BASS 2021:  Shanteka Sigers, “A Way with Bea” from The Paris Review #234

Photo: Simon Bastien (Paris Review art)
I was in grad school and my advisor, Hari Kunzru, wanted a brand-new story in a little less than two weeks. Bea was the little sister of the protagonist of another story I’d published. I knew her well, so off the shelf she came.
I was never sure about what might happen to the other children in that story, but Bea was a survivor. I knew she was going to live a different life than the one that appeared to be unfolding for her. But how?
I gave Bea a teacher. Teachers change kids’ lives all the time.
I started writing observations of Bea’s presence or absence in class in chunks of barely connected narrative. But the teacher was flat, less of a character and more of a device. Right away, Hari (and several other wise readers, both advisors and students) wanted more. So over time the teacher grew a real marriage. And a legacy to live up to. And a desire to teach with her full self.

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (first half)

On first read, I thought, eww, creepy, why is every other story in this year’s anthology so creepy?  Then I read the Contributor Note; not the part above, but the second half, which will show up later when we need it. That made me laugh. And I realized, I’d read the story all wrong. 

Let’s start with Bea, a student of undetermined age (I’m guessing 6th grade?), showing little evidence of being cared for at home.

Bea walks into the classroom wearing the clothes she had on the day before. The Teacher understands that this is going to be a bad day. Bea’s hair is uncombed, face unwashed. She arrives precisely twelve seconds late. Not so late that the Teacher has to make a big deal about it. But not on time. Bea walks like a prisoner forcibly escorted, snatching herself along, step by step, then pouring her thin body into the seat. She has no books, no pencil or paper. She drapes herself over the desk and waits for the Teacher to continue or challenge.
The Teacher dissects Bea as the girl walks toward her classroom. She looks like a doll made for tea parties that was thrown outside to fend for itself. A nobility lives in Bea’s bones, an ancient, undiluted beauty that most eyes have forgotten. She grows in angles. The broadness of her nose and the wide, sculpted divot leading down to her lips and the deep, delicate hollows behind her collarbone. The disorder of her swarming hair, misshapen and dusty, but still a laurel.

Bea and her family – brother Aldous and mother Flora – are the only characters in the story who get names. Everyone else is identified by role. This shines a spotlight on Bea, even though The Teacher is the point-of-view character.

The Teacher – who is the only teacher not identified by a subject, reflecting her broader role than, say, the Gym Teacher or The English Teacher, even though she is, we eventually learn, a science teacher – is hyperconscious of Bea. We get the sense she very much wants to help her in whatever way she can, but isn’t sure how.

Sigers mentioned her gradual additions to the Teacher as the story developed. Structurally, it’s as though we can see those pieces dropped into the core story. That sounds like a mistake, like they should be better incorporated, but it works perfectly.

The Teacher has a strained relationship with her husband, though we aren’t sure why. Then we get a hint:

The teacher puts down her fork and stares at her husband period of warm white tablecloth edged in lace tries to put her in the spirit of their honeymoon. But it is hard to remember the man who grinned at her across lopsided wooden tables in tiny restaurants in the Caribbean while looking at him here with his mouth only half lifted in a smirk. She leans back, withdrawing from him. “I am aware that teaching is not going to be like a made-for-TV movie or an after-school special, and fuck you,” says the Teacher.

The Teacher has enough doubts of her own, hearing those internal voices many of us hear when someone says something nice about us: “You’re a great teacher. Not as great as your grandmother, or great aunt, or your cousin. You’re a great teacher. Not as great as the National Teacher of the Year.” After all, she can’t do anything about Bea, though she dreams of caring for her, fixing her hair, fixing everything, sending her off to Stanford in a few years. But she’s realistic enough to know there isn’t enough hair grease in the world to do that.

We enter the rising action phase of our narrative, as Bea’s behavior becomes, well, creepy, then angelic, then creepy again. [Addendum: I just noticed something when I checked that the tweet of this story was released properly: the title is also something of a pun with two meanings. “Away with Bea” is the attitude of the faculty discussing one of the creepy behaviors; “A Way With Bea” is the Teacher’s approach.] But The Teacher seems to know what’s happening. After all, this is a girl who corrected an  inaccurate drawing of the endoplasmic reticulum of a cell. The Teacher figures out a way she might help Bea. It helps that the husband’s ancient cat finally died, perhaps of grief because the husband is out of the country on business.

And now, that second half of the Contributor Note:

You should also know that my family has two cats, Meyonce and Principle Nelson. Somewhere in this timeline I’d invited our vet to participate in a Jack and Jill career day event. She is a delicate, bright-eyed Black woman, passionate about animals and science. I had watched her table from afar, noting a clear delineation between kids who leaned into her display of bones and organs and kids who recoiled in disgust. Later I visited her table and examined tiny parts in jars.
“Where’d you get that cat skull?” I asked.

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (second half)

That’s where I laughed. And everything made sense.

This gets translated into The Teacher’s life by giving her a childhood in the country. Country people have a more intimate connection with death; they see it all the time, they view it as the natural result of life. They have a different way of regarding animals as well.

The teacher knows of two ways to get animal bones so smooth and glossy they seem unreal, almost manufactured. She remembers her great-aunts, the unsentimental efficiency of their land, soft denim coveralls, and a summertime discovery of luminous little skulls. The life in good Alabama soil can do all the work, reclaiming the meat and polishing the bones. That’s one way. The other is to boil them.

It may seem like I’ve lost my mind, enthusing about this story, laughing about dying cats and… other things. But I promise you, every step is there, and it fits, and it feels like hope for both The Teacher and Bea. And that two-ways-of-polishing seems to reflect how the Teacher, with her country roots, and Bea, from Chicago, require different polishing methods, so they can both end up gleaming and smooth. Maybe Stanford isn’t that much of a pipe dream; this is a way better road than hair grease.

Then there’s the final line, which plays on the double meaning of “take care of.” I don’t know if it’s gangster movies or crime movies in general, but there’s a sense in which “I’ll take care of him” implies dispatch with extreme prejudice. But of course it generally means to care for, to nurture, or to treat with respect when it’s too late for nurturing. That’s the sentence that made me laugh out loud on second read: the Teacher’s tense relationship with her husband makes it work as a subtle taunt, as well as in the country sense.

What is left out of the story is just as important as what is written. We don’t know exactly what the husband said that caused The Teacher’s resentful outburst. Do we need to know? Isn’t it more powerful to leave it to our imagination, to just put his smirk and her reaction before us and let us create it out of our own experience? Not in all cases, obviously, but here it worked. Even in the Contributor Note, second half: we don’t need to hear the veterinarian’s reply. The writing style invites it: a patchwork of short paragraphs, little scenes, bits and pieces of incidents with scant connections. The rate of reveal is perfect, particularly towards the end.

This story was included with the “Surprise” group, for good reason. That last page sure is a  surprise, boy, is it ever. The best kind of surprise in a story: an ending that changes the reader’s perception of what has gone before as the story turns into a unified whole.

BASS 2021:  Eloghosa Osunde, “Good Boy” from Paris Review #234

Troy Michie: “Doubling” (detail)
The entire story flowed out in the character’s voice. When people ask me about how I ‘crafted’ the tone, I try to tell the truth: I didn’t craft it, I listened to it. I remembered from the inside and transcribed it. He reminds me of someone I know and love, actually, so it wasn’t difficult to hear him.
The most fascinating thing about the process of writing that story, for me, was that the ending came first. We hear (and read and watch) so many stories about queer characters being disowned by their parents because they came out or were outed. Those stories are powerful, but I was curious about something else: a character who a) centres his own experience, b) lives his full life, c) decides for himself who he wants to let in on the truth about who he is, d) never comes out to his parents, e) is thickly loved through his obvious messiness and f) draws a line between himself and what he is(n’t) willing to let go of for the sake of being accepted.

Eloghosa Osunde, First Draft interview with magazine

I know what Osunde means when she says she heard the voice and wrote it down. In the film Amadeus, the character Salieri is amazed that Mozart’s written music has no corrections: “He had simply written down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation.” It sounds like Osunde had a similar experience with this story. The voice is distinctive: occasional grammatical and vocabulary variations captured in long paragraphs with organizing structures such as lists and orderings.

I’ve always had a problem with introductions. To me, they don’t matter. It’s either you know me or you don’t—you get? If you don’t, the main thing you need to know is that I am a hustler through and through. I’m that guy that gets shit done. Simple. Kick me out of the house at fifteen—a barged-in-on secret behind me, a heartbreak falling into my shin as I walk—and watch me grow some real useful muscles. Watch me learn how to play all the necessary games, good and ungood; watch me learn how to notice red eyes, how to figure out when to squat and bite the road’s shoulder with all my might. Watch me learn why a good knife (and not just any type of good, but the moral-less kind, the fatherlike kind) is necessary when you’re sleeping under a bridge. Just a week after that, watch me swear on my own destiny and insist to the God who made me that I’m bigger than that lesson now; then watch my ori align….Second thing to know about me: I know how to make the crucial handshakes. Third thing: I no dey make the same mistake twice.

Even though I’m not familiar with the voice, after a few pages I could hear it as I read. I can’t say I fully understood all of the references, but I got the gist. I was interested in the phrase “watch my ori align” and discovered ori is literally “head” but figuratively means something like soul or fate, maybe something like a personal Tao, a path.

Most of the story is an extended monologue providing backstory that is the story: how a fifteen-year-old kicked out of his house with nothing when found with a gay lover manages to not only survive, but thrive, and now lives with his partner in luxury. This all leads up to meeting his estranged father after so many years, finding him gravely ill, paying his bills to return him to health. And when Dad asks to meet the woman he will marry – “Won’t you let me see you whole?” – the son does just that. “Yes, sir you will see me whole.” The ending uses a linguistic play that succeeds wildly; I didn’t think I was that emotionally engaged in this coming-out story, but following the struggle just outlined, it gave me goosebumps:

Are you sure you understand, Dad? I asked. By then my voice was hot iron. No one, I decided there and then, is allowed to kill me twice. Using my child-voice he said, Yes, sir, and using his dad-voice, I said, Good boy.

This twist of voice – a triple twist, a switch of owner, nature, and role, a kind of end-parenthesis on the initial comments about his father – sold me on the story. It shows who has matured and who has some growing to do. In a story made of voice, it was unexpected. That might be why Ward put it in her Surprise category. It also might be what won it Paris Review’s  George Plimpton Prize for 2021.

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Author interview with magazine

BASS 2021:  Brandon Hobson, “Escape from the Dysphesiac People” from McSweeney’s #61

Stephen Mopope: “Two Eagle Dancers”
Like a lot of my recent writing, “Escape From The Dysphesiac People” came out of thinking about the years I spent as a social worker. In this story I was especially thinking about colloquial language and the way certain authorities talked with a common acerbic aggression, exaggerated in this story, of course. For a while I worked in juvenile services and had to make referrals for kids to go to placement at boys’ ranches and other long-term facilities. I was also thinking about how Natives were once removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were forced to cut their hair and change their speech in an attempt to rid them of their identity.

Brandon Hobson, Contributor Note

This story makes for an interesting comparison with Zhang’s “Little Beast,” which it follows, due to the order in which I’m reading the collection. They both involve a hazy line between imagination, imagery, and reality. But where Zhang’s story felt creepy without ever stepping over to the supernatural, this story abounds with some kind of, well, call it magical realism, yet seems far more rational.

Perhaps it’s the vantage point from which it’s told. It’s in the form of a letter to the protagonist’s grandchildren, so he must be mature, if not elderly, at this point, well past the fifteen years of age he was when the action of the story took place. He survived, and flourished enough to have beloved grandchildren:

Beloved grandchildren: Dr. Estep has recommended I tell the story of how, many years ago, I escaped from the Darkening Land and returned home. I escaped from the men who talked funny, the ones who removed me from my home and cut my hair and put me on a train….
You might know that such trauma – the removal from your home, from your family, from your own identity – causes unease even after years of talking about it, and so be it, my beloved! But this is not so much a story of a traumatic event as it is a story of escape. This is not a melange of distorted events, nor is it a call for sympathy. You must know the history of removal, and this is my own history – my way of remembering those weeks when I was gone.

That action is as straightforward as it is grim. He is removed from his home, from his family, and transferred to some kind of state custody because he is Indian, possibly because he’d committed some infraction only Indian children would be punished for. Or perhaps this was the wholesale re-socialization that was a routine practice in the US and Canada up until the middle of the 20th century: an attempt to teach Native kids to be white.

The first thing they do is cut the boy’s hair and change his name.

“Drink this,” he said. He sat on the edge of the bed. “There will be work for you to do here. Ah.”
I shook my head.
“Mah,” he said. His face twitched. “You’ll choose your name, son. How about Jim? Think about it, ah, or maybe we’ll just call you Chief.”
“I don’t want to change my name,” I said.
“Chief it is. Oh, ah, you’ll need to learn to act and talk just like us.”
I shook my head. “Mah,” he said “your hair looks good short. You are in better territory, ah, away from the dusty plains. Away from the tornadoes and the rattlesnakes. You’ll be happier here. Oh. Ah.”

The strange manner of speech is highlighted throughout the story, and in the title. It’s hard for me to grasp the kind of prosody exemplified by the written dialogue; I assume the mahs and ahs are hesitation sounds of some kind. I wondered if dysphesia was an actual word; I’m familiar with aphasia and dysphasia, but maybe this was something different, so I went googling. Imagine my surprise when I ended up at David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Twenty-Four Word Notes” as printed in his posthumously-published collection Both Flesh and Not.

Dysphesia     This is a medical noun with some timely nonmedical applications. We often use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical definition to mean really severe difficulties in forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president [George W. Bush] knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or inarticulate. What G. W. Bush’s public English is is dysphesiac.

