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.