Rivka Galchen: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” from TNY, 12/9/13

Most of the presenters at the conference in Key West were somewhat old, and the audience was very old, which was something J was accustomed to, being among people considerably older than herself, since it is the older people, generally, who have money, and who thus support the younger people, who have youth. Or something. The young have something to offer.
…J had invited not her gentle husband but her stepmother, Q, to join her.

Age is a character in this story, in spite of the fact that we’re never given the ages of the two main characters, J and Q. J is presumably somewhere in the 35-to-40 range or so, at the age where her stepmother Q figures children aren’t going to happen but J still hasn’t ruled that out. Q seems to be of an age where competence is becoming a concern – at least in J’s mind. I’ve always figured parents and children calculate age, and competence, using different measures, and that seems to be the case here.

J is worried about all manner of things concerning Q during this Key West writers’ meeting: is she going to stare at the author with the eyepatch; is she ill; has she lost all her money; is she living with the neighbor who’s now in the ICU, and if so, is it because she’s broke? As I read, I was reminded that how one person treats another can affect the outside observer’s impression of either, or both, people. Is the impression that Q’s history is deserving of such concern – or that J’s fears out of proportion? It might depend with whom you most identify, perhaps.

J’s mother died when she was a child, and her father just recently, so it’s not surprising she sees the world as an unstable, tricky place. This is played in all sorts of ways in the story: misread cues, uncertain situations, and, by the time we read the last lines, in the way she sees Q, who, in the end, may be the least unstable, least tricky person around.

J found herself in conversation with a woman whose mouth dragged left, perhaps from a stroke, or maybe it was just a thing….J realized that the host was the woman who had written a book called “Real Humans,” which J had for years been pretending to have read…
“You know what’s strange?” the woman asked.
“O.K. What’s strange?” J wondered where Q was.
“You’re going to go on living,” she said. “And I’m not going to go on living. I might go on for a while. I’m eighty-seven. But you’re going to continue into a future that I’m never going to see, and that I can’t even imagine. I mean, this cocktail party is just like one my parents might have thrown fifty years ago. But, in other ways, it’s a completely different world. I hear people on their cell phones saying, ‘Yes, I’m on the bus now. I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ Or, ‘I’m in the cereal aisle now.’ Well, that’s just so strange to me. I don’t find that normal. Do you find that normal? Do you do that tweeting? I know that I can’t follow. So I just don’t. But you’re just going forward into the future. You’ll go forward and forward, into it. And I won’t.”
“I’m here with my mom,” J said. “I better go check in with my mom.” J couldn’t ever recall ever having used that phrase out loud. It sounded almost like science fiction.

The party scene is both hilarious and heartbreaking; I suppose which depends on whether you’re 40 or 80, whether you’re there or a reader looking on. The house is full of more tricks and dangers in the form of steps – steps up into one room, down into another, and they’ve all been marked off with tape but a greeter (a greeter?) warns the guests to watch their step anyway. I realized as I read: my older sister’s house had a sunken living room with similar steps. Makes sense, in this context. My family of origin was full of booby traps.

Lots of comedic Chekhov’s Guns on the wall in this story, none of them fired; and I think that’s where it’s elevated so far above a routine movie script starring Meg Ryan and Shirley McLaine: no, no one trips over the steps. Q does not, in fact, stare at the guy with the eye patch, and J doesn’t blurt out “Q, this is Eye Patch” by mistake.” They’re not used as slapstick; they’re just textural details, and they’re great.

Like Gene Hackman; what does he have to do with all this? Turns out he was in the news, hit by a bus on day 1; J was pretty pessimistic about his chances – they guy is 81 (when did Gene Hackman turn 81?) and he was hit by a bus, for pete’s sake, you don’t have to be a pessimist to figure this isn’t going to end well. But Q, who is a lot closer to 81, has a clearer view of the road in this case, and we see who is the reliable narrator:

It was as if Q’s real secret wasn’t that she’d lost her home, or lost her money, or was secretly ill, but that she actually knew what she was doing. Or maybe she had lost her money and her home, and maybe she was ill, but she was able to handle it. All these partygoers seemed able to handle their lives.
“He was just scratched up a bit,” Norm’s lover said.
“Who was scratched up?”
“Gene Hackman. He wasn’t really hurt at all.”
“That’s what I thought,” Q said. “I thought he would be fine.”

There’s more Gene Hackman (UPI reported something like the accident in January 2012, though details differ if you google around about it – he was on a bike, a motorcycle, he was hit by a car, a pickup truck, a bus; in any event, he was indeed fine), but to me, it’s really about age and our attitudes towards the aging, and it has impact.

Galchen’s Page Turner interview indicates she used Roberto Bolano’s “Last Evenings on Earth” as a starting point for the narration (she calls it close 3rd person; it’s pretty intrusive at times). I haven’t read that story; I might read this one very differently if I had. In fact, I may do that; I’d be interested in seeing how Galchen (whose voice I admire very much, now that I’ve read three of her short fictions) turns what TNY archives describe as a story about “a Chilean father and son who vacation in Acapulco, visit a whorehouse bar, where the father angers people and they get into a fight.”

Yeah, I can see a story about an American daughter and stepmother at a Key West writers’ meeting who go to a party at an elderly science fiction writer’s house might come out of that. It’s all a matter of transposition. Some things are universal.


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