BASS 2019: Maria Reva, “Letter of Apology” from Granta #145

A few years ago I read that the KGB had to stop arresting citizens for telling political jokes in the 1960s, due to the Khrushchev thaw, but also because it was impossible to lock up the entire Soviet Union. Instead, officers were to engage offenders in a (re)educational conversation and have them submit a letter of apology.
Shortly after I learned this, my father told me that the KGB tried to recruit him to the Honor Guard in the 1980s. He was a model student and athlete, but the last thing he wanted was to guard Lenin’s Tomb. …
These two sources inspired “Letter of Apology.” I’d already written a story from the perspective of a character who suspects she is being trailed by the KGB, but not one from the perspective of a KGB agent doing the trailing. I wanted to explore the loss of power a Secret Service agent must have felt, having to chase after citizens for a chat and letter. Finally, I wanted to examine the mechanisms of self delusion: how does a person escape a terrible truth?

Maria Reva, Contributor Note

The story starts with a joke. It ends with a joke. In between, it uses irony, sideswipes, descriptive humor, and deadpan silences. And woven into that humor is so much more: a deeply symbolic Russian cartoon about a hedgehog, Schrodinger’s Cat, and Bolshevik sloganeering. I kept thinking of the pre-disco BeeGees: “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me.” The joke is definitely on Soviet agent Mikhail Igorovich, but if he doesn’t get the joke, does anyone laugh?

News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in a suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading, Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage. Following Directive No. 97 to Eliminate Dissemination of Untruths among Party Cadres and the KGB, my superior could not repeat the joke, but assured me it was grave enough to warrant our attention.
One can only argue with an intellectual like Konstantyn Illych if one speaks to him on his level. I was among the few in the Kozlov branch of the agency with a higher education, so the task of re-educating Konstantyn Illych fell to me.
Since Konstantyn Illych was a celebrated poet in Ukraine and the matter a sensitive one, I was to approach him in private rather than at his workplace, in case the joke had to be repeated. Public rebuke would only be used if a civil one-on-one failed. According to Konstantyn Illych’s personal file (aged forty-five, married, employed by the Cultural Club), the poet spent his Sundays alone or with his wife at their dacha in Uhly, a miserable swampland thirty kilometers south of town.
Judgment of the quality of the swampland is my own and was not indicated in the file.

Complete story available online at Granta

The story is online, not very long, and very readable (and, by the way, it will be in Reva’s forthcoming collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear), so I’ll focus on the peripheral issues. Like how underappreciated humor is, and how effective. Chances are you’ll remember a Trevor Noah bit long after a well-researched PBS piece on the same subject has faded from memory. Humor shines a spotlight on the sore spots, the rusty hinges, the wobbly underpinnings we overlook while gazing at the magnificent edifice. Like a good massage, humor pokes us where it hurts, so we know where we have to heal.

Konstantyn Illych broke the silence. ‘So what’s the joke?’
‘I haven’t made a joke,’ I said.
‘No, the joke I supposedly told about the Party.’
Already he was incriminating himself. ‘The term I used was “wrongful evaluation”, but thank you for specifying the offense, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, unexpectedly. ‘What was it?’
‘I cannot repeat the joke.’ I admit I had searched Konstantyn Illych’s file for it, but one of the typists had already redacted the words.
‘You can’t repeat the joke you’re accusing me of telling?’
‘Correct.’ Then, before I could stop myself: ‘Perhaps you could repeat the joke, and I’ll confirm whether or not it’s the one.’
Konstantyn Illych narrowed his eyes.
‘We aren’t moving any closer to a solution, Konstantyn Illych.’

Mikhail is just aching to know what the joke is. But Konstantyn is nobody’s fool. That’s Mikhail’s job.

I found two of the scenes in the story highly cinematic. It’s not the description; I often get bored with detailed lists of colors and materials, cleverly chosen similes acting to reinforce an atmosphere. But these scenes don’t depend on such writing techniques, they depend on stark contrasts between characters, between expectations and realities, and on freight trains of emotion in simple actions and words. First, there’s the rowboat in Konstantyn’s dacha. Second is the poetry reading featuring Konstantyn’s challenge to Mikhail, so proud of his education and his position, so dismissive of the presented poem, “Who, whom?” until it is revealed that those are the words Lenin chose decades before as a slogan framing the conflict between capitalism and communism as the essence of the Bolshevik movement.

The animated Soviet film The Hedgehog in the Fog, where Mikhail follows Konstantyn on the day before the deadline for the letter of apology, is well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch. It’s a constantly shifting metaphor that seems to be, in a couple of ways, a blueprint for the story. The hedgehog, lost in the fog, can’t tell what is danger and what is safety. He resigns himself to the river, until an unseen fish brings him to dry land, and he finally joins his friend the Bear for tea and raspberry jam. But most importantly, it brings up the white horse in the fog: if the hedgehog can’t see her, is she alive or dead? She could be either! I was thrilled to see this thinly-veiled reference to Schrodinger’s Cat in the story, and was all set to dive in up to my neck, but Jake Weber does a great job of laying it out so I’ll just refer to his post and move on.

The film ends with our little hedgehog, comfortably situated with the Bear awaiting tea and raspberry jam, staring numbly into the night and wondering about the horse: “How is she, there in the fog?”

The question is whether Hedgehog would prefer to keep the fog or have it lift to discover what is behind its thick veil. I would keep the fog. For instance, I cannot know the whereabouts of my parents because they are part of me and therefore part of my personal file and naturally no one can see their own file, just like no one can see the back of their own head. My mother is standing proud among the Honor Guard. My mother is standing elsewhere. She is sitting. She is lying down. She is cleaning an aquarium while riding an elevator. Uncertainty contains an infinite number of certainties. My mother is in all these states at once, and nothing stops me from choosing one. Many people claim they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true – it is uncertainty that gives freedom of mind. And so, while I longed to be reassigned to Moscow, the thought of it shook me to the bones with terror.

Looks like Mikhail has an inkling of what selection to the Honor Guard really means, he’s just choosing to stick his fingers in his ears and yell “nyah nyah I can’t hear you.” Because what’s the alternative? And now, unable to get the Letter of Apology on which his own selection to the Honor Guard may depend (one way or another), he’s just floating down the river, clutching his raspberry jam, maybe to drown, maybe to be rescued. This is the central question of the story: is it better to live in ignorance – that is, to believe a comforting lie – or to face a devastating reality? And his family, his mother: How is she, there in the fog?

A dramatic scene with Kostantyn’s wife follows. It’s just a little too Man from U.N.C.L.E. for my tastes (though I once was all about Illya Kuryakin), with touches of Boris and Natasha. But it forces Mikhail up against his deepest fears, as Steve Almond puts it, and leaves him staring ahead in numb shock, like our little hedgehog friend. It left me, as well, wondering about Mikhail: how is he, there in the fog?

And if you think this is a period piece all about the Soviet past, you haven’t been paying attention to a world where the fog is designed by and for power. I see a strong connection to my favorite tweet encapsulating the current era in the U.S.: Adrien Bott’s pithy “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” from October 2015, a sentiment that only gets more true every day.

The story ends with a recapitulation of the original Joke, to remind us how all this started and to reintroduce the humor in a wonderfully self-referential typographical pun. Konstanyn’s wife makes the understatement of the century: “It’s not even that funny.” I’m sure Mikhail agrees.

BASS 2019: Sigrid Nunez, “The Plan” from LitMag #2

The first story I ever published was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and though I did not go on to write fiction in that genre and I’m not even a big reader of such fiction, I have often found myself wanting to write about a crime. For “The Plan”, I wanted to write about a certain type of criminal – violent, murderous, misogynistic – and I wanted to write from his point of view. The fierce anger and resentment that appear to consume so many men today was likely among the influences on my desire to explore this killer’s vision of society and his place in it. Also, I have vivid memories of what New York City was like during the seventies, how crime-ridden and seedy and dangerous it was – a very noir place, it seemed to me – and I saw this as the ideal setting for my crime story.

The first couple of pages give no hint of the elements mentioned in the above Contributor Note; it seems like a reminiscence by an ordinary young man with a mild impulse improve himself:

He wanted to have more culture. This was what he always thought when he found himself at Lincoln Center. He remembered coming here on a school trip once, about ten years ago, when the complex was still partly under construction. ….He’d never been back. He’d never even thought of going back. But earlier that summer of ‘76, on one of his long city walks, he happened to arrive at the Plaza.

As a kid, he’d been a big reader. Later, for some reason he lost the habit. Now he thought he would like to read more, not just newspapers and magazines, but big, interesting books – books that a lot of other people were also reading.
Get more culture. He put that on the list. The list of things to do after.

So we get to know Roden Jones via unremarkable aspects of his musings: the fountain that, at a distance, displays rainbows that only disappear when he approaches to see them more closely; a memory of his mother spray-misting shirts before ironing (I remember this! Does anyone do this any more?); and this list of things do do after. After what? We’re drawn forward to find out.

Even when we find out the event for which he is planning an after is murder, we continue to be drawn forward to find out the details of who and why. The story takes us through Roden’s pedestrian observations of people around him – panhandlers, a teenage girl whose eyes shine through the filth of the rest of her, a pub, a visit to a hooker masquerading as a palm reader. We’re still waiting for the details: who does he want to murder, and why?

We find it on Roden’s train ride home, via his observation of a dozing woman in a very short skirt who takes offense when she discovers she’s attracted the attention of several nearby men.

Wearing a skirt that all but exposed your crotch when you sat down, being outraged when men took notice – that was women.…
When he got up to move to another seat she shot him a smug look , as if she’d scored a triumph over him.
She is a candidate, he thought. What a joy it would have been to go back and make her choke on that gum, just squeeze her neck until the pimples burst.

I started off this scene wrapped up in the question I often ask, maybe a question that isn’t very well-received these days: does it make sense to dress to accentuate one’s sexual attractiveness and then take offense when that attractiveness is noticed? That would’ve been an interesting story. I almost resented the actual story in front of me for shifting the focus back to Roden, who it now seems is not planning a revenge murder, or a profitable murder, or a cover-up murder, but is simply a psychopath who wants to murder someone, and his wife is the most sensible target.

In his Intro to the volume, Anthony Doerr points this out as a successful story with an unlikable protagonist. It’s an issue I’ve come across before in these pages. Criminal psychopaths can be fascinating characters: Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter. But these characters have something in them – sorrow, intelligence, loyalty – that allows us to connect. Roden has a traumatic childhood, a keen eye for observation (I keep coming back to the rainbows: as soon as he married his wife, he realized he hated being married), but is more than anything else the poster child for the banality of evil. A slacker murderer? Or, more accurately, a slacker murderer-wannabe, since he’s still planning his first murder.

I rather lost interest in the discussion of all the details, the planned trip to Aruba where the murder would take place (never murder at home; this was set in the 70s, remember, which was well before Aruba became known as a destination murder site), and his impatience over the intervening months. Jake Weber goes far more into the possible motivational models for murderers in his blog post.

Yet a few things did leap out at me in the middle part of the story. One was what seemed like a shout-out to Jane Austen, apropos of nothing:

He’d always thought a woman couldn’t wait to have kids. Though she was never a loving mother herself – though she heaped sarcasm on her son and beat him with an extension cord – his mother had always assured him this was a universal truth.
But it meant nothing to him, either, that Harley wanted to put off motherhood. His cousin and best man, Ryan, warn him that, wedding accomplished, everything would change. This was another universal truth. –

Presumably, Roden’s lack of reading keeps him from recognizing the phrase “a universal truth”, and his lack of engagement with the world keeps him from wondering that it turns up twice from two very different people. Using his mother’s assertion as irony, that would mean not all women desperately want to have kids, which is far more true (I being a prime example), and in fact Harley shows no particular interest in having children. It also provides a basis for a future scene about women wanting babies, a scene that reveals Harley to be just as self-focused as Roden. Ryan’s comment would entail that everything does not change with the wedding; this I’m a bit less sure of, in the context of real life. In the context of the story, however, I think it’s probably borne out: while Roden immediately regrets being married, he is not substantially changed. Only time has moved him down the road, closer to experiencing his first murder.

I wasn’t even that interested when, In the end, a switcheroo took place, leaving Roden without a suitable victim. But he needs to murder someone. I won’t spoil it, in the interests of readers who may find the story more engrossing than I did. I will say that Roden has a rather interesting realization afterwards, regarding the difference between murdering men and murdering women.

I’ve always said I love a story that teaches me something. Not only did I learn the term “rubber husband” (it’s nowhere near as kinky as it sounds), but I corrected my longstanding misperception of the meaning of noir. For me, noir always brought to mind femme fatales, smoky jazz dives, and rough-edged detectives. I was surprised to find out that detectives are not a necessary element of noir, though crime is usually involved. The key elements are cynicism, alienation, and pessimism, leading to the inevitable downfall of the protagonist.

In a Lithub interview, Megan Abbot explains how the hard-boiled detective story and noir are often conflated, but are in fact different: the hard-boiled detective is ultimately moral, if flawed, cynical, and unable to fix the world; “In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable.” In The Guardian, Otto Penzler explains: “noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.”

This explains the difference between Dexter and Roden. And leads to the question Doerr asked: can a character like Roden, possessing no redeeming qualities whatsoever, work as a protagonist? Is he just too unlikable?

The thing is, I didn’t find him unlikable; I found him uninteresting. He sort of had me at first, but then lost me. Am I fooling myself? Did I lose interest because I learned about his misogyny, his psychopathy? I don’t think so; I still find the incident with the short-skirted woman on the train to have some interesting overtones. And I’m really interested in what Jane Austen is doing in the story; it can’t be by accident, though it seems so random. What if Harley had been more likable, would I have felt some rage at his targeting her, some relief at her safe, if treacherous, departure? Must a story give me someone I care about, for me to care about the story?

Sometimes a story that doesn’t interest me can raise questions that interest me very much, and that’s not bad.

BASS 2019: Manuel Muñoz, “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA #113

I’m learning to listen to the stories as they want to tell themselves: I know that sounds odd, but it comes from years of listening to my mother’s stories and only now realizing that I haven’t been fully understanding them. Most of my recent fiction has come from delving again into the stories she has told me, particularly of the deportation years, as I call them, when my father was repeatedly sent back to Mexico before the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act changed our lives and many of those in our Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. I used to think that my parents’ reunification was the only story but, as the first line proved to me, sometimes other pressures took over. When that line came to me, it snapped me out of my recurrent doubt that the “domestic” or the “realist” story can’t do much in a fraught and complicated world. It reminded me that the infinite ways in which we struggle to keep or make family is more than story enough.

Manuel Muñoz, Contributor Note

It’s all in the details: the choices of which perceptions to present, which details to leave vague, what language to use, and bang! Muñoz creates a sense of caution and foreboding deeper than the mere plot might allow to explore the conflict between suspicion and need.

The first sentence referenced above is “Her immediate concern was money.” Even before we have any idea who she is or where/when this is taking place or what the circumstances are – it could be a recent widow in a Park Avenue penthouse or a noisy tenement, or a suburban teen planning to run away from home, or a business manager who just lost her job – we are all familiar with money problems, so we can feel an immediate sense of affinity with the protagonist, some empathy for what she’s feeling, even if it turns out her concern is losing the vacation home on the beach rather than having nothing to give her kids for dinner that night. And something else besides: we know there are other concerns, behind this first, most immediate concern. This is not a make-it-til-payday crisis; this is deep shit.

When the street fell silent at dusk, the screen doors of the dark houses opened one by one and the shadows of the women came to sit out on the concrete steps.

We soon get the setting: Delfina, and the other women of the neighborhood in agricultural California, have realized their husbands aren’t coming home from the fields tonight, which means they’ve been rounded up in an immigration raid and might not be home for days – or ever. I didn’t realize, until I read Doerr’s brief comment in the volume Introduction, that this was set back in the 80s, the time of the stories Muñoz’ mother told him. It’s hard to read anything about immigrants right now without referencing current events; I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in any case.

