BASS 2015: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Siege at Whale Cay” from Kenyon Review, #36.4

Georgie woke up in bed alone. She slipped into a swimsuit and wandered out to a soft stretch of white sand Joe called Femme Beach. The Caribbean sky was cloudless, the air already hot. Georgie waded into the ocean and as soon as the clear water reached her knees she dove into a small wave with expert form.
She scanned the balcony of the pink stucco mansion for the familiar silhouette, the muscular woman in a monogrammed polo shirt chewing a cigar. Joe liked to drink her morning coffee and watch Georgie swim.
But not today.

Descriptions of short story architecture usually run something like: The status quo is disrupted by an event that starts the narrative action; the action then increases in complexity and intensity until a climax is reached, at which point there is a fundamental change in a character or social structure, followed by a denouement which may clean up loose threads or clarify the effects of the change. This story follows that pattern nicely – except that the fundamental change may be in fact a refusal, or perhaps an inability, to change.

Marian Barbara “Joe” Carstairs was a real person, a real heiress, a real WWI ambulance driver, and a real champion speedboat racer. She did purchase and “reign” over an island, in the Bahamas where she imported glamorous actresses for rollicking weekends and various beautiful women for in between. As with much historical fiction, fact is the setting, but the real story happens in a place not included in the historical record, in this case, in the heart and mind of one of Joe’s companions.

When Joe transplanted Georgie from the Orlando mermaid show (I grew up in Florida, I remember ads for Weeki Wachee) to the magical island, it must’ve seemed like a miracle. Imagine, being plucked from the ordinary life of breathing underwater in front of hundreds of strangers, to live on a tropical island paradise flowing with champagne and extravagant glamour. “’What I like about you,’ Joe had told her on their first date, over lobster, ‘is that you’re just so American. You’re cherry pie and lemonade. You’re a tickertape parade.’” But when Marlene – Dietrich, that is – arrives for her turn with Joe, Georgie starts to feel cherry pie just isn’t good enough:

She pulled her hair up using two tortoiseshell combs she’d found in the closet, and ran bright Tangee lipstick across her mouth, all leftovers from other girlfriends, whose pictures were pinned to a corkboard in Joe’s closet. Georgie stared at them sometimes, glossy black and white photographs of beautiful women. Horsewomen straddling thoroughbreds, actresses in leopard print scarves and fur coats, writers hunched artfully over typewriters, maybe daughters of rich men who did nothing at all. She couldn’t help but compare herself to them, and always felt as if she came up short….
She loved the way Joe’s lavish attention made her feel—exceptional. And she’d pretty much felt that way until Marlene put one well-heeled foot onto the island.
Georgie wandered into Joe’s closet and looked at the pictures of Joe’s old girlfriends, their perfect teeth and coiffed hair, looping inky signatures. For Darling Joe, Love Forever. How did they do their hair? How big did they smile?
And did it matter? Life with Joe never lasts, she thought, scanning the corkboard. The realization filled her with both sadness and relief.

Much of the story looks at Georgie’s inner landscape, and it’s a tribute to Bergman that it’s every bit as interesting as Joe’s flamboyant life. We see her gradually realize she’s still performing, and she’s only one in a long parade of performers who have preceded, and will succeed, her. She’s traded the public exhibition of the mermaid show for a private exhibition. When we come to the end, we expect her to realize it’s time for her to go, as many things on the island, beyond her illusions, are beginning to collapse. But it’s more complicated than that. Could you leave Paradise that easily, even when you’d noticed the tarnished edges?

David Lynn of The Kenyon Review gives an interesting take on what he calls “the first quiet paragraph” of the story (the first quoted section above) in his Why We Chose It article: he was drawn to the implications of the word “alone.” I had a similar reaction to the sentence just following that opening: “Curious, Georgie toweled off, tossed a sundress over her suit and walked the dirt path toward the general store, sand coating her ankles, shells crackling underneath her bare feet.” We’ve gone from a pleasant morning swim to the irritation of gritty sand and sharp shells – much as Georgie goes from the idyllic status quo of being Joe’s cherry pie, to the uncomfortable comparison with the Beautiful People who arrive.

