Pushcart XLI: Paul Crenshaw, ” The Hornet Among Us” (nonfiction) from War, Literature, and the Arts #27

The Japanese giant hornet is not the largest insect in the world, but perhaps the most fierce. It can grow to two inches in length, with a wingspan of three…. Here’s how the hornets work: scouts zoom around, searching for honey bee hives. This is all they do, from when they wake in the spring to when they hibernate in the fall. When a scout finds a hive, it leaves pheromone markers around it, which draw other hornets. When the others arrive, they begin systematically slaughtering the bees. A Japanese giant hornet can kill 40 honey bees in an hour. A nest of Japanese giant hornets, around 30 or so, can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. The hornets seize the bees one by one and literally slice them apart. They cut off their heads and limbs and wings and keep the juicy, most nutrient-rich parts, which they chew into a paste to feed to their larvae. They eat the bees’ honey and devour their young. They do not take over the bees’ hives or carefully consume all they have killed. They take only the flight muscles and other juicy bits and leave the heads and limbs lying around.

~~ Complete article available online via WLA Journal

As I read this, I wondered: does an insect even have a brain? Turns out it does, though it might be more accurate to call it a ganglion, a collection of nerve cells, rather than what we think of when we say “brain”.

A team of researchers at Macquarrie University in Australia consisting of a zoologist/neuroethologist and philosopher have hypothesized that an insect “has a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” That is, insects may experience a mental state, that it “feels like” something to be an insect. Maybe they wonder if these giant meat creatures who keep intruding into their spaces and swat at them have brains.

Crenshaw takes a more behavioral view of insects in this essay. As a lifelong entomophobe, I found it quite creepy to read about all the ways certain insects wage what can only be called war. I was a lot more comfortable with his etymological exploration of the word “hornet” in various constructs: it’s related to buzzing. He attributes Biblical references to hornets to Hebrew words for panic, or army. We’ve been observing insect behavior for a long, long time.

I wonder what it feels like to be the Japanese giant hornet destroying a honey bee colony, or an army ant, fire ant, wasp, or spider, the other insects whose behavior Crenshaw examines before turning to the most panic-inducing, war-waging creature of all.

When Rome fell to the barbarians, while the city was sacked and burned, while a thousand years of darkness set upon the western world, someone, looking at everything they had ever known fall, must have thought that the invaders in all their glorious multitudes looked like swarming ants. When Masada was surrounded, one of the besieged surely believed the Romans were hornets, alien, so far removed from humanity that they were of another world. When the Greeks stood at the narrow neck of Thermopylae, they must have seen the hordes coming for them, wave after wave after wave, as non-sentient, some form of mindless drone. And when the airplanes lit the night skies over Baghdad, a child, huddled in a corner somewhere, certainly believed that some creature from nightmare, from legend or lore or myth, had arisen like prophecy.

I know what it feels like, on this day, to hear the buzzing of hornets.

Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
 
But my mink collar protected me.

I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.

The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.

The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:

                                                            ….It’s 1984
 
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
 
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
 
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
 
extinguish and burn.

I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.

Pushcart XLI: Micah Stack, “The G.R.I.E.F” from Oxford American #89

OA Art: “Sleep” (2008) by Kehinde Wiley

OA Art: “Sleep” (2008) by Kehinde Wiley

                           “Pleurant, je voyais de l’or—et ne pus boire.
                                       —Arthur Rimbaud
 
Full disclosure up front: I am a gay black man, a proud New Orleanian, thirty years old, five out of the closet, a decade on the down-low before that; bi-dialectal as every educated brother in this city must be, a code-switcher as needed; a poet in my spare time, in my unspare time a poetry teacher devoted to dead French guys and live black ones. Like most black men of my generation, I belong to the hip-hop nation, and like any sensible gay man, I’m ashamed at times to say I’m a fan. The homophobia, the drug dealing and gun toting, the bling and the misogyny—it can feel like stylized, repetitive ugliness, at least mainstream gangsta shit. But I’m an addict, hooked on one rapper above the rest: Mr. Stillz. I’ve memorized hundreds of his verses, seen the documentaries, the interviews, the countless clips of him recording in his psychedelic freestyle mode. I subscribe to the hip-hop mags because he decorates their pages. So naturally my theories ran buck-wild when the photograph surfaced.

~~ Complete story available online at Oxford American

Who hasn’t made a hero of someone known only from afar, someone who shares a grim aspect of life and has risen above it, someone who seems to embody a dream. Maybe a pop culture icon. Maybe a cool kid at school, a teacher, an activist, an historical figure. Someone who lights our path from a distance. And sometimes – if we can move beyond our own expectations and let the hero be who he is instead of who we think he should be – our path is lit by our idol’s failure to live up to our expectations: we know where not to step.

The observer-narrator of this story, introduced in that first paragaph, is crucial, yet fades into the background as he tells us the story of Mr. Stillz and his mentor, Tyrone. Another iconic relationship, mentor and protégé, and just as fragile – or not, if we can measure up – as hero worship. I think there’s a good dose of hero worship in mentoring, for that matter. And I think, in the best examples, it goes both ways.

The story is online and deserves to be read firsthand; I’ll assume it has by anyone who’s slashed through the above to get this far (I don’t know why I’ve suddenly taken to overly complicated syntax, except that’s just how this one is coming out. My version of hip hop, perhaps). Some readers will have a tendency to dismiss something rooted in an art form that often gets pretty nasty. I’m a 60-something white lady from New England whose idea of music is a triad of Palestrina, Mozart, and Simon & Garfunkel, what do I know about hip hop, but damn I loved this story.

The Trench Sweeper raps about what’s around him—Tyrone’s rims spinning like rotisserie chickens, his grandmama’s stoop where he’s trying to make a living. The bike he pedals on, the crack he’s peddle-ing; he can’t stand being broke, so he’ll fall for better things. He is a hustler—he’d rather die than to live average, even if he got to live savage. He was born to eat rappers like they came from McDonald’s, then he hollers Rest in Peace to his mama and Ronald.

In spite of the disclaimers about being ignorant of hip hop, I’ve become familiar with the linguistic fluency demanded of high-level rap through linguistics. It’s just as complex and rare a talent as composing an opera, a skill perhaps dating back to Homeric bards who used repetition and sound patterns to recite thousands of lines. Stack’s description captures it about as well as text can. Ahmad Trench, aka Trench Sweeper aka Mr. Stillz, uses what’s around him, including the pain of his life, to create art, to earn his tattoo The G.R.I.E.F.: The Greatest Rapper in Existence, Fucker.

Stack paints that pain in heart-wrenching colors as Mr. Stillz visits, post-Katrina, what remains of his childhood home, what remains of his childhood:

What they find is three concrete steps that lead to a porch and a flood-stained yellow door still in its frame. No roof, no walls, no house.
It’s not Mr. Stillz but Ahmad Trench who walks up those steps, who stares at that door that leads to nothing, just a yard littered with scraps of other people’s lives. Memory supplies the side of the house. Ronald perched above him on the ladder saying, Hand me that purple paint. They were fighting on this porch the day she died. Memory supplies her voice: We been over this, Ahmad, and his own: He ain’t my daddy, he ain’t blood. Then the El Camino, the ski-masked goon with the chopper, the gunshots and echoes. The house-front splattered with Ronald’s skull, blood sliding down the door into his mama’s hair.
A pelican explodes into flight with a squawk and Ahmad starts kicking the door. It’s still locked and he kicks it until the wood splinters around the deadbolt.
Where all the lights in my city go? he says.

And suddenly it doesn’t matter that I don’t really know what hip hop is; I know who Ahmad is, I understand this aspect of Mr. Stillz. This is what fiction can do. All our rage, our heartbreak, is the same.

But don’t forget, our observer-narrator is here too, whose emergence from the shadows at the end of the story – literally, as he seeks an autograph from Mr. Stillz in a perfect ending scene – ties everything together. Remember, he introduced himself as a teacher of French poetry. Now, if there’s one thing I know less about than hip hop, it’s French poetry, but that’s what Google is for. A Rimbaud epigram starts off the story. And here’s where things got really interesting. The quote translates to “Weeping, I saw gold – but could not drink.” I had no idea where that fit in Rimbaud’s poetry, but by the end of the story I could see perfectly well what it had to do with Mr. Stillz: he has all the talent in the world, but it could be destroyed because, against the homophobic backdrop of the hip hop community, he’s in love with his mentor and adoptive father. The inciting force of the story is the publication of a photo of the two of them kissing. Yes, it raises serious questions. But Rimbaud got there first.

