BASS 2011: Final Thoughts

I had a good time with this one. I’m not sure there was any story that knocked me out (perhaps because I’m sharpening my sense of what knocks me out – a combination of emotional impact, plus a technical twist and some sense of gravitas), but there were several I liked very much, and nothing felt like a dud. In fact, my least favorite part was the Preface/Intro.

I’m glad I got to know Caitlin Horrocks a little better (I encountered three of her stories virtually at the same time, including “Sleep” from this volume). I feel bad that I didn’t appreciate Claire Keegan’s “Foster” as much as most people have, and I feel downright stupid that I still haven’t got the hang of Steven Millhauser.

My favorites: “Property” by Elizabeth McCracken, “To The Measures Fall” by Richard Powers, and “The Hare’s Mask” by Mark Slouka. Several others came close: “Dog Bites” by Ricardo Nuila, Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood,” and “The Sleep” by Caitlin Horrocks.

My least favorite list: uh oh, here I’m going to expose my idiocy. Yes, Steven Millhauser, “Phantoms,” which is also in the Pushcart 2012 anthology. Ok, I admit it, I have no taste. And George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead,” just felt like a rehash of Clockwork Orange crossed with that experiment where students were asked to give electrical shocks to subjects just to see if they’d do. Both were interesting reads, and in neither case did I wonder why they were included.

For all the fuss about plot and looking beyond domestic realism, most of the stories were, in fact, domestic realism. Even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Ceiling,” set in Nigeria and dealing with financial success, is largely romance gone bad. But there were exceptions: Caitlin Horrocks’ “The Sleep” dealt with reactions to economic hardship, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” by Nathan Englander could only have been set in Israel, Lipsyte put a spin on adolescent angst by setting it in a computer game, and the Saunders was sci-fi psych. And Steven Millhauser and Ricardo Nuila provided a touch of strange.

I love BASS, and I’m already looking forward to September or October or whenever the 2012 edition comes out.

BASS 2011: Mark Slouka, “The Hare’s Mask” from Harper’s

Linoleum cut (created for this story) by Raymond Verdaguer

Odd, how I miss his voice, and yet it’s his silences I remember now: the deliberateness with which he moved, the way he’d listen, that particular smile, as if, having long ago given up expecting anything from the world, he continually found himself mugged by its beauty. Even as a kid I wanted to protect him, and because he saw the danger in this, he did what he could.

What a perfect end to this anthology. In fact, it’s so perfect, I wonder (since the stories are arranged alphabetically) if R.T.Smith, Christine Sneed, Wells Tower, Judy Troy, the V’s and the W’s, were just out of luck this year because their names follow Slouka. No, of course not. But it is a perfect final story – brief, emotionally wrenching, poetically beautiful.

It’s told memoir-style. Double-memoir, in fact.

When Dad was a boy, in Czechoslovakia during WWII, one of his chores was to slaughter a rabbit from the hutch every Friday for dinner. This became more painful as the population dwindled. And for a week, the family hid a partisan in a coffin-sized hidden space in the back of the hutch. Dad saw his family – his father, mother, sister – taken away. He escaped only because he was at a neighbor’s.

I’d imagine him remembering himself as a boy. He’d be standing in the back of a train at night, the metal of the railing beneath his palms. Behind him, huddled together under the light as if on a cement raft, he’d see his family, falling away so quickly that already he had to strain to make out their features, his father’s hat, his mother’s hand against the black coat, his sister’s face, small as a fingertip… And holding on to the whitewashed mantelpiece, struggling to draw breath into my shrinking lungs, I’d quickly put the picture back as though it were something shameful. Who knows what somber ancestor had passed on to me this talent, this precocious ear for loss? For a while, because of it, I misheard almost everything.

It’s too intricate, too well-written, to be summarized, and it’s only available online to Harper’s subscribers. Such is life; not everything wonderful is free. The story comes to a head when Dad’s nine-year-old son, safe and secure all his life in upstate New York, discovers Sister wants a pet rabbit, and feels the need to protect Dad from what he imagines will be excruciating associations with prior losses.

The emotional recollection is so powerful it reads like a true memoir, but though some elements are taken from fact (Slouka’s family did hide a partisan in the war; he himself ties flies), it is fiction. There’s memory, and there’s emotional memory. And there’s constructed memory, what we imagine when we’re very young, or we don’t have all the facts, or we have our own fears. This story treats them all beautifully. It’s one of my favorites in this anthology.

This is the second father-son story I’ve read by Slouka: he caught another very different perspective perfectly in “Crossing.” I’m so impressed with the way he’s handled both scenarios. This is how writing is done. I just wish I could analyze it, learn it, bottle it, drink it. But, if it was easy, anyone could be a writer.

Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story included in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.

BASS 2011: George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” from The New Yorker, 12/20/10

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this comtemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

Hello I am Zin! I seem to be on my own here so I will take on the mantle of responsibility and talk about this story as well! The idea was to complete this anthology by January 1, and although that did not happen, now is not the time to stop short. I hope things will get back to normal in the next day or two.

I like George Saunders. I like his general outlook and I like many of his stories! I liked this story. But I liked it when he wrote it in Persuasion Nation and I liked it when I saw Clockwork Orange and I liked it when I read 1984 too. It is just a little too been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt-saw-the-movie-learned-the-theme-song-played-with-the-action-figures. Still, it was gripping. And it took a while before I realized I had read it before.

The beginning of the story is very confusing. It is like coming into a conversation where people are talking in shorthand or their own jargon and I had no idea what was going on. That is exactly what was happening! Jeff and Abnesti are having a conversation, using phrases like “Drip On” and “Acknowledge” and we have no idea what that means. It straightens itself out soon enough.

Jeff is a criminal of some kind (we find out later he killed someone in a rage when he was a teenager) and is in a treatment facility testing rehabilitative drugs in lieu of prison. The drugs are not necessarily targeted to him. One drug creates the sensation of romantic love. Another bestows eloquence (one of my favorite things about this story is the change in prosody when Jeff is on this drug, as in the above quote, and then he changes back to ordinary speech as the effect wanes). And then there is the dreaded Darkenfloxx, which kindles a deep and painful depression. I wonder what kind of use that has, other than as used in the story: a threat.

You can read the story online, so I will not recap the plot. It is pretty much what you would expect: Jeff is in a position where harm will be inflicted and he can not prevent it, so he needs to escape from Spiderhead. Spiderhead is the name given to the control room of the facility. When I heard the title of the story (a long time ago; I actually read it last year) I thought for some reason it had something to do with a wilderness adventure on ski trails. I have no idea where that came from!

Thing is, Jeff is cured in that he will no longer kill ever, but his cure means his death, so it is a rather Pyrrhic cure. The stated objective of the experiment is to see if he has any romantic feelings of any kind for either of the girls he was chemically in love with, but I think it is more complicated than that! I think he is provoked into his death, thus proving his cure! Of course, it is a mess, but that is what George Saunders usually has to say about government or corporate interference.

The Book Bench interview is wonderful! He jokes about having taken a small dose of the eloquence drug, and it is funny, that is exactly what I was thinking as I read his long answers! But they are very interesting and I highly recommend you read the interview even if you are not interested in the story! Here are some of the things he says:

I am not very good on questions of intentionality, i.e., questions of the “Why did you do that?” variety. I think the writer’s main job is to provide a wild ride for the reader. So most of what I’m doing on a given day is just trying to ensure that the wild ride happens, trusting and hopeful that the thematics will take care of themselves.

In his BASS Contributor Notes, he says he does not really remember what he was thinking when he wrote the story, but he has always been interested in “who we are seems to have an awful lot to do with just simple chemistry, much as we like to think otherwise.”

… you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water.

That reminds me of what Steve Almond said about the writer forcing the characters up against their deepest fears and desires!

…to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, who said that a writer can choose what he writes about, but can’t choose what he makes live. Somehow—maybe due to simple paucity of means—I tend to foster drama via bleakness.

Many people I respect love this story, and I enjoyed it, I just thought it was not his most original work. And George Saunders is someone who is usually so very original, I guess I have a different standard for him. That is the price of greatness!

BASS 2011: Jess Row, “The Call of Blood” from Harvard Review and Nobody Ever Gets Lost

Seriously. Try to imagine it. You’re a little girl, and someone pushes you down on the asphalt at recess, and you’ve got a skinned knee and your pants are torn, and you’re crying and wishing your mother was there and not wishing your mother was there and wanting to speak Korean and not wanting to speak it. And nobody else knows what the difference is between you and Connie Choy in the seventh grade, nobody knows what a Korean is, or cares, aren’t those places just all the same anyway? What matters is you’re here. Nobody gives a shit about the Japanese invasion or President Rhee or two thousand years of this dynasty and that dynasty. You learn to hate your own inconvenient self. And then before you know it you’re in high school and you’ve forgotten all about it, you’re just a good girl, a straight-A girl, you have your own little slot, and you ace the APs and the only boys you talk to are the Jewish boys you debate in history and kick the shit out of in calculus. And then one of them asks you to the prom, and you don’t say no, you sneak out of the house through the basement window, and that’s it, a quick sweaty fuck in the back of a rented limo. After that you’re an American teenager for sure. Crying in the bathroom when your period’s late.

Everyone in this story feels like a fish out of water, no matter what ocean they’re in. Kevin’s a half-Jamaican, half-Irish nurse, formerly a medic in the first Gulf war. He’s taking care of Mrs. Kang, an 88-pound Korean mother and grandmother with Alzheimer’s and a stroke. There’s chemistry between him and Mrs. Kang’s daughter Hyunjee, divorced from her Jewish husband. Kevin’s got some baggage of his own: he picked up the kitchen extension, thinking Renee was talking to her mom, only to hear her trading obscene flirtations with some bozo:

He dropped the receiver into its cradle as if it was white smoking iron and stared straight ahead. A head of cabbage, an ice tray left out on the counter to melt. His own keys left casually in the bowl next to the door. The simplest objects had a way of betraying you: all the unpredictable meanings they took on.