She was alert to her own worry, to be sure, but she felt a resolve that seemed absent in the women putting out last cigarettes and retreating behind the screen doors.…The longer she held her place on her front steps, the stronger she felt.

We don’t know a few key details, details that may be part of the current moment or just as much part of the 80s. We don’t know how precarious anyone’s immigration status actually is. We don’t hear about green cards or citizenship. Delfina defines herself as being “from Texas”, an identity borne out by her car’s license plate, which seems deliberately nonspecific. It’s understandable she doesn’t discuss details with her neighbor Lis, whom she’s just met, but it’s a writer’s choice to not inform the reader. This accomplishes a couple of things: without a way to easily categorize, therefore judge or pity, the family, it strips away some of the tendency to read politically, and keeps us focused on a woman whose husband is, for an uncertain period, gone. And it keeps us wondering about the source of this sense of resolve.

Wariness best defines the interaction between Delfina and Lis; they come across as two boxers in a ring, sussing out the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Delfina is nobody’s fool; “On the long drive from Texas, she had learned that strangers only approached when they needed something.” This emphasizes that, although they are physically neighbors, they are strangers. This is not a cozy neighborhood where someone drops in for coffee or you can ask someone to keep an eye on your kid while you run to the store.

Lis twanged my antennae from the get-go; I’m surprised Delfina doesn’t cut her off and go back inside, and that has to mean something. We already know she’s not naïve; maybe desperation? A willingness to entertain suggestions so she can feed her four year old son? Maybe even a longing for the kind of relationship that would entail neighborliness, a willingness to see if that’s possible. But still, the caution.

Lis suggests they go pick peaches for some quick cash. She offers her ten-year-old daughter as babysitter for Delfina’s son – “if you trust her.” She says this trust thing twice, which had me screaming, “No, don’t go!” It’s almost a dare, isn’t it. You mean you don’t trust my kid? In the meantime, there’s the whole issue of trusting Lis.

And, surprise surprise, Lis earns all the wariness, and then some.

Delfina looked down the road to soak in that blessed quiet and the longer she looked, the emptier and emptier it became. The empty row where, she realized, Lis had disappeared like a faraway star.

The language here emphasizes Delfina’s solitude again. No man is an island, but a woman often is. And yet she must depend on the kindness of strangers, a kindness that, as I read, I doubted. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. The surprise is that it wasn’t, that sometimes, kindness, even from a surprising source, is kindness, not a trick. Her gratitude and relief takes the form of a bottle of Coca Cola.

When I read Jake Weber’s post, I found a lot to chew on, so I’m gonna go over there for a while. I think this story worked – where others have failed – because it kept me focused on exactly what Muñoz intended per his CN: how we make a family, whether on Park Avenue, Maple Street, or the dusty edges of the fields.

BASS 2019: Ursula K. Le Guin, “Pity and Shame” from Tin House #76

Tin House art

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her esteemed 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” And what a fierce truth our Portland neighbor told, right up until her journey’s end. Whenever we had the great fortune to publish her, we would take page proofs up the hill to her house, where she would chuckle at our foolishness over tea. In this issue we present a last, long short story, “Pity and Shame,” which is filled with her trademark inventiveness and dark humor….She will be deeply missed. Luckily for all of us, her words and spirit live on.

Tin House Editor’s intro to Issue 76

In his Introduction to this edition of BASS, Anthony Doerr praises the ability of this story to “embrace dual protagonists as well as any short stories I can remember reading.” After the epigraph that precedes the story itself, we see one of the protagonists through the eyes of the other. This becomes something of a theme, as each sees the other quite differently than the other sees themselves, and that view has consequences for both the viewer and the viewed. That sounds a bit garbled, but think of it in terms of the observer effect of physics: to observe a phenomenon changes that phenomenon. In physics, this only has a significant effect with very small things or extremely accurate measurements, but it’s more obvious in real life when it’s people who are observing and observed.

Let’s start with William Cowper, a mine engineer. The time period of the story is uncertain, but it’s somewhere post-Gold-Rush and pre-automobile in a small California town. Cowper was severely injured when a mine he was inspecting caved in.

There was a black rectangle in front of him. Just black, just there. Light around it, so it was like a hole in the light. It didn’t move. At the same time he saw it, a rhythm began to beat in his head like a hammer. It was made of words.
I, fed with judgment
The black rectangle was right in front of him but he couldn’t tell how large it was, how close or far. There was a great pressure on him, paralyzing and sickening him, holding him so he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get away from the black rectangle. It was there in front of him. It was all there was. The words beat at him. He tried to cry out for help. There was nobody to help him.
to receive a sentence
to re CEIVE a SEN tence
WORSE than a BI ram’s

Whether he opened his eyes or shut them there was the black space, the bright glare around it, and the words in the terrible rhythm.
The timbers creaked, he saw the glimmer on them overhead. He tried to cling to that because it was before the judgment, before the sentence, but they were gone, there was dirt in his mouth and the words beating, beating him down.
I, fed with JUDG ment
in a FLESH ly TOMB
AM

Complete story available online at Tin House

This is the poetry of William Cowper, 18th century British poet, no relation to our Cowper. We eventually find out that our Cowper, as a teenager, had been orphaned, and another relative ran off with whatever inheritance should have been his. A lawyer untangling the mess became his mentor and sent him to mining school. When Cowper graduated, his mentor presented him with a book of Cowper’s poetry, which includes “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” the epigraph and the poem Cowper thinks of as he is trapped in the rubble.

I confess, the story of Abiram was new to me; I’d assumed it was an alternate spelling of Abraham until the story directed me to Numbers 16, where the God of Love has the earth swallow up those in the Exodus who start complaining to Moses (yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but they still end up dead). Now Cowper imagines himself “in a fleshly tomb” after being swallowed by the mine. Later, he will see a black rectangle of a Bible on a table, and recall the sensation of being crushed in the mine.

He is rescued and brought to Rae Brown’s home. She’s had her own troubles: a man who took her away, at age eighteen, from her dead-end life where everyone regarded her as the daughter of a slut. Turns out, he wasn’t exactly reliable, and when this boarder/patient shows up, Petey takes off. This similarity between her situation, and Cowper’s at a similar age, is unmistakable.

The local doctor shows Rae how to care for the still unconscious Cowper – “….this man was so broken, so beaten, he had been treated so rough that for a while you couldn’t see him for his injuries.” And here is where we get introduced to the pity and the shame.

First, the pity.

It didn’t sound like much, but when you came to the edge between life and death where he was, and she with him, she saw how strong pity was, how deep it went. She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and fulfilling. It had made everything else unimportant. But the ache of tenderness she felt for her patient did just the opposite, it made things more important. What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze. This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.

And then, the shame, when she admits out loud that she and Petey were never married:

In the kitchen she stood there for a while and felt her face burn red hot. Going around announcing her name, as if being Rae Brown was something to be proud of. It didn’t make any difference if she wasn’t ashamed. Other people were. They were ashamed for her, of her, that she lived among them. They blushed for her. Their shame was on her, a weight, a load she couldn’t get out from under.

Shame pushes her inward; pity extends her outward. Shame changes the observed; pity overwhelms, outshines shame, changes the observer, and through the outstretched hand, the observed. Which brings us to another Cowper poem, which is introduced late in the story: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Maybe you need to get crushed in a cave-in, be lost to your family, to find your way to a better life. The twelve step folks call it hitting bottom.

I had a few hurdles to appreciation of this story. One was my immediate reaction to the word “pity”. It’s a word with a long history in literary discourse, going all the way back to Aristotle, who expounded on pity and fear in tragedy as a means to catharsis, emotional cleansing. I happen to have just run into Aristotle’s Poetics in, of all places, the OCW on Don Quixote that I’m running through, so maybe it was just in the front of my mind at an opportune moment. I went looking for something that would break it down in simpler terms than the Stanford encyclopedia, and found it at the IEP, not as prestigious but a lot easier to understand for those of us who aren’t PhDs. I think I also found the root of my discontent with this story: pity abounds, but there is no fear. Maybe the fear is meant to issue from shame. Who among us doesn’t fear being called out, shamed.

The article also goes into some depth about the difference between condescending pity, and tragic pity. We can pity Cowper because we can see ourselves in his place. Our pity for Rae is harder, since it’s easier to feel superior to her. Something happened to Cowper; Rae did something that brought about her shame. I have to wonder if this is a male/female divide, since Rae had few options, and Cowper did see signs the mine was unsafe and kept going. In any case, the term pity carries a lot of baggage; I’m pretty sure Le Guin intended it that way.

I also found William Cowper, the poet, to be an interesting figure, thanks to a Slate article by Robert Pinsky. And by interesting, I mean a little crazy, actually committed at one point. One surprise for me is that he wrote one of the most grotesque hymns in Christendom: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Christianity revels in blood imagery, but this first verse is more explicitly anatomical than most.

Jake Weber’s post also shows some barriers to his appreciation of the story – and in true Workshop Heretic form, he elucidates them clearly – but keeps due respect for Le Guin’s highly regarded body of work. I’ve never read Le Guin. As a salute – or an apology – to this story, I may add her to next summer’s free-reading list. So, to experienced Le Guin readers: what book would you pick as the best place to start, and why?

BASS 2019: Nicole Krauss, “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker 3/5/18

Like Romi in the story, I first saw Taste of Cherry In London in 1998, the year it was released. I was living in student housing near Russell square ….I was already a fan of Abbas Kiarostami films, but when Ershadi’s face appeared on the screen “it did something to me,” as the narrator of the story says, and what it did to me, and continued doing to me for the next twenty years, is what I tried to work out in this story.
….Six years later I traveled to Japan for the first time and visited the temples of Kyoto. Did I really think that I saw Ershadi in the Zen garden of Nanzen-ji? I remember believing that I had seen him. But now I can’t say for sure if what I am remembering is a scene I invented for this story, or something that actually happened to me. I really can’t.

Nicole Krauss, Contributor Note

One of the plusses I find with stories that have appeared in The New Yorker is that a lot of people have written about them online by the time I encounter them in BASS. This is particularly helpful when, as is the case here, the story falls between a story and… something else. An enhanced memoir by a fictional dancer, with particular emphasis, considering the Contributor Note above, on the memory-sense of memoir? The robust Burlington Writers Workshop used the story in a session on ekphrasis, the literary art of writing about, and thus enhancing, a work of art from another medium.

Ekphrasis is probably the best description, since I find the story somewhat mimics the film in terms of pace and structure: stretches of thought, interrupted by brief scenes of interactions, finished off with a coda. And yes, I did watch the film, or rather, the Youtube version, which was somewhat problematic as two or three sets of subtitles kept overlaying and competing with each other. It was, however, helpful to my read of the story.

Not once in the film are we told anything about the life of Mr. Badii, or what might have led him to decide to end it. Nor do we witness his despair. Everything we know about the depth contained within him we get from his face, which also tells us about the depth contained within the actor Homayoun Ershadi, about whose life we know even less. When I did a search, I discovered that Ershadi was an architect with no training or experience as an actor when Kiarostami saw him sitting in his car in traffic, lost in thought, and knocked on his window. And it was easy to understand just by looking at his face: how the world seemed to bend toward Ershadi as if it needed him more than he needed it.
His face did something to me. Or, rather, the film, with its compassion and its utterly jarring ending, which I won’t give away, did something to me. But, then again, you could also say that, in some sense, the film was only his face: his face and those lonely hills.

Complete story available online at TNY

While this film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in the year it was released, Roger Ebert hated it. I wouldn’t have watched it had I not been working on the story, but I have a long history of not getting art films. I will, however, admit to some interesting effects. In the opening scenes, it seemed to me that Badii/Ershadi (for, having read the story, I was unable to see the actor and character separately) was looking to pick up a quick trick. Is this my Western indecency? Or was it intentional misdirection on the part of the film, only later replacing the tawdry with the profound? The second moment of high interest came as Badii/Ershadi stood at the bottom of a hill, watching construction crews pushing dirt and rocks down the side of the hill towards him. I imagined he must be thinking, this is what it will look like, when they pour dirt over my body, if I am still there to see it.

The final scene – which the narrator does give away despite the promise not to – is one of those art-house specials, the pulling back to expose the movie makers and reinforce that this is a movie. Some viewers found this a terrible ending to an otherwise great movie. Others found it the point. Again, I don’t belong to the art-house set, so I could only think of how Blazing Saddles did it so much better.

Our narrator (to return to the story at hand) is profoundly moved by the film, specifically, by Ershadi’s face.

Love: I can only call it that, however different it was from every other instance of love that I had experienced. What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.
It sounds far-fetched, but at that moment I had the feeling that I could save Ershadi.

I was glad I could watch the film only to see Ershadi’s face for myself, to try to understand what the narrator saw in it. I still have no idea. It’s an ordinary face. But, as I keep saying, I don’t belong here, so I’ll take the word of someone more at home that there’s great depth of feeling here.

Our narrator has an experience at a temple site in Japan of seeing Ershadi – maybe – but being prevented from approaching him by a group of temple visitors, trying with great urgency to convey something, we never find out what. This is the experience that Krauss tells us in her CN may have been real, and may have acquired a sense of realness for her when she created it for her story.

I wonder about the people Badii (the character this time, as I’m considering the plot of the film rather than the experience of watching it) tried to convince to bury him. A soldier, a seminary student, a taxidermist: the first two refuse the request, the last agrees after delivering the necessary admonition against suicide. Did he agree because as a taxidermist he is more familiar with the dead? Soldiers might be a cause of death, or witness to death; religious figures worry about the after-death experience. It’s the taxidermist who deals with dead bodies themselves.

The coda to the story flashes forward over the years, until the narrator, now a new parent, happens upon a poster for Taste of Cherry and writes, after years of silence, to Romi.

In the letter, I admitted to her the reason that I’d cried the night she told me about her encounter with Ershadi. Sooner or later, I wrote, I would’ve had to admit that in the blaze of my ambition I’d failed to check myself. I would have had to face how miserable I was, and how confused my feelings about dancing had become. But the desire to seize something from Ershadi, to feel that reality had expanded for me as it had for her, that the other world had come through to touch me, had hastened my revelations.

Dancing begins the story, and an injury has an important role, but it seems a secondary element until now, when it turns out the entire story, the obsession with Ershadi, is about dancing, the need to end a career before it ends the careerist, and the grief that entails; the regret at not careering more wisely. It’s only now, after realizing this, that a passage from the first paragraph stands out:

When I met people in bars and cafés, I spoke excitedly about the experience of working with the choreographer and told them that I felt I was constantly on the verge of discovery. Until one day I realized that I had become fanatical—that what I had taken for devotion had crossed the line into something else. And though my awareness of this was a dark blot on what had been, up to then, a pure joy, I didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s not the experience, but the awareness of the perception of the experience by others, that makes it real. Obsession realized becomes real, becomes a dark blot. The film ends with the realization that it is a movie, which changes the experience of lying with Badii/Ershadi in the grave, looking up at the moon through the clouds, listening to the rain. Doubt, hesitation, shame, fear, are all part of realization, not part of experience.

This surreptitious dance theme makes me think there’s something in the movie I have overlooked, something the art-house crowd would get. Ebert mentions the courage it takes to make a film about suicide in a place like Iran.The soldier Badii/Ershadi encounters is a Kurd, which has overwhelming echoes right now that would not have been necessarily part of the film for me originally. The mysterious question of whether or not either of the people in the story actually encountered Ershadi also becomes a theme of the boundary between real and not-real.

