Pushcart XXXIX / BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

15th century illustration from Bartholomew Anglicus, 'On the Properties of Things'

15th c. illustration of a leper rattle from Bartholomew Anglicus,’On the Properties of Things’

My name is John Fuller. I am nine and twenty years of age, born in the year of our Lord 1370, the son of the learned musician and the youngest of twelve children – though the Lord in his wisdom was pleased to take five brothers and two sisters back to the fold. After a grave accident, I no longer possess the use of my hands. Any inaccuracies in this document are not the fault of the scribe, who enjoys a high reputation, but of my own mind. My pain is not inconsiderable. However, I will continue frankly, in as orderly a fashion as I am able, so that these words may accompany my confession to the honorable Vicar of Saint Stephen’s.
My story begins as God knitted me in the womb.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time over the past few months immersed in medieval theology courtesy of Dante Alighieri. Maybe it’s because I can put myself in the story in all three key roles. Maybe it’s because there’s so much crammed in these fourteen pages – sorrow, love, joy, longing, heartbreak, loneliness, alienation, sacrifice, guilt, stoicism bordering on learned helplessness, a harsh and compassionless justice. Whatever the reason: I absolutely loved this story.

Because all the elements of the story fit so well together, it’s impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers; the first paragraph itself is a kind of spoiler, in fact. I haven’t found it online, so I’ll just make some general observations and encourage everyone to find a copy of BASS 2014 (or back issue #78 of Image, a literary journal with a “commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth… poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture”) to see for yourself how McNett weaves together a music teacher, his wife, his student, and the often inscrutable Will of God.

I also admire the process she went through to get here. In an interview with Dan Klefstad of NPR affiliate WNIJ, she explains how she went from a story that felt too “Glee” to the 14th century via research on the history of vocal instruction. That writer’s decision to move the story from a contemporary choir to the 14th century was genius, and allowed so much else to be brought in: socially moderated rules of conduct which, although passé today, are based on aspects of human relationships, emotions, and desires that have not changed in six hundred years, and the overwhelming pressure of religion.

To get the setting and diction right, she read several period texts:

One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
“I don’t know if it was to the Plague or what happened,” McNett says. “But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence’ and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance.” McNett says she’s not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. “So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith.”

~~Molly McNett

John Fuller has more faith on his worst day than most of us do all our lives. Except for one bad moment; yet as for many of us, it’s one bad moment on which everything turns. And it’s the skill of the story that makes me wonder if all that faith is really such a good idea: doesn’t it prevent change? Doesn’t it leave him mired in the past, in rage buried underneath every “Praise be”?

Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal (one of my favorite craft-oriented writer’s blogs) points out how carefully the story is focused. I’ve always found historical fiction to be problematic, but as Ken points out, “McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.” He’s absolutely right: what’s important about the setting is the belief system and the emotional lives of the characters, not what anyone’s wearing. The story does a great job of drawing us into those elements.

And those elements are why the story must be set in the 14th century; a contemporary setting wouldn’t make sense. John wouldn’t accept his wife’s vow of celibacy, and/or he’d hop right into bed with his student; in either case, the story would have to be very different. It’d be the story I’ve read a hundred times. This one’s a lot more interesting. Though the mechanisms are less familiar, the story is generated by fundamental motivations I understand. It’s a kind of defamiliarization.

Some stories are highly visual; this one is highly aural. John remembers two sounds from his childhood, one ugly and one beautiful: the leper’s rattle, and the song of the nightingale, his first encounter with what Jerome of Moravia called “la pulchra nota,” the beautiful note. When his wife labors with their children, she makes such a racket the midwife resorts to stuffing her ears with cotton. And there is another encounter with la pulchra nota, as one of his singing students, and a sweet young thing at that, achieves the perfect note:

I would like to end my story at this moment. I would like to linger here at the very crux of joy, where the note, and these words, were as one to me.
But I cannot. I then understood something about music that I had not learned from my father, or Jerome of Moravia, or Isidore of Seville. La pulchra nota the is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.

After ecstasy, there’s nowhere to go but down (remember that next time a blushing bride declares her wedding day “the happiest day of my life” – because she might just be, cursedly, right) so it’s no surprise when Olivia’s voice sounds less sweet on future notes.

Steve Almond gives writing advice along the lines of “it’s your job as a writer to put your characters through hell” and McNett certainly does give John a full range of emotional experiences: contentment, grief, sexual frustration, desire, joy, disappointment, rage, guilt, and finally, a kind of passive acceptance that seems saintly – or insane. Perhaps a touch of both. Each twist felt very authentic to me; it wasn’t something written to create a plot, but a pitch-perfect (sorry) recording of an emotional life.

Through the story, I was pulling for John, and that’s part of the writer’s job, too (“give the reader someone to care about”). But I was always aware: John’s wife has her own story as well, as does his student. It’s easy to create a hero among villains – that’s soap opera – but to blend together three characters with elements of each – three flawed noble souls who can’t quite get outside themselves to see another’s needs – is where a real story happens.

[Post originally written in Fall 2014 as part of the BASS 2014 read]

I see this story was also selected for a Pushcart 2015 Prize. I couldn’t agree more.

Bye-Bye BASS 2014


Last year, I thought BASS was a little on the safe side. This year was anything but safe.

Nearly every story was initially confusing, in a variety of ways. Structures that weren’t immediately predictable. Unexpected voices. Tense shifts, blurry settings, missing landmarks. And nearly every story, with a little patience and a little work on my part, delivered.

I had a good time. And I learned a little bit more about what’s possible in a story.

Putting together my “favorites” list is always hard, since how I feel about a story or a group of stories varies from day to day, from year to year, and sometimes changes on re-reading on another day or in another year. But I like forcing myself to prioritize. Each of my favorites is a favorite for a slightly different reason, sometimes because of the emotional punch, sometimes because I admire the craft that went into it, sometimes both. And misses are embarrassing, since they always end up on someone’s “best story of the year” list and I feel like an idiot for not getting it. Nevertheless, my list:

The stand-out:

La Pulchra Nota” by Molly McNett

 
Other favorites:

Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin
Hover” by Nell Freudenberger
The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris
After the Flood” by Peter Cameron
Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” by Karen Russell
Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg

 
My least favorite:

Next to Nothing” by Stephen O’Connor

 
 
I could’ve added a few more to the “Other Favorites” category, but that’ll cover most of it.

Some themes emerged. Religion seemed prevalent. As I look back at the list, I see overt religion prominent in only one story, really, maybe two, but was a factor in several others. Is this unusual, or was I simply primed by taking a couple of MOOCs with religious content? Looking back over past tables of contents, I think there was slightly more mention of religion this year, but some of it was merely in titles or passing reference, so it’s probably a combination of both. I found a lot of eye imagery, but again, is that unusual, or did I just happen to notice it? War made its appearance, but war has a way of showing up in fiction. So does bad weather. Troubled children. And death.

I keep coming back to the elusiveness of the stories as a unifying theme. For me, at least, these weren’t lyrically beautiful casual reads about familiar human relationships; these stories took more roundabout paths that required more effort. There was often lyric beauty, and of course human relationships are pretty much what lies at the heart of all fiction, whether it’s about war or a frat party or an unexpected house guest or a music student; but the key relational aspect wasn’t always evident at first glance, because the story presented some challenges to getting on board. I like that. I’m no fan of unearned intimacy.

I have to wonder: If I’d encountered this volume five or six years ago – would I have hated it? Would I have had the patience to find the way in to stories which, for the most part, were as disorienting as Jennifer Egan promised in her introduction? That leads to a more important question: what am I too impatient for, right now?

BASS 2014: Laura van den Berg, “Antarctica” from Glimmer Train, #88

In Antarctica there was nothing to identify because there was nothing left. The Brazilian station at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula had burned to the ground. All that remained of my brother was a stainless steel watch. It was returned to me in a sealed plastic bag, the inside smudged with such. The rescue through had also uncovered an unidentified tibia, which might or might not have belonged to him. This was explained in a cold, windowless room at Belgrano II, the Argentinian station that had taken in the survivors of the explosion. Luiz Cardoso, the head researcher at the Brazilian base, had touched my shoulder as he spoke about the bone, as though this was information intended to bring comfort.

Secrets, guilt, mistakes. The Antarctic – cold, isolated, unknown. A researcher killed in an accident. His sister on a mission. And Eve, the wife/sister-in-law who hovers over and underlies all of it.

Much of the beauty of this story (and it is beautiful) lies in the unfolding, how we start with very little grasp of the situation and move towards understanding. Just like the narrator.

That artful reveal makes it difficult to write about, however, since what is unknown is just as important as what is known. There’s a tension in places partly created by the scene, and partly by the knowledge that there’s another shoe to drop and eagerness to know what that shoe is. It’s as if the author has a secret, and the force of that secret propels the reader onward.

I missed the perfect chance to tell my brother everything. The day before he left for Vancouver, I went to see him at MIT.… I should’ve had a plan, but I didn’t. Rather, the weight of Eve’s secret had propelled me toward him the way I imagine the current tugs at the objects that find their way into its waters…

I think we keep secrets for different reasons. Some we keep because they’re embarrassing. Some, because they’d cause pain to others and wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. But a great many secrets are kept because the secret-holder doesn’t want to deal with another person’s reaction. This story is full of secrets – and the understanding that, sometimes, we’d rather not know.

Lee, the narrator, has the central secret – we only know her thoughts, so in narrative terms she’s the richest secret-bearing possibility – and her secret has grown like rock candy crystalizing on a string. But she narrates a great many other secrets. Eve’s secret, for example, is the seed crystal: why does Eve keep her secret from her husband? Does she fear he’ll see her differently? Has she left that person, the one she was, behind, and she’s unwilling to risk being burdened with her again? Or is it some kind of shame from guilt, however inappropriate the guilt may be? Or did she learn secret-keeping where most of us do, in the family?