David Foster Wallace, “Twenty-four Word Notes” from Both Flesh and Not

I can’t find the spelling with an ‘e’ anywhere else, so I’m going to assume it’s a little twist of irony (dysgrephia?), though it may be some grammatically-justified vowel shift I’m unaware of. In any case, it’s not a term used in the letter itself, but in the title by the author, which adds that same little twist of irony to the story.

We watch as the boy (I’m not comfortable calling him the State-assigned names of Jim or, god forbid, Chief, and his actual name is not mentioned) deals with hard work, little food, and no education. And, of course, fear and loneliness:

Beloved: I saw many people that first night. Apparitions of women and men with blankets over their shoulders, walking down the hallway. I saw children being carried. I saw people crawling and reaching out to me for help. They kept coming and coming, walking and crawling down the hallway past my bedroom. In the dark I couldn’t see their faces, but their bodies were struggling against a wind, pushing forward. My ancestors, I thought. My ancestors walking the Trail.

The Year of Removal in which the boy was taken was not the first Removal in Cherokee memory. Cultural memory is a powerful thing, which may be why white America is so determined to erase it for everyone they’ve removed, enslaved, exploited.

The boy’s mind is on escape all along, but he doesn’t act on it until he comes across a barn full of mannequins. I confess, I don’t really understand what’s happening here; one of the wardens (whatever their title, that’s what they are) tells him they’re just for pictures. Mannequins without eyes or mouths. Were these used to create the apparitions the boy saw, to frighten him? Whatever is going on, it scares him enough to send him running.

Along the road, he meets another Native, whose name is Tsala. It’s a scene as beautiful and gracious as the previous scenes were harsh. They share coffee and a smoke, and Tsala gives him a piece of rose quartz: “For overcoming grief. You can begin healing.” Tsala gives him directions to get home, then turns into an eagle and flies away. And now you see what I mean when I say this blending of imagery and the supernatural is more rational than the teenager’s in the prior story. Is this imagination, a dream, a hallucination?  Folklore so ingrained, it becomes memory? Or a reality some of us can’t understand?

Hobson’s recent novel, The Removed, included a character named Tsala. I’m not sure if the story is from the novel, or just shares Tsala. He discussed the origin of the name and the character with Ailsa Chang from NPR:

Tsala’s an ancestor. And Tsala’s name is a shortened version of Tsalagi, which is actually the word Cherokee in Cherokee language. And so Tsala was actually based on a real man named Tsali, who was killed for refusing to leave the land….Killed by the U.S. government, absolutely, because he refused. And he fought them for refusing to leave and was killed for it. And I had been reading about Tsali. And so I based Tsala on him and being a spirit ancestor

Brandon Hobson, NPR Intervew on his new novel The Removed

Ward included this story in her “surprising” group. She specifically mentions language as one of the elements that featured in surprise, so it’s no surprise when she calls it “surreal and hypnotic, due to the rhythm and building of the prose.” The dysphesiac people may be seen as incoherent simply because they tell lies as truth, claiming the Boys Ranch is a better place for the boy, taking him in the first place. Turning from them (and the mannequins) to Tsala is an enormous relief. Literary fiction rarely involves happy endings, but in this case, we end on, if not happiness, at least the beginning of regaining happiness: the last word, the last word is Home.

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Hobson’s interview on NPR

BASS 2021:  C Pam Zhang, “Little Beast” from BOMB #153

What does it mean to grow up as a girl when the models for girlhood that you see in the media are dead, or maimed, or “ruined,” or abused, or endangered – and when the public’s rapt attention on these girls gives them an aura of desirability, even sexiness? I don’t know any woman or girl, however strong and educated, who hasn’t been subliminally warped by the constant narrative of girls as victims and sex objects both. For that matter, I don’t know any living human who hasn’t been warped by it. In “Little Beast” I amplify this creepiness with the creepiness inherent to any very insular society: here, an elite all-girls school.

C Pam Zhang, Contributor Note

Creepy is a good word for this story – but it’s a fine-tuned creepiness, a creepiness that creeps up on you (sorry!), and plays with the borders between intense imagery, horror, and psychosis.

Zhang is right about the societally-bestowed nobility granted to those who have suffered trauma. That’s somewhat justified; it takes a lot to survive violence. But it can have the strange effect of making violence seem desirable, at least for a vulnerable few who see no other route to grandeur.

At thirteen, I felt my body slopping. Though I sat in the middle of the nurse’s height-weight chart, though I’d memorized the textbook diagram with its cake-like cross-section of flesh (epidermis, dermis, hypodermis stippled yellow with fat), my problem went deeper than biology. Mine was a more fundamental failure. My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae. I spilled into conversations and overshared the banal. My words manifested as spit on listeners’ cheeks. Even teachers wore expressions of disgust when my hand shot up—expressions blotted away by sympathy like a napkin blots grease.

Our protagonist is the young teen at the elite school Zhang sets up, a school populated by bright-eyed, shiny-haired future movers-and-shakers, daughters of current movers-and-shakers. Except for Girlie, who is the daughter of the janitor, admitted on scholarship. Her classmates aren’t Mean Girls; courtesy and respect seem to be, at least on the surface, drilled into them as much as posture and promptness.  They even make occasional mild overtures of friendliness towards her. That doesn’t make it any easier.

We never learn the name of our narrator. Her father used to call her Inch, then switched to Girlie, a shift that hovers over the story until it’s resolved on the final page, but remains ambiguous. The story connects her to her father, a man as loving as he is clueless about teenage girls; and to a group of girls at the school. No, not the bright-eyed shiny-haired girls; they aren’t the ones who appeal to her. It’s the other girls that interest her.

The girls I yearned to know were the ones wrapped in silence. Even teachers didn’t bother calling on them. Not glowing but shadowed girls, skinny wraiths with bitten nails, dark circles, dry hair. An exhaustion that made them seem older and wiser. Such girls had no hobbies or sports teams that I knew of—though participation was mandatory at Alta. It was as if whatever drained them was extracurricular enough.
A bit strange, was the strongest thing I heard said about the silent girls, thanks to Alta’s rampant kindness. Mostly those girls were buffered in silence as they passed through the halls. There were maybe five of them, though the precise number was slippery; they disappeared or reappeared from class at will, reinforcing the sense that they belonged not to Alta’s world, but a different one. A world my father couldn’t see into. Under Alta’s bright lights, these girls’ lashes drew vertical bars over their eyes. More than anything, I wanted to know what inside them needed caging.

I can understand that. She would always be an outsider with the Sweet Valley High set (I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, and this story kept coming to mind as I read her essay about her Sweet Valley obsession). She could belong to the silent girls with something caged within. Maybe. If she tried.

The methods of fitting in with this group are all self-destructive. Anorexia. Cutting. The cutting was more or less an accident with celery, but she’d already discovered “even these girls weren’t born with nothing behind their eyes. They had ways of inviting it in.” The celery served as an admission ticket. It also implies that no one is born with a beast within; it must be acquired, and some of us are better at rejecting it than others.

The cutting is noticed by a teacher who sends her to some kind of support group with the misfit girls, because if we’ve got a school of perfect future senators and a couple of weirdos, by all means let’s put the weirdos in a room where they can learn from each other. It’s more of a classroom for Girlie than where she learns Biology.

A strange room, down a half-flight of stairs I’d never seen. Subterranean light, the ceiling dusty and low. One barred window. A cage.
It was run by a woman who resembled a mouse, whose trembling voice bid the others to welcome me. Into our fold, the mouse said, as if they were four sheep instead of something else. The four ignored her—half a mouthful of a woman, not worth the effort. It was me they watched.
Seen up close, their differences became clear. A tall, dark one with shivering pupils. A freckled one with sunken cheeks and fat ankles. An elfin one with unwashed hair and skin, emitting a faint mushroomy smell. And the one who’d taken my wrist, who armored herself with a too-big uniform, who wasn’t beautiful but sat as if she were.
And me.

I’m struck again by the imagery of animals and cages. And here’s where I may be undervaluing the power of this description: I’d assumed it was imagery, the product of an adolescent mind turning everything up to eleven, tiptoeing right up to a horror story. It wasn’t until I read an excellent post about the story on Life As A Shorty (link below) that I considered this was delusion, psychosis, on top of the other mental illness symptoms. The story keeps it vague enough that the reader can decide, and can privilege one reading over another depending on their past experience and preference.

Girlie’s relationship with the pack (hey, if we’re doing animal imagery, I’m gonna get into it) falls into jeopardy when they catch her faking cuts, so she pulls out all the stops. And runs over her father – loving, clueless – in the process. Horror doesn’t have to include the supernatural, or the physically dangerous. Sometimes a camera and a lie is all it takes.

This moment unlocks her memory of the moment, when she was eight, that her father started calling her Girlie, and, I think, the moment the beast was born in her: not of rage or violence, but of fear. I’m perplexed by the actions that took place, why her cutting up her father’s favorite book led to him giving her the sole bedroom in the house, instead of the couch. But the emotions come through loud and clear: “It wasn’t triumph I’d felt when the door to the bedroom clicked closed five years ago. It was despair.”

And there we end, back at despair all over again.

This is another of Ward’s “young people” story. I’m impressed by the control Zhang shows in this story. It’s open, mysterious, fluid, and elusive. But it’s anchored by a few rock solids, like a father who loves his kid, and doesn’t get that she’s about to sacrifice him for the pack.

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Complete story online at BOMB magazine

Story commentary by Keith Lesmeister at LifeAsAShorty

BASS 2021:  Kevin Wilson, “Biology” from The Southern Review, Winter 2020

The story began with something from my past – a teacher I really cared for who was involved in an ill-advised sporting contest for money with bad-ass middle school girls – and I just started building the other elements around that. And I think what kind of amazes me about writing these stories is how, when I work my way through the confusion and the weirdness, at the heart of these stories is tenderness, of wanting to somehow tell the character, and maybe myself too, that they made it. That they’re still in this world, still alive. Maybe that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a story.

Kevin Wilson, Contributor Note

I’m very fond of the BASS contributor notes. They go beyond the biographical and bibliographical details included in most publications, and give the author a chance to describe the process of writing for a particular story, why they wrote it, how they wrote it.

I sometimes get distracted by a very different question I haven’t seen addressed, either as a writer or a reader: in the world of the story, why is the narrator telling this story now?

In fact, in last year’s BASS, Wilson’s story “Kennedy” raised that issue for me. I mentioned it in the Sonoma Novel Reading Group I mentioned in this year’s opening post, and one participant had a great scenario: Kennedy had just been released from prison. While plausible, and appealing, that wasn’t written into the story.

Maybe that question is something you’re not supposed to ask of a short story. However, sometimes the story provides an answer, as in this case. It’s an envelope story, beginning and ending with short sections from the present that explain why Patrick, our first-person narrator, has recalled his middle school years on this particular day: he reads a Facebook notice that his former biology teacher, Mr. Reynolds, died. We then find out, in something like an extended flashback, why that has significance for him.

In eighth grade, like every single grade leading up to that year, I was unpopular. I was too fat for sports and I had all these weird habits, little tics, that, even though everyone in our town had grown used to them, kept me from getting close to anyone. I cried sometimes if people smiled at me too long. I grunted a lot when I was reading to myself. I was an island, but not far enough away from this huge body of land that was the rest of my town, so I could easily feel the separation.

As it happens, Mr. Reynolds is himself “famously weird.” His car is a clunker literally held together with masking tape; he lives with his mother; he dresses stylelessly and monotonously.

It’s kind of a familiar story: awkward kid connects with awkward teacher. But there’s an element that lifts it out of the humdrum: the Death Cards.

Since I was about eight or nine, I’d been updating and revising this card game I’d invented called Death Cards. It was this big stack of index cards, and most of the cards had interesting life events like graduating high school or winning an astronaut scholarship or having sex for the first time. But there were also death cards that featured people dying in horrific, graphic ways. Nobody would play the game with me, so I just played against myself. By eighth grade, there were more than four hundred cards in the game. I couldn’t stop playing, finding my way to whatever kind of life I could have before I died violently.

The Death Cards are both the means by which Patrick expresses his anxiety about his future, and by which Mr. Reynolds helps him find a different way of looking at things.

I can’t help but remember Seth Fried’s description of his process for writing his wonderful story, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” when he was an undergrad: he had a page in a notebook titled “Massacre Ideas” and sometimes worried that if someone looked through the notebook, they’d think he was a dangerous lunatic “plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas” among other methods. I wondered if Wilson had a similar notebook, or maybe a file on his computer that might give someone the wrong impression (and, by the way, Patrick has a death card featuring a gorilla as well. Gorillas seem to be popular fantasy death machines).  But I discovered, via his author interview with Preety Sidhu at Southern Review, that his methodology was much more personal:

PS: In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, you explained that the spontaneously combusting children in Nothing to See Here were partly inspired by your own experience with Tourette’s syndrome, in which violent images such as “falling off tall buildings, getting stabbed, catching on fire” would suddenly burst into your head. To what extent was this also the inspiration for the Death Cards in “Biology,” in which players might suddenly draw cards “that featured people dying in horrific, graphic ways”?
KW: They’re completely connected. I keep trying to figure out ways to deal with these things in my head. I never made literal Death Cards, but I would do it in my head, trying to imagine my life and seeing how long I could go before I fell into a combine or something, because I knew that was always coming. And that ending in “Biology” to play the game without the Death Cards, was an incredibly cathartic thing for me, which sounds so fucking corny, but it’s true. I am grateful for that teacher in the story, for that moment of kindness. It helped me.