I had something of an experience with a movie once. My husband and I had just separated (for the first time; only the second time would take); the first Gulf War had just begun, becoming my initiation (everyone’s, I think) into watching a war live on TV. I had to get out of the house, so I went to a movie: Awakenings happened to be playing, and I’d read Sacks’ work so chose it. On the drive home, I couldn’t shake DeNiro’s psychotic ramblings about how wonderful everything could be if we’d just care about each other and see the good around us. I started to cry, to sob. I had to pull over until it passed. I think it was raining – hard, pouring – but that might be part of the feeling rather than the reality. I realized how frightened I was: of being alone, of the war changing things (little did I know how much, though it took decades to reveal), of change, of the unknown.

I checked the Awakenings DVD (yes, quaint) out of the library about a week ago, just before I started reading this story. Is that why it’s on my mind? Or was there some wave from the future echoing back in time? It’s just a movie now. A good movie, but that’s all.

Another aspect of the story fascinates me. Jake Weber’s post on the story – perceptive as always, viewing the relationships of the narrator in conjunction with an earlier story from this anthology – mentions in a shout-out to me that the narrator is not named. This references a drinking-game we invented for this edition of BASS, in which each time an unnamed narrator, or sensitive portrait of the end of a marriage, or bittersweet coming-of-age tale, showed up, we’d take a shot. In this case, it was the unnamed narrator.

But I could do him one better: I read the narrator as male all the way through. In fact, I only realized this was unusual when I saw another commentary calling the narrator a ballerina. Oh! My perception of maleness made this a very different story for me, and it’s why I’ve been careful to avoid gendered pronouns in this post so far.

But on rereading, I feel like an idiot. I don’t think there are any places where the sex of the narrator is specified, and there is no reason the narrator can’t be male. But I have to admit, the dancing, the emotionality, the friendship with Romi, the plan to travel again together, nudge the needle towards female. Yet I have to wonder: given how tricky it is to write without gender, why did she write it to read either way?

The trick in putting these anthologies together, I think, is in selecting a broad range of stories. That almost ensures that not every story will be to any one person’s liking. That’s the value of doing this kind of blogging instead of a single post of two-sentence impressions: I’m forced to deal with ekphrasis – or, what Doerr refers to in his volume Introduction as a series of subplots that “wrecked’ him – and find my value. I’m not always successful. But I came away with something this time, and no one is more surprised than I.

BASS 2019: Ella Martinsen Gorham, “Protozoa” from New England Review #39.4

I saw that my children and their friends documented much of their lives on the screens of phones and laptops. I began to think of them as inhabiting two worlds: the touchable, physical world and the digital world. They slipped back and forth between them. This notion gave rise to the story “protozoa.“
I was interested in a girl of thirteen navigating the two worlds. I wanted to capture the moment she decides to shed her childhood self and become more provocative.

Ella Martinsen Gorham, Contributor Note

I’ve never been a parent. Maybe that makes me a poor reader for this story, but maybe it makes me an ideal reader, since I don’t have any guilts to hide or hard-learned lessons to impose. I have been a teenager, and again, maybe that makes me an ideal reader for Noa, or maybe it makes me a terrible reader, since my own experience can’t help but color my perception of hers. Keep all that in mind while I indulge in a little speculative psychology here (not to be confused with actual psychology involving research and understanding of all the parameters involved).

Young adolescents, barely post-pubescent, have two important relationship groups: peers, and family. Adolescence is about growing up, growing away from the nest, shifting from family to peers. The primary force among peers is popularity, conformity, fitting in, being liked and admired. The primary force among family at this time, unlike in early childhood, is the need to distance and differentiate oneself (I seem to recall this is from actual psychology), to test limits, to move towards independence by relying on one’s own judgment rather than acquiescence to parental rules.

Gorham’s story hits both of these. And Noa’s only, what, 13 or 14? This is only round one. How does anyone survive adolescence?

Wren and Annaliese were still preoccupied with complex cake recipes. They fastened back their sleek hair with headbands tricked out in enormous, furred pompoms. To Noa they seemed all parts light, which was good if you could meet them there, in the light, with the horses. Noa had come to feel like another species around them, a graceless mouth-breather. Their distaste for Paddy held no sway with her.
Someday they might understand how it was necessary to take a risk for a boy. Yes, she was afraid. That was the point.

We start with Noa’s popularity with Wren and Annaliese in direct conflict with her need to test limits via her attraction to Paddy. Don’t parents hope their kids will hang around with good kids who will be a good influence on them, bring them back to the light when they start to wander towards the dark side? That doesn’t happen here. Noa finds other friends, friends who will understand what she’s doing, support and encourage it. That means Aurora.

Aurora only exists for Noa on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform it is, how would I know, I’m still blogging for pete’s sake). She’s only existed for Noa for two weeks. But Noa’s all in.

The most exotic thing was that Aurora went out as she pleased any night of the week, hopped into a hired car and roamed the hills above the Sunset Strip and the bluffs in Pacific Palisades. Noa’s favorite picture of Aurora was taken on those Bluffs. With crazy eyes she pretended she was about she jumped off the edge of an overlook, like the ocean was a trampoline she could bounce on.
….It was their secret ritual to watch each other cry. Aurora said that sharing tears was a high and a release. In Japan, she said, entire rooms full of grown men bawled together.

I quite enjoyed reading about rui-katsu, the Japanese crying ritual mentioned here. But they’ve got nothing on a good old-fashioned Pentecostal prayer meeting, where everyone cries. My problem was always that I couldn’t stop when everyone else did. I made a lot of youth ministers very uncomfortable. Given that I was experiencing my first depressive swing, maybe they should’ve paid more attention instead of telling me “it’s time to calm down now.” The point is, I can appreciate the desire to cry together.

Noa’s bid for popularity – fame amongst her peers – is tied in with her attraction to Paddy. He runs a semi-anonymous feed that “roasts” various people via rap numbers using pseudonyms. Noa wants to be roasted. She indulges in a little sex play hoping to be roasted. She’s afraid of being roasted. She’s afraid of Paddy, of sex. But, as she’s said, fear is the point. Testing limits. How much fear before she pulls away? What will the roast-fame be like?

Predictably, it goes sideways. She assures Callan, another roastee, that “It’s a little different when he teases me.” He laughs, as do we all, but at least we laugh sadly, kindly.

In the last few hours Aurora had found online a new favorite person, Rileyyy424….Aurora had liked and commented on all of Rileyyy424’s posts. There was nothing special about that girl.

Paddy is beyond her reach. Aurora disappears. But Noa puts up a video of her crying, and becomes an internet sensation. Sort of the visual @SoSadToday.

And her parents? As Jake Weber points out in his analysis, they’re split between Helicopter Dad and Free Range Mom. As I said, I’ve never been a parent, so I won’t judge. It is, after all, the primary conflict for adults as well as teens (and societies, for that matter): safety vs freedom.

Jake’s post makes a couple of other observations I found added a lot to what was, for me, otherwise a routine story. Mom and Dad own a restaurant, where Mom is the chef specializing in rabbit dishes. His interpretation of this never would have occurred to me, but once I read it, I realized I know of two movies where an adult woman kills a child’s bunny (Joanne Woodward beat Glenn Close to it). There’s something to this bunny-killing thing. Then looking for an online image took it to another level: bunnies, stripped, exposed, butchered, roasted.

Jake also did some research on protozoa, Paddy’s nickname for Noa (whose given name is not discussed, but apparently is very popular in Israel, meaning motion. Or maybe her parents just like the sound of it, or it’s short for something else). Given my interest in biology, I’m embarrassed that I knew nothing about protozoas other than they cause some nasty human diseases, so I hit Wikipedia and came across heterotrophs vs autotrophs. Protozoa are heterotrophs, meaning they must consume other organisms for energy. Autotrophs make their own food, such as plants that use sunlight and water to make energy compounds. It’s all about the food chain: every food chain starts with a producer, an autotroph. The heterotrophs feed off autotrophs and off other heterotrophs. And I think of Aurora and Paddy, Autotrophs R Us, and all the heterotrophs feeding off them.

Yes, Noa survives all this. But this was all kid stuff. What happens when the sex comes with bodily fluids, potential infections, and pregnancy, and the Lyft rides are replaced by friends, and the flask of booze turns into bottles and other substances of questionable origin. What kind of videos will Noa post to get through those problems?

BASS 2019: Jeffrey Eugenides, “Bronze” from The New Yorker Feb. 5, 2018

The working title of that fragment was called “Boy on Train.“ I knew that it involved an encounter between a college freshman and a professional actor who are forced to sit together on a crowded Amtrak train, during a trip from New York to Providence, in 1978. I knew that the point of view should shift back and forth between these two characters and that their meeting should be dramatised moment by moment. The idea was to give the story a feeling of immediacy, as if its events were happening in real time.
I made decent progress at first. The language of the story, highly inflected by the characters personalities, felt freeing, allowing me to reproduce the way the world, or at least my world, had sounded back in ‘78.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Contributor Note

Back a couple of stories ago, when I wrote about “The Third Tower”, I said something about different people’s minds running on different tracks when reading a story, since we all have different backgrounds that lead to different associations. I seem to have pulled onto a rarely-used siderail here, because while everyone else is fitting this into the #MeToo era – even though its genesis predates the hashtag by several years – I found myself fully immersed in what I imagined young gay culture to be in the late 70s thanks to frequent readings of And the Band Played On: the pre-AIDS bathhouses and orgies and post-Stonehenge defiant celebrations of sexuality seen now (at least by non-gay-male dinosaurs like me) mostly in gay pride parades, as public gay culture has turned to issues like marriage equality and job security.

This isn’t a story about being gay, however. It just seems like it is. It’s a story about how you figure out if you’re gay, set in a time before we started thinking about sexual preference as a continuum as established by the Kinsey report in the 40s. And before we realized that it isn’t the creepy stranger in the trench coat who’s the sexual predator.

The college freshman, being high, was also a little paranoid. Therefore, as he boarded the Amtrak Colonial he had the impression that people could tell. Why was everyone staring? Some smiling, some raising eyebrows, a few shaking their heads. Do I reek? Eugene thought. I used Binaca.
Then he remembered what he was wearing. The white fur coat. The pink sunglasses. The striped collegiate scarf knotted at his neck. Sort of a new look for him, part glam, part New Wave.
Eugene’s little secret? He wanted to be beautiful. If that didn’t work, noticeable would do.
He unzipped his coat and fanned himself, hot from running down the platform.
It was a late-November afternoon, in the confusing year of 1978, and Eugene was headed back to school after a wild weekend exploring the demimonde. Eugene knew that was a French word associated with women of dubious morals, but in his mind it included the teen runaways at that chicken-hawk bar Stigwood had taken him to, Saturday night; plus Stigwood himself, who was rich and debauched. The main thing about the demimonde was that nobody back at the dorm had a clue about it. Only Eugene.

Complete story available online at TNY

Eugene, Brown freshman and wannabe poet, is one of our two pov characters. For all the flamboyance and excess in these opening paragraphs, he’s been more of a spectator than a participant in this alternate world, carefully partitioned off from the academic world in which he spends most of his time.

In his TNY interview with Cressida Leyshon, Eugenedis says that he had trouble writing this opening section (interestingly, I found it difficult to follow) due partly to Eugene’s stonedness, an essential element, and his own personal experience, which kept getting in the way of the fictional version. That’s a writing problem I find fascinating. Back when I kept trying to be a fiction writer, it’s something I ran into all the time. Someone would suggest it would be better if the character did this instead of that, but I’d insist he couldn’t because that wasn’t what happened. I seem to be reality-bound, even when I’ve twisted that reality in my own mind into a pale imitation of objective truth.

Nevertheless, the section contained a couple of key passages, one that’s key for Eugene, and one that I find highly relevant to the present. In this alternate demimonde Eugene has found, he meets Rafael, a guy about his age, who he thinks of as concubine to an older, richer man. Rafael dabbles in pop-psychology:

Raphael passed the doobie and picked up a deck of cards. “Everybody has a word map,” he explained. “Your word map is how you feel, inside, as a person. Here. I show you.”
Raphael laid three cards on the bedspread. Each bore a word.
Sensitivity. Ardor. Celebration.
“Pick a card,” Raphael said. “How you feel, inside.”
Eugene took a hit and thought about it. His mom always called him sensitive. But not in a way he liked. You had to be sensitive to be a poet, of course, but Eugene’s mom meant more like that time at swimming lessons, when he’d refused to get into the pool.
You do something once and your family never stops talking about it.
So: no to Sensitivity.
Ardor was like armpit plus odor.
Celebration, on the other hand, had appeal.

Ardor will come back later – and you’ve got to love the wordplay of this fledgling poet – but it’s the “you do something once” that really sticks the landing, suggesting a rigidity of identity that is the heart of the story.

The other note rang for me like a pronouncement on our present time:

New York was dying. But that was O.K. It was in dying empires that the greatest poets appeared. Virgil in Rome. Dante in Florence. Baudelaire in Paris. Decadence. Eugene liked that word. It was like “decay” and “hence.” Things falling apart over time. A sweet smell like that of rotten bananas, or of bodies ripe from iniquitous exertion, could pervade an entire age, at which point someone came along to give voice to how messed up things were and, in so doing, made them beautiful again.

Every moment, I suppose, is the end of something and the beginning of something else, but these I’m overwhelmed with the sense that something is at an end right now, maybe America, maybe democracy, maybe capitalism, maybe what we think of as civilization as the waters rise and the biosphere changes. I’m old (which may well contribute to this sense of ending), so whatever is coming, I won’t miss what’s past for long, but it is a lonely resignation since I can’t discuss this with people with kids, who still want to think of those kids as having a future of great choices and limitless possibilities.

Eugene’s looking for a seat on the crowded train back to Brown, which is how we meet the second pov character, Kent. “This seat’s free,” he calls out to Eugene. “Not again”, Eugene thinks. He compares it to being a pretty girl: older guys are always hitting on him. But this older guy’s life plays out in Eugene’s life. Because Kent was once a teenager, drunk and flamboyantly dressed, when Jasper, then Kent’s current age, picked him up and let him sleep it off. Eugene won’t be quite so lucky. But neither will Jasper. Eugene was molested by his high school drama teacher. Jasper is dying of emphysema down in Texas. And Kent’s trying to have it all.

Several images compete for the embodiment, or lack of, permanence. One is Horace, Ode XXX, Aere Perennius:

I have made a monument more lasting than bronze
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids
which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind can erode
Nor the countless succession of years, and the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! And a large part of me will avoid the grave.

Eugene is thinking of it in terms of poetry: how do you write something that will be read two thousand years hence? As a poet in the making, he can’t even imagine it. Permanence must feel great. But permanence has the other side, the Family that Never Forgets.

Eugene, looking out the window, acutely aware he’s sitting next to this guy who offered him a seat, writes his own poem:

Each window I see into
contains a slice of life
sliced by the train I’m in
two kids watching TV on the floor
an old man reading the paper
and just a couch, all alone
like me

This takes a less bronze view, seeing life as a series of unrelated moments rather than one monolithic thing in which you are what you were forever. But moments are related, even if we don’t see what happens between the window views. And while we’re at it: when he was trying to find a seat on the crowded train, passing from one car to the next, he discovered the interim spaces are safer than he thought:

Now he was between cars. Daredevil-like. He looked down, expecting to see tracks below—the train had started moving—but the area was an enclosed, accordion-like sleeve that bent gracefully as the train pulled out of the station.

And then there’s the ballerina. We never get her name, making her more an abstract quality than a person, even though in the closing scene she’s definitely a person.

He was thinking that dancing wasn’t like making a monument in bronze. With dance you did it once, perfectly or not, and then it was gone forever.

The ephemeral, here and gone. But it leaves open a chance for a second shot.

