BASS 2017: Mary Gordon, “Ugly” from Yale Review 104.1

The company was sending me to Monroe for six weeks. Of course, professionally it was a good thing, a sign of their regard, their trust, and that was a relief. Because I was always afraid that one day – and it might be soon – they’d realize that I didn’t belong. That my place at Verdance, a company that manufactured herbal remedies, was really stolen and its relinquishment might be demanded, and with perfect justice, at any moment. My background was neither in science nor in business…. I have left English literature behind me.

Complete story available online at Yale Review

Here again is a story that seems narratively familiar: a woman goes to a place she figures she’s going to hate, and instead truly loves it. It’s a story about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and how we often get them mixed up. This could be a rewrite of a dozen popular movies – “Sister Act”, “Doc Hollywood”, “For Richer or Poorer”, but again, the story kept me reading. Granted, I’m pretty much a sentimental sap, but there was something both distant and embracing about Laura’s approach to the town, her gradual realization that life existed beyond the boundaries of New York and that she could be a different person, lead a different life. If she wanted to be.

The story itself is something that is not Beautiful in a literary sense – no bold moves, no daring revelations or unique structural components, no triple-layered symbolism, just a familiar plot shared with, oh my God, all those goofy movies – but if we just give it a chance and don’t immediately try to pigeonhole it into a period or genre, we might find something Beautiful. And, come on, that self-referentiality is pretty interesting.

It’s all about the chair. And the Dao de Jing.

Laura begins her six-week stay on work assignment in Missouri in a horrible apartment furnished in gray Contemporary Bleh. She sees a vase in a local antique shop and thinks that will make the Bleh more bearable, if she has one nice thing she can focus on. In the shop, she discovers both the chair, and Lois. Both are ugly by New York standards, and Laura, by virtue of having been shopping for furniture recently with her architect fiance, knows well the kind of unwelcoming-but-conceptually-intriguing upscale chair that the comfortable, inviting, green chair is not. She is, nevertheless, immediately taken with the green chair, and eventually comes to be just as taken with Lois, moving into her quaint little basement apartment for the rest of her stay along with a set of dishes decorated with little roses. The kind of dishes that would be absurd in New York, but in Lois’ basement apartment, are perfect.

The roses have special meaning to Laura. In her former life as a literary academic, she designed her doctoral thesis around rose imagery:

I wanted to focus on three poems about roses, Thomas Carew’s, Edmund Waller’s, and William Blake’s, using the poems to examine larger questions – questions of time, desire, beauty, death – and see how the image of the rose could illustrate the cultural differences these questions raised. I was told that my topic was both too small and too large. Three short poems, but three large historical periods. The Renaissance people wouldn’t venture into the part of the seventeenth century that moved into the eighteenth, and the Romantics felt they had no access to the earlier periods.
And in the end, after months of fruitless arguing with intransigent professors, I began to feel it wasn’t worth it….
I gave it up, with a little sadness, but not without a riven heart.
Sometimes, coming in and out of sleep, lines of the poems still come to me.

Now, as a factual matter, this is pretty thin; I can’t imagine such a topic being so problematic for potential advisors simply because it crosses periods. But as a story trope, it’s quite telling: she doesn’t fit where she wants to be, so she goes somewhere else. Technical writing for a semi-legitimate nutritional supplement company, and finally human resources. And now she’s in Missouri to cut everyone’s benefits. But she still dreams of the poetry of roses.

Laozi was on my mind throughout. The passage that came to me, from the second chapter of the Dao de Jing, was emphasized in two different ways in the two Chinese philosophy moocs I’ve taken. The first translation, from Chad Hansen’s course, emphasizes the dualism that language, a social rather than a natural process, encourages, as the very act of defining beautiful also creates the concept of ugly:

As soon as you’ve created this concept of beauty and everyone knows to operate according to this concept, then you create what’s ugly, everything that’s left out that isn’t applied to with that name. When the world knows to call things that are good at or skillful “good at”, then there is clumsiness, badness, poor performance.
Here Laozi observes that when a learned, known shared social dào guides us to deem (為 wéi) beautiful things as ‘beautiful’, automatically there will be the ugly: things that are not deemed (為 wéi) as beautiful.

