is as clueless about the Filipino servant who brings her a sandwich, and the educated but unsuccessful writer who helps her with her paper (which, by the way, seems astonishingly sophisticated for 8th grade; do upscale middle schoolers really read Marcus Aurelius?), as she is about the slave class in Rome, who, she insists, can’t have feelings of domesticity since they don’t have homes. That in itself is a pretty loaded idea. Can a slave make a home in quarters provided by her owner?

Layered on top of that is our narrator, a failed writer (another failed writer; how many is that in this volume now, three, four?) who got into Harvard on the strength of a play she kind of accidentally wrote in high school; she tutors the children of the rich to pay the rent. This, I learned from the Contributor Note, is something McCarthy actually did herself for a while. I recognize myself in her attitude towards her education: “During my teenage years I conceived of my intelligence as a natural phenomenon, like the sea. The sea does not try to get better. The sea is.” That’s an attitude math’s growth-mindset people have done their best to challenge, but it remains: smart is something you are or aren’t, not something you can be. And if intelligence works that way, what about the rest of it? Is self-improvement in any facet possible, or must we remain what we were born?

Another line I found intriguing: “All thirteen-year-old girls want to be seventeen, unless they want to be ten again.” I’ve always thought teenagers want to be (or at least look) older, but I can understand how tempting it might be to turn back the clock and not worry about growing up for a while. Hence the references to
Reviving Ophelia
and the self-destruction that often besets girls when they hit puberty. The retreat-into-childhood goes along with the tutor’s story of her attitude towards sex in high school: “But I wanted him to pressure me; I wanted to have sex without choosing, fully, to have sex; I wanted to avoid responsibility, just a little bit, for my wanting.” This is a terrifying thought, since it’s pretty much the defense of every rapist. Adolescence seems to have become a very dangerous game.

She says,”Are you a feminist?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you?”
She hesitates. “Yes.” She looks both bashful and proud. “But I don’t do any feminist work.”
“Me neither,” I tell her, and we grin at each other, like two housewives who’ve just admitted that we don’t iron the sheets.
Later, though, I keep thinking about it: feminist work. What is feminist work?

This exchange is wonderful. I know there are women who claim they aren’t feminists, but that usually means they are pro-life and want to be stay-at-home moms and let hubby worry about the money. To have those choices is a byproduct of feminism; to make those choices is in itself a feminist act (but to legislate those choices to force them on others is another matter, and no, we’re not going to fight about that here). But then these two feminists are defined by a distinctly unfeminist metaphor, housewives ironing sheets (oh, the irony?). For the record, I’m in my 60s and I’ve never ironed a sheet; I can’t believe it’s a guilty secret in the age of permapress.

But the puzzle of “feminist work” is what I take with me from this story. What is feminist work? I suppose the phrase brings to mind political action, but it’s really embedded in all our lives, men and women alike. I’m on my 4th repeat of the TV series Mad Men, and boy do Peggy and Joan do feminist work in an era when feminism meant lesbians in orthopedic shoes reading Gertrude Stein. And by the way, Don Draper has his feminist moments, though he more than erases them with his distinctly anti-feminist moments.

And the story overall? American Short Fiction is a highly prestigious publication. So again, I’m puzzled, since I found this story to be more beads on a string – a collection of interesting points with a vague connection in the relationship between the tutor and student – than a narrative fabric highlighting interwoven ideas around a main theme. I seem to be missing the boat a lot these days.

BASS 2017: Fiona Maazel, “Let’s Go to Videotape” from Harper’s 06/16

Who doesn’t film his kid experiencing a threshold moment? It was bittersweet, really. Of course it was. Gus pedaling away on his own, newly aware of his autonomy, which contravened everything Nick had taught him by force of grief, the bond between them fortified by the loss of Nick’s wife — Gus’s mom — three years ago in a car accident that was still being litigated today.

Complete story available online at Harpers

There were times in this story when I wanted to grab Nick by the shoulders and shake him. I think that’s the point.

I had a lot of trouble with the overall voice, including the narrative perspective. I think it’s supposed to mimic the narration of the videos described in the story – awkward and distant – but I found it rather unpleasant. I don’t insist on “beautiful writing” – in fact, I’m suspicious when I start to think, “Wow, what beautiful writing” because at that point I’m no longer in the story – but I really… well, there’s no other way to say it, I hated the way this was written. I keep thinking of that Cary quote I drag out from time to time, about “Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it neatly like this?” and understand there’s a reason it’s written this way. But that’s like saying sardines are supposed to taste like that – fine, but don’t expect me to enjoy them.

I find a minor incident in the opening, and the final climactic scene, to have a lot in common.

“Too tight,” Gus said, and yanked at his chinos. The audience had been told to dress business casual, which had Nick stuffing Gus into last year’s pants and polo, looking at the result and thinking: big picture. He would leave the superlative fashion sense to double-parent families and focus, instead, on celebrating his son with 5 million other Americans.

To phrase the problem as one of fashion, instead of Gus’ discomfort, sums up Nick’s cluelessness. This becomes acute during the final scene when, after viewing Gus’ achingly sad class video, he focuses on making it better by posting it, because all those Likes make him feel better. He’s looking everywhere but where the problem is: Gus is heartbroken, and alone with his sorrow. Nick isn’t a bad guy, or even a bad father; he’s hurting, too, and has substituted a lawsuit for his own mourning.

I seem to be as off-the-wavelength of this story as Nick is off-the-wavelength of his son. Maazel’s Contributor Note indicates she wanted to do something about the plusses and minuses of connections via social media, and I see a lot of praise for the disturbing implications of that. Now, I’ll admit I get pretty defensive when people start putting down the internet, since it’s more or less where I am most comfortable, but I think the Youtube angle is merely an update of, oh, having a baby to save a bad marriage, or moving to a new town after a loss to change the scenery. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a more general application of any writer dealing with any life event by creating words: I simply read it as a father who can’t face his own grief, let alone his son’s.

BASS 2017: Sonya Larson, “Gabe Dove” from Salamander #43

I met Gabe Dove when I was sad and attracting men who liked me sad.
There was the jeweler with goopy eyes, the lawyer who overtexted. Men with lotioned hands, combed beards, tight jeans. Many had allergies. Few ate bread. Inside of two coffees, they were chronicling the history of their itchy and unrested bodies. I listened. I was too weak to protest. All of our hearts had recently been destroyed. They brought me tulips, sent me jokes from the Internet. I think they enjoyed observing somebody sadder than them. They thought me gentle, soft, easy on their hearts.
“Enough of these limpdicks,” said Angela…. “You’ve got to meet someone normal,” she said. “Someone from Shelby.”

Some stories practically read themselves. I was dubious at first – oh, no, a dating story, well, there’s one every year – since I’m long past the point where dating stories have anything new to say to me. But, in the same vein of poetic form creating meaning, the experience of reading the story embodies its own meaning (or at least part of its meaning): what started out as familiar, boring, predictable turned into anything but.

Chuntao is trying to get back in the game after a broken heart, a not-uncommon scenario. But she’s not interested in Asian men; they’re too familiar. I suspect this is an attitude I, as a white woman, just can’t understand. Then again, I can’t really understand having preferences in men, having never had a lot of choices for reasons having nothing to do with race.

I wanted a good one. I was ready. But I knew that these things don’t happen right away. You have to go through some months. You have to go through some people. Who knows why, but that’s how the universe works: it doesn’t cough up your people right away.
In the meantime, there are some opening acts. Some vaudeville.

After a series of losers, her friend Angela fixes her up with a guy who turns out to be Asian. Chuntao’s surprised, disappointed, and a little resentful towards Angela: is this part of the “he’s Asian (or black, or Latinx, or anything but white, really) so he must be perfect for her” thinking that fixer-uppers sometimes get into? By the way, this also works for things like vocation (“he’s a lawyer” when he’s on Mergers & Acquisitions and you’re a Public Defender) or birthplace (“he comes from Colorado, too” as if Colorado doesn’t have different kinds of people) or really anything where a minority group is seen as being homogeneous by the majority group.

The lucky fellow is Gabe Dove.

I once knew a girl we all called Lucy Bell – her first name was Lucy, her last name Bell – just as Chuntao keeps refering to this guy as Gabe Dove. It’s a nice stylistic/comedic touch, but goes beyond gimmickry: “His was a name that compelled you to utter it in its entirety. And in general that seemed true of Gabe Dove: you looked at him and had the feeling you were seeing all of him, all at once.” We will all come to see that there is far more to Gabe Dove – who arrives at their first date towing a small suitcase, a weird tic I still can’t parse; is it more of a briefcase, a backpack, too heavy to carry, or is it a signal of being ready for anything? – than anyone might first suppose.

During this first date, she decides “He’s safe. A known quantity… he can’t hurt me that much. He doesn’t have the power” again foreshadowing what will come down the line when she learns that the contempt she feels for familiarity is, like the familiarity itself, a mistake.

When deciding apres sex if she should sleep over, he praises the products of a nearby bakery. “I stayed, on the promise of a maple-glazed donut. I told you: I was sad.” Hey, don’t feel bad, Chuntao; I’d do the same for a chocolate-frosted with sprinkles from Frosty’s. Then again, I’m pretty sad, too, but a different kind of sad.

