BASS 2019: Well…

But the amazing and beautiful thing about the short story is the elasticity of the form. As soon as you complete a description of what a good story must be, the new example flutters through an open window, lands on your sleeve, and proves your description wrong. With every new artist, we simultaneously refine and expand our understanding of what the form can be.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

We started and ended with something like a game of Mean Tweets. First, blogging buddy Jake Weber interpreted my “time for another round” as referring to chemotherapy, to Heidi Pitlor’s horror (I was thinking more about a drinking game; Jake was thinking of the time sink). And last, Pitlor highlighted a particularly clever negative Amazon review.

And in between were the stories. We read them, found different ways of thinking about them, related them to our lives and to the current moment, and wrote about them.

When I wrote my opening post for this year’s volume, I admitted I was worried since the bar was set so high by last year’s edition. And yes, this year felt like a bit of a letdown. In terms of expectations, maybe it was something like a stock market correction, which is what they call slumps these days. There’s something to find in all these stories, even though none of them blew my socks off.

What’s interesting is that, while I was a bit meh about many of them while reading, some of them grew on me over time: Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Jamel Brinkley’s “No More than a Bubble,” and Kathleen Alcott’s “Natural Light” in particular. Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object” with its unsolvable problem haunted me for a while. I think Weiki Wang’s “Omakase” might be another, but it’s too soon to say. I’m not sure why that is; maybe some connection finally snapped into place, or maybe I just acclimated to a lower level of stimulation.

The two stories I liked most while first-time reading both use humor. One was Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption,” a pleasant surprise since I’ve had a lot of trouble with his stories in the past. Then there was the hilarious satire “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva. Oddly, I’ve barely thought about these stories since reading them, but now I recall them with a smile.

Reva’s story had me find a little Russian film, an animation about a hedgehog who gets lost in the fog on his way to tea with his bear friend. It was the second foreign film I found in this volume, the first being Taste of Cherry in Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi”. I also found a connection between my current long-term project/obsession, Don Quixote, and several of the stories, Karen Russell’s “Black Corfu” and, more subtly, “Natural Disasters”.

What I was looking for were fictions that walked the tightrope between control and exuberance, that exhibited not so much the flawless consonance that Rust Hills (and Poe before him) admired as, to borrow a phrase from Edmond White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, a “cat’s cradle of tensions.” I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s interesting that Doerr’s Introduction – which I still say is the most charming in years – focuses on rule-breaking. He lists these individually in many cases: multiple protagonists, unlikeable characters, overly-long exposition, first-person-plural narration. None of these stories, or the broken rules, struck me as particularly innovative or unusual. I don’t expect every story to be a new experience – that would be silly – but I did miss that moment of “oh, wow, look what she did here” that BASS often contains. Maybe I’ll see it differently in time.

I realized, after I’d written my introductory post for this year’s edition, that this is my tenth time blogging BASS. On October 17, 2010, I started BASS 2010, guest edited by Richard Russo. I’m embarrassed by those posts; I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what I wanted to be doing, but it was a start, and I think I’ve matured a bit since. I could delete the old posts, but I keep them to remind me that, in ten years, this post will embarrass me – I hope, since the idea is to keep growing.

By the way, I also have BASS 2008 and 2009 on my bookshelves though that was before I started blogging; I recognize a couple of stories in each, but barely remember any detail. If nothing else, blogging helps me go beyond “I liked this” and retain more by putting plots, characters, and my reactions in a network with other memories so they are more accessible. I may re-read those volumes at some point, not to blog them in detail, but to recapture something I may have lost when I had less of a network to fit them into.

Regarding the dissatisfied customer’s rather eloquent review: in every volume, either Pitlor or the guest editor mentions the pitfalls of calling something “Best.” What I like most about these anthologies is the deliberate variety, not just the diversity of authors but a difference in style, focus, setting, character, purpose. Variety is a double-edged sword: there’s always one chocolate in the Whitman Sampler that you can’t stand (for me, it’s the one with the jelly-like stuff in it). But I confess, cover cardboard with enough chocolate and I’ll eat it; likewise, even a story I don’t like becomes an adventure when I have to articulate why I don’t like it in a blog post. And sometimes, I end up liking it after all.

Teaming up with Jake Weber has also helped; he often helps me see things a different way. I’m still mulling over a story from last year – Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles” – which he liked a great deal more than I. We’ve also had a lot of fun (at least, I have) comparing which stories from last year get the most page hits, and speculating as to why that might be.

I confess that in the past few years, I have found my own attention span fractured. We are now, many of us, moving so quickly from task to task, from texting to life to work to social media, it has grown a little difficult to engage in something that requires our minds to slow down for an extended period of time.
….A good narrative can slow a mind that’s moving too quickly. A great story is its own kind of meditation, and at the risk of sounding even more woo-woo, its own kind of out-of-body experience. A ceding of one’s heartbeat and focus to another place and time. What a gift this is, especially now.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I find reading has been turned into a competitive sport, with people posting how many books they’ve read as if it’s a race. My process of spending three months with 250 pages of short stories doesn’t impress anyone, but I get so much more out of a story when I let it sit after reading, even for just a day or two, then look at it again. Another day or two to get my thoughts in order for a blog post is nearly essential.

But we’ve accelerated life in general, haven’t we. A few years ago, I read something about an overstimulated generation: kids who were not only shuttled from one scheduled activity to the next, but had video games and cell phones and tablets to keep them occupied in between; adults who learned to multitask so three minutes on the toilet could be used to answer an email. Just sitting and thinking seemed wasteful; a train commute spent gazing out the window was anathema. I recently added Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, on my reading list, because I feel like such a lazy slob sometimes.

The book title caught my eye, but also Odell’s name, since a quote of hers on the value of art as a political act featured prominently in my Pushcart XLI opening post: “By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not ‘productive’ in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.” I’ve re-used that quote many times since December 2016, a kind of prayer for these times, when even reading and writing about reading can create pressure. It’s worth repeating again now.

So it’s time to pause before I move on. I’ll be back in January with Pushcart (I’ve made an executive decision about my approach, stay tuned). I may have a few tidbits to post between now and then: a book history mooc, a math book that blends poetry and calculus, and maybe I’ll even finish Don Quixote. Mostly, it’s time for a break, to enjoy the fun part of winter (after New Year’s it just gets old fast), to hope the world holds itself together long enough for something to heal.

BASS 2019: Weike Wang, “Omakase” from The New Yorker 6/18/2018

Stories come to me in waves. I will have an idea, usually a setup, and then in the months after, build out and then in ….
For “Omakase”, my husband and I had just gone out for sushi ….what was odd about the meal was that for the entire night my husband and I were the only customers. I just found that setup interesting and rich. What could happen if a couple came here and chef was slightly off – jilted, perhaps – and overshared as people do when no one is around? How intimate could a conversation get? How much do we really know about each other? And what kind of history goes into an interaction that seems fine and easy on the surface? I thought about the story for over half a year. When I sat down to write it, it was done in a week.

Weike Wang, Contributor Note

Jake Weber’s post on this story tells us he found it frustrating; he even provides a handy-dandy list of the most frustrating moments. Frustrating? I found it enraging. I wanted to smack The Man – and The Woman, for that matter – around, and towards the end, I wanted to grab a box of toothpicks and hand them to her one at a time, as fast as she could handle them (the story is available online if you haven’t read it and don’t know what I’m talking about). But, as usual, blogging about these stories makes me calm down, pick up the book I’ve thrown across the room, and see if I can see something deeper, or at least articulate my annoyance in literary terms.

The couple decided that tonight they would go out for sushi. Two years ago, they’d met online. Three months ago, they’d moved in together. Previously, she’d lived in Boston, but now she lived in New York with him.
The woman was a research analyst at a bank downtown. The man was a ceramic-pottery instructor at a studio uptown. Both were in their late thirties, and neither of them wanted kids. Both enjoyed Asian cuisine, specifically sushi, specifically omakase. It was the element of surprise that they liked. And it suited them in different ways. She got nervous looking at a list of options and would second-guess herself. He enjoyed going with the flow.

That first paragraph tees up the story better than I’d realized on first read. Each element is examined further in later paragraphs, and the rather sparse introduction blooms into something much more informative. I particularly like that she is looking to relieve her anxiety, and he is looking to have fun.

My first problem is just a personal preference. Some people hate second person, some dislike dialect; for me, constructions such as “the man” and “the woman” feel so unnatural, so contrived as to poke a stick in my eye. I accept that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of narration, and it works, particularly when there are very few characters to worry about. Here there are four active characters, and none of which have names. But I really dislike it.

My second problem is that a lot of issues come up – racism and ethnic conflict, differences between how immigrants, their children, and their children’s children interact with the US, privilege of race and sex, parental and societal expectations, the urban landscape. These come up, but they’re merely toyed with then batted away by another issue, as if merely mentioning them is enough to generate some insight in the reader, while all the while we’re dealing with The Man’s asshattery.

The relationship between The Man and The Woman had me by the throat, and didn’t leave much room for worrying about Chinese-Japanese relations (which I would have liked to have known a lot more about) or what it feels like for a rule-following first-generation American from China to see a (maybe) second-generation American from… well, somewhere in the Far East, wearing purple nail polish and sporting a nose stud and a lip ring (something else I’d like to know a lot more about).

And playing in the background is this intriguing stuff about Asian pottery, both Chinese and Japanese, which of course makes me want to go look up all the unfamiliar terms and learn more about the stuff. While it’s used here to emphasize The Man’s know-it-allness, both in relation to the chef and to The Woman’s mother, it serves to distract me from those relationship issues and send me googling yunomi and sancai glaze. I was sure I would use teacups as the header image, but in the end, I felt the toothpicks were more central to the heart of the story.

And of course omakase, a sushi service similar to a tasting menu in Western restaurants. I’d never heard of it (sorry, I appreciate the idea of sushi, but don’t ask me to eat it).

…[A]n omakase chef determines at the spur of the moment what will appear on the plate. This is typically driven by the ingredients available to them, which are customarily selected based on both quality and seasonality.
That being said, the philosophy of the chef will also guide what they serve, and this is important for diners to keep in mind. The omakase experience can vary dramatically depending on the philosophy and cooking style of the chef.
At Sushi Taro in Washington, D.C.—about which Michelin inspectors say, “The overall experience at the omakase counter is truly stellar”—chef/owner Nobu Yamazaki says, “We start off with a few appetizers to see how the customer reacts to our food, then if we think they can go for [dishes] a little more adventurous, or a little more of something they’ve never had before, we’ll try to put those out there little by little.” According to Yamazaki, his most pressing concern is whether or not a diner is enjoying their meal. “Sometimes we might just completely change it in the middle of the course,” he explains. “It really depends on the customer.”

Guest editor Anthony Doerr plays on this in his Introduction comment: “a story as meticulously structured as any omakase dinner and which will wake you up to the minute-by-minute realities of white privilege as well as anything you’ll read this year.” I see part of what he means: the story procedes in small bites, each having their own flavor, working towards a climax. I wonder if I would have thought of that had I not read his comment. Probably not. But there’s a lot more going on here than white privilege. Male privilege, for one.

You worry too much, the man said whenever she brought up the fact that she still didn’t feel quite at home in New York. And not only did she not feel at home; she felt that she was constantly in danger.
You exaggerate, the man replied.
At the restaurant, he gave the woman a look of his own. This look said two things: one,you worry too much, and, two, this is fun—I’m having fun, now you have fun.
The woman was having fun, but she also didn’t want to get food poisoning.
As if having read her mind, the man said, If you do get sick, you can blame me.

The literary omakase leads to a penultimate victory but ultimate defeat… maybe. Because we don’t know what reaction The Woman, already piqued to the point of toothpicks, has to the final pat on the head and that condescending advice to stop overthinking. Which, in this case, means stop thinking and let The Man do and say whatever he wants without objection. Does she fall back in line to think about it some more? Or, already feeling something, does she let him have it? I fear the first; I hope for the latter.

I found the heart of the story in the relationships: not just The Man and The Woman, but also The Man and the chef, The Woman and the chef, and both of them with the waitress; and then there’s The Woman and her mother, The Woman and her friends. They all bounce off of each other in different ways, showing different expectations of women, of Asians, of daughters. At one point, it seems there should be some rearrangement: The Man should be with the waitress, and The Woman should be with the chef. I’m thinking the waitress is humoring The Man and subtly making fun of him – which he can’t recognize because he assumes all flattery is earned – and then the chef makes what might be an anti-Chinese slur. Good for The Woman, she immediately speaks up (after pulling some egg from her tooth) and tells him she’s Chinese. The Man, again, decides she’s making too much of this. This is his shining moment of white privilege.

But not the only moment. The Woman wonders if he is attracted to her Chineseness; no, she decides, it’s not yellow fever, they’re “merely one out of a billion or so Asian girl–white guy couples walking around on this earth.” Yeah. Exactly. But she doesn’t want to overthink things. In her TNY interview, Wang says, “Not having to think about one’s race is, I believe, a privilege. This woman is more preoccupied with race than the man is, because race has permeated more aspects of her life.” And heaven forbid The Man might have to consider someone else’s point of view. This is perhaps the foundation of contemporary racism: it’s so much easier for white people to not have to think about race if there aren’t not-white people pointing it out all the time. Giving up even a little white privilege – telling those jokes, making those generalizations – seems like an unacceptable infringement for some. Getting rid of not-white people seems like a solution. The other solution, learning basic manners and getting to know not-white people as individuals, is just too much work.

As I said, there’s much more than white privilege here, too. The waitress pulls a stunt by bullshitting about wine, a trick The Man falls for – partly because he’s flirting with her, and parrtly because he must always show he Knows Everything – but not The Woman. She keeps her silence, though. As does the chef, when The Man makes more of a fool of himself by insisting he’s seen the man working there on prior nights. The chef is taciturn, letting out information in small bites (again). He answers more freely when The Woman asks him, indicating more of a connection between them. Maybe it’s partly because she isn’t acting like a fool, but there’s an implication it’s more of a racial connection. Until he brings in what well could be a slur about the Chinese manager at his former job. It’s interesting that The Woman stands here ground for the first time in this exchange, prepping her for the toothpick scene.

So again, the effort to look beyond my initial reaction paid off. I appreciate a lot more about the story having screened out the overwhelming noise of The Man and taking some advice from both the author and editor.

BASS 2019: Jenn Alandy Trahan, “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s 09/2018

Art by Hueman

Art by Hueman

I had been rereading The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris to get pumped before a graduate workshop deadline. At the time, I was reflecting on how I killed the majority of my twenties making self-destructive decisions, befriending people who didn’t really care about what happened to me, and trying to impress people who would never see or value the real me….I wanted to conjure what I had lost over the years: a sense of pride about who I am and where I come from.
The story is very much a valentine to Vallejo, a valentine to the people I grew up with at St. Basil School, and a valentine to my best friends who have stuck by my side through the years no matter what ….You could say it’s also a valentine to Brett Zaleskys everywhere – people who inspire you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, people who show up to watch you play and convince you of your strength and value when others want to insist that you are weak or that you don’t belong.

Jenn Alandy Trahan, Contributor Note

The connection to the two works Trahan mentions above is obvious: she uses first person plural here, one of those unusual narrative voices I find myself so drawn to, yet often have trouble distinguishing from a singular observer-narrator. Somehow that wasn’t the case here. Maybe it was all those “we”s or maybe I’m just getting better at reading.

The story reads more like a memoir. It starts with a white boy and ends with a group of brown girls who follow him into basketball, with consequences straight out of that Nike “If You Let Me Play” ad.

It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.

The girls’ parents aren’t anywhere near as impressed with Brent as the girls are. But the story isn’t about Brent; it’s about the effect he had on the narrative we, the Filipino girls at his school.

The girls are second-place in their families – “We weren’t worth much, not as much as sons” – and one paragraph sounds much like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as mothers complain about every aspect of their daughters. But Brent starts dating Marorie, she tries out for basketball, her friends go with her, and that’s the story there.

On the court, we felt proud. During games, we took hits and threw elbows like champs. Who cared about girls from Napa who put their fingers in our faces and timed their pregame team chant with ours so you couldn’t hear our voices? Who cared that we would grow up to have all kinds of girls interrupt us, correct us, cut us, talk over us, throw shrimp cocktail at us? Could we blame them? We were brown like their nannies, brown like the big eyed dirty kids in those Save the Children commercials, brown like hotel housekeepers….We were brown like their daddies secretaries, brown like the women their daddies beat off to and sometimes left the family for, brown like me love you long time, brown like I need to apologize for offending you, Brown like may I take your plate, brown like you think I need your charity, and brown like how can I help you, sir? Back then, we helped ourselves. We dove out of bounds. We broke bones. We didn’t care about sweat-slicked ponytails. Didn’t care about the skinned knees or bruises or scars, didn’t bother with bandages in the mornings before school. We got hard. All the marks on our faces and bodies said, So what, I’m still here.

Brent Zalesky may have been the light, but it’s the girls who followed the path and found what had value for them. By the way, Jake Weber has an insightful view of Brent Zalesky as White Savior and the implications of that, something I hadn’t considered.

