Pushcart XL: Tiffany Briere, “Vision” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #59

Romare Bearden: "The Visitation" (1941)

Romare Bearden: “The Visitation” (1941)

For three nights, my mother hasn’t slept. Since her cousin died, his spirit has visited her each night, for hours at a time. He appears from the waist up on the north wall of her bedroom, facing her directly, blinking but not speaking. He doesn’t frighten her; on the contrary, she hopes that one of these nights he will claim her, escort her to the other side, where he now resides. She prepares me for this possibility.

Interconnectedness. That’s the single word I would use to describe this essay. Everyone mentioned has connections to disparate sources, and they all find joy in every connection.

I can’t even follow the connections – a grandmother from India who went to Guyana as an indentured servant, begetting a father from Guyana who with a mother from Jamaica begat the author herself, now married to a scientist of German descent who never heard talk of spirits before but sits with his mother in law and holds her disease-gnarled hands.

And there’s Briere herself, who is interconnected, not just with the West Indies and America and white and black, but with science and art: after earning a Yale PhD in genetics, she went on to earn an MFA from Bennington. In a world where the arts and humanities are being forsaken for science, she has run the other way, and I love her for it. But she has not abandoned science, not at all; she recognizes that art and science themselves are interconnected, and remain so in spite of our current obsession with dividing them, with declaring one to be a worthy pursuit and the other to be trivial. Check out some high-end mathematicians on Twitter some time: they’re all about the art, the beauty, the symmetry, the elegance of their field. Or read how Briere describes what lab science borrows from history, psychology, literature:

What attracts me to genetics isn’t purely the validation of thought or the process of discovery, but, rather , what it symbolizes. Our genomes contain our complete ancestral history, a record of where we’ve been. The history of our evolution has been transcribed and it lives in every one of our cells. And perhaps more inspiring than this record are the vast open regions that represent where we, as a species, have yet to go. These regions are wide open, ready to be filled with fortitude and endurance.
Genetics, like storytelling, is a search for core truths, for what informs the human condition.

The hand-on-the-back that forms the thread of the piece – an unseen force that crops up for Briere on several discrete occasions, always memorable but never quite categorizable – serves as a psychic symbol for that interconnectedness. The 21st century, too, has poets of the body, and of the soul. And that led me back to Whitman.

A few weeks ago, Jeet Heer tried to draw a connection between Sarah Palin and Walt Whitman: her rambling speech versus his catalogs. I had a pretty strong negative reaction to this. Whitman’s catalogs were meant to enumerate the inclusivity of all things, the unity with him of all: “every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”. He was drawing a line from him to everything else. Palin was drawing a line around herself, and those she deems acceptable, to separate them from what she sees as unacceptable. It’s true they both drew lines, but lines can communicate, or rope off, can pull up or tie down. To see Whitman’s interconnectedness as Palin’s division struck me as a hideous miscasting. And yet… Whitman himself considered himself the poet of body, of soul, of slave and slavemaster, of everything. Who am I to argue.

But back to Briere:

I’m a child, impressionable, and my mother’s explanations of the world are bigger than skyscrapers and dinosaurs. She says that our ancestors are always with us, that our dead relatives inhabit our lives…..She says the fabric of humanity is ancient and unfathomable. She says life is infinite and eternal. She says when I meet my ancestors, I will recognize their faces and know them by name.
In other words, heaven is family.

I have to admit, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to talking about family connections. My family was bizarrely interconnected, yet also dissociated, due to both a divorce that happened before divorce was commonplace, and the immigrant need my father felt to assimilate. There are benefits to assimilation, to be sure, but there are also losses when carried to an extreme. I’m envious of the generations of memories and influences Briere carries with her. In contrast, I should have inherited a kind of stoicism, of hardiness, but as it was stripped from its generative context, it never suited me anywhere near as well as Briere’s always-present ancestors suit her.

Maybe this, then, is the opening theme of this volume: spanning divisions, interconnecting. From Adele in the first story, we have spanning gender, age, culture, all set in New York City, the very model of a modern multiculturalism. The women who sing the blues, sing different blues of different shades, from different places, yet at some deep place, the blue is universal, and that’s why each culture has its own lyric. Interconnections. Universality. Or maybe I’m just reaching for it as a theme because I want it to be there.

Pushcart XL: Maxine Scates, “Singer” from Cave Wall, #13

Raquel Stokes: "Don't Explain" 2013

Raquel Stokes: “Don’t Explain” 2013


 
They listen to something they can’t hear
until they open their mouths, skinny whistler
in a tuneless childhood where every scrape, every
skinned knee, every door slammed
on a spilled or misbegotten dream leans toward us
cloaked in smoky barlight or circled in stage light,
Amália Rodrigues singing the losses of fado
in a language we don’t understand
but can because no one was happy there
and neither were we.

~~Available online at Cave Wall Press
 

I first became aware of fado – a Portuguese genre of “fate song” – while reading Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. It’s very similar to the American blues, with both combining African roots with the contemporary diasporic setting.

Scates attributes a line in another of her poems – “Blue Boxcars” – to something she picked up from WS Merwin in reference to Emily Dickinson: “We don’t know where the grief comes from.” She says, in a reading from a couple of years ago, that she found this a liberating idea, to feel the grief in the words, in the poem, but not know the source, not need to know the source. I think the Blues work much the same way. It’s a curious thing, to sing of sorrow, to make music out of grief.

Out of these, comes this poem. It explores the women who’ve sung the blues. They may not have the prettiest voices, but they reach us. They don’t sell out hundred-thousand seat arenas, not because they aren’t popular, but because their art is more intimate, more personal. Some people suck the air out of a room; others serve as respirators, keeping us alive with their breath. And in this winter where the 60s seem to be dying one voice at a time, perhaps in response to a country that seems to have lost its collective mind and is seemingly unaware of the increasing irony of “it couldn’t happen here,” this might serve as some kind of solace.

It’s a poem in four sentences, the last one meandering, under the power of its own lyricism, through the songs of captured women, from Hecuba in Ilium to Bessie Smith to Judy Garland, to end with the reader’s question:

…the first voice that told us sorrow was a well so deep
we’d never hear the rock hitting water, that song,
their song, never a song of ships so much as someone
going away, a lament, never a song sung around fires,
the one that keeps telling the endless march to victory,
but the other song, Hecuba’s wail, the song of junked cars
and roofs tarped against rain, song of the broken branch
we gave them, its fragrant blossoms, asking
please sing why it’s broken, sing why we broke it,
why do these blossoms fade?

Blossoms fade because that is the nature of blossoms, the nature of life, in fact: things die to make way for new things. It’s the nature of the blues to mourn and praise at the same time, to make that which has died live on.

Pushcart XL: Zadie Smith, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” from Paris Review, #208

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bill, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place.
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. “I am looking for a corset.”

I’m interested in how this story starts, both because of where it doesn’t start (hint: it doesn’t start with the above paragraph), and because of the context in which I’ve read it.

It serves as a beginning, in itself – the first story in the 2016 Pushcart anthology. Unlike BASS and the PEN collections, which order stories alphabetically, Pushcart chooses the order in which material is presented. I spent some time wondering about last year’s choice, since Henderson’s introduction made a particular point of using a first-published-story to lead off. I wonder now why this one was chosen, what it says about the material to come. Maybe by the time I’ve read a few more selections, I’ll have some ideas.

But in the context of the story itself, what interests me is how different a story it would be, if this were the opening paragraph, how different our snap judgment of what this story will be about, would be. The paragraph above sounds a bit like a 40s movie, doesn’t it, with a prim Miss Adele, dressed with her proper hat and gloves, entering a store to request service from polite staff waiting to help. A very white Miss Adele. A very female Miss Adele.

But that ain’t the Miss Adele of this story, and it ain’t that kind of story at all. The actual beginning gives a much clearer picture of just what’s happening here:

“Well, that’s that, ” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.
“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”
“Bitch. I’m on in ten minutes.”
“When an irresistible force like your ass…”
“Don’t sing.”
“Meets an old immovable corset like this… You can bet as sure as you liiiiive!”
“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”
“Somethings gotta give, somethings gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”
“You pulled too hard.”
“Pulling’s not your problem.”

Come to think of it, the prim and proper 40s may have more in common with Miss Adele’s life than one might think at first (not to mention a cleverly wicked nod to Scarlett O’Hara’s famous corsetting scene, trying to get her 20-inch post-baby waist into her 18-inch corset). The crooner ballad. The corset. The need to dress properly before leaving the house. The expectations and rigid roles. And, indeed, as in the 40s, something, for Miss Adele, had to give. Her corset was merely the first thing that gave on this day.

It’s not a particularly easy story to orient to. The clues are all there – the theatre references, the stage name, the song. But it’s all going by very quickly; dialog tags are dispensed with in the interests of pace, perhaps, and I was a bit lost. The corset’s about the only sure thing, and that’s torn in half. That metaphor persists throughout the story: lives, neighborhoods, experiences, all depending on the supporting undergarment that has now been rendered useless. Replacement comes at a cost.