Her parents think they’re protecting their child by keeping her from understanding her own experience. Parent want to protect their children, of course they do. But is it protection at all, to deny, repress, ignore truth? When parents protect their children, are they at heart protecting themselves from the pain of the truth, turning away from knowing? Do parents unwittingly convey attitudes to their children that way, pass on a legacy of choosing to not know?

There were so many times when I wanted to tell my brother everything – when, in the middle of the night, I wanted to kneel by his bed and whisper, I have a secret. In Cambridge, I’d told myself these were Eve’s secrets to keep or expose; it was her life to walk away from, if that’s what she wanted. And the more time that passed, the more unimaginable the truth seemed. To admit one lie would mean admitting another and then another….Some of these things I did not know – not because they were unknowable, but because I had turned away from the knowledge. In Antarctica I decided that was the worst thing I’ve ever done, that refusal.

Luiz, the Brazilian researcher who serves as Lee’s guide to the Antarctic station where her brother died, demonstrates other aspects of secrets. He defers telling Lee how her brother was viewed on the station for an admirably long time, but Lee, no longer turning away from secrets, persists, until Luiz has to reveal the truth. He could’ve kept repeating the party line as the other researchers did, and he must’ve known how Lee would react. For that, his willingness to give up the secret and deal with the consequences, he may be one of the most admirable characters in the story. Lee will probably agree, some day.

Van den Berg has several interviews of note available online. With Larry Dark at The Story Prize blog, she discusses the decade-long process of uncovering this story, an effort that began with the wrong protagonist and overly obvious Emperor penguins. Writing a story like this isn’t easy, so it took a while for her to come up with the multiple story lines and the opening line that became her hook into the meat of the story. With Amanda Faraone at The Bomb, she talks about catching the right balance of haziness and presence for the brother’s character – who, I believe, is unnamed throughout the story, in what I’m guessing is part of the haziness side.

It’s one of those stories that doesn’t end with a tidy little bow, and that’s what appeals to me: the story, the wondering about what I’ve read, goes on in my head after I’ve turned the last page. I sometimes wonder about the way stories are arranged in BASS, alphabetically by author’s last name. Most story collections are carefully fit together to amplify a theme or develop a concept or maybe to provide variety between styles, but that option isn’t available in these anthologies. Sometimes, like this time, I wonder if the last story meant no one with a name later in the alphabet would make that volume, no matter how good the story, simply because the last story was such a perfect closing touch. Were the eight stories in the “Other Distinguished Stories” list with author names after van den Berg just out of luck?

I doubt it. I suspect it’s more that I know I’m at the end of the volume so I “hear” more of a closing note with the last story no matter what it is. But I still wonder. Because this is a great way to end – without ending at all – this anthology.

BASS 2014: Stephen O’Connor, “Next to Nothing” from Conjunctions #60

The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but his square shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square shaped. It’s been that way since birth.
… No one looks either sister in the eye as they approach along the solitary block of the town’s main street. No one raises hand, or says hello. But once the sisters have begun to recede in the opposite direction, all four heads turned to watch. Significant glances are exchanged, but not words. There’s no need.

Maybe I’m just tired of playing “Now figure out what this author is trying to do.” Maybe I’m just coasting out-of-gear after a tough MOOC season. Maybe I’m just regarding this story in the same way the sisters regard all of humanity, with analytical detachment bordering on disdain. But this one went by me.

That’s disappointing, because Stephen O’Connor wrote one of my all-time favorite selections from One Story; I liked it so much, in fact, I bought a copy of his collection, Here Comes Another Lesson, but, sadly, except for “Ziggurat” and the title story (which, truth be told, won me purely on the basis of its title) never got far with that, either. That happens, sometimes; a particular author just doesn’t click with a particular reader.

The Soros sisters are odd ducks, obviously, from the first paragraph. They seem as stripped of humanity as their eyes are stripped of color – more eye imagery! Lunar sea? I’ve never thought of the lunar seas as being pale blue, but grey (in photos) or off-white (in the sky). Lunacy?

Yet they’re successful, by most yardsticks, having both families and careers as, of all things, sociologists; I wonder if it’s telling that O’Connor, who teaches in the MFA program at Columbia, sets them in academia:

Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken. They know, however, that theirs is a minority opinion, and so, from a very early age, they have compared what people actually say and do to put it would be reasonable to say and do, hoping they might discover what it takes to feel at home in the world. These efforts – disappointing from the get-go and worse over time – nevertheless send out the sisters with certain intellectual habits that propel them through college, sociology graduate school, and into tenure-track jobs: Isabel at a university in Nebraska, Ivy, in Indiana.

Even their academic specialties are, well, nothing: the financial futures market “where traders make billions by buying and selling absolutely nothing,” and apocalyptic culture as a recognition that humankind’s passing will make no difference to universe.

It’s a story about nothing. Maybe that’s my problem; I never “got” Seinfeld, either.

The sisters spend their summers in the town where their parents – who seem relatively, well, “normal” – now live, a different place from where they grew up, but home nonetheless. Perhaps the parents felt a need to move on after the girls had their own lives. It couldn’t be easy, raising kids who don’t quite understand what the big deal is all about. The sisters aren’t exactly popular in town: “They make the townspeople feel erased. They make the townspeople feel like a variety of wood louse.” I’ve known people like that.

A storm (more storm action!) brings on the climax of the story, yet I felt all along this was an extended character study of characters with no character – a full-color shoot of grayscale paper dolls. Maybe the point was how unmoved I was at the ending. Maybe the point of all literature is in recognizing its effect on us, and wondering about that: is it possible for people to be absent humanity? Does it make us less human, reduce our capacity to feel? Is it the humanity of others that in fact makes us human?

Nothing. Maybe that’s an appropriate reaction to a story about nothing.

Pushcart 2015/BASS 2014: Karen Russell, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” from Zoetrope, #17:2

Art by Ruma Hari: “Emma and Djali”

 
 
A dog’s love is forever. We expect infidelity from one another; we marvel at this one’s ability to hold that one’s interest for fifty, sixty years; perhaps some of us feel a secret contempt for monogamy even as we extol it, wishing parole for its weary participants. But dogs do not receive our sympathy or our suspicion – from dogs we presume an eternal adoration.
In the strange case of Mme. Bovary’s greyhound, however, “forever” was a tensed muscle that began to shake.
 

In her BASS Contributor Note (highly detailed and informative, well worth reading) Russell described a moment during her writing of this story: “blinking into the light of a hard truth: OK, I thought, I am writing Flaubert fan fiction.” So what: Homer, Ovid, Dante, Milton, Shaw, Joyce, revered members of the literary historical canon, all wrote fan fiction, not to mention more contemporary writers like Smiley, Oates, Brooks, and Chabon, and no doubt a host of others. Some themes bear additional exploration, and if an author depends on an existing work to lend background, to cover ancillary ground, well, when was the last time writing didn’t evoke something previously written. Get over it.

I read Madame Bovary for a MOOC just last year, but I didn’t remember the greyhound. That’s a shame, because the whole question of why Flaubert included the dog in his story opens the door to speculation and, yes, fan fiction. Russell really takes the alternate-protagonist idea for a ride, managing to evoke Flaubert’s style and parallel part of Emma’s emotional journey while at the same time drawing some important distinctions between the woman and the dog. Spoiler alert: the dog comes out looking much, much better than the woman. But with Emma Bovary as a base, who wouldn’t.

The greyhound was ignorant of many things. She had no idea, for example, that she was a greyhound. She didn’t know that her breed had originated in southern Italy, an ancient pet in Pompeii, a favorite of the thin-nosed English lords and ladies, or that she was perceived to be affectionate, intelligent, and loyal. What she did know, with a whole-body thrill, was the music of her woman coming up the walk, the dizzying explosion of perfume as the door swung wide. She knew when her mistress was pleased with her, and that approval was the fulcrum of her happiness.

In Flaubert’s narrative, a gamekeeper gives the dog to Emma in gratitude for Charles having cured some ailment; Russell instead has Charles as the source of the dog. I’m not sure if this is a minor oversight (I suspect not, given the attention to detail of the original with which this story is constructed) or if there’s a point there, Perhaps it would’ve been assumed that the gamekeeper in fact gave the dog to Charles, and it naturally happened that it became in fact Emma’s dog. It’s a curious discrepancy. The name “Djali” was in Flaubert, perhaps referring to the goat from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I wasn’t able to find any literary analysis on Flaubert’s use of the dog); whether it was the gamekeeper, or Emma, who named the dog, I don’t know, though it seems reasonable to assume Emma would have been familiar with the book, and the notion of having a sidekick to her performance might appeal to her. The pronunciation, similar to “jolly,” is a red herring, since Flaubert of course wrote in French, but it lends an interesting touch to the English.

