BASS 2017: T. C Boyle, “Are We Not Men” from The New Yorker, 11/7/16

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my even noticing, except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in, and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me. The seed had been pricey—a blend of Chewings fescue, Bahia, and zoysia incorporating a gene from a species of algae that allowed it to glow under the porch light at night—and, while it was both disease- and drought-resistant, it didn’t take well to foot traffic, especially four-footed traffic.

Complete story available online at online at TNY

I’ve gone back a few times to figure out when I first realized what was going on in this story; it wasn’t in the opening paragraph. Oh, sure, a cherry-red dog is odd, but it was a scene of chaos and confusion, so I expected it to be explained in a few paragraphs – he’d been covered in blood, or paint, or maraschino cherry juice for that matter, something. Or the speaker was on drugs. The grass didn’t really strike me either, since most lawn grasses are hybrids; maybe it was a little weird getting down to the gene level, but again, I chalked that up to the speaker’s point of view. What I wrote in the margin was simply, “Colors!”

It’s a credit to the story that it took me so long to realize this wasn’t stylistics or character, but genetic engineering via CRISPR-Cas9. I mean, I’ve taken moocs about this stuff. And Tim Blais at Acapella Science made one of his most spectacular videos on the subject (seriously, even if you’re not interested in genetic technology, his riff on “Mr. Sandman” is extraordinary, go take a peek). So for the introduction to smoothly dive into near-future speculation without a lot of heavy-handed exposition is a credit to the story. Or maybe I’m just dense, but I’d rather go the other way.

Once the setting is nailed down (and there’s plenty of heavy-handed exposition in the middle for those who haven’t been spending a lot of time in biomoocs) the story’s a tragicomic romance about a couple of neighbors bonding over the micropig killed by the cherry pit (the name the marketers came up with for the maraschino-red dog) and the out-of-lab procreation that results…. But screw that, my favorite part is the crowparrots.

(I don’t know if you have crowparrots in your neighborhood yet, but, believe me, they’re coming. They were the inspiration of one of the molecular embryologists at the university here, who thought that inserting genes from the common crow into the invasive parrot population would put an end to the parrots’ raids on our orchards and vineyards, by giving them a taste for garbage and carrion instead of fruit on the vine. The only problem was the noise factor—something in the mix seemed to have redoubled not only the volume but the fury of the birds’ calls, so that you needed earplugs if you wanted to enjoy pretty much any outdoor activity.)
Which was the case now. The birds were everywhere, cursing fluidly (“Bad bird! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”) and flapping their spangled wings in one another’s faces.

When you consider that parrots only repeat what they’ve heard often enough to learn it, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s all a terrific situational setup.

But… does the story go anywhere after it’s set up? You’ve got a guy caught between new and old – his wife impregnated with a custom embryo via CRISPR, the neighbor who he just impregnated the old-fashioned way – and a teenage girl as an onlooker. Just as the story finishes the exposition and is ready to really start, it ends with a hint that the new world is going to destroy itself, just as the dogcat destroys the crowparrot.

In his TNY interview with Deboran Treisman, Boyle commented at length about his concerns about CRISPR. It’s a valid concern. But I’m brought back to something Heidi Pitlor wrote in her Foreword: “…fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas”.

I’ve read stories that connected me with issues I’d never heard of, that drew me closer to issues I already cared about, and I’ve read stories that shaped my views on some things. George Saunders won my heart with his early anti-consumerism work. But this wasn’t one of those. It read to me like George Saunders on a bad day.

I loved Boyle’s Burrito story from Pushcart XLI. I mentioned then that I wondered if I’d been a little harsh on some of his stories in the past. I think it’s more the case that, for me, he’s hit or miss. That one was a hit; this one’s a miss. But obviously other people liked it. Or maybe they liked the issue.

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BASS 2017: Chad B. Anderson, “Maidencane” from Nimrod 60.1

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Nowadays, the memory starts like this: there’s a rush in the red dirt, and you and your brother snatch up the tackle box and run from the girl. She flings her fishing pole at you and yells that her daddy will just buy her another tackle box. And another, and another. The girl’s echoes follow you along the riverbank. The river is green and appears desolate—no motorboats, no fishermen, no teenagers cannonballing, no herons stretching, no feral cats pawing the muck for crayfish, frogs, or mice—which only sharpens the sounds: the orchestra of insects, the whistles of birds, the girl’s fading echoes, your steady breath. Your and your brother’s white t-shirts are smeared with mud, and he has a cassette tape in the back pocket of his jean shorts. You wish you could remember the songs he liked. There’s only this Saturday left, and you two are only a day from losing each other.

