BASS 2012: Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard” from Ploughshares, Spring 2011

Thomas Deerinck: "Proteus Vulgarus Bacteria, SEM"

Thomas Deerinck: “Proteus Vulgarus Bacteria, SEM”

It was Thursday, and Calvin’s wife, Jill, had her GRE class, and he had to watch the boys. Jill hated Dave Lott, though she wouldn’t use the word hate. Everything was dislike, and now even the boys only disliked okra and disliked string beans, which sounded creepy to Calvin, coming from them – too much calm specificity. Jill disliked Dave Lott. She was friends with the man’s first wife in the way he’d noticed women were friends, with the need to designate an opponent so they could know they were on the same side.

I briefly had a subscription to Ploughshares, but I let it lapse; very few of the stories made sense to me. I would’ve been worried, but I seemed to do fine with most of Tin House, The New Yorker, and the prize volumes, so I figured they just gravitated towards a more academic style that wasn’t my cup of tea. If this story is any indication, not much has changed: I don’t understand it at all. And not only did the BASS editors think this was one of the Best American Short Stories of 2012, it won the 2011 Alice Hoffman Prize from Ploughshares for the best fiction published that year.

I’m pretty hard to please, I guess: first I complained that “The Imaging Center” was too obvious (among other things) and now I’m complaining (no, I’m not complaining, more like, reporting) this one is too obscure, and not in that intriguing way (like last year’s “Dog Bites” or the year before’s “The Cousins“) that sometimes happens, becoming a beautiful obsession. No, with this, it seemed to put it all out there, and I still didn’t get the point of it all. I waited a few days to re-read it, which sometimes works wonders, but not for this one. I guess I’m still not the Ploughshares reader.

The plot isn’t difficult to follow, not at all. Calvin’s job is inspecting waste water treatment facilities. As the story opens, he’s in the middle of an inspection and his foot slips, sinking one leg thigh-deep in treated sewage which odiferously marks him for the rest of the day; it’s an occupational hazard. When friend and co-worker Dave dies unexpectedly of a bacterial infection, supposedly unrelated to sewage inspection, and ex-wife Pat shows up with fifteen-year-old daughter Jennifer for the funeral, Calvin again steps in some crap that has nothing to do with sewage.

But why the story has to be so choreographically complicated to get us there, and just where it is we’re getting to, and why, I don’t know. It seems to start too early, then focus on minutiae, before culminating in a couple of crucial scenes. The funeral scene in particular is interminable, with no perceptible payoff; it’s after the funeral that things start popping.

I’m assuming the story is actually about Calvin’s marriage to Jill, revealed through the metaphor of bacteria (and by the way, the gods of coincidence have struck again, with two consecutive stories using an image inextricably linked with a character’s workplace to examine the state of a shaky marriage, just as in “The Imaging Center“):

Calvin had always appreciated bacteria, with all their invisible processes. He liked the intricacy of their names – fecal coliform, Escherichia coli, the whole hardy Bacillus genus. Bacteria were the secret to waste management, after all, allowing humans to live virtually on top of one another. They were nature’s recyclers, breaking everything down to nutrients to be reabsorbed. It irritated Calvin the way people always acted like bacteria were the bad guys, and antibiotics with the good guys, because the antibiotics – their overuse, anyway – were what was screwing up the bacterial balance, tipping the scale towards pathogenic. It shut down a few conversations with this rant.… You couldn’t blame bacteria for killing Dave Lott, who was dead by Tuesday, before Calvin even had a chance to stop by the hospital.