Because the full depth of Russell’s story depends on Flaubert, I made a few side-by-side comparisons of passages that struck me as particularly parallel:

Flaubert Russell
She began by looking round her to see if nothing had changed since last she had been there. She found again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, wandered at random, like her greyhound, who ran round and round in the fields, yelping after the yellow butterflies, chasing the shrew-mice, or nibbling the poppies on the edge of a cornfield. Then gradually her ideas took definite shape, and, sitting on the grass that she dug up with little prods of her sunshade, Emma repeated to herself, “Good heavens! why did I marry?” They took walks to the beech grove at Banneville, near the abandoned pavilion. Foxglove and gillyflowers, beige lichen growing in one thick, crawling curtain around the socketed windows. Moths blinked wings at them, crescents of blue and red and tiger-yellow, like eyes caught in a net.
Emma sat and poked at the grass with the skeletal end of her parasol, as if she were trying to blind each blade.
“Oh, why did I ever get married?” she moaned aloud, again and again.
The greyhound whined with her, distressed by her distress. Sometimes, in a traitorous fugue, the dog forgot to be unhappy and ran off to chase purple butterflies or murder shrew mice, or to piss a joyful stream onto the topiaries. But generally, if her mistress was crying, so was the puppy.
She bought a plan of Paris, and with the tip of her finger on the map she walked about the capital. She went up the boulevards, stopping at every turning, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. At last she would close the lids of her weary eyes, and see in the darkness the gas jets flaring in the wind and the steps of carriages lowered with much noise before the peristyles of theatres.
She took in “La Corbeille,” a lady’s journal, and the “Sylphe des Salons.” She devoured, without skipping a word, all the accounts of first nights, races, and soirées, took an interest in the début of a singer, in the opening of a new shop. She knew the latest fashions, the addresses of the best tailors, the days of the Bois and the Opera. In Eugène Sue she studied descriptions of furniture; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them imaginary satisfaction for her own desires. Even at table she had her book by her, and turned over the pages while Charles ate and talked to her. The memory of the Viscount always returned as she read…Paris, more vague than the ocean, glimmered before Emma’s eyes in an atmosphere of vermilion.
Even asleep, the little greyhound trailed after her madame, through a weave of green stars and gas lamps, along the boulevards of Paris. It was a conjured city that no native would recognize – Emma Bovary’s head on the pillow, its architect. Her Paris was assembled from a guidebook with an out-of-date map, and from the novels of Balzac and Sand, and from her vividly disordered recollections of the viscount’s ball at La Vaubyessard, with its odor of dying flowers, burning flambeaux, and truffles.
Emma, on the other hand, knew how to look after her house. She sent the patients’ accounts in well-phrased letters that had no suggestion of a bill. When they had a neighbor to dinner on Sundays, she managed to have some dainty dish—piled up pyramids of green-gages on vine leaves, served up preserves turned out into plates—and even spoke of buying finger-glasses for dessert. From all this, much consideration was extended to Bovary. Dr. Charles Bovary returned home, whistling after another successful day of leeches and bloodletting in the countryside, to a house of malcontent females.
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.
She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one. He might have been handsome, witty, distinguished, attractive, such as, no doubt, her old companions of the convent had married. She wondered if there might not have been some other way, through a different set of circumstances, of meeting another woman; and she tried to imagine those events that should not happen, that shadow life.…Djali had observed a flatulent malamute trailing his old man in the park, each animal besotted with the other. Blue poodles, inbred and fat, smugly certain of their women’s adoration. She’d seen a balding Pomeranian riding high in a toy wagon, doted on by the son of a cane. Not all humans were like Emma Bovary.
An accident had delayed him. Madame Bovary’s greyhound had run across the field. They had whistled for him a quarter of an hour; Hivert had even gone back a mile and a half expecting every moment to catch sight of her; but it had been necessary to go on. Emma had wept, grown angry; she had accused Charles of this misfortune. On the way to Yonville, the greyhound wandered fifty yards from the Bovarys’ stagecoach. Then she broke into a run.
“Djaliiii!” Emma shrieked, uncorking a spray of champagne-yellow birds from the nearby poplars. “Stay!”
Weightlessly the dog entered the forest.
“Stay! Stay! Stay!” the humans called after her, their directives like bullets missing their target. Her former mistress, the screaming woman, was a stranger. And the greyhound lunged forward, riding the shoals of her own green-flecked shadow.

 
 
Russell compares dog and woman more directly as well, in a couple of particularly fun tributes to parallelism-turning-towards-bathos, while still bringing in Flaubert:

This strain of virulent misery, this falling out of love caused different symptoms, unique disruptions, in dogs and humans.
The greyhound, for example, shat everywhere.
Whereas Emma shopped for fabrics in the town.
 ….
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.

Perhaps the stacking of the greengage plums can be viewed as Emma’s self-gratification since she gets none, sexual or otherwise, from Charles at this point. The fabrics are particularly interesting; not only is there a note of passive-aggressiveness about her overspending, but Homard, the merchant who sells the fabrics, is the ultimate agent of Emma’s doom, systematically (and quite cold-bloodedly, I might add) driving her invisibly into debt, until she is without, not money, which in itself holds little interest for her, but without the means to provide herself with entertainments and fashions that become her sole source of pleasure. It’s a nicely constructed mini-dichotomy in that passage.

The style overall follows Flaubert’s overinvolved narrator, the free indirect discourse that got him tried for indecency. She even extends it to self-referential authorial intrusion (if I understand those concepts correctly) in one passage linking Emma’s and Djali’s discontent: “It is tempting to conclude that, somehow transmitted her wanderlust to Djali; but perhaps this is the sentimental impulse, a storyteller’s desire to sink to flickering hearts.”

While there isn’t an exact one-to-one correspondence of the above passages, they convey parallel scenes, and Russell brings in details from other sections – the truffles at La Vaubyessard, Charles’ favorite medical techniques, the subtle reference to Homard – which increases the sense of cross-over. It is, after all, the story of two individuals falling out of love – and what they do about it. And what they do about it is quite different: Emma escapes via deception thus retaining security unearned with loyalty and fidelity; the dog, a more honest creature, simply flees.

If you get the impression this has been a massive spoiler – not so. This is merely the beginning of the story. Djali’s character continues to develop over several more sections (even the use of named sections brings to mind Flaubert’s named chapters) until a natural recapitulation is reached. But I’ll leave that for the reader.

The differences between how Emma and Djali deal with their disaffection play out over time. For me, that’s where this story, which I found very successful (as, I see, did the Pushcart editors, as they’ve included it in XXXIX), lives. The dog definitely comes out on top.

BASS 2014: Joyce Carol Oates: “Mastiff” from TNY, 7/1/13

TNY art by Owen Freeman

TNY art by Owen Freeman

The woman hadn’t told the man much about her past. Not yet. And possibly wouldn’t. Her principle was Never reveal your weakness. Especially to strangers: this was essential. Technically, the woman and the man were “lovers,” but they were not yet intimate. You might say—the woman might have said—that they were still, fundamentally, strangers to each other.

One of the most interesting things about this story (available online) is also the most annoying to me: the use of “the man” and “the woman” instead of their names, which we know – Sam and Mariella. While it annoys me (just a personal quirk of mine; I recognize it’s a perfectly valid technique), I can appreciate the need for it here: these are two people who are not comfortable with intimacy. What is intimacy, after all, if not revealing your weakness, and understanding the weakness of another?

They’re a relatively new couple, she in her 40s, he in his 50s, though she doesn’t realize he’s that much older until late in the story. There’s a telling sign right there: how do you date someone for a few weeks, have sex with him, and not know how old he is? Typically there would be some curiosity, a few little hints about memories and past experiences, preferences, remarks that indicate someone was around during Camelot or Watergate or the disco years. She’s indicated she has deliberately not revealed much about her past, and it seems she hasn’t been that interested in his either. If that sounds like a rather stilted relationship, well, that’s exactly what they have, my mutual choice.

Until the dog bites.

Mariella has been anxious about the dog from the opening of the story, and that anxiety is well-transmitted to the reader through the text. The dog is described in distinctly sexual terms:

The woman stared at the animal, not twelve feet away, wheezing and panting. Its head was larger than hers, with a pronounced black muzzle, bulging glassy eyes. Its jaws were powerful and slack; its large, long tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber. The dog was pale-brindle-furred, with a deep chest, strong shoulders and legs, a taut tail. It must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. Its breathing was damply audible, unsettling.

I was afraid of the dog myself, after reading that.

Mariella and Simon encounter the dog on a hike, another of their less-than-intimate dates. They don’t seem to like each other that much, but they’re both trying to fall in love, because, well, it’s high time. The atmosphere of threat is so pronounced from the opening, I thought Simon was abducting her at one point, when he wanted to stay longer on the mountain trail than she did, when he forced her to drink their remaining water, when we learned of his irritation that she hadn’t brought her own water, that she’d worn the wrong shoes.

But the threat comes from the dog. The dog-owner, to be more precise; as JCO makes clear in her Page Turner interview, “In such situations, it is not ever an animal’s ‘fault’ — it is the dog-owner’s fault, of course.” That’s very true, but I’m sure she’ll get a lot of complaints anyway. She also wonders if the current mania for owning big, potentially vicious dogs is a way of showing off one’s power; she should read “A Full Service Shelter.” In this story, the dog owner is of course at fault, and runs off without taking any responsibility for the attack, without reporting it, leaving two injured people bleeding on a mountain trail. That’s close to hit-and-run.

In contrast, Simon plays protector general (Dan Madley at The Mookes and the Gripes calls him a “knight in shining armor”). I’m interested by the contrast between the two men, the one who is the actual threat, the one I perceived as a threat for a time – and whom Marielle perceives, with his impending intimacy, as a threat as well. She prefers conversations with people she’ll never see again. As it turns out, the man she’ll never see again is the one who is the actual threat, not only physically, but in that he intensifies the “imitation intimacy” she and Simon are playacting.

I’m also interested in the way JCO uses the point of view. We get into Simon’s head at times – his disdain of Mariella’s footwear, other disappointments – but she’s chosen to stay with Mariella once the attack starts. At times Simon is semi-conscious. This heightens the threat they face as a couple, ratcheting up the drama considerably, but I wonder if it’s also a good way to deny us access to his previously available thoughts. We don’t know if he is angry that Mariella got him into this (which she didn’t, of course; she did nothing to precipitate the attack), if he’s gratified that she’s caring for him, or if he wishes she’d go away.

Her caring for him – interesting phrase, “caring for him,” with its dual medical and psychological meanings – isn’t a straight line. This scene in the hospital, after Mariella (“the woman” in the text throughout, remember) creates a fascinating picture of her:

The woman was light-headed. Her hands and wrists began to burn. She heard her thin, plaintive voice, begging, “Don’t let him die!”
Looking around, she saw how others regarded her. A woman crazed with worry, fear. A woman whose voice was raised in panic. The sort of woman you pity even as you inch away from her.
She saw that her coarse-knit Scottish sweater—it had been one of her favorites—had been torn beyond repair.
In a fluorescent-lit rest room, her face in the mirror was blurred, like those faces on TV that are pixelated in order to disguise their identity. She was thinking of how the massive dog had thrown itself at her and how, astonishingly, the man had protected her. Did the man love her, then?

