BASS 2018: Yoon Choi, “The Art of Losing” from New England Review #38.2

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Watch the boy, she had said.
Or had she? Some things he knew for sure. His name was Han Mo-Sae. His wife was Han Young-Ja. They had been married forty years, possibly fifty. The wife would know. They had two children: Timothy and Christina. They would always be his children but they were no longer kids. He had to keep remembering that.
Tunes. He was good with tunes. He could retrieve from memory music he hadn’t heard in decades. “The Mountain Rabbit,” “Ich Liebe Dich,” Aretha Franklin’s “Operation Heartbreak,” which he had first heard in his twenties on the Armed Forces Network in Korea. He had a good singing voice. He had been Tenor 1 in the church choir; years before that, he had led off the morning exercise song in the schoolyard. These performances had given him an appetite for praise and notice, although no one, seeing the old man he had become, would know it.

Complete story available online at NER

I’m a complete sucker for an Alzheimer’s story. Build it around an immigrant family, and you know I’m going to bring in Seth Keller’s palimpsest bench doubly inscribed with Michelle Janssens Keller’s “immigrant as palimpsest” text. The two go together so perfectly: as a palimpsest layers one text over another, and the immigrant layers one life over another, the disease strips layers away, little by little.

Philosophy debates whether reality is made up of things, or ideas. For Mo-Sae, the two interplay as his memory goes in and out over the course of a few hours alone with his grandson. He’s not sure why his wife isn’t there, forgets she’s gone out for an errand. Sometimes he remembers, sometimes he forgets who the boy is. Sometimes he forgets he’s there. He looks at a coffee can full of change, and wonders why the coins are so odd: “Then he remembers that these are American coins.” The reader knows terror as the boy gets into dangerous situations – climbing over a rail on the balcony, standing at the edge of a pool – and the grandfather might forget he exists if he turns around. On returning to his apartment, “The doors keep opening and closing on identical hallways, and Mo-Sae realizes that he has no idea which is his own.” Things and ideas don’t always match up any more.

His wife, Young-Ja, becomes the second narrator of this story. In her Contributor Note, as well as her interview with Rose Whitmore at NER, author Yoon Choi explains the need for a second, more reliable narrator in a story of this kind, and how the idea developed from one character – a man with Alzheimer’s – to a story of interrelated characters and events. It’s one of the more explicit and helpful Notes, from a would-be writer’s POV, and for me, it’s always interesting to see where stories come from.

Young-Ja also provides an interesting narrative thread of her own, as she interacts with a neighbor. He started out as my “favorite overlooked character” (though I changed my mind, more later); we don’t know much about his life, but he has many interesting items in his home, including an organ. Also an older man, he’s packing to move so his offspring’s caregiving duties will be more convenient. He gives Young-Ja some of his items, including a Christmas cactus, which she ignores until it wilts. “But what she realized was that Mr. Sorenson’s gifts were not free but finicky, and came with a burden of care.” Just like children. Or parents who age inconveniently.

Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic is highly informative, as he focuses on the issues involved in writing about “other” cultures within a dominant culture. Both because he’s a professional translator (of Korean, among other languages), and because he’s published stories set in “other” cultures, he has some interesting insights into the tradeoffs and decisions involved. I found his observation that there are three, maybe four cultures here – Korean, Korean-American, American-Korean, and American. Again, I think of the way Alzheimer’s, with its tendency to strip away more recent memory first, might peel off those layers of the palimpsest that is Mo-Sae.

One scene in particular resonates with me, partly because it echoes on what is familiar to me, and partly because it reveals so much about the family. Mo-Sae is asked to return to his church choir, which he left before his illness was obvious, for a Christmas performance. To Young-Ja’s surprise, he agrees. This isn’t good news for her; she’d rather they not know about his condition. Rehearsals go fine, but at the performance, during one of the solos, Mo-Sae makes his way to the platform to do his own impromptu solo:

Nothing could be read in the soloist’s expression. Perhaps that was what made him a professional: the ability to keep singing, keep pretending. And no interpretation could be made of the choir director’s turned back, from which a conducting arm continued to emerge and retreat in time. Or of the choir members who presented three rows of staunch faces.
But Mo-Sae’s face was laid bare to scrutiny. The expression on it was high-minded and earnest, but also a little coy, as though he was struggling to disguise his basking pleasure.
What was he possibly singing? In which language? To which tune? Or had he somehow learned the tenor solo on his own? He was not behind the microphone so no one could hear. But anyone could see from the childish look of surprise that came over Mo-Sae’s face that he was straining for the high notes that came forth in the soloist’s voice.
So there it was. The spectacle.
Young-Ja could do nothing but watch, to feel that there in the spotlight that she had never once sought for herself, her private miseries had become manifest.

