So momentarily connected are the father and son that both instinctively know the other is just about to speak, and yet neither produces an utterance, patiently awaiting the words of the other, and then like strangers on a sidewalk attempting to pass one another but veering in the same direction, both father and son find themselves a little jarred by the unexpected silence, and each thereafter feels suddenly bereft of what he was planning to say, though just now it had been on the tip of his tongue. And like that the moment passes, the road inclines, and they begin to pedal hard against the steepness.
It’s funny how my reading seems to run into clusters. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two pieces from very different sources that involved Huntington’s Disease within a matter of days. And now, in the space of a few days, I’ve encountered two explorations of the multi-generational parent-child relationship through a road trip. And, they are both from One Story, though I discovered “Housewifely Arts” through BASS 2011.
This story is about fathers and sons. It’s a meditative story. The “action” is merely the pair riding through a road in Spain on a tandem bicycle. A very prominent narrator tells the story, switching between father and son POVs. It’s made up of the memories and feelings the sparse action evokes. Father (the characters are not named) is divorced, his wife having declined to come to Spain: “She had arranged it so that, physically at least, he had been the one to leave her.” Son is involved in his own troubled relationship: the dog his girlfriend brought home died, and “his very first feeling, before sadness, had been relief because there was now one less thing that tied him to her.” But he has other worries: “…he is pretty sure she only pretended to swallow the morning-after pill they agreed she would take three weeks ago.…”
The climactic scene, if such a story can be said to have a climax, comes when father and son trade places on the bicycle; son moves to the front seat, and they move forward, with Son “realizing that all along the father’s job was harder than his own…..” This scene culminates in a beautiful final paragraph:
….for the second time today our cyclists arrive in a place of remarkable unity, an alignment so close that for the briefest moment neither man remains himself, but seeps free from his skull into a thoughtless will that hovers just above their bodies as they hurdle down the hill. Both feel it, the single-minded disembodied stillness in the relentless rushing, a sensation so delicate it vanishes at the moment of perception, and when it leaves both experience the same unsettling feeling of having somehow returned to the wrong body, our son within the father and our father in the son…. It is a feeling that will trouble them for years to come….
In his Q&A interview with One Story, the author describes writing 55 “distinct drafts” of the story over six years. He describes his biggest challenge: “Figuring out that nothing needed to happen. I wrote drafts and drafts of this story in which different things happened—everything from flat tires, to long and tense conversations, to a major crash that kills both bikers. All of that had to go when I finally realized that a central feature of long-distance cycling is silence and the opportunity for memory and rumination that it provides. Once I made the choice to sacrifice surface plot for memory and introspection, the current story began to take shape.”
It’s a lovely story, full of richness as we trace the relationship of father and son through their memories, and see how much alike they are, and how different. The elements of connect and disconnect are wonderful. Again, from the author’s interview: “I think that in the same way that the tandem bicycle gave me a physical vehicle to express the characters’ interdependence, the expatriate identities helped me express something about their shared loneliness and sense of disconnectedness from their loved ones.”
I’m a little worried, though. Much of my reading is in service of my writing. I’ve been trained over the past few years to avoid the whole “man sits on a rock and thinks about the end of the world” thing (I actually wrote that story. ICBMs are headed his way, and the military general sits on a rock smoking a cigarette thinking about his family and the world. I took a lot of grief for that one. Little did I know, I should’ve put him on a bicycle). Is this a new trend? Was I ahead of my time? Is my grasping for plot – a task I’ve abandoned recently as I’m not very good at it – a waste of time? Do I need to learn how to do the internal piece better, rather than to stop doing internal stories?
Not sure. But I know I’m fiercely jealous of Benjamin Solomon for writing a story I wish I’d written.