Here she goes from what seems like genuine concern for his well-being, to narcissistic analysis, in a heartbeat. Her self-absorption, once we get past the truly absurd concern under the circumstances over the damage to her sweater, has the flavor of insecurity: “Are people criticizing me? What does his behavior mean? What response is appropriate?” It’s interesting that her earlier self-identification as his fiancée had a more instinctive, non-analyzed quality; she said it without thinking, “Would this be appropriate?” but to establish a legitimate claim to concern, or perhaps, the unguarded expression of a subconscious wish. Or, in the words Mariella herself used earlier to describe their relationship, another “rehearsal of intimacy.”

The story ends as it began, with threat. I suspect she’ll be hearing that chuffing sound in many places – in bed underneath him, on her wedding day, when/if she holds her newborn baby for the first time, when she sends him off to kindergarten one future September, on your average dark and stormy night – for the rest of her life.

Addendum: This post was originally written in July 2013 when the story was published in TNY.

BASS 2014: Benjamin Nugent, “God” from Paris Review #206

We called her God because she wrote a poem about how Caleb Newton ejaculated prematurely the night she slept with him, and because she shared the poem with her friends.
         Caleb was the president of our fraternity. When he worked our booth in the dining hall he fund-raised a hundred dollars in an hour. He had the plaintive eyes and button nose of a child in a life-insurance commercial, the carriage of an armored soldier. He was not the most massive brother, but he was the most a man, the one who neither played video games nor rejoiced at videos in which people were injured. His inclination to help other brothers write papers and refine workouts bespoke a capacity for fatherhood. I had seen his genitals, in the locker room after lacrosse, and they reminded me of a Volvo sedan in that they were unspectacular but shaped so as to imply solidity and soundness. One morning when we were all writhing on the couches, hung over, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, attended by a cloud of steam. We agreed that the sight of his body alleviated our symptoms.
          “If you use a towel right after Newton uses it, your life expectancy is extended ten years,” said Stacks Animal.
          “If a man kisses Newton, he’ll turn into a beautiful woman,” I said, and everyone stared at me, because it was a too-imaginative joke.

I’ve never understand the Greek system. One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to college immediately after high school was that sororities seemed like one more way to not fit in, and the kinds of what would today be called Young Adult fiction I’d read made it sound like college was all about sororities. When, after ten years of night classes all over Boston, I spent a couple of full-time years finishing a degree and starting grad school, I went to a commuter branch of a state university, which had no sororities or fraternities. So aside from movies and books, fraternities are as foreign to me as the Korowai tribe in New Guinea. Given the way frat boys make the news these days – hazing, cheating, violence – I’m fine with that.

Just so you know where I’m coming from.

However, just as a writer’s job is to provide what volume guest editor Jennifer Egan calls “transport into alternate worlds,” it’s the reader’s job to permit that transportation, sometimes by looking underneath the purported setting – be it a fraternity or New Guinea – into what it is to be human. And what is more human than discovering the consequences of flying too close to the sun? Or wanting what we cannot have? It’s the story’s job, whatever the setting, to show us what makes people alike. And different.

The three main characters of this story are all like in being different.

Caleb is different in his perfection, and in his mild-mannered acceptance of that perfection and his ability to be who he is no matter what the expectations of anyone else. It’s a trait the narrator – his frat name is Oprah, because “there were books in my room and I asked questions” – probably admires even more about Caleb than his Volvo-esque genitals (which is such good imagery, I just had to repeat it). Oprah started out for me as an observational narrator, because the person I found most fascinating was God, aka, Melanie.

Melanie is the pivotal character in the story – the character who, as Ken Nichols points out in a great analysis at Great Writers Steal, shakes up the status quo at Delta Zeta Chi by not only vanquishing seemingly invincible Caleb, but by writing – and sharing – a poem about it, and since the poem is included in an online excerpt, why not, it’s great:

Who is this soldier who did not hold his fire
When the whites of my eyes were shrouded
In fluttering eyelids?
I thought I knew you
Knew you were the steady hand on the wheel
The prow itself
But what kind of captain are you?
Scared sailor with your hand on your mast
Betrayed by your own body
As we are all betrayed
On your knees
Above me
Begging my forgiveness
With the muscles of a demon
And the whites of your eyes
As white as a child’s?

But… the story isn’t about her. That disappointed me.

I suppose, had the story been about Melanie, I would’ve been disappointed as well. She would’ve turned into a kind of caricature of a Warrior; she hovers on the very brink as is, but doesn’t quite go over. Instead, she leads to another, more personal catastrophe, as Oprah goes from observational narrator to agent of his own doom, and the story follows a path predictable from the first paragraph.

I was a little surprised that several readers, including Ken, and writer Spencer Lenfield, found the story to be funny. Maybe you had to have been a frat boy to get the funny. Yes, there are comedic aspects (the poem’s obviously hilarious, and… ottering? Really?). But I found Caleb’s reaction to the poem to be downright inspired – “As if this thing that we had all most likely done, and had been ashamed of, was the least shameful thing in the world”.

Mostly, I just found it sad that it’s a fairly good representation of reality – at least, the reality I imagine goes on in contemporary colleges (in which case I was so much better off going to a commuter school). I liked a great deal about it, but a lot of it made me angry as well. Like Oprah’s post-graduation dream world: “I dreamed of a consulting firm that Nutella would one day helm, staffed by brothers, known for underpromising and overdelivering, with an insignia depicting a clock face in the talons of an eagle.” Seems like a lot of current tech is founded on this model: sistahs, beware.

Thing is, what made me angry was not only a reasonable representation of contemporary society, it was also absolutely central to the story. That makes it hard to read in places. But it doesn’t make it a bad story. Yes, it goes exactly where I’d expected it to go, before God distracted me. But to have it do other – to become the epiphany-leads-to-instant-change story – would’ve been worse. Because we all know, epiphanies happen quickly, but change is painfully, tragically slow.

BASS 2014: Brendan Mathews, “This is Not A Love Song” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013

Interior. Basement of Kat’s parents’ house. River Forest, Illinois.
If you can’t imagine Kat in the gray skirt and Peter Pan collar required by the nuns at our all-girls high school, it’s probably because you’ve never seen the pictures I took when I was the president and only dues-paying member of the photography club and Kat was spending afternoons
Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

and weekends punching out songs in her parents’ basement and running them through the four-track she bought with a summer’s worth of babysitting money. She was my only subject—my muse, you could say—but that was because she was the only one who would sit still while I fussed over lenses and light readings and angles. It wasn’t patience: Even then she was focused; even then she was very good at tuning out background noise. I took rolls and rolls of film of her bent over her guitar, her hair a veil over her eyes, her lips soundlessly counting out the beat. Then I’d disappear for days of red-light seclusion in my studio, which my parents insisted on calling the laundry room. A set of these pictures, soulful black-and-whites mostly, spiked with a few hallucinatory color shots, won the school art prize senior year and had the added bonus of convincing every girl in our graduating class that we were lesbians. It’s too bad we weren’t; maybe we wouldn’t have been so lonely, so frustrated, so perpetually amped up.

If this volume doesn’t cure me of my fondness for unusual structures and narratives, nothing will. It’s like every story is taunting me: “Here, figure this out!” See for yourself – it’s available online (thank you, VQR).

Then again, what fun is a story that makes itself wholly known from the first line. Maybe that’s what I like about what some people consider “tricks” – it turns a story into a puzzle, to be figured out: “Hmmm, what was the author doing here?” All I can say is that, though I start out hating most of these stories, once I put a little effort into them, I end up very impressed.

This is the second Mathews story I’ve encountered; the first was ” My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” from BASS 2010, and while that wasn’t quite as narratively unique, it too wasn’t standard exposition-rising action and all the rest. But this goes beyond that. I was initially annoyed, but I then found a way in.

It’s a story told through photographs, with the narrator the photographer obsessed with her childhood friend turned indie grunge star. Some of the initial entries, all set off by identification of the photograph (some by location, as above, some by index, as in “Box 5, Spool 3”). Sometimes they’re fragments of conversation. Sometimes they’re pure narrative. Sometimes they start off in present tense (“She stands in the doorway…”) which I interpret the narrator going through the photographs, describing them, explaining the circumstances behind them, the memories they evoke. Does this sound elegiac? Yes, of course it does; and, of course, it is.

It’s a variation on the epistolary story, I suppose. Because of the variety between sections, I got a real sense of someone going through photographs, reliving someone’s life, remembering. I can see why Egan would’ve been particularly attracted to this piece, dealing with the music industry as it does. In places it reminded me of some of the parts of Goon Squad that I didn’t particularly like. But here, it worked better for me, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because my attention was always on the narrator. Oh, Kat is interesting enough. Kat’s the star.

Not that she ever looked at the crowd when she sang. The eyes of other people distracted her; the way those eyes begged for instant intimacy wasn’t just an imposition, it was an affront. An assault, even.
She didn’t look into the crowd, she looked over it, at some safe, empty spot on a far wall, or a point on the ceiling where hands and faces could not reach. When she first started playing out in clubs where there was no stage, just a space on the floor to set up, her insistence on staring at the ceiling or squeezing her eyes shut tight gave her the look of some mad, ecstatic saint. People said she was blind, or epileptic, or terminally shy. Whatever they believed, they were talking about her, and she needed that kind of an advantage—that lingering hold on the crowd’s mayfly attention—if she didn’t want to get lumped in with every other band thrashing through its twenty-five minutes (“Which band? The one with the freaky girl singer with the messed-up eyes? Oh yeah, they were pretty good.”)

But the narrator – off in the corner, snapping pictures, reaching, longing, remembering, feeling – is the one I want to know.