Christina, the daughter, finally leads Mo-Sae from the choir. That’s an interesting choice. Young-Ja is almost relieved the secret is out. Almost:

Now that the secret was out, the church members treated her like one of the New Testament widows. They saw her as devoted, praiseworthy. They never asked Mo-Sae to rejoin the choir or even take part in a real conversation. Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.
And yet, sometimes she took the opposite view. She was not really a widow so she was not really free. While Mo-Sae was alive, she could not pretend that he did not exist in some real, sometimes inconveniencing way. Others might pretend, but she had to look squarely into the question of Mo-Sae’s dignity. It was up to her to reclaim it from this point forward in a more complicated, arduous, thankless way.

Again, the inconvenience borne by family. It would be easy to judge Young-Ja, but only for someone who’s never loved someone who wasn’t always able to meet expectations of others in public.

The story takes an unexpected twist that projects a complex future, a future not at all settled by the end of the story. Choi tells us it was not the first ending she envisioned, but it was the one that became necessary to her when she started filling in the details of this family.

My nomination for interesting overlooked character would be Christina. As Jake points out in his post, giving her a more traditional Euro/American name signals a shift from Korean-American to American-Korean in the minds of her parents; her choice of husband perhaps shifts it even further. Given the ending, she’s the character whose life, past and future, I would most like to know about.

Let’s end with the beginning: the title, “The Art of Losing.” Everyone in this story is losing something. Sorenson, the neighbor, meets the loss of his home by giving away items that will live on, although to Young-Ja they are items that require care she feels too burdened to provide. The daughter Christina, leading her father away from the choir at Christmas, faces this loss with seeming dignity and responsibility, but we don’t know what she is feeling. Mo-Sae, facing ever-increasing losses multiple times a day, ends the story by huddling near the door, watching his grandson so he won’t forget he’s there. The little boy, who lost the coins that were to buy him ice cream, met his loss with a temper tantrum he’s young enough to get away with. And Young-Ja, who loses so much, barely notices, she’s so busy trying to get through the day.

The art of losing can be created in different shapes and colors, and we can all just do our best.

BASS 2018: Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” from Gulf Coast #29.2

Art by Chris Ofili

Art by Chris Ofili

Curtis Smith watched from across the street as the boy argued with Lena Johnson in front of the movie theater. She had probably bought tickets for the wrong movie. Or maybe Andre didn’t want to see any movie with his mother on a Friday night. Her expression went from pleading to irate. The boys said nothing more. With his head taking on weight, hung as though his neck couldn’t hold it, he followed as she went inside.
It was a chilly evening in November, the sky threatened by rain. Curtis blew warm breath into his cupped hands. Obedience, he thought, he could talk to the boy about that. He’s been making a list of topics they could discuss. The question of obedience was right for a boy of fifteen, when the man he would become was beginning to erupt out of him like horns. Though sometimes it was important to disobey.

There’s a thousand ways things could go wrong all through this story. Just the first paragraph had me clenching my teeth: Why is he watching them? Is he a former lover, is he Andre’s father, disappeared and now wanting back in? No, someone else is Andre’s father, so why is he making a list of topics to talk to the kid about? And we’re back to stalker. Uh oh, twelve years in prison, that doesn’t sound good…

It all turns out to be relatively benign, a past tragedy of jealousy, grief, guilt, and vehicular manslaughter. Andre’s father was Curtis’ best friend until they had a major falling out; when Marvin died in a fire, Curtis was wracked with guilt, culminating in the DUI that sent him to prison. Hey, I did say “relatively”. His interest in Lena and Andre isn’t clear – I don’t think it’s clear even to him – but it involves some combination of responsibility to Andre, finding out the details of Marvin’s death, and, maybe most importantly, finding out what Marvin said to Lena about the falling out between them, all with an overlying layer of guilt.

So much could go wrong. But it doesn’t, not because of twists of fate, but because these people work at it. And even more amazing, it keeps out of heartwarming movie-of-the-week territory.

“What makes mothers the way they are?” Andre asked one day. It was the first time he posed a question like this to Curtis, that of a boy seeking the wisdom of a man.

No, the music doesn’t play, the credits don’t roll, there’s no sense that It’s Going to Be Alright. You can see the work being done on every page, by all three characters. Sometimes it’s patience, sometimes it’s taking a risk, sometimes it’s recognizing a mistake.

In his blog post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber looks at the story from the sleuth point of view, inspired by the mention of Walter Mosley in the text. I particularly liked his comments on the conflict between Curtis’ masculinity and the infantilization partly forced upon him by his inability, as a black man with a prison record, to get a job.