Complete story available online at Nimrod

Which is more important: what we remember, or what we forget? Our protagonist has been recently haunted by a long-ago day that started out like any other, but that ended up signalling a big change: parental divorce, estrangement from a trusted brother. As it happens, it’s the other events of the day that end up preserved in crystal clarity.

It’s a story that’s packed with interwoven elements, making it hard to write about in a linear fashion. So, I’ll start with a list of what I noticed, and do the best I can to not get too tangled up in connective tissue.

The second-person narrative: I’m very fond of second person, and I’ve hypothesized before that might be because the ones that get published must be exceptional to break through the “Oh, no, second person again” editorial resistance. Typically, in this kind of direct second person (as opposed to “instruction manual” style), the narrative voice is the protagonist speaking either to him/herself, or to another character. I found it particularly interesting that this is not the case here: there’s an extended passage revealing the death of girl on the dock, beginning with “You don’t know this” and ending with “All of this you don’t know.” This adds an element of something akin to dramatic irony, where the reader is aware of something but the character is not. This second-person voice zooming in and zooming out reminds me of the “voice of God” writer Thomas Kearnes once mentioned as a way he used second person in a particular story.

It also fleshes out an earlier sentence: “You don’t know your brother any more, and the girl on the dock is dead.” Here, we assume the protagonist knows the girl is dead; we don’t find out for a page or so that this is not the case. It’s also an interesting place to use different senses of the word “know”: “You don’t know your brother any more” indicates the status of a relationship, not information. “You don’t know” could attach to “the girl on the dock is dead” – or it might be a separate clause. Knowing, not-knowing, is on precarious footing in this story. This is exquisitely careful writing.

You feel embarrassed, as if you’ve foolishly believed something for a long time and suddenly your brother has revealed to you what maybe, just maybe, everyone else has known all along: the girl on the dock does not exist and your brother never thought much of you and you are more broken than you ever understood.
“Never mind,” you tell your brother. Across the room, your boyfriend looks at you with such pity, as if he, too, has always known during all of your stories and memories and confessions that you were misguided, silly, a fool. That look of pity, which you’ve never seen on his face before, at least not for you, feels brutal, like a betrayal, like a hook snagged in flesh. You want to hurt him.

This precarious state of knowledge comes to fruition in the final scene, when our protagonist, contacted by the long-estranged brother, tries to build a path between them, a way to get to know the brother again, using this memory. Turns out, the brother’s memory is a bit different. He’s edited out the girl entirely, and shifted some details of agency. Is his modified memory a way of protecting himself from blame and guilt? Was it more trivial than the protagonist has led us to believe? Or – and here’s the precarious nature of knowledge – has the protagonist changed the memory? What really happened that day? We can’t know. So the narrator’s words apply again, but this time it’s the reader who hears them: “You don’t know this.”

It’s heartbreaking how the failure of this connection seems to mean, to the protagonist, that rekindling a relationship with the brother is not worthwhile, and further generates resentment of the boyfriend’s reaction of pity. But this fits with something else that kept nagging at me as I read the story: gender.

I reread the story very carefully, and I find no place in which the protagonist’s sex is explicitly indicated. I read him (and I will use that pronoun for convenience from here on) as male. The sibling relationship seemed male to me, his reaction to the girl on the dock seemed male, and if the kids had been one boy and one girl, I would think Mom would take the girl and leave the boy with Dad. I probably also subconsciously kept in mind the male name of the author, since I’ve done that before. But I keep thinking of something Meg Wolitzer said in her introduction, that in giving students “surprise ending” stories so frequently, teachers were training students to expect that, to read for that, and to reject what didn’t fit. And here I was, yes even in 2017 with daily doses of feminism in my twitter feed, reading masculinity on the thinnest of pretenses.

The precarious state of knowledge, indeed. This is not accidental. The protagonist is unnamed. He has a boyfriend and a girlfriend. And, by the way, the two most important people in his life are his brother, and the girl on the dock, a boy and a girl, neither of whom he knows any more.

