BASS 2012: The Last Page

Image from Wikipedia page titled "Intentionally Blank Page"

Last month, Suzanne McConnell at Slate.com ran a reprint of a term paper assignment Kurt Vonnegut gave her “Form of Fiction” class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in the form of a letter, as were most of his assignments to her class (the entire letter appears in Slate, and in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, Edited by Dan Wakefield, published October 2012):

….I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story… Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”

Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.

Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows….

— Kurt Vonnegut

Wow. I’ve been doing Kurt Vonnegut’s assignment on BASS, PEN/O.Henry, and Pushcart for the past two years. Whatever hubris I may have feared enacting at complaining about these prize-winning stories from some of the best literary magazines in the country has vanished, now that Kurt Vonnegut himself has given me permission to say, “I didn’t like this story because…”

It’s the “because” that matters, you see.

Before I started blogging stories, I’d often only half-read them. I had vague impressions that something was weak, something was good, something worked, but it wasn’t until I committed to publicly (or as publicly as this obscure corner of the internet can be considered) evaluating, and defending my judgment, that I really started reading carefully. Scouring the web for other opinions, interviews, whatever, helped as well, sometimes to show me something I’d missed, sometimes to confirm and shape an impression, sometimes to just show me how different opinions can be when we’re talking about what works and what doesn’t in a story.

And sometimes I still miss something. But the story is still there, waiting for me, if I just keep reading and learning.

So a belated thank you to Mr. Vonnegut (and a prompt thank you to McConnell, and Slate, for the article). But I’m grateful I didn’t know about his assignment until a few weeks ago, because to have completed an assignment from such an august person in such an elite setting would’ve intimidated me into total silence, like the Cowardly Lion before the Great and Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s better that I thought it was my own idea, however foolish, when I started.

This was my favorite BASS volume of those I’ve blogged, and maybe of those I’ve read through. I’ll only give the “grades” here; individual reports of the highs and lows in each can be found in the individual posts for each story.

My off-the-scale favorites (the A+):

Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”

Julie Otsuka, “Diem Perdidi”

The A list:

Mike Meginnis, “Navigators”

Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language”

Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

Roxane Gay, “North Country”

Eric Puchner, “Beautiful Monsters”

Jess Walter, “Anything Helps”

George Saunders, “Tenth of December”

The Bs: I might have some reservations, but they grew on me:

Edith Pearlman, “Honeydew”

Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish”

My least favorites:

Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard”

Mary Gaitskill, “The Other Place”

Sharon Solwitz, “Alive”

For past BASS collections, I’ve had two or three favorites, two or three failures, and everything else would fall into a middle category of “good to ok.” Not this year.

Was 2011 truly an extraordinary year for short stories? Could be. Is Tom Perotta someone more on my wavelength, does he look more closely at less obvious sources (like Hobart and Fifth Wednesday)? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

When I look at the “Other Distinguished Stories” list, I see several I’ve read and loved: “The Ether of Space” by Andrea Barrett, “A Good Deuce” by Jodi Angel, Kenneth Calhoun’s “Then” (all from Tin House), “Girls Only” by Karen Shepard and Benjamin Solomon’s “Who Cycles Into Our Valley” from One Story.

And I see some TNY entries I’m just as happy weren’t included in the final volume. One story from a “less obvious” source was on my A-list, one on my not-so-much list. I’m not sure there’s a pattern.

Maybe I’m just learning how to read? Hope so.

We’ll see how it goes next year.

BASS 2012: Adam Wilson, “What’s Important is Feeling,” from Paris Review #199, Winter 2011

JooxGraphix: "Trapped.Behind.The.Screen"

JooxGraphix: “Trapped.Behind.The.Screen”

We knew Felix was coming, but we didn’t know when. He’d written the script and was the associate producer. He’d been nominated for an Academy award. Some people said Felix was a genius. We (the L.A. people) had read the new script. It was good, better than good. Better than the other crap we worked on: thirty-second spots for regional fast-food chains, student shorts, overfunded indie twee…. Felix’s script was different: sexy, savage, utterly bleak. In short: Art.

It took a few pages for me to get into this, but once I realized it wasn’t another incompetent-but-arrogant-young-man-blames-everyone-for-his-problems story, I had fun with it. Take a couple of grande artistes trying to realize competing visions, a bunch of working stiffs just trying to make a buck, and an artiste-wannabe, mix with behind-the-scenes intrigue on location in Texas (complete with chiggers), and you’ve got a pretty good romp; it reminded me of Postcards from the Edge, from the point of view of the male crew.

There were problems. The director and the star hated each other; everyone hated the first AD; the first AD was a cokehead and running out of Coke; the star had fucked the costar, then her assistant; the production was out of money; the DP had also fucked the star’s assistant; the dailies looked amateur; the food was shit; the Texans thought the L.A. folks were homosexuals; the LA folks were mostly homosexuals and took umbrage.
By the time Felix showed up, hope was lost.

Who does what is kind of unimportant. What’s important is feeling (hey, didn’t you read the title?). Wilson on Wilson in The Literary Review: “I feel like these characters are almost battling for autonomy against the overwhelming voice of the zeitgeist, and often losing the battle.” I can see that, the zeitgeist of the story being the insanity of a movie set where the dog has failed and it all rests on the cat (I’ll get there, don’t worry). And then there’s his comment at The L Magazine which is technically about Wilson’s novel, Flatscreen but seems to cast light on this story as well: “Especially now with multi-function cellphones, it seems to me that the defining characteristic of our era is the amount of time we spend looking at screens. As both a cultural observer and a[n] opportunistic comedian (not to mention, a screen-wielder myself), I’m certainly interested in writing about what ends up on those screens and how it gets there.” It doesn’t hurt that the antics of those behind the screens make for excellent snark. And that it’s fun.

But the story. Well, there’s Felix, the screenwriter, who’s arrival will fix everything on the dysfunctional set. There’s the narrator, who may have a name but I didn’t circle it and it isn’t the type of story where it matters (at least not to me), a film-school grad whose job on this project is… well, I don’t know, he’s there with his film-school buddy in some technical capacity. It’s not important, what’s important is that he buys weed to calm Felix down, gets him a haircut (and has his head shaved in solidarity), and reassures him about the cat (I told you, don’t worry, I’ll get there. Have a little patience).

But first there’s Francisco.

I didn’t know what to make of Francisco, the talent. He’d been a child star of the Mexican stage, and later the hunky adulterer on a popular telenovella. His mother was an opera singer, and his father handcrafted violins. Rumor had it his maternal grandfather had made his nut in munitions.
Francisco played seven instruments and was fluent in as many languages. He’d grown up in a fenced-off estate with verandas outside Mexico City, Ferraris, and armed guards – all the gaudy signifiers of cartel superwealth. Still, he played himself off as a man of the people, spoke Spanish with the Mexican grips and electricians, kicked a soccer ball between takes, smiled a humble, punchable smile at everyone he passed. His acting was iffy, but his face was an exemplar of symmetry and composition. My jealousy was undermined by my interest in star fucking.

That’s some character there. This is why I’m unconcerned about the narrator’s name or his job title or any of a hundred other plot details. The story is about Felix and Francisco; everything else is the canvas for them, and the narrator the microphone. So you’ve got the Texans and the chiggers and there’s the haircutter and there’s a bunch of other stuff, but it all comes down to Felix’s obsession with the cat (we’re here – see, didn’t I promise):

The scene where the dog runs into the road and Francisco doesn’t stop the car until Monica screams and grabs the wheel. We’d spent four hours on it because the dog kept running the wrong way.
“This fucking dog – too pretty. Of course he wants to run it over. Who doesn’t want to crush that smug bitch? Dog’s not even running right. This is supposed to be suicide. We need an ugly dog, some kind of mutt, runt of the litter, nothing to live for. I want him lingering on the shoulder, contemplating, then dashing out. Francisco sees the trajectory of the dog’s life, refuses to alter its course. It’s an act of mercy. An act of love.”
“I could love a dog,” I said.
“The thing that worries me isn’t the dog,” Felix said. “It’s not the dog at all. What worries me is that if they fucked up the dog, how are they going to deal with the cat?”
Felix took a deep pull, ashed on the carpet.
“The cat is the whole picture; the way he moves through the house at the end. If they get the cat right, then maybe this thing can work.”
He passed me the blunt.
“Promise me something,” he said. “Promise me you won’t let them fuck up the cat.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I like this guy,” Felix said to the TV.

This sounds so much like movie nonsense, I laughed out loud, not something I usually do. This is where the story got me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of other really great stuff happening. I believe the underlying struggle-against-zeitgeist theme, and the screen-anxiety, and all the rest. But for me, it’s about the dog and the cat, because that’s what leapt off the page.

And you know what’s going to happen with the cat. It’s like the animal wrangler says: “Cat can’t read your script.” Felix can scream all he wants. He can present reasonable arguments – his job is animal wrangler, that’s what he’s supposed to do, get the animals to do what it says in the script – and the guy’s still gonna tell you, “Cat can’t read.” There’s just no argument for that.

I’m sure very important symbolic stuff happens in the remaining few pages, bathing the narrator in epiphanies (something about someone named Anne) and shifting his life forever. Probably not; it’s not that kind of story. The story ends with him watching the film on DVD with his recently-acquired New York friends. But for me, the story is about the dog and the cat. That’ll be in my mind every time I see a movie. I’m already flashing on my memory of the Audrey Hepburn TV-biopic with Jennifer Love Hewitt explaining the symbolism of the cat on the set for the last scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s under Michael-Burg-as-Truman-Capote’s surprised but approving eye. I’ll never watch Tiffany again without laughing. Out loud.

Maybe I don’t read any better than the cat.

BASS 2012: Jess Walter, “Anything Helps” from McSweeney’s #39, December 2011

Street Art

The best spot, where the freeway lets off next to Dick’s, is taken by some chalker Bit’s never seen before: skinny, dirty pants, hollow eyes. The kid’s sign reads: Homeless Hungry. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry. The kid just waves.

Someone very wise in the ways of writing once told me a story about a homeless person is a tough sell because they tend to fall into types (the crazy person with hidden wisdom, the victim of circumstances, or the guy who brought it on himself) and rely on existing reader paradigms to tug at the heartstrings. This story does smack of manipulation; but, damn, Walter is so good at it.

I’m not sure Bit – aka Wayne – falls into any of those aforementioned categories; or, maybe more accurately, he falls into all of them, as most of us do. The reader is left in the dark for a while. At first, we only know Bit has “gone to cardboard” (panhandling on streets with a cardboard sign) at his favorite corner, that he’s been kicked out of the shelter – the “Jesus beds” – for drinking. There’s a great scene with a driver who claims he’ll hand over $20 if Bit just tells him the truth about what he’s going to do with it.

You’ll give me twenty bucks?
Yeah, but you can’t bullshit me. If I give you a twenty, honestly, what’re you gonna get?
The new Harry Potter book.
You are one funny fucker.
Thanks. You too.
No. Tell me exactly what you’re going to drink or smoke or whatever and I’ll give you twenty. But it’s gotta be the truth.
The truth? Why does everybody always want that? He looks at the guy in the gold convertible. Back at the Jesus beds they’ll be gathering for group about now, trying to talk each other out of this very thing, this reverie. Truth.
Vodka, Bit says, because it fucks you up fastest. I’ll get it at the store over on Second, whatever cheap stuff they got, plastic bottle in case I drop it. And I’ll get a bag of nuts or pretzels. Something solid to shit later. Whatever money’s left – Bit’s mouth is dry – I’ll put in municipal bonds.
After the guy drives off, Bit looks down at the twenty-dollar bill in his hand. Maybe he is a funny fucker.

