BASS 2018: It Was A Very Good Year

Sarah Thibault: “Reading in the Dark”

Sarah Thibault: “Reading in the Dark”

They are stories that engage with the world and reflect the diversity of the world. They are stories that offer fascinating insights into the human condition and the terrible ways people can treat one another and how beautifully people can love. These writers accomplished great feats of imagination and wrote stories that surprised me in the most unexpected ways. These stories challenged me and reminded me of how vibrant the short story form can be.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

What is it like to grow up? To grow old? To grow away from, or return to, one’s family? To repent? What does it look like to feel intense rage, powerful love, overwhelming fear? And since we all have handy the answers to these questions – is it possible someone else might have different answers? Are those different answers necessarily wrong?

In my wrap-up post for last year’s volume (which I also greatly enjoyed), I voiced a couple of concerns amid my praise for the stories. First, a lot of them came from the top tier of literary magazines – The New Yorker, Granta, Atlantic, Harper’s; while those stories are terrific, what about terrific stories found in the smaller, less prestigious magazines, those where the slush pile is seriously read, where writers without agents or MFA professors to recommend them might stand a chance? I later modified that a bit, since smaller venues have been showing up more frequently recently, including last year. And this year, that trend continues, with stories from Emrys, Tough, Passages North, and Grain, in addition to the more well-known journals. In her Introduction, Roxane Gay tells us this was not by coincidence; she actively sought out less famous sources, while series editor Heidi Pitlor tweeted out an invitation.

Writers are divided on whether or not it is their responsibility to address the contretemps in their work. Some writers stubbornly cling to the idea that writing should not be sullied by politics. They labor under the impression that they can write fiction that isn’t political, or influenced in some way by politics, which is, whether they realize it or not, a political stance in and of itself. Other writers believe it has an inherent part of their craft to engage with the political. And then there are those writers, such as myself, who believe that the very act of writing from their subject position is political, regardless of what they write.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

Second, I wondered if, because literary fiction writers and editors often tend towards the liberal side of politics, there were other viewpoints not seen? Was it possible to find empathy and compassion for someone who might be on the other side of the street at a protest/counterprotest? This story gave two examples that, not only is it possible, it can be glorious to meet the most sympathetic gun enthusiast ever, and a woman who, unable to stand up to her boyfriend when he puts her in a Confederate flag bikini and posts a picture to Facebook, stands up to everyone else who would co-opt her for their cause. Again, the editors have done a great job of enlarging the tent.

Another reason this year was extra-special was the parallel read by Jake Weber on his blog
Workshop Heretic. Jake and I have traded opinions for several years now, but this was the first time he went full-on BASS blog. While I look at stories as a reader, addressing whatever strikes me, Jake is a published author and MFA who took a more technical and academic look at how the stories worked. Often we agreed; sometimes we didn’t; sometimes we went in completely different directions. His post titles alone are worth the click, even if his son declared them “lame” (“Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am getting crushed by the patriarchy”; “This is all your fault. This is not your fault at all”; “I attempt to review Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” without coming off as an insufferable, pompous ass who wants the whole world to know I speak Korean”). I found his analysis invaluable in this process called reading, which, for me, continues long after I close the book and put it back on the shelf for someday soon.

Can I even tease out favorites in a year of such bounty? Start with the other side: Two stories didn’t do much for me (no, I’m not going to name them); another initially fell flat but after reading Jake’s comments (it was one of his favorites) I want to give it more thought.

My choices for best-of-best: Danielle Evans’ “Boys Go To Jupiter” challenged me to live up to it: some conflicts would never arise if we dealt with each other as people, instead of pieces on a game board of Ideology. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly interested in stories about young teens, but I loved the protagonists of “Come On, Silver” by Ann Glaviano and Kristen Iskandrian’s “Good with Boys”. Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure”, told from a near-future dystopia that doesn’t seem far away at all, turned what could have been a routine romance into a metaphysical rumination on time as well as an examination of what happens to emotions we try to forget. Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” steered away from emotional manipulation by including layers of loss beyond the obvious. “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg surprised the hell out of me, and left me smiling so hard my face hurt. And “Whose Heart I Long to Stop…” by Rivers Solomon, like the Evans story, made me face myself with the same level of honesty shown by the characters.

In times of great personal or public upheaval, I turn to reading. I turn to fiction and how writers imagine the world as it is, was, or could be. I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality. I am allowing myself a much-needed buffer, a place of stillness and quiet. I read fiction to step away from the cacophony of the news and social media and the opinions of others. The reprieve fiction provides is a necessary grace.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

“Does fiction even matter now?” I’ve seen this question asked so many times over the last couple of years. Hasn’t it always? Don’t you think the world might be poorer if we had no literature to draw on, if we couldn’t see other people in unexpected ways so that when we encounter them in reality, we think, “This reminds me of that story” and maybe we show a little more compassion instead of flying into a rage. Stories can also be a blanket you wrap around yourself so you’re warmed up and ready to go another round. Before the midterm elections last month, I truly did not think I could go on should things go wrong. As one Twitter wag put it, “Tuesday is going to be a fun day because it’s either going to end with me drinking bleach or feeling the mildest sense of relief imaginable.” BASS was my blanket. Going forward, it will, along with all the other stories from the Iliad to now, be my guidebook.

Fiction matters, in all sorts of ways. Especially now. May whatever God they believe in bless all the writers, editors, and publishers who provide blankets, and guidebooks, for us all.

BASS 2018: Esmé Weijun Wang, “What A Terrible Thing it Was” from Granta #139

Nisha Gupta: “Election Night 2016”

Nisha Gupta: “Election Night 2016”

The first thing that came to me, with this story, was the singsong rhyme from the beginning, which led to a few questions: Who is Becky Guo, where is this taking place, and who is telling the story? I wrote most of “What A Terrible Thing It Was” in New Orleans in December 2016 right after Trump’s election – it was the beginning of a particular kind of anxiety for myself and most of my loved ones around the country and what was going to be coming next ….I consider it as much a story about trauma as anything else, and a narrative of how new traumas tend to revive old ones.

~ ~ Esmé Weijun Wang, Contributor Note

In my lifetime, we Americans have had what I’d call generational events, often capsulized in “Where were you…” questions. For my age group, it was the assassination of President Kennedy; for my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. Gen X had the live viewing of the Challenger explosion; for millennials – for all of us, really – it’s 9/11. What these events have in common is that they’re unexpected tragedies, witnessed en masse, that seem to change the way the universe works.

For Wendy Chung – for a lot of us – it’s election night, November 8, 2016. But that isn’t all she’s dealing with on that day.

“Tell me what’s brought you here,” Dr. Richards says.

I’m prepared to tell Dr. Richards my medical history and about the first voice I heard when I was twenty and how the election has made my stress so much worse, which has in turn escalated psychotic symptoms that have proven to be medication-resistant. And yet Dr. Richards’s face, which warps and flattens and suddenly seems made of plaster, sucks out all the words I had carefully constructed and lined up delicately in impeccable rows, until I am vacant; the erasure of my likes and dislikes and the hopes I harbor, leaving nothing but agitation behind, is something that terrifies me about psychosis – I cannot survive another bout of catatonia.
“I hallucinate.”
“What do you hallucinate?”
It doesn’t matter, I try to say, but the words won’t come out.
I’m afraid, is what I want to say.

These two events – treatment for schizophrenia, and a Presidential election – wouldn’t typically make a lot of sense as a pair, but here, there’s enough connective tissue (I seem to be using that phrase a lot; too many anatomy moocs) between them to make it work. Most obviously is the total insanity of the election itself. Many of us had a sense of unreality that night, a sense of “You’ve got to be kidding me,” something we’d practiced on a dry run watching Great Britain’s Brexit vote a few months before: a sense of Before and After, a shift from the world making some kind of sense to a universe in which up is down because nothing matters any more.

The other element is in the nature of Wendy’s hallucinations. I thought it was slightly unusual for a psychiatrist to ask about the content of hallucinations; typically, they’re less concerned with who you hear or see and more concerned with which sense is involved and whether someone’s telling you to do bad things. But Wendy’s hallucinations are more from fear than hostility: they recall the lynching of the other Asian girl in town back when they were both in high school.

When I was 17, Rebecca Mei-Hua Guo was found hanging from a eucalyptus tree near the outskirts of Polk Valley, where I live. To be hanged from this tree was a feat, given its size; her gleaming shoes dangled far above the heads of the two huntsman who found her ….
As long as the murderer was free I would not know who had sedated and then hung Becky from that high-up branch. I would not know why or how the killer had done it, and because there seemed to be no reason for the act I would have to keep my head bowed. If she had not been killed in part because of her race I could, as the saying goes, breathe easier, but I could not assure myself of that….

Wendy hears, in her head, a sing-song chant about Becky, and sometimes sees, from the corner of her eye, her black shoes dangling in mid-air. We don’t know when Wendy’s illness started – she’s a young adult now, recently married, and schizophrenia typically starts in the late teens or early 20s – but that’s enough to make anyone paranoid, particularly when the country is in the process of electing someone who enjoys – and I use that word advisedly – the full support of every substantial white supremacy group in the country for his racist policies, statements, and history.

Fear is another character in this story; its omnipresence, texture, and layering into every aspect make it more than just something someone’s feeling, more than background.

I typically blog these stories, not as literary reviews or analysis, but as my own reader experience. Once in a while I’ll find craft issues that stand out to me, but it’s usually much more about how the elements affected me, and why. I had so many intersections with this story, so many intense emotions, it’s hard to pay attention to the craft at all. Fortunately, Jake Weber is around picking up the slack, and his post is excellent as always.

BASS 2018: Rivers Solomon, “Whose Heart I Long to Stop With The Click of a Revolver” from Emrys #34

Dee Ashley, “Nothing That Belongs to Us”

Dee Ashley, “Nothing That Belongs to Us”

You can’t rape a .38. I first saw that on a vintage photo of a protest march, but I’ve since seen it a number of places, including on advertisements for personal weapons. How strange it was, I thought, the way violence unfolds on both mass and individual scale, how the small violence of a single victim and perpetrator can reflect larger patterns and societal values How rape is a tool in an ongoing war against women. I wanted to write a story about a woman enmeshed in violence, who could not, no matter what, disentangle herself from it, because none of us can.

~ ~ Rivers Solomon, Contributor Note

If “The Brothers Brujo” was a story about the transmission of male rage from generation to generation, this is a story of the inheritance of female trauma. I’ve re-read the story a few times, and it keeps growing: a love story about a woman and her gun, about power that comes from a gun and from a name and from gender and race and about James Joyce and about how love can sneak up on anyone, even a woman who is prepared from the start to shoot her child. After all, she’s already shot the kid’s father. Maybe about Nietzsche, too: maybe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or maybe it fucks you up forever.

Before I get going, again I recommend Jake Weber’s post about the story, not only for the story analysis (and the mention of Lolita – of course! I’m embarrassed I didn’t see that) but for his compassion. I’m usually impressed by Jake’s literary takes, but here I was moved as well.

