BASS 2019: Jamel Brinkley, “No More than a Bubble” from LitMag #2

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

For a while, “Brooklyn Zoo“ was my working title, and I wanted to draw upon the energy, aggression, and arrogance that characterized that song in order to counter the passivity, inwardness, and timidity of the narrators I often find myself using in first-person stories. But then, in order to counter all that male intensity and assuredness, the story demanded that Ben and his friend be out of their depth, in terms of their age and maturity, and in terms of their understanding of their environment, of the women they pursue, and of their problematic, exoticizing desires.
It is a cliche in fiction to have a scene in which a dog barks mysteriously in the distance, but what happens when a barking dog actually shows up?

Jamel Brinkley, Contributor Note

I have a lot of questions about this story. It’s sort of a swan story – you know how a swan glides through the water so gracefully, but the power is generated under the surface by unseen feet. The surface story glides along, but there’s a lot more going on, a lot of subtle touches in for the reader to connect. Right now I’m thinking it’s an open story, so those touches are designed to connect in different ways, depending on the reader’s context. But as I said, I have questions, so I could be completely off base here.

Ben and his friend Claudius are sophomores at Columbia, crashing an off-campus party given by older students and graduates.

The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing….At parties like this the crowd was older, college seniors who already had New York apartments, graduates who were starting to make their way, and folks who were far enough into their youth to start questioning it. The booze was better and the weed was sticky good. The girls were incredible, of course, especially here.

The basic flow of the story goes: they pair up with a couple of hot women, older, mysterious, confident, and they end up finding out just how much more practice they need. But this is a simplification to the extreme, and all those subtle touches nudge in one direction or another along the way.

For example, there’s a line in the second paragraph that I think is key: “The party, thrown by a couple of Harvard grads, happened just weeks before the Day of Atonement, in late September of 1995.” First, it sets up, in a story told in retrospect, an incident important enough to be remembered twenty years later. In an interview with Craft, Brinkley goes into some detail about his use of flash-forward. The first sentence tells us “It was back in those days” and then we’re there, with the sound of music and the smell of booze and the first sight of the two women who will lead the boys through the evening.

But that reference to the Day of Atonement seems major. The whole story is set in a sort of multi-ethnic stew: ancestry from the Caribbean, Belize, Italy, mentions of Japanese philosophy and now, Jewish religion. I assumed this mixture was the New York vibe. But this particular line, so specific, set me up to expect a rather Jewish story, or at least a Jewish protagonist. There’s no indication anywhere, at least than I can see, that Ben is Jewish, with the possible exception of his name. His father is Italian (and calls him Benito, which could be a nickname or his given name), and his mother is African American. Neither of those scream Jewish, though it’s of course possible either might be. Later, one of the women accents this note:

“We graduated in May,” I lied.
“Mazel tov,” Iris said.
Sybil shook her head.
Iris’s attention snapped all the way back now. “What? I can totally say that.”
Sybil made a popping sound with her mouth, and the two of them laughed.
Claudius and I laughed too, though neither of us knew what was funny.

I can’t tell if Iris is reacting to something about Ben that gives her the impression he’s Jewish – something he said, or is wearing – or if she herself has some connection to Jewishness, a possibility Ben idly speculates on later. Or it’s just a Hebrew phrase most people happen to know. Sybil’s reaction makes me think it’s something more, as if this has been something they’ve discussed before. But I agree with Ben: I have no idea what’s funny about it.

In any case, it’s such a big tell – to remember an event was the day before Yom Kippur, twenty years later, means it was somehow connected at the time – that it goes way beyond ethnicity or religion, and imparts a flavor of forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is more complex than simple forgiveness: an individual must forgive those who have trespassed against him, then ask for forgiveness for his trespasses against other people, before asking God for forgiveness for sins. So it conditions forgiveness and repentance on each other.

Which brings us to Ben’s mother. As they are wooing the women, Claudius suggests they play a game of confession: tell their most shameful stories. He starts with an episode of sexual acting out when he noticed a neighbor watching him through his window. Hr probably thinks it makes him look cool, but the women aren’t impressed. Ben tells a story about looking through his father’s skin mags, but it’s clear he’s more reflective than shameful, and includes his mother’s reaction and complaint to his father: “Don’t you realize what you’re teaching him?” The women lose interest completely, and wander off: “Then they turned away, and just like that sealed us off from them. I marveled for a moment at this female power.” Turns out, Ben’s mom left his father shortly after the magazine incident. The real female power to seal off. Ben chose to stay with his dad, out of some kind of loyalty, and his relationship with his mother was strained from then on. Lots of forgiveness due in this scene alone.