I see the story as Eugene emerging from his own personal Bronze age, initiated by the drama teacher, into something that makes more sense to him, leaving behind Horace and Kent – literally – and following the ballerina. I found Jake Weber’s take on the story to be particularly interesting since, it seems to me, men and women see male gayness differently; and, because of a personal anecdote Jake mentions at the beginning of his post. I’d really like to see a gay man’s view, particularly an older gay man who would be familiar with the era, of the work.

Chances are I will, in the future: Both Eugenides’ interview and his contributor note indicate this story, which was intended for his last story collection but wasn’t ready in time, is being expanded into a novel. That’s good; I hope we get to know the ballerina’s name, and I hope Eugene allows himself to be whatever he wants to be, at any moment.

BASS 2019: Julia Elliott, “Hellion” from The Georgia Review, Summer 2018

TGR art

TGR art

In a bloated early draft of my novel, The New And Improved Romie Fudge, I got sidetracked by a digression about Romie’s first erotic experience, a blissful romp with a rural third cousin during which the two prepubescent kids smear molten tar all over each other, a transcendent moment followed by a brutal reckoning….Recalling badass girl cousins from my own youth, so-called tomboys who could hold their own among hellion boys, the kind of girls who could drive go-carts one-handed while taking cool puffs from stolen cigarette butts, I realized that Butter’s perspective on this incident would be far more interesting than Romie’s. When I took the cutting from my novel and switched the point of view, my story “Hellion” bloomed from the corpse of that killed darling.

Julia Elliott, Contributor Note

My view of this story evolved over several days. My first take was consumption, food, eating, but that expanded to a celebration of the the primeval. Then I flipped open the book and saw the title: Hellion. Oh, ok: hell. Not the Christian hell of punishment, but more of a Classical-era Underworld. No, back to the primeval, maybe the primordial. Then I read Jake Weber’s post and thought, not for the first time, that I should quit doing this since he does it so much better. But I still get “primordial ooze” and “this is the forest primeval” running through my head when I think about this story, so I’ll go with that.

The whole consumption theme comes in early with a thirteen-year-old protagonist named Butter (her real name is Elizabeth Ann, but she was so small at birth, her parents nicknamed her Butterbean, and it stuck) who feeds her captive alligator chicken innards, and chases away the neighborhood boys who try to feed it Atomic Fireballs so they can watch it fart fire, and leaves Slim Jims for the Swamp Ape (who, she explains, may be a deformed man, or a voluntarily-regressed Rousseauian man, or a Bigfoot mutant of some sort, or something else entirely).

It’s a Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. Alex, Butter’s third cousin from the city (where they have a mall and a nuclear reactor) comes to stay with his Aunt Edna while his new premie brother emerges towards, hopefully, life, and his mom recovers from childbirth. Butter may be a badass girl, but the local boys are a different level of badass – hellions – so Edna asks her to help out with Alex.

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”
“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”
“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”
She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.
“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”
“Came out before he was cooked.”
“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.”
Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.”
“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.”

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

Even the idea that a premature birth happens before the baby is cooked evokes consumption. And here’s Alex, stranded among the hellions. Butter – who is caught midway between primeval and lady, as well as between child and adult – gives him a coping strategy: pretend that living in that city with that nuclear plant has “endowed you with a Hulk-like condition…. You could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.” Since she has some inside info on the locals, she points out the boys’ weak spots, like one’s mother’s webbed toes. “We got to keep up the mystery…. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” She primes the ground, warning the boys there’s more to the city kid than they think.

There’s another really interesting consumption-related detail here: as Butter is telling him this, Alex “went bluish-pale like skim milk.” Butter is made from the cream removed from skim milk. Alex + Butter = whole milk? Two halves make a whole? In The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes put forth a theory that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces, and Zeus split them apart into separate people; humans since have spent their lives looking for their soulmates, the other half that was separated. Most readings consider this satire of simplistic origin tales, not the least because it was put in the mouth of Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates like nobody’s business. It’s kind of sealed shut for me when Butter later teaches Alex frog-language, The Frogs being one of Aristophanes’ classic satires. They merge into the primeval.

Butter takes Alex to meet Dragon, her alligator, but things go awry during feeding and she gets “snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb.” And again, consumption: the primeval is trying to consume Butter, starting with the meat of her thumb.

She takes some remarkably responsible (and non-primeval) first-aid steps – peroxide, antibiotic cream, gauze – but doesn’t think more about it and takes Alex go-cart racing next. The hellion boys, ignoring Butter’s warning about Alex’s superpowers, come after him while they’re all riding, the twentieth-century version of jousting. Alex turns out to be a quick learner vis-à-vis the superpower tip:

Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff…. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”
Clutching his head, Alex stood up.
“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.”
Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God.
“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.”
The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television.

Keeping up the mystery, indeed. They are both in this midland between primeval and civilized. And Butter is smitten in the way only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. My heart started to sink; don’t tell me this is going to be a tender coming-of-age tale. It is, but it’s a lot more interesting than the My Girl variety.

Butter has a thing for the smell of pitch – it smells of open roads and amusement parks – and her nose leads her to a barrel of the stuff, still melted. So she and Alex have a tar fight. Yep, that’s like a food fight, except with tar. What could evoke the depths of the primeval better than being covered in still-warm tar? It’s a descent into the dark side, experimenting with hell itself. Dangerous stuff.

And they pay the price when they emerge. Edna scrubs the tar off them, which should be punishment enough, but wait, there’s more: Alex gets the switch, and Butter… oh, poor Butter: her parents see the wound on her thumb, Dad gets the shotgun and heads for the alligator.

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things….
I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama…. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar.
Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder.

Yeah, consumption, the primeval, and the modern nukes, right there side by side on a ball of tar, and Butter, stuck in it. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but it’s way beyond My Girl.

But don’t despair, the My Girl denouement is at hand. It’s ok; the story earned it, and gives the reader an after-dinner mint, as Butter – and Alex’s premie brother – emerges from the primeval, and resolves childish mystery with adult reality on a summer night bittersweet for a couple of soulmates.

BASS 2019: Deborah Eisenberg, “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares #44.1

“Too Many Words” by Payana

“Too Many Words” by Payana

[The story] began – uncharacteristically – with the title, which popped into my head one day. I thought, Somebody should write something called “The Third Tower,’ and after a time during which nobody seemed to do that, I thought, Oh, well, I guess I will.
I really didn’t know what snagged me on that title, but it was always in my mind as I worked, and eventually, after many trials, I finished the story. So then there I was, with a story set in a sort of near future or a parallel present, about a girl – a young laborer – whose imagination, curiosity, vitality, and quality of experience are being purposefully reduced.
….
So it turned out that what had interested me about that phrase, the third tower, were matters concerning the systemic opportunism of power and money: catastrophe as a rationale for increasing economic inequities, as a rationale for invasions and resource appropriations and wars and oppression that benefit only the powerful; catastrophe utilized as an instrument to make a population compliant or inadvertently complicit – incapable of significant dissent or incapable even of comprehending what is happening to it.

Deborah Eisenberg, Contributor Note

One of the hallmarks of imagination – creativity – is the lack of uniformity from one person to the next. To Eisenberg, “the third tower” instantly associates with the two towers of 9/11. Me, I went immediately to Tolkien. I’ve never read Tolkien (don’t judge), and I have a clear memory of 9/11 (a friend of mine worked at the Port Authority in one of the towers; she was getting oatmeal in the cafeteria when the plane hit, and, trained by her experience with the 1993 bombing, she got the hell out of there in time to see people jumping out of windows and marvelled at a grocer selling blueberries on the sidewalk just a few blocks away as she walked home), but that’s where my associations took me.

I think I was at a disadvantage with this story because I simply don’t run on the same imaginative track as Eisenberg. For instance, that final paragraph above about opportunism and catastrophe strikes me as a very real condition of the present, but if it’s in the story, it’s because the reader puts it there.

We’re introduced to Therese, the protagonist of this dystopian-future story, as she’s about to leave her home for medical treatment of a hyperassociative disorder, evidenced by her deficient word-stabilization reflex. When you say tree, she says piano, when she’s supposed to say… um, tree. There is, by the way, a psychiatric symptom referred to as loose associations, but it’s far more dramatic than anything here; it’s more like when you say tree I say gears grinding milkmaids in blue pillowcase.

Her friend gives her a blank book to take with her, because “you like to do handwriting.” But it’s a lot more than handwriting:

She opens the book, just to admire again the lovely, thick, rough-edged paper, but then the air starts to shimmer, and it splinters, splashing words and pictures everywhere, all whirling and glittering.
She grabs up her pen: wooden table dim cozy place. Funny song about mouse, hands clapping in time. Leaves dripping, fresh! – horse and buggy?? Bugy?? Blossoms, hooves. Glass mountain, meadow mountain tiny white flowers tiny yellow star-flowers tiny pearl moon. Clothes whisper night fields moon whispers – sailing moon, sorcerer moon, watchman moon. Marching band – shiny octopus-instruments – light or swords? Long robes little outdoor tables little glass cups, stars, moon,..
The pictures flow by, sparkling, dissolving, blending in their disorder, like the landscape outside the window of the train, fading finally.
She blinks, and looks around at the stillness of the room, the mute shutters.
Right. Back in the drawer goes the book. Maybe these pictures are memories that somehow became detached from other people and stray through the universe, slipping through rips in the fabric and clinging to whatever living beings they can, faulty beings like her …

This is one of the strong points of the story: the descriptions of Theresa’s episodes, the ones the treatment is supposed to stop. She’s looking forward to a cure, which is itself heartbreaking.

Some of her word episodes are less felicitous than moons and marching bands, such as when she remembers, while riding on the train to the city, that someone told her some criminals had escaped from prison.

Fugitives – the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror. Therese snatches up her book and pen, and rapidly writes something down.
She’s sweating. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before she looks at what the book says: Uniforms – teams, prisoners, and guards, shouting, clanging – blood and weapons. Two civil guards stumbling through trees, they trip on twisted roots, they carry a heavy pole, one of the guards at each end, a man hangs from it, roped to it by bleeding wrists and ankles…

It seems to me these might not be imaginings as much as they are suppressed memories. Hence the sinister importance of the treatment: can’t have people remembering how much fun things used to be, or how brutal the authorities can be. Hear tree, think tree, not noose. Not fires in the Amazon. Someone else will do all the thinking there is to be done. And they’ll make sure you’re happy about what they decide.

The story is formatted in brief titled sections, easily labeled chunks, as is fitting with our theme. But, since we are readers with imaginations, we can put the pieces together better than Therese can. She’s surprised by the view of destroyed landscapes, bands of marauding children, general disorder she sees from the train. We have no idea why she’s allowed to see these things – why aren’t the windows boarded up, maybe leaving small louvres for light, other than because that’s the only way to convey them to the reader as Therese is the POV character. She must see these things for us to see these things. But when she gets to the city, her view is indeed obscured, leaving us to wonder what it is we’re not seeing through her eyes.

They work with her, one on one. A kind tech has been trying hard to help her with word-stabilization. Did you ever collect butterflies when you were a child, Therese? The tech asks.
Butterflies? Theresa asks.
With pins? The tech says. And chloroform?

I remember, as a kid, admiring pictures of butterflies in books, until I found out how those pictures were taken. This is a world where, when I say butterfly, you say, kill it and pin it down, whether it’s the word or the insect.

In his Introduction, Anthony Doerr notes the POV shift from Therese to the doctor in a couple of the sections, and has an interesting opinion about the importance of that technique: “Without those leaps away from her protagonist’s point of view, her story would collapse.” I’m not sure what he means by collapsing – I’m no literary match for Doerr, and again, my imagination is on a different track – but I do see great importance to these sections. I see the doctor as just as much a victim of mind control as Therese. Maybe everyone is, except the clown in the White House. Oops, that just slipped in there, didn’t it, maybe I need some word stabilization treatment. Or maybe the story was constructed to take us places like that.

I’ve had Eisenberg’s 2018 collection, Your Duck is My Duck, on my reading list. I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed by this story. Maybe it’s just not my taste. Maybe it’s over my head (Eisenberg’s a MacArthur Grant winner, has a big collection of writing honors, and teaches at Columbia). Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Or it’s possible, as Jake Weber suggests in his post, that BASS wanted to include something from the collection, and this was the story that qualified (in terms of publication date, length, etc.). But maybe, given the glut of dystopic fiction around, it’s a little been-there-done-that, with a backstory so completely left to the imagination as to feel like the story is only half-written. I’m comforted that Jake wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the story either (we really don’t collude on these stories; with rare exceptions, I only read his posts after I’ve at least started mine for a given story).

I don’t think I’ll be reading Your Duck is My Duck any time soon. I might, however, give her 2006 collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (boy does that associate all over), a try.

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.

BASS 2019: Wendell Berry, “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review #155

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

….I have more or less suddenly become capable of writing so as to be read by strangers a story that, until then, had only been spoken and heard in my own neighborhood. Behind this now-written story is a lived one that, for a while, could be passed about among people who knew the setting and, so to speak, the original cast. Writing such a story calls for the characters and the situation to be newly imagined, in order to give it the plausibility previously supplied by local tellers and hearers. This can be accomplished by moving the lived story into a fictional community already prepared, as has been done here.

Wendell Berry, Contributor Note

This is it: finally, the Wendell Berry story I greatly enjoyed. I’ve admitted before that although I mostly agree with his viewpoints about the evils of modern (that is, post-WWII) life, I find him annoying, for reasons I don’t quite understand. But here, I was caught up in a story that kept expanding its scope.

It begins with a delightful opening anecdote about thirteen-year-old Billy Gibbs, resident of Port Williams in this summer of 1935.

His life would have been simple if he had been only lazy – or, as he himself might have said if he had thought to say it, only a lover of freedom. But along with the wish to avoid work, his mental development brought him also to the wish to be useful to his parents and to work well, especially if an adult dignity attached to the work. And so he was a two-minded boy.
And so he grew up into usefulness and a growing and lasting pride in being useful, but also into a more or less parallel love of adventure and a talent for shirking.

It’s one of those Tom Sawyer-esque stories about Billy climbing a tree to see what town bigwig Mr. La Vere and his unfamiliar ladyfriend are doing, having driven well into the brush one afternoon, and recognizing the activity as one “enacted by cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, dogs, housecats, chickens…”. Billy can’t quite see, and now that he’s confirmed that this activity is, indeed, something people engage in as well, he wants to be sure to pick up some pointers. So he climbs out a little more on the branch, which of course breaks, dropping him right on top of a startled Mr. La Vere (and, presumably, an even more startled ladyfriend). Youthful vigor and a willingness to disregard the thorns of blackberry brambles allow Billy to escape unidentified, with a story for the ages.

But this story isn’t The Story, and now becomes an exhibit in a story about storytelling:

One mind, and a boy’s mind at that, finally could not contain such a story. But such a story, a story of such high excellence and so rare, could be turned loose in Port William only with some caution beforehand, as one might release an especially exuberant big dog. Billy found that he was not able to tell the story to anybody unworthy of it, which illuminated forthwith all the boys more or less of his generation.
….Billy knew he had a really good one. He wanted to tell it to a real story teller who would recognize its worth. And so he told it to Burley Coulter.

I’m quite impressed with Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing how Billy embodies the characteristics of a writer.

The Story about storytelling mutates once again into an interesting reflection on the synergy between Port William and the story, how when people heard it, they knew the places and people and caught the nuances: “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.”

I’m not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree that any story about people and places we know have more impact on us than stories about strangers, since we can fill in so many of the details other readers can only imagine, no matter how well described. But the art of storytelling is in conveying a world to someone not in that world, and Billy – or Berry – has done an admirable job. Billy comes across as a very real, multidimensional person; it’s a story very accessible to outsiders, fairly easy to translate to anywhere. And no, I don’t hear this story and think poorly of Kentuckians, any more than I would if Billy were from the Lower East Side and fell off a trash can watching Mr. La Vere’s urban counterpart in an alcove or parking lot. Maybe this is because I read a lot of different settings, and I’m used to translating experiences, to observing differences without judgment. If that’s the case, damn, let’s get people reading, because we all need to be a lot less critical of each other and realize our experiences truly have more in common than differences.

