BASS 2020/Pushcart XLV 2021: Meng Jin, “In The Event” from Threepenny Review #159

In the late summer of 2017, I moved to California after a year spent writing abroad. For much of my life I had willfully disregarded the concept of place, but something had shifted inside me and suddenly it was all I could see: how my body responded to and situated within a new climate, a new architecture, a new demography and geography. I’d mailed in my absentee ballot for the 2016 election from England; afterward I’d sunk into a lonely despair. It was supposed to be a time of joyful creation, but I felt totally alienated from my work, and spent most of my days, like many, reading the news and crying. Now I’m back in America. I was aware I had entered a new disaster scape. Writing “in the event “ was one attempt at navigating this disaster escape and of trying to find inside it a place of meaning and art.

Meng Jin, Contributor Note

Chenchen, new to San Francisco, is becoming more aware of potential disasters. Earthquakes, of course; now she finds out her boyfriend Tony’s office is in a liquefaction zone. “I didn’t know what liquefaction meant, but it didn’t sound good.” Yeah, it’s not. Then there are landslides and tsunamis. Tony gives her details on the potential for nuclear attack in their area: high. While she’s worrying about this, the wildfires break out. Remember the 2018/19 wildfires, the orange skies, the smoke? We’ve forgotten all about that, haven’t we, except the people who lost everything. Then comes the heat wave.

Hey, Chenchen, just wait ‘til 2020.

In the event of an earthquake, I texted Tony, we’ll meet at the corner of Chinaman’s Vista, across from the café with the rainbow flag.
Jen had asked about our earthquake plan. We didn’t have one. We were new to the city, if it could be called that. Tony described it to friends back home as a huge village. But very densely populated, I added, and not very agrarian. We had come here escaping separate failures on the opposite coast. Already the escape was working. In this huge urban village, under the dry bright sky, we were beginning to regard our former ambitions as varieties of regional disease, belonging to different climates, different times.

The story is somewhat familiar: Chenchen, control freak, tries to imagine and prepare for all sorts of disasters, and yet it’s the one she never saw coming that gets her in the end. Ain’t that always the way it goes.

But it’s the details along the way that make this story beautiful. Not just the details of San Francisco, but the details of family, of the past, even of Chenchen’s music. She describes how she and Tony have families that followed opposite reversals of fortune: his family went from rich to so-so, hers from poor to educated elite. There’s a Thanksgiving scene that was fun to read – and scrumptious – at this moment. But it’s the family interaction at Thanksgiving that sheds more light on Tony and Chenchen: a squabble breaks out, peaks, then fades away and everyone’s laughing and chatting again.

It was like a switch had been flipped. In an instant the tension was diffused, injury and grievance transformed into commotion and fond collective memory. I saw then how Tony’s upbringing had prepared him for reality in a way that mine had not. His big family was a tiny world. It reflected the real world with uncanny accuracy—its little charms and injustices, its pettinesses and usefulnesses—and so, real-worldly forces struck him with less intensity, without the paralyzing urgency of assault. He did not need to survive living like I did, he could simply live.

As someone from a family where every word and action included the warning, “Now don’t ruin Christmas,” I can relate.

Chenchen’s music, too, shows her desire for control, though I have to admit I have no idea what it is she’s doing. She calls it “electric folk songs with acoustic sounds,” but it’s dance music. Then, following the failure of the previous year, she went in a new direction. She describes the process and the reason for her technique, and I’ll present it verbatim, since I have no idea what she’s doing:

But I had the temperament of a conceptual artist, not a musician. Specifically, I was not a performer. I hated every aspect of performing: the lights, the stage, the singular attention. Most of all I could not square with the irreproducibility of performance—you had one chance, and then the work disappeared—which, to be successful, required a kind of faith. The greatest performers practiced and practiced, controlling themselves with utmost discipline, and when they stepped onto the stage, gave themselves over to time.
This was also why I couldn’t just compose. I wanted to control every aspect of a piece, from its conception to realization: I did not like giving up the interpretation of my notes and rests to a conductor and other musicians.
I wanted to resolve this contradiction by making music in a way that folded performance theoretically into composition. Every sound and silence in this album would be a performance. I would compose a work and perform it for myself, just once. From this material I would build my songs. If the recording didn’t turn out, I abandoned the mistakes or used them. I didn’t think about who the music was for. Certainly not for a group of people to enjoy with dance, as my previous album had been—I, too, had been preparing for celebration. My new listener sat in an ambient room, alone, shed of distractions, and simply let the sounds come in.

It’s that last thing about the listener sitting alone in a room that strikes me. It sounds like the storage room she decides will make a good disaster shelter, where she loads all the water and sleeping bags. She’s making music for disaster. “The song was about failure’s various forms.”

She’s also listening to disaster on audiobook. She plays the end-of-the-world novel on 1.5 speed, because she can’t wait for the end of the world to get here. Again, I can relate.

She gets a kind of warning of the disaster that will change everything. No flood, fire, or earthquake. But the warning seems like a mistake. Then, the night it happens, there’s a persistent beeping – “a high C”, and she would know, she has perfect pitch – that she can’t find. It’s a great penultimate scene, she and Tony trying to find the beeping device, removing batteries from clocks, smoke alarms, everything electronic, and yet the beeping continues, because that’s what a warning does, just before the end. In this case, as T.S. Eliot always knew, the end is a whimper that conveys a tragic acceptance. As with the book, she’s glad the worst has finally happened.

On a more personal note:  I read the entire story perceiving Chenchen as male. Maybe it was the rainbow flag at the beginning, plus my unfamiliarity with Chinese names (both male and female Chenchens come up on Google). It made the final disaster a little more striking, but otherwise had little effect. I wonder if I’m just not evolved enough to recognize subtle signs, or if we make too much of gender.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Chenchen strikes me as likely being some type of neuro-divergent person; she has a hard time shutting out sounds sometimes, to such an extent they nearly cause her a panic attack at one point. The world is too much with her in almost every way.”

The story can be found online in its entirety at Threepenny Review.

BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things

Gretchen Warsen: “Please Tell Me More of Your Story”
These twenty stories make me hopeful for the state of American short fiction. Here are writers digging deep and reckoning with the implications of the #MeToo movement, a future of population control, childhood, adolescent bullying, long-term love, infidelity, mythology, and art. These stories span the globe, touching down in France, Maine, Yonkers, The American midwest, Tennessee, Madagascar, Alaska, China, Venezuela, California. I was glad to see story writers play with genre: here are pieces that feature elements of magical realism, dystopic fiction, realism, historic fiction, mythology, comedy, and tragedy.

Heidi Pitlor, BASS Series Editor

Given how miserable 2020 was, I don’t think I could’ve handled it if this volume had been mediocre. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out: it was a fine edition. And, I think, a special one.

As I was reading, I kept referring to prior stories. In my post about Scott Nadelson’s story “Liberté,” I wrote, “I seldom see patterns in the stories included in BASS volumes, but this year, as I am just about two-thirds finished, I see two threads: first, stories built around real people, and second, women who find themselves attracted to assholes. Interesting, even brilliant assholes, but assholes nonetheless.” I later added mythology to the list, when Jane Pek joined Elizabeth McCracken in basing a story on mythology; the final story used the Hero’s Journey to connect to the theme. And through many of the stories ran questions of identity: how does one accept and affirm one’s race and/or sexuality – or even one’s status as an AI being?

Granted, these aren’t arcane themes and motifs; they show up all over in any collection. But given the diversity inherent in BASS – as outlined by Heidi Pitlor in her foreword quoted above – I still felt like there was something going on, a weaving of these themes that held the individual stories together more strongly than usual.

Then, in his post about the last story, blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote something that brought it into focus:

Every year, when I read through Best American Short Stories, there are at least a few coincidences that make me think the order of stories was chosen on purpose, even though I know that the stories are put in the sequence they’re in based solely on the alphabetical order of last names of authors. This year’s collection has probably set a record for the number of times I’ve felt like the stories are doing a call-and-answer with one another, and the final story in the collection, “The Special World” by Tiphanie Yanique, does it more than any other story. Not only is it a story about a black character struggling with trying to understand what authentic blackness is when surrounded by white norms, making it a perfect bookend to “Godmother Tea,” the opening story in the collection, it also contains a reference to a Mahalia Jackson song, like Carolyn Ferrell’s “Something Street,” and it plays with the notion of invisibility, much like Kevin Wilson’s “Kennedy,” the story just before “The Special World.” If guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld intended to pick not just twenty stories she liked, but twenty stories that somehow actually worked well together in spite of not having been written with the collection in mind, she succeeded mightily.

Jake Weber, Workshop Heretic

I hadn’t seen the connection between the first story and the final one until he pointed it out, but he’s right, and given the restriction of alphabetical ordering of the stories, it’s curious. Coincidence? Maybe. I see four stories that would have come before “Anderson” in the Other Distinguished Stories list, were they just unlucky enough to miss their shot because “Godmother Tea” fit so symmetrically with “The Special World”?

In any case, this created an anthology, diverse in so many ways, that nonetheless read like a carefully curated collection, with those four common themes – Misbehaving Men, Mythology, Biography, and Identity – appearing in various clusters of two or three in each story. The combinations kept it from being a “theme edition” – something I wouldn’t particularly want to see in BASS – yet made it more cohesive than twenty unrelated stories would normally be.

This year, I tried once again to increase the BASS club to more than two. Instead of inviting writers, who are already busy writing and, I’m guessing, don’t really want to put themselves in a position of saying anything negative about another writer, I invited some people who were already blogging short stories. While Jake and I still make up the core, we’ve had some great contributions (such as Jim’s, and Anna’s, as well as our old friend Andrew via comments on both our blogs) that added different points of view, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. As Jake keeps pointing out, this is a time-consuming project, so it’s not easy to entice people to run the whole book, and blogging has long faded into obscurity in favor of podcasts, Instagram, and TikTok. Hey, maybe someone reading here (though these wrap-up posts seldom get any attention) would like to jump in. Better late than never! Or plan for next year.

I wish I had done a better job on many of the stories. Part of the problem was the general distraction of 2020, which, in November, included another COVID surge and a crucial election. Then I got bogged down in a Chemistry MOOC that, while excellent, was – and still is – a huge time sink. As a special wrench in the works, the volume was released a month later than usual for COVID reasons, and it was a week after that before I finally got started. I have a self-imposed deadline of January 1, which is when I like to start reading and blogging Pushcart, so I found myself in a time crunch. Instead of spending a day between reading and notation, between research and first draft, and before finally posting, I often read, wrote, and posted within 24 to 48 hours. This resulted in posts that were often less organized than I would have wanted, and were less comprehensive than they should have been. In retrospect, I should have let the deadline slide.

Here’s hoping our idiosyncrasies, yours and mine, align this year. If not, here’s hoping there are more years, more idiosyncrasies, and more stories for all of us.

Curtis Sittenfeld, BASS 2020 Guest Editor

I was surprised at how well our idiosyncrasies did align. I never would have thought a story about high school bullying would be so readable. I was charmed by the Spirit of the Nine-Tailed Fox. I learned to be less afraid of Mary Gaitskill. Seeing a thinly-disguised real-life drama from the eyes of the wife of a Misbehaving Man, combined with Jake’s insight about the cultural background, felt like an entire course in Black History. I felt a certain kinship with an aging Alaskan woman preparing to leave behind a house full of memories, and a young artist who can’t quite pull it together. I loved the meta-story blended into the middle of a recollection of childhood friendships. I wished I could conjure up a Godmother who would make me tea and give me good advice to get me out of my own way. And the first 90% one story was so enjoyable to read, I could almost forgive the let-down ending (no, not really, but I could understand it).

I’m grateful this edition served as a project at a time I very much needed something to focus on. Good work, all.

BASS 2020: Tiphanie Yanique, “The Special World” from The Georgia Review, Winter 2019

“Invisible Man” sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, Riverside Park. Photo by Trish Mayo
The collection that this story is part of is, as a whole, an exercise in fiction forms.… I wanted to think about form in the way I had been taught to think about form as a poet. As a writer from a colonialized place, I was also weary of form as yet another way to impose colonial ideals of beauty on the colonized, but I did love me a sestina. So I knew that pre-existing forms had their value. The most ubiquitous fiction form is probably the Hero’s Journey, first made famous by Joseph Campbell. Interestingly, Campbell always claimed that this form was not a colonizing one because it already existed in most cultures. He was just giving it a name and articulating the detailed parts of the form. So I decided to see what the form made possible for a story, and what it could do for me as a writer . . . and maybe what it might articulate for me as a reader and thinker, and even as an agent myself in the world.

Tiphanie Yanique, Contributor Note

 I have to admit up front that I think I’m leaving a great deal of this story unexplored. That’s kind of interesting in itself, given its intersection with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; it’s as if there are parts of this story that I, as a white older woman, may not recognize, parts that would be more recognizable to young black men. But there are also universals. That’s a place to start. The caution is to not assume the universals are all there is, to be willing to work for the parts I can’t see at this time.

The Hero’s Journey is, as Yanique says, ubiquitous. Numerous descriptions in various degrees of detail are available online, and the story is itelf labeled in sections with steps on the Journey. Yet this is not a completed Journey, as we discover through Yanique’s Note:

Fly is one of the main characters of a novel in stories / linked story collection that I have been revising for about nine years.… In “The Special World” we find him as a young adult. It does seem to me that this is when men are made to believe that vulnerability either has its merits or is bullshit. If they can’t handle these almost adult vulnerabilities with bravery, then outgoes vulnerability. Before the story’s end, Fly loved his religious faith, his family, a girl, his solitude, his own body. But then all these loves get tampered with.

Tiphanie Yanique, Contributor Note

So we have to take the story here in front of us as an uncompleted arc, to be continued. In the larger scheme of the collection, the question might become, how does this part of the Journey affect the future parts? But isn’t that part of reading any story, to see how a character changes, and to consider how that might affect them going forward for better or worse. And, as with any story presented on its own, we have to work with what we’re given, as if that’s all there is.

A key scene (for me, at least) occurs fairly late in the story. Fly learns his parents are divorcing, which he takes as a terrible blow, “an embarrassing admission, either of failure or a deeply consequential mistake. Either was awful.” He returns home from college – for the second time in two days – and finds his father living in the office he kept in his house.

But the elder man didn’t seem to be talking to Fly at all, haven’t looked at him yet. He had a book in his hand and was placing it in a box. Instead he looked at the book. Then he finally looked at Fly. He passed the book to Fly wordlessly – Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Fly’s first copy. It should have been a thing . An occasion, religious-like. But it wasn’t.
This affected my read of the entire story. I should confess at this point, I haven’t read Invisible Man; I’ve tried twice, and just couldn’t get very far. It’s a book I’ve read a lot about, but haven’t read. It’s a book I’ve seen described as a Hero’s Journey itself. If nothing else, this story has inspired me to try a third time. So much of the story has to do with Fly’s racial and sexual identity. When he arrives at his dorm room, there’s a piece of paper with his “government name” on it.
He took it off, crumpled it to a jagged ball. He wanted to eat it. Chew it down to paste and then crap it out. Instead, he let it fall to the floor, roll sadly under the extra-long twin bed.

He introduces himself as Fly thereafter; we never learn his “government name.” This seems to me a rejection of the identity his parents have given him – and of the identity through which the government sees him – and the assertion of his own identity as Fly. But he can’t competely reject that identity, so it hides away, unseen but present.

His RA, Clive, shows up. Clive’s a recurring character through the story, a kind of intrusion of whiteness – his hair is very blond, almost white – and an attempt of whiteness to assign an identity to Fly. Since Fly has a single room, Clive figures it’s because he has allergies. Later, he thinks it might be because Fly is gay. Eventually he just assumes he’s lucky. But is he lucky, or is he isolated? It’s not intentional  racial segregation – there are plenty of black kids on the floor – but does it feel like it is to Fly?

The Special World is somewhat built around a church and the conflation of religion, race, and sexuality that also occurs in his classes. He percieves Arthur and Suzie as white – Suzie as Jewish – but later realizes Arthur is Asian and Suzie is a light-skinned black. He has the same racial confusion at school:

Walking out of the dining hall, Fly would pass a whole section of the cafeteria where the Black and brown kids hung out. He longed for them. But how did those kids of color all know each other already in week two? There were only like one or two brown kids in his classes. Where were they all and how could he get in?

In his World Religion class, this combination of religion, race, and sexuality continues. Fly sees “religion as the only safe route to masculinity” for black men; “The secular Black man as a man is too dangerous.” Someone else talks about “Judeo-Christianity is a way for straight men to admit their attration to other men,” with God, and/ or Jesus, as the object of forbidden attraction. These sound like the bits and pieces from various thinkers that college kids everywhere throw around when they want to sound kind of outrageously sophisticated and provocative. With Fly’s involvement in the Church, they take on more meaning.

In the end it all falls apart: Fly gets sick, Suzie gets engaged to Arthur, his parents are divorcing. This is the collapse Yanique refers to in her Note. Fly returns to the Ordinary World, and is changed to some degree, but it’s not a good change. But he has The Book: maybe that will become a Special World, serve as a guide for growing into his identity.

There’s a touch of self-reference in the story:

For the midterm they had to memorize the various stages of “The Hero’s Journey,” a form the teacher professed was the basis for all Great Narratives. This seems like such a stupid thing to say that Fly lost all respect for the professor immediately.
.…Anything that followed a formula was useless anyhow. Still, alone in his room lonely Fly started charting his own life in his notebook – applying the hero’s quest to the life he’d lived thus far. But no matter where he started to the story he couldn’t find his way to a resurrection. So he plugged in his father’s life, what he knew of it. There must be a complete narrative in there – his dad had lived long enough. But no, there was no heroic return for Fly’s father. There never would be.

Given his observation that he’s now alone again, it’s kind of clever that his illness was the ubiquitous mono. His spleen was enlarged, the spleen being the metaphorical seat of anger. Convenient that so many college students do in fact find themselves ill with mono at some point, and convenient to Ralph Ellison’s prologue to Invisible Man:

It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you are constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. …You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I wonder how Yanique continues Fly’s journey in her collection. She hints that Fly will go through some rough territory. I suspect that, just as the scene where the Book is passed from father to son changed the story that went before for me, Fly’s future will change how his past is read.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “…[B]eing authentic and vulnerable and intimate is so automatically linked to homosexuality; since Fly knows he’s not gay, he feels like all the other things that are assumed to be part of homosexual identity–things Fly really needs–are not for him. Fly has been made to think that his loneliness is because he longs for an unmanly intimacy, when in fact, it’s got nothing to do with sexual identity.”

Tiphanie Yanique reads the story in its entirety at This This This 

BASS 2020: Kevin Wilson, “Kennedy” from Subtropics #27

One year in high school there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-Acto knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard …. I think my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.
The ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank God, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I wanted to steer him toward a different life, but I guess I failed. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate. It’s a strange sensation.