As Miss Adele heads to the corset shop, we find out a little more about her:

Aside from the nights she worked, Miss Adele tried not to mess much with the East Side. She’d had the same sunny rent-controlled studio apartment on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third since ’93, and loved the way the West Side communicated with the water and the light, loved the fancy galleries and the big anonymous condos, the High Line funded by bankers and celebrities, the sensation of clarity and wealth. …. Her brother accused Miss Adele of turning rightward in old age. It would be more accurate to say that she was done with all forms of drama—politics included. That’s what she liked about gentrification, in fact: gets rid of all the drama.
And who was left, anyway, to get dramatic about? The beloved was gone, and so were all the people she had used, over the years, as substitutes for the beloved. Every kid who’d ever called her gorgeous had already moved to Brooklyn, Jersey, Fire Island, Provincetown, San Francisco, or the grave. This simplified matters. Work, paycheck, apartment, the various lifestyle sections of the Times, Turner Classic Movies, Nancy Grace, bed. Boom. Maybe a little Downton. You needn’t put your face on to watch Downton. That was her routine, and disruptions to it—like having to haul ass across town to buy a new corset—were rare. Sweet Jesus, this cold!

I confess to not knowing much about the inner lives of drag queens; The Birdcage and that episode of Project Runway’s about it. In fact, I was reminded of the conflict between Hedda Lettuce and… was it Kayne? No – Suede… during this story, a very similar kind of misunderstanding that just escalated, though everyone really had good intentions, but was merely focused on a different goal, and lost sight of the other’s needs and reactions. That’s pretty much how Zadie Smith, in a BBC interview, sums up the conflict in this story: “Nobody really offends anybody, but everybody already feels offended,” in part because of a longstanding cultural divide between people like Miss Adele, and people like the corset shop owners. Add in the RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS playing on the radio, and a sales staff overwhelmed by too many customers, plus the general impatience and abruptness endemic to NYC (and, let’s be honest, most cities, my tiny city included), and you’ve got a pot just waiting to boil over. A theme most appropriate to the current moment, when everyone seems angry, and most people are angry at someone who’s angry about the wrong things.

I very much liked the progression of this story: from the torn corset that leads things off, to the store, to the conflict that grows so quietly I didn’t even realize it was going to explode until it did, to the ending that seems to sum up Miss Adele’s life:

…surely looking to everyone she passed exactly like some Bellevue psychotic, a hot crazy mess, an old-school deviant from the fabled city of the past – except every soul on these streets was a stranger to Miss Adele. They didn’t have the context, didn’t know a damn thing about where she was coming from, nor that she’d paid for her goods in full, in dirty green American dollars, and was only taking what was rightfully hers.

Haven’t we all been there – the public fight that’s the headline, but nobody sees the story of where it came from? Miss Adele limping away from the store, wig askew, face scraped, clutching her new corsets, that’s the headline, the viral Instagram. How she got to that moment is the 6000 word story no one on the street has time to read before making their judgments.

That, for me, is the crux of this piece: the violence of snap judgments based on a single image. We have all paid in full for our goods, in some currency. Everyone, every moment, has a unique story beyond the headline. It may go back an hour, or twenty years, or four hundred, or four thousand. Maybe we need to take time to read it, before jumping to conclusions.

Pushcart XL: Off to the (tortoise) races

Feel free to skip this introduction. I skip most introductions. I’d rather read the book, then come back to the introduction to see what I have missed. But I might ask that you stay put for a bit before proceeding in the brilliance that awaits you – 69 poems, stories, essays, and memoirs from 52 presses.

~~ Bill Henderson, Introduction

Pushcart has my least favorite introductions of the three American short story prize volumes. This introduction is no different from others: another historical look at the origins of the Pushcart Prize, a few digs at online literature, a mourning for the good old Days of the Giants.

But, happily, Pushcart has historically had my favorite material, and because of that, I’m happy to forgive the introduction.

For someone who is nearly phobic about anything not printed on actual paper, Mr. Henderson tends, it seems to me, more towards the outskirts of the mainstream. Not cutting-edge; I’m not sure anything cutting-edge has ever been given recognition in its time. But I usually find several pieces that take me a little out of business as usual, show me a little more of what’s possible when talented people thoughtfully follow their own rules.

And, of course, I appreciate the different genres. Though I’ve been reading a great deal of literary fiction in the past decade, my natural habitat is nonfiction: both informational books, and essays of various sorts. Pushcart nonfiction tends to expand my knowledge of the world, and shows me interesting ways of conveying information or examining a subject, a life, maybe something I didn’t even know existed. Poetry has never been my strength, and I seem to be very bad at picking out a book of poems to read. That’s why I like the variety herein: if some individual poem doesn’t appeal to me, it isn’t like I have to read a whole volume of similar poetry to see if it was a fluke. Yes, it’s a snapshot rather than in-depth study, but at my level, it’s a good approach, to see the breadth of what’s out there.

This will be a slow journey – or at least, a slow start: I’m quite immersed in three killer MOOCs that entail, as these courses sometimes do, a great deal of work (I’d thought one of them ended this week, but instead I see it continues for another month and a half!). So please be patient if I seem to be poking along. This is not a race; in a world that loves winners, the most, the fastest, the best, I’d rather just relax into a more experiential exercise here, and if that means a week between entries, that’s what it means.

But if I wait until I have more time, I may never start. So here goes.

Exit (BASS 2015)

Van Gogh's sketch for his painting, "Woman Reading"

Van Gogh’s sketch for his painting, “Woman Reading”

In this year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories, we are treated to characters like Kavitha, the emotionally numb wife who comes alive only in the face of violence… a desperate absentee father… an emasculated man who sells dental equipment…. a ruthless champion speedboat racer and oil heiress… Here are living, breathing people who screw up terribly and want and need and think uneasy thoughts. Did I like these characters? I very much liked reading tehir stories… I liked the honesty of the portrayals, and their poetry and humor and surprise.

~~ Heidi Pitlor, introduction

I’ve been blogging BASS since 2010, and reading cover-to-cover for two years before that. I’ve noticed a pattern: I tend to like even years better than odd years. I have no idea if that’s coincidence, or if there’s some reason for the oscillation, but being somewhat rational, I suspect the former.

That doesn’t mean I don’t learn something from stories I’m not so crazy about. That’s a good thing, for me, since it serves as a do-it-yourself English class. I think there were more stories I “respected rather than liked” this year than I’ve noticed in other volumes. Perhaps I’m just respecting more as I go along. Or again, coincidence.

I did find two stories I particularly liked: Colum McCann’s “Sh’khol” and Aria Beth Sloss’s “North“. As I read, I was immersed, I wanted to keep reading, and when I got to the end, I felt like I understood something, something important, better than I had before. Because I was immersed, craft took a back seat on first read, but later I noticed some interesting writers’ choices. Since I’ve enumerated what I liked about them in the individual posts, I won’t repeat the litany here.

Then there were the almost-likes, the “I like you but I don’t like-like you.” These are stories that may just grow on me as they tumble around in my subconscious, as other things bring them to mind. The reason I respected them varies. For example:

Fingerprints” by Justin Bigos came perhaps the closest to being promoted to outright-like. I enjoyed the way the fragments fit together, how the theme of fingerprints carried through, and how all of the characters seemed deeply flawed, but sympathetic instead of blameworthy. However, I realize now, I’ve barely thought about it since reading it.

Julia Elliott’s “Bride” worked for me because of the setting in a medieval scriptorium, the hallucinatory character, and the escalating hilarity.

Ben Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” appealed to me for reasons I can’t explain, against all my usual predilections, in fact, but I wasn’t sure of the ending. I’ve already thought of this one a few times in connection with other stories and other events, which is a good sign.

I liked Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” far more than I’d expected I would (I’ve never read him before; maybe I should start) and I found the individual segments wonderful. I just wonder if it’s a little pretentious. Then again, if you’re Denis Johnson, I guess you’re entitled to some pretension.

Jack, July” by Victor Lodato had some wonderful scenes, and I rather liked all the doors, but it still seemed like a lot of sound and fury over a guy who needs to be in a hospital.

Motherlode” is in this category, even though I truly hated it while reading, because Thomas McGuane’s Contributor Notes made it click. Yes, that’s considered cheating – the story must stand on its own – but once I understood the symbolism, I quite admired how he constructed the story. But I really don’t want to read it again.

I felt similarly about Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus” – the idea that she was thinking of collaborators and resistors in postwar France amazed me – but I enjoyed the story much more, simply because I’m a complete sucker for a dead pet story. And for exactly that reason, I demand it do more. It did, but I didn’t see it. My failing, as with McGuane? Sure, I’ll take the hit. But still, the fact remains: I didn’t get it, so I can’t really claim it to have liked it on its own terms.

Then there was a trio of WTF stories – there always are – but I won’t list them. Again, I’ll take the hit for not seeing the brilliance there. Maybe it’s a different-wavelength thing, or personal taste, whatever.

One pleasant surprise for this year’s reading was the consistent presence of another reader, leaving comments on each story. I greatly enjoyed trading what we liked and disliked, and what stood out for each of us; whether we agreed or disagreed, I learned from each comment. In a world (and a social media environment) – where the New York Times just declared “Obnoxiousness is the new charisma” – a world more and more conflict-driven, where even trivial discussion becomes an argument and winning is the goal, it’s great to find a place where the genuine exchange of ideas can take place.

Exit BASS – pursued by Pushcart XL.

BASS 2015: Jess Walter, “Mr. Voice” from Tin House, #61

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Mother was a stunner.
She was so beautiful, men would stop midstep on the street to watch her walk by. When I was little, I’d see them out of the corner of my eye and turn, my hand still in hers. Sometimes I’d wonder if the ogling man was my father. But I don’t think the men ever saw me. And my mother didn’t notice them, or pretended not to notice, or had stopped noticing. She’d simply pull my hand toward the Crescent, or the Bon Marche, or the fountain at Newberry’s, wherever we were going then. “Come on Tanya, no dawdling.”
This could have been my mother’s motto in 1974: no dawdling.