As the story of their relationship continues, you keep waiting for that film motif (responsible for a million abused women and another million stalkers, btw) known as the “slow thaw”, where she realizes he’s really special and falls in love. That isn’t this story, and I’m so relieved I’d love it on that basis alone. But wait, there’s more.

Instead, she gets fed up with his niceness, and when one evening he tells her how comfortable he feels with her, she starts treating him like crap. Yeah, we know this motif too, but no, not really: she tells him to punch her. This exposure of the deepest nature of craving hurt to make the hurt go away (been there, done that) is kind of shocking, doubly so because it comes from a nice Chinese American girl, the last stereotype we expect to have actual feelings. Yet it comes from such an organic place – we’ve known this was coming, it was more of a recognition than a surprise – it doesn’t feel forced, like an “oh, I’m going to play against type now” plan a lesser writer might’ve hatched. We believe her, that she to hurt, yes, but we know she also wants to hurt Gabe Dove (see, now she’s got me doing it) by turning him into a scumbag she can leave for cause, while leaving a scar on his otherwise pristine (she believes) conscience.

“I’ll punch you,” he said quietly. “But not now.”

Whoa. Now we’re in Hitchcockian suspense, as we follow her through day of wondering if he’s going to punch her today, at the movies, in bed, on the way home. And make no mistake: she’s getting a charge out of this. He’s not familiar any more. This is not something her cousins would do.

I’ll leave the resolution unspoiled (the story is available as a standalone in several formats in addition to the original publisher and BASS), but it’s surprising and disturbing and satisfying and, again, comes organically from the story, from these people, not from paper cutouts of these people.

One of the flash pieces on my favorite fictions list is a Gabrielle Hovendon story titled “Your Hindenberg”. I kept thinking of that story after I’d finished this one, and wondering why some are always looking, not for love, but for hurt, and how one seems to create, or at least feed into, the other.

That, plus race. The story, as I’ve indicated, is loaded with it, but Larson’s Contributor Note broadens the range even more and takes me outside the story: on dating sites, Asian women and white men are the most requested, while Black women and Asian men are the least. I wonder how many of these matchups are satisfying, since I’m betting it’s the stereotypical idea of the Asian women (submissive, tiny, innocently sexy) and white men (rich, powerful) that’s so attractive, and the openly racist view of black women (angry, fat) and Asian men (boring, unemotional) that’s so repellent. I’ve noticed these stereotypes play out for Asians in particular on several competitive reality shows, as well. And on competitive cooking shows, if you’re Asian or Latinx, you’d better cook Asian or Latinx food (at least, when I was watching; it’s been a few years, things may have changed). And by the way, as Larson notes, how is it ok that we have racial preferences for dates anyway? Is there any other area of our lives – and I speak of thinking people now – where we’re fine with declaring, “I want someone white”?

That, plus donuts. My kind of story.

The Greek Hero in 24 Hours mooc

Course: The Ancient Greek Hero

Length: 15 weeks, 5-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Gregory Nagy & his Board of Readers
Quote:

Explore what it means to be human today by studying what it meant to be a hero in ancient Greek times.
In this introduction to ancient Greek culture and literature, learners will experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making spanning over a thousand years from the 8th century BCE through the 3rd century CE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus….
No previous knowledge of Greek history, literature, or language is required. This is a project for students of any age, culture, and geographic location, and its profoundly humanistic message can be easily received without previous acquaintance with Western Classical literature.

Short version: An outstanding class, focusing on thematic elements of Greek literature, particularly by use of detailed examination of language. It’s a massive class in length, depth, and complexity, but it’s one of those “if you get half of it, you’ve accomplished a lot” things.

The course was set up as a series of “hours”; in most weeks, two of these hours were covered. The presentations varied: often, Prof. Nagy would discuss some element with a student, postdoc, or fellow professor, each of whom might have different specialities. In the early weeks, outside materials were covered frequently: films (several Blade Runner clips in particular– “Like tears in rain. Time to die” – were discussed in detail), ballet, songs and rituals from a variety of cultures – Maori, Slavic, Korean, Ethiopian – and more contemporary literature, showing how elements of Greek song culture persists today.

Each hour focused on eight to fifteen core passages, often from several works, using one or two Greek words as a basis for the thematic topic: kleos, akhos/penthos, therapon, sema, psūkhē, dikē, and so on. These words and the intricacies of their meanings in different contexts and eras formed a backbone around which the discussion grew. From there things mushroomed into a huge treasure chest of philosophy, history, artistic interpretation, linguistics, and literary theory. It’s quite an experience, but one I find hard to describe from outside the course.

For example, in the early weeks we covered Achilles’ decision-making process on whether to return to Greece or continue fighting. His mother told him if he left, he would live a long, safe, unheralded life, but if he stayed, he would die but would receive glory (kleos) forever – which has special resonance since we’re reading these words written a few thousand years ago, recited hundreds of years before that. Then, in one of the last hours, we see Plato rewrite Achilles so his decision is not based on a desire for fame but on justice. Is this legal? What does it mean, to edit the story this way?

The materials insist the class is suitable, even intended, for those without any prior exposure to ancient Greek literature. It’s absurd for me to second-guess these guys – the course has been part of the Harvard curriculum for decades (one of my mooc buddies took it when she was an undergrad there), it was one of the earliest moocs on edX, and hell, even Oprah took it, or at least took parts of it, since she mentioned it in the 2013 commencement speech she delivered at Harvard – but I wouldn’t have wanted it to have been my first classics course. The focus is not on plot or traditional interpretation – you’re expected to read the works and get that on your own – but on how heroic elements are conveyed and how these run through different genres and ages of literature.

While there’s a wealth of material on all of the covered works (I found The Rugged Pyrrhus to be useful for brief traditional summaries, while Overly Sarcastic Productions is the Mad Magazine of hilarious classics/history interpretation) I’m not sure I could’ve done all the work required if I hadn’t already taken coursework on these plays and poems. Actually, I am sure: I’d never read the entire Iliad as a single work before (and still haven’t read the Catalog of Ships or the details of most of the battles, though a lot of that was covered in the class) and it was an intense four weeks; sustaining that for 14 weeks would’ve been absurd. But, everyone’s different.

Graded material was minimal: a few multiple choice questions and a set of text-interpretation questions at the end of each hour. The questions were surprisingly difficult, with subtle shades of meaning or levels of detail frequently distinguishing one answer from another. Or maybe I’m just stupid; although I “passed”, I did fairly poorly on the graded material, and often felt perplexed as to why. But since my purpose has nothing to do with grades, I did the best I could to understand what was being asked, versus what I thought was required.

Also part of the grading was the discussion forum. I really hate forced discussions, so I skipped this entirely. For this class, discussion was held on an outside site which required separate login permission. At the time I started, I was kind of annoyed by this, as well as by the requirement to post; I’ve signed up for these in other courses, and it annoys me to have so many logins and hand out my email to so many systems I’m only going to use once (and makes me a little nervous in this time of electronic insecurity). So I didn’t request a login/password. I came to regret that about halfway through since I found I had questions and observations I would have liked to have shared. Every week a status email would introduce the new material and give a link for obtaining the necessary permissions, so I could have changed my mind at any point, but I didn’t.

I used Cerego as a study aid, creating a “memory set” for the course, and I’m quite glad I did. It was useful during the course itself, to keep track of words and concepts and characters (who was Eëtion again, what does lugros mean?) since there was so much to remember, but it’s also nice to have it as a reminder afterwards, to retain more than I otherwise would have. And it’s fun to be reminded of things down the road, when the timed recall goes to weeks and then months.

A free textbook is part of the course; this can be downloaded as a PDF or purchased as an e-book, or just read online. It includes significant introductory details on the video material; I found that I had a much better grasp of things when I spent the time to go through the text before the videos, than when I skipped it for lack of time. Many of the quiz questions I found puzzling were, in fact, in this introductory material, though it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that: details of motivations and deeper levels of interpretation. It’s fascinating reading.

Our project is about heroes— not the way we may understand them when we first hear the word, but the way the ancient Greeks understood them in the context of ancient Greek civilization. I’m arguing that if you understand what the ancient Greek hero is, you simultaneously will understand far better what ancient Greek civilization is….
And I guarantee you, if you get through especially the Iliad and the Odyssey and the seven tragedies and the two dialogues of Plato, you will really feel the way Herodotus says you should feel: that you’ve had a civilizing experience.
…we’re trying to do it all at once in translation, with key words embedded in the translation so that you don’t get tempted to read into the text. You keep reading out of the text, because these key words are some of the basic words of Greek civilization. I can go away saying that you, if you participated in this, you are civilized by the standards of ancient Greek civilization. We are essentially making an attempt to engage with all of Greek civilization, even if we start with specific things that we hope will inspire people to go even further.

~ Prof. Gregory Nagy

I think of this course as “Modpo for classics” – a kind of “spend as much time as you have” thing, where you can probably zip through it and get the basics (the key points are repeated many times), or you can spend all your free time exploring depths and asides. And, it’s apparently a course a lot of people take more than once, just to get more out of it.