That’s what it’s like, reading this story. The simplest things have unpredictable meanings. Dropping the telephone receiver becomes a trope. Removing one peg with another peg, replacing one pain with another.

Hyunjee wonders if all this multiculturalism is really, truly, good for us. Doesn’t it just get a little exhausting after a while, explaining why Korean-Jewish daughter can’t hold her Bat Mitzvah party in a Korean rib joint since no one’s Kosher anyway? And the above quote, Hyunjee summing up her life. Scary stuff, this story. Beautiful, but scary.

I’m not sure I get the title. It’s from the poem “Elizabeth Childress” from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, and it seems to be a woman mourning the child who died stillborn, but assuring her she’s better off than if she’d been born live.

It’s the Contributor’s Notes that really knock me out. This is one of seven stories from Row’s collection Nobody Ever Gets Lost, a collection of stories reacting to 9/11. Not specifically about 9/11, but some of the issues around it, such as, in the case of the Pushcart-winning selection “Sheep May Safely Graze” (which I’ve already admired), how grief mutates into vengeful violence, and here, multiculturalism. He talks about the story being an effort to capture “the multilayered quality, the simultaneity, of every day experience… how New Yorkers returned to daily life after September 11 – to the ordinary enervating flux and unhappiness of getting through the day, as a kind of escape from the cataclysmic grief that followed the event itself.” He quotes Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, how “the ideal of ethnic diversity…is a kind of ‘pathological euphoria.'” And Kevin and Hyunjee and the rest of us in the post-9/11 world are in the post-euphoric stage, getting back to the ordinary everyday:

Superficially, we might say this experience of being “at odds” applies only to members of minority groups, but in the twenty-first century, who is not, to some context, a member of a minority? Who, in the twenty-first century, has not experienced some sense of dispossession, homelessness, alienation, self-estrangement? That’s the common bond that unites Kevin and Hyunjee, I think, and in a different world – a better world – could unite all the rest of us.

I’m not nearly done with this story – I want to check out the collection, in which the original, longer version appears, so this is a work in progress. It’s possibly the most intellectually gripping (and intimidating) story I’ve encountered in a while. And I’m wondering why Jess Row, a profoundly intelligent writer with a keen emotional ear, isn’t more widely known. Or maybe I’m the one who hasn’t been paying attention.

BASS 2011: Richard Powers, “To The Measures Fall” from The New Yorker, 10/18/10

You take it down and begin to browse. You stop to fix dinner for your husband, who, an invalid of high modernism, cannot fix it for himself. But you’re back at Wentworth until four a.m., when you end up at the bottom of the South Downs gravel pit, 1920, your throat feeling as if you’d been taking swabs at it with a pipe cleaner. You don’t know what hurts more: the swirling moral turbulence of the book, or the belated discovery that everything you thought about it was wrong. You missed it all: register, mood, irony, ambiguity, subtleties, of characterization, narrative arc, even basic plot points. You can’t read. It’s like finding out, at thirty, that you’re adopted.
You’re not yet sure that it’s great literature. But the thing took you underwater and held you there for the better part of thirteen hours, and two days later you’re still winded.

It’s the story of a relationship between a reader and a book, and how that relationship changes over time. And it’s every bit as gripping as any story of any relationship. I loved this story. Yes, I know: it’s second person, for god’s sake! It’s gimmicky, with all those questions at the ends of each section! Yes, and yes. And I love it. Deal with it.

The relationship starts when the unnamed narrator (or, “you” – it is second person) is in England for a college semester – “Year One of a life newly devoted to words” – and comes across a book, To The Measures Fall, in a junk shop. Doesn’t that just sound like a book title? Opaque, elegant. It’s a nice-looking book, tooled leather cover, “a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War.” The author is unknown, but the first sentences generate interest. It’s overpriced, however, and this student is, as students often are, on a tight budget.

The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds,. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?

I’ll admit, he got me. I’d been thinking of the second-person narrator as male, partly because the writer is male, and partly because, well, I’m embarrassed, because she seemed independent and adventurous and therefore male. You think you’ve developed some sense of equity and find out, nope, not really. I could blame it on the time period (spring of ’63, when college girls were not independent or adventurous, and rarely went bicycling, certainly not alone through the English countryside). I was a little peeved. But he got me fair and square.

That is, by the way, the gimmickry of this story: at the end of each section, there’s a question in bold. I’m fascinated by this: is the writer asking the reader? The narrator? Is the narrator asking the reader? Is the narrator asking herself, is it a rhetorical question? I love it.

The story continues with the student, having purchased the book in spite of the price, returning to the States, and being faced with a decision: only forty-four pounds of luggage is allowed, so which books to leave behind? She debates: Who knows how long Updike will be read? (hah!) Some might be hard to find. And the final question of this section: “Choose which two books get dumped forever.” I find it an engaging technique. And haven’t we all gone through similar choices, when our bookshelves sag and we must clean out a little space.

We follow the student in this way through grad school, marriage, abandonment of her thesis, switch to law school, divorce, career, remarriage (“to a big police-procedural fan in corporate litigation”), children, aging, retirement, discovery of a terminal illness. Historical landmarks are provided to keep us oriented (the Gulf of Tonkin, Somalia) and to some degree trends in literature are noted as well. Mostly, though, the woman keeps encountering the book, re-reading it, imagining a signature on the cover is Churchill’s (the signature turns out to be that of a sheep farmer named Cleanleach), reading it to her daughter, reissue and a movie starring Emma Thompson. She keeps seeing different things, new things, every time she reads it. Don’t we all have books like that? Because that’s what reading is: books interact with us, and since we are different throughout our lives, since we know different things and see the world through different lenses as our experiences pile up, since the world itself is different and what once seemed absurd suddenly is taken for granted and vice versa, we read the same book differently over time. All of our relationships, after all, change over time.

It ends with our student, more than forty years after we first met her, on her deathbed, struggling to read a few pages:

This time, the book is about the shifting delusion of shared need, our imprisonment in a medium as traceless as air. It’s about a girl who knew nothing at all, taking a bike ride through the Cotswolds one ridiculous spring, mistaking books for life and those roiling hills of metaphor for truth. It’s about a little flash, glimpsed for half a paragraph at the bottom of a left-hand page, that fills you with something almost like knowing.
A freak snow hits late that year. You lie in bed, an hour from your next morphine dose, your swollen index finger marking a secret place in the spine-cracked volume, the passage that predicted your life. For a moment you are lucid, and equal to any story.
Score the world on a scale from one to ten. Say what you’d like to see happen, in the sequel.

Powers wrote this story as part of an assignment he gave a class he was teaching: write a story that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe this. But I’m glad he wrote it anyway.

BASS 2011: Ricardo Nuila, “Dog Bites” from McSweeney’s

McSweeney's Issue 36

McSweeney's Issue 36

Dad was explicit about everything growing up. I was treated like an adult from as far back as I remember. For instance, I knew exactly what happened to Mom.
“Your mother works as a nurse in Rwanda. There was a genocide there and she felt herself morally obligated to help out,” he told me. “To this day she continues her work there.”
This was when I was in second grade.
“Do you understand?”

This struck me as a strange story, though it really isn’t, it just reads that way. It’s told in memoir voice, and somehow the exposition and backstory gets all twisted up with the “now” of the main events, at least for me. But it’s a fascinating character study of a father and his son, Ricky. I liked it more on second read. It’s quite possible it just took me a while to enter into the “world” of the story. Maybe if I keep reading it (which isn’t an unattractive prospect), I’ll eventually love it.

The father is a doctor, an unrepentant pedant who carries an array of markers in his shirt pocket so he can teach at the drop of a hat. His son may or may not have some kind of mental or neurological condition. At some points it seems a bit like temporal lobe epilepsy, except he claims his silence could go on for a couple of months. His physician father keeps finding a new “Syndrome X” to describe it, where “X” is whatever is popular at the time – Asperger’s, Munchausen’s, Rett’s.

Dad claims to be quite honest with Ricky in all matters, explaining his condition, and the absence of his mother, as described above early in the story. Ricky is about 11 in the “now” of the story, and he doesn’t remember his mother, so I’m a bit dubious about this explanation. I wonder if Ricky is dubious as well. It’s not something given a lot of emphasis after the above quoted paragraph, and I wonder if this is one of those inconsistencies about his father that he overlooks. Dad’s honesty is quite suspect; while he does deal in factual matters, it seems to me he’s stacking the deck a bit. How is a seven-year-old supposed to understand that his mother is off doing humanitarian work, and never calls or writes? It’s this unreliability that makes the story tick, but also contributes to that air of peculiarity, I think.

The main event of the story is a birthday party of a fellow Little Leaguer, Billy. The events don’t quite make sense to me. They’re not bizarre, really – Ricky opens all of Billy’s birthday presents while everyone’s out playing baseball; the Doctor gets elbowed in the head and is sent to the Emergency Room where a woman dressed only in a towel cuts in line claiming she has dog bites. The falsity of the “dog bites” claim has a significance that I sense but don’t quite grasp; it’s reflected in a flash-forward to Ricky’s own son. Something about things looking like one thing, but being another, misinterpretation, lying about what has hurt you, which may tie in with Dad’s explanation of Mom’s absence. It all left me feeling a bit off-balance.