I was also interested in how diving and swimming, which start the story, played out. When Georgie wants to get Joe’s attention, she uses her own area of mastery: she dives into the ocean. And at the end, when she’s considering her options, again, she dives. I wonder if she realizes that she has a talent. Of course, there isn’t a swimmer alive who can outrace a speedboat, but sometimes we choose the arenas in which we must compete.

The story was part of Bergman’s collection, Almost Famous Women. In her interview with Bustle, Bergman said, “Somehow I felt like writing about their first person perspective just felt too on the nose, and I felt interested in what it was like to orbit those people who had fame.” Her BASS Contributor Note likewise indicates a fascination with Joe.

But I read it as clearly Georgie’s story. Maybe that’s because, while Joe is glamorous and eccentric and fascinating, it’s Georgie I understand. Or maybe it’s because I like this method of tucking one story inside another, of using glamour and fame as a setting to highlight the true star: the mundane choices of the heart we’re all faced with. I suppose “Gatsbyesque” is a way to describe it, but I somehow thought of abysses. Here, Georgie doesn’t even realize there’s an abyss to look into, until she notices it looking into her, swallowing her whole. Joe doesn’t care about abysses, she just skips right over them. I’m naturally drawn to the abyss-gazers.

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3 responses to “BASS 2015: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Siege at Whale Cay” from Kenyon Review, #36.4

  1. I took it much the way you did; this is a narrative arc that doesn’t quite complete itself. I think it’s sometimes called a negative arc. There are, of course, several possibilities for a character who faces a break in the status quo: change for good, change for bad, stay what you are but be more of it, stay what you are and your life just goes on, but more tragically, because you missed the chance to change. This fourth option seems to be one modernity really likes. Maybe because it’s what most of us do nearly all the time. We have chances around us all the time to change, either gradually or dramatically. We hardly ever take them.

    Georgie was unable to change, I think, because: 1) She saw no good choices. There was either go back to Florida or stay with Joe. No third option ever occurs to her, because 2) Most of her life, she had thought of her way out as something miraculous, a dream. Her happiest moments were in the alternate, nearly sub-conscious reality of the water. She would stay below the water sipping air through a Coke can so long, she’d forget it wasn’t real. She even remembers fondly her half-attachment to religion, although her faith in God is something to hard for her to explain, it does not inspire her to any action. She was a fighter, but not when it came to something more powerful than she was.

    One of the stylistic things that struck me was how straightforward the descriptions were. There was no language used when describing a scene that drew attention to itself. It’s possible there wasn’t one single simile or metaphor used to draw a scene throughout.

  2. Here’s another way of looking at “The siege at Whale Cay.”

    “THE SIEGE AT WHALE KEY” AND THE ARCHTYPAL TRADITION

    “The siege at Whale Cay” gains considerable force through its unusual use of familiar characters and patterns. Whether or not the story’s author chose to deliberately include these patterns, or whether their influence in many stories within our culture caused them to arise as she wrote is hard to tell. However, the fact that they are present is undeniable.
    The story is set on a Garden-of-Eden-like island. The Garden of Eden is an early example of the so-called “pastoral Realm,” which figures as a magical place in many stories—from those of King Arthur’s knights (especially, “Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “the tale of Balin and Balan”) and in Shakespeare’s “pastoral romances” (for example, As You Like It and The Tempest).

    The Garden of Eden. It could be said that Whale Cay is a kind of Eden, although with a difference. There are no men in this Eden to speak of (the one near man is an impotent, out-of-it priest. There is no God looking down on this Eden. And the Adam-equivalent is a tough woman who rules as a semi-tyrant. An Innocent visits the island and, ending up so totally confused by its lack of moral compass that she tosses her judgment to the wind and leaves it up to Fate as to whether she lives or dies at the end. Clearly, “Whale Cay” is a kind of dystopia, hardly a Utopia at all.