You knew – didn’t you? that the next scene would take place in a bookstore.

We don’t find out the book is for his son, now in foster care, until later. Or that he tried to get the book before, and ended up getting drunk with the money instead, which is how he got kicked out of the Jesus beds. This brings the clever scene with the driver to a higher level: the driver didn’t want to hear, wouldn’t believe, his true intent, so Bit told him what he wanted to hear, which just happens to be his history, also “true.” Would he have gone to the bookstore if he hadn’t had that little jolt of revisiting his past, of screwing up before, of trying to make it right this time?

Now, the problem is, that backstory seems an awful lot like “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” so add “derivative” to “manipulative.” But it still works. Because who among us hasn’t stumbled over ourselves? Who isn’t trying to make up for an earlier mistake?

And then there’s the scene from the group at the shelter:

But what if this is me? Bit asked once. Why can’t we be the things we see and think? Why do we always have to be these sad stories, like that Danny pretending he’s sorry he screwed up his life when we all know he’s really just bragging about how much coke he used to do? Why can’t we talk about what we think instead of just all the stupid shit we’ve done?
Okay, Wayne, she said – what do you think?
I think I’ve done some real stupid shit.

Scripted as it is – and it does sound a bit like an Aaron Sorkin sitcom about a homeless shelter – this is such great reading, I’m not even all that interested in his back story – how he and Julie never really got it together, and how she let herself die after Nate was taken away, and he fell apart. Walter, by staying in the moment, keeps me in the moment. I don’t care about blame. I don’t even care that the foster mom won’t let Nate have Harry Potter books, and I really don’t care about the scene with the kid, who won’t take the book and he read it last summer at camp anyway, which is probably the most manipulative part of the story because I hate the kid who refuses to engage with the father who’s let him down over and over again, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the right way to feel. I don’t want any of that to intrude on prose that works me over with every syllable. This is an aesthetic experience, not a research project.

Here’s why at the Jesus beds they can only talk about all the stupid shit they’ve done – because that’s all they are now, all they’re ever gonna be, a twitching bunch of memories and mistakes. Regrets. Jesus, Bit thinks. I should’ve had the decency to go when Julie did.

I really just care about Bit. I don’t know how to help him; I don’t even know what to hope for him. I’m not sure if that’s the story’s failing, or mine. Or if it’s a failing at all. I just know that, though I guess I shouldn’t, I loved this story, and Bit, because give or take a few crucial turns along the way, I could be him.

BASS 2012: Sharon Solwitz, “Alive” from Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2011

LeRoy Neiman: "Downers" (1974)

LeRoy Neiman: “Downers” (1974)

… She said to Nate in the passenger seat, “Your father.” Like he was a burden she had to bear, though both boys felt in their separate ways that she admired him. Their father was slow to express pleasure but even slower to anger; his pleasure in their existence, in the entity of family, discharged clouds of tenderness. He’s a sage, your father, Nana had said, and on another occasion, Nate takes after him. Now, alert to his place in the family hierarchy, Dylan had to counter such remarks. Who did he take after, Osama bin Laden?
Would they laugh if he said that?

Probably not.

It’s hard to be the “other” kid. The “other” kid can be the one who isn’t a prodigy, or who isn’t always in trouble, or who isn’t outgoing and popular. Some “other” kids are fine with their place; they develop their own yardsticks. But it’s especially hard when they’re also watching a brother die.

Dylan’s brother Nate is dying of cancer. That leaves Dylan with a complex array of emotions, from grief and fear to jealousy of the attention Nate gets, anger about always coming second, and guilt about feeling that way.

When I read the Contributor Note (after reading the story), my heart broke. This story is part of a collection, apparently not yet published, written by Solwitz to chronicle the death of her 13-year-old from cancer: “A collection that shrieks, as I did not, Weep, world.” The ski trip that forms the plot of the story actually happened, though many of the details differ and the characters are significantly altered to create a story. The effect of that Contributor Note has been to completely inhibit me from reacting to the story in any honest way: you don’t analyze someone’s sacrament.

BASS 2012: Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls” from Granta 115, Summer 2011

Donald Onuoha: "First Date"

Donald Onuoha: “First Date”

Begin, inevitably, with Uncle.
There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark in a cool pool of moonlight at the window. The party is in full swing on the back lawn outside. Half of Accra must be out there. In production. Some fifty-odd tables dressed in white linen table skirts, the walls at the periphery all covered in lights, the swimming pool glittering with tea lights in bowls bobbing lightly on the surface of the water, glowing green. The smells of things – night-damp earth, open grill, frangipani trees, citronella – seep in through the window, slightly cracked. You tap the glass lightly and wave your hand, testing, but no one looks up. They can’t see for the dark. It rained around four for five minutes and not longer; now the sky is rich black for its cleansing. Beneath it a soukous band shows off the latest from Congo, the lead singer wailing in French and Lingala….
She has the most genuine intentions of any woman out there.
…Rich African women, like Japanese geisha in their wax-batik geles, their skin bleached too light. They are strange to you, strange to the landscape, the dark, with the same polished skill-set of rich women worldwide: how to smile with full lips while the eyes remain empty; how to hate with indifference; how to love without heat. You wonder if they find themselves beautiful, or powerful? Or perplexing, as they seem to you, watching from here?

This should be a difficult story, confusing to read. At 30 pages, it’s a little longer than most BASS selections. It’s told in a set of flashbacks to a variety of times, from years earlier to that morning and afternoon, before ending in the same present in which it began. A few possibly unfamiliar African words, names, locations, crop up. Several characters are referred to by two names. We don’t know the name of POV character until the last page. And, oh, by the way, it’s in second person.

But I didn’t notice any of that as I was reading. It’s positively gripping; it takes you along and makes you desperate to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to find out what happens. Though you know, really, all along, what’s going to happen.

Selasi uses repetition beautifully. In the first section, the rain at four in the afternoon is mentioned three times; it’s just a matter of finding out what happened when it rained at four that afternoon, which turns out to be not what I’d thought. A slap in two different places between different characters demonstrate the hierarchy in a way an eleven-year-old can understand. Twice, the idea of a place being “not forbidden but not invited” comes up, as well as, coincidentally, the refrain “Enter Uncle.” And of course the most tragic repetition: the sex lives of African girls. Which, as the first line of the story says in the opening passage quoted above, continuing the title, begin, inevitably, with Uncle.

As I read the first page, I jotted a note in the margin: “Lyrical. Musical prose.” How interesting to read Selasi’s Contributor Note:

One day in April – in the shower at noon – I heard, as if remembering it, “The sex lives of African girls begin, inevitably, with Uncle.” A bit like song I’d heard somewhere, the bridge of which I’d forgotten. “There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark,” the song went on without music. I raced to the laptop, still dripping wet, and wrote – or wrote down – the stanza. “‘You’,” I thought. “Okay. Second person. Really? Try. Worked for McInerney. ‘Alone in the study.’ Okay. Why alone? Where are you? Who are you?”
A story.

The voice is beautiful. Perhaps too sophisticated for an eleven-year-old – but this eleven-year-old, Edem, reads Shakespeare in the group Uncle started for the house staff and can quote Othello, so maybe not. In other ways, she’s very naïve. We catch her on the day she first becomes aware of her nipples, the day she firsts sees a naked man, the day she learns several secrets about the people with whom she lives, Auntie and Uncle and their daughter Comfort, who’ve taken her in until her mother gets her act together. There’s a web of relationships with the “house staff” that comes to fruition when Edem witnesses three events that change her view of everything in her life.

And, of course, Enter Uncle.

And that’s when it hits you. Your mother isn’t coming. Wherever she’s gone, it’s a place without life. What life there was in her was choked out by hatred; whatever light in her eyes was a glint of that hate. And whom did she hate so? Her brother? Her mother? Your father? It doesn’t matter. They live. She is dead.
This is what you’re left with: a life with these people. This place and these women. Comfort. Ruby. Khadijeh. Who – it suddenly occurs to you, with an odd kind of clarity, as you watch from the window – mustn’t be left to die too.
So you go to her, stumbling over the hem of the garment as you cross the Persian rug… You put your arms around her waist. It is softer than you’d imagined it. You hold her very tightly, and she holds you as if for life. You wish there was something you could say, to comfort her. But what? In the peculiar hierarchy of African households, the only rung lower than the motherless child is the childless mother.

Selasi didn’t choose second person as much as it chose her. In an interview with Granta, she credits the POV with keeping her focused: “This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking.” I didn’t find the second person pov particularly prominent, since the story involves the girl narrating many events between others. Then again, I don’t have any problem with second person. Here, I think of it in terms of distance, as so often happens with second person: in this case, a character’s distance from herself, something like a state of shock, as she struggles to re-evaluate the day’s events and understand grim truths.

NPR has a terrific interview with Selasi about the story, both the subject matter and how she came to send it to Toni Morrison (which in itself is a great story). It’s her first published story (though she has a novel, championed by Morrison and Salman Rushdie for god’s sake, coming out in March 2013). Addendum: Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed her about the book, complete with a (very good) short reading, on 3/9/13 on the MHP Show, making me very happy. [another addendum: I’ve read and commented on her novel Ghana Must Go, and it’s terrific.

The story isn’t available online; there’s a video of her reading the first section, about three pages, at a Granta launch – but I can’t actually recommend it: she’s a mediocre reader, at least of her own work at that particular moment. She reads the way I read my own work, as though she’s embarrassed and wants to get it over with as quickly as possible without seeming to take her work too seriously: it’s just a stream of words. This story deserves so much more. It’s a story good enough to justify buying this anthology (which has been pretty strong all along), or at least a back issue of Granta. It reads like a page-turner, and of course it’s a heart-breaker. But it wasn’t until I went back and re-read a few times, straightened out the time line, looked at the repeated phrases and actions, the subtle phrasing, that I realized it’s also exquisitely crafted.

Enter Taiye Selasi. Kicking Uncle’s butt.

BASS 2012: Eric Puchner, “Beautiful Monsters” from Tin House #50, “Beauty,” Winter 2011

Lillume: "Heads on Spikes, Yikes! (122/365)"

Lillume: “Heads on Spikes, Yikes! (122/365)”

The boy is making breakfast for his sister – fried eggs and cheap frozen sausages, furred with ice – when he sees a man eating an apple from the tree outside the window. The boy drops his spatula. It is a gusty morning, sun-sharp and beautiful, and the man’s shirt flags out to one side of him, rippling in the wind. The boy has never seen a grown man in real life, only in books, and the sight is both more and less frightening than he expected. The man picks another apple from high in the tree and devours it several bites. He is bearded and tall as a shadow, but the weirdest thing of all are his hands. They seem huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs. The veins on them bulge out, forking around his knuckles. The man plucks more apples from the tree and sticks them in a knapsack at his feet, ducking his head so that the boy can see a saucer of scalp in the middle of his hair.
What do you think it wants? his sister whispers, joining him by the stove. She watches the hideous creature strip their tree of fruit; the boy might be out of work soon, and they need the apples themselves. The eggs have begun to scorch at the edges.

I often have trouble with the science fiction presented in BASS. I have since I lambasted Wells Tower’s “Raw Water” (and then felt so bad about it, read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and loved it). I cut my SF teeth on the classics – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Ellison. It takes a lot to impress me.