Author Interview, Southern Review

While Patrick does blurt out that he thinks he’s gay, the significance is that Mr. Reynolds, who appears to be asexual, takes it in stride. We’re reassured that things did get better for Patrick by the envelope, in which he has a relationship and seems to be living at least a reasonably happy life.

This is another of Ward’s “young people” stories, showing how kids survive in spite of whatever is going on with them. It’s a warm, funny story that makes great use of its structure – and gets a lot out of a made-up card game.

* * *

Complete story available at Southern Review.

Author interview at Southern Review.

BASS 2021:  Madhuri Vijay, “You Are My Dear Friend” from TNY, 8/11/2020

Rajesh Laxman Mor: Jackfruit Tree
I’m fascinated by what I see as the fundamental alienness of children. Even the most affable, well-adjusted child seems to me unknowable in a way that many adults are not. But outside of fairy tales and folktales, which allows children the degree of darkness and opacity they deserve, most fiction tends to treat them either as dim innocents to be protected or, if they are the troublemaking type, wild creatures to be tamed and won over. I wanted to write about a child who refuses to fall into these categories, who is immune to protection or taming, who retains her privacy and her unknowability to the very end, even if it comes at a painful cost to all involved.

Madhuri Vijay, Contributor Note

After having read this story four times, I have a hypothesis: the story itself is unknowable, refusing recognition. I hear my own voice in my head telling me I’m incompetent. And I wonder if that’s what Vijay was going for, or if I’m just really stupid and grasping at straws, looking for anything that will make sense of it.

The story starts with Geeta as an au pair for the Bakers, a British couple living in India. She’s great with their kids, and they depend on her, so they treat her well and she has a lot of free time when the kids are in school. This generates the title:

… it was possible that the maidservant resented her for her relative freedom. To ward off any ill feeling, every so often Geeta brought home of trinket for the girl, who was a chatty, dimpled creature from Jharkhand. Geeta was from Odisha and had nothing in common with her, except the fact that people in Bangalore knew almost nothing about where either of them came from.
At various times Geeta had bought the girl an alarm clock, a pair of leaf-shaped earrings, and a fake-silver pendant engraved with the words “You Are My Dear Friend.” She worried that she might have overdone it a bit with the pendant, but the girl loved it and loved Geeta for it.

Geeta sees Srikanth, who will become her husband, at one of the Bakers’s parties. It’s unclear what he’s doing there; apparently an invited guest brought him, but it’s possible he just crashed the party, as the Bakers have no idea who he is or who he came with. She runs into him a few days later at the market, and things go from there. He’s older – she’s twenty-nine, he’s fifty-three – but a husband’s a husband.

Geeta discovers she can’t have children. The maidservant from the Bakers suggests what sounds like a gray-market adoption, and Rani, eight years old, comes into Geeta’s life. She sets her up in a room with a lovely view of a jackfruit tree:

“Do I need anything?” the girl repeated. Her voice had an anesthetized quality, but within it twitched a slippery, mocking thing. Then she smiled. It was an unnerving smile to see on an eight-year-old face, somehow innocent, cunning, and flirtatious at the same time, and Geeta, to her shame, panicked.
“Then I’ll leave you to rest,” she said, turning her back on both the girl and the view. Her first failure, as she would later come to think of it.

Rani turns out to be a nightmare. Geeta tries to be sympathetic, since the girl has had an awful life, but things deteriorate as she demands Geeta send her mother jewelry and a man shows up with stories of her father. Srikanth kicks her out at one point, then runs after her to bring her back. He eventually turns it into Geeta’s fault:

“She’s too much for you,” he said. His breath smelled of onions and filter coffee. “Admit it,” he pressed her. “You can’t do this. You are not capable. Look at you. Your hair is a mess. You don’t take care of the house anymore. You hardly look at me. You only think of her.”
A month ago she might have protested, but it no longer mattered what was and wasn’t true. The threats had become too many, too nebulous. Later she would think of this as her final failure. The first and the last, the only two clear in her mind.

He talks her into giving Rani up; it reads like a seduction scene more than anything else. Their life post-Rina forms a sort of epilogue in which Geeta happens across a cosmetics salesgirl:

She would never go so far as to say that the girl – whose name is Ruby – remind her of Rani. No, that would be too easy, cowardly, as if all girls who have come from unknowable places to stand in front of her were somehow the same. It is the relationship that is the same: Geeta and Rani, Geeta and Ruby. The girl stands there blazing and exposed, and Geeta circles her, unable to look away.

The entire story seems to be about being unknowable, and Geeta’s fascination for that quality. Geeta and the housemaid, who never gets a name, are frankly described as unknowable to each other. The necklace means one thing to the girl, and another to Geeta; its cheap quality underscores the insincerity of the engraving. Srikanth is unknown to the Bakers. It occurs to me he might have crashed the party and is stalking Geeta, in which case, he succeeded. He and Geeta both speak several languages, but have only passable English in common. Rani is unknowable, as are the shadowy figures of her parents. As the story progresses, Geeta becomes unknowable even to herself: “She had lost the habit of speaking of herself, and now it was impossible to recover the details that could have made her permanent.” In her later life, she is unknown to the shopkeepers, who think she lives in an exclusive apartment complex.

And as I’ve said, as a reader, I don’t  know what the story is doing. At first, I thought the initial portion was incongruous, but it’s necessary, not only to include the housemaid and the necklace, but to allow Geeta to meet Srikanth, and to give us the sense that she can indeed take good care of children who aren’t semiferal. 

I have a feeling this story may have more meaningful layers for those who are familiar with the nuances of Indian cultures and the implications of the various locations and qualities mentioned. That adds to its unknowability for me; there’s only so much Google can help. Some comments on The Mookse and the Gripes gave me some idea of the kind of subtext that’s operating here.  

This was another of the stories about young people according to Ward’s intro. I see it as less about Rani and more about Geeta. I might be tempted to include it in her “problematic characters” classification as well, since I find the three primaries to be hard to fathom.

BASS 2021:  Nicole Krauss, “Switzerland” from The New Yorker, 9/21/20

I was interested in trying to capture the way a young woman tests her strength and will against the realities of her life: among them, that she is physically vulnerable to men, that to comply with the expectations of others requires containing herself or making herself small, that her sexuality comes with inherent dangers. The Dutch banker doesn’t lead or determine this story – on the contrary, the story centers on Soraya’s struggle with her sense of her own power, and he, at least as he is seen by the narrator, is only an accessory to that. He is merely the arena in which her performance of self plays out.

Nicole Krauss, Contributor Note

Of all the things that interest me about this story, that central focus is the one that interests me the least. Go figure.

We have a younger (thirteen years old) narrator observing the behavior of an older (eighteen) classmate at a Swiss post-finishing school. That, by the way, is one of the things that interests me more than Soraya’s dangerous waltz with the Swiss banker, as our narrator recounts what had landed Marie and Soraya, the two older girls in Ecolint:

Wildness – sex, stimulants, a refusal to comply – was what had landed them both in Switzerland for an extra year of school, a thirteenth year that neither of them had ever heard of….
He yanked her out of Thailand and deposited her in Switzerland, known for its “finishing” schools that polished the wild and the dark out of girls and contained them into well-mannered women. Ecolint was not such a school, but Marie, it turned out, was already too old for a proper finishing school. She was, in the estimation of those schools, already finished. And not in the good way.

I seldom find myself wanting to edit a published piece (good thing, since I  have no training for it) but I had remembered this paragraph about being “finished” without that final line “And not in the good way” and was shocked to find it there in print. Leaving the reader to discern the two meanings of “finished” – first, to polish and perfect, and second, to be doomed – would have been a better approach, allowing us to admire Krauss for knowing how to use the idiom. Adding the final line merely trumpets, “Hey, did you see what I did there?” or assumes the reader isn’t bright enough to get it on her own. Strange that a six-word sentence can affect me so negatively, but I see it as a huge mistake.

I also wonder what the thirteen-year-old narrator is doing in that school, since she is nowhere near finished, in any sense.

But the story Krauss is interested in telling revolves around Soraya, who plays her sexuality against the depravity of the unnamed Dutch banker. There are numerous signs that she is losing – a bruise on her throat, following his orders about phone calls – but she persists. When she disappears for several days, it becomes a more serious matter; parents and police are called in. “In the end Soraya came home on her own. On her own – just as she had gotten into it on her own, of her own choosing.” When people talk about choices, it’s often as if those choices come from an infinite palette, whereas in reality, most of the choices people make are between a few options, some of which may be worse than the ultimate decision. Soraya’s father was royal engineer to the Shah of Iran, and had to flee during the revolution, “making a mockery of the physics of safety.” Do you suppose this might have had some impact on what Soraya perceived as her choices?

The story is written as a recollection years later, when the narrator recognizes something of Soraya in her now twelve-year-old daughter:

She has a proudness about her that refuses to grow small, but if it were only that I might not have begun to fear for her. It’s her curiosity about her own power, its reach and its limits, that scares me. Though maybe the truth is that when I am not afraid for her, I envy her. One day I saw it: how she looked back at the man in the business suit who stood across the subway car from her, burning a hole through her with his eyes. Her stare was a challenge. If she’d been riding with a friend, she might have turned her face slowly toward her, without taking her eyes off the man, and said something to invoke laughter. It was then that Soraya came back to me, and since then I have been what I can only call haunted by her. By her, and by how a person can happen to you and only half a lifetime later does this happening ripen, burst, and deliver itself.

The terror I might feel as a mother, seeing this in my child, knowing what it could lead to, seems to be absent from the narration. I understand the envy, but not the cool detachment. I suppose there’s a fear so deep it stays curled up inside, and to let it out would help nothing.

I’m also interested in how Krauss phrases the writer’s choice to make the Dutch banker “the arena in which” Soraya conducts herself, making her the agent and him the environment. I’d like to understand that better: how it’s enacted on the page, what a different approach would look like. I’m guessing his relative unimportance is why he isn’t named.

Ward includes this story with her “youth” group, highlighting “the ways they coped or didn’t cope.” I found it  a dramatic contrast with the prior story, “The Rest of Us,” which I characterized as “hot”. This story feels “cool” to me. I’m sure the narrator, worried about her twelve-year-old feeling a little too secure about her control of situations by use of sexuality, does not feel cool, but that’s how the story struck me. Possibly it was just an association with Switzerland, but I think it’s more the distance, the reserve, of the narrator.

BASS 2021:  Jenzo Duque, “The Rest of Us” from One Story #268

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JD: It’s really the result of so many moving parts. This story doesn’t exist without “We” by Mary Grimm, a first person collective story about suburban women that I read during my MFA and thought, “How would I do this?” Next came Boyz n the Hood, which I re-watched the summer of 2017, and I was like, “Man, this movie was so iconic to us growing up,” and then—bam—I had an entry point for that “us.” From there it was a blend of slam and spoken word poetry, hip-hop, and also wanting to write a love letter to my childhood, my neighborhood, my city. I also need to shout out Danny Brown here, because listening to his music has always hit close to home for me, and I don’t think a lot of my ideas would materialize without the landscapes Danny creates through music and storytelling.
PR: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JD: I would say the collective’s transition from childhood into adulthood, along with reconciling the opening of the story with its conclusion.

Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story

In these posts about stories, I usually try to focus on what about the story works, or doesn’t work, for me. Is it something about the subject matter that interests me (like religion or science), some situation I identify with (a dilemma I recognize, a family issue I’m familiar with), a technique I appreciate (like the use of second-person)? I tend to avoid the phrases I see so often in book reviews: “a sensitive portrayal,” “unique voice,” “beautifully written.”

And then I come across a story like this one where all I can say is, “Dayum, I couldn’t stop reading it, I loved this kid, I delighted in his youthful goofiness and cried for him when it all fell apart. It was a sensitive portrayal of a character I otherwise wouldn’t have known at all, told with a unique voice in beautiful writing.”

Well, no, that’s not all I can say. It’s told in first-person-almost-plural. There’s a definite I but there’s a definite sense of we as well. The title hammers this home, and leaves me wondering. I like a story that doesn’t hand me all the answers, but lets me propose a few different possibilities.

We start out with Frail Boy as a little brown kid in urban Chicago, connected to everything around him:

I was an only child, and todo el mundo kept an eye on me, parents, grandparents, even the neighbor lady Doña Rosa who was blind as a bat but somehow always knew when I was getting into something, could just feel it…. Yeah, I had a lot of attention. I think that’s why I got out. But we didn’t have it so bad. We went to pick up soccer games at Montrose Field and it was like the whole city came out: Colombians, Ricans, Mexicans, every inch of grass covered in folding chairs and pastel blankets depicting La Virgen. You’d think it was the World Cup…. We had my front porch, it was the tallest. We used to take turns jumping off of it, feeling the shock in our legs as we made impact on the grass, competing to see who would cross the railing and then pussy out, cross back, and take the walk of shame. More often than not it was me – I was the frailest, and that’s what they called me, Frail Boy – but sometimes it wasn’t me taking that walk, and then I’d let them have it for real… And we had imagination. For every intersection we could not cross, another was invented in our backyards…. For a while we didn’t have to worry about the world beyond our gated lawns. Our parents did their best to hide us from alleyways and trap houses, from the vatos with tattoos crawling up their thick necks. All of life was play life; basketball, tag, paletas, football, Mario Kart, kiddie pools, scraped knees, teasing kids, wrestling moves,…. All our stories were play stories.

It’s easy for those of us who didn’t grow up in places like this to think of them as hellholes, but we forget there’s joy as well and Duque submerges us in that joy, that sense of community. It’s hard to resist smiling as we read.

I try to avoid ellipsing more than once in a quote, but pulling quotes for this story made that difficult. The above passage comes from a section that’s four pages long, and reads in one breath. But even I, who sometimes takes advantage of Fair Use, wouldn’t quote that much, so I’ve (painfully) chopped it up to preserve the content at the expense of the sense of continuity. It’s the very beginning of the story, so it sets Frail Boy and his friends up as indelible characters for what lies ahead. It’s great writing, a great opening.

