The city of Prague is haunted by the armies that have invaded it, by Catholicism, and by Franz Kafka, among other presences. I visited the city three years ago, and in one of its chapels had jolting experience that led directly to this story. That memory found itself grafted onto a scene I had already witnessed in downtown Palo Alto, where some teenaged girls riding in a car were taunting some boys standing together at a street corner. But the core of the story grew out of the quarrel I had 34 years ago with my wife about who would feed the baby. I never forgot that quarrel because it seemed telling to me. Everything else in the story is the essential brick and mortar of invention, the imaginary, and the impossible.~~ Charles Baxter, BASS 2013 Contributor Note
A woman in four acts: Susan as a silly teenager, sure of her looks but still rooted in kindness; as a young woman drawn to kindness; a newlywed who, under the influence of Prague, starts to come a little unglued; and a walking maternal conqueror. I’m not sure what holds it together, other than Susan herself, or what any of it has to do with bravery, but individually, each of the four acts is detailed in a way that’s highly memorable.
Susan as a teenager is a bit of a flirt, but she also has an appetite for kindness; she’s not one of those women drawn to troublemakers. Her college roommate teases her about it, in fact:
Years later, in college, her roommate said to her, “You always go for the kind ones, the considerate ones, those types. I mean, where’s the fun? I hate those guys. They’re so humane, and shit like that. Give me a troublemaker any day.”
“Yeah, but a troublemaker will give you trouble.” She was painting her toenails, even though the guys she dated never noticed her toenails. “Trouble comes home. It moves in. It’s contagious.”
“I can take it. I’m an old-fashioned girl,” her roommate said, with her complicated irony.
There’s something very important about this passage, but I can’t quite put my finger on it: the “complicated irony” which seems to show up over and over, the notion of kindness, and trouble. Kindness that runs into a buzzsaw of trouble.
The second act, what Roger Ebert used to call “meet-cute,” takes place in an art gallery when a fellow patron asks Susan if she smells something; he thinks there’s a gas leak. She isn’t sure what he’s up to (“Metaphor, irony, a come on?”) and neither was I, until I thought about it for a while; he’s being painted as this very nice guy, “a doctor to the core,” so if he’d truly thought there was a gas leak in the art gallery, wouldn’t he have alerted the other patrons? A come on, then, and a successful one. He offers her a monogrammed handkerchief when she spills her drink; being attracted to kindness, she’s drawn to him ends up with his phone number. It isn’t until he hears her sing, however, that he becomes equally interested (“Your voice. Wow. I was undone”). We all earn love somehow.
The honeymoon becomes the scene for a turning point. I’ve never been to Prague – never been anywhere, really – but I love this description of the city:
In Prague, the Soviet-era hotel where they stayed smelled of onions, chlorine, and goulash. The lobby had mirrored ceilings. Upstairs, the rooms were small and claustrophobic; the TV didn’t work, and all the signs were nonsensical. Pozor! for example, which seems to mean “Beware!” Beware of what? The signs were garbles of consonants. Prague wasn’t Kafka’s birthplace for nothing.
There’s a strange series of events involving an old crone in a church made of babies (“We’ve already been to a chapel, seen a baby, talked to a crazy person, had an accident, and it’s only eleven,” as Elijah says) and here Susan starts to get a bit strange. I’m perplexed by this turn.
I’m even more perplexed by the final act, in which the mother instinct runs amok and Elijah runs a bit amok as a result. It’s rendered in such a way as to be completely believable, yet I don’t understand the overall path. Something about Susan becoming the strong one? Something about defeating kindness? Something about bravery? I’m not sure. I go back to the Kafka I’ve read, looking for an anchor, but I don’t find one. It’s a bit frustrating, all these fascinating threads I have, but I’m unable to make the cloth.
I’ve always been intimidated by Baxter. This is only the second story I’ve read by him; the first was also in a BASS volume – “The Cousins” from 2010, my first BASS blogging – and I put that one off out of sheer fear. I guess I have more work to do before I’m up to this story as a whole. But I still enjoyed the threads.