We’re loaded with resonant details from the first scene:

Every few seconds I venture a glance in Luciana’s direction.. This is the first time I’ve seen my daughter since shortly after she was born, and I am admittedly overwhelmed.
I keep one hand tucked into my handbag, palm secured around the handle of my revolver, ready to shoot if this girl, my child, has re-entered my life in order to harm me in some way, to exact vengeance because I chose to leave her in the care of the state.

It seems an odd precaution, for a mother to bring a gun to the first meeting of the daughter she gave away eighteen years earlier. And, like the title, it generates a great deal of tension, particularly to anyone familiar with the writing aphorism known as Chekhov’s Gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” The rule is in fact more general, advising against irrelevant details and requiring that everything in the story contribute to the effect in some way. I see that happening in this story, more than usual; I was thinking about it when I was in that weird place between sleep and waking, and I could see everything leading to everything else in a way that’s quite beautiful. But the gun itself is ubiquitous.

Rather than firing the gun in the second act, we learn the gun was already fired, and find the genesis of Jo’s caution: as a twelve-year-old runaway from what we can only guess, Jo came under the care of a man she refers to as Mr. Wheelock. And, when I say care, I mean abuse, rape, pedophilic exploitation, pick your term. We all survive somehow, and she survives as his functional wife for a few years, until she finds herself pregnant. The scene that follows is astonishing for its brutal honesty, including the three bullets she puts in Mr. Wheelock’s chest using the gun he gave her when he insists he wants to keep the baby, and no one will believe Jo if she speaks up.

The world plays out games of power, who has it, who doesn’t. An invisible puppeteer pulls the strings of each person’s life, determining her fate based on race, gender, religion. Luz got a particularly unfortunate set of strings.
Imagine a large man gifted with athleticism and strength, favored in life because of his class and wealth and color. Now imagine a child, young and poor and thoroughly pathetic. See the two of them together, in a room, butting heads.
Now imagine the scene again, but this time the child has a gun, and the man does not. He steps back, suddenly fearful of her scrawny figure, her shaking frame, her tearing eyes. Everyone fears the bullet, no matter what gift the invisible puppeteer has bestowed upon him.
Something with that much weight in this world is to be saved and savored, so even though I was an anti-gun progressive when Mr. Wheelock handed me my gift, I could not say no to the revolver when I felt its heaviness in my hand.

At the close of last year’s volume, I wondered if it was possible to find stories a little out of the liberal mainstream, like a sympathetic gun enthusiast. And here we have her. Jo is sympathetic as hell, perhaps my favorite character in this volume, and she makes a passionate case for balancing power by means of a gun. She speaks of the gun as a mother would speak of a child, in fact. But I’m left, in the wake of questions about exactly what happened after she killed Mr. Wheelock (we don’t find out if she went to Juvie or was placed in foster care; from what is presented, I’d think there’s a case for manslaughter), thinking she has no business owning guns.

Jo is very well-read; her name is one she chose, naming herself after the character from Little Women. Daughter Luciana has also renamed herself as part of what appears to be gender transitioning, though again the details are a bit fuzzy. Jo recognizes the name, later shortened to Luz, as a minor character in Catch-22, but Luz says her intent was a feminine form of Lucifer. And then there’s Mr. Wheelock, who never gets a first name. Names do a lot of work in this story.

If Luz shows gender fluidity, Jo shows some racial fluidity, at least culturally. Whereas Mr. Wheelock used to urge her to become more familiar with the black pioneers of blues and jazz, she’s more interested in white stars of old-time country and bluegrass, which she says were invented by black folks anyway. By coincidence, I’d just read a short story story by guess who, Jake Weber, about a white man connecting with his adopted black daughter via a fusion of R&B and bluegrass.

Jo has also read DuBois, Poe, Edward Thomas, and James Joyce; the title of the story is from one of the many obscene letters he wrote to his wife-to be:

Mr. Wheelock used to read me the letters of James Joyce… One in particular I said aloud many an evening but never shared with another, holding it close to ne like a twisted secret: “When that person… whose heart I long to stop with the click of a revolver, put his hand or hands under your skirts, did he only tickle you outside or did he put his finger or fingers up into you? … Did you feel it?”
I felt it, yes. I felt everything.

In the end, it’s Jo’s heart that is pierced, but not by a bullet. If that’s too much for her to bear, who can blame her?

BASS 2018: Curtis Sittenfeld, “The Prairie Wife” from The New Yorker, Feb. 13/20, 2017

I joined Twitter in 2013 and, as someone who had been a social media skeptic, was both surprised and a bit alarmed by how quickly I took to it…. If a person from my own past about whom I had ambivalent feelings emailed me, the truth is that I might ignore the email. But if the same person reached out on Twitter, with a jokey username, I might, in the spirit of being a pleasant author, engage in a back-and-forth while having no idea who the person really was. Although I certainly am not famous like Lucy Headrick, it was this strangeness that inspired me to write “The Prairie Wife.” Of course, this story ended up being about a few other things – celebrity culture, forty-something sadness – but its origins are in how weird I find Twitter.

~ ~ Curtis Sittenfeld, Contributor Note

This story keeps a lot of its own secrets, meta-secrets, some for only a paragraph, and some for nearly the whole story. That fits, since it’s a story about keeping – and revealing – secrets.

The opening paragraph of the story provides a scene of domestic tranquility: a family getting up in the morning, breakfast, getting two kids ready for school and two adults ready for work. Any reader of literary fiction will suspect something is going on underneath that placid surface, and indeed, by the second paragraph, we find out what it is:

The reality is that, at 6:17, as soon as Casey shuts the bathroom door, Kirsten grabs her own iPhone from her nightstand and looks at Lucy Headrick’s Twitter feed. Clearly, Kirsten is not alone: Lucy has 3.1 million followers. (She follows a mere five hundred and thirty-three accounts, many of which belong to fellow-celebrities.) Almost all of Lucy’s vast social-media empire, which of course is an extension of her life-style-brand empire (whatever the fuck a life-style brand is), drives Kirsten crazy.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

The story takes its time filling us in on the reasons for this. Years before, Lucy had a crush on Kirsten when they worked together as camp counselors in college, and they had a very brief affair. Although Lucy was, as she puts it, a “gold star lesbian” – she’d only had relationships with women – for Kirsten it was a new experience. That was decades ago, and both have moved on – until Kirsten discovered that Lucy is the Prairie Wife, a TV cook handing out recipes and shilling for various household items.

Digression: I spent a few years recapping various skill-based reality shows, including The Next Food Network Star. The premise is given in the title. The idea was not to find the best cook, but to find a personality and, most importantly, a “point of view.” You can teach someone to cook, but you can’t teach camera presence and the gift of gab. They’ll take a high-energy Sandwich King or Rachael Ray over a highly trained but boring chef any day (at least, they did at the time I was watching), and create a line of overpriced kitchen items tailored to please a particular fan base. It’s QVC, reimagined. The Prairie Wife as a TV and marketing concept seems based on the Food Network’s Pioneer Woman. End digression.

Kirsten’s obsession with Lucy, once she discovers her fame, goes well beyond remembering five days of fun at camp: Lucy’s downhome country brand, as they call it (you can’t be famous without a brand) is not particularly consistent with gold-star lesbianism, and it pisses Kirsten off:

If Kirsten leaves the house at 7:45, she has a fifteen-minute drive; if she leaves at or after 7:55, the drive is twice as long. But, seriously, what else is she supposed to do with her Lucy rage?
Kirsten’s commute is when she really focusses on whether she has the power to destroy Lucy Headrick’s life. Yes, the question hums in the background at other moments, like when Kirsten is at the grocery store and sees a cooking magazine with Lucy on the cover—it’s just so fucking weird how famous Lucy is—but it’s in the car that Kirsten thinks through, in a realistic way, which steps she’d take. She’s figured out where she could leak the news, and narrowed it down to two gossip Web sites, both based in Manhattan; she’s even found the “Got tips?” link on one.

Kirsten’s hostility seems grossly exaggerated for the circumstances at this point. Destroying someone’s life, based on such a brief involvement years ago? Like the bland family scene that opened the story, it seems likely something else is going on; the picture of Kirsten as moral knight ridding the world of hypocrisy one celebrity at a time just doesn’t make sense. Maybe the crush went the other way? Or Kirsten is worried about her own privacy being violated? At this point, it’s unclear.

The story has some clever elements. Kirsten works for a digital map data company; her job doesn’t feature prominently in the story, but provides a coworker who joins in her obsession, and a crisis involving an inadvertent data breach. It’s a few sentences at most, but it’s thematically harmonious with the secret Kirsten is considering leaking.

Another nice detail is a comment Kirsten makes about Casey when one of the kids forgets his violin and the parent confer on who should interrupt their day to get it to him: “This is how Casey wins, Kirsten thinks – by not insisting on resolution, which compels Kirsten toward it.” This seems consistent with how Lucy is described in the camp scenes. She has a laid-back air that conveys not so much a powerful crush as casual interest, again casting doubt on Kirsten’s version of events from the past.

In those scenes from the past, Kirsten discounts the sex with Lucy, who challenges her in an amused, rather than offended, way: “You think if there’s no penis it doesn’t count?” This attitude goes way beyond sex. Ask any woman working in a male field. Ask Hillary Clinton.

Eventually, the story reveals its secrets – and its meta-secrets – as key details, and Kirsten’s motivation, are clarified. In his post on the story, Jake Weber is less than happy with the developments, considering them part of an “unearned surprise”; as always, his analysis of the technique is well worth reading, but read the story first, if you haven’t yet, to see if you agree with him. I had less trouble with this aspect. Because spoilers are involved (I’ve been horribly neglectful of spoilers all along this year, I don’t know why I’m so protective of them now), I’ve made some comments about this on Jake’s blog rather than here.

Of all the story elements Sittenfeld mentions in her Contributor Note, the one that barely registered, was the use of Twitter. That’s mostly because I don’t seem to use Twitter the way everyone else does. I have nothing to market, so I don’t care about followers; I block anyone who doesn’t seem to have a reason to follow me, or who follows thousands of people, since they won’t be reading anything. I don’t follow any celebrities. Well, unless you consider Neil Degrasse Tyson a celebrity. So Twitter isn’t that weird to me. It’s like a coffee shop where I can overhear interesting people talking about interesting things, see beautiful stuff, stay informed, and enjoy the occasional laugh. And nobody’s plotting how to ruin my life. It’s one of the benefits of obscurity.

This is the third time in about a year that I’ve encountered Sittenfeld. She had a story, “Gender Studies”, in last year’s BASS; I’d initially been annoyed by it, but I liked it better and better the more I thought about it. I read her earliest novel, Prep, this past summer as part of my prep-school series, because it was listed as a favorite on another readers’ blog; I was a bit less enthusiastic. Both this story, and “Gender Studies”, are included in her April 2018 collection You Think It, I’ll Say It.

