BASS 2015: Arna Bontemps Hemenway, “The Fugue” from Alaska Quarterly Review, #31

"The Art of Fugue": JS Bach, CPE Bach

“The Art of Fugue”: JS Bach, CPE Bach

Wild Turkey has always been mesmerized by their language, the team’s utilitarian military patois always morphing what they said just enough to approximate some slightly more surreal world, a language somehow better suited to the world they are actually confronted with. Oftentimes the unthinking word or slight lingual shift ends up being eerily or confusingly apt, in the way that Wild Turkey’s friend the TOW missile gunner whom they call Tow Head really does resemble a “towheaded boy” (the phrase surfacing in Wild Turkey’s mind from some old novel read in a high school English class), or in the way that Wild Turkey will end up buying fifths of Wild Turkey to take the edge off his highs back at home. The Shit, meaning the desert, the war, Iraq, becomes The Suck becomes The Fuck becomes The Fug becomes The Fugue, finally meaning just everything.

I think I’m beginning to understand why Heidi Pitlor’s Foreword to this volume discussed the “unlikeable character” phenomenon. It’s not really that these characters are unlikeable, but they’re often blown up to such proportions they’re not easy to get a grip on, enough of a grip to “like” them. By and large, however, they’re enormously sympathetic, as is Wild Turkey, a vet who started out with epilepsy, snuck into the army anyway and added PTSD after his tour in Iraq.

The title fits perfectly. “Fugue” is from the Italian and Latin fuga meaning “fleeing, flight, running away.” In music, this refers to a brisk pace and an interweaving of multiple themes, modulating through various home keys. In psychiatry, a fugue is a dissociative disorder, which, according to NAMI, is ” characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.” For Wild Turkey, it represents a shifting between reality, memory, and the false façade society often puts over dirty little secrets.

The style of the story reflects his condition. It’s not just the language that shifts, it’s reality itself, and the prose reflects this as we’re in the present, in the past, in another past, in another present, and who knows where. He was already dealing with a kind of multiple reality due to his epilepsy: “It will never be clear to him whether he is waking from a lacunal fit, the medicine, or a memory, as if all three are essentially the same thing.” This notion of everything becoming the same thing recurs in the story, as reality includes misperceiving reality. Everything – fantasy, memory, the here-and-now, the stories we tell ourselves – is, after all, reality to whomever’s experiencing it.

It’s a rather confusing read, and I haven’t fully sorted out the timeline. The present seems to be Kansas, where Wild Turkey slept under an overpass last night rather than staying with his brother, the minister, and his viciously judgmental sister-in-law. Interestingly, they are unnamed; every other significant character in the story deserves a name. Then there’s Jeanne, an ex-girlfriend, and the house he squatted in for a while after it was foreclosed. And the school he visits in the present which brings him back to the past. And everything brings him back to Iraq.

Wild Turkey’s PTSD is a natural extension of the confusion between what is real and what is fake, like the military training sessions conducted in an imitation of an Iraqi village built in the Arizona desert, meant to prepare his unit for what awaited him on deployment, including a pretend funeral for a fake fallen comrade, who turns out to have the name of a real soldier. I’d have PTSD before even getting to Iraq.

The crushing irony of their physical existence here: they are real Iraqi villagers paid to play Iraqi villagers in America; immigrants from Iraq given asylum and money to come to this other desert and this other village and play themselves. They are given whole complicated psychological profiles to enact, Wild Turkey knows; they each have a role and a set of actions or conversations to complete at predetermined points. They will each behave differently when threatened. They are paid for the performance of reality, for the performance of their identities rather than for the identities themselves.

I once heard a lecture on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that included a wonderful line: “Mrs. Ramsey dies after a comma.” One way to emphasize a major event is to just drop it in casually, and Hemenway makes use of that technique a couple of times. In a story full of chaos and spectacular events, it’s almost easy to miss how many people Wild Turkey is mourning, and how horribly they have gone. Which is the point of flight, isn’t it.

