Rumaan Alam: Leave the World Behind (Ecco, 2020)

There it was again: shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence. A disruption, a change. Something. This time Amanda was more certain. Her heart quickened. She felt sober, awake. She put her cup down on the marble counter, quietly—suddenly that seemed right, to move stealthily. “I heard something.” She was whispering.
Such moments, Clay was called upon. He had to be the man. He didn’t mind it. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel necessary. From down the hall, he could almost hear Archie, snoring like a sleeping dog. “It’s probably just a deer in the front garden.” “It’s something.” Amanda held up a hand to silence him. Her mouth was metallic with fear. “I know I heard something.”
There it was, undeniable: noise. A cough, a voice, a step, a hesitation, that uncategorizable animal knowledge that there’s another of the species nearby and the pause, pregnant, to see if they mean harm. There was a knock at the door. A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest. There was a knock at the door.

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. That’s not a complaint: I wasn’t sure how the book I expected could possibly live up to they hype I’d heard. Now I understand how: by being a different book.

Descriptions typically read something like: A white couple rents a vacation house, then an older black couple show up, say they’re the owners, and there’s been some sort of blackout in the city, can they stay in the house. Naturally this sets the scene for racial tensions. It sounded a bit like Six Degrees of Separation (which the book mentions). But no one would say much about anything else, though there were indications that something else was going on. Not since The Sixth Sense have I felt such a refusal to reveal. I was driven by curiosity more than anything else: what could possibly happen, given the initiating event, that would be so surprising?

Well, for one thing, there’s more than one initiating event, and the knock at the door is just the first one.

Granted, that knock leads to some interesting moments, including a bit of casual racism (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?”) and some class envy. For that matter, race and class run through the whole thing. But it’s not a dramatic version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which the book also mentions, with a twinkle of humor). Nor does it disintegrate into a white-vs-black doubles match of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it does go.

I will point out how all the usual markers, the guideposts we use to understand  fiction, the details that set expectations, are confounded. It’s right there in the paragraph above: a red brick house painted white, near ocean but in farmland, and lost to GPS. Amanda: “….it was unclear whether she was guest or host. She liked clarity about the role she was meant to discharge.” But there is no clarity. And we, too, as readers, are off the literary grid. And as the story tells us, “The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself”, but when those expectations are contorted by conflicting messages, how do you get your bearings? You just let the story be what it is, as uncomfortable as that may be.

In an interview with Emma Straub, Alam addressed this kind of open, rolling genre idea directly. He said he wanted to “push through the vacation novel (a very specific thing) into the political novel; to go through the domestic into the very big.” He definitely achieved that. He also talks about dropping in elements from genre fiction – horror, thriller, suspense – but not following the expectations. “If the narrative chooses to deal with that in a way that you are not necessarily expecting, it can feel electric, and weird, and fun.” Yes, it can. It can feel like you’ve lost your GPS, your Wi-Fi.

Rose saw a deer, with abbreviated velvet antlers and a cautious yet somehow also bored mien, considering her through dark, strangely human eyes.
She wanted to say “A deer” but there was no one there to hear her. She looked over her shoulder into the house and saw her parents talking. She wasn’t supposed to go in the pool, but she wasn’t going to go in the pool. She walked down the steps onto the damp grass and the deer just watched her, barely curious. She hadn’t even seen that there was another beside it – no more. There were five deer, there were seven; every time Rose adjusted her eyes to try to understand what she was seeing, she was seeing something new. There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that, even. She wanted to run inside and tell her parents, but she also wanted to just stand there and see it.

The narration has an interesting twist to it. Most of the time it’s head-hopping: close third-person from one character then another. But eventually, a broader view pops in, just for a  moment in a few scattered places, which orients the main in a wider frame. In the quote above, this was the first occurrence of this that I noticed. While in this case the broader view is peculiar; later glances will be increasingly alarming. For me, this was reassuring; I was reading correctly, I wasn’t on some flight of fancy, and the narrator – the author – hadn’t left me behind.

To me, the book didn’t so much end as it just stopped. This would normally be a big flaw, but here it worked. And it’s maybe why so many readers are talking about it as the book that captures the off-GPS feeling of the pandemic, and the political tensions of the moment, though, published in the fall of 2020, it was obviously written before we were using words like pandemic and before the pro-life party turned out to be anti-public-health, before  anyone dreamed the Capitol could be attacked and the party of law and order wouldn’t want to investigate the origins. The book has the same feeling as some of us have now: we’re waiting to get back to normal, or for a new normal, but normal is nowhere to be seen.

I’m still trying to figure out if I “liked” the book; I’m in something like a state of literary shock. I’m waiting to see if it comes back to me over the coming weeks and months, and in what ways, particularly this idea of being “not lost but not quite not lost.” That feels more important than “what a great read” anyway.

I’m very glad I read it, though not for the reasons I thought I would be. Who needs GPS, just look at the scenery and enjoy wherever you are.

Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993)

I had lost my faith, Josephus.

I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my great fondness for this novel. It’s one of the books I used to read about once a year – all 773 pages –  back before I started living on the internet, blogging, and taking moocs. When I put it on my re-read list for this year, I wondered: would I find it a bit silly, a kind of Dan-Brown-writes-Indiana-Jones thing, the historical and religious background material that so captivated me now recognized as trivial at best, invented at worst? Would the characters – a cantankerous alcoholic professor, having failed academically and personally, out to redeem himself but unable to get along with anyone, a young earnest grad student sent to track him down who becomes enmeshed in his project against his will and hers – annoy me as stereotypes rather than captivate me as flawed people doing their best to recapture their own faith?

When you put it that way, this sounds like a really stupid book.

But it isn’t. And, in fact, as I re-read it this time, I discovered something I couldn’t have seen when I last read it about ten years ago: it’s Kierkegaard. At least, it’s what I think of as Kierkegaard. Granted, I’m no expert – and I’ve barely scratched the surface for this particular philosopher – but the thought crept in about halfway through, only to be strengthened by the final sentences. I went looking for more info on Kierkegaard, particularly his views on subjective vs objective truth, on faith vs reason, and his complaints against the church as an institution vs religion as personal experience. And I become more convinced: this is Kierkegaard.

The overall story of the novel can be summed up quite simply:  Patrick O’Hanrahan, a theology professor at the University of Chicago who’s been on the way down for a long time, is searching for a gospel rumored to be written in the first century, the earliest gospel recorded, written by an actual disciple rather than cobbled together from notes and letters a hundred years later. It’s been floating around for decades, but was considered untranslatable and/or heretical and/or dangerous, and bounced from one place to another between rich collectors and institutions academic and religious. A scholar-priest claimed to be deciphering it, but he met with an unfortunate, um, accident and the scroll disappeared. And now, it’s turned up again.

The problem is, O’Hanrahan has fallen off the radar screen since heading for Europe on his quest. The University sends Lucy Dantan, naïve and sheltered graduate student torn between her rigid Catholic background and academia, to find him. O’Hanrahan doesn’t particularly want to be found, especially by some dewy-eyed innocent. Nevertheless, she persisted, and found him. Then she decided to go home. Then she persisted again, then decided to go home, etc etc, and they travel through Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Sudan over the course of a month or so, chasing the elusive Gospel and looking for research materials that will lead to its translation. And, in doing so, dealing with kidnappers, spies, mad monks, zealots, illness, and a language that will not yield to translation.

The gospel itself is embedded in the novel, a chapter preceding each change of venue.

Textual note: Throughout the gospel, the editor has arranged the text in paragraphs, punctuating as seemed reasonable, and using quotes in the dialogue for easier reading. The editor has endeavoured to retain a bit of the self-important and stilted tone of this confession, reminiscent of the Byzantine church historian Eusebius, but of an earlier era.

This is something of a self-spoiler – here is the Gospel, translated, edited, and notated, so someone must have had success finding and reading it – but there are other possibilities: what if it’s consigned to flames at the end, and  what is recorded exists only in the minds of the participants? Or what it if’s discovered to be a forgery, all that work down the drain?

It doesn’t really matter, because the story I’ve outlined isn’t what the book is about; it’s merely the engine, how it gets to what it’s about. And it is, as the first line states, about finding one’s faith. The three main characters – O’Hanrahan, Lucy, and the writer of the gospel – all have lost different kinds of faiths in different ways, and the book is about how they find it again. 

O’Hanrahan looked once more to the spires and would have prayed for a second chance to use his gifts anew, more wisely this time, more productively, if he thought such a prayer would be heard, let alone answered. Or if he thought prayer worked at all and wasn’t the vainest waste of words yet conceived.
(You have lost your faith, Patrick.)
“I have lost my faith,” he said aloud to the rain-soaked night.

Oh, wait – there is a fourth main character: God. Or, maybe more accurately, the Holy Spirit. It appears in parentheticals throughout the book, and as a literary device serves many functions: to point out a character’s misunderstanding or self-delusion, as foreshadowing, and sometimes as conversation. O’Hanrahan refers to “the voices,” indicating he’s heard them before, and engages in some back-and-forth. Lucy seems to be responding to something she interprets as her own thoughts, conscience, perhaps, though it’s unclear. What is clear is that these aren’t psychotic voices or delusions, since the Voice of God persists when no one hears it. And sometimes, it’s just to inject some humor. Yes, God has a sense of humor:

Lucy was a born worrier. Between the plane crashing and dealing with Dr. O’Hanrahan, whose ferocious presence she had witnessed in lecture halls a time or two, her body pumped and adrenaline of incessant worry….. [S]he looked out to see London in a soup of low-lying rain clouds. Oh thank you, Father, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, for delivering me safe and sound!
(No problem.)
Although, then again, most planes crash on takeoff or landing.
(This is not the fighting spirit we might have hoped for, Lucy.)

With O’Hanrahan, the humor is more sophisticated, but he’s up to the challenge, as when he finds himself ill in Jerusalem, and discouraged because of the problems with getting his hands on the scroll, for one thing, and figuring out the undeciphered language it seems to contain:

… And now in the Holy City of Jerusalem in the middle of the night on a deserted street with goddam Mt. Ararat between me and my bottle of pills – no, not Ararat with the dove and olive branch, but Pisgah, Mt. Nebo! With the Promised Land of his worldly ambitions glimmering at him from the valley, unreachable! And the Lord said to O’Hanrahan, this is the scroll that I swore to those before thee, and I will give it to thy rivals. I have let thee see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not translate it and make a pile of money.
(Because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people at the waters of Jack Daniels, in the wilderness of Jamisons…)
God the Heckler, now. Catcalls from the cheap seats!

Refer to Deuteronomy 32; this is a variation of God’s punishment of Moses for his impatience 40 years before, by taking him to Pisgah to look at Canaan, but not to enter. And come to think of it, most of the times when O’Hanrahan and the Voice of God converse, it’s when the professor is ill.

Now, what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard?

I see two, possibly three or four, uses of his ideas, all of which relate to each other. First is his concern, written in his journal at age 22, about finding the purpose of his life:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.

Kierkegaard, Journal 1A

For O’Hanrahan, this comes up, as in the quote above, when he realizes he’s squandered his talents and produced little. As a young man, he translated a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made a name for himself, but hasn’t published since, and that “publish or perish” thing is taken quite seriously, even for those who have made a name. He later looks at the bookshelf of his friend the Rabbi Hersch, and thinks of the books he could have written, but didn’t.