I knew about this a couple of years ago, but I didn’t want to bother with the Iliad; to me, it was all about battles and war. I’m very glad that I now understand it’s about far more than that.

BASS 2017: Noy Holland, “Tally” from Epoch 65:3


 
I knew a sober man whose brother had died driving drunk on the high windy pains. The living brother, the sober brother, took to drink straightaway. He was belligerent and incompetent, drunk, and a gentle, almost girlish man, sober. He drank schnapps of every flavor and hue.
It was my job to pour and to tally, to feed a coin now and then into the jukebox when the quiet was too much to bear.
 

The power of this very short piece – less than 500 words – is in the poetic use of language. Look at all the contrasts between drunk and sober in those first sentences. The third sentence seems oddly worded and punctuated, not easy to understand, and again I think of that Joyce Cary quote: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” Having just read “The Chicane”, I think of it as a chicane, a little bend in the road that says, slow down, pay attention. Or maybe just borrow from “Close Encounters…”: “This is important. This means something.”

What does it mean? I haven’t got a clue, other than the aforementioned contrasting between drunk and sober. Then I read Holland’s Contributor Note (“…we are sometimes driven into the mouth of what we most fear”) and wonder if it’s not so much a contrast as a conflation, a bringing together.

But there is a story here, with a plot and everything:

One night after several months of this I let myself accompany him home. I drove us out to the turn his brother had missed and we lay in the grass for the stars. I felt pity, yes, and alluring. Enchanted by a grief that wasn’t mine. We heard a bird in the dark we couldn’t see. Meteor, meteoroid, meteorite, we remembered. Sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic..

I can’t help but compare this scene with the final stargazing scene from Hempel’s “Chicane”, a rendering far more sophisticated yet nowhere near as intimate. Of course, in that story, the motivations were completely different, a double-trap scenario rather than two people trying to find comfort in spite of everything.

Again, I’m drawn to the language. That sentence about pity, the clauses don’t parse the way the parallel structure makes you expect them to parse. “For the stars” – that, too, isn’t worded in a typical way. It makes sense, but only if you think about it. It sounds beautiful when read out loud. There’s something at work here, and I don’t know what.

In my travels, I found an interview with Hilary Plum at The American Reader – an interview thanking editor Gordon Lish for his “obsession with language” – that might help:

Character is a function of language—a collection of errors and deviations that resonate with certain behaviors. As with every other element in fiction, it is a record of a writer’s decisions…. Character is a construct which issues from the human animal, from blended and conflicting impulses, not simply the mouth and ear.

Noy Holland

No, that doesn’t really help, though it’s intriguing that errors, deviations, decisions, and conflicting impulses might find their way into the text of a story about grief and self-destruction. I never seem to understand what writers mean when they talk like this; it seems so mystical, something you need to be on a higher plane of consciousness to understand, and I’m left with the words of the story, phrases that fit into spaces in my brain that may have been made for them, like neurotransmitter receptors waiting for serotonin and creating a feeling of satisfaction when it wanders in.

So what happens to these people, the grieving brother (or is he angry? Can’t you be both?) and the bartender who decided to accompany him on this night? They have sex, of course, and there’s something about a big clawfooted bathtub, but mostly it’s the earthquake.

The window glass shook. Water sloshed in the tub. We thought we’d caused it. We had lain in his drunk brother’s ashes, in grass where he had gone ahead. It had not been my grief but I had claimed it. The mountains shuddered. The horizon bucked, it buckled – the boulders strewn and the grasses, erratic, the path of the glacier plain. This isn’t metaphor. This was an earthquake, a moving ripple – ground I had thought of as solid warped, and returning to liquid again.

This confluence of guilt, of the insecurity of the very ground on which we step, of stolen grief, doesn’t do as much for me as the scene in the grass. I almost wish the story had stopped there. But of course that would’ve been a different story. What does it mean for these two, having shared all kinds of intimacies while not appearing to be people given to intimacies, that their first night ends with an earthquake? Is it a warning? Punishment? A sign to mark a new beginning? A cosmic tallying of sins and blessings? A story to tell their grandkids? Or is it just a shift in the earth’s crust caused by forces going back aeons, and has nothing to do with them? As with the Hempel story, I don’t understand, but I want to, and that gives it a certain beauty.

This story is included in Holland’s collection I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like, released this past January. It’s the perfect title for a collection of this kind of story.

BASS 2017: Amy Hemple, “The Chicane” from Washington Square Review #37

When the film with the French actor opened in the valley, I went to the second showing of the night. It was a hip romantic comedy, but it was not memorable in the way his first film had been, the bawdy picaresque that made his name.
More than thirty years ago, my aunt Lauryn had been hired to accompany him on interviews and serve as an interpreter. She was a student at the university in Madrid, taking a junior year abroad from her home in the States in the American midwest.
Lauryn was lively and funny, a passionate girl with evenly tanned skin. The actor remained in character, and when she wrote him a month later to say that she was late, she did not hear anything back.

Amy Hempel is one of those writers who consistently writes stories I’m not sure I understand, but I love them anyway and think about them long after reading because I want to get to the heart, I can tell there’s something important and beautiful there. Stories like this one. On the surface, it’s easy to read, but there’s a huge vein of subtext throbbing through it and I’m not sure I’ve yet tapped into all the power it has to offer.

Every story must be read in a particular present, and by a particular person with real-life experiences. Sometimes the present is immaterial; sometimes it’s a flashing neon light. Reading this story, this week, was a bit surreal. But it’s important, I think, to separate what’s on the page from what’s in the news or what’s in one’s memory.

The events of the story are clear, if intricate and interwoven. The long-ago seduction by a French film star that resulted in a pregnancy and suicide attempt, both of which were unsuccessful; a later marriage to race car driver Macario from Portugal; his transplantation to Middle America (“She wanted an American husband after all”); and a second, successful shot at both the pregnancy and the suicide. All of this took place years in the past.

A chicane, I’ve learned, is a little bend in a road, intended to slow traffic. It’s also found on one of Macario’s race courses. And, of course, many of our lives have little twists that require care to negotiate.

The inciting incident for the story is Macario’s revelation, to our narrator niece only, that he has, courtesy of the Portugal police routinely recording trans-atlantic calls at that time, a tape recording of Lauryn’s last phone conversation with her mother, as she was dying while on a jaunt to Portugal:

I am sure that if Lauryn had wanted a doctor to come and pump her stomach, she would have phoned the front desk of the Ritz Hotel and told them to send one up to her room. She wanted to talk to her mother, and hear her mother tell her from thousands of miles away that James was sleeping in the guest room in his crib, and that it was hard to make out what she was saying – could she speak up? – and that she would feel better when she woke up in the morning, and then ask her mother to stay on the line while she sang herself to sleep.

While the events are laid out plainly, the motivations are not. I find aeons of mystery in this scene. Was the phone call a passive-aggressive act on Lauryn’s part, or was she truly looking for a little comfort as she lay down to die? Or, was she hoping for rescue as before, but the reprised suicidal gesture turned tragic? Does the niece hold Mom accountable for not knowing something was wrong and taking some action? Does Mom hold herself accountable? Is she accountable? Why did Macario reveal this to the niece, and no one else? Did he need company in his misery, or was it some kind of confession? We see only his surface in the story; is that to hide something, or to reveal it? The psychology of these people is a depth I can’t plumb, but it’s fascinating to speculate.

What the niece does with the information about the tape is another twist laden with possibilities. She visits the film star from the first affair. Is this a transference of blame and resentment outside the family? Or does she somehow hold him accountable for Lauryn’s later troubles?

The encounter is incognito, and makes a wonderful scene:

I introduced myself as Lauryn, and spelled out where the y replaced an e. Did I expect him to flinch? With his arm around my shoulders, he narrated what we looked up and saw. I would not have known if he was right about the constellations. His accent almost worked on me. But when he stopped talking, and leaned in for the kiss, I ducked, and said, “You can remember me as the girl you showed the new moon to.”
“But darling,” he said, “there’s a new moon every month.”

The last paragraph in many ways extends that scene, and, you might say, carries on the family tradition. There are those who will insist that for writers, the trappings of grammar are unimportant, that all that matters is to tell a compelling story. Here, we see the other side: tense and punctuation, the tools of a writer, are everything.

Hempel’s Contributor Note only adds more poignancy. It seems there is a cassette tape in her life, and she has been waiting decades to write the story, to find the way to put it together. “I felt a particular weight of responsibility to get it right.” I wonder if that sense of purpose came through the words, made me want to understand more than I do, made me willing to think longer and deeper about these people and their motivations.

How Oxford MOOCs (charmingly, I must say) – From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development

Course: From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Oxford/edX
Instructor: Sir Paul Collier
Quote:

How can poor societies become prosperous and overcome obstacles to do so?… By enrolling you will have the opportunity not only to interact with the course materials but also to participate in a live Q&A session with Professor Collier.
This course will discuss and examine the following topics:

• The role of government and the key political, social and economic processes that affect development;
• Why societies need polities that are both centralised and inclusive, and the process by which these polities develop;
• The social factors that are necessary for development, including the importance of identities, norms, and narratives;
• The impact of economic processes on development, including discussion about how government policies can either promote or inhibit the exploitation of scale and specialisation;
• The external conditions for development, including trade flows, capital flows, labour flows and international rules for governance.