BASS 2018: Amy Silverberg, “Suburbia!” from The Southern Review, Spring 2017

The way I enter stories is almost always through voice; I rarely have a character or premise in mind. I just ha that first line in my head for a while – the line of a character saying she made a bet with her father – so I wrote one paragraph and set it aside for months and months.
…I’d just read the short story “The Paperhanger” by William Gay and admired the mystery of it, how it seemed to go confidently into an unknown world, a world that felt a little surreal and a little absurd…. I was also in a workshop taught by Aimee Bender, and while I hadn’t set out to write anything with a magical realism element, I’m sure her stories (which I’ve read many, many times) rubbed off on me – or if not the stories, then at least the courage or freedom to go confidently into that so-called unknown world.

~ ~ Amy Silverberg, Contributor Note

For the first ten pages of this eleven page story, so much seemed wrong. The bet. The departure. The absence of the mother. The rather uninteresting, overly optimistic evolution of a young woman in LA. I figured there had to be a payoff, and I had a couple of vague ideas what it might be, but as the pages dwindled down (I always dog-ear the pages in a story so I know where I am as I read) I felt like maybe the payoff was going to be no payoff, in which case I was going to be very unhappy.

But there was, indeed, a payoff, and it was so good, I forgave everything. Except maybe there was nothing to forgive: if I’d read the tone correctly from the start, I would’ve realized what I was reading, below the words, below the events. My inability to perceive subtle whimsy was helpful, actually; the eventual surprise knocked me on my reading ass, so to speak, and I fell in love.

The story starts with a bet between fifteen-year-old Maria and her father:

“Let’s make a bet,” my father said, on my fifteenth birthday. I remember very clearly being fifteen; or, rather, I remember what fifteen feels like to a fifteen-year-old. The age is a diving board, a box half-opened.

“I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back,” he said. “Not once.”
“What happens if I do come back?” I asked.
“You’ll lose,” he said. “You’ll automaticallly forfeit the bet.”
I hated to lose, and my father knew it.

My mother appeared on the porch with my brother, his finger slung into the back pocket of her jeans. “Dinnertime,” she said, and I kissed my father’s cheek as though I were standing on a train platform. I spent all of dinner feeling that way too, staring at him from across the table, mouthing goodbye.

Now, I still have a problem with the bet itself. It’s backwards. You can’t say, “I bet you’ll do A, and if you don’t, you lose.” Yes, you can call it whimsy, you can call it a signal, an indicator of what kind of story this is, but even in whimsy and magical realism, there has to be some kind of internal consistency. But the big problem is, I was so befuddled by this reverse bet, I missed the sweet poignancy of the dinnertime scene that followed.

It’s possible I had such a deaf ear because of my own history. I moved out when I was eighteen, knowing right then that my family home was way too small for me to grow at all, that I’d be kept in a cage of projected incompetence and infantilization until I was old and grey if I stayed. I did go back to visit, several times over the years, but I never for a second considered moving back. I’ve made some horrible decisions in my life, but this one was one of the best.

Even so, my departure was nothing like Maria’s, which is, like the bet, kind of bizarre:

A week after my [18th] birthday, my father woke me up, quieter than usual. He seemed solemn.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked.
“Where are you taking me?” I wanted to know.
“To the train station,” he said. “It’s time for you to go.”

“Don’t cry,” Dad said then, smoothing my pillowcase, still warm with sleep. He had a pained look on his face. “Don’t cry,” he said again. I hadn’t noticed it had started.

From the train, I watched him through the window until I couldn’t see him anymore, and the hand he’d been waving became – like the minute hand of a clock – tiny – and then nothing at all.

The abruptness of the sendoff – another signal, I think – doesn’t fit with the emotionality, the genuine mutual tenderness and affection between father and daughter. Dad tells her not to say goodbye to her mother, who we already know is more bonded with her younger brother, but still, it seems weird. Moving out generally involves a planning stage of some significant length, tips on practical matters, maybe more serious thought as to a destination; to find out you’re leaving home an hour before you leave is… not normal.

Dad mentions New York, but Maria isn’t ready for that yet, so she goes to LA, where she’s been before, a place not terribly far away. I have to say I found the next phase – meeting Charlie on the train, getting settled in LA, her work and a series of promotions, successful acclimation to adulthood – kind of boring, mostly because it seemed, as I mentioned before, overly optimistic. Like a romance novel’s idea of a young girl finding her way in the world. The one thing that resonated was her comment about her deepening relationship with Charlie: “Being with him felt similar to being alone, only better, heightened.” I know exactly what that means, and how rare it is. Maybe I’m just envious that Maria found it with so little effort, without the multitudes of failed attempts so many of us go through.

When she decides she must go back and visit her family, bringing Charlie along, they, and the reader, get a surprise. For me, it was completely unexpected. I’d imagined Dad didn’t want her returning because he and Mom were going to get a divorce, or were having money troubles and wanted to rent out her room, something typically grim. And again, I have problems here, since the scenario wasn’t dealt with at all in the pre-departure sections. Just how did life work for this family, when they went to school, work, to LA to see Wicked on her 15th birthday? And her friends: in what perspective did they exist? But that isn’t part of the story.

Nevertheless, it works on an emotional, if not logical, level. The goofiness isn’t arbitrary; it means something, something anyone whose kid has left home, or who left home as a kid, recognizes.

I thought this was a funny thing, the way the past and the future could both shrink down to a manageable size, like a pill to be swallowed, or the head of a match.

The changing of sizes with perspective, with distance, was mentioned several times during the story, and sharpened to a beautiful point in this last paragraph. Who hasn’t said that their childhood home or school seemed smaller than they remembered, when they went back to visit as an adult? Every Christmas, a new crop of college freshmen go home to their parents and declare everything they were ever taught was wrong, and now they know the real score. This usually generates indulgent smiles, perhaps some friction, but mostly it’s recognized as the way things should be, how growing up means growing away, the putting away of childish things, the parents letting go of the opportunity to substantially shape their child.

I happen to have read the next story before writing this post, which is unusual, but gives me an interesting sense that the two stories are in a way opposites. I’m not sure this is a “good” story – I still think it has flaws – but once I got to that payoff, I loved it, so it worked emotionally. The next one is the opposite: it’s a story I can appreciate, but don’t really react to emotionally. And I started wondering about all those people bemoaning the “sameness” of contemporary literary fiction. Are the flaws I see – is it ok that the story completely depends on what could be considered a trick? – are just the product of having read that sameness too much? Would smoothing what I consider rough edges – blending the magical with the realism more effectively – ruin the story?

Silverberg’s author interview with Kathleen Boland at TSR addresses some additional issues with the story, including the exclamation point, which has far more significance than I’d recognized. Zin would be delighted. And Jake Weber, as usual, has a great post examining the surprise element from a more writerly, technical perspective.

BASS 2018: Ron Rash, “The Baptism” from The Southern Review, Autumn 2017

Chagall: “Moses Striking the Rock” (1931)

As with almost all my fiction, this story began with an image: a baptism scene on a frozen river. I sensed the time was the late nineteenth century and that the minister was deeply conflicted about performing the rite. Where the initial image came from I cannot say. It was not derived from anything I’ve ever heard of happening. After finishing the first draft, I realized that my naming the child Pearl established a connection to the Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, but that too was, at least initially, subconscious. My perspective on stories is Jungian. They already exist; thus writers are more transmitters then creators. But how well the story will be told is conscious, a matter of craft.

~ ~ Ron Rash, Contributor Note


Contributor notes – a feature of BASS I greatly enjoy – are a two-edged sword. Sometimes they give me real insight into this mysterious art called writing. Sometimes they confuse me, as if I’d read the wrong story. And sometimes, as here, they do both.

This is one of the shorter and, I thought initially, easiest to read stories in this anthology. The widow Eliza has two daughters to care for, and needs help with her farm, so when bad guy Gunter’s wife hangs herself (there’s a strong hint later that it wasn’t suicide) and he wants to marry her eldest daughter Susanna, that’s just fine with her. Reverend Yates tries to talk her out of it, to no avail, and Susanna later enlists his help in running away to escape the predictable abuse. When Gunter turns his sights on the fourteen-year-old daughter, Eliza again goes along with it, but requires he be baptized first. The town wants Yates to refuse to do the baptism, but he agrees. Everyone is so agreeable in this story. But the river is frozen over. Gunter, not to be denied his third wife, grabs a shotgun and smashes the ice, predictably falling through into the water. Maybe the community could have rescued him, maybe not, but nobody tries too hard, and the town embraces Eliza and Pearl, Susanna returns, and all is well. Except Yates isn’t sure if he maybe sorta should have warned Gunter about the ice.

I had a couple of issues with the story, but I thought I had a handle on it, until Rash’s mention of the “Pearl” connection threw a wrench in the works. In Hawthorne’s book, Pearl was the unrecognized daughter of the town minister, a secret kept by Hester Prynne even as she was shunned by the community for bearing a child while her husband was away. Is this to imply that the Pearl in this story is Reverend Yates’ child as well? I want to reject that idea, only because, well, I don’t like it; it doesn’t fit with the story as I read it. But maybe that’s exactly why I should consider it: how does it change things? It tarnishes Yates, but strengthens his motivation; it also explains why the community, which warmly embraced and cared for Eliza and Pearl after the central incident, didn’t help out this widow with two children before, strengthening her need to allow her children to marry Gunter in the first place.

But none of that was what really struck me about the story. I focused on the sermon Yates preached on the Sunday of the proposed baptism.

The next morning at the service, Gunter sat with Eliza and Pearl on the back pew. Reverend Yates had contemplated altering the sermon he’d written out Thursday night, but found himself to vexed to do so. As planned, he spoke of Moses, and how he’d lead his people to the promised land though unable to enter that place himself. He read the sermon with as little attentiveness as his congregation offered in their listening, Gunter’s presence casting a pall over the whole church.

Moses was denied entrance to the Promised Land because of an incident at Meribah (“conflict”) described in Numbers, Chapter 20: Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it, as commanded by God, to draw forth water. It’s a passage that’s been expanded upon for millenia by both Jewish and Christian scholars: why such a severe punishment for such a minor lapse, particularly when, in a prior time, Moses was indeed told to strike a rock to obtain water? But, however interesting the commentary is, the fact remains that Moses was excluded.

The striking of the rock and the striking of the ice seem so similar to me, it’s easy to overlook that it’s Gunter who strikes the ice, and he ain’t no Moses. But it’s Yates who bears the guilt of not speaking, as he looks upon a community made whole again by the elimination of Gunter:

To look up on such a sight from his pulpit was surely a sign of God’s grace, Reverend Yates told himself, but on late nights he sometimes contemplated his silence when Marvin Birch offered the cocked weapon. Had his refusal to warn Gunter been a furtherance of God’s will for his own desire to be rid of the man? On such nights the parlour became nothing more than shadows and silence. The manse’s stillness widened beyond the walls into the vastness of the whole Valley.

Damn, he even brings the vastness of the Valley, as Moses was permitted by God to view the Promised Kand from a mountain. But he was still not permitted ot enter, as Yates can’t partake of the peace and harmony the congregation feels. Is his guilt necessary? He seems to think so. But I have to wonder: Gunter comes across as cruel, but not stupid or incompetent; how could he not know breaking the ice was a terrible idea? I’m a city girl, but the dangers of iced-over lakes are well known to me (then again, today we have PSAs). But if this particular guilt is unearned, is there another guilt it masquerades? And we’re back to Pearl.