The first-century gospelist also has a similar moment when he realizes he’s been on the wrong path all along. He has been publishing, writing, though his works have mostly been destroyed (one burned by Peter himself). His travels in search of faith take him to visit Peter; when he mournfully admits he can’t perform healings or other miracles, Peter attempts to console him, but the effect is anything but, as he records in his Gospel:

A moment later, upon reflection, Peter volunteered a confession to ease my feelings: “My brother… I’ve never spoken in tongues. Yes, John gets to jabbering and I nod along pretending I understand. I’m frankly embarrassed; it looks so silly. Even at the Pentecost, I didn’t learn anything that I already didn’t know. Some people get some gifts and others others. Like Paul. He’s never healed a sore joint, to my mind – ah, but the difference he has made to us! A Roman and fine scholar that he is!”
And then I understood.
O bitter my revelation!
I saw clearly that it was to be my lot to teach and evangelize, to take my fortune and travel with the Nazirene message to the Gentiles, to dictate epistles like Saul’s to be read throughout the Church, to be revered and studied. And I did not do it! And therefore our Lord and Master, impatient but resolute, appeared by the grace of Our Father and recruited someone else – Saul of Tarsus! Mine enemy! The man I reviled! He was but fulfilling the mission that I did not complete!
I found myself weeping hopelessly before Peter.
‘I am a failure in the eyes of God,” I told him.
“But so are we all, dear friend,” he replied.

Lucy’s dilemma is different, as she hasn’t yet begun her career and still isn’t sure what it is she is working towards. Her dissertation on changes in Greek alphabets is dragging; when she describes it, she assures O’Hanrahan it’s more interesting than she’s making it sound, and the Voice of God mutters, (Not really). But she doesn’t know what else to do. She still considers her teenage idea of becoming a Poor Clare, but isn’t sure that suits her, either. By the end of the book, she has a much clearer vision.

While her revelation is life-changing and inspiring, it’s a decision she makes in connection with it that bothers me as a reader (I’m being discreet in the interests of limiting spoilers). In a novel where necessity of decisions is dictated by motivations, this decision seems less necessary than the others. I feel a little authorial intrusion here, the author’s wish to include a particular resolution, rather than it springing from the character herself. Her changing attitude toward the catechism seems pushed a bit too far. That may or may not be an accurate impression. It is a new impression on this read; I didn’t give it a second thought in earlier reads.

The clearest (to me, at least) Kierkegaardian aspect uses his idea of subjective vs. objective truth as the key to faith. This is related to his “leap of faith” (which both the journal of the College Theological Society and the TV show The Good Place, as well as various other sources inside and outside of Academia) will tell you is better translated as “leap to faith”. Religious faith, he argues, is not found by reason; in fact, it’s the uncertainty that makes it faith.

When subjectivity is truth, the definition of truth must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of the inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum [sum total] of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely because it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite…But the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith…Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

That’s a lot of verbiage (he tends to do that) so let me repeat the key point: “Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held  fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth,  the highest truth there is for an existing person.” Don’t get me started on “existing;” I’m already way above my pay grade.

It is our disciple from antiquity who makes the clearest case for this embrace of objective uncertainty with the strongest passion, in the final paragraphs of his Gospel. Having spent years writing the most objective and factual treatises in the interests of research, and at the end of his long journey that makes up the Gospel, having visited the other Disciples and found little to restore his faith, he at last comes to a life-or-death decision that forces him to decide between Fact and Faith, and chooses Faith:

I preferred, dear brother, in this final gesture, Faith to Truth.…
The Master Of The Universe’s gift to us is not Truth, which we clearly don’t have the capacity to perceive; it is instead the capacity for Faith. These past years I have allowed my obsession with what was true to lead me down faint, irrelevant paths. One cannot retrieve Faith by a world of proofs, facts, histories, and tracts, as if it were Truth one had lost.

I am leaving out a great deal here, since to reveal more would spoil the impact of the novel; as such, I’m afraid it seems weak and diluted. But trust me, the circumstances under which he declares this are goosebump-inducing, and brings me to tears every time I read it. This was the passage, late as it is in the book, that convinced me of the connection to Kierkegaard.

The book as a whole, however, embodies another of Kierkegaard’s themes. Even ten years ago, I described this novel as making fun of religion while still revering God and faith. Those who have strong beliefs in the tenets of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, might well find it an offensive book, as O’Hanrahan needles Lucy with tales of what people have done in the name of God: martyrs, Crusades, extremes of asceticism. Yet there’s that Voice of God, which keeps the focus on Something beyond all that, Something that wants more for us. It’s this Voice that recounts St. Francis of Assisi rejecting the trappings of his own ascendency:

His conscience led him to oppose his followers who raised a monastery in his honor – are the sick eased in their suffering? Will the poor be served? Francis was not listened to. So as Lucy and Gabriel and all the other children of Mine spend the night in serious thoughts, dreaming of the security of rules, orders, traditions, habits, the set routine from matins to nones, they would do well to consider the first Franciscan to resign his place in the order to continue the search for God: in 1220, St. Francis himself.

The tradition of mocking what people do with God goes back a long ways, even for Catholics.

This, too, was a Kierkegaardian theme. Philosophy professor and Existentialism scholar Robert Solomon sums it up in a lecture:

The problem with organized religion is it transfers what in fact is a very personal experience to something which is at its very heart purely institutional.
Now of course in this one can see Kierkegaard’s Protestantism reacting against essentially Catholicism, something which was a very common move of the day, but also he wants to move against Lutheranism itself, which, as far as he was concerned, had become much too herdlike, much too organized, and for all its talk about the inner spirit and the emphasis on individual freedom, nevertheless it was still much too impersonal, much too social, for his taste.

Robert Solomon, lecture available online

One can mock what people have made of God without mocking God, and here we have are 772 pages showing how.

The potential fourth aspect of Kierkegaard that shows up is his three levels of existence, from the Aesthetic to the Ethical to the Religious. I suspect O’Hanrahan is the symbol of the first, though, interestingly enough, he started out as a Jesuit priest, so his journey is convoluted. Lucy might display characteristics of the Ethical stage. And that leaves our Disciple, the ancient Gospelist, to show us Religious Existence, if only briefly. I’m too uncertain about the meanings of these terms to claim this, so only cite it as a possibility. Maybe in ten more years, I’ll have the understanding to go into more depth.

There’s something  about absurdity as well. O’Hanrahan delights in recounting the crazy things done in the name of religion – self-mutilation, imaginary foreskins as wedding rings, sitting atop a tower for years – and I wonder if those things seem absurd from the outside, but are part of each individual’s construct of faith. But, like the notions of Existence, I’m groping in the dark here, and need to understand Kierkegaard’s use if the term better.

The net result of my re-read: I still love this book, it still makes me cry in spite of myself. Because I too find little for me in organized religion, but can’t help feeling there is Something that all of the religions point to, like the Blind Men and the Elephant. This book brings me closer to understanding that Something than the hours I spent in Sunday School and prayer meetings and worship services during my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist; and, by the way, O’Hanrahan’s mock etymology of the word “fundamentalist” is a special treat – and based on fact, to boot.

Our Gospelist confides to us while on his way to find Reason in the city of Meroe:

I confess to a brief, foolish flirtation with the adventures of my youth, my brother. I lay awake at night, in the camps of other travelers, looking at the desert night sky and imagining that I should go into the court of Meroe and perform miracles as Moses before Pharaoh, that I should win over a kingdom where Matthew before me had failed. And that finally my gospel alone would touch another man’s heart and that the world might change ever so slightly toward the good and then it would be my words and faith that engendered this inclination.

This fictional gospel touched at least two fictional lives in soul-changing ways, and perhaps, situated in this novel, has had other effects beyond the confines of the fictional world. I’ve quoted that opening line several times (once, in connection with a math mooc, of all things).

A Medievalist I follow on Twitter remarked back in May, “One thing I wish more people got about pre-modern history is how very *little*  documentation usually survives and how little we actually know.” I wonder if that’s why religion in antiquity provides such a rich setting for fiction: it allows great leeway of fact while weaving among some of society’s most strongly-held beliefs.

I count this as a highly successful re-read. And I’m glad to realize I may have learned something from all those philosophy moocs.

George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I’ve encountered this book several times over the years, but as I came to the end of this read, this re-read for my ReRead Project, I began to wonder: did I ever read the whole book before? Those last lines quoted above are practically memorized, of course, but the opening paragraph was unfamiliar, and my memory of the book seemed to end a couple of chapters before the book itself came to a close.

I don’t think it was a book I was assigned in high school, but when Robert Redford was cast as Gatsby, I dug in. [Hey, come on, some day Idris Elba will seem like an old man to your grandkids, too.] Then in college, when I did a teaching pre-practicum at a local high school, the class was studying Gatsby so I read it again. I again started it back when Colbert had his short-lived Book Club, but I got distracted by something I don’t remember now (see how that works?) and didn’t get very far. And now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever read the whole thing at all, if I’ve just picked up a lot of commentary so that it feels like I read it.

I decided to add it to my re-read list because of a tweet that happened to float by me a few months ago. Someone mentioned that there was a line of analysis claiming Gatsby was a black man, or part black, and was passing. I’d never heard that before; it sounded like a really interesting hypothesis. It’s based on several  factors: the forty acres on which Gatsby’s mansion sits, the predominance of the color yellow (“high yellow” is a term for a light-skinned or white-appearing black person), the honorary medal from Montenegro, the original working title Trimalchio (a freed Roman slave famous for his parties), and Tom Buchanan’s racist rant. Since so much of Gatsby’s persona is based on his escaping his childhood past on the North Dakota farm, it seemed plausible to me that race could be part of it.

Scholars don’t seem as easily swayed, however. One sputtered, “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about blacks, it wouldn’t have taken 75 years to figure it out. If that’s what Fitzgerald wanted, he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” I had to laugh at that one given how good white America is at ignoring, or co-opting, anything that isn’t white, then claiming it doesn’t exist.

But while I’m intrigued by the theory, I had to step off the train when Gatsby’s father showed up for the funeral. Nothing in his demeanor suggested his son was black, or mixed race, or even had that proverbial one drop of blood that would have characterized him at the time. And, had Fitzgerald been deliberately inserting this theme, that would have been the place, giving Nick even more uncertainty about his friend. I’ll leave the analysis to those more qualified than I, but for this reason I remain skeptical. I don’t consider it a wasted trip, more of a detour full of interesting scenery.

And by the way: I didn’t remember the funeral at all from prior readings, which is a big reason I wonder if I ever read the entire book.

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other riches in the book came to my attention via a FiveBooks weekend reader (FiveBooks asks every Saturday: What are you reading this weekend? and the responses, and interactions, often show me interesting new directions) who recommended Maureen Corrigan’s book And So We Read On, a history of the book and its place in the literary canon. I don’t have a copy (yet) but listened to a talk she gave for the 2015 National Book Festival. I was surprised to learn that Gatsby was not that popular on publication. Fitzgerald never saw himself as a success; in later life, he’d wander into bookstores to see if his books were available, and they rarely were. That’s a book right there.

I have a fondness for Fitzgerald that comes from another story of his, “Thank You For the Light,” a story that was soundly rejected by The New Yorker in the 30s (“…this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic”). Even readers in 2012 when it was finally published, hated it, called it a story written to serve up a punch line. I loved it for my own reasons, reasons Fitzgerald probably didn’t share: the bestowal of compassion from an unusual source. He probably wrote it as a lark, but I can see how he might have craved the same kind of mercy his character received, and how he, too, might have made a joke out of it rather than turning maudlin.

But back to Gatsby. Another thing I didn’t remember was how beautifully he wrote. How can you read a book and forget the paragraphs of Nick’s musing. The opening paragraph itself should have stuck in my mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person…. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

It becomes obvious later, of course, that Nick, who holds himself to be the only honest man he’s ever met, turns out to be full of crap, and this paragraph, in which he interprets “advantages” a bit differently than we would expect, sets it up so that we can’t miss it. Yet I missed it, whenever I read the book earlier. If I ever did.