Although the story felt full of tension – I kept waiting for something to go wrong – it manages to resolve in the key of family. I just had an email conversation with a friend, in which he mentioned some family issues but assured me he loved his family. I told him there’s a reason fiction is so often about families: it’s where everything starts, ends, and happens. Most of us start in one family, and create another, yet they are connected in ways we may or may not recognize, whether by imitation or contrast. And by the way, I have the sense that Curtis’ mom is the overlooked character in this story. I’d love to see an expansion of her story.

The family in the story is black, and while race is only explicitly mentioned a couple of times, it’s always a presence. Curtis recognizes that, if the woman he’d killed while driving drunk had been white, he’d still be serving time. What’s not said, but what this reader understands, is that if Curtis had been white, and had a hotshot lawyer, he might not have done any time at all.

I was very aware of four sentences, sprinkled throughout the piece, dealing with what a linguistics professor of mine, back in days of yore, called action/intent indices. They’re about how we can use language to accept responsibility, or distance ourselves from it:
▪ In the first instance, he’s walking off his stress, whispering Marvin’s name over the East River: “He might have also said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car….”
▪ In the second, he’s walking again, watching a woman making a phone call (again, the stalker vibe): “…she reminded him, for some reason, of the woman he had struck with his car.”
▪ The third time, he’d followed Lena into the club but hadn’t talked to her yet. “Sipping his third bourbon, he thought about how easy it had been to go from his first to his third, and beyond, on the night the girl was struck by his car.”
▪ The fourth time he’s dreaming: “.. there was the dim, gray shadow of the woman he’d hit with his car all those years ago…. That night she’d seemed to fall upon the car like a burden dropped from the sky…”

See the difference? In the first two, he struck the woman with his car. In the fourth, again he hit her with his car, though there’s some distancing in that she’d dropped out of the sky. But in the third, it’s as if the car hit the woman without him. The only real difference I see in context is that drinking distances him, removes his action and intent; it’s the car that hit her, she dropped out of the sky. Drinking isn’t mentioned anywhere else, he’s not identified as an alcoholic, and a DUI is not necessarily diagnostic. Isn’t this an extension of the so-called social lubricant function of alcohol? Who hasn’t used the excuse, “I had one too many, I didn’t mean it.” Taken to the extreme: instant absolution. Release from agency. I didn’t do it. I can’t think of a better reason to drink.

Oh and by the way: he never gets to the point of “the woman I killed.” That’s still a bridge too far.

I love that this story is part of a conversation: in his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us: “’A Family’” is a kind of response to ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’ by Yiyun Li, which itself is a response to ‘Three People’ by William Trevor.” I haven’t read either of the predecessors, so I can only imagine that these, too, are stories about other families, perhaps also bound together by shared tragedy. The story is found in the recently released collection A Lucky Man, shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction.

Curtis nodded and listened as Andre continued talking about his future, his life of success, of accumulation and bachelorhood.

This is the most hopeful sentence in the story: the kid hasn’t lost his belief that his future is in his hands. He’s been loved enough to stay an optimist. Curtis and Lena are another story, but they manage as well. It’s a balancing act, and it’s never a sure thing, but they’ve formed a family. Brinkley’s Contributor Note explains he arrived at the title: “I wanted to emphasize all the characters together as one unit, even on the level of grammar.” He discarded anything that made it sound like this was a “degraded” family. To me, the story does a fine job of this. And families try to make it work, and allow some leeway for the times when it doesn’t.

BASS 2018: Maria Anderson, “Cougar” from Iowa Review #46.3

Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town. There wasn’t much else around except Jenny’s trailer and forest that started at the end of the lot and went on for as far as you could see, dim and impenetrable. Dad kept pink healing quartz on the porch steps, rocks he’d found in the deepest parts of the forests, back when there was still old-growth forest to be logged. He was a sad, quiet guy. Never argued with me or knocked me around like dads of guys I used to know.

Poor Cal: his world is disappearing on him, little by little. His mom disappeared years ago when he was just a baby. Now his dad disappears. And Jenny, the only adult who cares about him, is riddled with cancer, getting thinner and thinner. The town itself barely exists. Pretty soon it’ll just be Cal, and the woods. And the cougar that’s been hanging around, occasionally killing things. Like maybe Cal’s dad, though he’ll never know for sure, since the body was never found. Cal hopes it was suicide: “It was easiest to think he’d made a choice and acted on it.“ Acting on things isn’t really Cal’s strength these days.