The bacteria in the relationship might be the cause of the tug-of-war over another baby; Calvin’s sexual “boycott” of his wife because she wants to have another baby and he doesn’t seems like a flashing red sign, screaming “Look here, this is where the good stuff is.” I suppose it feeds into what happened in the office with the deceased’s teenage daughter, another flashing red sign. But those things are overwhelmed by detailed scenes that might’ve been better summarized than narrated: the detailed seating arrangements of the funeral, and the conversation between Wife #1 and Wife #2 which goes pretty much where you’d expect such a conversation to go but added very little to my understanding of these people. The bacteria gets lost; it might just be bacteria, I don’t know. The we have the act the teenager puts on at the after-party (whatever you call the gathering after a funeral), inspired by what was meant to encouragement from Calvin, which in itself is fascinating, but, like the conflict over having another baby, doesn’t seem to fit. A lot of these elements are pretty interesting, but for me, it doesn’t really hang together as one cohesive story.

This and everything else seemed to Calvin to boil down to resistance – to giving in or not giving in, even when you couldn’t say exactly what there was to be resisted or what made you want to.

Exactly. I think.


10 responses to “BASS 2012: Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard” from Ploughshares, Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: The Last Page | A Just Recompense

  2. Hi Karen,
    I’m glad you wrote this. I was trying to find something to answer a few questions I had about the story. I think the sentence you highlighted at the end of your post here, the one about resistance, is the key to understanding the whole story. By my interpretation, you’re right in saying the primary conflict of the story, the one in which Calvin, the protagonist, is most deeply embroiled, is between himself and his wife. She wants to have another kid and he does not. But it’s actually deeper than that, and that depth is what makes the story more interesting. Calvin doesn’t want to have sex with his wife because she is so controlling over him; he feels that she does not appreciate him, and does not listen to him. Therefore he has this desire to rebel. This is evinced not only by his observations of her–the way she gossips on the phone, the way she tries to seduce him, taking off her gown and rubbing her nipples on his back, the way she acts so overbearingly at the funeral–but even more convincingly by the dynamics of the four-way relationship shared among Calvin, his wife Jill, Dave Lott’s ex-wife Pat, and Dave Lott’s daughter Jennifer. At the outset of Pat and Jennifer’s arrival, the four of them are divided into two camps: Calvin and Jennifer, Pat and Jill. Throughout the funeral, Pat and Jill do all that is within their power to try to bend Calvin and Jennifer to their will. Jill, for example, gets angry at Calvin for being insensitive to Pat–which, ultimately, is indicative of Jill’s desire to have Calvin see things her way, to have Calvin docilely accede to her will. Likewise, Pat is constantly clinging to Jennifer, trying to get her to to admit to being in some sort of “phase,” or taking her hands in her lap and wailing and making a big scene. Same thing: Pat is unable to let Jennifer be her own person. Calvin, meanwhile, begins to identify with Jennifer, seeing that she is trying to resist. He feels sorry for her, just as he feels sorry for himself. And this is finally consummated at the climax, the scene where they sexually rub on each other in the closet.

    What’s also interesting is that the reader can’t help but be sympathetic with Calvin, despite his act of pedophilia with Jennifer. Pneuman achieves this primarily by portraying Jill and Pat–especially Pat–as such cloying, needy and nasty women. This is really nailed down when, after the funeral, Lott’s current wife gives Jennifer the book of Lott’s poems. Jennifer is obviously moved; Calvin notices her chin quivering. But Pat can’t see beyond her own selfish hatred of Lott’s ex-wife, and thus incites that little scuffle. A gracious person would have identified the gift exchange as an act of kindness, or, at the least would have seen that her daughter was legitimately grieving, while she herself was grieving for the sake of societal posturing. And, of course, Jill sides with Pat in the matter, and remains angry at Calvin for not seeing things her way. (Remember, at the beginning, when Calvin made that observation, highlighted above: “She was friends with the man’s first wife in the way he’d noticed women were friends, with the need to designate an opponent so they could know they were on the same side.”)

    Anyways, the story, I think, is about whether Calvin will ultimately resist. In the denouement, Calvin is sitting on the back porch with a bottle of vodka. He feels guilty for what he’s done. His wife comes out there. He leans against her. He thinks, in that moment, he would do anything for his wife. But then, in a moment of desperation, he asks her to “listen to me” and to “Help me,” but she covers his mouth, still not listening, and thinks he was simply kissing her hand. This last part confuses me, but I think it signals that his wife is still not going to change, and that he will be continually mired in this depression. Will he resist? I don’t know whether that is answered….