Kevin Wilson, Contributor Note

If someone described this story to me – “It’s about a couple of high school kids getting bullied” – I probably wouldn’t want to read it. But somehow, it was one of the most readable and addictive stories in the book. I think a lot of that is the tone. As strange as this sounds, it often reads like  someone adapted a Quentin Tarantino script into an episode of The Wonder Years. It takes us to hell, but returns to almost-normalcy where there’s the aftereffect, a leftover fear, that exists in a pseudo-normal world. The duality is unnerving. It’s fascinating, surreal. I suspect it’s accurate, that these kids are caught in their own world of terror, and trying to maintain enough normalcy so that no one notices.

This sense of being trapped, of having no way out, is front and center in the story; it’s mentioned several times, either within the moment, or in retrospect:

Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.

The story even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly: “I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” It’s one of the more perverse aspects of abuse that it’s the victim, not the perpetrator, who feels shame, and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s being abused, even when that’s the only way to end the suffering. As a reader, I wanted to reach through the page and tell Jamie that it’s ok he couldn’t tell. It was a powerful connection, to feel protective of a character, to want to comfort him.

Then there’s the quality of their isolation. They’re together alone. Kennedy, on the other hand, is just alone. That makes a big difference. It’s not everything, but you can’t heal if you can’t survive.

Kennedy’s dual nature also shuttles the story between grim horror and pathos. At times he seems like a pure sociopath; at times, he seems like he’s trying very hard to be together alone, to survive, but he just doesn’t know how to do it and doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong. Jamie and Ben see glimpses of this, too, and while they’re overwhelmingly more scared of him, a kind of subtle compassion might be at work as well. 

The scene at Jamie’s home shows both the qualities of aloneness each experience, and Kennedy’s dual nature. The way Kennedy invites himself over seems like just more bullying, but it’s also a clumsy attempt to make friends. He’s stunned by the simplest hospitality of Jamie’s mom. When Jamie invites him to play video games, he tells them he’s never played one in his life. That’s pretty odd for a teenager. He doesn’t get the hang of it, and soon tires of screen violence in favor of the real thing, grabbing the other boys and roughing them up.

“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.
“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”
“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.
He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”
“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”

Damn, Wilson, you really know how to engage a reader’s compassion for a sociopath. Maybe his brother was terrified of him too, and joined the Army to get away from him. Or maybe the brother was his together-alone person, and Kennedy’s trying to replace him with Jamie and Ben. Yet the scene is one big red flag: video game violence just doesn’t cut it, he wants the real thing (so much for the theories that go the other way), and his voice is described as “monotone,” indicating something along the lines of blunted affect. Something is seriously wrong with this kid.

When Kennedy demands they come to his house, they’re just as scared, and for good reason. Again, though, there’s this duality: it’s a fairly normal home. That is, until Kennedy unlocks the two padlocks on his bedroom door and takes a box of handcuffs and floggers out of the closet.

And here’s where my credulity is stretched a little too far: I don’t understand why Jamie complies with Kennedy’s bizarre requests. I suppose part of it is Ben’s presence. Maybe he thinks Ben will keep things from getting out of hand. And again there’s this trapped sensation, like there’s no choice. I doubt Kennedy has thought this deeply about it, but to make someone complicit in their own torture is truly evil, adding another layer of isolation: Jamie can’t tell, because he’d have to admit he laid down on the bed and put on the handcuffs. How many women have been in this position: if they just cooperate with their rapist, they’ll survive. How many defense lawyers use that in court to obtain acquittals. For that matter, how many cases never come to court because a prosecutor warns a victim that it will happen.

And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.

And again, we’re thrown from horror to pathos, from Kennedy as sociopath to Kennedy as abused kid. This only escalates when Kennedy misses a few days of school and finally shows up with obvious injuries. It’s kind of stunning that the art teacher only tells him he’s behind and needs to catch up. I thought things had changed since I was in high school.

The final scene is another escalation, but it’s filtered through a phone call. Someone Jamie and Ben finally stand up to Kennedy and refuse to go to his house again. They huddle together at Jamie’s house, until the phone call breaks the tension and lets them know they did the right thing. But there’s still an element of guilt.

What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.

I think part of the power of this story is that we aren’t expected to understand some of it. We only need to know these kids went through something together alone. The story leaves all kinds of echoes of unresolved chords: We don’t even know how far in the future the flash forward in the final sentences takes place. But we know theirs was a committed fiendship, a kind of wartime experience, and Jamie will probably never have that kind of relationship with another male in his life. And it’s interesting that, in his Contributor Note, Wilson shows a kind of similar bond with Jamie, the self that became not-self.

Wilson’s latest novel, Nothing to See Here, has been floating around my twitter feed for a while now. It features a couple of twins who spontaneously combust when upset, and the people who must care for them. I also remember the story I encountered back in 2012, “A Birth in the Woods.” I wasn’t reading very well back then, but what strikes me about all three Wilson encounters is that they feature something flamboyant and memorable – children bursting into flames, a bear-child being born, a sociopathic teenage bully – but those features are really incidental to the attachment, loss, and isolation that are the heart of the stories. This could be read as gimmickry, but I think it’s more important than that. It’s more like Wilson’s characters need a bizarre circus to lead them to the human feelings they otherwise take for granted. I hadn’t planned to read this new novel, but after this story I’m reconsidering.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “But Ben and Jaime aren’t the only invisible ones. The word “invisible” appears twice in the story. The second time, it’s about Kennedy.”

The complete story can be read online at Subtropics.

BASS 2020: William Pei Shih, “Enlightenment” from Virginia Quarterly Review #95.2

I suppose with the story I wanted to highlight the powers of inclusion and diversity and openness, and the dangers of what might manifest otherwise in closures – that there is so much more to life than simply coexistence.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

There’s one in nearly every BASS: a story that’s so far over my head, I can’t even fake an understanding of it. Even the Contributor Note – from which I’ve excerpted only a very small part above, we’ll get to the rest of it in a moment – is over my head. And, sadly, this is the story Jake has chosen to take a pass on, and there goes my safety net.

On the most straightforward level, we have another Misbehaving Male (I can’t wait to get to my wrap-up post to go into this further). But the story is written with missing pieces, creating an air of mystery, and is told against the background of academia and David Hume and Samuel Johnson, so I get the feeling there’s a lot more to it than simply another sexual harassment case.

The story works hard to create sympathy and understanding for our MM by showing us a bit of his early years as a lonely outsider:

Harvard, 1966. Abel Jones is in his third year. He is an exceptional student, head of the class. He is studying history. His area of focus, the eighteenth century. England and France. Still, there are days when he is lost. Days when he is perplexed. For one, he is excruciatingly shy, soft-spoken. A young man from the country. There are times when he even feels out of his depth. The university is distinctively male, overwhelmingly white — a kind of white. It is marked by class. Even one’s residence defines him. The best rooms are on the second floor, where the most well-to-do reside. A scholarship student, Abel lives on the top floor. Sex is possible. It is commonly available in the bathrooms. At times, he can’t help but think that he’s no better than a pervert.

At first, I thought the mention of whiteness indicated Abel was non-white. That seemed odd as the story went on, since it was never mentioned again. Given his date with a blue-eyed (and presumably white) blonde woman, I would have expected additional mention. Turns out, the comment seems to be preparatory for a showdown over the viability of Harvard for a future student who is, explicitly, non-white.

The relationship with Daphne, the blue-eyed blonde, also sets up some of the backstory. When Abel can’t consummate the relationship in spite of his wanting to do so and her equal willingness, he doesn’t explain more than “I can’t.” He’d seen a psychotherapist who’d told him he wasn’t really gay, the sex with boys way just sexual panic and he needs the love of a good woman to straighten him out. Yeah. Psychotherapy in 1966 wasn’t much better than the gossip over the backyard fence. But it seems his interest in Daphne was more instrumental than romantic:

He can already tell that she will be the type of woman who will pave the way, shine a spotlight on all of his best qualities. It would be easy for people to admire him, as they admire her. A lifetime, ripe with possibilities. Windfall after windfall. He would never have to fear the risk of losing his leverage in the world ever again.

Yep, that’s a 1966 view of a woman’s role in a man’s life, all right. Alas, it’s all too often a 2020 view. But he still can’t close the deal.

Flash forward to the present: Abel is sixty-eight, retired from what seems to have been a solid career as a professor at a Connecticut college; that is, not Harvard. But now we get to the heart of the story. Abel (or should I call him Dr. Jones? That sounds too Raiders of the Lost Ark, Abel it is) hits on a student. It starts over the Dialogue in David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals – a fascinating episode I haven’t encountered before, part of his defense of morality as based on what we feel rather than on reason, a little jaunt into relativism by disguising the revered ancients of Greece and Rome as Alcheic, a resident of a  fictional land of Fourli who is revered though he commits incest, patricide, and suicide, and, oh yeah, cheats on his wife with boys at the local university – and intensifies with dinners, a visit to a gay bar, and extravagant gifts.

I could feel Christian’s discomfort at the showering of gifts, but it isn’t until Abel kisses him – “Why did you do that?” – that he backs off for a while. He returns, asking for a recommendation letter for his application to grad school at Harvard. It’s something of the reverse of Abel’s relationship with Daphne, in that the interest is instrumental, not personal. But in this case, it’s perfectly appropriate, since a student has every right to request a qualifications boost from a professor. That it builds on Abel’s obvious personal interest may show a bit of manipulation on Christian’s part – playing the guilt string – but he seems more interested in Abel’s status as a Harvard alum and member of the Samuel Johnson Society.

Abel has a complicated reaction to this. He wants Christian to stay within his circle for salacious reasons, but he also has concerns based on his experience decades before:

The wasted years. Days of drifting about, feeling entirely out of one’s element. The torture of being friendless, invisible. The absurd self-loathing. All the self-destruction. How would he ever be able to explain what that was like?

“You will fail,” he proclaims. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Christian’s experience might be different, that Harvard might be different – at least a little – or that Christian needs to make his own decisions. He refuses to write the letter. Talk about failing. Can you say lawsuit?

But we jump again, not in time but in focus, and discover Abel is still friends with Daphne: “there is another kind of love there, and it is no less true.” That was a surprise. It’s no small thing to maintain a friendship for that long, and nothing I’d read in the story seemed to indicate he would have the interest or the ability. Maybe he was able to use her as a spotlight in spite of the lack of romance between them. Maybe she was a mentor to him, as he failed to be for Christian.

The story closes with Abel, following his visit to the annual Gala of the Samuel Johnson Society at the Harvard Club, thinking of Christian, trying to come up with ways their paths could intersect. He sends the kid yet another email.

Again he is at his desk. The computer the university had given him, its bright screen before him. He watches the cursor, its metronomic blinking reminds him of a countdown. “Abel Jones,” he says to himself. “What in heavens are you waiting for?” 

I don’t know what it is he sees himself waiting for: to get over Christian? To find a lover? To die? It seems to me he’s waiting for a reply from Christian, which has very little likelihood of arriving. Is it maybe that he’s beginning to realize that, and he’s asking, not “What are you waiting for, let’s get started” but “Just what do you think is going to happen as you sit here staring at the screen?” It’s something like the last scene from The Social Network, rather than a realization that it’s time to move on.

I don’t read the Contributor Notes until I’ve finished a story, and often I find an interesting origin story for a piece. Sometimes I’m surprised at how the author envisions the story. In this case, I’m struggling to 1) understand what is being said, because the Note is as difficult to interpret as the story, and 2) relate it to the story. It isn’t just that I read a different story; that happens often enough. It’s that I feel incredibly stupid because there’s a lot of richness there, and I want to know what it means.

So let’s go back and look at the parts of the Note that I didn’t quote above:

For me, one of the emotional engines that came about as I was writing this story is the idea of goodness – the human endeavor of choosing not only between good and evil, but the everyday and less-acknowledged choices between two disparate goods, and how choosing one good over another is often done, whether inadvertently or not, at a disservice and even the annihilation of the other. In the end I wondered at what point such choices enter the territories of wrongdoing.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

I’m thinking of the choices Abel made, at which ones might be between two disparate goods. Heterosexuality and homosexuality? Isn’t that something that’s more or less hardwired? It seems to me his relatioship with Daphne is one of the best things in his life; I don’t see how that would have annihilated other options, and it wasn’t annihilated by his gayness. By seeing Christian as a romantic partner, did that obliterate the possibility of seeing him as a protégé, as someone whose career he could help build? Probably; but that’s a very difficult transition to make.

I was also thinking about all the many kinds of unrequited love and lonelinesses, how an essential part of being human is that longing to connect meaningfully in some way with someone else – to relate – and how often times people might need a little more time to explain themselves. I was thinking about how commonalities seem to help. Likenesses and likemindedness also do much of that necessary work. Phenotype is another factor that comes into play. At the same time, shared experiences assume and imagine perhaps too much. Falsifications take hold; pluralities become grossly ignored. In short, one runs the risk of giving people who are seemingly like oneself too much of the benefit of the doubt.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

This  makes more sense to me.  Abel sees Christian as himself, and that leads to all kinds of assumptions: that Christian wants emotional and romantic guidance, that he needs a certain kind of academic setting, that he’s looking for personal help rather than academic firepower. It’s a reflection of Abel’s first encounter with Daphne. Somehow, that relationship righted itself and grew; alas, it seems that won’t be the case now. Then again, we have no knowledge of how his friendship with Daphne managed to survive, or what bumps in the road it hit along the way. 

And then there is always the expanding and accelerating universe of the unknown, which one might confuse with disappointment. Despite the fact that we are always more than the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell each other, so much of what’s unrequited and unreciprocated gets wasted away into the undiscovered and what-could-have-been.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

This seems to fit the comparison with Daphne again, and might be the key to the story. If Abel could get his head around the fact that Christian isn’t interested in a romantic or sexual relationship, he might be able to find a different kind of relationship. He’s wasting so much, and he already has the model of his friendship with Daphne. I don’t even get the sense that he’s in the throes of unrequited love; it’s more that he’s trying to rescue someone he sees as his younger self, except Christian doesn’t need rescue.

The entire story takes place against a backdrop of Hume, to whom I’ve had some exposure though not much to his views on morality, and Samuel Johnson, about whom I know little other than his dictionary. Maybe if I knew more about them, the story would click into place. Then I think of the title, and the emphasis on reason in the Enlightenment, as opposed to Hume’s idea that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” I think part of Abel’s problem is that he thinks  he’s acting on reason, but he’s really reacting to his passions. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself – Hume saw our sensation to be the basis of morality – but it’s the lack of self-awareness that’s hampering him, sitting in front of a bright computer screen, watching the tick-tock of the blinking cursor. It’s a lovely closing image.


This story is available online at Virginia Quarterly Review.
The Dialogue from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals.

BASS 2020: Anna Reeser, “Octopus VII” from Fourteen Hills #25

When I wrote “Octopus VII,” I was interested in artists moving from an academic world into an economic world, balancing creative practices with jobs and relationships. I was curious about the mix of feelings that can arise when an artist’s vocation begins to replace his art practice, and the moment when he experiences creative block in his original medium.
The giant metal octopus grew out of this idea – an unwieldy reminder of past potential that feels difficult to match. As a sculpture, it felt endearing and bizarre. Why an octopus? It seemed like a piece that looked physically impressive but that the artist hadn’t fully rationalized conceptually. In imagining who might make that sculpture, Tyler’s voice emerged.

Anna Reeser, Contributor Note

I have great sympathy for those who spend years, and a good deal of money which may need to be paid back, developing the skill, credentials, and creative sense needed to pursue a career in the arts, be they visual, written, musical, kinetic, or combinations of those, and then discover the world is cruel to the beginning artist / writer / composer / dancer: while a few may break out, the lucky ones end up teaching and the rest tend bar or do customer service or administration while writing / singing / dancing / painting nights and weekends. Some give up all together.

That may well be the story Reeser wrote. But that isn’t the story I read.

The story I read is a slacker story. Tyler produced one substantial work in school, and his vision for that piece was so tenuous, he didn’t even blink when his professor interpreted it differently.

Professor Yao had called Octopus VII accosting and masculine yet vulnerable. “A creature stripped bare of its flesh, straining against something,” he’d said. “Against social pressure? Pressure to fall into the crippling morass of the economy? Octopus VII is raw anatomy, motion, danger of feeling.” Yao had stepped in front of the sculpture, obscuring it, staring at Tyler through his oval glasses. “In your future work,” he continued, “I see total abstraction.”
Tyler had nodded, like that’s what he meant all along. He could never have described it so well. And maybe Yao had a point – Tyler had chosen the octopus for its constantly shifting shape, and he finally got the sculpture to look like it was twisting, thrashing, changing.

He’s so focused on the extraneous details of the art life – his girlfriend, his status above a potential client who would buy the Octopus if he made it a bit more practical – that he seems to have forgotten the art entirely. Part of that is no doubt excitement: it’s his first exhibition. I can imagine that, like one’s first published book, comes with a rush of entitlement and heady optimism about the future (though I’ve heard it also comes with imposter syndrome and disappointment when instant fame doesn’t result). But still, Tyler doesn’t strike me as an artist as much as a guy enjoying the idea of being an artist.

And now, post-graduation, MFA in his hot little hands, he has no idea what he wants to do next. Most artists I know have rooms – as many rooms as they can find, storage spaces, friends’ attics, whatever – full of half-started projects that might turn into something, ideas awaiting the mysterious blossoming that turns them into actual pieces. For writers, it’s a computer full of drafts, a drawer full of novels, outlines, stories that need polishing. Tyler has Octopus VII. And when his girlfriend leaves him and heads to LA, he’s even more lost. The story nearly lost me at this point.

Now, I suppose I could read all this as the insecurity of the young artist trying to hide his intimidation. But Tyler has a trust fund and parents who’ll send him $5000 to buy into a new media venture – which, it happens, is cosmetology school. Tyler’s going to learn to cut hair for a living.

This intrigued me and brought me back to the story. It starts with an impromptu haircut for his now-ex-girlfriend Kelsa:

He lifted a section of hair and smoothed it out, then snipped. It made a hssk sound and fell to the floor, becoming limp and material, no longer part of her body. He snipped again, in the front, making a sharper angle that hit at her chin. She grinned.
“It feels lighter,” she said. “Keep going.”
He kept smoothing the hairs and snipping . It was satisfying. “So what’s the job interview? I thought he were painting the apocalypse.”
“Pinkberry – the fro-yo.” She rolled her eyes. “All artists have a lame day job right?”
“Yeah, sure.” Tyler pictured himself washing pans at the Taco place, getting yelled at in Spanish. “Have you done any new paintings?”
“I will.”
Tyler lifted and cut strands, so they hit at different lengths, pointing out her sharp chin and skinny neck. The pieces on the floor began to dry, expanding into blonde whorls all over the chartreuse linoleum.

This makes him seem more like an artist than all the verbiage about the Octopus. Which, by the way, does a great deal of work as a symbol. Following his disdain of the woman who wanted the tentacles curled so they wouldn’t catch on a sweater, he finds it’s in his own way in his car as he drives to LA, in his apartment where he’s always having to work around it and finally stubs his toe hard enough to draw blood. It’s the wrath of the sea monster, cutting down his pride.