And that’s what I take with me from this entry in my ReRead project. Oh, I’m glad to more fully understand the book, but what horrifies me is how I thought I already did. I wonder what I’m reading now that I’m not really getting, or if I’m forgetting entire sections of novels that change the overall experience. I’m beginning to think re-reading is as important as reading; maybe I should incorporate more of it into my life. So I don’t continue to forget what I don’t remember.

* * *

Maureen Corrigan discusses her book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin 1985)

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

I haven’t failed to notice that the number of visits to this blog follows the American school year; and thus I have surmised that students are looking for clues to help with their homework, with talking points for classroom discussions, for writing assignments, exams, etc. I hate to disappoint them, but there’s really nothing here that will help. Oh, I’ll throw in a few sources at the end, but for heaven’s sake there’s plenty of that out there and my two cents isn’t worth the effort to type.

My purpose for these re-reads, particularly with the two Literary Classics, is instead to trace my own reactions to the book over the years. It’s an idea that I found in a short story, “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers (yes, The Overstory guy) in a Pushcart volume from ten years ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to follow through.

I first read P&P in high school. It would have been 1971 or so. It was not a good time for me; I was sunken into the first of what would be many major depressive episodes. So I didn’t think it was funny, or cheeky, or cute, or satirical. It scared the hell out of me. So many rules! How to talk, what to say, what to do, how to visit friends, how to go to a ball. And if someone didn’t follow the rules, there would be scathing gossip about their lapses. How did people learn to do all these things? You might think I was an idiot for not realizing it was a different era, but TV and movies at the time were full of people “dressing for dinner” and holding conversations with perfect strangers, knowing how to breeze into a town with a couple of lovebirds in a cage and end up hiding in the corner of a house when the birds attacked. I was scared to go to a football game; college was out of the question.

So I missed all the stuff that might have helped. Like Elizabeth’s terrific line, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Or the irony when she said, “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

I read it for a second time – really a first time, since I barely read it at all in high school, just a few lines from random pages – in college, and had a much better time. At least, I think I did. I don’t remember any details, just a lot of character shifts as Elizabeth goes from hating Darcy to liking him, and from admiring Wickham to realizing he’s a piece of work. I was quite taken with the letters, and wrote my required paper more on the English postal service of the era rather than on the ironies, plot twists, and character revelations.

And now I read it again, and find I’m still impatient with all the girls-fret-about-boys stuff in the first half of the novel. It gets a lot more interesting when set against the customs of the time, since marriage was a matter of survival. And that may be what I got out of it overall: no matter how badly textualists want to scream about literature existing in itself, context matters, and the novel doesn’t make sense unless 21st century social mores are held at bay and the realities of the 19th century are better understood. I think of Mrs. Bennett, a flibbertygibbet if there ever was one, cranking out one baby after another hoping for the male child who will assure the family’s future, but surrounding herself with daughters who will be victims of the entailment against the estate. Then there’s all of Elizabeth’s fretting about her family’s reputation ruining her prospects for marriage, particularly when Lydia takes off with Wickham.

It turned out that the Lydia episode caught my interest the most at this point. It was hilarious, in a kind of tragic way, that marrying her to this conniving and dishonest shark was seen as the best solution. But it made for a merry chase.

As an aside: I bought a used copy of the book, my college copy having long ago disappeared, and discovered someone had underlined all the passages I wanted to underlined, and had written brief summaries on the first page of each chapter. That isn’t so odd for a used copy of a widely-read text, but what kind of freaked me out was how much the handwriting resembled mine of thirty years ago! For all I know, this was my college copy, come back to haunt me!

I used to say most 60s sitcoms and romcoms would be ruined if anyone ever spoke honestly what was on their mind. That’s the case here, as well. Elizabeth begins to think she might like Darcy, but doesn’t want that to be evident to anyone. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know she’s heartbroken at losinn Bingley. In fact, the most honest character might be Lydia, who openly declares she wants to snare her a soldier, and everyone assumes she doesn’t really mean it until they hear she’s headed for Scotland (I’m still not sure exactly why Scotland is so evil, but it has something to do with marrying people without the usual strictures of English society, a less respectable marriage. I don’t even want to get into the burden on women to uphold all this respectablility, when it’s the men in the legal and governing professions who have placed such restrictions on their ability to survive outside of marriage.

All in all, I still view this as a fun book. Yes, I know, there’s all this literary gold, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when reading it. I gave up on Bridget Jones’ Diary one of the contemporary resettings of the general plot, pretty early in the film when it came out long ago, for the same reason. But I admire Jane Austen for putting it all out there at a time when no one else would.

* * *

Ten Things to Know before Reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jay Pawlyk: a handy video review of the historical and social background.

John Green’s Crash Course on P&P: John Green has quite a following from his YA books, but I find his rapid-fire style exhausting; I’m out of breath after the first minute. Those younger than I will surely enjoy them more, and they do contain some good information.

The story of the  P&P Cake created by Night Kitchen Bakery in Philadelphia in March, 2021 (header image). The peacock edition, no less!

It’s time for In-Between Reading 2021: The Plan

Once again I’m between Pushcart and BASS, and so have several months to devote to reading other things.

Somewhere within this year bouncing between anxieties about pandemic and elections, I remembered all the re-reading I used to do. I had a whole list of books I reread every year (given how long that list was, I’m surprised I found time to read anything new). When I started blogging, re-reading stopped. That means it’s been well over a decade since I’ve read some of my old favorites. And, of course, it’s been many more decades since I read some literary standards in high school and college.

So I’m devoting this In-Between year to re-reading. Not entirely; I  have quite a few new (or at least new-to-me) books on my TBR shelf. But I want to re-read some of those old-friend books (I had to buy new copies of some of them, they were so tattered from their annual outings), see if any of them look different given all the focused reading and study I’ve been doing. Do I see flaws I never noticed? Do I see more depth than I did before I started concentrating on reading for subtlety and nuance?

I’m starting with a couple of literary standards:

  • Pride and Prejudice, which crops up so often in mentions I wanted to refresh my memory;
  • The Great Gatsby, which ended up on the list because someone mentioned a theory in which Gatsby was a black man passing for white. That would give a whole different read, wouldn’t it.

Then, one of my all time favorite science fiction collections:

  • The Past Through Tomorrow, Robert Heinlein: in recent months I’ve thought of several of the stories from this book, such as “If This Goes On…,” “The Logic of Empire,” and “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” I’ve also been thinking about The Crazy Years a lot lately. It’s possible this may lead to other Heinlein collections, like The Menace from Earth, since “By His Bootstraps” is maybe my favorite SF story of all time (and by the way  it’s pretty amazing that Heinlein wrote the ultimate teenage romance as the title story).

In historical fiction:

  • Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. World War II in 1600 pages, and the only thing he left out was the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent for no good reason.

Nonfiction:

  • And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. This was spectacular journalism, following AIDS from The Feast of Hearts to Rock Hudson. For obvious reasons this has been on my mind lately: the government ignoring a health crisis for political reasons, the people most at risk unwilling to change their behaviors in the name of freedom.

And a religiously themed novel for those who can’t take religion too seriously but don’t let that stop them from contemplating the nature of God and how it all works:

  • Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Every time I come to the end, I miss God.
  • I may re-read Jo Walton’s Lent as well, though I read it not so long ago, just because it was so interesting (for those of us who find Renaissance humanism vs the Church to be interesting).

As for my “new” books:

  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam; so many people raved about this, I had to get it.
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans;  typically I wait for paperbacks, but I really want to read the title story (I’ve encountered two of the other stories in BASS).
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders; I know very little about Russian stories, so this is like taking a class.
  • The New Order by Karen Bender; inspired by her story “The Shame Exchange” from Pushcart 2021, and a tempting description of the title story.
  • The Chain by Adrian McKinty; every Saturday, Five Books asks, “What are you reading this weekend?” and someone mentioned this in a way that sounded terrific. An impulse selection.
  • The Last Samurai by  Helen Dewitt. This has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie, but was listed as one of the best novels ever by… I don’t remember, someone somewhere; I’ll figure it out when I get to it.

I have a couple of poetry chapbooks that I might slip in as well:

  • The Book of Fly by John Phillip Johnson, bought because of his poem of the same name in Pushcart 2021.
  • Gallimaufry & Farrago by Kathleen Balma; there’s a long story behind this, since I first encountered her several years ago and then just recently came across her work again.

That doesn’t sound like a lot for seven or eight months of reading. However, remember that some of those re-reads are pretty massive. And I can always get more books if I start to run out!

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Click to End

No pandemics will keep us down. Many more will be on the horizon. If you have doubts about our future, banish them. Be inspired. Be comforted. Read on.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

In my pre-read post, a space I typically use to help change gears and root myself in the upcoming work I’ve chosen to do, I mentioned that there were fewer entries in this year’s Pushcart; in particular, fewer nonfiction pieces. I was nonetheless surprised to see, when I counted posts and compared to prior years, that this year’s volume had the fewest entries – despite having included more poems than in the last two years. I’m not sure those statistics mean anything, but I include them because I noticed. Noticing often precedes, and is essential for, understanding, after all.

The themes that jumped out at me this year were: the battle between cynicism and sincerity; grief and its many forms of expression; and relationships. These are not unique categories, particularly that last one, but I was interested in how they interwove, combining in different ways in different stories. The volume closed with a meditation on the flow of water, a nice way to envision all the writing and reading continuing on after the book is closed.

I enjoyed many of the pieces in this book, but I’ll give a special shout-out to a few.

Upright at Thyatira” by Darrell Kinsey became something like last year’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” in that it built itself around an element I’m interested in, and also had a message that touched me.

Karen Bender’s “The Shame Exchange” had me jumping up and down, it’s such a good idea; if only it could be instantiated in real life.

I’m a little nervous about giving Nicklaus Rupert’s “Aunt Job” a shout-out, because it’s kind of perverted; but it’s also constructed well enough to handle it and earns its humor. And, more than that, it’s an incredibly brave story for a magazine to publish, and for Pushcart to include.

The poems I included were wonderful:

The Book of Fly” by John Phillip Johnson enticed me to buy his chapbook of the same title, a graphic poetry collection (graphic in the sense of illustrated, not obscene; I’m still of the generation that feels such a distinction is necessary).

David Wohjahn’s “Fifty-Eight Percent…” is a wonderfully constructed emotional powerhouse on the Holocaust. Yes, pretty much anything about the Holocaust is going to be emotional, but this was a master class in how to build.

Leila Chatti’s “The Rules” and Matthew Olzmann’s “Blake Griffin Dunks Over a Car” both dealt with the theme of cynicism vs sincerity in very concrete ways, and waved off all the workshoppers who dismiss sentimentality simply because it’s not cool. These poems show how to express that gooey center of us all without venturing into Hallmark Card territory.

It was strange to be reading stories and poems written in 2019. So much is different now, more than we could have anticipated. That’s the risk, I suppose, of writing with too much attention to the moment; the moment might pass, another moment might take priority. A lot of writers on my Twitter feed were advising each other to keep away from pandemic stories over the past year, primarily because there were so many of them and they weren’t fully fleshed-out pieces.

The other issue is that the impact of the moment isn’t yet fully known. Grief, of course, and isolation, but there may be a larger picture that becomes evident only years down the line. What of the kids who missed out on proms and graduations? That may seem trivial, but in the life of a teenager, the trivial often takes on huge importance. What of scaled-down weddings, of lonely funerals (so many lonely funerals), of connections via churches and community events that were sacrificed? Of course, there have been worse disruptions in routine; anyone who’s read anything set in the World War II years (or who has relatives who lived in that time – my in-laws had quite a story) can tell you that. The weeks of 9/11 took their toll. But the past year has been confusing for a lot of us, and we won’t be reading about that for several years to come.