One of the places I ended up in my online research (which, I agree, is nowhere near in-depth enough) on Rimbaud and Verlaine was a Kenyon Review article by American literary critic Jeffrey Meyers. See if any of this reminds you of Ahmad and Tyrone:

Portrait of Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain

Portrait of Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain

Rimbaud’s sophistication, poetic talent, and extraordinary ideas exemplify the mystery of genius. A brilliant young scholar in an excellent lycée, one of the best in France, he was intellectually confident. But his childhood left him emotionally damaged and mentally troubled. He came from a severely deprived background in the bleak town of Charleville, in northeast France, near the Belgian border. …He was stifled by his family and refused to finish high school, where he felt he had nothing more to learn. He made several attempts to run away from home, culminating in his third trip to Paris, where he began his torturous three-year relationship with Verlaine, poetic mentor, parent-substitute, and lover. ..,Rimbaud’s decision to derange the senses, including the most basic human emotions, seems willful and pathological, but was also rational and deliberate. He had a program: he would take drink, drugs, even poison; he would endure unspeakable tortures, commit acts of violence, become a criminal, risk losing his poetic insights, even risk death. During his years with Verlaine (1871-73), Rimbaud put his program into practice, experiencing exhaustion and starvation, filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, violence and destruction, while heightening his chaotic state with hashish and absinthe. …Rimbaud reversed centuries of cultural tradition. Instead of assuming that the artist’s task is to create order out of experience, Rimbaud believed the disorder of the poet’s mind was sacred.

~~Jeffrey Meyers, “The Savage Experiment: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine”
Available online at Kenyon Review

A short time after the affair ended (with a gunshot, but I’ll leave that for the readers’ explorations), Rimbaud self-published “A Season in Hell” whence the opening epigram came. Specifically, it’s from the section titled “Alchemy of the Word” which has a definite relevance to Ahmad’s talent as a rapper (“I invented colors for the vowels!”), but a more poignant relevance to his personal agony : “Weeping, I saw gold – and could not drink”. Rimbaud soon stopped writing poetry and began travelling the world via various non-literary pursuits (soldier and merchant among them) until he died at age 37.

Why am I so obsessed with Stillz? Why him and not some “socially conscious” rapper? The critics claim he has nothing to say, but goddamn does he say it—the most stylish nothing. To hear him in his prime is to hear a man delirious with his talent, flinging out onomatopoeic neologisms, pop-culture references, dizzying internal rhymes, scat jokes, and witty nonsense, every bar a pun or a punch line. The critics are also wrong. There’s pain coursing through all his best music. It’s just hyper-compacted, snagged in a phrase or tucked under a silence. His soulful eyes brim with the sorrow of a sunken city, the sorrow of men like I once was: covering up shame with defiance, cringing in the closet. He’s my modern-day Rimbaud, and Tyrone’s his poor Verlaine.

Our observer narrator fades into the background until he’s needed, and then he comes up front and plops something like this down on us, moving between Mr. Stillz and Rimbaud like there’s nothing between them. And maybe there isn’t. A lot of the people who turn their noses up at hip hop, at rap as art, see French poetry in the same way. Let’s face it, artists are often on the edges of propriety, and when they aren’t, their characters are. That’s how art shifts the borders of the world. Art can soothe and comfort, can beautiful in meaningful ways, but painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” or writing Don Quixote – or performing an unexpected halftime show – can change how we see the world, maybe change art itself.

Stack put me right there with a French poet and a closeted New Orleans rapper. Because I swear we’ve all kicked at doors to nothing simply because they were the only thing around to kick at. I swear, I’ve been kicking at one lately, and there’s no end in sight.

Pushcart XLI: Robert Wrigley, “Elk” (poetry) from Conduit, #26

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

His hindquarters must have fallen through
the ice, and he could not pull himself back out
and the incoming colder weather
refroze the hole around him and he died,
sinking some, only his broad horns
holding his head and neck above the surface.

I’m always a little uncomfortable with nature poems – I feel like I’m supposed to be in awe of something, but I’m not sure what – but following the theme of “look beyond the surface of what’s in front of you” from the first couple of pieces in this year’s volume, I found several points of interest.
The narrative concern a youngster (I’m presuming), headed out to the frozen-over lake to skate before the forecast snow falls, who finds a dead elk stuck in the ice where he seems to have fallen through. Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot in Norway: the NRK calls it the fourth leading cause of death for moose, and once in a while, a school of fish gets itself naturally frozen. So I’d imagine it isn’t unheard of in Wrigley’s home state of Montana, either.

The poetic speaker seems to take it in stride. Things get a bit grotesque for those of us city folk who can watch homeless old men lie passed out on the sidewalk and read about shootings and stabbings of our neighbors and drone bombings of children in Yemen with mere disgust or sorrow or helpless rage but are appalled at the idea of a coyote eating the face off a trapped elk. I think it’s the face. Eating a leg would be gruesome, but the face is so much more personal. To the coyote, it’s just dinner; he doesn’t claim to be made in the image of God. What’s our excuse?

I see the poem as occurring in several stanzas, though it’s presented without any white space. Given my penchant for finding patterns when I’m not sure what else to do, I can see some similarities to both elegiac and sonnet form, complete with variations and shared structures moving from past to present to future, shifting attention from object to subject, from observation to speculation.

But I’m punching above my weight there, so I’d rather think about the meaning of two particular places:

A half-mile skate back to where I hung my boots
from a limb, a hundred yard walk from there
to the truck, in which I keep a bow saw,
which I could use to remove a wedge of pate
with the perfect rack, but I choose not to.
Something in the weariness of the bones
of his jaw, also the snow just now beginning.

I love that simple “but I choose not to” – present tense, single-syllable, a wall of will. But the speaker doesn’t try to claim more than he’s earned: he’s motivated partly by the distress he sees in the elk’s posture, but also by self-interest, because it’s just too much work. Had the snow not been starting to fall, had the saw been at hand, he might’ve gone home with the rack, and he doesn’t try to paint it otherwise. And by the way, that last couplet is one of the two-line turns in between two sonnet variations, as well as the turn of the overall elegiac structure. Because I can’t resist. And I’m trying to get the thought of what it’s like to saw an elk’s antlers off out of my head.

The final sextain also got my attention:

Although the coyotes may be back tonight,
to dig their way from the horns’ stumps
for the ears, which I notice are still whole and upright,
the left one turned slightly farther left,
as though, with the last of his miraculous
senses, he heard them coming over the ice.

Beginning with “Although” preps the reader for a second clause: although this, that. But there is no that, only this; the “although” connects to the prior lines. Past, present, and future are all brought together, speculation brings subject and object together once more as the speaker notices those ears and imagines what it might mean. The final line is horrifying, and brutally honest. Yet I wonder if the optimistic elk might have thought the sounds of approach predicted rescue rather than scavenge, and was cheered. And then I wonder if I’m really that determined to turn this into something hopeful, to avoid considering that we are all stuck in the ice and the sounds we hear are footsteps of coyotes rather than angels.

Pushcart XLI: Eric Wilson, “I Sing You For An Apple” (non-fiction) from New England Review, 36.2

Photo by Randi Ward

Photo by Randi Ward

When the phone rang that evening in 1978, I was caught off guard. “How soon can you be here in DC?” the voice was asking. I lived in Los Angeles. “And—you do know Old Icelandic, right?” Old Icelandic, spoken by the Vikings some thousand years ago, was extinct.
As I hung up, I wondered: How had my career come to this?

~~ Article available online at lithub courtesy of NER

What a charming memoir, I thought after my first read. Multiple amusing anecdotes told with a pleasant air of bewilderment shading to exasperation, moving from the personal to the universal by the end: That guy criss-crossing the country waving children’s books at esteemed professors isn’t just a character, he’s a national treasure, and the books serve an important cultural purpose. Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

I should’ve paid more attention to that last bit: there is indeed always more.

Wilson was a professor of Germanic languages until universities started cutting programs like that in favor of… well, I’d imagine in the 70s it would’ve been contemporary philosophical theoreticians, because no one’s ever learned anything about the present by understanding the past (yes, that’s sarcasm, and for our daily dose of irony, now they’re cutting those philosophy courses to focus on business, computer science, and STEM. Don’t get me started). But Wilson made the best of it, forging a career as a translator which included, one summer in 1978, touring the country with a writer and political activist from the Faroe Islands at the request of the State Department, who wanted to be on his good side should his efforts to promote independence from Iceland succeed.