It’s the kind of story that’s called heartwarming and inspiring, and I have no doubt it was very much true for Trahan. I’m dubious about its applicability in general (sports are where I was regularly humiliated) but that doesn’t diminish its value.

BASS 2019: Mona Simpson, “Wrong Object” from Harper’s, 11/2018

Until then, I’d reflexively assumed the logic of the final two lines of Auden’s stanza: Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.
But damage, it turns out, is not always reciprocated. My friends, the young therapists, told me about the vast number of people, a majority, they believed, who spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.
My interest in the idea of this containment of destructive desire started there, with this work to which my friends have now devoted their lives.
Of course, much of what I learned did not make it into the story.

Mona Simpson, Contributor Note

Stories impact readers in different ways. A clever structural or narrative technique often tickles my fancy. Humor and satire can make us smile or find our way to solutions we hadn’t thought of. Beautiful sentences are art forms in themselves. And then there’s a story like this one, that leaves the reader with a burden, a question that maybe we never thought to ask, a crack in something that always seemed so clear. To my way of thinking, this is the power of a story: to use a character, someone we can connect to, to shake us up, make us look at our attitudes and our certainties, and say, Really? What about now?

I found the way the information is revealed to be particularly interesting, and important to keeping us connected to both characters. The story is about a therapist and a patient; the narrator is the therapist. That means the patient feeds information to his therapist. The story could be told so as to make the therapist a kind of observing narrator, but that isn’t what Simpson does. The therapist is also feeding information to us, via asides and additions, and she is feeding information to her supervising therapist. This puts the therapist in the middle, and forces the reader to also pay attention to her. We are firmly placed in her chair.

He is a nondescript man.
I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.
The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?
I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

Complete story available online at Harper’s

The first sentence is about the patient, but it makes him almost invisible. Then we’re given information about the therapist. We know right away – this quote is the opening of the story – that she’s female, she’s a newly-minted therapist, she values being helpful, and she hasn’t lived in an ivory tower all her life. We know a little about the patient: he plays it close to the vest, and he’s nondescript. That nondescript rather twanged my antennae; it’s been my experience that nondescript characters eventually descript all over, in one way or another.

Next, we learn something about what brought him to the therapist.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.
His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.
It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.
Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.
I don’t feel what I should for her.
What do you feel?
Gratitude, I suppose. And when I think of leaving, pity.
What do you wish you experienced?
He slumped in my old chair. (I’d just signed the lease; the furniture I’d ordered hadn’t come yet.) I don’t feel enchantment . . . or the hope that we can make each other better. Married ten years, together thirteen. But I never had that.
That being enchantment.
He shrugged. All the things people say about being in love.
I never felt she was necessarily the one, he said.
The one, I repeated.
That we were destined for each other.

I find the detail of the office furniture interesting, not in itself, but that Simpson chose to put it there. A further indication, perhaps, that this therapist hasn’t been theraputing very long; she doesn’t even have her furniture set up. Since this is the second mention of her greenness, it must be important.

The patient is pretty unusual, it seems to me. A lot of people might see a therapist because they’re unhappy in their marriage; most complain that their spouses don’t understand them, or aren’t the person they married. He’s pretty clear that he is the problem, and wants to work on that. He’s not in love. We find out a few other details: the couple has kids, he’s well-off, he’s about 40. We find out he’s a lawyer not because he tells this to the therapist, but because she googles him. That feels… intrusive to me. What a person doesn’t reveal is as important as what they reveal, and that she conducted outside research may be the result of her inexperience. She sees a supervising therapist, an interesting detail; I wonder if she told him she googled her patient. I wonder if that’s considered solid therapeutic procedure.

I’m curious that she calls him K. It connects immediately with Joseph K in Kafka’ The Trial. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it, though it’s generally mentioned in most classes involving modern philosophy or literature. I am aware it involves a trial, and a lack of clear information, which seems like a potentially strong connection to this story. I must put The Trial on next summer’s reading list, but too late, I fear, for present purposes.

Then just when we’re feeling pretty safe and secure with this boring situation of a therapist trying to figure out this nondescript, self-aware man who seems sincerely motivated to improve himself for the sake of his marriage, he drops a little piece of information that shakes the foundation beneath us and begins the story in earnest; the inciting incident, if you will.

And then he told me. At the time I had a pencil in my hand, and I wrote down the date: January 28, 2012.
I’m a pedophile, he said. The problem with my wife isn’t . . . I’ve never been enchanted with anyone her age. Which is to say my age.
The light in my office made him look dangerously thin, pretzeled on the corduroy chair. (My furniture had finally arrived. K was the only one of my clients to notice.) I was aware of the narrowness of his shoulders in the gray, collared sweater, the niceness of his socks.

Everything is the same – he’s still very honest, dressed the same – but everything is different. The new office furniture is here – aha, that’s why it was mentioned before. Before and after January 28, 2012. I told you it’s the nondescript ones that’ll get you every time.

The “wrong object” of the title refers to the psychological idea that a child abuser needs to shift from children to adults, just as, in the past, it was believed that gay people needed to shift the object of their attraction (this is a highly controversial connection, as it involves consenting adults rather than the abuse of children, but I can see the therapeutic idea behind it). Here, it isn’t just K who has a wrong object. The therapist seems to have a wrong object as well, and hiding the facts from her supervisor turns it almost into a kind of conspiracy, or maybe a game is more appropriate. She isn’t exceptionally young – she refers to having a few grey hairs – but she seems somewhat childlike in this, almost like a victim herself.

The story is available online, so I’ll leave it for readers to follow events to their end. There’s one other detail I’d underline, however. When the therapist finally gets around to revealing her patient’s underlying problem to her supervisor, she tells him the patient has not acted on his impulses. “According to his own report.” That gave me a shiver. Child abusers are notorious for winning the confidence of their victims with charm and deceit. But given the lack of action or intent, what really are the options here, regardless of the odds of future actions?

This is an intriguing story, not for its imaginative plot or moving prose, but for the question it leaves for the reader: Does K deserve admiration and support for having resisted his impulses (at least, as far as we know per his own report), or does he deserve condemnation for having them at all, and conviction based on the likelihood that, some day, he will indulge? I have the impression at the end that the therapist still doesn’t really know, so we are on our own.

Given Simpson’s Contributor Note, I have the sense some admiration is in order, though caution would also be wise. I have a personal observation as well. I’ve been in therapeutic situations of many kinds over many years, and I’ve known many people who suffered trauma and abuse, who only did harm to themselves. It may be that all abusers were abused, but it is not the case that all those abused become abusers.

As is my usual procedure, I went googling for other insights into this story. Jake Weber has done another solid analysis, as did Paul Debrasky, another blogger buddy from days past. But I was surprised that, given its appearance in Harper’s, which has a wider readership than most litmags, and the controversial nature of the story, that there wasn’t more discussion. Maybe too controversial?

BASS 2019: Jim Shepard, “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.1

I was just doing what I usually do – reading bizarrely arcane nonfiction, in this case men’s and women’s Civil War letters – when I was struck by an aspect of them that seemed shockingly relevant to the unhappy position in which we find ourselves today. Even in the very last days of the war, after all of that suffering and all of those losses, letter after letter articulated its conviction that come what may, the South and the North would never reconcile their positions when it came to race, and that the abyss that had opened up in American civic life was never going to close.
….How had we managed as a country to go through five years of agony with more than three-quarters of a million casualties while still ending up having learned so little? That kind of maddeningly self-destructive mulishness has always attracted me as a subject. It’s also starting to seem, dispiritingly, like one of our central characteristics as a country. There followed, then, one of my usual bathysphere descents into more focused arcane reading, afterwhich, I found myself doing what I could to imagine myself inside that recalcitrant Southerner’s position.

Jim Shepard, Contributor Note

I like Jim Shepard. I’ve read two of his story collections, in addition to the stories that crop up regularly in BASS and Pushcart. He has a way of taking a real situation and turning it into an insanely enveloping read, courtesy of details that ramp up the aesthetic reaction to eleven. Most of the time, those aesthetic reactions are uncomfortable, or downright agonizing, as when a teenager plays high-stakes football, or an explorer crosses a desert. And there’s always a crucial decision in there somewhere, something that hits home. That’s why I have to say that in general I far prefer having read a Jim Shepard story, to reading a Jim Shepard story. I actually had to stop reading Like You’d Understand Anyway, a book written to capture the essence of machismo suffering. It was that painful. But they were great stories.

I didn’t have that problem here, at least, not exactly. Although some of the material was grisly – we are talking a bloody, murderous war – these were letters written from a more intimate place. We have William and Lucy, who seem to be young sweethearts (she is just turning 20); and Hattie and C.W., married nine years. We never see a letter written by C.W., we only hear of his actions and comments via William’s letters to Lucy.

Dear Lucy,
It commenced snowing at about dark here, & the wind is as cold as the world’s charity & blowing at a terrible rate. Some of the letters I sent came back. It is very uncertain about letters nowadays, though I suppose it will do no harm to write more & I wanted you to know that I’m still right-side up, though you ought to see me now if you want a hard-looking case. Whiskers have grown out all over & I am ashamed to scan a looking glass.
I’m happy to hear my Georgie stories charm Nellie in particular. Tell her he is so small some of the boys like to call for him to come out of his hat because they can see his legs….He regularly announces to one & all that if he can just get an eye on Lincoln with his musket he’ll make a cathole through him. C.W. says that anyone who can make us smile so much is like loaf bread & fresh beef all the time and that he is always hunting for something to raise his spirits given that he’s forced to sojourn in these low haunts of sorrow.

One of the things that struck me about these letters is how beautifully written they are. Yes, they are fictional, but they are based on real letters, and I don’t doubt Shepard’s ability to mimic reality. Some of that is the old-fashionedness of them, but there’s a level of care here, as though the writers know they will be cherished, so they put heart and soul into each word and phrase. Here is Lucy’s birthday meditation, written a few days before she turns twenty years old:

How long I have lived on this sphere for all the good I have done. I am older than I am wise, and wiser than I am beneficent, and now a woman, decline the unwelcome thought as I might. What good has all my schooling done me? However much I wish to stay careless and free I am a woman not only according to the hunger of my heart but because I can now measure my deficiencies in every respect, from my awkwardness to my self-indulgence to these flashes of temper. Winter’s harvest is nearly ended and I have planted few seeds of improvement in the meantime, so that the future will likely prove barren of the fruits of firm resolve or self-control. At least those we love, most of us, have been preserved and protected, but who knows what will come with another revolution of the year’s wheel.

And Hattie writes to C.W.: “We women are told that our fragility is our strength and protection our right, but this War no longer allows us our frailty, or to assume the presence of guardians that are supposedly our due.”

I have no knowledge of contemporary wartime letters; are they also so beautiful, even in this age of LOL and OMG?

Maybe it’s because the letters are written in what would be the closing months of the war, as the Confederacy’s situation grew more and more hopeless. Words might be chosen with more care when there is the sense that days are short. Also, the Civil War wasn’t just a war; there was a layer of pain on top of the grimness of the battlefield, the sense of a country tearing itself apart from the inside.

Here I have to thank Jake Weber for his knowledge of the historical context (his analysis is wonderful, I highly recommend it): the (fictional) letters are dated in the week before the (very real) Battle of Nashville, which was disastrous for the South. Thus, William and C.W. and Georgie were probably dead by the time these letters were read by Lucy and Hattie, and they probably never got to read the women’s final letters.

The title comes from something C.W. said to William, as he relates it to Lucy:

I have seen more depravity in the last month then in all my days previous. This war is a graveyard for virtues.
…[C.W.] Is very low & says that it requires the faith of a prophet to see any good resulting from so much mayhem, & that perhaps both nations must be destroyed when we consider how much corruption runs riot in high places, & that it may be that our country’s day of grace is passed. but he also says that he will all the same see the thing play out or die in the attempt.

I would wonder if there ever was a day of grace, as the nation was conceived in slavery. There are those say slavery was America’s original sin; I think it was more like a birth defect, scoliosis or a club foot, something that could have been largely corrected in infancy but wasn’t, and thus resulted in a far more traumatic procedure later, a procedure that was less than successful. It took about a dozen years for the hopes of reconstruction to be abandoned, and for the South to reestablish racism as culture. And every fifty years or so, we fight the same war all over again, in a different guise.

What Shepard does here is create sympathy for people who are cold and hungry and lonely and are about to lose their loved ones and/or their lives. That’s not a difficult task, until you consider the context. I find myself unable to really enter this story fully because of current events. That isn’t Shepard’s fault. But I have to say that this time, I enjoyed reading it more than I enjoy having read it.

BASS 2019: Alexis Schaitkin, “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone #24

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Jen’s job writing descriptions of houses for a realtor is very similar to the job I held for a few years in graduate school. To be honest, it was a job whose potential as material I was aware of from the very beginning. Architecture is such a classic metaphor for story. And this job – stepping into someone else’s home and observing, tiptoeing in the dark through a house where people are living their inimitable lives – was so like the writers task.…
Then, one day, my boss gave me an address way out of town. The house was completely dazzling, and it had an observatory, just like the house in the story. After years of visiting nothing but suburban sprawl, it was surreal to step into this incredible house out in the middle of nowhere. That was the very obvious inspiration for the story.
But as the story came together, it was all of the other houses I’d visited that fueled its essential questions: what makes something authentic versus imitative or ersatz, and does this distinction even matter, and if so, how and why – in architecture, in writing, in life?

Alexis Schaitkin, Contributor Note

Is it better to live an unpleasant reality, or create a fantasy that makes the reality bearable? That seems to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume. Here again, we have a protagonist who prefers her reality to be held at bay by some internal narrative. When that fails, she analyzes it as a writer would a plot. And it’s all very meta, all very distanced from any emotional core.

Just a few pages in, I was thinking, these are some beautiful lines, some interesting ideas, but is there a story here, or is it going to be a collection of these clever turns of phrase? Just in time, Jen gave me an answer of sorts by way of describing the way in which she was a good writer: “I could give the impression of meaning and insight, of grand convergence, and if you weren’t paying careful attention you might not notice that beneath the rhythms of thought the argument was facile. even specious.” I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Let me show you what I mean (lest I make a facile, specious argument here):

We were living in Oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party.

After starting the story with the delicious sentence about New Yorkers living ironically in Oklahoma, she immediately tells us how false this idea is, and how useless even recognizing it is at this point. So we’re left with an opening line that’s sound and (muted) fury, signifying nothing. But it’s not edited out of the story, so it signifies something.

Jen pulls this same facile-narration-over-absence about her husband’s job. She gives us a fairly detailed description – he’s a chemical engineer working on oil processing – then admits “I don’t mean to suggest that I understood any of this period I didn’t, nor did I try to. I delighted in letting the particulars of Stevens work – all that science, all those numbers – sail over my head. I suppose I thought my mind too pure to be sullied by such things.” Jen seems to enjoy undercutting her own arguments, not even waiting for us to find them specious. Maybe this is a post-epiphany tic; it leaves us with the sense that anything she says should be held in abeyance for a while, because she might tell us in a minute how wrong it is.

Her ironic approach to Oklahoma – “savoring the delicious irony of a place that conformed exactly to my hackneyed expectations” – isn’t working very well for her, in any case. She’s depressed, and starts having physical symptoms that Freudians might classify as a conversion disorder. As a sign of progress, the Mayo Clinic (and, presumably, contemporary medicine as a whole) now calls them functional nervous disorders, symptoms without a physical cause. And she’s afraid of the wide open spaces, of the tornadoes, and of the earthquakes, recent events brought on, presumably, by fracking.

I had developed a twinned obsession with tornadoes, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. They seemed to me to be part of a unified system, connected by some mystical sinister energy. The tornadoes funneled destructive force down from the sky, the oil wells pulled it up from the ground, And I was living where those forces met, on the perilous surface of the earth.

In the middle of this distress-beneath-the-irony, Jen lands a job that is perfect for her: she writes those little blurbs describing residential properties for sale. It’s not as much writing as rearranging a particular set of words, sort of like using refrigerator magnet words to make poetry.

I would draw up a list of evocative words and phrases that were more or less germane to the house at hand. Say: curb appeal, mint condition, stately, pristine. Or: stunning, sought after, the very best in country living, charmer. Then I would string those words together with the pertinent information. This pristine three-bedroom ranch oozes curb appeal, from its stately front lawn to its mint-condition brick facade. Or, For home-buyers looking for the very best in country living, this stunning charmer in sought-after Castlegate is a must-see. The copy was like candy floss – voluminous clouds that dissolved to sweetness, to the idea of substance.

It can’t be by accident that her neurological symptoms disappear after getting this job. At last, a way to bask in full ironic glory without the side effects. Embrace the meaninglessness.

