BASS 2013: Closing the Cover

But it is the self we are always looking for, or always trying to escape, and fiction provides us with both options; they are wrapped together, these flights to and from who we are. We read because we are looking to see what others are thinking, feeling, seeing; how they are acting out their frustrations, their happiness, their addictions; we see what we can learn.

~~ Elizabeth Strout, Introduction, BASS 2013

I was very enthusiastic about last year’s collection, mostly on the basis of about five stories I found exceptional; there were, of course, a few stories that I found equally, shall we say, unexceptional. I think that range narrowed this year. The highs weren’t as high, perhaps, but neither were the lows as low. It was another good year for BASS.

And a very good year for me: This past summer, I took a MOOC called “The Fiction of Relationship.” It was quite a journey over three centuries, looking at how consistently we create relationships in our heads – relationships with others, with ourselves, with the world. Sometimes the fiction we create of those relationships is shared by others; sometimes, it’s ours alone. Sometimes it helps us deal with the world; sometimes it gets in the way, and sometimes, the relationship we’ve written for ourselves and the world gets in the way of dealing person-to-person.

I see Lambright in “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” as the author of a fictional relationship with Lisa, and I see how she rewrites his fictional understanding completely; likewise Bob and Mr. Wagonseller in “Horned Men.” I think Morehouse in “The Third Dumpster” creates his brother’s relationships with the world for him – and Goodwin would be much better off if he’d create his own. In “Malaria” and “Bravery,” characters develop their relationships over time, changing along the way as they mature and as circumstances change according to the vicissitudes of life. I see the two main characters in “Philanthropy” agree to inhabit one fictional relationship, only to switch roles at the end. It’s a very interesting way to read: the constant evaluation of a character’s construct of a relationship, and of self, carries over to what we euphemistically call “real life,” for it isn’t just characters in stories who create a fiction of their relationships.

One of the surprises of this volume was in the number of stories I’d already read: a total of seven, six from TNY, one from One Story. I didn’t post additional comments on these, though I did re-read them (except for “The Breatharians” in honor of my recently departed Lucy). This was much higher a count than in previous years, even during the year when I read Tin House in addition to those two; the most duplicates I’d encountered before was three. It’s in the good news/bad news department: most of them were stories I’d enjoyed (including a couple of favorites); but, I hate to see one magazine dominate like that, especially one of the major players. One of my favorite aspects of last year’s anthology was the inclusion of a few less well-known magazines new to the series, like Fifth Wednesday and Hobart (which contributed one of my favorites). Be that as it may, this was another excellent year, if a bit less varied and “safer” than last.

My absolute favorites:

George Saunders, “The Semplica Girls” from TNY
Daniel Alarcón, “The Provincials” from Granta
Alice Munro, “The Train” from Harper’s

Also favorites:

Steve Millhauser, “A Voice in the Night” from TNY
Lorrie Moore, “Referential” from TNY
Bret Anthony Johnson, “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” from Esquire
David Means: “The Chair” from The Paris Review
Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy” from Granta

The one puzzle to me was the inclusion of Junot Diaz’ “Miss Lora” instead of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” (which is in the “runner-up” list), both from TNY. It’s not I didn’t enjoy “Miss Lora”; it’s just that I loved “Guide” so much.

About a dozen of the “Other Distinguished Stories” – the runners-up – were familiar to me. I was particularly pleased to see “You, on a Good Day” by Alethea Black (One Story); I’m a little surprised the unusual voice didn’t carry the day on that one. Maybe it’s that second-person thing again, or the poetic cadence of the prose – though that didn’t stop them with last year’s “Diem Perdidi”, one of my favorites back then. I have a thing for the offbeat. I also wish humor had been more prevalent. But, while the lyric tone and traditional narrative prevailed (as it usually does) the offbeat made an appearance here as well, with the socially relevant epistolary fantasy “Semplica Girls” and, in a structural sense, “A Voice in the Night”; voices came from across the socioeconomic spectrum, with varied ethnicity and a time span from before the Common Era to fifty years from now.

The other takeaway from my Fiction of Relationship course was the notion of “the law of metamorphosis” – that we can’t truly know another until we become that other. So many characters in the great fiction we read – Melville, Kafka, Coetzee – became the other. Reading fiction is another way to do that – less complete, perhaps, but also less painful. It seems guest editor Elizabeth Strout thinks so, too:

We want to know, I think, what it is like to be another person, because somehow this helps us position our own self in the world What are we without this curiosity Who in the world, and where in the world, and what in the world might we be? So we pay attention to that inner demand, the pressure of that question. Hello? Please – tell me.

~~ Elizabeth Strout, Introduction, BASS 2013

Time to start imagining: what will be included in 2014?

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BASS 2013: Joan Wickersham, “The Tunnel, or The News from Spain”

A few years ago I got an idea for a story called “The News From Spain.” I never got a chance to write it, and the next time I thought of it, I realized I’d forgotten everything except the title. The loss was maddening but also somehow evocative. And suddenly I imagined a book: a suite of asymmetrical, thwarted love stories, each of which would be called “The News From Spain.” I wanted the title to feel central to each story and to mean something different in each, but to acquire more resonance – an accrued sense of something deeply felt and elusive, impossible to put into words – as the book went along.
So this is one of those stories.

~~ Joan Wickersham, Contributor Note

I’m so intrigued by that creation story, I’m almost reluctant to go on and discuss the story at hand.

As the stories were published in various literary magazines, Wickersham did assign titles so it would not appear she was publishing the same story in several places, but frankly, I’ve forgotten where the reference to “The Tunnel” of the title comes into this story, whereas “The News From Spain” is very clear in my mind: it’s what Rebecca finds her mom obsessed with when she visits her at the nursing home:

Rebecca is tired. Harriet has been sick on and off for years, more than a decade. Rebecca has just driven four hours from Boston to get to the Connecticut nursing home where Harriet now lives. She is taking two days off from the small bookstore she owns, paying her part-time assistant extra to cover for her. She brought a shopping bag full of things Harriet likes: rice pudding with raisins, shortbread, fresh figs, and a box of lamejuns from a Middle Eastern bakery. She has walked into the room, and Harriet has barely looked away from the TV to say hello.
What Harriet says is “They just interviewed a man whose granddaughter died in his arms.”

Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the disaster that’s happening to strangers on the other side of the world, than to pay attention to your own life.

It’s interesting that Rebecca may have something of the same problem. Though the story takes place over the course of a decade, it reads far more compactly; I was left with the impression of Rebecca as flighty and given to high-turnover relationships, but in fact quite a few years pass as her affair puts an end to her marriage – an end she’s ambivalent about – and the affair itself eventually turns into something else. But all the time, her focus is on, not herself, but her mother.

We get a front row seat at a compare/contrast festival between Rebecca’s relationship with her mother, and that with the men in her life. She’s full of insight – the need to test each others’ love, the need to feel like a hero after the failure of her marriage, her mom’s needs – but that insight does her little good, as one relationship then another falls apart on her. The insights are wonderful, and I recognize most of them. And yes, I’ve done the same thing: I’ve often been full of insights, yet still managed to completely screw things up.

I’m a bit sorry this is the last story of this year’s volume I’ll be blogging, as it didn’t quite pop for me (there is another, final story, Callan Winks “The Breatharians,” which I enjoyed very much when I read it last year, but I’ve blogged it already and, still feeling a bit bereaved by the loss of my cat several weeks ago, there’s no way I’m going to re-read it now since it involves, let’s say, a distinctly rural attitude towards barn cats). That isn’t to say it’s a bad story; just that it isn’t the note I would’ve preferred to have ended on.

But then there’s the metastory about the title, and that delights me no end. What news from Spain am I focusing on – and what news am I ignoring completely? What am I forgetting to capture, only to see it slip away forever? Maybe that’s the nature of things: like Wordsworth’s “strong emotion recalled in time of tranquility,” maybe we need to move out of things before we can see them in the fullness of what they are.

BASS 2013: Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2012

Here come the students. Why do they love it? What do they want? Is the end of such love inevitable – will there be a last English major?… They come. They are enthralled. The professor likes how enthralled they are. It is an odd thing, a deep thing, to be enthralled. While enthralled they are beautiful. She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth… Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure that ought not to have understood at their age. They had gotten it from books – books with their intricacies and the things they wanted you to know about love and death that you could have gone a long time not knowing if you had not been a reader, and which, even when you were a reader, you saw as universal truths that did not apply to you.

Given the current emphasis on STEM disciplines (I’ve already done my rant), the question “Will there be a last English major?” is not an idle one.

I’m not sure this is so much a story as an extended prose poem, the musings of a literature professor who finds joy when her students light up at a single sentence. Her descriptions of the way students interact with their “machines” starts off the piece, and it’s truly astute:

Students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety. Machines are sometimes lost, sometimes damaged, and this loss, this damage deranges existence until, mouseclick by mouseclick, chaos can be fended off with a new machine, existence regains confidence, harmony, interest, order, connectedness. Sleeping, certain machines display a dreamily pulsing heartbeat-like white light meaning this machine is not dead.…

As someone who’s pretty devoted to my own (very limited) cache of machines, I see myself everywhere in that description. I’m frantic when my internet connection goes out, and, indeed, the last thing I do before I go to bed is check the lights on the computer to be sure it’s 1) asleep, and 2) unplugged, as one without the other overnight is courting disaster. For the record: I get frantic when I can’t find a book I need to read, too. But my books behave themselves far better than my machines and need far less coddling, so that occurs more rarely.

The central metaphor of the piece is withheld until the end: Walmart is trying to buy up a patch of wilderness, a Civil War battleground, for its next superstore. This happened, in fact; Walmart bought the land, decided to build elsewhere, and just a month ago, donated the fifty acres back to Virginia; I’d love to know how that went down, because I suspect PR wasn’t the only benefit. Then again, when it comes to Walmart, I’m a supercynic.

If you’re looking for a traditional story with a narrative arc, this probably won’t do it, but it’s beautiful reading nonetheless. Then again, I was an English major, one of those enthralled. But: I was a computer programmer who became an English major. Two of my three favorite MOOCs so far have been math classes. The third was poetry. There’s room for everything – math, poetry, Walmart, wilderness, machines, people – if we just stop thinking it has to be all one or the other, if we stop setting it up as black or white. If we value the gray areas as much as the black and the white.

