Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Lindsay Starck, “Baikal” from New England Review #41.1

NER art
As someone who does not possess the fortitude or willpower necessary to run across Lake Baikal, I had questions for my character: namely, “How?” and “Why?” From the beginning, I was interrogating her. As I wrote more, it became clear that the central relationship of the piece had been shaped by unspoken questions. When I read that the founder of the race had described Baikal as “alive” and “breathing,” I wondered if the narrator could be the lake itself. I’ve long admired the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is written as a catechistic call-and-response, and also John Edgar Wideman’s “Stories,” which is a flash fiction piece composed of “question after question after question.” Finally, one of my favorite remarks about literature is Anton Chekhov’s observation that the artist’s task is not to answer questions but to pose the questions correctly.

Lindsay Starck, author interview at NER

I’ve often said domestic realism is not my favorite subgenre of fiction. Just because every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way doesn’t mean I want to read another story full of “finely crafted” sentences that “illuminate with great sensitivity” all those ways. Sure, many of these stories embed profound truths in their paragraphs, but slogging through pages of everyday ordinariness is a horrible way to go about presenting them.

Seems like Starck has found a way, however, to make domestic realism amazing, even to me: start with a unique narrative style; include only what must be included; carefully control the reveals to reveal not information but character; and use, as the metaphorical lens such stories often include, a marathon across a frozen lake that is melting thanks to climate change. Now there’s an image of marriage for ya.

Since I’m always blathering about loving stories that teach me something, let’s start there. Yes, there is a Baikal Marathon in Siberia. The next one is in three days: February 27, 2022. I swear, I did not time my reading to coincide, it’s just another of those coincidences I can’t get enough of. And no, it’s not being cancelled because of climate change, at least not yet; it’s only been run since 2005, not for 50 years, so let’s assume the story is set in the near-future. And strange as it is to read a story about an American going to Russia for a race while, in real life, Russia seems to be determined to start WWIII this week, well, that’s a more disturbing coincidence than the date of the marathon. Navigating over the icy surface described by the official marathon website above must be incredibly tricky; real life is equally so.

Now let’s get to that unique narrative structure: the use of a Q&A, as if between a narrator and a reader.

What was she thinking?
That depends. When she stepped onto the tarmac in Irkutsk, the sky crisp and glittering, she was wondering why it had taken her so long to come to Siberia. But earlier, when she boarded the stale plane in Beijing, she was trying not to think about the world’s first marathoner. (You know: the one who died.) And when her husband dropped her at the airport curb in Minneapolis, she was wondering if he’d miss her.
Would he?
He certainly would. They’ve been married eighteen years. Besides: Lately he’s been missing her even when she’s standing right in front of him. Last Sunday, after she’d returned from a fifteen-mile run, she’d been flipping pancakes on the stovetop while he scrolled through headlines on his phone at the counter across from her. There were no more than three feet between them. But when he glanced up and saw a bead of sweat slide past her ear to her chin, her face rosy from the heat of the gas flame, he’d been struck simultaneously by the urge to wipe it away and by the fear that if he tried, he wouldn’t be able to reach her.
What does that mean?
He can’t say, exactly. He knows it sounds strange. How absurd it is to long for a person who is right in front of you!

Yes, that got my attention.  I thought it would be difficult to follow, but it turned out, it’s quite easy. It’s just like asking questions about a story.

But if that’s all there was, it’d be a gimmick. So think about how easily the story shifts from one character to the other, from the wife off marathoning in Siberia to the husband at home waiting for the (overdue) call that tells him she’s safe, as a result of that technique.

Then layer in that sometimes a question is deferred, or is only partially answered, and it comes back later, with a surprising new angle.  April and Max are casually mentioned as “the thing with,” and of course the question comes up: Who are April and Max? But he doesn’t want to think about them right now. And it comes up in a completely different context about his wife’s work as a scientist:

Her job is Lake Baikal?
No, her job is Lake Superior…. He would have liked for her to tell him why she was worried, but she didn’t volunteer it, and he knew better than to ask.
Would he have understood her fears if she’d explained them?
Maybe. But then again, their work is so different. While she arranges zooplankton onto slides or collects samples from the rocky shores of Lake Superior, he gives elegant lectures to classrooms packed with English majors. For two decades, he was famous for his passion for the material. Then came April, and now he is famous for that.
Who is April?
Listen: He was grieving. Aren’t people allowed to make bad decisions when they’re grieving?

And now we have a much better idea who April is, draped in the context of fearing to ask, of consequences, of excuses. Now, come on, isn’t that so much better than sixteen pages (however insightful and beautifully written) about how she caught his eye and the details of his grief and how her hair smelled and… oh, wait, we have one more reveal about April:

And now?
As she’s grown older, she’s found that nothing rolls away quickly. Not hangovers, not sprained ankles, not the occasional aches in her hips or her knees. Not the image of April’s bare legs wrapped around her husband’s waist. She’d been worried about him after the funeral, so she’d stopped by his office with a coffee and entered without knocking. She’d dropped the coffee on the hard blue carpet — It is not true that she hurled it at the two of them, though that’s the rumor that seeped into both of their departments — and part of her still feels ashamed that someone from maintenance had to be called to come clean up her mess.
Her mess?
His mess. Theirs. Because of course, after that, there was Max.
Who is—
It’s not important. Why dwell on the details of their mutual betrayal? He sought solace in someone else’s arms; a little later, so did she. This is neither interesting nor new. It’s simply what happens to a marriage when it feels as though the world is ending.

So much happens in that section. Not just April, but who owns the mess, the impatience with continued identity (why don’t we find out who Max is and the circumstances of that discovery? Because it would detract from April, whose story is absolutely magnificent in how it weaves between both husband and wife and leads to Max, do we really need to know about Max, or is the reveal about the attempt to smooth things over in the Italian restaurant enough?) and then that amazing thing about feeling like the world is ending, which could be how a scientist studying a dying lake might feel, how a marathoner running the last marathon on melting ice might feel, how a husband might feel when his wife flies off to Siberia and it’s been three hours past the time she was supposed to call.

Starck does this attack-and-retreat-and-regroup thing with several other elements, like the children, and, of course, the race itself, which is in progress throughout the story. She has a gift for subtlety that’s sort of like the musical score from Jaws: an underlying threat you don’t consciously hear until the last moment.

So yes, I love this domestic realism story  because it’s told in a way that keeps me on the edge of my seat, that surprises me over and over, that ends with the plaintive question that applies to everything: “Is it too late?” That’s always the question, isn’t it.

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