Back in 1997, I had a conversation with a friend about Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life is Beautiful. While it was hard to argue with such a loving depiction of the father, he’d cheated the boy, I said, out of the opportunity to be strong, to offer him comfort, to share, to be with him through the ordeal. My friend replied: “What if the kid was aware all along what was going along, and pretended back, because that’s what he knew his father needed?” *Click!* I’ve loved that interpretation ever since: two people loving each other in the way the other needed, yet with no trace of artifice. Honest, generous love, though perhaps disguised.

I had a similar *Click!* moment with this story, a couple of days after I read it. In the shower. Not quite Archimedes, but then again, I’m no Archimedes.

“Listen to me, Tanya. You’re a very pretty girl. You’re going to be a beautiful woman. This is something you won’t understand for a while, but your looks are like a bank account. You can save up your whole life for something, but at some point, you’ll have to spend the money. Do you understand?”
It was the only time I ever heard mother talk about her looks this way. Something about it made me sick. I said I understood. But I didn’t.
Or maybe I did.

When it came time for Mom to cash in her account, she didn’t buy the prettiest man in the shop, or the most sexually proficient, or the richest. She was shopping for something else, and Mr. Voice fit the bill perfectly, in spite of his less than impressive physique: short, graying, buggy eyes, everything but a wart, for pete’s sake. And in spite of his mundane job: commercial voice-over artist. Hence his nickname.

But now I think Mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was picking someone she could, when the time came, leave without regret – and, more importantly, someone she could trust with that which she left behind, someone who could offer a type of safekeeping she knew she could not. Mr. Voice, seen from that view, was the perfect choice.

And that makes it a story about Mom. Tanya may tell the story, and much of it may narrate her life with Mr. Voice, but it’s really about the very loving choice Mom made. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness who sees it that way, but so be it. Some people know they can’t be perfect, so they find a way to be imperfect in a perfect way.

Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are.

Although the order of stories in BASS anthologies is predetermined – alphabetically, by author’s last name, from the first issue – I’m always surprised at how some stories fit together, contrast, serve as perfect beginnings, or, as in this case, perfect endings. It’s a retrospective story, handy for putting the reader in a looking-back mood, as I’ll be doing in my wrap-up post next. It’s also a nice story. That isn’t intended as a criticism; I’ve become sick of tough and anti-heroic of late, and I long for the days when being nice was a virtue rather than a sentimental flaw. I wouldn’t want all my fiction this way, but as a final story in a volume I found uneven, it left me with a pleasant warmth as I turned the final pages.

BASS 2015: Laura Lee Smith, “Unsafe at Any Speed” from New England Review, #35.1

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

The day after his forty-eighth birthday was the same day Theo Bitner’s seventy-five-year-old mother friended him on Facebook. It was also the same day his wife told him he needed to see a doctor. Or a therapist. “It’s your mood,” she said. “It sucks.” Counting his mother, Theo now had eight Facebook friends. Sherrill, his wife, had 609. …
The estrogen levels at the house, a smallish Tuscan number in an uninspired neighborhood south of St. Augustine, were through the roof, in Theo’s opinion. With his daughter Ashley, unemployed and fresh from FSU with a degree in Women’s Studies (what the hell?), ensconced back in her childhood bedroom, with his mother Bette now living in the spare room he’d once fancied his office (the “bonus room,” Sherrill called it), and with Sherrill herself generally holding court over the rest of the house, Theo had begun to feel increasingly scuttled, shunted, reduced. There was a conspiracy, he reckoned. He didn’t like it.

Seems to me there’s some kind of agreement among males of the species, perhaps a Rule in a mental imprint laid down as neurons develop connections in the womb: “If there’s something wrong with your life, blame a woman.” Granted, the same thing can be said of women, who sing the “my man done me wrong” song way too many times. For that matter, we’re all looking to blame someone else, anyone else, as long as we never feel like our failures belong to us. So let’s all grow up: you picked ’em, you either live with ’em, or you get out, but in any case, take responsibility for your own damn failures.

But Theo isn’t quite there yet. He doesn’t want out, he just wants a little vacation. And that’s what this “story” is about. Yes, the quotation marks are snide commentary: to me, this is more a string of clichés than a story: a mid-life crisis, a lost phone cutting ties, threatening thunderclouds, a love-bug smashed on the windshield. I grew up in Florida; love bugs are a real thing, and they do make a horrible mess. And, by the way, they stay, ahem, connected, long past doing the deed, and often fly through the air as a matched set, which is why they’re called love bugs. What’s unusual here is that there’s only one on his windshield; typically they arrive in swarms, covering the windshield, headlights, hood, grill, you name it. I suppose that’s meaningful. It’s a special love bug.

Then we have the title: yes, marriage is unsafe at any speed. So is life, for that matter. Running away from home after your fantasy, definitely.

The only surprise is that his dream car isn’t red, but white.

As I’ve been commenting through this volume, my reading partner Jake (Hi, Jake!) has noticed I don’t often call out stories, or indicate I don’t “like” them. Part of that is just that I’m not really looking for “like” but to understand what the writer is doing, and part is that I’ve felt bad in the past when I’ve dissed a story. But we’re almost to the end of the anthology now, so it’s high time for a rant. I’m sure I’ll feel terrible about this in a few days (I’m sorry in advance, Ms. Smith) and I’ll feel stupid once I find out there’s a brilliant use of symbolism or reversed metaphors or some such thing. So be it.

The story is so clichéd, I’m going to quote a spoiler paragraph, so be forewarned. However, the spoiler doesn’t spoil anything. It’s exactly what you’d predict might happen from the estrogen crack on.

Theo felt a coolness runs through his veins, and he processed the implications of the current situation. So far today, he’d initiated (though admittedly not yet executed) an unapproved expenditure of $5000 from the joint checking account he shared with Sherrill; he’d very likely lost his biggest commission of the month, if not his entire job, by blowing off the sales call with Kelso; and he’d committed tawdry and outrageously athletic adultery with a woman half his age. And now, it seemed, he also aided and abetted a confessed embezzler. He watched the road. He felt in his pocket again for his phone. He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

I’ve see some internet comments about what a fun this is. I’m all about fun, honest I am, but I guess I’m just not on that wavelength. And there’s this: New England Review is a serious literary journal with an impossible acceptance rate, and ranks 21st on Cliff Garstang’s Pushcart list. It’s not given to publishing fluff. So someone tell me what I’m missing.

BASS 2015: Aria Beth Sloss, “North” from One Story, #197

The sea captain who found my father’s notebook frozen into the side of Little Iceland came all the way to northern Idaho to hand-deliver it to my mother.… It was stuffed inside a specimen jar, stoppered, carefully sealed with wax. The pages were in perfect condition, she pointed out, the words only a little smudged here and there.
The sea captain nodded. The balloon could have landed anywhere, he said, sunk anywhere. The water would have carried the party’s belongings miles from where they died. With time, their bodies would have been dispersed in this way as well.
Or, my mother said, he could have deliberately thrown it overboard. A clue, she called it, as though the whole thing – my father, the balloon, the years of waiting, all of it – was no more than a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Every love story begins with a discovery: amidst the ordinary, the sublime.

In his Introduction, TC Boyle refers to some of these stories as “Very long stories”: not necessarily in terms of page length, but in terms of what is encompassed within them. In those terms, I felt “North” was one of the longest.

In terms of the historical grounding of the tale, I’m reminded of Colum McCann’s excerpt “Transatlantic” or of Naomi Williams’ recent novel Landfalls. All recount factual events from fictionalized settings. “North” is far more fictionalized than the other two yet is rooted the ill-fated Arctic adventure of Swedish balloonist S. A. Andrée, whose story Sloss read after her own pregnancy. But whereas Andrée never married, Sloss’ fictional balloonist did (or at least, as much as did), and this story becomes a merging of two adventures.

What he is leaving behind is no different than what he is leaving for, she will tell him. A truth stranger than any magic: inside her is the wildest land.

In her youth, Mary was considered a “wild woman,” and her family was concerned that she was unsuitable for any man. Her mother knew, though: she would find a wild man. In this way, we get a clue about where Mary’s wildness comes from. Not that her mother was wild; she would’ve stayed in Virginia all her life, had her preacher husband not dragged her to North Dakota. But somehow, I think there was a longing for wild in her, and this is what she gave her daughter Mary.

The voice is beautiful and lyric, a joy to read (there’s a subtle erotic scene that knocks me out), but what I appreciated more than anything is equality implied in the highly lauded exploits of adventurous men, and the glossed-over achievements of women who bear and raise children – particularly those who raise children alone once their adventurous men have crashed on unknown shores.

I love Sloss’ choice of narrator: the couple’s child, who may be narrating from a time shortly after the notebook was discovered, or, given the sophistication of the voice, years later, after many secrets have been shared. Very little is certain in this story; we are given broad strokes, and allowed to color the details ourselves. Through this narrator-child, the offspring of both adventurers, we hear a generational saga, not so much of the people but of individual hearts. This gives a personal stake in the telling beyond that which a 3rd person narrator would have, yet has enough distance from the two characters to allow for observation, balancing objective and subjective.

