BASS 2012: Lawrence Osborne, “Volcano” from Tin House #47, “The Mysterious,” Spring 2011

Martha filed for divorce. She collected the apartment on Central Park West and a considerable sum of money, then went to counseling. Lovers did not materialize to replace the discarded husband. She became yet more enraged, went on Zoloft, and finally decided that her eighteen years of therapy and dietary rigor had not, in the end, helped her very much to face the endgame of biology itself. Growing older had proved a formidable calamity.

Back in 1987, Kathleen Turner starred in an interesting movie titled Julia and Julia (not to be confused with the more recent and completely different Julie & Julia) about a woman who finds herself alternating between two different lives: one in which her Italian husband has been killed in a car accident, and one in which she’s still married to him and having an affair with Sting. It was best remembered as being the first movie shot in HD video, which at the time was a big deal though that meant it looked like TV. But the point is: I found it very uncomfortable to watch. There was something unfair about her being trapped between realities, always responsible for whatever she’d done but couldn’t remember doing because she was somewhere else.

This story raised that same uncomfortable feeling for me. It just didn’t seem fair. But I have to admit, for the story to have raised such a reaction, it must’ve been quite well done. I just didn’t enjoy it, in the way some people love roller coasters or bird peppers in their Thai food, and others don’t get why those things are enjoyable.

Another part of my disenchantment was Martha’s conclusion that, when suitors weren’t available immediately upon her divorce, she was incredibly, irredeemably, old– at 46. Of course, I’m again disliking a story because it’s well-done: the character is effectively created. She’s shallow and vain and haughty (and maybe a little overdone in those areas, though the circumstances of her divorce shed a more sympathetic light on her), but it isn’t the writer’s job to create likeable characters.

She goes to Hawaii for a Lucid Dream seminar, and instead of stumbling across the man she’s been hoping for, she finds only losers:

All in all, they were what she had expected. Bores and beaten-down shrews in decline and kooks. She didn’t mind, particularly. People are what they are and they were no more broken down by life’s disappointments than she herself was. She was sure that half the women had faithless husbands who had run off with younger women. They had that archetypal event inscribed upon their faces.

There’s nothing worse than going somewhere to meet interesting people and finding they’re all just as boring as you. Mirrors, in fact. At least she has the depth to recognize herself, if not the wisdom to appreciate the irony.

The dream technique includes a drug and goggles that emit infrared light during REM sleep to allow the dreamer to be present in the dream and remember it, even influence it: by touching a rough surface, the dream can be changed. To fly, turn around. Simple. As long as you can remember to do all this when you’re sleeping. This is a real thing, by the way; Osborne explains in his Contributor Notes that he wrote the story drawing on his own experience at such a seminar.

You can probably guess what’s coming. After the first couple of nights, Martha leaves the resort (or does she?) and heads out to the little town of Volcano, in the glow of flowing lava, where she meets an old man in a bar and, as things get more surreal thanks to a few of the house specials (the Crater: rum, pineapple juice, sugar, bitters, grapefruit, Cointreau, more rum, egg white, kava), drifts into his room that night. At a crucial point she decides it was a dream, or a nightmare, and starts reaching for rough surfaces.

The dream-you-can’t-wake-up-from is elevated from its place in hackneyed psychological horror by its organic connection to the Lucid Dreaming seminar; everything flows from the divorce to the trip and the climactic event. The effective surrealism of the neighboring volcano (which is also a real thing) is a nice touch, too, if a little blatant in its symbolism. It’s quite a sensuous story, with intense colors and textures and smells and tastes blending to add to the strangeness. I’d read it back when it was in Tin House but didn’t comment because, well, I just didn’t want to deal with it. So I guess it’s a good thing Tom Perotta has now forced me to do so (though so many other stories in that TH issue would’ve been my preference; in fact, looking at the also-rans listed in the BASS appendix, this would’ve been my last choice, but that’s why I’m not the editor). Because it’s a good story (me doth protest for the third time); I just didn’t like reading it.

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