BASS 2013: Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy” from Granta, Spring 2012

"Scream" - pottery by Ursula Goebels-Ellis

“Scream” – pottery by Ursula Goebels-Ellis

And this, Cora told herself, was why she hated philanthropists. Their dainty aversion to real emergency and distress, their careful gauging and hedging of risks, their preference, so politely and euphemistically stated, for supporting programs that didn’t really need help to stay open… This was what she hated about rich people: their discomfort with their own unsettling power to salvage and save…

I was worried this would turn into a Movie of the Week, but I should have had more faith. It does walk the line for a frighteningly long time, but maybe that isn’t a bad idea in a time when Walmart and McDonalds, the Trumps and Romneys of the world, sometimes have us half-believing that funds from mental health programs would be better spent on tax cuts for businesses creating low-wage jobs, leaving the cleaning up of human flotsam to philanthropists. Still, the story’s heart lies elsewhere.

Cora is a former drug addict/hooker who now runs a last-chance waystation for current drug addict/hookers. Her task today is to beg funding from one Yvonne Borneo, a romance writer who has become rich off of books with titles like Ruffian and Seductress . This opening set-up reminded me of the meeting between Esther Greenwood and Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar (a reflection of Plath’s real-life resentment of her financial dependence on Olive Higgins Prouty, first for her scholarship, then for her early psychiatric treatment), particularly in the characterization of the author’s books.

Of course, an emergency crops up while the potential philanthropist is visiting, in the form of a junkie in desperate need. Mrs. Borneo handles it with surprising aplomb but later disappears while Cora is tending to her charge. Scratch one donation. And that’s too bad, because Cora had a trump card, a card she didn’t get to play: the philanthropic writer once had a daughter. The daughter committed suicide, publicly attributed to schizophrenia, but Cora knew her “slightly” when they were patients at the same behavioral treatment center for runaways. This leads to a dramatic role reversal in the second act – a role free-for-all, really, a tossing of all the roles (mother, daughter, philanthropist, mendicant, wounded, healer) into the air and letting them fall where they may, on two people who meet in the middle from across a great chasm to simultaneously share those roles.

For me, the heart of the story was in Cora’s surprising reaction to her father’s forgiveness, and, by extension, Mrs. Borneo’s whitewashing of her daughter’s past:

…nothing had ever made her angrier than this: this artful abdication of responsibility, this consigning of every lost daughter to a communal slag heap of pretty Persephones. She remembered her father’s voice on the phone, telling her, “you can’t make amends for something that never happened.” How matter-of-factly he had absolved her of everything. How she wished she could accept his words as a gift and pretend they didn’t feel like a swift and brutal erasure of her entire adolescence as though it were some wartime atrocity, a stack of bodies to be buried and sprinkled with lime. He had excised part of her and left it on the cutting-room floor.… She knew what it was like to be Angelica in a way Yvonne Borneo could never know.

This may seem as ungrateful as Plath’s excoriation of her writer/benefactor, but those who are formed by ugliness feel the implicit shame and incompleteness this sanitization carries. Compare with the scene from The Bell Jar in which Esther recalls her mother asking Mrs. Guineau for financial help to keep her out of a state hospital:

Mrs. Guinea had telegrammed: “Is there a boy in the case?”
If there was a boy in the case, Mrs. Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it.
But my mother had telegrammed back, “No, it is Esther’s writing. She thinks she will never write again.”

~~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Or, for that matter, compare with the adults in Quade’s “Nemecia“: reality makes people uncomfortable, and the burden is on the most injured to shield the whole from reality. Maybe real philanthropy is in allowing everyone to own her life, no matter how messy. Judging from Rivecca’s Contributor Note – “You shouldn’t have to disown and amputate your past in order to forge a future” – the heart of the story lies here for her as well.

BASS 2013: Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Nemecia” from Narrative, Fall 2012

Photo by Ronald Hackston

Photo by Ronald Hackston

The day after I was born my great-aunt Paulita led Nemecia into my mother’s bedroom to meet me. Nemecia was carrying the porcelain baby doll that had once belonged to Aunt Benigna. When they moved the blanket from my face so that she could see me, she smashed her doll against the plank floor. The pieces were all found; my father glued them together, wiping the surface with his handkerchief to remove what oozed between the cracks. The glue dried brown, or maybe it dried white and only turned brown with age. The doll sat on the bureau in our bedroom, its face round and placidly smiling behind its net of brown cracks, hands folded primly across white lace, a strange and terrifying mix of young and old.

The doll opens and closes the story; it’s a little on-the-nose as a representation of Nemecia, but it’s certainly effective. It’s a family horror story, but none of the characters seems aware of that in the moment. It’s available online (registration at narrativemagazine.com is required, but it’s free and painless).

Nemecia at thirteen is her six-year-old cousin Maria’s worst nightmare: she eats her food, ruins her toys, even gouges her cheek when teenage acne makes her jealous of the younger girl’s still-perfect skin. But she’s also Maria’s best friend, in that convoluted way children have of forming attachments to people who abuse them. Besides, Maria’s scared of her, for good reason:

I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.
…“I killed them,” Nemecia said into the darkness. She spoke as if reciting, and I didn’t at first know if she was talking to me. “My mother was dead. Almost a month she was dead, killed by me. Then she came back, like Christ, except it was a bigger miracle because she was dead longer, not just three days.” Her voice was matter-of-fact.
“Why did you kill our grandpa?” I whispered.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “I must have been angry.”
… The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.

Maria’s mother won’t tell her anything about that day: “You’re lucky, Maria, to have been born after that day. You’re untouched. The rest of us will never forget it, but you, mi hijita, and the twins, are untouched.” When we withhold information from a child, that creates a vacuum, and the child will fill that vacuum with whatever is available. We tell ourselves we’re “protecting” the child, but it’s really ourselves we’re protecting. And by the way, no one in the story is untouched by the events of years past, but it’s more comfortable for them to believe in that fiction. Counselling centers are full of people who don’t see what’s very plain to everyone, and, as I’ve said before, adults are seldom aware of what’s really important to children – especially when it means facing harsh realities themselves.

The narrative comes to a boil when Maria, expecting to lead the Corpus Christi parade, discovers that Nemecia will “help” her. Once again, the pattern of their childhood is played out: Nemecia doesn’t want something until Maria has it, at which point she ruins it. This time, Maria doesn’t let it roll over her; but this act of will has more consequence than she expected.

There isn’t much of a resolution, but how could there be? Nemecia is as much a mystery to herself as she is to Maria, and to us, even after we find out the true backstory. In her Contributor Note, Quade says: “As I wrote I discovered that I was less interested in the murder itself than in its reverberations and in the way trauma can become a kind of treasure, a currency to be hoarded or envied or spent.” Nemecia is an expert trader; but what good does it do her in the end?

BASS 2013: Alice Munro, “Train” from Harper’s, April 2012

Harper's art by Raymond Verdaguer

Harper’s art by Raymond Verdaguer

The train is out of sight; he hears it putting on a bit of speed, clear of the curve. He spits on his hurting hands, getting the gravel out. Then picks up his bag and starts walking back in the direction he has just covered on the train. If he followed the train he would show up at the station there well after dark. He’d still be able to complain that he’d fallen asleep and wakened all mixed up, thinking he’d slept through his stop when he hadn’t, jumped off all confused.
He would have been believed. Coming home from so far away, from Germany and the war, he could have got mixed up in his head. It’s not too late, he would be where he was supposed to be before midnight. But all the time he’s thinking this he’s walking in the opposite direction.

I love train symbolism, though I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been on a train (not counting the many, many hours spent on Boston subways). Something about the echoes of the past; of watching the world go by; of being close to yet separate from the world at the same time. They’re a natural match for Munro stories – especially this one (available online).

We get hints right from the start that Jackson is avoiding something, some place where it wasn’t too late until he starts walking back the other way, but we don’t find out for quite some time just what that is. When we do find out, we discover that, too, is a symptom of another place he’s avoiding, a place he’s avoided most of his life. Jackson is given neither to memories, nor to introspection; he’d rather light out when things get messy.

And of course with Belle not a thing had to be spoken of. She was — he had found this out — sixteen years older than he was. To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything. She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.

I love the way the passage of time is handled in this section: one minute, he’s staying for supper, then he’s staying until December, then he realizes he’s aged and suddenly it’s twenty years later. It takes somewhat close reading to stay on top of it, but it’s a story best read closely anyway.

Given his penchant for avoidance, for moving on, it’s interesting he stays for so long. We don’t need to know the details of what went on between them, because we can imagine it: absolutely nothing, beyond fixing up the dilapidated house and getting through another day. He and Belle are both damaged goods, damaged in ways that we don’t really understand yet, but we come to realize their particular flavors of damage make them ideal companions for each other. That damage is most clearly revealed and emphasized in the suddenness with which he picks up and moves on; the precipitating event doesn’t seem like enough to disrupt a successful twenty year coexistence, which emphasizes its importance even more: she ruined everything.

In the next phase of the story, Jackson performs the same kind of caretaking duties at a small apartment building in the city; a completely different environment, yet the same self-imposed isolation.

Things could be locked up, it only took some determination.

Once more, this stability is disrupted, again by the past, and we finally find out what he was avoiding when he first jumped off that train at the beginning of the story – and we find out where that came from. The roots of Jackson’s damage go deep, which is why the branches spread so wide.

The story begins and ends with trains. I’ve sometimes thought of complicated situations in life, situations so complicated I don’t feel up to dealing with them, as trains: you don’t have to know exactly how to get from one town to the other, you just have to get on the train, and it’ll take you there. Sometimes you must jump off in the middle, though; sometimes your past forces this.

