BASS 2015: Joan Silber, “About my Aunt” from Tin House, #60

This happens a lot – people travel and they find places they like so much, they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. If they are young, they take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex; they settle in; they get used to how everything works; they make homes. But usually not forever.
I had an aunt who was such a person.

Kurt Vonnegut once gave a talk – I’d call it a lecture, but Vonnegut wasn’t really the lecture type, he just talked – about the shapes of stories. While humorous, it was also very accurate: after all, if a character isn’t struggling against something, it’s not much of a story, is it. Conflict is the very heart of fiction: conflict between characters, between man and nature, between woman and society, between person and desires, through fears. It’s conflict that give stories shapes, the rises and falls, often emphasized by changes in pace, language, narrative distance.

But that isn’t the only way to tell a story.

I have a memory from many years ago, possibly high school – I’ve never been able to find a source to credit so I may be conflating several things or misremembering – about different cultures preferring certain shapes for their writing. Hebrew likes parallel lines. The Creation story of Genesis, the Psalms, much of the exhortations of the Prophets, depend on saying something, then saying it again in a slightly different way, or in telling a story using similar sentence structures over and over again. Japanese stories like inward-tending spirals, circling around the point closer and closer but forcing the reader to make the final leap herself. I think most contemporary fiction does just this, in fact, but in my memory, the spiral shape was attributed to the Japanese. English language fiction prefers the inverted pyramid, funneling an initial wide swathe of activity into a final climactic point – except for news reporting, which uses the inverted pyramid to refer to the importance of information rather than the breadth of narrative.

I had a very strong sense of this story as a poetic braid rather than a typical narrative. Or perhaps, even more appropriately, parallel monologues, as there seems to be little communication going on between the two prime players. We hear first about Kiki, the aunt who spent her youth adventuring in Turkey, to the consternation of her family, before returning to New York to sell her accumulated artifacts and, when those run out, to clean houses and eventually run a cleaning service. Twenty years later, Reyna adventures herself to New York on an adventure, equally puzzling to her family and perhaps more recognizably hazardous to us: a boyfriend in jail, a ridiculous willingness to follow him anywhere:

I was going to ride in the car and count the cash; I was going to let him store his illegal cigarettes in my house. All because of what stirred me, all because of what Boyd was to me. All because of beauty.
I had my own life to live. And what did Kiki have? She had her job making deals between the very rich and the very poor. She had her books that she settles inside of in dusty private satisfaction. She had her old and fabled past. I loved my aunt, but she must’ve known I’d never listened to her.

These two lives twist around each other and around New York and family expectations. There’s little forward movement to the relationship between the two women. This isn’t about them growing closer, or blowing up in a final fight, or regrets or yearning or anything else between them. Again, I read it as a story of isolation. Kiki and Reyna, while deeply involved with other aspects of their lives, manage to pass through each others’ spheres without much interaction at all. It’s a very specific kind of insulation.

Throughout my reading, I was reminded of a scene from an earlier story from this volume, Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Need To”: the down-and-out fighter visits his up-and-coming ex-girlfriend, and thinks, “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.” Kiki has finished her character-saving adventure; Reyna is just beginning hers. They are not in sync, going through these experiences together, but observing each other from different stages. The story explores the quality, rather than the trajectory, of that relationship, of how the women regard each other.

Silber’s Contributor Note makes it clear that was her goal: “I wanted the two women to understand each other just fine but few each other across a great divide, where neither envies the other.” She later decided to use the story as a first chapter of a novel. Frankly, with its limited narrative arc – no Vonnegutian shape to speak of – I have no idea where this story would go. It doesn’t show signs of going anywhere on the these pages. So it might be interesting to find out what lies ahead.

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2 responses to “BASS 2015: Joan Silber, “About my Aunt” from Tin House, #60

  1. I think we’ve talked before about how modern fiction seems to have a preference for the story cycle in which a character fails to complete a cycle of change over one in which a character actually changes. Sometimes, I think this is a little bit sad to see, as it suggests to me the death of the age of rational optimism, the belief that we can overcome our problems through learning about them. This might be a logical conclusion of the last few hundred years, but I’m not sure where it leaves us.

    Some stories force you to wonder whether the character has failed to move forward or has actually grown wiser in some ways. One of the things I like about this story is that it doubles the recipe. Is it the narrator who failed to move forward? The aunt? Both? In what way is the cycle of both complicated by the possibly unreliable narrator? Or is this, as you said, something of a frustration of our expectations entirely? Is there, maybe nothing really that needs to change in either? Did both make different life choices that were right for them? Or are they two examples of extremes to avoid, and happiness is somewhere between the two?

    • I’m really glad you brought up rational optimism: now that I think about it, maybe that’s the whole story: both women have dug in, convinced they are right, uninterested in introspection, and if something isn’t working out for them personally, it’s because someone else is doing something wrong. Then again, I’m pretty steeped in despairing pessimism these days.

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