BASS 2015: Jess Walter, “Mr. Voice” from Tin House, #61

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Mother was a stunner.
She was so beautiful, men would stop midstep on the street to watch her walk by. When I was little, I’d see them out of the corner of my eye and turn, my hand still in hers. Sometimes I’d wonder if the ogling man was my father. But I don’t think the men ever saw me. And my mother didn’t notice them, or pretended not to notice, or had stopped noticing. She’d simply pull my hand toward the Crescent, or the Bon Marche, or the fountain at Newberry’s, wherever we were going then. “Come on Tanya, no dawdling.”
This could have been my mother’s motto in 1974: no dawdling.

Back in 1997, I had a conversation with a friend about Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life is Beautiful. While it was hard to argue with such a loving depiction of the father, he’d cheated the boy, I said, out of the opportunity to be strong, to offer him comfort, to share, to be with him through the ordeal. My friend replied: “What if the kid was aware all along what was going along, and pretended back, because that’s what he knew his father needed?” *Click!* I’ve loved that interpretation ever since: two people loving each other in the way the other needed, yet with no trace of artifice. Honest, generous love, though perhaps disguised.

I had a similar *Click!* moment with this story, a couple of days after I read it. In the shower. Not quite Archimedes, but then again, I’m no Archimedes.

“Listen to me, Tanya. You’re a very pretty girl. You’re going to be a beautiful woman. This is something you won’t understand for a while, but your looks are like a bank account. You can save up your whole life for something, but at some point, you’ll have to spend the money. Do you understand?”
It was the only time I ever heard mother talk about her looks this way. Something about it made me sick. I said I understood. But I didn’t.
Or maybe I did.

When it came time for Mom to cash in her account, she didn’t buy the prettiest man in the shop, or the most sexually proficient, or the richest. She was shopping for something else, and Mr. Voice fit the bill perfectly, in spite of his less than impressive physique: short, graying, buggy eyes, everything but a wart, for pete’s sake. And in spite of his mundane job: commercial voice-over artist. Hence his nickname.

But now I think Mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was picking someone she could, when the time came, leave without regret – and, more importantly, someone she could trust with that which she left behind, someone who could offer a type of safekeeping she knew she could not. Mr. Voice, seen from that view, was the perfect choice.

And that makes it a story about Mom. Tanya may tell the story, and much of it may narrate her life with Mr. Voice, but it’s really about the very loving choice Mom made. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness who sees it that way, but so be it. Some people know they can’t be perfect, so they find a way to be imperfect in a perfect way.

Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are.

Although the order of stories in BASS anthologies is predetermined – alphabetically, by author’s last name, from the first issue – I’m always surprised at how some stories fit together, contrast, serve as perfect beginnings, or, as in this case, perfect endings. It’s a retrospective story, handy for putting the reader in a looking-back mood, as I’ll be doing in my wrap-up post next. It’s also a nice story. That isn’t intended as a criticism; I’ve become sick of tough and anti-heroic of late, and I long for the days when being nice was a virtue rather than a sentimental flaw. I wouldn’t want all my fiction this way, but as a final story in a volume I found uneven, it left me with a pleasant warmth as I turned the final pages.

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10 responses to “BASS 2015: Jess Walter, “Mr. Voice” from Tin House, #61

  1. I once argued fifteen rounds with someone over whether the narrator of the Princess Bride (the movie, therefore meaning the grandfather) is secretly revealing that the whole story is his own love story by saying “as you wish” at the end. (I argued that it is not his own story.) I’ve since learned that it’s not worth arguing over interpretations that don’t seriously change the overall story much. I think the fact that the story is named “Mr. Voice” and the fact that the narrator’s final words are of her “father” indicate it’s probably more a story about him than about the mother. But, uh, as you wish.

    I was thinking the same thing as you. If alphabetical ordering didn’t determine the last story, this still would have been the last story. It might be the sweetest story in there. It’s a pretty strong statement of the ability of humans to overcome their own inherent limitations if they are given love.

    I wish I could say I thought it was an equally strong anthology, but I didn’t feel it was. For the third year in a row, I was kind of underwhelmed. More and more, I’m coming to think that Americans might prefer movies, TV and videos because Americans are lazy, but I also think that the best of movies and TV seem to resonate a lot more with me than the best fiction writing does.