My blogging buddy Jake didn’t care for this story at all. I had a similar reaction to the first Rash story I read, several years ago. And I’ll admit, I may be wildly overreading in my above comments. I can’t resist a biblical allusion, and sometimes I find one that isn’t actually there (hey, I left the Susanna chapter of Daniel, omitted from the Protestant canon as apocryphal; I do have some sense of discretion).

I’m interested in Rash’s idea of Jungian stories: maybe this is why we keep retelling the same ones, the stranger comes to town (like Gunter) or the hero’s journey (Netflix just added Joseph Campbell’s 1988 “Power of Myth” series, which is so ingrained in the contemporary literary corpus, it almost feels clichéd, though, like Shakespeare and Pope, it created the clichés rather than repeating them). Do authors deliberately put the references and linguistic tricks into their work that we discover, or is genius the capacity to write so that a deeply resonant story, in whatever contemporary form, taps into these elements even when read centuries later? Does the writer bake the cake, or does she merely provide the perfect mix of ingredients for the reader to put together?

BASS 2018: Téa Obreht, “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure” from Zoetrope All-Story 21:1

A few years ago, during the penultimate week of a fellowship at the New York Public Library, I had the fortune of taking a tour through the labyrinthine stacks of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue. A controversial renovation had been announced, and for months, New Yorkers had debated the logistics and consequences of moving the lion’s share of the collection off site in order to address concerns that the library’s stacks might be too fragile to continue the twin tasks of housing its books and supporting its weight.

On an otherwise empty shelf at the foot of a metal ladder I barely survived sat a box labeled :
…When I saw these words , I scrambled to grab them, get them down on paper, preserve their correct order. Right away I knew: This was something, a thread, a line if I’d ever seen one. A gift. Just sitting there in the library basement. A title maybe. I told myself that I would wait as long as necessary for the right story to come along and claim it. Of course, this would turn out to be the one I had already been writing for the better part of a year – though two more years would pass before its hazy, disparate threads (shed hunting, unrequited first love, a father obsessed with littering transgressions) finally came together.

~ ~ Téa Obreht, Contributor Note

For all of us, the present is full of items awaiting protective enclosure. Sometimes the protection is to keep us safe from their ill effects, and sometimes it’s to preserve them for as long as we have recall; because we all carry the past with us. It might weigh like a millstone around our necks, as it does for the father in this story, or it might be, as with the daughter, more like a little satchel we open from time to time to enjoy the joy of what was, mixed with the pain of loss.

For the second time in this volume, I’m tempted to just point to Jake Weber’s extraordinary analysis of the story, an enlightening analysis of the way the past, present, and future speak to each other through narrative technique. But, again, that feels like cheating.

As I read, I was reminded again (I haven’t brought this up in a few years) of Asimov’s comment about the difficulty of science fiction being how to clue the reader in to the details of the fictional world, without being tedious or obvious about it. Obreht is selective with details here. We know our neglect of the environment has caught up with us, that some things – “bacon and air travel and elephants” for instance – no longer exist, that the country is in a Posterity program, which seems to be about letting what exists be free of human intervention as much as possible, so that it will make it into a hoped-for but uncertain future. We know there are kelp rigs and meat is but a memory. And we know shed elk antlers, poached from the Posterity reserves, go for big bucks.

Wade maneuvers you both to the sofa with pamphlets and rank gray tea, then carefully sits between you.
“So—which of you is looking forward to reabsorption?”
While Wade talks your father through the marketing collateral, you try to smother your irritation. Let Dad get the reassurance he needs: that he’s doing the right thing, that pod burial restores soil nutrients, that you just don’t get this kind of solace from a coffin.
“Something about committing to reabsorption just gives folks a sense of peace,” Wade says. “I know it did for me.”

Wade insists you take all the time you need. “It’s a tough mind–shift. In the end, we’re all just items awaiting protective enclosure. Most of us have a vision of what that is—a coffin, an urn. Not everyone can get used to the idea of a tree. But remember that with a Serenity Pod, the whole world is your memorial.”
The trouble is, he really means it.

Sometimes that includes people.

Sylvia’s dad is burdened with the knowledge that his youthful wastefulness passed on a ravaged world to his daughter, so he opts for this Pod as his burial chamber. Obreht makes a wise decision to imply rather than explain the pods: somehow they turn remains into food for trees. I hate to break it to Syl’s dad, but that’s what we all are, one way or another, as the poets – Whitman, in particular, comes to mind, as well as the pre-Socratic natural philosophers – have long told us. The world has been recycling itself for 4.5 billion years; but as Wade tells Sylvia (and could there be a better character’s name for this reminiscence set in environmental catastrophe), there’s a lot of money in guilt.

[Digression: as I looked for a header image for this post, I came across Capsula Mundi, an Italian firm developing what seems like precisely the burial pod technology in the story. Green burial has been around for a long time (millenia, in fact, up until the past couple of centuries) but the plan is to bury people in something like a burlap root sack of a young tree. You can literally hug Grandma as she grows into a mighty oak. For only $490 you can buy an urn for Granny’s ashes and bury it under your own tree; complete body burial is still in development. I seem to be without the nearly-universal reverence for dead bodies, so I say, hey, why not, but will we need to cut down forests to make room for six billion trees?]

It’s an envelope story: a brief introduction and coda, with the plot occurring as an extended flashback. It’s a perfect structure for the title: the story itself has been enclosed, just as Syl’s memory of Wade has been enclosed for decades, and is released when he calls out of the blue. It’s your basic unrequited love story, but placing it in this setting lifts it up and blends it into a far more universal theme.

And by the time your husband is moving toward you with the ladle, asking, “What’s wrong? Who is it, Syl?” It’s no longer memory, but truth: the great, unrealised love of your youth ends with a sighting of the last bull elk in Fell Gulch, his huge, black head in full sylvan splendor.
So of course, you sound exactly the same. So does Wade. And it shouldn’t really surprise you that even after everything – after the bust; and Kenny’s move to Michigan; and your return to ecology; and your years on the same kelp rigs that will eventually lure at least one of your sons; and the great, wild-easy love of your marriage; and life here in Grey’s County; and the eventual death of your father (not from cancer, but pneumonia, of all things, at the age of eighty-three); and so many iterations of disappointment and hope – all it takes is the sound of Wade’s voice to unearth that other part of you: clenched around your guttering twenty-year-old heart, intact, still and always in that moment, in that clearing, raw and sweet, right down to the marrow.

And here again, Obreht shows a wise restraint. We only know Wade calls, Sylvia remembers, and the story ends. We don’t know if he’s in town, if she runs off with him, if he needs money, or any of a thousand other possibilities. The story doesn’t care about the present’s future, it’s too busy with the past’s future, and the present’s past.

It’s a horrifying story to read at this moment, as some of us try to grapple with the reality that we are likely at an environmental point of no return, yet we are so reluctant to change our lives that we’re unable to overcome the political quicksand that keeps us on a course to disaster. It could well tip over into the ripped-from-the-headlines story, or a sermon. But it doesn’t. I really wanted to dismiss it as a romance, but the resonances kept building. It’s horrifying, but it’s also great reading – so like the bittersweet past, this mixture. So like every day, for us, all objects awaiting protective enclosure.

BASS 2018: Dina Nayeri, “A Big True” from The Southern Review 53.3

“A Big True” began as an experiment. For months my mother and I had fought about my fiction, which she thinks of as an excuse to twist the truth. “You write about these loser parents all the time and you use my details. You lie about me.” “But they’re not you!” I’d say again and again. She said, “And yet somehow you can’t write a parent who’s not a loser, or a child who isn’t perfect.” She was so wrong, but still I set out to prove her even more wrong (yes, I know). I said, “What if I write a story about a parent who’s wildly different from you, a man maybe, whose daughter refuses to understand him? What if I make him an artist and she’s the bland one? What if I show the color in a simple life and the dreariness in a seemingly successful one?”

~ ~ Dina Nayeri, Contributor Note

One of the reasons I so enjoy BASS every year are the contributor notes. Sometimes they’re hints to the deeper levels of the story, sometimes they’re tutorials on the art of writing, and sometimes, as now, they’re little stories in themselves, mini-stories reflected in the story. The quoted portion above is not, I should hasten to add, the end of the mini-story; for the twist ending, read Nayeri’s article at Refinery29.

The story includes the promised father/daughter conflict, but focuses on Rahad as he lives his simple life. He’s the son of a famous Irani musician, and was himself famous in Iran. Now his only claim to fame are a couple of internet sites, as he wanders from YMCA to houses of friends and distant relations to yet another YMCA, playing his sitar on the street, and trying to connect with his daughter, a techie at Google.

Amid the hundreds of promises he had made to her on the day they left Iran, he had offered only one to himself: if exile was to demean and bruise him, fine; but it wouldn’t clip his wings, replacing his craving for music with drudgery and fears of risk. And yet, the fates are crafty and they had inflicted his daughter with the very disease he despised. Yasmine, who had an American accent, who never mixed up her idioms and knew an insult from a joke and exactly what to say next, a girl who had every opportunity, had taken to taking root – a provincial instinct. At ten years old, she had set down her little suitcase, sharpened her pencils, and, like many good Iranian immigrants, set to work on her sensible American life: study, then do something joyless and technical with a steady paycheck.

I have always objected to this idea that there’s a hard line between science and art, but here, layered in with Rahad’s guilt and Yasmine’s adolescent insecurity and the usual intergenerational disputes, it works, if somewhat stereotypically. I can see why Nayeri’s mother saw this as the same story – the daughter is right, the father is a loser – but it is in fact quite different as I read it. And, most importantly, it’s clear that each views the other as a loser – but neither, in fact, is, when judged on an appropriate scale. Jake Weber points out the three subgenres included in the story in his blog post, which continues to raise the question of how we classify and judge things.

That issue aside, it’s a pleasant read as Rahad begins a reluctant friendship with Wyatt, a YMCA neighbor who claims longstanding American residence but presents as a new immigrant. This character is pure genius, and formed for me the best part of the story, as I found Yasmine to be a stereotype of the histrionic daughter with a father who’s an embarrassment. This poisoned Rahad’s interactions with her for me. Yet I have to admit, this might be because I saw in him how my father often saw me: I was the younger generation insisting my ways were better, while he was defending a past rapidly disappearing into the 60s. I know now how he felt as we disappear into this era, whatever it’s called.

But if the father/daughter dialogue is the annoying, if limited, sound of snowplows crunching on icy asphalt (sorry, first snow was last night), it’s Rahad’s interaction with Wyatt that sings above that and steals the show:

In their short friendship, Rahad had overlooked so much that had been hidden in the artificial cracks of this man’s speech. And yet Wyatt had knocked on Rahad’s door every day, hoping that, after enough afternoons together, Rahad – a true and verified musician of Tehran, a traveler and student of the worlds many strange rhythms – might say, Stop pretending now, my brother. I know your sound. But Rahad hadn’t heard; maybe he was no master at all.