And, of course, kids grow up. I was sad to move on, leave the child Frail Boy behind, but Duque, again, made the transition less painful by the way he handled it:

And then there was change. Time got the better of us. We grew fuzz above our lips, our balls dropped overnight, voice cracks morphing into booming laughter until that was just how we sounded now. I remember I looked in the mirror one morning and poof: those puffy brown cheeks – hay que liiiiindos – that tía fingers couldn’t resist pinching were gone.

What’s interesting is that Frail Boy and his friends keep a sense of play even as they start working for crack dealers. I’m not sure how that’s possible. Things do get dark, of course; how could they not. But for a moment there’s a sense that they’re going to survive this, it’s just a phase before they find something else to do.

It isn’t a phase. It might have been, but they’re urged to up their game, strive “for that next level.” Geez, capitalism plus drugs, what could go wrong. Everything. And though this is tough business, it’s irresistable: the “elephant in the room” paragraph of who wasn’t anywhere when Mickey-Dee got shot is artfully told, with denial and confession wrapped up in one paragraph, followed by honor among thieves and how it all goes to hell.

Then there’s the page-long paragraph of a mother looking desperately for her son who’s disappeared, a paragraph that switches back and forth between English and Spanish and Motherhood and God’s Plan. In his Contributor Note (I switched it up and used the One Story interview as lead-in this time) Duque says, “To my bilingual brain, language is music.” That’s evident throughout the story, but it’s in this paragraph that it rivals Beethoven.

The story isn’t about Frail Boy’s rise and fall; it’s about the neighborhood, about the community, about how time washes away the past for the present to take over the future. Frail Boy becomes not only the protagonist, but also the witness, the Stage Manager, the narrator.

Now this area is too busy to think about or remember what we went through…. Can’t say I’m surprised by the newcomers, but even our own people don’t believe us. Kids whose folks I used to roll with – who were too young to remember what life was like on this block – saying things like Our parents used to know you, Frail Boy. They made this place better than how you left it. Can you believe that? Like I wasn’t a part of our history. Spics with no sense of roots, out here ruining it for the last of us. Because our parents had no papers, the first thing we were taught in life was that we were the tellers of our own stories. When we were little, José, Cristian, and me knew that well. Time after time our parents gave us the talk – sometimes together – about how we had to be prepared for our world to end. Who to tell the day they disappeared, how to dial a calling card long distance, what to say to the gringos who’d come knocking at our door. We knew that before we knew how to ride a bike. And sometimes we were tested on it. What would we do first if they never came home. How would we be believed. Look: we had to get our story straight. So we don’t care if you don’t believe us.

“We were tellers of our own stories.” That line rings out to me, as Duque is the teller of his own story, not the story those of us who never lived anywhere like his Chicago neighborhood imagine in our head, the story of a kid who grows up and keeps a sense of joy and community and family, and finds himself in danger of being erased, dismissed. We need witnesses like this.

I remain puzzled by a few things. The title, for one. Who is the us? Who are the rest? In the end, Frail Boy is the only one left, so he might be the rest of us. But that final section of reproof to the next generation makes me think it’s bigger, the rest of us are the ones who came before, the past on whose shoulders, for better or worse, the present stands. Or it could be the shifting us throughout the story: Mickey-Dee was one of us until he wasn’t.

I also wonder about something Duque said in his One Story interview:

PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”
JD: Resistance.

Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story

It’s something he also mentions in his Contributor Note:

As a first-generation citizen, a lot of my life has been spent hearing people tell me about things I couldn’t do. I could never be American enough, I could never be Columbian enough, and I could never force the literary industry to value my bilingual experience on my terms. Likewise, a lot of my identity as an artist has been forged in resistance to convention, and I’ve produced works in an effort to reject the supposed rules of writing.

Jenzo Duque, Contributor Note

I’m not sure what rules of writing he feels he’s breaking – maybe the first-person-almost-plural approach? The code-switching? I don’t see them as rule breaking but as techniques that have grown more popular in recent years, decades. I can imagine (though not agree with) a tenth-grade composition teacher frowning on some of this, but this is the stuff MFA programs are designed to generate… aren’t they? How would I know. In any case, whatever he’s resisting, I hope he keeps resisting it, because he’s found a means of expression that’s exquisite.

Ward classified this story with those about young people struggling, coping (or not), surviving. I might also see it in her immersion classification, as I could feel myself submerging in the language. It was very much like the first story I read from this volume, Kochai’s Metal Gear story: I never expected to care so much, to understand so deeply a child’s world so different from mine. That’s the power of story.

BASS 2021:  Rita Chang-Eppig, “Miracle Girl” from VQR, Summer 2020

VQR Art by Aya Kakeda
“The Miracle Girl” started out as a class prompt: write the beginning of a fairy tale. Instead of turning to knights and princesses, I recalled the stories my mother told when I was a child, especially those about her early years of poverty in Taiwan and her creatively vicious fights with her sisters. But the stories that always made the deepest impression on me were those about the missionaries, specifically the stories they told her, one of which made it into the final draft. Even as a child I perceived a fundamental problem with them, despite not understanding the concept of racism or, for that matter, knowing the word. What it must have been like for her to grow up believing that God ranked people by race and that she would never be the best-loved! Some of their messages remained with her well into adulthood and, as these things often go, got passed on to me.

Rita Chang-Eppig, Contributor Note

The idea of second-best permeates this story, from the personal view of a girl who can never match her older  sister’s piety, to the socio-religious view of Western missionaries who bring the Good News to the Taiwanese who’ve fled Communist China: Even though you aren’t God’s best work, you can still get His love that’s left over when he’s done blessing us.

Xiao Chun was ahead of Xiao Xue from the start. She had the advantage of age:

Xiao Xue had liked the missionaries at first, even Sister Eunice, who doled out candy to any child who could perfectly recite a Bible verse or prayer in English to her. Xiao Xue had chosen the Lord’s Prayer because it was relatively short and easy to read. Sister Eunice’s face, normally still as a pond, had quivered into a smile, little ripples spreading near the corners of her mouth and eyes. She laid a warm, heavy hand on Xiao Xue’s head, and Xiao Xue swore to herself that she would memorize every word in the Bible if this was going to be the typical response. The piece of candy, a doubloon of chocolate, she split into four pieces so she could continue to savor it until she was done memorizing the next passage.
But then, without even being asked, Xiao Chun had recited the Apostles’ Creed in front of the whole assembly, in Latin. In that moment, Xiao Xue saw clearly her place in Sister Eunice’s eyes (and by extension, she supposed, God’s). She never recited again, even when Sister Eunice called upon her to do so. There just didn’t seem to be a point.

When Xiao Chun exhibits stigmata, there is no question of who is more blessed. Xiao Xue isn’t sure she wants that kind of blessing – “Does it hurt?” she asks – but then the pilgrims begin arriving and the missionary Sisters speak with awe of the girl who used to just be her older sister but is now a symbol of what it is to be the best.

The village as a whole is familiar with this notion of second-best:

The teachers liked to tell this story: One day, God decided to draw mankind a bath. He took one group of people and cleansed them first. They, having bathed in pure water, emerged white. Then God took a second group of people and cleansed them. They, having bathed in slightly soiled water, emerged yellow. Finally, God took a third group of people and cleansed them. They, having bathed in heavily soiled water, emerged black.
“I don’t like this story,” Xiao Xue said to her sister once, after a teacher had retold it. “It says we’re dirty.”
“We’re not the dirtiest,” Xiao Chun said.
“It says God loves the foreigners more than us.”
“God has infinite love. You’re misunderstanding the story.”
But Xiao Xue didn’t believe her. How could her sister possibly understand, the honors student, the village beauty? How could she understand the pain of imperfect love, a star delicately cut from golden paper and then roughly torn? Sometimes second-most was second-least. And sometimes second was simply last.

God has infinite love, but any mathematician will tell you there are different kinds of infinities. Dante insisted that the joy in God’s heaven was absolute even for those who, having shown flaws in their faith, were placed well outside the Empyrean Rose. I’ve been reading a lot about how white supremacy has been woven into evangelical Christianity from its foundation, going so far as to call slavery a blessing because it led to the conversion of so many Africans. As the Bible says, Jesus wept.

Not all the Taiwanese families are troubled by the missionaries. One man is particularly moved by the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, identifying it with his dangerous escape from mainland China. His son is quite fond of the Sisters. “They were the only ones my grandma could talk to about how much she missed China.” Ah, the enigma of the refugee, pining even as they flee for their lives, because the recent past is only the tip of the iceberg of what they’ve left behind.

Ward includes this story with those about young people, the “painful truths about what it is to be a child in this world.” This sense of second-best grows up with us. Buzz Aldrin is now remembered as the second man to walk on the moon, only because it was such a big gotcha-question years ago. And if you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you know how disappointed the silver medalists often are – and how the media usually portrays them, first and foremost, as having lost, because being second-best in the world just isn’t good enough.

Something else occurred to me as I read this story. This is what the conversation about different voices is about. I can remember one year reading several stories of Americans working at NGOs in various African countries; the stories were about their lives, loves, and interests, because that was the point of view. There are no doubt many stories written by Western writers about missionary encounters with non-Western communities, and many of them probably portray the receivers quite kindly. This story tells a truth from the other side, and it’s a necessary voice to hear.

* * *

Complete story available online at VQR.

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones has a great detailed analysis of this story on her blog, Notes from this pretty sight, with an interesting interpretation: “It actually felt like I was reading an origin story of some kind….It almost feels like a prequel, like we are learning that two superhero nemeses were actually sisters, once.”

BASS 2021:  Vanessa Cuti, “Our Children” from West Branch #94

I wanted to explore and exaggerate the idea of a flawed parent and how it becomes especially unacceptable to be flawed if the parent in question happens to be a mother. From the start, from the way the very first line appeared to me, the story had the feeling of a fairy tale. So I kind of leaned into that as I went through it – cold stepfamily, little cabin, survival in the woods. Even though there is this heavy sense of the magical, I wanted the reader to feel like this scenario was only just outside of reality. If that.

Vanessa Cuti, Contributor Note

Cuti was wildly successful in this goal she stated, as I had no idea, over several readings, where the story drifted off into – fantasy? Dream? – and where it came back to reality. If it ever drifted off at all. But that’s ridiculous, of course it drifted from reality… didn’t it?

The story begins fully grounded in a somewhat messy, but very concrete, domestic reality: our narrator is the wife of a married couple who fell in love with the husband of another married couple, resulting in divorces and child custody agreements as is quite common. This is told with such a breezy nonchalance as to give the impression that the narrator doesn’t see anything, from weekly child swaps to her new husband, as any big deal. It’s not that she’s icy; she just skates above it all.

As this was one of the stories Ward included in her “transformation of place” category, I paid particular attention to that aspect. While the most significant transformation occurs later in the story, we are introduced to a more typical transformation right away:

Every other weekend our house swelled with them: a new population. They congregated. They organized. They became fresh in the breakfast nook where I said we had pancakes but not waffles. They sat for hours in the living room, bare feet leaving heat marks on the glass of the coffee table, juice cooling, crumbs everywhere you could imagine. They hooted at the chug of machine guns and grenades in the games they played. I knew they pointed their controllers at my back when I turned to walk out, arms full of plates, crumpled napkins….
When they left, when the house was empty again, even the fabric of the area rugs became cooler to the touch. I heard the high frequency hum of electronics and the tumble of the dryer, the soft lap, lack of hand towels one onto another, floors down. I stood in the doorway to the living room and it appeared to me as a glacier: cold and empty and white.

Notice how many senses Cuti involves in this transformation: not just an influx of children, but there’s mess, and heat, and sound that goes from presumably cool to hot to cool again as they leave. While the narrator doesn’t really state a preference for either state, I get the sense that she’s more about cold and empty and white than messy and hot and noisy. So much is inference in this story.

Anyone who’s ever studied writing is familiar with the phrase “show, don’t tell.” I felt that was incorporated into the character herself: she tells us a lot, but doesn’t show much. In the above quoted scene, we aren’t shown annoyance at the children or relief at the return of order; it’s all in the telling, the language, the tone. But for all we know, she feels lonely hearing the electronic hum and the rhythm of the dryers, and wishes for her children back again. In fact, it could be my reading that affixes values to the two spots, whereas she is merely reporting and feels little about it.

This telling becomes particularly acute in one sentence in particular:

I did sometimes wonder. Wish. That we had met when we were young, before everything. Before we made our lives. But the children, your children, something always chided. This thing that chided, by the way, was not My Best Self. Not my voice. It was choral, all altos. The moan of disappointed mothers. Then you would not have your beautiful children, the mothers said. And this is true. But I would have made and met other children. I would have loved these other children just the same because I am capable of so much love.

I can almost see “Looks directly at the camera” printed over this, the irony is so heavy. Or maybe it’s me who is thinking, it’s because she doesn’t love her children that she could see them replaced with other children. The love she considers herself so capable of is more of a distance, a kind of judgment-free acceptance without attachment. I’m re-watching The Crown at the moment, and it seems to be the Queen Elizabeth way of parenting. Yet there is a moment of judgment: when her children are packing for a week in a cabin in the woods, they take books, while the husband’s children take videogames. This is the most worked up she gets in the story, outside of the dream state.

I’m still not exactly sure what happens during what I’m calling the dream state during their week in the woods. There is clearly a transformation of place:

But when I woke up in the night something had happened. It was that black tail of smoke from the fire. It was the rot from between the beams in the walls, seeping. It was that chipmunk being eaten, limb by limb, by a raccoon under the deck. I heard the chew and crunch. I didn’t know what to do. I lifted my hands to brush back my hair, but they were heavy. Too heavy. Laden with hate, anger, sleep, something.