But back to that opening paragraph: I love that subtle “guys I used to know.” Since Cal got out of high school, he doesn’t know many guys any more. His friend Blake now works on an oil rig, and Cal was thinking about joining him. It’s the one spark of initiative he shows in the entire story: he saved up some money, even took the test required. But then the cougar got his dog – his dad’s dog, actually, though it’s Cal’s now – and he got fired from the Chinese restaurant, and that spark was extinguished.

The restaurant’s an interesting place: owned by Koreans who once tried to serve real food, but discovered people wanted what they were used to. “What I decide is, people want shit, you give them shit,” says the grandmother who owns the place.

The owners of the Chinese restaurant, who were actually Korean, kept a quiet shrine on the floor in the corner of the dining room. The shrine had a picture of a sad-looking man with a dented head, a bowl of bruised clementines, and a plastic cat that waved its paw at you. An up-and-down wave. Maybe that was how Korean people waved. The cat waved at you like it was waving away all the stuff you thought about. Like it was urging you not to think, not to worry about being able to buy food or pay rent or feel like you should try to make some friends or have sex again because that was what eighteen-year-olds did.

The cat statue, though a contemporary knicknack, evolved from an Edo-era Japanese talisman called maneki neko, invitation cat or beckoning cat. The paw-down motion mimics the Japanese gesture of beckoning. Over centuries a lot of variations have developed as it’s been adopted outside Japan; it’s common in Chinese restaurants in the hopes it will bring in customers and cash. But I find it fascinating that Cal sees it as waving away thoughts he doesn’t want to have, while it’s actually a come-here motion. And, remember, there’s that other cat maybe beckoning, maybe waving away, the cougar out in the woods. Jenny reminds him, it’s just hungry. “I’m not sure an animal deserves getting shot for being hungry.” Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, just like Jack London said. Jenny tells him he’s been feeding the cougar, and asks him to continue to do so after he’s gone.

Jake Weber has some very detailed ideas about, among other things, the symbolism of the cougar and the cat, and the world views they represent, at his blog post. We honed in on a lot of the same elements, yet in a couple of cases ended up in slightly different places. I particularly like his take on Cal’s misinterpretation of the word “Seoul”.

It’s a story of the kind of depression isolation brings on, of the inertia that can keep us from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We leave Cal admiring the cougar. It’s the only thing he has left. I wonder if he’ll feed it. Or if he’ll make a decision and act on it too, one of these days.

BASS 2018: It’s that time again

I do not think it hyperbole to say that in 2018, the rapidly changing condition of American democracy has become an absorbing narrative of its own, one that features larger-than-life characters, nonstop conflict, breakneck pacing, and incredibly high stakes….
Fiction writers are now faced with the significant challenge of producing work that will sustain a reader’s attention amid this larger narrative. Roxane Gay is just the right guest editor for this moment. With her keen eye for tension, voice, and structure, as well as her deep understanding of the forces at work in our culture, she chose stories that reflect and refract our time, stories that exhibit mastery of pacing, surprise, and rich characterization. Here are stories that hold their own in this day and age, no small feat, and they do so with devastating realism, honesty, humor, and courage.

~~ Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I’m a little scared to read this volume.

But that’s ok: I trust litfic writers and the editors who, unlike the bozos running the country right now, love their readers, love their characters, care about something besides themselves, and write to show a way out, an alternative to whatever hellscape they’ve created. To show us it doesn’t have to be like this.

As I was typing this, a DFW quote from 1993 – oh, how innocent we were then about darkness! – twittered across my screen: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” (How innocent will we seem 25 years from now?) Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say.

Whatever else this volume may turn out to be, it represents in some way the state of American short story writing. Roxane Gay’s Introduction appears in full at lithub, but here she capsulizes her intent:

When I am reading fiction, I am not always looking for the political. First and foremost, I am looking for a good story. I am looking for beautifully crafted sentences. I am looking for a refreshing voice or perspective. I am looking for interesting, complex characters that I find myself thinking about even when I am done with the story. I am looking for the artful way any given story is conveyed, but I also love when a story has a powerful message, when a story teaches me something about the world, when a story shows me just how much I don’t know and need to know about the lives of others.

~~ Roxane Gay, Introduction

One aspect of this year’s read has me particularly eager to see what we have here: author (and my blogging buddy for several years) Jake Weber will be posting commentary on the stories on his blog, Workshop Heretic. He’ll be taking a more academic approach than I do, so for the students who find their way here when an English professor assigns them these stories as reading (yes, I see the spike in blog stats every September and January), his insights might be more fruitful. I know I hope to learn from him, since I still don’t know what a “good” story is.

But I do so love trying to figure it out.