Short version: A completely charming, highly informative course for those not terribly familiar with global economics. And, trust me, “charming” is the last word I’d ever expect to use about economics.

When I saw Oxford was now on edX, I was seriously psyched. I’ve become rather used to taking courses from Harvard and MIT at this point (and Stanford and Duke and Penn and…) but wow, Oxford? THE Oxford? I was very curious to see what they’d come up with. But… did it have to be economics?

For me, economics is one step below project management on the scale of things I never want to think about. I signed up anyway, figuring I’d take a peek and unenroll. I guess I was expecting something out of Shadowlands: dark, musty rooms with overstuffed chairs, stuffy dudes running around in weird cloaks, and boring ugly words like “marginal utility” and “commodities”, formulae and graphs. Instead, I found wonderful stories about incompetent but strong farmers bullying competent but weak farmers into submission and doing business with the apple orchards in the next valley and what happened in England when the Romans pulled out in 410 CE and all about the Dutch flooding the fields to hold off the Hapsburgs …. So I hung around.

The first three weeks continued in storytelling vein, with occasional mentions of scary words in a nonintrusive way, like “in other words, we need a market” or “the technical word for this is decentralization”. The real world was always part of the moral of the story, and I found it fascinating to hear why 20th century Tanzania developed much more peacefully than Kenya in spite of having the same mix of tribal cultures thrown together by European-drawn boundaries (that third week on narratives and identities, and their effect on national policy and democracy, also struck a lot closer to home; frankly, it scared what was left of the hell out of me because it put a vocabulary and a dismal prediction to what I see snowballing every day). Things got a bit more nitty-gritty in weeks four and five, but by then I really wanted to find out how Buttonopolis (aka Qiaotou, China, where 2/3 of the world’s buttons are made) came about, or how the tiny island nation of Mauritius developed its economy via serendipitous garment manufacturing.

Each week included video lectures, delivered to an unseen/unheard class (maybe; it might have just been production crew or even an empty room, but it was convincing and served the purpose) rather than read-to-camera, a technique more mooc teams should consider. Early on, some ungraded “Think!” activities were included, such as: Which Risk of Protest graph do you think applies to a democracy, and which to an autocracy? What would you advise the Head Thug to do when the farmers see another bigger stronger thug coming over the hill? (My one problem with the course was a visceral reaction to the repeated use of the word “thug”, since it’s becoming a racial epithet in America.) A short multiple choice quiz closed out each week, along with a discussion prompt. During the course, students submitted questions which were answered in a Week 5 Youtube Q&A session featuring Prof. Collier and mooc team leader Rafat Ali Al-Akhali. Week 6 was set aside for the final peer-assessed assignment applying concepts from the course to a country of our choice.

Each of the three graded components – quizzes, discussion, final essay – weighed fairly evenly in the final grade, and skipping any one would have made a passing grade impossible (or at least, very difficult). At first I was going to skip the discussion element, maybe even the final essay, out of a combination of intimidation and respect for the other students who came from all over and were, from what I could see, earnestly focused on learning something that would contribute to meaningful change for their countries and the world. But the course was engaging and motivating enough to convince me to give it a shot. I’m not particularly proud of the quality of my comments or essay, but I came quite a ways from less-than-zero.

Oxford has done a terrific job here making the material accessible and intriguing for beginners (and econophobes). And it turns out, the course material fits into their motivation for making the course: Week 4 lists “an informed citizenry” as one of the key elements to changing a society, and the final lecture underlined the mission:

How can that knowledge be applied? What can you do with it? And I think there are two aspects to that.
One is, how can you, as an individual, put that knowledge to use in the life that you lead, the career that you forge? …
But then there’s a larger role, which is that, you are a citizen in your own society and you’re a citizen in the world. And there are these two struggles. The struggle to set domestic policies that are more conducive to the escape from poverty, and the struggle to set international policies so they are more conducive to the escape from poverty. You, as a citizen, can play your part in that and I hope you will.

Sir Paul Collier

We’re trying over here, Professor, really we are, many of us. But some of our leaders seem determined to send us all back to the darkest parts of the Dark Ages, and too often they’ve rigged the game in their favor.

I can highly recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in getting an intro to economics, or is just curious about how the world works, in terms of haves and have-nots and why that’s the case. There’s nothing quantitative in it at all; there are a few graphs, but they’re about visualizing concepts, not learning formulas. And, as shown above, it includes its own motivation.

The best part of all these moocs – this one, the International Law series, the ChinaX series, al of them taken with people from everywhere – is that I’m beginning to know a little about the world beyond my window. I’ve discovered the best way to learn about the world is to learn about the world, not wring my hands and whine about being stupid. I can do a quiz game to find Bahrain on a map or memorize the capital of Azerbaijan – and all that is very helpful – but it’s another thing entirely to find out why Zambia sends some of its exports through Mozambique and some through South Africa. And, in the process, learning more about being an informed and effective citizen right here at home.

BASS 2017: Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone” from The New Yorker 5/23/16

TNY art by Jason Holley

TNY art by Jason Holley

It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat.

Complete story available online at TNY

And now for something completely different: a horror story. At least, that’s the direction Groff’s Contributor Note leans in: “Part of the horror of this story comes from the narrator being stuck in a confined space, with intense responsibilities, and having no real way out.” We have a mother with her two small children and a fairly serious head injury in a cabin surrounded by Florida critters. Add in the context that she’s had trouble doing some typical mother things, like shopping and cooking, while she’s been wildly successful doing other things, like taking them on adventures.

I’m sure it must be horrifying to be incapacitated yet still be responsible for the kids. But I didn’t really feel any of that while reading the story, I’m sorry to say. I wasn’t worried about the panther, or whatever creature left scat, or the kids going outside. I’m afraid this one was lost on me. I was completely perplexed, and a bit annoyed, by two lines, phrases really, one at the very beginning: “…I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately….” This implies a pre-existing illness, most likely cancer, but there’s no mention of anything like that in the rest of the story. I don’t understand that. Who leaves a sick woman alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere surrounded by panthers and bears? Who takes a sick woman there? A debilitated condition would also have a huge effect on the head injury; is she just not willing to think about it? Has she blocked any thoughts that lead to death for so long, it’s just second nature now?

The second annoying phrase came at the very end, when her husband returns, an event that should signal Everything Is Going To Be Fine but instead signals perhaps The Worst Has Happened:

In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

Again, I’m not sure what “the silk of my pelt” means. Has she died and merged with the panther? Or is she just delirious from the head injury? I don’t like feeling stupid, and this story made me feel very stupid. I kept going back to one particular place, a dissociative episode that I thought might bring me closer to understanding what was happening in the story:

I counted slow breaths and was not calm by two hundred; I counted to a thousand.
The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in.
The moon rose in the skylight and backed itself across the black.
When it was gone and I was alone again, I felt the dissociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief….
Where my body and those of my two sons lay together was a black and pulsing mass, a hole of light.
I passed outside…. I couldn’t go away from it, I couldn’t return, I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible, stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.

I don’t think she speaks with the kids after this, though one is lying snuggled up to her, chewing her hair as he did when an infant. Is that regression of a terrified child whose mother is lying dead on the floor, or just a scared kid self-comforting? There is a midnight zone as described in the story: the dark depths of the ocean. I’m going to imagine she’s in a metaphorical midnight zone, except that isn’t really satisfying either.

The story reminded me of another Groff story, “Eyewall” in which, as I recall (it’s been a long time), a woman took a personal journey into her soul while curled up in a bathtub during a severe hurricane. Then there was Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” which added a more emphatic supernatural element. But I drew a blank here.

BASS 2017: Mary Gordon, “Ugly” from Yale Review 104.1

The company was sending me to Monroe for six weeks. Of course, professionally it was a good thing, a sign of their regard, their trust, and that was a relief. Because I was always afraid that one day – and it might be soon – they’d realize that I didn’t belong. That my place at Verdance, a company that manufactured herbal remedies, was really stolen and its relinquishment might be demanded, and with perfect justice, at any moment. My background was neither in science nor in business…. I have left English literature behind me.

Complete story available online at Yale Review

Here again is a story that seems narratively familiar: a woman goes to a place she figures she’s going to hate, and instead truly loves it. It’s a story about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and how we often get them mixed up. This could be a rewrite of a dozen popular movies – “Sister Act”, “Doc Hollywood”, “For Richer or Poorer”, but again, the story kept me reading. Granted, I’m pretty much a sentimental sap, but there was something both distant and embracing about Laura’s approach to the town, her gradual realization that life existed beyond the boundaries of New York and that she could be a different person, lead a different life. If she wanted to be.

The story itself is something that is not Beautiful in a literary sense – no bold moves, no daring revelations or unique structural components, no triple-layered symbolism, just a familiar plot shared with, oh my God, all those goofy movies – but if we just give it a chance and don’t immediately try to pigeonhole it into a period or genre, we might find something Beautiful. And, come on, that self-referentiality is pretty interesting.