I am born at noon the next day. My mother tells me this is the first thing she did: she checked the clock. I am still attached to her when she looks. We are not yet two when she begins to keep track of me, the seconds I have been alive and then, after she cuts through the cord herself, cleaving my body from hers with a kitchen knife, the seconds I have been on my own.
This is what women do, she says.
By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity.
Let go.

And through this child – I’d assumed from the voice she was a young woman, but perhaps, given that last line, he is a young man; the balance of sympathies could go either way – we glimpse the next in the line of wild, and the impossibility of the mother’s task: to love enough to say goodbye.

BASS 2015: Joan Silber, “About my Aunt” from Tin House, #60

This happens a lot – people travel and they find places they like so much, they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. If they are young, they take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex; they settle in; they get used to how everything works; they make homes. But usually not forever.
I had an aunt who was such a person.

Kurt Vonnegut once gave a talk – I’d call it a lecture, but Vonnegut wasn’t really the lecture type, he just talked – about the shapes of stories. While humorous, it was also very accurate: after all, if a character isn’t struggling against something, it’s not much of a story, is it. Conflict is the very heart of fiction: conflict between characters, between man and nature, between woman and society, between person and desires, through fears. It’s conflict that give stories shapes, the rises and falls, often emphasized by changes in pace, language, narrative distance.

But that isn’t the only way to tell a story.

I have a memory from many years ago, possibly high school – I’ve never been able to find a source to credit so I may be conflating several things or misremembering – about different cultures preferring certain shapes for their writing. Hebrew likes parallel lines. The Creation story of Genesis, the Psalms, much of the exhortations of the Prophets, depend on saying something, then saying it again in a slightly different way, or in telling a story using similar sentence structures over and over again. Japanese stories like inward-tending spirals, circling around the point closer and closer but forcing the reader to make the final leap herself. I think most contemporary fiction does just this, in fact, but in my memory, the spiral shape was attributed to the Japanese. English language fiction prefers the inverted pyramid, funneling an initial wide swathe of activity into a final climactic point – except for news reporting, which uses the inverted pyramid to refer to the importance of information rather than the breadth of narrative.

I had a very strong sense of this story as a poetic braid rather than a typical narrative. Or perhaps, even more appropriately, parallel monologues, as there seems to be little communication going on between the two prime players. We hear first about Kiki, the aunt who spent her youth adventuring in Turkey, to the consternation of her family, before returning to New York to sell her accumulated artifacts and, when those run out, to clean houses and eventually run a cleaning service. Twenty years later, Reyna adventures herself to New York on an adventure, equally puzzling to her family and perhaps more recognizably hazardous to us: a boyfriend in jail, a ridiculous willingness to follow him anywhere:

I was going to ride in the car and count the cash; I was going to let him store his illegal cigarettes in my house. All because of what stirred me, all because of what Boyd was to me. All because of beauty.
I had my own life to live. And what did Kiki have? She had her job making deals between the very rich and the very poor. She had her books that she settles inside of in dusty private satisfaction. She had her old and fabled past. I loved my aunt, but she must’ve known I’d never listened to her.

These two lives twist around each other and around New York and family expectations. There’s little forward movement to the relationship between the two women. This isn’t about them growing closer, or blowing up in a final fight, or regrets or yearning or anything else between them. Again, I read it as a story of isolation. Kiki and Reyna, while deeply involved with other aspects of their lives, manage to pass through each others’ spheres without much interaction at all. It’s a very specific kind of insulation.

Throughout my reading, I was reminded of a scene from an earlier story from this volume, Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Need To”: the down-and-out fighter visits his up-and-coming ex-girlfriend, and thinks, “It’s because of me that you can marry a rich lawyer and stay home all day in a big house. You lived with a fighter once and had his baby and followed him into all sorts of bad decisions, so now no one can say you were always boring and domestic.” Kiki has finished her character-saving adventure; Reyna is just beginning hers. They are not in sync, going through these experiences together, but observing each other from different stages. The story explores the quality, rather than the trajectory, of that relationship, of how the women regard each other.

Silber’s Contributor Note makes it clear that was her goal: “I wanted the two women to understand each other just fine but few each other across a great divide, where neither envies the other.” She later decided to use the story as a first chapter of a novel. Frankly, with its limited narrative arc – no Vonnegutian shape to speak of – I have no idea where this story would go. It doesn’t show signs of going anywhere on the these pages. So it might be interesting to find out what lies ahead.

BASS 2015: Shobha Rao, “Kavitha and Mustafa” from Nimrod, #36

The train stopped abruptly, at 3:36 p.m., between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border, on the Pakistani side. Kavitha looked out the window, in the heat of the afternoon, and saw only scrubland, and endless yellow plane of dust and stunted trees, as far as the eye could see. She knew what this meant. One of the men in the berth, the tall one Kavitha had been eyeing, calmly told the women to take off all their jewels of valuables and put them in their shoes. They’ll search everything, he said with meaning, which made the young woman in the corner blush. Two or three of the women gasped. The old lady started crying.… The boy was not more than eight or nine years old but, of all of them, he seemed to remain the calmest, even more so than his father. He serenely took two thin pebbles, a curled length of twine, and a chit of paper, maybe a photograph, from his pockets and put them in his shoe.

Rao had, according to her Contributor Note, a very clear idea of what she wanted to write about here: serious conflict, a woman and a boy, “I was widowed long ago”, all set in the violence of the partition of India and the Pakistans. It’s a suspenseful story, yet because of writing’s zoom lens that allows a focus shift from the panoramic to the close-up, a very intimate one. As Rao says, “Violence, all after all, is not difficult. Humanizing that violence is what is difficult.”

We recognize the woman in the loveless, sterile marriage, and we understand her simultaneous acceptance of her lot, and her hunger for something more. That the conflict between those contrasting poles is brought out by a crisis situation is not unusual, but it’s her mysterious and tenuous connection to the boy in the train that ramps up the natural suspense from “Will she survive” to “What will she choose?” Or perhaps more accurately, “Did she make the wise choice?”

Again, nothing was quite clear in her mind, but never had two rocks and a piece of twine seemed to hold so much promise. The contents of her shoes – a necklace, some rings, and a set of matching bracelets – held none.

I had a lot of trouble visualizing what was happening in the story, and that’s a shame, since I think a great deal was going on in the mise-en-scene. That’s an important part of reading fiction, however: expanding our ability to see, beyond what we see every day, and it’s always good to stretch that capacity a little.

I find the ending quite interesting. It seems highly positive to me, for the rare happy ending to a work of literary fiction. On further reflection, however, I considered that it might be possible that it indicates something other than what I first thought, a darker view. More of a bittersweet than happy ending. In fact, I think the last line can be read many ways. I like that. I’m very interested in how a story “projects into the future” as I’ve called it from time to time, what a literary analysis course I took called portability: how characters take on lives of their own that last beyond the final page. I could imagine several futures for Kavitha and Mustafa, all of them better than had they remained on the train – even had the robbery not happened.

BASS 2015: Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus” from The New Yorker, 6/23/14

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

 
Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.
 
“Please,” James said. “Let’s just see how it goes.”
 

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

I had the poor luck to read this story in public, during my monthly cheeseburger-and-fries splurge at a local pub. I’ve been remarkably dry-eyed through most of the stories in this volume so far, but I am a complete sap when it comes to dying pet stories. Fortunately, the pub staff is used to me, and, since I make it a point to be there during off-hours of mid-afternoon, lets me read and cry or laugh or whatever without comment or fuss beyond refilling my coffee.

On the surface, this is a dying pet story. But with references to Lear, Waugh, and Plath, it becomes more. And, for the second time in two stories, I found the contributor notes to be extremely helpful. Meloy intended this as a story about “human illness and aging, the breakdown and betrayal of the body (and, in the past, of a country),” and was surprised when emails and letters about the deaths of readers’ beloved dogs poured in, rather than memories of postwar France and the necessity of collaborators and resisters living and working together to rebuild. This says a lot about authorial intent: it only goes so far. An author can put all the symbolism and depth she wants into a work, but it’s a talent as well to be gracious when readers embrace the surface story instead. I still remember reading how perturbed Robert Frost was at readings of “The Road Not Taken” – “You have to be careful of that one,” he said; “it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” But people didn’t want a tricky poem, they wanted a Hallmark card.

I quite like Betsy’s take on the story at The Mookse and Gripes, particularly her speculation about the narrator’s part in his distant relationship with the people in his life. She’s right: it’s easy to think of him as a victim of his callow lover, but there might be a reason he’s in the relationships he’s in. The narrator is unnamed; is that a narrative technique to make him more universal, or a character indicator as he withholds his very name from the reader?

I think there’s a lot of universality to the story. The narrator and his lover are gay, but there’s nothing gender specific about age and experience using money to attract those who would otherwise be unavailable, nor about youth taking advantage of its assets to achieve some measure of security. The Parisian setting increases the sophistication, and it is in fact central to Meloy’s intent, but the surface story plays out in grittier cities, in tiny towns, all over the world. Someone is always betraying something, and we’re always afraid to die alone. I suppose the layered interpretation is what makes the story literary.

At first I believed that the appearance of love from a dog is only a strategy, to win protection. Cordelia chose me because I was the one to feed her and to chase away the hawks and the wolves. But after a time we crossed over a line, Cordelia and I.… A creature’s eyes are on you all the time, or the warm body is next to you. There is an understanding. And I think this becomes something like love.