But I’ll give this one credit for doing a really good job with a standard plot, for playing with ideas like the resilience of human instinct, and the lengths the beneficiaries of the status quo will go to when it’s threatened. And it’s done pretty smoothly – it’s all in the details.

Look at the opening paragraph above. The first sentences create a picture – house, trees, hypermature responsible kid (are the parents dead, drunk, working, sleeping?), intruder, danger. Then we come to “The boy has never seen a grown man in real life” – and it’s a whole different ball game.

I have to admit, I have this prejudice against stories using the construction “the boy” or “the woman” or any “the noun” subject. There’s no logical reason for this, but it grates on me, the same way having a character go to “the park” grates on me (like a park is a given). I’ve learned to put these quirks aside, since there’s no legitimate reason to ban these things; I just dislike them intensely.

The right-off-the-block problem for any writer is the defamiliarization that’s pretty much necessary to any science fiction story. It’s very hard to make it feel organic, not put on. Asimov wrote a great intro to one of his books explaining how hard it is – you don’t feel the need to explain “I’m turning on the light switch now” when you walk into a room, but characters in SF stories tend to explain various apparati just for the sake of cluing the reader into details necessary to understand 1) there’s lots of cool stuff in this world, and/or 2) this is how some situation later is going to be resolved. That’s the hard part of writing SF: informing the reader without being obvious about it.

And that’s a little how it is with the “never seen a grown man” thing – a writer of a typical story wouldn’t feel the need to explain that an urban character had never seen, oh, say, a giraffe. But it’s necessary to put this sentence in the story, in this opening paragraph, to clue us in: this is an alternate world, something like ours (eggs, sausage, apple trees) but also, very different. That it’s done at a moment when we might be thinking his shock is due to an intruder in his yard, lets it fit in more naturally, I think. Add in the sister’s use of “it” to refer to the man, and you’ve got some idea of the kind of world this is. All in the first paragraph; that’s pretty effective exposition, and it’s reasonably natural.

The boy and his sister are about 30 years old; they’re physically children but function more like adults, with jobs and bills and moral debates about kindness and loyalty. They take the man, starving and injured, into their home, and they learn from each other. There’s the obligatory riff on reproduction separated from sex and love and parental love; this is used to trigger buried instincts in the boy and the girl, so it isn’t thrown in just for the “gee whiz” factor. And, of course, aging is presented as a disease, now cured, except for a few holdouts (there are always a few holdouts) who live in hiding (and the ending scene of adult-children parading with heads mounted on pikes, emphasizes why). Along the way, we’re introduced gradually and naturally, to the vocabulary: Perennials. Senescents. Policeboys.

Sometimes defamiliarization can work really well, like when it’s turned on its head by this upside-down family, these adult/children who’ve never known what it is to be parented:

Sometimes the man yells at them. The outbursts are unpredictable. Turn that awful noise down! he’ll yell if they’re playing music while he’s trying to watch the news. Once, when the girl answers her phone during dinner, the man grabs it from her hand and hurls it into the sink. Next time, he tells her, he’ll smash it with a brick. The worst thing is that they have to do what he says to quiet him down.

The man tries to teach them how to be kids, something else they’ve never been, having been grown in orphanages after hatching until their encoding with “all the information they’ll ever need.” Paper airplanes. Horseplay. Silly stuff, to a boy who builds houses for a living and is worried about the financial implications of an impending work furlough. But he’s intrigued.

But the boy’s favorite part is hearing about the disease itself: how exciting it was for the man to watch himself change, to grow tall and hairy and dark-headed, as strong as a beast. To feel ugly sometimes and hear his voice deepen into a stranger’s. To fall in love with a woman’s body and watch a baby come out of her stomach, still tied to her by a rope of flesh. The boy loves this part most of all, but when he asks about it, the man grows quiet and then says he understands why Perennials want to live forever. Did you have a baby like that? the boy asked him yesterday, and the man got up and limped into the backyard and stayed there for a while, picking up some stray airplanes and crumpling them into balls.

The man and the boy confront each other, and the worlds they represent. For a while it looks like the man is winning them over. But when he entices the siblings to do a puppet show, they all discover there are some attitudes too ingrained to change:

Let’s play capture the graveyard.
Okay.
In 70 years I’m going to die. First, though, I will grow old and weak and disease-ridden. This is called aging. It was thought to be incurable, in the Age of Senescence.
Will you lose your hair?
I am male, so there’s a four in seven chance of baldness.
If you procreate with me, my breasts will become engorged with milk.
I’m sorry.
Don’t apologize. The milk will feed my baby.
But how?
It will leak from my nipples.
I do not find you disgusting, red puppet. Many animals have milk-producing mammary glands. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive to grow old and die.
Everyone will have to pay more taxes, because we’ll be too feeble to work and pay for our useless medicines.
Jesus Christ, the man says, interrupting them. He limps over and yanks the socks from their hands. What’s wrong with you?
Nothing, the girl says.
Can’t you even do a fucking puppet show?
He limps into the boy’s room and shuts the door. The boy does not know what he’s done to make him angry. Bizarrely, he feels like he might cry.

That’s the tension in the story that gives it depth: they’re on opposite sides of a great divide. Will the Senescent convert the siblings to childhood, or will they remain true to their encoding and turn him in, especially since there’s a reward which will come in handy when the furlough starts? If the man is facing the difficult truth of the unbridgeable gap between them, the boy is facing something else:

But something has changed. The boy looks through the empty window square beside him and sees the evergreens that border the lot. Before long they’ll turn white with snow and then drip themselves dry and then go back to being as green and silent and lonely-looking as they are now. It will happen, the boy thinks, in the blink of an eye.
There is a utility knife sitting by his boot, and he picks it up and imagines what it would be like to slit his throat.

Not a bad story at all.

BASS 2012: Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard” from Ploughshares, Spring 2011

Thomas Deerinck: "Proteus Vulgarus Bacteria, SEM"

Thomas Deerinck: “Proteus Vulgarus Bacteria, SEM”

It was Thursday, and Calvin’s wife, Jill, had her GRE class, and he had to watch the boys. Jill hated Dave Lott, though she wouldn’t use the word hate. Everything was dislike, and now even the boys only disliked okra and disliked string beans, which sounded creepy to Calvin, coming from them – too much calm specificity. Jill disliked Dave Lott. She was friends with the man’s first wife in the way he’d noticed women were friends, with the need to designate an opponent so they could know they were on the same side.

I briefly had a subscription to Ploughshares, but I let it lapse; very few of the stories made sense to me. I would’ve been worried, but I seemed to do fine with most of Tin House, The New Yorker, and the prize volumes, so I figured they just gravitated towards a more academic style that wasn’t my cup of tea. If this story is any indication, not much has changed: I don’t understand it at all. And not only did the BASS editors think this was one of the Best American Short Stories of 2012, it won the 2011 Alice Hoffman Prize from Ploughshares for the best fiction published that year.

I’m pretty hard to please, I guess: first I complained that “The Imaging Center” was too obvious (among other things) and now I’m complaining (no, I’m not complaining, more like, reporting) this one is too obscure, and not in that intriguing way (like last year’s “Dog Bites” or the year before’s “The Cousins“) that sometimes happens, becoming a beautiful obsession. No, with this, it seemed to put it all out there, and I still didn’t get the point of it all. I waited a few days to re-read it, which sometimes works wonders, but not for this one. I guess I’m still not the Ploughshares reader.

The plot isn’t difficult to follow, not at all. Calvin’s job is inspecting waste water treatment facilities. As the story opens, he’s in the middle of an inspection and his foot slips, sinking one leg thigh-deep in treated sewage which odiferously marks him for the rest of the day; it’s an occupational hazard. When friend and co-worker Dave dies unexpectedly of a bacterial infection, supposedly unrelated to sewage inspection, and ex-wife Pat shows up with fifteen-year-old daughter Jennifer for the funeral, Calvin again steps in some crap that has nothing to do with sewage.

But why the story has to be so choreographically complicated to get us there, and just where it is we’re getting to, and why, I don’t know. It seems to start too early, then focus on minutiae, before culminating in a couple of crucial scenes. The funeral scene in particular is interminable, with no perceptible payoff; it’s after the funeral that things start popping.

I’m assuming the story is actually about Calvin’s marriage to Jill, revealed through the metaphor of bacteria (and by the way, the gods of coincidence have struck again, with two consecutive stories using an image inextricably linked with a character’s workplace to examine the state of a shaky marriage, just as in “The Imaging Center“):

Calvin had always appreciated bacteria, with all their invisible processes. He liked the intricacy of their names – fecal coliform, Escherichia coli, the whole hardy Bacillus genus. Bacteria were the secret to waste management, after all, allowing humans to live virtually on top of one another. They were nature’s recyclers, breaking everything down to nutrients to be reabsorbed. It irritated Calvin the way people always acted like bacteria were the bad guys, and antibiotics with the good guys, because the antibiotics – their overuse, anyway – were what was screwing up the bacterial balance, tipping the scale towards pathogenic. It shut down a few conversations with this rant.… You couldn’t blame bacteria for killing Dave Lott, who was dead by Tuesday, before Calvin even had a chance to stop by the hospital.

The bacteria in the relationship might be the cause of the tug-of-war over another baby; Calvin’s sexual “boycott” of his wife because she wants to have another baby and he doesn’t seems like a flashing red sign, screaming “Look here, this is where the good stuff is.” I suppose it feeds into what happened in the office with the deceased’s teenage daughter, another flashing red sign. But those things are overwhelmed by detailed scenes that might’ve been better summarized than narrated: the detailed seating arrangements of the funeral, and the conversation between Wife #1 and Wife #2 which goes pretty much where you’d expect such a conversation to go but added very little to my understanding of these people. The bacteria gets lost; it might just be bacteria, I don’t know. The we have the act the teenager puts on at the after-party (whatever you call the gathering after a funeral), inspired by what was meant to encouragement from Calvin, which in itself is fascinating, but, like the conflict over having another baby, doesn’t seem to fit. A lot of these elements are pretty interesting, but for me, it doesn’t really hang together as one cohesive story.

This and everything else seemed to Calvin to boil down to resistance – to giving in or not giving in, even when you couldn’t say exactly what there was to be resisted or what made you want to.

Exactly. I think.

BASS 2012: Edith Pearlman, “Honeydew” from Orion Sept/Oct 2011

Aubrey Learner: "Knotty" (2001)

Aubrey Learner: “Knotty” (2001)

Caldicott Academy, a private day school for girls, had not expelled a student in decades. There were few prohibitions. Drinking and drinking and having sex right there on campus could supposedly get you kicked out; turning up pregnant likewise; that was the long and short of it. There was a rule against climbing down the side of the ravine on the west side of the school, where a suicide had occurred a century earlier, but the punishment was only a scolding.

Emily didn’t become anorexic to control her life, or to delay puberty, or to meet fashion magazine standards of beauty; she wants to be an insect. No, it’s more than that: she should have been an insect.