It’s the kind of story that hangs with me, puzzling me rather than moving me. It’s a smooth and engrossing, if initially confusing, read, kind of like a train ride through a series of tunnels: glimpses of interesting things along the way but at the end of the ride I don’t have a real framework to hang them on as a whole. The Doctor is fascinating; I think he’s playing at honesty, and cheating when it gets hard. There’s a section where he talks about marrying a good-looking woman, and as narrated, Ricky thinks Dad is talking about Billy’s father, but I think it’s more ambiguous than that. And I wonder who has the subtle neurological or mental condition. Especially since Ricky enters the Air Force, then becomes a doctor himself, and has a little son who bites him. It’s a little cycle there.

This story was in the “head-crate” issue of McSweeney’s, as described here by Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That:

With McSweeney’s #36, it’s like they made my conceptual ideal. Its weird packaging is fantastic and the contents are simply wonderful. But let’s start with the obvious: this issue comes in a box. And the box is drawn to look like a head. You open up the man’s head to get to the contents. Brilliant. The head is drawn by Matt Furie (with interior from Jules de Balincourt’s Power Flower.

There’s a line in the story, after the Doctor is injured: “The brain is in a box, son.” At the time, Ricky takes that to mean he has bleeding in his brain (and that Ricky is able to diagnose such a thing at age 11 is testament to the Doctor’s teaching ability). And the story came packed in a box… I think this may intrigue me most.

The author is a physician, and in the Contributor Notes describes having an experience similar to the one in the story: he was conked in the head playing wiffleball, and at the emergency room encountered a woman similar to the character. Presumably the characters are fictional. They do have a rather distinct air of quirky fictional people about them, almost sitcom characters – maybe that’s my biggest problem with this piece. They aren’t realistic enough to be one thing, nor outrageous enough to be another. But they do stay with me, still.

BASS 2011: Steven Millhauser – “Phantoms” from McSweeney’s #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

The Phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not trnanslucent, or smokelike, or hazy; they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know…. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and switftly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

I want so badly to like Steven Millhauser. This is the second of his stories I’ve read recently, and I’m not really seeing the appeal. I enjoyed “Miracle Polish” considerably more than this piece. I think I’ll read his new collection, “We Others: New and Selected Stories” and see if I can develop whatever sense it is that makes him so highly revered by people I highly revere.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the BASS people want to make sure each annual volume contains a variety of stories, so they encourage – perhaps require – that perhaps a couple of non-traditional narratives are included. Maybe they want one speculative fiction story. With this story, they get two quotas for the price of one. Of course, I could be overcomplicating the process.

It’s written in the form of a report, describing the phenomonon of Phantoms in a small town. It’s broken into sections, including multiple Explanations (with evidence against each one) and Case Studies. I tried looking at is as a portrait of a small town, but that didn’t really work. Is there some significance to the study of things we don’t understand? Of course, but that seems like too small a payoff. The phantoms depicted in the case studies behave in different ways (probably why they were chosen as case studies; you wouldn’t pick all the same types of encounters, after all) and the people who experience them vary widely as well. I don’t even find it to be a particularly interesting examination of astral phenomena. I feel like a failure.

There are people who love cilantro, and those who insist it tastes like soap. This has led to speculation about a “cilantro gene.” Maybe I’m missing the Millhauser gene. That thought makes me sad. So I’ll keep trying. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Addendum: This story is also in the Pushcart 2012 volume, making me feel even more stupid.

And again: it’s in the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories anthology too; three for three. I still don’t get it.

BASS 2011: Elizabeth McCracken, “Property” from Granta

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

“We’ll unpack my storage space,” he said. “I have things.”
“Yes, my love,” she said. “I have things too.”
“You have a duffel bag. You have clothing. You have a saltshaker shaped like a duck with a chipped beak.”
She cackled a very European cackle, pride and delight in her ownership of the lusterware duck, whose name was Trudy. “The sole exhibit in the museum. When I am dead, people will know nothing about me.” This was a professional opinion: she was a museum consultant. In Normandy she was helping set up an exhibition in a stone cottage that had been owned by a Jewish family deported during the war. In Paris, it had been the atelier of a minor artist who’d been the longtime lover of a major poetess; in Denmark, a workhouse museum. Her specialty was the air of recent evacuation: you knew something terrible had happened to the occupants, but you hoped it might still be undone. She set contemporary spectacles on desktops and snuggled appropriate shoes under beds and did not overdust. Too much cleanliness made a place dead. In Rome she arranged an exhibit of the commonplace belongings of Ezra Pound; chewed pencils, drinking glasses, celluloid dice, dog-eared books. Only the brochure suggested a connection to greatness. At the Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, where they were mere tourists, she lingered in admiration over Andersen’s upper plate and the length of rope that he traveled with in his suitcase in case of hotel fire. “You can tell more from dentures than from years of diaries,” she’d said then. “Dentures do not lie.” But she herself threw everything out. She did not want any one to exhibit even the smallest bit of her.

Many stories trivialize things, material possessions, as being unimportant compared to people and relationships and memories. Of course, that’s true. But this story pays tribute to things – everyday things, not a special memento or souvenir or lock of baby hair, just routine stuff used every day – as a reflection, an abbreviation, of a soul, a time, a life. It’s as beautiful as it is surprising that it’s beautiful. And it touched me in a dozen sad, sweet, and tender places.

It’s a simple story. Stony and Pamela (pronounced pa-MELL-a) have been together three years, married, moving over Europe every few months for Pamela’s jobs as a museum consultant. They have plans to move back to the States, to Maine, “where Stony had accepted a two-year job, cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications; things printed on rice paper and Popsicle sticks and cocktail napkins.” But fate intervenes and delays this trip, permanently for Pamela:

She was still, as he would think of it later, casually alive. In two months she would be, according to her doctors, miraculously alive, and, later still, alive in a nearly unmodifiable twilight state. Or too modifiable: technically alive.

After her death, Stony delays the move to Maine and spends the summer in England mourning and drinking. He packs, but he’s unable to find the duck:

When he failed to find the duck, he remembered the words of the lovely Buddhist landlady in Edinburgh, when he’d apologized for breaking a bowl: “We have a saying – it was already broken.” Even now he wasn’t sure if we meant Buddhists or Scots. He would leave a note for the landlady concerning the duck, but of course the loss of the duck could not break his heart.

He makes the move to Maine at the end of summer, having negotiated with his prospective landlord to move into the rented house three months later than expected. When he arrives, he finds the house is not what he expected. It’s not a charming little Victorian, it’s a Sears, Roebuck kit, it’s filthy, and it’s full of junk: an old salad spinner, dozens of clay pots all the same color, paper posters and pages from magazines serving as art, a dirty rug, a ramshackle homemade platform bed, and, in the kitchen, dozens of supermarket jars of half-used spices aged beyond any possible use. When the landlady (whom Stony knows only through email and her daughter) is perplexed by his concerns and insists the house was cleaned in May, he throws out the spices and other kitchen garbage and moves the furniture, pots, and “art” to the art studio out back, since he won’t be using it; it was to be for Pamela.

He then goes about his work for the next nine months:

At work he catalogued the underground collection, those beautiful daft objects of passion, pamphlets and buttons, broadsides,. What would the founders of these publications make of him? What pleasure, to describe things that had been invented to defy description – but maybe he shouldn’t have. The inventors never imagined these things lasting forever, filling phase boxes, the phase boxes filling shelves. He was a cartographer, mapping the unmappable, putting catalog numbers and provenance where once had been only waves and the profiles of sea serpents. Surely some people grieved for those sea serpents.
He didn’t care. He kept at it, constructing his little monument to impermanence.

So many other wonderful passages appear, and it would be silly for me to invent plot-necessary ways to introduce them, so I’ll just list them as essential to getting the true flavor of this piece.

It was possible, thought Stony, that all American teenagers might appear damaged to him these days, the way that all signs in front of fast-food restaurants – MAPLE CHEDDAR COMING SOON! MCRIB IS BACK – struck him as mysterious and threatening.

It wasn’t grief, which he could be subsumed in at any moment, which like water bent all straight lines and spun whatever navigational tools he owned into nonsense – but a rational, detached thought: wasn’t that awful, what happened to me, one, two, three moths ago? That was a terrible thing for a person to go through.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, because after Pamela died, he’d promised himself that if anyone told him the smallest, saddest story, he would answer, I’m so sorry. Meaning, Yes, that happened.. You couldn’t believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention – as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin, and materialized only at the sound of its own name.

The summer comes, and Stony moves into another place, a modern place. He dithers for a while about whether he actually wants to move – he’s fixed the place up nicely, after all – but in the end, he does, so he moves back some of the essential furniture and leaves a note explaining where the pots, the art, the still-filthy rug, can be found. The landlady, Sally, calls almost immediately, since she’s decided to move back into the house. She leaves a series of messages: where’s her dishcloth? The bottom of the salad spinner? Her birth certificate, in the white desk that’s gone? And what on earth happened to the spices?

He goes to the house to show her how everything was packed into the art studio, and discovers the paper art is moldy and the studio smells of mildew; he explains he threw out the past-their-expiration-date spices and as he sees tears falling down Sally’s perplexed face, understands the awful truth:

But he realized he’d gotten everything wrong. She had not left her worst things behind four years ago, but her best things, her beloved things. She’d left the art, hoping it would bring beauty in to the lives of the students and summer renters and other wayward subletters….She loved the terra-cotta sun that he’d taken down from the kitchen the first day. She loved the bed made for her in the 1070s by that clever, wretched man her husband. She bought herself a cheap salad spinner so her tenants could use this one which worked so well. If Pamela had been with him that day nine months ago, she would have known. She would have seen the pieces of key chain and clucked over the dirty rung and told him the whole story. This was a house abandoned by sadness, not a war or epidemic but he end of a marriage, and kept in place to commemorate both the marriage and its ruin.

