PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Lori Ostlund, “Bed Death” originally from The Kenyon Review

Mr. Mani regarded us for a moment. “Well,” he said at last, “with love, there are always two: there is the snake who devours, and there is the one who cooperates by placing his head inside the snake’s mouth.”

I had no idea where this story was going, but I was very happy to meander along with it. In fact, when I realized where it was going, I was disappointed: the journey – and the interesting people I met along the way – was so much better than the destination: another Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story.

Then I read the Contributors’ Notes. And I read the story again. And I changed my mind: everything in the story does, indeed, lead to the end. And on first read, I overlooked it – just like Julia overlooked the big bed in the lobby of the school.

But then I went back to my initial view. It is, after all, a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story. No, it’s more than that. No, it isn’t – I can’t make up my mind.

Initially I was struck by all the dualism (how ironic). Two very different women (I’ll admit, I thought the first-person narrator was a guy at first). Two very different schools. Two very different beds. Two very different places to live (three, actually, but the first two can be lumped together to fit the pattern; that’s how sophistry works, people). Two very different doors to the closet. Two glasses of orange juice.

The details, the small events (you can read an excerpt of the first few paragraphs on Ostlund’s website), are spellbinding. I’m not surprised a lot of that detail is taken from real life; Ostlund spent time teaching English in Malaysia with her partner, and they lived in a hotel with a sick man lying on a cot in the hall, and in the Nine-Story Building. This alone makes it worth the read: even if it is a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location, it’s a terrifically engaging one. I’m reminded of a writing teacher who advised me to take all the flashbacks and back-story out of one of my short stories. “But it won’t make sense,” I said. “It doesn’t matter,” she told me. “Stay in scene, include all the sensory details, get the reader into the scene with you, and they won’t be able to put it down. Which would you rather write, a story that’s clever, or one that’s impossible to stop reading?” I’d like to do both, actually.

My one technical complaint about the story is a flashback (the navel sequence) that seems unnecessary and intrusive.

It wasn’t until I read Ostlund’s description of the narrator in the Contributor’s Notes – “how ill-equipped she was for the world, how fragile her relationship was, and how incapable she was of extending compassion to another lost soul” – that I saw these things outlined clearly in her attitude towards Mr. Mani and Shah and the wounded man on the chaise longue outside her door at their first hotel. Ostlund again sums it up perfectly in her notes: “this understanding – of the way that others’ pain or suffering can become a minor and curious backdrop for the drama of our own lives – became the framework of my story.” Maybe this is why I felt the unnamed narrator’s romance had little to do with the life she and her partner were leading: to the narrator, it really didn’t, she was shut off from her surroundings in a profound way.

Consider the title: “Bed death.” I was tickled to learn that’s an actual phrase coined by sociologist Pepper Schwartz (though I’m dubious about a sociologist named Pepper; I once had a therapist named Halcyon, and had trouble taking her seriously). I’m not sure why it’s applied only to lesbian couples. But the idea of the sexless relationship, void of libido (“desire” from the Latin libere, ‘to please’) matches the narrator’s relationship with other people in the story. She observes them, does not enter into any kind of human relationship with them, and is unable to feel compassion. Even for herself. Turning away from the teary Shah at the end of the story speaks volumes.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for “A story must stand on its own.” But not every reader can quite make the grade on that, so I’m glad to have a few hints when I haven’t quite looked beneath the surface; and when a story comes from a book that won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (2008), I’m going to make the extra effort. I’m still reeling from the tremendous wealth of implication contained in a few sentences – any few sentences, pick one at random and a five-page treatise is possible – in Flannery O’Connor that I discovered during the “One Story at a Time” discussion at the Book Balloon (even though the clunky message board made the discussion hard to follow). And that’s part of what I’m doing here – learning to be a better reader, to consider, “Is there more to this than Breakup in an Exotic Location?”

In the end, I enjoyed the story tremendously, and I was completely engaged. I’m much closer to wanting to read her collection, The Bigness of the World, than I was when I read “All Boy.” That’s good enough for me. Even if it is a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story.

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