Intellectual humility: the willingness to look outside your certainty and find that maybe, just maybe, other certainties also exist. Mom wasn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean Nayeri was wrong. And if Rahad and Yasmine could listen to each other, as Rahad learns to listen through Wyatt, they might find neither of them is wrong, either.

BASS 2018: Matthew Lyons, “The Brothers Brujo” from Tough, Aug. 2017

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomenon of American male rage, and how it’s communicated down from generation to generation, from fathers to sons, more often than not mutating into something far worse than it was before. In so many ways, that rage is a central driver in our society, and even if our bad decisions sometimes seem sensible, it’s not difficult to track the destruction that they can cause as we flirt with total annihilation. Gods, humans, or something in-between, we all inherit the damage that was done before us. Even though we like to think of ourselves as better, sometimes all we can hope to do is redirect it. Sometimes we can only make things worse.

~ ~ Matthew Lyons, Contributor Note

Psychology has lots of theories about the difference between anger and rage. Some see it as a matter of intensity. Others feel anger, normally a transient state, stores up to becomes rage, a kind of constant state of festering anger. Anger might be seen as a response to obstacles, whether it be a car that won’t start or a disobedient child; rage is the response to injustice. Anger is the product of everyday life; rage is the product of oppression and abuse. Anger turned inward becomes depression; rage turned inward leads to suicide. Anger can be productive, when managed, supplying energy to overcome the obstacles that trigger it. Rage explodes; rage destroys.

Lyons walks a fascinating line in this story between psychology and horror using a gritty reality that eventually blends with fantasy/magical realism drawn from Santería. I’m not going to try to parse the religious details, as they have many variants and I know far too little to reliably research, but it’s a rich avenue for exploration.

Skeet and Leonel, teenage brothers, live (if you can call it that) outside of town with their abusive father, a Santería priest who uses the name of the god Agaju.

Skeet turns to look at his brother, gets in real close, so Leonel has to look at the thick black X tattoos carved on the thin skin under his eyes. His earliest memory, his father buzzing the needle-gun into his face with cold, meth-head determination. The pain, the way it lit his brain on fire. The way he sobbed, like he was never going to breathe again. Red tears cutting down and pooling along the line of his jaw, dribbling on his bare chest and collarbone….
Skeet studies his brother’s face, somehow left unscarred by the old man’s cruelties, shaped more by neglect and self-reliance than anything else. Agaju’s damages are clever, left in places hard to find. Scars webbed under the hair, bruises punched in under his arms, belt lashes striped along his back and thighs. Skeet’s suffered too at Dad’s hands, but they both know Skeet’s the favorite, a fact that neither of them will ever give voice to. To Leonel, Agaju’s an empty temple housing a withered, sadistic god. To Agaju, Leonel’s a first draft, a failed attempt. Something to send out for beer and cigarettes and to fetch his brother.

Complete story available online at Tough

Another of psychology’s offerings is the self-replicating nature of abuse: the abused can become either the abusive spouse, or can find an abusive spouse and thus continue in the familiar role of the abused. It’s pretty clear which path Skeet and Leonel take in the story. But what about Dad? He’s a Vietnam vet who came home minus three limbs. I have to wonder what he was like before the war, if his abusive nature pre- or post-dates his trauma. I doubt it matters to the kids, though.

Another factor in the story is isolation. This, too, by the way, is often tied to abuse, as the abuser keeps the victims on a short leash and away from prying eyes that might want to help. The isolation is realized in the story, as the family lives on the outskirts of town, interacting only when the services of the priest are called for. It’s a kind of symbiotic system perfect for isolative practices: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, except back-scratching in this case involves, on the one side, performing mystic religious rituals for the dead, and on the other side, providing income and not worrying about two kids. Sort of like parishioners of the Catholic church let their kids be abused for decades by priests who’d offer the Holy Eucharist.

Magic, connected to the rituals, plays a big role in the story. And, as the abuse is passed down, so is the magic, from father to sons, in a more malignant form. Not that the father’s magic doesn’t seem all that benign to begin with:

Something fucked up happens to a normal person’s brain the first time they see real magic. It’s like a disconnect. Because real magic isn’t like people imagine in the movies.
Real magic is so much better, and so much worse.
Most people can’t comprehend it, really. It’s too much, too sudden, too vulgar. So the brain only lets in little pieces, flashes of light and color and salvos of sound from far off and not much more. …
The truth is that magic’s a beast, enormous and lumbering and starving. It’s powerful, and it’s violent, and it makes a fuck-awful mess that people don’t want to see, or if they see, they don’t want to remember. So their minds compartmentalize and let them remember the lights and the pretty colors and the temporary suspension of the laws of physics. They hear thunder instead of screaming. They forget the blood and the shock and the stink and the explosions of teeth and hair that seem to come out of nowhere.
They forget that magic’s like watching someone get shot in the head.
Even when they’re watching someone get shot in the head.

This is not the kind of story I typically like, but I have to admit I found it totally compelling throughout even as I read while emotionally “peeking through my fingers” in places. After reading Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing the metaphorical possibilities, I wish I’d read more closely; I’m always blown away by his insights into the larger picture, particularly here, particularly now.

I’m also delighted to see Tough, a new literary magazine published primarily online by Rusty Barnes, formerly of the wonderful Night Train, make an entry into BASS. I don’t count crime fiction among my favorites, but I’m always glad that some of the less-traveled, but still highly worthy, corners of the literary internet are seeing some mainstream love.

BASS 2018: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, “Control Negro” from Guernica, July 2017

Guernica art by Jia Sung

Guernica art by Jia Sung

In 2014, years before Charlottesville became known for a deadly white supremacists’ rally, a black University of Virginia student was detained by local law enforcement after he was turned away from a bar near campus. Moments later, a video showed Martese Johnson pinned to the ground, blood pouring down his face. “I go to UVA!” he shouted, as if he’d once believed those words would shield him. The next week, I recognized his image in the local paper: a boy in a suit, flanked by lawyers, his forehead marked by fresh sutures. Looking on, I received some share of this young man’s bewilderment and heartache; it collected in me. A year later, “Control Negro” spilled out.

~ ~ Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, Contributor Note

I was very nervous about my impression of this story. A quick tour around the internet made me more nervous: yes, the few people who were discussing it at this time were talking about what I considered the substory. Then I visited Jake’s blog, and was shored up; he, too, saw what I saw.

There’s a front-and-center story about the extra level of scrutiny black men (and women) must endure, about the automatic 50% boost given to the clean-cut white male from the middle- and upper-class family, the degree to which white people get second (and third, and fourth) chances, are seen to somehow be innocent even in the face of damning evidence (if you have any doubt about this, let me introduce you to a brief, highly relevant news satire produced by journalists Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson back in 2013), while black people start from a place of suspicion. This is, in fact, what Toni Morrison meant meant when she called Bill Clinton the first black President: “’People misunderstood that phrase,’ Morrison would later say. ‘I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.’”

This front-and-center story is compelling, as a young man, innocent of any wrongdoing just as Martese Johnson was, is arrested and beaten, just as Johnson was. I don’t mean to imply this is trivial. But, as infuriating and visceral as it is, I thought it was the setting, not The Story. The Story is the father.

My ACMs were all “good” promising young men, but they were flawed too if you scratched the surface. My dredging uncovered attention deficit disorder, depression, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse. In several cases, I found evidence of more serious transgressions: assault and battery, accusations of sexual misconduct. Not one of these young men was perfect, yet each held promise, and this promise, on balance, was enough to protect them and to buoy their young lives into the future…..
What I needed, it occurred to me then, was to watch another man’s life unfold: a black boy not unlike me, but better than me—an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian Males who scudded through my classrooms. ACMs, I came to call them, and I wondered how they would measure up with this flawless young man as a watermark. No, it wasn’t them exactly—I wanted to test my own beloved country: given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a Control Negro. And given what I teach, it wasn’t lost on me, the agitation of those two words linked together, that archaic descriptor clanking off the end like a rusted shackle.
Those words struck in me and, from them, you grew.

Complete story available online at Guernica

This piece connects to other African-American literature via techniques and tropes from several recent books by black men about similar issues of suspicion and the father-son inheritance. I recognized the Letter to my Son style Ta-Nehisi Coates used to such good effect in Between The World and Me; the very idea of a father setting up his son as an experiment is part of the setup of Paul Beatty’s acclaimed satiric novel The Sellout; and the Only Black Boy in a Private School shows up in many places, but among them is the recently published They Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen. And that’s just the stuff I’ve read; I suspect there are more Easter eggs for those who are better-read than I.

Unlike Beatty’s character, the son in this story is unaware of the hidden hand of his biological father (or, for that matter, of his biological father, as he has no idea he is an experiment) at work throughout his youth. While some of that hand is observatory, some is also determinative via a cooperative mother and various subtle techniques. Instead of letting him continue with basketball (a “fraught cliché”), he’s encouraged to try swimming, but when he excels a little too much, he’s steered away from that, lest he become too exceptional. Dad has a fairly narrow range of experience in mind for his developing son.

When the boy is in college, Dad decides the preparation is done, and it’s time to flip the switch, to conduct the actual experiment. This seems to be a somewhat spontaneous decision, but was always part of the plan, and now we encounter the Martese Johnson event: when the police receive a call about a suspicious young man at a particular place, of course they grab the black guy, and of course he ends up bleeding.

I can’t adequately explain it, but I must tell you now that I was the one who called the precinct, claiming to have seen a “suspicious young man” at the corner of University and Second. I called but I did not specify your height, your color. Afterward, I hurried home, reassuring myself. Nothing will come of this, I tried to tell myself—and I will finally be able to let it go, or be let go by it. Son, please believe this, if you believe nothing else I’ve written: this was a test for them—for the world!—not for you.

It may have been a test for the world – a test the world failed, no shit, Sherlock – but it’s the kid who does the bleeding.

Parents go to all sorts of lengths, most of them well-intentioned, to give their kids the best possible chance at success and happiness in life. But that isn’t what Dad is doing. Presumably, the father-son bond never took; he has no more emotional connection to his son than he would to a mouse in a medical lab. He must know there’s a chance his son will be killed.

And this, then, is for me The Story: a father who betrays his son to what could have been the point of death. And why? Of course, Dad offers a self-absolving explanation: “But here, again, we must take a step back, and remind ourselves that this has all been in service to something bigger—that someday our sons’ sons might be spared.”

Does he believe this? Can he possibly believe it, that this incident will wake up America, when so many similar incidents (presumably, we’re not in some alternative universe) have not? If so, does he have the right to sacrifice his son, unaware, to such an aim? Of course not; the question itself is ridiculous. Is this more about a mediocre academician trying to go out with a bang? Does he expect to be admired for this? Or is this revenge on society, using his son as a weapon, for the wrongs done to him? Is it a metaphor for the failure of the Academy to address such inequality? Or a metaphor for the desperate measures that are needed? This – this for me is The Story: What was he thinking? What the hell could he possibly have been thinking? Or am I completely off base, and the son is the story?

