BASS 2018: Kristen Iskandrian, “Good with Boys” from ZYZZYVA #109

…I wanted to explore longing from the point of view of a preteen, a child, because I think we forget that children experience desire in all kinds of powerful and devastating and transgressive ways. Jill knows who she is and what her strengths are; she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to be. From that self-assurance springs both her sense of humor and her capacity for deep hurt. I’m unendingly fascinated by where and how our two most human conditions – pain and pleasure – meet, blur, and swallow one another whole.

~~ Kristen Iskandrian, Contributor Note

Every once in a while, there’s a lot of discussion of the “unlikeable character” in fiction, how great stories can feature people you just don’t like. That’s not a problem here. Jill is one of the most likeable first-person narrators I’ve encountered. That’s interesting in itself, since I’m not typically drawn to kids (she’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 years old, still in elementary school and on a sleepover at a natural history museum). And I’m not typically drawn to girls who are so obsessed with boys. But Jill is irresistable: so self-aware, so analytical, and yet, so caught up by something out of her control:

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

I’m left wondering why she’s so obsessed with boys. Is it to compensate for what she thinks are her inadequate looks – if I have a boyfriend, I must be pretty? Is she lonely? Is this some phase all tweens go through (I was a very late bloomer)? And I’m worried for her, because she’s so young, and she has years of dealing with clueless adolescents ahead of her. I don’t want her to lose this spark, because she’s going to have a lot of failures.

Is wanting boys the same as wanting objects? Does it all get swept into the category “desire”? An object can’t want you back; an object can’t reject you. Wanting objects is much easier; maybe you can’t afford them, but they don’t slip out of your grasp and wander over to a better owner. Which, of course, is about what happens at the museum.

I tried not to look at how Esau was looking at Adam, tried not to register it as anything but boyish camaraderie. I felt a pang of something – sadness, but also panic, and desperation, like I’d been given the chance to re-enter a good dream and had messed it up somehow.

It’s a classic third-wheel situation, where at first, Adam is the third wheel, and gradually Jill comes to realize she is the third wheel. I’ve had those moments. They’re not fun. She handles it extraordinarily well, but still acknowledges her pain. Damn, kid is eleven going on thirty.

In spite of my enjoyment of this story, I find it hard to write about, for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake went and wrote an extraordinary analysis of the story, from the structure of the epiphany trope to the evolution of Jill’s desire and self-awareness, to the just-sweet-enough ending. And that’s a good thing – it’s exactly the kind of commentary I look for on all these stories. But – I’m jealous. I imagine the story as Adam, his cheeks slightly flushed as he stands next to Jake as Esau, and here I am, Jill, realizing I’m just spinning straw into straw. But, like Jill, I’m taking it well, and I’m delighted to have learned something about reading fiction, about how to do this better (and relieved to have posted this on election day when no one is going to be reading blog posts about short stories). Now, where are the butterflies?

4 responses to “BASS 2018: Kristen Iskandrian, “Good with Boys” from ZYZZYVA #109

    • I think one of the reasons I like Jill so much is that, if I could do it again, I’d want to be very much like her. Not the boy-obsessed part, but the focus, and the ability to ignore what she sees as a defect (aspects of her looks) to develop compensatory strengths. And her ability to take a hit, and keep on rolling. I was completely inadequate to the task of adolescence!

      • I wondered if Jill’s expressed resilience wan’st her protesting too much. I think she was more bothered by her perceived defects than she let on. That’s why I titled what I wrote about the story “Why ‘low maintenance girls’ aren’t”: she might be pretending that she’s breezy about everything, but it’s hitting her pretty hard just the same.

      • Sure, I think that might be part of the “if I can get a boyfriend, I must be ok even if I’m not pretty” thing. But there are worse ways to react to perceived flaws than determined overconfidence. She’s not denying that it hurts – she’s just playing through the pain, and the leaning on Sarah (not isolating, not getting defensive or hostile) is pretty healthy.

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