The title comes from one of those amusing anecdotes about Jacobsen’s visit: he wandered lost around the Grand Canyon on his own, finally running into a couple of fellow hikers, and asked them for help:

He had told other hikers, “I sing you for an apple!” People, sensing something was wrong, must have been solicitous of him, giving him water to drink as well as apples and perhaps even sandwiches. He told me he planned to write a memoir about his trip to America.
He would not entitle it the Faeroese “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” It would be just what he had told the other hikers, in English: “I Sing You for an Apple!”

I saw the film “Arrival” a few weeks ago, after having read Ted Chiang’s story “The Story of Our Lives” on recommendation of a mooc friend. I’m not sure I’ve encountered two detailed examinations of translation difficulties in such a short time before. Between the language problems (which I’ll leave for those interested in reading about the difficulties of negotiating Faroese, Danish, and Old Icelandic) and Jacobsen’s eccentricity – amplified by his fondness for all varieties of American booze – Wilson had his hands full trying to shepherd him from place to place while explain everything from high-heeled shoes (which, I gather, aren’t worn in the Faroe Islands) to cornrowed hair.

The Internet wasn’t available in 1978, so Wilson had only the brief biographical sketch given to him by the State Department. Thirty years later, he googled the name:

At the time of his visit, I had no idea how important he was in his Islands, nor to what degree he was loved. In translating his books for the various professors we met with on our trip, I hadn’t realized the full magnitude of his accomplishments. This was a language that had come close to extinction; now thanks to the children it was being kept alive.
I scrolled through the list of his works, which was exhaustive. Plays, children’s books, works for adults. But nowhere did I see either “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” or “I Sing You for an Apple!” So I realized it was up to me to tell his story.

As I do for all pieces I blog, I went looking to see what was available on Mr. Jacobsen. I thought
I might find an image to serve as a header, maybe a photograph, or the cover of one of his books. I did find those things, but I found something else, something that made him and his work even more personal to me. There’s always more, remember?

Wilson recounts a particular children’s book Jacobsen showed to a professor on his trip:

[T]he next thing I knew he was over on the young professor’s side of the table, presenting a small children’s book that I hadn’t seen before: Lív og Hundurin. On the cover we saw a girl named Lív and a blue-eyed dog with a long red tongue.
Lív æt ein lítil genta, hon var rund og næstan altíð glað. I was able to sight-read the Faeroese: “Lív was a little girl, she was round and almost always happy.” In the colored illustrations, Lív played with her dolls, and her friends Kára and Hanur and Eyð played with their building blocks—when one day Mamma opened the door and out of nowhere there appeared a blue-eyed dog. It smiled at Lív, a long bright red tongue extending down from its eager smile.

I rather sailed over that at the time, then later realized it was part of the effort to preserve the Faroese language in the next generation. But an article by writer/translator/photographer Randi Ward turned it into something far more significant:

Lív (1981) is a book-length poem dedicated to everyone who experiences loss. Lív, the Faroese word for life, was the name of Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen’s daughter. She was struck and killed by a vehicle in 1980 while visiting her father’s home village of Sandvík.
Steinbjørn sent copies of Lív to friends and family to thank them for their support. The volume was later made available to the public free of charge.

~~Randi Ward

Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

Pushcart XLI: Dominica Phetteplace, “The Story of a True Artist” from ZYZZYVA #105

From video trailer for <em>A Book of Uncommon Prayer</em>, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

From video trailer for A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

I was once a star on YouTube. With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo,
our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together. Most of the screen would show whatever videogame he was playing, with his joke commentary. The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head. Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blonde hairbow headband atop my black hair, I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the videogame. That was my commentary.
At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers. Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star. But I felt like a star. I got fan mail and hate mail. I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top of my head. My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting.
“I don’t get it,” they would say. “Can you explain that?”
“Exasperated sigh,” I would say. “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help. Shakes head.”

The thing about this story is how it keeps coming at you. Wave upon wave, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence, a six-layer cake of character, action, meaning, and it just never stops. It’s exhausting, and wonderful. Just like Lourdes. Hey, if you were named after Madonna’s kid and had “a large body and a weird sense of humor….brown skin and a poor family” and a craving to make art, you might never stop either.

A lot of readers might be put off right away by the details of setting and character. A couple of teenage YouTubers who speak their expressions? Shakes head! By the way, that was one of Robin
William’s many norm-shattering shticks as Mork back in the 70s, heavy sigh. But before you’re put off by the excruciating self-conscious pop-cultureness of it all, think about a few things.

For instance, think about what it means to be reduced to the top of your head. Granted, that’s a little better than being reduced to T&A, but not much. That’s what I mean about the six-layer cake: along with this image (and in spite of myself I keep imagining MST3 on Twitch), there’s this little thing about female objectification, another about race- and fat-shaming, then there’s the role of the sidekick (shakes head again! Nothing new under the sun), and of course parents – or readers – who don’t get it. Parents never get it, whatever their kids’ “it” is, clothes, music, books, Elvis, art. Beware of the parent who does get it, in fact. But to add another layer to this opening page, income from the eyebrows’ Taco Bell endorsement paid the mortgage for Lourdes’ family while her dad’s out of work. That’s an interesting family dynamic.

Then there’s the dynamic between Lourdes and Cam. Co-artists, sure, and of course it goes deeper than that, at least for one of them. Their art has heartbreaking dimensions: “One of our installations was the performance of trying to be popular.” What kid hasn’t dabbled in that genre? For that matter, what adult hasn’t seen the movie everyone’s seeing just to talk about it, or taken up golf because that’s what the boss does? For many of us, our lives are exhibitions of performance art titled “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me.” Art as a way of distancing yourself from your deepest fears.

But all that is just exposition. The story starts when Cam heads off for greener pastures – or, as he puts it, “to pivot mediums in order to grow as an audience.”

Cam ended us in first period.
In second period he was posting his first Vines.
By third. He already had 100,000 followers and counting.
At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.
“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.
“Sigh,” I said.
“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out. Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”
I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

I have to admit, knowing that Vine has, since this story was written, been shut down, gave me a little sense of Schadenfreude. Of course, Cam would’ve moved on to something else long before that announcement, but still it’s nice when Real Life adds an ironic twist to Fiction.

If the idea of Cam, with his good looks and rich family, leaving Lourdes, with her big body and her brown skin and poor family, behind to find real fame and fortune on his own seems high school, think of it as the 45 year old mother of two whose husband decides he deserves a 25 year old trophy wife, or the 55 year old handed a pink slip because he’s just not cutting it now that the market’s more tech savvy, or the erstwhile best friend who becomes scarce when her promotion means hobnobbing with a higher class of barflies at places no underling can afford. Transferability. It’s what gives this story the impact of a freight train.

And don’t forget the other layers. Lourdes has a virtual therapist. Let me tell you something: all therapists are virtual therapists. It’s a perfect little addition to this scene of art removed from all things artistic, of popularity removed from relationships, of people removed from what makes us human. When her virtual therapist tells her to find her authentic self, Lourdes runs out of time before she can reply that there is no authentic self (shades of Zhuangzi’s concept of wu-wei), so heads for the bathroom where she leaves graffiti as Marina Abramović, a 70-year-old Serbian performance artist so world-famous even I’ve heard of her. Lourdes knows how to pick role models, even if she does suck at picking best friends.

The story keeps coming back to art in different ways.

I often worry that only rich people can be true artists…. If it were just me, I wouldn’t fear homelessness. I would live in a dumpster and call it an installation. It’s just that I had two parents and two siblings and they would prefer not to live in a dumpster.I oftentimes worry that you can’t be a true artist if you have a family that depends on you.

Note the change in tone here. The artifice is muted, leaving nothing but a straight-up consideration of a topic that’s appeared in a variety of blogs and literary magazines from Toast to Salon and the New York Times (not to mention my twitter feed). Nonartists romanticize the Starving Artist trope or pronounce solemnly that maybe these artists don’t have talent, which ignores the kind of persistence needed to get a different artistic vision seen, let alone appreciated.

And what of artists who have a vision distinct from white middle class America? I’m not familiar with how it works in the visual arts, but we all know the Academy Awards is run by old white men who will tolerate only certain visions. In writing, there’s been a certain amount of activism recently to get writers of color and women more well-represented, starting with book reviewers and editors, but progress has been slow. Granted, this is some distance away from YouTube success, but who am I to say where the line is between art and entertainment. The story’s finest moments are to generate reflection about such thing, Is the value of art measured by the number of Likes or subscribers or income? and Who gets to make art (which follows from, who can afford to take those prestigious unpaid internships).

