I skipped over this story when I started reading BASS 2010, because I’m afraid of Charles Baxter. A few years ago when I was agonizing over one of my stories, I read his collection of essays and lectures on writing, Burning Down The House. It terrified me. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was talking about defamiliarization and responsibility when I was looking at sentences and words and paragraphs. To be fair, I really needed, and was looking for, something more like What If? or the Gotham Writer’s Workshop book, something nuts-and-bolts, and that I ended up with Baxter – and with From Where You Dream and a selection of other more advanced books about writing process shows how confused and ignorant I was. I still don’t understand the process books. But at least now I see a difference between them and the more basic texts. Some day I’ll move on to these Great Ideas, maybe soon, but first I need to get Beginnings, Middles, and Endings under control.
Having now read this story, since the Zoetrope BASS office started on it, I found it more scary in the abstract than in the reading. It’s an engaging story. I don’t fully understand it, and the more I read about it from Zoetropers who’ve been through MFAs and Bread Loaf and Tin House, the more I understand I don’t understand, but even at face value it’s good reading.
At face value, the story concerns two cousins: narrator Benjamin, twenty years older, a Minnesota lawyer who’d done his sowing wild oats in New York years before as an aspiring actor slash waiter; and Brantford, still in the New York phase, his college fund depleted. The opening scene has them meeting at a high-priced restaurant for lunch, at Brantford’s urging. Benjamin’s admiration for his cousin is clear: “…he was one of those people who always makes you happier the moment you see them.” It strikes me now, how oddly this sentence is worded, how wrong the tenses and numbers are. Now that I’ve heard some comments from some friends at Zoetrope, I don’t think that’s by accident. At lunch, Brantford says he feels like he’s murdered someone, though he’s not sure who or when or why or that he even did, it just feels like he might have. Benjamin then goes into a flashback about his youth in New York, a hot party with a famous poet who called him “the scum of the earth” and where he lost his girlfriend Giulietta and encounters a drunk in the subway, and we learn more in a flash-forward about his present life. This is one of the hallmarks of the story, the back-and-forth timeline, and it’s hard to say just what the “present” of the story is or when something is taking place. The story continues in this way, with other important encounters and revelations about both cousins, and back-and-forth time line motion, culminating with Benjamin’s very pointed conversation with a Minneapolis cab driver, the kind of conversation in a story that screams “Pay Attention! Highly Important Dialogue! Deep Symbolism!” and then his bit of slightly strange behavior at his house. It sounds very confusing to relate. It isn’t that confusing in the reading, until you try to put it all together and explain it without revealing key points that would diminish the effect of surprise should someone wish to read it.
But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope your life will go on forever.
The Missouri Review had this to say of this story, which of all the BASS 2010 stories they admired most: ” What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is ‘occupying the attention and efforts’ of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy.” I find it annoying that non-linear here is used as a compliment, whereas I have been scolded on many occasions for not staying in the moment, in the present of the story, for lapsing into flashbacks and musings on what came before, and instead of telling me that I am not yet ready to advance to that, I’ve been told “No!” like a bad puppy. Either that, or you have to be Charles Baxter to get away with it.
I found a review in the NYT by Joyce Carol Oates (who I am still struggling to like after having read Steve Almond’s description of her in his Kurt Vonnegut essay) which called Benjamin “genial” and his actions at the very end “playful”. I am surprised by those descriptions. If I’d been presented with a list of words, I’m not sure I would have chosen them. But I’m not about to second-guess Joyce Carol Oates, no matter how she came across in the essay.
And then there’s the zombie idea. I don’t even want to think about that. I’m not up on zombie lore. Maybe that’s why I don’t “get” it. Something is definitely off with Benjamin, but does it have to be zombiehood?
I’m glad I stopped hiding and read the story. I should put him on the active list of people to read. I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but at least I should try. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll read Salman Rushie as well. But that’s probably a ways off yet.