But Berry’s point is, the story doesn’t sound the same to latter-day residents of Port Williams, either. The Story about storytelling transforms again: he describes how things changed, and now we’re getting into familiar Berry territory as what seemed like a third-person narration is revealed to be first person, with Berry’s long-time Port William alter-ego, Andy Catlett, coming out from behind the curtain:

I heard the story of The Great Interruption only a few times in the years after the war. It was becoming less and less a property of its old community in time and place. Grover Gibbs and Burley Coulter, remarkably, had ceased to tell it. I think it had begun to make them sad. Port Williams by then was losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a “no-place“ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.

I’m not sure we’re dismemoried; I think our memories might come from a different place. Just as the notion of family has evolved and expanded, so has what we share, whether it be over coffee with the people next door, or on Twitter. Yes, there are ways to use Twitter that don’t involve fighting or having your life threatened, but those ways are incompatible with fame, so are less well known.

Maybe it’s the speed with which things change that makes the last century so disorienting. After all, Depression-era Kentucky wasn’t always there; it too was a change from whatever came before it. But that change happened slowly, over decades or even centuries. Now, we get left behind in the space of a single generation. I myself have become far more sympathetic to the anxieties my father’s generation showed back in the 60s and 70s, when I was just a kid, now that I am what was then his age and I feel confused by the gig economy and contemporary comedy and soulless algorithms that run our lives. In twenty years, will today’s millennials be confused by whatever is around the corner?

I enjoyed watching this story zoom out from the initial close-up on Billy to a broader storytelling view, to a broader more sociopolitical view. The last short paragraphs seem to go a little wide of the overall piece, but veers into Berry’s traditional stomping ground, decrying the evils of modernism and the effect of machines and money on rural America. I have to tell you, money hasn’t been all that great for anything, as becomes clearer every day. I even thought of Berry last week when I saw a news story about the current Secretary of Agriculture admitting outright that small family farms would continue to fold: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” Even though I’m well-removed from farming, I took it rather personally, as if he were telling Andy Catlett to quit whining and go get a job at WalMart. So I’m not indifferent to his schtick. I just find it annoying. Few writers have this effect on me. I’ve kind of come to enjoy it, the two-mindedness of it.

A note on the title: BASS lists the story title as “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978)”. The shorter form is used in the Threepenny Review table of contents (perhaps the subtitle is included in the text itself, but I don’t have access). The Larkspur Press standalone edition puts the subtitle on the cover, but lists the story under the three-word version. I’ve abbreviated it only because such a lengthy title plays havoc with computer-defined fields and Twitter connections. I think it’s fitting that my abbreviation is forced by the machines and modernity Berry rails against, and so I mention it, whether as a nod to him or a smack upside the head, I’m not sure.

BASS 2019: Kathleen Alcott, “Natural Light” from Zoetrope All-Story #22.1

Having lost my parents in my early twenties, I often considered how I might maintain a relationship with each – which stories of theirs might take on different meaning as my life changed, which objects left behind might alter in emotional valence. But at the center of these thoughts was a certain dynamic: myself as protean, my parents’ lives as fixed where they left them – never, as the story begins, providing any new information.

Kathleen Alcott, Contributor Note

The quick takes on this story emphasize the inciting event: a woman in her thirties comes across a photograph, at a New York museum exhibit, of her now-deceased mother doing … something. “I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph”, Daughter promises in the first line of the story. She drops hints, however, that strongly suggest a sexual act with overtones of mainlining, things not usually associated with suburban mothers of adult daughters.

Shows like these are a dime a dozen here, and they are not of the sort I seek out, having lost most interest I might have had in the type of lives and rooms they always feature. Bare mattresses on the floor, curtains that are not curtains, enormous telephones off the hook, the bodies always thin but never healthy. Eyes shadowed in lilac, men in nylon nighties pour liquor from brown paper bags into their mouths. A woman with a black eye laughs, her splayed thigh printed with menstrual blood. These photographs are in color, the light strictly natural.

While this is dramatic and forms the foundation for the story, there’s a lot more to it, namely, a network of relationships involving our protagonist (who I’ll refer to as Daughter), laid out against her intrusive thoughts of suicide.

The relationships – Mother-Daughter, Father-Daughter, Husband-Daughter, Mother-Father – show some interesting parallels. Then there’s the Photographer-Mother relationship, of which we have testimony only from one side, and the Photographer-Daughter relationship, which is quite different in that we see only its genesis when Daughter wants to meet to discuss the circumstances of the photograph. It serves a specific purpose in the world of the story, and as a writing element, providing an escape and/or an ending.

The idea of natural light – unretouched reality – plays throughout the story, contrasted with ways we routinely soften, cleanse, and civilize what we see. Daughter had gone to the museum to see a different exhibit, landscapes “refashioned with a particular pink glow the painter must have felt when he saw what inspired them.”

The story gives several other examples of this softening. Mother gave up perfume years before, but on her death bed wore foundation to mask her pallor. Father has his own technique:

It was one of a thousand of precooked phrases he had on hand: canary in a coal mine, teach a man to fish, taste of your own medicine. Language to him was the same set of formations and markers, certain maxims always leading the way to others. After you pulled up your bootstraps, you reaped what you sowed. It was something he had adopted in recovery, I thought, the beginnings of which took place a decade before I was born. For my whole life, he had referred to himself that way: in recovery. It seemed cruel to me one had to adopt that title for the duration of living, but for my father it became a helpful boundary, a gate he could close on any conversation he wanted.

This precisely parallels the Daughter-husband relationship, or non-relationship, as they are estranged:

Contact between us now consisted mainly of three words, even the contraction never parted into its constituents. Hope you’re well, he wrote. Hope you’re well, I wrote. Hope you’re well! Hope you’re well! The statement never altered into a question, and with time it began to read to me as a kind of threat, beveled, ingenious. To his last hope you’re well, six weeks before, I had not replied, and I believed that was the end he had in mind. ….We had been separated a year.

There’s a different kind of natural light in the Daughter-Husband relationship. Daughter has what could be classified as either intrusive thoughts, or suicidal ideation; it’s not entirely clear from the story which is the case. They seem to be random, triggered obliquely by something she encounters. “Pills in a blender with strawberry ice cream, I thought. An email scheduled a day ahead of time with very clear instructions” follows her recollection of the email exchange with Husband. “A hotel suite uptown, I thought, a maid you’d somehow apologize to beforehand” occurs while at the museum. When Photographer says “I’d like to shoot you sometime,” we get “A gun shop, I thought, where you bantered a little outside your politics with the owner, some bald man with ideas about a woman’s instincts for self-preservation, who congratulated your investment in personal safety.”

I have no professional qualifications, but my understanding is that suicidal ideation is the repeated image of one scenario, complete with extensive plans. Hey, who hasn’t fantasized about the scheduled-ahead email. Husband seems inordinately freaked out by these thoughts. It’s sort of the reverse of the softening effect: he’s shining a glaring spotlight, increasing the harshness of the situation. Or… is Daughter softening her view, taking things too casually? There’s a strong indication that might be the case, given the language of her dismissal:

It is true there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the impact of this on my mind, conceiving of elaborate meals, the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup really be capable of suicide? I asked him this question laughing, wooden spoon aloft, during an argument about a drug I did not want to take. Doesn’t the one cancel out the other, leaving you with a basically normal wife?

The double use of forms of “rose” makes me think maybe she’s the one painting the picture in soft light, like those landscapes with the “peculiar pink glow.” At the same time, the humor reminds me of her mother’s gesture as she dismisses her youth in New York. And that brings in her description of Husband’s tendency to dismiss her routine upsets: “Rather than responding to my speaking, he took to waving at it, scenery to be considered later…”.

Thus, the language of this story is incredibly important on a micro level. At times, it’s maddening. All the references to light, to pink (she wears a rose-gold watch), carry meaning. Syntax comes into play as well:

When my husband met me, twenty-two to his forty, he saw a girl with a rough kind of potential, and he tended to me as one might a garden, offering certain benefits and taking others away. He did not wish me to grow in just any direction. That I allowed him this speaks just as poorly of me. I was once a girl with an exquisite collection of impractical dresses – ruched chiffon, Mondrian prints – and a social smoking habit, a violent way with doors and windows. I left him in taupes, my arches well-supported, my thinking framed in apology….
Growing up his beliefs as their rigidity dictated, I was something like an espalier, the distance between the vine and the thing that trained it almost imperceptible.

That last sentence requires some concentration to parse (who is growing up?), but subtly introduces another element: how much of this metamorphosis is simply the natural byproduct of growing up, rather than an unnatural pruning of unwanted traits? Given what we learn about Mother’s past, didn’t she go through the same process of putting away childish things? Maybe meeting Father was the catalyst, or maybe she was just ready to grow up and move on. It happens to all of us; we change throughout time, and sometimes we want to forget our past lives.

That brings the overt theme of the story: how much do we get to know about the past of those close to us? It’s clear Mother didn’t want to share the details of her youth with Daughter, evidenced by “a gesture she would make…: a low hook of the hand, swiped an inch or two to the left. Total dismissal.” (Does that recall Husband waving at Daughter’s concerns?) Father amplifies this at the end of the story. Is our past our property? I can’t think of any practical reason Daughter has a right to know her mother lived, by all indications briefly, a seedy life. Is there an emotional reason to shine natural light on a Mother who would rather be seen in muted half-light? Is it an intrusion, a violence, to press the issue even after her death?

Syntax connects the relationships as well:

Of course, the thoughts had disturbed me enough that I had confessed to having them, about a year after my mother died, in the dark after sex in the middle of the night. This was the time he wanted me the most, calling me in from where sleep had taken me, his body my reintroduction to the living world.

I was startled by that first sentence, since the ambiguous clause arrangement made it sound like Mother died in the dark after sex in the middle of the night, an odd notion since she was so ill towards the end. Then I realized that was instead when Daughter told Husband about her intrusive thoughts. This grammatical blending of Mother and Daughter adds to all the confusion of identity, the connections between all of these people.

The story contains a line I adore, for my own reasons: “Anything can be lived around, so long as it’s only you who has to do it.” My husband and I spent fifteen years playing “Who’s turn is it to be crazy?” That sentence is the first time anyone’s validated my own sense that, as much as the well-meaning try to push me into social circles, I’m really better off alone, where I can be crazy without anyone feeling the need to do something.

What I see more than anything else is that Daughter is denied on all fronts: Mother, Father, and Husband all refused to give her what she wanted from them. Was she entitled to what she wanted? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is, all the doors were closed. The only one open was the Photographer.

And then we come to the end. More connections via language and images. Backtrack to language: her husband wanted her most in sleep. She agrees to be shot – photographed – when she’s asleep. I see two connections to prior suicide thoughts: shooting, and dying in a temporarily occupied (hotel) room. So when I read:

I’m open to being photographed, I wrote to the photographer, so long as I’m asleep.
A field, I thought then. A yellow caned chair. A room up some stairs that was empty.

I think this is the real thing. Pills, booze maybe, to assure sleep that deepens. Photographer, the only open door. More than a little passive-aggressiveness towards the woman whose relationship with her mother predates hers. I’m betting the emails would be all set up and ready to go. Then again, ask me in a year, and I might read it differently.

That’s what’s fun about a story like this, the different takes. Jake Weber went in another direction in his blog post, and introduced me to the art term mise en abyme, a picture within a picture, while expanding it to a literary use here.

BASS 2019: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “The Era” from Guernica, 4/2/18

I had what would become Ben’s voice rattling in my brain for a while. It was a postapocalyptic-sad-boy chorus that was strange and funny and alive to me. An idea of a world emerged from this voice, a world that was brutal in the name of “honesty,” a world that had learned to forsake kindness as a virtue. And once these general ideas were in place, I let the voice take me where it would.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brehyan, Contributor Note

I first read this story about a week ago, at the end of my Summer Read II, in Adjei-Brenyah’s collection Friday Black. My impression at the time was that it was remarkably sterile and cool in a collection bursting with energy, violence, and rage; I briefly mentioned it combined concerns about human genetic engineering with the pushback on political correctness and high-priced self-help scams. On re-reading the story individually, I have a very different impression; the interactions are anything but sterile and cool. While it isn’t five kids getting beheaded outside the library, it’s still amazingly violent, but the violence is interpersonal and institutional, not physical. It’s Mean Girls on steroids, and everybody, including teachers and parents, plays.

Adjei-Brenyah has gone to some trouble to create a pretty complete outline of a future world, from language to technology to social institutions and attitudes. The tentpoles are familiar, however: money talks, revisionist history supports the power structure, let’s make sure everyone thinks they’re happy, and exclude the outliers. Ben, our protagonist, is in high school, so we learn a lot about the setting, both historically and socially, by looking over his shoulder in what passes for History class:

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly-true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know shit.”
We’re in HowItWas class.
“Well,” Mr. Harper says, twisting his ugly body toward us, “you should shut your mouth because you’re a youth-teen who doesn’t know shit about shit, and I’m a full-middler who’s been teaching this stuff for more years than I’m proud of.”
“Understood,” says Scotty.
Then Mr. Harper went back to talking about the time before the Turn, which came after the Big Quick War, which came after the Long Big War. I was thinking about going to the nurse for some pre-lunch Good. I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning.

Complete story available online at Guernica

Truth telling and pride are central values in this world; emotion is the prime evil. Kids are genetically engineered for various qualities, but sometimes it goes wrong, resulting in various abnormalities and disabilities. Sometimes it goes right-but-wrong, as with the case of Ben’s sister Marlene; her seven indices all landed on ambition, creating a real monster, but one fully compatible with and prized by important parts the world in which she lives.

Ben’s decline makes up the plot. I’m still not sure what the reason is for his decline. He’s clear-born, that is, not genetically improved (after the experience with his sister, his parents thought it best not to take chances again), which comes with some disadvantages in a world where most of his classmates can read thirty-five pages in a minute and a half. The requisite does of Good given every morning isn’t working very well, so he goes to the nurse for more during the day. Is this a common reaction in clear-born kids? Is he on his way to becoming a shoelooker – someone without pride or communicative skill? Is this physical, or the toil of emotional strain? Fact is, no one seems to care, including his parents, who, with prideful honesty, only note that he’s a mistake, slow, and disappointing, and they’re disappointed because that’s a reflection on them. Apparently narcissism is part and parcel of the pride-and-honesty thing.

I’ve always had an antipathy towards people who claim “You may not like what I say but at least I’m honest.” That’s always struck me as a translation of “You don’t matter enough for me to learn basic social skills or care about any relationship I may have with you.” And now this society is built on the same attitude: that interpersonal stuff might have been useful when there were a few thousand of us scattered about the savanna, but now it’s like an appendix, useless and prone to infection, so let’s tell stupid people they’re stupid and ugly people they’re ugly and not worry about it.

There’s a match for every misfit, and in Ben’s case, it’s Leslie McStowe:

Leslie was a twin, then her brother, Jimmy, died. Jimmy was a shoelooker who cooked his head in a food zapper. Leslie is always telling lies about how great things are or how nice everyone looks and how everybody is special. Leslie McStowe is one of the least truthful people around, which is frustrating because she and I scanned high for compatibility on our genetic compatibility charts. Probably because we’re both clear-borns. Leslie’s parents have protested against the Opti-Life™. They don’t believe in perfect. I believe in it—I just hate it.

It’s Ben’s birthday, which apparently is ignored in this post-emotion world, but Leslie invites him to come to her home where the McStowe family introduces him to birthday cake, jokes, and the idea that human relationships create a natural form of Good that obviates the injections. At this point we’re ready to go with the plucky-band-of-resistance-fighters trope, but plot twist: they give Ben a brochure explaining the prices of various packages for sessions of basking in the warm glow of friendship, which turns it into something closer to Scientology or whatever the financially-exploitative cult of the day is. Life in the Era, they call it.