She tells her husband they have to leave the children. That’s exactly what she says: “We have to leave them here…Not forever. Maybe we come back for them. When they’ve grown a little, found their way.” Interesting how she makes it sound like it’s for their sake they must leave them, not for her sake. There’s no sense of guiilt, as in “I’m ruining them, they’re better off without me”; there’s really no sense of anything other than she wants to get away from them. While that is fine as part of the character, I’m confused about her husband going along with it, and for that reason, I assume we’re in dreamland, or fantasyland, or something. She seems rather surprised at his acquiescence, too.

They leave the children, collapsed in exhaustion in the living room (following a day of hard play calculated to wear them out) and go back home to do adult things like drink wine and smoke weed and screw on the kitchen floor (seriously, I get the novelty, but isn’t a bed so much more comfortable?). then she starts thinking about the children, and here’s where the real fantasy comes into play: the children do, indeed, grow up. Her vision is quite specific, and, while disturbing at times, isn’t completely out of line with the typical raised-by-wolves mythology.

The couple returns the next morning to the same scene of kids sprawled on the living room floor, still asleep. And I’m confused. Did they actually leave their children overnight in a cabin in the woods? Or was that part of the dream? I’m not a parent; is that something parents would do, leave their four five-to-seven-year-old sleeping children overnight in a cabin in the woods? I suspect my confusion is the point, the effect the story wants to have. In that case, it worked great, but it’s not an approach I enjoyed as a reader.

In the end, I had such a hard time pinning down the story, all that stays with me is that one Looking Directly  At the Camera moment, that moment of declaring the lack of love to be loving, which is essentially what happens when she wants to abandon them tor grow up on their own, for their own sake. And I’m struck by the distance between what she shows, and what she tells.

BASS 2021:  Gabriel Bump, “To Buffalo Eastward” (McSweeney’s 59)

A few summers ago, during an intense mental crisis, I moved to Buffalo to sort myself out, get grounded. That was a summer of long drives…. I remember getting to the Mackinac Bridge, pulling off the highway, taking a picture of the water and huge sky. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Rebirth, I guess; drowned in natural splendor. I wrote this piece, which I hope turns into a novel, based off that feeling.

Gabriel Bump, Contributor Note

In a recent online reading group, we were all puzzling over a story when one participant said something like, “If the author wanted to make it clearer, they would have written it that way.” Sometimes, as with this story,  I’m not sure if the author was deliberately being coy, or if I’m just dense. I’m not even sure whether the first-person narrator is male or female, let alone exactly what the relationship is with Pidge, who Flip is, and why they’re travelling to Buffalo in the first place (I’m still uncomfortable with they as a singular noun, but I’m working on it because it truly does make things easier).

I’m not sure any of that matters. The story is more about the feeling in moments, in bookstores in An Arbor, in Toledo, in Cleveland. On the roof of an office building. The next morning, leaving. I don’t really see the rebirth, the natural splendor, but Bump doesn’t say he’s writing about that, just that it was the feeling he was writing from.

Count the rhetorical repetition in the opening pages. The bookstores, for one. The decision to stop smoking “after just this last one” for another (yeah, we all know that one). The almost-anaphora of “At a liquor store in Ann Arbor”… “In a grocery store parking lot in Ann Arbor”… “Outside a house party in Ann Arbor”… “There was a bookstore in Toledo”.

I wasn’t confused about gender at first; I’d assumed the narrator, whose name we never learn, was male, simply because the author is, presumably, based on his name, male. We’re going to have to start watching those assumptions, aren’t we. The self-description could’ve gone either way, but I read it unquestioningly as male:

Here’s how I look: tallish; medium-brown freckles around my nose and eyes, on my ears; a broad nose with a little point, a little hook; strong-chinned; weak-bodied; soft, thin, broad-shouldered; my nails get too long before I chew them down; my foot arches are too high; without thinking, I walk on my toes; if I’m not mindful, my eyebrows can meld into a single thicket.
I have this ambiguous brown skin. People wonder if I’m Egyptian, Aboriginal, Brazilian, Mexican, Dominican, half of this, a quarter of that.
I have this long hair that grows up and out in curled waves. People don’t know what to make of it. In middle school, this classmate would pull at my hair, try to yank strands out, hold my curls up to the light.

I’m guessing, since “when I was little, people thought my mother was my nanny,” that Mom is black, and Dad is white, making our narrator biracial, but of course there are lots of shades in between those. I’m not sure it makes a difference in this story, though it always makes a difference, doesn’t it. Then there’s this:

Before I left, my mother gave me an industrial wrench for protection, in case my car broke down in Ohio and some local boys wanted to take advantage.

That phrase – “take advantage” – sounds far more like something a mother would say to a daughter than a son. But we could, as with race, be talking some in-between here. I know a lot of people don’t think there is an in-between for gender, but it seems more and more people are finding out there is. Maybe ambiguity is the better word for it.

What’s really interesting, and a lot more pertinent to the story, is the narrator admits he’s terrible at telling stories. This reminded me of something George Saunders wrote, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, about the story “Singers” by Turgenev, that maybe he knew he wasn’t good at traditional subtle, smooth transitions so he made them massive and intrusive to turn them into an asset. I don’t think it’s that Bump knows he isn’t good at backstory – I have no doubt he could have written this one in perfectly linear form, given how the rest of this story proceeds – but I think he didn’t want to be bogged down by it all, and wanted to leave it vague and disjointed. This especially makes sense since I gather this is now part of a novel. This vague, partial  backstory gives us a sense of confusion and a lack of stability that sets the stage for the confusion and lack of stability that follows, which, by the way, the narrator tells perfectly clearly. I love that: tell the truth but tell it slant; tell the confusing parts clearly and the clear parts confusingly. The heart of the story begins when our narrator meeting a carpenter in a bookstore:

There was a bookstore in Cleveland. There were stacks so tall you needed a ladder to reach the top. I asked a man with a ponytail if he could help with those Raymond Carver collections up there. He was a carpenter, not a librarian, he told me as much, hand on his hip, other hand holding Joyce and Morrison. He told me to climb the ladder myself, it wasn’t that high, I wasn’t that small.
When I came down, the man asked me to drink with him.

This scene starts out one way – rude, aggressive – then turns into something more like amiability. I have a feeling the carpenter asserting dominance and forcing the narrator to climb the ladder himself is key. How badly did he want those Raymond Carver collections? And, while it sounds so sophisticated that they’re reading Carver, Joyce, and Morrison (presumably Toni), if they’re that sophisticated, why don’t they already have copies?

A couple of girls join them at the bar (bolstering the case that the narrator is male, btw; two women would be far likely to join two men than a male-female couple) and the literary display increases: the carpenter gives his name as Sancho Panza, the girls choose Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, and our narrator is…  Invisible Man. “The lights!” yells one of the girls. Yeah, the lights. That was nice; presumably he’s not referring to HG Wells.

Through all this we’re still hearing about Pidge, so our narration is still a bit confused. We find out more, but still have no clear idea what the narrator is doing here.

But it no longer matters once he starts doing it:  the carpenter takes them up on the roof a three-story office building he owns. Then he hands out pills. “That wasn’t the first time I had taken pills from a stranger’s pocket,” our narrator tells us, then we hear about that time in high school in the abandoned house with the (probably hallucinatory) muskrat in the sink (maybe). I’m not a big fan of drug scenes, but that night on the roof – and remember, it’s only a three-story building, we’re not talking a skyscraper – is pretty cool.

Back on the roof in Cleveland, Sancho Panza wanted to know if the pills we’re working — could we feel ourselves turning inside out, exploding like a flower?
“I could wake up in Egypt,” Jordan Baker said.
“What difference would it make?” Daisy Buchanan asked.
“I’d have all the sand I could want,” Jordan Baker said. “There is sand in Ohio!” Daisy Buchanan said.
“Not the same,” Jordan Baker said, sat on the ground. “It’s just not the same.”
I found myself yards away come up walking in a circle, counting at my revolutions.
Sancho Panza grabbed my ankles, begged me not to let him drown. I had my hand on Sancho Panzas collar when I noticed the sky, swirling and wavering, preparing to rupture. Out there in the distance, toward downtown, the sky sucked up tall buildings.
“It’s coming for us,” I said.
Sancho Panza had stopped swinging at my throat and screaming. He went limp, took deep breaths, turned an ear to the roof, coughed, and spit up thick brown mucus.
“They’re working,” Sancho Panza said. “I think they’re working.”

Interesting that the guys (?) are having frightening hallucinations, while the girls are talking about sand. But it’s  the use of full literary names that makes this particular drug scene appeal to me. Not Jordan or Sancho, but Jordan Baker and Sancho Panza. They aren’t names with two pieces; they’re labels, one piece. Sancho Panza, the helper who serves the make-believe Don in the hopes of governing his own private island, then discovers being in charge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The sanity to Quijote’s madness. Daisy Buchanan, the clueless romantic. Jordan Baker, the hardened realist who is willing to cheat to get what she wants.

They go inside the building and have a good time raiding desks (Family photos! All that liquor stashed in bottom drawers! A “list of underperforming employees”! I’d love to do this kind of thing) then fall asleep.

Curled up against these whacked-out strangers, I felt a unique warmth, one I hadn’t known before. I felt clear and directed, anchored. I had found peace. Here, I belonged.

Of course. Because, first of all, you’re drugged, and second, with strangers, there’s no history, no tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about anything but now. With family, with friends you’re going to see every day for years to come, there are debts and obligations, apologies to make. Again there’s this mismatch: peace comes from being anchored in the moment, versus the chaos of being attached for a lifetime. And of course he dreams of Pidge (yes, I’m going with male, the mother’s comment notwithstanding. It’s just one more mismatch).

The last two paragraphs return us to travel; they’re beautiful, in a plain-spun way, and carry us into the future, to Buffalo, or wherever he’s going.

Ward put this story in the “transformation of place” category, and it’s easy to see why. The rooftop becomes all sorts of things; the offices below become a playground, a bedroom, a place of peace rather than somewhere boring people do boring jobs filing papers and writing emails. But the story surrounding the office building makes me curious about the narrator, why he’s headed to Buffalo, and what he’s going to do once he gets there. I hope he remembers what it feels like, that sense of peace, direction, solidity. I hope he finds it again, this time with people who will be around for a while.

* * *

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones posts about the story on her blog, Notes From This Pretty Sight: “The openness to strangers, the slivers of space by which you might enter each other’s worlds, that can happen while traveling is something I recognized from my own experience.”

BASS 2021:  Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” (TNY 12/30/19)

TNY art: Illustration by Max Guther
This story largely started out as a joke. While I was playing the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the first third of which is set in Kabul, Afghanistan, I joked to my brothers that I should have Big Boss journey south to Logar in the video game and see if he could help our father and his family fight the Soviets in their village. We laughed at this idea, but it stuck with me.

Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note

I’ve never played a video game (unless Pong and PacMan count, which I gather they don’t). So when this story started with Zoya setting out on his bike to buy a highly-anticipated new release of a popular series (I don’t even know if I’m saying that right) I kind of gritted my teeth. But it was in second person, which I always find interesting, given how allergic editors are to second-person stories; they tend to be good stories because they have to be to break through that prejudice. There’s something about Zoya’s dad being out of work for years, and about “kids in Kabul are destroying their bodies to build compounds for white businessmen and warlords.” Which maybe meant it was not going to be your typical teenager-with-a-joystick story (do they still use joysticks?).

And sure enough, on the second page as Zoya returns home with his prize – a prize he hides in his underwear so his father won’t see it – something shifts.

…[Y]our father is ankle deep in the dirt, hunched over, yanking at weeds with his bare hands the way he used to as a farmer in Logar, before war and famine forced him to flee to the western coast of the American empire, where he labored for many years until it broke his body for good, and even though his doctor has forbidden him to work in the yard, owing to the torn nerves in his neck and spine—which, you know from your mother, were first damaged when he was tortured by Russians shortly after the murder of his younger brother, Watak, during the Soviet War—he is out here clawing at the earth and its spoils, as if he were digging for treasure or his own grave.

Dad has something he wants to talk to Zoya about (I initially typed “you” instead of the name, this second-person voice is powerful) but the kid hightails it off with a thought from Harry Potter (another piece of culture I haven’t participated in) about escaping this life and entering anew one as a Mudblood “without the weight of your father’s history, pain, guilt.…” Yeah, this isn’t really about a video game.

Except it is, because the game is set in 1980s Afghanistan.

…[T]he fact that nineteen-eighties Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it, especially since you’ve been shooting at Afghans in your games (Call of Duty and Battlefield and Splinter Cell) for so long that you’ve become oddly immune to the self-loathing you felt when you were first massacring wave after wave of militant fighters who looked just like your father.

This is the power of story. What it would feel like to be an Afghan kid, shooting Afghans as part of a game; it never occurred to me to wonder about that. The closest I can come is the cowboys-and-Indians of my childhood, and how it must’ve felt to be an Indian child, to always be the bad guy when you hadn’t done anything wrong, and the stories your family told were quite the opposite. Our deepest prejudices are enshrined in recreation; it’s no wonder they are also perpetrated in attempts at AI while claiming the algorithm is above all that. The algorithm, like the video game, is written by people with agendas, and one of those agendas is to appeal to a mass market. In America, that doesn’t mean kids whose families come from Afghanistan, even though it’s those kids who scrimp and save so they can pedal their bike to the store and buy the game on release day.

But the best is yet to come. I’m given to understand that’s a song from the game. It’s not the Frank Sinatra croonfest (damn, I’m old, it’s a good thing I read stories by younger people or I’d be hopelessly out of touch) but is instead a haunting Gaelic song.

