BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.

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5 responses to “BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

  1. In writing workshops, we had arguments about the quotation mark issue. I think anyone who writes stories all the time starts to feel at some point the whole framework of it gets tedious. Jolting introduction that takes us into the middle of a story—>significant details to establish characters, setting, etc.—>dialogue and actions to reveal character and set up dynamic tension—>heightening tensions…and so on, and so on…Some writers want to strip away some of the scaffolding and just get right to the core. I guess I’m fine with that, although I’ve gone back to pretty much standard technique myself. My sympathies are more with the reader now than the writer.

    Now that I’ve read your explication, this brings up a more salient issue in writing: allusion as a key element in a story when the allusion isn’t explicit. I complained in a workshop once to a young poet that I had no idea what her poem was about. I said that I was a graduate student in literature, that I’d scored high on both the general and subject GRE, and that if I still didn’t know what the poem was about, 99% of the population wouldn’t, either. She got mad and insisted her poem wasn’t that unapproachable. I tend to stick to Vonnegut’s teaching that readers are cruel and have no reason to be nice, so it’s up to the writer to win them over. It’s a fine line, no doubt: readers ought to meet writers somewhere in the middle, and stories can’t dumb it down too much without taking all the fun out of it.

    This story tried my patience too much. I figured that thematically, voyeurism was important. If glass is just a slow liquid, then the world is really shifting imperceptibly as we watch in on it. Stasis is an illusion. The characters are shifting. There is a literal changing of places for two. Mina’s mystification at the end about why all these people can’t just be happy when they have everything they need to be happy comes from her temporary inability to realize that the world is shifting as she perceives it. I get the sense that once all her dreams are crushed in life, she’ll realize why they were all so unhappy.

    Something like that. Fiction is a great tool for evaluating people and how they think and interact with the world; it’s a difficult tool to wield when it comes to talking about the process of evaluation itself.

    Should I have been less lazy, looked up the origin of the title for myself? Would I have found my way to Au clair de la lune, realized the shift that goes on in that song, made more sense of this story? Can writers demand more of their readers in an age when anyone can Google anything in two seconds, or demand less because there is so much to know now, there is no certainty that even an intelligent reader will bring given knowledge to the table with him when reading a story?

    I don’t know. Some stories that are hard to get to the bottom of are fun. People like puzzles. Personally, I like a puzzle where I can read it and at least know what kind of puzzle I have before I start to put the pieces together. With this one, I kind of just looked at the pieces and threw the whole thing back in the box.

    • Great pickup on the glass, I’d missed it. However, Amanda was incorrect. She may have heard glass is a liquid, we’ve all heard that, but it is in fact a solid. Honest. Here’s physicist & YouTube educator Derek Muller to explain the gritty details. Which brings up an interesting point:

      As with you, the story wore on my patience, which is why I was a bit snippier than usual throughout and I didn’t put much thought into the symbolism of the raptor and the carousel. The glass pretty much gets at it, though – even though she’s wrong. I wonder if Groff knew that, and if it was an extremely clever double-cross, showing that we don’t really change, we are who we are from the beginning and maybe our façade begins to wear away over time.

      I am by nature a researcher. A story in which I learn something – whether it’s about a revolution in Ghana or Appledore Island off the New England coast or about a bawdy French lullaby – makes me reasonably happy, in the absence of more literary interest. Had this story been much longer, I probably would have given up. But that’s why I blog each story individually instead of doing a few sentences in a conglomerate post – it lets me explore things, sometimes things only somewhat related to the story.

      Sometimes I ride it off the rails, as with Joanne Scott’s “The Knowledge Gallery” from last year’s Pushcart. I got sidetracked looking for meaning in a collection of characters that, as it turned out, was written with no meaning (I sometimes contact writers when I’m obsessed, and she was kind enough to respond). But: just because she wrote it with no meaning, does that mean there is no meaning? Did Dante intend half the tricks we, after 600 years of research, attribute to him? Were Hemingway’s, or Carver’s, sentences always constructed with the brilliance we see? Is it perhaps genius to unconsciously include meaning (like Amanda’s misconception about the glass, which ties into and in fact calls into question the overall theme), perhaps meaning which doesn’t exist at the time of writing, but becomes clear to scholars later? Or are we all navel-gazing and marveling at lint?

      In any case, I had fun. When you can’t be wise, be funny. 😉

      • I’m sure you know this, but the big revelation to me in my first college literature class was what is called the “intentional fallacy.” To put it too simply, we should not ask the question, “Did the author mean to support interpretation X when he wrote Y?” The appropriate question, we were taught to say, was not what does the writer intend, but what does the text support?

        I am okay with this way of looking at things to a point. If I am snippy with someone, and she says I responded like a jerk, I might say, “But I didn’t mean to.” In this case, it doesn’t matter so much what I meant. The text of my words and expressions is what matters.

        But I also think we read to know what’s on a writer’s mind. There are unintentional things, great things, that take place when a writer is really connecting. But it can’t all be accidental. If we don’t think that the writer is controlling at least some of what’s going on, we tend–justifiably, I think–to think less of the work.

      • Funny how the intent thing changes from the writer’s point of view – when it’s suddenly very important to get readers to see what you’re “trying to say” (I hate it when teachers use that term – the author is saying, not trying to say). At least it was for me, which may be why I was a crappy fiction writer. I wanted too much to control every possible reader’s experience. Someone told me once, “Stop trying to put me in a chair, maybe I want to dance.” That was nice.

        But as a reader, yeah, I’m interested in what the author had in mind, but it’s the nature of writing to be a joint project between reader and writer.

        Then again, I get infuriated over the Hallmark interpretation of “Road Not Taken”…

        It’s complicated . As are all good things.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now | A Just Recompense

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