Let me slip in a word about the author, Dominica Phetteplace. I hope to see a lot more from her. She writes a lot of science fiction, and, be still my heart, she’s a math tutor. This just gets better and better. And I didn’t even know any of that when I read the story.

Back to Lourdes. If I’d seen a girl like her in Real Life – and, hey, I live blocks away from an Art College, I see girls like her all the time – I’d feel a touch of annoyance at the “look at me” desperation. But that’s what’s so great about fiction: I learned to see Lourdes beyond the hairbow. She’s naïve, she flaunts artifice, but damn, even when her heart’s breaking, she does the work, she plows through disappointment and fear and keeps going and turns her tears into art. If that isn’t authenticity, I don’t know what is. I hope she has the chance to grow into the artist she so wants to be. And that means I hope all the Lourdeses out there, the ones who aren’t fictional characters, have that chance.

I’m ambivalent about the final scene. Is she creating something new, or retreating to an old pattern? Has she allowed herself to be reduced to something else? Is that what every artist does, reduce themselves to a particular work, and it just becomes more blatant in performance art? Has she merged the authentic and the artifice? Is my ambivalence the point? Is ambivalence the point of all art – to raise questions, not to give answers?

Unlike BASS and the PEN series, Pushcart doesn’t order its material alphabetically. This story was chosen to lead off the collection; I think it’s useful to wonder why. Will questions about art come up throughout the volume? Is it meant to set a mood, to remind the reader of the paths the writers of the material between the covers have travelled to make it to our living rooms? To make us appreciate that, for the cost of three fancy coffees, we can participate in an aesthetic experience, even if we spend most of our day in distinctly non-artistic pursuits to pay the rent? To inspire? To give thanks? To remind us of all those, also worthy, whose art is not here for reasons having nothing to do with talent or artistry?

It’s a story about insecurity, love, financial pressure, abandonment, loyalty and not, revenge. It’s sad, funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, addictive, infuriating. All at once, coming at you, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence. Awe-stricken stare.

Pushcart XLI: Why Bother?

"Lost (albeit in a good book)" – anonymous Scottish bookartist

“Lost (albeit in a good book)” – anonymous Scottish bookartist

Every small press writer and editor knows the question: In the age of instant info, twenty-four hour entertainment, political blowhards and gigantic atrocities, isn’t there something better I should be doing with my life than struggling to create authentic and honest art?

~~Bill Henderson, Introduction

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting back into the groove. That’s partly because this time of year is always unmoored by structure – in between moocs at the moment, in between readings, shakily navigating the two weeks when everything’s on hiatus for special holiday celebrations – but it’s mostly because the events past two months have left me with a dismal view of what lies ahead. Why bother with anything as frivolous as reading, contemplating, and blogging creative work?

Bill Henderson finds his answer to the question in the unidirectional persistence of writer Wendell Berry. I found a different source: San Francisco artist and Stanford lecturer Jenny Odell, whose advice to her Stanford students was retweeted into my feed a few days ago:

I may have mentioned before that I and other artists I know were unsure of what to do with ourselves after the election. We felt like what we were doing was trivial and meaningless compared to more direct political action. But in thinking about this incident, the reactions to it, and the larger situation it points to, I’ve come back around. As you leave this class, I want you to consider that making art and consuming art are in themselves political acts. By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not “productive” in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.

~~ Jenny Odell

I wouldn’t presume to call anything I do here “art”, but I’d like to think my efforts contribute to some part of what is meaningful yet unmeasurable. I know what I do here has value for me; I’d like to think it occasionally has value for someone else, in that, for the past several years, I have focused more upon my reaction to a piece than on analyzing the literary technique, trying to model what it is to read for oneself, for understanding and enjoyment rather than for a grade.

Literature does not have to stay stuck in classrooms. Literature is not meant to be something taught to us by someone who “knows” what it means; it’s meant to be explored and discovered in a personal way. If I find something in a story or poem that elicits a memory, yet I can’t explain why I was moved (as happens at least a few times in every anthology), that has as much value to me – perhaps more – as the story that clearly demonstrates perfect five-part structure or outstanding mirror characters or sophisticated symbolism. I’m not reading to pass a test here; I’m reading for my life, just to read, and react, and understand and grow.

"Lifeline" Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

“Lifeline” Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

A few years ago, I came across a semi-surreal short story by Australian writer David Brooks (not the American journalist) titled “Blue”. I wish it was available online; I found it in the 1989 edition of Sudden Fiction International. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, as it starts in “a summer of fires and shark attacks” and shows how people work through, are driven by an inner need felt but not understood, to work through a drought. The story, just a couple of pages long, ends with a phrase that reduces me to tears every time I read it: “And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been.”

I expect we will all be terribly, terribly thirsty in the coming seasons. We will all find our ways to work through it, whether it be Wendell Berry or the words of an artist or blogging about contemporary literature and moocs or direct political action or following a snarky medievalist on Twitter or all of the above, and it all shows who we are and what we believe. So I head into Pushcart, not wanting to declare what is good and bad, but looking for new ways to read poetry and nonfiction, looking for new understandings and viewpoints that will show me, show anyone who looks, where the water can be found.

BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now

 
 
Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.

~~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016

If there was ever a particular anthology I needed at a particular time, this was it.

Did I like it because I wanted to like it? I won’t rule this out. In fact, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. “Oh, you just want to like it because it’s multicultural” isn’t an insult. Why isn’t the desire to embrace different voices a good thing, something to be celebrated? I’ve enjoyed plenty of nice-suburban-white-lady-struggles-with-family-issues stories. I give middle-aged-white-guy-trapped-in-marriage-and-job stories the benefit of the doubt. And we all know there’s plenty of rich-white-city-folk-upset-about-something-they-did-to-themselves fiction. Why shouldn’t I, when starting a volume guest edited by a writer known for his promotion of diversity, look forward to something different? Why shouldn’t we all grab the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes, as much as we can?

Yes, I want to fight back against the global tide of nationalism in general, and in particular against the terrifying brand of neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacy that’s becoming more entrenched in America every day since Nov. 9. But I also genuinely want to know more about what it’s like to be someone who isn’t me, and that includes differences in era, age, gender orientation, race, nationality, religion, language, class, aspirations, and fears. What does it mean to be a young woman, born in Ethiopia but brought to the US as an infant, to connect with her family there? How does life look to a transgender woman in Japan who confronts a figure from her adolescence? Who made these clothes I’m wearing, what is her life like, and what was she thinking about? What was it like during the Depression in America? Is there any way to see midwestern funeral thieves through the eyes of compassion? And invariably, though our lives may differ in major ways, there is some point of commonality to be found. I can learn something from all of them.

These are fictional people, sure, but the more we imagine, maybe the more we are open to the unfamiliar when we encounter it, and the less it frightens us. And by the way, I’d love to read some stories about neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacists who struggle with decisions and consequence, if anyone out there writes some that aren’t merely megaphones for hate and power. I’m sure there’s insight to be found there, too.

I can’t begin to pick three favorites from this anthology; I’d say more than half of the stories were favorites in very different ways, and half of the rest were very close runners-up. So I’ll instead present my Sloopies, awards for my own private categories:

Story that made me change my epitaph: “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang.

Story that’s come back to me every day since I read it: “The Politics of the Quotidian” by Caille Millner.

Story that told the truth underneath the truth: “Garments” by Tahmima Anam;
tie: “Ravalushun” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali.

Story that brought back a memory and made me cry: “Secret Stream” by Héctor Tobar.

Story that made me believe we can find compassion for everyone if we look closely enough: “Treasure State” by Smith Henderson.

Story that proved again the value of putting just a little effort into understanding what the author was doing: “For the God of Love, For the Love of God” by Lauren Groff.

Story of harsh reality told with lyric beauty: “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata.

Story of wild imagination: “The Bears” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

Story of everyday simplicity: “The Suitcase” by Meron Hadero.

Story that hit the perfect end note: “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman.

We’ve all just about come through an annus horribilis that may wring its wretchedness out on us for years to come. I’m grateful for the moments of light I’ve been fortunate to encounter along the way. BASS 2016 was one of them.

BASS 2016: John Edgar Wideman, “Williamsburg Bridge” from Harper’s, Nov. 2015

So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.

