BASS 2014: Benjamin Nugent, “God” from Paris Review #206

We called her God because she wrote a poem about how Caleb Newton ejaculated prematurely the night she slept with him, and because she shared the poem with her friends.
         Caleb was the president of our fraternity. When he worked our booth in the dining hall he fund-raised a hundred dollars in an hour. He had the plaintive eyes and button nose of a child in a life-insurance commercial, the carriage of an armored soldier. He was not the most massive brother, but he was the most a man, the one who neither played video games nor rejoiced at videos in which people were injured. His inclination to help other brothers write papers and refine workouts bespoke a capacity for fatherhood. I had seen his genitals, in the locker room after lacrosse, and they reminded me of a Volvo sedan in that they were unspectacular but shaped so as to imply solidity and soundness. One morning when we were all writhing on the couches, hung over, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, attended by a cloud of steam. We agreed that the sight of his body alleviated our symptoms.
          “If you use a towel right after Newton uses it, your life expectancy is extended ten years,” said Stacks Animal.
          “If a man kisses Newton, he’ll turn into a beautiful woman,” I said, and everyone stared at me, because it was a too-imaginative joke.

I’ve never understand the Greek system. One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to college immediately after high school was that sororities seemed like one more way to not fit in, and the kinds of what would today be called Young Adult fiction I’d read made it sound like college was all about sororities. When, after ten years of night classes all over Boston, I spent a couple of full-time years finishing a degree and starting grad school, I went to a commuter branch of a state university, which had no sororities or fraternities. So aside from movies and books, fraternities are as foreign to me as the Korowai tribe in New Guinea. Given the way frat boys make the news these days – hazing, cheating, violence – I’m fine with that.

Just so you know where I’m coming from.

However, just as a writer’s job is to provide what volume guest editor Jennifer Egan calls “transport into alternate worlds,” it’s the reader’s job to permit that transportation, sometimes by looking underneath the purported setting – be it a fraternity or New Guinea – into what it is to be human. And what is more human than discovering the consequences of flying too close to the sun? Or wanting what we cannot have? It’s the story’s job, whatever the setting, to show us what makes people alike. And different.

The three main characters of this story are all like in being different.

Caleb is different in his perfection, and in his mild-mannered acceptance of that perfection and his ability to be who he is no matter what the expectations of anyone else. It’s a trait the narrator – his frat name is Oprah, because “there were books in my room and I asked questions” – probably admires even more about Caleb than his Volvo-esque genitals (which is such good imagery, I just had to repeat it). Oprah started out for me as an observational narrator, because the person I found most fascinating was God, aka, Melanie.

Melanie is the pivotal character in the story – the character who, as Ken Nichols points out in a great analysis at Great Writers Steal, shakes up the status quo at Delta Zeta Chi by not only vanquishing seemingly invincible Caleb, but by writing – and sharing – a poem about it, and since the poem is included in an online excerpt, why not, it’s great:

Who is this soldier who did not hold his fire
When the whites of my eyes were shrouded
In fluttering eyelids?
I thought I knew you
Knew you were the steady hand on the wheel
The prow itself
But what kind of captain are you?
Scared sailor with your hand on your mast
Betrayed by your own body
As we are all betrayed
On your knees
Above me
Begging my forgiveness
With the muscles of a demon
And the whites of your eyes
As white as a child’s?

But… the story isn’t about her. That disappointed me.

I suppose, had the story been about Melanie, I would’ve been disappointed as well. She would’ve turned into a kind of caricature of a Warrior; she hovers on the very brink as is, but doesn’t quite go over. Instead, she leads to another, more personal catastrophe, as Oprah goes from observational narrator to agent of his own doom, and the story follows a path predictable from the first paragraph.

I was a little surprised that several readers, including Ken, and writer Spencer Lenfield, found the story to be funny. Maybe you had to have been a frat boy to get the funny. Yes, there are comedic aspects (the poem’s obviously hilarious, and… ottering? Really?). But I found Caleb’s reaction to the poem to be downright inspired – “As if this thing that we had all most likely done, and had been ashamed of, was the least shameful thing in the world”.

Mostly, I just found it sad that it’s a fairly good representation of reality – at least, the reality I imagine goes on in contemporary colleges (in which case I was so much better off going to a commuter school). I liked a great deal about it, but a lot of it made me angry as well. Like Oprah’s post-graduation dream world: “I dreamed of a consulting firm that Nutella would one day helm, staffed by brothers, known for underpromising and overdelivering, with an insignia depicting a clock face in the talons of an eagle.” Seems like a lot of current tech is founded on this model: sistahs, beware.