Except, not so fast. Ben runs into trouble the next day, and Leslie is there. Alas, so is Marlene. And Ben has a choice to make. It could be a simplistic ending, but it’s choreographed nicely, using a lot of physical sensation to emphasize the nature of his decision.

As with most SF/F stories, this one plays with long-debated questions:

Where is the line between honesty and cruelty? While visiting the McStowes, Ben asks, “Is that the food sector your son killed himself in?” This understandably creates a shock wave for Mrs. McStowe, who, unlike Ben’s parents, operates with what we would consider a normal emotional palette, and drops a plate.

Father McStowe looks at me. He touches my shoulder. His hand is large/heavy. “You know something,” he speaks low so only I can hear him, “one of the things we like to do in this home is be careful of what we say. What you said didn’t have to be said. And now you’ve hurt my wife. She’ll be fine, but—”
“Lying for others is what caused the Big Quick and the Long Big,” I say.
“Maybe. Or maybe it was something else. I’m talking about thinking about the other person, ya know?” Father McStowe whispers to me. “I’m sure you have a lot of ideas about this, but it’s something we try around here.” He smiles and touches my shoulder again. “Let’s eat some cake,” he says in a big voice, a voice for everybody.

I recall a Miss Manners article in which she recommends considering what’s behind a question with a potentially devastating answer, like “Do I look fat in these pants?” or “Would you like to see pictures of my grandchildren?” If, in the first case, if a fix is possible (like in a store dressing room, pre-purchase), suggest it, otherwise (like just before the questioner goes on stage to deliver an important address), don’t destroy someone’s confidence for no reason; and in the second case, the question is really “Do you care about me?” That’s a lot easier to answer.

There are times when it will be necessary to tell a painful truth: “I don’t love you” or “You didn’t make the cut for the team/class/job.” It’s possible to cushion the blow, but that requires taking into account the other person’s feelings, not something a society that devalues emotions is likely to care about. I find this particularly important in the contemporary struggle around political correctness and safe spaces. In general, they are built on courtesy and compassion, on the simple idea of caring about others’ feelings when possible. Somehow, exaggerations turn into heated calls for “I’ll call you what I damn want and you’ll put up with it, bitch” rhetoric. Given that a perfect balance is not possible, personally I prefer to err on the side of kindness.

This leads to another theme, perhaps a central one: what is the best balance between reason and emotion? Philosophers have gone back and forth on that for millennia. Plato and Aristotle both felt reason should consider, but rule over, passions; David Hume felt otherwise: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Kahneman got more psychological, proposing System 1 and System 2 thinking, one jumping in immediately to protect us from danger, the other one considering consequences but perhaps coming in too late; several contemporary philosophers, Jonathan Haidt among them, see morality and judgment as an emotional response – the quick, “hot” System 1 take – then System 2 is brought in to find a way to justify it. Cognitive therapy uses the concept of wise mind, a blending of emotional mind and rational mind, as a way of balancing two inputs into decision making. In all these examples, where the balance lies is debatable, but no one advocates sliding the bar all the way to either side.

Ben’s society slides the bar hard over and gives emotion zero weight, but you can’t tell me there isn’t more than a little surreptitious delight in some of the crueler episodes. Power might be the motivation, the ability to hurt others; but in his blog post analyzing the story, Jake Weber makes a great case for the essential role of shoelookers and other misfits in Ben’s society: they provide someone to feel superior to. This makes sense, in light of Ben’s evaluation of shoelookers:

And then there’s Nick and Raphy who are the class shoelookers. All they do is cry and moan. They were both optimized and still became shoelookers. Being emotional is all they are and it means they aren’t good for anything. I’m glad Samantha and Nick and Raphy are in the class. Because of them I’m not bottom/last in learning and I don’t wanna be overall bottom/last at all.

It’s interesting how differently the story reads in Friday Black, versus in BASS. I see a lot of little choices that give it depth. Some of the particulars of the world confusing, but, given the space of a short story, Adjei-Brenyah has done an excellent job of setting us up with what we need to know to understand Ben and feel a stake in his struggle.

BASS 2019: Let’s Get This Party Started

Last fall, when the indefatigable Heidi Pitlor sent me a first batch of forty stories, I dove right in….
By Thanksgiving I felt as though I had lucked into the best gig ever….I was discovering brilliant similes everywhere; I was meeting adulterous Alaskan moms and White House switchboard operators and nuns buying beehives. I kept thinking: there are so many brave voices singing out there!
it was mid December when I remembered, Shit. I’m supposed to decide why some of these stories are better than the others. I panicked. I spent an entire mourning constructing a spreadsheet; I built fields to score and summarize and evaluate, and in about fourteen seconds all the pleasure ribboned away.
Evaluating is a very different experience than enjoying, and I suppose this is true when it comes to parenting, traveling, eating, having sex, and reading short stories. Evaluating sucks. Evaluating turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s maybe the most narratively engaging Introduction since Richard Russo told the story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “To entertain, and to instruct” lecture back in BASS 2010. Considering the guest editors are themselves short story writers, it’s odd that so few use their storytelling skills in their introductions, preferring to use more of an essay style to outline their process and thoughts on the state of fiction in general, and how it relates to the real world. But Doerr starts out with some wonderful anecdotes about his writing as kid: his stories usually featured a boy leaving school on some adventure, because “[t]o a kid with a science-teacher mom and a perfect attendance record for four years running, walking out of school in the middle of the day and never returning was the most epic beginning to a story imaginable.”

We read about his first short story competition during his junior year in high school,

My current story-in-progress was “Avalanche”, about a boy who strolls out of a trigonometry test, steals a delivery van containing thousands of chocolate bars, and drives to the Yukon only to become caught in (surprise!)an avalanche. I had loads of fun describing the snow whooshing and tumbling and grinding around the van , then switched to the point of view of a nearby dog who, out of the goodness of his dog heart, begins searching for the buried kid. Then I jumped into some back story on the dog (nice farm girl, mean farmer, a misunderstanding involving chickens) and I described how the dog smells all that chocolate through six feet of snow and digs out the boy and they eat frozen Twix bars and the boy never studies trigonometry again.

Boy, do I want to read that story (hey, that would be an interesting anthology: established authors rewrite their earliest stories, from the vantage point of experience)! But the young Doerr came upon a “how to write stories” book, and realized he’d broken all the rules enshrined within: subplots, secondary characters, multiple povs. So he wrote a different story, followed all the rules – and someone else the contest, of course.

He did, as we know, go on to learn the rules, and, most importantly, when and how to break them –

Indeed, whenever I came across a list of rules like the ones above, what I really wanted to do was write a story that was all backstory, in which multiple protagonists, none of which are exactly likable, wake up, tell lots of different stories inside the story, argue significant moral points, then wake up a second time and realize the whole thing was a dream.

– and, as the guest editor of this anthology, when to allow other writers to break rules. He abandoned his spreadsheet for a more gestalt approach: “I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.”

Although I’ve always considered myself to be more about introspection and ideas than story – a preference I just re-remembered during my Summer Read II of fiction and nonfiction – and though I have been increasingly anxious and depressed about current events over the past several years (reaching bottoms previously considered unreachable), I found this introduction to be the most uplifting in years. Maybe because it countered, rather than echoed, my despair, maybe because it was just so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed all of the Doerr stories and essays I’ve read, but I never thought of him as light-hearted and fun. It’s wonderful to make this discovery, that he – and, more selfishly but importantly, I – can laugh. Yet he is not out of touch with the present reality:

These stories push back against tradition even as they simultaneously embrace it, and help us remember that in art, so long as we humans manage to keep having children, and our children keep growing up and looking around at the stories their forebears have told and deciding they can tell them better (which is to say faster, or slower, or greener, or longer, or with more monsters, or fewer verbs, or more stolen vans full of chocolate bars), the resistance is always happening.

But… did it have to be orange?

I have a longstanding aversion to the color orange. I like oranges well enough – I eat clementines regularly – and I quite like shades of peach, burnt siennas, dusty ochres, and the like. But in clothing, walls, and, yes, book covers, orange-orange grates on me. Not since the Great Chartreuse Horror of 2011 have I had such a negative reaction to the look of BASS. But then, when I hold it, I notice it has that velvety matte finish I love so much… maybe I just needed to shut my eyes until I open the cover.

I see in the Table of Contents the usual combination of Famous Names (Ursula Le Guin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wendell Berry), BASS repeats, and writers I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be doing my usual “reacting to stories” rather than reviewing or critiquing, because I have no training in the latter skills. Fortunately, Jake Weber will be working in parallel on his blog, offering a more writerly analysis of each story (and as usual, he’s a step ahead of me already). And, if we’re lucky, we may have another writer joining us in some capacity. Everyone is welcome to comment, offer differing opinions, and point out what I’ve missed.

I’m nervous about this particular volume for another reason: last year’s was extraordinary. For that matter, to me BASS has been crescendoing for about three years now. How do you follow that? How do I tame my own recollections, my expectations? Not to mention my angst?

Both Doerr and Pitlor acknowledge the impossibility of living up to the title “Best”:

Here’s a secret: every year, in some way, I find myself telling the guest editor that there are not twenty perfect stories. There is not even one perfect story. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing to all people. What one person sees as implausible, another sees as imaginative. ….You learn to keep your gaze on something bigger and broader, the horizon of a story, say, rather than the potholes. The horizon – the place where voice, mood, plot, characterization, language, and perspective coalesce and expand – the horizon is where you’ll find, as Anthony calls it in his introduction, the “magic.”

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

Maybe that’s a step. Stop worrying about last year, about the orange cover – or whatever’s breaking on Twitter – and read.

Closing out Summer Read II

I have to find a better descriptive phrase for this reading period between the end of Pushcart in May and the beginning of BASS in October. While it does take place over the summer, it starts in Spring (or at least has so far; the beginning depends on when I finish Pushcart) and ends in the fall. For that matter, seasons aren’t all that well-defined, since summer might mean June 21 to September 21, or it might mean however your school system defines it, or it might mean time between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I started this interim reading period last year, when I finished Pushcart early, but it has its roots in the year before when I realized I was essentially reading two books a year and missing out on a lot. That was back when I was neck-deep in moocs, taking anywhere from three to six at a time. Moocs have redesigned me out of the picture, so I have more time to spend on free reading.

Interim reading period? Free reading time? Nah, I’ll stick with Summer Read. Feels more relaxed.

Back on May 6, I had a preliminary list of 31 books, divided into four categories, that would fill the months until October. I read 21, five of which weren’t on the original list. If that seems like a low count for five months, well, some of them took longer than others, my move in July threw me into a tizzy, blogging a book takes almost as long as reading it, and I did go through a few Yale OCWs in the same time period. And why am I making excuses anyway – this isn’t a competition.

The actual read list:

Religion:
• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel
• Jo Walton, Lent (added)

Jobs:
• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef
• John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (added)

Filling in literary gaps:
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (I read about half of each)
• Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (substituted for On Literature)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
• George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (added)

Miscellaneous from my TBR lists:
• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (short story collection)
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (nonfiction)
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (short story collection)
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (short story collection)
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (nonfiction)
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (nonfiction)
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (nonfiction)
• Robert Long Foreman, Among Other Things (added) (essay collection)
• Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (added) (short story collection)

I abandoned a couple of books I’d planned to read because I discovered I hated reading them. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones. They aren’t bad books; one wasn’t what I’d expected, and the other was just too much dense prose.

The outcome of all this: Something I remembered, and something that surprised me.

I remembered that nonfiction is my first love. This is why I keep saying I love a story or novel that teaches me something, and why beautiful, perfectly-written fiction can leave me shrugging while I find a free-for-all mesmerizing if I find something worth researching in it.

Which leads into the surprising aspect of this read: I found the religion category by far the most engaging. That’s because, rather than character development, I prefer books I have to read at my computer, so I can look up Hypatia and the conflicts in fifth-century Alexandria, or the Renaissance humanists and the theological directions abandoned in early Christianity, or details of Kabbalah and why Spinoza is considered the atheist’s theologian. I get a thrill when encountering something I learned in a mooc; maybe it’s just reassurance that I didn’t waste all those hours over all those years in all those weird classes.

And now it’s time to roll up my sleeves for BASS 2019. That doesn’t mean I won’t be reading anything else. Inspired by Salman Rushdie’s new book, I’m already getting started on Don Quixote, and following a Yale OCW to keep me motivated and on track. My Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), Ben Orlin, has his second book coming out in a few days; I was lucky enough to read a chapter early in its development, and I’m eager to see more of what he’s done interweaving calculus with art and literature. And then there’s plain old recreational reading: a book on the US territories (inspired by the Great Greenland Fiasco), a memoir by a woman who came here from Iran as a kid, before anyone knew where Iran was; a book of medical stories; a history book about the middle ages.

There’s always something to read.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (HMH, 2018)

I use fiction as a way to find truth. I try to avoid the lies that come from euphemism or complete erasure. I’d say, in general, my work is concerned specifically with making the truth unavoidably clear.

Adjei-Brenyah’s PEN Ten Interview with Lily Phipott

 
Going into this, I didn’t think, “Let me try to write dystopian fiction.” I think I just sort of create spaces that I know I can create energy from. So if that ends up feeling like dystopia, I guess that’s just what happens. But what I do like is sometimes turning the volume up on something so that you can’t ignore it. Or pushing the needle just a little bit, shining a light on whatever issue….
[I]f the house is on fire, I’m not going to talk about what’s in the fridge. If people are getting killed around me, that’s something I care about and have to talk about. And so maybe I have to be violent on the page to represent that meaningfully. And on some level, getting people to react to violence on the page is part of the project of the book because there’s already violence that I don’t feel like we’re reacting to. I’m just trying to be as ethical as possible when creating this violence as I can be, and I try my best to do different things to make sure it’s done purposefully.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

That’s a great description of the stories in this book. Whether he’s writing about the shortcomings of justice when the victims are black people, or about abortion, or about rampant consumerism, or gun violence, or troubled families, Adjei-Brenyah scrapes the veneer of civilization off our savage moments and shines a spotlight on what lies beneath. Some of his stories literally go inside character’s minds to take a closer look. There is a lot of violence in this book; if that sounds like a trigger warning, maybe that’s what it is. It can be a difficult experience, reading this book, but a worthwhile one if you’re sick of thoughts and prayers and bullshit.

We start right off with “The Finklestein 5” which highlights the ease with which “I was afraid for my life” is accepted as an excuse for any violence against any black person, including a group of five kids standing outside a public library. In an interview with Christian Coleman at Lightspeed, Adjei-Brenyah said he put that story first because “if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that.” Other elements get blended in – a job interview, how Blackness needs to be calibrated for particular activities to minimize obstacles, Say Her Name – but it’s the beheadings with a chain saw that overwhelmed me. Thing is, it’s not that exaggerated, if you examine our trajectory.

Another story clearly emanates from the Trayvon Martin murder: “Zimmer Land”, a kind of theme park where hunting black people for sport is monetized.

Zimmer Land Mission
1) To create a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.
2) To provide the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations.
3) To entertain.

The question keeps coming up: safe for whom? Is the mecha-suit, protecting the body, enough? For that matter, in a discussion with management, it becomes clear the mecha-suit isn’t primarily about safety of the hunted, but the paying hunter’s experience. When they add on a new feature, Isaiah has to rethink things.

That brings us to the consumerism part of our program. The title story takes Black Friday – which I’ve never done, by the way, I avoid going anywhere near a store on Thanksgiving Weekend – and takes it up to eleven. The guy with the job of pulling bodies out of the way isn’t even the worst part. It’s the desperation of the various customers, the needs they see their purchases fulfilling, that makes my heart ache:

“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!