I’m fascinated by the recurring eye imagery throughout the piece. The word “eye” or “eyes” appears 23 times in a 6200-word story. I checked a few other online stories, and none came close. The “I/eye am a camera” trope of course. It’s easy to just call this the “I/eye am a Camera” trope and move on, but Kat has some eye stuff going on, too. She’s the one who can’t look; the narrator is the one who can’t stop looking.

I once heard some lectures by Roy Flukinger, curator of the photographic archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas/Austin, that changed my conception of photography. Initially, photography – daguerrotypy, actually – was seen as a technical field; the 1851 Great Exhibition, a forerunner of the World’s Fair, classified daguerrotypes as “philosophical instruments” along with telescopes, partly because of the precise procedures, chemicals, and equipment involved in capturing images. The art involved in photography wasn’t recognized for some time, until the technology became more user-friendly and it became understood that, while the camera captures reality, it is the photographer who chooses what to capture, how to frame it, and how to render the image. And now cell phones capture history – and perhaps change it, one can only hope – daily. But what is chosen for capture is still in the thumb of the photographer.

You should do a book, someone said. You should put them all together so people can see what she was like, before. And I could. I have thousands of pictures. Each one different. Each one telling the same story.

I don’t think the story being told is of the rise of Kat the singer. I think it’s a much more personal story, and that’s because of how the image here was captured. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not that interested in Kat; I’m far more interested in the person, sitting on the floor, going through photographs and explaining them to the empty room.

BASS 2014: Will Mackin: “Kattekoppen” from TNY, 3/11/13

TNY art by Grant Cornett

TNY art by Grant Cornett

We went through a number of howitzer liaisons before Levi. His predecessors, none of whose names I remember, were able to build artillery plans in support of our night raids. They were skilled enough to communicate these plans to the soldiers who would fire the howitzers. In fact, any one of them would’ve been perfectly fine as a liaison to a normal organization. But ours was not a normal organization. Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused we’d send them back and demand a replacement.

What Mackin – in his first published fiction – has done in four pages with war, postage stamps, and candy, is miraculous. Fortunately, it’s available online. Read it, I implore you, before (or instead of, if time is short) continuing here. Then sit with it for a few days. Then read it again. It’s that kind of story.

The story takes place at a military base in Afghanistan; the unnamed first person narrator’s voice is that same restrained, keeping-sane-in-an-unsane-place voice of much recent war fiction. He’s a member of Seal Team 6, and his mission for most of the story is to find two soldiers, referred to as Chin and No Chin on the basis of their photographs, who were kidnapped in an ambush.

If we’d been asked how long we’d go on searching, our answer would have been: as long as it takes. Think of the families back home. Baby Chin. Mother No Chin. But in truth there were limits, and we had methods for determining them. From the streaks of blood found in the drag marks, we ascertained wounds. From the wounds, we developed timelines. And we presented these timelines on a chart, which read from top to bottom, best case to worst. By the time that village lit up beside us, we were at the bottom of the chart. The next night, we started looking for graves

It’s one of those stories where every sentence, every clause, maybe even every word, relates to another part of the story, and as you read (the second, and third time) you see those interrelationships more and more.

Levi, the new howitzer liaison (I’m pretty vague on the precise function of this job, other than it involves calculations used in aiming artillery), is Dutch, but in the American military, and takes a brief leave to attend the birth of his son in Texas. This jumble, and the fact that no one tries to figure it out but just accepts it as one more bizarre thing, accentuates the atmosphere. It’s a crazy place, and thinking about it too much is crazy-making. Levi’s heritage also allows the inclusion of two essential elements of the story: packages from his Dutch mother come with Dutch postage stamps picturing Bruegel paintings, and contain Dutch candy, the Kattekoppen of the title.

Juxtaposition is the name of the game. The descriptive passages are necessarily short, but still use juxtaposition masterfully to include beauty and horror in one scene. For the narrator, even candy evokes death and destruction:

Kattekoppen were brown cat heads with bewildered faces. They made me think of a bombing attack I’d been involved in, in Helmand, during a previous deployment. We’d dropped a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb with a delayed fuse on a group of men standing in a circle in a dusty field. The round hit at the center of the circle and buried itself, by design, before the fuse triggered the explosion. The blast killed the men instantly, crushing their hearts and bursting their lungs, then flung their bodies radially. The dead landed on their backs, and a wave of rock and dirt, loosed by the explosion, sailed over them. The dust, however, floated above. As we walked in from our covered positions, it descended slowly. By the time we reached the impact site, it had settled evenly on the dead, shrouding their open eyes and filling their open mouths. Those dusty faces, their uniform expressions of astonishment, were what I thought of when I saw Kattekoppen.

The Dutch stamps provide the opportunity to include more imagery. I’m impressed with how these elements are chosen and woven seamlessly into the story. I don’t usually put art in the body of literary posts, but because they play such a key role in the story, I’m including the three paintings referenced. First, there’s “Hunters in the Snow.”

Returning from our manhunts through the snowy mountains west of Logar, I felt the weariness of Bruegel’s hunters. Cresting the hill that overlooked our frozen outpost, I saw their village. And, within its fortified boundaries, I watched men go about their daily tasks as if unaware of any higher purpose.

Later in the story, that scene, that painting, is recalled as the narrator watches another village. The observer, hidden from the observed.

Then there’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” William Carlos Williams wrote a heart-rending poem about Bruegel’s treatment of this scene, and Mackin’s narrator echoes his impression:

The stamps on the package from Levi’s mother featured “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The detail chosen was Icarus drowning. What was not shown was how the world went on without him

The final painting mentioned is “The Triumph of Death” which I discovered last year when I read Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” last year. It’s not surprising that it appears here. What is somewhat surprising is that it is brought into the story, not by a stamp, but by the recollection of the narrator:

…I looked out the windshield at the war, which, stamp-wise, could’ve been a scene from Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”—one that, even without a skeleton playing the hurdy-gurdy, or a wagon full of skulls, or a burning shipwreck, or a dark iron bell, still raised the question of salvation.

I see a link between the paintings, relating to observation. First, there are the unobserved observers of “Hunters,” then the non-observant villagers of Icarus, and finally, there’s no one left to observe in “Triumph.”

I’ve only skimmed the surface here. The paintings alone have depths to plumb, and each scene, each character, each event, evokes rich impressions. Hyperbolas into infinity. Pink snow. An owl. I suspect I’ll be encountering this story again in one of the prize volumes.

Just when I thought I’d read the best thing I was going to read all week, maybe all year, I read Mackin’s Page-Turner interview. He tells a story of an experience, at the Pentagon, with a parade of wounded soldiers, that should be made into a film, and explores the “ironic detachment” he so effectively created for his narrator.

Like David Abrams, author of Fobbit, Mackin spent 20 years in the military. I’m glad we now get to hear from him; he’s got a lot to say, and a great way of saying it.

Addendum: This post was originally written in March 2013, after I’d read the story in TNY; I’m delighted to encounter it again in BASS 2014. Interesting: although the stories are, as always, arranged alphabetically by author, two stories about soldiers in recent US wars appear back-to-back.

BASS 2014: O. A. Lindsey, “Evie M.” from Iowa Review #43.1

Chris Arendt: "Standard Operating Procedure" (2010) via Combatpaper.org

Chris Arendt: “Standard Operating Procedure” (2010) via Combatpaper.org

You must adore digital cable. The search options have revolutionized me and everybody. Technology marches, no matter. You can be groped inside the hot metal gut of a troop carrier, or you can see things die and see pieces of dead things. I promise you it will not affect the remote control. Though I forgot to write down the name of the pop singer, with digital cable I can see into the future, and I will find her. This is amazing. She will come back.

People in chaotic situations often fixate on small details: if I can control the press of the fabric I wear, the distance between towels in the bathroom, the number of calories I eat, if I memorize the bus schedule for the entire city, maybe that means I’m in control of my life. Evie M. is in a chaotic situation. It doesn’t help that the chaos is inside her.

Here’s another hard-to-follow story. Because it’s told in first person, I wasn’t sure if the narrator was Evie M., or if the narrator is even male or female, since there are clues either way. Slowly, it dawned on me: Evie M. is a veteran of the war in the desert, with all that implies, and her post-war life has become an obstacle course of tv show reruns, frozen foods cooked with to-the-minute timing, recalcitrant copy machines, small packets of coffee creamer, and a workplace full of idiocy where the insignificant is magnified out of all proportion.

Supervisor yelled at me today. So close I could smell his cologne. He barked that I wasn’t “into it” the way I needed to be. Sandalwood. In consequence, I couldn’t finish my first note, to my father. What if everyone counted on someone else to locate the clerical errors?, he demanded. What if everyone produced reports whose pages crinkled because of a stupid copy jam? What if the whole damn order of things broke down?

Too late. The whole damn order of things broke down for Evie somewhere in the desert when this dog… well, that would be a spoiler, and an unnecessary one at that, since the story (a fairly short one) is available online (thank you, Iowa Review!).

Also available is an interview with Lindsey, a veteran himself. He comments on the character of Evie, for whom “even the trivial is terrorizing. Perhaps this is a result of war—itself a juxtaposition of mundane and atrocious—or maybe it’s because she just doesn’t fit her surroundings.”

It’s interesting how we never seem to realize what our veterans are going through until the arts – literature, movies – tell us. Maybe that’s self-preservation of the status quo: We couldn’t vote for politicians who raise fears to continue wars, expand wars, start new wars, if we had any idea what we were subjecting our fellow citizens, our fellow humans, to as a result. We’d rather not know, have some vague idea of PTSD from some news report that quotes statistics, and pat ourselves on the back for our patriotism. Evie M. isn’t a statistic. I’m not sure what she is – I’m not sure she knows either – but a statistic isn’t even among the choices.