~~ Complete story available online at Harpers’s

I’ve always wondered why so many suicides pause on the ledge, or the bridge, or with a gun to their head. Then again, I’ve never watched someone commit suicide, unless you count the long, slow ways we all do to one degree or another. Maybe it’s just in movies and TV shows that this happens. Because once you decide, wouldn’t you want to get it done as quickly as possible? Wideman’s narrator recognizes the simple truth that certainty has different meanings on firm ground versus on the ledge.

It’s not a traditional story. Even saying it’s a stream of consciousness work doesn’t really cover it, because it seems pretty deliberately written, as though to evoke SOC without actually executing it. Topics loop from Sonny Rollins playing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge during a long hiatus in his musical career, to the narrator’s family, to issues of race, to the women in his life.

There’s a lot of language play: the word “color” appears more than you’d expect it to (guest editor Junot Díaz calls it “a meditation on the extraordinary resilience of ordinary black lives in the American Century,” a resilience that is now under more stress than ever). Posterity and Pentecost are woven together, bringing in Habakkuk 1:3-4, a most pertinent Bible verse for this time if I’ve ever heard one. This story was written in 2015, remember. But not everyone was caught by surprise on Nov. 9, 2016.

On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.

I was trying to make some sense of this, looking for patterns or structure, and came up blank. So I did the easy stuff first, and went looking for images of Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge with his sax. Then I went looking for his music, and it struck me, if ridiculously late: “bridge” is a musical term. It’s that piece in a song that you sit through waiting for the familiar verses and chorus to come back. Some people will tell you it needs to be put in a particular place, but I’ve seen a lot of opinions on that, including the “put it where you need to break the monotony”. I found lots of rules on various songwriting sites, rules that take on new meaning in the context of the story: Create an opposite mode to the chorus; move to a new key; let the lyrics deepen the meaning of the song; use the final chords to connect smoothly with what follows. Hmmm.

However, there is another approach. I asked my mooc friend Mark Snyder, a musician and composer, for his definition of a musical bridge. Among other things, he said: ” Watch for the surprise twist! That’ll be the bridge,” an idea that fits the story in at least three ways I can think of: the surprise twist to this guy’s life, the surprise twists within the substance of the looping narrative itself, and the surprise twist in the final paragraph. Theme as structure.

Then Mark told me a story about Walt Parazaider, saxophonist with the jazz/pop/rock band Chicago: he was asked to write a bridge in A flat, without any idea of what the song surrounding it was. It’s part of “Just You and Me” (about the 2:10 mark) and works just fine, so maybe the rules aren’t that important. Bridge as improvisation, a little something different, unexpected, to get from one round of you-know-how-this-goes to the other. I think this perhaps contrasts with the story, as the storybridge is intimately familiar with what came before, if not what came after.

And then there’s the last paragraph of the story. I’m tempted to quote it, but that wouldn’t be fair; the story is online, the link’s above, go read it. Talk about a surprise twist: is this the story we thought it was, or did we just go metafiction? Maybe the bridge comes at the end, an idea loaded with meaning in this context.

The bad news, and the good news, in one package: Everything we read reveals our biases. And through that knowledge, we can tame them. Or not: it’s a choice. I’m unfamiliar with Wideman’s work (why is that, I wonder?). The way I saw the narrator in my mind’s eye changed when he referenced his black father, at which point my expectations became an embarrassment, and a call to personal examination. This is the value, for me, of reading diversely. Another year in which BASS, which orders its stories alphabetically by author, ends on the perfect note.

BASS 2016: Héctor Tobar, “Secret Stream” from ZYZZYVA #103

“Hi,” Nathan said, insisting, because she was dark-skinned and pretty and he felt the need to know why she was trespassing on a golf course. “Excuse me, but… what are you doing?”
“I’m following the water.”
As soon as she said “water” Nathan heard it and felt it: the sound of liquid flowing, dripping, moving through the air, causing oxygen molecules to shift and cool. Looking behind her, on the other side of the fence, he saw a stream. About three feet wide and four inches deep, it curved around some bunkers near the seventh green, and then fell sharply, broadcasting a steady, metallic sound as it disappeared into a concrete orifice beneath Nathan’s feet.

Many years ago, in a world of virtual mountains, I knew a wizard named Ninjalicious. His hobby in the “Real” world was urban exploration: “going places you’re not supposed to go”, that aren’t direct routes from here to there, that live behind formidable doors and around ominous corners and up abandoned staircases. He and his urban explorer friends had a zine and a website and a guide book for the curious. His interest in these places started as a way to amuse himself during a childhood hospitalization, one of many he would have throughout his too-short life; he was about 30 when he died. I still remember him from time to time. He had firm principles rooted in a core belief expressed with respect and upheld with consistency, so I respected him. We weren’t close, or even friends, barely even acquaintances; I communicated with him perhaps twice on those mountains far far away, but something stuck. And now this story about two urban explorers unsure of what they’re looking for has brought his memory back to me again.

But urban exploring is just the beginning of what this story triggered for me. Like any recent convert, I’ve been a bit obsessed with ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and it so happens that water had a position of importance from the beginnings of Chinese history. The third Sage King, Yu, was so proclaimed because of his success at taming the Yellow River, preventing the floods that had devastated so much of the countryside for so long; thus controlling water, as I recently learned, became a metaphor for civilization. Laozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi all used water as metaphors for various forces: human nature, qi, dao.

Sofia was her name and she described herself as a “river geek.” She said she was mapping the creek that ran through the golf course. Also its “tributaries.” It was ancient stream, she told him, born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills, “bubbling up from the underworld”. She showed Nathan her map, a series of blue pencil lines over a street grid she had pasted into her notebook. “It’s groundwater,” she said. Before reaching the golf course, the stream flowed into downtrodden Hollywood proper, around assorted industrial buildings and parking lots, and also through a junior-high campus and the television studios of KTLA. Sofia described all these things with a reverence that Nathan found disturbing: he sensed that she’d been doing this mapping expedition of hers alone, for weeks, and had never talked to anyone else about it until this moment.

When it comes right down to it, I can’t really say why I was so captivated by this story. Like Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence”, it just struck something in me. I mention Ninjalicious and water because that’s what it brought to mind, but I don’t really know why I was crying by the end. Maybe it’s because, as Nathan admits toward the end, he can’t get out of his own way – “he preempted disappointment” – even when the water shows him the path. I know someone like that, too, another wizard from the Mountains. I’m a lot like that, in fact. Or maybe, as ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon says in his introduction, it’s because it evokes a sense of something that can’t last, a sense I feel very strongly in this time when nothing seems like it can last much longer.

I’m a little haunted by the story even now, and I’m a bit embarrassed by that, since I can’t explain it, can’t talk about the structure of the plot or the language or any of the other technical places to hide from talking about feeling. Maybe that’s what the beauty of art is: it defies analysis and simply touches us.

BASS 2016: Sharon Solwitz, “Gifted” from New England Review 36.2

Maeva Fouche: "Pretty Ugly"

Maeva Fouche: “Pretty Ugly”

They lived across from a run-down park on a street they jokingly called Park Place. They drove older cars, drove as little as possible for the sake of the environment. They had a cleaning service, so they wouldn’t fight over who had left what where. But they rarely fought, in part because Allan was easy-going, in part because Thea was happy. Her job required travel (what fun!) but not enough to upset the applecart of the family. She made it to basketball games (Nate), violin recitals (Nate), and soccer matches (Dylan). When she was gone, Allan, who taught two courses a semester at a Research I university, took care of the boys. Amiably. Lovingly.

My first thought was, This is almost an excerpt from a novel. But not quite: it does have a trajectory, though not the expected one, that clearly begins and ends within the pages, so maybe not. Then I read in the Contributor Note that it’s from an in-process “collection of interrelated stories, or maybe it’s a novel in stories” which explains why it is, yet is not, a story-unto-itself.

To further complicate matters, it’s the second Solwitz story I’ve read. Here’s what I said about the prior one:

This story is part of a collection, apparently not yet published, written by Solwitz to chronicle the death of her 13-year-old from cancer: “A collection that shrieks, as I did not, Weep, world”…. you don’t analyze someone’s sacrament.

I’ll leave it there, with my best wishes that she finds the peace she seeks through these stories.

