I first thought I might want to read this collection when I read the gripping “Sheep May Safely Graze” in the 2011 Pushcart volume. I ordered it after I read “Call of Blood” in BASS 2011. It’s a smallish collection – only five additional stories – but I had to read them, based on those two.
Christopher Feliciano of The Rumpus puts it well in his introduction to his author interview: “Row grapples with questions of identity, religion, and extremism, exploring how we manage (or fail) to co-exist in a post 9/11 world.” I’d add grief and loss to that list. Row’s interview with Charlotte Boulay of Fiction Writers Review is likewise informative, asking about not only craft but his exploration of fundamentalism and race in these stories.
I found the stories beautifully written, extremely intelligent and thoughtful. My favorites were emotionally engaging, often devastating, with images and metaphors that put complex things in a new light, such as the changing harmony Guruhka speaks of in “Amritsar” or the heartbreaking cathedral image in the title story. I have to admit I was surprised by the use of, well, harangue in “The World in Flames,” “Call of Blood,” and “The Answer.” Each contains extensive monologues in which a character explains his philosophy. I’m fine with this, but it strikes me as old-fashioned (the latter part of The Jungle, Magic Mountain) and no longer condoned, though I can hardly figure out why given the power of those “old-fashioned” books. I guess I need to learn the difference between talking heads and effective use of monologue. While I found “Call of Blood” mesmerizing, I had less connection to “The Answer” and “The World in Flames,” perhaps because in the former, the people doing the lecturing seemed to be wondering aloud rather than dictating, looking for answers instead of insisting they already had them all. In the latter two, they seemed to have their positions firmly entrenched, but I never saw much of the path towards those beliefs.
It’s a collection for someone who wants to think about issues, to see several points of view, not to just nod and agree with what they’ve already decided. Stories to think about. I wonder how some of these stories will look five, ten, twenty years from now.
“The World in Flames”
She’d always seen herself as a fairly good interpreter of men, their attitudes and postures and elaborately disguised emotional agendas, but here, she thought, these waters just get deeper and stranger.
Samantha – Sam – is a young British woman backpacking through Asia. It’s her “last best chance to see the world” before settling down to all the things in a regular life. In Bangkok, she sees an American man, Foster, who somehow intrigues her, and she pulls a fast one: she tells him she’s lost her money and is waiting for the credit card company to send her a new card. It works, and he invites her to stay at his house overnight. His wife is upcountry. It’s a small dishonesty. She isn’t particularly looking for sex, or for anything; the shower and real bed and private room are extremely welcomed after months of bathing from pots and sleeping in communal rooms. She finds a cross hanging in his bathroom, and the conversation develops around religion; she discovers more than she bargained for about his brand of Christianity. He’s out to speed up the pace of things, to get the Rapture going once and for all. And for him, that means a grenade launcher. Poor Sam’s radar was seriously off with this guy. The evolution of their encounter is the thread that pulls the reader through this story.
I sometimes joke about my misspent youth as a fundamentalist. I know the territory. Though it reads like horror story, everything in the story is pretty much based on truth. The “Left Behind” books are still flying off the shelves. There are organizations that return diasporic Jews to Israel in an attempt to speed up the Rapture. Christianity: it isn’t just for Sundays any more. Foster turns out to be a cross between Pat Robertson and Charles Manson, and I don’t need convincing. Row’s intent was to look at how fundamentalism can lead to violence. None of us need convincing about that, not any more, though some may be surprised to see this setting. This is what I wonder: how can people who truly believe their religion is the difference between eternal paradise and eternal damnation, not be fanatics?
“Amritsar” (Full text available online at The Atlantic Monthly)
Having found it only late in my lifetime, you could say I believe strongly in harmony. An outdated concept, you might say. It carries with it a strong whiff of the Beatles and that terrible Coca-Cola commercial I watched with the children when they were young. But, of course, a marriage relies on harmony, a family is composed of nothing but….
I am learning to fish because the components of a harmony change over time. Because the song changes, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy.
I love stories that teach me about something I didn’t know before. Then again, I get annoyed by stories that are so unfamiliar they require research before I can follow along. It’s a delicate balance, and this one falls right in the sweet spot. It’s not the easiest read – after a magnificent opening scene of the narrator (I didn’t now for most of the story if the narrator was male or female) climbing nervously into a boat with his son, there’s a flashback to his childhood in the Punjab and the first reference to Amritsar, which jumbles the timeline for me; I was no longer sure where the present of the story was, in 1919, fifty years later, or fifty years after that. But, as I’ve learned, I just kept reading, with an open mind, and it came together. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading over my head, it’s that an open mind is crucial.