She pulls the this-but-not thing again: she says there are anecdotes about visiting these houses she will not share –“and I would feel pretty good about myself, both for bearing witness and for keeping their secrets – and proceeds to tell us one of the anecdotes, about an elderly woman in a run-down property who keeps insisting she must write about the garden, which turns out to be a small patch of empty dirt that, if it ever held the snapdragons and bluebells the woman rambles on about, holds no evidene of them now. This is the kind of anecdote that would grip my heart, but Jen not only violates her own ethic about revealing secrets, she tells it in a way that removes the life-force.

Jen is then sent to a home unlike the others she’s seen. It’s in an isolated spot rather than in the town; it’s inhabited by a man; the owner shows no interest in her presence. “This story, the one I’ve been getting to all along, is the story of that single instance.” And I’m already braced for the denial. But it doesn’t come. Her experience changes her.

Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret. A girl left the city and learned a thing or two. A silly young woman hoped to be ravished by a man who was not her husband. A marriage fell apart, and afterwards a wife was wiser, though in some ways no better, than she had been before. Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that a life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us. It is amazing, it is exquisite, it is a stunning charmer, and it is noted in water and jotted in dust and the wind lifts it away.

Except… does it? I’m still not convinced. Yes, she looked up the background of the house at the City Hall archives, giving some indication that she is serious about uncovering reality beneath the beauty of the house and the slick story she constructed about it. But I’m suspicious of such sudden, complete reversals. Even as I’m struck by exquisite phrases, charmed by the inclusion of all the real estate buzzwords, and mesmerized by the final line about water and dust and wind that ties together earthquakes and tornadoes, I’m resisting buying into it. I wonder if seeing life as “the disasters we carry within us” instead of as a story is merely a change of object, not a change of view.

Yet the story of this last house feels so much more real than the preceding, it’s as if it’s a different story entirely. Or maybe I’m just projecting that onto it because I want to believe it, following a narrative of my own.

And here I go off onto a wild tangent; brace yourself. I’ve been reading Don Quixote for the past month or so. The primary feature is a poor old guy who, unhappy with the way life is unfolding personally and politically, immerses himself in chivalric stories of knights-errant, who travel the land and help out all who are oppressed or in distress. It’s usually considered the first modern European novel, and employs a number of wonderful narrative techniques that were abandoned until the twentieth century, like layering of narrators and self-referentiality. I just started Part II, published ten years after Part I, and there’s a crucial switch from enchantment and illusion to disenchantment and disillusion – in Spanish, desengaño – which parallel the transition from Renaissance humanism to the Baroque period, from a loss of optimism that human reason and knowledge can prevail, to seeing the world as ugly and grotesque and overly complicated. I’m using an OCW and a mooc to get the most out of it, and since this is all quite new to me, let me quote from some of the lectures of Professor Roberto González Echevarría of Yale University, to avoid misstatements:

Part II is going to be that of Baroque desengaño….When the games prove to be nothing more than that, games of illusions, Renaissance optimism gives way to Baroque disillusionment.

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’ This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.…It signified a passing from ignorance to knowledge, and awakening from the falsity of one’s dream.

Professor Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW

There are major differences of course, but there’s this similarity of motion from self-deceit to awakening. In the same way Jen’s engaño, living ironically or in the context of some narrative from outside, wasn’t really working for her and caused physical problems, Don Quixote’s engaño by way of living chivalric stories caused a great deal of suffering for him: beatings, losing teeth, hanging by his wrists, all presented in comedic absurdity, but nonetheless painful. And in the same way Don Quixote moves from illusion to disillusionment – from fantasy to reality – so does Jen, in her last adventure.

The story seems to be a lightning rod for other stories I’ve read. Compare Jen with the character of Laura in Mary Gordon’s story “Ugly” from BASS 2017; she, too, goes from New York to elsewhere, and after a period of trepidation, embraces it to the point where she feels her ugliness rather than the ugliness of Missouri. I’ve also recalled Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Anyway?” from Pushcart XLIII, a full-throated cry for authenticity in place of cynicism. And there are the other stories in this volume that touch on fantasy vs reality, such as “Audition” and “Letter of Apology”.

In another thought-provoking post, Jake Weber addresses, not for the first time, the question of whether literature is good for us. Which, I’m dying to tell him, is one of the many core questions raised in Don Quixote. But I think I’ll back off; I can be a little evangelical about whatever I’ve read that’s had an impact on me.

Addendum 12/4/19: This story has been hanging with me, and I think I may have been distracted by Don Quixote and overlooked something important: the observatory.

He stopped at a door I had assumed to be a closet and opened it to reveal a narrow spiral staircase.
“It’s all one tree trunk,“ he said, sliding his hand along the banister. The wood was exquisite – intricately grained and polished to a whispery smoothness. I had the sense, then, that I was about to ascend into the house’s “essence.“…
There were no walls, only windows, and through them the Prairie stretched in every direction.

This may be what Schaitkin was thinking of when she referred to architecture as a metaphor for story: the path to true observation is hard to find, and in the best cases, is fashioned with exquisite care. But there’s something else speaking to the conflict between living ironically, and living, between cynicism and engagement: the observatory is all windows. What a fragile structure here in tornado country, yet it must be so in order to provide complete observation of all that is. Risk is an inherent part of engaging with our surroundings. But clear observation also makes it possible to notice the approach of danger in time to take precautions.

BASS 2019: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “Audition” from The New Yorker, 9/3/18

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

This piece began as nonfiction, which is to say, as the truth. I had originally intended to title it “How Cigarettes Saved My Life,” because if I had not become addicted to smoking cigarettes at the age of nineteen, I would not have been self-aware enough to realize that, two years later, I was following a similar trajectory with crack cocaine. This guiding principle comprised the final four pages of the story, and the final four pages of the story were eventually, with great reluctance and remorse, completely cut. Many other facts were cut as well, and many others were bent and reshaped in the interests of make-believe. Even so, I continued to try to cleave as closely as I could to reality, perhaps as a way to make direct use of what I’d experienced, but also because I’ve always believed that the truth is generally more compelling than invention.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Contributor Note

This is one of those stories where I really wasn’t sure what it was about until the final paragraph, at which point I had to go back and read it again to make sure. Jake Weber put it beautifully in his analysis by comparing it to Michael Jordan: “It goes one way, crosses back, fakes again, pulls back, and before long the would-be critic’s ankles are as broken as Craig Ehlo’s” (no, I have no idea who Craig Ehlo is, but it’s such a good metaphor and fits the read so well, I know exactly what he means). And then, a couple of days later, it grew broader than that. Maybe a little too broad.

It starts out with a nineteen-year-old son of a rich man working construction incognito on one of Daddy’s housing developments. Oh, I thought, a kind of paying-your-dues story. Except this kid had planned to go to college and study acting. Oh, I thought, a breaking-away-from-family-expectations story. Exactly why that breaking away was delayed wasn’t clear, but now his plan is to go to LA and work his way into acting that way. Why that plan isn’t being put into action isn’t clear, either.

When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers—the softened consonants and the dropped articles—lest I reveal myself for the outsider that I was. No hard “k”s, “x”s, or “f”s. The irony was that my father’s specified plan of self-improvement for me dovetailed with my own: experience real life up close and personal.

Eventually he ends up giving Duncan, one of the other construction guys, a ride home. Duncan has some books on carpentry, but figures “they won’t give a guy like me a chance.” I don’t know what “a guy like me” means. One thing Duncan is very good at is fashioning a crack pipe out of aluminum foil and a piece of Chore Boy. Oh, this is going to be a descent into darkness story, drugs, crime, rich kid’s fall. The first line of the story kind of set that up – “The first time I smoked crack” – but I’d pretty much forgotten about that. Or maybe a coming-out story when eyes meet over the crack pipe. None of that happens, either.

His former acting teacher gives him a tip about an audition he should take for “a central role as a character who would be onstage for all three acts but had zero lines. I could not tell if this was a step backward or forward for my career.” More dues, or is this payoff? I find the question fascinating, but that’s easy to say when you don’t have skin in the game; it’s not my acting career on the line.

The story ends with the second time the kid smokes crack, again with Duncan, and the story starts to pull together. He moves between Clarity and Delusion as reflected states, always seeing himself from the other. In a couple of spectacular paragraphs, he moves through space for three acts:

It was nine o’clock. I had entered a strange dimension of time—it was progressing both slowly and quickly, as marked by the ticking of that basement boiler. Nine was early for night. It would be night for many more hours to come. I was nineteen. Nineteen was young. I would be young for many more years to come. What exactly had I been so troubled by a few minutes before? Light and airy clarity descended upon me. Ah, this was clarity, and the other, delusion. I had reversed things, silly, overstated them, compounded them, turned delight into cynicism. I was going to be onstage for three acts, moving through space, another credential to have on my résumé when I arrived in L.A. It was ten o’clock. Was ten o’clock early for night? Was night moving slowly or fast?…. This is the last time I’m doing this, I said to myself, even as I knew that saying so implied its inverse. At the A.T.M., I took out another forty dollars. I noted my balance. My savings account was still large. It was midnight. Midnight was still young.

I started to think this is a story about addiction, a thought that was strengthened by the Contributor Note. And the opening line. The essence of addiction: to be able to convince yourself that this is the last time, that it’s necessary, that it’ll be ok even though you know there will be interpersonal, medical, and/or legal consequences. This is why Twelve Steppers will tell you it isn’t about willpower, because the addiction is in control, not will or logic or character.

So I started to wonder if these guys are addicted to being stuck, in addition to crack. Our protagonist, pre-crack, has choices. He could go to college and study acting (if Dad won’t pay, there are alternatives, just ask all the poor kids in college). He could go out to LA. Duncan could study carpentry. But it’s easier to go to work and come home and smoke crack, forgetting all those “long-term, existential, and impossible” problems. And whatever time it is, it’s still plenty early. Until it’s too late.

I had a moment when I realized I wasn’t young any more. People who know me, who knew me back then, would be very surprised because it seems so out of character for me. When I turned 35, I realized I couldn’t join the Air Force any more. Yes, back when I was about 20 and was particularly lost and confused, I thought I might do better in a more structured setting like the military, and the Air Force seemed less… war-like, or something, than the Army or Navy. This was the first time I heard a door closing. That it wasn’t a door I really wanted at 20, and certainly wasn’t a door I wanted at 35, didn’t matter; it was the sound of the slam that shook me, that made me realize I would be hearing more doors slam as time went on.

A day or so after reading the story, I saw Duncan as the future for the protagonist: a little less sure of a future, the dreams of acting being tossed on a chair because he wasn’t ever going to get his chance. Not getting his chance would have nothing to do with who he was; it would have to do with never really going for it. But “guys like me” or “a town like this” or “my father wouldn’t let me” is easier. Not exactly addiction, but maybe somewhat related.

I just happened to be watching Season 3 of The Crown as I read this. I kept wondering about all these people trapped in their royal lives, unable to fly planes or breed horses or marry a particular someone or express an opinion about something important. And yet they all stay; the one who got away years before was viewed within the family as a tragedy, a cautionary tale. Why do they stay? Is it the same insecurity our protagonist feels, that keeps him from chasing his dream, because he might fail? Is the frustration that draws him to crack similar to that which results in so much royal misbehavior?

I realize I took this far afield, but the story’s multiple foci allowed that. It could be, probably should be, taken as a story of addiction (I realized, literally as I was putting up this post, the similarity of the title, “Audition”, to “addiction”). It can be taken as more.

BASS 2019: Karen Russell, “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.2

I wrote the original draft of “Black Corfu“ in a feverish season of hope and fear; while I was pregnant with my son and considering the unlevel landscapes that children inherit from a new vantage point…. How many people today feel trapped in their orbits, unable to ladder out of poverty, despair? Condemned to work in the shadows while they watch others enjoy health, wealth, safety? The vukodlak seemed like the right vessel for a story about a father’s “zombie” hopes – those undead dreams of freedom that stalk a world where they are as yet unfulfilled.

Karen Russell, Contributor Note

I haven’t read much horror fiction, What I have read has come to me via literary fiction – Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, some of the short stories of Manuel Gonzales – where monsters may appear only very briefly, or even not at all, yet they set a stage for some remarkable human contemplation and drama. Add this story to that list. It’s much less about the supernatural monsters that form so much of the plot, than about the human monstrosity we experience every day.

Don’t let the setting of a 17th century Croatian island scare you away. If you’re aware that doctors and surgeons of that period were not exactly as we know them today, and if you’re familiar with the suspicion surrounding Shakespeare’s famous Moor, Othello, you’ll have no trouble. The monsters the plot revolves around – vukodlaks – seem to be something like zombie werewolves, the dead come back to life as a threat to the living, particularly those who loved them most.

The primary theme of the story is clearly racism, but several other ideas weave in and out quite effectively: rumors as disease, the Other Man, the commonality of perpetrator and victim. But let’s slow down a little; unlike the story, which begins in the middle, let’s start with our (takes a shot*) unnamed protagonist at the beginning.

His wife is very proud of the doctor’s accomplishments. Because he loves her, he never shares the black joke. Not once does he voice an objection to the injustice of his fate, or rail against what the island has made of his ambition. Above ground, the chirurgo practices medicine in his warm salon – performing salubrious bloodlettings, facilitating lactation for the pretty young noblewoman. Whereas this doctor must descend into the Neolithic caves, under the cold applause of stars.
His formal title is the Posthumous Surgeon of Korčula, yet all the bereaved know him by name….He operates on the dead – the only bodies an occupant of his caste is permitted to touch. Before his good reputation was gutted by his accusers, the doctor had a perfect record: during his twenty-three-year tenure on the island, not a single vukodlak had been sighted. Everyone slept more peacefully for his skill – the living and the dead. Whose relief was manifest in the verdant silence of the woods, in the solemn stillness of the cemetery air. Inside that pooling quiet he could hear, unwhispered, thank you, Doctor. Bless you, Doctor.

The Doctor’s job is to perform surgeries, involving cutting the hamstrings, on the newly dead, to prevent them from turning into undead vukodlaks. He had once hoped that his service, his skill, would be noticed and rewarded by allowing him to become a doctor to the living. But such is not to be for a Moor in a Christian land. His religion is not the issue (he seems, in fact, to be Christian), but his ethnicity is. I’m currently reading Don Quixote along with a period history of Spain, so I’ve been somewhat immersed in this prejudice for a couple of months. Sangre limpieza – clean blood, untarnished by Moorish or Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity generations earlier – became an obsession for Spain, a requirement for government positions by the middle of the 16th century. From the story, it seems a similar restriction was in place along the Adriatic coast. The Doctor will not be allowed to rise, literally or figuratively. He makes the best of it: “We treat the living. We treat the fears of the living.”

The events of the story are set in motion by the arrival of Jure, a teenager from an elite family on a neighboring island, an island overrun with vukodlaks. They need a Doctor of the Dead, and he was chosen to fill the role. Why? The Doctor speculates that, while he is from a privileged family, he is too dull to fill any other role. Jure, however, is ill-suited to this role, as becomes evident: he doesn’t study, doesn’t learn, and is constantly afraid of the dark, the cave, the dead bodies, the howls in the night.

The boy stiffens. “Oh God,” he says, jerking back with a shudder. “There has been some mistake. I do not belong down here with you. Please, I want to go home.”
“Home” being synonymous, for this lucky young man, with the sunlit world above.
Blessed are the living, thinks the doctor, his scalpel poised.

When rumors of a vukodlak begin, the boy sees his chance to get out of the dark: he claims the Doctor made a mistake on one of his patients, the daughter of the most elite family on the island. Later he embellishes the story to add an illicit romance. The Doctor’s years of service, his perfect record, no longer matter. All that matters is who is the Moor and who is not. There’s a twist in that the boy’s complexion hints that his family may not have clean blood, but it’s cleaner than the Moor’s.

What I really like about this story is how Russell moves beyond mere plot. The Doctor views the rumors of his incompetence as illness, a contagion; today we’d call it infection, but this was before germ theory, so such spreading illnesses are attributed to miasma, bad air.

So the rumor has penetrated the walls of his home, the mind of his child. …
What if the miasma of the rumor is already changing? Becoming even more poisonous,contagious –
I will have to keep the girls indoors from now on, to prevent their further contamination
What will happen to him, if he cannot stop the rumor from spreading, transforming?

What better way of considering racism as a societal norm, than as bad air, an atmosphere that affects everyone though it can only be seen from outside? Jake Weber’s post looks at the story in the context of the recently released movie Parasite, which, in a darkly comic way, deals with a similar stratification by class rather than by race; I went to see the movie myself, and it’s an interesting comparison.

I’m not sure if it’s related to the racism, but there’s a great deal of color in the story. Mostly red and blue – suggestive colors in a contemporary setting, if not the 16th century – but also black, white, and a sprinkling of others. I don’t see a pattern offhand; I’m tempted to take a few days and look more closely, but prior trips down rabbit holes like these have not really been worth the time expended, so I’ll pass for now at least.

