BASS 2015: Aria Beth Sloss, “North” from One Story, #197

The sea captain who found my father’s notebook frozen into the side of Little Iceland came all the way to northern Idaho to hand-deliver it to my mother.… It was stuffed inside a specimen jar, stoppered, carefully sealed with wax. The pages were in perfect condition, she pointed out, the words only a little smudged here and there.
The sea captain nodded. The balloon could have landed anywhere, he said, sunk anywhere. The water would have carried the party’s belongings miles from where they died. With time, their bodies would have been dispersed in this way as well.
Or, my mother said, he could have deliberately thrown it overboard. A clue, she called it, as though the whole thing – my father, the balloon, the years of waiting, all of it – was no more than a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Every love story begins with a discovery: amidst the ordinary, the sublime.

In his Introduction, TC Boyle refers to some of these stories as “Very long stories”: not necessarily in terms of page length, but in terms of what is encompassed within them. In those terms, I felt “North” was one of the longest.

In terms of the historical grounding of the tale, I’m reminded of Colum McCann’s excerpt “Transatlantic” or of Naomi Williams’ recent novel Landfalls. All recount factual events from fictionalized settings. “North” is far more fictionalized than the other two yet is rooted the ill-fated Arctic adventure of Swedish balloonist S. A. Andrée, whose story Sloss read after her own pregnancy. But whereas Andrée never married, Sloss’ fictional balloonist did (or at least, as much as did), and this story becomes a merging of two adventures.

What he is leaving behind is no different than what he is leaving for, she will tell him. A truth stranger than any magic: inside her is the wildest land.

In her youth, Mary was considered a “wild woman,” and her family was concerned that she was unsuitable for any man. Her mother knew, though: she would find a wild man. In this way, we get a clue about where Mary’s wildness comes from. Not that her mother was wild; she would’ve stayed in Virginia all her life, had her preacher husband not dragged her to North Dakota. But somehow, I think there was a longing for wild in her, and this is what she gave her daughter Mary.

The voice is beautiful and lyric, a joy to read (there’s a subtle erotic scene that knocks me out), but what I appreciated more than anything is equality implied in the highly lauded exploits of adventurous men, and the glossed-over achievements of women who bear and raise children – particularly those who raise children alone once their adventurous men have crashed on unknown shores.

I love Sloss’ choice of narrator: the couple’s child, who may be narrating from a time shortly after the notebook was discovered, or, given the sophistication of the voice, years later, after many secrets have been shared. Very little is certain in this story; we are given broad strokes, and allowed to color the details ourselves. Through this narrator-child, the offspring of both adventurers, we hear a generational saga, not so much of the people but of individual hearts. This gives a personal stake in the telling beyond that which a 3rd person narrator would have, yet has enough distance from the two characters to allow for observation, balancing objective and subjective.

I am born at noon the next day. My mother tells me this is the first thing she did: she checked the clock. I am still attached to her when she looks. We are not yet two when she begins to keep track of me, the seconds I have been alive and then, after she cuts through the cord herself, cleaving my body from hers with a kitchen knife, the seconds I have been on my own.
This is what women do, she says.
By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity.
Let go.

And through this child – I’d assumed from the voice she was a young woman, but perhaps, given that last line, he is a young man; the balance of sympathies could go either way – we glimpse the next in the line of wild, and the impossibility of the mother’s task: to love enough to say goodbye.

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7 responses to “BASS 2015: Aria Beth Sloss, “North” from One Story, #197

  1. I try to take a little extra time before I comment on a story I don’t like. It happens not infrequently that something strikes me about the story a few days later that changes my opinion of it. That’s what happened with “Happy Ending” earlier in the BASS this year. I thought it was a kind of lame, straight-forward awakening, and then realized how ironic the whole thing was and that it was actually pretty clearly the opposite of an awakening.

    I really disliked this story. It started with the line you have quoted above, “Every love story begins with a discovery: amidst the ordinary, the sublime.” God, I hate that line. It’s so Hallmark, and the cheesy Hallmarkness of it is out of place with the rest of the narrator’s grounded tone. It also does what so many modern lit fic stories do the whole thing has been done to death: use the profession of a character as a mine to keep raiding for metaphors that open up the character or the whole universe.

    I don’t agree that the voice is “beautiful and lyric.” I think it wants to be beautiful and lyric and occasionally succeeds (The sky there is God, he wants to tell her. The ice is God. The fat, hideous walrus is God.) but is often just tiresome. “Overhead, the sky burns a brilliant blue. It is late August, and a breeze ripples the surface of the lake.” Is there anything arresting or surprising or transcendent in those lines? It’s pretty standard stuff. I’m not particularly great at descriptions of scene. So I don’t try to make stories where everything rides on it. A huge chunk of this story is taken up with the narrator lapsing into reveries where he (yes, I think it’s a boy) imagines the world his father inhabited. It gets to be a burden to read kind of quickly. I was yearning to discover the end.

    I kept thinking throughout the story of the travel narrative “What the Body Knows” by Joni Tevis that was in the 2015 Pushcart Prize anthology. That was about a woman who goes up north as sort of a last fling before she has a baby, although she isn’t really sure that’s what she’s doing until it’s over. That voice succeeded at lyricism. “North” felt like a good try, but it just wasn’t written by a voice as talented. Sorry if that makes me a jerk to say. Should I list a dozen or so passages I found a little flat? I could. It isn’t that any one passage is terrible. It’s just that it’s trying to be poetry and not really nailing it. If there had been more of a plot to track, I’d have passed over the descriptions and let them go. But the story is completely built around this flat poetry and the hope that the reader will be so entranced by it all the poetry won’t be dull. But it was.