I thought to myself, What if, while playing Metal Gear Solid, an Afghan gamer did discover his family inside the video game? How might he react? What might he do? And how might this experience change him and his relationship to his family and their history?

Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note

This, too, is the power of story: Zoya gets a chance to set it right, to save his father, and even his dead uncle “Watak, your father’s sixteen-year-old brother, whom you recognize only because his picture (unsmiling, head shaved, handsome, and sixteen forever) hangs on the wall of the room in your home where your parents pray…” by playing the hottest video game of the year.

I read this story in public; in the grocery store, actually, after I’d finished my shopping and was waiting for the bus, indoors this time because it was raining, so I was wearing my mask. As Zoya’s game character ran into the cave “with your father on one shoulder and your uncle on the other,” I discovered how messy it is to cry while wearing a mask.

Ward classified this story as “transformations of place” and it truly works that way, as Zoya’s bedroom becomes Afghanistan. It could also be considered in the “transformation of time” category – in fact, I got confused and thought it was – as Zoya is drawn from the present into a before time, where it’s still possible to fix things, and plays the game like his life, like his father’s life and his uncle’s life, depends on it. Even the game’s song captures time, translated to: “Can you still remember / When little things made you happy?….Life can be simple if you can only see / The best is yet to come.” Time past, present, future, all in Zoya’s bedroom. It would also fit her “immersion” category, since I was captivated by this story I didn’t think I’d like. It’s all these things, and more.

I noticed something as I was pulling quotes for this post: Each paragraph is one sentence. Some of the paragraphs are only a line – or even a word – but others are half a page, and  this style choice gives those a breathless quality, while the single-lines allow breaking it up, adding a stacatto note. I’d like to know more about this, the reason Kochai chose to do it this way, the effects it generates.

In his TNY interview, Kochai gives his reasons for the second person voice, related to his sense of intimacy and alienation, the disrupted subject-object relationship he felt when playing videogames:

For me this sense of becoming the shooter in first-person gameplay was often disrupted by the depiction of the enemies in video games like Call of Duty. There I am in the game, playing as a white soldier, and all of a sudden I’m murdering an Afghan man who looks just like my father. Or even like me. My status as the hero facing the enemy, as the subject facing the object, falls apart. “I shoot you” becomes “I shoot me.” I wanted to capture that sort of alienating intimacy in my story. Second person seemed like the best way to go about it.

Jamil Jan Kochai, TNY Author Interview

So he rewrote the scenario, changing the player from murderer to savior, repairer, hero. The power of story.

* * * 

  • Story online at TNY
  • Kochai’s interview with Deborah Treisman at TNY
  • Metal Gear Solid Soundtrack: The Best Is Yet To Come video on Youtube
  • “The Best is Yet to Come” lyrics and translation
  • Review at The Inquiring Reader by Jon Duelfer
  • Comments at The Mookse and the Gripes

BASS 2021:  Going In  

For a story to resonate with me, it had to feel urgent during a time when even going to the post office held real danger. A story had to ring loudly with some kind of deeply necessary truth or humor or wisdom.
….These stories gave me the chance to align my own anxious, isolated heart with others. More than once I could feel these stories in my body. My breath caught, my pulse sped. They bowled me over with their beauty, authenticity, imagination, and strength. I’m grateful to have been able to help gather these important voices in one place, especially during such a troubled time. And I’m thrilled to offer them to you.
Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor: Foreword

Today was my local public library’s biweekly meeting of the Blurb Club, a chance for the six or ten people who show up to talk about books they’ve read or are reading so that we can all get a look at reading beyond our usual input channels. I brought along, among other things, BASS 2021, and began my pitch with: “I know a lot of even the most voracious readers somehow hate short stories…” (cut to several friendly, smiling faces wrinkling their noses and nodding) “…and I’m here to put in a good word for them through this series.” I talked about the different versions, about the Contributor Notes that aren’t just bios but give a sense of where the stories came from, of the difference between one year and the next, of the variety and diversity within each volume. When I was done – and after I’d blurbed another book, a math book for Zeus’ sake, what, is she crazy, bringing a math book to a group of readers, but I made a case for it not being a math book – one of the nose-wrinklers said, “You’re a really good blurber, I don’t like short stories and I have no interest in math but I really want to read both of those.”  Hah, got another one!

I took a look back on the introductory post I wrote for last year’s BASS. COVID, The Post Office, the Presidential election, the death of Alex Trebek, social media as a performance (and book tour) venue, the hope for a vaccine, essays about reading through it all. And now, a year later, we’re all about… well, COVID antivaxxers seem to want to keep the pandemic going, the Post Office is still manufacturing delays, the Presidential election has spawned J6 hearings, recounts, and voter supression laws, and Jeopardy screwed up its search for a new host so badly, they’re trying again, less publicly this time.

It’s like Groundhog Year.

(What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways? That might make an interesting project for my closing post later this year).

But the good thing about repetition is that BASS is out again, so it’s time to start blogging them, two or three a week. Here as well I’m facing an adjustment: after years of tandem posts, my blogging buddy Jake Weber will be concentrating on other things. So it looks like I’m on my own this year, supplemented as always by my writer friend Andrew, and whatever other readers might come along, adding comments to help me better understand these stories, to see other angles and find little delights I may have overlooked or misinterpreted.

The good news – the GREAT news – is that I just discovered an online group reading through BASS via Zoom.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a referral from, and when I checked it out, found the Novel Lovers of Sonoma County had a subgroup dedicated to reading BASS 2020, one story every two weeks. Turns out they aren’t any more picky about Sonoma County than they are about novels, so I went to my first meeting last Sunday for the discussion of William Pei Shih’s “Enlightenment” from last year. It was a story that puzzled me; apparently it puzzled others as well. As one member said, “If the author had wanted to make it clearer, he would’ve written it that way,” which made me feel better. It’s a great group; the exchange of ideas about various aspects was terrific, and I feel far more appreciation for the story as a result. They’ll be finishing up BASS 2020 over the next month or so and then starting 2021; boy am I in!     

Throughout this terrible pandemic year, this year of low after low, we clung to story. Story sustained us, and we gripped the planks of narrative so that in the immersion into story, we might have togetherness and hope and drama and laughter and beauty, might revel in all that binds us together as human. This is what kept us afloat on the sea of grief.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

Each year, I start with the Foreword and Introduction, as a warm-up. This year’s Introduction by editor Jesmyn Ward not only has me excited about the stories that lie ahead, but has inspired me to change up my usual front-to-back reading pattern of the anthology. Ward has grouped the stories in categories, and I want to read the stories by category, keeping her descriptions in mind. I’ll be starting with the category I’ll call transformation of place:

…. I encountered stories that twisted the realities of the world’s the characters inhabited, that turned surreal and beautiful all at once; these stories drew me into difference…. In each of these stories a transformation of place occurs, and reality changes from familiar to menacing, from known to unknown. These changes mirrored the world I lived in during the past year, and while disorienting, these stories, these surreal transformations of world and circumstance at character, made me feel less lonely.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

By starting here, I start with the first story in the book, bouncing off my old tradition while changing it at the same time. I’m not familiar with any of these writers – Gabriel Bump, Jamil Jan Kochai, and Vanessa Cuti – so I will be interested to expand my own horizons.

Next, I’ll read the group of stories Ward sees as focusing on young people:

The young protagonists at the center of these stories are desperately grasping towards adulthood. Perhaps I chose these stories because this year, in many ways, made me feel unmoored in a way I hadn’t since I was a teenager….. The young people in these stories are compelling and unruly and imperfect, and perfectly heartbreaking.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’ve previously encountered three of the writers in this group – Kevin Wilson, Nicole Krauss, and Mahhuri Vijay – and will be discovering Jenzo duQue, C Pam Zhang, and Rita Chang-Eppig as well, as I read through this group next. BASS often includes several coming-of-age stories that occur at different ages, from children too soon becoming adults, to adolescents discovering responsibility, to adults recapturing their own childlike needs and assets, so I’m looking forward to how these stories investigate youth.

I’ll continue with another category I’ll call troublesome characters. Ward’s description:

Some characters were more opaque, less open, raw, and vulnerable than the younger characters I encountered; some were even downright unlikable, but they were still irresistibly compelling…. Each time these characters surprise us by exposing a flicker of vulnerability, they demand we look beyond their thorny outsides to their soft insides. These characters, like all the people I encountered in my grandmother’s stories, are deeply flawed and deeply conflicted but still empathetic at heart, still recognizable, and we as readers are able to see ourselves in their humanity and their inhumanity.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’ve been watching a popular television show with my friend Andrew, and one thing that keeps coming up is how flaws and contradictions make characters interesting. I don’t know the three writers Ward has gathered in this group – Yxta Maya Murray, Bryan Washington, and Stephanie Soileau – so again, I’ll be working with a rather blank slate, and acquiring new authors.

The next category I’ll tackle I’m referring to as tumult of time, a phrase direct from Ward’s intro:

[T]hese artful, beautifully constructed stories tell a tale of time, of how it is mutable, alive, mysterious, and real. How all we have in this strange and bewildering present are those we love, and how even when the times turn terrible, that love remains. In this pandemic year, this was a particularly valuable lesson to read and remember, lost as we all were in the tumult of time, the uncertainty of living through a moment that felt novel and familiar at once in its unpredictability, in its ugliness, in its loss.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I happen to have read both of the authors in this category: Jane Pek, whose use of Chinese myth charmed me last year, and George Saunders who just taught me to read Russian literature.

 I’ll then turn to Ward’s immersion category:

This immersion in other people through short stories fed something in me; it sated a very human need to sink into another’s reality, to inhabit another’s experience, and in doing so to understand my own little world, my own wandering, bewildered self a bit better. In these stories I experienced companionship and communion in words. When I read their last lines, when I ascended out of their worlds, I could breathe a little easier in my own skin, my own life, because I knew friendship.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’m not precisely sure what this category entails – isn’t the point of all stories to immerse onesself in another’s reality? – but I understand that sense of loss, of “I miss you” when a story or novel ends and a character leaves my consciousness and returns to the page. Of these authors, I’m familiar with David Means, and look forward to meeting Tracey Rose Peyton and Christa Romanovsky.

The final category is  surprise – literarily speaking, in terms of language use, or in terms of story.

[S]ome stories enthralled me because they surprised me. Many of them surprised me in terms of language, language that was layered and textured and rich and took unexpected turns and played with rhythm and phrasing. Some of these same stories also surprised me in terms of endings, in how plot evolved in the world of the story….. In these tales, the surprise of the flowering of a human being, the evolution of character, reminds me that this too can be true of human beings in real life.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’m taking a mooc covering basic Stylistics right now (or I would be if I could get caught up in my other moocs and get back to it) and am interested to see if I can recognize the language surprises here. I’ve read brandon Hobson once before; Eloghosa Osunde and Shanteka Sigers will be new for me.

I’m excited about reading the stories this way. One method of adjusting to change is to root onesself in whatever stability remains, but another way is to mix everything up so that the change of concern is not as noticeable among the other changes (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of work on adjusting to change? It’s not my favorite thing, and over these past several years, it seems like there’s been a “new normal” every other week, with them now coming at an accelerated pace as we work our way thorough a pandemic, and a political crisis, that changes almost daily. Can chaos get so common as to become boring?).

Whatever the chaos, there’s still Best American Short Stories, my annual project for October through December since 2010. May that continue for as long as I can read and type.

Emerging from In-Between 2021

Transitions are hard. Even when you feel like you’re done with where you are, and you’re looking forward to the next place you’re going to be, it’s hard to leave the cozy familiar. That’s what these intro and exit posts are for: they help me close out one thing, feel truly finished, before starting another.

In contrast to last year’s In-Between Reading during which I blogged through 29 books, or even the year before when it was 22 books, this year was less productive in terms of numbers: 18 books. I didn’t complete my list from the Intro post; I saw those thick volumes of Heinlein and Wouk, and decided this wasn’t the year for them. And I still took a long time reading, mostly, shorter books.

Part of that was unavoidable. I decided to re-do a couple of heavy-duty science moocs, entering them into Cerego as I did, and that took enormous amounts of time. It was, however, greatly beneficial, so no regrets. I also just had trouble getting down to brass tacks on everything, including reading.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this year of Re-Reading. I got re-aquainted with a couple of classics I hadn’t read since high school or college (Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby). I read about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the middle of our current pandemic, and noted the differences and, alarmingly, the similarities. And I found a (perhaps invented) link to Kierkegaard in a favorite pop novel I hadn’t read in over a decade.

My luck with recent releases was mixed. I loved the Saunders take on Russian short stories, and I think I learned something about keeping expectations in mind while reading: what is the author setting up? Why would they challenge that expectation? The new short story collections were delights, but the novels, not so much. They weren’t bad, by any means, but I was disappointed. Maybe the hype had me expecting more. In the past, I’ve rarely read new releases, because of the hype factor; I think I’ll stick with that policy from now on.

I did much better on older novels and story collections. The hands-down winner of this In-Between session was Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; runner up is Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and these both did.

And now its time to focus on short stories again. I read differently when I’m doing one story at a time, as opposed to a collection or a novel. It’s time to make that transition. And I’ll start putting aside potential reads for next year’s In-Between.

Brandy Schillace: Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher (S&S 2021)

Experimental surgery always carries with it both “can” and “should”: the philosophical question of whether a thing ought to be tried at all. Transplant isn’t just about practical medicine; it involves questions about bodies and souls — the animating principle, however you define it. What is a meaningful life? Who decides it’s worth and value? Who decides when it ends?…. Transplant surgery asks hard questions about where the body ends and we begin. Who are we? Where are we? And what, for better or worse, does that mean for the future of bodies, brains, and the human soul?