    • Do you know Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal? He has a view of contemporary literary fiction much as yours – that people aren’t reading it because it isn’t interesting. What people are reading, voraciously, is the Hunger Games (which, as I understand it, isn’t half bad as fiction, much better than the Twilight thing) or Harry Potter (again, pretty good stuff) or 50 Shades of Grey. In other words, they’re watching football and juicy stuff like Scandal or How To Get Away with Murder instead of PBS or news (and, imho, it shows in who’s leading the Presidential primaries; we seem to have passed some scale of complexity where knowing anything is sufficient, so everyone’s giving up knowing anything). They’re eating cheeseburgers and sausage pizza instead of steamed broccoli, and they only eat blueberries if they’re surrounded by enough sugar, flour, and saturated fat to call it pie.

      Blueberry pie can be great stuff. There’s a pseudo-Chinese restaurant near me that makes a dish with steamed broccoli I adore (just the right crunch, muted sulfur and bitterness). I don’t think BASS served up great pie or broccoli this time. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that someone thought this was better – or would sell better.

      I only wish more of us were fighting over whether this year’s menu was good or not, the way some people fight over The New Yorker stories every week. But TNY has cachet, and is served in bite-sizes. Even so, for some reason, people HATE short stories. There was a thing in The Millions just the other day about “poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate” (and some poems that challenge that). I think people hate short stories even more than they hate poetry – we had a reading group at my library, and because it started right after Alice Munro won the Nobel, they started with Dear Life; I was the only person in the room who liked short stories, and we never did another story collection (on the contrary, there was an active poetry group going in the same period of time). How many times have we heard that the only people who read short stories are writers, and the only reason they’re the backbone of MFA programs is because they’re easier to review in semester-long workshops.

      Well, I’ve wandered off the topic, I have no idea where I am in fact, but I’ll have more to say about this volume in my wrap-up post.

      Will you be continuing on with Pushcart? I’m overwhelmed with MOOC work, but I hope to start it, however slowly, next week.

      • Hey there! I didn’t see your comment until now because I did a search for one of my published pieces. (I swear it wasn’t a vanity search.)

        I am grateful for your thinking of me and your generosity of thought. The only modification I might make for Mr. Weber (so long after the fact) is that I don’t think ALL contemporary fiction is impenetrable or detached from audience. Just…a lot of it. The Hunger Games is a good example of very decent stuff. It’s well-written and Katniss is an awesome heroine who “feels” from her first person narration that she has PTSD. It’s less of a rejection of a complexity, but I feel like many writers have thought of their audience only as “the literary audience” instead of “the woman on the bus.”

        A better analogy of my thoughts might be this: Most people are eating Big Macs (50 Shades movie). Five Guys makes WAY better burgers and fries, but it takes a little longer to get. No drive through! And some of those in the literary community are trying to sell those $1000 hamburgers with the truffle shavings on gold foil-plated buns. It’s a matter of the dial shifting too far toward the proverbial Big Mac.

        In more literary news, I kinda liked “Gender Studies” by Curtis Sittenfeld in a recent New Yorker, though the last section wasn’t to my taste. Thoughts?

        http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/29/gender-studies-by-curtis-sittenfeld

        (And I’m just now seeing Mr. Weber talk about Mad Men, which, like Breaking Bad, is a great example of Five Guys. It’s well-made. Good ingredients. The price is a tad higher, but golly, will you remember the experience.)

      • Hi Ken, so nice to hear from you! I was thinking of you a few days ago – I don’t remember why, probably a site referral or something – and then I saw you put up a new post, so I decided that was my doing, you’re welcome 😉 !

        As we’ve said before, I look for very different things than you do in fiction – and I very much consider myself “the woman on the bus”, I just prefer a little weirdness. I was less than enthralled with this issue of BASS; I tend to run in every-other-year cycles, so that bodes well for the 2016 issue coming up (it’d be great to compare notes with you, by the way; we talked about that before but it never came together, maybe this year?).