The New Yorker editors would strike this paragraph as “explaining the story,” but it’s just lovely, and it fits in this story that doesn’t try to be sophisticated and artsy-fartsy.

And as I said, it hit me from all directions. When people come into my home, they see the tumbleweeds of cat fur in the corners, the dingy walls, and of course a cacophony of books stuffed every which way into shelves of varying sizes and styles. If they dare to move a teacup on the hutch, they discover inside and behind it is an archeological layer of dust. Occasionally they’ll feel a crunch under their feet as their shoe crushes a stray speck of cat litter. Washable throws and blankets cover every surface a cat might want to sleep on, which gives things a motley effect. Yet if someone, say a maintenance worker fixing the stove, tracks in mud on his shoes or leaves effluvia from his labors, I’ll know it, and spring to clean it up while he’s still there, hoping to shame him into tidying up after himself. It rarely works, since to him, it’s just a drop in the bucket. To me, it’s alien dirt, and unwelcome.

And then there are attachment objects: A glass pitcher I suspect my then-husband broke on purpose (which is an absurd paranoia, even to me). I remember my unexpected sorrow when a hideous winter scarf, not at all my colors and bought from dire necessity under duress of the coldest First Night celebration in the history of the now-defunct New Year’s festivity, was ruined by water damage from a fire in a neighboring apartment; the scarf somehow grew on me, becoming more and more beloved for its ugliness and some other factors too complex to explain here. My mother’s wedding china, I’ve lugged all over the East Coast, wrapping and rewrapping, not because I love it or use it, but because, well, it’s my mother’s china, and in the spirit of grief as a reverse Rumpelstiltskin, all evidence of her existence was removed from our lives by my father upon her death when I was nine, so as to not upset me and my brother. My surreptitious “theft” of my father’s polo shirt, lifted from his hospital room after he died (I was in my 30s), I can’t really explain; I threw it out years later, when it lost its power.

And, silliest of all – during one move in 1990 or so, we’d left a pile of oddball stuff in the middle of the floor next to the piano for the last trip, and when we returned, it was all gone. Apparently the landlord’s handyman had “assumed” it was junk and had removed it for us, thinking we’d abandoned the apartment (along with a mahogany console piano which thankfully he couldn’t get down the stairs so was still there). Included in that junk was a twenty-five-year-old 12″ black and white TV my father had won as a door prize and gave to my brother and then, after he left for college, me, missing the on-off button, with a coat hanger for an (essential; this was a very old tv set) antenna. I could live with the loss of the winter coats (most were too small, and I’d been planning on bringing them to a Salvation Army bin), various trinkets, a woebegone but functioning vacuum bought for $20 at a (then) newfangled “videotape movie rental” store (we joked the link between videos and vacuums in one store was the letter “v”), and while I wished they’d spared my winter boots, I understood why they were considered trash. But the tv, which had been my friend for some very (very) bad adolescent years, that broke my heart. But notice this: even the trivial items were connected to stories, memories, emotions, relationships.

I’m fascinated too by how this story came about. In her Contributor Notes, McCracken explains the plot, though not the characters, was autobiographical: “[W]hat prompted the actual writing of it was a landlord-tenant dispute….I suppose I’m grateful that the story helped me understand them, but still, I would like to make it clear; my motivation was not connection, but revenge.”

There’s something there about the Buddhist law of opposites. Or maybe it’s the Scots.

BASS 2011: Sam Lipsyte, “The Dungeon Master” from The New Yorker 10/4/10

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.

Those who have never played computer games aren’t going to enjoy this post much. They probably won’t enjoy the story, either. It’s available online.

Full disclosure: I was a middle-aged gamer. Yes, I am blushing down to the roots of my hair. Oh, I dabbled in D&D back in the early 80s when I hung out with people who wrote their own game programs. And I still play word games, but they don’t count. My dirty secret: I played Pyroto Mountain, where I fretted about manna and esteem and cast spells for a few years, even went to a RL get-together in Toronto where I met, among others, beeg, Sethari & Isabel, and the infamous Soup. When Pyroto went dark, I followed Feldermer and em to Kingdom of Loathing, which is hilarious rather than loathsome. I had a Mr. Accessory (worth a million meat). Never got a Mrs. Accessory, though. I came in 49th in a race, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I won a prize, after all.

During my Pyroto years, I became fascinated with the Bartle Classification of gamers. Socializers play to chat with other players. Achievers play to win, get the most points, whatever. Explorers play to understand every nook and cranny of the game (and are the admin’s best friend and worst enemy, since they will point out obscure bugs no one else will ever encounter). And the Killers, their objective is to annoy other players – not beat other characters, but annoy the person behind the characters. The famous Soup, mentioned above, was a Killer. A psycho hell-bent character. And a perfectly nice guy IRL.

The Dragon Master, in this Dungeon & Dragons based story, is a Killer. Except he isn’t, really. As Sam Lipsyte says in a great interview with Wizards.com, “Generally the Dungeon Master does see it as his duty to teach them that life is disappointment.” He does a very good job. The mystery is why they stick with him.

There’s another D&D game group in an afterschool program, and it’s full of creative kids making up fun adventures. Eventually the narrator tries the other group. He finds something is missing. To me, this addresses the question: do violent games make kids violent, or do violent kids gravitate towards violent games?

But I don’t think that’s what Sam Lipsyte was after. I think he was exploring these kids’ lives – bleak lives – using a game. He does a terrific job of it, staying in the game for much of the story. It’s through the game that we learn how they react to frustration, to success, to failure. There’s a quick flash-forward at the end that cues us in on how their lives proceed. I’m not a fan of the “where they are now” flash forward, but this one is masterful.

In his Contributor Note, Lipsyte says he wrote this story right after college, then put it in the proverbial drawer for twenty years until it finally and suddenly clicked. It’s the third story of his I’ve read, and it’s probably my least favorite. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I admire the technique. And I do have a soft spot for D&D.

BASS 2011: Claire Keegan – “Foster” from The New Yorker, 2/15-22/10

New Yorker illustration by Simon Pemberton

New Yorker illustration by Simon Pemberton

Part of me wants my father to leave me here while another wants him to take me back, to what I know. I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.

This story is available online at The New Yorker where it was originally published.
An interview with author Claire Keegan can be found online at the Guardian.
(I’m experimenting with a new posting format. Feel free to comment)

Here’s another story that fed into my desire to take a few days off. I hadn’t read it yet, but I knew it was next in line, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Why? Because everyone loves it. I can be stubborn that way. It’s one of those stories that’s universally acclaimed as a sensitive look at a poor rural Irish girl’s summer away from her family, carrying on the great tradition of Irish writers, described with it words like “insightful,” “moving,” and “extraordinary.” I love insightful, moving, extraordinary works. It just didn’t sound like the kind of story that’s up my particular alley; a matter of personal preference, rather than evaluation of greatness. So, being in a certain frame of mind, I wanted to avoid it. Sometimes I take things head on, and sometimes I hide in a corner with a blanket over my head.

It’s a good story. It’s slightly longer than most New Yorker stories, but it kept my attention throughout, I had no trouble first-reading it in one sitting, and I enjoyed it. But it’s not the kind of story I start dancing over and run around telling everyone they must read it. Plenty of people I respect feel that way about it, and that’s fine. I’ll stick with “it’s a good story.”

I gather this was originally a “long short story” (Keegan does not consider it to have the rhythm of a novella) and was abridged forThe New Yorker. The full version was published as a stand-alone paperback in February 2010. It’s set in 1981, apparently defined by reference to an IRA hunger strike. It seems much older than that. But I don’t know much about rural Ireland.

A young girl, our first-person narrator, is sent to live with another family for a summer. Her parents, Mary and Dan, are very poor and have several children; Mom is about to have another. It’s implied she’s sent away because they can’t afford to feed her. The couple taking her in, Edna and John Kinsella, might be the mother’s relatives, perhaps an aunt or cousin; it’s never explicitly stated. They aren’t poor, and they have no children. The little girl isn’t named; the Kinsellas refer to her as “Petal” and “Long Legs.” When her father drops her off, he tells the Kinsellas they can “work her.” They assure him they won’t have her do more than help Edna around the house. Dad doesn’t seem to care much. He tells some lies about the great hay crop he’s harvesting, and promises to send money for her room and board, though he doesn’t.

The Kinsellas seem welcoming, and over the summer the girl learns about wells, about wakes, and about heifers. She learns the couple had a son who drowned. There’s a lot of reading between the lines to be done. Such as:

I keep my foot in the water, and then, when I thin I can’t stand it any longer, my thinking changes, and I can.

“There are no secrets in this house, do you hear?”….
“Where there’s a secret,” she says, “there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without.”

“You don’t ever have to say anything,” he says. “Always remember that. Many’s the man lost much just because he misses a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

When it’s time for her to go back home, she wishes she could stay. Just before her departure, she visits the well to bid it goodbye, and falls in, leading to a frantic attempt to keep her from catching cold. I’m thinking the son didn’t drown, but died afterwards of some kind of pneumonia. Edna’s concern is way beyond what might be expected, beyond the girl’s understanding. Beyond my understanding, too, but I just accepted it as the reaction of a mother who isn’t done grieving one loss and now is faced with another.

The girl decides not to speak of the accident when she returns to her family:

…I have learned enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.

To me, this is a little over the top, but it’s nice anyway.

The last scene is heartrending, with her clinging to John’s neck and watching her father approach over his shoulder: “‘Daddy,’ I keep warning him, keep calling him. ‘Daddy.’ I love the phrasing of that – she is warning Kinsella that her father is approaching, and calling him Daddy as well (her own father is “Da”).