Plath, as Lady Lazarus, said: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Cordelia gives a master class to a man who knows he will soon face death. Judging from the last sentence, maybe the lesson was learned.

BASS 2015: Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode” from The New Yorker, 9/8/14

Looking in the hotel mirror, David Jenkins adjusted the Stetson he disliked and pulled on a windbreaker with a cattle-vaccine logo. He worked for a syndicate of cattle geneticists in Oklahoma, though he’d never met his employers—he had earned his credentials through an online agricultural portal, much the way that people became ministers. He was still in his twenties, a very bright young man, but astonishingly uneducated in every other way. He had spent the night in Jordan at the Garfield Hotel, which was an ideal location for meeting his ranch clients in the area. He had woken early enough to be the first customer at the café. On the front step, an old dog slept with a cancelled first-class stamp stuck to its butt. By the time David had ordered breakfast, older ranchers occupied several of the tables, waving to him familiarly. Then a man from Utah, whom he’d met at the hotel, appeared in the doorway and stopped, looking around the room. The man, who’d told David that he’d come to Jordan to watch the comets, was small and intense, middle-aged, wearing pants with an elastic waistband and flashy sneakers. Several of the ranchers were staring at him. David had asked the hotel desk clerk, an elderly man, about the comets. The clerk said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about and I’ve lived here all my life. He doesn’t even have a car.”

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

Because it appeared in TNY, opinions on this story abound: Grant Catton, Paul Debraski from I Just Read About That, and the gang at The Mookse and the Gripes contain astute comments. Apparently it’s similar in style to Cormac McCarthy, whom I’ve never read out of lack of interest in 21st century tough-guy chic, and the Coen brothers films, which I have seen. I see the connection to the latter, now that it’s pointed out: people without competence or morality, who still manage to evoke a twinge of sympathy, running smack into what they deserve. It’s possible I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of fiction.

A couple of notes. I had an overall favorable view of David, the point-of-view character, at the start. I found it fascinating that credentials for cattle insemination can be obtained online, that there is such a vocation. I find it doubly fascinating that David “brought art to it”; if you can bring art, genius, to putting semen into cows, you can bring them to anything. I didn’t really understand how he went from that to another grifter on the make, but we all have some inner flaw we’ve somehow managed to patch over, and he seems to have had the misfortune to encounter the circumstances that broke through that patch.

I was off-kilter throughout the piece – comets, guns, cows, cars, what kind of story is this? Then the airplane left me wondering, is this a normal thing in Montana, airplanes landing in front of cars to get the driver’s attention? Hey, I’m gullible, what can I say. So the dementia angle came as a relief.

While I had a pretty good sense of David, and came to realize Weldon’s problem was not so much his patched-over flaw as the plaques and tangles in his brain, I still don’t have any idea what’s going on with Ray or Morsel, who they are when they’re not scamming, what they’re doing there. But I loved the ending, somehow, without actually following the story very well. It seemed perfect.

So what does this have to do with fracking? Because, according to McGuane’s Contributor Note, that’s the force behind the story:

I started out with some vague ideas about the energy industry, about a more pastoral version of the West, and about the skills learned through agriculture, and how they would finally clash. This was in danger of remaining pretty abstract, pretty ideological, not to mention uninteresting until occupied by human beings, characters I had on hand; and my feeling for the country I was talking about. The energy industry and its taxation on the earth is concentrated in specific places. The extraction of oil from shale through fracking has befallen parts of North Dakota and Montana. Its profits are astronomical. Few dare to stand up in the face of this tidal wave of money. The arrival of hookers, drug gangs, and gunmen in guileless prairie towns and their credulous boosters has been unspeakable. You need to see such broad things through the eyes of individuals in order to ake plausible fiction.. As usual, this often calls upon a writer’s capacity for finding voices for the voiceless. Nothing new about that, but it can be a challenge when, as in the case of “Motherlode”, there is such extraordinary distance between these lives and the forces that rule them.

~~Thomas McGuane, Contributor note, BASS 2015

After reading this, I think I better understood what the story was “trying to do”, as we say when we aren’t sure what it actually did. I can see David as the rural tradition of Montana, derailed of late by dreams of “oro y plata” (the state motto) and headed for disaster. McGuane seems pretty convinced the state, like David, is throwing away its birthright for a mess of pottage. It wouldn’t be the first time money scraped the thin patch off what was already there, all along.

BASS 2015: Elizabeth McCracken, “Thunderstruck” from Story Quarterly, #46/47

This was her flaw as a parent, she thought later: she had never truly gotten rid of the single maternal worry. They were all in the closet, with the minuscule footed pajamas and the hand-knit baby hats, and every day Laura took them out, unfolded them, try to put them to use. Kit was seven, Helen nearly a teenager, and a small, choke-worthy item on the floor still dropped Laura, scrambling, to her knees. She could not bear to see her girls on their bicycles, both the cycling and the cycling away.… Would they even remember her cell-phone number, if they and their phones were lost separately? Did anyone memorize numbers anymore? The electrical outlets were still dammed with plastic, in case someone got a notion to jab at one with a fork.
She had never worried about grieving intoxicating gas from hefty bags. Another worry. Put it on the pile. Soon it might seem quaint, too.

I’ve always been interested in narrative technique, both how a writer chooses the point of view from which a story will be told, and the effect on the reader. As I read this story, I fell into the close first person, and, shame on me, never noticed the first switch until I noticed the second I’m not sure that’s what McCracken intended; after all, she divided the story into two sections, number them to emphasize that. There’s little more she could have done to have said, “Hey, this is starting something new,” but I rode right over it. Was I inattentive – my first assumption – or was I caught up in the story? Interesting, since I didn’t think I was that enrapt. In fact, I was thinking how interesting it was that I was so glued to the previous “lost child” story, but here I was more of an observer, interested and curious, but apart.

Helen hit her sister; Helen was shut in her room; afterward all four of them would go to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor with the twisted wire chairs. She and Wes couldn’t decide when to punish and when to indulge, when the child was testing the boundaries and needed discipline, and when she was demanding, in the brutish way of children, more love. In this way, their life had been pasted together with marshmallow topping and hot fudge. Shut her in her room. Buy her a banana split. Do both: see where it gets you.
Helen sneaking out at night. Helen doing drugs.
Children were unfathomable. The same thing that could stop them from breathing in the night could stop them from loving you during the day. Could cause them to be brought home by the police without their pants or good explanation.

When, in the opening scene, daughter Helen is escorted home, sans pants, by the police, who report she’s been huffing, Laura and Wes don’t know how to handle it. Who would? Thus Laura’s plaint above: have they been too permissive, or to strict? Does any parent ever know? I’m not a parent, but I’ve been a child, and as I recall, each parental mistake seems monstrous at the time. The good news, for parents and kids, is that those mistakes shrink in time. If you get time.

Wes’ solution is to take the family to Paris for the summer, maybe have Helen take some art classes. But Laura agrees, entering into Wes’ fantasy: “Perhaps they’d understand her there. Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French.” I’ll admit, I don’t understand that kind of family, where such a trip is even a realistic option, or where it’s something one thinks of when a teenager needs attention. What, there are no artists, no French class, in their home town? Maybe I’m resistant to fantasy. But Wes knew what he was doing: Helen blooms in Paris, acting as translator and guide, becoming more cheerful by the day.

Everything was going to be All Right.

Except, of course, that would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, not a literary short story. Helen is suddenly in the hospital with a severe head injury. The only story they can piece together is that Helen has been sneaking out of the family’s Parisian flat at night to carouse with a group of French teenagers. And something happened. Now, coma. And now, the POV, though remaining in third person, switches to Wes:

“Helen,” he said, “Helen. You can tell us anything. You should, you know.” They depend the kind of parents who wanted to know nothing, or the wrong things. It hit him with a force of the conversion; although they believed what they didn’t acknowledge didn’t exist. Here, proof: the unsalable existed. “Helen,” he said to his sleeping daughter. “I will never be mad at you again. Were starting over. Tell me anything.”
A fresh start. He erased the photos and texts from the phone: he wanted to know everything in the future, not the best. Later he regretted, he wants names, numbers, the indecipherable slang-written texts of French teenagers, but as you scroll down, deleting, affirming each deletion, it felt like the kind of meditative prayer: I will change. Life will broaden and better.

See, that’s literary fiction: after daughter is in a coma, Dad decides Everything Will Be All Right, while the reader feels sorry for him.

While Laura sees the harsh realities, Wes burrows deeper into fantasy land. Laura shuts herself in her room; Wes goes out for ice cream. It’s an interesting technique, to use such a clear break in the story to show such a clear break in this family. I’m not surprised to discover that I understand the harsh glare of reality far better than fantasy. But both will be necessary for this family going forward; the question is, can they come out from their respective corners and work together, or will it be a continual conflict?

The surprise comes when the POV shifts, briefly but crucially, to Helen late in the story. The shift is far more subtle; no section breaks here.

Don’t let her take me, Daddy. Her mother hadn’t looked her in the eye since she’d come into the room, but when had she, ever, ever, ever thought Helen. All her life, she’d been too bright a light.

And here, the emotional climax, as the mystery is solved. Not the mystery of what happened to Helen (oh, it solves that too, but that’s rather mundane) but the bigger mystery: the fantasy, or the reality? Prison, or ice cream sundaes? The parents remain unaware; the reader is the only one who receives the solution. I wonder: is it better to know, or to believe?