    • Hi Chilcott, nice to hear from you again. Funny how I compared this story to “Dog Bites” from BASS 2011 which we also puzzled about.

      “What’s also interesting is that the reader can’t help but be sympathetic with Calvin” – Hmmm, afraid I have to disagree with you there. I don’t sympathize with him at all. I don’t sympathize with anyone in the story, which may be why it didn’t do much for me. Everyone seems at the same moment emotionally isolated and dependent. Maybe that’s where the resistance comes in, they all recognize their dependence on the other, and resent it, thus act in ways designed to keep the other at bay. Except Jennifer, who is just lost and alone in grief and confusion over her father’s death. She’s a kid, so being inappropriate is her job. Calvin has no excuse.

      I like what you said about them pairing up, Pat and Jill, Calvin and Jennifer. And Calvin’s attempt to re-pair with his wife at the end. Grieving people act strangely sometimes; families undergo strange dynamics around funerals (that’s the novel I’ve had trying to get out for 20 years). And Calvin has had a loss, though he seems to be trying to skim over the top of it. I like the thing about her putting her hand over his mouth when he asks her to listen. But I still don’t get the bacteria.

  3. Hello, My name is Dave Stover and this is my first experience responding on your blog. Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in on Occupational Hazard. I was assigned this writing to review as part of a Short Story class I am taking.

    I was wondering if others shared my surprise that this writing won such accolades. Thus, when I saw your comments, I was relieved at your similar dismay. I can’t spend much time tonight discussing my thoughts but your incisive analysis was appreciated and if I may, I want to copy your comments, accord and attribute them properly and share them with our class at Lighthouse Writers in Denver.

    To make a few comments, I looked for the keys in the first paragraphs that would be precursors to coming events. Nothing. All I observed were “ly” adverbs. I am a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and would be hammered if I used these adverbs in my writing. I was also stopped when the revelation of Dave Lott’s death popped out changing and distancing the protagonist with a totally omniscient narrator. I thought it a disservice and a missed opportunity for the writer to develop the characters in a more plausible way.

    As to the major premise, it seemed to me clear that Calvin was just dominated by a life long subservience to Jill. He reminds me of an engineer-type whose work dominates his personality but finds no appreciation for his expertise at home, nor anyone to talk to about the sciences. He scoffs silently but keeps his thoughts to himself. He seems remorseful that he did not have that beer with Lott, but other than that I did not see anything to prepare me for his comment in the last paragraph to Jill. “Help me.”

    I am sorry but this story was not properly developed.

    • Hi Dave – yeah, this one went by me. It must have something going for it, but I’m not sure what – it felt like the writer focused on things that cluttered up the story. You’re welcome to use my comments, but be forewarned, I have no qualifications whatsoever. If someone at Lighthouse tells you what makes this story tick, I hope you’ll come back and explain it to me.;)

      I frequently find that “rules” (like not using adverbs) apply more to students than to protégés, MFAs, and published authors. I didn’t even notice the adverb in the story, but that might’ve added to the overall annoyance level I felt while reading.

      I think I used to subscribe to Lighthouse, the top-secret blog. I tried to streamline my feeds a while back (I was overwhelmed with stuff and ended up not looking at anything) but I don’t remember how I first encountered them. Good luck with the class.

      • I will send you their comments after Tuesday night’s meeting. I think you were right on target. Your “clutter” comment is the same feeling I had. I took a class in screenwriting and it probably skewed my outlook forever. The writing is not literary, goes to the heart of the central issue, drives the story forward.

        You sound very professional and learned. At least the two of us agree. 🙂

      • I’d be wary of agreeing with me too much ;). But on this particular story, I found several other readers also drew a blank. Including Charles May (who really IS professional and learned) whose blog I find invaluable; he often points out things I missed, but not this time.