Not that his pride needs cutting down at this point. He’s seen Kelsa, who was one of the most talented students in school, reduced to scooping fro-yo. And now he’s figuring he’ll find “something blue-collar, entry-level, something that wouldn’t take over his identity” – a day job to pay the bills. “But that’s what artists did. Felt terrible and made something out of it.” That’s the Dr. Who version, isn’t it: Van Gogh “transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.” Again, Tyler seems so caught up in the romanticism of being an artist, he can’t get anywhere near art.

Except for one thing:

Still, the haircut turned over and over in his mind, the hssk sound, the sea of blonde on the floor, the way he made it fall at angles, reducing it to something better.

A billboard across the street from his apartment changes its ad to one for cosmetology school, which seems like a message for him. I question the use of this magical kind of thing in a story like this; it’s Just a little too convienient. Why not a billboard he sees randomly on one of his long walks, that reminds him of the haircut? But this is the story that three editors chose to make it to this volume of Best American Short Stories, so I guess I’ll defer, or at least accept that I don’t know anything about writing.

The haircutting is a nice segue into the real world:  a kind of art, if Tyler could just see it as that, and a kind of art he seems to have a visceral connection with. But at some point he had that connection with Octopus VII, before it became this annoying piece of junk in his way. And that’s the question posed by the story: is haircutting just another phase, or has he found something that really engages him?

I don’t think so. I think the final paragraph shows haircutting as just another Octopus:

Was this how it happened to people? How your life gets going, making a living, watching TV at night, the whole thing tapping out in a nice rhythm, a little simple and a little sad – but that’s what people did. Fidgeting, he carved a slice of wood off the table’s edge and watched it curl. He cut another, revealing the raw wood under the varnish. Another cut, deeper, scooping a canyon, a ridge. It felt good. He paused and blood rushed through his arms and hands. He picked up his phone, then laid the day’s tips on the work table, the bills crisp and flat, one with numbers in loops of ballpoint pen.

He’s sculpting the table by habit, returning to art, perhaps – but he gets distracted by money, and the phone number of a girl whose hair he’d cut earlier that day. Once again, the artist recedes and more practical needs – money and sex – take over. This can happen, of course, but when it happens over and over, in metal, hair, and wood, maybe it’s time to accept you’re just not an artist. At least, not yet. Maybe he just needs a little more time to cook. And, by the way, again that’s some masterful symbolism Reeser has used there, especially the merging of money and sex.

I’m intrigued by something Sittenfeld wrote in her Introduction, in the section where she lists the individual reasons she loved each story she chose for this anthology:

I loved “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser because of its spot-on depiction of creative young people and various kinds of privilege, including the privileges of money and gender.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Introduction

First, I understand the kind of reality-blindness that students go through; it’s not specific to the arts, by the way. I can remember a workshop in college for the Writing Proficiency Test required for upper-level courses and graduation, where a business major sneered, “I don’t see why we have to take this, I’ll have a secretary to write my letters for me.” That a 21-year-old would take such a dim view of writing as a task to be outsourced to a subordinate, and that she would think her marketing degree from a third-rate commuter branch of a state university would land her a job with a secretary on graduation, sticks with me to this day. She makes Tyler’s dreams of Octopus VIII seem almost reasonable. I’ve also seen the disappointment when writers learn that the MFA they worked so hard on does not open doors and lure agents and publishers like catnip, and is viewed as a bare minimum when looking for teaching work. It’s a tough transition, school to reality. I was lucky enough to do it in my 30s, so I had something of a better idea of what to expect. But I’m sympathetic to the naïve who heard the warnings but figured they didn’t apply to them.

As for the question of privilege, it is always better to have money than not. It gives Tyler a certain cushion that Kelsa doesn’t have. That he squanders it is infuriating, but everyone is limited in one way or another. And, by the way, I’m very aware that my own biases are probably at play here, including my resistance to slacker stories, or those I perceive to be slackr stories. If I read this story a year from now, I might have a very different reaction to it.

I see Tyler and Kelsa as art dropouts with very different stories. She has to earn a living, and seems to have little energy for art. He just doesn’t strike me as that interested in art to begin with. It’s possible both of them will find their path. I’d like to think Kelsa is in a germinating stage right now, and will burst forth with new paintings as she finds ways to put art in her foreground. Then again, I don’t have access to her thought processes like I do to Tyler’s. Maybe she’s in the same place, realizing she’s just wasted a lot of time and money learning to do something the world really doesn’t care about, and she has to care enough for the whole world to make a go of it.

I’d like to think Tyler will find himself drawn back to sculpture, whether it be metal, hair, or wood, once his pride and his hormones settle down and he’s able to focus. But I’ll admit – and this is my bias – I’m far more optimistic about the former than the latter.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “There’s a real difference in working in the medium of hair and metal for Tyler. Working with wire and found metal is all about straining. Working with hair, the scissors just kind of cut through the medium with a satisfying “hssk” sound. I’m not going to claim some mastery of Taoism based on reading a translation of the Tao Te Ching in college, but I do remember how the Tao Te Ching recommends people be like water, flowing where there is room to flow. Tyler’s eighth sculpture is even more an embodiment of the notion of change than the octopus; he’s water itself.”  For someone who claims he has a “general indifference to any kind of visual art” Jake sure pulls off some striking analysis here.

BASS 2020: Alejandro Puyana, “The Hands of Dirty Children” from American Short Fiction #68

African elephant sculpture in Parque Los Caobos in Caracas, Venezuela
…I turned my gaze to what was happening in Venezuela: polarization, totalitarianism, fear-mongering, social upheaval….From then on writing began as a way to deal with my isolation from the country I loved and my family, who still lived the Venezuelan crisis in the flesh.
…This story came from those things I couldn’t get out of my head and I couldn’t understand. I wrote the first draft in a couple of sittings, which is extremely fast for me. The voice came first, never changed or faltered, and then I just followed it. It took me to two places that I loved as a kid: the Children’s Museum and the Plaza los Museos – but from a perspective I had never had. For me those are places of happiness; for the kids in the story they are places of longing. They are excluded from the joy other children take for granted (that I took for granted). But what surprised me most about the story was that joy could still be found for them, that there were still moments of tenderness and loyalty and levity. If a child is still a child, even in the midst of despair and injustice, maybe my country can still the country I love, even when it’s broken.

Alejandro Puyana, Contributor Note

Often when I read an author’s contributor note, I feel like I read a different story, or at least took something different away from my reading. Missed the point, you might say. But in this case, I can clearly see that Puyana did exactly what he set out to do: bring the world of the homeless children of Caracas, with all its pain, shame, and, yes, humor and love and joy, to a set of readers who might not otherwise encounter it. Sure, he could have written an essay, but a story with a character you can, if not identify with, then cheer for, has a greater chance of finding the reader’s heart.

We follow a seven-year-old member of an informal group of abandoned children called the Crazy 9 through the course of one day. From the start, we’re not optimistic about his friend Ramoncito’s chances of surviving the story. But it’s not all grimdark: he lists what they love: their name (even though they’re only eight now, and will probably only be seven shortly, they’re still the Crazy 9); a knife he found in a purse he stole; a fried chicken restaurant they sometimes beg at, if they can avoid the guard chasing them away; going to protests, again to beg, or maybe steal; mangos; and each other. That’s a pretty broad swathe of the necessities of life: identity, self-defense, food, community.

The story starts out as a trek to the best dumpster in Caracas. Most of the kids want to leave Ramoncito behind as he’ll slow them down, but our narrator won’t hear of it; he helps him up and supports him. They fall behind anyway, and are soon out of sight.

Hands show up in subtle ways throughout the story. Bystanders pat their pockets and purses to see if they’ve been picked when the Crazy 9 go by. At the Children’s Museum, we get a comparison of the two kinds of children in this world, via hands:

…The teachers never got mad, they just gently pushed her back in line and placed her hands on the shoulders of the boy in front of her. Her eyes still followed the pigeon, but she held on to those shoulders. The teacher was so gentle. Her hands must have felt so soft and clean.
I looked at my own hand. The one that wasn’t holding up Ramoncito. My nails were long, the tips of them as black as wet dirt,. My palms were covered in stains, a landscape of Brown and black. When I opened my hand and pulled my fingers apart as much as they would go, the landscape cracked and revealed the cleaner tone of my own skin, hiding underneath.

From Dickens to today, within every street urchin is still a child.

Given my penchant for research, I looked up the Children’s Museum in Caracas to see their “huge logo of a boy riding on a rainbow,” as well as the golden elephant statue, pictured above, that becomes a focus for one of the most emotional moments of the story: a policeman chases the two kids, they fall in the pond, and he starts to beat them until a bystander intervenes:

“Stop!” She demanded. and the man did. He stopped and looked around as if he had awakened from a dream. His chest rose and fell quickly, but his eyes had moved from me and Ramoncito and scanned the faces around us, especially the woman’s. “Have you no shame?” she asked him softly, and I could see the man affected by her words. She knelt by me and held the back of my head. “They are just children,” she said to him. And the man finally lowered his club and let it hang from his side, the leather band clinging to his strong wrist. And I could see something happening to his face. Some transformation. Like he felt sorry for us all of a sudden, or sorry for himself, or sad at himself, rather. I didn’t have a word for it, but it felt like that one time I stole a box of leftovers from an old homeless man, and he didn’t even have the strength to yell at me. When I sat down to eat the food all I could see were his milky eyes looking at me. I ate the food, but felt really bad eating it.

The kids are no angels. But they get a stranger’s compassion anyway. I don’t quite buy the cop’s recognition of his own inhumanity, but this is fiction.

The end of the story is as heartbreaking as you’d expect it to be. For those of us grounded in American literature, it might seem like a bleak version of a Huck Finn story, but it also calls to mind South Asian traditions. The feelings are universal: honoring a friend, human connection, grief.

And now I’m going to sound like a stone cold heartless bitch: I wish this heart-wrenching, well-paced story had been about something in addition to the horrible life of street kids.  I wish it had a plot that allowed their story to be told, even foregrounded, but within a context of a bigger picture, like maybe the cop’s life, or the teacher from the museum. It’s not because I don’t want to hear about the desperate poverty and lack of social supports; at least, I don’t think it is. I had the same feeling when I read last Cristina Henriquez’ “Everything is Far From Here” in 2018; somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids. Let me emphasize again, although I have every confidence in Puyana’s motivations from his Note, I feel manipulated.

This happens once in a while, and I notice now it’s maybe because young children are involved; neither Manuel Muñoz’ “Anyone Can Do It” from 2019, nor “Garments” by Tahmima Anam from 2016, both of which examined the lives of those we depend on and at the same time let live in poverty so we can eat cheap fruit and wear cheap clothes, bothered me this way. Am I being protective of kids, or of myself? Am I hypersensitive, or seeking insensitivity? Maybe it’s the discomfort of feeling such outrage, and not knowing what to do about it.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Some writing, you do just to bear witness, to say ‘this is the world as I see it.’ You do it because you feel like every day someone doesn’t call it out, you’re being gaslit into thinking the world is different from what you believe it is. ”

Story available online at Electric Lit with introduction by Curtis Sittenfeld: “Puyana balances the boys’ bleak circumstances with their specific individual humanity, depicting them as they see themselves. The hardships of their lives make its intermittent tenderness all the more striking, and the tenderness extends to the larger narrative.”

BASS 2020: Jane Pek, “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” from Witness #32.1

Daji, Pipa Jing, and Jiutou Zhiji Jing: The Nine-Tailed Fox, the Jade Pipa, and the Pheasant from 封神演义 (The Investiture of the Gods)
When I first started writing this story, in response to a piece of surprising real-life news, it was about a group of close friends who are flummoxed when one of their number gets married to a woman he has apparently just met and breaks the news on Facebook. I knew from the start that the wife would be a fox spirit, and specifically the nine-tailed fox spirit who is blamed in Chinese mythology for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty (rather unfairly, I always thought), but for a long time the story wasn’t about her. I wrote a few iterations and then set it aside. A while later I revisited the story as part of a larger project to rewrite various Chinese myths about women – in those women’s voices, and on their terms, combining the magical world that they inhabited with the historical world that we do – and that is what became “The Nine Tailed Fox Explains.”

Jane Pek, Contributor Note

A few stories back, we saw the Greek myth of Narcissus used as the basis for the narrative. Now we encounter a story that draws on a Chinese myth. The story uses the myth in a very different way: rather than illuminating the motivations of characters by hinting at connections with an old story, we have here a continuation of the myth into the present. We don’t call the fiction myth any more; we call it fantasy or maybe magical realism.

I’m surprised at how strongly I resisted reading this story as “The Spirit of the Nine-Tailed Fox from the ancient Shang dynasty is now telling her story of life in the early 21st century.” I thought the narrator/protagonist was highly imaginative, maybe trying to make a bad situation more interesting by seeing herself as an ancient spirit.  Maybe that’s because my imagination is too firmly reined in, so I translated it to reality.  Or maybe it’s because, after a brief mention of “the era of Shang, those silken days and pavilioned evenings. Dancing and verse and music, so much music. Every night we watched the moon floating in the lakes like a treasure to be netted and wished this would never end…” we find out she was now living in New York, the wife of a man who ordered her off of an Asian Brides for Sale website:

One version of what happened: my husband wanted a wife and he went to a website offering to match Asian women with American men. Maybe he bought into the submissive-Oriental myth, or he calculated that he would have higher odds this way of landing someone ridiculously fucking hot, to borrow his friend’s phrase.
Another version: I was searching for a way to escape the short straw of the birthright lottery that I had drawn. My husband is the patsy, and once I get my green card I will leave.
Here’s a third version. As a demon spirit, I can only tether myself to this mortal world with a human life. The unfortunate side-effect, for this human, is that he forfeits half of all the time he spends with me—but mortal lives are so brief anyway, what’s a lost decade or two?
And a fourth. I wanted to leave China but wasn’t sure where to go, so I let fate decide. I used to despise fate, that self-absorbed, incompetent cosmic bureaucrat, but now it’s a relief to abdicate responsibility. I created profiles on nine matchmaker websites—seduction is my skillset, after all—and waited. When my husband contacted me I could smell the spoor of his loneliness, and I thought: this one. This one I can help.
There are as many versions of this story as there are ways to lose the thing you want most in the world.

One of the aspects I particulary enjoy about this story is how present and past are compared, sometimes as duplicates, sometimes as mirror opposites. As was the case with Narcissus, and as Dija (the name she used in the Shang Dynasty, which I will use for simplicity) hints in the above list of versions of her current story, there are many versions of the Fox Spirit myth all over Asia from various times.

But don’t worry; you don’t have to do a lot of research. She – and I’m being deliberately ambiguous about whether, by “she” I mean the character or the author – will tell you the most important points. For the curious, it seems to follow (to a point) the myth as included in a sixteenth-century Chinese novel “The Investiture of the Gods” (封神演义). I’ve put a few links below that I found helpful, since it’s easy to get sidetracked into video games, fanfic, and manga. Apparently the Nine Tailed Fox is quite popular.

The story grounds us firmly in our time before transporting us to the past to engulf us in the Fox Spirit’s backstory:

My own group of friends, from the era of Shang: a nine-headed pheasant, and a jade pipa. I know, not the company one would expect a self-respecting nine-tailed fox to keep—and I must admit I was a little stand-offish at first. Foxes hunt pheasants, after all; and who the hell had ever heard of a pipa spirit? But it turns out, conspiring to destroy a dynasty by seducing its emperor is a remarkable bonding experience.
…This was what we were: Nüwa’s soldiers, imperial concubines, demon spirits. If there was space within those corseted certainties for anything else, we didn’t know it. I spent three hundred years meditating in the drippiest cave in Guizhou (long story) before it occurred to me: friends, that was what we had been, the fox, the pheasant and the pipa. So simple, and so grand. The only ones I would ever have.

These are the three friends sculpted in relief above. It seems Pipa, named for a musical instrument something like a lute, became more than a friend. And through their own actions, committed in service to their god, they were separated: Pipa by death and resurection, the Fox by ongoing Life.

It is this separation that gives the present-day story enough poignancy to maintain itself next to this lovely tale of lost love and a long-ago life: the Fox’s husband is in love with his best friend, yet somehow unable to do anything about it. “I married the wrong mortal, I see that now,” she says. That’s ok, that’s what Fox Spirits are for, to fix things, armed with a vial of her own tears, “almost as valuable as a C-list deity’s blessing,” Language learning is part of this past/present comparison:

(I learnt the [English] language from a British missionary during the time of the Opium Wars. In exchange I liberated him from all that nonsense about original sin.)
Most of my students are in finance and corporate law, learning the language because China is where fortunes are made now, once again. They want to know how to say things like conference call and preferred equity and share purchase agreement in Mandarin. Just say it in English with a Chinese accent, I tell them.

The exceptions to this teaching of business Chinese to English speakers have a particularly touching motivation: they are, first, a grown child wanting to speak the language of his parents to hear their history because it is his history as well, and a husband wanting speak his wife’s language, in order to better connect, to understand. There’s a hint of the immigrant dilemma in there, as well as a mini-comparison: families come to America to improve their children’s lives, but the children often feel unmoored – as the Fox Spirit often feels unmoored in time, as she is virtually immortal.

 One of the stories the Fox Spirit learned in English was the story of Judas betraying Jesus. This also has a clear comparison to her own punishment for cruelty:

So we returned to Nüwa’s temple, and our goddess condemned us for our cruelty. That was how you made us, I wanted to say, unable to take a step within the mortal realm without human sacrifice. And also—you ordered us to overthrow a dynasty. Did you really think we could get that done without collateral damage? Of course I said nothing: it was our destiny.
A couple of hundred years ago, as part of my English-language education, the British missionary made me read the Bible. Mostly I found it dull—too little magic, and none of the demons aside from Lucifer had any personality—but the story of Judas enraged me. How was that fair, I asked the missionary: obviously Judas was only acting as Jesus had instructed. The man obeys his god and for that he suffers the brand of the eternal traitor? I was so upset I refused to read any more for weeks. The missionary was alarmed by my vehemence, but also heartened—this was when he still held out hope of saving me, and he mistook bitterness for belief.

I’ve always felt there was something wrong with the Judas story as well, though in a couple of different ways. First, I never quite understood why his participation was necessary at all. It seemed more like a set-up than a true need for insider cooperation, something akin to turning State’s Evidence. And secondly, given that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen, didn’t he have a duty to mitigate (as I said a few posts ago, everything I know about legal procedings I learned from Law & Order and LA Law), so doesn’t that reduce Judas’ culpability? Getting even deeper into it, as the Fox says, he’s part of a divine plan, and it seems to me his willingness to be the poster boy for betrayal for the Christendom forevermore makes him something of a hero. Then again, I’m on Lucifer’s side in Paradise Lost, and I think Job owes a lot to his PR agent who took a guy who complained prett much nonstop for forty chapters and ended up the symbol of patience. 