The Doctor’s wife suggests he confess and beg forgiveness, and he is devastated that she has succumbed to the contagion of the rumors. “In an act of spontaneous reformation, his wife immolates her image of him as a perfect man, resurrects him, and forgives him.” But it goes beyond that: he becomes enraged with her, because how could she be so loving, reaching out her hand, if she believed he had caused the vukodlak to emerge? It’s an interesting twisting of threads: he is shocked and ultimately disgusted by her forgiveness. In spite of efforts to find the monster, no one has reported actually seeing it, but the rumors grow. Can you say “fake news?” The townspeople dig up the girl’s casket and find her body is missing, seemingly confirming the horror. But the Doctor has a good idea how this could have happened, and though it involves a monster, it has nothing to do with any vukodlak.

The Doctor sees himself now as the Other Man in a different way: he has become a vukodlak, roaming the hills in the darkness. In a heartbreaking scene, we see him climbing up the hill to the home of the girl who has risen as a werewolf, the most elite home on the island, where the boy Jure is now staying, secure among the elite; he watches the luxurious dinner, the gentle company, through a window from the dark, cold outside:

It is suddenly all too easy to understand why the boy from Lastovo which moved the countess’s body.
We are in the same predicament, then, the doctor considers. You do not want to be a liar, anymore than I wanted to be a monster.

The final scene is ambiguous enough to require re-evaluation of both the Doctor’s story, and the story itself. I spent a long time thinking about it, and I still haven’t made up my mind.

This is one of the stories in Russell’s collection, Orange World, published this past Spring. Between BASS and Pushcart, I’ve read half of the eight stories.

* Jake and I have a little drinking game going, and unnamed protagonists are one of the triggers.

BASS 2019: Maria Reva, “Letter of Apology” from Granta #145

A few years ago I read that the KGB had to stop arresting citizens for telling political jokes in the 1960s, due to the Khrushchev thaw, but also because it was impossible to lock up the entire Soviet Union. Instead, officers were to engage offenders in a (re)educational conversation and have them submit a letter of apology.
Shortly after I learned this, my father told me that the KGB tried to recruit him to the Honor Guard in the 1980s. He was a model student and athlete, but the last thing he wanted was to guard Lenin’s Tomb. …
These two sources inspired “Letter of Apology.” I’d already written a story from the perspective of a character who suspects she is being trailed by the KGB, but not one from the perspective of a KGB agent doing the trailing. I wanted to explore the loss of power a Secret Service agent must have felt, having to chase after citizens for a chat and letter. Finally, I wanted to examine the mechanisms of self delusion: how does a person escape a terrible truth?

Maria Reva, Contributor Note

The story starts with a joke. It ends with a joke. In between, it uses irony, sideswipes, descriptive humor, and deadpan silences. And woven into that humor is so much more: a deeply symbolic Russian cartoon about a hedgehog, Schrodinger’s Cat, and Bolshevik sloganeering. I kept thinking of the pre-disco BeeGees: “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me.” The joke is definitely on Soviet agent Mikhail Igorovich, but if he doesn’t get the joke, does anyone laugh?

News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in a suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading, Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage. Following Directive No. 97 to Eliminate Dissemination of Untruths among Party Cadres and the KGB, my superior could not repeat the joke, but assured me it was grave enough to warrant our attention.
One can only argue with an intellectual like Konstantyn Illych if one speaks to him on his level. I was among the few in the Kozlov branch of the agency with a higher education, so the task of re-educating Konstantyn Illych fell to me.
Since Konstantyn Illych was a celebrated poet in Ukraine and the matter a sensitive one, I was to approach him in private rather than at his workplace, in case the joke had to be repeated. Public rebuke would only be used if a civil one-on-one failed. According to Konstantyn Illych’s personal file (aged forty-five, married, employed by the Cultural Club), the poet spent his Sundays alone or with his wife at their dacha in Uhly, a miserable swampland thirty kilometers south of town.
Judgment of the quality of the swampland is my own and was not indicated in the file.

Complete story available online at Granta

The story is online, not very long, and very readable (and, by the way, it will be in Reva’s forthcoming collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear), so I’ll focus on the peripheral issues. Like how underappreciated humor is, and how effective. Chances are you’ll remember a Trevor Noah bit long after a well-researched PBS piece on the same subject has faded from memory. Humor shines a spotlight on the sore spots, the rusty hinges, the wobbly underpinnings we overlook while gazing at the magnificent edifice. Like a good massage, humor pokes us where it hurts, so we know where we have to heal.

Konstantyn Illych broke the silence. ‘So what’s the joke?’
‘I haven’t made a joke,’ I said.
‘No, the joke I supposedly told about the Party.’
Already he was incriminating himself. ‘The term I used was “wrongful evaluation”, but thank you for specifying the offense, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, unexpectedly. ‘What was it?’
‘I cannot repeat the joke.’ I admit I had searched Konstantyn Illych’s file for it, but one of the typists had already redacted the words.
‘You can’t repeat the joke you’re accusing me of telling?’
‘Correct.’ Then, before I could stop myself: ‘Perhaps you could repeat the joke, and I’ll confirm whether or not it’s the one.’
Konstantyn Illych narrowed his eyes.
‘We aren’t moving any closer to a solution, Konstantyn Illych.’

Mikhail is just aching to know what the joke is. But Konstantyn is nobody’s fool. That’s Mikhail’s job.

I found two of the scenes in the story highly cinematic. It’s not the description; I often get bored with detailed lists of colors and materials, cleverly chosen similes acting to reinforce an atmosphere. But these scenes don’t depend on such writing techniques, they depend on stark contrasts between characters, between expectations and realities, and on freight trains of emotion in simple actions and words. First, there’s the rowboat in Konstantyn’s dacha. Second is the poetry reading featuring Konstantyn’s challenge to Mikhail, so proud of his education and his position, so dismissive of the presented poem, “Who, whom?” until it is revealed that those are the words Lenin chose decades before as a slogan framing the conflict between capitalism and communism as the essence of the Bolshevik movement.

The animated Soviet film The Hedgehog in the Fog, where Mikhail follows Konstantyn on the day before the deadline for the letter of apology, is well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch. It’s a constantly shifting metaphor that seems to be, in a couple of ways, a blueprint for the story. The hedgehog, lost in the fog, can’t tell what is danger and what is safety. He resigns himself to the river, until an unseen fish brings him to dry land, and he finally joins his friend the Bear for tea and raspberry jam. But most importantly, it brings up the white horse in the fog: if the hedgehog can’t see her, is she alive or dead? She could be either! I was thrilled to see this thinly-veiled reference to Schrodinger’s Cat in the story, and was all set to dive in up to my neck, but Jake Weber does a great job of laying it out so I’ll just refer to his post and move on.

The film ends with our little hedgehog, comfortably situated with the Bear awaiting tea and raspberry jam, staring numbly into the night and wondering about the horse: “How is she, there in the fog?”

The question is whether Hedgehog would prefer to keep the fog or have it lift to discover what is behind its thick veil. I would keep the fog. For instance, I cannot know the whereabouts of my parents because they are part of me and therefore part of my personal file and naturally no one can see their own file, just like no one can see the back of their own head. My mother is standing proud among the Honor Guard. My mother is standing elsewhere. She is sitting. She is lying down. She is cleaning an aquarium while riding an elevator. Uncertainty contains an infinite number of certainties. My mother is in all these states at once, and nothing stops me from choosing one. Many people claim they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true – it is uncertainty that gives freedom of mind. And so, while I longed to be reassigned to Moscow, the thought of it shook me to the bones with terror.

Looks like Mikhail has an inkling of what selection to the Honor Guard really means, he’s just choosing to stick his fingers in his ears and yell “nyah nyah I can’t hear you.” Because what’s the alternative? And now, unable to get the Letter of Apology on which his own selection to the Honor Guard may depend (one way or another), he’s just floating down the river, clutching his raspberry jam, maybe to drown, maybe to be rescued. This is the central question of the story: is it better to live in ignorance – that is, to believe a comforting lie – or to face a devastating reality? And his family, his mother: How is she, there in the fog?

A dramatic scene with Kostantyn’s wife follows. It’s just a little too Man from U.N.C.L.E. for my tastes (though I once was all about Illya Kuryakin), with touches of Boris and Natasha. But it forces Mikhail up against his deepest fears, as Steve Almond puts it, and leaves him staring ahead in numb shock, like our little hedgehog friend. It left me, as well, wondering about Mikhail: how is he, there in the fog?

And if you think this is a period piece all about the Soviet past, you haven’t been paying attention to a world where the fog is designed by and for power. I see a strong connection to my favorite tweet encapsulating the current era in the U.S.: Adrien Bott’s pithy “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” from October 2015, a sentiment that only gets more true every day.

The story ends with a recapitulation of the original Joke, to remind us how all this started and to reintroduce the humor in a wonderfully self-referential typographical pun. Konstanyn’s wife makes the understatement of the century: “It’s not even that funny.” I’m sure Mikhail agrees.

BASS 2019: Sigrid Nunez, “The Plan” from LitMag #2

The first story I ever published was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and though I did not go on to write fiction in that genre and I’m not even a big reader of such fiction, I have often found myself wanting to write about a crime. For “The Plan”, I wanted to write about a certain type of criminal – violent, murderous, misogynistic – and I wanted to write from his point of view. The fierce anger and resentment that appear to consume so many men today was likely among the influences on my desire to explore this killer’s vision of society and his place in it. Also, I have vivid memories of what New York City was like during the seventies, how crime-ridden and seedy and dangerous it was – a very noir place, it seemed to me – and I saw this as the ideal setting for my crime story.

The first couple of pages give no hint of the elements mentioned in the above Contributor Note; it seems like a reminiscence by an ordinary young man with a mild impulse to improve himself:

He wanted to have more culture. This was what he always thought when he found himself at Lincoln Center. He remembered coming here on a school trip once, about ten years ago, when the complex was still partly under construction. ….He’d never been back. He’d never even thought of going back. But earlier that summer of ‘76, on one of his long city walks, he happened to arrive at the Plaza.

As a kid, he’d been a big reader. Later, for some reason he lost the habit. Now he thought he would like to read more, not just newspapers and magazines, but big, interesting books – books that a lot of other people were also reading.
Get more culture. He put that on the list. The list of things to do after.

So we get to know Roden Jones via unremarkable aspects of his musings: the fountain that, at a distance, displays rainbows that only disappear when he approaches to see them more closely; a memory of his mother spray-misting shirts before ironing (I remember this! Does anyone do this any more?); and this list of things to do after. After what? We’re drawn forward to find out.

Even when we find out the event for which he is planning an after is murder, we continue to be drawn forward to find out the details of who and why. The story takes us through Roden’s pedestrian observations of people around him – panhandlers, a teenage girl whose eyes shine through the filth of the rest of her, a pub, a visit to a hooker masquerading as a palm reader. We’re still waiting for the details: who does he want to murder, and why?

We find it on Roden’s train ride home, via his observation of a dozing woman in a very short skirt who takes offense when she discovers she’s attracted the attention of several nearby men.

Wearing a skirt that all but exposed your crotch when you sat down, being outraged when men took notice – that was women.…
When he got up to move to another seat she shot him a smug look , as if she’d scored a triumph over him.
She is a candidate, he thought. What a joy it would have been to go back and make her choke on that gum, just squeeze her neck until the pimples burst.

I started off this scene wrapped up in the question I often ask, maybe a question that isn’t very well-received these days: does it make sense to dress to accentuate one’s sexual attractiveness and then take offense when that attractiveness is noticed? That would’ve been an interesting story. I almost resented the actual story in front of me for shifting the focus back to Roden, who it now seems is not planning a revenge murder, or a profitable murder, or a cover-up murder, but is simply a psychopath who wants to murder someone, and his wife is the most sensible target.

In his Intro to the volume, Anthony Doerr points this out as a successful story with an unlikable protagonist. It’s an issue I’ve come across before in these pages. Criminal psychopaths can be fascinating characters: Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter. But these characters have something in them – sorrow, intelligence, loyalty – that allows us to connect. Roden has a traumatic childhood, a keen eye for observation (I keep coming back to the rainbows: as soon as he married his wife, he realized he hated being married), but is more than anything else the poster child for the banality of evil. A slacker murderer? Or, more accurately, a slacker murderer-wannabe, since he’s still planning his first murder.

I rather lost interest in the discussion of all the details, the planned trip to Aruba where the murder would take place (never murder at home; this was set in the 70s, remember, which was well before Aruba became known as a destination murder site), and his impatience over the intervening months. Jake Weber goes far more into the possible motivational models for murderers in his blog post.

Yet a few things did leap out at me in the middle part of the story. One was what seemed like a shout-out to Jane Austen, apropos of nothing:

He’d always thought a woman couldn’t wait to have kids. Though she was never a loving mother herself – though she heaped sarcasm on her son and beat him with an extension cord – his mother had always assured him this was a universal truth.
But it meant nothing to him, either, that Harley wanted to put off motherhood. His cousin and best man, Ryan, warn him that, wedding accomplished, everything would change. This was another universal truth. –

Presumably, Roden’s lack of reading keeps him from recognizing the phrase “a universal truth”, and his lack of engagement with the world keeps him from wondering that it turns up twice from two very different people. Using his mother’s assertion as irony, that would mean not all women desperately want to have kids, which is far more true (I being a prime example), and in fact Harley shows no particular interest in having children. It also provides a basis for a future scene about women wanting babies, a scene that reveals Harley to be just as self-focused as Roden. Ryan’s comment would entail that everything does not change with the wedding; this I’m a bit less sure of, in the context of real life. In the context of the story, however, I think it’s probably borne out: while Roden immediately regrets being married, he is not substantially changed. Only time has moved him down the road, closer to experiencing his first murder.

I wasn’t even that interested when, In the end, a switcheroo took place, leaving Roden without a suitable victim. But he needs to murder someone. I won’t spoil it, in the interests of readers who may find the story more engrossing than I did. I will say that Roden has a rather interesting realization afterwards, regarding the difference between murdering men and murdering women.

I’ve always said I love a story that teaches me something. Not only did I learn the term “rubber husband” (it’s nowhere near as kinky as it sounds), but I corrected my longstanding misperception of the meaning of noir. For me, noir always brought to mind femme fatales, smoky jazz dives, and rough-edged detectives. I was surprised to find out that detectives are not a necessary element of noir, though crime is usually involved. The key elements are cynicism, alienation, and pessimism, leading to the inevitable downfall of the protagonist.

In a Lithub interview, Megan Abbot explains how the hard-boiled detective story and noir are often conflated, but are in fact different: the hard-boiled detective is ultimately moral, if flawed, cynical, and unable to fix the world; “In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable.” In The Guardian, Otto Penzler explains: “noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.”

This explains the difference between Dexter and Roden. And leads to the question Doerr asked: can a character like Roden, possessing no redeeming qualities whatsoever, work as a protagonist? Is he just too unlikable?

The thing is, I didn’t find him unlikable; I found him uninteresting. He sort of had me at first, but then lost me. Am I fooling myself? Did I lose interest because I learned about his misogyny, his psychopathy? I don’t think so; I still find the incident with the short-skirted woman on the train to have some interesting overtones. And I’m really interested in what Jane Austen is doing in the story; it can’t be by accident, though it seems so random. What if Harley had been more likable, would I have felt some rage at his targeting her, some relief at her safe, if treacherous, departure? Must a story give me someone I care about, for me to care about the story?

Sometimes a story that doesn’t interest me can raise questions that interest me very much, and that’s not bad.

BASS 2019: Manuel Muñoz, “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA #113

I’m learning to listen to the stories as they want to tell themselves: I know that sounds odd, but it comes from years of listening to my mother’s stories and only now realizing that I haven’t been fully understanding them. Most of my recent fiction has come from delving again into the stories she has told me, particularly of the deportation years, as I call them, when my father was repeatedly sent back to Mexico before the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act changed our lives and many of those in our Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. I used to think that my parents’ reunification was the only story but, as the first line proved to me, sometimes other pressures took over. When that line came to me, it snapped me out of my recurrent doubt that the “domestic” or the “realist” story can’t do much in a fraught and complicated world. It reminded me that the infinite ways in which we struggle to keep or make family is more than story enough.

Manuel Muñoz, Contributor Note

It’s all in the details: the choices of which perceptions to present, which details to leave vague, what language to use, and bang! Muñoz creates a sense of caution and foreboding deeper than the mere plot might allow to explore the conflict between suspicion and need.

The first sentence referenced above is “Her immediate concern was money.” Even before we have any idea who she is or where/when this is taking place or what the circumstances are – it could be a recent widow in a Park Avenue penthouse or a noisy tenement, or a suburban teen planning to run away from home, or a business manager who just lost her job – we are all familiar with money problems, so we can feel an immediate sense of affinity with the protagonist, some empathy for what she’s feeling, even if it turns out her concern is losing the vacation home on the beach rather than having nothing to give her kids for dinner that night. And something else besides: we know there are other concerns, behind this first, most immediate concern. This is not a make-it-til-payday crisis; this is deep shit.

When the street fell silent at dusk, the screen doors of the dark houses opened one by one and the shadows of the women came to sit out on the concrete steps.