It’s all about the chair. And the Dao de Jing.

Laura begins her six-week stay on work assignment in Missouri in a horrible apartment furnished in gray Contemporary Bleh. She sees a vase in a local antique shop and thinks that will make the Bleh more bearable, if she has one nice thing she can focus on. In the shop, she discovers both the chair, and Lois. Both are ugly by New York standards, and Laura, by virtue of having been shopping for furniture recently with her architect fiance, knows well the kind of unwelcoming-but-conceptually-intriguing upscale chair that the comfortable, inviting, green chair is not. She is, nevertheless, immediately taken with the green chair, and eventually comes to be just as taken with Lois, moving into her quaint little basement apartment for the rest of her stay along with a set of dishes decorated with little roses. The kind of dishes that would be absurd in New York, but in Lois’ basement apartment, are perfect.

The roses have special meaning to Laura. In her former life as a literary academic, she designed her doctoral thesis around rose imagery:

I wanted to focus on three poems about roses, Thomas Carew’s, Edmund Waller’s, and William Blake’s, using the poems to examine larger questions – questions of time, desire, beauty, death – and see how the image of the rose could illustrate the cultural differences these questions raised. I was told that my topic was both too small and too large. Three short poems, but three large historical periods. The Renaissance people wouldn’t venture into the part of the seventeenth century that moved into the eighteenth, and the Romantics felt they had no access to the earlier periods.
And in the end, after months of fruitless arguing with intransigent professors, I began to feel it wasn’t worth it….
I gave it up, with a little sadness, but not without a riven heart.
Sometimes, coming in and out of sleep, lines of the poems still come to me.

Now, as a factual matter, this is pretty thin; I can’t imagine such a topic being so problematic for potential advisors simply because it crosses periods. But as a story trope, it’s quite telling: she doesn’t fit where she wants to be, so she goes somewhere else. Technical writing for a semi-legitimate nutritional supplement company, and finally human resources. And now she’s in Missouri to cut everyone’s benefits. But she still dreams of the poetry of roses.

Laozi was on my mind throughout. The passage that came to me, from the second chapter of the Dao de Jing, was emphasized in two different ways in the two Chinese philosophy moocs I’ve taken. The first translation, from Chad Hansen’s course, emphasizes the dualism that language, a social rather than a natural process, encourages, as the very act of defining beautiful also creates the concept of ugly:

As soon as you’ve created this concept of beauty and everyone knows to operate according to this concept, then you create what’s ugly, everything that’s left out that isn’t applied to with that name. When the world knows to call things that are good at or skillful “good at”, then there is clumsiness, badness, poor performance.
Here Laozi observes that when a learned, known shared social dào guides us to deem (為 wéi) beautiful things as ‘beautiful’, automatically there will be the ugly: things that are not deemed (為 wéi) as beautiful.

~ Chad Hansen, “Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought”

The second course, Edward Slingerland’s Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science, used a different translation and thus had a different interpretation that goes along with Laozi’s exhortation to embrace weakness to become strong:

I think the point is that when we label something, when society labels something as beautiful that then causes it to become ugly. When you call something beautiful, you now are setting up an ideal that maybe isn’t the right ideal. And this could be distorting our appreciation of what’s really beautiful.
When we set up something, we say this is what’s beautiful. We’ve now fallen into repulsive or ugliness, because what’s happened is we now have this artificial, distorted view of what’s beautiful. That harms our ability to appreciate real beauty.
And the kind of tricky paradoxical thing about this is the text claims that if you embrace the lower part of the dyad, you end up getting both. So if you embrace weakness, you actually get strength at some level. So by being weak you become strong. And I think the way to understand this is by being ugly, and ugly by social standards, you become beautiful…. So the idea is by embracing the things that are not valued by society, you actually get the real thing that you want.

~ Edward Slingerland, “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science”

Beyond the notions of beauty and ugliness, or perhaps alongside would be a better way of putting it, is Laura’s constant feeling that she doesn’t fit in to the places she loves. What strikes me as truly tragic about this story is that she defines herself by where she does fit in, and thus finds herself unsuitable for the places she loves. And, sentimental sap that I am, I found the closing paragraphs broke my heart:

There wasn’t really much for me to pack up. I had decided I would leave the dishes and the chair. There wouldn’t be a place for them in my New York life. Lois would resell them to someone more appropriate, she’d make a little more money, and they could live in a home where they belonged….
It was just before seven; the light over the lake was silvery, and the clouds were beginning to be underlit: peach and mango, and a dark gray, like the kind of eye shadow you would only wear in a city, the kind that magazines call smoky. I looked back. There was my chair, framed by the dim emptiness. But it was not my chair, and I wondered if it ever really had been. ‘‘You are beautiful,’’ I said to it. ‘‘You are very beautiful. You are fine, you are good, you are full of goodness and I am not. You don’t belong with me. You wouldn’t want to belong to me. You should be grateful that you aren’t mine.’’

I’ve always said I cry at the drop of a hat. I don’t like to go to movies because I’ll cry over anything. I cried in “Flubber” when the robot died (the 11-year-old I was with was humiliated). So yes, I cried over a chair. Laura and the chair deserve each other, and I mean that in the most beautiful way.

BASS 2017: Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” from American Short Fiction #63

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way. Forty days and forty nights of being locked up, helpless, knowing everything you’d ever known was drowning all around you, and at the end God shows up with a whimsical promise that he will not destroy the world again with water, which seems like a hell of a caveat.
Dori must find something reassuring in the story. Dori is a preschool teacher and a pastor’s daughter, and she has found a way to carry the theme of the ark and the rainbow sign across the entire three days of her wedding…. The bridesmaid’s dresses are rainbow, not individually multicolored but ROY-G-BIV-ordered, and each bridesmaid appears to have been mandated to wear her assigned color all weekend; the red bridesmaid, for example, wore a red T-shirt to the airport, a red cocktail dress to dinner, and now red stilettos and a red sash reading BRIDESMAID for the bachelorette party. When assembled in a group, Dori’s bridesmaids look like a team of bridal Power Rangers.
Rena is not a bridesmaid but has been dragged along for the festivities thanks to the aggressive hospitality of the bridal party.

I kept thinking, This would make a great movie,. Something about the timing, the sequence of scenes, the wedding setting of course, the emotional progressions, just screamed “movie!” to me. At one point, Rena recognizes Dori’s actions “as a kind of apology. They are going to be friends now; they are going to seal it with intimate detail the way schoolgirls seal a blood sisterhood with a needle and a solemn touch.” It doesn’t quite work that way – the intimate detail is way more than Dori can process, and I doubt they’ll ever be friends in any case – but that’s the kind of cue I’m responding to: a kind of familiarity, a recognition of stock situations. A goofy bachelorette party, misunderstandings and suspicions, a road trip, an amusement park, revelations, a subdued epiphany. But the story has some great observations, and I found it highly readable with enough weight to keep it from floating away. I remember Evans from one of my first BASS reads; its good to see her here again, it’s been much too long.

Let’s clear up one thing right away: the title is a mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow. I was always a Roy G. Biv sort of gal, so I’d never heard this one before; it depends on where you went to school. If there’s something about Richard of York that makes him particularly relevant here, please let me know.

Weddings are great story devices. You’ve got this iconic event with built-in symbolism and expectations, a situation naturally filled with all kinds of emotional energy. The stage is pre-set for humor, drama, sorrow, regret, anger, fear, hatred, all part of any wedding; you can hang any nuance you want on it simply by altering, omitting, or amplifying an element. It isn’t even necessary to include the wedding itself.

Rena and Dori are from different universes. Rena’s a photojournalist, doing serious work about violence and oppression around the world, while Dori’s been waiting ten years for JT to stop finding new ways to avoid marriage. And now, when she’s finally getting him to the altar, he bolts at 4am. Rena’s his friend, having spent some brief intense time with him when their professional paths crossed five years earlier, so she’s wearing suspicion the way the bridesmaids are wearing colors, suspicion that only deepens since she happened to see him on his way out. When Dori asks where he went, Rena gives her an address, and Wedding Movie turns into Road Trip Movie.

Dori’s wedding is a stage setting for a more central drama – no, that’s not the right way to put it. It’s an emotional tether between the two women. Unbeknownst to Dori, Rena’s last involvement with a wedding was serving as maid of honor to her sister, now severely disabled since being shot in the head by her husband. Rena hasn’t visited her in three years, though she’s heard she’s getting to the point where she’s getting to the point where she might recognize a few words on good days.

All her adult life people have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous paces, and she has always wanted to ask them where the safe place is. The danger is in chemicals and airports and refugee camps and war zones and regions known for sex tourism. The anger also sometimes took their trash out for them. The danger came over for movie night and bought them a popcorn maker for Christmas. The danger hugged her mother and shook her father’s hand.

This paragraph kept running through my head yesterday as I watched yet another death toll grow, this one in Sutherland Springs, TX: 17, at least 20, 26, including a dozen kids. We will all pay for our unwillingness to address this, some day, I believe.

One of the most interesting things about the story is more subtle. Rena tells Dori about the shooting twice, and both times, Dori makes it all about her: how could Rena tell her such an awful tale on her wedding day? And why did she give the sister’s address as where TJ had run off to?