Another comparison is perhaps unrecognized by the Fox Spirit, but is clear to the reader. In wandering through an art gallery, she sees a painting (thank you to Jake Weber, link below, for pointing out this is Edward Hopper’s “New York Movie,” and saving me a lot of time trying to find it from the description). It’s surprising to me that she doesn’t see the similarity, but she definitely feels it:

I suspect that, as a result of being effectively immortal—assuming of course that I have a mortal handy, but that’s never been an issue for me—I experience time differently from most. It’s come to feel a little like walking in circles, always in one direction, through a vast landscape. I can never turn around, but after a while I start seeing the same sights all over again.
It’s a painting of the interior of a New York movie theatre, during a time when they were lush and ornate, curtained and chandeliered, palaces in their own fashion. But the focus of the painting is on the woman in an usher’s uniform who stands at the side, leaning against the wall. She’s not looking at the screen—probably she’s seen this movie a hundred times by now—but into the glowing darkness where the audience sits. Her hair is golden and her gaze is private, and I wonder about what she is thinking. I’m not sure what it is that moves me so—but maybe that’s not important; what matters is that I’m still capable of being moved.

It’s an interesting choice, to have her not recognize this sense of being separate, watching others watch time while she is pretty much tired of it. She describes the millennia of history she’s seen, the invasions, the ups and downs of China’s fortunes, in this rather jaded tone, that she’s seen everything. Her observation of others observing time is just as pronounced, even in her brief description of the students who are taking Chinese to connect with the past of the people they love in the present. These students recognize that their present needs to contain their past, and they are working to achieve that.

This past-within-the-present is the heart of the story. It’s the choice the three spirits made when they were punished for their actions in the Shang Dynasty. Pipa and Pheasant chose to drink the Tea of Forgetfulness, thus dying and reincarnating with no memory of the past. The Fox Spirit chose otherwise, wanting to remember Pipa’s songs. Even though she can no longer recall them, she recalls Pipa. Whether this is now a burden or a gift is uncertain.

Even the structure of the story evokes this past-within-the-present. The present of the story is very brief, only the first and last few paragraphs, set off typographically by white space. Everything in between is a flicker of thought; it might happen in an instant or in a longer time, but it’s about the past. It’s something like an envelope story, where the present, literally via structure, contains the past.

 While this is a highly romantic story in a soft tone, it’s also carefully constructed. I’m intrigued that Pek has a larger project of rewriting Chinese myths about women; given how she handled this one, I’d love to see more. She has a novel, The Verifiers, forthcoming in 2022. And, in an unexpected nod to the Fox Spirit’s business Chinese, she is a lawyer for an investment firm. I didn’t see that coming.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “In a world (dramatic movie preview voice?) where she is forced to continue wandering in a circle, the fox is trying to do what the pipa spirit recommended to her long ago–find her moorings. She is beginning to find them, for the first time, in pathos for the sorry mortals she hasn’t always given much thought to. It’s her tears, her pathos, that gives strength to others.” Jake has a much better handle on the mythology behind the story than I do.

Anna Amundson at Ink Stains On A Reader’s Blog: “Familiarity is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of it, but, of course, if one does have some background knowledge the story is read in a bit different way. For it’s a retelling – Pek is giving the fox spirit’s experience of the events that resulted in the fall of the dynasty.”

Complete story can be found online at Witness Magazine

I found Wikipedia a good place to start for more information about the myth featured in the story.

The blog Lost In Chinese / Found In Translation was also quite helpful.

BASS 2020/Pushcart 2021 XLV: Leigh Newman, “Howl Palace” from Paris Review #230

“Howl Palace” began with a real dog….
I tried to write about her for years, with little success, but I kept putting her in the wrong situations. Only when I started thinking about the women in Alaska I knew who had married and divorced multiple times (not an uncommon situation , considering the skewed ratio of males to females in Alaska), women I cared about and loved, did I find a way to talk about her. Initially I had put her in the center of the now defunct stories. As the prime mover. But once she was off to the side, raising havoc – and renamed Pinky – I could explore the characters I was most interested in getting to know.

Leigh Newman, Contributor Note

When you read a lot, you find stories you’re reading remind you of other stories you’ve read. Not necessarioy overall, but in certain ways. This story reminded me in a very general way of Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”: quirky characters defined by their place and their history. It reminds me structurally of “Ralph the Duck” by Frederick Busch: a subtly humorous interaction among characters that is greatly deepened by the revelation of a long-ago tragedy towards the end of the story.

I’m also reminded of some thoughts Jim Harris had about Emma Cline’s “The Nanny” a few weeks ago about the very technique of revealing something towards the end of a story that changes everything that was read before.

Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.

Jim Harris, blog post at Auxiliary Memory

I happen to like it when I suddenly find out something unexpected late in a story, something that makes me rethink everything I’ve been deciding all along. To a large degree this is personal preference, but it also depends on the story, on the shift that happens. In “The Nanny,” we were kind of at sixes and sevens without information; the delayed reveal was more of a suspense element. In this story, delay has a different effect. From the start we build our view of Dutch, of her relationship with Carl, and of the ambivalence she feel about selling her house. It seems like a fun little story, with familiar feelings running through it, until we find out what’s beneath the goofy surface. The new information doesn’t fill in gaps: it changes our reading. It’s the emotional equivalent of The Sixth Sense. That’s why I find it so much more effective in this story – and in Busch’s – than in Cline’s. Reading the last quarter of this story made me want to go back and read the story again, not to understand what was going on, but because it was now a different story with different nuances.  

Dutch’s plan to sell her house forms the narrative backbone of the story, and gives Newman a framework on which to hang all the interwoven plot points. Each point, deftly balances humor and tragedy, giving greater impact to both. Humor has all kinds of restorative functions: it can relieve emotional pain, defuse situational tension, and provide temporary distance while one adjusts to a grim reality. In a story, it can entertain us, connect us to the characters, lay a foundation on which complex lives – which include both humor and tragedy, as well as drudgery, excitement, hope, despair, and all the other contradictory pairs of human experiences – are built.

Ambivalence about selling a house is common enough. Dutch breaks out enough cookout food for a couple of hundred people: fifty pounds of caribou, forty moose dogs, forty-five avocados for guac. I don’t know if that many people show up for an open house or if she’s inviting everyone in a ten-mile radius (which, given it’s rural Alaska, might not be that many), but it seems comical to me. And this becomes the setup for the dog.

Dog? What dog? The dog Carl shows up with. Carl, the man who got away, but not very far.

As Carl told me long ago, “inside you hides a soft, secret pink balloon of dreams.” He wasn’t incorrect, but the balloon has withered a little over the years.

We think he’s just the lost love, until we find out the real loss is yet to come. The pink balloon is the enduring image of the story, but not just metaphorically: he brings a black lab he named Pinky for Dutch, who doesn’t really want another dog. But that plays into more story as well. It’s the kind of plotting I like, where every element feeds into another element, so nothing can be taken away without collapsing the story.

The Clamshell Grotto might just be for fun (there’s a subtle sexual element as well) but it’s the Wolf Room that Newman makes the most of.  The house itself was named Howl Palace by a neighborhood child after she saw the Wolf Room.  We don’t really know what the Wolf Room is until we see it through Dutch’s need for mental quiet, and then it’s a combination of weird (emphasized by the open-house participants viewing their potential purchase) and sad (since we now have some idea of why the Palace is Howling). There’s a unique sensation to howling: part song, part threat, anger, beauty, fear, loneliness. This image of Dutch finding quiet in that room is so counterintuitive, it’s funny – Cry like a rainstorm, howl like the wind, in a quiet fur-lined windowless room. The combination of softness and savagery, the happy memories that live nestled up to the tragic ones.

And there was no way to explain what I wanted, which was everything the way it was before, years before. Neighbors in the backyard. Charcoal smoke. Bug dope. A watermelon. People showing up with a casserole, leaving with their laughter and wet hair after a dip in the hot tub. Whatever my private upheavals, there was always that, at least. A duck paddled past my duck, blown over by the current that was ruffling the surface. I missed wind socks. Everybody on Diamond Lake used to have a rainbow wind sock tide to their deck. It added a cheerful note to the shoreline.

The dog’s disruption of the cookout could just be a hilarious mess, what with Silver, the real estate agent,  trying to snatch normalcy from chaos.

Outside, at the far end of the dock, Donald went on tossing out his rope, calling across the water, “Here, Pinky. Even before the open house was officially open, people were pulling into the driveway, clutching phones. Silver had hosed down the backyard and sprinkled baking soda all over the grass. There was nothing left to do, she said, but hope for the best. One of her ways of hoping was to stick Donald down on the dock with his rib and his rope, where he would look like an imaginative, playful boy. Calling to his dog. Possibly homeschooled…..
“Here, Pinky,” his voice squeaky with anticipation, his casts surprisingly sure-handed.
Pinky, I almost told him, was long past coming to anybody.
He cast again. And cast again. “Pinky!” He said, unable even now to give up.

And of course it’s more than that. It’s how life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And if Dutch never gives up on her pink balloon, save for the occasional retreat to the Wolf Room, more power to her.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every year, there’s an entry in Best American Short Stories that breaks some cardinal rule of narrative, and in a lot of ways, these are some of the most interesting stories to read. “Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman breaks a couple of rules, all in the last few pages of the story.”

BASS 2020: Scott Nadelson, “Liberté” from Chicago Story Quarterly #29

Louise Nevelson: Night Flight (detail)
For several years I’d been working on a series of essays on writing craft, and in particular what writers can learn from visual artists. I had a vague idea for a piece about form and tension in the work of Louise Nevelson , thinking her blend of abstraction and intense sensory experience might challenge my usual instinct to avoid abstraction in narrative …. I decided that before I could write the essay I had to read everything Nevelson had said about her work. I spent the next few weeks delving into interviews, a pair of biographies, and her oral history …in the last were a couple of the most intriguing and baffling paragraphs I’ve ever encountered. Nevelson describes, very briefly, and with hardly any specifics, her encounter with the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline on a ship to Paris in 1933 and their subsequent correspondence and near-affair. When they met, Celine had just published Journey to the End of the Night and was already a literary sensation. Despite his blatant anti-Semitism, he clearly fascinated Nevelson, who was an unknown then, recently divorced and trying to discover her voice and her medium. … There was such conflicted emotion in her words and yet so little detail of her actual interaction with this figure who both repelled and attracted her that even before realizing I’d abandoned the essay, I found myself trying to imagine these moments and contemplate her competing desires.

Scott Nadelson, Contributor Note

I seldom see patterns in the stories included in BASS volumes, but this year, as I am just about two-thirds finished, I see two threads: first, stories built around real people, and second, women who find themselves attracted to assholes. Interesting, even brilliant assholes, but assholes nonetheless.

The story is perhaps best described as a fictionalization of one aspect of Louise Nevelson’s life, the time just after she abandons her marriage and child and tries, unsuccessfully, to find her place as an artist in 1933 Europe.

In order to devote herself wholly to art, Louise Nevelson—born Leah Berliawsky—has left her marriage of thirteen years. She’s been drawing and painting since childhood, but at thirty-four she’s hardly more than a novice. She has never had a show of her work, has not yet discovered her medium. It will be many years before she’s famous for her massive monochromatic assemblages, considered a queen of modern sculpture.
….Any discomfort caused by deserting her husband, however, is minor compared to the guilt she carries over abandoning her son. Myron – who prefers to be called Mike – is nine years old and bewildered by the changes thrust upon him. Last summer she sent him to stay with her parents in Maine, and though she tried to tell herself he’d be perfectly happy there, her mother spoiling him with her baking, her father, a builder, teaching him how to frame a house, she nevertheless imagined him smothered by the same boredom that had driven her to marry the first wealthy man she met, when she wasn’t yet twenty-one….
She agonizes over Mike, and yet the thought of her own suffocation were she to stay overwhelms all others. She books her passage and sends her son back to Maine.

The story is written in the present tense, and for me that has the effect of emphasizing that it was taking place in a different time. Because we are living in her future, all sorts of associations come up: Nazi Germany, of course, but also Katherine Ann Porter’s novel Ship of Fools and the Stanley Kramer film made from it. Nevelson would not have had those associations, of course; though anyone who’d been paying attention in 1933 could have recognized the direction Germany was taking, at this point Hitler was often considered a clown (those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it).

Both a divorce, and a woman seeking a career in art, were bold choices in 1933. Her guilt over her son puzzles me; maybe my family was different, but it seems to me children weren’t clutched to the bosom as much in the past as they are now, and sending Mike to live with his grandparents wouldn’t have been that big a deal. Then again, she did seem to think it would be a permanent arrangement, though it turned out to relatively be short term.

On the ship to France, she keeps running into a French doctor who has written a book. He turns out to be Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose novel Journey to the End of the Night is wildly popular and is later credited with “a new style of writing that modernized French literature” (that’s straight from Wikipedia, I’m pretty weak in French literature beyond Manon Lescaut and Madame Bovary, both of which I found to be hilarious).

What Céline lacks in tact and charm, he makes up for in passion:

He jumps from topic to topic but always follows a central thread: the essential corruption of humanity, the yearning for filth even among the most so-called refined of society – he mutters this while jutting his chin at a well-dressed couple across the table – which itself is a cesspool, needing to be emptied and scoured.
Everything he says is bitter and morose, and yet there’s a charm in his passionate insistence, a relief after so many years of listening to Charles and his relatives speak with mild disinterest about even those things they claim to value most. …She wants to hear him say more about how he recognized her as an artist just by looking at her ….

She keeps spending time on shipboard with Céline, though he seems uninterested in her life and ambitions. It isn’t until he makes a crudely anti-Semitic remark – comparing the Jews of Europe to “shit floating on a flooded river” and “bottom-feeders” – that she recoils. She wonders if he realizes she is Jewish. He chooses this moment, after that diatribe, to try to kiss her, but she demures and walks away.

But for the rest of the day she is less horrified than fascinated. It’s an important discovery, she thinks, a profound one: that someone can detest what he desires or desire what he detests. Which comes first, the wanting or the loathing, she doesn’t know.

It doesn’t seem that strange to me. History is full of this stuff: Germans raping Jews, American slaveholders raping slaves. Oh, it’s not the kind of rape from Roman times, or even from the pogroms when rape was a weapon of war and terrorism. But it’s still about power and degradation, not about love. Or, I should say, not necessarily about love; there might have been an exception or two. Even today, there’s the cry, “I can’t be racist, my spouse/best friend is black/Jewish/Asian/whatever”. People have married for reasons other than love since the beginning of time, and cover for racism, or having power over someone (and yes, marriage is about power; the best marriages are about sharing power, but power is always involved), aren’t the strangest reasons.

The ship arrives in Europe, and Nevelson’s trip does not go well. She wants to move on from France to Germany, where she spent a happier time the year before, but she’s advised not to go (oh, the decisions on which our lives turn), so she returns home to New York where her son again joins her as though “this has been her plan all along.”

To her surprise, Céline writes her. His letters continue to include racist tripe, and Nevelson continues to wonder about wanting what you despise even visits her. To her greater surprise, he visits her, bringing copies of his book, which she can’t read since it’s in French. He proposes marriage. “Which is worse, she wonders, the fanatic who wants what he hates or the one who wants what hates her?”

Nadelson inserts a brief flash-forward here, where, after the war, more of Céline’s writings come to Nevelson’s attention, such as blatantly racist pamphlets.

She will give away the books he inscribed for her, tossed his letters into the fireplace. She will regret doing so, not right away, but later, after Mike has grown up and moved out, while working on the first of the many walls of black boxes for which she will become known around the world, filled with arrangements of found wooden blocks and cylinders that suggest the messy intricacies of mind and heart. She will think he was one of the few who understood her, because, like her, nothing could ever appease him. And she’ll think, I wasn’t ready then.

Where I was puzzled by the placement of the flash-forward in McCracken’s story, I think I can understand the placement here. The future had to come into it, and it’s important to know how she looks back on this. She’s gone through a lot of changes both artistically and personally, and the last question Céline poses whens he turns down his proposal – Is this a world worth thriving in? – sets up a conflict between optimism and pessimism, between growth and cynicism. Has she, later in life, realized that her achievements are not all she thought they would be? Or has she grown to the point where she can absorb contradictions, even horrible contradictions, with equanimity?

I’ve said many times I’m art-blind, and that’s confirmed every time I read a book about art or artists. So take this with a grain of salt: As I look at her work – the “black boxes” mentioned above – I see less the “messy intricacies of mind and heart” and more the ability to compartmentalize. To put Céline’s passion and desire for her – and don’t forget, being desired is very attractive – in one cubby, and his anti-Semitism and fascism in another, just as she once long ago put her guilt about her son in one place and her desire for art in another and chose which to foreground.

I discovered something else that gives this story more meaning to me. It’s part of Nadelson’s 2020 collection of short stories, One of Us, stories examining questions of Jewish identity in various times and settings. One pre-reader put it like this:

Small moments lead to big questions about what it means to be a man, an American, a Jew, or – inevitably – all of these things at once. When we say someone is One of Us, who is the ‘one’ and who is the ‘us,’ and what do they – what do we – owe to each other?

Justin Taylor blurb

This refocused my attention from Nevelson’s art and career to what I see as a question that’s both more vague and more important: how can the reactions and feelings attributed to her in the story – which, remember, is a fictionalization based on a couple of brief paragraphs she wrote about Céline – be viewed in the context of her Jewish identity? Or, perhaps it’s more like how is Jewish identity revealed through this story? This opened up a new possibility for the “I wasn’t ready then” remark: she wasn’t ready, then, to speak out, to feel enough pride in her Jewish heritage to act to honor it.  

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Her simultaneous fascination and revulsion of Celine seems to be a creative spark to what would become her monochromatic sculptures that so enraptured Nadelson, he started to study all about Nevelson’s work for a different project and ended up writing this story instead.”

Paris Review interview with Louis Ferdinand Céline, Art of Fiction No. 33, 1964 (partially available for free)

Pushcart 2021 XLV / BASS 2020: Elizabeth McCracken, “It’s Not You” from Zoetrope All-Story #23.3

When I was a young writer trying to come up with ideas for short stories, I felt, always, desperate. Lonely, even, not for characters but for ideas…. Nothing could happen without an idea , I thought then, even though in those days that wasn’t how I wrote. My actual stories – the ones that panned out – arrived in my head as a single sentence in a strangers voice.
Now that I’m middle aged, I think ideas are essential for novels but in some ways besides the point in short stories. My short stories, I mean. My short stories now generally begin with some scraps of material I have scavenged from my life.
…In the case of “It’s Not You,” I’d traveled with my husband, Edward Carey, and our kids to Galveston. (I’d already written a story that took place in Galveston, based on another trip.) On our way home to Austin we stopped at a hotel in Houston that upgraded us to a suite: two rooms, two bathrooms, a dining room table with room for eight, a couple of chandeliers. The hotel wasn’t deluxe, just entertainingly garish. The next morning a lovely man with a Cesar Romero mustache and braces brought free breakfast. On that little trellis of reality I decided to train a story about youth.

Elizabeth McCracken, Contributor Note

When a man breaks her heart, what does a woman do? She has a good cry, trash talka him to her friends for a while, then goes out and find a rebound love.

