Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Diane Williams, “The Important Transport” from Egress #1

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Otto told me that our opportunity had been squandered and that i should have felt compelled to contribute something. He said, “It is too bad you don’t understand what is happening here.”
And, I saw that it was true – that I had failed to do my best.
This was to be our short interregnum. How to proceed next?
That morning the wake-up radio music alarm had been set, but the volume knob had been wrenched by somebody, counter-clockwise, full on. My first thought was that the window must be open and that the wind had caught at the blinds and that it was blowing across the fins – the slats, rather – and that they were vibrating and causing this tremendous sound before it dawned on me that this blast was something other and it made me afraid.

I’ve said many times that the context in which a story is read can change how it’s perceived. This was a case in point, though quite by accident.

I originally read the story back at the end of February, and had no idea what to make of it. Because it’s so short – a page and a half – I somehow skipped over it and went from “Hao” to “Pattycakes”. I say somehow, but it’s possible that I mentally filed it as poetry; I won’t deny the possibility that I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time and ‘accidentally’ moved my bookmark. In any case, I forgot about it until my friend Andrew (hi, Andrew!) asked if I’d read it and what I thought. So I turned to it again, on this weekend where reality feels apocalyptic, and it’s a different story.

In our defense, Andrew and I, Williams isn’t the easiest author to read. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Ben Marcus writes:

Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility.

That gives me some freedom to go with gut feelings without searching for hard evidence on which to base them. And here’s where context comes in. I see this as a banal love story written as apocalyptic literature, with an ending that signals recovery.

The title was instrumental in that. To me, a transport is a military operation, generally moving troops and equipment around. Holocaust literature refers to the trains to the camps as transports. The title set up a grim tone for most of the story.

The word interregnum in the third paragraph reinforced this. While it’s a term that can apply to many situations, it stems from the time between reigns of kings. A standard dictionary definition goes, “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes.” Normality is suspended. In the story, it seems to be the period between staying together, and moving apart. A period of questioning, of deciding. Denial and settling is over, but they’re not yet at the point of moving on. Disruptive and chaotic.

The story is great at conveying this sense of suspended normality. It feels like a desolate time, a place of destruction, but what is really there? A radio alarm, and Venetian blinds. Granted, there’s a scene in which they create a moment of chaos, but if that’s all the chaos you have in your lives, count yourself lucky.

Then there’s the ultimate commonplace, a cheating spouse. Is this to underline the narrator’s sense that her world is crumbling, even in is ordinariness? To show how threatening the benign can look when the psyche is in pain? Is this the root of the chaos?

“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Kay,” he said. That’s my name.
“You’re all I have. Where did you go?”
“Do you like it here?” he said.
“No, I don’t like it here. Why should I?”
“I know. I know,” he said. “Some water?” He had to walk and to walk, to go such a short way, it seemed, to get that for me.
We had another such dialogue the next day.

Adding on the “that’s my name” seems awkward, but the Cary rule applies: it means something. Not only do we get the first-person-narrator’s name, which is handy, but in the next dialog – and calling it a dialog adds a theatrical element, a play two people are putting on for themselves with set lines, rather than a conversation in which two people communicate – he gives the name of the woman he was with. It’s something like effect-before-cause: she has to tell us her name is Kay, so we’ll understand Suzette is the other woman in an almost parallel scene in which the other woman replaces her. And, by the way, Suzette is the perfect name for a younger, other woman you want to hate.

The Important Transport comes at the end:

I have had to wait for my own happiness. I married Eric Throssel, who is a good companion – and I thought I was very happy when we had finished supper one night. But the more important transport occurred on route to Long Grove while I was driving.
Eric spoke, and his words I don’t remember them, but thank God they served to release the cramping in my neck, and in my shoulders and my back and they provided for an unexpected increased intake of oxygen and can we leave it at that?

When in doubt, I go back to the dictionary, and discovered a meaning of transport that I was vaguely aware of, but had completely forgotten about:

an overwhelmingly strong emotion.
“art can send people into transports of delight”

Broken hearts can mend. Is there anything more trite than all this? Yet this is all wrapped in enigma, as Ben Marcus indicated in his introduction. We don’t know what Eric said, and she isn’t going to tell us, because what difference does it make. The point is, tension evaporated and it was a breath of fresh air. A hint of the orgasmic in there. Who knows what she thought happiness was; now she knows it’s better.

Why tell a routine love-lost-and-found story in such a way? Those of us who have known love as war and disaster might understand. In literary terms, I’d call it defamiliarization. But in a broader sense, at this moment when for most of us normality is suspended, the upbeat ending is like an oasis. Let’s hope we all get there.

6 responses to “Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Diane Williams, “The Important Transport” from Egress #1

  1. Well, I am glad that at first you did not know what to make of it, because that was my first take, too. (Hi, Karen, from your friend Andrew.) And then I reread it and while I was conscious that this is the work of a woman idolized by many, and therefore whatever faults there might be, they must be mine, I was still muttering to myself and laughing at it, and I wrote a bit of snark about it, culminating with her last line, “can we leave it at that?” It is too easy to just be snarky about something we don’t understand. I like to think of myself as open to experience, to different genres, different kinds of art. But yes, sometimes I do say, “well, it’s not for me,” and then move on. This one seemed like I should at least try to understand more. Or as sainted Samuel Beckett says, “Fail Better.”