That’s an aspect of the story I like very much, who is called what. It’s very well done – when the Kinsellas are called “the lady” or “he” or by their last names or first names. I also like how the idea of children belonging to parents, as seen from a child’s point of view, is explored. At another, a storekeeper asks, “Isn’t your mammy good to you?” while she’s with Edna, and she isn’t sure how to respond. Later, John hugs her: “…he puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his.” And there’s nice imagery, with two lights on the horizon becoming three, the moon going in and out of the clouds, and reflections in the well.

Like I said, a nice story. Just don’t ask me to wax poetic about the great tradition of Irish writers.

BASS 2011: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Soldier of Fortune” from Glimmer Train

It was the year the president denied trading arms for hostages in Iran and the space shuttle Challenger exploded and Halley’s Comet scorched through the sky. It was the year I loved a reckless girl, the year being around my best friend made me lonely.

This is a very sweet and well-told coming-of-age tale that Johnston admits he hardly remembers writing. While it is extremely well-paced and well-written – the paragraphs and sections end with perfect cadences – it’s also quite predictable, and I have a feeling I’ll hardly remember reading it a year from now.

Josh is fourteen and a freshman; Holly, his neighbor and crush, is eighteen and a senior. She’s lived across the street for all his life, except for those two years when her family went to Florida, but they’ve been back a year now. Her little brother Sam, three years old and born when they were away, has a tragic kitchen accident and is severely scalded; Josh is enlisted to feed the dog while her family is occupied. He spends a lot of time in Holly’s bedroom, making aborted phone calls from her phone, and admiring a picture of her and Sam in an orange grove. He and his best friend Matt have been collecting war trinkets – ninja stars, blank bullets, MREs – for years, but Josh has lost interest lately and has packed up the stuff for Matt to pick up.

Josh does a lot of growing up in those few days, aided by Holly’s surreptitious return from the hospital. He learns about secrets. He learns the oranges in the picture were frozen. He learns what you’d expect him to learn in a sweet, well-told coming-of-age tale.

It’s told in that “memoir voice,” an adult looking back. In this case, he’s looking back from twenty years hence: “Now I think of 1986 as the year my life pivoted away from what it had been, maybe the year when all of our lives pivoted.” Holly joined the Coast Guard (and later the Army) right as Josh lost interest in military matters, and made quite a career for herself over twenty years. His mother emailed him the obituary. He wonders if he can find the picture he stole, of Holly and Sam in the orange grove.

Oddly, we never find out whether or not Sam survived his accident. A lot of interesting family dynamics are hinted at, but not directly exposed. We find out a lot about rumors, and about how slippery truth can be.

I wish I could work up more enthusiasm for the story, because it truly is exquisitely crafted. But I can’t, because it was so familiar. There was nothing in it that surprised or excited or even interested me, other than the skill level. Except maybe the oranges. But from a “best” story, I expect more. Still, if you’re fond of the Bildungsroman genre, this is a great example.

ETA: Oops, my bad – this story is in the Pushcart XXXVI (2012) volume. I’m a little surprised, but I guess I need to read it again and figure out what I missed (hints from readers are welcome). And, oddly, this makes two “scalding” stories in XXXVI.

BASS 2011 – Caitlin Horrocks, “The Sleep” from Atlantic Fiction for Kindle

Al Rasmussen had wintered in Eden, we thought. We started to feel a little like suckers.

Though I never heard of her until recently, this is the third Caitlin Horrocks story I’ve read in the past few months: “Sun City” and “Steal Small” were the others, both excellent. This is the first one with a touch of goofiness. I live for goofiness.

Al Rasmussen’s had a tough time. His wife was killed by a kid driving drunk. The economy’s terrible. The town is pretty much withering. So he decides to sleep through the winter. He calls the town – the very small town of Bounty – to his house to explain what he and his kids are going to do. They think of various objections, but he’s considered everything. They’re going to hibernate through January and February. See you in March.

It works out so well (he has some wonderful dreams and misses a number of unfortunate events), other people think about doing the same thing. Over the years, more and more people join in. A lot of it is economic: far lower heating bills and food costs, no gas to buy. And if they hibernate the whole winter, no Christmas presents. But it’s more than that. Winter is not kind (presumably they’re in North Dakota or thereabouts). And the dreams… who wouldn’t rather dream than shovel snow? One chubby teen went to sleep in braces and woke slender and straight-toothed. “How easily, they thought, so much of the hard work of growing up had happened while they were asleep, while no one could make fun of them for it.”

Pretty soon most of the town is sleeping; they start sleeping in communal groups, in fact, to reduce heating costs even further. The librarian stays up to light the Christ Candle in the Lutheran Church on Christmas eve, and… well, you’ll have to read the story to see what happens to her. It’s available for Kindle (which I don’t really understand, so you’ll have to go find it yourself) and if you’re really careful and/or lucky, you might find it on GoogleBooks.

Eventually the media finds out about it, and lots of fuss gets made, which is pretty hilarious, all the more so because it’s so exactly what would happen. That’s why it’s so great a story: except for the idea that people can sleep for two or four or six months, everything in this story is perfectly logical. And, to rural people in the northern reaches, maybe not such a bad idea. In fact, according to the Contributor Notes, Horrocks got the idea of the story from an article “about historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation” and found herself curious, and a little jealous. As another Maine winter approaches, I can understand that.

It’s written in first person plural, and I’m pretty proud of myself that I realized that (thanks to reading a lot of Seth Fried stories lately that have sensitised me to it). The whole town is the “we” with various individuals in the spotlight throughout. Perfect use for it, too. The town is the protagonist, a town that is perhaps dying. Is the sleep curative, or the final descent? Are they adapting, or giving up? That seems to me the central question, and I still can’t decide. But maybe that’s because I’m dealing with some loss of my own, the economy’s terrible, and winter is coming.

BASS 2011: Ehud Havazelet, “Gurov in Manhattan” from TriQuarterly #137

Photograph by Linda Ball

Nothing had cut him so deeply in years: Sokolov, Old World conqueror, who had held the gaze of every woman in his novels class, who had wooed dozens just by a line from Herzen or a pose struck thoughtfully looking out a window, who had slept with half the humanities faculty at Lehman, knew all at once age, irrelevance, invisibility. And standing there with a five-dollar bill in his hand, for the first time since the terrifying clap of mortality when the doctor pronounced the diagnosis, felt the brush of the dark angel’s wings on his neck.
And since, he had returned daily to verify the sensation, rage, and concede and quietly wonder at the many ways we pass into insubstantiality. An old fool in love.

Sokolov is an aging academic (aha, another taboo that made it through three rounds of selection) walking Lermontov, his intestinally-blocked wolfhound, in the hopes of working something loose; otherwise Lermontov, who is a ripe old 13, will find himself the recipient of a humanely-delivered lethal injection. The dog used to belong to Kelly, his grad-student girlfriend. He’d met Kelly by invoking Chekhov’s “The Lady and the Dog” in his flirtations; after they’d been together three years, on a trip to Key West, he has “the brittle realization they were sullen, disconsolate, exhausted.”

But at that moment Fate delivered its own blow, and Sokolov was diagnosed with cancer. After treatment and four clean biopsies, Kelly headed for warmer climes and a better professional opportunity, leaving only Lermontov behind.

Of late, Sokolov has become enrapt by another cute young thing, Amity, a waitress in a café who pays him no attention whatsoever. This is a new experience, and he’s trying to adjust to it.

In his BASS Contributor Notes, Havazelet says he was trying to emulate Chekhov’s “The Lady And The Dog” by capturing “a moment where nothing at all seems to happen and yet everything has changed.” I’m pretty sure he was successful, in that on reading the passage above, I immediately identified with similar moments I’ve experienced. I re-read the Chekhov story, and there are similarities and frequent references, but this story stands alone just fine, I think.

It’s a nice read – the prose is a bit more lush than usual – and I appreciate the Chekhov reference. In an interview with TriQuarterly, the author admits to having an experience very similar to the turning point, involving a sweet young waitress who took little notice of him; and, like Sokolov, he returned to the café to get used to the idea that he was no longer an object of admiration to young ladies. I like the elements he chose to add to make this moment a story, including the Chekhov reference, the dog’s intestinal blockage (which is part of the “everything” that changes; it’s a terrific use of symbolism), the illness, the departed lover.

A quiet, thoughtful story, low on action; I’m glad to see it included here.

BASS 2011: Allegra Goodman, “La Vita Nuova” from The New Yorker

La Vita Nuova explained how to become a great poet. The secret was to fall in love with a perfect girl but never speak to her. You should weep instead. You should pretend that you love someone else. You should write sonnets in three parts. Your perfect girl should die.

This story is told in such a child-like, sing-song manner, it’s easy to think it’s stupid. In her Book Bench interview when the story was originally published in The New Yorker, the author explains the tone: “The story is told from Amanda’s perspective, but the simple language and storybook syntax allow me to layer Nathaniel’s child’s point of view onto hers.” In addition to the language, the story itself is simple: jilted woman undergoes a series of losses, spends some time processing, moves on.

Thing is – I love Amanda. I want to be Amanda. At the very least, I want her to be my baby-sitter. Mine, not my kid’s. You can see why; the story is available online.

Her fiance dumps her because he thinks she’s a very dark person. Granted, Amanda walks through a cemetery the day after the fiance leaves her. Hey, it’s Boston, you can’t go anywhere without passing a historic cemetery. Maybe this is indicative of the darkness, and she changes it, because nothing else she does is dark. In fact, she’s the brightest, most brilliant shining person I’ve read about recently.