But what if he doesn’t break your heart? What if you’d only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, and he just did the “It’s not you, it’s me, I just can’t do a relationship now” mea culpa, and you were fine until you saw him with another woman, necking in public – necking, for god’s sake, adults necking in public – and you realize, it wasn’t him, it was you, all along. What do you do then?

If you’re our narrator (who is, surprise surprise, unnamed, take a shot), you basically do the same thing. Or at least the first part:

Hotels were different in those days. You could smoke in them. The rooms had bathtubs, where you could also smoke. You didn’t need a credit card or identification, though you might be made to sign the register, so later the private detective—just like that, we’re in a black-and-white movie, though I speak only of the long-ago days of 1993—could track you down. Maybe you anticipated the private detective, and used an assumed name.
Nobody was looking for me. I didn’t use an assumed name, though I wasn’t myself. I’d had my heart broken, or so I thought, I’d been shattered in a collision with a man, or so I thought, and I went to the fabled pink hotel just outside the Midwestern town where I lived. The Narcissus Hotel: it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection. Behind, a pantomime lake, an amoebic swimming pool, now drained, empty lounge chairs all around. January 1: cold, but not yet debilitating. In my suitcase, I’d brought one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples. I thought this was all I needed. My plan was to drink bourbon and take baths and feel sorry for myself.

And maybe the next morning while you’re feeding your hangover, you run into a local radio shrink, Dr. Benjamin. It looks like he’s there for an assignation with Dawn from Baton Rouge but got stood up, so you both have a drink in his room and you nearly drown in his bathtub  – the bath thing was a serious part of the deal – and then you get up and go home. “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.”

Time is all jumbled in this story. From the first line, we know it’s told from a future point in time, but it’s told like 1993 was a lifetime ago. Wow – it was, wasn’t it? But do hotels really change so much in that period of time?

The time span is emphasized by using black-and-white imagery in that first paragraph, like the hotel scene would be filmed in black-and-white while the contemporary contemplation would be in warm color. Except, no: “The worst thing about not being loved, I thought then, was how vivid I was to myself. Now I am loved and in black and white.” It’s as if time came forward, then went back.

But that’s just a warm-up for the kind of identity reversals that go on during the story, identity reversals courtesy of the Narcissus myth. Or, rather, myths, because there are several, and they all contribute to a symbolic fluidity that makes the most of metamorphosis. The most common Narcissus myth, after all, is from  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories about transformations. If you get bored being Narcissus, now you can be Echo for a while. Or Ameinias, from the version by Conon. And to give things another twist, there’s always Dali and Freud. Time to dig in…

From the start, the Narcissus imagery is obvious, but there’s a lot of free-floating stuff as well. The narrator works at a radio station – not the same one as Dr. Benjamin – in Human Resource, so she “lived with voices overhead”. That calls to mind Echo, who faded away from unrequited love for Narcissus until all that was left was her voice. The entire phenomenon of talk radio, for that matter, is disembodied voices, both for the callers and the talent. The narrator even refers to the shrink’s would-be paramour as a disembodied voice after her bathtub mishap.

Don’t forget, both the narrator and Benjamin are spurned lovers. Probably; we don’t actually know for sure why he’s waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge with a high-end stuffed animal, maybe it’s a therapy session, but an affair seems a lot more likely, particularly since they both seem to have come a significant distance to meet.

But the narrator, with her fixation on baths (she took three the night before she met the shrink), not to mention her self-focus, is clearly identified with Narcissus as well. When Benjamin walks in on her as she’s enjoying his bathtub, it becomes crystal clear:

Then he came in. He was wearing his cowboy boots and slid a little on the marble. Now he looked entirely undone. In another version of this story, I’d be made modest by a little cocktail dress of bubbles, but no person who really loves baths loves bubble baths, nobody over seven, because bubbles are a form of protection. They keep you below the surface. They hide you from your own view. He looked at me in his bathtub with that same disappointed expression: just like you to bathe in your birthday suit.

She doesn’t want to be hidden from her own view. And one other interesting point: there are other versions of this story, just like there are other versions of the Narcissus myth.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to Ameinias from one of those other versions. He’s another of Narcissus’ admirers, but Narcissus gets tired of him hanging around and gives him a sword, which he promptly uses to kill himself at Narcissus’ door. In this version, Ameinias asks the gods to punish Narcissus for his cruelty, and that’s how he ends up falling in love with his own reflection and either fading away to a flower or drowning (versions of a version). What if instead of giving him a sword, Narcissus gave him a bathtub and a few bottles from the minibar, and then checked out of the hotel while Ameinias died in his room? So at the same time, the narrator drowning in the bathtub could be both Ameinias and Narcissus, while Benjamin is also Narcissus. Talk about fluidity of identity!

By the way, amidst all these versions of the myth, we have a narrator insisting “I don’t plan on coming in versions.” We all do, of course. But seldom in the course of a story have I see so many.

Now, what’s this about Dali and Freud, and what does it have to do with the story?

I happened upon a talk (link below) by art historian and Surrealist specialist Dawn Adès that accompanied an exhibit of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It seems the surrealists were big fans of Freud, since they both used the unconscious to get at what they needed: information for healiing neurosis, or artistic inspiration. The fifteen minute talk mentioned a lot of concepts that seemed to relate to the story. It also reminded me that Freud, and psychoanalysts in general, sat behind their patients, unseen. They were disembodied voices. Dr. Benjamin isn’t necessarily a psychoanalyst, of course.

Dali’s painting included two images, one of Narcissus, one of a stony hand holding an egg out of which grew a flower. But his drawings showed the two images combined. Adès thinks it’s possible he was referencing stereoscopes, devices from the mid-19th century that held a card with two images. Viewing the card from the correct distance combined the images into one three-dimensional image. She also calls it his “exploration of critical paranoia, a systematic misreading of the world around you according to an overriding obsessional idea.” It’s possible our narrator has a few of those. In fact, I suspect we all do, to some degree.

I was reminded of the two characters, the narrator and Dr. Benjamin, overlapping, changing back and forth. Of course, if McCracken wasn’t aware of the painting, and this theory of it, as she wrote the story, it would be less about the story and more about my misreading of the world. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Adès sums up Dali’s painting as being about “change, death, and love”, and here we have a story where the characters seem to change into different aspects of the Narcissus myths, between versions of the myth, while despairing about love. And death?  

In those days, it was easy to disappear from view. All the people who caused you pain: you might never know what happened to them, unless they were famous, as the radio shrink was, and so I did know, it happened soon afterward, before the snow had melted. He died of a heart attack at another hotel, and Evaline Robinson the Love of His Life flew from Chicago to be with him, and a guest host took over until the guest host was the actual host, and the show slid from call-in advice to unexplained phenomena: UFOs. Bigfoot. I suppose it had been about the unexplained all along. All the best advice is on the internet these days, anyhow. That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible in today’s world. It’s good that it’s possible.

So much of this story raises questions rather than handing out answers and fitting into neat little interpretations. Another hotel; another affair? Was he waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge, or another caller? Was his wife aware of all this, or did she learn about it at his deathbed?

And, more importantly: Why does McCracken plop this paragraph here? It seems important, a return to the present while still looking at the past (man, the timeline is convoluted), but I don’t see why it’s important we have this information here. I’m sure there’s a reason – writers like McCracken always have reasons – but I have no idea what it is.

Then there’s the ending, which brings more questions, this time about the narrator:

You would recognize my voice, too. People do, in the grocery store, the airport, over the phone when I call to complain about my gas bill. Your voice, they say, are you—?
I have one of those voices, I always say. I don’t mind if they recognize me, but I’m not going to help them.

Has she metamorphosed into Benjamin, becoming a radio personality? Fluidity of character…

I have to go with Curtis Sittenfeld’s take from her Introduction to the anthology: she loved this story “because I underlined the sentences in it I thought were clever or funny and by the end I’d underlined about 50 percent of the entire story.” It’s not just clever lines, it’s the ones that made me wonder, why is this here? Why does she always love the waiter? Why six apples?

And Kindness, which runs through the story. Forgiveness that transforms; forgiveness of self, and of those who hurt you. And yet, there’s a cynicism revealed by the final paragraph. It’s very puzzling.

But she warned us there wouldn’t be a moral to the story.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “We tend to think of narcissists as people obsessed with how wonderful they are, but self-loathing can also be a form of narcissism. Whether you’re staring at yourself to see how beautiful you are or how ugly you are, either way, you’re staring at yourself.”

The story is available online at Zoetrope: All-Story.

HENI talk by Dawn Adès (15 minutes; it’s worth it).

BASS 2020: Sarah Thankam Mathews, “Rubberdust” from Kenyon Review Online, Jan/Feb 2019

The seed of what became “Rubberdust” was a lie I told for no reason. I was in a new town, meeting new people. A solar eclipse was happening, and people were passing around those paper glasses. With no motive in mind, I impulsively told the man I was taking a walk with that I feared looking directly at the sun because I had a friend in the second grade who did this every day and lost his sight. Wow, he said. I know, I said, vaguely appalled and amused at myself. I was nervous and wanted to be thought interesting by the new people around me. My lizard brain had complied with the story.
But why that story, and why had it materialized so easily? I cast around in my memory and realized that I had made a friend in second grade, this charming little boy, and our friendship had been based primarily on the joint production of eraser shavings, which we stored in our wooden desks. I could not remember why we did this.

Sarah Thankam Mathews, Contributor Note

What stood out to me most as I was reading this story – until the end – was the doors. Passages between rooms, divisions between spaces, goings out and comings in. Metaphorical doors. Real doors. Doors that open, close, that swing both ways.

The little girl with no friends reads contentedly enough at her small wooden desk during recess. (We pronounced it ri-CESS.) She sits by the corner of the softboard, likes to tenderly peel the crepe paper sheets that Mrs. Lobo has stapled to its expanse away from their moorings. From her schoolbag she pulls out Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl. Books about heroic friends solving crime, tales of spunky weirdos forceful enough to make dents in their worlds. In second grade, you read for the same reasons you eat candy bars, not to see yourself reflected at you as if from mirrors, and in this case that’s just as well; the little girl does not fall into either category.

The location is vague, but hints point to India, which makes it easier to see why our little narrator doesn’t fit in with the British children in the books she’s reading. The teachers interrupt her reading and send her out of the room because they want to gossip. Comings in and goings out.

Anuj, the boy who sits behind her in class pours a handful of leaves onto her hair; she eventually retaliates with a slap, and is sent home with a note her father must sign.

The note says, in a round and spiteful hand, “Did not behave today. Slapped fellow pupil badly.”
“Next time, slap him well,” her father says.
He chuckles, which is a grown man’s way of giggling, and hands the note back to her. He lifts his newspaper back up between the two of them like he is closing a door.

Doors. Divisions between spaces.

In third grade, she again sits in front of Anuj, and behind Karan, a friendless boy so odd even the nicest teacher in school is mean to him. Anuj asks her if she’d like to go on the swings, and they become friends rather than opponents.

Even though she doesn’t turn around to see, a small section of her is aware of Karan sitting at his desk in the now empty classroom, not even a book in front of him, watching the door swing shut, as she and Anuj go out into the bright, hot world.

I suppose if I keep saying “doors” someone’s going to roll their eyes and groan. But, hey, doors, doors closing.

She and Anuj spend their time in class making rubberdust out of their erasers. She pours a handful of rubberdust onto the hair of Karan, but the transformation goes another way, and she is buried by guilt that her action was a cruelty, not a connection. “She runs out to look for Karan, shoving her palms hard into the swinging door.”

A door that swings both ways. But only if you push it right.

Anuj has headaches. Anuj can’t see the board. Anuj is gone, at a special school. More school adventures. Gandhi’s Talisman. A lot of learning.

Then the writer does something shocking: timeshift, self-referential insertion, meta break.

Please listen. I grew up in a place that I cannot return to. When I search for my old home on Google Maps, it says Result Not Found. Shake me, and the past rattles like broken circuitry. I make myself a mug of tea and close my eyes. Heat radiates through the ceramic and into my palms.
I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating heavily, go sit at my computer and type out a story. I title it The Nature of Evil, The Nature of Good. I send the story in to my writing group. They are mystified and slightly uncomfortable. Why is the little girl the only one left without a name, they ask. They are nervous about how to pronounce everything.
“The relevance of this seems grounded in a kind of cultural specificity that the narrator doesn’t include the audience in on,” one man says carefully.
Part of me wants to give the story over to someone in my group to write, start over, make their own in clarity and directness. Maybe someone would set down, clean and loud, right at the start, “The first friend I ever made went blind.”

And finally, our fourth-grade narrator finds her most important door: a computer, “…the door for words to walk out of…”

Doors, rooms.

Since this was one of the shorter stories in the collection, I somehow expected it to be simple and straightforward. Instead it turned out to be complex, weaving past and present, bringing together a semi-autobiographical child and a present-day American immigrant writer whose website gives the pronunciation of her name: “Thankam: thun like thunder, gum like gumdrop.” Because <snark tag> you wouldn’t want any cultural specificity that isn’t familiar to the reader <end snark tag>.

I love the sudden disruption, then just as sudden resumption of the timeline. I love how the parenthetical explanations in the text raise questions (why is she doing this?) that are later addressed. I love the in-your-face otherness just as powerful as the little girl who tells Anuj to stop putting leaves in her hair, then smacks him when he continues. And then accepts his invitation to play on the swings. One place where there is no door, only an opportunity waiting to be realized.

But I loved it even more when I read her Contributor Note. No, not the quote I included at the beginning; that was just for starters. It’s the end of the Note that made everything gel:

I thought back to my school days in Oman and felt a sharp ache. It was the twinge of memories in a setting so far removed from the reality of the people all around you that you fear they are unintelligible to anyone but you. This is the immigrant’s pain, I thought, aside from bureaucracy, provocation, uncertainty, and missing people from the old life; you also have to translate your past, or decide to not even try.
I wrote in a notebook gifted to me by my friend Praveen what I thought would be a first line: “Please listen. I grew up in a place that I cannot return to.” It was wrong somehow. All of a sudden I knew better what I wanted to tell, and it was not a lament. I wanted to write a story of the secret lives, peculiar logic, and intense emotion of children. Of the fear that you are not at your deepest level a Good Person. Of what it is to have to translate for an audience your (foreign) past, which is to say your (foreign) self. Some room was flung open in my brain; I began writing the story poured out of me.

Sarah Thankam Mathews, Contributor Note

The logic of children. Anuj poured leaves on my head, and we became friends. I’m pouring rubberdust on Karan’s head… oops, it doesn’t always work that way, does it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forever.

Mathews’ technique of starting things off-balance, of raising questions without answering them, is something I greatly enjoy in fiction. A story becomes a puzzle with the solution given at the end – in this case, in the workshop scene – like a gift.

I’m going to take a bizarre leap here, to science communicator Derek Muller, known for his Veritasium videos and a recent PBS episode on radioactivity. As part of his doctoral dissertation in science education, he conducted an experiment. For one group, he ran an expository video explaining Newtonian forces. For another, the video was a real-conversation dialog about forces. Students found the first video clear, the second confusing. But pre- and post-testing showed the students who watched the clear presentation did not improve at all on a post-test, while the group that watched the confusing video doubled their scores. He explains it as the result of the mental effort expended in engaging with the confusing presentation, an effort that increased their learning significantly.

And so this story, which has pronunciation parentheticals for no particular reason, which doesn’t clearly give a setting (it could be an Indian school in Oman, for all I know), which drops a flash-forward in the middle, which features a nameless narrator (while this is common in first person stories, it’s less usual in third person) engaged me and set me up to receive the gift it wanted to give all along.

I wouldn’t say this would always work. This story was fairly short, so didn’t delay the payoff or overextend the confusion, and had an interesting character and lots of interesting action, with less internal reflection until the crucial moment, to give it momentum and help engage me as a reader. A longer, more introspective story might collapse into a heap of “Hey, I no longer care” before reaching the climax. But here, it worked.

Every story knows how it wants to be told. Sometimes, if readers are lucky, the writer listens.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The story is so approachable, so immediately accessible, the funniest thing about it is when it breaks the fourth wall to talk about the reception the story got in a writing group, where one participant, seemingly speaking for the group, complains it has a ‘cultural specificity that the narrator doesn’t include the audience in on.’ Yeah, that kind of dumb comment is pretty much every writing group I’ve ever been in, which is why I’m not in writing groups.” [There’s a reason his blog is called Workshop Heretic]

Anna Amundsen from Ink Stains on a Reader’s Blog: “She captures beautifully the moment we first realize that our behavior can have consequences we’ve never thought of, the guilt, the weird and often inadequate ways we say ‘sorry’.”

Story is available online at Kenyon Review Online.

BASS 2020: Andrea Lee, “The Children” from The New Yorker, 6/10/19

Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures 1889, Planisferio, 2015
Some years ago I heard a fragmentary story about an exiled French aristocrat who, centuries ago, father numerous children with tribal women all around the Indian Ocean, and I was immediately captivated. The jail had everything that fascinates me: class, race, injustice, desert island fantasy. My first feeling was that it resembled a myth, or an Elizabethan comedy. Soon I began to play with the idea of bringing that narrative into contemporary reality, and then the story started to write itself. … The story also gave me the opportunity to shine a light on one of my own favorite pieces of writing on exotism: Victor Segalen’s eccentric Essay on Exoticism, over which the two major characters bond. That strange little work records the authors attempt to keep foreign peoples and places mysterious and glamorous by fitting them into an artistic form – exoticizing them, in effect. Art can strike at the heart, making the ordinary events of life deeply comprehensible, but, conversely, it can also create emotional distance from reality. Absorbed in their rarified intellectual world, Shay and Giustinia meddle in real affairs with carelessness and end by causing pain.

Andrea Lee, Contributor Note

I got a bit sidetracked by the Segalen essay, seeing as it was mentioned twice in the story and once in the Contributor Note. I found the editor’s introduction online for free, which helped give me an idea of what the essay was about:

…[I]f previously colonialist attitudes perverted the capacity to sense out and appreciate the exotic, then an aestheticizing, restorative vision must replace them. If modernity has entailed an acceleration in the means and modes of travel and thereby an unprecedented intermingling of cultures and peoples, and thus a waning of difference, that process has to be resisted by a renewed appreciation for differences or by an ever finer eye and capacity to experience the ever finer differences which remain intact. If exoticism is apprehended and interpreted vulgarly by the large majority of individuals, authority to speak of it must be limited to the great artist, to the individual possessing a strong individuality: the ‘‘Exot.’’
…In the essay, ‘‘diversity’’ does not refer in the first instance to a kind of multiculturalism or to the close coexistence of (cultural, class, or gender) differences. Rather it refers to the existence of absolute (if not essential) differences between peoples and cultures in theworld.
…So that when, for example, Segalen laments the decline of diversity, he is lamenting the breaking down of these differences and their disappearance due to such processes as cultural intermingling, democracy, and feminism.Thus diversity for Segalen is not initially a moral concept; rather, it is an ontological concept to which he accords aesthetic value, as the subtitle of his essay indicates…

Yael Rachel Schlick, Introduction to Segalan’s Essay on Exociticm, available online

I later found the essay itself (though it’s probably not supposed to be there, so I’m not providing a link), and I can see why it’s described as “eccentric.” It’s clear it was unfinished; in some places it’s little more than notes.

