BASS 2013: Joan Wickersham, “The Tunnel, or The News from Spain”

A few years ago I got an idea for a story called “The News From Spain.” I never got a chance to write it, and the next time I thought of it, I realized I’d forgotten everything except the title. The loss was maddening but also somehow evocative. And suddenly I imagined a book: a suite of asymmetrical, thwarted love stories, each of which would be called “The News From Spain.” I wanted the title to feel central to each story and to mean something different in each, but to acquire more resonance – an accrued sense of something deeply felt and elusive, impossible to put into words – as the book went along.
So this is one of those stories.

~~ Joan Wickersham, Contributor Note

I’m so intrigued by that creation story, I’m almost reluctant to go on and discuss the story at hand.

As the stories were published in various literary magazines, Wickersham did assign titles so it would not appear she was publishing the same story in several places, but frankly, I’ve forgotten where the reference to “The Tunnel” of the title comes into this story, whereas “The News From Spain” is very clear in my mind: it’s what Rebecca finds her mom obsessed with when she visits her at the nursing home:

Rebecca is tired. Harriet has been sick on and off for years, more than a decade. Rebecca has just driven four hours from Boston to get to the Connecticut nursing home where Harriet now lives. She is taking two days off from the small bookstore she owns, paying her part-time assistant extra to cover for her. She brought a shopping bag full of things Harriet likes: rice pudding with raisins, shortbread, fresh figs, and a box of lamejuns from a Middle Eastern bakery. She has walked into the room, and Harriet has barely looked away from the TV to say hello.
What Harriet says is “They just interviewed a man whose granddaughter died in his arms.”

Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the disaster that’s happening to strangers on the other side of the world, than to pay attention to your own life.

It’s interesting that Rebecca may have something of the same problem. Though the story takes place over the course of a decade, it reads far more compactly; I was left with the impression of Rebecca as flighty and given to high-turnover relationships, but in fact quite a few years pass as her affair puts an end to her marriage – an end she’s ambivalent about – and the affair itself eventually turns into something else. But all the time, her focus is on, not herself, but her mother.

We get a front row seat at a compare/contrast festival between Rebecca’s relationship with her mother, and that with the men in her life. She’s full of insight – the need to test each others’ love, the need to feel like a hero after the failure of her marriage, her mom’s needs – but that insight does her little good, as one relationship then another falls apart on her. The insights are wonderful, and I recognize most of them. And yes, I’ve done the same thing: I’ve often been full of insights, yet still managed to completely screw things up.

I’m a bit sorry this is the last story of this year’s volume I’ll be blogging, as it didn’t quite pop for me (there is another, final story, Callan Winks “The Breatharians,” which I enjoyed very much when I read it last year, but I’ve blogged it already and, still feeling a bit bereaved by the loss of my cat several weeks ago, there’s no way I’m going to re-read it now since it involves, let’s say, a distinctly rural attitude towards barn cats). That isn’t to say it’s a bad story; just that it isn’t the note I would’ve preferred to have ended on.

But then there’s the metastory about the title, and that delights me no end. What news from Spain am I focusing on – and what news am I ignoring completely? What am I forgetting to capture, only to see it slip away forever? Maybe that’s the nature of things: like Wordsworth’s “strong emotion recalled in time of tranquility,” maybe we need to move out of things before we can see them in the fullness of what they are.

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