Yet writing of this volume managed to capture the moment. Some of that was judicious editing: opening the volume with a story of a woman preparing for a variety of catastrophes, while ending up blindsided by the one she didn’t see coming, was a great choice. The conflict between irony and sincerity mirrored our split between defiance and prudence, while still highlighting how easy it is to be hard and cold and not let anything really touch us, and how much is lost that way. And of course grief, with all its different manifestations, is a constant human theme. 

I was quite distracted in this past month so I may have overlooked some later pieces that would have grabbed me had I been more attentive. Life is like that sometimes. We miss a stretch of scenery because there’s someone tailgating us and we need to pay attention to the road. I’m hoping my grip on the steering wheel will loosen over the next few weeks, but for now, it’s enough to just keep going.

Next year, in a better state of mind. Next year, wherever.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Sangamithra Iyer, “Governing Bodies” (nonfiction) from Kenyon Review #XLI/1

I do think our younger selves are always still a part of us, but like our memories, we can’t access them fully. This is also true for family history for many of us, where colonialism, war, migration or death have left those of us still living with only pieces of stories. “Governing Bodies” is a narrative formed by salvaging fragments, while acknowledging the losses. I was also exploring other kinds of split-selves from the elephant-headed Ganesha to colonized subjects under the British rule like my grandparents, as well as logging elephants who once roamed free. I was interested in this tension between subjugation and freedom, complacency and rebellion, and the moments when a suppressed self rises to the surface.

Sangamithra Iyer, Author Interview at Kenyon Review

Iyer covers a lot of ground in this essay – her grandfather’s life in Burma and India, her loss of her first language, her experience as a childhood immigrant to the US, her reactions to the legends of Ganesha and stories of prearranged marriages, her decision to continue vegetarianism outside of her upbringing – but the image that stays with me most is water. Flow. I’ve always been fond of the Lao Tzu idea that water, the softest of things, overcomes hardness with its flexibility, but Iyer has something different in mind: continuity. The self, maintaining its integrity over time and distance and changes.

But her life, and her grandfather’s life, is aligned with water in a more concrete sense. Grandfather was a civil engineer until he walked away from one way of life and became a water diviner – yes, the guys with sticks who find water – and activist with Gandhi in India. This decision is the backbone of the essay.

Iyer, too, became an engineer, but recounts her life in terms of water:

The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.” My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.

I got a bit distracted (don’t I always) by a single sentence later in the piece: “Can you re-create a life—re-member a body—from the knowns and the unknowns?” Iyer was describing various ways her bodily truth – her first language, her early yoga training – was no longer accessible to her.  I was quite taken with that idea of re-membering the body’s memories, dismembered by time and change. However, I discovered that the etymology of “remember” is very different from that of “dismember”; the first comes from the Latin memor, mindful, and the second, from the Latin membrum, limb. I was disappointed to learn this; thinking of the words as related felt much more satisfying.

Iyer’s investigation into her grandfather’s life revealed other fascinating tidbits, such as the account, by a gentleman known as Elephant Bill, of training elephants to haul teak for commerce. This ties in with Ganesha, of course, and tangentially to her vegetarianism. Even here, I see water coursing around, getting into nooks and crannies that a hard, straight substance like iron would overlook.

In researching her grandfather’s life, she discovered his employment records indicated he was “permitted” to resign. We can say it was a different time, we can talk about how the world has changed, but when one man decides whether to permit another to resign, that means something else: in this case, colonialism. And again, she brings in the water metaphor:

But I wonder what his resignation letter—this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter, from subject to rebel—said. Thatha, like all of us, was produced mostly of water. It wasn’t about resigning but rather about restoring flow—like water desiring to be undammed.

It’s a lovely essay, full of interesting events (her moment in school when she refused a hamburger; a yoga class where the child’s pose is eventually recalled; her childhood horror at the idea of an arranged marriage) that all work with this idea of flow, with the continuity of self even as the self changes, and the ability to find one’s course.

I think that may be why the editors of this volume chose this as the last piece. Literature will continue on. We will continue on. Even after a year of disruption and isolation, grief and loss, we are changed but we are still who we are. And there will be a next year, and a new volume to read. We will find our direction.

* * *

Essay available online at Kenyon Review

Author interview available online at Kenyon Review

Editor’s note “Why We Chose It” available online at Kenyon Review

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Luis Alberto Urrea, “The Night Drinker” from McSweeney’s #58

McSweeney’s Art
What will the world look like in 20 years if climate change goes unchecked? That’s the premise of “2040 A.D.,” a new collection of short stories published by McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.… Each contributor to “2040 A.D.” was paired with a climate expert from the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], who provided scientific research and support, according to Rob Moore, director of the organization’s Water and Climate Team. The role of the NRDC in the project, Moore said, “was really to be a resource and support each author’s creative process. Where they wanted to ground something in a plausible scenario from a climate science standpoint, we were there to help them figure out what that would look like.” What that looks like in Urrea’s story “The Night Drinker” is a world full of deprivation and delusion brought to the brink of apocalypse by climate-related events. Taking place in Mexico City, the story includes mass human displacement, drought, volcanic eruptions – and a human response that centers more on superstition than logic or reason. “The degradation of the planet is not simply a scientific or ecological conflagration,” Urrea writes, “but also an eroding of the human mind.”

WTTW News by Quinn Myers

Back in 2009, McSweeney’s #32 asked ten writers to contribute a story about life in 2024 (I’d just started reading/blogging BASS, PEN and Pushcart, and encountered three of them). Fewer than half dealt with climate change. It’s interesting to look at that list of stories now that the target date is around the corner. That’s the problem with not-so-distant future predictions: chances are your audience is going to be able to check it out for real. I remember someone in high school quipping, “1984 is only 15 years away!” And as Ethics in Bricks reminds us every once in a while, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching  – Keith Lowell Jensen”.

McSweeney’s innovation this time around was to recruit climate scientists from NRDC to work with the writers and have the stories specifically look at the effects of climate change in 2040 if – big if – efforts to mitigate the effects are not undertaken. They left room for hope. “The solutions are all here before us,” says Rob Moore, paired with Urrea, in the news story above. “It’s a matter of mustering the will to actually employ them.” In the interview with that article, Urrea said, “I wanted to make it visceral. Rather than theoretical or artful or cautionary, I wanted people to understand that there’s something really awful coming for us.”

The story starts out more intellectual than visceral, but by the end, oh yes, visceral it is.

In those years, the one world, Ce Anahuac as the Aztecs called it, was dying of fever. The world was so hot that monarch butterflies easily caught fire in our mountains. Once the whales died, the oceans crawled onto the shore faster than the scientists had predicted. They came ashore like insidious, living beings, filling the lowlands and drowning the ports. Many crops perished down below; the Mexican plateau around us was safe from ocean flood, but not from drought….The agua negra poisoned aquifers, as if punishing the land for its sins. Soon, the salted tides corrupted hydroelectric plants and caused blackouts all over the country. Here in La Capital, as my generation still called it, we had wind generators, solar panels, and smart roofs that she was greenery, filters, and rain collection to try to clear the air.

That’s before things get visceral.

Urrea chose the setting of Mexico City, once again emerging, as it was in pre-Columbian times, as one of the biggest and most thriving cities in the world. His narrator is the diary of a historian, hence the story is subtitled: A CHRONICLE OF THE LAST DAYS OF TENOCHTITLAN, BUILT ON LAKE TEXCOCO, KNOWN NOW AS MEXICO CITY, HOME OF THE ANCIENT GODS. 2040 A.D. FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOAQUIN HERNANDEZ III, HISTORIAN. FOUND IN THE RUINS OF IZTAPALAPA, 2045. We are left to wonder who was left to go digging in the ruins five years after the end of the world in Tenochtitlan, but it does lend another glimpse of hope. Maybe not everyone will survive, but maybe the species, the human culture, will.

Climate refugees are a big part of the story, and Urrea emphasizes in his interview that’s because it’s already happening, whether we recognize it or not. He puts a bitter contemporary twist on it: Americans are pouring into Mexico City as the American West crumbles. “Those of us with dark senses of humor, and what Mexican does not have a dark sense of humor, found it amusing that the parts of the great border wall still above water were used to tie off the boats of floating scavengers and the undocumented.”

He weaves together not just recent history, but Aztec history and the mythologies that have survived for half a millennium. It’s a story I second-read at my computer, looking up Tlaloc, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, Ehecatl. And the Night Drinker himself, the Flayed One, who fed humanity with his own body – and was worshipped with human sacrifice in similar vein.

Visceral, indeed.

The eventual collapse comes as the result of a pop culture phenomenon from the tin foil hat side of things, a Youtube broadcaster “reminiscent of the old televangelists”:

For Hermanito Jorge had a specific theme: that narcos and sicarios, without knowing it, had begun reenacting Aztec human sacrifice rituals. …Hermanito Jorge maintains that the reenactment of sacrifice would awaken the old gods, who which come to the portals between worlds, thinking that we had returned to their true religion. But that sooner or later, their joy would collapse into rage. These sacrifices were not loving gestures, were not ceremonies beseeching them for mercy and increase, but irreligious acts of greed and commerce.

From there, things get more grotesque; Urrea calls it a horror story for good reason. Our historian finds himself questioning his sanity. And, again, we are left to wonder who picked up the pieces five years later – and if another collapse will befall them, too.

I felt the sense of the rolling back of civilization. We’ve become separated from our natural environment thanks to air conditioners and sump pumps and genetically engineered drought-resistant seeds; no wonder so much of modern Christianity scorns efforts to save the planet, in favor of flaunting domination over it. But nature is a powerful force, which is why she is so often conflated with God, and does her own dominating.

* * *

NRDC blog entry on the project available online

WTTW News interview with Urrea available online: New Collection of ‘Climate Fiction’ Explores the World in 2040

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Siqi Liu, “Chastity” (nonfiction) from The Harvard Advocate, Fall 2019

Funeral banner of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui), 2nd century B.C.E., silk
We didn’t think of chastity in terms of sex, of course. Sex was bourgeois, individualistic, dirty. We never thought about sex (we only thought about sex when we saw dogs doing it in the streets, but that was before they were all eaten along with the cats and rats). We believed chastity was like loyalty. Devoting your body to a person and a cause. Our Great Leader told us that a revolutionary should be loyal to the Party and free of vulgar desires, so we strove to be chaste. We purged ourselves of all but the most necessary wants. Aside from the popsicles—the only thing that stood between us and heat strokes—we ate one meal a day. We allowed ourselves to smile only when we discussed revolutionary activities. We never wanted the boys with whom we went to the river; the only man we found handsome was Our Great Leader.

I characterized the prior story of this volume, “In a Good Way,” as a “raunchy, humorous good time of a story” full of “characters who think about sex all the time.” How interesting that it’s followed up by a piece describing an era and place in which a younger group of characters, real-life people this time in a non-fiction setting, also think about sex all the time. But it’s a more general expression of sex – pleasure, beauty, joy – and it’s strictly subjugated to appreciation of the Party and the Great Leader.

The place is China, the time, the 1970s, the end of the Mao era. The story for our pre-teen point-of-view character – and forgive me if I react to the story as if it’s fiction, for it’s written very much in fictive style even though it’s clearly labeled nonfiction – begins with the discovery of the 2100-year-old mummy Xin Zhui, popularly called Lady Dai. She’s also called The Ancient Hag, pairing admiration of her imagined beauty with the culturally-necessary disdain for her embrace of capitalism, wealth, and comfort.

Here’s the description of the mummy, the way she was seen by the neighborhood girls who crowded to view the mummy every day for months:

We saw the 2,100-year-old woman in a makeshift museum exhibit later. Her breasts, chalky white and full of craters, reminded us of the moon. Her tiny nose hairs—still intact thanks to the acidic, magnesium-rich preservation liquid that soaked her body—looked like either the legs of the flies that we regularly caught or the hairs that were beginning to sprout from our own armpits. Her face was the shape of a sunflower seed and her mouth, gaping open with the tongue protruding like a tiny white fish, suggested that she was laughing in her moment of death.