“The house where your sister got shot was the first thing that came to mind when I asked if you knew where my fiance was?”
“It’s always the first thing that comes to mind,” Rena says, and she is too relieved by the honesty to be ashamed.

There’s another interaction I found particularly interesting. The disappearing groom texts the two girls on their road trip, telling them he’s back at the house, ready to get married. “He has come back to the place where whatever his decision is, it always stands.” Power. The person who cares less about the relationship always has the most power.

I’ll admit, the opening read of Noah’s Ark – we blithely chalk up the death toll to those who deserved it, but how is that possible? – had me on the story’s side from the beginning. Not only is it an apt metaphor for the wedding party being temporarily immune to reality, but it’s a good reading of the tale. It’s like the story of Job: it’s his suffering that’s highlighted when Satan murders his family as part of a bet with God. And then at the end, he gets a new wife and kids, so everything’s ok. But the old wife and kids are still dead, and no one ever thinks about them. Sort of like being so focused on your wedding that you never realize someone just told you her sister was shot. It’s not our fault, really; there’s only so much the consciousness can register, and something has to be relegated to “other”.

The story ends with Dori and Rena still on the road, with that sometimes-trite, sometimes-poignant postcard phrase “Wish you were here.” I can see many ways it might fit, but it seems to me – and I think Rena allows herself to acknowledge it – that her sister is here, always, here.

BASS 2017: Patricia Engel, “Campoamor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #23

Natasha is my girlfriend. Sometimes I love her. Sometimes I don’t think of her at all. When I met her she had a broken leg. I was visiting my friend Abel, who sells mobile phone minutes and lives down the hall from her in a building behind the Capitolio. I heard her crying, calling for anyone. I thought it was an old woman who’d fallen, but when I pushed the door open I saw a girl, maybe twenty-five, standing like an ibis on one leg, leaning on a metal crutch, her other leg bent and floating in a plaster cast. The stray crutch lay meters from her reach across the broken tile floor.
She looked angry even though I was there to help her. I stepped into her apartment, saw she was alone, picked up the crutch, and handed it to her. She slipped it under her arm and thanked me….
I asked her name and she told me Natasha, embarrassed the way we of our generation are to have Russian names.
“It’s ok,” I told her. “My name’s Vladimir.”

And again, as with so many stories in this year’s volume (or maybe I’m just noticing it more), there’s a dichotomy. Or rather, several dichotomies: Cuba and the world. The young, single girlfriend, and the older, married girlfriend. But most striking: the dichotomy of time. Past and future; then and now; now and some day.

It took a while for me to get oriented. I had no idea what the whole embarrassment about Russian names implied. I didn’t know that Cubans of 25 years ago gave their kids Russian manes. I’m American, so Cuba is a mystery to me, ironic since it’s so close and that very closeness is why it’s been shrouded in mystery. A Canadian friend once mentioned going to Cuba, and I was kind of shocked: isn’t that forbidden, or at least severely restricted? I had the same initial reaction when I read in Engel’s Contributor Note that she had gone to Cuba to research her novel The Veins of the Ocean. Of course, things are a bit different now, but the more things change…

Vladimir and Natasha’s quixotic romance plays out in the shadow of the Campoamor, the Havana performance hall closed in the 60s and falling to ruin. The metaphor is obvious (and yes, there is in real life an eccentric who lives in the ruins of the Campoamor). The mere presence of the building, more than descriptions of the bleak cityscape or their daily struggles, gives the story a melancholy tone, and creates the sense of multiple times existing at once, a crumbling reminder of the Havana of Hemingway and Sinatra.

We sit near what used to be the stage, where great performers once sang, where elaborate sets and intricate costumes were worn….Here in the Campoamor she is again that girl of the ripped sofa, who looks at me as if I pulled her out of darkness. Not the hard-edged girl I see walking on the street when she thinks she’s alone and doesn’t know I’m watching.
Here in the Campoamor I love only her.

Divided loyalties play out as Vladimir shuttles between Natasha and Lily, between staying and leaving. Home, however flawed it may be, is still home.

I find it interesting that for the second story in a row, we have a writer who doesn’t write. Vladimir’s description of not-writing is particularly acute: “I hear the sentences, see each phrase come together like pearls on a string, but when it comes time to write them they evaporate…..” I’ve heard editors frown on “writer stories” because they’re ubiquitous, but only a writer can do justice to not-writing. I’ve done some amazing writing when I’m in bed almost falling asleep, but by the time I get to a pen and paper it’s gone. Or maybe all that was there in the first place was the sense that something was there, a Campoamor of words in my brain.

I think the best guide to the story is found in Engel’s Contributor Note:

I wanted to write a story that reflected the ambiguous loyalties I observed in so many young people in Cuba, the ways that patriotism and survival are often in direct conflict, the negotiation of public and private life, and respective hidden desires…. I wrote it to remind myself of that particular time at the end of 2014, when there was a blend of cautious hope and skepticism that change might come to the island after decades of suffocating stillness.

~~ Patricia Engel

I’m not sure why dilapidated buildings are so evocative. Is it just me? Maybe they evoke the ruins of Ozymandias, or a sense of what could have been. Here in particular, the Janus faces are both lined with nostalgia and regret even as they glow with hope.

From WTF Is This to Hey,This is Kind of Fun: Causal Diagram MOOC

Course: Causal Diagrams: Draw Your Assumptions Before Your Conclusions
Length: 9 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Miguel Hernán
Quote:
The first part of this course is comprised of five lessons that introduce the theory of causal diagrams and describe its applications to causal inference. The fifth lesson provides a simple graphical description of the bias of conventional statistical methods for confounding adjustment in the presence of time-varying covariates. The second part of the course presents a series of case studies that highlight the practical applications of causal diagrams to real-world questions from the health and social sciences.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I signed up for this course. The subtitle – “Draw your assumptions before your conclusions” – sounded something like one of those decision-making questionnaires from self-help books, but it was taught by a Harvard epidemiologist so that didn’t seem right. Something about graphic design? Project management? Yes, I knew it had something to do with statistics and data science. Yes, I’m allergic to statistics, which always turns into something awful like summing squares or coaxing spreadsheets to sum squares. I’ve thus far avoided data science, an even worse mess because it’s usually under the auspices of computer science people, and you know how they can be (yes, I’m kidding – back in the Days of the Mainframe, I was what in the business world passed for tech support, which meant we called IBM if a reboot didn’t fix the problem).

But the teaser video sounded interesting, and the medical foundation greatly appealed to me. I figured I’d give it a week. I ended up completing the course. Even got a passing grade – and a good passing grade, at that. But I’m not getting carried away: most of the graded questions allowed multiple attempts.

I found it to be an exceptionally well-done course: organized, clear, nicely delivered, and progressing from very basic concepts to more complicated material little by little. Keep in mind, I’m an absolute newbie to all of this; someone who’s done some work in data science, or has a wider view of how this fits into the whole subject of data science, might feel differently. More than anything else, this all reminded me of tracing logic trees in that UMelbourne Logic course I liked so much (which, sadly, never made the jump to Coursera’s new and “improved” – ahem – platform).

Little things meant a lot. Like large, clear, high-contrast graphics. Granted, the salient images were mostly just letters, numbers, and arrows, but I appreciated the legibility that hand-drawn diagrams on a board (or fancy but hard-to-read and harder-to-screenclip renditions) sometimes lack. The lectures were repetitive enough to build up some kind of vocabulary. The step-by-step approach was perfect for me; again, someone with a stronger background in the field might have found this a bit annoying, but that’s what fast-forward is for. I was also delighted to see an explanation for Simpson’s Paradox that actually made sense to me, an explanation that didn’t involve batting averages or student test scores but related to a research case; it tied together causation and weighted averaging for me in a way I hadn’t seen before. Interestingly, a couple of days after I encountered that lecture, MinutePhysics released a video about Simpson that so closely mirrored the lecture, I had to wonder if Henry Reich was enrolled in the mooc.

Each module began with a case study: the effect of estrogen on uterine cancer, folic acid and birth defects, etc. Somewhere in there was a problem, usually a contradiction between studies using different statistical methods, or a result that didn’t make sense (could cigarette smoking prevent dementia in older people? No, of course not, but what does it mean when the numbers say that?). This would lead into a discussion of the module topic – confounding, or selection bias, or measurement bias – and about 45 minutes of video, divided into short segments, to explain how the problem arose and how it could be fixed. A final recap of the case, showing how the module topic played into the real-life research and how causal diagrams resolved the problem, ended the week.

Graded material included short quizzes after most video segments, and a weekly quiz. The final exam was a series of four case studies (only two were required) discussed at length via interview with different investigators, and questions relating to the issues raised by those studies. This was great in a couple of ways. It’s always nice to see how someone else talks about a subject, since everyone uses slightly different language and sees different things as central. It also presented questions on new issues without the same degree of shepherding and hand-holding. I found the first one quite manageable, the second one a bit trickier, and the third one very difficult. At this writing, I haven’t looked at the fourth one yet.