BASS 2013: David Means, “The Chair” from The Paris Review, Spring 2012

Ah, glorious, I thought. Ah, a lovely and perfect fall afternoon. The sublime nature of taking care of my boy on one more bygone day. There was a deep, submerged loneliness in my chest as I stood feeling the wind, which was lifting, growing firmer and stronger from the north, bringing with it the first hints of winter.… Evening would fall, and the lights of the bridge and cross the river would throw themselves onto the surface of the water, appearing one by one as the sky faded, and then, safely inside the house, I’d look out the window and feel the fantastic unleashing of the pure, frank wistfulness that used to come to me at that time of day, and I’d feel, ahead, the future in one form or another, without which I could not endure the task. At some point in the future we’d be alone in the house and Gunner would be off at college, or married, and days like that would be sucked into a vortex – what other way to think of it? – of retrospect, with just a few memories of day-to-day tending: car-seat buckling, food feeding, punctuated by more pointed memories of trauma: stitches in his brow (lacrosse), asthma attack (holding him through the night, his tiny chest heaving against my palm), his separation problems at the preschool (me in the window watching him clutch hold of the old scratched up piano bench, his mouth wide open in a scream, his face bright red and shiny). It was only with that sense that I could survive these moments, I think I thought.

The loneliness – and ambivalence – of the stay-at-home father.

Bob loves his five-year-old son Gunner, he truly does, and he loves having time with him – but he’s never sure he’s doing it right, this parenting thing, and then there’s his wife Sharon (he loves her, too) who’s been getting home later and later, with lamer and lamer excuses, and her eyes glaze over when he tells her about his day. It’s the sort of story women have been telling for decades now. I wonder if it makes it more real to some, more important, when a man tells the story.

It’s beautifully written, with long, lyric sentences floating delicate thoughts about everything that goes on in a family: joy, fear, the tightrope between freedom and safety. The story takes place in just a few minutes, with Bob watching Gunner run towards the retaining wall above the water behind the house; he’s warned him to keep away from it once, but maybe he forgot, so he warns him again that “the chair” awaits, should the little boy continue to disregard his warnings. Oh, but the running feels so good, and the wall is so tempting.

I’m hugely aware, I said, of the weird feeling I have about you and your work in relation to me and my position here as at-home caregiver, and sometimes I have to admit, I sit at the window and follow you to work in my imagination.

Three objects serve as foci for the story: the chair, with its threat of consequences, punishment, and, by the way, safety; the window through which Bob watches the city, or his son, from a protected but separated place; and the retaining wall, the potential danger Gunner is so drawn to. It’s lovely how he weaves these together with a set of complex thoughts and feelings.

The story takes place in three time zones, so to speak. There’s the present of the story, with Gunner running towards the wall; there’s the simple past from that present; and there’s a recollection from the distant future, the vantage point from which Bob tells the story. Means has said this is part of a sequence of stories, and he drops references to the future from the very beginning. In the moment, he thought one thing; after the moment was over, he thought more; and now, much later (Gunner is an adult, which could be any time 15 years hence) he tries to recall both what he thought about the moment, and about the past in that moment. I had some trouble following the details of his evolving thoughts (I’m having trouble even explaining what I mean, but that’s due to my lack of technical expertise in narrative), mostly because the prose is so beautiful I just didn’t want to dissect it. It’s clear that he was in the present both joyful and ridden with fears and doubt, and that his fears at the time never came to pass.

We’re riding on an apex, I thought, standing in the yard that day, I think. We’re on a pivot. On one side is her career and her lively steps out the door, while on the other is this deep solitude…

The dualism, the notion of balance, is nicely played throughout. Everything has tradeoffs, and finding the sweet spot can be tricky, whether you’re a stay-at-home dad, a wife coming home late or a kid playing on a retaining wall: The chair always hovers.

BASS 2013: Sheila Kohler: “Magic Man” from Yale Review, April 2012

Art by Oxyvia on deviantart

Art by Oxyvia on deviantart

Cold, late night so long ago
When I was not so strong you know
A pretty man came to me
I never seen eyes so blue
You know, I could not run away it seemed
We’d seen each other in a dream
Seemed like he knew me, he looked right through me, yeah

“Come on home, girl” he said with a smile
“you don’t have to love me yet, let’s get high awhile
But try to understand, try to understand
Try, try, try to understand, I’m a magic man”

~~ lyrics from “Magic Man” by Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart

I wasn’t able to get this song out of my head. In theory, it has nothing to do with the story. Except… it is the story.

S.P. (it might stand for Sweet Pea, or Sweetie Pie, or Simply Perfect, even her mother Sandra can’t remember) is eight years old and, though they live in Paris, she’s quite enjoying her Christmas vacation with her mother in South Africa. She knows something’s wrong in the family – that Dad isn’t really in Brussels running a bookshop all the time – but she doesn’t know what, exactly. What she does know, is that she’s in a magical place, and magical things can happen.

“About the Magic Man. He’s called Proppy, and he can do anything he wants to,” she says, and waves both her hands in the bright air in circles, magic circles – see can see the stars – to show her mother and her aunt all the magic the Magic Man can do and how he can turn you into a toad too, if he wants. She wonders if the Magic Man just might appear out here in this strange country, which seems a little like a fairytale to her.

Mom loves her kids, especially S.P., but she’s got a few things on her mind, like the philandering genius husband she can’t cut loose, and her own sense that she’s wasted her life being a wife and mother when she and her sister intended to be poets. Sis is along on the vacation as well, recovering from the bruises her own husband left last time he smacked her around.

It’s almost textbook: two adults serving as role models for The Abused Woman, a little girl who “would desperately like to fix things for her mother, though she is not certain what needs fixing.” A distracted mom, an inquisitive, imaginative child. The Magic Man was inevitable.

And it seems quite right to her that she would meet the Magic Man out here in this wonderfully sunny place, which is both strange and familiar to her, with all the bright flowers and the brilliant blue sky and the sun. The sun is making her feel a little dizzy, and her head spins, so she lets the Magic Man take her hand, and she follows him through the streets…

In her Contributor Note, Kohler names, not Heart, but Der Erlkönig as her inspiration. The Erl-King is a Germanic legendary figure, a sort of bogeyman who lures children to come with him to their deaths. Goethe wrote a poem about him; Schubert set it to music (and you’ve probably heard the piano intro though you may not have realized what it was). I sang a choral arrangement with my high school choir; the director told us it was considered one of the hardest solos, not to sing (it’s not vocally demanding) but to interpret: each of four separate narrative voices must be articulated in distinctive tone colors. I wonder if the Wilson sisters knew of this legend when they wrote their top-40 hit, “Magic Man.”

Frankly, I’m a little tired of child abuse as the vehicle for short stories, but it’s handled well here; the narration ping-pongs back and forth between Mom and S.P. broadens the focus to cause, and the tidy little flash-forward epilogue brings in effect. It works. I feel sorry for all three women in this story. I’m not sure I like that; it’s a lot easier to have someone clearly to blame. But if literature were about easy, it wouldn’t be literature.

BASS 2013: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” from Esquire, March 2012

Esquire art by Bill Henson

Esquire art by Bill Henson

At supper, Robbie and the girl had told, in tandem, a story about playing hide-and-seek on the abandoned country club golf course. Hide-and-seek, Lambright thought, is that what y’all call it now? Then they started talking about wildlife. The girl had once seen a blue-and-gold macaw riding on the headrest of a man’s passenger seat, and another time, in a pasture in the Rio Grande Valley, she’d spotted zebras grazing among cattle. Robbie’s mother recalled finding goats in the tops of peach trees in her youth. Robbie told the story of visiting the strange neighborhood in San Antonio where the muster of peacocks lived, and it led the girl to confess her desire to get a fan of peacock feathers tattooed on her lower back. She also wanted a tattoo of a busted magnifying glass hovering over the words FIX ME.

We don’t expect to encounter macaws on the highway, or zebras in a herd of cattle; we don’t expect goats in peach trees, or peacocks in San Antonio. We don’t expect a boy with superhero posters on his walls to turn into a man over the wrong kind of girl; we don’t expect the wrong kind of girl to turn into a clever monster. And we certainly don’t expect to turn into an animal ourselves, or to discover that we had that in us, all along.

“The girl” in this very short story (1300 words, available online) is named Lisa, and Lambright knows it perfectly well – he uses her name when addressing her directly in dialogue – but she’s narrated as “the girl” throughout. Of course she is. Lambright is the point-of-view-character, and he doesn’t think of her as a person with a name; he knows exactly what she is: “She’d been held back in school. Her driver’s license was currently suspended. She had a reputation, a body, and a bar code tattooed on the back of her neck.” She’s bad news. Eve in Eden, bearing an apple with his son’s name on it. He’d been worried about son Robbie seeming a little, well, behind, in psychosocial development, with those superhero posters on his walls, and the airplane models hanging from the ceiling. Then the girl came into Robbie’s life, those childish things were put away, and Lambright’s really got something to worry about: petty thefts when she’s around, the flask of booze in the back yard.

As a reader, I had a hard time disliking this girl – how can you dislike someone with her taste in tattoos? – and I think that’s a credit to Johnston’s skill. But, and this is also a credit to Johnston, I sympathize with the father’s protective instincts, which have been inflamed for good reason. Or at least, I did sympathize, until he took a detour while driving he home from a pleasant dinner with his family. I wasn’t sure who to cheer for when things the tables were turned on him.

Blood was surging in his veins, like he’d swerved to miss something in the road and his truck had just skidded to a stop and he didn’t yet know if he was hurt, if the world was changed. The passenger door was open, the interior light burning, pooling. The girl jumped across the creek and bolted alongside it. She cut to and fro. He wanted to see her as an animal he’d managed to avoid, a rare and dangerous creature he’d describe for Robbie when he got home, but really her movement reminded him of a trickle of water tracking through pebbles.

The language does a great job of reinforcing mood and plot. They’re “outside city limits.” They certainly are. “He killed the engine.” Not, he turned off the engine, or cut the ignition. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Turns out, I had no idea just how bad it would be. Physical violence is not the only way to damage someone; sometimes just holding up a mirror will do it: “… and the scrub around them silvered…”

Just as I was putting my notes together for this post, Prof. Charles May discussed this story, and other BASS 2013 selections, on his blog, “Reading the Short Story”. He phrases it far more artfully than I could, pinpoints it down to motivations, motivations of which we sometimes are unaware.