I’m the only one at work without one…. How can I be a senior manager without one?

I won’t be alone with this. They’ll like me.

And again, I feel like, while this is exaggerated and surreal, is it that far off reality? This is followed up by two more stories, one featuring the same sales associate, and one about a sales clerk’s suicide at the mall, which generates a new verb, to Lucy. “I didn’t know her name then” pretty much sums it up. Turns out Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in retail for a while, experienced a similar incident.

“Lark Street” takes all the rhetoric about abortion and turns it into a teenage guy who finds himself surrounded by the fetuses his girlfriend just aborted. It’s a well-imagined story: “We’re not gonna be people” just keeps echoing over and over. “The Era” manages to combine pushback to political correctness, genetic engineering, and the high-priced side of the self-help industry; this story will appear in BASS 2019 so I’ll save my comments for then.

There are subtler stories, based more on relationships. “The Hospital Where” is something like a hallucinatory horror story; I read it several times before I got some idea of what was happening. A boy who, during a childhood of poverty, evictions, dark cold nights without any lights, makes a deal with the Twelve-Tongued God:

“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”

To write, in other words. But the effects are, you might say, not what he expected.

“The Lion & The Spider” also features a duel between reality and story, though in a very different way, entwining a folk tale from West Africa about a trickster god, Anansi, who appears as a spider, with a teen’s efforts to keep going when his father disappears on him. “I imagined you gone forever, and I survived.” I thought, Thank you. I don’t know why. This is the story that inspired the cover art by Mark Robinson, using uniquely colored stock images of engravings. The chaotic lion’s mane appears to be many things before it is recognized, just like the story.

School shootings make up the background of “Light Spitter”, but as usual, Adjei-Brenyah gives it a twist, this time a post-mortem fantasy: the shooter and the victim meet when he is dying and she is dead, become an angel of sorts, and pay a visit on another incipient shooter.

Most of the stories feature young black men, often teenagers, as protagonists. A debut collection, the book has received a lot of attention from a lot of heavy-hitters, picked up a major prize, and made some impressive lists.

I just write whatever a story needs, but I did spend a lot of time with the surreal, or I guess stories that were outside the realm of straight literary fiction or straight reality. I spent a long time wondering if they could coexist in a cohesive book with stories that are a little bit more bound to reality or at least closer to reality. Working with George Saunders, I asked him, “Should I be this kind of writer, or should I be that kind of writer?” And he just said, “Yes.” And that was very helpful for me.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

Who knows where he’ll go next.

Robert Long Foreman: Among Other Things (Pleiades Press, 2017)

I had gone to the colony in order to write about inanimate things. I had once written with great enthusiasm, and with some success, about my great-grandfather’s walking stick. I had also written about a wooden club, and had written another essay about a bag of dirty laundry that was left in my old apartment in Ohio by a German woman. I was asked many times at the colony what I was writing, and I explained as many times, to different listeners, that my plan was to write a collection of short pieces about inanimate things. They would come together as a book, I said, one that I hoped would be worth reading. Every time I described it, I was less convinced of the likelihood of this.
My secret anxiety was that I had run out of objects worth writing about. I couldn’t just run to the nearest department store and purchase a laundry basket, so that it could be the subject of my next contemplative prose piece.
Now, though, I was about to take on more objects than I could possibly write about in one book, all of them pregnant with meaning to someone who was now gone.

~~ “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”

I’ve been thinking a lot about things lately. First there was the book I read in May by long-haul moving truck driver Finn Murphy, whose advice was: leave everything behind and get new stuff, it’s cheaper and will fit your new life better. Then there was my own (very short-haul) move in July; I had to part with furniture I loved, as well as stuff I should’ve thrown out a decade ago, and I came across some wonderful things I thought I’d thrown out years ago: a paper from college with an encouraging note from the professor, music from the dozen or so choruses I’d sung in over the years, a teapot that was prettier than I remembered. And of course there was Marie Kondo all summer, telling us to throw away everything that doesn’t spark joy. Joy is good; I like joy as much as anyone, but I treasure many things for reasons other than sparks of joy.

Foreman’s essays in this collection show very nicely how things can carry essentials beyond joy.

The pieces also challenge our concept of thing. We tend to think of all that is as fitting into categories of either person, place, or thing. But in Foreman’s essays, a thing, like a bag of left-behind laundry, or a sculpture, might become a person. Or, person might become a thing, as with an art model. The boundaries can be more porous than we might think.

The above quote is from the next-to-last essay, “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”, in which Foreman details the events surrounding the death of his Aunt Posey, including going through her home to sort things into what to discard, what to sell, and what to take as inheritance pieces. Hence the reference to more objects than he could possibly write about; it’s the longest piece in the book at 80 pages. He brings up several poems written by poets who lost family members, pointing out things I probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the absence of the father in Robert Lowell’s “Father’s Bedroom”. I love that Aunt Posey drew medieval knights in battle with animals and monsters; it sounds like manuscript marginalia, though in that case I would have expected snails and rabbits.

It wasn’t until I got to that quote that I realized the book was intended to be about objects. I kept thinking (I tend to consider various approaches to these posts as I read) that many of the stories were about things; I suppose it should have been obvious from the title, but some of the pieces require a more metaphorical approach to recognize them as being about things, which is when I started thinking about porous boundaries.

The final essay, following Aunt Posey but not about her, puts the perfect coda on the longer story, and the book. The family gathers to put together a 9000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And of course, they’re doing something else entirely. “We don’t mourn at my mother’s house – not formally.” I’ve never thought of jigsaw puzzles as vehicles for grief, but I will every time I see one; and the next time death is in my circle, I might just break one out for all of us mourners.

The collection starts off with two shorter essays that focus clearly on things in the literal sense: a walking stick, and a club. If I may once again borrow a concept I learned from Ken Nichols’ blog, these two stories teach us how to read the book. While objects take center stage, they are pointers to more important matters: “The stick would complete my walking self when I had not realized that I was a fragment”, he says of his grandfather’s walking stick. The club, bought at an antique store, led to darker places: the Rodney King beating, an ancestor who was in the Klan. But it eventually leads back to light when it breaks as he uses it to hit a baseball: “I reacted to the death of the club with a mixture of surprise, embarrassment, and relief….I wondered if it had not been a club after all.” That the club was seen to die upon breaking hearkens back to that overly simplistic person-place-thing categorization being a little messier than we might realize.

His essay about his high school – a place that becomes, for the duration of the essay, a thing, as well as a container for things, including a python that springs a freak attack one afternoon – covers a lot of historical and sociological ground about its past as a military school, and about his family. “If I learned nothing else there, I understand that to spend mornings and afternoons in a place for four years entails merging that place with the person you are, or strive to be, whether you like it or not.” And again, person, place, and thing entwine. I would like to think we’re able to un-merge from negative places, but it can take time, a great deal of hard work, and, most crucially, the recognition that the merging has took place.

One of the weirder stories is about dirty laundry left behind by a subletter. It seems to me, if you find someone else’s dirty underwear (among other items) in your apartment, you throw it out. Immediately. But Foreman spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to find someone who might want the skirt and shirts, trying on the socks. Wait – trying on a stranger’s unwashed socks? Is he nuts? I started to think this was a gag of some kind; I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to irony, and maybe this was a Seinfeldesque fantasy.

But then, it got very real. He talks about the stuff with his friends: “Most people, when I told them about Sarah’s abandoned laundry, were less interested in it than they were in other things, like movies and their own lives.” Boy, do I know that feeling. Even on the Internet, where you’re supposed to be able to find anything, I can’t find people who are willing to talk to me about stuff I want to talk about for more than 280 characters, if that.

A couple of essays about Foreman’s decision to go vegetarian (in a non-evangelical way, thank god) didn’t particularly interest me until he revealed what to me was a surprising fact: Hitler was a vegetarian. Then we get serious when he imagines what lunch with vegetarian Hitler might be like:

I don’t like to think I could have a pleasant talk with Adolf Hitler, or that I could bear his presence long without at least being critical, even brutally honest, but if we could somehow meet at a dinner party or reinforced bunker, and I couldn’t help interacting with him, I might well behave as I do when faced with anything I consider worth protest. I am afraid I would act like I do in all awkward encounters: evade the points of contention between us, downplay our differences, be polite, avoid a scene.
….Instead we would talk about our favorite salads. I would sing the praises of chickpeas, and worry that, by discussing food instead of his atrocities, I might be doing something unforgivable.

This style of writing mesmerizes me. The comedy and absurdity makes me think it’s humor, but the tragedy and profundity layered in there cancels that out, and the self-deprecation makes it all somehow very real. It leaves me a bit off balance, and I realize, that’s the same thing he did with the laundry, except it’s more intense here because everything’s more intense with Hitler. Except that invoking Hitler usually turns trite, but discussing favorite salads kept us from going down that road. It reminds me of a flash Steve Almond wrote, “Nixon Swims”, which, being about Nixon, could’ve also been trite, but had me in tears, since it wasn’t really about Nixon at all, just like this isn’t about Hitler.

The story about working as a live model for art students was memorable as an example of a person intentionally becoming a thing, if a sentient, reflective thing. I hadn’t realized it was so physically taxing. A secondary thing in the story is the robe. You can’t just take off your clothes; you have to change, in private, into a robe, then remove the robe when it’s time to start. There’s a tiny vignette about the robe getting lost that again went through absurdity and came out real on the other side.

“Boxes” presents Foreman’s stint as a temp for a law firm, and made me realize how, when expertly used, “show don’t tell” is extraordinarily effective. Privilege, in corporate and personal forms, is never mentioned but laid out bare via boxes full of documents that must be examined and tagged. The calmness of the voice in the essay only inflames my reaction.

“James and the Giant Noise Violation” was most notable, to me, for the behavior of the girlfriend Aurora. Foreman moved to Missouri; Aurora came with him to pick out a place, then when the time came, moved a hundred miles away. If she had a reason, it isn’t given. She left several art projects in Missouri, however, including a bizarre bust based on a casting of a friend of hers; bizarre because of the naked men on the torso, bizarre because of the handprints on its back, and bizarre because it was from the hips up, so looked like it was “halfway buried in the floor.” It’s interesting that I began to see Foreman as a person at this point. I know him slightly through Twitter, and have always assumed he was a rather water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy. Now I began to see him differently.

“Skillet” is a wonderful piece, my favorite in the book at the moment, I think, about the aftermath of a kitchen accident that melted a skillet, and the oddly-shaped remnant of metal that remained afterwards. And through this thing we come to several urgent matters. About huddlers and spreaders, the cost of our tendency in modernity to leave the nest farther and farther behind:

Post skillet, I gained some insight concerning why my four brothers and one sister lived within an hour of each other – within sixty miles of the house where we grew up. It is one thing when your skillet explodes and roasts your kitchen and you panic, and you have a brigade of family members who can reach you in fifty minutes in case things really go wrong. It is another thing altogether when this happens soon after you’ve moved to Missouri and you live alone….

About the fragility of the world, about the damage that can be done in a mere minute. “I was upset with the world because of the stuff it was made of…. I wanted the world to be stronger than that.”

And, in a poignant end to this essay that began with a Chaplinesque accident:

If my brother Jim found the ugly piece of metal on my desk, he would throw it away, and so would my brothers Sam and David. So would my father. So would my mother. This would make no difference, if i did not think the piece of metal meant something, if there were nothing of significance I thought I could learn from it. Years after its creation, I sit at my desk sometimes still and let it hang from my fingernail by its stem. I stare at it, and think about nothing.
I am convinced that my family would in no way understand this, that they would not see the value of this useless piece of previously useful metal. I worry that no one else would get it either, and sometimes I know that I am utterly alone in this world.

As someone who was always alone in my family, and someone who now remembers to recite “nobody gives a damn what you say” whenever I have an impulse to tweet, reply, or otherwise communicate to a world that, truly, doesn’t give a damn what I say because everyone’s only interested in what they themselves are saying, or what the Influencers are saying, I understand this. And again, I somehow found it surprising coming from someone like Foreman, who appears, on Twitter at least, to be a successful professor and writer who now has a family of his own, a family that, presumably, understands him just fine. I wonder if they look at him funny when he writes essays about a stranger’s laundry, though.

I also appreciated a paragraph from the preface:

Scenes in the essays that follow have been rendered as faithfully to objective truth as possible, and every sentence was written with the intent to portray things with clarity and honesty. The value of clarity, honesty, and objective truth is a worthy subject for another preface to a different book.

I’ve gone ballistic in the past over nonfiction that invents things to make reality work more like a story, or to fill in gaps in memory. I’m fully aware of the difficulty of remembering exactly what happened, what was said, years in the past, particularly in emotionally charged moments, but writers have always had ways of handling that without lying to their readers. So I’m glad to read nonfiction that aims for, as much as possible, 100% truth, rather than 82% truth. And I’d really like to see that preface on the value of truth.

I e-met Foreman about five years ago, when I made a snarky remark about a story of his that appeared in a Pushcart volume. As luck would have it, somehow he found it, and made a good-natured joke on Twitter. I asked him a few months later if he would answer some questions about the story for an online writers’ group I was still using (yes, it was that long ago), and he generously did. He’s the second writer who’s responded graciously to my clumsy remarks, and ended up, well, not a friend exactly, but someone for whom I feel warmth and appreciation. I’ve had his book on my read list since it came out a couple of years ago, but my mistake was: I put it on a special list, not on my library list or Amazon list or browser bookmarks list. I put it in my Google Calendar. So every three to six months, I’d get a message, “Read Rob Foreman’s Book” and I’d be in the middle of something – a nasty math mooc, the current Pushcart, and most recently, a move – and push it forward a few months.

A few weeks ago, I forwarded a tweet from my blogging buddy Jake Weber, hoping to lure some of the writers who follow me (I have no idea why) into joining us for the impending BASS 2019 read. Rob was the only one to reply affirmatively. So I made his book a priority for this summer session. I now wish I’d read it years ago. But then again, maybe this was the ideal time for me to read about things. He has a short story collection coming out in 2020, titled I Am Here to Make Friends.

In every essay, no matter how far removed from my personal experience, I found something I strongly identified with. The margins are littered with exclamation points and scribblings of “yeah, I know!”. Some of these were silly: who hasn’t forgotten a pan on the stove (mine did not result in any kind of disaster, though I threw it away, afraid to reheat it); I associate “Thanatopsis” with my monstrous fourth grade teacher, though I’m not sure if that’s real or something I conjured up since my mother died that year; and I’ve always wanted some kind of walking stick – and now I’m approaching the age and condition where a cane would not be inappropriate – but fear it would draw too much attention. That’s where the overlaps between Foreman’s world and mine deepen: timidity, self-assurance, courage, loneliness, haplessness shading into learned helplessness, healing, and always, a sense of great significance in everyday things.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”

Nell Painter: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint 2018)

Art school would mean more than following my own inclinations. It would entail evaluation – judgment – according to already existing criteria. Whose criteria? Other people’s criteria. Other people’s judgment. An awful discord between freedom and other defined seriousness that I could not yet see. I had little understanding of the potency of good and better as applied obsessively to art schools and to art and to my own art in particular.
I had no inkling of how thoroughly art school would instruct me – teach me, challenge my abilities, and question my sanity. I didn’t know how much I would learn from the young art students beside me. I just knew I wanted to make art and make art seriously.
….
Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.
I said, because I wanted to.
Because I could.
I knew from my mother I could do it.

On Nell Painter’s website home page, there are three options: “Historian Nell Irvin Painter”, “Old in Art School”, and “Artist Nell Painter”. Three identities, different but related. That sort of sums up one of the tracks of this book: the struggle to incorporate multiple facets, the alchemy that was a journey, a transformation, and a consolidation. It’s a fascinating read.

