BASS 2016: Andrea Barrett, “Wonders of the Shore” from Tin House #66

Illustration from "Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore"  by Charles Kingsley -1859

Illustration from “Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore” by Charles Kingsley -1859

I.
The sea-shore, with its stretches of sandy beach and rocks, seems, at first sight, nothing but a barren waste, merely the natural barrier of the ocean. But to the observant eye these apparently desolate reaches are not only teeming with life, they are also replete with suggestions of the past. They are the pages of the history full of fascination for one who has learned to read them.

The very word seashore brings together two opposites into an ecosystem all its own, neither water nor land nor something in between but its own thing entirely. The dual nature fits Henrietta perfectly: not part-schoolteacher and part-scientist, not a half-perfect melding of any two poles, but a unique whole though created from two opposites.

The story starts with deep background: an old book, the likes of which those of us who frequent used book stores have seen many times. The book itself becomes a character of sorts, certainly a structural element as a brief paragraph from its imagined pages begins each numbered section. And with every section, we find out more about what it is to be seashore.

II.
It is hoped that this book will suggest a new interest and pleasure to many, and that it will serve as a practical guide to this branch of natural history, without necessitating serious study. Marine organisms are interesting acquaintances when once introduced, and the real purpose of the author is to present, to the latent naturalist, friends whom he will enjoy.

Barrett’s Contributor Note includes the observation that the “demure fringes” of botany and marine science, such as Henrietta and Daphne occupied, were “relatively welcoming” to women. And Daphne, author of the fictional Wonders of the Shore (as opposed to Charles Kingsley’s volume of the same title, as shown in the header above), not only remains where she is welcomed – producing marine biology books for non-scientists – but has a secret alter-identity, known only to Henrietta, as a successful cookbook author. Neither this, nor that. In Daphne’s case, however, I sense the watery-land view of seashore: not something whole and unique, but two halves pasted together, one half always wanting to expand but crowded by the other. But maybe that’s just my reading.

The focus of the plot itself, once the stage is set (and the impatient may find themselves straining at the bit to get there – but do yourself a favor, relax and let the story set its own pace) is one of the annual vacations Henrietta and Daphne spend together making observations and collecting samples for the forthcoming Wonders on Appledore Island at the invitation of writer Celia Thaxter. Appledore Island, the Isles of Shoals, is a real place, though the hotel is long gone. What remains is the Shoals Marine Laboratory which continues investigating the seashore under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, as women are now permitted beyond the demure fringes of science.

Celia Thaxter was a very real person as well; in fact, about a decade ago I sang for a choral director whose specialty ran to historically based programs. He’d earlier created a concert of Victorian and contemporary art songs titled “Music from Celia Thaxter’s Parlor” based on Thaxter’s poetry and the sheet music that remains, just as the island and the sea remains. Celia doesn’t come off very well in the story, I’m afraid; she seems to be a bit of a snob, in fact. I’m hoping the real-life poet was more generous.

III.
Every coast-line shows the destructive effects of the sea, for the bays and coves, the caves at the based of the cliffs, the buttresses and needles, are the work of the waves. And this work is constantly going on. The knotty sticks so commonly seen on the beach are often the hearts of oak or cedar trees from which tiny crystals of sand have slowly cut away their less solid outer growth.

We see the destructive effects in the human story as well. Daphne is embraced by the crowd at Mrs. Thaxter’s salon, while Henrietta does not fit in so well. A storm blows through the island one evening: “By morning the storm had blown away, leaving the shore littered with seaweeds and all kinds of creatures – exactly, Henrietta realized when she woke, what Daphne needed.” But Daphne has her own plans, and Henrietta is excluded. Yet this destructive effect, like the storm, provides all manner of opportunity for Henrietta, including some time spent with another Thaxter guest who did not quite fit in.