We soon get the setting: Delfina, and the other women of the neighborhood in agricultural California, have realized their husbands aren’t coming home from the fields tonight, which means they’ve been rounded up in an immigration raid and might not be home for days – or ever. I didn’t realize, until I read Doerr’s brief comment in the volume Introduction, that this was set back in the 80s, the time of the stories Muñoz’ mother told him. It’s hard to read anything about immigrants right now without referencing current events; I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in any case.

She was alert to her own worry, to be sure, but she felt a resolve that seemed absent in the women putting out last cigarettes and retreating behind the screen doors.…The longer she held her place on her front steps, the stronger she felt.

We don’t know a few key details, details that may be part of the current moment or just as much part of the 80s. We don’t know how precarious anyone’s immigration status actually is. We don’t hear about green cards or citizenship. Delfina defines herself as being “from Texas”, an identity borne out by her car’s license plate, which seems deliberately nonspecific. It’s understandable she doesn’t discuss details with her neighbor Lis, whom she’s just met, but it’s a writer’s choice to not inform the reader. This accomplishes a couple of things: without a way to easily categorize, therefore judge or pity, the family, it strips away some of the tendency to read politically, and keeps us focused on a woman whose husband is, for an uncertain period, gone. And it keeps us wondering about the source of this sense of resolve.

Wariness best defines the interaction between Delfina and Lis; they come across as two boxers in a ring, sussing out the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Delfina is nobody’s fool; “On the long drive from Texas, she had learned that strangers only approached when they needed something.” This emphasizes that, although they are physically neighbors, they are strangers. This is not a cozy neighborhood where someone drops in for coffee or you can ask someone to keep an eye on your kid while you run to the store.

Lis twanged my antennae from the get-go; I’m surprised Delfina doesn’t cut her off and go back inside, and that has to mean something. We already know she’s not naïve; maybe desperation? A willingness to entertain suggestions so she can feed her four year old son? Maybe even a longing for the kind of relationship that would entail neighborliness, a willingness to see if that’s possible. But still, the caution.

Lis suggests they go pick peaches for some quick cash. She offers her ten-year-old daughter as babysitter for Delfina’s son – “if you trust her.” She says this trust thing twice, which had me screaming, “No, don’t go!” It’s almost a dare, isn’t it. You mean you don’t trust my kid? In the meantime, there’s the whole issue of trusting Lis.

And, surprise surprise, Lis earns all the wariness, and then some.

Delfina looked down the road to soak in that blessed quiet and the longer she looked, the emptier and emptier it became. The empty row where, she realized, Lis had disappeared like a faraway star.

The language here emphasizes Delfina’s solitude again. No man is an island, but a woman often is. And yet she must depend on the kindness of strangers, a kindness that, as I read, I doubted. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. The surprise is that it wasn’t, that sometimes, kindness, even from a surprising source, is kindness, not a trick. Her gratitude and relief takes the form of a bottle of Coca Cola.

When I read Jake Weber’s post, I found a lot to chew on, so I’m gonna go over there for a while. I think this story worked – where others have failed – because it kept me focused on exactly what Muñoz intended per his CN: how we make a family, whether on Park Avenue, Maple Street, or the dusty edges of the fields.

BASS 2019: Ursula K. Le Guin, “Pity and Shame” from Tin House #76

Tin House art

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her esteemed 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” And what a fierce truth our Portland neighbor told, right up until her journey’s end. Whenever we had the great fortune to publish her, we would take page proofs up the hill to her house, where she would chuckle at our foolishness over tea. In this issue we present a last, long short story, “Pity and Shame,” which is filled with her trademark inventiveness and dark humor….She will be deeply missed. Luckily for all of us, her words and spirit live on.

Tin House Editor’s intro to Issue 76

In his Introduction to this edition of BASS, Anthony Doerr praises the ability of this story to “embrace dual protagonists as well as any short stories I can remember reading.” After the epigraph that precedes the story itself, we see one of the protagonists through the eyes of the other. This becomes something of a theme, as each sees the other quite differently than the other sees themselves, and that view has consequences for both the viewer and the viewed. That sounds a bit garbled, but think of it in terms of the observer effect of physics: to observe a phenomenon changes that phenomenon. In physics, this only has a significant effect with very small things or extremely accurate measurements, but it’s more obvious in real life when it’s people who are observing and observed.

Let’s start with William Cowper, a mine engineer. The time period of the story is uncertain, but it’s somewhere post-Gold-Rush and pre-automobile in a small California town. Cowper was severely injured when a mine he was inspecting caved in.

There was a black rectangle in front of him. Just black, just there. Light around it, so it was like a hole in the light. It didn’t move. At the same time he saw it, a rhythm began to beat in his head like a hammer. It was made of words.
I, fed with judgment
The black rectangle was right in front of him but he couldn’t tell how large it was, how close or far. There was a great pressure on him, paralyzing and sickening him, holding him so he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get away from the black rectangle. It was there in front of him. It was all there was. The words beat at him. He tried to cry out for help. There was nobody to help him.
to receive a sentence
to re CEIVE a SEN tence
WORSE than a BI ram’s

Whether he opened his eyes or shut them there was the black space, the bright glare around it, and the words in the terrible rhythm.
The timbers creaked, he saw the glimmer on them overhead. He tried to cling to that because it was before the judgment, before the sentence, but they were gone, there was dirt in his mouth and the words beating, beating him down.
I, fed with JUDG ment
in a FLESH ly TOMB

Complete story available online at Tin House

This is the poetry of William Cowper, 18th century British poet, no relation to our Cowper. We eventually find out that our Cowper, as a teenager, had been orphaned, and another relative ran off with whatever inheritance should have been his. A lawyer untangling the mess became his mentor and sent him to mining school. When Cowper graduated, his mentor presented him with a book of Cowper’s poetry, which includes “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” the epigraph and the poem Cowper thinks of as he is trapped in the rubble.

I confess, the story of Abiram was new to me; I’d assumed it was an alternate spelling of Abraham until the story directed me to Numbers 16, where the God of Love has the earth swallow up those in the Exodus who start complaining to Moses (yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but they still end up dead). Now Cowper imagines himself “in a fleshly tomb” after being swallowed by the mine. Later, he will see a black rectangle of a Bible on a table, and recall the sensation of being crushed in the mine.

He is rescued and brought to Rae Brown’s home. She’s had her own troubles: a man who took her away, at age eighteen, from her dead-end life where everyone regarded her as the daughter of a slut. Turns out, he wasn’t exactly reliable, and when this boarder/patient shows up, Petey takes off. This similarity between her situation, and Cowper’s at a similar age, is unmistakable.

The local doctor shows Rae how to care for the still unconscious Cowper – “….this man was so broken, so beaten, he had been treated so rough that for a while you couldn’t see him for his injuries.” And here is where we get introduced to the pity and the shame.

First, the pity.

It didn’t sound like much, but when you came to the edge between life and death where he was, and she with him, she saw how strong pity was, how deep it went. She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and fulfilling. It had made everything else unimportant. But the ache of tenderness she felt for her patient did just the opposite, it made things more important. What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze. This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.

And then, the shame, when she admits out loud that she and Petey were never married:

In the kitchen she stood there for a while and felt her face burn red hot. Going around announcing her name, as if being Rae Brown was something to be proud of. It didn’t make any difference if she wasn’t ashamed. Other people were. They were ashamed for her, of her, that she lived among them. They blushed for her. Their shame was on her, a weight, a load she couldn’t get out from under.

Shame pushes her inward; pity extends her outward. Shame changes the observed; pity overwhelms, outshines shame, changes the observer, and through the outstretched hand, the observed. Which brings us to another Cowper poem, which is introduced late in the story: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Maybe you need to get crushed in a cave-in, be lost to your family, to find your way to a better life. The twelve step folks call it hitting bottom.

I had a few hurdles to appreciation of this story. One was my immediate reaction to the word “pity”. It’s a word with a long history in literary discourse, going all the way back to Aristotle, who expounded on pity and fear in tragedy as a means to catharsis, emotional cleansing. I happen to have just run into Aristotle’s Poetics in, of all places, the OCW on Don Quixote that I’m running through, so maybe it was just in the front of my mind at an opportune moment. I went looking for something that would break it down in simpler terms than the Stanford encyclopedia, and found it at the IEP, not as prestigious but a lot easier to understand for those of us who aren’t PhDs. I think I also found the root of my discontent with this story: pity abounds, but there is no fear. Maybe the fear is meant to issue from shame. Who among us doesn’t fear being called out, shamed.

The article also goes into some depth about the difference between condescending pity, and tragic pity. We can pity Cowper because we can see ourselves in his place. Our pity for Rae is harder, since it’s easier to feel superior to her. Something happened to Cowper; Rae did something that brought about her shame. I have to wonder if this is a male/female divide, since Rae had few options, and Cowper did see signs the mine was unsafe and kept going. In any case, the term pity carries a lot of baggage; I’m pretty sure Le Guin intended it that way.

I also found William Cowper, the poet, to be an interesting figure, thanks to a Slate article by Robert Pinsky. And by interesting, I mean a little crazy, actually committed at one point. One surprise for me is that he wrote one of the most grotesque hymns in Christendom: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Christianity revels in blood imagery, but this first verse is more explicitly anatomical than most.

Jake Weber’s post also shows some barriers to his appreciation of the story – and in true Workshop Heretic form, he elucidates them clearly – but keeps due respect for Le Guin’s highly regarded body of work. I’ve never read Le Guin. As a salute – or an apology – to this story, I may add her to next summer’s free-reading list. So, to experienced Le Guin readers: what book would you pick as the best place to start, and why?

BASS 2019: Nicole Krauss, “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker 3/5/18

Like Romi in the story, I first saw Taste of Cherry In London in 1998, the year it was released. I was living in student housing near Russell square ….I was already a fan of Abbas Kiarostami films, but when Ershadi’s face appeared on the screen “it did something to me,” as the narrator of the story says, and what it did to me, and continued doing to me for the next twenty years, is what I tried to work out in this story.
….Six years later I traveled to Japan for the first time and visited the temples of Kyoto. Did I really think that I saw Ershadi in the Zen garden of Nanzen-ji? I remember believing that I had seen him. But now I can’t say for sure if what I am remembering is a scene I invented for this story, or something that actually happened to me. I really can’t.

Nicole Krauss, Contributor Note

One of the plusses I find with stories that have appeared in The New Yorker is that a lot of people have written about them online by the time I encounter them in BASS. This is particularly helpful when, as is the case here, the story falls between a story and… something else. An enhanced memoir by a fictional dancer, with particular emphasis, considering the Contributor Note above, on the memory-sense of memoir? The robust Burlington Writers Workshop used the story in a session on ekphrasis, the literary art of writing about, and thus enhancing, a work of art from another medium.

Ekphrasis is probably the best description, since I find the story somewhat mimics the film in terms of pace and structure: stretches of thought, interrupted by brief scenes of interactions, finished off with a coda. And yes, I did watch the film, or rather, the Youtube version, which was somewhat problematic as two or three sets of subtitles kept overlaying and competing with each other. It was, however, helpful to my read of the story.

Not once in the film are we told anything about the life of Mr. Badii, or what might have led him to decide to end it. Nor do we witness his despair. Everything we know about the depth contained within him we get from his face, which also tells us about the depth contained within the actor Homayoun Ershadi, about whose life we know even less. When I did a search, I discovered that Ershadi was an architect with no training or experience as an actor when Kiarostami saw him sitting in his car in traffic, lost in thought, and knocked on his window. And it was easy to understand just by looking at his face: how the world seemed to bend toward Ershadi as if it needed him more than he needed it.
His face did something to me. Or, rather, the film, with its compassion and its utterly jarring ending, which I won’t give away, did something to me. But, then again, you could also say that, in some sense, the film was only his face: his face and those lonely hills.

Complete story available online at TNY

While this film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in the year it was released, Roger Ebert hated it. I wouldn’t have watched it had I not been working on the story, but I have a long history of not getting art films. I will, however, admit to some interesting effects. In the opening scenes, it seemed to me that Badii/Ershadi (for, having read the story, I was unable to see the actor and character separately) was looking to pick up a quick trick. Is this my Western indecency? Or was it intentional misdirection on the part of the film, only later replacing the tawdry with the profound? The second moment of high interest came as Badii/Ershadi stood at the bottom of a hill, watching construction crews pushing dirt and rocks down the side of the hill towards him. I imagined he must be thinking, this is what it will look like, when they pour dirt over my body, if I am still there to see it.

The final scene – which the narrator does give away despite the promise not to – is one of those art-house specials, the pulling back to expose the movie makers and reinforce that this is a movie. Some viewers found this a terrible ending to an otherwise great movie. Others found it the point. Again, I don’t belong to the art-house set, so I could only think of how Blazing Saddles did it so much better.

Our narrator (to return to the story at hand) is profoundly moved by the film, specifically, by Ershadi’s face.

Love: I can only call it that, however different it was from every other instance of love that I had experienced. What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.
It sounds far-fetched, but at that moment I had the feeling that I could save Ershadi.

I was glad I could watch the film only to see Ershadi’s face for myself, to try to understand what the narrator saw in it. I still have no idea. It’s an ordinary face. But, as I keep saying, I don’t belong here, so I’ll take the word of someone more at home that there’s great depth of feeling here.

Our narrator has an experience at a temple site in Japan of seeing Ershadi – maybe – but being prevented from approaching him by a group of temple visitors, trying with great urgency to convey something, we never find out what. This is the experience that Krauss tells us in her CN may have been real, and may have acquired a sense of realness for her when she created it for her story.

I wonder about the people Badii (the character this time, as I’m considering the plot of the film rather than the experience of watching it) tried to convince to bury him. A soldier, a seminary student, a taxidermist: the first two refuse the request, the last agrees after delivering the necessary admonition against suicide. Did he agree because as a taxidermist he is more familiar with the dead? Soldiers might be a cause of death, or witness to death; religious figures worry about the after-death experience. It’s the taxidermist who deals with dead bodies themselves.

The coda to the story flashes forward over the years, until the narrator, now a new parent, happens upon a poster for Taste of Cherry and writes, after years of silence, to Romi.

In the letter, I admitted to her the reason that I’d cried the night she told me about her encounter with Ershadi. Sooner or later, I wrote, I would’ve had to admit that in the blaze of my ambition I’d failed to check myself. I would have had to face how miserable I was, and how confused my feelings about dancing had become. But the desire to seize something from Ershadi, to feel that reality had expanded for me as it had for her, that the other world had come through to touch me, had hastened my revelations.

Dancing begins the story, and an injury has an important role, but it seems a secondary element until now, when it turns out the entire story, the obsession with Ershadi, is about dancing, the need to end a career before it ends the careerist, and the grief that entails; the regret at not careering more wisely. It’s only now, after realizing this, that a passage from the first paragraph stands out:

When I met people in bars and cafés, I spoke excitedly about the experience of working with the choreographer and told them that I felt I was constantly on the verge of discovery. Until one day I realized that I had become fanatical—that what I had taken for devotion had crossed the line into something else. And though my awareness of this was a dark blot on what had been, up to then, a pure joy, I didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s not the experience, but the awareness of the perception of the experience by others, that makes it real. Obsession realized becomes real, becomes a dark blot. The film ends with the realization that it is a movie, which changes the experience of lying with Badii/Ershadi in the grave, looking up at the moon through the clouds, listening to the rain. Doubt, hesitation, shame, fear, are all part of realization, not part of experience.

This surreptitious dance theme makes me think there’s something in the movie I have overlooked, something the art-house crowd would get. Ebert mentions the courage it takes to make a film about suicide in a place like Iran.The soldier Badii/Ershadi encounters is a Kurd, which has overwhelming echoes right now that would not have been necessarily part of the film for me originally. The mysterious question of whether or not either of the people in the story actually encountered Ershadi also becomes a theme of the boundary between real and not-real.

I had something of an experience with a movie once. My husband and I had just separated (for the first time; only the second time would take); the first Gulf War had just begun, becoming my initiation (everyone’s, I think) into watching a war live on TV. I had to get out of the house, so I went to a movie: Awakenings happened to be playing, and I’d read Sacks’ work so chose it. On the drive home, I couldn’t shake DeNiro’s psychotic ramblings about how wonderful everything could be if we’d just care about each other and see the good around us. I started to cry, to sob. I had to pull over until it passed. I think it was raining – hard, pouring – but that might be part of the feeling rather than the reality. I realized how frightened I was: of being alone, of the war changing things (little did I know how much, though it took decades to reveal), of change, of the unknown.

I checked the Awakenings DVD (yes, quaint) out of the library about a week ago, just before I started reading this story. Is that why it’s on my mind? Or was there some wave from the future echoing back in time? It’s just a movie now. A good movie, but that’s all.

Another aspect of the story fascinates me. Jake Weber’s post on the story – perceptive as always, viewing the relationships of the narrator in conjunction with an earlier story from this anthology – mentions in a shout-out to me that the narrator is not named. This references a drinking-game we invented for this edition of BASS, in which each time an unnamed narrator, or sensitive portrait of the end of a marriage, or bittersweet coming-of-age tale, showed up, we’d take a shot. In this case, it was the unnamed narrator.