BASS 2015: Colum McCann, “Sh’khol” from Zoetrope, #18.3

A novella had arrived from the publisher in Tel Aviv eight months before, a beautifully written story by an Arab Israeli from Nazareth: an important piece of work, she thought.
She had begun immediately to translate it, the story of a middle-aged couple who had lost their two children. She had come upon the phrase sh’khol. She cast around for a word translated, but there was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but none, no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. None in Irish, either. She looked in Russian, and French, in German, in other languages too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, nathkool, a father. Still not in English. It had bothered her for days. She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen. In the end she had settled upon the formal bereaved, not precise enough hardly, she thought, no mystery in it, no music, hardly a proper translation at all, bereaved.

Parents strongly cautioned: This story will rip your heart out in six different ways – yet leave you loving it for doing so.

And I’m not even a parent.

I need to be particularly spoiler-sensitive about these comments, however, because the story shifts and moves like the sea that plays a part throughout. It is indeed about the loss of a child, a phrase that is itself ambiguous. “He lost his daughter” means something very different from “He lost his keys.” Or does it?

I can imagine a logical reason for the paucity of words indicating a parent has lost a child. The death of a spouse, or of parents when one is young (you wouldn’t refer to a 30-year-old whose parents just died as an orphan), is a change in one’s societal status, unlike the death of a child. Even though the emotional effect is, of course, profound, would you want to be labeled as “the parent who lost a child” by a single word? The Sh’khol Jones, analogous to The Widow McAllister? I don’t think so. But it’s one thing to consider this from the calm, cool, analytical point of view, and quite another from the heart of the mother who fears she has lost her child.

This is what McCann does so effectively: radical empathy. Becoming the other, a theme from the Fiction of Relationship course. Telling another’s story. Getting to know another well enough, to understand the nooks and crannies of how they feel, and why, to tell the story. McCann has worked with a group of creatives to form Narrative4, a non-profit that brings together kids from disparate neighborhoods – most recently, Newtown, CT, and Chicago (“Twenty-six murders in one day, twenty-six murders in one month, you tell my story, I’ll tell yours”, about the 1:01 mark).

I remember reading an excerpt from McCann’s novel Transatlantic in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and being amazed that I could be so mesmerized by a story that takes place primarily in the cockpit of a 1919 aeroplane. Here again, I was spellbound by the story of Rebecca and Tomas. McCann not only has the radical empathy he values so highly, the empathy he credits with changing lives and possibly the world, but he’s able to create it in others using only text on a page.

The writing is astonishingly beautiful. I always hesitate to say something like that, because I still have this nagging question: is writing that calls attention to itself able to do the job of writing, the transport of one person to another situation? When I stop reading, transfixed over these words: “I have, she thought, made a terrible mistake”, am I still in the story? That sentence is a flashing neon sign. It demands I stop, pay attention. Why is it broken up like that? The story – about brokenness – is about loss, the loss of a child, but the sentence starts with, “I have,” takes a breath with “she thought,” then understates the obvious. The sentence stays with me. I suspect, the next time I make a big mistake, it will be this sentence that comes to mind.

The interaction of Rebecca and her ex-husband is just as arresting. When they were married, they had the Good Life, and she left it for this tired cottage until crisis brings him back to her:

– I’d like to be alone with my wife, Allen said.
Rebecca lifted her head. Wife : it was like a word that might remain on the page, though the page itself was plunged into darkness.

The story kept changing as I read. I can understand why T.C. Boyle, in his Introduction, compared this to a novel. In technical terms beloved by high school English teachers, a short story is not only readable in one sitting, but takes place over a limited period of time. The plot of this story takes place in the space of a few of days. But the story is far longer, going back perhaps to Eve losing both her sons – a scene not included in Genesis, by the way. Because it’s too horrible to contemplate – or because it’s so well-understood?

Because the character Rebecca is a writer, a translator of literature, McCann has, I think, greater leeway to have her thoughts be beautiful even in her anguish and fear. Just as inside Jack’s head, in “Jack, July” was a unique place, so is inside Rebecca, and McCann puts us there, offering us radical empathy – or rather, the story requires it of us.

Sh’khol. She knew the word now. Shadowed.

So many ways to lose a child.

BASS 2015: Victor Lodato, “Jack, July” from The New Yorker, 9/22/14

NYT story illustration by Julien Pacaud

TNY story illustration by Julien Pacaud

The sun drilled the boy’s head, looking for something. He closed his eyes and let the bit work its way to his belly, where the good stuff lived, where the miracle often happened: the black smoke reverting to pure white crystal. A snowflake, an angel. He smiled at himself in the dark glass. It was so easy to forgive those who betrayed you, effortless—like thinking of winter in the middle of July. It cost you nothing. Reflexively Jack scratched deep inside empty pockets, then licked his fingers. The bitch of it was this: forgiveness dissolved instantly on your tongue, there was no time to spit it out.
He’d have to remember to speak on this, when he made his documentary.

~~Available online, text and audio read by author

 
 
Doors. Lots of doors. Shut doors, wrong doors, windows that serve as doors.

Jack’s a young guy – twenty-two – with a plan to make a documentary on the up side of meth addiction. His story tells the down side better than any documentary could.

He’s uprooted in time, dissociated from words, and just wandering around Tuscon in July, an endeavor that can in itself be lethal. We start with Jamie, and an incredibly written scene that’s some kind of triangulation of sex, molestation, and insanity.

The story follows Jack over the course of a few hours as he tries to find a place to call home, a place that will offer his next hit.

Or at least a bathroom at a local shop. The effect of his disconnection with plebian realities like time and words makes for comic effect:

“Welcome to Presto’s!”
The blond girl stood just inside the black door, her face gaily frozen, as if cut from the pages of a yearbook. Jack comprehended none of her words.
“Welcome,” he replied, attempting a flawless imitation of her birdlike language. Jack was good with foreigners. Most of his school buds had been Chalupas.
The girl tilted her head; the smile wavered, but only briefly. Her mouth re-expanded with elastic lunacy.
“Ship or print?”
Jack was taken aback. Though it was true he needed to use the bathroom, he was disturbed by the girl’s lack of delicacy in regard to bodily functions.
“Number one,” he admitted quietly.
“Ship?” she persisted.
Jack felt dizzy. The girl’s teeth were very large and very white. Jack could only assume they were fake. Keeping his own dental wreckage tucked under blistered lips, he lifted his hands in a gesture of spiritual peace. “I’m just going to make a quick run to the rest room.”
“I’m sorry, they’re only for customers.”
“George Washington,” Jack blurted, still fascinated by the girl’s massive teeth.
“What’s that?”
“Cherry tree,” he continued associatively.
“Oh, like for the Fourth?” asked Blondie…..
Jack nodded and smiled, tapping his head in pretense of understanding her logic. As he moved quickly toward the bathroom, the girl skittered off in another direction, also quickly.
Perhaps she had to print, too. Or take a ship.
Jack giggled, and opened a door leading to a storage closet.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes,” Jack said to the man inside the closet. “I understand what you’re saying.”

Unable to find the right door, he just pees in back of the building.

This tragicomedy continues as he goes through the small roster of places he might find some water, some shade, some meth. His former girlfriend Rhonda, perhaps. He’s unaware, however, that he walked out on her over a year ago, so she won’t open her trailer door, except to throw a glass of water in his face. But it’s Tuscon in July, maybe that’s good enough.

The transitions make the piece: sudden breaks, like in a dream where you’re standing in your living room one minute, then you’re in the woods the next, and it doesn’t seem strange at all that in the blink of an eye you’ve changed scenes. At other times, complete lack of action persists for an extended time, the story moving to Jack’s head. Lodato is primarily a playwright; I think that shows here, in instantaneous scene changes punctuated by extended monologues of thought. Lodato’s TNY interview is well worth reading for insight into how he wrote this story: his inspiration was the body language he saw around him.

His visit to his mother’s place isn’t impeded by a door; he crawls in a window, and again, finds that more time has passed than he realizes. We also discover the root of Jack’s distress: his sister, Lisa, injured in a dog attack when they were both in high school. Is that fair, to call her the root? Would he be wandering in the sun had the attack never happened? Would any event have sufficed, or was the pain, the guilt, of this one simply insurmountable? “Jack didn’t understand why a person in Lisa’s position couldn’t be allowed to stay inside, in a dark bedroom, for the rest of her life.” I agree.

Jack turned his head, to see if he could spot the train. Flicker of distant traffic: metal and glass. Lost saguaros, catatonic, above which birds drifted in slow circles, like pieces of ash. To the east, the mountains, shrouded in dust, were all but invisible. The train would come eventually, the crazy quilt of boxcars, the fractious whistle.
Oh, but it was so boring waiting for death! Jack had come to the tracks before. When the signal light began to flash, he jumped up. He wasn’t an idiot.
Besides, he couldn’t help himself; his sadness was like a river, carrying him home.

Jack ends up where he started, passing through an unlocked door without pause, closing the circle, making a ring, and a vow of sorts. You can’t always get what you want, you can’t even get what you need, so you take whatever door is open.

BASS 2015: Sarah Kokernot, “M & L” from West Branch, #76

In the never-ending list of awful things that could happen to people each second, Miriam’s awful thing was so small that she could render it insignificant. But whenever she thought it had disappeared completely, it would come back as clear and uncomfortable as a hot light on her face.