For example, she brings her wedding gown in to her classroom (she teaches elementary school art, which has included puppetry, drumming, and dance), puts it on the floor, and has the kids decorate it. Does this seem dark to you? The kids glue pink feathers to it, and paint on it. The principal calls her on the carpet for it.

“Your personal life,” said the principle, “is not an appropriate art project for first grade. Your classroom,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate forum for your relationships. Let’s pack up the wedding dress.”
“It’s still wet,” Amanda said.

Maybe this is the artists’ point of view: everything is grist for the mill, and non-artists don’t quite get that. Somber subjects – death, broken engagements – are to be hidden, not celebrated. She’s not deterred by the constant reminder she’s on a different wavelength. Maybe this is why I love Amanda. She turns such things into art. Not dark art – nothing painted in blood or immersed in urine or any of the other things that pass for art these days. Art. Beauty.

At the end of the school year, she loses her teaching job permanently, and starts babysitting for Nathaniel, one of the students from her art class. They have a blast. She takes him to the Franklin Park Zoo (I lived in Boston for 20 years and never went there), canoeing on the Charles, to Walden Pond with his friends. She takes him to an ice cream store with flavors like adzuki bean and cardamom (Cambridge, what can I say) and he orders vanilla, maybe because it’s the only flavor he isn’t afraid of. He lives in a house where he can’t dig in the flowers, after all. She finds a copy of Dante’s La Vita Nuova on Nathaniel’s dad’s bookshelf, and interprets it as quoted above. Nathaniel’s dad starts coming on to her; she deflects his advances.

The pivot occurs when she and Nathaniel visit a particular shop:

They went to a store called Little Russia and looked at the lacquered dolls there. “See, they come apart,” Amanda told Nathaniel. “You pop open this lady, and inside there’s another, and another, and another.”
“Do not touch, please,” the saleslady told them.

But Amanda is not a do-not-touch woman. She dreams about the dolls. She buys a set of blank Russian dolls, and paints them to correspond to her life in stages – toddler, schoolgirl, art student, bride, babysitter. She starts painting sets of dolls for others: Nathaniel’s father, her fiance, a friend, and then total strangers. “She started thinking about fellowships. She imagined group shows, solo shows. Refusing interviews.” In this way (I think), she paints her own sixth doll, the one after babysitter, with her life. La Vita Nuova. Dark? Hardly. I want to paint a set of those dolls. It’s an incredible idea for art therapy.

It’s one of those stories where the parts are so much more than the whole, I think. That’s not the way “great” literature is supposed to work. But it makes a damn good read.

BASS 2011: Nathan Englander, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” from The New Yorker

New Yorker Illustration by Emmanuel Guibert

I will pretty much get on a plane to anywhere in the world if it’s to do an event with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (and, yes, the little boy in the story is named after him). So about a year and a half ago, I flew to Rome to give a talk with Etgar, and, a nice surprise, there in the first row of the audience was an Italian friend of mine. After the talk, we ended up on the roof of her building telling stories for hours. One of those stories was about Etgar’s father, and matching uniforms, and the Sinai Campaign….. I wanted to tell Etgar something about the narrative structure of the story. But I didn’t want to be rude and talk about a personal story in an inconsiderate way. So I asked, in Hebrew, “Would you mind if I engaged with that story as a story?” And Etgar turned and said, “Sure. Take it.” As in, It’s yours, go write it. And there I was backpedalling and apologizing and saying, No, no, that wasn’t my intent. But Etgar made it clear. He writes about talking fish, and fake angels, and women that turn into hairy men after dark, and that, really, this is not the kind of thing he would do. So a year went by, and I was living in Berlin for a few months, and thinking about history and the Holocaust and Israel, and that’s when I sat down to write “Free Fruit.”

This is how Nathan Englander describes the origin of “Free Fruit for Young Widows” in his New Yorker Book Bench interview, and in his BASS 2011 Contributor Notes. Initially this anecdote interested me because I’d read Keret’s “Surprise Party” in One Story (I think I’m being haunted by One Story, I’ve had reason to mention it in something like three-quarters of the comments I’ve done this fall) and would otherwise be unaware of him.

But now I find myself in a position where I’m not sure I’m willing, or able, to discuss this as a story, because it’s one of those intensely personal Jewish pieces that becomes rather like a Buddhist koan, and I don’t have the background to fully grasp it. Still, I can fumble along. You can fumble along, too, since it’s available online.

Three things seem very important for me to say. First, I found it very difficult to get into. The first paragraph is bewildering and reads like a magazine article rather than a short story. Yet I’m not sure I’d want to see it rewritten; one of my complaints about the last BASS volume was that most of the stories were too similar, and here when confronted with something different, I’m embarrassed to find myself balking. So as I’ve learned from past stories, I just kept plugging along, and eventually things started making sense and it turned into a short story.

Second, I think the boy Etgar’s philosophical development is perhaps the real metaphor of the story. He goes from seeing things in absolute certainty to realizing there are gray areas: “Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life. In this gray space, he explained, even absolutes could maintain more than one position, reflect more than one truth.” At first Etgar is unconvinced, but later, he “decided Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken.” Is this growing? Or inuring? Or sophistry? Has he developed compassion, or callouses? Or both? Or has he just learned to rationalize what he wants to believe anyway?

Then there are the questions of blame, guilt, forgiveness, responsibility, punishment. That’s what rabbis do all day; debate is the Jewish sport. I’m not able to follow fully. But I get the jist, and can appreciate the intricacies of what’s going on.

I don’t really “get” the story. But once I got into it, I enjoyed it. And more than that, I appreciated it. We never know how good we’ve got it until we remember how bad we could’ve had it, in a different time, a different place.

BASS 2011: Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body” from Tin House

Coach Freeman, aka your pop, calls Drew’s type “woodsy.” They’re loners, Pop says – skiers, woodchoppers – not team players. But you know all about teams, you can talk to people on teams (Only Sasha knows you picked NYU because it hasn’t had a football team in thirty years). On your best day you registered twelve team-playing Democrats, prompting Drew to exclaim, when you gave him the paperwork, “You’ve got the touch, Rob!” But you never registered yourself, that was the thing, and the longer you waited, the more ashamed of this you got. Then it was too late. Even Sasha, who knows all your secrets, has no idea that you never cast a vote for Bill Clinton.

I’ve now read 5 stories from (or chapters of) The Goon Squad, and I still couldn’t read it when I checked it out of the library a few months ago. I tried, I really did. I seem to be the only person in the country who looks at a few pages and goes, “Meh.”

It’s strange, because individually, I’ve liked many of the stories. I read “Safari,” in BASS 2010, and liked some things but not others. Then I read the first story/chapter, “Found Objects” in The New Yorker (it’s available online) and I loved it. After the book won the Pulitzer Prize, I checked it out of the library and read the second story, “The Gold Cure,” and liked it quite a bit. Then chapter 3 lost me. I’m not sure where “Out of Body” fell in the book, since I gave up at Chapter 5.

I enjoyed this story. It’s in second person – now how did that get by Zin? The second person POV works to emphasize how Rob, already alienated and now out of school temporarily following a suicide attempt, has become an observer of his own life. In her Contributor Notes, Egan says she used it because when she worked as a journalist she notice “people tend to slip into the second person when discussing emotional things, to distance themselves from those emotions.” It switches back to first person at the very end when there’s a change in consciousness, a technique I liked tremendously in “Scordatura.”

Also in the Contributor Notes, I enjoyed reading about the evolution of this chapter. It started out as a chapter about Sasha travelling in Asia and meeting a young man named Lief, but Egan decided it wasn’t working. She liked Lief, so she moved him to NYU where he turned into Bobbie who turned into Rob after she glimpsed a young man on a subway train: “That’s when the story finally began to come together; when Lief transformed into Bobbie, bulked up, grew some stubble, and became Rob.” I think that’s a technique I need to get on board with. I tend to cling to my initial vision when I write, and resist taking something in a different direction, which is rigid and self-defeating. And obviously, using this story as an example, it works. At least sometimes.

It’s an engrossing tale of a set of college pals. Sasha (from “Found Objects”) is now 21. She latched on to Rob as a “pretend boyfriend” for the sake of the private detective her stepfather has watching her. She insisted they trade dirty little secrets, things so bad it would ensure they’d never be interested in being an actual couple. Her secret was her time in Naples shoplifting and screwing around with her fence. His secret is a homosexual encounter he had with a teammate. He assures her he’s not gay. Vehemently. His father is a famous football coach. He’s not gay. He’s not.

It’s predictable that Rob falls for her anyway, and is hurt when Drew enters the picture. Still, they all remain friends, along with Sasha’s roommate Lizzie and her boyfriend Bix. There’s an entertaining side plot about those two – Bix is black, and Lizzie’s mom is a bigot; Bix is a computer geek who’s predicting “computer message sending” will be the next big thing” – but this story overall belongs to Rob, Sasha, and Drew. I’m not sure if Lizzie and Bix appear elsewhere in the book; they seem like accessories here, though they do provide some context for the main story lines.

I love Rob’s evaluations of how people treat him differently since his wrist slashing. He makes a minor joke, and reacts to the laugh he gets:

…you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street even at something so small.

And:

In high school you’d get in fights when you felt like this, but no one will fight with you now – the fact that you hacked open your wrists with a box cutter three months ago and nearly bled to death seems to be a deterrent. It functions like a force field, paralyzing everyone in range with an encouraging smile on their lips. You want to hold up a mirror and ask, How exactly are those smiles supposed to help me?

The critical event of the story is a betrayal. It’s powerful and engrossing. It almost makes me want to try to read the book again.

