BASS 2014: Stephen O’Connor, “Next to Nothing” from Conjunctions #60

The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but his square shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square shaped. It’s been that way since birth.
… No one looks either sister in the eye as they approach along the solitary block of the town’s main street. No one raises hand, or says hello. But once the sisters have begun to recede in the opposite direction, all four heads turned to watch. Significant glances are exchanged, but not words. There’s no need.

Maybe I’m just tired of playing “Now figure out what this author is trying to do.” Maybe I’m just coasting out-of-gear after a tough MOOC season. Maybe I’m just regarding this story in the same way the sisters regard all of humanity, with analytical detachment bordering on disdain. But this one went by me.

That’s disappointing, because Stephen O’Connor wrote one of my all-time favorite selections from One Story; I liked it so much, in fact, I bought a copy of his collection, Here Comes Another Lesson, but, sadly, except for “Ziggurat” and the title story (which, truth be told, won me purely on the basis of its title) never got far with that, either. That happens, sometimes; a particular author just doesn’t click with a particular reader.

The Soros sisters are odd ducks, obviously, from the first paragraph. They seem as stripped of humanity as their eyes are stripped of color – more eye imagery! Lunar sea? I’ve never thought of the lunar seas as being pale blue, but grey (in photos) or off-white (in the sky). Lunacy?

Yet they’re successful, by most yardsticks, having both families and careers as, of all things, sociologists; I wonder if it’s telling that O’Connor, who teaches in the MFA program at Columbia, sets them in academia:

Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken. They know, however, that theirs is a minority opinion, and so, from a very early age, they have compared what people actually say and do to put it would be reasonable to say and do, hoping they might discover what it takes to feel at home in the world. These efforts – disappointing from the get-go and worse over time – nevertheless send out the sisters with certain intellectual habits that propel them through college, sociology graduate school, and into tenure-track jobs: Isabel at a university in Nebraska, Ivy, in Indiana.

Even their academic specialties are, well, nothing: the financial futures market “where traders make billions by buying and selling absolutely nothing,” and apocalyptic culture as a recognition that humankind’s passing will make no difference to universe.

It’s a story about nothing. Maybe that’s my problem; I never “got” Seinfeld, either.

The sisters spend their summers in the town where their parents – who seem relatively, well, “normal” – now live, a different place from where they grew up, but home nonetheless. Perhaps the parents felt a need to move on after the girls had their own lives. It couldn’t be easy, raising kids who don’t quite understand what the big deal is all about. The sisters aren’t exactly popular in town: “They make the townspeople feel erased. They make the townspeople feel like a variety of wood louse.” I’ve known people like that.

A storm (more storm action!) brings on the climax of the story, yet I felt all along this was an extended character study of characters with no character – a full-color shoot of grayscale paper dolls. Maybe the point was how unmoved I was at the ending. Maybe the point of all literature is in recognizing its effect on us, and wondering about that: is it possible for people to be absent humanity? Does it make us less human, reduce our capacity to feel? Is it the humanity of others that in fact makes us human?

Nothing. Maybe that’s an appropriate reaction to a story about nothing.

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One response to “BASS 2014: Stephen O’Connor, “Next to Nothing” from Conjunctions #60

  1. Pingback: Bye-Bye BASS 2014 | A Just Recompense

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