I don’t know. I wonder what Johnson’s conception was; I wonder how this story reads to black people, particularly those involved in social justice. It’s almost satire, a man taking matters into his own hands, but it’s a little too realistic. I’m left uncertain, with questions – and very interested in possible answers.

By the way, Martese Johnson is now a law student at the University of Michigan. Now that’s what I call fighting back.

BASS 2018: Kristen Iskandrian, “Good with Boys” from ZYZZYVA #109

…I wanted to explore longing from the point of view of a preteen, a child, because I think we forget that children experience desire in all kinds of powerful and devastating and transgressive ways. Jill knows who she is and what her strengths are; she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to be. From that self-assurance springs both her sense of humor and her capacity for deep hurt. I’m unendingly fascinated by where and how our two most human conditions – pain and pleasure – meet, blur, and swallow one another whole.

~~ Kristen Iskandrian, Contributor Note

Every once in a while, there’s a lot of discussion of the “unlikeable character” in fiction, how great stories can feature people you just don’t like. That’s not a problem here. Jill is one of the most likeable first-person narrators I’ve encountered. That’s interesting in itself, since I’m not typically drawn to kids (she’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 years old, still in elementary school and on a sleepover at a natural history museum). And I’m not typically drawn to girls who are so obsessed with boys. But Jill is irresistable: so self-aware, so analytical, and yet, so caught up by something out of her control:

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

I’m left wondering why she’s so obsessed with boys. Is it to compensate for what she thinks are her inadequate looks – if I have a boyfriend, I must be pretty? Is she lonely? Is this some phase all tweens go through (I was a very late bloomer)? And I’m worried for her, because she’s so young, and she has years of dealing with clueless adolescents ahead of her. I don’t want her to lose this spark, because she’s going to have a lot of failures.

Is wanting boys the same as wanting objects? Does it all get swept into the category “desire”? An object can’t want you back; an object can’t reject you. Wanting objects is much easier; maybe you can’t afford them, but they don’t slip out of your grasp and wander over to a better owner. Which, of course, is about what happens at the museum.

I tried not to look at how Esau was looking at Adam, tried not to register it as anything but boyish camaraderie. I felt a pang of something – sadness, but also panic, and desperation, like I’d been given the chance to re-enter a good dream and had messed it up somehow.

It’s a classic third-wheel situation, where at first, Adam is the third wheel, and gradually Jill comes to realize she is the third wheel. I’ve had those moments. They’re not fun. She handles it extraordinarily well, but still acknowledges her pain. Damn, kid is eleven going on thirty.

In spite of my enjoyment of this story, I find it hard to write about, for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake went and wrote an extraordinary analysis of the story, from the structure of the epiphany trope to the evolution of Jill’s desire and self-awareness, to the just-sweet-enough ending. And that’s a good thing – it’s exactly the kind of commentary I look for on all these stories. But – I’m jealous. I imagine the story as Adam, his cheeks slightly flushed as he stands next to Jake as Esau, and here I am, Jill, realizing I’m just spinning straw into straw. But, like Jill, I’m taking it well, and I’m delighted to have learned something about reading fiction, about how to do this better (and relieved to have posted this on election day when no one is going to be reading blog posts about short stories). Now, where are the butterflies?

BASS 2018: Cristina Henríquez, “Everything is Far From Here” from The New Yorker, July 2017

It’s rare that I start a story with what could properly be called an idea. For me, the seed is always language, and when the words come they open a path before me. So I wrote the first line – On the first day, there’s a sense of relief – and continued from there, letting the story reveal itself. It’s a scary way to write, and it requires a certain amount of faith….
Although most of the story came quickly, I did labor over the ending. The woman is unravelling, and I wanted the language to do that, too, for that final image to be one not of stasis but of movement, reflecting the change within the character, but also to evoke a kind of lyricism at odds with the bleakness of that change.

~~ Cristina Henríquez, Contributor Note

Last year, I wrote about context a lot as I blogged through the stories: how they were written in one era, and were read in another. This story suffers a bit from that same phenomenon. We’re inundated daily stories of children locked in cages in detention camps, in some cases virtually kidnapped. We see stories of parents told if they just agreed to deportation, they would get their kids back, but only half of that deal happened. Life imitates art, exceeds art in horror and pain. Reading this story was agonizing. But I find I have little to say about it, other than the ending Henríquez mentions in her Contributor Note. I might have felt differently when it was first published over a year ago, but now, it feels… exploitive, somehow. Let me emphasize that it isn’t, not at all – but it has suffered from timing.

Our protagonist doesn’t get a name, yet another way of stripping away her humanity as she waits in a detention center for her asylum hearing, and worries about her son, separated from her by the smugglers who brought them to the border:

The man who was leading them here divided the group. Twelve people drew too much attention, he claimed. He had sectioned off the women, silencing any protest with the back of his hand, swift to the jaw. “Do you want to get there or not?” They did. “Trust me,” he said.
He sent a friend to escort them. When she glanced back, she felt a shove between her shoulder blades. “It’s only for a few miles,” he hissed in her ear. “Walk.”
By morning, the men were gone, the children gone. The friend, a man with sunglasses and a chipped front tooth, said, “I am here to take care of you.” What he meant was that they were there to take care of him. Four women. Which they did. Which they were made to do.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

In his post on this story, Jake Weber emphasizes that this is not the US-instigated family separation program that’s been such a source of contention; this was part of the process of the journey. The smugglers she’s entrusted herself and her son to are exploitive and abusive, not much better than the violence and rape she is escaping in the first place. This is what always strikes me when I hear these stories: these are people who have few choices, and all of them are bad.

We hear about other people in the detention center. And again, not everyone is nice. Some are scam artists; some are bitter and hardened. The woman keeps trying to find out about her son, with no luck. She thinks another woman’s child is her son. She gives up her only possession, a ring, to get information that turns out to be useless. She can’t even get a tampon. There is no kindness, no comfort. And as time goes on, the woman decompensates:

And then one day there are leaves on the trees, and wild-magnolia blossoms on the branches, bobbing gently in the breeze. She will stay in this place, she tells herself, until he comes. Through the window in the dayroom, she watches the white petals tremble, and, in a gust, a single blossom is torn off a branch. The petals blow apart, swirling, and drift to the ground.
She closes her eyes. Where has she gone and what has she become? The blisters have healed, the bruises have faded, the evidence has vanished—everything dissolves like sugar in water. It’s easy to let that happen, so much easier to give in, to be who they want you to be: a thing that flares apart in the tumult, a thing that surrenders to the wind.

Henríquez accomplished her goal admirably; there is a definite disintegration implied by the text, echoing the woman’s mental disintegration. The images – petals, sugar, flares – do evoke a kind of incongruent beauty, even as they signal the tragedy of a broken soul. Agonizing. Make it stop.

BASS 2018: Jacob Guajardo, “What Got Into Us” from Passages North #38

"Two Boys" by L.S. Lowry

“Two Boys” by L.S. Lowry

My family lived two hours from all of the beaches on the Great Lakes. When we did get to go to the beach (my parents both worked full-time jobs) it was a treat. When we were at the beach, it was like we were a different family. My favorite beaches are in Grand Haven, on the west side of the state, where this story takes place. I loved imagining what it would be like to grow up there. Would a boy like me, a queer, light-skinned halfie, survive? What if he fell in love? What if he fell in love with someone he shouldn’t? Young, queer people become adept at hiding, but it’s hard to hide that you are in love.

~~ Jacob Guajardo, Contributor Note

This was all about voice. I kept picturing Delmar, our narrator, telling his story from within a sort of memory bubble, standing at the summer he and Rio are fourteen and first kiss, then looking forward to some grim realities as the boys’ paths eventually diverge.

Their mothers are able to afford just one house, so the two families live together, two Marias and the two boys. The absence of fathers is left vague for the boys: “They tell us we washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan… they gave us seafarers’ names.” It’s fitting that The Sea is more stable than The River, as Delmar graduates from college, meets his husband, and starts a family, while Rio drops out and ends up in rehab for heroin. But this is all long after that magical summer when they discovered love on the shores of Lake Michigan, while their moms ran the taqueria called Authentico.

We break into the empty summer houses. We scare the spiders out and play house. We spend the night in the empty beds after our mothers pass out drunk from rum and Cokes. We make the beds every morning, fluffing up the pillows. We take things that do not belong to us. Things we think no one will miss. I take cards from Euchre decks and tape them inside a lined paper journal. Rio cuts buttons from Sunday bests and carries them around in a velvet bag like they are marbles. We are monsters. We carve our initials into the underbellies of the summer homes’ expensive wood furniture. We lie under the giant oak frames of the summertime beds with a set of keys and cut away at the bed flesh. We find out that if the wood has not cured long enough the furniture will bleed. When I am twenty-eight and expecting my first child I will wonder what had gotten into us that summer and hope my child is not a monster.

This is the voice of nostalgia, a mixture of sorrow, regret, joy, humor, and gratitude. Told this way, the breaking and entering, the theft are just hijinks, kid stuff; even the sex seems almost innocent. Told another way, this would be a grim story of outsiders, townies gone astray. The voice makes it all seem bucolic. That’s what memory does, it softens the colors, blurs the sharp corners. At least, to some extent.

But whenever I read a memory story, I look for what incited the memory: why is Delmar remembering Rio at this moment? The timeline is unclear; is this memory during, or shortly after, the trip where he and his husband bring the sonogram of their first child, carried by a surrogate, to show his mother? For some reason, it seems later than that. Or is there perhaps a more tragic cause for the memory: Rio has died? I would think that would be made explicit. Just a random memory? I’m left with the question unanswered.

I suppose it doesn’t matter; what matters is that summer of first love, albeit a love that must be hidden. And then being caught, the same night they see the dead moose washed up on the shore. “We call anything we cannot explain that summer monsters.” Including themselves; this first love is complicated.

In his blog post, Jake Weber points out interesting juxtaposition of this story and the prior one, a story of a young girl learning about love in a very different way. I hadn’t thought of that; we trade humor for nostalgia, mystery for discovery. I sometimes wonder if, even given the alphabetical order of the stories by author, there’s some consideration of sequence in the selection process, particularly in the opening and closing stories. Makes the whole project seem a lot more complicated, doesn’t it.

BASS 2018: Ann Glaviano, “Come On, Silver” from Tin House #72

I came across a writing prompt years ago, and I wish I could credit the source but I can no longer find it, that suggested writing a story about a camp organized around a theme we don’t usually have camps for – such as wife camp….What would one do at a wife camp?
It turns out wife camps exist, usually in a religious context, and this took me down a deep rabbit hole of research on the ways we teach girls, across different cultures, what will be expected of them as women. I looked at initiation rituals, both formal and informal, and superstitions regarding menstruation. I also thought about how baffled kids often are when they first encounter adult behaviors that are upheld as norms but are, from an outsider perspective, bizarre and absurd; I wrote from that place of absurdity. I had a great deal of fun.

Ann Glaviano, Contributor Note

In the 50s, English psychologist Gregory Bateson proposed the double-bind as a cause of schizophrenia. That stance has been abandoned as neurotransmitters have become better understood, but the classic double-bind, a no-win situation in which conflicting rules are imposed, is still referred to as crazy-making because it does cause extreme stress and, depending on the context, psychopathology.