    Interesting that we both started with a consciousness of the importance of the title, and yet ran in extremely different directions. I saw “transport” as being transported by love, passion, ecstasy; the military and Holocaust did not occur to me at all. If the important transport was “en route to Long Grove while I was driving,” culminating in release of cramping and “an unexpected increased intake of oxygen,” I took it to be an orgasmic experience, but still, after that, went, “OK, and? So?”

    We have hints and suggestions and incomplete thoughts and then we are discouraged from taking anything any further. Is that in itself the message? Nothing matters? Why talk about it, why think about it, we can just accept that opportunities have been squandered, but we have nothing to contribute to anything, and it does not matter, and we just need to leave it at that? Perhaps we don’t have hope in the end. Perhaps it is despair. The “Do you like it here? No, I don’t like it here. Why should I?” supports that. I don’t like it here, or there, or anywhere, and why should I? Yes, that is with Otto, and she has moved onto Eric. But even with Eric it is only “I thought I was very happy when we had finished supper one night.” A momentary feeling of happiness is possible. One orgasm is possible. But really, let’s not talk about it. It does not matter. We are in the midst of despair.

    A different take. I am glad I returned to the story, gave it more than I had originally. Let’s talk some more, Karen. Thank you.

    • It’s really interesting to me that, in regard to “transport”, you started in exactly the right place, and I started in exactly the wrong place but still found it incorporated into the story. And we ended up in about the same place: orgasm, or something like orgasm (I was thinking more of an emotional rather than physical experience, but I wouldn’t rule out the real thing).
      Something occurs to me now reading your thoughts about the last line, “let’s leave it at that”. She conveys her misery, the experience of her husband/boyfriend cheating on her, with great clarity, but wants to keep the details of this … connection with her new husband private. Being betrayed isn’t an intimate experience; being beloved is. That’s a nice way to think about it.
      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Yet, if I’d worked on it before, I wouldn’t have had much to say. I stopped bringing the snark a while ago (when a writer ended up reading a post, I still don’t know how he found it, but he did). Well, maybe a little snark, once in a while. But, yeah, Williams is editor of NOON, a very upscale (and weird) journal, so I wasn’t going to argue. It’s much better that it worked out the way it did, with the delay.
      Onward!

  2. This story requires too much work. Poetry and flash fiction are not my thing.

    On one level the story is as simple as Otto left Kay for Suzette and then Kay found Eric. Diane Williams hints at a little more, but not much. I don’t like that it requires knowing a unique definition of transport.

    I will forget this story in a few moments.

    Length is very important. Some people are happy decoding a few cryptic lines – but not me. For me, the right length is the novelette. In the science fiction world, that’s defined as 7,500 – 17,500 words. Less than that and the story seems slight. More than that, the story often drags. I seek an emotional impact that requires a certain amount of words to pull off.

    A perfect example of what I’m talking about is “Lot” by Ward Moore, on page 100 of this magazine, available online as a PDF

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vpVPSSiaklu9qU0X7bvMf2Sx6Xy1qHdM/view

    Jim

    • Hi Jim – thanks for weighing in!
      You’re not the first person to be put off by flash. Or short stories, for that matter; a lot of readers, even voracious, serious ones, object to anything less than a novel. You’re right that it’s a different form, generally more akin to poetry, though there are exceptions.
      And in this case we have the obscurity on top of the shortness. Yes, it is a lot of work, which is probably why I ‘accidentally’ skipped it (I really don’t remember, but I don’t remember consciously deciding to skip it, so I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt).
      But here I try to figure out what an author is doing, move beyond like/dislike. I do tend to indicate when I really like a story, and I admit when I don’t get it at all. Here, I think the author did something interesting, and that was worth discovering. And if nothing else, it gave me a chance to see some very cool photos with venetian blinds!

      • Yes, that is a cool photo. How did you find it?

        Actually, I love short stories. I mostly read short stories now. I just find the shortest of stories don’t have enough for me. For me, it takes about five thousand words to build a solid communication.

      • Back when I was reading SF regularly (in the late 70s, early 80s) I liked short stories best. In fact, I don’t think I read more than a couple of SF novels during that time. I used to read a lot of medical novels, but that’s a very different thing, though they often involve a fair amount of science.

        One of my favorite parts of blogging these stories is finding art to go with them. In this case, the Venetian blinds seemed prominent, so I did an image search on google for something like art + venetian blinds. That yielded a lot of choices.
        Sometimes I have an image in my head that’s generated by a key moment in the story – maybe, say, an old man talking to a child – and I just come up with keywords that might bring up images like that. Sometimes it’s a word from the story, and I just look for photos or art. Or maybe the original published story had art; I do that particularly when I can’t find what I’m looking for. I try to match the demographics of the artist with the writer and/or story characters – gender, nationality, race – but that doesn’t always work. It’s a fun process in any case. I wish I could draw or manipulate digital images, but I have no eye at all, so I have to rely on what I can find.

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