In her Contributor Note, Kokernot says she wanted to try something “tender and subtle” dealing with the subject of old trauma. The subtlety seemed to be too subtle for me; I found the story to be almost mathematically symmetrical – trauma, healing relationship, breakup, reverse breakup, healing relationship the other way, end trauma – and in places, a little on-the-nose. But then we have the camel out of left field (literally).

The story’s divided into two sections, subheaded “M” and “L”, for Miriam and Liam, two old friends attending a wedding with a group of other old friends.

They had dated for three years in high school after what had been, at least for Liam, an agonizing crush that could be traced back to the fifth grade. It had begun on the day she was captain for recess basketball. He was the shortest kid back then and always chosen last, shifting from 1 foot to the other and smiling good-natured late to show it didn’t bother him. She’d admired him because of this, and pitied him a little. So she tapped him first. Afterward he seemed to be everywhere, trembling as he passed her a box of markers, staring at her with undisguised longing across the rows of cafeteria tables. It was all tremendously flattering. It was all tremendously irritating. She would ignore him for weeks and then, for reasons she couldn’t explain, return a look of equal longing, pass notes to him in the shape of origami cranes, share answers to the math homework, which he always forgot. By seventh grade she had the second-biggest boobs of any girl in the middle school. Grown men honked their horns and whistles as she walked home from the bus stop.

That paragraph becomes particularly meaningful a page or two later, when one of the plus-ones at the wedding brings the old trauma back to the surface. It must be part of the subtlety that there’s really very little in the story about how Miriam felt, or feels, for that matter, other than her initial denial that it’s the same guy at all, followed by her indication that getting better is the best revenge. These are no open wounds, but closed up, sealed scars, which only show a little. Is that the point? Or is the denial deep enough to just make it seem that way?

The division into sections must have a subtle purpose as well; I don’t quite understand the reason for this choice, other than to emphasize the two characters. Both sections are close third person – sort of close, that is, because we never get into anyone’s head. That’s an appropriate character choice for Miriam, but I’m not sure what Liam’s problem is. He’s a Nice Guy, but very cautious. Takes his shoes off before walking on dewy grass. Won’t test an electrified fence with a blade of grass. Both of which are wise precautions as an adult, but his caution was evident back when he was eighteen. He and Miriam went to get matching tattoos – M & L in “medieval manuscript letters” (ok, I know, that’s what a lot of people would call Gothic script, the hand of which varied by scribe, by the way, but for some reason it irked me) and he changed his mind after the M. Miriam saw it through, then had hers removed some years ago; a slight discoloration remains. A little on-the-nose, I think. But her reaction to Liam’s defection was perhaps the most emotionally understandable, empathetic moment of the story.

Then there’s the camel. Kokernot tells us, “[E]ver since meeting Izzy the camel in Waitsburg, I was determined to include a camel in a story.” I’m glad she accomplished her goal.

BASS 2015: Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” from The New Yorker, 3/3/14

Zaan Claassens:  "Sea Maiden"

Zaan Claassens: “Sea Maiden”

After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we’d enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we’ve gotten to know a little from Elaine’s volunteer work—nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard. One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary….
Young Chris Case reversed the direction and introduced the topic of silences. He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
 
As for other silences, nobody contributed. In fact, there came a silence now. Some of us hadn’t realized that Chris had lost a leg. He limped, but only slightly. I hadn’t even known he’d fought in Afghanistan. “A land mine?” I said.
“Yes, sir. A land mine.”
“Can we see it?” Deirdre said.
“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”
“No! I mean your leg.”
“It was blown off.”
“I mean the part that’s still there!”
“I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.”
Shocked laughter. We started talking about the most ridiculous things we’d ever kissed. Nothing of interest. We’d all kissed only people, and only in the usual places. “All right, then,” Chris told Deirdre. “Here’s your chance for the conversation’s most unique entry.”
“No, I don’t want to kiss your leg!”
Although none of us showed it, I think we all felt a little irritated with Deirdre. We all wanted to see.

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

In his Introduction, TC Boyle calls this “a story about stories, about how we’re composed of them and how they comprise our personal mythologies.” This makes sense, structurally as well as narratively, as the story is divided into ten named sections, each of them a little story told by our narrator, adman, husband, and semi-human life form.

There’s detachment, and Detachment, and here we have Detachment. Vignette after vignette, mostly about death, about awkwardness, about bizarre coincidences involving death and awkwardness, and Whit just recounts them all in a level tone. I can see why Johnson, in his TNY interview, referenced Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life, ” a jazz piece I’d never heard before. Like a lot of bluesy-jazz, the story is pain, violence, and passion delivered with the nonchalance of someone who can’t afford to care but needs to be heard.

I was also quite taken with Johnson’s reference to TS Eliot’s “quasi-musical decisions” and started looking at the piece from the viewpoint of sonata form: exposition of themes, development, recapitulation, coda. The story doesn’t fit classical form, but I see themes of observation without participation, disruptive pain, and a confusion about relationships recurring and recombining, with the Casanova and Mermaid sections serving as a restatement of themes, a climax of sorts, and the final section as a coda.

Narrative continuity is provided by a career award that is both an achievement and a reminder of how pathetic his career has been. Along the way we see how pathetic his life has been, how devoid of connection he’s been. The opening scene reads more like a rape scene than anything I’ve read lately, with a company of friends watching, waiting, wanting it to happen. Then there’s the confusion of which wife is dying. The award ceremony literally ends up in the toilet, with a twist that would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Mermaid ends up in a metaphorical toilet, and is even sadder. Then, in Whit, an intriguingly misplaced introduction at the end, in which we finally learn the narrator’s name – does it matter? Isn’t he a part of us, all along – an attempt to recapture personhood, which serves as acknowledgement of its own failure.

I’ve been putting off this post, not sure how to approach this story. Intimidation and inadequacy is one reason: this is Johnson’s first story in 20 years, and I’ve never read him before. I was surprised at how readable it was. It’s also one of the most reviewed pieces I’ve encountered (both because of Johnson’s status, and because it was in The New Yorker so all of the usual suspects weighed in): I find myself confused by all the clamor, the down side of doing research before writing. It seems to be the standout piece in the collection; even Boyle’s intro gave it far more attention than other stories. So I don’t want to sell it short or be the idiot in the room who says the wrong thing. But I’m not sure what to say about it. Reading was like taking a rowboat boat down a river: never being totally in control, only a thin hull away from disaster, but never feeling truly at risk. Observing – much as the narrator observes. Taking it all in. But detached.

BASS 2015: Arna Bontemps Hemenway, “The Fugue” from Alaska Quarterly Review, #31

"The Art of Fugue": JS Bach, CPE Bach

“The Art of Fugue”: JS Bach, CPE Bach

Wild Turkey has always been mesmerized by their language, the team’s utilitarian military patois always morphing what they said just enough to approximate some slightly more surreal world, a language somehow better suited to the world they are actually confronted with. Oftentimes the unthinking word or slight lingual shift ends up being eerily or confusingly apt, in the way that Wild Turkey’s friend the TOW missile gunner whom they call Tow Head really does resemble a “towheaded boy” (the phrase surfacing in Wild Turkey’s mind from some old novel read in a high school English class), or in the way that Wild Turkey will end up buying fifths of Wild Turkey to take the edge off his highs back at home. The Shit, meaning the desert, the war, Iraq, becomes The Suck becomes The Fuck becomes The Fug becomes The Fugue, finally meaning just everything.

I think I’m beginning to understand why Heidi Pitlor’s Foreword to this volume discussed the “unlikeable character” phenomenon. It’s not really that these characters are unlikeable, but they’re often blown up to such proportions they’re not easy to get a grip on, enough of a grip to “like” them. By and large, however, they’re enormously sympathetic, as is Wild Turkey, a vet who started out with epilepsy, snuck into the army anyway and added PTSD after his tour in Iraq.

The title fits perfectly. “Fugue” is from the Italian and Latin fuga meaning “fleeing, flight, running away.” In music, this refers to a brisk pace and an interweaving of multiple themes, modulating through various home keys. In psychiatry, a fugue is a dissociative disorder, which, according to NAMI, is ” characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.” For Wild Turkey, it represents a shifting between reality, memory, and the false façade society often puts over dirty little secrets.

The style of the story reflects his condition. It’s not just the language that shifts, it’s reality itself, and the prose reflects this as we’re in the present, in the past, in another past, in another present, and who knows where. He was already dealing with a kind of multiple reality due to his epilepsy: “It will never be clear to him whether he is waking from a lacunal fit, the medicine, or a memory, as if all three are essentially the same thing.” This notion of everything becoming the same thing recurs in the story, as reality includes misperceiving reality. Everything – fantasy, memory, the here-and-now, the stories we tell ourselves – is, after all, reality to whomever’s experiencing it.

It’s a rather confusing read, and I haven’t fully sorted out the timeline. The present seems to be Kansas, where Wild Turkey slept under an overpass last night rather than staying with his brother, the minister, and his viciously judgmental sister-in-law. Interestingly, they are unnamed; every other significant character in the story deserves a name. Then there’s Jeanne, an ex-girlfriend, and the house he squatted in for a while after it was foreclosed. And the school he visits in the present which brings him back to the past. And everything brings him back to Iraq.