A word about the header art: I discovered the Combat Paper Project while researching this post; art from the project was used to illustrate this Spring 2013 issue of Iowa Review:

Through papermaking workshops, veterans use their uniforms worn in service to create works of art. The uniforms are cut up, beaten into a pulp and formed into sheets of paper. Participants use the transformative process of papermaking to reclaim their uniforms as art and express their experiences with the military.

~~Combat Paper Project

Stop by, check it out. The art is marvelous. The project is even better. Maybe through art, we can understand, and that’s where change begins.

BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

Marcel Duchamp, "Portrait of Chess Players," 1911

Marcel Duchamp, “Portrait of Chess Players,” 1911

After his second heart attack, the judge knew that he could no longer put off informing his wife about the contents of his will. He did this for the sake of the woman he had been keeping for twenty-five years, who, ever since his first attack, had been agitating about provisions for her future. These had long been in place in his will, known only to the lawyer who had drawn it up, but it was intolerable to the judge to think that their execution would be in the hands of his family; that is, his wife and son. Not because he expected them to make trouble but because they were both too impractical, too light-minded to carry out his wishes once he was not there to enforce them.

I don’t insist on likeable characters (or I’m trying not to), but I find it’s helpful to feel some kind of empathy for some character in a story. I felt none here. With the exception of one powerful scene, this story (available online) seemed to me to tread the space between farce and melodrama, leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of soap opera.

The Judge – for once, we have an unnamed male character, though I suppose his title is more imposing than a name would be – seems unconcerned about wife Binny’s reaction to his revelation, or even his admission that he’s put his paramour in the will. Binny isn’t concerned, either; she seems concerned only with son Yasi, who’s relation to her is so overwhelmingly incestuous in tone (though not in deed, relax), it’s hard to focus on anything else. Not only does she refer to him as a gossip-partner, as a substitute for the friends she dropped years ago, and as her closest confidante (including, presumably, her husband), she almost literally “left” her husband for her son when he was just a baby:

Although this bedroom had meant nothing to Binny for many years, now her thoughts were concentrated on it, as they had been at the beginning of the marriage. The judge had been an overwhelming lover, and those nights with him had been a flowering and a ripening that she’d thought would go on forever. Instead, after about two years, the judge’s presence in their bed was changed into a weight that oppressed her physically and in every other way. It had been a relief to her when Yasi was born and she could move with him into her own bedroom.

Again, I’m torn between looking at this as spoof or pathos. It doesn’t hit the sweet spot of funny, funny-in-a-sad-way, or sad-in-a-funny-way. Or even weird-in-an-interesting-way. I suppose I should look at my own need to categorize everything, but for me, it misses the mark, which is to impact me in some way. It’s a rather bizarre set of relationships, yet with the overdramatic judge and his paramour, and the strangely detached Binny, their situation doesn’t intrigue me as much as I’d expect.

The judge has been keeping Phul, sheltering her, since she was fifteen, and so she has only learned one thing: keeping him happy. Hence her concern about his impending death, leaving her without means, a reasonable concern; and also hence his concern to provide for her after his demise, a laudable intent though generated by a distinctly un-laudable root. In many ways, she’s the underside parallel of Binny: they’re both dependent on the judge, though Binny has the official claim and thus legitimacy.

Complications to the judge’s efforts to ensure Phul’s security ensue as Yasi starts out as the emissary but is soon replaced by Binny herself. I suspect there’s some important thematic development here, but it all seems a little overcomplicated to me, yet trivial at the same time.

Until the chess game, when things get interesting. Don’t they always, when chess is involved. It’s all very rich and powerful as Binny and the Judge finally relate to each other: an overwhelmingly understated move, followed by a dramatically overstated reply. The chess game seems to reflect the marriage: just who is in charge in this relationship, emotionally? Is Binny’s seeming indifference a gambit? It’s quite a nice climactic scene. Maybe that’s the point: a sudden rush of intense emotion and intimacy.

When I don’t invest emotionally in a story, I tend to pay more attention to mechanics, so there’s an up side to everything. Yet, here again, I’m left puzzled. The first two paragraphs are clearly from the judge’s point of view, and there’s a smooth and clever transition to Binny, his wife, in the third, using the opportunity created by her departure from the room. But since the narration remains with Binny for the rest of the story, I’m left wondering: why these two paragraphs? There must be a reason. Granted, POV-hopping isn’t the major sin it used to be, but it’s usually still done for a reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is here.

I’ve lately been thinking more about what my reaction to a story says about me, than what it says about the story. I’m not sure what my overall indifference to this one (in spite of the moments of brilliance) says about me. But I think I need to keep wondering.

Addendum: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away just yesterday; she leaves a rich legacy of work as a remembrance.

Second addendum:The above post (and addendum) was written in April 2013 when I first read the story in The New Yorker.

BASS 2014: Lauren Groff, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” from Five Points #15.1&2

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of the swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.
Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the University, and if snakes hadn’t slept their way into the hot house, his father would have filled with them anyway. Coils of rattlers session formaldehyde on the window sills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coupes out back where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.

In many ways, this story was for me the opposite experience of the prior story, Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” in that I found the first half far more engrossing than the second half. Perhaps I gave up hope too soon. Or I was just too angry – first, at the adults who let this child down, and then, at his inability to heal.

Yet it was also a similar story; both use poetry, or song, to bring in a spiritual element. Instead of a bluegrass tune, here we have a sonnet by John Donne, arranged for chorus many times by a wide variety of composers:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

~~John Donne

Now, I’ll admit I’m no match for Donne. But Linda Gregerson is, and I got a great deal out of her reading of this sonnet.

For example: one important poetic element in his poem (besides “violent enjambment”; I do love coming across these new poetic terms) is the change of heart at the turn of the sonnet. For the first half, the speaker is all gung-ho for the End of Days; then he realizes, maybe he needs more time to deal with his own issues. That dovetails nicely with the story on several levels, particularly in Jude’s return to the Florida house, and in the way he was never able to fully accept “the density or lateness” of his mother’s love, but belatedly finds a different kind of peace in the knick of time.

Then we have the paradox of the title: how can a round earth have corners? Gregerson explains: It’s an allusion to the rising acceptance of scientific awareness of Donne’s time (he was a contemporary of Galileo). While the spherical nature of the globe was at least subliminally accepted in the educated (and seafaring) world, the Church was still irrationally doing everything it could to prevent official recognition of that fact, in honor of various biblical passages, including Revelation: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” Donne manages to grasp the paradox by the tail and tame it: he makes those corners imaginary, symbolic, metaphorical. This deals a blow to scriptural literalists everywhere, but so be it (if anyone wishes to take a lesson for contemporary society from this, be my guest).

The geometry of the title fits particularly nicely with the story in another aspect: Jude’s love of mathematics:

At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an ant hill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute he thought, that meant 720 departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother’s lap, the women chatting with her at the counter this took his something for sadness. “I’m sure the boy misses his father,” one lady said, intending to be kind.
“No,” his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.

Geometry in particular plays a larger part later on in the story, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say it’s not by accident that a letter has four square corners.

By the way: you know you’ve taken too many math moocs when you start to feel annoyed that writers, when they want to portray an alienated, emotionally inhibited, but highly intelligent character, will reach for a mathematician. At least the herpetologist-father was a twist.

But discovering Groff’s inspiration for the story (equal parts Central Florida, about which she admits feelings of both love and dread, and the Donne poem) in the Contributor Notes made the above a faint protest. Once she chose the title – or rather, once the title chose her – Jude the geometer was inevitable.

BASS 2014: David Gates, “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” from Granta #126

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: 'Day was Departing' (1857)

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: ‘Day was Departing’ (1857)

The name Paul Thompson won’t mean any more to you than my name would, but if you’d been around the bluegrass scene in New York some thirty years ago, you would have heard the stories. Jimmy Martin had wanted to make him a sunny mountain boy, but he refused to cut his hair. He’d turned Kenny Baker on to pot at Bean Blossom and played a show with Tony Trischka while tripping on acid. Easy to believe it all back then. The first time I actually saw him he was on stage, wearing a full-length plaster cast on his – give me a second to visualize this – his left leg, holding himself up by a crutch in each armpit, playing mandolin with only his forearms moving. And someone had magic-markered the bottom of the cast to look like an elephantine tools-leather cowboy boot. This was at an outdoor contest in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1977, the summer I turned eighteen.

I have a tendency to meld into whatever obsession I have going at any time. The mystery is why one thing takes precedence, and not something else, but right now, I’m into Dante. The Inferno, to be specific. So when Dore’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy showed up in this story, the entire story became, not about the narrator’s long relationship with his musical mentor, culminating the way such stories often do, but about the older poet Virgil giving young Dante a guided tour of hell.

The set-up was terrific. I was as charmed as anyone could be by a bluegrass group whose members have day jobs as English and math professors, with the iconic Paul Jackson himself a science writer at Newsweek. I grew a bit puzzled, even a little bored perhaps, by the shift to the narrator’s routine marriage and academic career, punctuated by brief mentions of what drew me in to begin with. I figured there was some underlying thread I was missing, but I couldn’t tell where it was. As Heidi Pitlor said in her Foreword to the volume many of this year’s stories “tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory rather than accelerate toward some definitive endpoint.”

Eventually, I felt like there was a turn, and I had some idea where we were going. And make no mistake: the initial material is essential, it just didn’t feel that way as I was reading. I did go off on one tangent: when the narrator says, “But most of the time, Paul wasn’t anybody I thought about much, though I know now that he was thinking about me,” I envisioned a completely different story than the one that actually unfolded. I still think there might be something of that tangent as subtext, but I think it was wise of David Gates to leave it at that.

In spite of the pivotal role played by Paul, it’s the narrator’s story, a story about moving on when it’s time, and paying attention to when it’s time. I think we all have some trouble with timing, but when it counts, he gets it right. Twice. Series editor Jennifer Egan says it ends with happiness. I’m not sure the narrator ends up happy, but he’s definitely better off than he might’ve been, had not the hand reached down to guide him. Come to think of it, Dante called his work a “Comedy” not because it was funny, but because it had a happy ending.