Thing is, what made me angry was not only a reasonable representation of contemporary society, it was also absolutely central to the story. That makes it hard to read in places. But it doesn’t make it a bad story. Yes, it goes exactly where I’d expected it to go, before God distracted me. But to have it do other – to become the epiphany-leads-to-instant-change story – would’ve been worse. Because we all know, epiphanies happen quickly, but change is painfully, tragically slow.

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9 responses to “BASS 2014: Benjamin Nugent, “God” from Paris Review #206

  1. I’m not a stickler for “writing rules.” I think that most of the time, when someone breaks one, it makes the story better. The only one that bothers me was broken in this story: if your narrative voice is a character in the story, then it must be consistent.

    To break this rule, you must have a very, VERY good reason. Otherwise, it breaks everything you worked to create up to that point. The narrative voice in this story is of a frat boy that doesn’t care about sounding eloquent. He uses simple sentences with mostly crude vocabulary: “He wanted it so bad, he never got it. That was his tragedy, to be cockblocked by his own erect cock.”

    It pulled me out of the mood to hear strong metaphors and lyrical language from the narrator randomly appear out of nowhere: “I remembered the day my mother took me to the Boston planetarium when I was seven, how the constellations maypoled around a void.” Would this narrator really think to use the phrase “maypoled around a void?”

    I think there were two others, but I can’t find them now. In the notes, Nugent points out that this is on purpose. He wants to accidentally write lyrically about crude situations. To me, this is perfectly acceptable if the narrator’s voice is distinct from the character’s. But in this case it isn’t.

    In some sense, the character in the story “breaks character” because something lyrical came through from the author. In this case, I don’t see the very good reason to do it, because this story would be just as good if it wasn’t done.

    In any case, I actually liked it, but this bothered me.

    • That’s an aspect I actually liked, maybe because I tend to mix diction styles myself. But I thought it went with the character – he’s Oprah, remember, he reads books, like that’s an odd thing in his fraternity. So he’s maybe “talking down” when he’s with his bros, but it just slips out of him once in a while. Kind of like Ponyboy, except a little more sophisticated. 😉

      • Thanks. That is a very good point and plausible reason for it. It felt strange to me, but I can see that it isn’t as bad as I initially thought.

  2. Thanks for the great review of this story and many others in the Best Short Stories collection. I’ve felt confused about the point of and not quite satisfied with a lot of the stories in the collection, and your write ups have helped me see some of them in a new light.

    I really wanted to like this story, but, like you, I found myself much more interested in God than the main character. I’ve read a lot of young narrators who share Oprah’s insecurity, desperate need to belong, and tendency to romanticize/idealize others – it seems like a pretty common type (portrait of the Artist/This Side of Paradise/Perks of Being a Wallflower type), and Oprah didn’t stand out as much as I would have liked. Generally, I wished the story made the characters a bit less predictable. Oprah characterizes Nutella as kind, confident and comfortable in his own skin, and the story presents him as just that. I was hoping Oprah would catch a glimpse of a more complex or dark side of Nutella. The frat boys also fit into my stereotypical idea of frat boys as being kind of clueless and obsessed with masculinity. Everyone in this story felt strangely young and sheltered, more like high schoolers or college freshman than seniors imho.

    That said, I loved God’s character. I like how the story led up to the realization that God’s compensating for her lack of sexual experience just as much as the boys. My friend once commented that another of my friends “could not be anyone except herself,” and the same seems true for God. Unlike the frat boys, she can’t just blend in with the crowd. She’ll always stand out, and deal with social anxieties in her own quirky way – but unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character the frat brothers perceive her as, she is filled with social anxieties. Her character saved the story for me.

    I know what you mean about the story making you feel angry – it’s full of macho, sex-obsessed, boy’s club values that seem both harmful and immature, but it does seem like this accurately reflects the culture of many frats (I went to a college without a Greek system, so I also have not experienced frats first hand).

    What did you think of the collection as a whole, compared to other years? This year felt different to me, idk, Jennifer Egan’s taste seems both all over the place and very particular.

    • Hi – I’m so glad someone’s found some value to these comments of mine. I have no particular qualifications, but either I enjoy the story, or I enjoy finding a way into the story – or, at the very least, I enjoy figuring out why I can’t find a way in.