But not quite. I’m a bit tired of all the hype over Goon Squad. It’s an attitude thing. Like my attitude towards Joyce Carol Oates – I’ve enjoyed several of her stories, but I have to be dragged to them kicking and screaming, and I groan whenever I see her name.

Maybe I’ll keep running into individual stories and enjoying them, and who knows, one day I may find I’ve read the entire book, quite by accident, and loved it, after all.

BASS 2011: Tom Bissell, “A Bridge Under Water” from Agni

The Bone Chandelier at the Sedlec Ossuary

She had plunged her fork exactly ten times into her strawberry risotto and taken two birdfeeder sips from the glass of Gewurtztraminer that her waiter (a genius, clearly) had recommended pairing with it. She glanced up and smiled at him (more or less) genuinely. The man put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old. He never appeared to taste anything. The plate now before him looked licked clean. When he return-serve smiled, she tried not to notice his red-pepper-and-wine-stained teeth or the breadcrumbs distributed throughout his short beard. They were sitting on the AstroTurfed outdoor patio of an otherwise pleasing restaurant found right behind the American Embassy in Rome. They had been married for three and a half days.

I very much admire this story. That isn’t the same as liking it, but it’s a good thing in its own right.

Whenever a famous author gives one of those “How to Write” talks, she’ll say something like, “Make each word count.” Kurt Vonnegut insisted every sentence had to advance plot or reveal character. I’ve never been so aware of that advice as I was reading this story. Every sentence, every word, means something. By the second page, I felt like I knew these people inside and out. Turns out, I didn’t know the half of it. Which is good, too, because if you know everything you need to know by the second page of a twenty-two page story, that’s twenty pages of thumb-twiddling.

It’s information-dense. I am an underliner (which is why I enjoy reading bought books so much more than library copies) and most stories get an underline or two per page. This story is more underlined than not. Every phrase says something about these people, their situation, how it’s come to this, where it might go from here. And beautifully, too.

Look at the paragraph quoted above, the second paragraph of the story. The woman (the characters aren’t named in the story) seems a bit OCD, maybe has an eating disorder – counting fork plunges, birdsips, fretting over a crumby beard. Who plunges a fork, anyway? Put a fork in it ’cause it’s done? Plunging the knife? A more sexual plunging? It’s not a neutral verb. The genius waiter – what a generous description for someone who probably has a memorized list of wines to push with certain dishes. And the man – voracious, but soulless. And sloppy. The smile they exchange – that “return-serve smiled” is great phrasing; smiles of obligation, concentration, will, rather than joy or intimacy. We learn they’re in Rome. Well, that puts a spin on things. Then the last sentence slams down like a hammer: they’ve been married three days.

Who return-serve smiles at their spouse on their honeymoon?

Such artfully created tension begs for an explanation. We find out a few other things in these opening two pages (one and a half, actually). The big issue at the moment is: should they sightsee at another church, or at a museum? She’s still examining him and finding flaws everywhere: his eyes are hard, he overslept while she hadn’t slept at all (when honeymooners are on different sleep cycles, it can’t be good), his shirt is open too much for her tastes. Shopper’s remorse? They discuss the bone church they’d seen the day before, a church made of the bones of the monks who’d lived there over the ages. This is such a startling, loaded image, I had to pause and think about it for a while.

It’s true, you know. There is such a crypt. Several, in fact, and the one in Rome may not even be the most elaborate (I’d put my money on the Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic, pictured above). And Tom Bissell (who writes more nonfiction than fiction) should know. He’s just completed a 1500 page nonfiction manuscript about the final resting places of Jesus’ apostles. And here I thought it was creepy that the church where I used to sing had the ashes of a reknowned former organist embedded in the wall of the choir loft (not to mention a Revolutionary War cannonball in the chandelier. I guess I should be glad it’s not bones).

Anyway, the story. Turns out she is three months pregnant, which adds a whole new layer to things. They’d also had a major issue the night before – I’m not sure “fight” is the right word – because she, being Jewish, wants her baby to know s/he is a Jew and what that means. She is pretty much a-religious at this point; Hebrew school made little impression on her; but she wants things to be different for the next generation. He, on the other hand, is a steadfast atheist who finds such a proposal offensive.

It’s an interesting issue to have come up on a honeymoon.

A sexual encounter loaded with symbolism, a synagogue tour that becomes complicated, and that’s pretty much the story. The bare bones of it, anyway. I’m beginning to appreciate the truism that a great story can’t be summarized. Because there’s so much more, and every detail counts. I really, really admire this story.

But did I like it? Hmmm. Let’s look at the signs:

– I took a lot of breaks while reading it. To change the cat’s water, make myself another cup of coffee, brush my teeth. But that isn’t a bad thing. A lot of that was just sensory overload rather than avoidance; like I said, it’s information-dense, and just about every paragraph has something I want to think about.

– Do I want to read it again? Maybe, but not right now. It’s not an easy, quick read, though it’s very accessible and the story itself is great. There’s humor in it (the above quote is pretty hilarious to me, actually, once I figured out what was going on). The author admits the two main plot points are taken from his own life. He wrote the story “to determine why I can sometimes be an insufferable dick.” It’s very brave of him, to make himself the villain. And I admire – again – that he was able to write the observer point of view so extraordinarily well, without including all those little justifications we make for ourselves when we’re being dickish and we know it.

– Do I want to read more by this writer? Yes, in fact, I do. He has a book of short stories (God Lives In St. Petersburg And Other Stories which I have put on my library list. That isn’t quite the same as ordering Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration right after having read “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” but it’s more than I do for a lot of stories.

So I liked it, yeah, I did. But I really, really admired it.

BASS 2011: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “Housewifely Arts” from One Story

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

What maniacs we are – sick with love, all of us.

In his review of the Ron Howard film Parenthood quite some time ago, Roger Ebert felt it succeeded because the main characters, who were simultaneously parents and children themselves, struggled to reconcile their criticism of their parents’ parenting skills with their own parenthood. This story does much the same: the main character is both a parent raising a son, and a child dealing with the loss of her mother.

I read this in One Story last year, and for some reason didn’t write about it then. Maybe it was before I’d started blogging notes about stories I was reading. Or maybe the tiny booklet got buried in the mess on my desk or bookshelves. In any event, I didn’t recognize the title or the author until I read the Contributor’s Note before starting the stories, and remembered the parrot.

The story is structured around an interesting premise:

I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again….We’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring though the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.

The rest needs to be read, not summarized. The language is beautiful, the feelings true. It’s told in zig-zag fashion, going from present to various places in the past over and over again, and while it isn’t confusing, it’s a little unsettling. It’s not terribly subtle, since everything that happens in the present brings up a memory or association to the past. But there’s such depth of feeling and wonderful imagery, I think it earns the right to be what it is. It’s very honest, and what else can you hope for in a story. In her One Story blog entry, Karen Friedman comments:

As the story unfolds we learn their relationship had been full of the little fault lines that develop between mother and daughter over a lifetime.
Precisely because of their size, those little fault lines are what grabbed my attention. There’s no physical abuse, no drunken betrayals – nothing that screams, “pay attention, for now we’re in the realm of dramatic truth”. It’s a deceptively simple story about people trying their best, and sometimes falling short.

I read somewhere that children are our punishment for what we did to our parents when we ourselves were young. The narrator is just beginning to realize this, as she remembers her mom and watches her son grow up: “Will you love me forever? I think to myself. Will you love me when I’m old? If I go crazy? Will you be embarrassed of me? Avoid my calls? Wash dishes when you talk to me on the phone, roll your eyes, lay the receiver down next to the cat?”

But it’s not all grim; there’s a great deal of humor here. The narrator is trying to sell her house to move to Connecticut for a promotion, but that’s not going so well thanks to a humpback cricket infestation in the basement (in her One Story Q&A, Bergman admits this was based on her own experience). Ike, the son, is “a forty-three pound drama queen, a mercurial shrimp of a boy who knows many of the words to Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ oeuvre.”

And the parrot, Carnie, is a riot. He bites, he fusses, he repeats all the wrong phrases, and Mom’s house becomes smellier and smellier. But he serves as a prism, bringing Mom into focus, and he provides a telling moment, in one of the last scenes between mother and daughter:

The man of the house is not here, Carnie said. He’s dead.
You really take it easy on those telemarketers, I said, looking at Mom.

The two houses – the narrator’s cricket-infested house, and Mom’s house – provide additional foci for the emotion of the story, as well as structure for the plot to wrap around. The title adds another element.

I’m not sure I understand why it’s a great story, technically; the alternating now-and-then, the straddling the edge of sentimentality, are elements that make me a little nervous, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a strong enough story for so many theme elements – the parrot and the houses and the housewifely arts and Ike and Mom and single motherhood. But I am sure it’s a beautiful read, and I’m glad it’s in this volume and I got another shot at it.

BASS 2011: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Ceiling” originally from Granta

Granta Cover by Michael Salu with St Bride Library

He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the house, the other properties in Ikoyi and Abuja, the cars, the bank accounts in Dubai and London – and he would be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

Allow me a moment of snark: I find it interesting, given the emphasis on plot and the sneers at domestic realism in the preface and introduction of this BASS volume, that the plot of this story is basically: man in blah marriage gets email from old girlfriend; man thinks about this while he goes to a party with his wife. /end snark

It’s a lot more complex than that, of course. For one thing, the man, Obinze, is Nigerian, and has recently gone from rags to riches, a sort of Nigerian Horatio Alger character – though there are indications his line of work may be a bit less than legitimate: “He sometimes wondered if Chief would one day ask something of him, the hungry and honest boy he had groomed, and in his more melodramatic moments, he imagined Chief asking him to organize an assassination.” Perhaps Sonny Corleone would be a better analogy.

