Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Michael Kardos, “Reality TV” from The Cincinnati Review # 17.2

I was feeling nostalgic the other day while talking to my wife about the malls of New Jersey. I was surprised she didn’t remember the Woodbridge Mall, the one with the tigers. She’d grown up in Wilmington, Delaware, but that wasn’t so far away.
“The TV show?” I said as a memory jog. Nothing.

In last year’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders started off with how short stories set up expectations, then either fulfill or subvert them. He used Chekhov’s “In The Cart” as an example, but for me, this story perfectly fit the bill. And in only three pages.

I told her how the Woodbridge Mall had been sprawling and adequate, not fancy like the Menlo Park Mall two miles down Route 1 with its posh anchor stores and food court full of healthy choices. For the holidays, the Menlo Park Mall went all out: enormous tree in the atrium, tens of thousands of lights, fake snow, the works.
…The Woodbridge Mall couldn’t compete with that level of family-friendly extravagance, so they went in another direction. They found twelve volunteers, chosen for their neediness and grit, and gave them all an hour together in the mall. For those sixty minutes, every item was free, theirs for the taking. They had only to carry the items they wanted to one of the exits.

So I was just reading along wondering where this (fairly reasonable by today’s standards) reality show in a New Jersey mall would lead, when I hit Paragraph Eight. I wrote, “OMG” on the title page. Now, as an old fart, I’m not much for what I still think of as teenager text talk (even though the teenagers who started OMG now might have teenagers of their own, and yes, I know about the 1917 usage) but it was what came to mind. I did not see Paragraph Eight coming; suddenly we weren’t in Kansas any more, Toto, we were in Rome on one of Nero’s bad days.

Then, about Paragraph Sixteen, I added an “F” to that OMG.

Please understand: if I’m not much for text abbreviations, I’m even less for vulgarities, but again, it was what came to mind.

And then with the final Paragraphs Seventeen and Eighteen, I realized that, like Dorothy Gale, we’d never left home at all. And I discovered again how messy it is to cry while wearing a face mask, not to mention embarrassing while riding a city bus to the supermarket. I’ve got to stop reading in public. And I hope I got those paragraph numberings right.

I’m not going to say much about the details of the story, or quote more of it, because you’ll want the experience of reading it, just for those great surprising-yet-inevitable transitions from one set of expectations into another, the stunning shift from one mood into something completely different. It’s available online (link below). It’s been compared to the Schwarzenegger film Running Man. I’ve never seen the movie, but I used to blog about Reality TV. I finally quit writing about Project Runway in August 2013 with a cry of, “Tim [Gunn], you used to be an educator!”:

I’ll admit I’m also fascinated, in a sick way, by what these shows have now become (planned dramas), and the underlying reason: reality is boring. People want story. And the mass market wants stories they already know: Poor kid makes good. Pride goes before a fall. A hero, a villain. Find a way to cram in some yogurt or cars, pre-select a bland winner whose work fits some current marketing niche, and you’ve got Heidi too busy counting her money to care about what some obscure blogger says.
But even car wrecks lose their fascination if you watch them long enough, especially when the car wrecks are choreographed to provide maximum gore. Enough.

My last Project Runway blog post

So I was all in on this story, and wow, did the escalations and subversions of expectations hit. The last paragraph left me staring out the window of the bus thinking of Kant and his hopelessly naïve thing about people being treated as ends, not means, and one of those final lines from “Don’t Look Up” – “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” – because we did, and how did we mess it up so badly?

I got curious about Kardos; his name is very familiar to me, but I couldn’t think of anything specific about him.

Turns out, in addition to several novels and a story collection, he has a popular writing-craft book. I actually thought about getting it for about six seconds, then slapped myself because “You know what happens when you try to write fiction!” 

I checked to see if I’d read anything by him in the past whatever years I’ve been blogging BASS and Pushcart and other readings. And yes, he had a story, “Animals,” in the 2015 Pushcart. Apparently I didn’t much appreciate the story on first read, but I downloaded a PDF version of it and had to play with formatting: “Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works.” It turned out to be about connecting, about caring for people, about giving up too easily (smacking me in the face with my own faithlessness), and again I swooned. Strange, I don’t remember any of it, but that’s why I blog: I know no one is interested in my rantings, but some day I might want to remember what I thought of a story or a book or a  MOOC or even a reality TV show, should it be relevant.

“I laughed, I cried” is horribly trite. “If you read one story this year…” is also pretty tired. But that’s because they’re words readers say all the time. I did laugh; I did cry; please read this.

*  *  *            

  • Story available online at Cincinnati Review.
  • Commentary by Brandon Timm at his blog Reading and Drinking
  • My post on Kardos’ 2015 Pushcart-winning story, “Animals”

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