But I could do him one better: I read the narrator as male all the way through. In fact, I only realized this was unusual when I saw another commentary calling the narrator a ballerina. Oh! My perception of maleness made this a very different story for me, and it’s why I’ve been careful to avoid gendered pronouns in this post so far.

But on rereading, I feel like an idiot. I don’t think there are any places where the sex of the narrator is specified, and there is no reason the narrator can’t be male. But I have to admit, the dancing, the emotionality, the friendship with Romi, the plan to travel again together, nudge the needle towards female. Yet I have to wonder: given how tricky it is to write without gender, why did she write it to read either way?

The trick in putting these anthologies together, I think, is in selecting a broad range of stories. That almost ensures that not every story will be to any one person’s liking. That’s the value of doing this kind of blogging instead of a single post of two-sentence impressions: I’m forced to deal with ekphrasis – or, what Doerr refers to in his volume Introduction as a series of subplots that “wrecked’ him – and find my value. I’m not always successful. But I came away with something this time, and no one is more surprised than I.

BASS 2019: Ella Martinsen Gorham, “Protozoa” from New England Review #39.4

I saw that my children and their friends documented much of their lives on the screens of phones and laptops. I began to think of them as inhabiting two worlds: the touchable, physical world and the digital world. They slipped back and forth between them. This notion gave rise to the story “protozoa.“
I was interested in a girl of thirteen navigating the two worlds. I wanted to capture the moment she decides to shed her childhood self and become more provocative.

Ella Martinsen Gorham, Contributor Note

I’ve never been a parent. Maybe that makes me a poor reader for this story, but maybe it makes me an ideal reader, since I don’t have any guilts to hide or hard-learned lessons to impose. I have been a teenager, and again, maybe that makes me an ideal reader for Noa, or maybe it makes me a terrible reader, since my own experience can’t help but color my perception of hers. Keep all that in mind while I indulge in a little speculative psychology here (not to be confused with actual psychology involving research and understanding of all the parameters involved).

Young adolescents, barely post-pubescent, have two important relationship groups: peers, and family. Adolescence is about growing up, growing away from the nest, shifting from family to peers. The primary force among peers is popularity, conformity, fitting in, being liked and admired. The primary force among family at this time, unlike in early childhood, is the need to distance and differentiate oneself (I seem to recall this is from actual psychology), to test limits, to move towards independence by relying on one’s own judgment rather than acquiescence to parental rules.

Gorham’s story hits both of these. And Noa’s only, what, 13 or 14? This is only round one. How does anyone survive adolescence?

Wren and Annaliese were still preoccupied with complex cake recipes. They fastened back their sleek hair with headbands tricked out in enormous, furred pompoms. To Noa they seemed all parts light, which was good if you could meet them there, in the light, with the horses. Noa had come to feel like another species around them, a graceless mouth-breather. Their distaste for Paddy held no sway with her.
Someday they might understand how it was necessary to take a risk for a boy. Yes, she was afraid. That was the point.

We start with Noa’s popularity with Wren and Annaliese in direct conflict with her need to test limits via her attraction to Paddy. Don’t parents hope their kids will hang around with good kids who will be a good influence on them, bring them back to the light when they start to wander towards the dark side? That doesn’t happen here. Noa finds other friends, friends who will understand what she’s doing, support and encourage it. That means Aurora.

Aurora only exists for Noa on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform it is, how would I know, I’m still blogging for pete’s sake). She’s only existed for Noa for two weeks. But Noa’s all in.

The most exotic thing was that Aurora went out as she pleased any night of the week, hopped into a hired car and roamed the hills above the Sunset Strip and the bluffs in Pacific Palisades. Noa’s favorite picture of Aurora was taken on those Bluffs. With crazy eyes she pretended she was about she jumped off the edge of an overlook, like the ocean was a trampoline she could bounce on.
….It was their secret ritual to watch each other cry. Aurora said that sharing tears was a high and a release. In Japan, she said, entire rooms full of grown men bawled together.

I quite enjoyed reading about rui-katsu, the Japanese crying ritual mentioned here. But they’ve got nothing on a good old-fashioned Pentecostal prayer meeting, where everyone cries. My problem was always that I couldn’t stop when everyone else did. I made a lot of youth ministers very uncomfortable. Given that I was experiencing my first depressive swing, maybe they should’ve paid more attention instead of telling me “it’s time to calm down now.” The point is, I can appreciate the desire to cry together.

Noa’s bid for popularity – fame amongst her peers – is tied in with her attraction to Paddy. He runs a semi-anonymous feed that “roasts” various people via rap numbers using pseudonyms. Noa wants to be roasted. She indulges in a little sex play hoping to be roasted. She’s afraid of being roasted. She’s afraid of Paddy, of sex. But, as she’s said, fear is the point. Testing limits. How much fear before she pulls away? What will the roast-fame be like?

Predictably, it goes sideways. She assures Callan, another roastee, that “It’s a little different when he teases me.” He laughs, as do we all, but at least we laugh sadly, kindly.

In the last few hours Aurora had found online a new favorite person, Rileyyy424….Aurora had liked and commented on all of Rileyyy424’s posts. There was nothing special about that girl.

Paddy is beyond her reach. Aurora disappears. But Noa puts up a video of her crying, and becomes an internet sensation. Sort of the visual @SoSadToday.

And her parents? As Jake Weber points out in his analysis, they’re split between Helicopter Dad and Free Range Mom. As I said, I’ve never been a parent, so I won’t judge. It is, after all, the primary conflict for adults as well as teens (and societies, for that matter): safety vs freedom.

Jake’s post makes a couple of other observations I found added a lot to what was, for me, otherwise a routine story. Mom and Dad own a restaurant, where Mom is the chef specializing in rabbit dishes. His interpretation of this never would have occurred to me, but once I read it, I realized I know of two movies where an adult woman kills a child’s bunny (Joanne Woodward beat Glenn Close to it). There’s something to this bunny-killing thing. Then looking for an online image took it to another level: bunnies, stripped, exposed, butchered, roasted.

Jake also did some research on protozoa, Paddy’s nickname for Noa (whose given name is not discussed, but apparently is very popular in Israel, meaning motion. Or maybe her parents just like the sound of it, or it’s short for something else). Given my interest in biology, I’m embarrassed that I knew nothing about protozoas other than they cause some nasty human diseases, so I hit Wikipedia and came across heterotrophs vs autotrophs. Protozoa are heterotrophs, meaning they must consume other organisms for energy. Autotrophs make their own food, such as plants that use sunlight and water to make energy compounds. It’s all about the food chain: every food chain starts with a producer, an autotroph. The heterotrophs feed off autotrophs and off other heterotrophs. And I think of Aurora and Paddy, Autotrophs R Us, and all the heterotrophs feeding off them.

Yes, Noa survives all this. But this was all kid stuff. What happens when the sex comes with bodily fluids, potential infections, and pregnancy, and the Lyft rides are replaced by friends, and the flask of booze turns into bottles and other substances of questionable origin. What kind of videos will Noa post to get through those problems?

BASS 2019: Jeffrey Eugenides, “Bronze” from The New Yorker Feb. 5, 2018

The working title of that fragment was called “Boy on Train.“ I knew that it involved an encounter between a college freshman and a professional actor who are forced to sit together on a crowded Amtrak train, during a trip from New York to Providence, in 1978. I knew that the point of view should shift back and forth between these two characters and that their meeting should be dramatised moment by moment. The idea was to give the story a feeling of immediacy, as if its events were happening in real time.
I made decent progress at first. The language of the story, highly inflected by the characters personalities, felt freeing, allowing me to reproduce the way the world, or at least my world, had sounded back in ‘78.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Contributor Note

Back a couple of stories ago, when I wrote about “The Third Tower”, I said something about different people’s minds running on different tracks when reading a story, since we all have different backgrounds that lead to different associations. I seem to have pulled onto a rarely-used siderail here, because while everyone else is fitting this into the #MeToo era – even though its genesis predates the hashtag by several years – I found myself fully immersed in what I imagined young gay culture to be in the late 70s thanks to frequent readings of And the Band Played On: the pre-AIDS bathhouses and orgies and post-Stonehenge defiant celebrations of sexuality seen now (at least by non-gay-male dinosaurs like me) mostly in gay pride parades, as public gay culture has turned to issues like marriage equality and job security.

This isn’t a story about being gay, however. It just seems like it is. It’s a story about how you figure out if you’re gay, set in a time before we started thinking about sexual preference as a continuum as established by the Kinsey report in the 40s. And before we realized that it isn’t the creepy stranger in the trench coat who’s the sexual predator.

The college freshman, being high, was also a little paranoid. Therefore, as he boarded the Amtrak Colonial he had the impression that people could tell. Why was everyone staring? Some smiling, some raising eyebrows, a few shaking their heads. Do I reek? Eugene thought. I used Binaca.
Then he remembered what he was wearing. The white fur coat. The pink sunglasses. The striped collegiate scarf knotted at his neck. Sort of a new look for him, part glam, part New Wave.
Eugene’s little secret? He wanted to be beautiful. If that didn’t work, noticeable would do.
He unzipped his coat and fanned himself, hot from running down the platform.
It was a late-November afternoon, in the confusing year of 1978, and Eugene was headed back to school after a wild weekend exploring the demimonde. Eugene knew that was a French word associated with women of dubious morals, but in his mind it included the teen runaways at that chicken-hawk bar Stigwood had taken him to, Saturday night; plus Stigwood himself, who was rich and debauched. The main thing about the demimonde was that nobody back at the dorm had a clue about it. Only Eugene.

Complete story available online at TNY

Eugene, Brown freshman and wannabe poet, is one of our two pov characters. For all the flamboyance and excess in these opening paragraphs, he’s been more of a spectator than a participant in this alternate world, carefully partitioned off from the academic world in which he spends most of his time.

In his TNY interview with Cressida Leyshon, Eugenedis says that he had trouble writing this opening section (interestingly, I found it difficult to follow) due partly to Eugene’s stonedness, an essential element, and his own personal experience, which kept getting in the way of the fictional version. That’s a writing problem I find fascinating. Back when I kept trying to be a fiction writer, it’s something I ran into all the time. Someone would suggest it would be better if the character did this instead of that, but I’d insist he couldn’t because that wasn’t what happened. I seem to be reality-bound, even when I’ve twisted that reality in my own mind into a pale imitation of objective truth.

Nevertheless, the section contained a couple of key passages, one that’s key for Eugene, and one that I find highly relevant to the present. In this alternate demimonde Eugene has found, he meets Rafael, a guy about his age, who he thinks of as concubine to an older, richer man. Rafael dabbles in pop-psychology:

Raphael passed the doobie and picked up a deck of cards. “Everybody has a word map,” he explained. “Your word map is how you feel, inside, as a person. Here. I show you.”
Raphael laid three cards on the bedspread. Each bore a word.
Sensitivity. Ardor. Celebration.
“Pick a card,” Raphael said. “How you feel, inside.”
Eugene took a hit and thought about it. His mom always called him sensitive. But not in a way he liked. You had to be sensitive to be a poet, of course, but Eugene’s mom meant more like that time at swimming lessons, when he’d refused to get into the pool.
You do something once and your family never stops talking about it.
So: no to Sensitivity.
Ardor was like armpit plus odor.
Celebration, on the other hand, had appeal.

Ardor will come back later – and you’ve got to love the wordplay of this fledgling poet – but it’s the “you do something once” that really sticks the landing, suggesting a rigidity of identity that is the heart of the story.

The other note rang for me like a pronouncement on our present time:

New York was dying. But that was O.K. It was in dying empires that the greatest poets appeared. Virgil in Rome. Dante in Florence. Baudelaire in Paris. Decadence. Eugene liked that word. It was like “decay” and “hence.” Things falling apart over time. A sweet smell like that of rotten bananas, or of bodies ripe from iniquitous exertion, could pervade an entire age, at which point someone came along to give voice to how messed up things were and, in so doing, made them beautiful again.

Every moment, I suppose, is the end of something and the beginning of something else, but these I’m overwhelmed with the sense that something is at an end right now, maybe America, maybe democracy, maybe capitalism, maybe what we think of as civilization as the waters rise and the biosphere changes. I’m old (which may well contribute to this sense of ending), so whatever is coming, I won’t miss what’s past for long, but it is a lonely resignation since I can’t discuss this with people with kids, who still want to think of those kids as having a future of great choices and limitless possibilities.

Eugene’s looking for a seat on the crowded train back to Brown, which is how we meet the second pov character, Kent. “This seat’s free,” he calls out to Eugene. “Not again”, Eugene thinks. He compares it to being a pretty girl: older guys are always hitting on him. But this older guy’s life plays out in Eugene’s life. Because Kent was once a teenager, drunk and flamboyantly dressed, when Jasper, then Kent’s current age, picked him up and let him sleep it off. Eugene won’t be quite so lucky. But neither will Jasper. Eugene was molested by his high school drama teacher. Jasper is dying of emphysema down in Texas. And Kent’s trying to have it all.

Several images compete for the embodiment, or lack of, permanence. One is Horace, Ode XXX, Aere Perennius:

I have made a monument more lasting than bronze
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids
which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind can erode
Nor the countless succession of years, and the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! And a large part of me will avoid the grave.

Eugene is thinking of it in terms of poetry: how do you write something that will be read two thousand years hence? As a poet in the making, he can’t even imagine it. Permanence must feel great. But permanence has the other side, the Family that Never Forgets.

Eugene, looking out the window, acutely aware he’s sitting next to this guy who offered him a seat, writes his own poem:

Each window I see into
contains a slice of life
sliced by the train I’m in
two kids watching TV on the floor
an old man reading the paper
and just a couch, all alone
like me

This takes a less bronze view, seeing life as a series of unrelated moments rather than one monolithic thing in which you are what you were forever. But moments are related, even if we don’t see what happens between the window views. And while we’re at it: when he was trying to find a seat on the crowded train, passing from one car to the next, he discovered the interim spaces are safer than he thought:

Now he was between cars. Daredevil-like. He looked down, expecting to see tracks below—the train had started moving—but the area was an enclosed, accordion-like sleeve that bent gracefully as the train pulled out of the station.

And then there’s the ballerina. We never get her name, making her more an abstract quality than a person, even though in the closing scene she’s definitely a person.

He was thinking that dancing wasn’t like making a monument in bronze. With dance you did it once, perfectly or not, and then it was gone forever.

The ephemeral, here and gone. But it leaves open a chance for a second shot.

I see the story as Eugene emerging from his own personal Bronze age, initiated by the drama teacher, into something that makes more sense to him, leaving behind Horace and Kent – literally – and following the ballerina. I found Jake Weber’s take on the story to be particularly interesting since, it seems to me, men and women see male gayness differently; and, because of a personal anecdote Jake mentions at the beginning of his post. I’d really like to see a gay man’s view, particularly an older gay man who would be familiar with the era, of the work.

Chances are I will, in the future: Both Eugenides’ interview and his contributor note indicate this story, which was intended for his last story collection but wasn’t ready in time, is being expanded into a novel. That’s good; I hope we get to know the ballerina’s name, and I hope Eugene allows himself to be whatever he wants to be, at any moment.

BASS 2019: Julia Elliott, “Hellion” from The Georgia Review, Summer 2018

TGR art

TGR art

In a bloated early draft of my novel, The New And Improved Romie Fudge, I got sidetracked by a digression about Romie’s first erotic experience, a blissful romp with a rural third cousin during which the two prepubescent kids smear molten tar all over each other, a transcendent moment followed by a brutal reckoning….Recalling badass girl cousins from my own youth, so-called tomboys who could hold their own among hellion boys, the kind of girls who could drive go-carts one-handed while taking cool puffs from stolen cigarette butts, I realized that Butter’s perspective on this incident would be far more interesting than Romie’s. When I took the cutting from my novel and switched the point of view, my story “Hellion” bloomed from the corpse of that killed darling.

Julia Elliott, Contributor Note

My view of this story evolved over several days. My first take was consumption, food, eating, but that expanded to a celebration of the the primeval. Then I flipped open the book and saw the title: Hellion. Oh, ok: hell. Not the Christian hell of punishment, but more of a Classical-era Underworld. No, back to the primeval, maybe the primordial. Then I read Jake Weber’s post and thought, not for the first time, that I should quit doing this since he does it so much better. But I still get “primordial ooze” and “this is the forest primeval” running through my head when I think about this story, so I’ll go with that.

The whole consumption theme comes in early with a thirteen-year-old protagonist named Butter (her real name is Elizabeth Ann, but she was so small at birth, her parents nicknamed her Butterbean, and it stuck) who feeds her captive alligator chicken innards, and chases away the neighborhood boys who try to feed it Atomic Fireballs so they can watch it fart fire, and leaves Slim Jims for the Swamp Ape (who, she explains, may be a deformed man, or a voluntarily-regressed Rousseauian man, or a Bigfoot mutant of some sort, or something else entirely).