The one thing that stood out to me about the essay itself was Segalen’s comparison of the loss of diversity, whether through travel, colonialism, or the passage of time, with the scientific concept of entropy, the physical process of increasing disorganization and disorder – that is, homogeneity – that is inevitable in the universe itself.

[In the margin] There is a dreadful expression, I no longer know where it comes from: ‘‘The Entropy of the Universe tends toward a maximum.’’ This notion has weighed upon me—in my youth, my adolescence, my awakening. Entropy: it is the sum of all internal, nondifferentiated forces, all static forces, all the lowly forces of energy. I do not know if the latest advances in thought on this subject refute or confirm it. But I imagine Entropy as a yet more terrifying monster than Nothingness. Nothingness is made of ice, of the cold. Entropy is lukewarm. Nothingness is diamond-like, perhaps. Entropy is pasty. A lukewarm paste. … The decline of Diversity. It seems that yes. Like Energy, the Entropy of the Universe tends towards a maximum.

Victor Segalan, Essay on Exociticm

 And that’s just a margin note. See why they call it eccentric? The thing is, he’s right about the science. Entropy has the universe  tending towards a bland, low-temperature even distribution of matter/energy, where planets, solar systems, and of course people no longer exist, but all that is left is the “lukewarm paste.” This is how Segalen sees the decline of diversity: everyone and everything the same.  Is it any wonder he values exoticism and the preservation of differences, which at the time he saw under attack by colonialism and tourism. However, the human race has, over the last 200,000 years, has become more diversified, not less; it seems to me people as a whole tend to differentiate just fine.

The story embodies these fears quite adeptly. Our narrator is Shay, a black woman scholar who owns a hotel on Madagascar and lives there part of the year. Her friend Giuliania, an Italian noblewoman and poet whom she met professionally, is staying at the Red House with her.

The adventure of the lost heirs begins when Shay and her friend Giustinia run into Harena at the Fleur des Îles café. This happens in the early two-thousands, at the same time that a criminal at large on Anjavavy Island is cutting off people’s heads. The mysterious beheadings are not connected to the events recounted here, except to establish the lawlessness that is always present behind the dazzling Anjavavy panorama of sugar-white beaches and cobalt sea. The crimes begin to surface one hot January morning, as a French hotel manager is taking his predawn constitutional along Rokely Bay and spies through a mist of sand flies something just above the tide line that looks like an unhusked coconut. It turns out to be a human head, one that was last seen on the shoulders of a part-time sweeper at the Frenchman’s hotel.
…But while Shay, an African American scholar transplanted to Italy and, for part of each year, to this small island in northern Madagascar, find her interest drawn to restless expatriate artists of color, Giustinia, whose noble family has ancient roots in Tuscany, most often writes about the inescapable pull of a place to which you belong entirely. Her regal air is quite unconscious, based mainly on the authority with which she can speak about famous authors she knows.

The girl Harena turns out to be the daughter of an Island mother and Leandro an Italian father with noble titles but little else going for him: exiled to the island, he spends his time doing drugs and spreading his seed with little concern for the consequences to anyone else. He long ago went back to Italy, and Harena was given, at age fifteen, to a local German businessman, yet the locals claim she has “nourished herself on the myth of her Italian father.”

Shay and Giuliania wish to do something about this. They aren’t too clear on what exactly they want to do, but it’s something along the lines of finding the father or his family and forcing them to accept responsibility for the girl, who is now about eighteen years old.

Later Shay wonders why she saw no harm in this. It has to do, she thinks, with the general trifling nature of her behavior in Madagascar, where her brown skin and her American expansiveness lend her a false sense of familiarity with the people of color around her: people of the island, whose language she doesn’t speak, and whose values and motives she will never fully understand.

There’s a moment that seems striking to me: Shay tells the Italian owner of the café in which she first sees Harena that she’d like to meet the girl, and the next day Harena comes to Shay’s hotel. This sounds like a summons from someone who feels entitled to issue a summons. Why not ask where she can find Harena and go meet her? That the connection takes place through an Italian businessman further emphasizes Shay’s distance from the Malagasy.

You can already see how Segalen’s ideas play into this. There’s the travel element putting an Italian reprobate (that’s Lee’s word, I love it) and a German cement salesman on an island of tribes originally descended from the Malay Peninsula back in the early common era, blended with various African, Indian, and Arab settlers over time. Shea herself is profiting from the tourism he decries. He must imagine an island of beige people emerging. And he might not be wrong, because Shay and Giuliania discover there’s a second child of Leandro, an older boy. Shay considers these two children to be unusually beautiful because of their blended heritage; Segalen would see travesty. But maybe Segalen needs to consider: what is exotic from one vantage point might be considered disruptive from another.

The beheadings turn out to be the project of insanity, aimed at attacking native islanders who work for those invading the island, as he sees it. It seems an unnecessary element to me, though I think the air of creepiness gives the story a slightly different tone. It does fit into Segalen’s essay though there’s no reason to suppose he would approve of such methods.

One thing she has learned in her few years of sojourning in Madagascar, with its convoluted history and its pulse of dark magic concealed just under the skin of events, is that in this country, whatever happens close to you – under your roof, say – becomes part of you, though you may not realize it at the time.

This story reminded me in tone and structure of Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi” in that the events set up a future that seems to be the core of the story. Years later, Shay and her husband have two children, who she often thinks of as shadow children. And more and more beige children appear on Madagascar as tourism and trade promotes cross-pollination.

I’m left uncertain, as I have been with so many of the recent stories. “What more could we have done” is Shay’s mantra after she realizes she can’t get the happy ending she envisioned, Leandro is dead and the family is disintegrated socially and economically. Giuliania seems to take this in stride, but it’s Shay who carries a lot of guilt. She tried to do something, and it wasn’t possible. Would it have been better not to try? Shay is maybe thinking of financial help, or some kind of practical boost to their lives. I’m not sure Shay understands that what the kids need is to know their father cared about them – and that’s not something Shay can provide. It’s her distance, the “values and motives she will never understand,” that get in the way of understanding that.

Maybe because she’s an African American she’s more sensitive to the way people of color are treated by white European stock. But she herself has hovered in the Great White Savior mode – though it would be Black Savior in her case – when she sees the boy who is Leandro’s second child on the island:

She stammers in confusion, suddenly gripped by a cinematic vision of snatching this beautiful youth out of his present life, as if she were conducting a helicopter rescue at sea. In an instant she pictures schools, clothes, university, some grand career, where that flawless face would gleam in the high marble halls of European tradition. Later she will tell herself but this is a maternal impulse, but it is as selfish and intoxicating as sex.

Has a mutated form of White Guilt – call it Rich Guilt – become part of Shay’s subconscious?

I was left conflicted about a lot while reading this story and Segalen’s essay. Diversity has become a rallying cry, even as we ensure the kind of cross-pollination that reduces diversity. But what’s the remedy, to go back to restricting cross-racial marriages? There’s a difference between exploiting an area, and the people who inhabit it, for economic gain with little regard for the consequences and no concern at all for the people left behind when leaving, and the occasional match made between cultures. Or am I just defending what I want to believe? Because Segalen seems to be arguing against cross-racial marriages, and that feels like a step backwards.

I thought of Kant a lot while working on this story. First, his idea that a moral action must have a moral motivation; if you’re acting out of idleness or a savior complex, you don’t get brownie points. And second, his categorical imperative, that people be treated as an end in themselves, not as a means; that we regard everyone as having intrinsic, not instrumental, value. Leandro fails, but maybe the rest of the foreigners who’ve descended on the island fail as well.

This appears to be an excerpt from Lee’s forthcoming book, Red Island House. In her TNY interview, Lee calls it “one story from my upcoming collection, Red Island House, which recounts Shay Senna’s adventures in Madagascar over two tumultuous decades in her life,” but the Simon & Schuster website calls it a novel. I’ve read that the publisher often makes a decision about how to market a book, and it’s possible the change was made in the final edit.*

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Ultimately, we all are living in the wreckage of colonialism. Those who caused the initial harm are now, like the Italian family of the father, only a shadow of their former selves, so they cannot fix their own mistakes alone. Which means that righting injustices means taking an active interest in something you yourself didn’t actually cause. It means having a different meaning of ‘doing what you can,’ one that is extremely demanding on the person doing the introspection.”

mkevane at The Mookse and the Gripes: “As a metaphor for colonialism this was perfect. The ‘children’ are the colonies: used, abused, left stranded, ever hopeful cadgers. The two women, the ‘old hand’ and the ‘naive newcomer’ are Europe today.”

Paul Debrasky at I Just Read About That: “This story reads like a fairy tale. It has a slow inevitability in the pacing and real lack of urgency.”

BASS 2020: Mary Gaitskill, “This is Pleasure” from The New Yorker 7/8/2019

David Burliuk: Woman Leading a Horse
Much of what happens in the story is flippant and ridiculous – some of it is sublimated cruelty, both on the part of Quinn and some of his accusers. But underneath that the story it’s so mixed and unclear, with real tenderness and wish for connection shining or at least trying to shine through the murk. I wanted to write from this place of uncertainty because it seemed necessary in a climate of total certainty from all sides. I am not in any way against moral certainty; that too is necessary. But fiction for me exists at least in part to describe the moment when you are not certain, you are just feeling all kinds of contradictory things, and reality is clear but prismatic: several things at once. In this case, the moment before the hammer falls.

Mary Gaitskill, Contributor Note

The two characters who tell this story in alternating sections embody the very decision the story demands of the reader. One character is absolutely certain; the other is awash in uncertainty. Because the choice isn’t between guilt or innocence, but between choosing a hill to die on, or living with the queasy feeling that there is no hill.  

Quin is a high-end book editor from New York by way of London. Margot met him years before as a job applicant. They ran into each other, and eventually became friends after a bizarre start to their relationship.

The interview was strange too, whimsical and then unexpectedly cutting. He asked a lot of questions that seemed irrelevant and personal, including whether or not I had a boyfriend. He used my name more often than he needed to, and with an oddly intimate intonation that, in combination with his British accent, seemed not only precise but proper. That proper quality was somehow confusing: when he interrupted me to say, “Margot? Margot, I don’t think your voice is your best asset. What is your best asset?” I was so discomfited and uncertain that I didn’t know whether to be offended or not. I don’t recall my reply, but I know that I answered abruptly and uncleverly, and then the interview was over.
I got another, better job, but still, when Quin’s name came up in conversation, and it often did – he had a reputation that was somewhat notorious, yet unclear, as if people didn’t know what to make of him, despite how long he’d been around – I vividly remembered his voice and my discomfiture and wondered why the feeling had stayed with me.

Now, twenty years later, Quin is being sued by several parties for some form of sexual harrassment, and is on a #MeToo list of high-ranking abusers. As a result he’s lost his job and will probably find it very difficult to land another one. Margot takes some heat for standing by him, even as she runs down the list of questionable behaviors she has heard of, or has been subjected to herself.

And, yeah, this guy has done some pretty questionable behaviors. He thrust his thumb as a woman and dared her to bite it. He spanked a woman in his office. He touched a woman’s breast while she was trying on a t-shirt. He asked a woman he’d just met at an airport in between planes to tell him what she thought about when she masturbates. And then there’s his first lunch with Margot herself:

We were seated at a deep banquette: Quin told the waiter that he wanted to sit on the same side as me, so that we could talk more easily, and then he was there, with his place setting. I’m sure he didn’t say this right away, but in my memory he did: “Your voice is so much stronger now! You are so much stronger now! You speak straight from the clit!” And —as if it were the most natural thing in the world — he reached between my legs. “NO!” I said, and shoved my hand in his face, palm out, like a traffic cop. I knew it would stop him. Even a horse will usually obey a hand held in its face like that, and yet out weighs a human by nearly a thousand pounds. Looking mildly astonished, Quin sat back and said, “I like the strength and clarity of your no.” “Good,” I replied….But the main thing I remember from that night was the expression on his face as he retreated from my upraised palm, the surprised obedience that was somehow grounded, more genuine than his reaching hand had been.
The next day he sent me flowers and the friendship began.

That horse metaphor gets a lot of mileage in the story. What’s really interesting is that these aren’t the women who are suing him, or who signed the list.

Quin, of course, does not see himself as an abuser or harrasser. He’s never had sex with any of the women; he’s never cheated on his wife. He thinks of his accusers as friends: he’s helped some of them get better jobs, offered career and personal advice, and comforted them. Yes, he’s a flirt, and yes, he gets a little outrageous. But he stops on request. He has no idea that forcing someone to make that request might itself be harrassment.

I used to know, via email, someone like this, though there was no sexual component at all. He just liked to pull minor pranks on strangers to make his wait in the supermarket line more enjoyable. He’d move the conveyor belt divider to include some of the items from the person in front of him, or behind him. Or he’d ask one of them to pay for his order, or tell the cashier he gets a discount because it’s Thursday. He thinks it’s great fun when people are confused or try to react with some degree of courtesy. I still have the email describing this. I replied, “You, sir, are a menace to the timid, the easily confused, and those who rely on formula responses.  While the latter is fair game, I pity the former.”  He insisted that, because he stopped immediately if anyone showed distress, and most people laughed and appreciated the humor, he was performing a public service. As one of the timid and easily confused, I disagree.

One of Quin’s descriptions feels like something more sinister to me:

I remember teasing Margot by telling her that I’d convinced a woman I’d just met, during a layover in Houston, to share with me what she thought about while making herself come. An amusing silence emanated from the phone, and then: “She didn’t slap the shit out of you?” “No,” I answered pleasantly. “I was very polite. I led into it slowly. I was just about to get on my flight, we had a nice talk, she told me a lot about herself. It was just, you know, ships in the night, we won’t see each other again, so. …” …”And so many people , if they are honest, really wanted to answer those questions period you just have to ask in the right way.”

One of the things we learned a few decades ago about child molesters is that they aren’t creepy guys in trenchcoats, but are initially kind and sympathetic listeners to children they sense feel alone and unheard; they progress from normal interactions to perverted ones by degrees, slowly desensitizing the child to strangeness. The children are led. Quin seems to have adapted the technique for adults.

But adults are supposed to know better. Adults are supposed to say stop, to walk away. And we’re back at that point again.

The details of these incidents are telling. When he relates the spanking incident, he starts off with a paddle, then it becomes a spoon or a spatula, and finally a butter knife. Does he not remember? Or does he try to mitigate the incident by shrinking the object used, which is kind of crazy, because it doesn’t matter if he used a cricket bat or a feather.

Another incident with Margot is telling. They’re going dancing at a club, and he takes her shopping bag so she’ll be less encumbered.

I agreed, and then he said that he thought I should also dispense with the purse, because, although it was small and very nice, it made me look less free. “But I need it,” I said. “I’ve got my wallet and lipstick in there.” “Then let me carry them,” he answered, “here.” He indicated an inner pocket of his jacket.
I hesitated.
“Your effervescent tonight,” he said. “But that purse takes something away. It makes you more mundane, less delightful. I wanted to see you walk through the room giving off an aura of freedom.”
I said, smiling, “but if I give you my wallet I’m not free. Because you’ve got my wallet.”
He was right, though. I would have looked and felt more free without the purse. Especially while we were dancing; there was a good teacher, and we danced for hours.

I would argue that the last thing freedom is, is coercing someone into seeing freedom the way you define it rather than the way they define it, whether they realize they were coerced or not.

In the end Margot has no wisdom to give us. She realizes that even though she’s been hanging on to this “I told him to stop and he stopped” defense, she has more in common with the accusers than she was at first ready to admit.

I was like the women who didn’t stop him and who acted like his friends even as they grew angrier and angrier. It wasn’t because he had more power than I did; that didn’t really matter. And it wasn’t because I’m like a horse. I don’t know why I behaved the way I did, and I kept doing it; and he kept doing it.

It’s a perplexing story, kind of frustrating, but compelling. It’s long – it’s being sold as a 96-page novella – but reads quickly, if emotionally. I was a bit nervous coming into this story, since Gaitskill has scared me in the past, and not in a fun way. But this was excellent, the kind of story that doesn’t change your life, doesn’t even clarify your thinking, but helps you outline some of the problems a little bit better. Uncertainty can be a good thing, if only because it gives you some breathing room while you’re looking for certainty.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “…[O]ne of literature’s best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story’s artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “So how should we judge Quin. How does society solve a problem that walks the razor’s edge of ethicality?”

Jon Duelfer at The Inquiring Reader: “The question that remains is this: does the punishment fit the crime?”

Video: Mary Gaitskill reads the first seven pages and discusses the story at the Strand bookstore

Pushcart 2021 XLV/BASS 2020: Carolyn Ferrell, “Something Street” from Story #5

“Something Street” was inspired by news events and by my own loyalty to characters who are eternal underdogs. I’d wanted to use the various settings of Parthenia and Craw Daddy as organizing tools for this piece but came to the realization – with the help of my great reading angel, Martha Upton – that plot was missing in that approach. I wanted to make the fragments of Parthenia’s life cohere, illustrate her transformation. I also thought about challenging the notion of the good old days – which we hear about from those allegedly wanting to make America great again. Latin lessons notwithstanding, the good old days are forever in the making. They are actually here, as reality and dream. And isn’t it already a given that fiction is what makes the world great in the first place?

Carolyn Ferrell, Contributor Note

In the late 60s when I was in junior high and hopelessly lame, my older brother kept bringing amazing comedy albums home from college. Firesign Theater. Tom Lehrer. And Bill Cosby: Buck Buck, Fat Albert, “Hey hey hey!” I never really got into Cosby, via comedy or I Spy, never watched The Cosby Show, but always felt some degree of fondness from hearing those albums. Until we all found out what was really going on behind the scenes. And that’s the news event that Ferrell captures in this story: decades of abuse and rape, but from the point of view of the wife.

“The comedian my husband” is how Parthenia refers to Crawley Stevenson, better known by his stage name Craw Daddy, fifteen times in this story. It’s divided into forty-five sections designated with Roman numerals; some are a sentence long, others a page. The present of the story is Craw Daddy’s Farewell Performance at Hampton University, previously Hampton Institute where Parthenia began her education, interrupted by marriage and children. But Ferrell’s technique is to blend together the marriage, a performance by Mahalia Jackson at the Institute, and The Complaints, with that performance, creating a final scene of something approaching confession, atonement, and salvation.

The metaphor of water runs through the story from the beginning, section II:

Our marriage in 1956—with the understanding that some things get better and some worse but bottom line you ultimately float somewhere near the surface. Yes to the women fans, yes to the terribly late forays, yes to the pee smell of breath. Yes as long as he comes home by dawn and doesn’t wake the children, yes yes. You float and float with affirmatives; you may not be kicking but you will be gulping.