There is, of course, a climactic incident that isn’t dropped in casually, hearkening back to the training in the fake village. It’s tragic and horrific and heartbreaking. By the time I got there, I was already exhausted. Wild Turkey’s dragging around a lot, and the story is very effective at immersing the reader into his load.

I was reminded of last year’s “Evie M.” by O. A. Lindsey: a chaotic view of PTSD from the inside. Wild Turkey’s story is part of Hemenway’s collection Elegy on Kinderklavier which explores war from many sides. Darren Huang has written a highly insightful review of the collection, including special attention paid to the psychology of Wild Turkey, on Bookslut.

What really puts the cherry on top is Hemenway’s description of how he wrote this story. His Contributor Note states: “I am a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember actually writing this story.” The combination of a new baby with health problems requiring frequent, round-the-clock feeding, a graduate school deadline for an assignment, and research into details of the Iraq war (including the fake Iraqi village set up in the Mohave desert) created a kind of sleep-deprivation that was as disruptive to the memory and sense of reality as the PTSD he was reading about. “Somewhere in there I must’ve been writing, too,” he says, “because on the day [the assignment] was due, I showed up to class with this story, more or less in its current form, in hand.” Perfect. In fact, it’s so perfect, I have to wonder if it actually happened that way, or if this is one of those imagined memories that has become more real than life as lived – which is also, in the shadow of Wild Turkey, perfect.

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5 responses to “BASS 2015: Arna Bontemps Hemenway, “The Fugue” from Alaska Quarterly Review, #31

  1. I haven’t commented on the last few stories. Partly, I got ahead of you and didn’t want to go back and reread a story I’d mostly forgotten already. But I also haven’t cared for the last few stories. Again, this might just be me being a bad reader–came to a story while distracted, upset, whatever, and took it out on the story. But it’s also an aesthetic predilection. I don’t like stories that make me work too hard to get what truths a story is suggesting about the world. Philistine? Perhaps, but I have an M.A. in English. I’m more likely to “get it” than the vast majority of readers. Hell, the very fact that I even read the BASS every year puts me in a very small class of hardcore readers. If I don’t “get it,” it’s unlikely others will. It’s unlikely most other people would even finish these stories. So for whom are these stories written?

    Kurt Vonnegut is my ideal as far as theme goes. I read “Harrison Bergeron,” and I know at the end what kinds of truth the story is getting at. Not that I can fully unfold all those truths right away; that continues for a lifetime. But I know what neighborhood of truth I’m in. Something like “Fairness is a concept that can be taken to ridiculous extremes.” I still even like Jesus’s parables.

    Few modern lit fic stories give me this. Really, I’m willing to meet a story more than halfway, particularly if it gives me something to make me think that the writer has some truth to share that will make it worth the extra effort. I think the next story you’re going to cover did that. I didn’t “get it” right away, but I find the story has enough in it after one reading to make me want to try to get it. But the last three in the BASS, especially this one, did not.

    What was this story about, really about? Brains are funny things, and have a strange way of coping with trauma. The narratives we tell ourselves about those traumas have a strong way of shaping how we cope. That’s about all I can get out of it, and all I want to. None of that really takes me anywhere I haven’t already been.

    I should share that I have a special dislike for military stories written by outsiders. Despite his research, Hemenway emphasized things that people inside wouldn’t. I don’t believe any team would have been put together like the one he describes. Tow-gunners don’t get deployed like that. I don’t want a literary person’s understanding of the military; I want a military person’s understanding as expressed through the finest literary lens that person can find. I’d settle for a less artfully written story with more truth in it.

    Now I feel like a tool for criticizing a story and a writer. Not that critique isn’t necessary, but lit fic is in such peril, it seems like all of us who look to fiction as a way to understand the world and not just another distraction in a world with a million distractions should stick together.

    • I don’t think you get an MA in English by being a “bad reader.” Isn’t it more likely that whatever aesthetic experience you most enjoy, is not present these particular stories, because TC Boyle enjoys a different type of read?