I’m of two minds about this book (Ms. Thoughtful Reader and Madame Ranting Critic, if you will). I enjoyed it greatly; I’ve had a lot of trouble finding medical nonfiction aimed at the general reader over the past couple of decades, and this was full of technical details at just the right level. And, wonder of wonders, it was written with great narrative drive; I really had to finish many sections, though I had other things to do and other places to be. So it was a very good book.

Because it’s a good book, I’m quite disappointed in what seems to me to be an attempt to jack it up with the title’s reference to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the overhyped subtitle: “A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul.” These elements evoke an image of a staid doctor by day who goes rogue in his basement at night on some semi-psychotic pseudo-religious quest. That is not at all the case. According to the text, Dr. Robert White was a talented surgeon in good standing all his life, a devout Catholic who was invited to an audience with the Holy Father after a neuroscience conference on transplants, and conducted all of his research in a university hospital under laws and norms of the time. There’s no secret here, no hidden cabal with twisted motives. In spite of the frequent references to Dr. Frankenstein, often by Dr. White himself, there is simply a surgeon hoping that transplanting a brain – or, more accurately, transplanting a healthy body to a patient’s head when the body is failing – would save lives.

Ok, so it isn’t simple. It isn’t simple at all. But that’s what makes it interesting.

After a brief introduction to Dr. White, Schillace takes us to the world’s first kidney transplant in 1954. Dr. White is in the gallery, observing, and begins to form the ideas that will propel him throughout his career. I found the medical details of this historic surgery, and the surgeries that led to it, fascinating; those with less of an interest in what I airly refer to as “medical stuff” may be less entranced. In any case, it serves as a beginning to Dr. White’s story.

One of the more interesting philosophical issues raised throughout the book is the location of the soul. This has been pondered since people were people, and some of the history is given here. It was Dr. White’s belief “that all of the so-called human element resided in the brain as a soul,” both that which he believed survived after death, and the consciousness, the individual personhood.

The soul need not have a physical structure that we can detect, he explained, because it existed in “the fourth dimension.” We must look beyond a mind-body relationship, he insisted, and understand the more philosophically complex mind-soul-body relationship…. This strange metaphysical connection, in all its complexity, he called “the White principle.” Science demanded proof. Catholicism required faith. White never considered them opposed, but as he aged, he went further in trying to unite them through his own philosophical doctrine.

He also believed that animals did not possess souls. Whether that was theologically-based, or convenient, is unclear. But from the moment he heard a Russian Soviet doctor had transplanted a second head onto a dog – resulting in an ultimately disappointing visit to Moscow –  he knew he had to research brain transplants. And that meant dogs. And monkeys.

The experiments are described in detail, and can be hard to read for those of us who have loved our pets and never questioned their ensouledness. Much of the book concerns this battle between animal rights activists – from the fledgling PETA to Peter Singer – and medical research. For Dr. White, it was clear: his animal research saved human lives. He had specific patients he’d saved using techniques he’d developed in the lab on monkeys. He was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in hyperthermia,  the discovery that cooling the brain reduces metabolism and so allows it to go without oxygen, as in major cardiovascular surgeries, for longer periods of time. But the epithet Dr. Butcher arose for a reason (Mr. Humble was his own self-generated epithet).

His dream was, of course, to transplant a human head. His dream subject would have been Stephen Hawking or Christopher Reeve. It isn’t until fairly late in the book that we discover the catch: no, he hadn’t discovered the secret to reconnecting the spinal cord. Mr. Reeve’s head would have sat atop an equally paralyzed body. This makes the idea of a head transplant seem rather questionable, and is a good reason he never got that far.

However, the book goes on to cover more recent research into the brain-body connection via computer chips. Grey’s Anatomy viewers are familiar with those. There are ways to bypass the spinal cord and control devices, including prosthetics and computer consoles, by thoughts, and some progress has been made in controlling muscles. This would make Dr. White’s head transplant far more useful. But it’s still years away, and Dr. White didn’t live to see it. It is nonetheless a truly fascinating section of the book.

Schillace maintains a non-judgmental tone as she presents White’s work, allowing readers to make up their own minds about his research and larger questions of animal rights, the soul, and transplants. Dr. White’s enthusiasm and his motivation of saving lives are equally strong as the voices of his critics.

I discovered this book through the FiveBooks weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. It was an impulse addition to this year’s in-between reading, and a successful one.  

Amy Bloom: Come to Me: Stories (HC 1993)

My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see.

“Silver Water”

After I’d read most of the stories in this collection, I went googling for some insight. I discovered Bloom was, before and during her writing career, a psychotherapist. Something clicked: the central plots of these stories  could be summed up by a therapist in a sentence or two. It’s the stories’ job to show us what else there is. And these stories do their job well.

Many of the stories deal with adult romantic relationships beyond the traditional boundaries of marriage. Several deal with mental illness and/or therapeutic relationships. A couple deal with children who experience things they shouldn’t have to handle. Some include more than one of these elements. Some are linked. Many include a bit of humor, but the last one leaves us laughing out loud.  

I decided to read this book last April after the second (and, apparently, final, heavy sigh) Zoom meeting of the Short Story Club, a discussion of a selection of works chosen by Vince Scarpa. “Silver Water” was the story covered in that meeting; the opening paragraph is quoted above. It’s the reminiscence of the sister of a mentally ill woman who found relative peace for a few years in the hands of a skilled psychiatrist, then foundered when he died. It leaves us with the question: Is suicide always a tragedy? Is it possible some people just know when they’ve had enough? How does one react when faced with another’s decision, and how does one live with it afterward? For me, it was the most intense story of the book. Other stories include:

Love is Not a Pie

I called and John was very sweet, asking how was feeling, how the memorial service had gone, how my father was. And I told him all that and then I knew I couldn’t tell him the rest and that I couldn’t marry a man I couldn’t tell this story to.
“I’m so sorry, Ellen,” he said. “You must be very upset. What a difficult day for you.”
I realise that was a perfectly normal response; it just was all-wrong for me. I didn’t come from a normal family: I wasn’t ready to get normal.

Clinical note: Subject has trouble with “normal” men, so has decided not to marry her fiance after all. Possibly related to her discovery, at age 9, of her parents’ intimate relationship with a family friend.

The title comes from Ellen’s mother’s explanation that the love she and her husband have for each other is not diminished by the addition of a third party into their sex life. That Ellen spent many years before asking about it – not until the man’s funeral – and that she recalls this advice during her mother’s funeral, underlines the importance of the discovery, but also convinces me that, although her family’s approach to marital monogamy may be unusual, the family itself is not really strange at all.

Only You

Marie has fallen in love with beauty.

The clinical note: Pt. has sexual relationship with transvestite, ? transference.

Marie, who watched her husband become entranced by a Beautiful Woman in a linked story, now has the chance to become beautiful herself, or at least to see herself as beautiful. So she fixates on her hair stylist, who happens to like dressing up like her. Think Jenna learning to love herself through Paul on 30 Rock.

Semper Fidelis

All-night grocery stores seem to be the personal savior and favorite haunt of dazed young women of all colors, who haul their crumpled sleeping babies like extra items in the cart; of single middle-aged men and women, to healthy and too lonely to fall asleep at ten o’clock; and of people like me, who are scared to go home.

Clinical note: Pt. preparing for widowhood at young age; husband much older.

A once-scandalous May-December marriage grown ordinary over ten years is now drawing to its inevitable, and extremely ordinary, end: death. There’s enough tenderness in her last night with her husband to convince me she didn’t marry him for his money. And the observation about grocery stores is so spot-on, I nearly stood and applauded.


I would tell him that we were looking at wreckage and he would not want to know.

Clinical note: Pt. unsure how to react to sexual encounter with stepson following his father’s death.

This would be my candidate for the most shocking story of the collection. Does it count as incest if you aren’t related by blood? Or, maybe, what the hell was she thinking? The portrait of the marriage is generous and loving, so the nighttime visit feels like a record scratch. Wreckage is the right word. The story does include another perfectly observed grocery store moment:

I went to the grocery store and bought weird, disconnected items: marinated artichoke hearts for Lionel, who was dead; red caviar to make into dip for his son, whose life I had just ruined; peanut butter with the grape jelly already striped into it for Buster, as a special treat that he would probably have outgrown by the time I got home; a pack of Kools for me, who stopped smoking fifteen years ago. I also bought a wood-refinishing kit, a jar of car wax, a six-pack of Michelob Light, five TV dinners, some hamburger but no buns, and a box of Pop-Tarts. Clearly the cart of a woman at the end of her rope.

Am I obsessed with grocery stores, or is Bloom?

Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines

The pleasure on Mr. Klein’s face made me forget everything I had heard in the low tones of my parents’ conversation and all that I had seen in my own mirror. I chose to believe Mr Klein.

Clinical note: Childhood abuse; distant parents.

We’ve finally learned that it’s not the weird guy in the trench coat you have to watch out for, but the nice guy the kids love. A little girl whose parents see her as not-good-enough finds validation modeling fur coats for a shopkeeper. The hair didn’t start to stand up on my arms, however, until, the modelling sessions halted by the man for unspecified reasons, the piano lessons began. It’s like cross-abuser grooming.

When the Year Grows Old

When Laura failed to smile triumphantly, Kay’s heart sank. It was not a contest, after all.

Clinical note: Pt’s mother bipolar.

And again we have a child dealing with something no child should have to deal with, but nevertheless they do. Kay’s somewhere in her tweens, perhaps, before she sees her mother experience a full-blown psychotic break. She’s ready to side with Mom against Dad, having been alienated from him for unspecified reasons, but that’s when she thinks Mom is just dramatizing a fight.

Psychoanalysis Changed My Life

On Tuesday, Dr. Zurmur interrupted Marianne’s memory of her grandfather shaving with an old-fashioned straight razor to tell her that beige was not her color….
During the next week’s sessions, Dr. Zurmur gave Marianne the name of a good masseuse, an expert hair colorist, and a store that specialized in narrow-width Swiss shoes, which turned out to be perfect for Marianne’s feet and sensibilities. At the end of Thursday’s session, Dr. Zurmur suggested that Marianne focus less on the past and more on the present.

Clinical note: Hmmm, kill two birds with one stone?

When therapist turns matchmaker.

I’ve said before I’m not a huge fan of domestic realism, but I’ve also come to realize there’s value to recognizing stories well-written, even if they aren’t going to be my favorites. These are very well done, keeping my attention with astute observations and small cross-threads while pursuing a deeper emotional vein beneath the everyday foibles evident in most families. There’s always a pulse beneath the clinical note.

Kathleen Balma: Gallimaufry & Farrago (Finishing Line Press, 2018)

Cover art by Megan Whitmarsh
I would say that having a subject, or at least an idea that sparks my interest, or that I’ve been chewing on for a while, is important to me. I usually have an idea, or the seed of an idea, or a memory, or a word that’s nagging at me. The poem around the idea nags at me until I sit down to write it. And I write the poem mainly to get it to stop pestering me and leave me in peace. I do not consciously impose limitations, but I probably do limit myself in ways I am not aware of. We all do this, I think. We impose writing rules on ourselves that we don’t even know we have. I think when you discover what rules you’re imposing on yourself without meaning to, that’s when you have a breakthrough. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: what are the rules I’m following that I don’t know I’m following? Of these rules, which ones are serving me well and which ones are holding me back?
~ Kathleen Balma via email

I came across Balma’s work several years ago, via Pushcart 2013, when her prose poem “Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” captivated me. We had a conversation about Juggalos, of all things, and the reaction of her hometown neighbors to a nonfiction article in the same Pushcart volume about the time the Insane Clown Posse came to town. Let’s just say they weren’t thrilled with how the were, and weren’t, represented.

Then, last year, I came across Black Spring Press Group’s Lockdown Series #4, videos of poets reading their work, on Youtube. Balma was featured, reading her poem “The Forgiveness Project.” I was captivated: at first, by the dog that kept interrupting her for the first minute, then by the poem itself.

I’ve said many times I’m not a poetry person. I stopped blogging most Pushcart poetry a couple of years ago, because I got tired of typing “I have no idea what to say about this poem” over and over; now I only blog poems that strike me in some way, either content or form or both. I also stopped buying poetry books, hoping they would show me what I was missing, but none of them did, they just repeated the same poems and talked about feelings that I didn’t feel.

But when a poet comes up with two – two – poems that really strike me, I have to check that out. I saw Balma had published a chapbook, Gallimaufry and Farrago.

My first thought was, “I wonder who Gallimaufry and Farrago are.”

Yes, I really am that stupid.

Turns out those two words are centuries-old references to food mixtures – a stew, and grains – that have come to mean a hodgepodge, a jumble of things.

The twenty-six poems in the chapbook fit that description. Some are humorous, some somber, and a few start out one way and end up another. Subjects range from Job to Abraham Lincoln to Sid Vicious. Many of the poems are about travel, particularly around Italy; some are rooted firmly in Balma’s Midwest. The book begins and ends with oysters (I’ll let that ring in the air a bit; I’m still thinking about it).

I’m (still) not a poetry person, but several of these worked for me. I’ll chose a few, culminating in the two – still my favorites – that originally brought me to this book.

A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District
Along the top
edge of hall
(where a wall-
paper border
might go) is porn so old
we feel safe
saying “art”
and smiling.

Most of us have, at some point, in some way, encountered the remains of Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. We may have heard of the plaster casts showing the last moments of those caught in the downpour of ash: a dog on its back, a pregnant woman prone, a man reaching for something, maybe a way out he never found.

But while we thought of homes and farms and markets, did any of us think of the brothels?