V.
As each wave retreats, little bubbles of air are plentiful in its wake. Underneath the sand, where each bubble rose, lives some creature. By the jet of water which spurts out of the sand, the common clam mya arenaria reveals the secret of its abiding-place. Only the lifting of a shovelful of sand at the water’s edge is needed to disclose the populous community of mollusks, worms, and crustaceans living at our feet, just out of sight.

Barrett has a real talent for telling stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions. The connections are between the dual threads are powerful, yet never obvious.

I wondered, at the end of the story, if Henrietta had regrets. I don’t think so, beyond a momentary flicker once in a while. I think, had she been a different persons, she could have felt out of place on either land or sea, caught between science and teaching, between married and single, between secrets and revelation, but instead found her own place in the wonders of the shore. Maybe not a place anyone truly understood, not even Daphne, but her place. Seashore: not land, not water, but something entirely its own.

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5 responses to “BASS 2016: Andrea Barrett, “Wonders of the Shore” from Tin House #66

  1. I believe this is the third Barrett story I’ve read. She is lionized as one of the greats today, but I find her stories nearly unreadable. I wonder about art and the sexes. We joke about how only men like humor like The Three Stooges or Monty Python. (I don’t like the Stooges, and I know women who like MP, but it does seem to skew gender-wise.) Are there some types of art that will just be harder for the testosterone-deficient or testosterone-rich to enjoy?

    I suppose Barrett’s achingly deliberate approach fits her science subjects. 19th-century science, in particular, was a patient slog through fields and meadows, picking up specimens, sketching them, preserving them, writing about findings with a feather pen by candlelight. Barrett’s pace mimics that Ent-like slowness. Her result isn’t an advance in knowledge of the natural world, but a tiny breakthrough in mapping the human psyche. The way you described her work– “stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions”– is how most critics describe her project. I’m just not sure the reward is worth the investment. Why does she deserve 13,000 slow-motion words when other writers deliver equal human insight with far less investment? She’s the literary equivalent of a gas-guzzler.

    I hope this isn’t just me being an attention deficit suffering male, needing explosions to keep me entertained. I’d really be interested to see how her readership skews gender-wise. It actually makes me wonder if a forced diversity approach–which this year’s BASS seems to have maybe aimed at–isn’t a good idea. We like to think that good writing appeals to everyone, but if I had been an editor at a literary journal, I’d have never read all of a Barrett work to even consider publishing it. It’s far less likely I’d have ever picked her as an example of America’s best short fiction in any given year. My prejudices are never more evident than they are with a work like this.

    • When I was writing my post, I kept thinking, “Jake is going to hate this one.” 😉

      First: the story is nowhere near 13,000 words. Maybe 8,000.

      Second: I hate Wendell Berry stories, especially the Andy Catlett series. Josh Weill’s “The New Valley” was the slowest thing I’ve ever read; it’s three novellas, and I checked out halfway through the first, though I loved his One Story offering. I don’t blame my dislike of those writers on their male voice. They just don’t happen to appeal to me. I hated the only Willa Cather story I ever read, but I can’t say it’s because she’s a woman. Do we have to blame gender for our author preferences?

      Third: BASS has celebrated diversity for a long time, and I don’t think there’s anything forced about it. We have many voices as a species, and it’s about time some voices previously ignored were given equal hearing. I want to hear their stories, too. It’s why I read BASS and Pushcart. If I wanted a known quantity, I’d get a Wendell Berry collection (no, I wouldn’t, not no way no how).

      Fourth: The title “Best American Short Stories” is silly; it’s about marketing, about brand, not about content. DFW wrote a terrific intro to the Best American Essays 2007 in which he said as much: “One thing I’m sure it means is that this year’s BAE does not necessarily comprise the twenty-two very best-written or most beautiful essays published in 2006…. I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering is interesting in all kinds of different ways…” Yes, it is. If Elizabeth Strout or Richard Russo or Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Amy Tan had composed this year’s volume, they would have chosen other stories. I like that every year is an adventure into someone else’s filter. And, remember, Heidi Pitlor has already winnowed the field down to 120 stories, so it’s prefiltered on top of that – and I’m sure there’s some attention paid to diversity (which I don’t consider a dirty word, but then again, I’m a liberal humanist so I am dirty words) and you’ll never convince me that a few Names aren’t included just because they’re Names and Names sell copies. I’d prefer a title like “A Cross-Section of American Short Stories” but then we could drive ourselves nuts figuring out what makes a story American (citizenship, publication, theme, appeal…) and we’d never get around to reading anything.