If you google Xin Zhui, you’ll find pictures of the mummy that don’t look anything like this awe-ridden description. The preservation is highly praised, but beauty is not the word that springs to mind on my first glimpse of the corpse. This shows us how powerful one’s belief about reality can be, whether it’s a belief in tales of a woman who lived long ago, or belief in a current political system that demands loyalty or else.

Siqi uses this moment to describe the final years of the Mao era. She admits “We were too young to remember starvation in the way our older siblings did” but she and her comrades write up complaints about those who aren’t acting in the appropriate revolutionary spirit. It’s written in first person plural voice, again emphasizing the community aspect and unity of the children. And it shows the delicate tightrope they walked on, torn between admiring Lady Dai, and deriding the Ancient Hag.

Although the first few paragraph have a somewhat book-report feel, the piece soon smooths out into a gripping story. Part of that is the first person plural POV, but I think beyond that, what makes it really read like a story, rather than an essay, is a plot twist: the exposure of a diary entry by a “mousy girl” who has blended her latent sexuality with political orthodoxy in the most blatant sense:

So, imagine our horror when we discovered erotic excerpts from one of our comrades’ diary published in an anonymous dazibao, taped to the front door of her home! Someone had stolen her diary (her younger sister, we suspected) and copied the very yellow scenes elaborated over pages and pages in big black characters on white paper: I opened to him like a soft red peony and a drop of blood stained the white sheets… His hands roamed over my body, those small hills and streams… Our Great Leader’s seeds flooded me at last…

If this feels creepy, remember that, following the example in Song of Solomon where highly sexualized imagery supposedly reflects the love of God for His creation, Christianity often  envisions Christ as the Bridegroom marrying his Church, a metaphor echoed by priests and nuns wearing wedding rings as they take vows of celibacy and join their orders. The combination of sex and obedience to an organization is not new.

The fallout from the exposure confuses the young girls, who try to figure out if they must now stone their former friend. However, she turns out to be a spectacular advocate for herself, and becomes almost legendary – until the death of Mao, when she surpasses that “almost’ and passes into local lore.

This is a great example of creative nonfiction. It’s far more effective than a factually based exposition might be, and to me, more interesting than even an emotionally-drenched memoir. The discovery of the mummy anchors the piece to a very specific image, and it’s that image that allows Siqi to go beyond that point and bring in the theme of chastity in the name of the Party to illuminate how it felt to be a young girl growing up in that time. The storification of the events, particularly the use of first person plural, draws the reader in; instead of using our analytical powers to understand an explanation, we’re caught in the emotional flow of events. This is the power of story we keep hearing about from the Old School: in this case, that power is used to take a tour of a time and place and mindset.

* * *

Complete story available online at The Harvard Advocate.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Polly Duff Kertis, “In a Good Way” from Hysterical Rag #2

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: “The Wedding Dance,” 1566
Barreling east on the Long Island Rail Road toward the wedding, i felt uneasy.
My date was a guy who was just my roommate Jacob. He had dated only guys, until we split a bottle of red wine and had sex, after which he left for his room on the other side of the wall, and I stared at the ceiling until deciding to take an Ambien. The next morning our platonic roommate friendship — according to the way he was acting, which was as if nothing had happened — returned to normal (but not). He sat on the couch engaging with his interests on his laptop. Usually, I’d cuddle up next to him and see what there was to see — most often memes about memes — but that morning I just felt bad for not having an enthusiasm of my own to intimately research over coffee.
The groom was a guy I’d had a one-night-something with about a year ago that didn’t involve any actual penetration but did involve me jerking him off and him saying it was “humiliating in a good way” and him spanking me so hard it left a dark and disturbing bruise, which I didn’t see until an aesthetician gasped, held up a mirror, asked me a question in a judgmental and unintelligible Scandinavian language, and waxed more of my pubes than I thought I’d asked her to, which was humiliating in a humiliating way.

Maybe I’m just too old for this story.

It seems to be about a woman  attending a friend’s wedding. Except it’s really about who’s slept with whom and under what conditions. I gather humiliation is a theme. And I think it’s supposed to be a raunchy, humorous good time of a story. I say all these things in an uncertain voice because I have no idea what the story is about. I just know it’s populated by characters who think about sex all the time. I mean, all the time. No wonder they’re all feeling humiliated. I wouldn’t want to be 20-something right now for anything.

The driving question is: should I tell the bride about the tumble I took with the groom a year ago? This seems like a false question to me; if the two co-conspirators decided at the time to keep it secret, a one-time indiscretion, then the wedding day is not the time to break that compact. It seems more like someone’s looking to create some drama, then finds plenty of other drama. After all, isn’t that why weddings are such rich settings for stories: they’re full of drama, of competing priorities, of expectations doomed to become disappointments.

I was going to let this percolate for a while, but I took a cue from by blogging buddy Jake Weber, who’s said a few times he doesn’t mind bailing on one story per anthology. Anyway, I have a feeling I’m just not a fun enough person to appreciate this story, so I’ll leave it to those who are.

* * *

Complete story available online at Hysterical Rag.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Naira Kuzmich, “My Father Recycles” (nonfiction) from The Pinch #39.2

Recycled Art: “Flow,” Kaneko Organization
My father: greencard holder, watching his breadwinner wife leave early in the morning, return late in the evening; my father, once a dreamer dreaming of his own shoe repair shop in East Hollywood, California, but soon a cynic, embarrassed of his accent, of who he has become, made to be, in this new country, in the America of the Americas, the always bigger and better, new city of Los Angeles. My father does not care about the environment, about green grass, about ozone layer and smog. He recycles only for the homeless who roam the alley behind his house with their grocery carts. At first, he collects the bottles in a plastic bag, just holds it out for any man or woman he sees rifling through other people’s trash, waits for them to come to him. But sometimes, he does not wait. …Watching the men and women in the alley, he quickly finds a favorite, likes the best discipline of one man, a man of routine, the homeless Mexican who comes by every week, loyal to his route.

At first glance, this essay – a three-page-long paragraph – might seem very stream-of-consciousness, like a diary entry written one long night, or a letter never meant to be sent. But even brief examination will show that it’s quite intricately constructed, weaving together many disparate threads – family, the immigrant experience, other immigrant experiences, tragedy, comedy, irony, bitterness, joy, grief – in a way that keeps everything firing at the same time.

The lead-off topic is the father’s recycling project, which isn’t recycling as we think of it but more like turning over redeemables to those who survive on such things. The concern is not for things, not even important things like the health of the planet, but for people who are now struggling as the father once struggled as a new immigrant with a family.

We get to see a little bit about that, how this family survived by redeeming boxtops:

I’m a nobody, an immigrant, too, once a five-year-old staring at her feet as she wandered the streets of her new neighborhood, collecting cigarette cartons, mama and daddy cutting out the paper barcodes to send in an envelope to a Marlboro catalog. A family exercise in getting by, getting what you can in America: a red duffel bag, an air mattress, a small portable grill. A family of nonsmokers, never-smokers, never-ever-smokers, advertising a tobacco company during Sunday trips to the beach. Me, a nobody immigrant, it seems, always and forever, at 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, taking the red duffel bag to countless cities and countries after I’ve left home, this house, left only a year after my parents sign on the dotted line, buy it, mortgage it, finally, finally, after fifteen years in America. The red duffel a handy carry-on, the perfect size, all this before my diagnosis, all this before 28, this year, this faithful year, now -where was I?

I don’t know if youngsters today know how popular boxtops were at one point. Cereals offered items in exchange for ten boxtops, something like trading stamps (I’m old enough to remember trading stamps, the messy job of pasting them into books, the trip to the redemption center where a hundred books – hours of work, thousands of dollars of purchases – would redeem an electric frypan or an ottoman; my cutlery is courtesy of Betty Crocker, in fact) and of course we all learned the word “facsimile” because we were told that would do, in order to get around sweepstakes rules if a purchase were required.

But what’s this about a diagnosis? And here’s where the architecture of the story demands our patience: we won’t find out for a while, as we return to the father and his interaction with the recipients of his recycling. But in a half page we come across the word cancer and we realize this isn’t about recycling bottles, it’s about something much larger.

Among the ironies is the one about Marlboro providing comfort and joy to a struggling immigrant family (“magically we had a bed, a red duffel bag, a novel way to cook our hot dogs”) of never-smokers and non-smokers (the words mean different things to epidemiologists) while the products most associate with lung cancer are, in fact, not involved in about twenty percent of annual lung cancer deaths.

Another aspect of this essay that I treasure is that bitterness is not overlooked or ignored or pretended away. The struggles of the family, the long road to finally signing the mortgage on their home, the daughter who was taking the world by storm when the right side of her body started dying, the blamelessness of her illness: these are not covered over with uplifting words of courage, though of course there must have been tremendous courage all along. And that blamelessness is recalled almost with embarrassment and connected to the blamelessness of all illness, in an act of generosity equal to the father handing out recycled bottles.

The Mexican man appears only a few years older than my father, but both are healthier than I. I can’t help but to think this sometimes, especially at night: luckier. You can google the statistics for lung cancer, you can take the time. I will take your pity. I will take anything you give me. Tell me: what can you give me that I can exchange for more time? I’ve already taken what the universe has given me and I’ve taken from the universe what I can. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here. But how can I say in words that I have never smoked, and where did that get me? How can I say it without suggesting others deserve my fate? Because they don’t. Still, which lyric turn holds my bitterness, the terrible surprise? What immigrant language can explain irony without resorting to coincidence, mere cliché? But I can say I’ve watched my father run, that I’ve watched him recycle. I can say I’ve come back home, to this house, to this city, the America of Americas, to be healed and to die. I can say it, I’m saying it. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here.

I do my due diligence: I look up the statistics on lung cancer, and more importantly, I look up Naira Kuzmich. She was an emerging writer with a singular voice, significant publications and a promising future  when she died in 2017. And that surprised me. Pushcart usually includes posthumous entries, and due to its nature delays are inevitable, but this one seemed to take longer than usual to work through the system. In any case, I’m glad this essay made its way here. It’s a bit of recycling itself, perhaps. And if some reader wishes to take the title “My Father Recycles” in a more universal sense, maybe even a religious sense, that we are all recycled through the memories of others and the love we left behind, well, that’s something too.

Shenandoah magazine ran an online memorial, including this recollection from Kuzmich’s writing mentor, a comment that ties in perfectly with the essay itself:

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

Josie Sigler Sibara, from “Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” in Shenendoah Magazine

It’s quite an effective piece. Add me to those who wish we could have seen what Kuzmich would have done, had she had more time.

* * *

“Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” available online at Shenandoah magazine

“Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers” available online at Yale Medicine

Pushcart 2021 XLV: John Rolfe Gardiner, “Freak Corner” from One Story #254

Art by Nancy Rourke: “Friends”
Freak Corner was the brothers’ name for the end of the block where our brick rambler stood across from Alfie’s house, identical but for some glass-brick courses in the Kipps front wall, too cloudy to see anything but shadows moving behind them. Our house, the other piece of their “freak corner,” being home to my sister Gayle whose limited vocabulary and floating inflections left a constant question on her face: Is this the way it should sound?

Back in junior high, there was a girl at our bus stop who was mercilessly teased about her looks. She wasn’t particularly odd-looking, but odd enough, so she became a target and retreated more and more into a semi-hostile, totally miserable hunched posture that invited more teasing from assholic adolescents. By the way, I still regret that I did nothing but stand by and watch, relieved it wasn’t me. I happened to see her one day in the school corridors, talking with some friends, and I was astonished: she was laughing, chatting, looking completely happy and at ease. I saw this again in college: a woman who was ignored and rather stigmatized in class took on a wholly different attitude when surrounded by friends. Even in the short run, environment shapes us.