The author was born in Nigeria and still spends part of the year there. Her motivation for this story, according to her Contributor Notes, was to convey the “overall air of mutability” in Lagos: “Nigeria’s shift from military to democratic rule brought social changes in the last decade but perhaps none as dramatic as the speed with which some young men became wealthy, particularly in Lagos.”

Obinze’s relationship with his wife, Kosi, is complex as well. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, though it may have been lust:

Even then he had felt gentle contempt…. Still, he had wanted her, chased her with a lavish single-mindedness. He had never seen a woman with such a perfect incline to her cheekbones, that made her entire face seem so alive in an architectural way, lifting when she smiled, and he was newly disoriented from his quick wealth: one week he was squatting in his cousin’s flat and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and the next he owned a house and two cars. He felt as if his life were no longer his. It was Kosi who made it start to seem believable.

His relationship with Ifemelu, the woman whose email opens the story, is also, dare I say it, complex. And obscure. We know she was 17 when they first slept together; afterwards, she tells him, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” After that, Ceiling is her nickname for him. He’s impressed with her forthrightness. We never find out why they are no longer together, only that she is in America and is married to “a black man” – I find that phrasing fascinating, since I think all of the characters are what I would call “black” but perhaps it is how an African refers to an American black, I’m not sure.

Obinze can’t discuss his life, his disorientation or his marriage, with Ifemelu, though he wants to: “She was the only person who would understand, and yet he was afraid that she would feel contempt for the person he had become.” So he thinks about her email as he and Kosi go to a party thrown by his boss. We also find out Obinze was deported from London back to Lagos, but we’re never told why; it seems like something he’d rather not discuss. Addendum: a later TNY story, “Checking Out,” provides the answer – and it turns out both these stories are excerpts from the forthcoming-in-2013 novel, Americanah.

The greatness in this story, for me, is in the truly wonderful insight into life in Lagos: the House of David church which holds “how to keep your husband” classes; various instructions given to Obinze initially on “how Nigeria works” (“Find one white man. Tell everybody he is your general manager. It gives you immediate legitimacy with many idiots in this country.”); the debate at the party about whether to send the children to the French, British, or Nigerian schools; some of the subtle touches as we see Kosi through Obinze’s eyes.

The effect this story had on me was the appreciation that things really are the same all over: people get rich and find that money doesn’t buy happiness; we always remember, and perhaps over-idealize, the one who got away; and we always wonder about the road not taken, whether we’re from New England or Nigeria.

An enjoyable story, and a very interesting one. Let’s face it: the only time many of us hear about Nigeria is in spam (and, by the way, it’s kind of cute that an email is the structural mechanism of this story). So I’m very happy to have read this, to have a bit more knowledge about a part of the world I really should know more about. A page turner? Maybe not. But worth reading? Definitely.

BASS 2011: Beginning

"Blue Girl Reading" by August Macke

I got my copy of the new BASS collection from my Fiercely Independent Local Bookstore yesterday, and stopped at a nearby grill & pub because I couldn’t wait to start reading.

That isn’t quite true; the charred wood smell of the grill, combined with my memory of the best fries I’ve ever had, and a server who remembers me and knows exactly what I’ll order (though I’ve only been there six times total in the past six months) and will run after me for a block when I forget my sweater has a lot to do with it, too. It’s my favorite place to read the latest New Yorker story I’ve photocopied at the library, or the MaineCat treasure I’ve just picked up, knowing I’ll get perfect service (friendly but not intrusive) and a tasty (if fat-and-calorie laden – soup for dinner) lunch. I just wish the outside didn’t look so much like a strip club, but most things in life are trade-offs, and anyone who’s spent any time in Portland knows there aren’t any strip clubs in Monument Square. You have to go a half mile up Congress Street to the Video Expo for that.

Anyway, I was talking about BASS…

I read the Contributor’s Notes first. They’re my favorite part of BASS, to be honest, though of course without the stories, they’d be meaningless. I wanted to read seven or eight stories right away, the notes sounded so clever or interesting or different. A story of overnight wealth in Lagos. A writer who wrote a story to explore why he can be such “an insufferable dick.” Someone who appropriated (with permission) an idea from Etgar Keret, whose name I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for One Story. A long and entertaining note about how one writer wishes he could describe himself. A story that took twenty years of hibernation to come to flower (I hope some of mine turn out that way). A duel between an editor’s hand injury and a writer’s impending c-section.

See why I love BASS?

I recognized several stories and names. “Housewifely Arts” is one of the first One Story tales I read, though for some reason I never commented on it here; I remembered neither the title nor the author’s name (I’m so sorry! That’s why I blog stories to begin with, to remember those things better) but as soon as I read the tease about a parrot who held the mother’s voice, I remembered the story fondly. I’ve already read about Peter Torrelli falling apart and Joyce Carol Oates’ “ID” and will enjoy doing so again, though I won’t make separate entries for these (the addendas on the original posts may accumulate, though). And some have already been waiting patiently on my to-read list, courtesy of rumors and whispers of greatness: Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead.” There is one other that fills me with trepidation, but I won’t say which. Or why, since that would require saying which. Let’s leave it with, I shamefully take full responsibility for my inability to “get” some things. Some books. Even those that win the Pulitzer Prize. (Oops, did I just say which?)

The Foreword, by Heidi Pitlor, left me depressed, as usual, but for a different reason. Often it’s a dirge for the death of American Short Fiction, or for Publishing, or for The Art of The Story, or whatever. This time it was pretty much a slap in the face for those who weren’t chosen. A backhanded “Some of my best friends are domestic realists but….” And tips for those who just aren’t measuring up to BASS standards. Don’t attempt a triple lutz, which seems to include second person with sudden switches to other POVs, florid or jerky language, generalizations about gender, descriptions of rain that reflect the narrator’s inner state, and something about a barista who ends up naked on top of “me.” I’m not sure why those are triple lutzes; they sound like pretty basic things to avoid, except for the barista which isn’t something I want to even think about (I’m very proud of never having been inside a Starbuck’s or knowingly drunk their coffee). Then she wants writers to choose unfamiliar settings and characters, which seems like my idea of at least a double lutz (I hope everyone knows what a lutz is; it’s a skating move, a relatively difficult jump though a double is pretty routine for any women hoping to go to Nationals, and a triple is pretty much required for Olympic-level skating). Oh, and no stereotypes or characters who serve only to advance your sociopolitical agenda.

What she likes is far more appropriate: ease of language, a sense of intimacy with the writer and/or the story. And then we get the usual thing about what a shame it is that plot has become passe.

Interestingly, this series was in part developed to showcase stories that shunned a ubiquitous sort of plot that had “poisoned” much of the writing at the time, nearly one hundred years ago. But I fear that a new normal has evolved in its place, one conspicuously void of momentum and uninterested in maintaining the reader’s attention. Happily, each story in this year’s edition creates and sustains its own momentum, whether through premise or language, character or even perfectly placed silence. Each writer demonstrates an astonishing understanding of their characters and the worlds in which they live, wherever these worlds may be.

Then Geraldine Brooks does her Introduction. I look forward to these every year. Sometimes I glean a wonderful piece of writing or attitude advice (like Barbara Kingsolver: “Tell me something I don’t already know”). It’s usually fun to read, whatever it is – like Richard Russo’s Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote culminating in the refrain: “To entertain, and to instruct.” But this one felt like another slap in the face, this time to the one hundred story writers who didn’t make the final cut. They are, of course, listed in the back, as “Other Distinguished Stories of 2011.” According to Ms. Brooks (whom I foolishly confused with Gwendolyn Brooks, wondering why a poet was editing a short story volume and isn’t she 150 years old by now? Of course, Gwendolyn Brooks, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 83 [a perfectly respectable age though not typically the age at which one volunteers for a task like this], was a completely different person, and I felt very stupid about that, not to mention ageist) some of the failing of these 100 also-rans are:

– “those that seemed afraid to tell stories, that handled plot as if it were a hair in the soup;”
– “seemed bleak without having earned it;”
– “the emotional notes were false;”
– “the writing was tricked out or primped up with fashionable devices stressing form over content.”
Or perhaps they did not adhere to her principles, which apparently preclude adultery, bleak outcomes, setting stories in the US, not writing about war, not writing about religion except as humor, not doing enough humor (presumably other than about religion)…

And I wonder which of these failings applies to Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” from One Story; Dan Chaon’s “To Psychic Underworld” or Zachary Mason’s “The Duel,” both from Tin House (the same glorious issue that begat Peter Torrelli); the trio of PEN/O.Henry 2011 winners “The Junction” by David Means, Brad Watson’s “Alamo Plaza,” and “Something You Can’t Live Without” by Matthew Neill Null; or Jim Shepard’s “Poland is Watching” or “The Track of the Assassins” from his collection You Think That’s Bad. Perhaps she’d care to list them. I guess that’s what a Pulitzer Prize gets you – you get to diss writers of this calibre publicly. Maybe she didn’t mean to diss them, this writer who admits she’s never written a short story herself. But she did. There’s a difference between complaining about those nebulous “so many stories today” and letting the reader assume the stories on the long list were different (because that’s what everyone does, every year), and specifically declaring how so many of those long list stories fell short.

All this – plus my usual defensiveness when anyone sets a book in front of me and declares it to be the “best” stories of the year – sets me in a foul state of mind that taints the eagerness I felt on reading those wonderful Contributor Notes. Maybe I’ll go back and read them again. Then I’ll be ready for Page 1.

Note: Thanks to GoogleBooks, you can find the Table of Contents, Foreword, Introduction, and a few tantalizing tidbits of stories online.