Emily was permitted to take her meager lunch here and also her study periods, for the study hall nauseated her, redolent as it was of food recently eaten out being processed, and sometimes of residual gases used accidentally or mischievously. So she dined among her dead insects, admiring to chitinous exoskeletons skeletons while she put one of three carrot sticks in her mouth. Chitin was not a part of mammal physiology, though she had read that after death and before decomposition, the epidermis of the deceased human develops a leathery hardness, chitinlike it could be called, which begins to resemble the beetles who gorge on the decaying corpse and defecate at the same time, turning flesh into compost. The uses of shit were many. Most delightful was manna.… Coccidae excrement. Coccidae feed on the sap of plants. Sugary liquid rushes through the gut and out the anus. A single insect can process and expel many times its own weight every hour. They flick the stuff away with their hind legs, and it floats to the ground. Nomads still eat it – relish it. It is called honeydew

I’m interested in the reveals in this story (it’s available online; ahead there be spoilers). Alice, Emily’s teacher, holds a parental conference with psychiatrist dad and chic Parisian import mom, expressing her concern that Emily could die if her anorexia continues. “Her death, if it occurs, will be accidental,” says Dad; she’s not suicidal, she’s trying to be an insect. That she’ll be just as dead doesn’t seem to concern him. Then we learn Alice is six weeks pregnant. And, we discover a few paragraphs later, having an affair with psychiatrist dad. No wonder Emily wants to be an insect.

There’s a similarity between Alice and Emily – even the names are similar – that’s powerfully highlighted by two passages. In one, Emily gives a school presentation on ants (“…she was the master of the ant heart”):

“When a fellow ant is hungry, its antennae stroke the food-storer’s head. Then the two ants put their mouths together, together, together” – she controlled her unseemly excitement with the aid of the soothing smile Mr. Da Sola sent from the back of the room – “and the liquid food passes from one to the other. And in addition to the generous crop, each ant has another, smaller stomach, it’s ‘personal belly.'”

Compare that with the teacher-parent tryst:

… Spinster teacher and scholarly physician discarded their outer-world selves, joined, rolled, rolled back again, each straining to become incorporated into the other, to be made one, to form a new organism wanting nothing but to make love to itself all day long. Perhaps some afternoon they – it – would molt, grow wings, fly away, and, it’s time on earth over, die entwined in its own limbs and crumble to dust before midnight.

This is all pretty creepy reading, but it’s impressive. One theory of anorexia is that it’s a rejection of sexuality – a desire to lose the breasts and hips and menstrual cycle, female attractiveness in general. To link eating and sex this directly, to equate Emily and Alice so graphically, not only is a dramatic image, but it makes me wonder about dad’s relationship with Emily. Which makes me wonder if our current milieu is creating absurd suspicions of lecherous fathers everywhere, or if this is where these bread crumbs are meant to lead.

The primary plot line belongs to Alice, her affair with Emily’s father, and the pregnancy that could cost her her job. He refuses to leave his wife, and the story ends up with Alice, Dad, and Emily, an unconventional love triangle, in the aforementioned ravine. We see Emily through the eyes of both Alice (“She looked as if she had attached herself to the tree for nourishment…) who in a flood of maternal instinct wants to take home “the half sister of her child-to-be” and “whisper to the misguided girl that life could be moderately satisfying even if you were born into the wrong order,” and Dad (“Perhaps it was in the nature of people to defy their own interests… there was his beloved Emily, oh Lord let her live, make her live, there was Emily, plastered lengthwise to a tree like a colony of parasitic grubs”), both pivotal adults in her life and both excellent reasons for a teenager to wish she was an insect.

The classic denouement first annoyed me for its glib tying up of loose ends. In fact, it seemed so incongruous to the story, I wish it had been omitted (and I wonder if that would have been the “ambiguous ending” TNY so famously features; have I been reading TNY too long?). It does, however, provide opportunity for the last line (no, I’m not going to quote it, I have to leave some impetus for finding the story), which is a delight (if slightly too on-the-nose), pounding in the central metaphor of the piece (honeydew – manna – is in fact bugshit), and lampooning the hypocrisy of “propriety.” On second reading, I saw a dark, sardonic, absurdist humor throughout the piece that made the ending paragraphs a perfect fit.

I read this story right after finishing David Gilbert’s “Member/Guest” in TNY; both feature adolescent girls with flawed parents; both liberally sprinkle mini-themes and images that come together in a stark final scene. In Gilbert, I was impressed, and surprised, at how well things tied together, after a dubious start. Here, it’s the opposite: the story is packed with fascinating elements, but in the end, it felt to me like some of them were jammed in. In fact, I wasn’t impressed at all after first reading, but after reading the enthusiastic rave given by Prof. Charles May (my unofficial short story guru) –

…it is not the plot, or even the characters that draw you in and keep you moving toward the meaningful metaphoric end, but rather how all the parts are so integrated that even as the story is a surprise, it seems inevitable. The ending, when the young girl metaphorically becomes the insect she strives to be, and the suicidal ravine, like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, is thematically integrated, is an absolute treat.

– I gave it another shot, and it did work better (though I’m not sure Pearlman would appreciate my characterization of it as humor). Is that because a good story takes a second (and third, and fourth) reading? Or because I wanted it to work better because of my respect for Prof. May? Unknown. If I look at it in a few months or a year, I may see something new. Which is the cool thing about re-reading.

Also unknown is the effect Pearlman’s Contributor Note had on me:

Orion wrote to request some fiction (it had just published a short essay of mine about beetles). The story I was just beginning was to be about a triangle. Each member had my sympathy – the mistress, the wife, and the man between them. There was also a girl who didn’t like to eat. But for Orion the lovers and the would-be anorexic would have to be vigorously involved in the natural world.

(I was unaware of Orion prior to reading this story; their mission statement: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.”)

As is my habit, I glanced at all the Notes prior to reading the collection, and remember something about bugs, and though I wouldn’t have been able to connect that idea to a writer or a story under threat of death, who knows what the subconscious retains. As is also my habit, I didn’t re-read Pearlman’s Note until after I’d read the story and formulated a general impression. But this is the danger of contributor notes: while I’m an unabashed fan of them (I’ve said they’re my favorite thing about BASS and PEN/O.Henry, and I wish Pushcart would follow suit), there is the written-in-stone rule that The Story Must Stand on its Own. And if Prof. May’s comment affected my reading in a positive direction, how much did the Contributor Note affect it negatively, giving me the impression that elements were crammed in? I can’t know, I can only acknowledge the possibility, and document it so that it’s here to consider after some future reading.

BASS 2012: Julie Otsuka, “Diem Perdidi” from Granta #117, Autumn 2011

Granta illustration by Michael Salu

Granta illustration by Michael Salu

She remembers the rows of dried persimmons that once hung from the eaves of her mother’s house in Berkeley. They were the most beautiful shade of orange. She remembers that your father loves peaches. She remembers that every Sunday morning, at ten, he takes her for a drive down to the sea in the brown car. She remembers that every evening, right before the eight o’clock news, he sets two fortune cookies on a paper plate and announces to her that they are having a party. She remembers that on Mondays he comes home from the college at four, and if he is even five minutes late she goes out to the gate and begins to wait for him. She remembers which bedroom is hers and which is his. She remembers that the bedroom that is now hers was once yours. She remembers that it wasn’t always like this.

I suppose it’s hard to write a story about dementia that isn’t heartbreaking, but this one has the distinction of being exquisitely beautiful as well. This story was included in the “Horror” issue of Granta, and when you think about it, nothing could be more appropriate.

When I read Otsuka’s The Buddha In The Attic earlier this year, I called it “brilliant and stunning, a wonder to read both on the story and discourse level.” I hate to repeat myself, but this story also qualifies on all counts. And again, as I did with Buddha, I have to acknowledge that some readers will be put off by the style: the repetition of what the woman does and does not remember, the narrative point of view (I don’t even know what to call it; the best I can do is compare it to Rick Moody’s “Boys” and call it third person via second person; does that make it sixth person?), the nontraditional structure. But it’s still a story: just look how much information about this family is conveyed in that paragraph quoted above.

Otsuka’s gift is finding gloriously lyrical ways to tell stories. Here she juxtaposes humor (a little motherly matchmaking in the supermarket) and tragedy (“She remembers that she is forgetting. She remembers less and less every day”), present and past, what is remembered and what is forgotten, while filling in where this family has come from as she moves forward in time, the progression marked most dramatically by such mundane things as the President’s dog, red dust, and the long nose of a baby daughter long dead.

Try reading the story aloud. Each paragraph has a rhythm, a cadence. But it’s still a story, about an unnamed woman – a child at the start of WWII, when her father was taken away by the FBI and her family was interned in the desert – and the living oblivion she now faces, as told by the loving, horrified daughter helplessly witnessing her decline.

She remembers her mother killing all the chickens in the yard the day before they left. She remembers her fifth grade teacher, Mr. Martello, asking her to stand up in front of the class so everyone could tell her goodbye. She remembers being given a silver heart pendant by her next door neighbor, Elaine Crowley, who promised to write but never did. She remembers losing that pendant on the train and being so angry she wanted to cry. It was my first piece of jewelry.

She was in love with one man, but married another when the first jilted her. She had four children, but only three survived –

She remembers another doctor asking her, fifty years ago, minutes after the first girl was born and then died, if she wanted to donate the baby’s body to science. He said she had a very unusual heart. She remembers being in labor for thirty-two hours. She remembers being too tired to think. So I told him yes. She remembers driving home from the hospital in the sky-blue Chevy with your father and neither one of them saying a word. She remembers knowing she’d made a big mistake. She does not remember what happened to the baby’s body and worries that it might be stuck in a jar. She does not remember why they didn’t just bury her. I wish she was under a tree. She remembers wanting to bring her flowers every day.

– one of whom is the daughter, the “you” of the story, who looks in on her periodically, presumably forming the structure of the sections we read here.

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is the loss of recent memory, while distant ones stay intact. So this woman remembers clearly the events of her youth, even the Latin she excelled at in school: Diem Perdidi – “I have lost the day.” But she forgets how to make coffee, how to get up from a chair.

She remembers that the first time she and your father took you to Japan to meet his family you were eighteen months old and just beginning to speak. She remembers leaving you with his mother in the village while she and your father travelled across the island for ten days. I worried about you the whole time. She remembers that when they came back to you, you did not know who she was, and for many days afterward you would not speak to her, you would only whisper in her ear.

BASS 2012: Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

I should have said no to the stranger at the door, with his skinny throat and his black sample case that pulled him a little to the side, so that one of his jacket cuffs was higher than the other, a polite no would have done the trick, no thanks, I’m afraid not, not today, then the closing of the door and the heavy click of the latch, but I’d seen the lines of dirt in the black shoe creases, the worn-down heels, the shine on the jacket sleeves, the glint of desperation in his eyes. All the more reason, I said to myself, to send him on his way, as I stepped aside and watched him move into my living room.

When I read this story a year ago in TNY, I used the word “jumbled.” I was happy to see it here in BASS, to give me another shot at it. It was far less jumbled.

For some reason, I’d thought it was more complicated than it was. I actually went back to the original online version at TNY, to see if it had been edited; it hadn’t. I enjoyed it far more now than I did back then, and I feel like I got more out of it. Of course, it’s all a matter of perception, isn’t it?

I was again struck by the language with which the narrator describes the changes he sees post-Polish, particularly the attitudes ascribed to his reflection early on: “a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life” and “a man who believed in things.” It’s one thing to look rested or even alert; it’s quite another to look forward to expect, to believe. These are things one might become, qualities to hope for.

When the narrator describes changes to clothing, it’s a little different of course, since a piece of fabric can’t expect or believe. But it’s still a shift in perception. “Rumpled” pajamas now have “a certain jaunty look.” Monica “was dressed in clothes that no longer seemed a little drab, a little elderly, but were handsomely understated, seductively restrained.” I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Rabindranath Tagore: “When I stand before thee at the day’s end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.” It’s the narrator’s interpretation that is changed, not the image.