This story features three different people affected by their environment. For one, changing that environment is a struggle but it is life-saving. For another, the environment was a choice. And for the third, character seems to persist whatever the environment; unfortunately, this is not good news.

Gayle, pre-lingually deaf, never heard a word our parents said, though it took them nearly two years to understand that placing herself in front of them when they spoke was not a child’s remarkable politeness but her need to see the movement of their lips. Accepting the diagnosis, they were determined, with little debate, that Gayle would be an “oralist,” a mainstreamed member of the hearing world.
Her early years must have been a time of dim confusion and bewildered anxiety. As she grew older, the indignities were felt if not heard: “Call her dummy. She can’t hear you.” Worse came later – subjection to a community pique at what it took to be her conceited diffidence, then to pity for her presumed cognitive deficit. I grieved with Gayle, which only gave fuel to her frustration.

The story takes place in the mid-50s, when American Sign Language was stigmatized; to a large degree, that stigma has faded as linguistic features of ASL have become better understood. Gayle’s story shows how her intelligence was hidden while trying to read lips and speak, then was revealed as prodigious when she began communicating in a language she could fully receive and transmit. This change in environment, resisted by her parents, resulted in a change as astonishing as my glimpse of the girl at the bus stop amidst friends rather than foes.

One of Gayle’s allies was a tutor, hired to teach reading and speech but who secretly taught her sign as well. Another advocate was a neighbor, the Kipps’ son, who had some changes of his own going on:

The new Margaret Kipps made her switch without going under the knife. This in mid-twentieth century when an operation for the full change might have been offered in Scandinavia, but not to Alfie Kipps of Arlington, Virginia, who became Margaret in dress and address in the summer of 1953. No loss or gain of genitalia.

Alfie, in his late twenties, still living at home, had been working, he told us, in the city, in the circulation office of a trade magazine as a punch-card operator, that once pervasive data management job, long extinct. The change was more shocking because Alfie had never shown us a feminine inclination. In fact, there were young women who used to drive into our development to wave at the Kipps porch, coming and going. We assumed it was a mark of Alfie’s popularity, not a sign of social reticence or sexual confusion.

The description of the Kipps house as having those glass bricks, “too cloudy to see anything but shadows,” is an appropriate metaphor, since we’re never sure what’s happening with Margaret/Alfie, and what is supposed changes. At first he’s assumed to be turning himself into a woman a la Christine Jorgensen, a trending news topic at the time. Then he’s seen as a transvestite, visiting clubs for such people.

When we finally discover Alfie’s environment is more of a choice than Gayle’s, it’s one of those astonishing surprises good fiction throws at a reader. I’m not so sure it works, however. It feels forced to me, yet I can’t find a reason for my hesitance. It’s appropriate to the time – and, though extraneous to the story, fits the literary community of the time as well – and, while a bit esoteric, is no more so than the reality of Gayle’s academic explorations. That is, it’s readily available to an average reader, though probably not the first thing one would consider. That Alfie would reveal his secret to Gayle even makes sense, for who would she tell? Yet it still feels a bit off to me.

The third leg of the triangle is a pair of brothers, the neighborhood bullies who come up with the sobriquet “Freak Corner.” They are minor players in the story; their only real contribution to plot is the event that sends Alfie on his way. They are more symbolic of the kind of miscreant who is not the product of his environment, but rather his fundamental character makeup. This is emphasized as they are shown heading into adulthood, and out of the neighborhood, without much change. Plant stinkweed in the finest soil, and it will still reek.

The story is narrated by Gayle’s sibling; as I read, I considered her a sister, but I think it’s probably a brother. In his One Story interview (which I consider a bit spoilery, so be forewarned), Gardiner indicates the story started out in third person but moved to an observer-narrator somewhere along the way, because “using one of the protagonists would surely complicate the telling—having a voice that pleads for itself while simultaneously pleading for another.” I’ve been thinking of this ever since; what a great lesson for a class, to consider how the choice of narrator would change the story.

I’m unfamiliar with Gardiner’s earlier work, but it seems he set most of his stories in a historical framework that became integral to the theme and plot. Which, of course is exactly what he has done here. I find it interesting that this was first published in One Story, a litmag more associated with what are now called emerging writers than with grand masters. 

* * *

Author interview (caution: spoilers) and editor remarks can be found online at One Story.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Lydia Davis, “A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked” (nonfiction) from VQR, Summer 2019

Art by Wesley Merritt for The Saturday Telegraph Review
The traditional literary forms—the novel, the short story, the poem—although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variations on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or inter-generic—sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction, and so on.

Lydia Davis comes up with the most interesting things. Sometimes they look like ordinary things, but they turn out to be something different than expected. This is something of a craft biography: her journey through tradition, the waystations of non-tradition, and how she found ways to bounce off these works and create her own pieces.

While acknowledging the traditional literary background of the Canon – she specifically mentions short-story writers Cheever, Mansfield, Updike, etc. – she also gives credit to writers of less standard narrative styles as contributors to her own art: Beckett. Kafka. Borges. She mentions a few writers I’ve never read – Grace Paley – and some I’ve never heard of (Russell Edson). She traces works, particularly Kafka, that are unclassifiable, blending parable, diary, and notes jotted down on the back of an envelope. As I  am fond of unusual narrative styles, this is right in my zone.

I keep meaning to read more Davis, but somehow she never makes my lists. I’ve read only one short story, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” which seemed almost like nonfiction and borrowed from another work of hers, “Eating Fish Alone,” collected in the Madras Press edition of food stories titled Stuffed Animals. I love this mini-collection, and carry it in my rucksack for short reading spaces in transit. My favorite piece is “Kafka Cooks Dinner,” a monologue of insecurity, overthinking, and second-guessing that feels like a microscope into my own psyche.

And coincidentally – oh, you know how I  love these coincidences – a JCO tweet came across my feed the other day that touches on this idea of genre, respectability, and the Canon:

strange to have come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) & now find yourself praised & acclaimed for wan little husks of “auto fiction” with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer…
it’s as if expectations have withered with readers’ attention spans & the rise of social media. as a juror for several literary competitions I am grateful for anything that seems to have required more than diary-like entries: works of actual imagination, ambition, risk, wonder.

Joyce Carol Oates tweets

I suspect she was reacting to something specific, maybe an assignment or a competition featuring inadequate attempts at what is being called autofiction. While a lot of replies agreed with her, others pushed back, pointing out that new forms arise from breaks with tradition (while poetry and drama go back to antiquity, the novel and short story only came into existence in the modern era) and there are cultures that treasure a kind of stark minimalism where precision, rather than volume, creates meaning. I had just read Davis’ article, praising the use of one’s own life as a fictional form, and had to wonder if JCO had read it. No one’s questioning Davis’ literary chops: not only does she give credit to the Canon, but she has done translation with all the contemplation that requires. It was an interesting serendipity to read these two together.

I’m glad to be reminded again that I want to read more of Davis, whatever genre – or blended genres – she creates.

* * *

Complete essay available online at Virginia Quarterly Review.  

Short Story Club

This idea came out of my general sense of upset at having the two college literature classes I was meant to be teaching unceremoniously cancelled a week before the semester was to begin due to low enrollment across the campus. It was a huge bummer for obvious reasons — financial, motivational, etc. — and I gave myself — am still giving myself, if we’re being honest — permission to sulk about it for some time. But, in addition to that sulking, I thought it might alleviate the sting a bit if I was still able to have the opportunity to talk about the stories I’d rigorously selected to include on the syllabus with some like minded people. That’s where you come in!

Vince Scarpa, founding email of Short Story Club

Do I want to join a group of readers, writer, and literature/writing teachers discussing contemporary stories? Do I!

I first became aware of Vince Scarpa last year when I was trying to get my bearings on Joy Williams. She happens to be his favorite author, so of course he’d written about her work. His analysis of the rate of reveal in a story added to my list of things to look for. I started following him on Twitter. When he asked if there was interest in a group like this, I couldn’t believe my luck. I am always eager to hear more of this type of in-depth analysis, in the interests of improving my own fumblings at writing about short stories.

The first meeting was last week, and was as rich with material as I’d expected. The four stories were all new to me; they struck me as “writer’s stories,” the kinds of pieces I struggle with because I know something’s going on beneath the surface but I don’t know how to identify or articulate it. This is where the value lay for me: hearing how people who know what they’re doing talk about stories. It was like having my blogging buddy Jake Weber, times ten or twelve, with everyone seeing something a little different in each story.

I was reminded of technical elements like narrative distance, which came in handy, by the way, when I read the last two Pushcart stories, since they differed dramatically in narrative distance while addressing different problematic sociopolitical aspects of contemporary life. Both approaches were highly successful, and I’ve been wondering if they would work if reversed, if the first story was up close and personal, while the second was official and distanced. I don’t think so, but that could be because I’m just unable to let go of the way things are and see the way things could be.

Most of the discussions had to do with the overall tenor of each story: where they started, how they proceded, and what that said about the characters being stuck, or confused, or trapped by institutions that were failing them. There was some discussion of context as well, about the writer’s process and research and how that created opportunities within the story for dramatic moments or subtle turns of phrase.

Someone mentioned “Short Story Club” being perhaps the least imaginative name possible for such a group. But not if you read it ironically. I usually have trouble with irony, but here it seems perfect.

I kept very quiet during the meeting. Part of that was intimidation, part was my continuing trouble with online meetings (or in-person meetings, for that matter, any time another person might be listening to me) and part was really an uncertainty about the stories themselves. That’s why I found it so valuable. Some stories I don’t need help with; stories like these, I do. It isn’t a matter of “liking” a story, but of having a sense of why the story was written in the first place, and of appreciating what the writer is doing and how it affects the reading. Maybe I’ll have something to say as time goes on, but for now, I’m listening.

So it really sucks for Vince that the classes were cancelled, but they’re loss, our gain. It’s really great that he’s generous enough to share with the rest of us. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for mid-April. If you’d like to try it, track Vince down on Twitter, or let me know (comment, tweet or email) and I’ll give you the contact info. I’m hoping to keep learning more about discussing stories, to improve my own understanding, as well as my posts.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Chris Stuck, “Give My Love to the Savages” from Bennington Review #7

Everyone was pissed off and confused, an odd mix of anger and exhilaration hot on their faces. Some ran from one side of the street to the other and then decided they didn’t like it there and ran back. Some held bricks and rocks in their hands, just waiting for a worthy target, like us. As we weaved through, their white-people radar must’ve gone off, because they all stopped rioting, turned around, and watched Pop and me like we had horns growing out of our heads. I wanted to tell them we were the good guys, or at least that I was. Something like, “Hey, my mother’s black. Like, really black. I’m one of you.” But Pop took a different approach. “You don’t have bumpers on your black asses. Get out of the street, numbnuts.”
I elbowed him and said that probably wasn’t the best thing to say right then.

In my post about the prior story “The Shame Exchange,” I noted how  distance and an impersonal approach, contrary to the way most stories like to approach big issues via individuals facing the conflicts involved, was surprisingly effective. This story takes the more traditional path: it covers several major social issues, as well as some interpersonal ones, through the soul of one antacid-guzzling college student. Considering the big issues competing for attention in this story – the Rodney King verdict, the subsequent riots, the overall frustration of any attempt to find justice, daddy issues, mommy issues, the psychological effects of biracial identity in a society that loves to categorize things as this or that and downright resents being forced up against shades of gray – there’s also a lot of subtlety going on. And somehow, this is also often a very funny story. Sometimes it’s an ironic funny, but it’s often just funny.