        I can’t really read the TNY story; I’m on a Trump-free diet, had to mute half my twitter feed to do it (and I miss them so much, but I was just getting too upset multiple times a day, so I’m still in blissful ignorance about what Skittles did NO DON’T TELL ME…)

        I just watched Mad Men this summer; I finally subscribed to Netflix in order to follow along with the West Wing podcast (in terms of fan rabidity, though not in numbers, it’s close to Star Trek, considering it’s been off the air 10 years and we still get pretty jazzed about it) and watched a bunch of things I’d only heard of, including Mad Men – and now I see what everyone was talking about a couple of years ago with the Coke commercial. It was a very strange experience, seeing history from the other side, and a sad experience, seeing advertising and human nature, but yes, it was very well-done.

  2. A lot of Americans eat crap and watch crap. That is a sad, undeniable fact. But we also have Mad Men. And Whole Foods. I guess my point was that Mad Men (the best of TV) seems to resonate more with me than “Thunderstruck” (probably the short story from this year’s BASS that I found the most worthy). Maybe TV and movies are just better now. Certainly, since the Simpsons, there’s been a strain of TV that just keeps getting smarter and smarter.

    Of course, BASS is probably my least favorite of the big 3: BASS, O’Henry, and Pushcart. Pushcart, in particular, has a story or two every year that blow my mind, and several really good ones besides. One thing I note in BASS is that none of the stories make me laugh much. I know the editor thought “Bride” was a hoot. I realized it was ironic in points, but I can’t remember laughing out loud. This is America. Many of our best writers are satirists. Twain, Melville, Vonnegut. Where are the really funny writers in these anthologies? “Largesse of the Sea Maiden” may have been the closest to satire in this anthology. Pushcart seems far more open to it.

    Are you going to do Pushcart and O’Henry? Or did you already do them? I’m always confused by the weird timing of these anthologies.

    • I’ll be starting Pushcart next week, the XL volume 40 which they call 2016. I haven’t done PEN in a while.

      My “favorite” stories tend to have something odd about them, in terms of structure, narration, or language; but, content overrides all. I’ve been told I’m gimmick-prone; so be it. BASS is more about traditional narrative, so yes, I tend to like Pushcart better. I also like the mix of genres. I’m incredibly stupid about poetry, but I keep trying.

      I agree with you about wishing there was more humor. I was just the other day thinking about “The Fall of Punicea” by Paul Stapleton which I ran across in Pushcart 2013: a hilarious, yet meaningful, riff on classical Rome. Julian Gough had a comic adventure, “How to Fall in Love Properly”, in Pushcart 2012; it wasn’t in a prize anthology, but One Story ran Paul Griner’s “Open Season,” more a spoof of writing than a comedy, but superbly done. Speaking of One Story, Stephen O’Connor had “Another Fine Mess” which was war humor -thus quite dark – but was humor nonetheless. Other than that, I can’t think of a short story I’ve read that was primarily humor, though of course many have humorous scenes or elements. Comedies rarely get nominated for Best Picture, and none has won since Annie Hall in 1977 (and only a handful before that). Comedy is seen as fluff, which is too bad. Great humor can change things. But, like second person, it’s really hard to pull off.

  3. Yes! Fall of Punicea was brilliant! I spent eleven seconds thinking somehow Pushcart had allowed fan fiction to get through the editors, and afterwards had the best time reading a short story I’d had in a long time.

    Wouldn’t you consider Shakespeare in Love to be a romantic comedy?

    • You know, you’re right. I’d relied on a quick google and came up with a couple of references about Annie Hall being the last comedy (including the New York Times) but SiL is definitely romantic comedy. I wonder if cinephiles consider it a “historical period piece” so they don’t have to call it a romcom! In any case, the point stands: comedies are often overlooked, no matter how good they are.

      • Oh, I discovered some other humorous-leaning Pushcarts: Seth Fried, both “Animacula” (2013) and “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” (2011). I adore Seth Fried. Haven’t seen much from him lately, too bad. SFF humor, no less, two stigmatized categories.

  4. Also, I of course left out that a lot of great movies and TV begin their lives as books. Game of Thrones is only the most obvious example of way too many examples to count.

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