      Fifth: Do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else (Whitman, and my Twitter profile text). Just because Josh Weill does something I don’t care for – or Andrea Barrett does something you don’t care for – doesn’t make their work unworthy of “best” status. Yes, I will grouch about every Wendell Berry story I encounter in BASS and Pushcart. But I won’t begrudge his right to be there.

      Sixth: I have a feeling we’re going to have this discussion several times over the next few months – This is going to be a lot of fun, this volume! 😉

      • I’m willing to concede that Barrett is worthy of being read, maybe even worthy of her high reputation. I just can’t stand reading her. I don’t like white wine, but I don’t think this means everyone who does is wrong. This story wasn’t her longest, you’re right. The one from BASS a few years ago about the guy who did genetics testing on flies–that one was a novella. My 13K number was an average of the three stories of hers I’ve read.

        I would still strongly believe that her readership skews female, and that my dislike of her might be influenced by my maleness. I don’t like her in the same way I don’t like knitting. Reading her feels to me boring in the same way handcrafts are boring. But that’s kind of why I’m glad writers like her get put into the BASS, and why I’m glad I force myself to read BASS and the stories in there I wouldn’t otherwise read.

        I think there are two or three white men in this year’s collection out of 20 stories. I’m not complaining about that number or saying it’s wrong. But yes, like you said, are the 20 stories in here the “best”? Is “Ravalushun” really better than something Charles Baxter or Joshua Ferris might have put out? No–even conceding that there is no such thing as “best,” these aren’t the best 20 individual stories. But picking 20 in such a way that they cover a lot of backgrounds might be the best way of picking 20. It might help create the best collection qua anthology.

        FWIW: my one-time blog entry on Barrett vs. Sagan. http://workshopheretic.blogspot.com/2015/09/professional-and-amateur-writers.html

      • Well, I think the question is: who gets to define “good”? If white male academia has decided the style in which Charles Baxter writes is awesome and the style/subject used by Andrea Barrett, or Junot Diaz, or Mohammed Nassehu Ali sucks because it’s not Charle Baxter, well, those other people are going to have a hard time getting attention and the standard becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you ask Junot Diaz to guest a volume once in a while, you’ll see what someone else thinks is. I just read an amazing paper about body-centric vs geocentric interpretations of space by children from different cultures (the general-readership version is here. If someone decides the body-centric orientation is “right” and the other is “wrong”, well, guess who’s going to get published… ok, yeah, the analogy breaks down, but still, any declaration of “Best” that doesn’t involve objective measurement is going to involve subjective factors, and who gets to decide pretty much draws a line around a group with a tendency to fall within that subjective metric.

        In any case we probably need to agree to disagree; I’ve had this discussion many times before with many different people, I’ve never changed anyone’s mind, and no one’s ever changed mine. But it’s fun for a couple of rounds, and now I’m going to quit before somebody loses an eye. 😉

        p.s. I loved Contact (I even liked the movie) – also Isaac Asimov and Oliver Sacks and a lesser-known neurologist/writer named Harold Klawans. They’re all dead now, I just realized. Bummer. But I’ve loved their work, and I’d put them in very different categories as writers. But I wouldn’t want to decide who was “best”.

  2. I actually don’t really disagree with you (other than I just don’t think I’ll ever like Barrett). I’m glad the BASS gives me stuff to read I wouldn’t read otherwise. I’m a white dude; it’s a good bet I’ll connect with at least some other white dudes, but it’d be a poor thinker (even by white dude standards) who never read anything other than work that just reinforces one’s notion of what is worth reading.

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