BASS 2016: Yuko Sakata, “On This Side” from The Iowa Review #45.1

Upon noticing him, the girl looked up with a hopefulness that made Toru feel apologetic. Suddenly he could smell his own body. He had come from making the rounds restocking vending machines and hadn’t bothered to shower at the office when he’d changed out of the uniform. With his eyes to the ground, he tried to squeeze past her.
“Toru-kun.” The girl stood up. Her voice sounded oddly thick.
For a moment they stood awkwardly together on the stairs. A mixture of soap and sweat wafted from her. Up close, Toru saw that her face was meticulously made up, her skin carefully primed and her expectant eyes accentuated with clean black lines. He was slow to recognize what was underneath. But then he felt his heart skip a beat.
“Masato?” he said.
“Hello.” As though in relief, she held out her hand, and Toru shook it automatically. Her fingers were bony but solid in his palm. “I go by Saki now.”
“Saki?”
More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy.

Sometimes I hear stories. Not in the literal sense, as in listening to them being read, nor in the synesthetic sense of “tasting colors”. It’s more of an association, or a metaphorical impression. Some stories have loud pounding rock beats; others are accompanied by bluesy jazz. This one is very quiet, in a very loud way; a quiet that is insistent on being heard. A wood flute, or maybe a lute. A whisper; a secret. One secret, once deeply buried now spoken aloud; another, once shared, now kept deeply buried. A very interesting reversal of secrets. What secrets held today will someday be shared, and what loud proclamations will one day be hidden in shame?

Toru and Masato weren’t friends in school, but became loosely acquainted through the usual bizarre mechanisms of teenage romantic schemes. But what Toru most remembers about Masato is his leap from a third-floor balcony, a leap that caused great bodily harm and, incredibly enough, a reprimand for recklessness, since there were witnesses who saw him jump voluntarily. Apparently no one wanted to ask why a “quiet, fragile-looking boy who seemed to prefer solitude” would do such a thing. Turns out Toru, who only saw the aftermath, might’ve had a good idea as to what happened. Later, when Saki speaks of revenge, involving giant scissors, upon the bullies in her life, Toru squirms uncomfortably. I’m thinking she settled for justice, no need for scissors.

I like the way the story is told. It could be a simple A to B to C story, but instead it’s layered with a number of elements that add texture while underlining the quiet of the central plot. For instance, one of Toru’s jobs is cleaning graves for the Japanese holiday known as Bon, a festival in which the souls of dead ancestors return (hence the cleaning of graves) to welcoming fires, and on the final night, are sent back again by floating candles along the river. Saki joins him:

Saki contemplated this for a second. “Do you think it’s really peaceful there?” she said. “On the other side?”
Toru glanced at her. She was tracing the clean edges of the gravestone with her long finger. The sun was already high, and everything in sight had a bright shallowness to it. A tiny thunderhead poised over the distant treetops, but no shade was in sight. Just then, there was something so delicate about Saki that for a second Toru had an urge to shield her from the harsh light. He shook the thought away.
“I personally don’t believe in the other side,” he said.

It’s quite a nice fit into the story, this idea of souls returning from the other side, and whether peace is to be found there for those who could never find it here. As I read it, Saki returns, and departs with her mission complete. Toru, on the other hand, still seems stuck in his messy life, messy apartment, messy affair. Toru’s Bon work as a substitute for loving relatives who should be tending graves but are too busy, completes the picture: he cleans up after people too busy to worry about their past, perhaps to some degree cleaning up his own past.

Sakata’s Contributor Note mentions her sense of Japan as “simultaneously my own and foreign”, another nice fit for this story. It’s also a phrase I’ve heard frequently in the World Literature mooc I’m currently taking; just this week, in fact, that phrase was used about both Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri in reference to the South Asian settings of their works. I hope that’s a good sign for Sakata; I like her voice, and I’d like to hear more of it.

BASS 2016: Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” from TNY 6/8/15

Those first weeks alone were an education. The West was very poor at that moment, owing to the Depression. But it was still home to many aspiring and expiring millionaires, and we made it our job to make their acquaintance. One aging oil speculator paid for our meals and our transit and required only that we absorb his memories; Clara nicknamed him the “allegedly legendary wit.” He had three genres of tale: business victories; sporting adventures that ended in the death of mammals; and eulogies for his former virility.
We met mining captains and fishing captains, whose whiskers quivered like those of orphaned seals. The freckled heirs to timber fortunes. Glazy baronial types, with portentous and misguided names: Romulus and Creon, who were pleased to invite us to gala dinners, and to use us as their gloating mirrors. In exchange for this service, Clara and I helped ourselves to many fine items from their houses. Clara had a magic satchel that seemed to expand with our greed, and we stole everything it could swallow. Dessert spoons, candlesticks, a poodle’s jewelled collar. We strode out of parties wearing our hostess’s two-toned heels, woozy with adrenaline. Crutched along by Clara’s sturdy charm, I was swung through doors that led to marmoreal courtyards and curtained salons and, in many cases, master bedrooms, where my skin glowed under the warm reefs of artificial lighting.

~ Complete story available online at TNY

Somehow, Russell has managed to combine the realism-into-fantasy of Erdrich’s “The Flower” and Bynum’s “The Bears”, the humor-over-tragedy and momentum of Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State”, historical fiction, mystery, and religious allegory into one very readable story. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but it zips right by.

The Timberline Lodge in Oregon serves as the historical basis for the primary setting of the story. It was indeed built during the Depression as a WPA project, and is maintained as an Historic Site even as it currently operates as a high-end ski lodge. The project provided work for those who desperately needed it, and left a permanent reminder of its purpose. And now it serves a purpose as the model for the Evergreen Lodge, the destination of Aubergine and Clara, two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who ran away together, from very different things.

But winter hit, and our mining prospects dimmed considerably. The Oregon coastline was laced with ghost towns; two paper mills had closed, and whole counties had gone bankrupt. Men were flocking inland to the mountains, where the rumor was that the W.P.A. had work for construction teams. I told Clara that we needed to follow them. So we thumbed a ride with a group of work-starved Astoria teen-agers who had heard about the Evergreen Lodge. Gold dust had drawn the first prospectors to these mountains; those boys were after the weekly three-dollar salary. But if government money was snowing onto Mt. Joy, it had yet to reach the town below. I’d made a bad miscalculation, suggesting Lucerne….Day after day, I told Clara not to worry: “We just need one good night.” We kept lying to each other, pretending that our hunger was part of the game. Social graces get you meagre results in a shuttered town.

Prospecting for gold and the more pejorative “gold digger” are thus linked. And all they need is a decent strike. Enter the shadowy Eugene, who suggests the grand opening party at the Evergreen Lodge. But nothing’s ever that simple, and the story takes a turn from real to surreal when Aubby says, “I think we may have taken the wrong lift.” The prospecting goes awry, though they eventually encounter gold of a sort: they never call it a canary but the yellow bird bursting with song is clearly the canary in the coal mine, the warning.

I found it to be an exciting story, keeping my curiosity high and the pages turning. At first, it was, I wonder what’s going to happen. Then, almost without realizing it, that changed to I wonder if, how they’re going to get out of it. Although I didn’t feel a lot of strong emotion, I did feel protective of these girls. Yes, they’re playing a dangerous game, they’re walking on the wild side, but between Clara’s bruises and Aubby’s background (Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, but it’s also a color: the deep purple of a bruise) and the Depression, can we really blame them? Aubby isn’t without insight, however belated it may be:

She flicked her eyes up at me, her gaze limpid and accusatory. And I felt I’d become fluent in the language of eyes; now I saw what she’d known all along. What she’d been swallowing back on our prospecting trips, what she’d never once screamed at me, in the freezing boarding house: You use me. Every party, you bait the hook, and I dangle. I let them, I am eaten, and what do I get? Some scrap metal?
“I’m sorry, Clara . . . ”
My apology opened outward, a blossoming horror. I’d used her bruises to justify leaving Florida. I’d used her face to open doors. Greed had convinced me I could take care of her up here, and then I’d disappeared on her. How long had Clara known what I was doing? I’d barely known myself.

As with most stories, I wouldn’t call it perfect. The “wrong lift” feels a little manipulative, sprung on the reader as there’s no indication of more than one lift until it’s needed. The symbolism is a little on-the-nose. But it’s an engrossing read, kind of a whirlwind you can’t stop watching. And the girls tugged at my heart despite, or maybe because of, their foolish choices; I was cheering for them. And, most importantly, it says something: you may have to go through hell, but if you keep yourself honest and heed warnings, you might come out of it with something better than gold. Clichéd? Sure, but I take comfort where I can these days. Any story that does all that, isn’t half bad.