Yet, the brothels are there. Hey, even The Economist did an article on them. Penises are engraved on walls and floors. Menus of services, graffiti, all the things you’d expect. All from 1700 years ago. It’s… well, it sounds irreverent to say “funny” in this city of tragedy made concrete, but, come on, it is. Balma’s poem leads us there. Then it takes us back:

No poems here,
it seems –
this blunt graffiti
all that’s left.
No bodies either, now,
just ghastly casts
in vast museums, or
for those who hear
through time and ash:
ghostly gasps.

This is one of the few poems where the sounds feel crucial to me: sounds that repeat across stanzas (“safe/saying”, “edge of hall/(where a wall”,) and, at then end, almost parenthesize the sharp stab to the heart we feel having just giggled at the idea of raunchy graffiti now immortalized: “ghastly casts….ghostly gasps.”

I associate two-line poetry with several things:  conversations between two people, indecisiveness, and walking. Yes, I know, Dante cornered the market on walking meters with terza rima, but for the simpletons among us, two feet, two beats per step, it fits. That this poem is titled as a tour makes that a fairly good bet. But there is also that conversation with those who, so long ago, lived so much like we do. What would the ash catch us doing, what graffiti would we leave behind, if it fell right now?

Abraham, Honestly
“With his own two hands, Abe Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in.”
— from an American college student’s history paper
Theory 1: Out-of-Body Abe
The ghostly glob of fetal Abraham sneaks out of his mother’s womb at night with architecture on his budding mind….
Theory 3: Authorial Abe
Like many Abrahams before him, Lincoln enjoys limited omniscience whenever he writes speeches, treaties, bills, or commandments, and this has begun to affect his mind in arboreal ways. He often imagines what it must have been like for his Pa to construct their homestead. How many times has the teenage Lincoln built that same boxy lodge in his mind, amputating trees and sanding them to naked plainness, putting, perhaps, more care into it than his own father had? …Since the war began, he’s been adding rooms that were never there in his youth, and the walls are getting higher, so high the house is now a tower he must climb and climb.

This is just pure fun, but it’s also an interesting exercise in metaphor. How many ways can you figure out to have Abe accomplish the task credited to him by a student overtired from an all-nighter? And that last theory sends me right back to Richard Osgood’s “Millennium House”.

What the Traveler Knows
Every country is a cure for something;
…If you are irksome and rude
in your own land, there is another
where you are witty and direct; your voice,
once a pastel whine, now an atonal woodwind
of desire….

I left home when I was eighteen because I knew I had to find my cure. The problem is, after that, I tended to get stuck. I stayed in places I hated because I was sure I’d never find anything halfway as good, that they were the best I deserved, that to look elsewhere would be arrogance, or pride. I wish I’d known this poem. This idea, that there is a place where even I might fit.

From the highly – maybe overly – florid phrases, we suddenly get real, almost Beckettian:

Look there, that palace, this tower,
yonder mountain peak – it’s the view
you were born to see, the perfect
finish to the shelf song of your life
so far. The end. Keep looking.
The end. Maybe tomorrow. The end.
Almost there. The end.

And yet, the end keeps getting put off, because there will always be another chapter to your life, every place will become a place to escape from.  For some, at least. I think for me, I’ve found the place I want to die from. But who knows what may happen that changes my mind. The end? Keep looking. The end? Maybe tomorrow. The end? Almost there…

The Forgiveness Project
— after Szymborska
Who runs the project and for how long?
Are reservations and appointments a must,
or is it first come first serve?
Is there a suggestion box? A gift registry?
Will I need a witness?

Forgiveness is a core issue of mine, and this poem, by asking questions, raised more thoughts than even I had. It’s interesting that it’s the wrongdoer who is the focus here, not the wronged party. Forgiveness is a change in the wronged party. Nowhere do I see a guarantee that if one asks for forgiveness – presumably in all sincerity – it will be granted. Just like real life.

Maybe the confession booth has given us the impression that forgiveness is a transaction, as routine as buying a box of cereal or an indulgence. The poem underlines that by treating it lightly, but there’s a seriousness underlying that levity. I can’t define it, but I feel it. And here I am, sounding like one of those teachers I get so irritated with, declaring feeling with no evidence. But by making light of the subject, the rock-hard truth – that forgiveness implies a wrong, the infliction of pain, that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always heal even when it’s sincere – becomes more visible. Maybe it’s our irritation with playfulness on such a serious subject that stresses the reality.

But what if I take a different approach: what if apologies were offered by appointment, en masse? This is something like my (admittedly flawed) understanding of Yom Kippur. What if our errors were catalogued? Isn’t this what we imagine God doing – or even Santa Claus, keeping track of who’s naught and who’s nice? In Christian theology, sins are erased by grace, but does Santa keep track, we were not as naughty at age 8 than we were at age 7?

“Do poems count as admissions of guilt?” asks the poem. I remember (I hope; sometimes I worry that I just make these things up when I can’t document them later) that someone important in media said that America apologizes through its movies: for Vietnam, for Korematsu, and, someday maybe, for Guantanamo. But it isn’t America, the nation, that’s making these films.

I  had to look up Wisława Szymborska, and discovered a Nobel laureate from Poland. There is a certain similarity to some of Balma’s work, but I’ve never been sure what “after” means; sometimes it’s a clear copy of a story, sometimes it’s a reply. So I asked Balma, with whom I had a wonderful email conversation. Her explanation:

Szymborska is and always will be my favorite poet. I understand the “after” to mean, “written as a conscious imitation of …”
“The Forgiveness Project” was written as a conscious imitation of a Szymborska poem that consists of a series of questions. I liked the form, so I wrote my own series of questions.
~ Kathleen Balma via email

I found a Szymborska poem titled “Questions you Ask Yourself” which could be a likely origin, but that requires confirmation.

From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum
If you will not tip me for my dance, tip me for daring to ask…. Tip me for staring back so hard it puts even Olympia to shame and makes her chat noire slink ever closer to her overlooked and under-rendered black maid…. Tip me for what you don’t see: the abstract; the invisible; the squiggly outline of the model’s brain matter in silhouette; the negative space plastered between fleshy objects like some happy vacuum, giving form to the nothingness between us.

I loved the return of the Male Gaze in this poem, the dare, the refusal of any shame; the redirection of embarrassment to the customer. Women have since Eve borne the burden of shame for men crying “Look what you made me do” like any five-year-old. No, says this character. Look what you are doing.  I love the reference to Olympia, Manet’s painting showing a courtesan staring back at the viewer in a then-unexpected pose likewise free from shame. I love the use of anaphora (ha, see what I’m doing here) in the repetition of “Tip me.” And I love the closing line, though I’ll admit it’s a curious admiration, more of a desire to parse it, to get it right than an understanding of it.

When writers are kind enough to respond to my questions, seeing as I’m not exactly the New York Times Review of Books here, I like to give them a chance to add anything they wish. Sometimes they’ll mention an upcoming project, sometimes it’s more explanation of the work under discussion. And once in a while it’s something completely unexpected, like when I asked Robert Foreman what he wished someone would ask him, and he replied, “I wish people would ask me why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.” I didn’t know if I should pursue that line of thought, or call in a counsellor.

Balma’s reply was a little less off-the-wall, though unique enough to be intriguing: she got an outside opinion.

I just asked my partner, “Is there anything people never ask me that you think they should be asking?” He said, “I would ask you about your sentences,” and I laughed. I asked him to clarify. He said, “I’d have to research it to really articulate what I’m after, but I guess, not why you write but how you write, the particularities of your style. Your syntax. Your registers. Those are things I’m interested in.” I said, “You’d have to research your girlfriend’s poetry before you could ask her a question about her sentences?!” And he said yes. Then he said, “You write with subjects, sometimes themes. How important is having a subject that you’re interested in, and do you impose any limitations that relate to the subject? These are not very sexy questions. I’m sorry. I’m about to go get some fish. Is there anything you’d like?” So that’s what conversations are like at our house.
~ Kathleen Balma via email

Then she turned that around into the opening quote above, a thoughtful consideration of process, what it is, and what it could be.

I enjoyed the chapbook, and I enjoyed the conversation. One of the most fun parts of writing these posts is that occasion, not a frequent one but often enough, of meeting a writer on, and off, the page.

Balma has a new collection, What the Traveler Knows, coming out soon; it includes most of the poems from this chapbook, plus a longer poem.

* * *

  • Kathleen Balma, Website and forthcoming collection
  • “Abraham, Honestly” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, via Cutbank, 1.75
  • “From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum” – Poem by Kathleen Balma at The Café Review, Winter 2011
  • “The Forgiveness Project” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, poet reading for Black Springs Press Group on Youtube
  • “Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii” – Atlas Obscura on Slate
  • “The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii” – Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle, for The Conversation
  • “Millennium House” – flash fiction by Richard Osgood (Tin House)
  • Wisława Szymborska at Poetry Foundation
  • “The Questions You Ask Yourself” – Poem by Wisława Szymborska, Library of Congress listing
  • Megan Whitmarsh – cover art

Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World (Carol Brown Janeway, translator) (Vintage, 2007)

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.

Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.

Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.

I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.

One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:

And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there. We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face, stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.

I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting  an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.

Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:

Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.

The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.

Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:

He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he said, smiling.
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form … He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.

The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”

Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”

This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:

Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”

Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann

One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.

Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.

It happened, said Pater Zea.
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.

On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.

And also in Mexico:

Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.

That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.

I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:

Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
Still boys?
You knew?

That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.

Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.

I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!

Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue

The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.

But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.

Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.

* * *

Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”

Álvaro Enrigue, Bomb Magazine, 2/26/2020 : Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann”

St. Andrews Math Histories: Carl Friedrich Gauss

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Smithsonian Institution: “Who Was Alexander Von Humboldt?”

Frans Oort: Book Review

Michael Harris, Mathematics Without Apologies: “Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 3”

Oliver Knill, 9/27/2020: “Measuring the World [Film]

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun (Knopf 2021)

Do you believe in the human heart?

Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).

Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.  

Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.

The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will  buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.

The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.

This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?

This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.

There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.

‘Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’ ‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’

So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am  calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.

Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.

Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?

I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.

But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing;  the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:

I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.

I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.  

It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.

* * *

A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (William Morrow 2016)

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.

I’d wanted to see the film version of this book, but for various reasons that never happened. So when someone recently mentioned it, I added it to my reading list, another “unusual career paths” book like others I’ve read before. It’s not that the careers are that unusual, but as the author says, the circumstances made them notable.

I was surprised to find out that the story of these women, the West Computers, started during WWII, when NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to NASA, worked on warplane design. Reducing drag seems to have been the biggest problem. Though different types of planes – bombers, fighter planes, transports – had very different requirements. 

Of course, the technical information, though interesting, isn’t the focus of the book. NACA was located at Langley in Virginia, a state where segregation was still law. Hence, the West Computers; the East Computers were the white women who did the same job, in a different building.

I kept reacting to the word “Computers” being used to denote people. I have a dictionary that was published in the 30s; I knew a long time ago that it defines “computer” as “one who computes,” so it’s not a new usage to me, but it still sounds strange. Then again, a lot of the language in the book, the language of the time and place, has an even stronger effect, as the battlefield against racial discrimination took place in strange ways:

Most groups sat together [in the lunchroom] out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. … It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny. The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.

This process of removing the sign, waiting for it to show up again went on for quite a while before whoever placed the sign gave up. The women still sat at the same table, but the stigma, the shame, was gone.

Race wasn’t the only issue, of course. Women who worked with engineers on extended projects wouldn’t be credited on reports, the public recognition of their expertise. “Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all” muses Shetterly.  

Then there was the question of attending an important weekly meeting. Katherine Goble asked to attend the meeting; she was refused. She asked again the next time, and again was turned down. Eventually, she was allowed in, and, wonder of wonders, the sky didn’t fall. Persistence once again paid off. But it was never a given: “Whether or not a woman was promoted, if she was given a raise, if she had access to the smoky sessions where the future was being conceived and built, had much to do with the prejudices and predilections of the men she worked for.”

The story is carried along a broad outline of history that intersects with both the mission of NACA/NASA and the Civil Rights movement. WWII, breaking the  sound barrier, school segregation (one county in Virginia closed its schools rather than comply with integration), Sputnik and the space race, and voting rights, all blend together. John Glenn’s orbit and safe splashdown became a turning point for Katherine Johnson, who undertook the assignment of figuring out how to make sure the capsule ended up near the ship that would recover Glenn:

“In the recovery of an artificial earth satellite it is necessary to bring the satellite over a preselected point above the earth from which the reentry is to be initiated,” she wrote. Equation 3 described the satellite’s velocity. Equation 19 fixed the longitude position of the satellite at time T. Equation A3 accounted for errors in longitude. Equation A8 adjusted for Earth’s west-to-east rotation and oblation. She conferred with Ted Skopinski, consulted her textbooks, and did her own plotting. Over the months of 1959, the thirty-four-page end product took shape: twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, two launch case studies, three reference texts (including Forest Ray Moulton’s 1914 book), two tables with sample calculations, and three pages of charts.

A woman receiving credit for her own work was almost as big a deal as the successful recovery using her work. It’s quite a joyous chapter.

And yet, it’s not so much the story itself as the very telling of the story that I keep thinking of. I’d certainly never heard of these women. It seems they did a fair amount of public speaking, but national recognition never came their way until a chance comment moved Shetterly to interview some of the women and research the book in order to tell the story. This is the importance of diversity, of access, of different voices in the room. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

Most people are astonished that a history with such breadth and depth, involving so many women and linked directly to the twentieth century’s defining moments, has flown below the radar for so long. ….For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies. …For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

The history that spans from the personal to the national to the scientific makes this interesting reading for a broad audience. That may be why there’s also a Young Reader’s edition and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as the film. But I was perfectly happy with the original.