BASS 2015: Diane Cook, “Moving On” from Tin House, #59

They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs. Which means I can stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and smell his clothes. I can cook dinner for two and throw the rest away, or overeat, depending on my mood. Or make a time capsule full of pictures I won’t be allowed to keep. I could bury it in the yard for a new family to discover.
But once that work is done, the Placement Team orders me to pack two bags of essentials, good for any climate. They take the keys to our house, our car. The crew will come in, price it all; a sale will be advertised; all the neighbors will come. I won’t be there for any of this, but I’ve seen it happen to others. The money will go into my dowry, and then someday, hopefully, another man will marry me.
I have a good shot at getting chosen, since I’m a good decorator and we have some pretty nice stuff to sell off and so my dowry will likely be enticing.

I seem to be noticing this narrative structure of “disruption of the status quo” in these stories; I’m not sure if it’s the stories that emphasize it, or just what is foremost in my reading mind for whatever reason. Again we have a story that begins with the disruption, and we only catch glimpses of the status quo that was. And again, there’s an intriguing narrative in the foreground, while an intensely emotional personal process plays out underneath, and eventually takes over. Just yesterday, I read a quote that stuck in my mind, maybe because I was thinking of this phenomenon: “A-list movies are always about a B-list plot; B-list movies are always about an A-list plot” (Benjamin Percy, quoted by Ben Shattuck in “The Writing of Art” in the 10/19/15 Morning News). Funny how your mind grabs what it needs when you think you’re just running through your reader feed.

At first I thought this was an action-adventure story – and A story – set in a future dystopia in which jobs are limited and those without them are kept in shelters unless they can be “placed” – that is, married to an employed person. Although the main character is a woman, there are men in the same situation. In fact, the presence of the men’s shelter across the street contributes to most of the tension in the foreground story.

But underneath – the B story – is an exploration of the process of moving on from bereavement, particularly the conflict when social forces require a schedule the emotions simply can’t follow.

In my first “Moving on for Widows” seminar we are given a manual of helpful exercises and visualizations.… I’m supposed to pretend our wedding day was lonely, and that rather than love and happiness, I felt doubt, dread. It’s all very hard.

In her Tin House interview, Cook recounts the long process of writing the story in layers, and her own experience with a family that wanted her to move on from the grief of losing her mother before she was ready.

In the end, I’m left with the image of the across-the-void desire, the real-life pseudoromance from one window to another that echoes the yearning to reach someone who’s been lost to death. It’s quite touching, this imagined possibility, the ache to communicate, since communication isn’t possible and the relationship exists only in the woman’s mind. Reminds me of the internet, in fact.

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5 responses to “BASS 2015: Diane Cook, “Moving On” from Tin House, #59

  1. I was reminded of _The Road_ by Cormac McCarthy. It is a futuristic dystopia, but hardly any effort goes into explaining how they got there or what the actual landscape of said dystopia is. I wonder if this is a hallmark of the literary sci-fi sub-sub genre. To focus too much on the nuts and bolts of the world would risk making this science fiction, which we all know can’t get into an anthology of best fiction. They’ve got their own anthology for sci fi, far away from lit fic, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

    • At first, I was thinking Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale – but there’s absolutely no science in this story at all, no cataclysm, no war, just some process of economic and social change. I’d call it a near-future history, speculative fiction but not science fiction. But that’s splitting hairs.

      BASS has done a few borderline-SF stories in the past few years – “Beautiful Monsters” (which I loved) comes to mind, “Raw Water” (which I hated, I was pretty harsh about it) and there’ve been a couple of gamer stories, “Navigators” (another story I loved) and “Dungeon Master”. But yeah, litfic tends to view specfic as separate, which is too bad, since it just perpetuates the stereotype that SF is junk, and it isn’t.

      I think not explaining the backstory is a good decision for this particular story. The focus isn’t on “how did we get here” or even on the pros and cons of the shelter system itself; the system is only a way of getting to the heart of “moving on”. It does leave us with a sense of uncertainty, but I think that fits as well.

      • I thought the story did what it set out to do. When someone close to us dies and authority insists we must move on, this might be what it feels like. It’s like Hamlet realizing through his father’s death just how profound mortality is, only to hear his mother chirping to him that “‘Tis common,” and “all that lives must die.” It doesn’t matter when someone close to you dies that it’s happened to other people. Taking the larger view of things, or considering society’s well-being, doesn’t help because you’ve been struck in a place where Philosophy isn’t a consolation. Your choices are more or less to run away from it all or to slowly give in to the pressure to get over it. Or to stay locked away forever, but, as she pointed out, that has risks of its own.

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