If I may digress (and it’s my blog, who’s gonna stop me?), I created a kind of study guide on Cerego for this course. While it’s clearly best for pure fact memorization, I’m finding that just figuring out the key points and the best Cerego format for them is a form of studying; then the spaced-recall feature worked quite well to keep reminding me about d-separation rules and different structures as I moved through the weeks. I’m still new to creating my own sets and am pretty clumsy at it, but I was impressed with how well it worked here with incorporating – not just remembering – things like a conditioned collider opens a path but a conditioned non-collider blocks it.

To be honest, I was kind of Done by the time I got to the cases in Week 5. Remember, I’m a tourist in these parts, and while it was a very nice place to visit, I’m not sure I’d want to live there. And I have other things starting, so I needed to clear the boards. But I’m very glad I wandered in. I have no idea how the course would work for typical data science students, and I wouldn’t imagine anyone else would be particularly interested. But for me, always looking for a way in to the math I can’t seem to understand, it was another huge success.

BASS 2017: Leopoldine Core, “Hog for Sorrow” from Bomb #136

Kit had never had a lot of friends. But she’d had a few that she didn’t have now. Becoming a whore is like getting very sick, she thought. You don’t want people and they don’t want you. Only she did want people. A little.

Complete story available online at BOMB

I suppose it is, at that.

And of course, these women surprise you. They aren’t stupid or tough or whatever it is prostitutes are supposed to be. Lucy went to Sarah Lawrence to study dance. Kit did a year at Bennington studying writing (or not studying much of anything, as it turned out), which is a pretty terrifying career path for a writer to think up. It’s too bad Kit didn’t become a writer – who hasn’t bought the pencils and leather journal, the software, the desk or the quilt or dictionary or whatever thing you think will make the difference only to discover that what makes you a writer is writing and that’s the hard part – she could’ve been a good one, with her insightful observations. The next best thing for her is to end up in a story.

I reread this story several times – to be honest, I didn’t get much from it the first time through – and kept uncovering interesting threads. Dance and writing are among them. “Lucy was a silly dancer,” Kit tells us, “but in the way only someone who is confident of their sexiness can be.” When asked what studying dance was like, Lucy – described as “plump” – says, “It was like being abused. Routinely.” And now she’s a hooker. Talk about a hog for sorrow. For all artists, criticism is a constant force.

And again I see a dichotomy being outlined, in several areas. Animals / people: Lucy’s dog doesn’t like to see her eat or masturbate (“He doesn’t want to see you become an animal” says Kit; I’m telling you, this woman needs to be a writer, or a therapist). Men / women: Kit’s john wants her to lie still on the bed while he jacks off, “like I was interfering with my potential hotness by living”, as every woman who’s ever fretted over an extra two pounds, or forced herself into stiletto slingbacks, knows; not to mention the freedom to leave socks all over the place instead of being the one who’s supposed to clean up someone else’s socks. Friends / acquaintances: a continuum rather than a dichotomy, played out in the form of the little dance people do when they think they might become friends under complicated circumstances. Here it’s complicated not only by their jobs, but by Kit’s sexual attraction to Lucy, an attraction she maneuvers into a girl-on-girl for a customer, only to discover what it’s like to be a john.

Lucy’s kisses were muscular with no feeling behind them. She broke into breathy counterfeit moans and Kit cringed. Their teeth clicked. Kit felt a bit the way men must feel, she supposed, when they realize that the prostitute they’ve purchased is miserable to be near them. She wasn’t sure why she had expected it to be any other way. I’m just another creep who wants to touch her, she thought. A little creep hiding behind a bigger one.

In her Contributor Note, Core says she started with just dialog between two women, then figured out a story to go around it. I’d say she figured out several, and managed to weave them all together. I’m glad I took the time to reread; I don’t know what was wrong with me the first time. Maybe it was too much all at once.

BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

“There’s room for expansion,” Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
“We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,” Otto said, squinting at the page. “Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.”

Complete story available online at Granta

That line about the black nail, coming in the first paragraph like that, stood out to me. I kept thinking about it; these aren’t city kids in a Brooklyn loft hoping to be discovered. Why would a farm guy would think another farm guy would be using black nail polish? It couldn’t be a throwaway line, not featured so prominently; no editor would stand for that. As I was reading the story, I kept making notations about public and private; it seemed like the crux of the story. But I think that’s a subordinate theme. The whole story is in that opening discussion: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s natural, what’s artificial about these people, and who’s kidding whom about the relationships among them?

It took me a while to figure out who was who. Otto and Heddy are siblings who are functionally parent and child. Heddy and Peter are… to call them lovers or engaged feels too romanticized, too deliberate; they’re basically kids who found themselves pregnant, so Peter moved in and they’ll get married at some point. “Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall” kind of sums it up, and creeps me out.

Peter feels the most familiar to me. He’s bewildered and a bit unsure of himself and his role in the family and on the farm, but he seems to have a straightforward, honest outlook. Except that he kind of read Heddy’d diary and stole her idea about setting up a website for the farm, a transgression that seems to bother him more than it bothers Heddy, if she’s even aware of it.

At the start of the story, Heddy, all of eighteen going on twelve, is starting junior college, armed with an array of notebooks and variously colored pens and ready to figure out how to cover her textbooks with paper bags, studying French and salsa dancing, going swimming in the afternoons for “low-impact exercise”. Turns out, she’s a lot better at getting ready to go to school than she is at school.

Which plays into the path of the story: I know nothing about life on a small Northern California farm, but I do know that change is hard, especially when you’re in a family that’s determined to maintain the status quo. As with the diary reading, whether Heddy’s aware or not is ambiguous; it’s Peter who realizes his vision of moving into their own place with “curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself” is a fantasy, that they’re going to be living down the hall from Otto for the forseeable future.

And oh, by the way, Arcadia is the mythic Greek land of natural perfection – and the home of the libidinous woodland god Pan.

Then I come back to the black fingernail. Peter, the point-of-view character and observer/processor, doesn’t attach value to the options, whether it’s artifice, accident, or the remnants of a wound. He just notices, and presents the picture of Otto and Heddy for us to sort out.

BASS 2017: Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” from A Public Space #24

Thursdays because it was on a Thursday that they had met three years ago, that time of year when the city is at its most bearable, when the smell of wild hyacinth cannot be outdone by the stench of the gutters, because it is after the city’s short winter, which manages, despite its brevity, to birth more funerals than any other time of year. In the city’s spring, two men walking the long road from Santiniketan back to Kolkata — because the bus has broken and no one is interested in its repair — are not entirely oblivious to the smells abounding in the wildflower fields, not oblivious at all to their own smells.

Complete story available online at Lithub

Where and under what conditions I read a story often factors in to my understanding and enjoyment of it. I started this one on a city bus, continued it waiting for another bus, and finished it up once I got home. I realized that was sloppy reading and invited sloppy comments, so I re-read it, and sure enough, I’d missed that the story takes place in 1979 or so. I’m not familiar enough with contemporary India to how much difference that makes, but everywhere, there are still places that are dangerous for gay couples.

It’s a rich boy – poor boy romance carried out in once-a-week visits every Thursday. The ping that sets things in motion is Nikhil’s desire to have a baby. Sharma has a wife of sorts, Tripti – friends without benefits – as protection, and Nikhil’s idea is to use her as the incubator. I use that language deliberately, because it’s more or less how he seems to see it. Sex with a woman would be somewhat unpleasant but “a small sacrifice for an enormous happiness.”

The problem is, Nikhil is in love, and that means he’s tone-deaf. Or maybe he’s just naturally tone-deaf; throughout there are many signs that he’s not particularly empathetic. He’s condescending as hell to Tripti, and a bit offended when she doesn’t show the expected deference. Interesting how someone ready to challenge norms only wants to challenge the ones that constrain him. I’m not convinced Sharma’s hands are 100% pure, either; I suspect love has nothing to do with it, as far as he’s concerned.

Much of the story is highly sensual; nothing more explicit is needed. I saw some moments as humorous, such as: Nikhil shows up at the foundry where Sharma works to show him baby clothes, and Sharma tries to keep up a pretense that he’s a customer complaining about a late order. It’s a nice read.

The story is driven to its climax when Nikhil visits Tripti to work out the plan with her, but she’s not buying it. He waits at the train station to catch a glimpse of Sharma coming home from work:

He saw Sharma as the crowd was thinning out. He was walking with someone dressed in the atrocious nylon pants that were the fashion, and perhaps they were telling jokes, because Sharma was doubled over laughing. In all their evenings together, he couldn’t recall seeing Sharma laugh with so little inhibition as now, so little concern about who would hear that joyous voice — who would think, What are those two doing? He watched Sharma walk along the dirt road toward his house, but it was an entirely different progress; he was stopping to inspect the rows of wildflowers on the path, to chat up the farmer who’d bellowed his name.
He kept watching Sharma’s retreating form until he could see nothing but the faint shape of a man crossing the road.