Complete story available online at Story Magazine

Much of Parthenia’s understanding of tolerating intolerable behavior comes from her training at a young age via the Sable-Tea Club, apparently a group of white ladies who generously showed Mahogany Maidens how to act white in the public interest. And I suppose when your husband grows into a superstar and the money flows in, it’s hard to walk away.

The voice is so sharp and evocative, I’m tempted to just copy entire blocks and leave it at that. It’s eloquent, but perfectly natural, a difficult balance to hit, and it works all the way through. Linking all of the time vignettes while maintaining a forward momentum of the plot is not an easy task, particularly when there are sections of Craw Daddy’s performances – clearly modeled after Cosby – that distract from Parthenia’s story, just as his career distracted her from her own soul.

One of the bits involves a broken fire hydrant that floods a church – again with the water – where an engaged couple is dragged by the tractor, then blown out by the water:

Velvet must hold fast to the scraps that are her only covering; of course, Stanley Morehousehead is too stupid to try and rip his gown from his body and shield her.
(The audience roll from their seats into the aisles; it is too much, too much indeed!)
Velvet grabs her fiancé and together the (still unwed) couple allow themselves to be pulled along like a dog on a leash, her good cream-clotted skin turning red with humiliation, his dusky hue growing nightier by the minute. They flow out the church all the way to Buck River. There, the bridegroom catches hold of a tree (a weeping willow, of course) and frees himself from the flood, from Velvet. My mother always warned me about girls like you, he cries. Velvet is last seen washing along Buck River’s tides toward the tobacco field, where the workers have long since elected to carry out their day.

And while the audience is howling with laughter, Parthenia is caring for a baby, trying to hide her recently acquired black eye, and keeping an eye on Eboni, the stage assistant who probably just ripped off a few quick ones with Craw Daddy during intermission. The question is whether she had a choice or not. It’s not by accident that the comedian’s crazy story shows Velvet stripped bare and discarded while her man first ignores her nakedness, then saves himself. And everyone laughs.

The baby turns out to be a grandson, child of their third daughter, left on their doorstep five days before with a note: “Time for you to make amends seeing as you didn’t hear me the first time.” I’m still not sure what the first time refers to. There was a scene that indicated Craw Daddy was bedding the daughter’s friend – again, whether consensually or not is unclear – but it might be more than that. In any case, the baby is a turning point for Parthenia, or maybe it’s that Craw Daddy is about to go to prison as a result of The Complaints: eleven instances of sexual assault. Parthenia provided excuses for each one in court. She needs this turning point.

I push that pram along from the cobbles to the rocky breaker blocking the rushing water; as I do, I long to pick up one of the cigarette butts at my feet. If I were a different kind of grandmother-type, I might stow this baby in a pie safe and run off looking for a tobacco field of my own.

A couple of striking images appear towards the end: “I’m resting on a rock, like the girl on the can of White Rock soda.” And she sits “onto a grassy tuffet.”  I’ve never seen the word “tuffet” outside of the nursery rhyme, and have no idea how or if it relates. The story is a stream of powerful input coming over and over, and culminates in Parthenia finally being able to let someone else see her true self instead of the carefully manicured façade that has been her defense for so many years.

This is one of those times when I realize I’m reading a story I’m not really equipped to handle. Just about every word is important; one resonance falls on top of another. Yet it’s an engrossing read; it doesn’t feel difficult until I try to explain it, and then I realize I’m overwhelmed by how much there is.

Back in 2018, Ferrell had another story in BASS, “A History of China.” I found that to be overwhelming in a less comprehensible way. In fact, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, beyond the very basics. Now that I’ve read this story, I want to go back to that one, and figure out if there’s as powerful a thread going on there as here. If so, it will be very worth the effort to decipher it.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Parthenia sees herself as part of the “better class” of black and charged with upholding the higher class of blacks, but she’s a victim of the very class hierarchy she is supporting.” I can’t recommend Jake’s post highly enough; he connects the story to the post-Reconstruction divide in black culture between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.Du Bois.

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: ““Something Street” is exactly the kind of story I was looking for when I bought The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020). It’s a Category 3 hurricane in its emotional intensity, with anguished gusts pushing into Category 4.”

Ann Graham at Short Stories All the Time: “That’s the theme of the story, for me, a woman is cut down before she’s achieved her potential.”

BASS 2020: Marian Crotty, “Halloween” from Crazyhorse #96

Rumen Kozhuharov: “Unrequited love”
I began this story in response to a discussion I had with my first-year writing students about subjects for short memoirs that tend to rely on clichés. Essays about the death of a grandparent with the top of the list. They were often boring, almost always sentimental, and one grandma or grandpa usually felt indistinguishable from the next. And yet, because I was convinced that a story about the death of a grandparent could be compelling, I challenged myself to write one. My initial plan was to write the story in the form of a long social media memorial, and although I couldn’t make this approach work, it gave life to Jan, Jules, and a story that departed from the initial prompt I’d given myself.

Marian Crotty, Contributor Note

I’m not surprised that this story began with a grandmother. While Jules, the point-of-view character, is the character I most recognize and the one who gets the most space on the page, it’s quirky grandmother Jan who  grabs the attention, and gives a lift to Jules’ rather familiar problem.

Is there anything so exquisitely painful as unrequited love? Sure, there’s disease, destitution, all manners of human degradation, but to love an indifferent heart has a tenderness, a near-universality that makes it a ripe centerpiece for fiction. That this is a relationship between two women doesn’t really matter. Love is, after all, love. And not-love is not-love.

My grandmother had fucked-up ideas about love. This was something anyone who spent about five minutes with her understood. She had been married three times – once to my grandfather and twice to a guy named David who I remember as a quiet gray-bearded man with a motorcycle but who had broken into Jan’s duplex and set fire to the rattan patio set that she’d always kept in her sunroom. When I asked if she’d been afraid of this guy, she shrugged. “Sure. Sometimes.” In her mind, love was an undertaking bet required constant vigilance and bravery….
But when it came to Erika , the girl who had recently broken my heart, after what was admittedly just one relatively chaste summer together, Jan was my ideal audience – sympathetic, almost always available, and the only person in my life who thought that getting back together with Erika was both advisable and likely to happen.
The logical part of my brain thought the more likely explanation was that Erika had only ever gotten together with me in the first place out of boredom and convenience (we spent the summer working together at her frozen yogurt shop called Yotopia!) and now that FSU was back for the fall semester, it embarrassed her to be with a high school student. Sometimes, though, in the midst of one of Jan’s musings, I could almost convince myself that there had been a misunderstanding and that if I could just show Erika I was a mature and attractive person, she would, if not see that she had made a mistake, at least consider making out with me in secret.
“When it comes to love,” Jan said, “you shouldn’t have regrets. I have regrets, and I can tell you it sucks. I never should have divorced your grandfather.”

The three generations of women in this family – grandmother Jan, Jules, and Jules’ mother – have all had bad experiences with love. What Jules really needs to hear is: get as far away from Erika as you can, and it will eventually fade. Yes, it will – I promise (I’ve been through this four or five times, and not all when I was young, either; it’s really hard to walk away, but it’s the only thing that will help). But it’s the little maybe that makes her follow Jan’s advice: act happy and engaged in life, wear reavealing clothes, make up an imaginary girl who’s crushing on you, find ways to touch Erika now and then. The first part of that isn’t a bad idea. The rest, well… Jules is as surprised as I was when it seemed to work, and she and Erika finally get it on.

But did it work, or was it something else? Almost a goodbye present? Because Erika later tells her it’s not going to happen again, and things get a little more complicated after that.

I’d initially thought of this story as one of broken trust. Jan’s good husband, a decent guy who sometimes committed minor infractions, finally took her up on her threat to divorce him for one of those, breaking a trust that she could complain and life would go on. Her crazy husband obviously broke the trust most of us have in our husbands to not set our furniture on fire. Mom broke Jules’ trust by telling her social worker boyfriend about the breakup, leading him to attempt to console Jules, as clumsy but well-meaning do-gooders are wont to do (a wise do-gooder would have kept his mouth shut until a good opportunity presented itself). And of course Erika broke Jules’ trust, though Jules doesn’t realize it until things get complicated.

But then the story ends with Jules planning to go to a Halloween party at Erika’s house, a party she heard about from a co-worker. She knows she shouldn’t go, but Jan doesn’t try to stop her. I suspect Jan knows she’ll go no matter what, so she might as well be on the kid’s side. It’s when she refers to the box of Halloween costumes that I freak out – oh, no, not the dead baby costume!

This was a pleasant, entertaining read, kind of bittersweet for those of us who remember what it was like and feel some sympathy for Jules. But a lot of it just seems a little off. Jan is a little over the top; the Halloween connection – three times! From Jan’s once wearing an inappropriate costume to a child’s Halloween party, to her working in a Halloween store, to the Halloween party that continues Jules’ obsession – seems overplayed; maybe it’s a reference to fear, horror associated with love? This recycling maybe goes with Jules continuing her own cycle of what Miss Manners (I think; I can’t find the reference) once called getting every last ounce of pain out of a breakup. I’m not curious at all about what happens with her, but I wouldn’t mind reading more about Jan, over-the-top or not. I’d like to see her through her own eyes, rather than through Jules’.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Crotty’s “Halloween” treats the idea of love equaling suffering like the two-bit trailer-park philosophy it is, and it paints it with a comic brush rather than a dramatic one.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, ‘A&P.’”

BASS 2020: Emma Cline, “The Nanny” from The Paris Review #231

A few years ago there was a stretch of tabloid stories about celebrity affairs, often involving nannies. I was struck by a paparazzi photo of one of the young women; she looked so confident, almost smirking, but then seemed, at the same time, obviously afraid, obviously in over her head. I wanted to explore that mindset – the bravado of youth covering up terror, the desire to try to take ownership of bad things as a way to make them less painful. Kayla is desperate to avoid being seen as a victim, to forestall pity or self reflection by any means necessary, even if this means rebuffing actual kindness and connection.

Emma Cline, Contributor Note

Having been a young person who made some mistakes, but had the luck to make them before the internet age, I can sympathize with Kayla’s confusing reaction to her situation. I can also get a little exasperated with the public fascination with scandal, with the need to see things as a morality play, to force our beliefs onto a situation about which we know very little.

Keeping in that vein, as the story opens, we have little information. Kayla is staying with Mary and Dennis, a couple other than her parents. When she asks for a beer to go with the pizza, she notices they glance at each other, but they find some and give it to her. When she goes for a walk, she worries they’re watching her and will object to her checking her phone. “What would they do, take her phone away?” From this, I got the impression that Kayla was very young, and maybe had a substance abuse problem or had been acting out in some way. I was surprised to find out 1) she’s 24 years old, and 2) she’s a college graduate, possibly with a Master’s degree.

Eventually we find out Kayla was a nanny for an actor’s family, and slept with him some number of times. It’s unclear if the affair began as consensual, but it became so, to the point where now, hiding out from paparazzi with Mary, her mother’s college roommate, she searches in vain for messages from the man.

Then comes the line that put me squarely into judgmental mode:

It was easy to imagine what Mary thought of Kayla. A waste, she probably believed, Kayla just twenty-four years old and now this. Probably, Mary thought, this was just the result of an absent father, an overworked mother.
But how could Kayla explain? This felt correct, the correct scale of things. Kayla had always expected something like this to happen to her.

There’s the paradox of her actively insisting on seeing herself in the passive role, of this happening to her, rather than her actions having consequences; exaggerated consequences, certainly, but her behavior played a role. And yet, I have some idea of what it’s like to be young and not fully grasp how the world works, to be  able to convince yourself that what you did wasn’t that bad, there were extenuating circumstances. There usually are extenuating circumstances to everything, but it’s dangerous to take them as license. Unfortunately, it takes time – and, sometimes, bitter experience – to learn that.

The scenes from the affair make her seem pathetic rather than predatory. Returning from the bathroom after a tryst, she finds him watching TV, “as if nothing had happened at all.” He ignores her in public, which she excuses because there are film people around who might start talking. At a filming session on an oversees shoot, he demands she get out of his eye line:

“I’m not in your eye line,” she said. She could feel the makeup girl glancing at them.
“You don’t think you are, but it’s my eye line, that’s the point,” Rafe said. “It’s what I see. Not what you see. What I see. And I’m seeing you.”
“Okay.”
He widened his eyes, about to say something, then seemed to soften. “Why don’t you go swim in the pool at the hotel? Get some lunch?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was faint. “That’s a good idea.”
She knew Rafe didn’t want her to make a scene. And she wouldn’t. She smiled out to the nothingness, the empty horizon. The land was scrubby and not beautiful, not at all how she had imagined. In truth, it had been her first time outside the country.

The scenic description after that interaction about whose eyeline matters is perfect. I’m sure love does look bare and drab to her, not at all how she had imagined it would look. Her inexperience is a distinct disadvantage.

Why does a woman put up with this? Because he’s handsome and famous? Because she needs the job? Sure, that probably plays into it, but there’s something else, a self-image problem we glimpse now that she’s down and out and letting more supressed feelings into her conscious mind. Kayla wasn’t always a nanny banging a famous daddy, which, leaving aside any sexual morality you want to fold over it, is horrible because it’s so cliché. And it’s so dumb. But she used to be something else.

The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.
How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.

Flash forward to her senior thesis, where she’s increasing the margins to meet the minimum page requirement. I had to smile at that. I used to adjust my margins, too, but the other way – I made them as small as possible so I could get more words into my 5 or 10 or 25 pages. But Kayla’s metamorphosis is the point: What happened in between? How did awe turn into cynicism, inquisitiveness into reaching for the easiest fix and closest available comfort? We don’t get to know that. We only know it happened. When she starts wondering if her art history professor remembers her, it’s a genuinely moving glance back to a happier time.

The story ends with her dragged to a party by her hosts. She ends up hiding out in one of the children’s rooms, naturally enough; she was a nanny, after all, so she must have a high comfort level with kids, but also she’s not really up to adult interaction. She climbs into the little girl’s bed – kind of strange, but ok – and the child takes charge, reversing the roles: “I’m actually a princess, but I was forced to be a nurse.” Yep. Kayla knows all about that. Whereas she was unable to receive caretaking from Maya and Dennis, she is able to accept it from a child, possibly because she doesn’t worry about the judgment and advice that’s sure to be contingent on the comfort.

The final scene is loaded with subtlety and ambiguity, to the point where, if it were a script, it could be read a dozen different ways and feel authentic in each.  But I struggle with great writer’s choices that seem questionable in the fictional world. For example, Dennis comes looking for her to take her home. Why is it he who comes, not Mary? The reason Cline chose to make it him becomes obvious from the interaction that follows, but what is the fictional reason, is Mary looking for her somewhere else, or did she just casually say, “Hey, go look for Kayla, the girl who sleeps with inappropriate men”?

“Come on, Kayla,” Dennis said, pulling the covers back. Kayla’s dress had ridden up and her underwear was showing.
“Jesus,” he said, and tossed the blankets back over her. His face was red.
“I’m sorry,” Kayla said, getting up, searching out her sandals.
“Are you?”
The tone of his voice surprised her—when she glanced at him, he looked intently at the floor.
Kayla felt the room around her, her cheap sandal in her hand. “I’m not ashamed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Dennis started laughing, but it just seemed weary. “Jesus,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “I know you’re a good person.
The anger she felt then, close to hatred—“Maybe I’m not.”
Dennis’s eyes were watery, pained. “Of course you are. You’re more than just this one thing.”
Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was.

Another great writer’s choice that seems odd in the fictional context: pulling back the covers. As a symbol of Kayla being laid bare to the world, it’s perfect, but would a man who is pretty much a stranger do that? Is that the point, that men do that? That he shows embarrassment is a plus; he’s an adult, in other words, acting like an adult, respecting boundaries. Look closely, Kayla, you might never see that again. But the conversation is, yes, that golden word, ambiguous. Is she being seductive? Is he thinking about it?

I’d like to hope maybe Kayla is learning to recognize respect between adults, and that she can accept kindness without paying dearly for it. But that’s my hope; Kayla doesn’t need anyone else projecting their mindset onto her.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every digression, every observation not strictly necessary, is so enjoyable, so considerate of the reader’s need to be stimulated, is pulled off with such skill, I do not feel myself constantly looking to see how much longer the story is.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on.”

BASS 2020: Michael Byers, “Sibling Rivalry” from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #40

I suppose this story came about from sitting with friends on that porch (the porch in the story is our porch in Michigan), all of us watching our children get older in that unreal, jerky, all too sudden way they do, and recognizing that their lives, and their own children’s lives, which differ from ours in ways that we wouldn’t be able to really get our heads around. And I wanted to get my head around it. Given current circumstances, the world this story depicts looks like a pretty benign one, all things considered, a world in which people still sit on porches and have friends and fun moments in which to consider who and why they are.

Michael Byers, Contributor Note

I had a long, complicated post all ready to go explaining why this story isn’t science fiction but literary fiction with science fiction elements, complete with a definition of science fiction from Ted Chiang and an explanation by Isaac Asimov of how science fiction stories clue readers into the differences between their world and the strange new world in the story. I showed this story didn’t meet Chiang’s definition and how at its core it didn’t need Asimov’s techniques because the important questions raised were questions we all face every day, and the two science-fictiony elements, AI and cookies (a sort of telepathic Facebook/Twitter), were substantially familiar to us all, though taken a few steps farther in the story.

And then I read Jim Harris’ post on the story (link below) and was introduced to the term slipstream: a blending of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and whatever else you’ve got. If I were more secure about the definition of the term – or if there were a strict definition, for that matter – I’d argue that the story is too rooted in realism to even be slipstream, but I’ll go with Jim’s far greater experience with science fiction.

It might seem strange to claim realism in a story that starts with this kind of paragraph:

In the Burkharts’ neighborhood the Hughes brand had become the most popular and that’s what the Burkharts had, the Hughes Fully Human: superhigh-mobility musculature, self-growing chassis, real AI, and it was just sort of amazing to watch them change as they grew, from the day you brought them home from the Birthing Unit (along with the two blue nylon suitcases full of accessories and equipment), amazed at how real she looked, but what else would she be but real? And then a few years later this daughter of yours was clinging to your pantleg outside the worn blue doors of the kindergarten wing on the first day of school, afraid to go in, her hair shining in the September sun, her older brother standing in line expressing an airy unconcern, backpacks everywhere, everyone knowing (mostly via conversation, it was very hard to tell just by looking) who was and who wasn’t but you didn’t make such distinctions out loud, it wasn’t polite, and in fact in some sense it really didn’t matter. Your emotional centers were fooled by the physical limitation, and the AI was the real thing, and the growth was to human scales – So what was the difference, anyway? Well, what? It became a philosophical question more than anything, or at least a question to gossip about, which people were always happy to do.
But people had always gossiped about their kids.

Even though Byers’ story features an AI being – the growth and development of which, by the way, brought to mind Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – the issues raised are not only present in contemporary life, they have been part of society for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years. How do you integrate people who are perceived as very different into society? How much freedom and privacy do you give a child? Can excessive reliance on one ethical criteria be detrimental, and if so, how can various criteria be balanced, and who gets to decide which balance is ethical and which is horrific?