Nothing better exemplifies the double-bind as the realization Fin comes to at wife camp in this story:

I was supposed to want, and not to want, simultaneously. Those were the rules. There was no winning. I would fail either way.

Mom tells her not to be impatient, then tells her it’s rude to keep people waiting. She knows she’s supposed to be waiting for something, but no one will tell her what she’s waiting for. Give the girl a prize: make her swim for her life. What’s that, she can’t swim? Too bad.

This story is a lot of fun; if I sound less than amused, that’s only because good satire always buries painful truth under humor, and my sense of humor has worn a bit thin these days.

The camp, designed for girls who’ve had their first periods, has some of the normal elements – canoe races, cute team names, Stain Removal Classes (it is, after all, preparing them to be wives) – but there’s a lot of mystery connected to it. I suppose mystery is part of real-life camp lore: the camper preserved in myth who did something great, or who died; the legend of the Old Man in the Woods or some such thing. At Fin’s camp, there’s the Black Night Ceremony, which seems to consist of locking the girls in a room and telling them old wives’ tales about menstruation while the male counselors do… something … outside.

And then there’s the camp motto: Dignae et Provisae Iucundae. Neither Fin nor anyone else at camp knows what it means, but they recite it regularly. Jake Weber did a deep dive on this at his blog, including a consult with a PhD who couldn’t really parse the phrase beyond the translation of the individual words. If it’s as agrammatical as all that, I consider it up for grabs, so I’ll go with “Worthy and pleasing girls provided here”. It is a wife camp, after all. The hooker camp down the road probably has the same slogan, but forgoes the canoes.

Mystery is convenient when no one wants to really talk about something honestly. The girls know something important is going to happen, but they don’t know what. Now there’s a metaphor for marriage.

But the overriding (ahem) metaphor of the story is the horse. The cliché of little girls loving horses isn’t for nothing. I remember, at about age 7 or 8, practicing my proper trot, canter, and gallop strides with my friends, even though I’d never been near a horse nor had any particular desire to ride; I was just going along with everyone else. There are lots of theories that all boil down to sex, in one form or another: the literal physical stimulation of the genital region, sexual gratification with an acceptable father substitute, the ability to control something powerful, proximity to obvious sexuality. For Fin, it’s a lot simpler: she has the opportunity to both spend time with the counselor she has a crush on, and ride a horse that goes faster than a slow walk. And so she gets the ride of her life:

He hoisted me onto the horse.
Then we were moving fast an it didn’t feel like flying. I sat in front and his arms around me and his thighs pinning me and my back slamming against his chest and my butt slamming against the horse and all of it hurt….And Andrew rocking and grunting behind me. Finally it ended. He helped me dismount. We were both breathing hard. I stood still in the muddy pen and felt all the sweat pour out of me. I doubted it smelled of exotic fruit. Then Andrew bent his face down toward my face. “You’re not like the other girls,” he said. “I knew that right away.” I could see his eyes, finally. They were glassy blue and strange. “Did you feel anything?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, sweating, silently counting my bruises He did not ask me to specify but wrapped his arms around me and pressed his hands into my backside I jumped away.. “My butt hurts,” I told him. “Grow up,” he said, snorting exactly like a horse. “You got just what you wanted.”

I wonder if Fin will remember the ride someday hence, either when she’s date-raped or on her wedding night. Sex isn’t supposed to be that way, at least, not any more now that women are allowed to like it too, and anyone who’s been near a tv or a radio in the past 20 years pretty much knows everything they need to know, but it often is, particularly when girls aren’t really ready but try to pretend they are. Or, when they’re virginal on their wedding nights, as they’re told they should be, and then find out it isn’t quite as wonderful as all the mystery made it seem. Sort of like the Black Night ceremony, but with more bruises. Don’t you dare want sex, and don’t you dare disappoint your husband: crazy-making.

BASS 2018: Carolyn Ferrell, “A History of China” from Ploughshares Solo 5.4

Every year at the family reunion – before Cousin Monique comes to your rescue – the uncles sit back in their folding chairs and napkin-necks and ask about your father. They take you in with age-soggy eyes, as you stand before them in a floppy blouson and skirt. You look different now than you did in 1970 or 1981 or 1997 – though you still have what lyrical Aunt Vitrine calls your swan quality. Cousin Monique had wanted to ditch the reunion for the shopping mall in Auntsville; she has always been your wings and, as such, was born to ignore the uncles: in 1970, she set fire to the truck belonging to one uncle and claimed it was lightning; in 1981, she put Ex-Lax in their pound cake frosting. Now she is nowhere to be seen. There’s no reason we can’t have fun at the reunion, you told her the night before, when she picked you up at Raleigh Airport. You’re right, Monique replied, grinning in the dark, the car pulling faster and faster along the blind curves of the road. Slave food and rockheads. I don’t see why that would in any way be an obstacle to fun, cousin.

My apologies: I found this story of a family reunion very difficult to follow. Mostly, it’s the timeline: we jump from present to past, to another time in the past, back to present with a remembered past, to past remembering past. Of the many names thrown around at the reunion, and in the past, it seems three characters make up the core of the story (second-person narrator Sasha Jean, her mother Elspeth, and her father Bobby Lee), two of whom are now dead. Then there’s Cousin Monique, who doesn’t seem to have much of a role but was for me a welcomed anchor to the present.

And then, running through the story in the form of section headers, there’s the history of china. Not China: china. Dishes. Everything from Dixie and Chinet to Pfaltzgraff, Lenox, and Dansk. Ferrell’s Contributor Note indicates the story began with a long-ago job for a china company, when she was fired because she didn’t have “what it takes to succeed in that world.” I’m not sure what it takes to succeed in the china world, but other worlds benefit from the mismatch. Sometimes the china connection was obvious: Dixie at an outdoor reunion picnic makes sense, and Mom left her home in Germany to marry Bobby Lee carrying a suitcase of stolen dishes from her own mother’s kitchen, dishes that Bobby Lee broke throwing the suitcase in the trunk, in as clear a metaphor as ever written. After all, he’s the guy writing gooey letters that turn out to be fictitious when she arrives.

Not to mention what he does to Sasha Jean:

It was nothing more than a few weeks’ worth of touching. The moon came out from your Mother Goose window and stared in shock. His finger didn’t even make it in all the way. Do you like this, your father asked No, you answered, It took another five and a half weeks for him to get that through his head.
Ach, du meine Güte! Heaven, hear me.
Your mother said she would leave him, take you and your brothers back to Germany. There was no way she could stay with a child molester. A monster.
Heaven, don’t stop hearing me!
But then weeks, more than a year passed.

That’s a beautifully written passage, conveying so much. The sprinkle of German. The absence of help. And again, we see normalization: even a child molester can be minimized to avoid the substantial disruption of leaving. And another china connection: Elspeth takes Sasha Jean shopping for dishes after she finds out about the abuse, which seems to be quite some time after it happened.

The present-day plot of the story hinges on Sasha Jean’s recent inheritance of the 37 acres on which various family members reside (and provides the space for the reunion), after Bobby Lee dies. He wanted her to bulldoze everything there and build her own house, suitable for someone with her graduate school education. I have the impression he was estranged, not only from Sasha Jean, but from the whole family for various sins over the years, and this bequest makes Sasha Jean the implement by which he means to carry out his revenge. She’s reluctant to tell people she now owns the land on which they live and party. At least, I think she is. I don’t have a real feel for what’s going on in her head.

Fortunately, where I threw up my hands and dove into sentences, Jake’s post at Workshop Heretic fills in a few spots and digs deeper for the framework of the overall story. I’m grateful for his fortitude, though a bit ashamed of my own laziness. There are stories I will spend hours parsing out; this didn’t tempt me in that direction.

So I enjoyed the many beautifully written moments instead, without trying to construct the whole:

There is swimming, miles of it – and a surprise underground clearing, and giggles over mermaid nipples and moles, and promises, and some hope. Why ever resurface? Why not stay here for all time? Dandelion wine and nougat truffles. You could live like kings.
It’s tempting, but not going to happen.

Nope, heaven isn’t going to hear us. It’s such a perfect match for my mood at this time. Oh, for a place to swim!

BASS 2018: Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2017

The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering They know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

A Confederate flag (more accurately, the battle flag of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but why quibble) showed up in my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. That didn’t surprise me – I follow several journalists, and they often post stories with images of things most of my feed wouldn’t normally post – but it did surprise me to discover that the tweet was from Jake Weber. Then I saw it was in reference to his post on this story, which I hadn’t yet read. I’ve been habitually retweeting him when he posts about these stories, but…did I want to retweet this? I did, based on four layers of trust: I trust that Jake, if he uses a Confederate flag to illustrate a story, has a good story-related reason; I trust Danielle Evans, here in her third BASS, to write stories that raise thoughtful issues; I trust Roxane Gay to select stories that matter; and I trust Heidi Pitlor to publish a volume that lifts up rather than tears down. My trust was richly rewarded: this is a terrific story, and, whether he intended it or not, Jake’s inclusion of the image fit perfectly and inserted me right into the text.

I don’t often dwell on structural qualities of stories, but this one demands that I do. The technique known as in media res – starting in the middle of things – then filling in the backstory along the way, has been the standard opening for stories since the Iliad opened nine years into the Trojan war. The inciting event is what gets the rising action rising: a change in the status quo, something that generates the conflict by which the rest of the story will propel itself. Here, we open with Claire putting on the Confederate flag bikini at the urging of her boyfriend Jackson (presumably named after Stonewall rather than Andrew), and his posting the image on Facebook, without her knowledge or permission, is the inciting event.

Or is it? As we learn more about the backstory, the possibilities for inciting event open up. Maybe it’s the death of Claire’s mother, or the accident after the party, instead. Maybe it goes back to Claire and Angela as kids, growing up together in Virginia, teasing brother Aaron with a silly rhyme about “Girls go to college and get more knowledge, Boys go to Jupiter and get stupider.” Maybe the inciting incident was the Civil War, or 1787, when the newly-written Constitution stopped short of abolishing slavery in the United States. Maybe it goes back to the first slave ships in the 16th century. Maybe it goes back to the dawn of humanity, and the first person who said, “Hey, she looks different from me, she must be bad.”

In any case, the story I feared was going to be a simplistic ain’t-it-a-shame fable about the mob-like mentality of social media quickly expanded into a wide-ranging examination of many of the divisive forces we all deal with every day, right now. And that, like Jake’s tweeting of the Confederate flag, again inserts me into the story: I kept changing my mind, my off-the-cuff instinct, about what the problem was and who was wrong.