But though he sees a man who might believe and expect, he doesn’t seem to change his life much. He doesn’t start achieving more because of this attitude; he feels better, but it seems a sterile kind of improvement. A change without any effect.

The picnic, with its afterglow of gloom, reminds me of afterimages caused by fatigue of the rods and cones of the eye. But I’m still not sure why the bright sunlight had the effect it did; perhaps the use of all the mirrors had trained him to see as if affected by the Miracle Polish, but only enough to be evident in bright sunlight?

Something else occurred to me: Miracle Polish has been terribly isolating for the narrator, hasn’t it? He races home from work to the comfort of his mirrors. He loses his girlfriend, a less-than-close relationship, but seemingly the only one he has.

Apparently not everyone appreciates the effect of the mirrors; Monica didn’t. It isn’t that the polish had no effect; she noticed it. She simply didn’t want to live in that kind of altered reality, or she might have borrowed a little polish for herself. Instead she demands he choose, her or the woman in the mirror. Reality straight or altered. And he becomes hostile when forced to give up his mirrors. This took me to substance abuse – the obsession, the feeling better without change, the crack in their relationship – and suddenly the story had a whole new angle:

One of these days the stranger is bound to come again. He’ll walk toward my house with his heavy case tugging him to one side. In my living room he’ll snap open the clasps and show me the brown bottles, row on row. Mournfully he’ll tell me that it’s my lucky day. In a voice that is calm, but decisive and self-assured, I’ll tell him that I want every bottle, every last one. When I close my eyes, I can see the look of suspicion on his face, along with a touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope.

Perhaps the salesman – the salesman who opens and closes this story – is similarly isolated, and is seeking, not to make money from selling the polish, but a compatriot? The narrator as addict. The salesman as pusher. As deal-making Devil.

I wonder – if I read this story again in a year, will I again see something new?

BASS 2012: Lawrence Osborne, “Volcano” from Tin House #47, “The Mysterious,” Spring 2011

Martha filed for divorce. She collected the apartment on Central Park West and a considerable sum of money, then went to counseling. Lovers did not materialize to replace the discarded husband. She became yet more enraged, went on Zoloft, and finally decided that her eighteen years of therapy and dietary rigor had not, in the end, helped her very much to face the endgame of biology itself. Growing older had proved a formidable calamity.

Back in 1987, Kathleen Turner starred in an interesting movie titled Julia and Julia (not to be confused with the more recent and completely different Julie & Julia) about a woman who finds herself alternating between two different lives: one in which her Italian husband has been killed in a car accident, and one in which she’s still married to him and having an affair with Sting. It was best remembered as being the first movie shot in HD video, which at the time was a big deal though that meant it looked like TV. But the point is: I found it very uncomfortable to watch. There was something unfair about her being trapped between realities, always responsible for whatever she’d done but couldn’t remember doing because she was somewhere else.

This story raised that same uncomfortable feeling for me. It just didn’t seem fair. But I have to admit, for the story to have raised such a reaction, it must’ve been quite well done. I just didn’t enjoy it, in the way some people love roller coasters or bird peppers in their Thai food, and others don’t get why those things are enjoyable.

Another part of my disenchantment was Martha’s conclusion that, when suitors weren’t available immediately upon her divorce, she was incredibly, irredeemably, old– at 46. Of course, I’m again disliking a story because it’s well-done: the character is effectively created. She’s shallow and vain and haughty (and maybe a little overdone in those areas, though the circumstances of her divorce shed a more sympathetic light on her), but it isn’t the writer’s job to create likeable characters.

She goes to Hawaii for a Lucid Dream seminar, and instead of stumbling across the man she’s been hoping for, she finds only losers:

All in all, they were what she had expected. Bores and beaten-down shrews in decline and kooks. She didn’t mind, particularly. People are what they are and they were no more broken down by life’s disappointments than she herself was. She was sure that half the women had faithless husbands who had run off with younger women. They had that archetypal event inscribed upon their faces.

There’s nothing worse than going somewhere to meet interesting people and finding they’re all just as boring as you. Mirrors, in fact. At least she has the depth to recognize herself, if not the wisdom to appreciate the irony.

The dream technique includes a drug and goggles that emit infrared light during REM sleep to allow the dreamer to be present in the dream and remember it, even influence it: by touching a rough surface, the dream can be changed. To fly, turn around. Simple. As long as you can remember to do all this when you’re sleeping. This is a real thing, by the way; Osborne explains in his Contributor Notes that he wrote the story drawing on his own experience at such a seminar.

You can probably guess what’s coming. After the first couple of nights, Martha leaves the resort (or does she?) and heads out to the little town of Volcano, in the glow of flowing lava, where she meets an old man in a bar and, as things get more surreal thanks to a few of the house specials (the Crater: rum, pineapple juice, sugar, bitters, grapefruit, Cointreau, more rum, egg white, kava), drifts into his room that night. At a crucial point she decides it was a dream, or a nightmare, and starts reaching for rough surfaces.

The dream-you-can’t-wake-up-from is elevated from its place in hackneyed psychological horror by its organic connection to the Lucid Dreaming seminar; everything flows from the divorce to the trip and the climactic event. The effective surrealism of the neighboring volcano (which is also a real thing) is a nice touch, too, if a little blatant in its symbolism. It’s quite a sensuous story, with intense colors and textures and smells and tastes blending to add to the strangeness. I’d read it back when it was in Tin House but didn’t comment because, well, I just didn’t want to deal with it. So I guess it’s a good thing Tom Perotta has now forced me to do so (though so many other stories in that TH issue would’ve been my preference; in fact, looking at the also-rans listed in the BASS appendix, this would’ve been my last choice, but that’s why I’m not the editor). Because it’s a good story (me doth protest for the third time); I just didn’t like reading it.

BASS 2012: Mike Meginnis, “Navigators” from Hobart#12, April 2011

One of three Screenshots created for LoS by mechadaveo

One of three Screenshots created for LoS by mechadaveo

This was the logical culmination of his father’s theory of The Navigator. In games, where it was so often so easy to lose perspective, but also in life. When Joshua played their game, it was his father’s job to keep watch, tell him when he was doubling back, to remind him where he meant to go, and how. When Joshua’s father had the controller, these were Joshua’s jobs.

For the second year in a row, BASS has included a gamer story. And like last year’s “The Dungeon Master,” this one was very successful at using a computer game to map some scary territory in the human heart.

I think this story was more subtle; you really have to pay attention to pick up on the information being conveyed about Joshua and his father as they pursue their video game addiction following the departure of Joshua’s mother for friendlier climes. There’s a lot I was left wondering, like, first and foremost: did she leave because of the obsession with games, or was that more of a result? I strongly suspect the former. But I also suspect that without what might have been her mediating influence, things have declined.

The game in the story, Legend of Silence, is fictitious, though Meginnis says it’s loosely based on an existing game, Metroid, described in detail in Hobart:

[I]t could be said that the narrative of Metroid is ultimately, like that of Zelda, the oldest: You Get Better. This narrative is satisfying and unsatisfying for the same reason. It isn’t true. While to children it makes at least a little sense, as we grow up the idea of improvement becomes less and less convincing, even as we need more and more to believe it. The best fiction tends to show at least some of its characters learning and growing, but in ways that better match our experience of life. Perhaps they learn something new, but at great cost. Perhaps they grow, but only after a harrowing experience that will haunt them forever…. In Metroid, improvement is still the goal and the ultimate arc of the game, but it’s never easy, and death is never conquered. You never feel safe…. It is possible, up to the very last second, to lose, even after having won.

Meginnis started with that, then created his fictitious Legend of Silence on the foundation: You Get Worse. Instead of a character who gains power from artifacts, Alicia (Joshua named her that as, after Trudy, it’s his second-favorite name in the world; what do you want to bet his mother’s name is Trudy?) loses power. Her sword breaks; boots weigh her down. It’s amazing how touching it can be to see a video game character lose her wings:

They couldn’t tell what the metal boots were supposed to do. Joshua’s father let Alicia out of the room, and he made her jump out into the emptiness of the very tall room. She fell to the floor, flapping her wings without effect. The weight of her boots was too much. Her wings would slowly atrophy from disuse, shrinking, curling inward, dropping feathers in clots for the rest of the game, until there was nothing left. These feathers being pixels, of course – two each, twisting and angling this way and so on, so that the viewer could see what they were meant to be. Then father and son understood the game. Joshua’s father said, “This is a REAL game.”

It’s touching, of course, because it’s not a story about a video game. It’s a story about a little boy devastated not only by his mother’s absence but by his father’s inability to compensate and provide the basics of life. They Get Worse. The gas is shut off. They have to move to a smaller apartment (“None of his father’s friends could make it to help”). In a stunning role reversal echoing the one alluded to in the lead quote above, Dad asks Joshua if he should have an allowance, and Joshua points out, “I don’t think you can afford to give me one.” Joshua is dealing with the real-life equivalent of metal boots and a broken sword.

It goes way beyond a shortage of money, of course:

Joshua examined their clothes – his father’s, his own. Both were crusted with cheese-puff dust and stained with cranberry juice cocktail. It had been nearly a month since they’d done the laundry. Joshua did not like folding the clothes, but he didn’t like it when people looked at him either, at school or anywhere. His jeans were wearing thin in the knees and the groin, and the cuffs were already ragged. He paused the game and went to the kitchen for something to eat.
The sink was full of dishes slick with grime. The table was piled with pop cans, some empty, some half-full. There were coupons on the table for Gold’s Gym and LA Fitness, fanned out like playing cards. The cupboard was empty except for macaroni and pumpkin pie filling.

He’s getting weaker, Joshua is, with every artifact he finds. The question is: what happens when the game ends? Will he attain Nirvana and come out the other side?

Other heartbreaking details emerge as father and son live to play and play to live, a map of the game covering the windows, the colors of the game screens casting its colors on their faces. But Joshua still has a pinky toe in reality. He overhears his father talking to someone on the phone about his mother:

Joshua listened carefully for clues as to where she was, what she was doing. “(Something something) pay phones,” said his father. “(Something something) Atlanta.”
Atlanta was the capital of Georgia. It was a big city. This was not nearly enough. Joshua couldn’t even find his own way through Legend of Silence.

The spare style here hones the edge of the truth: if Joshua thought he had a chance of finding her, he’d leave Alicia and his father and the cheese-puffs right this minute and race to his mother. Which of course raises the question: why did she leave him in the first place? Is she calling Dad from pay phones, and he’s keeping that a secret from Joshua? Just what happened to this family? It’s never completely clear. And I don’t think that’s an accident. As Meginnis explains in his article: “I might talk more about these things, but you can’t know me. You can’t know my father. You can, however, know Metroid.” Similarly, as we read the story, we don’t quite know Joshua or his father, but we do know LoS (and the acronym for the game is also not, I’m pretty sure, an accident).

I loved this story, in spite of the murkiness. I’ve already discussed my own rudimentary gaming history (on a text-based online MUD rather than a video game) when I talked about the Lipsyte story, though I left out the time I spent as a Citizen of Badde Manors, exploring (along with Feldermer, the Slovakian architecture student who took on the persona and accent of the Swedish Chef) the sub-basement (with its maze of twisty little passages, all alike) and constructing a map similar to the one in the story (only to have an earthquake in the Manors shift the sub-basement so we had to start over… ). The puzzle, the quest, the struggle can be a powerful lure, even for casual players.