      Interviews tend to use this story, and “This Is Not a Love Song,” as exemplars for the volume. I’m not sure why that is. They are “young” stories, that might have something to do with it, an attempt to make BASS “fit” better with a younger readership. Maybe that fits with what you said about the characters seeming younger than they are. Or maybe they are sheltered – very preppy, the world their oyster because that’s the way the world is, as far as they know. The glimmer in this story was that Oprah has discovered the world doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, and sometimes it comes as a shock when you discover you’re in love with someone completely unexpected.

      I liked this volume a great deal. Last year, I called the Elizabeth Strout collection “a bit safe”. This was anything but safe. But I tend to like “odd” stories; i love quirks some see as gimmicks. Those who favor a more traditional narrative might lose patience. Odd, that I haven’t been that enthusiastic about Egan’s work itself, as much as the stories she chose here.

      • It does seem natural that the characters would be sheltered and somewhat entitled and act younger as a result. It wasn’t really a problem with the story, objectively, but I personally found it a little distracting. I’m not sure what you mean when you say the stories are “young” – is it that they focus on young characters, were written by young writers, or something else?

        “Unsafe” seems like the perfect way to describe these stories. I commented on “God” after I’d read about three fourths of the stories in the volume. Since then, I’ve read three amazing stories – “This Is Not A Love Song,” “La Pulchra Nota,” and “Antarctica” – and one story I enjoyed and am curious to explore further (“Madam Bovary’s Greyhound,” I felt like a whole dimension of the intended meaning went completely over my head since I had not read Madame Bovary). All these stories felt very unsafe, very complex, and very ambitious. They tried to capture not just one moment in a relationship but sort of “chart” the whole relationship from a bird’s eye view. I wonder if many of the stories’ “quirks” result from the complexity and effusiveness of the subject matter. I found myself appreciating how difficult these stories must have been to write.

        I was especially fascinated by Antarctica. It’s a story with a mystery at its center. The mystery is, how do sudden acts of violence effect people? How do people become traumatized, and what does being traumatized entail? The event that theoretically explains the developments in the relationships of all the characters – Eve’s kidnapping – fails to really explain anything at all, since none of the characters, or the reader, understand the power the kidnapping holds. I enjoyed reading last year’s BASS, but like you I’m definitely more fascinated by this year’s.

      • By “young” I was referring to the stories used as exemplars of this year’s volume in interviews – they both have a focus on younger people. Overall, however, the volume covers the whole range. In fact, one of the things I’ve always felt BASS did best was to offer a wide selection of styles, voices, themes, and approaches – which, unfortunately, more or less guarantees that someone who strongly prefers a certain type of fiction will find a significant number of the stories less than interesting. I see it as an exercise to broaden my comfort zone. In my case, I prefer stories with unusual narrative approaches, but in BASS I get to find some plain old “emotional poignant domestic” stories that I love. I just find it interesting that they chose two stories that are somewhat similar in demographic, as the stand-outs.

        If you’ve read my notes to “La Pulchra Nota” then you know, that was hands down my favorite. Bovary was up there, too; I read the original a few years ago, found it hilarious when read from a modern viewpoint.

        By “not safe” I was also referring more to writers taking risks with how they wrote their stories, rather than danger in the narratives themselves. However – it’s interesting you note a theme of “unsafety” since the introduction includes some explanation that the stories seemed to ramble, to not take a straight line. That’s what I’ve called risk-taking; I don’t have an MFA or much background at all in literary theory or criticism, so I sometimes use the vocabulary unintentionally, and can be misleading.

        “Antarctica” was a favorite of a lot of people. I confess, I don’t clearly recall it, except as a mystery with strong psychological underpinnings, a lovely deep, slow read with interesting characters and twists and turns. One of my problems is that I don’t always retain more than impressions, but that’s partly a function of age, and partly just of so much stuff coming in.

        I’m so glad you’re enjoying the anthology. I hope you’ll continue to read it – it’s a great way to see beyond what you’d normally look for, maybe discover a new favorite or two.

  3. Cool, I was referring to writers taking risks with narrative structure, too, not the presence of danger within the stories, so I think we’re actually on the same page. I just meant that telling the story of a person’s entire life, as opposed to dramatizing one moment within that life, seems like a riskier narrative choice. At any rate, it’s good to hear your impressions.

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