But I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The story begins with a string of what I’ll call “is-but-isn’t” markers:

▪ Puppy’s real name is Poppy, and she’s the almost-stepmother.
▪ Jackson has “in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan.”
▪ St. Petersburg in Florida has “relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December.”
▪ The bikini itself is an “awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship.”
▪ Claire sees herself, in the bikini, as “a hot someone she is not.”
▪ When her hallmate reacted to the picture, Claire “wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing.”
▪ Claire’s mom refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins though “they are neither twins nor Irish.”
▪ Claire isn’t sure about her own family, thinking of her father’s son from a prior marriage as “not a half brother, but half-a-brother.”
▪ Claire and Angela “live across the street isn’t technically true but close enough.”
▪ Claire and Aaron sleep together once but “don’t love each other that way.”
▪ Though she grows up in Virgina, her mom is from New England and her dad is from Minnesota.

Six of these is-but-isn’ts occur within the first two pages. What we call something may not be what it is. The only thing that is what it seems to be is Claire’s red-tagged file, and after her life lived in is-but-isn’ts, she scorns its clarity.

Reordering the story not only got into the conflict faster; it affected how the story morphed as I read, which greatly heightened the aesthetic and emotional experience. It’s a great example of structure adding to effect. And it’s masterful storytelling, putting it back together in this order, to keep things changing.

The story is filled with lines, seemingly casually dropped in there, that are anything but casual. Jupiter is “unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit”: astronomically, 79 moons (at present; possibly more yet to be discovered), plus the entire solar system may owe its mechanism to the joint gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn. Grief, friendship, and a tragedy years before guide the motions of Claire. We all have some Jupiter in our lives. It’s been said by people smarter than me that slavery is the original sin for the nation, keeping us in separate orbits no matter how much it costs us.

When the hallmate, Carmen, relates her side of getting a picture of a Confederate flag slipped under her door, Claire is surprised to see fear. Why should anyone fear her? She’s not going to hurt anyone. She was pissed off, sure, but that’s all it was, not a threat. Turn it around: what if Carmen had slipped a different sort of picture under Claire’s door, would Claire have understood fear then?

And that monumental phrase, just slipped in there: “In the second grade, sometime after discovering that Angela is black, Claire writes a poem about their friendship for Martin Luther King Day.” Race is something we discover, something we learn, something we’re taught. The poem becomes an icon of interracial harmony and they are dressed up in stereotypical outfits (until someone finally objects) to recite it. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Claire and Angela, besties. Then both mothers get sick.

A year later both of their mothers are sick. It starts slow, with both of them, and then quick quick quick. With Angela’s mother it is a lump, with Claire’s a vague malaise. We should have caught it sooner, Angela and Claire say to each other, over and over again, as though their mothers’ bodies are their own. At first it seems as if, even in its cruelty, the universe is being kind, giving Claire a person to suffer through this with….
Mrs. Hall has been Claire’s second mother most of her life, and Claire fears that she will lose both her mother and her other mother, but it turns out that it is worse to lose only one, when it’s the one that counts. Claire knows as soon as she feels it the first time that there is cruelty in this sentiment, so much cruelty that it surprises her, but that doesn’t change the feeling.

Is this the inciting event, or the tragedy that follows later? Or the ensuing media storm after that tragedy? I could write another thousand words on the few paragraphs about the tragedy: what Aaron “should” have done, according to whom. Who gets the benefit of the doubt. Who is heard, who is ignored. All of which feeds into the end of the story, a town hall at the college to discuss the escalating conflict, where there are “two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” How must it feel to be two rows of black people in a room full of rows of white people?

I have no doubt some will read this and nod and think it’s vindication. Some will be outraged by what is left unsaid, what is implied; the silence at the end speaks volumes. In some stories, there are no villains; here, I see no heroes, though there are a lot of wannabes. It’s a story full of potential “teachable moments” but no one stops long enough to teach or learn. There is a difference between hate and stupidity, but at some point, isn’t there a responsibility to be less stupid? Is perpetuation of stupidity inherently hateful? In his post on the story, Jake asks an interesting question: what exactly, if anything, is Claire guilty of? Evans’ Contributor Note points out “what the desire to generously and forever forgive some people costs others.” This is a story I’m going to think about for a very long time. It’s an extraordinary story for this moment.

In my final post for the 2017 edition of BASS, I wondered about diversity. Yes, there were authors and characters of varying ethnicities, cultures, classes, and sexualities, but most of the stories supported, or at least didn’t challenge, views I already held. What about some other viewpoints? This story is something of an answer. There’s room for discussion here; there’s room for teachable moments. Or we can just go on in our orbits around Jupiter, getting stupider.

BASS 2018: Alicia Elliott, “Unearth” from Grain #44.3

Image from <em>Dawnland</em>

Image from Dawnland

They found him while laying the groundwork for a fast food restaurant. She forgot the name as soon as the officer said it – not McDonald’s, not Wendy’s. No, it was something new, something flashy and fleeting. Whatever it was, the thought made her sick. She couldn’t shake the image of a child’s tooth being pounded into beef patties, or tiny brown limbs being thrown into an industrial-size grinder. Sour fluids burned their way up her esophagus. She started to gag.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” the officer asked.
Henry’s makeshift grave was on the grounds of the old residential school. Of course it was. Of course. What was that famous Sir John A. MacDonald quote? Kill the Indian, save the man? Turned out killing the Indian saved no one. It just killed Indians.

Now I see why Jake was so determined to publish his post about this story on Columbus Day. By the way, my city is one of the increasing number of cities and states that have ceased that designation and now call the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.

The story starts and ends with food: from fast-food hamburgers to traditional Indian cornmeal mush. Elliott’s Contributor Note tells us the driving force behind the story was the idea of consumption. It’s a great comparison as Beth, a Mohawk woman, remembers her brother being removed from her home at age 5 and never returning. She herself was also removed and sent to the same residential school, but she was adopted out to a white family. By some measures, she is a success story: she had a good career as a nurse, married and had children of her own. The vacant spot in her soul only comes back to haunt her when her brother’s bones are discovered during construction.

This stealing of Indian children is something that was prevalent not only in Canada, where the story is set, but also in Australia and, yes, the US. My library will be screening the documentary film Dawnland next week, describing the process of forming the first US Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Included is the comment that the public is “largely unaware” of what happened.

The story’s climax occurs when Beth returns to her reservation, buying ingredients for the cornmeal mush. A sales clerk addresses her as Istha; Beth recognizes it as a familiar Mohawk word, but needs to be reminded of its meaning: Auntie.

Even though she’d had her hair cut and her tongue tamed, even though she’d donned pantsuits and pearls and spoke English as well as either queen she was named for, even though she let people think she was Portuguese or Italian or Greek, even though she’d left the scarred memories of her childhood in a dark, unattended corner of her mind – her people still recognized her. It was like they’d been there, waiting, all this time.

I was struck by the salesclerk’s enrollment in a Mohawk language immersion program, a hopeful sign in that it signals a new interest in preserving the language, and a tragic indication that the language is no longer spoken enough for children to learn it naturally.

I found another aspect of Elliott’s Contributor Note of great significance:

As soon as I realized Beth and her family were Mohawk, it was like the story opened up. Everything came fast. Everything made sense. What didn’t make sense – what was painful to ask myself – was why I was writing all my characters as white before this. It’s important to recognize the ways that whiteness works its way into our imaginations as Indigenous writers, the way it forces us to diminish our own people, our own stories, and elevate either whiteness itself, or a version of Indigeneity that pleases white audiences. This story helped me realize that my writing didn’t have to do either of those things. My writing could center Indigenous people, voices, and experiences instead.

~~ Alicia Elliott, Contributor Note

I’ve read this before from writers of color; they either felt they could not write their own stories, their own characters, because it just wasn’t done, or the only stories available to them, particularly as children, featured white characters and thus were all they had to use as models. I think – I hope – this is changing, as books featuring all kinds of people are now being published, and stories from many voices can be heard.

BASS 2018: Emma Cline, “Los Angeles” from Granta #139

It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.

Although several interesting moments jumped out at me, I had a hard time connecting with this story overall. It seemed to be a variety of what I call a “slacker story.” Alice isn’t really a slacker; she has a job that she puts some effort into, she takes acting classes with the goal, however naïve and perhaps vague, of being an actress. I can’t get a handle on her at all, really.

Cline’s Contributor Note even spells it out: she was exploring the idea of cost, including “the cost of our experiences, what they extract from us”, and the cost, for Alice of “her inability to fully inhabit her life.” That last phrase is quite good, and I recognize that’s what I was interpreting as slacker. But I don’t understand it, so I’m somewhat outside looking in on this one. Fortunately, Jake was able to latch on to this “not inhabiting life” theme in his usual substantive way, so I recommend his post.

What did come across for me was the layering of multiple instances of sexual exploitation of women, which Alice plays into out of… naïvete? This lack of connection to her own life? The store where she works hires salesgirls by sending photos to the home office for approval, rather than by looking at resumes and experience. I gather this is a reference to Abercrombie & Fitch, though the clothing seems quite different. She’s given free store-brand clothes to wear, but in a size too small. Men hang around the store for too long, sometimes buying enough merchandise to make the commissions worthwhile.

And then there are the panty fetishists. One of them offers Oona, a sales girl Alice befriends, $50 to hand over her underwear. Turns out there’s lots more online, and there’s good money to be made sending dirty underwear to strangers. There are indeed websites set up for this sort of thing. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to know that.

There were countless ads online. Oona had been right, and that night Alice lost an hour clicking through them, thinking how ludicrous people were. You press slightly on the world and it showed its odd corners, revealed its dim and helpless desires. It seemed insane at first. And then, like other jokes, it became curiously possible the more she referred to it in her own mind, the uncomfortable edges softening into something innocuous.

That process of the uncomfortable becoming innocuous is normalization, and it’s where we are right now. It’s become normal to be at war (we’ve been at war for 17 years, though you might not realize it). It’s becoming normal to hear the President use Twitter to call people names. It’s normal to read increasingly frantic reports about climate change and the devastation it will bring within our lifetimes, for some of us, as well as watching once-a-century storms roll onshore every couple of years. Normalization is all about keeping us playing with our apps (or, for some, working them ragged) while the world changes around us, while we aren’t paying attention. That’s the cost. If it’s dangerous for Alice, on a larger scale it’s catastrophic for all of us.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention this, but does the name Alice have any significance, as in Alice in Wonderland, with Oona as a guide? This seems a little too pat for me, but still, Alice does have a kind of gee-whiz-how-does-everything-work-here approach that fits.

And then there’s the final scene. It’s one of those things where we’re screaming, “No, for god’s sake, don’t get in the car with the panty guy!” and of course Alice can’t hear us. It was very “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, but there’s built-in soothing because the narration tells us Alice will be relating all this to Oona tomorrow, so she isn’t going to be found with a slash across her throat [Addendum: Thanks to Andrew Stancek, who pointed out this isn’t narration but Alice imagining what she will tell Oona; shame on me for missing that, a crucial point. There is ambiguity -yes, the guy is reaching for the unlock button, but he also delivers the rapey-est line ever, “relax, you’re only making it worse. I greatly appreciate the insight, Andrew, and I’m more convinced than ever that this story is about sexual exploitation, and how we become used to it; that leads us into danger.]. But, keeping in mind what Cline said about cost: if she survives this, what will she do next, and will she survive that?

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.