        I’ve learned a lot about writing from writing workshops (I have an ancient BA in English, but I mostly played with words in the Linguistics department), and started blogging stories as a way to force myself to go beyond “I like/don’t like this story” and figure out exactly what it is writers do in stories that work for me. I’m not (usually) going to say any BASS stories, or any stories, aren’t “good” because Ploughshares isn’t exactly known for publishing dreck; I have no idea what they saw in this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a shining example of whatever I’m missing. But I will say exactly why I didn’t enjoy them.

        I’m looking forward to hearing what the rest of your group has to say.

  4. Hi, Interesting, thoughtful comments. But I wonder what would happen if readers asked questions that were less about how they might write a story — although, to be fair, readers often look to learn, to consider, to see how one person’s art might inspire our own or, if we are not writers, help us “see” how other stories unfold — but were more about what the writer had in mind. One of the reasons I read is that I figure there are a lot of things I don’t know, a lot of ways of looking at things, life, trauma, fear, at successes or mistakes. There are also different styles and we don’t all, thank goodness, have to have the same one. (That is, adverbs exist; if they are part of somebody’s voice, so be it — even if I or those in a writing group I belong to disparage them. Hemingway wrote one way, Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers two other quite different ways. Pneuman too. And me. And the great You out in the world that reads and writes in its zillion voices.) When I read, the questions it often seems to me are not so much did these characters validate my view or expectations as: a) Are their predicaments and responses interesting and recognizably human? And b) What does that tell me about life? I think Pneuman does that. There is a sense, sometimes, in her work of resistance as a kind of inevitable force in life — resistance or hostility in the atmosphere, the place, the interactions, or deep within the self. I find that interesting, especially when characters don’t know, or don’t want to acknowledge, that resistance or the resistance they, too, churn or provide. In stories and in life, often what stops people or characters comes from within. This story is elusive in certain ways, but it asks us to look again, to look harder. And elusiveness does mean less true. I found it full of real-life mysteries, the sort that don’t always get solved (or resolved). Having said that, I admit I was expecting that kind of ephemeral puzzle, eager to see it in fact, because I’ve read Pneuman before and simply been transported sometimes — “All Saints Day” and “The Long Game” in Pneuman’s collection Home Remedies come immediately to mind, both the kind of story you finish and think, Wow, how did she DO that?

    • Hi Susan – thanks for contributing your thoughts. My focus when I read is to enjoy the story; my reason for blogging is to understand what a writer did, or didn’t do, that contributed to my reaction. I’m sure I miss a great many things, things that, had I caught them, might’ve changed my reaction. So I’m always glad when others come along to provide more food for thought.

      I haven’t read any other work by Pneuman, but now you’ve got me intrigued.

  5. Thanks, Karen: Yours is an interesting and engaged commentary — bravo! (Thanks too for overlooking my dropped word: the line should read “And elusiveness does NOT mean less true.” Sigh.) I think what I’ve been learning lately is to try and trust the writer, to keep giving permission as a reader (a “nobody” reader, but still) for the story to evolve. That said, there are writers who write bad stories badly and editors who, inexplicably to me, choose to publish and even honor those stories with accolades. Sometimes it feels to me like a cheat, an inside job. But I think with a writer like Pneuman — who can be so luminous, so spot on about dilemma, struggle, and non-sectarian or unexpected salvation, who understands laughter (though it’s not really frequent in her stories) and how knowledge hurts — a story that seems distant or unfocused might yield more than expected. For what it’s worth, you (and Dave, above) saw things in this story that are there, really interesting things, that I missed on the first go-around: I was mostly focused on Calvin’s inability to quite know what he was up to, which seemed pretty realistic and moving to me for a bunch of reasons…. Anyway, many thanks. Lovely site, and a perfect name for it too! — SF

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