    That said, I did have a revelation a few days later that made me find quite a bit to like. Writing a lyrical wilderness piece puts Sloss in traditional male company, including some rather chauvinist peers. In Hemingway’s hands, this story would have been about a guy who found himself and God in the wilderness, but his nut-busting bitch of a wife would have ruined it all by insisting he take a job managing her father’s packaged goods store. Sloss flips it. The man is the one ducking adventure. “What he is leaving behind is no different than what he is leaving for…Inside her is the wildest land.” Sloss wrote that her “men have a choice, women have responsibilities” formula was patently false, but I found that it worked. Go on, girl, don’t pull your punches. The strength of the story was in this thematic grist, this counter-punch to all the narratives of how men need to escape domesticity to be complete. It’s enough to make me forgive what I didn’t like, although I could still have lived with fewer words to get there.

  2. I just read on someone’s blog that this story was written in the first person by the daughter “Dorothy.” Where did I miss that? That’s a problem when a short story runs long. I started reading it at home, got on the road to visit family, finished it two days later. By the time I finished it, I could only remember a small bit of what I’d read in the first sitting.

  3. I know there is the part where the mother is saying she’ll name the baby Dorothy if it’s a girl and John if it’s a boy. But is there some place where we actually know it’s a girl?

    Also, I think maybe your (Karen) reading makes a small mistake. You wrote that it was Mary’s mother who knew that Mary would find a wild man. It was the narrator’s mother’s mother who said “no man will want a wild woman for a wife” and the narrator’s mother Mary who said “a wild man will.”

    • That’s what I was trying to get at with the “equality of adventures” thing. Let’s face it, society values what men do, because for millenia, men have set the values. Here, the wife (oops on Mary) makes it clear: her adventure is every bit as valuable as his. And she succeeds. Just because most women are mothers, doesn’t mean it’s easy (I say that as someone who’s never been a mother – because I knew I wasn’t up to it).

      Yeah, there’s some schmaltz (there’s a reason I put the quote on the image like that – something I’ve been considering doing, but this was the first time I thought it was really on-the-nose), but I loved it. What can I say, it’s possible to appreciate Christina Rossetti and William Carlos Williams both! I liked the writer’s choices made: of narrator, of order of revelation (beginning with dad’s death so it’s out of the way, we can pay attention to other things), of the muted time grounding (except for historical references, they could be a couple of off-the-grid millenials).

      Something I just thought of today (I saw your replies just before I left for errand-running and gave the story some thought while riding the bus) – where did the daughter get her information? Granted, the broad strokes, sure, mom would’ve told her. But it’s written as if she were there, not recounting what she was told, so I wonder if there’s a hint that it’s embroidered a bit, which to me makes the daughter (if she is a daughter, I’m still not sure) part of the narrative as well, not just an observer but a creator.

      I don’t think it’s being a jerk to dislike a story; why bother talking about them if you can’t say what you think. Plenty of these things, I wonder how they ever got published in these top-flight mags to begin with, let alone selected for a prize anthology. Funny, though, on a couple of occasions I’ve explicitly dissed stories, and ended up friends (online-style) with the authors!

  4. There is some talk in the industry of the “sweet spot” between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story. The difference between the two sometimes strikes me as a false dichotomy: you can’t have character without events to reveal it, and you can’t have a plot without characters doing things. But it’s still more or less clear what is meant by these two poles, and it’s also clear that this story skews pretty heavily toward the “character driven” end. I mean, by giving away the plot up front, the story more or less says that its effect isn’t going to depend on the revelations coming from action. I’ve expressed before a predilection for plot, and my likes in this collection have reflected that.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t see a value in character-driven stories (or voice-driven stories, which this one almost was). They just don’t resonate with me as much. It’s really nothing against the author. It’s kind of like getting me to watch a show about cooking. Everything Rachael Ray says might be true and useful, and it might lead to the best pie I’ve ever eaten. But it’s just not a truth that I’m looking for right now. Maybe I should learn to cook. But I’ve got enough other things going on now that I’m just not ready to take in more. That’s what I mean when I criticize a lot of these stories. They’re just not for me.

    I do kind of wonder what it means when I don’t care for more than half of the stories in three straight BASS anthologies. Either I’m a Philistine or editors have weird taste.

    • I’ve never understood the difference between “character driven” and “plot driven.” I wonder if it even exists, other than in the minds of those who want to differentiate between “literary fiction” and other stuff. Not that I don’t see a difference between “action” stories and the navel-gazing variety, but that doesn’t seem to be the distinction. I wonder if there’s even a consensus on the meaning of the two.

      Editorial: Rachel Ray is a terrible way to learn how to cook. Her appeal is definitely character-driven (as I interpret the phrase). Julia Child was plot-driven; she had more character in her sleep than the sum total of Rachel, but she was all about the cooking, melding the science and art of it. Don’t get me started on what Food Network, and televised cooking competitions in general (including Top Chef, which I follow slavishly), have done to public perceptions of what cooking is.

      I have my theory about BASS; since I know nothing about publishing, it’s probably wrong, but I suspect the idea is to generate sales rather than to really collect the “best” fiction. In that, it’s more like Food Network. I appreciate that they make an effort to include a wide variety of visions and approaches. But they also make an effort to include “names” and be trendy, including introducing those seen as future stars. I’m ok with that. I don’t have to like everything, to learn from everything (though I’m at a very different stage of literary development than you are). I typically have a couple of stories I like a lot, a couple I hate, and the rest are on the continuum in between. This one surprised me (I’ll explain why in my wrap-up post). Last year’s surprised me in a very different way. But I think it’s in the very design, that no one person will “like” all the stories. Granted, that should apply farther back than three years, so there may be more to it than that.

  5. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

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