I’m not sure Lambright’s motivation was that much a secret to himself. I think he knew exactly what he was doing; his mistake was in underestimating the girl, who also knew exactly what he was doing. Intimidation only works when the intimidatee doesn’t point out you’re being a jerk, and a borderline criminal jerk at that (I’m not sure what the crime would be, but some form of abduction, threatening, or endangering the welfare of a minor would be a good place to start). And when you’re dealing with an animal, who’s intimidating whom can change pretty quickly.

A seriously good story.

BASS 2013: Gish Jen, “The Third Dumpster” from Granta, Spring 2012

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

The origins of stories are always murky for me. No doubt my own parents were on my mind when I wrote “The Third Dumpster.” They never viewed assisted living as an option for a million reasons, starting with the food; and it’s true that I felt that the older they got, the more clearly you could see how difficult it was to have come to America – what an opportunity it was, but what a price they had to pay in terms of connection and community. How, though, did this feeling – a feeling that I’ve had for at least a decade – suddenly become story material? How did it suddenly become funny? Painfully funny, of course, but nonetheless funny. Liberatingly funny.
I don’t know for sure….But probably the story behind the story was that I myself had hit some tipping point in dealing with my own real aging parents, where I needed to “throw off the too heavy burden imposed… by life,” as Freud puts it, “and win the high yield of pleasure afforded by humor.” That’s to say I wrote this story because I myself needed to laugh and had somehow found a way to do that.

~~ Gish Jen, BASS Contributor Note

I’ve never faced Jen’s situation. My mother died when I was nine, my stepmother at a relatively young age, and only twelve days elapsed between the time my father realized he could no longer live on his own, and his death; ten of those days were spent in the hospital, eight in the ICU, three in near-coma. Had he been offered a choice on the first of those twelve days between living with one of his children – we were all theoretically willing, and he knew that – and the path to come (complete with two surgeries, five heart attacks, and a respirator), he would’ve eagerly chosen the latter. I’m sure of it. So I’ve never been in her shoes, nor in those of the Lee boys, the main characters of this story.

Maybe that’s why I had trouble seeing the overall humor Jen refers to; while I’m of course aware these situations exist, my experience is of a different parent-child dynamic, thus my story experience was different. The pain, however, came through loud and clear.

Not that I didn’t see any humor:

Morehouse, following them in his car so that he would have a car at the hospital, called Goodwin on his cell phone.
If they ask whether Dad needs a translator, tell them to fuck off, he said.
Does he need a translator? asked the admitting nurse.
He’s lived here for fifty years, answered Goodwin politely.
The nurse was at least a grown-up. The doctor looked like a paperboy.
Does he need a translator? he asked.
Fuck off, said Morehouse, walking in.

… but overall I was enraged at these two brothers, not so much for how they deal with their parents (I find that tragically understandable) as for their overall interaction with the ethics of everyday living.

I had trouble telling them apart at first, though the names are very different; I had to separate out passages later to discover that Goodwin has decent instincts but isn’t strong enough to live them, and Morehouse is just your garden-variety know-it-all seitan-eating hypocrite shedding unwanted responsibility like a duck sheds water. But they, too, have reasons for not living up to my standards of perfection. If there’s one thing literature teaches me, it’s to consider that those who trespass against us have travelled some road to become who they are, and we seldom know what that road is, or what it would have done to us had it been ours.

Goodwin and Morehouse, unemployed contractors, are fixing up a dilapidated house, one even the local “housing shark” had passed on, for their parents. Mom can’t climb stairs any more, assisted living is unthinkable, and this new house, horrible as it is, has a first-floor bedroom. And it’s practically free. They’re contractors, they can do this. Morehouse makes ethically dubious choices; Goodwin sputters but goes along, because, as Morehouse keeps reminding him, there is no choice. Except, of course, there is always a choice we make, and Goodwin finally gives voice to it.

You seem to think we have no choice, but we absolutely do have a choice, declared Goodwin then. We could, for example, take Mom and Dad into live with one of us.
For this was the hot truth; it seared him to say it.
Morehouse, though, gave him the look of a man whose wife brought home the bacon now. It was the look of a man who knew what would fly in his house, end of story.

As I said, I don’t always know the road someone’s travelled, so maybe I’d better keep judgment in check. The dumpster of the title is one of Morehouse’s unethical choices, but, like the situation it metaphorically refers to, it’s one I understand. That confrontation is uncomfortable, but we can only change what we face, and that’s where Morehouse falls short.

I’ve rather deliberately skirted around the issue of ethnicity, though it’s front and center in the story. I am curious about how the sons of such thoroughly Chinese parents ended up with such distinctively Western names, and I wonder if there’s something to think about there. But I chose to leave ethnicity, for the most part, out of this post, because I think it’s a universal story. And there’s this: I usually forget that that I, too, am the child of an immigrant. When the immigration is from Sweden, and the immigrant is more easily able to assimilate because he “looks American” and so he makes it his mission to leave his heritage behind and blend in and never draw attention to himself, never be “different,” there’s not much impact on the next generation. Right?

Maybe I didn’t leave ethnicity out after all.

I’m aware I haven’t talked much about the story itself. That’s because it took me places, places inside myself. Isn’t that the purpose of literature, anyway?

BASS 2013: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Horned Men” from ZYZZYVA, Fall 2012

Photo by Gavin Schaefer

Photo by Gavin Schaefer

Becca once asked her father if he felt guilty about all the people who had lost their homes. … Bob had told her no, he didn’t feel guilty, not at all. He said that he had been making people’s dreams come true, but as soon as that platitude came out of his mouth, he regretted it, because he could see but Becca’s smug smile and nodding head that he had just incriminated himself.

Do you ever wonder how they sleep at night – the people who, through greed, or inaction brought about by self-interest, caused the financial crisis we’re all still coping with? I avoid matters of finance beyond the absolute basics, but I’m still trying to figure out how people could do that. How they can get away with it, how we can let them get away with it. And how they live with themselves.

Bob’s a former mortgage broker, pretty low in the ranks of those responsible, but still there. When the bubble burst, he lost his job and his home; he probably considers that punishment enough. Others would disagree.

Bob moves his family back in to his mother’s old house, the one he was renting out to the Wagonsellers, which means, of course, they have to go. It’s a great name, Wagonseller, conveying an old-fashioned touch, a 19th century air, yet connecting the tenants to Bob through commerce. They’re the Wagonsellers, after all, not the Wagonmakers or Wagondrivers; makes me wonder who in their lineage might’ve sold a wagon with a wheel he knew wasn’t perfect, but was probably good enough. They’re not at all happy about being told to move, and they put up some resistance. “Well, you’re the renter and I’m the owner, so I guess that’s that,” Bob tells them. End of discussion, right? Not so fast…

At the post office, the Asian lady who worked there told him that he asked for his mail to be forwarded to an address in Montana.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Someone filled in and signed a change of address for you,” she said, looking at a monitor. “Your mail has been going to Jericho, Montana.”
She slid him a new form.

That’s Jericho, as in “Joshua Fought the Battle of.” Wagonsellers 1, Bob, 0.

Bob’s relationship with his thirteen-year old daughter had already begun to deteriorate, but now things accelerate. He’s disappointed in her. He knows that’s a horrible thing for a father to feel, but gee, she’s sulky, and she’s getting fat, and she doesn’t have any friends. His wife is almost invisible in this story, so I’d guess she isn’t exactly a pillar of support either. But he’s got co-ax, and he’s going to wire the house. No hiring lazy bums who’ll do a crappy job, either; he’s going to do it right. No draping the cables all over the roof, no tangle of wires; he’ll get up into the crawlspace and drill the holes and thread the wires. He’ll do it himself.

We are a nation drowning in coaxial cable, Bob decided, each house on this block suffocating in unused vines of dead co-ax. Phone companies, cable companies, Internet companies, broadband companies, all of them unspooling miles of the stuff and leaving it behind them, a fiber-optic breadcrumb trail leading nowhere. A million such houses, ten million, twenty million; every time the house was sold, remodeled, flipped, foreclosed, that meant more co-ax: badly strung, high-speed tumbleweed. Nobody gave a fuck anymore, and he knew that firsthand, having been one of those well-paid for not giving a fuck, for not caring about who made how much and was borrowing how much for how much house. Not that anyone ever asked. They all wanted as much house as possible – and all that co-ax – as he had, at one point, before he walked away from his last house.

It’s a wonderful symbol, this cable. Our means of machine-to-machine communication has become our means of enhancing, or avoiding, person-to-person communication. By the way, I get into this argument a lot with people who find themselves shut out of interpersonal relationships by computers and televisions and phones; they don’t understand that for those of us who are hermits, these channels don’t replace real-life interactions, they enable them. Some of us just aren’t meant for real time. We are, I’ll admit, the minority; we are, I’ll admit, defective by nature; but technology serves as an adaptive device, much the same as a wheelchair or a service animal.

Bob’s coaxial cable, however, leads to his doom.

Now gazing through the gap around the HVAC, he saw a flash of movement, the faded brown blue of old, dirty denim, as Becca entered her room, her recently more protuberant rear end framed perfectly in the gap for an instant. He froze, suddenly ashamed. But this wasn’t spying, he assured himself. He tried to silently wiggle back through the attic, his thighs pressing down into old coaxial lines, perhaps staying too low in order to overcompensate for the occasional roofing nails that protruded down from the sloped ceiling, and then he felt something bite into his arm. Dropping his flashlight, he turned his elbow up, craned his neck, and saw two little pinpricks, as if he had backed his arm into the exposed prongs of a staple. Then he noticed, passing through the beam of the following light, scurrying away, a brown and orange, half-dollar-sized spider.

Two little pinpricks could be a staple, sure. It could be a pair of spider bites. And it might look a lot like tiny little serpent bites.

The “Horned Men” of the title refer to a couple of tiny clay figurines in the form of demons; Bob finds one in the attic while running cable, Becca finds one in her closet, and Bob’s thoughts run to curses which of course he dismisses as any reasonable person would. But, like so much in this story, there’s another connotation to “horned men” and it doesn’t take much imagination to find it. Therein lies the real curse: it’s not that Bob’s life turns against him; it’s that he turns against his life.

