BASS 2014: Laura van den Berg, “Antarctica” from Glimmer Train, #88

In Antarctica there was nothing to identify because there was nothing left. The Brazilian station at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula had burned to the ground. All that remained of my brother was a stainless steel watch. It was returned to me in a sealed plastic bag, the inside smudged with such. The rescue through had also uncovered an unidentified tibia, which might or might not have belonged to him. This was explained in a cold, windowless room at Belgrano II, the Argentinian station that had taken in the survivors of the explosion. Luiz Cardoso, the head researcher at the Brazilian base, had touched my shoulder as he spoke about the bone, as though this was information intended to bring comfort.

Secrets, guilt, mistakes. The Antarctic – cold, isolated, unknown. A researcher killed in an accident. His sister on a mission. And Eve, the wife/sister-in-law who hovers over and underlies all of it.

Much of the beauty of this story (and it is beautiful) lies in the unfolding, how we start with very little grasp of the situation and move towards understanding. Just like the narrator.

That artful reveal makes it difficult to write about, however, since what is unknown is just as important as what is known. There’s a tension in places partly created by the scene, and partly by the knowledge that there’s another shoe to drop and eagerness to know what that shoe is. It’s as if the author has a secret, and the force of that secret propels the reader onward.

I missed the perfect chance to tell my brother everything. The day before he left for Vancouver, I went to see him at MIT.… I should’ve had a plan, but I didn’t. Rather, the weight of Eve’s secret had propelled me toward him the way I imagine the current tugs at the objects that find their way into its waters…

I think we keep secrets for different reasons. Some we keep because they’re embarrassing. Some, because they’d cause pain to others and wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. But a great many secrets are kept because the secret-holder doesn’t want to deal with another person’s reaction. This story is full of secrets – and the understanding that, sometimes, we’d rather not know.

Lee, the narrator, has the central secret – we only know her thoughts, so in narrative terms she’s the richest secret-bearing possibility – and her secret has grown like rock candy crystalizing on a string. But she narrates a great many other secrets. Eve’s secret, for example, is the seed crystal: why does Eve keep her secret from her husband? Does she fear he’ll see her differently? Has she left that person, the one she was, behind, and she’s unwilling to risk being burdened with her again? Or is it some kind of shame from guilt, however inappropriate the guilt may be? Or did she learn secret-keeping where most of us do, in the family?

Her parents think they’re protecting their child by keeping her from understanding her own experience. Parent want to protect their children, of course they do. But is it protection at all, to deny, repress, ignore truth? When parents protect their children, are they at heart protecting themselves from the pain of the truth, turning away from knowing? Do parents unwittingly convey attitudes to their children that way, pass on a legacy of choosing to not know?

There were so many times when I wanted to tell my brother everything – when, in the middle of the night, I wanted to kneel by his bed and whisper, I have a secret. In Cambridge, I’d told myself these were Eve’s secrets to keep or expose; it was her life to walk away from, if that’s what she wanted. And the more time that passed, the more unimaginable the truth seemed. To admit one lie would mean admitting another and then another….Some of these things I did not know – not because they were unknowable, but because I had turned away from the knowledge. In Antarctica I decided that was the worst thing I’ve ever done, that refusal.

Luiz, the Brazilian researcher who serves as Lee’s guide to the Antarctic station where her brother died, demonstrates other aspects of secrets. He defers telling Lee how her brother was viewed on the station for an admirably long time, but Lee, no longer turning away from secrets, persists, until Luiz has to reveal the truth. He could’ve kept repeating the party line as the other researchers did, and he must’ve known how Lee would react. For that, his willingness to give up the secret and deal with the consequences, he may be one of the most admirable characters in the story. Lee will probably agree, some day.

Van den Berg has several interviews of note available online. With Larry Dark at The Story Prize blog, she discusses the decade-long process of uncovering this story, an effort that began with the wrong protagonist and overly obvious Emperor penguins. Writing a story like this isn’t easy, so it took a while for her to come up with the multiple story lines and the opening line that became her hook into the meat of the story. With Amanda Faraone at The Bomb, she talks about catching the right balance of haziness and presence for the brother’s character – who, I believe, is unnamed throughout the story, in what I’m guessing is part of the haziness side.

It’s one of those stories that doesn’t end with a tidy little bow, and that’s what appeals to me: the story, the wondering about what I’ve read, goes on in my head after I’ve turned the last page. I sometimes wonder about the way stories are arranged in BASS, alphabetically by author’s last name. Most story collections are carefully fit together to amplify a theme or develop a concept or maybe to provide variety between styles, but that option isn’t available in these anthologies. Sometimes, like this time, I wonder if the last story meant no one with a name later in the alphabet would make that volume, no matter how good the story, simply because the last story was such a perfect closing touch. Were the eight stories in the “Other Distinguished Stories” list with author names after van den Berg just out of luck?

I doubt it. I suspect it’s more that I know I’m at the end of the volume so I “hear” more of a closing note with the last story no matter what it is. But I still wonder. Because this is a great way to end – without ending at all – this anthology.

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One response to “BASS 2014: Laura van den Berg, “Antarctica” from Glimmer Train, #88

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

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