Junie was flying from Boston to LA for his annual Spring Break working at one of Dad’s car dealerships when the flight attendant announced riots were breaking out in their destination city. (It’s hard to believe the Rodney King riots were thirty years ago, and the progress that’s been made is: cops can now murder unarmed black men because they’re scared of them, and no one will find them guilty or even press charges if there’s the slightest excuse not to. And the problem is still viewed in terms of lawless rioters.) His mom back in Boston is black, his dad in LA is white, and Junie is one of those racially ambiguous people who is generally taken for white, especially when he’s with his dad.  Who is, by the way, an asshole, quite aside from his racism.   

“Cops in this town think their shit don’t stink. But that don’t make it cool for every black mope and his fat mother to turn the city into a goddamn ashtray, know what I’m saying?”
I just shook my head. “Black mope? Fat mother?”
“You see any white people out here other than us?”
“You mean other than you?” I scanned the street and spotted a scruffy white guy in two seconds. He maneuvered a shopping cart full of Budweiser with a perverse glee. “What about him?”
Pop blinked at him and then glanced at me. “An anomaly,” he said.
“I’m just saying, Pop. You sound kind of Aryan right now.”
“Do I? Well, I guess beating up a bunch of Indians makes you Martin Luther King.”

Before getting into the thing about Indians – and there was only one Indian, not a bunch, and Junie didn’t do the beating – that casual “other than us” reveals how Dad has erased all the black from his son. Granted, there might be some ex-wife hostility mixed in there, and I suppose it’s better than rejecting the son because he can’t get around his blackness… no, I take that back. If you have to erase half of your kid to accept him, that’s not much better than anything. Mom’s not happy about the white part  either, though she seems more focused on the traits that echo Dad: “You can’t change the fact that you got some white in you, Junie, but it doesn’t mean you gotta act like your father’s white ass.” For that matter, that’s what bugs Junie too.

Now, the Indian. Junie’s living with boys named Tyler, Tucker, and Chase (“they sounded like a law firm”) who, during an aimless drive one night, decide to beat up a kid wearing a turban because… well, because he’s there, and he’s not white, so sure, let’s beat him up. Junie makes a weak effort to make them think twice, but stays in the car while they have their fun.

When Chase said, “Junie, don’t you want a piece of this little fucker?” I thought of all that, jealous of that poor kid. I almost got out of the car. A part of me wanted to hurt him, but I decided to stay put. Chase punched him and then looked back at me, laughing. “You sure?” “Yeah,” I said. “I think I’m good.”

There’s that subtlety again. “I think I’m good.” Good for staying in the car. Maybe not, for not doing more to stop it. Maybe more not good for wanting to join in, though I’m on the side of the guy who isn’t always pure in thought but is able to curb his nastier tendencies.

The legal case that follows is hilarious, inverting the naïve-white-boy-corrupted-by-the-evil-black-friends narrative. When the lawyer gets Junie the lesser sentence by painting him as a “racially confused kid with neglectful parents,” it’s another subtle twist of irony that Junie thinks he’s wrong. And yes, attention can turn out to be neglectful, especiallly when each parent neglects the half of Junie that doesn’t come from them.

What really makes this piece sing is the ending, when Junie has a real heart-to-heart in his head with a group of rioters who don’t particularly want to mess with him, but he literally asks for it. It’s a scene that simultaneously works in at least three different ways, but the prominent one is a conversation between the two halves of himself, one desperately needing to atone for the sin of passing, of using the magic power of whiteness when it suits, and the other reluctantly agreeing to provide it in honor of those who can’t avail themselves of that privilege.

I see a lot that harks back to the inciting incident of the whole thing, the beating of a prostrate Rodney King by a crowd of police officers. The title – a sentence spoke by Dad, of course, referring to the rioters – focuses our attention on just who the savages are, both in real life and in the story. And one paragraph reflects the side-by-side existence of horrific violence (the truck driver whose head gets bashed in by a rock is Reginald Denny) and destruction, and utter absurdity:

We were the only bystanders out there, pushing our luck in a new Porsche among all that lawlessness. But, relatively speaking, things didn’t seem that bad yet. No one was bothering us. No one seemed to even notice us. Across the street, a Payless shoe store was being ransacked, the parking lot littered with empty shoeboxes. Down the sidewalk, an interracial couple steered a new leather sofa dollied on two skateboards. Even some guy clutching an armful of bathrobes rambled by, touting, “Robe. Robe here,” as though peddling peanuts at a Dodgers game. Who knew what would happen next.

In looking for header art for this post, I came across a photo of that Payless shoe store. I debated using it, but went with the inciting incident instead.

And there’s good news:  It turns out this is the title story in Stuck’s upcoming debut story collection. Given the descriptions of some of the other stories examining issues around race, and given Stuck’s skill in writing a captivating story with great depth (I don’t think I’ve gotten at half of it), I can’t wait to read it.

* * *

Story available online at Bennington Review.

Story collection Give My Love To The Savages scheduled for release in June 2021

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Karen Bender, “The Shame Exchange” from Yale Review Online January 2019

YRO art: Nicolae Tonitza, Bread Line, 1920
No one knew who originally proposed it; the government would mandate an exchange of shame. Citizens who held too much shame, which interfered with their lives and productivity, would come to an official site where their shame would be handed to a government official who had none. Many people, in both the federal and technology sectors, were involved in organizing this exchange, and it had not been easy to agree on the terms. The government was, for years, not sufficiently responsive to the needs of its citizens and this was what a panel finally decided to do.

When I read this first paragraph of the story, I yelled out, “YES!” Fortunately I was alone in my living room at the time. I was thrilled that someone had put into words, into a scenario, what I’ve been feeling – what many of us have been feeling – over the past few years. That a deficiency of shame has been the most destructive force in dismantling fairness and justice. Not just a deficiency of shame: a negative transfer of shame, from sanctimonious politicians and commentators to the people they judge to be less than, while making sure those people stay less than. It works at the top (deciding not to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court judge nine months before an election because it’s too late, then cramming one in one month before the next election, just because you can)  to the bottom (creating an arcane system of rules and restrictions around SNAP and WIC so that it’s almost certain the people behind a coupon user in the grocery store are going to get annoyed, and guess who they get annoyed at. I’m convinced the purpose of such restrictions is the creation of this annoyance – increasing shame within the person’s immediate vicinity – than than any monetary or nutritional benefits. Of course, this is just my uninformed opinion, and I’m sure there are a dozen reasons it’s wrong, but I still think it’s confusion by design for the purpose of stigmatization). Then there’s blaming meat packers and poultry processors for the explosion of COVID-19 in their ranks because they live in their own cultural conditions, conditions like crowded households of multiple families required by the low wages they are paid. And that’s just off the top of my head, a starter set of things some officials should be ashamed of.

Whew. That felt good. But this is supposed to be about the story, about writing.

The tone of the story – from the nebulous, distant third-person narrator – is almost as bureaucratic as the solution it provides for the imbalance of shame: Those judged to have too much shame will undergo a procedure that turns that shame into a physical substance – “It was generally the size of a large pillow and resembled a raw steak” – and report en masse to a building where they line up across from a line of officials judged to have too little shame – get your hands out of your pants, Rudy, you’re not tucking in your shirt and we all know it – for the exchange. The politicians wear masks to conceal their identity, and resist the procedure. But it happens. Afterwards, one group goes skipping away for ice cream, and the other slinks into their limos. Guess which is which.

There is no central character, except perhaps the narrator and the never-identified government body that mandates the exchange. Normally, a story personalizes such events, tracing one person’s story, which brings the reader closer to feeling the humanity behind the situation. But here, the relief of the shame-givers, and the discomfort and arrogance of the shame-receivers, is clearly shown, but the emphasis is on the societal role, rather than the effect on individuals. It helps us get a little closer to demanding that government, instead of being a rule-enforcing bureaucracy, create solutions to problems, even the problems it creates itself.

So much work had gone into this exchange, so much planning. Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation? The organizers watched the officials get into their cars. The cars started, turned, and drove onto the highway. Those at the warehouse stood, watching the cars vanish into the distance, and then everyone—carefully—cheered.

Bender made an interesting choice to end the story with the exchange, explicitly asking the question, “Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation?” This “Lady or the Tiger” ending sets up a debate for readers, who can imagine and discuss different possibilities. The most optimistic view: the officials will find shame so painful they will stop giving themselves tax breaks while the people who work the hardest – and don’t kid yourself, food service, chicken plucking, housekeeping, personal care are harder than writing reports or trading stocks, and for the past year, more deadly – get less and less. More realistically, perhaps, is that the shame recipients are psychologically hard-wired to reject shame, which is why they have so little of it to begin with. Or they will leave office and a new crop of the shameless will come into power.

Logistics aside, we can even ask if a deficiency of shame is the overall problem. Does greed – and you can argue over whether greed for money or greed for power are different things – play into it as well? This is why the story makes a wonderful avenue into thinking about how society can – should? – be structured, into looking at the question (borrowing from T.M. Scanlon and Chidi Anagonye), what do we owe each other.

One brief wag of the finger to Pushcart: they list the story as an essay. That happens from time to time. There is an essay-like quality to the prose, but, obviously, it’s fiction.

I was so intrigued by this story, I went looking for Bender, to see if it appears in any of her books. No, it doesn’t, but the description of her 2018 collection The New Order appealed to me, so that’s on its way to me now. Whether I’ll get to it this year, I don’t know – my In-Between-Reading bookshelf is sagging under the weight of rereads and new reads I’ve been picking up over the past several months – but l want it in the lineup. I think Refund will find its way here next year.

Yes, this is one of my more impulsive, less thought-out posts. I may regret it some day. But the idea of bringing back shame to public servants bypasses the inhibition center of my frontal lobe and has me writing from the emotional center, rather than reason, at a scream. That’s what an effective story does.

 * * *

Complete story available online at Yale Review.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Lydia Conklin, “Laramie Time” from American Short Fiction #69

“I want to have a kid with you.” I meant the words to sound basic but invested with meaning – inflected emotion on “kid” and “you” – those two words the sum total of my future reality. But the sentence spilled out like a sneeze.
“That’s amazing.” She spoke flatly, her unseasonable tennis shoes sinking into the slush. Why was she speaking flatly? “I’m glad you came around.”
I expected the conversation to be joyful. Matty had begged me for a kid for years. She should have jumped into my arms when I agreed. She should have fucked me right there on the Boulevard, even though it was winter in Laramie, even though we’re lesbians, so fucking wouldn’t help with getting the kid.
“Aren’t you happy?”
The bubble of a tear occluded one eye, but she squeezed it closed, squeezed both eyes closed. When she opened them, they were clear. “Thank you. I am happy.” She sounded like a robot. But sometimes she was like that – a sweet little logic robot. She waited until we stepped onto the curb on Custer Street to clamp me in a cold hug.

For a straightforward story, there’s a lot going on here. I keep trying to lay everything out in neat little piles with arrow pointing from one to the other, but it really works better as kinetic art, everything in motion, more implicit than explicit. Or maybe I’m just not up to the task.

The straightforward part is: half of a lesbian couple wants to have a baby, and the other half has been deferring. Now she agrees, but suddenly something else comes up, and it’s all complicated again, at least in her head. That’s part of what’s going on here: we only see Leigh’s point of view. Everything else, including Matty’s behavior and thoughts, are filtered through her. And we learn much later that Leigh isn’t anywhere near as clued in to Matty as she thinks she is.