The story follows the Burkharts as they negotiate daily life with their AI daughter Melissa and biological son. With a few exceptions, they could be parents from 2020. But the issue of synth-vs-bio is always present. When, at a casual gathering with neighbors on their porch (ah, the porch, it’s a great scene, alternating between gossip and serious discussion of how AI is working in society, a topic pertinent to all the participants since they all have synth kids), the discussion turns to “would you want your bio kid to marry one?”, they generally agree it’s something that will become more accepted in time. “It wasn’t normal, though. They all knew it. It wasn’t normal yet.” At the Burkharts’ parent-teacher conference, the teacher says Melissa reminds them of her daughter, and they wonder if her daughter is synth or bio. “And all three of them sensed the question hovering there, and none of them spoke it , and then it slowly, very slowly drifted off. Because it didn’t matter. Officially, it didn’t.”

Yes, the AI character throws a science fiction element into the mix, but questions about “mixed marriages” date from the beginning of time, forming over differences in class, religion, race or ethnicity. The unspoken questions about whether someone is or isn’t a member of an outsider group tends to happen around the same classifications, with the addition of sexual identity. The hesitation to bring it up is well-meant, but still signals a level of discomfort. This isn’t science fiction; it’s life.

We see Dad’s contemplation of Melissa’s nature in a single paragraph:

He watched her turn her arm, rotated the owner, the radius, observing her own workings. It either was or was not the case that his daughter was a fully conscious , living creature, in just the way he was, self aware and aware of her own self awareness, unpredictable but bound by physics and probability in the same way he was, capable of originality, prone to certain behaviors, feeling, thinking, erratic, unknowable.
Either was or was not.
And if you couldn’t tell, if nobody could tell – what was the point of wondering?

If you flashed on the “Does Data have a soul?” episode of ST:TNG, welcome to the club. To anyone with a philosophical nature, the point of wondering is everything; better to wonder now, when it isn’t a crucial  moment, than to put it off until you have to decide if destroying a synth is murder. And I think the more important question is: what is the point of not wondering? If you acknowledge a difference, does that mean something about your relationship with your daughter? If you can’t find a difference, what does that mean?

In any case, this parallels discussions from earlier centuries about whether people who look different, who live differently, are people, complete with – yes –  souls, or can be brushed out of the way and/or enslaved. From Aristotle’s natural slaves to The Valladolid debate to eighteenth-century American justifications for slavery, this attempt to define and restrict personhood is not new.

AI itself isn’t something that requires a lot of explanation, either. Granted, we don’t have AI people who grow and interact and can’t be easily distinguished from biological people, but we have self-driving cars and chatbots that handle your customer service issues and refrigerators that order food for you. Not to mention programs that tell you what advertisers and politicians want you to hear. One of my twitter friends has a robotic dog which isn’t exactly AI but it’s trainable. AI is real life, not science fiction.

The other major issue is how closely a parent should watch over a child, known in our era as  helicopter vs free range parenting. Obviously that’s a real-life issue, but it’s tied in with a science fiction element, the cookie. It’s never clearly defined, but the way the characters refer to it, it seems to be some kind of telepathic Facebook or Twitter that can, at maximum setting, record and make available to all followers every thought you have. Or it can be toned down and used more casually, for news and such, and only alert parents when a child is upset or frightened. That’s how the Burkharts keep tabs on their kids.

But what if they turned it off, so they’re no longer in constant touch with everything?

For him, once the cookie was off – completely off – he just felt it as a weird silence. As though he had discovered some new space in the air, a new room, empty, featureless, that had been carved out of his brain. He would turn to it and find nothing. A great quiet.
He missed it most when he was doing dumb stuff around the house – laundry, tidying up the playroom. How natural it had been to flit from music to news to the feed. The whole world carved out of his head, gone.
And when he turned to see the children, they were gone too.

This is a much milder reaction than I have when my internet connection goes out, and I’ve seen people go bonkers when their smart phones are temporarily unavailable. This isn’t a strange other world, either. It is kind of funny when, constantly wondering if the kids are ok without the connection, he thinks, “How had his grandparents done this, exactly?”

The story ends with a much less interesting concept, the Frankensteinian monster destroying its creator. This is made interesting, and connected with the story, in three ways. First, Dad has been insisting throughout that Melissa was created from he and his wife, using as input their brainwaves, social media feeds, personality tests, and genetic data. At times he sees his wife, or himself, in her. The chilling final scene, in which Melissa senses a “firm swipe of rectitude” as she develops a plan, hearkens back to Dad’s confidence when he turns off the cookie: “But he was resolute. This new place. This new sense of himself.” We have met the enemy, they are us indeed. The second way is the more philosophical irony of who gets to determine what is fair, and fair to whom, another issue top on the contemporary charts these days. Just ask someone who won’t wear a mask. The third way is by implying this resolution answers the two previously unresolved issues: how do you integrate the synths, and how much privacy/freedom do you give a child.

I made a craft note as I was reading, a note regarding an example of clunky exposition. Back in the days of TwoP, the board for The West Wing often referred to the exposition fairy, a minute or so of script that would have one of the men explaining some detailed function of government to a woman (hey, it was a great show, but it was as sexist a show as there ever was, whether that was to reflect government or because someone in the writing room had his head up his ass is open for debate). The term Supers comes up a few times, and we’re kind of left in the dark for a while. Dad ends up explaining them to Melissa, noting, “She knew this history, but one thing about kids, you had to repeat things – kids learned something, forgot they had learned it.” Ok, but this kid has an AI brain, you’d think she’d be able to remember. I’d give this one a C-minus. But it’s one brief moment; everything else is handled much more smoothly.

I’d say most of the science-fictiony stories in BASS are actually literary fiction with science fiction elements, including some of my favorites: Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure” from 2018, Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” from 2012,  and “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang, even though Chiang is a science fiction author. The exception would be Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Era”: it was a science fiction story that used literary fiction themes, and quite successfully.

The image that stays with me after reading this story isn’t AI, isn’t Supers or cookies; it’s that group of neighbors sharing drinks on the porch. Maybe it’s the age of COVID-19, the rarity of such moments right now. Or maybe it’s the universality, like so much of this story.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The nine stages of reading ‘Sibling Rivalry’ by Michael Byers.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning.”

BASS 2020: T.C. Boyle, “The Apartment” from McSweeney’s #56

As I creep through Shakespeare’s seven stages of life (I’m now knocking on the door to the final one, “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), I’ve necessarily become more attuned to the vicissitudes of old age, and notions, however transparent, of eternity. This is where Jeanne Calment (1875 – 1997) comes into the picture. Madame Calment was the longest lived human being in recorded history, having continued to live, breathe, and pump blood into her one hundred and twenty-third year. What would it be like, I wondered, to live that long? Would it be a burden or a daily revivifying challenge to beat the odds, especially as one competitor or another shuffled off the mortal coil? The historical figure of Jeanne Calment, by virtue of her astonishing longevity, has already morphed into the mythological, and it was that mythological status I’ve wanted to explore.

T. C. Boyle, Contributor Note

I had a historical reaction to this story as well, but of a different sort. I thought, it’s the kind of story Poe might write, if he were smoking pot instead of taking laudanum. I was gratified to see Jim Harris’ post on the story mentioned Poe as well. Then I looked at Jake Weber’s post, and he mentioned O. Henry, leading me to think: Yes, it’s the sort of story O. Henry might have written, in the days before he happened upon the clever twist ending that characterized his famous works.

I found it quite engaging most of the way through; the characters of Madame C. and Monsieur R. have life and energy and wit; there’s a good deal of subtle symbolism and irony. But the resolution was ultimately unsatisfying, resulting in a rather plaintive, “That’s it?”

The story rests on the French practice known as viager: I find an older person with a home I like, and pay them a set amount monthly for the rest of their life in return for receiving title to the property when they die. If they die in two months, I’ve made quite a deal; if they live for decades, not so much. The key is obviously to pick someone who is likely to die soon. It seems to me it’s pretty cold-blooded to extend such an offer – and very creepy to receive it. But that’s a literal reading, and the story turns it into something else.

So we have Monsieur R., who has a reasonably nice life and a perfectly fine apartment in Arles, but his family includes two teenagers who play their annoying music all day long (“the Beatles, the Animals, the Kinks” – dates are given in the story, but it’s always fun to recognize chronology by references within the text) and he’s got his eye on Madame C.’s larger and more pleasantly located apartment. So he sends a note to her to discuss “a matter of mutual interest”:

As far as he knew – and he’d put in his research on the subject – she had no heirs. She’d been a bride once, and a mother too, and she’d lived within these four walls and paced these creaking floorboards for an astonishing sixty-nine years, ever since she returned from her honeymoon, in 1896, and moved in here with her husband, a man of means, who had owned the department store on the ground floor and had given her a life of ease. Anything she wanted was at the fingertips. She hosted musical parties, vacation in the Alps, skied, bicycled, hunted and fished, lived through the German occupation and the resumption of the Republic without noticing all that much difference in her daily affairs, but of course no one gets through life unscathed. Her only child, a daughter, had died of pneumonia in 1934, after which she and her husband had assumed guardianship of their grandson, until first her husband died unexpectedly (after eating a dish of fresh-picked cherries that had been dusted with copper sulfate and inadequately rinsed), and then her grandson, whom she’d seen through medical school and who had continued to live with her as her sole companion and emotional support. He was only thirty-six when he was killed in an auto accident on a deserted road, not two years ago.

The cherries, coupled with the general tendency of everyone around her to die, made me wonder if something else was going on here, so that was a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun that, in spite of being mentioned a second time in more detail, it never went off. Seeing this as a human story, it should generate some compassion for this woman who has lost everyone in her family, but the tone is more bantering than tragic so it doesn’t really connect in that way. By the way, this would make a great Intro to Writing assignment on the importance of tone: rewrite a few paragraphs as tragedy.

Madame C.’s reaction to Monsieur R.’s offer of 2000 francs per month is not, however, tragic: she ups it to 2500. Here I am all ready for introspection on aging, or how others view one as aging and headed for the great beyond, and instead, we have a businesslike approach. Turns out it’s more than that:

Twenty-five hundred francs! Truly, this man had come into her like an angel from heaven – and what’s more, he never even hesitated when she countered his offer….Best of all, even beyond the money, was the wager itself. If she’d been lost after Frederick had been taken from her, now she was found. Now – suddenly, wonderfully – purpose had come back into her life.

Now this is pretty cool: she turns the assumption underlying his offer into motivation to stay alive, not for the joy of living, but as a kind of bet. Competitive lady, she is.

Monsieur R. wants to stack the deck, so he visits her fairly often, bringing chocolates, cognac, cigarettes, and all manner of decadent foods. Fondue with pork rinds? Really? To my surprise, I see this is popular with keto-dieters looking to avoid bread. I can barely handle the fat in a peanut butter sandwich, and they’re eating cheese over pork rinds:

At first he’d come every week or two, his arms laden with gifts – liquor, sweets, cigarettes, foie gras, quiche, even a fondue once, replete with crusts of bread, marbled beef, and crépitements de porc – but eventually the visits grew fewer and further between. Which was a pity, really, because she’d come to relish the look of confusion and disappointment on his face when he found her in such good spirits, matching him chocolate for chocolate, drink for drink, and cigarette for cigarette. “Don’t think for a minute you’re fooling me, monsieur,” she would say to him as they sat at the coffee table laden with delicacies, and Martine bustled back and forth from the salon to the kitchen and sometimes even took a seat with them and dug in herself. “You’re a sly one, aren’t you?” He would shrug elaborately, laugh, and throw up his hands as if to say, Yes you see through me, but you can’t blame a man for trying, can you? She would smile back at him. She found herself growing fond of him, in the way you’d grow fond of a cat that comes up periodically to rub itself against your leg – and then hands you twenty-five hundred francs.

The cat is the perfect cherry on top of that section. Really, this is why I say I truly enjoyed reading it until the end: it’s a marvelous scene, and they’re wonderful characters, pitted against each other in this way. Another neatly ironic twist is that Monsieur R. resumes unhealthy habits he’d quit years earlier once he starts visiting Madame C. and tempting her with all sorts of deleterious delights, leaving him hoisted by his own petard. I was all set to love this story – but in the end, I couldn’t.

I hadn’t realized until I read Jake’s post that this was based on the very real Jeanne Calmet, who lived to 124, well outliving the lawyer who made a viager deal with her, and never lived to collect. In fact, his estate had to keep paying Calmet until her death. But alas, in converting this to a story, the ending didn’t work. Yes, there’s a victory, and a Pyrrhic one at that, and all sorts of delicious irony, and maybe that should be enough. But, at least in this case, for me it wasn’t.

Compare this with Boyle’s story “The Five Pound Burrito” which I read  in Pushcart 2017. That, too, was fun to read, but the ending made it satisfying as well. Boyle is like that for me: sometimes he hits me square in the heart, sometimes not. Then again, most writers are like that, aren’t they.  Again I think of what Sittenfeld wrote in her Intro: I see all kinds of great stuff in here, and I understand what he was doing, but it’s just not to my taste. I need more from an ending. I’m greedy that way.

* * *

Other takes on this story: 

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The problem is that this isn’t really a natural way for the story that’s on the page to end.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “This year I’m digging through BASS 2020 looking for something. I’m not sure what, but just being a well written story it’s not.”

BASS 2020: Selena Anderson, “Godmother Tea” from Oxford American #106

OA Art by Ebony G. Patterson:
“Duppy Treez”
When you look in a mirror you see yourself, but you also see a mess of other people who came before. Simply by looking, you are reconciling yourself in a long line of these folks. I’ve wanted to play with this idea of being your ancestor’s greatest dream – I keep seeing T-shirts that say this. But when you’re young and struggling, you’re more likely to think they’re disappointed. The godmother is an extension of what Joy is both seeing and avoiding. She’s basically there to cook amazing meals and to give cutting straight talk. The horrible thing isn’t so much hearing an important person’s worst opinion of you as it is feeling your own body agree with them. Joy is in a spell where moments like this are happening on loop. She eventually gets beyond it, but none of that resolution stuff was up to her either.

Selena Anderson, Contributor Note

Tired: The Midlife Crisis

Wired: The Just-Starting-Out-and-Getting-Nowhere-Fast crisis.

The first section of this story contains hints of everything that’s to follow. I felt that as I read it, before I had any idea how the rest of it was going to go. Hints like:

  • Messy presents. Oh, yeah, presents that come with strings, with expectations, that tell you what to like, how to live. Presents worse than a basket of kittens in terms of how much they’ll require.
  • A preference for an empty apartment, but one that’s filled with stuff from other people, filled with those messy presents. “Now there was hardly any space to move around.” Think about that:  all this stuff from other people gets in Joy’s way. Gets in the way of joy.
  • The mirror that doubles all that stuff: “My reflection belonged to too many other people.” No room for Joy in that mirror.
Even my people who are still living don’t let me suffer the way I want to. A lot of them, much older and less bothered than myself, express pride in the way I’m turning out. My mother’s friends talk about me like I was a dish that was difficult to get just right, but the special ingredients of an elite social circle, good home training, and private education have turned me into a well-spoken young woman full of potential.
Complete story available online at Oxford American

And Joy’s mom, proud of her daughter, maybe proud of having raised this well-spoken, potential-laden women, still reminds her when she’s “sounding too white.” Boy, that’s a tough needle to thread.

This existential who-am-I-and-how-should-I-be-in-the-world psychological problem is made more concrete by three other elements of the story. Joy’s long-time friend, Nicole, has begun pulling away. The reasons are a bit hazy, but I get the impression Nicole is doing really well and wants to move on to bigger and better things, including new friends that live in gated communities and give ritzy parties. Joy looks back on her relationship with Nicole and sees something she never thought about before: “But what made us last was that when we were together, it felt like we were speaking a special language. Looking back, I think that maybe I had just learned to speak her way.”

The second concretization comes in the form of André, the ex-boyfriend. It seems she dumped him when he “had neglected to propose marriage when I’d felt the time was right.” It’s unclear if there was a discussion about the time being right or not, or if she just got tired of waiting. I’m not taking anything for granted here. In any case, André has a new girlfriend named Porche, which brings to mind a lifestyle upgrade similar to Nicole’s.

The third concrete example of her identity crisis is more mundane but the most blatant: “[M]y driver’s license was so badly expired that now it was actually becoming difficult to prove that I was myself.” Interestingly, I remember another story where a lost driver’s license carried the symbolism of identity confusion for a character, a story from BASS 2017 written by… BASS 2020 guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld.

Joy makes efforts to fix the three things in her life: she goes to a party with Nicole, sleeps with André, and goes to the DMV to renew her license. None of these things work. Again, the driver’s license is the most clear symbol: it’s Sunday – Easter Sunday, in fact – and of course the DMV is closed. Her disconnect with time aside, that’s about as real as failure to recover gets.

The godmother could be seen as the amalgamation of mother, ancestors, all the other people crowded in the living room via their belongings, the whole world, but also a rescuer, someone to show Joy the way out. But, since she’s a product of Joy’s imagination, I prefer to think of her as Joy’s conflicted vision: she moves from how others see her, to how she wants to see herself, via a cup of tea Godmother – er, well, Joy’s projection of Godmother – makes for her. And via a prayer:

I was so confused that I started to pray. I prayed that my past loves would feel distant to the point of disappearing. I prayed that I could accept living a life without happiness, that I would make friends who shared this view, that I would not drink too much or become too bitter. I wanted so badly to be in harmony with the city I called home and with my time on this earth and for this to show in my face and the way I talked. And if none of this was meant to be, I prayed that I wouldn’t want it in the first place, that I would be turned into a different girl completely. That’s when things turned around for me. I couldn’t say exactly when it happened, but the godmother was gone.

The last three paragraphs again concretize this discovery of identity via an orange dress and the gift of a Dr. Pepper. Hey, read the story, it makes sense.

This resolution feels a little too abrupt for me. I’ve always been fond of the line from the film Postcards from the Edge: “Growing up isn’t like in a movie where you have a realization and life changes. In life, you have a realization and your life changes a month or so later.” But this a short story, not a novel, so there’s limited space, and time, to work with. The dress and the drink are just first steps; maybe she’ll get rid of the mirror in a month.

What this story does quite effectively is make themes real via symbols. Sometimes the symbols are subtle, sometimes less so. And of course each element brings in other things with it.

While a lot of the story is about racial identity – which is a whole thing in itself, why is eloquence seen as the province of white people? – I found myself strongly identifying with a lot of Joy’s problem areas. I spent way too long trying to be what other people kept telling me I needed to be. I’ve learned to speak other people’s languages and taken up their interests in order to form relationships that were too one-sided to last. And, oh, the  messy presents I’ve collected. Rejecting them at the time of offer is often painful and, sure, messy, but it’s better than keeping a basket of kittens you really don’t want, just because someone left them on your doorstep.

* * *

Other takes on the story can be found at: