“The only selfless action is one that’s unintentional.”
A long time ago in some class far away, I commented that in some ways, Mother Teresa was the most selfish person in the world: if she feels a need to do good, then she’s fulfilling her own need, and that she’s helping others is merely a side effect. I had no idea this had anything to do with Ayn Rand or Darwin or the Altruism Paradox; it just seemed the logical conclusion. If you believe doing good works is “good,” or will get you into heaven, then while the works are still good and others do indeed benefit, you’re still acting in your own best interests, satisfying your own desires to “be good.” The teacher of that class wasn’t sure what I was saying, and skimmed right by it, since something like that could make a lot of people mad, if they’d been listening, but everyone was busy with his or her own little drama. I guess the teacher didn’t know from paradoxes or Ayn Rand or Darwin either.
What I love about this story – one of the several things I love about it – is that Arla, while educated about the altruism paradox both academically, and practically, may never really know how very beneficial her unintentional act – and a very un-self-ish act in that she was barely a self at the time – was to a couple of strangers.
Housesitting at her old house. If she were in front of her class, lecturing to those bovine-eyed college freshman, she’d say, “‘A plausible impossibility is preferable to a possible implausibility.’ That’s Aristotle. What do you guys think he meant by that?” To which her students would lift their eyebrows, as if to say, What the? #wedontgetit. Her students had been amending their statements with more hash tags than usual lately. Could I maybe have an extension on my paper? #ithinkimightbepregnant. Would you read a draft of my essay?
“Come on, guys,” she’d say. “What do you think our Greek polymath meant by that?”
One boy, with the scraggly beard and tilted, who’d spend the whole two-hour class looking at her tits, might say, Uh, rubbing his nose, means anything’s possible?
In block-letters, she’d write a syllogism on the board:
MAJOR PREMISE: Arla Conters, PhD candidate in applied semiotics, your instructor for Intro Ethics, gets paid peasant wages by this illustrious university to teach you how to think. She house sits in the suburbs on weekends to afford her coffin-sized studio in Wicker Park, where she lives with Mr. Bojangles, her parrot, who has cancer.
MINOR PREMISE: The house she grew up in is in Kenilworth, one of those suburbs. (Yes, parrots get cancer).
CONCLUSION: Arla Conters might have to housesit her old house.
It’s a convergence story. I fell in love with the characters, all of whom have been changed by a decision point in their lives, and all of whom, it turns out, will be changed again by their convergence. How they came to be screwed up is central to their convergence, and its effect on them. For most of it, I had no idea where things were going, and yet, when we arrived at the central moment – and the hub of the story takes place within the space of one or two minutes – everything made sense, and I realized why everything else in the story was there. I think that’s called great storytelling.
It’s a longish short story compared to most modern stories, and seems perhaps longer because it’s so densely packed; there’s no fooling around with scenery. Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, where there is fooling around with scenery, you better believe it matters.
With each character, I started out not liking them much. In this, it was a convergence of me and each character, since that changed as I read. Arla, too educated, too drugged out, too promiscuous. It’s easy to get judgmental on her, real fast. And yet, I can picture her, years ago, at the “edge of the pool, her legs bent, as if she were about to jump in” … and my heart breaks for her. Teenage Jake’s even less sympathetic at first; I have little patience for anyone breaking a restraining order, no matter what their reason, but when I pictured this chubby kid comparing himself to the athlete, and then read about his over-the-top Romantic Gesture going horribly awry… and my heart breaks for him, too. Twelve-year-old Gordon initially comes off as a frantically hypermotivated fundamentalist, but he, too, has his pains, his moments feeling like “the Bleakest of Coffins,” and his relationship with his dad (who is the 21st century American equivalent of the Roberto Benigni character in Life is Beautiful) is a study in mutuality.
In the boy’s ergonomic backpack were slabs of frozen meat. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Gordon did his Care for Another meal program, which was sort of like Meals on Wheels, but because he was only 12 and couldn’t drive a car and was thus ineligible to volunteer for M.O.W., he decided to establish his own program, which essentially consisted of his ferrying vacuum-packed Salisbury steaks and chicken Kiev’s to the neighborhood geriatrics on bike or by foot, afterschool, pro-bono. He had only four clients but had been saving up his post-tithing profits from his weekend lemonade stand to afford a full-color ad in the Tribune, which he thought would be a much more efficacious way to promote his start-up charity than simply doing cold calls via the White Pages, which had been his initial strategy before realizing that it wasn’t exactly the brightest star in the whole marketing-strategy Orion.
On Tuesdays, he had Remedial Debate, which was like a step down from Model UN, which he tried out for and didn’t get accepted into, which of course made him feel the Bleakest of Coffins for like three weeks – that is, until he got the idea to petition the Donald K. Deepmire Middle School’s Extracurricular Activities Board to let him start a Getting-the-Word-Out-About-the-Total-Fun-and-Literary-Genius-of-C.S.-Lewis’s-The-Chronicles-of-Narnia Club.
It’s so easy to feel hostility towards someone based on a single piece of information. It’s harder to look behind that one piece of information, to see a person who has reasons for that particular quality, who deserves compassion and caring in spite of it, who might have other qualities that outshine what seems like a deal-breaker – and who might just overcome the need for the burden some day, given the right convergence and the wisdom to recognize it.
I love the writing as well. While there’s lots of narrative and exposition in standard syntax, the occasional flights into the personas of each character brings them vibrantly to life. Of course, I’m very fond of unusual approaches to text, even when it takes a little backtracking. But I think Swanson’s efforts to bring us inside the heads of the three principles is remarkably effective, and a lot of fun, which is why I’ve included such extensive excerpts here. It is a long story, after all, and these parts are backstory.
Jogging down Deepmire Circle in blaze-orange Daisy Dukes, Jake’s willing decided that the first thing he did say if a police officer pulled up and collared him about violating the restraining order Annie Radcliffe and her family had placed against him last week was that he was just out here on the run and must have gotten lost. True, he was supposed to maintain a three block perimeter around the Radcliffe residence, but couldn’t the officer see his Dri-FIT Nike running shorts and matching forefend T-shirt? Jeez, he’d say, heaven forfend a guy go for a post-prandial jog in this town without getting an unconstitutional patch down, he’d say. He was just trying to shed some weight, officer. You know, stay tip-top. Trim off the floatie of blubber that spilled over his beltline. What his mother so endearingly called his life preserver. What his friends Munchie and the Beave poked during passing hours at school, yelling, “Dough-boy!” OK, OK,the truth? The truth was maybe that he was out here running because he was planning to try out for the Reese-Meyer-Shannon High School wrestling team in a couple weeks, since scuttlebutt had it that the swiveling and mellifluous Annie Radcliffe, his ex-girlfriend, was now dating Travis Blokum, the Roman-nosed stud on varsity, who bore a letter jacket and had the distinction of being the only sophomore at Reese-Meyer-Shannon with a full beard. Jake thought if he could just crossface cradle Travis Blokum during a public match, Annie’s family might drop the restraining order against him and he could win her back.
I suppose it’s not considered complimentary to say a story reminds me of something, but it does: Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, which wasn’t that much about the convergence of characters (IIRC; it’s been a while since I read it) but about the different effects a single phenomenon can have on a variety of people. So maybe it’s not the same thing at all, but I still get that general feeling of “wow.” That’s the similarity. How can that not be complimentary?
I’m with Gordon: sometimes the simple things totally astonish me. Like a story that really, really works – though I suppose that’s not simple, at all.