Granta included an illuminative conversation with David Gates (available online), including the source of the title: “My Sinful Past”, a bluegrass song, of course, from the Stanley Brothers:

The hand reached down to guide me
The smile was sweet to see
I heard a sinner murmur
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.
 

~~Carter Stanley

It is Dante, isn’t it.

BASS 2014: Nell Freudenberger, “Hover” from The Paris Review #207

It started a few weeks after we separated for good. In this line of work, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. But to call it “flying” might be too misrepresented it. It wasn’t as if I were soaring above the house tops, gliding over the wide boulevards to see the sun setting over the Santa Monica Pier. If it was anything, it was hovering: a little lift, when I least expected it.

Some readers will groan when a story begins with the protagonist’s involuntary levitation, and some will say, “Wow, cool.” Just like some readers, when reading a story featuring a delicate moment in parental relations between a recently divorced mother and her adorably confused child, will say, “Awwww…”, and some will say, “Again?” I tend to fall into the second category in both cases – but I always make room for exceptions. This story split the difference, and I ended up very happy.

In her Contributor Note, Freudenberger says she’s “never written a story with a supernatural element before.” I think she got it just right, because after the mention at the beginning (which hooked me for sure), it faded into the background as I became more and more interested in her kid. I’m not a kid person. At all. But this kid – a kid who becomes attached to a bag of flour, sleeping with it, taking it to school, treating it for all intents and purposes like a teddy bear – is my kind of kid.

My friends have gently suggested that Jack’s attachment to a bag of King Arthur unbleached self-rising flour has something to do with his parents’ separation, that he sensed it coming, and it’s the kind of allegation you can’t dispute without sounding defensive. But I know for a fact that Jack had no inkling of our problems until we told him his father was moving out and that his relationship with the flour began several months earlier, coinciding exactly with the time he began asking questions about death.
“What do people do after they die?”
“How do dead people pee?”
“Will you die?”

So I bought him the flour. It sat on the shelf with the books he’d outgrown sometimes it was incorporated into a building made of Bristle Blocks or playground for the Lego people, who used it for a trampoline. He named it Malfin, which he pronounced to rhyme with dolphin.

It’s the knight on the label, I suppose – a heroic figure mounted on a powerful steed, bearing armor and a sword and a proud banner. What kid with death anxieties wouldn’t want him on their toy shelf, watching over them as they slept at night? I wondered about the name – a five-year-old wouldn’t know it’s a brand name overseas for a morphine based medication, nor would he look at the Latin “mal” and “fin” and come up with “bad end”. Maybe it was just a rhyme on dolphin.

Mom’s in denial, I suspect, about how much Jack knew and when he knew it. But Mom, presumably a writer, has her own view of the world, a view in which she is to blame for everything, and in which she compares herself to everyone, usually unfavorably.

I can’t help feeling that other people had better reasons for their breakups than we did. (This is characteristic of me, Drew would say, the way I am always comparing. How can you be happy if you’re constantly measuring your life against the lives of others? And not even examining, he would say. Inventing … fictionalizing! How can you know what anyone else’s life is like?)

See why I forgot about the flying?

Flying does play a part in the story, of course; like Chechov’s Gun, you can’t put flying in the first paragraph and have it just hang there. Mom’s hover features in a hilarious scene of a parent-teacher conference disrupted by “a peculiar carbonated sensation”. And there is, as served right up front, the symbolism of the timing. That got me thinking: is the flying about feeling light and free and joyous? Or is it about a desire to escape? Mom thinks it’s one; I suspect it’s the other.

I noticed the preponderance of the word “it” in the first paragraph, quoted above. “It” appears seven times out of 72 words, even repeated sequentially between two sentences. “It” is important, whether “it” is the ability to fly, or the need to hug a bag of flour. I also noticed another writer’s choice (though I suppose everything in every story is a writer’s choice): Mom as first-person narrator goes out of her way to avoid giving her name, even in instances where it would fit naturally, and, in most stories, that’s exactly where the author would slip it in. To wit: a conversation between Mom and ex-hubby:

Drew was incredulous. “He brings the flour to school?”
“Just for the past week or so.”
“Jesus,” he said, and he used my name, which he never does.

That’s interesting (not to mention a cute ironic twist, since he uses her name, which she doesn’t use, something he never does, except he does, but she doesn’t… never mind), particularly since she’s the only nameless character in the story. Now, that’s frequently the case in first-person narration, but here it seems highly deliberate. I wondered about some kind of divine implication – thou shalt not utter the sacred name of God, Mom as God – but that doesn’t really work. Identity plays a much bigger role in the story.

The end of the story trickled off for me. I think the last sentence is supposed to be a kind of epiphany, maybe another one of those moments everyone but Mom understands. After such an engrossing narrative, I’d expected something a little more definitive, but in a story about a woman who worries so much about what other people think, maybe it’s perfect. It’s an interesting place to stop, I’ll say that. And in a story that resists classification, it might be the most appropriate ending of all.

BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

BASS 2014: Craig Davidson, “Medium Tough” from AGNI #77

Claudio Goldini: "Right Hemiatrophy" (1992)

Claudio Goldini: “Right Hemiatrophy” (1992)

There’s a line where the two halves of my body intersect. It begins to the left of my throat, centers itself between the points where my collarbones meet, cleaves the breastplate and rib cage, then snakes to the left down my abdominals and carves right again before finishing at my groin. To the right: densely muscled, proportionate. To the left: austere devastation.…
My face is unaffected. Should you see me walking down the street in trousers and long sleeves, you would not notice much amiss. Were we carnally acquainted, however, you might wonder if I’d not been born so much as fused from separate cells. During maiden intimacies it’s my habit to disrobe slowly, explaining things. An educational striptease.

I never thought I’d cry over arm wrestling.

About a year ago, I read Calvino’s fanciful fable The Cloven Viscount about a medieval noble split into a good half, and a bad half. Jasper Railsback’s problem should be so simple: he is one person, living with a weak half, and a strong half. I found it most interesting to try and parse out which half is which.

Not physically, of course; that’s made clear from the start.

My right is a bricklayer’s hand. It can be taught blunt-force tasks. But I can feel music through my left hand. The right is my hammer. The left, an instrument of God.

Then again, maybe not so clear. Jasper – known as “Jazz” – arm wrestles with his right arm. He repairs premature infants’ brains with his left. Now “strong” and “weak” get hazier: is it stronger to break a guy’s arm in a match, or to thread a hair-fine filament into the ventricle of a three-pound baby to give him a shot at reaching four pounds? Is it stronger to pick up a hooker in a roadside strip club, or to teach her disabled son that technique can beat strong and fast? Is caring stronger than bitterness, forgiveness stronger than hate? Is there even forgiveness here – or just acceptance?

You’ve got to be tough for contingency’s sake. My mother was tanks to the gills when she told me this. She had left the stove element on and I’d touched it. My right hand still bears the concentric scar. She pressed ice to the burn cavalierly, never setting down the jelly jar in her free hand. You’re only medium tough, kiddo, she’d told me. Right in that meaty part of the curve.

It’s the detail of the jelly jar – not a glass, can, or bottle, but a jelly jar – that creates an entire scene out of few sentences. I can see the stove (sloppy with spills) in the cramped kitchen, the expression on mom’s face, hear her tone of voice, because of that jelly jar.

How do we measure tough, and what does our choice of yardstick say about us?

In her Introduction to this collection, Jennifer Egan said she chose this story because of the language: “The language is technical, lyrical, and sensory – qualities whose seeming incompatibility makes their fusion even more potent.” Even the poetics echo the fusion of weak and strong.

What truly captured my heart was outside the story, however. In his Contributor Note, Davidson says something few are willing to acknowledge:

“I’ve always been interested in broken characters…. There’s that Hemingway line about bones being strongest at their broken point… I don’t buy that. I’m sure it’s true in a physical sense, but the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” jazz doesn’t carry water with me. I think what doesn’t kill you can make you weaker and more frail and fearful, but despite that fact most of us still summon the will to carry on after life breaks us in the little ways life tends to…”

This demonstrates the risk of philosophy-by-aphorism: Yes, the winner standing on the stage clutching the trophy, says, “Dreams do come true if you work hard,” but witness the stream of losers backstage who also had dreams and worked just as hard. Jazz Railsback is a doctor; most would consider him a great example of Nietzsche’s dictum. But read the opening quote again, about maiden intimacies. If you’re made stronger by the burden you carry – if all that extra strength created by the burden is devoted to carrying it – is it really stronger? And couldn’t he have been a doctor with two matching sides? For that matter, how many parents take one look at him, and bring their broken babies elsewhere?

Thought-provoking story.

BASS 2014: Nicole Cullen, “Long Tom Lookout” from Idaho Review Vol. XIII

The boy sleeps in the passenger seat. He’s five years old and too small to ride in the front, but Lauren is too tired to fight. He wears a bicycle helmet and her husband’s old high school letterman jacket, the letter decorated with four gold winged-foot pins. Lauren places her hand on the boy’s back to know he’s breathing, and she thinks what she’s been thinking since they left Texas – that she has no intention of being his mother…
The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect – the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps. In Kansas, when Lauren pried the road atlas from the boy’s hands, he banged his head against the passenger window. That’s when she bought him the bicycle helmet. When he wet himself in the tumult of a Colorado hailstorm, she put him in Pull-Ups and he’s worn them every day since. She’s ashamed to admit that for three days the boy has eaten only french fries, and that for the past three hundred miles he’s been doped up on NyQuil.

I don’t know much about kids, but I’m thinking it’s a good idea she has no intention of being his mother.