I’ve been mulling this story over for a couple of days, and I keep coming up with new things to add, so who knows what I’ve left out. Just a few more things:

Considering the story is about connections – the protagonist’s connection with the girl on the dock, and with his brother – it’s interesting that the story connects two scenes of action, one at the beginning and one at the end, with a long stretch of exposition and backstory. That’s almost cheating, since the “action” at the end is a phone call and a look across the room. The contrast is that, while the connections described in the story don’t work, the connective structure does. Granted, it’s not an edge-of-your-seat story, but the moodiness is kind of hypnotizing, as in this passage:

Of all the bars you manage, you like the one by the harbor the best, despite all the tourists it attracts. You work the late shifts, and when it’s closed and the crew is mostly gone, you stare at the water. It is here where your mind becomes its most acrobatic, its most macabre and fantastical. You imagine the bodies of the dead in the bottom muck; you imagine sunken boats and cars and guns rusting, breaking down; you imagine sick, rugged, bruised fish, no-nonsense and one-eyed. You imagine walking among the fish, joining them, just stepping off the edge and plunging into the water, and the fish swarming you, using the hooks of failed fishermen to snag your skin and drag you down to live in the metallic post-apocalyptic landscape they’ve created among the skeletons of people and machinery. They will eat you, bit by bit, and it won’t hurt at all, and you’ll be just a few little pieces, feather-light and scattered across the waters of the harbor and the Patapsco and the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. And one day, you’ll rise, evaporate into a cloud, and rain down on anyone who ever said they loved you, cling to their hair and drip into their ears, explore the thickets and tunnels of their minds for every thought they’ve ever had of you.

I think if I have one complaint about the story, it’s the fishhook. He gets a lot of mileage out of it, but maybe it’s a little too on-the-nose?

And about the title: maidencane is a kind of weed, it seems. But more than that, it covers the grave of the girl on the dock, a grave neglected even by her parents. She is the memory of that day, a day that ended so much, a memory covered over by time, forgotten by all except one melancholy bar manager who still remembers, but can’t connect.

BASS 2017: The turn of the leaf

I have a theory that it’s more difficult to hide ourselves when writing fiction than nonfiction, even certain memoirs. So much is revealed in the poses that we choose to strike, the silences we allow, and the conflicts we dramatize. And if fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas, the genre does tend to offer at least a window onto an author’s aesthetics and emotionality, and often their values.
The stories in this volume – bold, intimate, enlightening, entertaining – reflect a country profoundly divided.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

When photography was first developed, cameras were classified as philosophical instruments, following the custom from ancient times of referring to science as natural philosophy. The idea that photography could be art seemed absurd. A photograph didn’t create, it showed what was there, what was real. This changed, of course, as it became evident that the point of view the photographer chose, the focal point, the subject itself, the degree of sharpness or blur, use of light and dark, were indeed artistic choices. In a similar way, nonfiction has grown into art – hence the emergence of the category creative nonfiction. And while it may seem an author can hide the personal behind characters and plot points, it is the person, the psyche of the author, who chooses what characters and what plot points. The truth will out, even in fiction, whether joyous or grim.

I found something in the foreword to be oddly comforting: following her question, “How does one even read short stories now?” Pitlor refers to the introductions of the 1942 edition, issued on the heels of Pearl Harbor. While that may seem more grim than comforting, what I scribbled in the margin was something along the lines of: “We survived then. We can survive now.” I don’t really believe that at this moment, but, as they say in twelve step groups, fake it ‘til you make it.

I confess to some degree of ignorance vis-a-vis Meg Wolitzer. I know the name, of course, but for whatever reason, I haven’t yet encountered her work. Let’s say I’m unencumbered by expectations. I hope her choice of stories will reveal her to me.

[Y]ou might not necessarily gasp; but without a doubt you will find yourself in a place you didn’t know about before. A place where you didn’t expect.

In short stories, I don’t think characters or their situation or their surroundings change as frequently as they turn.
The stories in this year’s edition… live, and breathe, and again and again in them there is some kind of turn.

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

She uses the conceit from my own favorite O. Henry story “The Last Leaf”, a parable of hope and love with a trick ending. But trick endings, she points out, often serve as the only reason for the rest of the story to exist. Hence her preference for the turn over the surprise, the subtle shift rather than the grand epiphany. I think Wolitzer is right when she says we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things by what we’ve read in the past. Maybe it’s time to recognize a story’s defiance of our expectations not as flaw, but an opportunity. There’s plenty out there to read that fits what we know; the unfamiliar grows new sensibilities.

As usual, I see some very familiar names in the table of contents (Jim Shephard, Jess Walter, Lauren Groff, T.C.Boyle, Amy Hempel), some I’ve read only once but am pleased to see again (Danielle Evans, Eric Puchner), and many I’ve never seen before (which isn’t saying much, since I’m pathetically under-read). But enough of this standing poised on the edge; it’s time to jump in.

What is art going to give us now? Will the leaf clinging to the vine be proven to be not art but purely artifice, a false comfort that can’t actually save anyone’s life and in fact is pretty much good for nothing?

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

I choose to believe (today, at least) in the art of the leaf. I need to believe in it. I will fill my walls with painted leaves. And if it turns out it’s artifice, what difference does it make, if we see the Spring.