This is where the story shines: this weaving of cable and curses, father and daughter, double-meanings subtle and not-so, into one whole, staying in the practical present of laying cable while spotlighting the moral component of the instigating event. Terrific story design. I’ve got to read more Greenfeld; this is the third of his stories I’ve very much enjoyed (“Partisans” from One Story and “Mickey Mouse” from last year’s BASS were the others).

I happened to read this story, with its dust and spiders and demons and curses, on Halloween. I also happened to read it right after “ReMem,” another story about electronic communication replacing interpersonal interaction (and found the art for both with the same search). It’s a good example of confirmation bias that I immediately chalked this up to the universe putting things together for me; after all, I read a lot of things, and chances are I’m going to encounter something creepy on Halloween, and some things that share elements. Right?

BASS 2013: Michael Byers: “Malaria” from Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2012

Art by Simon Brushfield: "Tennis in the Skyline", 2012

Art by Simon Brushfield: “Tennis in the Skyline”, 2012

Sometimes when I’m late in a story that’s dead-ended like this, I’ll poke around in the story’s bag of emotions to see what I’ve got along with me – joy, envy, sorrow? Sometimes I can actually burrow under to the originating impulse of the material – the Platonic thing the story was before it got linted-up with particulars of character, setting, and so on – and tug something useful out into the light. In this case, I finally flashed that the story wasn’t about Orlando and Nora as a couple but about Orlando himself. Once I got him alone, then put him on the tennis court with a bunch of strangers, I knew I had it right.

~~Michael Byers, Contributor Note

How do we – how can we possibly – tell our story? Maybe by telling someone else’s.

Bellevue Literary Review has made this story available online; it’s quite short – eight book pages – and very enjoyable. The real story lies beneath.

Orlando (if there’s a connection with the Virginia Woolf novel, I missed it, but I would; I’m just barely familiar with it) is a rather aimless college student. He meets his girlfriend by accident, and happily accommodates himself to her orbit. On a visit to her family, he plays tennis with her brother, who excuses his poor play with “I have malaria.” That revelation becomes a central point in Orlando’s growth; on returning to school, he discovers the ambition that’s been missing through tennis, but he’s always bothered by George’s comment: does the guy have malaria? It’s kind of an odd lie to use as an excuse. When George later experiences a break with reality, Orlando is concerned that he may have been privy to an early warning sign, but did nothing about it. That’s a ridiculous notion, I think; mental illness isn’t like cancer, where early detection greatly increases the odds of cure. But it eats at Orlando, who wrestles with ideas of responsibility and guilt even as he finds some of his latent ambition on another tennis court. “He was important to me in a way such people can be, surprisingly, really out of proportion to their actual size in your life,” says Orlando of George. I understand that.

Malaria, with its chills and fevers, also serves to underline the element of temperature into the story. Early on, Orlando’s girlfriend is described in glowing terms of the greenhouse in which she works: “The heat affected her well.” Later into his illness, George prefers his room cold. Through them, Orlando discovers his own lukewarmness.

What are we supposed to do with what we know? What is George Vardon to me?
And these days it strikes me that possibly these aren’t the questions. Maybe we’re not supposed to do anything. Maybe this is just a story of something that happened to me, and not even really to me at all. It’s really George’s story, that is, but naturally he can’t tell it, and neither can I.

BASS 2013: Charles Baxter, “Bravery” from Tin House #54, Winter 2012

The city of Prague is haunted by the armies that have invaded it, by Catholicism, and by Franz Kafka, among other presences. I visited the city three years ago, and in one of its chapels had jolting experience that led directly to this story. That memory found itself grafted onto a scene I had already witnessed in downtown Palo Alto, where some teenaged girls riding in a car were taunting some boys standing together at a street corner. But the core of the story grew out of the quarrel I had 34 years ago with my wife about who would feed the baby. I never forgot that quarrel because it seemed telling to me. Everything else in the story is the essential brick and mortar of invention, the imaginary, and the impossible.

~~ Charles Baxter, BASS 2013 Contributor Note

A woman in four acts: Susan as a silly teenager, sure of her looks but still rooted in kindness; as a young woman drawn to kindness; a newlywed who, under the influence of Prague, starts to come a little unglued; and a walking maternal conqueror. I’m not sure what holds it together, other than Susan herself, or what any of it has to do with bravery, but individually, each of the four acts is detailed in a way that’s highly memorable.

Susan as a teenager is a bit of a flirt, but she also has an appetite for kindness; she’s not one of those women drawn to troublemakers. Her college roommate teases her about it, in fact:

Years later, in college, her roommate said to her, “You always go for the kind ones, the considerate ones, those types. I mean, where’s the fun? I hate those guys. They’re so humane, and shit like that. Give me a troublemaker any day.”
“Yeah, but a troublemaker will give you trouble.” She was painting her toenails, even though the guys she dated never noticed her toenails. “Trouble comes home. It moves in. It’s contagious.”
“I can take it. I’m an old-fashioned girl,” her roommate said, with her complicated irony.

There’s something very important about this passage, but I can’t quite put my finger on it: the “complicated irony” which seems to show up over and over, the notion of kindness, and trouble. Kindness that runs into a buzzsaw of trouble.

The second act, what Roger Ebert used to call “meet-cute,” takes place in an art gallery when a fellow patron asks Susan if she smells something; he thinks there’s a gas leak. She isn’t sure what he’s up to (“Metaphor, irony, a come on?”) and neither was I, until I thought about it for a while; he’s being painted as this very nice guy, “a doctor to the core,” so if he’d truly thought there was a gas leak in the art gallery, wouldn’t he have alerted the other patrons? A come on, then, and a successful one. He offers her a monogrammed handkerchief when she spills her drink; being attracted to kindness, she’s drawn to him ends up with his phone number. It isn’t until he hears her sing, however, that he becomes equally interested (“Your voice. Wow. I was undone”). We all earn love somehow.

The honeymoon becomes the scene for a turning point. I’ve never been to Prague – never been anywhere, really – but I love this description of the city:

In Prague, the Soviet-era hotel where they stayed smelled of onions, chlorine, and goulash. The lobby had mirrored ceilings. Upstairs, the rooms were small and claustrophobic; the TV didn’t work, and all the signs were nonsensical. Pozor! for example, which seems to mean “Beware!” Beware of what? The signs were garbles of consonants. Prague wasn’t Kafka’s birthplace for nothing.

There’s a strange series of events involving an old crone in a church made of babies (“We’ve already been to a chapel, seen a baby, talked to a crazy person, had an accident, and it’s only eleven,” as Elijah says) and here Susan starts to get a bit strange. I’m perplexed by this turn.

I’m even more perplexed by the final act, in which the mother instinct runs amok and Elijah runs a bit amok as a result. It’s rendered in such a way as to be completely believable, yet I don’t understand the overall path. Something about Susan becoming the strong one? Something about defeating kindness? Something about bravery? I’m not sure. I go back to the Kafka I’ve read, looking for an anchor, but I don’t find one. It’s a bit frustrating, all these fascinating threads I have, but I’m unable to make the cloth.

I’ve always been intimidated by Baxter. This is only the second story I’ve read by him; the first was also in a BASS volume – “The Cousins” from 2010, my first BASS blogging – and I put that one off out of sheer fear. I guess I have more work to do before I’m up to this story as a whole. But I still enjoyed the threads.

BASS 2013: Daniel Alarcón: “The Provincials” originally from Granta #118, “Exit Strategies,” Winter 2012

"Besides a few of the babies," my father said, "everyone else in this photo is dead." – art from the Solar cover of the novella release (in Spanish). Find out more at Alarcon's websiteI’d been out of the Conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died. We missed the funeral, but my father asked me to drive down the coast with him a few days later, to attend to some of the post-mortem details. The house had to be closed up, signed over to a cousin. There were a few boxes to sift through as well, but no inheritance or anything like that.
I was working at the copy shop in the Old City, trying out for various plays, but my life was such that it wasn’t hard to drop everything and go. Rocío wanted to come along, but I thought it’d be nice for me and my old man to travel together. We hadn’t done that in a while.

When someone leaves, someone is necessarily left behind. This story does a masterful job of showing all sides: those who left and couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and the past; those who plan to leave; those who stayed behind by choice (at least that’s what they claim); and those who will stay behind forever, by necessity. But there’s more. The presence of an actor gives opportunity to examine authenticity and performance as well, in a highly engaging combination of those themes. What is real, and what is an act, in this story? How does the act reflect the underlying reality?

Manuel left his family town in an unspecified country long ago, as a boy, to pursue and education. His goal was a professorship at an American university, but he never got that far. Now his son, Nelson, our first-person narrator and tour guide on this journey, has recently graduated from the Conservatory as a trained actor, and is biding his time (working in a copy shop, auditioning for whatever parts are available) waiting for his American visa to come through, at which point he’ll join his brother Francisco who left for San Francisco years before. Nelson remembers Francisco’s early letters about his new life, but it seems he hasn’t heard much lately.

Manuel and Nelson to the family town to attend uncle Raúl’s funeral. Along the way, they happen upon a family confrontation in an intervening town involving a motor-taxi left behind by one deceased Joselito. Nelson notes the shift from authenticity to performance:

It was something I’d been working out myself, in my own craft: how the audience affects a performance, how differently we behave when we know we are being watched. True authenticity, I’d decided, required an absolute, nearly spiritual denial of the audience, or even the possibility of being watched; but here, something true, something real, had quickly morphed into something fake.

This sets us up for the main event: the inevitable confrontation in the family town between Manuel and son, and those who stayed behind. What takes this above a routine story about going home again is Nelson’s point of view as an actor. He sees everything in terms of a play, and, at first accidentally and then on purpose, assumes the identity of his brother in San Francisco. The one who plans to leave, tries out the role of one who has left, and sits around a restaurant table drinking with a group that was, many years ago, left behind.

That’s a step above routine, all right. But wait, there’s more.

As Nelson gets deeper into his role and the drama in the restaurant, he begins to think of it as a script. The text of the story, in fact, changes to script format.