BASS 2016: Daniel J. O’Malley, “Bridge” from Alaska Quarterly Review #32

He saw the old couple twice, once when they stopped halfway across to pose for a picture, and again a year later when they came back, this time without the camera, and for a while all they did was stand there.
Both times he watched from the window, which was not what he was supposed to be doing, he knew that, he knew well what he was supposed to be doing, which was studying. In the mornings, his mother would tell him things – he would follow her around the house while she did her inside work, then outside where she did her garden work and her chicken work – and he would listen and take notes in his notebook while she talked about the histories of their state and their country and their family – his mother’s family, plus his father’s family, and then their own family, the family they made when they made him – but also about the flood of locusts and frogs and other plagues that had happened before and could happen again, and he would take notes so that in the afternoon he could sit in his bedroom and study, and to then in the evening, after the supper dishes were done, he could stand and recite for his father what all he’d learned from his mother in the morning.
But his memory was strong. His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth. So most days he passed his afternoon study time staring out the window and down at the bridge, which was the only thing he could see between the trees.

Remember Chekhov’s Gun? It’s the axiom of plotting that requires that everything in the story be essential, often phrased as “If you put a gun in the first act, it better go off before the end of the play.” What about when there are two guns, and your attention is so focused on the MAC-10 you’re taken by surprise when it’s the air rifle that pops off.

The actual bridge in the story, as interesting as it turns out to be, takes second place to the more metaphorical bridge between childhood and the beginnings of adulthood, that moment when a child realizes that, though he’s been aware for a while that the world isn’t necessarily as it seems, neither are his parents. And there’s a rabbit. Maybe.

I’m always interested in the ways adults lie to children. It’s usually to shield them from tough realities they may not yet have the perspective to handle, but it’s often to shield the adults from facing uncomfortable truths as well. The most destructive lies, I think, are the ones that deny the child’s own feelings and perceptions. You know you love your sister, now go hug her. We aren’t fighting, we’re having a discussion. O’Malley zooms in on that moment in our young protagonist’s life, and sets it in a highly distracting bigger moment. So distracting, in fact, I’m still wondering about it: Why didn’t the boy pay more attention to it? Was the air rifle really that much more of a novelty than the automatic? Successful imaginary restructuring? Repression? Or the overshadowing importance of the personal?

BASS 2016: Caille Millner, “The Politics of the Quotidian” from  #31.2

The committee wants to have a word with her.
… Mikael Sbocniak (department chair) will take the seat in the middle. Tomas Ulrikson (selection committee head for her post-doc interview) will be on his left, with Ernst Lichtenberg (faculty mentor whom she’s met only once) on his right. She’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing them. A triptych of white beards, deep voices, cashmere sport coats. The same look from brewing for decades in the same stock of misanthropic contempt.
Pity. The study of philosophy should have done something for them – made them kinder or more thoughtful – but she’s not sure what it’s done for her, either. Years ago, when she was stressed starting graduate school, she’d have loved to critique the power dynamics of the meeting like this one. She’d be spouting Hegel and Foucault. Now she no longer wants to say anything at all.

I love academic snark. Some of my favorite stories – Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst“, for instance – expose the dark side of the Ivory Towers. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I could tolerate it for long, since I prefer honesty and straightforwardness, if only because it’s easier than keeping straight a web of deceit. But in academia, as in business and for god’s sake politics, those things won’t get you anywhere. I follow many professors on Twitter, usually teachers from moocs I’ve taken, and while they don’t often air dirty laundry in public, it’s always interesting when I get a peek at one corner of the basket. So when I started this story, and found it featured a philosophy professor struggling with her environment, I rubbed my hands together gleefully.

As it happens, I got a lot more than I expected. And it happened so subtly, I was poleaxed before I felt the blade.

In terms of technique and craft, I think the subtlety is what makes this a Best story (if there is such a thing). I think it’s even quite possible that good readers will miss the hints to what is really going on; I didn’t catch on until the third one, for example. Spoilers will indeed spoil that element. But so does discussing how subtle it is, without even revealing what it is that’s so subtle, so too late, so I’m going to reveal more than should be revealed. But I do urge any reader: don’t proceed unless you’ve read the story. It’s really worth experiencing how Millner does it.

Our unnamed protagonist is a philosophy professor whose disillusionment begins long before a student challenges her interpretation of Barthes in class, then storms out while accusing her of incompetence. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with Kant’s aesthetics or, yeah, Barthes, keep meaning to read him, to put much out here, but AFAIK key notions are subjectivity and universality of beauty, and the higher aesthetic perception of form, as opposed to mere taste, the evaluation, outside the realm of aesthetics, of content. I’m not sure how this functions in the story, but fortunately for our purposes – or at least, my purposes – I find a great deal that coincides with the repeated phrase the politics of the quotidian: no matter what we claim to believe, it is in our everyday behaviors that we show what we value, what we believe, who we are.

Just like the experience of riding a public bus, a strange man read her refusal to make eye contact as an invitation to speak.

Who is allowed to belong? The professor asks her unruly student to leave with, “You don’t belong here right now”. She doesn’t feel like she belongs. She never has, it seems, not in boarding school where she “looked different from the other kids” (I skipped right around that, attributing it to unattractiveness or poverty, possibly disability, because our assumptions have a way of steering us around discomfort zones). She certainly doesn’t feel like she belongs in the same room as the three senior faculty profs she’s going to meet with. And the climactic incident occurs when an administrative worker (who is probably feeling the same kind of intrusion onto her competence, and, by the way, as a woman and an administrative employee in an academic institution, probably deals regularly with more than her own share of microaggressions) refuses to help her, demands her ID, and throws her out for requesting help with a computer issue.

If that sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a climax, well, I left out a crucial flashback our professor remembers when the admin tells her she doesn’t look like her photo:

If she looked different in her ID picture, it wasn’t because she was so much the younger last year, it was because the photographer didn’t have the proper lighting. She knew this only because he’d told her as much. It was his way of apologizing for the fact that her face on the ID was an orange smudge.
“These color filters,” the photographer had said. “They’re designed for lighter skin. I hope that’s not a weird thing to say. I don’t see color, myself. But the camera does, and if I had known I have brought different ones.”
“If you had known what?” She’d asked him.
“I mean, they said philosophy department,” he said, laughing.

All these people who don’t see color. What they mean is, they only see white people.

It’s a story about a life lived in the face of microaggressions. Go ahead, mock the idea, but you try being invalidated, just a little bit, every hour of every day in a hundred different ways. Is it really such a burden to ask that we examine our assumptions, our language, and consider what it feels like to be on the other side of the jokes, the cliches, the stereotypes?

I didn’t realize the protagonist was unnamed until I started making notes for this post, and realized I couldn’t find her name. Then I realized I hadn’t read the Contributor Note, which informed me this was a deliberate choice: “I knew I would take one big risk – identifying only those characters who had been accepted by the institution.” I love this choice. Names are identities: “Who are you” is almost always answered with a name. We go through great lengths to remember names as courtesy and as good business. God brought the animals to Adam for naming. To refuse to name her is to underline her exclusion. I feel pretty stupid for having missed it initially.

These are interesting times for this story. The politics of the quotidian. Who we are leaks out in everyday life. Compassionate liberals urge our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, then fume and complain when it takes an extra four minutes at the grocery store checkout line while the cashier figures out the voucher the newcomers must use. Public minded citizens love children and support education yet vote for property tax plans that cut school funding to lower their taxes so they can keep their kids in private school. Committed feminists sneer at pretty cocktail waitresses when Mr. Feminist smiles too long (that one’s for you, Amy Gardner). Who you are shows through what you do, every little bit of it.

I think readers are going to have very different reactions to this story. I think 48.2% will see our professor as sympathetic, 46.5% will want to know what she did to deserve it, and the second group will win because their predecessors set it up that way. And that’s why the politics of the quotidian matter.

BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

BASS 2016: Lisa Ko, “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel #21

It was a cold October night in 1974. They smoked back then, everybody did. This was before Pat’s two children became Sam’s and before there were three children, before they grounded the oldest when Pat found a pack of Newports in her room. By then they would have forgotten their own youth, or rather, they would hold to their children to higher standards. The children would be confident and happy – they’d feel entitled to happiness – and for that Pat and Sam would resent them.

And here I am in that awkward place where, despite having connected earnestly with several moments in the story, and despite appreciating the overall narrative technique, I found the contributor note to be more enlightening on the whole than the story. I suspect it would succeed wildly, however, as a first story in a collection of linked stories about Pat, Sam and the family they eventually form, and it just so happens Ko has written some of those linked stories. This one interested me greatly in finding out where these people went next.