A lot of people dismiss anything having to do with computer games. A lot of people dismiss a lot of things, like blogging, for instance. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there worth understanding. It might, however, make this story hard slogging for someone who can’t reach through the gaming to find the heart of this little boy:

His father squeezed him tight. Joshua wondered what they would do now. The need he felt was like when he stepped on the sliver of glass, and his mother pulled out the skin with her tweezers, and pushed them inside, until she found the glass. It was like when she told him to get ready, to squeeze his father’s hand. Clenching his teeth, closing his eyes, waiting.

BASS 2012: Jennifer Haigh, “Paramour” from Ploughshares, Winter 2011

"In Bed" by Ron Mueck

“In Bed” by Ron Mueck

She watched him cut through the crowd of great talents: actors performing at each other, directors thinking aloud, playwrights testing out speeches, auditioning their own words. Theater people were born to be looked at, though it occurred to Christine – not for the first time – that they were more impressive from a distance, observed from the mezzanine, the house lights dimmed. Their intricate private lives – Ivan’s and Beth’s and Tommy’s – were best left in shadow. Only Racine and Corneille, dead three centuries, could be safely studied, their strange passions consigned to the past.

Back in the 50s, scopolamine was the drug of choice for women in labor. It didn’t do a thing for pain, but instead eliminated memory; women thought they’d slept through childbirth when in fact they’d been screaming in pain and hurling obscenities.

What has more impact on our lives: the event, or our memory of it?

Time and distance greatly affect how we remember things. But other intangibles affect how we interpret reality. Someone we admire – or love – might have to really try to go outside the bounds of what we consider acceptable. Those who have accomplished greatness in their fields, particularly artistic endeavors, tend to be allowed more slack than those of lesser import who’ve abided by societal rules. But, if we’re lucky, there does come a place in space and time when our vision clears and we can see things for what they are.

The present of the story is a tribute dinner for a famous dramatist; we’re filled in on the brief relationship twenty years earlier between Ivan and Christine, when she was a student and he a Visiting Professor, via flashback. “She felt caught by him, mounted like a butterfly, held fast for his consideration and delight.” But they never slept together; he was married with a young baby, and adultery was beyond the pale for her. Not that it mattered: “That he had loved but not desired her was a truth she confided to no one. She carried the shame like a disfiguring scar.”

He instead had her come to his room, undress, and lie on the bed in various poses, as if he were a painter and she the model. She thought that was safe, acceptable:

Later she understood how gravely she’d miscalculated. That with every lover for the rest of her life, Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room.

What we imagine, remember, how we consider what’s been done in the past, can be as important as the actions themselves. If we remember an event as warm or frightening or cantankerous, it doesn’t really matter exactly what actually happened. At least, not until we have to confront the reality, as Christine does when she discovers she was invited to the tribute by Ivan’s wife:

After he sent her away, what had he done with the images in his head? She’d believed, always, that the pictures were for him alone. Now she imagined him calling his wife in the city. The girl was here. She sat for me.

In the last scene of the story, the last sentence, the narration forces an alternate interpretation of the past. Considering how matter-of-fact the language is, it’s amazingly creepy. This reminds me of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” in that only a piece of information (the grey hairs on the pillow, in “Rose”) is narrated; the reader has to interpret the meaning of the information to the characters in the story, and thus participates in the story and projects a bit beyond the written ending. In this story, the narration is unclear about whether Christine knows the information in the last paragraph or not.

What is more real: the Ivan she’s carried with her for twenty years, lived her life remembering, or the one she would now be able to see without the veils of youth, inexperience, and hero-worship? And – does it matter?

BASS 2012: Roxane Gay, “North Country” from Hobart #12, April 2011

I rented my new home—a former dry-cleaning business converted into an apartment—over the phone. There are no windows, save for the one in the front door. The apartment, I thought, as I walked from room to room when I moved in, was like a jail cell. I had been sentenced. My new landlady, an octogenarian Italian who ran the dry cleaner’s for more than thirty years, gasped when she met me. “You didn’t sound like a colored girl on the phone,” she said. I said, “I get that a lot.”

Overall, this story covers well-trod ground: a woman still affected by a painful past starts over again and experiences excruciating loneliness until she gets out of her own way and allows an opportunity for connection. But it’s beautiful reading: smooth prose, with imagery that’s interesting and compelling.

In her Contributor Note, Gay talks about her time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula obtaining her PhD. The harsh weather was only part of it; people really did make some assumptions based on the color of her skin. But she also found more, as we usually do when we’re willing to actually look. So she wrote it into the story, “a love letter to the North Country,” in which narrator Kate faces similar issues while adjusting to her new job teaching structural engineering, with all its equations and processes that makes sense:

“Are you from Detroit?”
I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa. They will nod and exhale excitedly and ask about my tribe. I don’t know that in this moment, so there is little to comfort me.

I’m sure it wasn’t fun at all to live through, but it’s pretty hilarious to read about.
And it underlines Kate’s isolation, following the stillbirth of her daughter and breakup of her relationship. Then there’s the Indian colleague who keeps inviting her to try his special curry. No wonder she’s pretty guarded even when logger Magnus shows signs of being a good guy.

What worked for me is the pull of opposites: the engineering professor and the logger, concrete vs. trees, head vs. hands. Then there’s the use of inside and outside, already alluded to in the reaction to her race. It’s carried further by the description of Magnus’s trailer:

Magnus lives in a trailer, and not one of those fancy double-wides on a foundation with a well-kept garden in the front, but rather an old, rusty trailer that can be attached to truck and driven away. It is the kind of trailer you see in sad, forgotten places that have surrendered to rust and overgrown weeds and cars on cinderblocks and sagging laundry lines. The trailer, on the outside, is in a fair amount of disrepair, but the inside is immaculate. Everything has its proper place.

This is mirrored at the end, when Kate finally stops testing how hard he’ll let her push him away and lets him in: the logger builds an igloo for the structural engineer, and lights a fire inside.

I have to admit I’m not completely objective, though. I’ve been enjoying Dr. Gay’s essays in The Rumpus for a while now, and just last night – after I’d already written most of this post – was comforted by her live-tweets of the debate (I find I can’t watch the debates this time around, they just make me angry). So some of this imagery I’m raving about, by another writer at another time, I might find a little treadworn. But come on, who can resist an igloo?

BASS 2012: Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from TNY, 12/12/11, and his 2012 Story Collection

They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.

[Note: I posted about this story when I first read it in The New Yorker last December, but I did a lousy job; I was too focused on comparisons to the Carver story to really pay attention to the one I was reading, though I knew through Englander’s Page-Turner interview at the time that he’d avoided re-reading the story himself. So I’m giving it another go.]

It’s an immensely complicated, though essentially “plotless,” story. Mark and Laurel (Yerucham and Shoshana) are Hasidim who’ve lived in Jerusalem for the past twenty years; they’re in South Florida to visit Mark’s ailing father. The narrator and Deb are non-observant Jews living in South Florida. Deb and Laurel went to school together, and are visiting for the first time since then; the two couples sit around talking. That’s it.

It’s all in the details.

Who touches whom – who clings to whom, and why – and who can’t touch. Where they are at any time – the den, the kitchen table, the floor, the back yard, the pantry – and why they went there: for a drink, to play, for food. What name, their given names or the Hebrew names they prefer, the narrator chooses to call the two visitors – and how not only what he says changes, but how he uses those names in the narration of the story. The snipes that take place, under guise of “conversation.” Who likes whom. Who approves of whom.

Most of the discussion falls into the category of what it means to be Jewish. Is it a religion, a culture, an ethnicity? Is an Ethiopian convert, or a guy who lives a non-religious life in South Florida, just as Jewish as an Hasidic Yeshiva-educated son of a Jewish woman? Is intermarriage the second Holocaust?

There’s some amazing choreography, both verbal as topics weave and course, and physical. They start in the den, looking at pictures and meeting the teenage son. Then to the kitchen for a drink and, as the afternoon progresses, a few joints (suggested by Laurel, since everyone in Israel smokes pot, apparently, and fortunately, Trevor hides his in the laundry hamper). At one point Deb, stoned, is on the kitchen floor, and the narrator joins her, holds her, comforts her, until they are lifted up – back – by Mark. They go out and play in the rain. An attack of munchies brings them to the pantry, a small room rather than the closet I’m familiar with.

Have you ever thought about what room in your house would be ideal for hiding a family in the event of a second Holocaust? I haven’t. But Deb has. It’s the pantry, and being in the pantry, stoned, leads Laurel/Shoshana to bring up the Game.

“It’s not a game,” Deb says.
And I’m happy to hear her say that, as it’s just what I’ve been trying to get her to admit for years. That it’s not a game. That it’s dead serious, and a kind of preparation, and an active pathology that I prefer not to indulge.
“It’s the Anne Frank game,” Shoshana says. “Right?”
Seeing how upset my wife is, I do my best to defend her. I say, “No, it’s not a game. It’s just what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank.”
“How do we play this non-game?” Mark says. “What do we do?”
“It’s the Righteous Gentile game,” Shoshana says.
“It’s Who Will Hide Me?” I say.
“In the event of a second Holocaust,” Deb says, giving in. “It’s a serious exploration, a thought experiment that we engage in.”
“That you play,” Shoshana says.

Imagine yourself, stoned, having confided some things to people you don’t really know, having played in the rain with them, having fretted about what your husband is saying to them – and suddenly you play this game, and try to imagine: Would your husband, if he were Gentile and you were not, hide you? What I truly love about Englander’s handling of this is that he doesn’t look at who would or wouldn’t; he looks at who believes the other would or wouldn’t.

So here they are, on the last page of this story, in this pantry, this closed room – they can see the sun dimming again through the crack under the door – and now Deb and Shoshana consider whether their husbands would hide them.

A plotless story? Hardly.

BASS 2012: Taylor Antrim – “Pilgrim Life” from American Short Fiction

Leland Howard: "Rearview Mirror"

Leland Howard: “Rearview Mirror”

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I make bad decisions. In a tight spot, I lose perspective. All of the sudden I’m behind the wheel of a rented Mazda, flooring the accelerator, a body in my rearview.

This story reminded me a little of Justin Taylor’s “After Ellen“: young man uses college to put as much distance as possible between him and his family, but continues to display woefully immature behavior, especially running away, well into his 20s. Since I still feel a little regret at how little I liked that earlier story (I cringed when I recognized myself in Paul Debraski‘s comments about my comments), I decided to be extra-careful here.

Maybe I don’t hate the stories as much as the immature 20-something protagonists.

While I did’t love it, I didn’t hate this story at all; there’s a lot of good stuff going on. Unlike with “After Ellen,” I saw movement and character development. Lewis, the protagonist, has a tendency towards avoidance, and that changes a bit by the end: he starts to grow up, in a kind of a delayed bildungsroman. I still find it annoying that the author seems to be asking for sympathy for this character, but that could be my interpretation. Maybe I’m just an old fart who has no patience with youngsters these days. After all, I was such a sterling example of what youth should be. Mmm-hm.

By Thursday I still hadn’t said word one about the accident. My roommate Rand would be the guy, and this would be the moment: and I sitting on our narrow balcony, legs shot through the railings, nighttime, glittery San Francisco laid out below us. September 22, 1999. “Know what Hardar Jumpiche said about giving away good feelings?” He asked.