SANTOS: No, Erick, times have not changed. The youth are not all that different than before. Take Manuel. Let’s ask him. Dear Manuel, pride of this poor, miserable village, tell us: how often do you wake up missing this place you were born? How often do you think back, and wish you could do it over again, never have left, and stayed here to raise a family?
Manuel is cut off guard, not understanding if the question is serious or not. On the television: a shot of the Plaza by night. Quickly recovering, he decides to take the question as a joke.
MANUEL: Every day, Profe.
Everyone but Santos laughs.
SANTOS: I thought this much. Some people like change, they like movement, transition. A man’s life is very short and of no consequence. We have a different view of time here. A different way of placing value on things….We feel abandoned. Disrespected. You left us. Now your son is talking down to us.

I’m typically not a fan of script reading – I find it difficult – but here, this fit so well with the character of Nelson, and the character Nelson the character Nelson created, as well as the ongoing theme of authenticity and performance, I had to admire it. It’s a technique that provide ample room for irony, and, as seen in the passage above, emotional resonance. The structural decision to enclose the main plot in the Joselito subplot – on the way back to the capital, Manuel and Nelson again pass through Joselito’s city, this time with additional perspective – gives a nice circular feel to things.

But that’s still not all.

At 30 pages, it’s a bit longer than most BASS stories, but it’s also a story that deserves very close reading on a sentence level. The entire story is told from the vantage point of some time in the future, by virtue of one or two well-placed narrative comments. And there is where the heart of the story lies: the aftereffects of this road trip. For that matter, that’s probably the heart of all fiction, this projection into the future. After all, if nothing changes, why bother to write the story at all? The span of time, a span far longer than the two or three days that elapse in the plot of the story, is laid out in this early passage:

A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometres there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colours faded since the previous summer, edges unglued and flapping in the wind. This was years ago, before the beaches were transformed into private residences for the wealthy, before the ocean was fenced off and the highway pushed back, away from the land’s edge. Back then, the coast survived in a state of neglect, and one might pass the occasional fishing village, or a filling station, or a rusting pyramid of oil drums stacked by the side of the road; a hitchhiker, perhaps a labourer, or a woman and her child strolling along the highway with no clear destination. But mostly you passed nothing at all. The monotonous landscape gave you a sense of peace, all the more because it came so soon after the city had ended.

This is “just” description, the sort of thing you might skim through in a lesser story of this length because, while it may be beautiful prose, it’s often not really important. But this isn’t just scenery. It tells a story in itself. It uses that projection into the future to compare what was at the time of the story and what came to be in the present of the narrator. It adds insight on a way of life, a state of mind, the kind of unconscious expectations the people we’ll meet all carry. Neglect, isolation, monotony: this is what surrounded the family village, and leaving took a faith of its own of what lay beyond.

I’ve read three Alarcón stories now, all stemming from the novel-in-progress that originally generated “The Idiot President” (BASS 2008, before I started blogging stories, still available online via TNY) then disintegrated then was reborn as a related but new novel, excerpted in TNY as “The Collectors” (grrrr, excerpts passed off as stories), which also generated this story, originally a chapter until it “somehow outgrew its confines” as he explains in his Contributor Note, and ended up a stand-alone story. Whew. Did you get all that? Don’t worry about it. Here’s the nutshell: This story is worth reading, and I’ve put the new novel At Night We Walk in Circles (due out this month) on my read list. I have to. It’s about the Nelson who was projected into the future by this story. And I want to see what happens.

BASS 2013: At Last

"Retro Phone" by Emily Sams

“Retro Phone” by Emily Sams

A reader is in the position of saying hello. Tentatively, enthusiastically, or even with trepidation, the reader approaches a piece of writing with the unspoken question What do you have to say? And the writer answers, This. I have this to say, and I want you to listen to my voice, to the tone of my voice, because that will tell you what I have to say.

— Elizabeth Strout, Introduction

It’s been a while since my last short story prize anthology. Heidi Pitlor’s been tweeting out bits and pieces from the stories over the past week or so, adding to my frenzy. Hmmm… this sounds a lot creepier than I’d intended. Hey, let it stand: I’m psyched. To be honest, I’ve had the 2013 O.Henry Prize collection sitting on my bookshelf for two weeks, but I’m still miffed at them for messing up my schedule by changing their pub date from spring to fall; they’ll have to wait for me.

This is my fourth annual Blogging of the BASS. I find that I read better when I know I’ll be writing posts about the stories, and as I’m putting a post together, I often discover something I’d overlooked on first read. Some stories suggest their own approach to discussion; others are more of a challenge. I don’t know how to do “reviews” so I don’t even try; I just write about how the story affected me, and why I think that might be. I’ve always aimed for two stories a week, but that might be tricky, given the workload I’ve got going on in my MOOCs. It’s probably going to be more like one story a week, at least until mid-November.

Heidi Pitlor’s preface is particularly personal and somber; she focuses on literature’s reaction to catastrophic events via her own reaction to the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. I remember how determined we all were back then, that this time something would be done, something would change, would have to change after such an unthinkable tragedy, the petitions, the emails, the hope… Yet here we are, after a bunch of failed votes and filibusters and recalls, with a few lunatics still firmly in charge of the asylum. It’s been a tough year to tear my eyes away from the down side, on many fronts.

But this is supposed to be about stories. I just need to acknowledge my own filter; I’m looking through glasses that are not rose-colored, are sometimes in fact blood-red with horror and rage, and that scares me sometimes.

Snap out of it. Stories.

Guest editor Elizabeth Strout’s introduction likens the reader to someone answering the telephone, with the author and story as caller: the reader answers the phone with a pre-existing attitude, and voice conveys as much information as words. Reading a story is a conversation. Or, really, half a conversation, since the reader can’t respond directly to the writer. She can, however, blog her responses, keep the conversation going, perhaps even expand it to other parties, in a sort of conference call. As always, I welcome whatever participants are interested.

So if you wonder why I chose the stories I chose, I would say it had a great deal to do with voice. That sound – if it is working well – has authority, probably the most important dimension of voice. … I don’t think readers think about this analytically, but instead, they experience it as a feeling about the writer that grows stronger as they read: I want to be in your company, I want to keep going, I like the way you sound.

— Elizabeth Strout, Introduction

I was a big fan of last year’s volume, so this year has some big shoes to fill. Will I discover another Taiye Selasi? Will there be another story that will charm me in spite of my doubts, like “Beautiful Monsters” and “The Navigators”? Will I find far more in a story I was originally iffy about, as happened with “Miracle Polish”? On Page 1, anything is possible.

basscover120x180I’m thrilled to see some familiar stories included (“The Semplica-Girls Diary” by George Saunders in particular) surprised to see others (“Chapter Two” by Antonya Nelson faded from memory pretty quickly, and while Junot Díaz was, deservedly, inevitable, “Miss Lora” was not the 2012 story of his I expected to see here). I’ve previously read six of the twenty stories; something new may leap out at me, demanding a new post. For an extra-exciting touch: just as I scheduled this post, the news came in: Alice Munro – who is, of course, featured in this volume – won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m happy to see fourteen authors I’ve read in the past, and eager to meet the six who are new to me.

Hello? Who’s there? What do you have to tell me?

Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night” from The New Yorker, 10/10/12

William Brassey Hole: "Eli and Samuel"

William Brassey Hole: “Eli and Samuel”

Everything connected: David playing the harp for Saul, the boy in Stratford practicing the piano, the cellos and violins behind the closed doors. The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

During my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist, I felt like an outsider during Youth Week. Everyone else was full of talk about what God had called them to be when they grew up: my best friend Debbie had been called to be a nurse; God had guided Lynne into teaching, the Blalock boys into music. Jesus himself had spoken to Wendy during prayer: she would be a missionary. God never told me to do anything. I begged God, on my knees before folding chairs in prayer meetings, sobbing into hard metal: Tell me what to do, what to be; tell me anything! Tell me the color yellow is good and the color turquoise is evil. Tell me dogs are better than cats, that long hair on men is an abomination, that you disapprove of dancing and movies, tell me something! But God didn’t speak to me. Prayer group leaders eventually would drag me from my impromptu altar and tell me to calm down so they could finish the service. Later, they’d tell me I wasn’t really saved. I started waiting up nights, hearing the Rapture in every passing truck or plane, the Rapture that would leave me behind to face the horrors of the Unsaved. Eventually I gave up and stopped going to a church that worshiped a God who wouldn’t save me, no matter how I prostrated myself before His folding chairs. I’d never be like Debbie and Lynne and the Blalocks and Wendy, who’d been given a mission from God. God didn’t want me.

It never occurred to me until I read this story that they were all making it up.

I’m assuming this is closer to creative non-fiction than fiction: an autobiographical sketch, maybe an exaggeration. It’s available online so you can decide for yourself. I quite enjoyed it, much to my relief; I’ve been distressed that neither of the other two Millhauser stories quite worked for me (though “Miracle Polish” got a lot more interesting to me after it lay dormant for a year). But it works for me, not because of any objective criteria (though the structure is pretty cool) but because of my connection with the material, with the idea of a child at night waiting in vain for God to call, and taking it personally that He doesn’t. And I rejoice when the 68-year-old version of the child understands he got a call after all.

“What kind of Jew are you?” A Jew from suburbia. A nothing Jew, a secular Jew, an unjewish Jew. A Jew without a bar mitzvah, a Jew without a bump in his nose. Later he develops the idea of the Negative Jew. A Negative Jew is a Jew about whom another Jew says, “You don’t look Jewish.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says to another Jew, “Judaism is a superstition that I reject,” and to an anti-Semite, “I have Jewish blood.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says, “I don’t believe in Judaism,” while being herded into a cattle car. Hitler, the great clarifier.

It’s also a personal reflection on atheism, on secular Judaism, on whether such a thing is possible. I suspect not. Even if one rejects the religious teachings, they have left their mark. At least it works that way for me: I can’t leave the Rapture completely behind. And there’s still something about Christmas…

It’s a story about ambiguity, between Judaism, Christianity, atheism; between father, priest, teacher; between wanting to belong but not wanting to leave something else outside. And it’s a story that’s not a story at all: it’s a grouping of late night meditations as ancient Samuel, a boy in 1950, and an old man sixty years later, try to make it through the night. Written because in 1950 the boy was enchanted by, you guessed it, stories.