But I found it hard to be judgmental towards this woman. After all, if my husband had a child five years ago with another woman, and then while he was off in the Gulf of Mexico cleaning up an oil spill, some social worker showed up and handed the kid over to me, the official stepmother, since the Other Woman’s now in jail on drug charges, I might not be feeling all that maternal, either. Like Lauren says, “[W]e’re both cleaning up someone else’s mess.”

She’s in Idaho headed for her sister’s in present tense, left Texas for New Orleans in past tense, encountered the woman her husband is staying with when he’s not on the oil skimmer, encountered her own judgmental mother… if it sounds confusing (and it was for me) in a well-written story where re-reading and underlining is always an option, imagine what it feels like to a five-year-old autistic boy who’s living it in real time.

Long Tom Lookout is a forest fire prevention station. Lauren needs a job, and by prevailing on an old boyfriend (presumably; it’s never spelled out), she ends up as a lookout. The Boy comes with her.

The instructor says, “You are the eagle’s eyes.” She says, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a fire lookout. You must be quick and decisive. You must be patient and steadfast. And you must know how to be alone.” Lauren does not now if she is any of these things, but she writes down everything the woman says.

This is the second story where I’ve had trouble catching on. I’ve been a bit concerned about a possible decline in my cognitive processes lately, and I wonder if this is more of that. Or, if it’s part of what series editor Heidi Pitlor called the “sense of disorientation” she found in many stories she read this year. Though I never really got over my initial annoyance at the confusion, I was far more affected by the ending than I’d expected. I think that means it was a successful story.

BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

The Djuvanovics came to live with us after the flood because they had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s not really true. They had plenty of places to go, they had the whole world to go to, but they came to us, and that was because of Reverend Judy. It was her idea, and Reverend Judy’s a very persuasive person. I suppose that’s a good quality in a minister, but I have to say I find it somewhat grating. The Djuvanovics had to go somewhere because the house was condemned. One wall had buckled and the roof had caved in. Everyone said how lucky it was that they weren’t all killed when the house collapsed, but they were not killed. Although they did lose pretty much everything they owned.

This story grabbed me right away, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s not really my kind of story. But it’s exactly my kind of story, in that it left me staring at the last paragraph, amazed at what I’d just experienced. Then I read it again, and found even more.

The narrator’s voice is perfectly captured – a no-nonsense, knows-her-own-mind kind of voice, with no interest in what’s current but willing to live and let live, a digressive style suggestive of speech rather than writing. Something very midwestern or New England about it. It’s not a voice that often grabs me (except for the digressions, which, well, you know). This time it did. I knew something was being held back, something would be revealed. I couldn’t wait to find out what.

I wasn’t disappointed.

However, it’s not easy to write a blog post about a story in which every paragraph contains another level: another significant insight into who these people are, another astute observation about who we all are and how we make certain choices, another “aha” moment. At some point, I have to narrow it down or I’ll be quoting the entire story (which is not available online that I can find, but is well worth the effort to obtain through Subtropics or your public library).

So what did I like so much? Voice, I’ve already mentioned. Then there’s character. Character in fiction is more than quirks and qualities; it has to inform what people do. And we need to know the characters pretty quickly in a short story so we can recognize significance and understand why they do what they do. We learn a lot about the narrator from this casual thought:

I was born and raised in this town. I always thought I would move away at some point, there are so many things that can take a person somewhere else, but none of those things ever happened to me, so here I am. It’s not that I want to live somewhere else; this is a very nice town and I can’t imagine a nicer place to live except perhaps someplace where it doesn’t snow so much, but I suppose every place has its good things and bad things.

So we have a woman who doesn’t move unless she’s acted upon by an outside force. Here comes the outside force: the flood. And Reverend Judy.

I’ve heard writers talk about trapping characters together, so they’d be forced to deal with each other. Put Jane Eyre in the same house as Mr. Rochester; turn one family member into a cockroach; even Stephen King put his writer into a house with a psycho in the middle of a snowstorm. That’s part of the role Reverend Judy plays: she forces characters together on many levels.

Although the narrator does take in the Djuvanovics, she isn’t happy about it, for a couple of reasons. One is her history with them; the other is her history with herself. She’d met Mr. Djovanovic at a minor social event, and tried to make small talk; unfortunately, it didn’t go very well:

I said, “What kind of a name is Djuvanovic?” No, I meant this in a very nice way, not at all like it was a suspicious or bad or foreign name, but I know that’s how it sounded because Mr. Djuvanovic looked at me oddly and said, “well, what kind of name is Evarts?” And I said, “I think it’s just a plain old American name, but your name is so interesting and I wonder what it means.” “Means?” Asked Mr. Djuvanovic. “It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” I realized by his hostile tone that my question had offended him, even though I had meant it in the friendliest possible way, so I tried to think of how to restore the balm of fellowship to our conversation. “Is it European?” I asked him, because no one can be insulted for being taken for a European, but this seemed only to annoy Mr. Djuvanovic further, for he said, “No, it’s not European,” and he turned away and walked over to the doughnut table and grabbed a fistful of Pop-ems. And that was the extent of my relationship with any of the Djuvanovics, and now they were coming to live in my house.

What we have here is a privilege gap. It’s the sort of conversation people of good will take for granted; it’s also the sort of conversation people who’ve taken a lot of crap because of their “origins” are not going to appreciate. The narrator would never consider a name to be a problem; Mr. Djuvanovic seems to be lacking that luxury. I doubt the narrator was being cruel, even in a subconscious way, but I can see how it easily might have felt that way to Mr. Djuvanovic. Of course, the narrator’s never been bothered with worrying about fancy notions like “privilege.” Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the most significant marker of privilege.

She’s also remembering back when she was young and foolish and had some rather unkind thoughts about the people who lived down by the river, and she doesn’t like being reminded of those unkind thoughts. She doesn’t like being reminded about a lot of things.

The reveal that explains everything that happens in this story is doled out at a glacial pace, but somehow it has an extraordinary momentum; I think that momentum, in addition to the perfect pitch of the voice, is what so grabbed me. A slow reveal has its drawbacks, and its possibilities, but here, the hints kept building. Even when I thought I knew, I knew I didn’t know. I’m astonished at how well this was done.

As the writer forces characters together, he also has to figure out what happens as a result of that. In spite of the suspense I felt all along, what happens here was inevitable. How does that happen?

A word about the image used above: it’s the image the author chose to symbolize this work when he published it in limited edition through his own Wallflower Press (now Shrinking Violet Press). It isn’t anywhere near the image I would have initially chosen – I found a great drawing from a newspaper article about a 1941 flood in Peru, and a lovely abstract mixed media piece by Kara Barkved titled “Flood Plain”, both of which had the horizontal framing I would’ve preferred to have used. But once I thought about it for a while, I realized: the author’s selection of image, like his selection of language, is exquisite.

So here I am, the fan of unusual narrative style or bizarre situations or linguistic play, giving a standing ovation to quiet domestic realism. Because you gotta go with what works, and this story really works.

BASS 2014: T. C. Boyle, “Night of the Satellite” from The New Yorker, 4/15/13

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: "Installation"

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: “Installation”

What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 A.M. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. A small thing, really, but by this time it had grown out of all proportion and poisoned everything we said, as if we didn’t have enough problems already. Mallory was relentless. And I was feeling defensive and maybe more than a little paranoid. We were both drunk…. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
“You asshole,” she snarled.
“You’re the asshole,” I said.
“I hate you.”
“Ditto,” I said. “Ditto and square it.”

Ah, love.

I was considering this story at the same time I stumbled across a poem new to me on the discussion boards of the “Art of Poetry” MOOC: Billy Collins’ “Men in Space.” Then there’s #Gamergate as background music.

Don’t you just love it when things fall together like that?

Because this story (available online) isn’t so much about male-female power struggles, as it is about how men and women see the other sex’s power. Perception has caused more wars than reality has, I suspect.

It begins, not just in media res, but in media bellum – perhaps in media bella would be more accurate, since several wars rage over the course of the story: Mallory and the narrator, the couple on the road, dogs vs. sheep, man vs. satellite, civilization vs. gravity.

We then back up to a “before” snapshot and discover: “The day had begun peaceably enough…” But just look at the language:

I got up with a feeling that the world was a hospitable place…. Mallory was sitting up waiting for me, still in her nightgown but with her glasses on—boxy little black-framed things that looked like a pair of the generic reading glasses you find in the drugstore but were in fact ground to the optometrist’s specifications and which she wore as a kind of combative fashion statement.

Even the atmosphere is defensive: the weather is “…too hot, up in the nineties, and so humid the air hung on your shoulders like a flak jacket…”

And then they run into the silver Toyota, “stopped in our lane and facing the wrong direction.” Bring on the bella (and my apologies; my last Latin class was sometime in the 80s).

It’s an epiphany story. “If something from the sky tapped you on the shoulder, you might consider it an omen of some sort,” says Boyle in his TNY interview. And if, at the same time, if you’re watching another couple engage in the same path of mutually assured destruction you’re on, you might see yourself, and wonder why you’re on that path.

At first, I thought this was a continuation of the lives of the couple Boyle portrayed in “Birnam Wood” a couple of years ago. There’s the same sense of “why are these people together anyway?” and the same grad-student aimlessness (so many writers with graduate degrees seem to like this; makes me wonder why anyone bothers to go to grad school – or, if those who got in are trying to close the door behind them). Apparently he also used the things-falling-from-the-sky plot before as well: a meteor shows up in his 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. It’s kind of an interesting post-modern technique to mix-and-match pieces of other works into a collage of a new work, but I don’t get the impression that’s what he was doing. I almost which it had been.

BASS 2014: Ann Beattie, “The Indian Uprising” from Granta #126

Tina Modatti: "Telephone Wires, Mexico" [modified] (1925)

Tina Modatti: “Telephone Wires, Mexico” [modified] (1925)

‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘Cynicism’s better?’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’

This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.

I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.

“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”

It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.

Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”

“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.

Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.

I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.

…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.

I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.

That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.

That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.