      It’s odd, I’ve been thinking, the narrative structure of these stories has been pretty clear for the most part – initiating event, complications, climax, denoument – yet they are, for me at least, not the easiest reads. Several are disjointed, by design. One is set in an unfamiliar future, one in the fairly distant past. I’ve been thinking they’re very masculine stories, without really being able to define what that means – with the possible exception of “Moving On” they just feel like guy stories to me.

      I probably have different objective from you. I read for the undertanding of what the author is doing, how the story works (I don’t have an MA in English; I spent my BA years concentrating on linguistics rather than literature, so I have some catching up to do). In that, it’s more of an intellectual than an aesthetic experience. But I find the figuring out to be highly enjoyable. This is why I tend to like stories with oddball constructions.

      Usually, I have a couple of “wow” moments in any BASS collection, and that moment is usually tied to awe at what has been done, how it’s been done, a kind of “how’d she think of doing that” moment. Still, I do sometimes just love a story for that undefined thing. That doesn’t happen often. Hasn’t happened in this volume yet. I’ve had a few “mini-awe” moments. The twist at the very end of the boxing story – not the events, but the way the twist was done. I liked the multiple uses of “fugue” in this story, including a fugue of meanings of the word fugue. The closest I came to a pure aesthetic experience was in the scriptorium story, because that subject appeals to me, and I liked some of her writings (which were definitely over the top, but they were so over the top, it was clear they were intentionally over the top).

      When I started blogging, my question was, “Do I like this?” I found so often I didn’t, I had to change my approach. I have two primary questions: First is, “What was my experience of this story” which i why I go off on tangents about something in my life the story reminded me of, or how a single sentence affected me, or some factual thing, or some sociopolitical message I see. Any individual’s experience of a story is necessarily unique. I’m the only one who can report my experience. Others can say I’m looking at trivia, or missing the most important point, but they can’t say I’m “wrong.” It’s why I started tweeting “Not a review of X story” because I don’t do reviews; I do reactions, my reaction (and “My reaction to X story” sounds like I have a rash).

      Then I ask, “How does the story work?” which is sort of like “What is the author trying to do” (a phrasing that’s always annoyed me, because it sounds like the author isn’t succeeding)

      I think my sense of reading pleasure comes from the figuring out of “How does this work” rather than from “what beautiful writing.” Some of the most beautiful writing leaves me cold; it puts up a neon sign and says “Hey, I’m going to write beautifully now” and of course that brings out the contradictary nature that says, “Oh you think so, huh.”

      It’s why a difficult story doesn’t necessarily put me off (I’m used to feeling stupid). Well, it does (there are stories that have made me throw the book across the room), but it’s a challenge. I don’t always get it, but I like trying!

      I’ll admit, I haven’t been looking forward to Denis Johnson – I’ve never read anything by him, just an impression I have that he’s not my kind of writer. Which means anything can happen, and that’s exciting. Your comments intrigue me further. There’s a way around every mental roadblock if I try.

  2. You may not have an M.A. in English, but you’re obviously an intelligent, interested, alert reader. I think stories should be written at a level where intelligent lay people who put effort into reading should be able to feel they’ve “gotten it” when they finish. Some stories might be so enjoyable that they’re worth multiple readings. But really, there are millions of stories in the world, so nobody should expect I will do that with theirs.

    You work very hard to uncover meaning in the stories you read, but I see that a lot of what you end up writing about is more your own reaction to reading it, or how you tried to parse it. You end up with a lot of “I’m not really sure I got it” entries. That shouldn’t happen. If you don’t know what moved a writer to write a story, even though you’re an intelligent lay person who tried to understand it, who are these stories for?

    I’m not saying a story has to have a moral that can be easily pulled out. I’m not looking for Aesop. Chekov said the job of a writer with regard to theme wasn’t so much to solve a problem as it was to state the problem correctly. I think that’s what Joshua Ferris’s “The Breeze” from last year’s collection did. I would even settle for getting just a feeling of what the problem was, even if I couldn’t state it without banality. But with many of these stories, I just don’t know where they’re at thematically.