Took me a second to realize who he meant: the author of Today’s the Day. that and Buddhism For Dummies had appeared on the back of the toilet after Rand sold his startup to WestLab. The incubator’s stock had since been on a tear – up 6% this month – which had left Rand worth, more or less, $12 million.

Based on the time setting, I expected the story to have something to do with the dot-com bubble burst, but that isn’t part of this landscape. If having a millionaire roommate seems a little far-fetched, that part of the story is from Antrim’s life, per the Contributor Notes:

“Pilgrim Life” starts with that calming view, that apartment, my millionaire roommate, my wine magazine job. The rest of it I entirely made up (I swear) over a three-month stretch in the midst of the worst financial crisis I’ve ever lived through. Jobs were not easy to find in 2009, and I had recently lost mine. Going back to a charmed year in San Francisco felt like a tonic.

That’s an interesting approach: collapse a low period onto a good year and see what happens. I also like the connotation of the title. Lewis’s mother has made a point of showing him her claim to Pilgrim heritage, but there’s the overlay of one venturing forth to find something sacred. It’s interesting that could apply to Lewis leaving home, or returning, since it’s hinted that he won’t be staying there long.

I can appreciate that Lewis develops some nascent awareness of his difficulties:

I ask myself why I felt so hard for a girl who didn’t fall for me. Why I proposed to her. Why I left an injured man on the side of the road. Sometimes asking these questions makes me think I’ve changed – grown up a little – and then I’ll see boat masts tipping back and forth in the harbor like metronome needles, and I get this overwhelming urge to try to steal one of them and set sail for, like, Havana.

In fact, that’s quite a paragraph, of that in-between stage where you at least recognize what a jerk you’ve been, even if you still want to be that same jerk all over again. And I got quite a chuckle out of the scene with the check. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean.

I also very much liked the closing:

The pelicans take these kamikaze plunges into the water. The way they hit, not one should survive – but of course, they all do. They come up with their beaks full of fish.

None of us should survive our youth. The chances we take! When I was 18, I found my roommate on the Esplanade in Boston – or rather, she found me, by asking “Have you ever heard of nam myoho renge kyo?” and enticing me to play the glockenspiel in a Buddhist marching band. I went out with a guy who told me he was with the CIA (turns out he was a Navy sailor, what did I know about government IDs). And yes, I did things that hurt other people, made myself feel better at others’ expense, though I’m not going to ‘fess to any of them here. Most of us have made mistakes, sometimes big ones. And yet we usually survive – as long as we’re white middle class, that is (do you think Lewis would’ve been given community service for his hit-and-run if he’d been a black kid mopping floors at McDonald’s with no millionaire roommate or a lawyer brother?). Which may be another reason I was annoyed by this story. There’s entirely too much entitlement – to sympathy, to leniency, to the assistance and forgiveness of others – on Lewis’s part. Am I supposed to think he suffered? Or am I supposed to be annoyed that he didn’t?

When a story, or a character, annoys me, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. Maybe that’s what I’m learning now, as I belatedly grow up as a reader.

BASS 2012: Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language” from New Ohio Review #10, Fall 2011

Image by ktsdesign

Image by ktsdesign

Darlyn lives her real life with all its little pieces locking into one another, a seemingly complete picture. But this is an illusion. Lift up one of the pieces and you’d be looking into an entire universe tumbling with color and light.

When I read this passage, I wrote in the margin: “Just like the story!” It’s a jumble of crazy individuals, each crazy in his/her own way, but taken together, it’s a beautiful family bursting with love and human frailty.

What a great way to start off this collection, with this funny-in-a-sad-way/sad-in-a-funny-way story that never stops, that leaves me with a sense of hope in spite of calamity that must lie ahead for them. What’s especially nice is that it’s available online.

Darlyn’s the mother, daughter, sister, lover who serves as the center of gravity for this tragically charming universe. Lake is her 10-year-old daughter, obsessed with cooking and garnishes and foams:

Lake is the name her daughter chose for herself last year. She wasn’t happy with Mary. Darlyn’s thinking was to give her the plainest name possible. She herself has suffered her whole life with one that makes anyone using it sound like they’re calling over a truck stop waitress. It just never occurred to her that she was allowed to change it.

There, do you see it – those twin poles of hope and despair? The daughter who somehow learned that change is possible?

Darlyn plays rescuer to Jackie, her alcoholic mother. Usually. Sometimes she takes the phone off the hook because she just needs a good night’s sleep. But when Jackie wins big at the blackjack tables and calls from a comped luxury suite, Darlyn and brother Russ race in to secure the $40,000 before she can lose it all – and find wheelchair-bound Billy in her room, dressed only in his undies. “A sleepover friend,” Lake calls him. Russ, a morbidly obese laid-off nursing assistant, has no delusions about life; he wants the money put aside for “when she’s still a drunk, but also nonambulatory and demented.” He himself belongs to a suicide society.

The second major narrative thread of the story follows Darlyn’s affair with Christy of the Lexus-and-NPR strata:

Darlyn is too in love with this woman. Christy, this is the woman’s name. She holds no place in Darlyn’s life, and Darlyn holds no place in hers. Christy is never going to leave her husband. What she and Darlyn have is totally compartmentalized. This particular compartment is an hour and fifteen minutes between Darlyn leaving work and having to pick up Lake at swim practice. This hugely circumscribed affair is the reason she thinks of herself at the moment as only technically queer. She would like to be a lot queerer, but that’s not happening.

They really don’t have time for long silences, or lingering moments.… Most of their conversations take place naked and in positions they can’t remember having gotten themselves into – post-sex exhaustion positions.

Again, this reminds me of the story itself, which races headlong from one thing to the next without pausing for much in the way of reflection. Not to say there isn’t any musing going on; there’s plenty, but it’s all done on the way from one crisis to another.

Ok, so maybe it’s the sitcom version of a dysfunctional family, epitomized by Lake adding cilantro and foam to the dinner of an off-brand frozen entrée. In real life, Jackie would die choking on her own vomit on her bathroom floor, Russ would end up arrested protecting Darlyn from Christy’s husband, Darlyn would slit her wrists, and Lake would be sexually abused in foster care. The story is the fairy tale view of grim reality, like the romanticized myth of “we were poor but we had love.” Darlyn knows what she can and can’t expect – being happy just for a day, based on a promise, and resisting bitterness when the promise never happens. A happiness that’s about Russ building a wheelchair ramp so Billy – whose wheelchair may be a feature rather than an obstacle (anyone who’s ever worked in IT knows the old joke about “it’s not a bug, it’s an undocumented feature) – can move in with Jackie for however long he may or may not stay. It’s about accepting and helping each other instead of criticizing and blaming. All the pieces of the story fit, and you want these people to stumble on. It’s a great read.

They just stand in the light haze of third-hand cigarette smoke drifting out through the window screen until the silence is suddenly cut with the sparky flap of cards being shuffled and Billy telling Lake, “The idea is to go higher than the dealer without going over twenty-one.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

BASS 2012: Getting Started

It turns out that the statement “I just have a few more pages” does not inspire patience in very busy or very young people.

– Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

The new BASS is here! The new BASS is here! (Apologies to Steve Martin)

Forgive me – but it’s been a long six weeks without a prize anthology.

And it’s a lovely navy blue – such an improvement from last year’s annoying chartreuse.

Each year, I dig in via the non-story material: the Foreword by Series Editor Heidi Pitlor, the Introduction by the year’s Editor. For the past several years, I’ve noticed each “preview” (as I call this material) gives me a different sense. In 2010, Richard Russo charmed me with a long anecdote about an Isaac Bashevis Singer lecture. But last year, I was pissed off by what felt like snobbery in both pre-sections. This year is very different, and I wonder if that’s deliberate; maybe I wasn’t the only one who felt the “slap in the face” last year (though I should say, I enjoyed last year’s stories just fine, once I got some distance from the awful preview).

Series editor Heidi Pitlor uses this Foreword now to declare this (2011 publication) the strongest year for short stories since she took over BASS six years ago, making her job more difficult as she winnowed the field of thousands down to 120 finalists. That’s a far cry from 2011’s “writing tips” for those slackers who didn’t make the cut. We’re also promised humor, satire, and “a greater diversity of themes this year, as well as more direct and imaginative ways of addressing real-world issues” like the economy, video game subculture, commercialism, and the focus on youth. Now wait – last year, “The Sleep” approached the economy from a unique direction, Sam Lipsyte did a bang-up job with videogame subculture in “The Dungeon Master,” and Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan” did a great job with youth and aging.

I think now I’m just being contrary.

Editor Tom Perrotta, a name new to me, has written an engaging and personal Introduction, starting (and ending) with his childhood memory of “the best pizza in the world,” and acknowledging head-on the absurdity of anyone declaring any set of short stories to be “the best.”

… [Y]ou may also be skeptical or even mildly hostile, wondering what gives me – gives anyone, for that matter – the right to impose his or her personal tastes on the American reading public.”

Who, I hear you wondering, does this guy think he is?

He explains his own criteria using his early encounters with the twin poles of Carver-minimalism and DFW-excess, and offers the following summary of his tastes:

I like stories written in plain, artful language about ordinary people. I’m wary of narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity, suspicious of writing that feels exclusive or elitist, targeted two readers with graduate degrees rather than the general public, whatever that means.… an American vernacular tradition that includes Twain and Crane, Cather and Hemingway, Hammett and Chandler, and stretches all the way back to Emerson (“The roots of what is great and high must still be the common life”) and Whitman (“Nothing is better than simplicity”).

While I appreciated his laying out the ground rules, and admired his discussion of Carver and DFW, my heart sank a little: I’m a fan of “narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity.” At least I think I am; what I consider to be those things might be completely different from Perrotta’s interpretation. And I’ll admit, these things don’t always work out; while I adored Seth Fried’s “Animacula” I never quite caught on to Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms,” and both use the form of academic report. Roberto Bolano baffles me. I love some of Stephen O’Connor‘s work, and just go “huh?” for others. But discovering Paul Griner and Bennett Sims was, perhaps, the highlight of my reading year, and most of the stuff in my Online Fiction Sampler is slightly off-center. Then again, another highlight of my reading this year has been “getting” Alice Munro and Carver himself in a more complex sense. So I’m not really disappointed.

I’m always a little nervous about pre-reading the Contributor Notes: will they affect my later reading of the story? I’ve found that, while I might remember a fun anecdote (last year’s Rebecca Makkai tale of editing her story a week before her scheduled C-section, for instance – or Karen Russell’s mention in 2008 of her brother’s craving for “booze with Vitamin C,” aka limoncello, that resulted in her trip to Sorrento), I’m not able to remember whatever details about the stories themselves might be included, or to associate them with the correct author, in the weeks between reading the Note and reading the story. I do often find them informative afterwards; but in no way are they spoilers before.

These Contributor Notes this year are enticing as always: a millionaire roommate, assumptions, the sorrows of dementia and bereavement, suicidal ants, and a wonderful story of loss (“fear of failure had replaced the joy I’d always found in fiction”) and reclamation through the grace of a generous colleague. Yet I expect I’ll be completely surprised when I go back as I read each story and realize which of these goes with what.

So now, the stories themselves await. I’m looking forward to reading Julie Otsuka, whose Buddha in the Attic I thoroughly enjoyed; likewise, I was lucky to discover Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets this year, and I’m eager to read his story. I’ve been reading Roxanne Gay’s Rumpus posts for a long time, but this will be my first encounter with her fiction. And I’m so glad to see offerings from Fifth Wednesday and Hobart in the mix with TNY and Tin House and Granta et al.

