PEN/O.Henry 2012: Lauren Groff, “Eyewall” from Subtropics, W/S 2011

Peter D’Aprix: “Young Woman in an Egg”

It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d yelled before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

This story about a hurricane taught me something; or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, it reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten.

On first read, I was perplexed. The prose seemed a bit purple for literary fiction, like a high school student assignment: “Write 6000 words using description, imagery, and metaphor.” I’m all in favor of beautiful phrases and startling images, but it seemed a little much:

…the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.
The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.
The great hand of the storm would wipe them off the road like words from a chalkboard.
The house sucked in a shuddery breath…
…the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts.
There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds…
…waggling its oars like swimmers’ arms.
[The wind] riffled through my books one by one as if searching for marginalia…
Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch.
…towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted.
The storm had stolen the rest of the wine and the butler’s pantry, too.
My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked.

The language was getting in the way of the story. It’s something like Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet theory of typography, which I learned about when I read Simon Garfield’s Just My Type – the medium, be it words or letter forms, should serve the message, not overpower it. I felt like the language here was distancing me from the story, like an overeager performer who sticks out like a sore thumb in an ensemble performance.

I read Groff’s Contributor Note: the story came to her first in structure, as she watched a storm cloud approaching and felt “unbearable fragile and exposed.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, since I didn’t see anything particularly unique in the structure of the story: it covers the hours spent riding out a hurricane, including visits from three ghosts, and ends with an improbable image of hope and renewal.

But I set about my usual routine, checking out other commentary on the story, and found this by Charles May on his Reading the Short Story blog:

The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way.

Now I was able to more fully absorb Groff’s Contributor Note: “I saw a despairing character who was at the center of some harsh circular winds that were, in turn, whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.” The language was not for the sake of writing pretty words; it was integral to her concept of the story.

This made a huge difference to me as I reread the story. I was able to see a lot that I hadn’t before. The chickens, for instance. The story begins with chickens, in the opening paragraph quoted above, and they appear – or disappear – throughout

My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.

As each man from her life – the ex-husband who died a week after he left her for his younger mistress, the boyfriend she “lost” in Barcelona, who later killed himself – “There it was, the wet rose blossoming above his ear” – her father, who died while she was away at camp, her mother deliberately not telling her he was sick – she confronts a different part of her past, a different kind of loss.

Her childlessness – perhaps infertility – is another different kind of loss that comes back to her. She remembers her first impression of the house the storm is now battering:

I fell for the long swing in the heritage oak over the lake, which had thrilled some child, which was waiting for another. My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.

And at the end of the storm, alone again, she surveys the destruction of her house and neighborhood, culminating in one final image:

Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.

I’m really impressed how this ties so much of the story together. It’s a bit over the top, still, but it’s got the chickens, the infertility, the destruction, the survival, all wrapped up there in one perfect, improbable egg.

Groff’s interview with Subtropics focuses more on general issues – altering facts in historical fiction, the perils of using ghosts in literary short stories – than on the story itself. But that’s ok. By the time I got there, I had it already. And again I remember why I do this – it’s so easy to put aside a story that doesn’t work on first read, but if I keep an open mind and go digging, consult those wiser than I, it’s possible I just might find what I’d overlooked. This is the third of Groff’s stories I’ve read, and it’s by far my favorite.

One response to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Lauren Groff, “Eyewall” from Subtropics, W/S 2011

  1. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

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