~ Chad Hansen, “Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought”

The second course, Edward Slingerland’s Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science, used a different translation and thus had a different interpretation that goes along with Laozi’s exhortation to embrace weakness to become strong:

I think the point is that when we label something, when society labels something as beautiful that then causes it to become ugly. When you call something beautiful, you now are setting up an ideal that maybe isn’t the right ideal. And this could be distorting our appreciation of what’s really beautiful.
When we set up something, we say this is what’s beautiful. We’ve now fallen into repulsive or ugliness, because what’s happened is we now have this artificial, distorted view of what’s beautiful. That harms our ability to appreciate real beauty.
And the kind of tricky paradoxical thing about this is the text claims that if you embrace the lower part of the dyad, you end up getting both. So if you embrace weakness, you actually get strength at some level. So by being weak you become strong. And I think the way to understand this is by being ugly, and ugly by social standards, you become beautiful…. So the idea is by embracing the things that are not valued by society, you actually get the real thing that you want.

~ Edward Slingerland, “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science”

Beyond the notions of beauty and ugliness, or perhaps alongside would be a better way of putting it, is Laura’s constant feeling that she doesn’t fit in to the places she loves. What strikes me as truly tragic about this story is that she defines herself by where she does fit in, and thus finds herself unsuitable for the places she loves. And, sentimental sap that I am, I found the closing paragraphs broke my heart:

There wasn’t really much for me to pack up. I had decided I would leave the dishes and the chair. There wouldn’t be a place for them in my New York life. Lois would resell them to someone more appropriate, she’d make a little more money, and they could live in a home where they belonged….
It was just before seven; the light over the lake was silvery, and the clouds were beginning to be underlit: peach and mango, and a dark gray, like the kind of eye shadow you would only wear in a city, the kind that magazines call smoky. I looked back. There was my chair, framed by the dim emptiness. But it was not my chair, and I wondered if it ever really had been. ‘‘You are beautiful,’’ I said to it. ‘‘You are very beautiful. You are fine, you are good, you are full of goodness and I am not. You don’t belong with me. You wouldn’t want to belong to me. You should be grateful that you aren’t mine.’’

I’ve always said I cry at the drop of a hat. I don’t like to go to movies because I’ll cry over anything. I cried in “Flubber” when the robot died (the 11-year-old I was with was humiliated). So yes, I cried over a chair. Laura and the chair deserve each other, and I mean that in the most beautiful way.

4 responses to “BASS 2017: Mary Gordon, “Ugly” from Yale Review 104.1

  1. This is the second story in a row I wasn’t sure about at first, but came to like a lot by the end. Writing about being a failed academic or writer who had to day a day job is a hard sell with me–mostly because it’s my life and the life of like every writer out there. But I did get over it, and I’m glad I did.

    For the second time in this year’s BASS, I see myself reading this story in light of the current political situation. We’ve had so much in the last year-plus of big-city elites trying to understand the folks from the middle of America where the map is all red on election day, I couldn’t help but see this in that light. In a year where a lot of us East Coast liberals had to do some soul searching about whether we’d shown disdain for middle America, this seemed like a good addition to this year’s BASS.

    • I have a feeling that’s why the story was selected – though apparently not why it was written, since the Contrib Note indicates it was a couple of individual experiences.
      I have a lot of feelings and opinions about this “misunderstood middle America” thing (feelings & opinions that have only increased over time, particularly in the past, oh, three days) but this isn’t the place to get into that.
      It’s the second story in a row I’ve felt a little embarrassed to really like. But it was indeed a very good read. (I’ve read ahead a little, and I fear I’ve got a dry spell coming up – hope you have some insights on the next three).

    • I agree. It felt to me like two things: a mother saying goodbye to her children (adoption, divorce, even leaving for college), feeling sad but knowing it’s best for them; and some serious self-hatred (“I have to go back to my ugly life so I’m leaving you here where everything’s as beautiful as you are”). Sort of a combination of passivity – instead of going where she’s happy, she goes where it’s easy – or a recognition of her own ugliness, a reversal, from the beginning, of what is beautiful and what is ugly.

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