That’s one thing about him: he can’t remember the important things. He can remember the prince climbing the hair to the top of the tower but he can’t remember the capital of Connecticut. Is it Bridgeport? The library in Bridgeport has long stone steps and high pillars. It’s what he first thought of when he heard that Samuel was serving the Lord in the temple of Shiloh. A temple is different from a church. Jews go to temple and Christians go to church. But Catholics go to Catholic church. And everybody goes to the library.

This is how a boy – Millhauser? – was called to be a writer: by a story in a book, a story that kept him up for four nights and connected the library and the car going by sounding like a waterfall and the bakery. It’s the night he became a writer. He heard the voice of God, after all. It just didn’t sound like the same one Samuel heard a few thousand years before.

I’m also a little hung up on the idea that the older version, the boy sixty year later, is waiting, dreading, a different kind of call: death. I think that’s probably a red herring, but I can’t shake it. There seems to be a summing up he’s doing. But, as Aaron Riccio of Short-A-Day pointed out, he says he’s in good health. This connection was hanging in the back of my mind as I read the story, and became very real to me a few nights later when in the middle of the night I had a serious asthma attack, my first in several years and the worst one I’ve ever had. It’s odd that as I got dizzy inhaling steam over the kitchen sink and coughing convulsively while the blood pounded in my ears, I thought of this story. I also thought of how many days of cat food I should put down if I called an ambulance, and, ever practical, the concern of “Do you know what insurance companies do to people who have been hospitalized for an asthma attack?” And, “What if I have a stroke, will my cat eat my face?”

(I’m grateful to Richard Russo’s “Horseman” for teaching me that it’s ok to have a personal reaction to fiction. But maybe I’ve taken it a little too far).

I have to admit I don’t quite “get” the story in a way I can explain. All I can say is that it worked for me. It’s loaded with ideas to think about and images I loved. I cared about the little boy who grew up to be an Author. And I was glad he was entranced by a story on that night, as I was entranced by this story, now.

[addendum: I’m very happy to see this one in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories]

Callan Wink: “The Breatharians” from The New Yorker, 10/22/12

TNY Illustration by Victo Ngai

TNY Illustration by Victo Ngai

“I don’t think things really exist until we can name them. Without names, the world is just populated by spooks and monsters.”

I’m kind of surprised how laid-back I was about this story. I even dictated some of it aloud, and considering the primary plot device, my cat also took it with remarkable equanimity. I guess she (and I) recognize that farm people, rural people, view cats and dogs differently from us city folk. And that fiction is fiction.

I’m also pretty sure the Dad is psycho.

But if you don’t name something, it doesn’t really exist. Right?

The first thing Adam did after he was plopped into the Garden of Eden was name the animals. It was actually part of “finding an help meet” for him, and when the rhinoceros and peacock and porcupine and the beasts and cattle and fowl all got named but didn’t work out, God made Eve. But that’s beside the point (maybe; at least it’s a point for a different post). The point here is: naming is important. We name our pets, our cars, Marines name their rifles, I’ve heard some men name their privy members (a little too cute for me, but to each his own) – but not our throw rugs or our #2 pencils or our USB cables. We personally name what has emotional meaning to us, but we name in a more general way whatever is important in our lives and our societies: the #2 pencils, USB cables, rugs.

“Did you know that, Augie? That there are all sorts of words for things in other languages that we don’t have in English? It’s like your soul is tongue-tied when that happens, when you have a feeling or experience that you can’t explain, because there isn’t a specific word for it. If you knew all the languages in the world, you could express yourself perfectly, and all experiences would be understandable to you because you would have a word, a perfect word, to attach to any possible occasion. See what I mean?”

August’s mom has attached the word “breatharian” to her state of being able to live on air – not to just refrain from eating, but to be nourished by simply breathing. So what has turned this woman, a fine woman from a fine family in New Orleans, a woman whose father built the “old house” in which she now lives, having moved out of the “new house” her husband built –

“He feels like it’s his own,” August’s mother had said to him once, while smoking at the dining-room table of the new house. “His mother didn’t have much. Everything we got came from my side, you know. He would never admit it in a hundred years, but it bothers him.” She coughed. “It’s too big. That was my complaint from the get-go. It’s hard to heat, too, exposed up on the hill like this, the wind gets in everywhere. My father would never have done it like that. He built the best possible house for himself and my mother. That’s the type of man he was.”

– what has turned her into someone who can live without nourishment? Who wants to live without nourishment? Who finds it important enough to put a name to it, changing her need from a monster into a concrete thing?

Maybe she’s a psycho, too. Because I’m still pretty sure August’s dad is a psycho. It’s not that he sends young August out to kill the hordes of annoying barn cats. It’s how he structures the deal, paying a dollar a tail:

“Get rid of the damn things….You take their tails and pound them to a board, and then after a few days we’ll have the settling up. Small tails worth as much as large tails, it’s all the same.”

Of course, August himself, at about age 13, might well be a psycho, too:

August had never actually killed a cat before, but, like most farm boys, he had engaged in plenty of casual acts of torture.

But as long as no one names these things – as long as no one points out Mom’s a castrating bitch (or a psycho) and Dad’s just mean for moving the teenage farmhand Lisa into the house to make supper after doing her out in the hayloft and has the kid not just kill the cats but mutilate them and present the severed tails as an accounting ledger, and Augie does just that, tacking the tails to a board and leaving it for Dad – as long as all this, and the marital separation, stays an unnamed monster, it’s just a family. Because there’s a nice word for that.

While I enjoyed the story, I was a little disappointed by the Page-Turner interview with Callan Wink when I found out the ever-present voice of Paul Harvey in the story was just a memory of his, without some deep meaning. I agree with him completely when he says “in the end the dead cats aren’t so much the focus as something that exists on the periphery.” And that it’s a story about this family, these people, and what they’re doing to this boy.

When I read Callan Wink’s first TNY story, “Dog Run Moon,” last October, I said I hoped we’d be seeing more from him soon. I’m glad we have.

[addendum: How nice to see this in Best American Short Stories 2013]

George Saunders: “The Semplica-Girls Diary” from The New Yorker, 10/15/12

New Yorker art by Martin Ansin

New Yorker art by Martin Ansin

Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really?

Most of the time, when a story is impossible to discuss without spoiling, I give the warning, then continue. Not this time. It’s available online. Read it.

Well, maybe I’ll continue a little. 😉

It’s slightly longer than most TNY stories (10 online pages) but that’s because of the short sentences and frequent single-line paragraphs. It’s in diary form, which rarely works for me, though in this case I was more annoyed by the abbreviated language – like slang, only worse. But I understand, even if I don’t particularly like, the style.

I trust Saunders. And he delivered. In fact, he delivered past the point where I thought he delivered. So in addition to really, really liking the story, I learned something about what makes a story. A gradually-dawning surprise, a horrifyingly ironic icon, isn’t enough.

There’s a reference you probably won’t get at first. Don’t worry about it, even if you’re an old fart like me and worry that you aren’t up on your twitter-ese (though it turns out it doesn’t matter), and especially if you’re internet’s out like mine was as I read this, because you won’t be able to google to find out what it refers to (or doesn’t – and again, it doesn’t matter). And that’ll turn out to be a good thing, because if you trust Saunders, he won’t leave you, um, hanging.

It’s vintage Saunders, with all his favorite themes, starting and ending with consumerism but delving into class warfare, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, those jobs Americans don’t want and the stories we tell ourselves about who wants them and why. And it’s a funny story – maybe predictably in places, as when our narrator breaks his vow to write daily in his diary by the second day.

It stays funny even as it turns macabre.

The familiar situations – dueling birthday parties – with unfamiliar details (go ahead, read it) let us laugh at him without squirming about our own behavior (she writes on her computer made who-knows-where-by-who-knows-who while a chicken plucked and gutted by please-don’t-tell-me roasts on carrots picked by I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it, none of which has anything to do with the crazy stuff in the story, of course). And when the narrator finds himself understanding a little bit more than he bargained for about parents and children sacrificing for each other, courtesy of his six-year-old, maybe we will, too.

In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Saunders says one scene from the story, including all the, um, unfamiliar details, came to him in a dream, and he had to write a story “to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.” I love where he went with that.

Like I said: read it.

[addendum: I am thoroughly delighted to see this story in Best American Short Stories 2013]

Lorrie Moore: “Referential” from The New Yorker, 5/28/12

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindness and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected twist in the game. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land in the same way, regardless. Tenderness did not enter into it, except in a damaged way.

Some stories are shorter than they look – the descriptions aren’t really necessary. Oh, they are, to make the places and people real and add depth to the events, but once you get the idea – rolling green hills, dirty city buildings, picket fences and bicycles in front lawns, Mrs. with grey hair and glasses, Mr. glancing in mirrors and tugging at his tie – the rest of the paragraphs skim by forgotten. Description is a necessary structure, like the foundation of a house, and maybe carefully constructed, but not something anyone other than a builder is going to actually look at.

This story, on the other hand, is longer than it seems. Every sentence, even the ones just describing, is loaded with images that add to the narrative. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way writing classes teach it should be. But it seldom is.

Look at some of these images:

The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.

The love they had for Pete was long and winding, with hidden turns but no real halts.

…her now graying hair undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss.

….she, too, had removed her necklaces, earrings, scarves – all her prosthetic devices, she said to Pete, trying to amuse – …a new widowhood on top of the old widowhood she already possessed.…and she went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an old Amish man. If she was going to be old, let her be a full-fledged citizen of the old country!

And that’s just the first column of the first page.

Where to start with this, a story so full of stuff it’s hard to believe it’s only three pages long. Mom, the widow, has a sixteen-year-old son in a mental hospital, and she and Pete (the only named character) visit him. They have to be careful what they bring – nothing that can be used as a weapon, which is just about anything, so she settles on:

…a soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone, pulled from her own bookcase, which was allowed, even though her son would believe it contained messages for him, believe that, although it was a story about a long-ago person, it was also the story of his own sorrow and heroism in the face of every manner of wilderness, defeat, and abduction, that his own life could be draped over the book, which was simply a noble armature for the revelation of tales of him. There would be clues in the words on pages with numbers that added up to his age: 97, 88, 466. There would be other veiled references to his existence. There always were.