In his Contributor Note, Chakrabarti writes of his grandparent’s house in Kolkota: “I can sense the stories that these old walls must have seen… I imagine Nikhil’s perilous journey, up those steps and into the humid air that feels at once constricting and full of possibility.” Yet it was these two outdoor scenes quoted here that stayed with me the longest, due to their parallelism, and the message that seemed crystal-clear to me but stayed submerged in Nikhil’s subconscious as he snatched back his gift. That’s the teaser of the story for me: who’s the bad guy, who’s the victim – if anyone is either?

BASS 2017: Kevin Canty, “God’s Work” from The New Yorker, 4/4/16

Sander loves his mother. He walks a few steps after her, wearing a new black suit that has room for him to grow into, carrying a big black valise of pamphlets. When his mother goes to the front door, rings the bell, waits for an answer, Sander stands behind her, looking over her shoulder, with an expression on his face that he means to be pleasant.
It’s the second day of his summer vacation, but it still feels like spring. Lilacs bloom in every yard; irises wag their pink and purple tongues at him.
His mother is plain. She wears a gray sweater, despite the sun, and a black skirt that reaches nearly to her ankles. No lipstick, short, practical hair. Her name is Anna. She makes up for her plainness with a big galvanic smile. People are on her side right away, though they rarely open the screen door and almost never take a pamphlet. Nobody new ever comes to Fellowship. Anna doesn’t take this as permission to stop trying. She thinks the men and women and children in these sleeping houses will lose the chance to live life as God intended unless they take the message she brings them in the pamphlet. Sander thinks she is lovely and brave and admirable. Every day, she tries to save strangers. Selfless. Sander loves his mother.
Today! is the name of the pamphlet.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Those first paragraphs do a fair amount of work. We see the two major characters clearly in terms of their physicality, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the scene. We may even suppress a little groan, depending on our backgrounds. But this woman is not the crazy mother from Carrie; she’s merely got a mission not many of us understand. And her son seems to believe fully in the purpose of his role.

But there’s more going on as well in the short paragraphs (maybe it’s in the short paragraphs that everything is always hidden). Sander notices it’s Spring, all abloom with pink tongues. And then there’s that line in the fourth paragraph: “Today! is the name of the pamphlet.” It’s amost poetic how those two short paragraphs are placed, spring coming between mother and son, followed by a dramatic, capitalized, italicized, and exclamation-pointed notice of “Today! at the end, a notification that this will not be just another day. As an aside, I remember another story (“Happy Endings”) where Canty did something very much like this, a character’s noticing the blooming spring paralleling his own sexual blooming.

The story follows an almost, but not quite, predictable path. Yes, there’s a girl. And yes, she’s from Sanders’ school, and he’s caught between God and Mammon just like most of us are, but to him it’s a much bigger deal. Because he’s really, truly serious about God; and he’s acutely aware that he looks dorky, especially with the bad haircut he just got. There’s also the girl’s dad, who seems to enjoy making a bit of sport out of baiting proselytizers, much to the girl’s dismay.

It is exactly the person he was afraid it was, Clara Martinson, she of the ripped T-shirt, raccoon eyes, pierced anything, the next grade up from his, this girl who looks and dresses the way every teen girl would if there was nobody to tell her she couldn’t. Which there isn’t. Please, dear God, make me disappear, Sander thinks. Send me to the solar surface and vaporize me.
“What do you want?” she says. Then she notices Sander in his black suit and haircut. O.K.: there is something in each of us, in every sinner (and Sander knows that we are all sinners), that wants to climb toward the light, and for a moment, in Clara’s eyes, Sander sees the longing for grace.
Then, just as quickly, the window shuts. She says, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dad.”

Here’s where we expect she’s going to play Eve and tempt Sander right out of the Garden. But that isn’t exactly what happens. She seems sincere, if dubious, about the longing for grace, showing up for Fellowship several times, dressing more respectfully for walks with Sander, even rejecting his timid advance. And then her father whisks her away to parts unknown, possibly to keep her from getting involved with what he considers charlatans. Or maybe he whisks her away for another reason. In any case, she’s gone, and Sander is left with his longings.

I see pretty clearly now, after three stories, what Heidi Pitlor meant in her Foreword when she said these stories “reflect a country profoundly divided.” In the first story, we had two realities based on memory, as well as two brothers separated; in the second, we had Old and New battling it out. Here, we have Believers and Heathens. But it’s not the medium, it’s the centrality that medium plays in their lives, and the calcification of a position that excludes all others from validity. Here, it’s religion, but we can become rigidly embedded in all sorts of single issues that overshadow everything else life has to offer and become pigeonholes for judging people: political beliefs, social or class customs, even artistic tastes.

Canty reveals in his TNY interview that he based the story on a real life situation, a kid tagging along with his mother passing out religious literature. He wanted to explore the conflicts the kid might feel between sin and salvation.I didn’t find Sander’s struggle with overcoming temptation as interesting as I found the overall oppositional structure of the two families. Clara’s dad seems to delight in being anti-religious as much as Anna delights in the Lord. And in between are the two teenagers, each used to their worlds, and curious about the other side. What might’ve happened if dad hadn’t intervened? Would the two have found a middle ground in spite of their parents, each of them understanding the world beyond their own boundaries a little better? Or would it have gone all Romeo and Juliet?

But the story before us is the story we have. It’s interesting, considering that Canty had no clear path in mind when he set the characters in motion, that he chose one that seemed, to me, the least interesting possibility, a sudden and completely unexplained departure, taking the decision out of Sander’s hands entirely and leaving him with only memory. Will it fester, destroy his faith from within? Or will it heal in time? And by the way, how does someone pull up stakes and move so fast? Maybe that’s a part of the world outside my experience that I need to explore further.

BASS 2017: T. C Boyle, “Are We Not Men” from The New Yorker, 11/7/16

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my even noticing, except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in, and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me. The seed had been pricey—a blend of Chewings fescue, Bahia, and zoysia incorporating a gene from a species of algae that allowed it to glow under the porch light at night—and, while it was both disease- and drought-resistant, it didn’t take well to foot traffic, especially four-footed traffic.

Complete story available online at online at TNY

I’ve gone back a few times to figure out when I first realized what was going on in this story; it wasn’t in the opening paragraph. Oh, sure, a cherry-red dog is odd, but it was a scene of chaos and confusion, so I expected it to be explained in a few paragraphs – he’d been covered in blood, or paint, or maraschino cherry juice for that matter, something. Or the speaker was on drugs. The grass didn’t really strike me either, since most lawn grasses are hybrids; maybe it was a little weird getting down to the gene level, but again, I chalked that up to the speaker’s point of view. What I wrote in the margin was simply, “Colors!”

It’s a credit to the story that it took me so long to realize this wasn’t stylistics or character, but genetic engineering via CRISPR-Cas9. I mean, I’ve taken moocs about this stuff. And Tim Blais at Acapella Science made one of his most spectacular videos on the subject (seriously, even if you’re not interested in genetic technology, his riff on “Mr. Sandman” is extraordinary, go take a peek). So for the introduction to smoothly dive into near-future speculation without a lot of heavy-handed exposition is a credit to the story. Or maybe I’m just dense, but I’d rather go the other way.

Once the setting is nailed down (and there’s plenty of heavy-handed exposition in the middle for those who haven’t been spending a lot of time in biomoocs) the story’s a tragicomic romance about a couple of neighbors bonding over the micropig killed by the cherry pit (the name the marketers came up with for the maraschino-red dog) and the out-of-lab procreation that results…. But screw that, my favorite part is the crowparrots.

(I don’t know if you have crowparrots in your neighborhood yet, but, believe me, they’re coming. They were the inspiration of one of the molecular embryologists at the university here, who thought that inserting genes from the common crow into the invasive parrot population would put an end to the parrots’ raids on our orchards and vineyards, by giving them a taste for garbage and carrion instead of fruit on the vine. The only problem was the noise factor—something in the mix seemed to have redoubled not only the volume but the fury of the birds’ calls, so that you needed earplugs if you wanted to enjoy pretty much any outdoor activity.)
Which was the case now. The birds were everywhere, cursing fluidly (“Bad bird! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”) and flapping their spangled wings in one another’s faces.

When you consider that parrots only repeat what they’ve heard often enough to learn it, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s all a terrific situational setup.

But… does the story go anywhere after it’s set up? You’ve got a guy caught between new and old – his wife impregnated with a custom embryo via CRISPR, the neighbor who he just impregnated the old-fashioned way – and a teenage girl as an onlooker. Just as the story finishes the exposition and is ready to really start, it ends with a hint that the new world is going to destroy itself, just as the dogcat destroys the crowparrot.

In his TNY interview with Deboran Treisman, Boyle commented at length about his concerns about CRISPR. It’s a valid concern. But I’m brought back to something Heidi Pitlor wrote in her Foreword: “…fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas”.

I’ve read stories that connected me with issues I’d never heard of, that drew me closer to issues I already cared about, and I’ve read stories that shaped my views on some things. George Saunders won my heart with his early anti-consumerism work. But this wasn’t one of those. It read to me like George Saunders on a bad day.

I loved Boyle’s Burrito story from Pushcart XLI. I mentioned then that I wondered if I’d been a little harsh on some of his stories in the past. I think it’s more the case that, for me, he’s hit or miss. That one was a hit; this one’s a miss. But obviously other people liked it. Or maybe they liked the issue.