    I don’t think fiction can survive being non-discursive, like music or poetry that tries to be like music. Lit fic supporters all too often pat themselves on the back for how empathetic fiction is because it requires us to enter into the minds of others. But I feel often that stories end there–in the mind. They don’t engage with the world much. They attempt only to be another piece of literary empiricism, just another closely looked-at psychological fact, rather than suggesting what the implications of such a psyche are on others and the world around it.

    • “…who are these stories for?”
      It’s kind of a trope that the only people who read short stories are writers. I don’t understand why, but the general public hates short stories. But that’s what’s used in workshops and MFA programs to develop writers, so writers are used to writing them, and used to reading them. So I suspect these stories are written for writers. And even, I’m betting, written to get into volumes like BASS and Pushcart.

      “You end up with a lot of “I’m not really sure I got it” entries. That shouldn’t happen.”
      Don’t forget that I’m positively phobic about appearing to overshoot – acting like I know more than I do (the Internet Disease). So I have a tendency to undershoot. Lots of “maybes”. That isn’t the writer’s fault. Fact is, I still don’t know what makes a “good” story, I only know what I react to (except once in a while, I recognize something as a “good” story even though it doesn’t appeal to me).

      “just another closely looked-at psychological fact, rather than suggesting what the implications of such a psyche are on others and the world around it.”
      Oh, I disagree! Look at Wild Turkey – the implications of his psyche are outstandingly clear: “What are we doing to these guys?” I look at the effect of the boxer’s mind on his daughter, and his ex – the story sums it up perfectly with his internal thought “I made this possible for you, Wallace thought.
      It’s because of me that you can marry a rich lawyer and stay home all day in a big house. You lived with a fighter once and had his baby and followed him into all sorts of bad decisions, so now no one can say you were always boring and domestic. ” Even the woman in the scriptorium leads me to thinking about how society forces people, women especially, into roles. And “Bride” certainly has a social component.

      Even though (so far) this hasn’t been my favorite volume of BASS, twice I’ve been surprised at how invested I got in a story I thought I’d hate.

      It’s funny, you sound a lot like Ken Nichols, except his thing isn’t about understanding what the problem is, but about “cut it out with the technical dazzling, tell me a story, dammit.” But isn’t BASS about showcasing the dazzle?

  3. I liked “Bride.” It was the stories after it I was talking about. “Wild Turkey” strikes me as false. The story is supposed to dazzle us with its keen psychological insights, but I don’t even believe Wild Turkey because he says things nobody in the military would say. He’s military as an Iowa Writing Program grad would like the military to be.

    “You’ll Apologize” was at least a story. It definitely fit my description of “I’ll take less art for more truth.” But I kind of feel like it lacked much of a destination. Compare it to the movie “The Wrestler,” about another too-old-to-still-be-doing-this guy in the hurt-your-body-for-entertainment industry. That guy wanted a lot of things: to connect to the people in his life and learn to live after wrestling, but also to get back into the ring and be loved by the crowd. His conflict was between those two wants. I’m not sure what the guy in “Apologize” wanted. Some similar stuff: for his estranged family to value him in some way, maybe. But his big conflict is whether he’ll apologize to keep someone he doesn’t know from possibly telling the cops that he smoked dope and committed light assault. It’s possible that if this story were being workshopped, you’d hear the comment that its main character is just wandering through observing his own life and not really making a believable decision that leads to a change. Not that everything needs to fit that formula, but I didn’t really feel invested in the character’s outcome.

    Neither “Apologize” nor “M and L” (coming two stories later) had much dazzle, which was fine. They were very easy-to-follow stories. “Apologize” is almost a good story. “M and L” is terrible and I have no idea what it’s doing in this collection. It’s not about the flash. Have flash and a good story (the next one is like that). Don’t have flash and a good story. Just have a good story.

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