This is referential thinking, a symptom of various mental illnesses from personality disorders to schizophrenia. I started thinking: isn’t that the purpose of writing a book, to inspire someone, to communicate? But that’s not the same thing. That’s communication. Referential thinking is when the author writes it for you, individually, or when rain starting at 3pm on Tuesday is a message from God or the planet Zolar or the CIA that it’s time to clean your house or poke out your kitty’s eyes.

Mom connects the dots.

…the thin scars on her son’s arms sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively into an algebra of skin. In the carousel spin of the room, those white webbed lines resembled coarse, campground graffiti…Mutilation was a language. And vice versa.

And of course she’s right.

Later, on the drive home, she finds more meaning in the orchard:

She knew that the world had not been created to speak just to her, and yet, as for her son, sometimes things did. The fruit trees had bloomed early, for instance – the orchards they passed were pink – but the premature warmth precluded bees, and there would be little fruit. Most of the dangling blossoms would fall in this very storm.

This is more of a metaphor than the manipulation of the weather and the trees aimed at her. It’s normal human reaction, to see yourself, your situation, in the world. To refuse to do so is its own malignancy. We all know them, people who think nothing has anything to do with them, who think their actions are unrelated to the chaos in their lives. Mental health is a very tricky balance. It’s a wonder anyone manages it. Or as the story puts it:

“So where have you been?” her son asked Pete.
“Good question,” Pete said, as if praising the thing would make it go away. How could people be mentally well in such a world?

The real story is yet to come: this is just setting the stage, setting up Mom and Pete, boyfriend of ten years, from before Son’s illness moved from “a vaguely brooding and fearful expression” to referential thinking, cutting, and suicide attempts:

At one point, he had been poised to live with her, but her child’s deepening troubles caused him to pull back. He said that he loved her but could not find the space he needed for himself in her life or in her house. (He did not blame her son – or did he?)

At home after the hospital visit, with Pete staying for a drink or two, Mom tells him she’s bringing Son home the next week. The phone rings, and she tells him the caller-id shows it’s a call from his apartment; he doesn’t show any surprise, or denial, just prepares to leave. He evades her goodnight kiss so it falls on his ear; she remembers this happened when they first met, when “he was in a condition of romantic overlap.”

She…had invented the part about it being Pete’s number, but he had made it the truth anyway, which was the black magic of lies and good guesses, nimble bluffs.

I get the sense this is her form of self-mutilation, another way she will be a full-fledged Widow of the Old Country; similar to taking off her jewelry, she’s taking off her last chance of romance. Except she doesn’t amputate, she just stands under the blade and wonders if it would fall.

The ending is one of my favorites of all time, as the phone rings again after Pete has departed:

The black panel where the number should appear was clouded as if by a scrim, a page of onionskin over the onion – or, rather, a picture of an onion. One depiction on top of another.
“Good evening,” she said loudly. What would burst forth? A monkey’s paw. A lady. A tiger.
But there was nothing at all.

I was amazed by this story, underlining and circling something in virtually every paragraph (as you can tell from all the quotes). Which is why I thought, as I was reading, that this is a very long, very short story.

But there’s another reason it’s so long, one that I didn’t know about until I finished reading, one that adds a meaning to the title “Referential”: it’s an homage to Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” (plus the reference to WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” at the end), down to the jam jars. Moore’s online interview discusses this process of creating a tribute. I’m humiliatingly unfamiliar with classic short stories beyond the standard Top 10, and that’s something I want to remedy, so I’ve printed out both stories and I’ll be looking at them next week, with an eye towards relating them to this story. But for now, I found plenty to savor here.

[Addendum: I’ve commented on Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”]

[Addendum 2: No surprise to encounter this in Best American Short Stories 2013; it provided me with quite an education.]

Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That’s what happened with your girlfriend Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you.
That’s what happened with Miss Lora, too.
It was 1985. You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced—like totally, utterly convinced—that the world was going to blow itself to pieces. Almost every night you had dreams that made the ones the President was having in “Dreamscape” look like pussy play. In your dreams the bombs were always going off, evaporating you while you walked, while you ate a chicken wing, while you rode the bus to school, while you fucked Paloma. You would wake up biting your own tongue in terror, the blood dribbling down your chin.
Someone should have medicated you.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do this story because it is second person! And Junot Diaz makes some very interesting comments about second person!

The story itself, well, what is there to say? You can read it online, that is what there is to say! I am a little bit intimidated by Junot Diaz, seeing as he is a genius and all, so this is the first time I have read one of his stories! I hate to say it, but he does not seem like a genius to me! That is not really mean, because I am just Zin and he is Junot Diaz. But it is a kind of routine story, after all. What makes it interesting to me is how he talks about his use of second person! Maybe that is where the genius is for this story!

Yunior is sixteen and his brother has just died of cancer, so he is sad (these brothers were introduced before, in the story “The Pura Principle” which is also online). Yunior keeps imagining the world is about to end in a huge mushroom cloud! The story is set in 1985, while the Soviet Union was still the Evil Empire. Maybe, with his brother dying, it feels like his world is exploding! Miss Lora is a neighbor and a high school teacher. She is too skinny and very muscular, like she works out. But she and Yunior hook up, as the kids say. Now, that would have been creepy even in 1985, but in the story, it seemed perfectly fine. Not the sort of thing you would bring up at Sunday dinner (it is a secret affair) but not like child abuse or statutory rape, which it might be depending on the age of consent in New Jersey! But those things often seem “ok” from the inside – how many kids say “but we are in love” when these things come to light? I am very torn on this, because Yunior seems to benefit from it, and he breaks away over time, and goes to college, and is ok, he has relationships, so it is not a problem for him later. I think maybe it helped him heal from losing his brother! But I am not ok with being ok with it!

That is one thing Diaz says in the interview, because he knows some people will come down hard on Miss Lora if they see her as taking advantage of Yunior:

I had hoped to produce a piece of art that allowed the reader to experience a number of contradictory streams of feelings simultaneously. Sure, it would be swell if someone got to know Miss Lora before they judged her, or if their judgment was overturned by reading the story, but it’s also cool if a reader judges and knows the character simultaneously and neither of these experiences alters or counteracts the other. In a culture like ours, obsessed with its dichotomies, giving folks the opportunity to work out their simultaneity muscle is a worthy goal.

I thought that was very interesting, because that is exactly how I experienced it! I guess my simultaneity muscle is in good shape!

Now to the second person part of it, because that is what is really good here: I almost did not notice the second person after a very short time. If I remember my terminology, it is in what Brian Richardson calls “Standard” and what Monika Fludernik (oh, Monika, it has been a long time, and now I mention you twice in two days) calls “Reflective” second person – “You did this, then you did that.” It is also in past tense, so it is, to me, almost like he is talking to himself, maybe, in the future, with a “memoir” quality. Looking back, doing the “closure; thing, saying goodbye to a person who was so important to him at one time but now he is moving on but needs to tell this story first. Maybe that contributes to the affair being ok, because he is obviously ok, so there is less of a tendency (for me) to think this is something horrible that is being done to him. There is danger, though, because people should not become blasé about child abuse! But in this particular case, would it have been better for him to have her arrested? That simultaneity muscle! Embrace Ambiguity! And second person is considered “subversive” and so is getting the reader to feel sympathetic with a teacher sleeping with a student, so I think it all works together!

And this is how Diaz came to use second person:

I really needed distance from this story. Every time I wrote in the first person it was just too close. Tried third person, but that flopped as well. Second person ended up being the only way to get through. I guess I wanted my narrator to be “in” the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little. That was the plan, at least. Second person, I’ve always noticed, has the distinction of being both intimate and repellent at the same time. A quick way of drawing the reader close but also hard to sustain for any length of time. Only so much a person likes being addressed as “you” by a complete stranger. I knew I’d lose people with the approach, but I was going to lose people anyway. That’s the nature of fiction: despite all our lofty claims of universality, no piece of art is for everyone—which is why we have so much art, so that everyone has a chance of finding something that moves them. I figured some people somewhere might connect with the tale even in second person.

This has nothing to do with second person, but I like his attitude, and it is important for writers to know that they can not please everyone! That is one thing I need to learn more, I tend to take every critique with equal weight and change everything and then I am frustrated because it is not the story I want to write any more! It is a hard balance, taking and rejecting suggestions, and maybe for me the hardest thing about workshopping, which might be why I do not do it any more. But I have to remember that when you are Junot Diaz, you can pretty much do what you want; Zin, not so much, I need some help. Simultaneity again! But here it is not so comfortable.

But back to second person! I kept saying, “Yes, yes!” while reading that paragraph! The commenting on his younger self, that was the “talking to himself” plus memoir I noticed. And when he talks about second person being intimate and repellent, yes, Fludernik also talked about how second person affected intimacy in both ways in the story “You.” When I talked to Marko Fong and Thomas Kearnes about their stories, they both used second person in different ways to affect the intimacy level, Marko to show alienation of the protagonist, and Thomas to increase the connection between reader and protagonist! And somewhere I could swear someone, Richardson probably, said second person switches between first and third (whereas first person plural manages to be first and third at the same time) so that affects the closeness as well!

I do think second person helped this story, but the problem with it was not second person but that it wasn’t much of a story, a kind of Latin bildungsroman with the ever-popular experienced older woman introducing a teenaged boy to the glories of sex. The brother and the fear of bombs add a dimension to it, a kind of life-raft thing, but still, it is not very unique in plot. I do think it was interesting for other reasons, though, and that is fine! And now maybe I will not be so intimidated by Junot Diaz in the future!

And: I have to say we did not plan it this way, but now we have two posts in a row of New Yorker stories by Latino men about sexual women from the pov of boys growing up! Even the art is similar! The other story is much older, and it is a total coincidence, we did not plan it this way! Sometimes this happens, there was a week of India stories, I think, and now Latino stories! But I think it is worth noting that I noticed it, and would I notice if there were three stories by white American-born men about middle-class married couples breaking up? Probably not, since there probably have been weeks just like that! And I think what I notice is something I need to notice!

[Addendum: this story appears in BASS 2013; I don’t have much to add to Zin’s comments, so I’ll let it stand. — karen]