The short version: This story is about assimilation, but that’s like saying Othello is about jealousy; true, but not sufficient. Gurukha, our first person narrator, doesn’t like boats, but he is learning to fish because his son Ajay is marrying Christine, the girl next door (literally) whose father Tom is an avid fisherman. It wouldn’t do for one father-in-law to teach the other, so Gurukha has asked Ajay – “this son, who has never known a barrier he couldn’t leap, who will never have to do anything in his life he doesn’t want to” – to teach him. And on this day, a lot comes up. Memories of his childhood in India; his childhood friend Gopal, who was always intrigued by the massacre at Amritsar fifty years before, and later became an extremist himself. His emigration to Virginia to become a radiologist. The day his daughter found sand nigger painted on her school locker, and Ajay ended up arrested when things got convoluted and misunderstandings multiplied. His feelings about 9/11, with neighbor Tom parked in his driveway with a shotgun when reports of Sikhs, mistaken for Arabs, being attacked were all over the news (“Don’t be ridiculous, our neighbors know who we are, we’ve lived here for 20 years” says Gurukha when his best friend calls to warn him about the backlash; this reminds me of the line in Diary of Anne Frank, when one of the people hiding in the attic says, “I always thought I was Dutch”), and the terrible fight he had with his wife that night. His feelings about Christine making efforts to be a little bit Indian – watching his wife cook Indian food, asking about wearing a sari for her wedding – “in the way that so many Americans want to be something they aren’t.” So many points of view – the “other,” the ally, the vengeful militant, the concerned father, the kid who thinks it’s all worked out now, the parent who knows it isn’t. I’m still a little hazy on a few points, but along the way, the story wrings a lot out of me; it’s very special, and a beautiful read.
“Nobody Ever Gets Lost” (from American Short Fiction)
You have to stop looking, she thinks. You have to stop lying your way into the right metaphor. Nothing works by analogy anymore. The act of comparing is another kind of violence.
This story, maybe the shortest in the collection, is worth the price of the book in itself. Let me take a different approach, and tell you my reactions as I read, because I think Susan, the protagonist, would understand. Despite the numerous references to 9/11 (September again, stores with T-shirts saying “I [heart] NY – More Than Ever”) including the obvious one about her fascination with an elevator accident that killed two children, I believed her when she said her boyfriend died of an aneurism. I was relieved, if a bit surprised and possibly disappointed somewhere I didn’t want to look. Oh, it’s that kind of story, not the kind that means I need to go get more paper towels (I’m a Olympic-level crier; tissues are for wimps). And of course, she lied to me, because that’s part of what the story is all about, glossing over things, getting on with our lives, erasing the scars. “It wouldn’t be fair, she finally decided, to expect them to realize that despite its seeming surface continuity, the world’s underlying chemistry had been permanently altered….Somebody has to remain innocent…” The last page is transcendent.
“The Answer” (Full text available online at Granta)
When you come to Yale, you relinquish the right to be a mad prophet…. You take on the humiliation of belonging.
Isaac meets Rafael during Orientation Week at Yale in 1993. Most of the story is monologue: Rafael’s defense of jihadist Islam, and his attempt to lure Isaac to Karachi to study the Quran and convert. Isaac is not Jewish, by the way; he was raised Unitarian, which (to me) is religion in the vaguest sense. There’s a beautiful rhythm to this story; the sections flow perfectly and end on just the right note for the next one to start. The main story covers one night, more or less; four appendices provide additional context. There are no surprises here, really, outside of the unconventional structure of the appendices.
“The Lives of the Saints” (from Ploughshares; full text available online at Numéro Cinq)
It’s because you’re a woman that you don’t want me to die, Tayari says.
That’s the first sentence of this story, and I gave up trying to figure out why dying was an issue quite soon; so at the very end, I realized Tayari was referring to the impending crucifixion. In the name of art. I’ve been known to get impatient with people who have pretentious and pseudo-intellectual views about art, but if someone’s going to have nails driven into his palms, I’m thinking he’s suffered enough. It’s the story of a very mixed-up couple. He’s the artist, bordering on famous; they live in a deserted storage shed where he completes his projects such as False Postitive, pinning a year’s worth of pregnancy tests to a board, and videos of martyrdom. The title refers to a book detailing the treasured gory details of persecution throughout history. He’s got some idea about bursting through artifice, to really affect people. Hence the crucifixion. His girlfriend is pretty much led down the garden path by this huckster, abandoning dance and education, and becoming pregnant. I was sorry the collection ended on this note, because it all smacked of pretentious nonsense and left a bad taste in my mouth. And yet – is there something here about the artist’s martyrdom, in comparison with religious and political martyrdom? I’m not sure. For one thing, he crucifies himself, not unwilling bystanders.
Overall, it was quite a collection. Out of the seven stories, I loved four. I generally bat about .500 on collections, but I loved these stories more than usual. It’s interesting how both the first and last stories were titled for books that appeared within them, that gave a character an avenue for “rationally” considered (rather than overtly anger- or hatred-driven) violence. It’s also interesting that I considered those the two stories I responded to the least. I’m assuming they were over my head, which means I have more work to do.