    Gawain and the Green Knight. In this archetypically medieval/Christian story, a green giant comes to King Arthur’s court, scoffs at the knights there, and dares any one of Arthur’s knights to cut his head off with an Axe he carries. So that Arthur’s court won’t be shamed, Gawain takes up the challenge and chops off the Green giants head head. The giant, known as the Green Knight, then picks up his head and, using it to speak with, tells Gawain that they will have another meeting in a year—at his own place, where they will finish “trading blows.”
    After a year Gawain endures many challenges in order to make it to the Green Knight’s palace, and mostly avoiding sexual temptations from the Green Knight’s wife (she does give him a green lace to protect him, finally goes to a green cave (i.e. a super- “pastoral” place) where the Green Knight is waiting to “exchange blows”–busily sharpening his axe.
    The braver-than-you-or-I Gawain lays his neck on the block, and the Green Knight raises the axe and chops once (but suddenly stops because Gawain flinches. He chops a second time (but stops again—for the same reason) A last time, Gawain gathers up all his courage, and determines not to flinch. Only then does the Green Knight bring the axe full force down into the block—only scratching the edge of Gawain’s neck.
    Having undergone the test, Gawain jumps up ready to fight the Green Knight (who obviously stands for the grain that must have its head chopped off yearly in order that we may go on living).
    But the Green knight won’t fight. Rather, he praises Gawain’s bravery, but tells him that the scratch is the result of Gawain’s taking the protective green lace from his Knight’s wife and that his doing so is a very human act, but it is also a sign of weakness. Head bowed, Gawain travels back to Arthur’s Court—terribly ashamed that he has failed to be the perfect knight.
    So, in this story, the bravest man among Arthur’s knights goes to an Eden-like place to learn a terrible lesson—that he is too human to achieve either sainthood or total approval—just like the rest of us. This is what happens in many Arthurian tales: the trip to the pastoral realm teaches the person who visits serious lessons—especially about his or her fallibility. In short, Gawain’s journey is an archetypal example of the same journey that Georgie (an almost perfectly beautiful woman and matchless swimmer) who journeys to Joe’s “pastoral” realm, and, like Gawain, suffers final humiliation and despair.

    As You Like It and The Tempest
    As a literary fad, so-called “Pastoral Romances” became very popular in later Elizabethan England. First as novels read by the literate and then as plays available to all classes, these stories often concerned dukes or kings and their entourages going off into the woods or meadows, bringing problems with them, and having these problems solved by luck or characters they meet in the woods. Then, generally, they would return to the civilized world with everything set straight.
    In the case of As You Like It, that nearly perfect ”pastoral comedy,” all the good guys—a usurped duke and his court, a badly treated younger brother, two Badly punished princesses–go off the woods, in this case, “The Forest of Arden” (What we know as “the “Ardennes.”) There, after a number of romantic adventures, the Duke regains his lost dukedom, the brother who overthrew him has a change of heart and goes off to be a religious hermit, the disinherited younger brother marries one of the princesses, and his brother turns into a good guy and marries the other princess, and everybody goes back home. Delightful. Very simple.
    Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest (1611), is another matter. There an Edenic pastoral island has been taken from its original inhabitants—much as Whale Cay could be said to have been taken over by Joe. In both cases, the places’ original inhabitants are angry and eager for revenge.
    The Tempest was written as Europeans were beginning to settle in the Western Hemisphere and encounter the peoples there (think of Ponce de Leon’s—or William Bradford’s–search for an American Eden). Shakespeare’s play opposes a magician (Prospero) who has taken control of an island in the “New World,” and a brutish fellow named Caliban (a word-play on “cannibal”) as an example of the island’s basic owners. Caliban lusts after Prospero’s daughter, but is kept from raping her by Prospero’s magic.
    The play deals with many things (including Prospero’s own revenge on his brother, who has driven him out of his proper kingdom in Italy), but it, like “The siege at Whale Cay,” it is clearly set on a pastoral island, where the fates of visitors from the mainland (some of them as glamorous as Bergman’s Arlene) are turned about, where there is a threat of rebellion, where characters get drunk and endanger themselves, and where passions run wild.
    Of course, there are obvious differences between to two. Shakespeare’s Europeans leave the island much as they found it and return safely home; while the actors in “The Siege” do not find escape from the threats surrounding them, and end up locked into a worsening situation that shows no hope of improvement.

    I would conclude by saying—again—that it is not a matter of Megan Bergman’s hunting out episodes from Genesis, King Arthur, or The Tempest to paste into her story. Rather, it is a matter of our recognizing how some of the essential archetypal patterns that have operated in stories from the beginning of time come to life in her writing and add to its force and interest.
    –Ernst Schoen-René, Kingston, NY, April, 2016

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