It’s a Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. Alex, Butter’s third cousin from the city (where they have a mall and a nuclear reactor) comes to stay with his Aunt Edna while his new premie brother emerges towards, hopefully, life, and his mom recovers from childbirth. Butter may be a badass girl, but the local boys are a different level of badass – hellions – so Edna asks her to help out with Alex.

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”
“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”
“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”
She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.
“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”
“Came out before he was cooked.”
“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.”
Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.”
“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.”

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

Even the idea that a premature birth happens before the baby is cooked evokes consumption. And here’s Alex, stranded among the hellions. Butter – who is caught midway between primeval and lady, as well as between child and adult – gives him a coping strategy: pretend that living in that city with that nuclear plant has “endowed you with a Hulk-like condition…. You could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.” Since she has some inside info on the locals, she points out the boys’ weak spots, like one’s mother’s webbed toes. “We got to keep up the mystery…. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” She primes the ground, warning the boys there’s more to the city kid than they think.

There’s another really interesting consumption-related detail here: as Butter is telling him this, Alex “went bluish-pale like skim milk.” Butter is made from the cream removed from skim milk. Alex + Butter = whole milk? Two halves make a whole? In The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes put forth a theory that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces, and Zeus split them apart into separate people; humans since have spent their lives looking for their soulmates, the other half that was separated. Most readings consider this satire of simplistic origin tales, not the least because it was put in the mouth of Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates like nobody’s business. It’s kind of sealed shut for me when Butter later teaches Alex frog-language, The Frogs being one of Aristophanes’ classic satires. They merge into the primeval.

Butter takes Alex to meet Dragon, her alligator, but things go awry during feeding and she gets “snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb.” And again, consumption: the primeval is trying to consume Butter, starting with the meat of her thumb.

She takes some remarkably responsible (and non-primeval) first-aid steps – peroxide, antibiotic cream, gauze – but doesn’t think more about it and takes Alex go-cart racing next. The hellion boys, ignoring Butter’s warning about Alex’s superpowers, come after him while they’re all riding, the twentieth-century version of jousting. Alex turns out to be a quick learner vis-à-vis the superpower tip:

Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff…. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”
Clutching his head, Alex stood up.
“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.”
Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God.
“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.”
The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television.

Keeping up the mystery, indeed. They are both in this midland between primeval and civilized. And Butter is smitten in the way only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. My heart started to sink; don’t tell me this is going to be a tender coming-of-age tale. It is, but it’s a lot more interesting than the My Girl variety.

Butter has a thing for the smell of pitch – it smells of open roads and amusement parks – and her nose leads her to a barrel of the stuff, still melted. So she and Alex have a tar fight. Yep, that’s like a food fight, except with tar. What could evoke the depths of the primeval better than being covered in still-warm tar? It’s a descent into the dark side, experimenting with hell itself. Dangerous stuff.

And they pay the price when they emerge. Edna scrubs the tar off them, which should be punishment enough, but wait, there’s more: Alex gets the switch, and Butter… oh, poor Butter: her parents see the wound on her thumb, Dad gets the shotgun and heads for the alligator.

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things….
I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama…. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar.
Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder.

Yeah, consumption, the primeval, and the modern nukes, right there side by side on a ball of tar, and Butter, stuck in it. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but it’s way beyond My Girl.

But don’t despair, the My Girl denouement is at hand. It’s ok; the story earned it, and gives the reader an after-dinner mint, as Butter – and Alex’s premie brother – emerges from the primeval, and resolves childish mystery with adult reality on a summer night bittersweet for a couple of soulmates.

BASS 2019: Deborah Eisenberg, “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares #44.1

“Too Many Words” by Payana

“Too Many Words” by Payana

[The story] began – uncharacteristically – with the title, which popped into my head one day. I thought, Somebody should write something called “The Third Tower,’ and after a time during which nobody seemed to do that, I thought, Oh, well, I guess I will.
I really didn’t know what snagged me on that title, but it was always in my mind as I worked, and eventually, after many trials, I finished the story. So then there I was, with a story set in a sort of near future or a parallel present, about a girl – a young laborer – whose imagination, curiosity, vitality, and quality of experience are being purposefully reduced.
So it turned out that what had interested me about that phrase, the third tower, were matters concerning the systemic opportunism of power and money: catastrophe as a rationale for increasing economic inequities, as a rationale for invasions and resource appropriations and wars and oppression that benefit only the powerful; catastrophe utilized as an instrument to make a population compliant or inadvertently complicit – incapable of significant dissent or incapable even of comprehending what is happening to it.

Deborah Eisenberg, Contributor Note

One of the hallmarks of imagination – creativity – is the lack of uniformity from one person to the next. To Eisenberg, “the third tower” instantly associates with the two towers of 9/11. Me, I went immediately to Tolkien. I’ve never read Tolkien (don’t judge), and I have a clear memory of 9/11 (a friend of mine worked at the Port Authority in one of the towers; she was getting oatmeal in the cafeteria when the plane hit, and, trained by her experience with the 1993 bombing, she got the hell out of there in time to see people jumping out of windows and marvelled at a grocer selling blueberries on the sidewalk just a few blocks away as she walked home), but that’s where my associations took me.

I think I was at a disadvantage with this story because I simply don’t run on the same imaginative track as Eisenberg. For instance, that final paragraph above about opportunism and catastrophe strikes me as a very real condition of the present, but if it’s in the story, it’s because the reader puts it there.

We’re introduced to Therese, the protagonist of this dystopian-future story, as she’s about to leave her home for medical treatment of a hyperassociative disorder, evidenced by her deficient word-stabilization reflex. When you say tree, she says piano, when she’s supposed to say… um, tree. There is, by the way, a psychiatric symptom referred to as loose associations, but it’s far more dramatic than anything here; it’s more like when you say tree I say gears grinding milkmaids in blue pillowcase.

Her friend gives her a blank book to take with her, because “you like to do handwriting.” But it’s a lot more than handwriting:

She opens the book, just to admire again the lovely, thick, rough-edged paper, but then the air starts to shimmer, and it splinters, splashing words and pictures everywhere, all whirling and glittering.
She grabs up her pen: wooden table dim cozy place. Funny song about mouse, hands clapping in time. Leaves dripping, fresh! – horse and buggy?? Bugy?? Blossoms, hooves. Glass mountain, meadow mountain tiny white flowers tiny yellow star-flowers tiny pearl moon. Clothes whisper night fields moon whispers – sailing moon, sorcerer moon, watchman moon. Marching band – shiny octopus-instruments – light or swords? Long robes little outdoor tables little glass cups, stars, moon,..
The pictures flow by, sparkling, dissolving, blending in their disorder, like the landscape outside the window of the train, fading finally.
She blinks, and looks around at the stillness of the room, the mute shutters.
Right. Back in the drawer goes the book. Maybe these pictures are memories that somehow became detached from other people and stray through the universe, slipping through rips in the fabric and clinging to whatever living beings they can, faulty beings like her …

This is one of the strong points of the story: the descriptions of Theresa’s episodes, the ones the treatment is supposed to stop. She’s looking forward to a cure, which is itself heartbreaking.

Some of her word episodes are less felicitous than moons and marching bands, such as when she remembers, while riding on the train to the city, that someone told her some criminals had escaped from prison.

Fugitives – the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror. Therese snatches up her book and pen, and rapidly writes something down.
She’s sweating. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before she looks at what the book says: Uniforms – teams, prisoners, and guards, shouting, clanging – blood and weapons. Two civil guards stumbling through trees, they trip on twisted roots, they carry a heavy pole, one of the guards at each end, a man hangs from it, roped to it by bleeding wrists and ankles…

It seems to me these might not be imaginings as much as they are suppressed memories. Hence the sinister importance of the treatment: can’t have people remembering how much fun things used to be, or how brutal the authorities can be. Hear tree, think tree, not noose. Not fires in the Amazon. Someone else will do all the thinking there is to be done. And they’ll make sure you’re happy about what they decide.

The story is formatted in brief titled sections, easily labeled chunks, as is fitting with our theme. But, since we are readers with imaginations, we can put the pieces together better than Therese can. She’s surprised by the view of destroyed landscapes, bands of marauding children, general disorder she sees from the train. We have no idea why she’s allowed to see these things – why aren’t the windows boarded up, maybe leaving small louvres for light, other than because that’s the only way to convey them to the reader as Therese is the POV character. She must see these things for us to see these things. But when she gets to the city, her view is indeed obscured, leaving us to wonder what it is we’re not seeing through her eyes.

They work with her, one on one. A kind tech has been trying hard to help her with word-stabilization. Did you ever collect butterflies when you were a child, Therese? The tech asks.
Butterflies? Theresa asks.
With pins? The tech says. And chloroform?

I remember, as a kid, admiring pictures of butterflies in books, until I found out how those pictures were taken. This is a world where, when I say butterfly, you say, kill it and pin it down, whether it’s the word or the insect.

In his Introduction, Anthony Doerr notes the POV shift from Therese to the doctor in a couple of the sections, and has an interesting opinion about the importance of that technique: “Without those leaps away from her protagonist’s point of view, her story would collapse.” I’m not sure what he means by collapsing – I’m no literary match for Doerr, and again, my imagination is on a different track – but I do see great importance to these sections. I see the doctor as just as much a victim of mind control as Therese. Maybe everyone is, except the clown in the White House. Oops, that just slipped in there, didn’t it, maybe I need some word stabilization treatment. Or maybe the story was constructed to take us places like that.

I’ve had Eisenberg’s 2018 collection, Your Duck is My Duck, on my reading list. I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed by this story. Maybe it’s just not my taste. Maybe it’s over my head (Eisenberg’s a MacArthur Grant winner, has a big collection of writing honors, and teaches at Columbia). Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Or it’s possible, as Jake Weber suggests in his post, that BASS wanted to include something from the collection, and this was the story that qualified (in terms of publication date, length, etc.). But maybe, given the glut of dystopic fiction around, it’s a little been-there-done-that, with a backstory so completely left to the imagination as to feel like the story is only half-written. I’m comforted that Jake wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the story either (we really don’t collude on these stories; with rare exceptions, I only read his posts after I’ve at least started mine for a given story).

I don’t think I’ll be reading Your Duck is My Duck any time soon. I might, however, give her 2006 collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (boy does that associate all over), a try.

BASS 2019: Jamel Brinkley, “No More than a Bubble” from LitMag #2

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

For a while, “Brooklyn Zoo“ was my working title, and I wanted to draw upon the energy, aggression, and arrogance that characterized that song in order to counter the passivity, inwardness, and timidity of the narrators I often find myself using in first-person stories. But then, in order to counter all that male intensity and assuredness, the story demanded that Ben and his friend be out of their depth, in terms of their age and maturity, and in terms of their understanding of their environment, of the women they pursue, and of their problematic, exoticizing desires.
It is a cliche in fiction to have a scene in which a dog barks mysteriously in the distance, but what happens when a barking dog actually shows up?

Jamel Brinkley, Contributor Note

I have a lot of questions about this story. It’s sort of a swan story – you know how a swan glides through the water so gracefully, but the power is generated under the surface by unseen feet. The surface story glides along, but there’s a lot more going on, a lot of subtle touches in for the reader to connect. Right now I’m thinking it’s an open story, so those touches are designed to connect in different ways, depending on the reader’s context. But as I said, I have questions, so I could be completely off base here.

Ben and his friend Claudius are sophomores at Columbia, crashing an off-campus party given by older students and graduates.

The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing….At parties like this the crowd was older, college seniors who already had New York apartments, graduates who were starting to make their way, and folks who were far enough into their youth to start questioning it. The booze was better and the weed was sticky good. The girls were incredible, of course, especially here.

The basic flow of the story goes: they pair up with a couple of hot women, older, mysterious, confident, and they end up finding out just how much more practice they need. But this is a simplification to the extreme, and all those subtle touches nudge in one direction or another along the way.

For example, there’s a line in the second paragraph that I think is key: “The party, thrown by a couple of Harvard grads, happened just weeks before the Day of Atonement, in late September of 1995.” First, it sets up, in a story told in retrospect, an incident important enough to be remembered twenty years later. In an interview with Craft, Brinkley goes into some detail about his use of flash-forward. The first sentence tells us “It was back in those days” and then we’re there, with the sound of music and the smell of booze and the first sight of the two women who will lead the boys through the evening.

But that reference to the Day of Atonement seems major.  [Addendum: see the Comment by Alvin Keyes below for a far more likely interpretation of the use of Day of Atonement] The whole story is set in a sort of multi-ethnic stew: ancestry from the Caribbean, Belize, Italy, mentions of Japanese philosophy and now, Jewish religion. I assumed this mixture was the New York vibe. But this particular line, so specific, set me up to expect a rather Jewish story, or at least a Jewish protagonist. There’s no indication anywhere, at least than I can see, that Ben is Jewish, with the possible exception of his name. His father is Italian (and calls him Benito, which could be a nickname or his given name), and his mother is African American. Neither of those scream Jewish, though it’s of course possible either might be. Later, one of the women accents this note:

“We graduated in May,” I lied.
“Mazel tov,” Iris said.
Sybil shook her head.
Iris’s attention snapped all the way back now. “What? I can totally say that.”
Sybil made a popping sound with her mouth, and the two of them laughed.
Claudius and I laughed too, though neither of us knew what was funny.

I can’t tell if Iris is reacting to something about Ben that gives her the impression he’s Jewish – something he said, or is wearing – or if she herself has some connection to Jewishness, a possibility Ben idly speculates on later. Or it’s just a Hebrew phrase most people happen to know. Sybil’s reaction makes me think it’s something more, as if this has been something they’ve discussed before. But I agree with Ben: I have no idea what’s funny about it.

In any case, it’s such a big tell – to remember an event was the day before Yom Kippur, twenty years later, means it was somehow connected at the time – that it goes way beyond ethnicity or religion, and imparts a flavor of forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is more complex than simple forgiveness: an individual must forgive those who have trespassed against him, then ask for forgiveness for his trespasses against other people, before asking God for forgiveness for sins. So it conditions forgiveness and repentance on each other.

Which brings us to Ben’s mother. As they are wooing the women, Claudius suggests they play a game of confession: tell their most shameful stories. He starts with an episode of sexual acting out when he noticed a neighbor watching him through his window. Hr probably thinks it makes him look cool, but the women aren’t impressed. Ben tells a story about looking through his father’s skin mags, but it’s clear he’s more reflective than shameful, and includes his mother’s reaction and complaint to his father: “Don’t you realize what you’re teaching him?” The women lose interest completely, and wander off: “Then they turned away, and just like that sealed us off from them. I marveled for a moment at this female power.” Turns out, Ben’s mom left his father shortly after the magazine incident. The real female power to seal off. Ben chose to stay with his dad, out of some kind of loyalty, and his relationship with his mother was strained from then on. Lots of forgiveness due in this scene alone.

Ben’s father has had a lot of influence on him, and on his attitude towards women:

A few weeks earlier, late one August morning in Philadelphia, shortly before the start of sophomore year, I sat with my father, Leo, at the kitchen table and got drunk with him for the first time. He told me to beware of crazy women, angry women, passionate women. He told me they would ruin me. “But they are also the best women, “ he said, “the best lovers, with a jungle between their legs and such wildness in bed that every man should experience. “ I knew the kinds of women he meant. I also knew he was talking about my mother, but I didn’t give a damn. She had left us, left him, a few years earlier, and recently she’d announced she was getting remarried. I saw how this news affected my father. He had stopped around our house all summer and appeared smaller and more frantic by the week. ….He held a chewed fingernail up by his nose and then reached into his pocket for something. It was a condom, wrapped in silver foil. “Use this with the most delicious woman you can find, una pazza. Let her screw your brains out, once and never again. Then marry a nice, boring, fat girl with hands and thighs like old milk. Making a dull life is the only way to be happy. “

So all this family stuff is lurking beneath the surface as Ben and Claudius take their shots at the party with these older women, and fail. They get a second chance as they notice the women leaving, unable to handle their bicycles. The boys offer to escort them safely home. This doesn’t work out too well either, since they come across the snarling dog promised in Brinkley’s Contributor Note above. And again, the boys show they are boys by freezing and the women show they are women by beating down the dog.

I’m not sure how I feel about that; any dog that’s beatable doesn’t deserve it. And that seems to fit into the next section as well, where the women invite the boys in.

At the party, Iris kept referring to bubbles, somehow related to the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics, mono mo aware. I’ve had some very tangential brushes with Japanese aesthetics, and it’s complex stuff, mostly based on naturalism, the acceptance of irregularities we would see as flaws. In this case, it’s a reference to a kind of overall awareness in conjunction with wistful acceptance of the temporary nature of things. Bubbles burst. They sure do. In his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us the title of the story comes from Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” another reference that ties in nicely with this story. You think you’re just along for the ride until you’re confused and bleeding on the side of the road.

Now that the women have the boys on their turf, things get real. The women, already naked, tell the boys to strip, which is hard enough for them, and then look at each other. For a long time. This takes the story of boys-getting-laid off-track to the point where getting laid is covered in a sentence or two. Ben finally gets to use the condom his father gave him; at least he knows the kind of woman Iris is. And I suspect he knows he’s no match for her. At least not yet.