She also looks at big questions like: Is an Artist born or made? At what point is someone recognized as an Artist? What are the strengths and limitations of an older student, and is there room in the twenty-first century art world for what Painter refers to as her “twentieth-century eyes”?

All of me wanted to be An Artist – and yet at the same time to keep my past as thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic? The very worst thing in the world you could call someone’s art was “academic,” meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
An Artist’s art is ambiguous and ironic, possessing what teacher Roger called “right nowness.” I was doing my darnedest for ambiguity and irony, with mixed results, but right nowness? I was too old for right nowness.

Painter was not a complete neophyte to the process of art; she’d drawn all her life, and had taken several studio courses, mostly in painting. She started her full-time journey at the Mason Gross school of the Arts at Rutgers, and after three years worked on her MFA at RISD. On the first day, one young student asked point blank, “How old are you?” Painter writes about the similarities, and differences, between not fitting in because of her race and sex, and not fitting in because of her age, and of the difficulty of knowing which was which.

She struggled with conflicting priorities younger students couldn’t understand: caring for elderly parents (her mother died during her third year at Rutgers, and her father suffered from crippling depression, heaped on top of the usual challenges of eight and nine decades of living, after that), and residual professional responsibilities from her career as a historian. I get the sense there was a good deal of resentment on the part of instructors towards her when her last book as a historian was released and required multiple appearances, meaning time away from school; that it was titled A History of White People probably didn’t help matters. Beginning with the application of the label “Caucasian” to white people and travelling through other delimiters of whiteness, it made the NYT Best Seller list, and she’s one of the few people who’s joyfully entered into the spirit of schtick in her appearance on The Colbert Report and come out intact. But her instructors asked, “Why did you come to art school when your book was being released?” Those involved in publishing know how those things can go beyond the writer’s control. Brief trips to acknowledge honors – a Centennial Award from Harvard, the activation of her archive at Duke – were similarly met with disapproval, in one case resulting in a thesis reader withdrawing from her project.

She describes much of her artwork, both origin and process, in the book as well, including several full-color insets of her work. For example, one of her early projects at Rutgers was a combination of inspirations. She’d attended a Met series on Chinese scrolls of the Song dynasty via public transportation. The commute – “colorful congestion and junkiness and its characteristic sounds” including La Traviata on a recorder – so delighted her, she made it part of her project:

My final painting project reworked that assignment, adopting the style of an ancient Chinese scroll, reading right to left and painted in the scrolls’ warm, desaturated colors. I depicted myself as a mounted Chinese warrior in a gorgeous red coat, repeated in the style of simultaneous narration that I had just discovered in Islamic art in art history class. Chinese-warrior-me repeated seven times, starting with leaving my house, crossing Branch Brook Park to the light rail station, to Newark Penn Station, my New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line (complete with lumpy Chinese mountains)….
My Faux Chinese Scroll commemorated my emblematic experience in art school: my commute and my affection for New Jersey camaraderie. A commute anchovy in what I might call Du Boisian oneness with my fellow anchovy-commuters.

Later, while she struggled with the process of silkscreen, she came up with an idea combining ideas of male beauty from the Classical and contemporary periods,and fashioned images of Apollo Belvedere talking to Michael Jackson (whose ever-evolving appearance fascinated her), strips of conversation about their respective hairstyles.

So much of her art seems, to me, rooted in and/or inspired by history, yet she constantly struggled with both the different ways of approaching the disciplines, and with a kind of self-competition:

As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian because I’d never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing. Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, know. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn’t always know that.

This tension between past and present/future, between the historian and the artist, between the scholarship and dusty research of History and the improvisation and approximation of Art, is a major theme of the book. She resolves this quite beautifully at the end of the book when the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks her to do a presentation on “African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.” She researched numerous artists from the Harlem Renaissance for her presentation. History, combined with her new artist’s sensibilities, became something new for her:

Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their own visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally. For me now, image works as particularlity, not as generalization. This how art school changed my thinking about history and how visual art set me free.

I’ve admitted my stupidity in the visual arts several times in these pages. Often, when I read about art, either through the eyes of an artist or as an academic study, I’m lost; much as when I read about poetry, the language gets abstract and takes for granted that the yellow brings joy or there’s an ominous sense to the horizon. But I found this book to be enjoyable and informative, not leaving me behind at all even in discussions of technical processes or artistic approaches. That’s partly because the writing is clear and explains what’s necessary, but I admit I looked up all kinds of things (this reading-in-front-of-the-computer thing is getting to be a habit). What is grisaille? Who is Robert Colescott, whom she refers to as her “patron saint”? I was also pleased to recognize a few names, having incorporated some of their art as header images for stories in this blog: Kara Walker, Toyin Odutola, Amy Sherald, Hale Woodruff.

Some time last year, I saw a PBS story I’d seen about Painter, and put her on my “to read” list. When I started organizing my summer read list, it seemed like a natural inclusion in the “writing about jobs” category. I’m so glad I did. At times it’s very sad reading, at times infuriating, but overall it’s joyous and celebratory. Nell Painter seems like quite a woman, and her story is worth reading.

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (Harvest, 1998 translation)

In short, all these erudite excursions of mine are concerned with a linguistics that I would call “lunatic,” and — as I have already said in my book on perfect languages — even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious….
I feel that what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.

This book is a collection of five lectures, on mistakes in the field of linguistics that nevertheless yielded important things. Eco uses the example of Columbus: he thought he’d found India when he stumbled across the Caribbean islands and South America (he never did make it to North America), but his mistake was a great boost for Europe (if a tragedy for the men, women, and children who were already here minding their own business).

It’s not a big book – 115 pages, plus notes – but it’s extremely information-dense. I spent six hours on three pages, and still don’t have it all. The original lectures were targeted at professionals and grad students far more advanced than I, so he doesn’t do much background before leaping into things like Fenius or Abulafia. This was another read-in-front-of-my-computer book. And, although it was a bit beyond my grasp, I loved it. Though it’s time to move on, I’m nowhere near finished with it. But I find it more profitable to loop back over material, bringing more background each time, than to dig straight down.

The first essay, “The Force of Falsity”, applies Bob Ross’ happy accidents to the humanities. After reviewing the reworking of the cosmos over centuries and Columbus, we come to the Donation of Constantine, which, though later proved to be a forgery, directed medieval power structures. And then there’s the example of Prester John. The name was familiar to me, but I assumed he was one of the endless people in the middle ages who did something I can never remember. Turns out, that’s not the case: he was totally fictitious, but letters about his massive kingdom somewhere in Asia – a place of health, wealth, and perfect morality – was part of the engine of Eastern exploration. When the possible regions for this Kingdom were finally exhausted, he was moved to Ethiopia, likewise encouraging travel in that direction.

The geographical fantasy gradually generated a political project. In other words, a phantom called up by some scribe with a knack for counterfeiting documents (a highly respected literary activity of the period) served as an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia….

Chapter 2, “Languages in Paradise”, was the place I spent most of my time. The chapter begins with a focus on the Creation story: when God said, “Let there be light,” was that speech, or will? If speech, what language? How did God speak to Adam? In what sense did Adam name the animals, that is, was the language he spoke at that time arbitrary (as linguists consider all human language) or innate?

Eco looks at the Babel story (including an interesting inconsistency between Genesis 10, where the 72 descendants of Noah dispersed “after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations” before Babel is built and the solitary language confused in Genesis 11), then jumps to the early Christian Church where Hebrew was considered the Adamic language. And now we move to Europe in the early middle ages.

The first step is the 7th century Gaelic book Auracepit na n-Éces (Precepts of the Poets) which claims one Fenius Farsaid, present at Babel, preserved his language, and his descendants became the Gaels and thus created the Gaelic language. Irish as the primordial language: this was all news to me. But this urge to heal of the wound of Babel, as Eco characterizes it, by finding the original language proliferated throughout Europe, and is the topic of his 400-page book The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe) from which this brief essay is distilled.

It thus happens that as soon as Europe was born as a bunch of peoples speaking different tongues, European culture reacted by feeling such an event not as a beginning but as the end of a long harmony, a new Babel-like disaster, so that a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought….It is a quest that took two different paths: on the one hand, people (from Raymond Lully to Leibniz and further) looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfection of the lost speech of Eden; on the other hand, people tried to rediscover the lost language spoken by Adam.

From 7th century Ireland we leapfrog to early 14th century Dante, where things get really interesting. First of all, he has an almost Chomskian view of the original language: it was a kind of universal grammar, a way to generate language, rather than a language itself. Dante got more practical with In De Vulgari Eloquentia (and, by the way, vulgar was not pejorative; vulgar languages were considered natural as they were generated from use, while Latin, by this time only used for formal or historical purposes, was considered a grammar, or a secondary language, and more artificial), where he proposes that the Adamic language was preserved until Babel, and that Adam’s first word to God was the name of God, EL. But when he wrote the Paradiso of the Comedy, he’d changed his mind, for, in Canto XXVI, Adam tells him:

The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work (the tower of Babel) of the people of Nembrot was even conceived…. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I, from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Eco goes into some detail to answer why these two changes were made, eventually arriving at Abraham Abulafia, founder of the Prophetic (or Ecstatic) Kabbalah, who I vaguely recall from the mooc on Kabbalah I took a couple of years ago. It seems pretty thin to me, since it’s based on the statement “Paleographers say that in certain codes of the Divine Comedy I is written as Y” as well as some speculation about whether Dante could have known of the work of Abulafia. Eco admits it’s only a hypothesis. I sure had fun with it, since it took me all over the place. At one point I had all three volumes of the Divine Comedy, a Bible, Eco’s book, and several browser tabs all open, trying to keep up with these few paragraphs.

But though the connections seem (to me, at least, and who am I to argue with Eco) attenuated, he brings the chapter to a lovely close:

Perhaps, on his way to paradise, Dante met, even if indirectly, Abulafia. I hope both men reached the same destination, where they are now talking to each other, making fun of our desperate efforts to ascertain if they had something in common. If by chance Adam has joined the party, only God knows what kind of language those three characters are speaking together. Perhaps the angels are providing an excellent service of simultaneous translation.

In the third chapter, “From Marco Polo to Leibniz”, Eco looks at culture collisions. He name three common reactions when cultures meet: conquest, which we’re all familiar with; cultural pillage, exemplified by the Hellenization of Egypt while many aspects of science and religion were brought back to Greece even as Egypt was subjugated; and exchange, such as in the early contacts of Father Matteo Ricci (another name new to me) and Marco Polo with the Chinese. Eco names two additional possibilities: exoticism, which is seen in Orientalism and, amusingly, “the Siddhartha syndrome of the hippies”; and something he doesn’t name but seems to be a form of cultural translation:

In a very curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books

He gives the example of Marco Polo’s unicorn, which was a rhinoceros. But the high point of the chapter is in the ancient Greek and medieval European reaction to Egyptian hieroglyphs, prior to the discovery of the Rosetta stone. These hieroglyphs became viewed as the Adamic language or, possibly, a system that could generate such a perfect language

At the beginning of the 15th century, European culture rediscovered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Their code was irredeemably lost (rediscovered only in the 19th century by Champollion) but at that time a Greek manuscript, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollus (or Horus Aollon) that purported to decipher the code, was introduced into Italy, in Florence. ….The scholars of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries believed that they signified mysterious and mystical truths, understandable only by initiates. They were divine symbols, able to communicate not merely the name or forms of things , but their very essences, their true and deeply mysterious meanings. They were thus considered the first instance of perfect language.

Later, in a sort of reverse of the Prester John migration, Chinese ideograms were seen as closer to the original language and conveying the true nature of things. This gets pretty complicated, going back and forth between Egypt and China as having the closest representation, or even the actual symbols, of the original language; it’s another track I want to pay more attention to next time.

But then we get to the big finish: Leibniz, working on logic and binary representations of numbers, received a copy of the I Ching, and recognized it as using a binary code. I’m still unclear as to whether it really is, or if it just seemed that way; the characters can be arranged in different ways. But in any case, it’s fascinating reading how things as unalike as an ancient Chinese philosophical fortune system and emerging modern mathematics managed to converge.

The chapter closes with a review of these explorations in the context of errors of cultural anthropology: that is, the misunderstanding of a new culture because we interpret it in our existing terms. But the cases Eco shows are, fittingly for this book, serendipitous; Leibniz may have misinterpreted Chinese writing, but, “looking for the mathematical awareness of Fu-shi, contributed to the development of modern logic.” And again, he ends on a lovely note:

But what does sound cultural anthropology mean? I am not among those who believe there are no rules for interpretation, for even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some rules….However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our external drive to think that our rules are the golden ones.
The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

“The Language of the Austral Land”, chapter 4, deals with the concept of a perfect and universal language, which grew out of the realization that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters for the same concepts were the same, although they were pronounced differently. It was Francis Bacon (the 16th century philosopher, not the 20th century painter) who began this European search for universal characters.

These inventors of languages, which would be called philosophic and a priori, because they were constructed on the basis of a given philosophical view of the world, no longer aimed merely at converting the infidel or recovering that mystic communication with God that distinguished the perfect language of Adam but rather at fostering commercial exchange, colonial expansion, and the diffusion of science…. Many of the results – apparent failures – of these utopists contributed to the birth of new scientific taxonomies.

Eco brings in utopian works from the familiar – Gulliver’s Travels and Thomas More’s original Utopia – to the more (to me, at least) arcane, Gabriel de Foigny’s La Terre australe connue, all of which included some description of the language of utopia. He goes into extreme detail of Foigny’s fictional grammar and construction, which is head-spinningly complex in its attempt to be simple. Then we move on to Descartes’ analysis of such constructed languages. He didn’t think it would be possible, as our ideas aren’t really that simple. Swift, Joyce, and Borges all demonstrate in fictional settings.

Though I’m pushing the quotation limit a bit, the final paragraphs of these chapters (which were delivered as lectures) are too good to miss:

The failure of the utopias of the a priori philosophical language has thus produced some interesting experiments in the Land of Novels that, instead of constructing perfect linguistic systems, have demonstrated how our imperfect languages can produce texts endowed with some poetic virtue or some visionary force, I consider this no small achievement.

Chapter 5, “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre”, left me behind from the start. But one phrase leaped out at me: “Since it is linguistically difficult to demonstrate that a relationship exists between words and the essence of things….” This is where the Perfect Language begins, with the word that is sky, not the English or Chinese or Hebrew word for sky. And while I’ve pretty much gone with it in the context of these chapters, it’s still a puzzle to me. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” in which he proposes that a cat has three names, an everyday name used by the humans, a more formal name that is unique to each cat, and a name only the cat himself knows and will never tell. Do things – the sky, a rock, a radio, love, running – all have names they themselves know? Or that God endowed them with at creation? I also wonder about telepathy, if it conveys “yesterday John and Mary had a fight and she doesn’t love him any more” as a sentence, as images, or as simply a knowledge?

Yes, I’m lost in this chapter; maybe my brain was just full from the first four. So I will leave this as a sample:

This is Maistre’s idea of Reason; to reason means to entrust oneself to any analogy that establishes an unbroken network of contacts between every thing and every other thing. This can be said, and it must be done, because it has been assumed that this network has existed since the Origin; indeed, it is itself the basis of all knowledge.

I suspect my confusion comes from what I interpret as Eco’s own disapproval of Maistre’s work. Whereas he pointed out missteps in the prior thinkers, here he seems to be quite negative. But that may be my misunderstanding. And I am, throughout, well over my pay grade with this one; this is not a general readership book.

But setting aside this last chapter, I found this small book to be a wonderful adventure. Every page, sometimes every sentence sent me scurrying to look something up. I discovered all manner of things I’d never heard of, and I still have more work to do before I can consider that I have truly “read” the book. I recommend it highly for those who, like me, have an interest in language and history, and are never happier than when they are learning something new.