Want some pizza?

George Saunders: “Tenth of December” from The New Yorker, 10/31/11

New Yorker art by Riitta Päiväläinen - from her "Vestige" series

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Clean.
Cleanly.

I had a lot of trouble with this story. In fact, I only read parts of it, skipping over the fantasy sections looking for whatever was happening in the here-and-now, assuming Eber was mentally ill or drunk. That’s what I get for skimming. I only became interested enough to read it through when I found out what it was actually about after I’d read the terrific Book Bench interview with George Saunders, and comments by other bloggers, most notably Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes (always a go-to source when I’m struggling with a story). Trevor had a hard time with it, too, yet he led me right to it. So thanks, Trevor!

Still, it’s not an easy read. YMMV. It’s available online.

The principles are two:

Robin, a ten-year-old boy who’s escaping grade-school teasing by doing battle with a world of Netherlanders who live in a rock wall and “talk like that guy in ‘Mary Poppins’.” His companion, in his mind, is the lovely Suzanne from homeroom, to whom he is a hero, though in real life she doesn’t know his name. Oh, come on, don’t tell me you didn’t have similar fantasies.

And Don Eber, who is not at all mentally ill but has a brain tumor already affecting his word choice. He’s got a cast of characters in his head, too, though they’re real, if no longer alive. His dad and Kip, who abandoned him for California when he was a kid. Allen, his stepfather, who was a terrific guy until he got sick:

Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.

Again, let me thank Trevor: I would’ve missed this entirely if I hadn’t been directed back to the story, and this was worth whatever struggles I endured.

So we have a boy with Nethers in his head trying to be a hero, and a man with Dad, Kip and Allen in his head, trying to die before he becomes a burden to his current family, in the same woods. What are the odds.

Eber has left his coat near the mostly-frozen pond, as he’s decided freezing to death is the easiest way to go. Robin finds the coat and, since it’s ten degrees, decides to rescue whoever lost it. Unfortunately, he never saw the PSAs about how dangerous it is to trust ice early in the season, so he cuts across the pond rather than taking the long way around. It’s a terrific scene, both before and after he falls in. The pacing slows down to inch-by-inch action, which is perfect.

From there, it’s a matter of interaction, and it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of guilt and rescue. As the story proceeded, once I’d actually read it instead of skimming, it raised all sorts of feelings from me. The ending is slightly hokey, but it earns it.

The magic of this story, though, is the integration of internality and action, the very thing that so put me off at first. Per Saunders’ interview:

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.”

….Robin’s internal dialogues were sort of voluntary—they’re little scenes that he’s consciously enacting in his mind, like when someone imagines being interviewed on a talk show, or gives himself a do-over with someone who’s insulted him. Robin is picturing Suzanne walking beside him; he’s actually “hearing” her say those words (those words that he’s giving her to say). Eber’s dialogues are more non-verbal, if you will. That is, I assign his father and Kip lines of dialogue, but I would imagine that in Eber’s mind these exchanges occur more as vague rushes of feeling that, if we could take them apart, would be attributable to long-standing and very deep archetypes in his mind. (I, for example, have a small group of inner nuns who appear now and then—also known as a “swarm” or a “mottle” of nuns.

As Trevor (thanks again) points out – this all takes place in an extremely close third person narration, which I didn’t even realize. It reads very naturally. There’s no intrusion of “he thought” or “he imagined,” it’s just a stream of consciousness of these two characters.

I’m glad I finally read this as it was meant to be read. There’s a lesson there for me.

Another interesting note: the art appearing in The New Yorker (and above) is supplied by photographer Riitta Päiväläinen from her “Vestige” series, featuring clothing from second-hand stores placed in landscapes: “By freezing the garment or letting the wind fill it with air, I am able to create a sculptural space, which reminds me of its former user. This ‘Imaginary Meeting’ represents, for me, the subtle distinction between absence and presence.” It’s so perfect for this story, I’m amazed the story and the art were created independently.

# # #

Addendum: I re-read this as part of BASS 2012, and had a few additional thoughts.

Even though I’d read it before and knew what to expect (and the payoff), it was again a hard story to get into. The reader is plopped right down in the middle of a boy’s fantasy play, complete with imaginary creatures called Nethers and the fantasy version of Suzanne, whom he’s rescuing. So it makes no sense. Then you meet Eber, who is likewise lost in thought. As Perotta says in his Introduction, their “inner lives are fully accessible to the reader” which is cool, but takes some persistence to follow. It’s worth it.

I also picked up on something else: each of them was ineffectually trying to rescue himself initially, the boy by becoming a hero in his fantasy and rescuing Suzanne, the man by killing himself before the tumor in his brain could take away his capacity to do so. Yet, it isn’t until each rescues the other that actual rescue takes place: the boy becomes a hero in fact, the man realizes suicide would be a terrible thing to do to his beloved Molly. There’s something here like the old thing about helping others being the best way to forget about your own troubles, but in praxis. When the kid sees the old man’s coat and goes to get it, he thinks, “It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.” Exactly – except by trying to rescue the man, he’s rescuing himself.

Kate Walbert: “M&M World” from The New Yorker 5/30/2011

New Yorker art by Jaime Hernandez

Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying—five more minutes, this last page, one more bite—and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies. It’s a verbal tic: first this and then that. A constant negotiation—action then reward, or promise of reward.

I started out biased against this story: I’m tired of the Single Moms are the Martyrs of the Universe mantra. I know that sounds heartless. I’m not heartless. I care greatly about a couple of individual single moms I know. I’m just tired of them as a category, tired of their self-pity and demands for compassion and lots of leeway. And definitely tired of them as literary trope. But this story grew on me, because of one paragraph which I’ll get to shortly.

Ginny is a Single Mom taking her girls, Olivia and Maggie, to M&M World. She’s a very nervous person. The kids might run into any number of hazards. She’s incapable of saying “No” and sticking to it. And while I may be heartless towards single moms, it isn’t lost on me that while Mom is negotiating ice cream with the kids, Dad’s off boffing an intern from work. She calls him “the girls’ father” throughout, because, I suppose, that’s the relationship that survives after what seems to have been a civilized divorce.

They stop by a row of carriages and horses. The horses’ yellow teeth remind Ginny she needs to bleach her teeth: “Suddenly everyone’s teeth are whiter than her own; they wear them like necklaces.” This is where I started to love this story (though I think there are too many tooth references here; Maggie’s teeth are also mentioned. She has teeth like pearls. And her tooth fairy obsession: she’s hoarding her teeth for one big hit when she’s lost them all). And on wrinkle removal: “a whole generation of women paying for erasure.” Now there’s a statement.

Unfortunately, there’s a sentence shortly after that annoyed me. In describing the horses: “it wears a hat with a feathered plume, as if it had trotted here from the stables of a fallen tsar.” This narration says to me, “I (the writer) am intruding here to show you how clever I am.” I’m not sure what the difference is between paying for erasure and the stables of a fallen tsar, but there is one, to me.

The horse’s gaze – an eye that says, “Where am I” – reminds her of a trip to Chile, taken with the girls’ father before they were married, and a whale-watching exposition:

On this particular voyage, the one Ginny found herself on with the girls’ father, Ginny chose to stay on the side of the boat with more shade. She was hot, she told the girls’ father. He could call her if anything exciting happened. She had opened her book: “War and Peace,” a paperback edition she had picked up in the paperback exchange in Santiago, where they had stayed for a few days before heading south. She had been at a good part, a really good part, and so perhaps it took some time for the whale to get her attention. She had had, when she later thought about it, the feeling of being watched. And so she had looked up from her place in “War and Peace” and seen the whale, a female, she would learn, uncharacteristically alone, lolling before her on the surface of the water. She folded the corner of her page and stood, shading her eyes; then she walked to the boat rail to get a better look. She didn’t call the girls’ father; she didn’t call anyone. She looked down at the whale. It lay on its side, staring with one eye straight at Ginny, drifting alone in its disappearing sea, the sun burning both of them, beaming through the torn shreds of the shredded atmosphere. They stayed like that for a while, Ginny convinced that the whale had a message to deliver, something she might translate and convey to the world. But she never figured out what, since too soon someone from the other side saw it and the whale was gone.

There’s so much in this paragraph – some I didn’t realize until I’d read the story a few times – I don’t know where to start. Who goes on a whale-watching trip and reads War and Peace? She has the feeling of being watched by the whale – the watcher does the watching. A female, uncharacteristically alone. She doesn’t call anyone but enjoys this herself, she and the whale, two females alone. She feels a communication but doesn’t know what it is. Then someone else sees it, and the moment is over. Later the girls’ father accuses her of being a whale hoarder (like a tooth hoarder?) – yes, this experience, she and the whale both saved for themselves. But it’s all a little hokey, at the same time, the M&M world of whale watching. I just loved this paragraph, and it turned the story around for me.

There’s another:

There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use something for her posture—Pilates—and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it? She should pay to have her toes soaked, her feet scrubbed of dead skin. She could choose a bright color of nail polish, a hip color, a dark purple or maybe even that shade of brown. She should take a class—philosophy, religion, vegan cooking—and wear sandals there, the new kind, with the straps that wrap the ankle or twist all the way to mid-calf, her brown toenails shiny smooth, as if dipped in oil. There are posters on the subway and numbers to call. She writes down the Web sites in the notebook she carries for such things: lists, reminders. But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday’s Monday evening, then Wednesday vanishes altogether.

And we know Wednesday vanishes because she’s taking the girls to M&M World, or some other thing. Or getting lost in watching bags caught on the sycamore outside her apartment. It’s just like I want to read StorySouth’s 100 Best of the Web stories but, well, I’m off thinking about something else, or getting things done that must be done. And reading other things. Which goes to show you it isn’t only Single Moms who are unfocused and always whining about something. But of course Single Moms as Martyrs of the Universe have the right, because they are always caring for their children, or worrying about their children. I’m annoyed again.

There’s some kind of communication problem alluded to here. On their way to M&M World, Olivia gets momentarily lost, says “It’s the new kind” and “Did you see it?” and “It’s the new kind” again, and I’m never sure what she’s talking about. This comes about the same time as Maggie seeing a Mr. Softee truck and badgering for ice cream, so I’m not sure if that’s what she’s talking about or if there’s something else, something that gets crowded out by the ice cream (as Wednesday vanishes). This happens again: Ginny loses Maggie in M&M World and hears Olivia say she’s with “they guy” but then Olivia says she didn’t say that. I don’t quite get what this is. But it’s done twice so it must be important.

They find Maggie in a dressing room crying, she thought “they’d gone, too”. Too, Ginny says? Here is she being dense or just absorbing how Maggie has perceived the loss of her father? Then, after Maggie is safe and all is well, Ginny still dwells on danger and loss: “Ginny lets go first, leading them, pushing hard on the glass door against the wind, against what has become more than a blustery day, because in truth it is not yet spring, exactly; there is still the possibility of a freeze… How soon the whale dissolved into its darkening sea. How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.”

And now I want to slap her self-pitying narcissistic ass again, poor Martyr of the Universe.

Addendum: This story appears in BASS 2012; after re-reading, I have nothing to add, except to say I’m a little embarrassed by my rant on the Martyr of the Universe thing. I don’t disagree with it or wish to take it back – I’m just embarrassed by it. It’s the least I can do.