Wild Turkey’s PTSD is a natural extension of the confusion between what is real and what is fake, like the military training sessions conducted in an imitation of an Iraqi village built in the Arizona desert, meant to prepare his unit for what awaited him on deployment, including a pretend funeral for a fake fallen comrade, who turns out to have the name of a real soldier. I’d have PTSD before even getting to Iraq.

The crushing irony of their physical existence here: they are real Iraqi villagers paid to play Iraqi villagers in America; immigrants from Iraq given asylum and money to come to this other desert and this other village and play themselves. They are given whole complicated psychological profiles to enact, Wild Turkey knows; they each have a role and a set of actions or conversations to complete at predetermined points. They will each behave differently when threatened. They are paid for the performance of reality, for the performance of their identities rather than for the identities themselves.

I once heard a lecture on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that included a wonderful line: “Mrs. Ramsey dies after a comma.” One way to emphasize a major event is to just drop it in casually, and Hemenway makes use of that technique a couple of times. In a story full of chaos and spectacular events, it’s almost easy to miss how many people Wild Turkey is mourning, and how horribly they have gone. Which is the point of flight, isn’t it.

There is, of course, a climactic incident that isn’t dropped in casually, hearkening back to the training in the fake village. It’s tragic and horrific and heartbreaking. By the time I got there, I was already exhausted. Wild Turkey’s dragging around a lot, and the story is very effective at immersing the reader into his load.

I was reminded of last year’s “Evie M.” by O. A. Lindsey: a chaotic view of PTSD from the inside. Wild Turkey’s story is part of Hemenway’s collection Elegy on Kinderklavier which explores war from many sides. Darren Huang has written a highly insightful review of the collection, including special attention paid to the psychology of Wild Turkey, on Bookslut.

What really puts the cherry on top is Hemenway’s description of how he wrote this story. His Contributor Note states: “I am a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember actually writing this story.” The combination of a new baby with health problems requiring frequent, round-the-clock feeding, a graduate school deadline for an assignment, and research into details of the Iraq war (including the fake Iraqi village set up in the Mohave desert) created a kind of sleep-deprivation that was as disruptive to the memory and sense of reality as the PTSD he was reading about. “Somewhere in there I must’ve been writing, too,” he says, “because on the day [the assignment] was due, I showed up to class with this story, more or less in its current form, in hand.” Perfect. In fact, it’s so perfect, I have to wonder if it actually happened that way, or if this is one of those imagined memories that has become more real than life as lived – which is also, in the shadow of Wild Turkey, perfect.

BASS 2015: Ben Fowlkes, “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” from Crazyhorse, #85

Getty image via Demotivators

Getty image via Demotivators

Wallace went all the way to Florida to fight a Brazilian middleweight he’d never heard of for ten thousand dollars. That’s what it had come to.

~~ story available online (thank you, Crazyhorse).

I read that first sentence, and I thought, oh no, don’t make me read a story about boxing.

Thing is, once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed reading this. Maybe that’s because it’s not about boxing. It’s about that moment when you understand you’re a has-been – and what’s worse, you understand you’re the last person to realize it.

By the way, it’s not boxing at all, it’s one of those things in the neighborhood of cage fighting or MMA or something; forgive me if I have the terminology wrong, since to me it’s an unfamiliar neighborhood. Wallace isn’t your typical fighter in that he’s perceptive of himself and others, and comes out with pithy insights (“He was four days out from a knockout loss and I-don’t-give-a-fuck had settled in”… “Coronado was somewhere people lived on purpose”). I should say, he’s not what I typically think when I think “fighter”. Of course, I’ve never known a fighter, except the one Paul Simon put in a song (“I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”). Maybe I’d find a lot of fighters are insightful, if I’d just look beyond my preconceptions.

Somewhere in the half-page opening fight scene, I stopped gritting my teeth and started reading. It’s great writing: how do you write a knockout from the knockee’s point of view? Fowlkes shows how; he’s primarily a sports journalist who specializes in MMA. Maybe all writers of fight stories do this, and I just never noticed, because I was gritting my teeth too hard.

The estuary scene took a couple of interesting turns, and left just the right sense of foreboding to carry through the story, to remain thrumming in the background. At the end, the story as a whole took a fascinating, completely unexpected turn in the final scene.

Yeah, Wallace thought, that’s going to be trouble. But there it was. He turned on his heels and started back the way he’d come. Behind him he could hear the sucking sound of the man pulling himself out of the mud. The man swore in stupid, broken off threats at his back. Wallace decided he was going to let the man say whatever he wanted to say. That was a choice he was making.

For some reason I was particularly struck by the repeated use of a single simple sentence: “That was a choice he was making.” That’s not a sentence that should stand out; it’s not unusual, or particularly distinctive. But it stuck with me, and I was surprised to later find it was only used twice: once in the estuary scene that sets up the major narrative drive, and once in the final paragraphs, when those chickens came home to roost. But it’s not the roost you think it’s going to be. I should’ve been prepared for this, since TC Boyle’s introduction refers to it as a “tough guy story that … ends not in violence, but in a moment of grace.”

I’m not sure see a moment of grace. Maybe a moment of enlightenment. There’s a Buddhist koan: “If you meet Buddha, kill him” (the book of that title didn’t come along for another thousand years). That’s a kind of moment of grace. Wallace’s moment of grace is a little different: If you meet yourself on the road, you’re on the wrong road.

“…Like you’re the first fighter who ever got knocked out in a fight he never should have taken.”
Wallace laughed to himself. How many times had he heard Coach telling guys to step up and fight? How many times had he heard that spiel about how you didn’t make any money sitting on your couch? But that was before a fight. It wasn’t until after that things became so very crystal clear to everyone else.

I’ve said that my favorite stories “project into the future,” that is, they leave me with a strong sense of what will happen next, perhaps two or three general options. Here, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next – and I very much like that feeling.

BASS 2015: Louise Erdrich, “The Big Cat” from The New Yorker, 3/31/14

The women in my wife’s family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep. Elida’s three sisters and their bombproof husbands loved to gather at her parents’ house in Golden Valley, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The house was less than twenty years old, but the sly tricks of the contractor were evident in every sagging sill, skewed jamb, cracked plaster wall, tilted handrail, and, most significantly, in the general lack of insulation that caused the outer walls to ice up and the inside to resound.

~~ Available online (thank you, New Yorker)

The stories in BASS are, and always have been, arranged alphabetically; there’s no element of choice here, no grouping of themes or variation of style as in Pushcart. Yet I seem to be noticing, this year, a relationship between nearby stories. The narrative structure of “The Siege at Whale Cay” and “Happy Endings”; the opposite extremes of language in “Siege” and “Bride”. And now, after commenting on “Bride”‘s slow transfiguration from realism to something else, I see that at work here as well – a story that, while firmly rooted in domestic realism througout, gives a nod to the horrific surreal at the very end – and it’s only afterwards I took seriously the subtle warning signs.

One scene in particular seemed to leap out at me, though I couldn’t identify why:

When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept the fact that my film career was over. I’d worked steadily and spoken a line or two, given many a meaningful glance, tripped villains, sucker-punched heroes, spilled coffee on or danced around movie stars in revolving doors. I had appeared in dozens of films, TV episodes, commercials. But Elida hadn’t been doing well, and both of us got better, more reliable jobs back home.

How does the writing work: that “suddenly” dropped in there, the vagueness of the complaint leading to the move, the casual acceptance on the protagonist’s part, perhaps did double duty to underscore, yet try to breeze over, this event. I thought maybe I was being paranoid, drawing too much on my own experience, when this screamed “Sabotage!” to me. But the manipulation became clearer as the story moved on, and other incidents piled up.

And what’s more, I think the narrator realized he was being played as well; he just refused to take notice, perhaps because then he’d have to acknowledge his participation in events it’s much easier to pretend to be an innocent victim. Take the moment when the two exes are caught having an affair by their daughter, and the narrator realizes: “You can live with a person, have an affair with a person, and still suddenly see an unfamiliar flash, like the belly of a fish in the shallows, there and gone.” I’ve had those moments, sort of like one of those perception puzzles where two profiles suddenly become a vase. Everything changes. But the narrator’s awareness is ephemeral,just like a 60’s sitcom, where insight only lasts for the last moments of a 30-minute episode, and next week, everybody’s ready to make the same mistakes over again to the same laugh track.

Prior to the ending, the closest the narrator comes to incorporating his awareness is in viewing a film, made by his wife, of all the bit parts he’s played. It’s quite a metaphor, isn’t it: to see our lives played out, not chronologically but narratively, to see the development of our souls, to see the future in the past. Skilled writing gives the section its power: it’s not easy to convey a film viewing experience in pages, but Erdrich does a great job. I know exactly what that film looked like, and I know exactly how the narrator felt, viewing it – the second time. Because the first time, he, guess what, just let it go by him. Insight doesn’t come easily to this guy. Until the last sentences. But I have confidence: when he wakes up, he’ll be back in denial until the next time.

Though I’m not particularly drawn to domestic realism, no matter how acutely observed and sensitively expressed, I found this story compelling as the unnamed narrator, a successful if unknown bit-part actor turned non-profit admin, weaves his way through life. I had to know what would happen next. Oddly, I forgot the title (I try to keep titles in mind as I read), so was completely surprised when the big cat turned up in the final sentences.

Erdrich’s TNY interview provides some interesting insight into process: she didn’t write the ending as much as it wrote her. Fortunately, she showed more insight than her narrator, and kept every skin-crawling word.