Ben’s father has had a lot of influence on him, and on his attitude towards women:

A few weeks earlier, late one August morning in Philadelphia, shortly before the start of sophomore year, I sat with my father, Leo, at the kitchen table and got drunk with him for the first time. He told me to beware of crazy women, angry women, passionate women. He told me they would ruin me. “But they are also the best women, “ he said, “the best lovers, with a jungle between their legs and such wildness in bed that every man should experience. “ I knew the kinds of women he meant. I also knew he was talking about my mother, but I didn’t give a damn. She had left us, left him, a few years earlier, and recently she’d announced she was getting remarried. I saw how this news affected my father. He had stopped around our house all summer and appeared smaller and more frantic by the week. ….He held a chewed fingernail up by his nose and then reached into his pocket for something. It was a condom, wrapped in silver foil. “Use this with the most delicious woman you can find, una pazza. Let her screw your brains out, once and never again. Then marry a nice, boring, fat girl with hands and thighs like old milk. Making a dull life is the only way to be happy. “

So all this family stuff is lurking beneath the surface as Ben and Claudius take their shots at the party with these older women, and fail. They get a second chance as they notice the women leaving, unable to handle their bicycles. The boys offer to escort them safely home. This doesn’t work out too well either, since they come across the snarling dog promised in Brinkley’s Contributor Note above. And again, the boys show they are boys by freezing and the women show they are women by beating down the dog.

I’m not sure how I feel about that; any dog that’s beatable doesn’t deserve it. And that seems to fit into the next section as well, where the women invite the boys in.

At the party, Iris kept referring to bubbles, somehow related to the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics, mono mo aware. I’ve had some very tangential brushes with Japanese aesthetics, and it’s complex stuff, mostly based on naturalism, the acceptance of irregularities we would see as flaws. In this case, it’s a reference to a kind of overall awareness in conjunction with wistful acceptance of the temporary nature of things. Bubbles burst. They sure do. In his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us the title of the story comes from Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” another reference that ties in nicely with this story. You think you’re just along for the ride until you’re confused and bleeding on the side of the road.

Now that the women have the boys on their turf, things get real. The women, already naked, tell the boys to strip, which is hard enough for them, and then look at each other. For a long time. This takes the story of boys-getting-laid off-track to the point where getting laid is covered in a sentence or two. Ben finally gets to use the condom his father gave him; at least he knows the kind of woman Iris is. And I suspect he knows he’s no match for her. At least not yet.

It’s the relationship between Ben and Claudius that takes center stage:

Claudius was sitting up in the bed, staring at me. At once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It had been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, of rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.

I’m not sure what caused the bursting of this bubble. Did they both recognize, when subjected to the male gaze, what women go through all the time, and feel some kind of shame at the type of masculinity they’d been brought up to flaunt and prize? Were they ashamed at whatever random homoerotic feelings ran through them in the moment? Or were there more than just random feeling, and shame that the other saw them? Was it just the general idea that the women were running the show and they were helpless? Did each blame the other for getting them to that point?

The rupture between Ben and Claudius is the denouement, however; the climax comes a paragraph before, as Ben again thinks about his father:

What did he mean back on that August morning before I returned to college? ….I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves me and believes in me and, despite all our differences, wants nothing more than to be a man in my image. I see that spectral boy, my son, vividly, and feel frightened when he is with me. I have no idea what to say.

This comes in a future moment, looking back on that night with Iris and Sybil – Iris, a part of the eye, and Sybil, a prophetess – from an adult vantage point twenty years later. It sets in stone the hero worship of his father, now dead. And I wonder: why is Ben not a father? Is that by choice, or circumstance? What would those circumstances be?

So I end this story with far more questions than answers. They’re good questions, malleable to different shapes so covering a lot of ground. I don’t know if Brinkley intended it this way. I went through several reviews of the story before writing this post – it’s the opening story of his 2018 book, A Lucky Man, a finalist for that year’s National Book Award, so reviews abound – and did something I seldom do: I read Jake Weber’s post before even making preliminary notes. I was that convinced I was missing something that floated through the story, some big sentence or pov shift that boiled down to “this is what the story means.” I also thought a male viewpoint might be instructive, that he might see this story about masculinity quite differently than I. I was relieved that Jake struggled on this one, too, in much the same way I did. He came out of it with a somewhat different range of ideas, but we were both in the ballpark. And he tripped over the Day of Atonement reference like I did, which was a comfort. If I had one question to ask the author, that would be it.

Maybe Jake’s Five Themes is the Bubble way to think about it: an awareness of all of it. In another rare move, I pre-read the next story, which has a theme that complements this idea nicely. So onward.

2 responses to “BASS 2019: Jamel Brinkley, “No More than a Bubble” from LitMag #2

  1. I don’t think the story offers us a lot of choices other than to try to embrace all the possibilities at once, although reading your thoughts here and thinking back on it, I wonder if thinking of this as a learning experience for the boys about the evils of the male gaze isn’t the most straight-forward reading. I think most of the clues seem to be pushing us in that direction. But not all of them do, which is why I lacked certainty.

  2. Pingback: The Best American Short Stories 2019 – Auxiliary Memory

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