But first, what we have in front of us: A nascent-relationship story told by alternating points of view. I was thinking how much this reminded me of Groff’s earlier story, where the characters were isolated, not sharing much, but the reader connected them. Turns out Ko makes exactly that point in her Contributor Note, admitting “The story came together when I stopped resisting the alternate points of view.” I’ve read that before, a writer not wanting to write the story that wants to be written, and discovering that it’s so much better when you let the story tell itself as it wants to be told.

Well-written moments abound. There’s an incident of racism in a New Jersey restaurant, and again that isolation becomes a force: Pat is relieved that Sam didn’t make a scene when white families are seated while their Chinese family – or pseudofamily, since he’s just a date at this point – is left waiting, but he wonders if she’s disappointed at his lack of confrontation. And as the reader, I have to smile at the implied chauvinism: if she felt confrontation was a good idea, why wouldn’t she have done it herself?

Another nice moment, and a subtle one, comes when Sam, on their first date after having met at a party, tells Pat her husband died.

“It was almost a year ago.”
Only? Almost? “I’m sorry.”

We’re in Sam’s head, so he’s the one wondering if she’s saying, “It was only a year ago so don’t expect too much of me” or “It was almost a year ago so I’m ready to get on with my life.” But I wonder: does Pat know for sure if it’s almost or only?And what opinion does the reader bring? All that, conveyed in so few words. Very nice. And again, highlighting the isolation of a new relationship between two reserved people. How does anyone every manage to get past that? Slowly, laboriously, anxiously, we find out.

I like to think about the typography of the title in that vein. Not “Pat and Sam” or “Pat & Sam”, either of which would be more expected; fiction readers occasionally encounter ampersands but rarely plus signs, although they are both symbolizations of the Latin word for “and”, et. Today, the plus sign connotes addition, which makes the title a mathematical expression – not an equation, since there is no equals sign, which leaves us with the question: What do you get when you add Pat and Sam? This story holds no solution, only the question..

I was also quite fond of one of Sam’s observations, that at one point “Pat began to take on a new shape, that of the steely, vulnerable survivor. Someone who’d been wanted, before.” We all have those moments when we discover new information, and everything looks different. I was, as a teenager, panting after a boy, but when I saw him with a friend of mine I realized they were right together, and we were… not. Not at all. These moments can be hard, but they’re important. Reality is always important. Remember that going forward, by the way. There’s also Pat’s sense of unease in New Jersey, highlighted by her thought, as she walks through her back yard littered with autumn: “She had never raked leaves in her life.” And the perennial truism: “When you start to hope, then comes the danger.” Yep. Hope is the thing with feathers that, if we had any sense, we’d strangle before it ever chirped. But we don’t, because to do so is death.

But, as I said, to me the story works so much better as a first chapter. So when I discovered via the Contributor Note that it is in fact a first chapter – an origin story – I was a lot happier:

I’d previously written stories with the two characters in the present day, as retirees, and others from the points of view of their daughters, but always wondered what got them together in the first place. I started the story knowing how I wanted it to end, with a particular image that had been chasing me, a man and woman in bed, physically close but emotionally distant, weighing the compromises they’re about to make.

I’m guessing one of those later stories was “Proper Girls” featured in One Teen Story in early 2014. I’m also guessing her forthcoming novel, The Leavers, is unrelated to this family, but having now read a sample of her capabilities, I’m very interested in taking a look.

BASS 2016: Smith Henderson, “Treasure State” from Tin House #64

People being the way they are, few realized that their dead had been robbed. They returned from the funeral and set out the cold cuts on the silver trays, the faceted glasses, and the punch. They stocked bottles of beer and cans of Coke in buckets of ice, smoked a quick cigarette out back, and met the grief-stricken, the condolers, and the well-wishers at the door. The furniture smelled of the person they’d just praised to heaven and commended to the dirt. The mourners assembled along the walls in grim or conversant clusters, depending on their affinity with the dead and the yet living. Then they stole away to the upstairs bedroom or the chest in the basement or the desk in the study, only to discover the particular heirloom missing. And the surprise turned hot, and they tiptoed out of the room, slowly pinched closed the door, went up or down the stairs, and took their spot along the wall. They glowered at their kin, wondering which one had got there first.

Some people find they can’t go home again. Others discover they can never leave.

Brothers John and Daniel find out their abusive father is getting out of prison – he had a life sentence, but his terminal cancer has earned him some kind of compassionate release – and they head for the hills. Or, Montana, actually. They’ve never been there, but they like the name, they don’t like cities, and it’s got to be better than Gnaw Bone, Indiana. They’ve got a point there. Funny, I wanted to go to Montana when I was a kid, because of the Hoyt Axton song “Somebody Turned on the Light.” Funny what grabs us. But for John and Daniel, what they don’t want is for their father to grab them.

How do a couple of teenagers, even those who’ve been on their own for a while, survive a long road trip without much in the way of resources or skills? They rob houses during funerals, of course. Henderson tells us in his Contributor Note that the story came to him, nearly complete, when he read about this practice in a newspaper. On one heist, they pick up a girl who’s trying to run away. On another, John discovers more than he can handle. Then it turns out… no, that would be a spoiler.

It’s a very readable story, lots of forward motion, quirky characters and interesting, often amusing, events. Still, it’s not pure plot, for a lot of reasons, including John’s memory of smashing pumpkins with a hammer (I was a bit alarmed by the plethora of images I found just by googling pumpkin hammer to use as header art, until I remembered the rock band) then seeing Daniel take the beating for it, and how a hammer plays oh so subtly into the end. The final scene is ambiguous in a pleasant way, allowing for speculation and imagination of what happens next. And the kids are sympathetic as all get-out, making a story about death, abuse, poverty, and emotional need a fun read somehow.

This is the second Smith Henderson story I’ve run into. Like Thomas McGuane, he focuses on the rural West, which makes them stand out in a field of city and suburb stories. But that’s just where they put the stories; what they write about is universal.

BASS 2016: Meron Hadero , “The Suitcase” from Missouri Review, 38.3

All month Saba had failed almost every test she’d faced, and though she’d seized one last chance to see if this trip had changed her, had taught her at least a little of how to live in this culture, she’d only ended up proving her relatives right: she wasn’t even equipped to go for a walk on her own. What she thought would be our romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn’t belong here.

Some stories succeed because they touch on very deep and sombre themes. Some succeed because the writing gives goosebumps. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a plot that teases the reader along a path of delayed gratification that’s worth it. And sometimes a story works just because it’s charming, and heartfelt, and says something old in a unique way. I think the latter is the case here.

Saba is visiting Ethiopia to connect with the country her family left when she was too young to form a memory, to meet those they left behind. It isn’t going terribly well. The initial scene in the story has her trying to cross a street in downtown Addis Ababa. I lived in Boston, where driving is a contact sport and extra points are given for hitting pedestrians, for 20 years; I’m guessing even Boston would be no training for Addis Ababa. A local man tells Saba about a guy who tried to cross the street, gave up, and now lives on the median strip. “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he tells her. She ends up taking a cab, and bemoans her failure.

The suitcase of the story is the second central image. Apparently it’s expensive to ship items between the US and Ethiopia, and their arrival is iffy. So her trip serves a dual purpose: mail carrier. But not just any mail.

At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items at the second that for the trip there was full of gifts from America – new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine – to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase.…[It] offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there. Everyone wanted a piece; everyone fought to stake a claim to their own space.… An empty suitcase opened up a rare direct link between two worlds, so Saba understood why relatives and friends wanted to fill her bag with carefully wrapped food things, gifts, sundry items, making space, taking space, moving and shifting the bulging contents of the bag.

The tension of the story builds around the suitcase being so stuffed with Ethiopian love for the trip back, it’s overweight. It’s kind of a false tension; Saba could pay the overage fee, even though her relatives don’t want that. But it’s more interesting to ignore that logical flaw and go with it. That means decisions must be weighed about which of the gifts from Ethiopia to America are to be weeded out: chickpeas; loaves of bread; doro wat (a kind of spicy chicken stew); gunfo (a porridge particularly traditional for post-partum women); spices (corrorima, grains of paradise, berbere). Each relative pleads his or her case, explaining why their gift must reach loved ones on the other side. Each gift has a special resonance of meaning. And Saba must decide.

The structure of the story mimics the plot. Just as the US and Ethiopia are at the ends of a transit of goods via the suitcase, so Saba’s street crossing and her final decision are attached by a transit of sorts. Will she make it across the now metaphorical street, or will she, too, end up living on the median strip, between cultures?

It may be a flawed story (and what story isn’t), but it’s charming nonetheless, and that makes it work.

BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.