Another thing that’s going on is the life of the creative worker. Leigh is a cartoonist, author of a comic about lesbian turtles, while Matty has recently abandoned work on a novel. Creative work is more unpredictable than, say, office work or food service or academia. Leigh’s stated reason for wanting to delay baby-making has been her career, but now it looks like her comic is about to take off as a TV series (someone’s gonna do this, aren’t they? Or have they already and I’m just so uncool I don’t know about it?) so that excuse no longer holds. But it leads to the other issue of having to move to LA whereas Matty is a New Yorker through and through. Oh, and about Laramie, smack in between NY and LA:

We’d moved to Wyoming at the end of the summer to “think about it” in a neutral zone while we lived off the rent from our subletter in New York. We nicknamed this period The Laramie Time. Matty had abandoned her career in academic publishing to finish a novel. Our close friend, Arun, a chatty professor, had spent years making the forgotten town with its wide streets and slouching wood frame houses and staring white men seemed cool. He assured us cougars crossed the highway and food was cheap. He even secured us free housesitting for his colleague who’d left on sabbatical.
Arun insisted that the famous hate crime had unfairly stigmatized the town. Matty had been straight her whole life before me, and the idea of Laramie bothered me more than it bothered her. Arun looked at me when he explained that the whole town knew that Matthew Shepard and his killer had been lovers. The crime wasn’t political, but personal. As though that made it so much better.

Laramie as a setting stirs in a lot as undercurrent: danger, betrayal, anger, grief. The cost of living life as the person you are. Unspoken truths, spoken lies. All reflected in Leigh’s acknowledgement early on: “She’d have known better than to count on me.”

The backbone of the narrative is the process of baby-making. No, not that process, the more complicated process when the prospective parents have only ovaries to work with: where to get that necessary sperm? This provides some comic relief that keeps the story from sinking into a depression. And then there’s the issue all parents face: what to name the child. Matty, sick of “pretentious names,” goes with Jane or Michael. Leigh feels a moment of regret that they won’t be considering Jiminy or Puck. 

It’s during the sperm-transfer process that Leigh becomes aware of something that shifts her perspective. That creativity, it’s glorious, but it’s also out to get you, and mixing up the writing and the sperm with deception is perfect. Leigh could be an adult about it. She could face it squarely and work it out. But I don’t think she’s been really on board this whole time, so she goes deceptive herself, in a rather shocking way. But let’s face it, Matty doesn’t win any awards for straightforward adulthood herself. The fallout is only speculation; we don’t see the actual morning after. Given the levels of deception, and buried emotionality, on both sides, it must’ve been epic, even if only in its absolute silence.

Yes, this is a story that’s better left in motion, not pinned down. It flies just fine on its own.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Shena McAuliffe, “Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure” (non-fiction) from True Story #26

I would not have come across the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones by chance…. I looked up Marceline’s grave on findagrave.com, and then located it on the cemetery map. I have visited deliberately, driven by twin habits of walking and curiosity. I do not know exactly what I am looking for.
It is a hot day in early spring, and I have sweated through my shirt. I have not brought water. I stand before the headstone. I see no evidence that anyone else has been here recently—no flowers or plants, no folded scraps of paper or envelopes. I hear the banging of a construction site somewhere far beyond the row of slender trees that marks the back edge of the cemetery. A few birds chirp.

The question that comes up in these opening paragraphs is, of course, who is this Marceline Baldwin Jones whose grave McAuliffe is visiting? A relative or friend – it can’t be someone very close, since she had to look up the grave – maybe a colleague, mentor, someone who was important to her at one point, who gave her good advice, who got her started on a good path? Or someone more distant, a friend-of-a-friend who just recently became known to the author recently (oooh, a juicy story, perhaps, a long-hidden love?), a local figure enjoying some resurgance of fame for some reason?

Why would you look up and go to the grave of a stranger? To pay respects, to report back to the living that you had gone, perhaps with a picture? To contemplate more deeply the effect she’d had on your life?

In the next paragraph, it clicks into place.

Marceline Mae Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. She was a Methodist, a daughter and sister. She was, by all accounts, a generous and mild woman all her life. According to her cousin Avelyn Chilcoate, Marceline longed for a life outside the small town; the two young women, both nurses, had plans to move elsewhere together, maybe to somewhere in Kentucky. But then, in 1948, Marceline met a strange young man named Jim Jones, an orderly at the hospital where she worked, and together they stepped into the stream of history.

I was in my mid-20s when the news of almost 1000 deaths, almost all by suicide, broke. I was busy with my own stuff, as most 24 year olds are, so it was a bit hazy, but the pictures of fields of bodies were clear enough. And then there was the Congressman and his staff, about to return from a fact-finding mission, who were shot to prevent their departure.

A few years later, a TV movie came along to explain the events to those of us who payed more attention to entertainment than news. Powers Booth was impressively creepy as the adult Jim Jones who went from an earnest preacher genuinely trying to help the poor and needy to a paranoid drug and power addict constantly fleeing perceived persecution, eventually all the way to South America. A lot of scenes stuck with me, though I was never sure how accurate they were. One such scene was of his wife, Marcy, passing out the poisoned Kool-Aid, then, with a sense of utter resignation, drinking a cup herself and laying down to die.

That was Marceline Baldwin Jones.

I suppose I am walking here to meditate on Marceline, though I do not valorize her. She is mostly a mystery to me. Thinking about her makes me wonder about loyalty and love and how they can blind us, about agency and belief, about devotion and delusion. Perhaps I am only a lookie-loo, seeking her grave to stand safely near tragedy without truly experiencing it, to feel the buzz of some electrical darkness. It has been forty years since the deaths at Jonestown. There is nothing here but names on stones, bodies deep in the earth, invisible, still, and decayed.

Although McAuliffe traces the path of Jim Jones in some detail – in fact, I would guess he gets the majority of the word count – she nevertheless keeps bringing the focus back to Marceline. One way she does that is by bringing in a couple of similar stories of hard-to-break-away-from groups: her husband grew up in a commune that underwent several fractious changes, and her parents got roped into Amway. We all know people who’ve stayed in destructive marriages too long. Loyalty, persistence, determination to succeed, these are positive traits, yet need to be tempered.

Be moderate; love reasonably, her story whispers, opposing every message of love and idealism and generosity I have ever heard. This whisper is part of what drew draws me to her story and to her grave, part of what puzzles me. Why did you do it, Marceline? What happened to you, Marceline? Why this blind spot? Why did you stay?

I don’t see that Marceline had any answers for McAuliffe, but I’m not sure she knew the answers herself.

I know from experience that sometimes chaos doesn’t look like chaos from the inside. Some of us have ways of seeing things as not too bad, as fixable, even as they get incrementally worse. The occasional indigestion that eventually has you taking pills and swallowing antacids seems manageable until you start vomiting blood. The husband who comes home drunk once in a while, then once a week, then always, can start to feel normal at each level. We can tell ourselves it’ll be ok right up until we pour ourselves a cup of Kool-Aid. And then we realize it’s too late, so we just drink it and lay down to die.

Guest Post by Jonathan Duelfer: Review of “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, from The New Yorker, February 1, 2021

Jon reviews short stories and books on his website The Inquiring Reader. As a Software Developer, he is developing the beta version of a web application for reviewing and discussing articles from magazines and journals, named The Commons App.

I am typically moved most by short stories that focus on a single event, a single emotion, and swiftly make progress to their objective. Writers tend to pause in their narrations. They tend to change topics, setting, or embroider their language in lieu of a steady plot.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Experimenting with form and style is what makes such a wonderfully diverse, literary landscape. But what moves me most is when I feel an overwhelming urgency, too afraid to put the story down in the fear that if I look up, it will leave me.

This sense of passion and urgency is what I felt from Lauren Groff’s masterful piece, “The Wind.” There is a single emotion that surfaces above all others: despair. It builds gradually throughout the story, entirely nonexistent at first, until it becomes the driving force behind it all. It reaches its breaking point and shatters into pieces of sorrow, remorse, guilt, and even a bit of optimism.

I found Groff’s prose to be captivating. It reminded me of Hemingway in its directness, its simple pronouns representing characters, and its rolling sentences combined with endless “ands.”

So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside the porch.

Groff uses an interesting narrative structure. The story starts off as if told from an unrelated third-person, referring to the characters as the mother, the daughter, the older boy. All of a sudden, the narrator’s true voice breaks in.

He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

The narrator tells the story as herself, but also as if she was summarizing the words of her mother, Michelle, at the time the events occurred. It’s an intriguing structure, providing us a sort of redemption that at least some of the characters survive while the story spirals into chaos and sorrow.

It doesn’t start off all doom-and-gloom. It begins seemingly lighthearted, as if the siblings are playing some practical joke on each other. One of the brothers tells the narrator’s mother that “Kids are going to make fun of you, your face all mashed up like that.” I imagined that Michelle had done something to herself on accident or as a joke simply to mess with her brothers.

The tone changes as the kids jump onto the school bus. The driver, Mrs. Palmer, makes a sarcastic comment about Michelle’s “shiner,” slang for a black eye, as if she didn’t know its provenance. Then, Michelle asks Mrs. Palmer, very seriously, to drop them off at a stop before school to meet their mother. Mrs. Palmer immediately knows something is wrong. But why didn’t she acknowledge it before?

Mrs. Palmer lets the kids off the bus. They get into the car with their mother and drive to her work to pick up her last paycheck. She plans to get them all out of town as soon as possible. As they walk into the restaurant where the mother works, the manager changes the mood.

Without looking he barked, You’re late, Ruby. But then the children caught his eye, and he saw the state of them, and put the potatoes down and reached out and touched my mother’s face gently with his hot rough hand. Lord. She get it too? He said. She’s just a kid.

As the reader, we are no longer kept in the dark as to what could have happened. We are no longer spared the grim details.

Shoved his gun in my mouth this time, my grandmother said. She didn’t bother to whisper, because the kids had been there, they had seen it.

It’s clear that the kids got off the bus to meet their mother and escape from their abusive father. But there is an undercurrent of futility coming from the community. They seem to notice the abuse – Mrs. Palmer on the school bus, the manager in the store – but don’t take action the change things.

This is because the father is a police officer. For the sake of the short story, it makes the situation even more dire, but I found this detail to be allegorical more than anything. What happens when the entire structure of society is bent against you, your freedom, and your well-being?

Groff throws us a rope, suggesting that the children make it out of the situation – although deeply scarred. In the middle of her narration, she changes settings momentarily, to a point sometimes in the future when the children are grown up and out of the town.

My younger uncle reached out his little hand, and Joseph, who hated all show of affection, held it. Ralphie had a fishing accident when I was a teenager, and my cold, dry uncle Joseph fell apart at the funeral, sobbing and letting snot run down his face, all twisted grotesquely in pain.

The fascinating narrative structure doesn’t stop here. Before finishing the story, Groff makes it seem like they all escape to safety. But the narrator knows better. Of her mother’s retelling, she says that “behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in red and blue.” For a moment, we had a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe all we are left with is despair.

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia budding gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in the ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they waited on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold.

It has been sometime that I’ve read a short story so moving and well written. I believe this last paragraph speaks for itself for how skilled a writer Groff really is.

On the other hand, the author of this website, Karen, made a fantastic point when I asked to write guest post on this piece. She said that it reminded her of Alejandro Puyana’s “The Hands of Dirty Children” which she reviewed last year.In that review, she writes “somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids.”

Could we interpret Groff’s story in a similar way? Could she be exploiting the terror at the heart of this story for “shock value”? As she says in this interview with the New Yorker, the story was inspired by a person she really didn’t know a “few decades ago, in a ratty booth at some bar in Philadelphia.”

Given this background, does Groff have the right to use this story? She says the “the original teller would never recognize their story here” but that she kept the “truth at the center of it.”

I’m not able to come up with an answer. I lean towards thinking that it’s more representative than “exploitive.” Either way, it’s a very good question to think about. I also may be more susceptible to shock value than other readers, as I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s oddly gruesome novels (you can read my review of Blood Meridian if you are interested).

Regardless, I think the story is well-worth the read. It’s emotional, gripping, powerful, and extremely well-written. On my first Read, it completely blew me away. Coming back to it after briefly discussing the story with Karen, it lost some of its allure, but I still cannot help seeing it as an excellent piece of short fiction.