Tom Paine: “Marlinspike” from One Story #185, 10/25/13

The blue ferry carrying Julia nodded through the waves to Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. Phineas sat under a tamarind tree above Cruz Bay in his tuxedo, watching it go. The five layers of wedding cake perched in his lap.
…Phineas taught scuba diving at the Westin with a sideline of shark diving off the North Drop. The crashing of shark populations worldwide kept him up at night. Sometimes he counted jellyfish to put himself to sleep. The cake had been a surprise for Julia. In the last month, he had secretly learned to bake in the kitchen of the hotel.

I’ve been putting this off for a week now, but it’s time to face it: I sometimes don’t like good stories. And I can’t seem to keep that out of my posts about them.

And this is a perfectly good story. The main characters are wonderful: Phineas, med student turned Virgin Islands diving teacher / shark diver/ baker, freshly jilted by his fiancée Julia for reasons neither he nor I understand (I’ll get to that); and a precocious ten-year-old girl, also named Julia, freshly bereaved by her mother’s death and mostly ignored by her father, the eye doctor, in the Islands at a medical convention. Don’t those sound like great characters? They are. A little too good, maybe…

It’s loaded with symbolism, and if you don’t believe me, just read the One Story Q&A where he’ll tell you all about the “deep thought” that went into the hitchhikers and the headlamps and complains that “it actually is kind of tragic to learn most people wouldn’t see a symbol in Gatsby’s green light if you waterboarded ’em. Writers do it like they breathe; they are always aware of the soul of things chattering away. But you do feel kind of lonely when you realize everyone else sees the seagull as just a fucking seagull.” I love it when a writer assumes off the bat that everyone’s just too stupid to “get” his work.

The problem might be that it works a little too well. Everything’s very meaningful and even symmetrical, with ferries coming and going and sharks and cakes and a cowboy hat and red aprons that look like “bloodstains on the beach.”

And then there’s the supporting cast. I’m as perplexed as Phineas about why his bride-to-be took the next ferry back to St. Thomas with her bridesmaids (when I said “bride-to-be” I wasn’t kidding, as in, within days) because he met her at the ferry wearing a tux and carrying a wedding cake he’d baked himself. There are, of course, women who would run from that. They might enter into a dalliance with a med-student-turned-shark-diver, maybe even a long one. But they don’t get engaged to one until he’s moved safely back to New York and started a Park Avenue practice (I’m a little behind on the current trends in fashion medicine, is that still where the rich and famous get their prostate massages?).

The child-Julia’s father is equally obtuse. He knows his daughter is grieving for her mother (whether he is or not can be inferred). It seems important to him that Phineas understand that his wife wore the cowboy hat the girl now treasures, not as “an affectation” but because she was a rodeo queen – she had legitimate claim to a cowboy hat. And during the trip to the Islands, he got on the plane without her, leaving her in the Charlotte airport. Presumably, that means he’s used to travelling alone. Because I’m afraid of missing some meaning here and thinking a seagull is just a seagull (I’m pretty sure it’s not by accident this guy is an eye doctor).

Then there’s the marlinspike of the title. I’ve never heard of a marlinspike before. It’s “a tool used in marine ropework” – Phineas explains it’s used to undo knots, but I’ve discovered it’s also used to make ladders, an even more interesting symbolic function given the story. And by the way, the single-sentence paragraph “Phineas wept” brought to mind the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Don’t mess with me when it comes to symbolism. I can overread a nursery rhyme into dust.

So, I guess I don’t like good stories. Like Phineas, I think I prefer my life a little messier. If that means someone takes the return ferry outta here, so be it.

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4 responses to “Tom Paine: “Marlinspike” from One Story #185, 10/25/13

  1. Interesting concept, to be sure. It does sound a bit too perfect, doesn’t it? I like some challenge and some suspense in my stories, so that I am kept on the edge of my seat wondering what is going to happen next or if the character is going to behave in totally unexpected ways from his/her usual behavior.

    • I’m a big fan of One Story but sometimes they miss big for me; but nothing’s perfect, after all. They’re still the only litmag I subscribe to, and it’s been three years now. They take chances – and when you take chances, sometimes you miss. Strange thing is, most of the misses, for me, come when they play it safe.

  2. I seem to have streaks with One Story, and have not been on a good one lately. Marlinspike prompted me to wonder when my subscription was up….because I might not renew if it doesn’t get better. You have been very nice about the deep symbolism and how the story is a good story that you just didn’t like…. But since when are totally flat characters good? It seemed like the author was content to rest on symbols (otherwise sometimes known as fashion choices, jobs, quirks and other surface traits) rather than creating people with depth and souls. From the wedding cake on in, none of it had any resonance for me.

    • Wow, and here I was worried that I was being too harsh (I really was. Worried, I mean). 😉

      See, I’ve been taking a page from Ken Nichols at one of my favorite review blogs, Great Writers Steal – he features what a story does right, not what it does wrong. I can’t keep my feelings out of it entirely, nor do I want to; my focus has always been on my reaction to a story – where it takes me and why – rather than a technical analysis (which I’m not really qualified to do anyway). But I try to see what the author was trying to do, at least, even if I’m not sure he did it.

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