It’s the relationship between Ben and Claudius that takes center stage:

Claudius was sitting up in the bed, staring at me. At once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It had been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, of rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.

I’m not sure what caused the bursting of this bubble. Did they both recognize, when subjected to the male gaze, what women go through all the time, and feel some kind of shame at the type of masculinity they’d been brought up to flaunt and prize? Were they ashamed at whatever random homoerotic feelings ran through them in the moment? Or were there more than just random feeling, and shame that the other saw them? Was it just the general idea that the women were running the show and they were helpless? Did each blame the other for getting them to that point?

The rupture between Ben and Claudius is the denouement, however; the climax comes a paragraph before, as Ben again thinks about his father:

What did he mean back on that August morning before I returned to college? ….I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves me and believes in me and, despite all our differences, wants nothing more than to be a man in my image. I see that spectral boy, my son, vividly, and feel frightened when he is with me. I have no idea what to say.

This comes in a future moment, looking back on that night with Iris and Sybil – Iris, a part of the eye, and Sybil, a prophetess – from an adult vantage point twenty years later. It sets in stone the hero worship of his father, now dead. And I wonder: why is Ben not a father? Is that by choice, or circumstance? What would those circumstances be?

So I end this story with far more questions than answers. They’re good questions, malleable to different shapes so covering a lot of ground. I don’t know if Brinkley intended it this way. I went through several reviews of the story before writing this post – it’s the opening story of his 2018 book, A Lucky Man, a finalist for that year’s National Book Award, so reviews abound – and did something I seldom do: I read Jake Weber’s post before even making preliminary notes. I was that convinced I was missing something that floated through the story, some big sentence or pov shift that boiled down to “this is what the story means.” I also thought a male viewpoint might be instructive, that he might see this story about masculinity quite differently than I. I was relieved that Jake struggled on this one, too, in much the same way I did. He came out of it with a somewhat different range of ideas, but we were both in the ballpark. And he tripped over the Day of Atonement reference like I did, which was a comfort. If I had one question to ask the author, that would be it.

Maybe Jake’s Five Themes is the Bubble way to think about it: an awareness of all of it. In another rare move, I pre-read the next story, which has a theme that complements this idea nicely. So onward.

BASS 2019: Wendell Berry, “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review #155

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

….I have more or less suddenly become capable of writing so as to be read by strangers a story that, until then, had only been spoken and heard in my own neighborhood. Behind this now-written story is a lived one that, for a while, could be passed about among people who knew the setting and, so to speak, the original cast. Writing such a story calls for the characters and the situation to be newly imagined, in order to give it the plausibility previously supplied by local tellers and hearers. This can be accomplished by moving the lived story into a fictional community already prepared, as has been done here.

Wendell Berry, Contributor Note

This is it: finally, the Wendell Berry story I greatly enjoyed. I’ve admitted before that although I mostly agree with his viewpoints about the evils of modern (that is, post-WWII) life, I find him annoying, for reasons I don’t quite understand. But here, I was caught up in a story that kept expanding its scope.

It begins with a delightful opening anecdote about thirteen-year-old Billy Gibbs, resident of Port Williams in this summer of 1935.

His life would have been simple if he had been only lazy – or, as he himself might have said if he had thought to say it, only a lover of freedom. But along with the wish to avoid work, his mental development brought him also to the wish to be useful to his parents and to work well, especially if an adult dignity attached to the work. And so he was a two-minded boy.
And so he grew up into usefulness and a growing and lasting pride in being useful, but also into a more or less parallel love of adventure and a talent for shirking.

It’s one of those Tom Sawyer-esque stories about Billy climbing a tree to see what town bigwig Mr. La Vere and his unfamiliar ladyfriend are doing, having driven well into the brush one afternoon, and recognizing the activity as one “enacted by cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, dogs, housecats, chickens…”. Billy can’t quite see, and now that he’s confirmed that this activity is, indeed, something people engage in as well, he wants to be sure to pick up some pointers. So he climbs out a little more on the branch, which of course breaks, dropping him right on top of a startled Mr. La Vere (and, presumably, an even more startled ladyfriend). Youthful vigor and a willingness to disregard the thorns of blackberry brambles allow Billy to escape unidentified, with a story for the ages.

But this story isn’t The Story, and now becomes an exhibit in a story about storytelling:

One mind, and a boy’s mind at that, finally could not contain such a story. But such a story, a story of such high excellence and so rare, could be turned loose in Port William only with some caution beforehand, as one might release an especially exuberant big dog. Billy found that he was not able to tell the story to anybody unworthy of it, which illuminated forthwith all the boys more or less of his generation.
….Billy knew he had a really good one. He wanted to tell it to a real story teller who would recognize its worth. And so he told it to Burley Coulter.

I’m quite impressed with Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing how Billy embodies the characteristics of a writer.

The Story about storytelling mutates once again into an interesting reflection on the synergy between Port William and the story, how when people heard it, they knew the places and people and caught the nuances: “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.”

I’m not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree that any story about people and places we know have more impact on us than stories about strangers, since we can fill in so many of the details other readers can only imagine, no matter how well described. But the art of storytelling is in conveying a world to someone not in that world, and Billy – or Berry – has done an admirable job. Billy comes across as a very real, multidimensional person; it’s a story very accessible to outsiders, fairly easy to translate to anywhere. And no, I don’t hear this story and think poorly of Kentuckians, any more than I would if Billy were from the Lower East Side and fell off a trash can watching Mr. La Vere’s urban counterpart in an alcove or parking lot. Maybe this is because I read a lot of different settings, and I’m used to translating experiences, to observing differences without judgment. If that’s the case, damn, let’s get people reading, because we all need to be a lot less critical of each other and realize our experiences truly have more in common than differences.

But Berry’s point is, the story doesn’t sound the same to latter-day residents of Port Williams, either. The Story about storytelling transforms again: he describes how things changed, and now we’re getting into familiar Berry territory as what seemed like a third-person narration is revealed to be first person, with Berry’s long-time Port William alter-ego, Andy Catlett, coming out from behind the curtain:

I heard the story of The Great Interruption only a few times in the years after the war. It was becoming less and less a property of its old community in time and place. Grover Gibbs and Burley Coulter, remarkably, had ceased to tell it. I think it had begun to make them sad. Port Williams by then was losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a “no-place“ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.

I’m not sure we’re dismemoried; I think our memories might come from a different place. Just as the notion of family has evolved and expanded, so has what we share, whether it be over coffee with the people next door, or on Twitter. Yes, there are ways to use Twitter that don’t involve fighting or having your life threatened, but those ways are incompatible with fame, so are less well known.

Maybe it’s the speed with which things change that makes the last century so disorienting. After all, Depression-era Kentucky wasn’t always there; it too was a change from whatever came before it. But that change happened slowly, over decades or even centuries. Now, we get left behind in the space of a single generation. I myself have become far more sympathetic to the anxieties my father’s generation showed back in the 60s and 70s, when I was just a kid, now that I am what was then his age and I feel confused by the gig economy and contemporary comedy and soulless algorithms that run our lives. In twenty years, will today’s millennials be confused by whatever is around the corner?

I enjoyed watching this story zoom out from the initial close-up on Billy to a broader storytelling view, to a broader more sociopolitical view. The last short paragraphs seem to go a little wide of the overall piece, but veers into Berry’s traditional stomping ground, decrying the evils of modernism and the effect of machines and money on rural America. I have to tell you, money hasn’t been all that great for anything, as becomes clearer every day. I even thought of Berry last week when I saw a news story about the current Secretary of Agriculture admitting outright that small family farms would continue to fold: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” Even though I’m well-removed from farming, I took it rather personally, as if he were telling Andy Catlett to quit whining and go get a job at WalMart. So I’m not indifferent to his schtick. I just find it annoying. Few writers have this effect on me. I’ve kind of come to enjoy it, the two-mindedness of it.

A note on the title: BASS lists the story title as “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978)”. The shorter form is used in the Threepenny Review table of contents (perhaps the subtitle is included in the text itself, but I don’t have access). The Larkspur Press standalone edition puts the subtitle on the cover, but lists the story under the three-word version. I’ve abbreviated it only because such a lengthy title plays havoc with computer-defined fields and Twitter connections. I think it’s fitting that my abbreviation is forced by the machines and modernity Berry rails against, and so I mention it, whether as a nod to him or a smack upside the head, I’m not sure.

BASS 2019: Kathleen Alcott, “Natural Light” from Zoetrope All-Story #22.1

Having lost my parents in my early twenties, I often considered how I might maintain a relationship with each – which stories of theirs might take on different meaning as my life changed, which objects left behind might alter in emotional valence. But at the center of these thoughts was a certain dynamic: myself as protean, my parents’ lives as fixed where they left them – never, as the story begins, providing any new information.

Kathleen Alcott, Contributor Note

The quick takes on this story emphasize the inciting event: a woman in her thirties comes across a photograph, at a New York museum exhibit, of her now-deceased mother doing … something. “I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph”, Daughter promises in the first line of the story. She drops hints, however, that strongly suggest a sexual act with overtones of mainlining, things not usually associated with suburban mothers of adult daughters.

Shows like these are a dime a dozen here, and they are not of the sort I seek out, having lost most interest I might have had in the type of lives and rooms they always feature. Bare mattresses on the floor, curtains that are not curtains, enormous telephones off the hook, the bodies always thin but never healthy. Eyes shadowed in lilac, men in nylon nighties pour liquor from brown paper bags into their mouths. A woman with a black eye laughs, her splayed thigh printed with menstrual blood. These photographs are in color, the light strictly natural.

While this is dramatic and forms the foundation for the story, there’s a lot more to it, namely, a network of relationships involving our protagonist (who I’ll refer to as Daughter), laid out against her intrusive thoughts of suicide.

The relationships – Mother-Daughter, Father-Daughter, Husband-Daughter, Mother-Father – show some interesting parallels. Then there’s the Photographer-Mother relationship, of which we have testimony only from one side, and the Photographer-Daughter relationship, which is quite different in that we see only its genesis when Daughter wants to meet to discuss the circumstances of the photograph. It serves a specific purpose in the world of the story, and as a writing element, providing an escape and/or an ending.

The idea of natural light – unretouched reality – plays throughout the story, contrasted with ways we routinely soften, cleanse, and civilize what we see. Daughter had gone to the museum to see a different exhibit, landscapes “refashioned with a particular pink glow the painter must have felt when he saw what inspired them.”

The story gives several other examples of this softening. Mother gave up perfume years before, but on her death bed wore foundation to mask her pallor. Father has his own technique:

It was one of a thousand of precooked phrases he had on hand: canary in a coal mine, teach a man to fish, taste of your own medicine. Language to him was the same set of formations and markers, certain maxims always leading the way to others. After you pulled up your bootstraps, you reaped what you sowed. It was something he had adopted in recovery, I thought, the beginnings of which took place a decade before I was born. For my whole life, he had referred to himself that way: in recovery. It seemed cruel to me one had to adopt that title for the duration of living, but for my father it became a helpful boundary, a gate he could close on any conversation he wanted.

This precisely parallels the Daughter-husband relationship, or non-relationship, as they are estranged:

Contact between us now consisted mainly of three words, even the contraction never parted into its constituents. Hope you’re well, he wrote. Hope you’re well, I wrote. Hope you’re well! Hope you’re well! The statement never altered into a question, and with time it began to read to me as a kind of threat, beveled, ingenious. To his last hope you’re well, six weeks before, I had not replied, and I believed that was the end he had in mind. ….We had been separated a year.

There’s a different kind of natural light in the Daughter-Husband relationship. Daughter has what could be classified as either intrusive thoughts, or suicidal ideation; it’s not entirely clear from the story which is the case. They seem to be random, triggered obliquely by something she encounters. “Pills in a blender with strawberry ice cream, I thought. An email scheduled a day ahead of time with very clear instructions” follows her recollection of the email exchange with Husband. “A hotel suite uptown, I thought, a maid you’d somehow apologize to beforehand” occurs while at the museum. When Photographer says “I’d like to shoot you sometime,” we get “A gun shop, I thought, where you bantered a little outside your politics with the owner, some bald man with ideas about a woman’s instincts for self-preservation, who congratulated your investment in personal safety.”

I have no professional qualifications, but my understanding is that suicidal ideation is the repeated image of one scenario, complete with extensive plans. Hey, who hasn’t fantasized about the scheduled-ahead email. Husband seems inordinately freaked out by these thoughts. It’s sort of the reverse of the softening effect: he’s shining a glaring spotlight, increasing the harshness of the situation. Or… is Daughter softening her view, taking things too casually? There’s a strong indication that might be the case, given the language of her dismissal:

It is true there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the impact of this on my mind, conceiving of elaborate meals, the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup really be capable of suicide? I asked him this question laughing, wooden spoon aloft, during an argument about a drug I did not want to take. Doesn’t the one cancel out the other, leaving you with a basically normal wife?

The double use of forms of “rose” makes me think maybe she’s the one painting the picture in soft light, like those landscapes with the “peculiar pink glow.” At the same time, the humor reminds me of her mother’s gesture as she dismisses her youth in New York. And that brings in her description of Husband’s tendency to dismiss her routine upsets: “Rather than responding to my speaking, he took to waving at it, scenery to be considered later…”.

Thus, the language of this story is incredibly important on a micro level. At times, it’s maddening. All the references to light, to pink (she wears a rose-gold watch), carry meaning. Syntax comes into play as well:

When my husband met me, twenty-two to his forty, he saw a girl with a rough kind of potential, and he tended to me as one might a garden, offering certain benefits and taking others away. He did not wish me to grow in just any direction. That I allowed him this speaks just as poorly of me. I was once a girl with an exquisite collection of impractical dresses – ruched chiffon, Mondrian prints – and a social smoking habit, a violent way with doors and windows. I left him in taupes, my arches well-supported, my thinking framed in apology….
Growing up his beliefs as their rigidity dictated, I was something like an espalier, the distance between the vine and the thing that trained it almost imperceptible.

That last sentence requires some concentration to parse (who is growing up?), but subtly introduces another element: how much of this metamorphosis is simply the natural byproduct of growing up, rather than an unnatural pruning of unwanted traits? Given what we learn about Mother’s past, didn’t she go through the same process of putting away childish things? Maybe meeting Father was the catalyst, or maybe she was just ready to grow up and move on. It happens to all of us; we change throughout time, and sometimes we want to forget our past lives.

That brings the overt theme of the story: how much do we get to know about the past of those close to us? It’s clear Mother didn’t want to share the details of her youth with Daughter, evidenced by “a gesture she would make…: a low hook of the hand, swiped an inch or two to the left. Total dismissal.” (Does that recall Husband waving at Daughter’s concerns?) Father amplifies this at the end of the story. Is our past our property? I can’t think of any practical reason Daughter has a right to know her mother lived, by all indications briefly, a seedy life. Is there an emotional reason to shine natural light on a Mother who would rather be seen in muted half-light? Is it an intrusion, a violence, to press the issue even after her death?

Syntax connects the relationships as well:

Of course, the thoughts had disturbed me enough that I had confessed to having them, about a year after my mother died, in the dark after sex in the middle of the night. This was the time he wanted me the most, calling me in from where sleep had taken me, his body my reintroduction to the living world.

I was startled by that first sentence, since the ambiguous clause arrangement made it sound like Mother died in the dark after sex in the middle of the night, an odd notion since she was so ill towards the end. Then I realized that was instead when Daughter told Husband about her intrusive thoughts. This grammatical blending of Mother and Daughter adds to all the confusion of identity, the connections between all of these people.

The story contains a line I adore, for my own reasons: “Anything can be lived around, so long as it’s only you who has to do it.” My husband and I spent fifteen years playing “Who’s turn is it to be crazy?” That sentence is the first time anyone’s validated my own sense that, as much as the well-meaning try to push me into social circles, I’m really better off alone, where I can be crazy without anyone feeling the need to do something.

What I see more than anything else is that Daughter is denied on all fronts: Mother, Father, and Husband all refused to give her what she wanted from them. Was she entitled to what she wanted? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is, all the doors were closed. The only one open was the Photographer.

And then we come to the end. More connections via language and images. Backtrack to language: her husband wanted her most in sleep. She agrees to be shot – photographed – when she’s asleep. I see two connections to prior suicide thoughts: shooting, and dying in a temporarily occupied (hotel) room. So when I read:

I’m open to being photographed, I wrote to the photographer, so long as I’m asleep.
A field, I thought then. A yellow caned chair. A room up some stairs that was empty.

I think this is the real thing. Pills, booze maybe, to assure sleep that deepens. Photographer, the only open door. More than a little passive-aggressiveness towards the woman whose relationship with her mother predates hers. I’m betting the emails would be all set up and ready to go. Then again, ask me in a year, and I might read it differently.

That’s what’s fun about a story like this, the different takes. Jake Weber went in another direction in his blog post, and introduced me to the art term mise en abyme, a picture within a picture, while expanding it to a literary use here.