BASS 2022: It’s About Time (among other things)

Art is how we’re going to survive this – and by “this,” I mean anything you might have in mind. A virus, a partner, a family, a country, a world in trouble and grief. That is how I felt reading these stories, and many others, this year. That is what I found so heartening – the future is unknown, and of course terrifying, and, in hard times, some rage, some cower, some bellow nonsense, and others get down to work. But writers: we take notes. From these notes we make something new. Something we don’t even understand ourselves; we only know it is vital when we make it. For whatever happens, we know this: art is also what will survive us.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

Science offers no clear definition of time, beyond its necessity as a mathematical variable in certain formulas and equations. The popular concept of time changed forever in the beginning of the 20th century when relativity was introduced; who knows what we’ll discover that changes our view of time in the future. Yet time is the dimension we seem to feel most acutely when we’re out of sync with it. And while its obviously a necessary feature of fiction, there’s a difference between fiction that uses time as a narrative necessity, and fiction that uses time as a creative element.

Time was a nearly constant feature in the stories of BASS 2022, showing up in different ways. Maybe it’s because many of these stories were written during COVID shutdowns, when time was both abundant and short: long days filled with Zoom, work-from-home, restless children, cancelled plans, and the interminable wait for something to improve via a vaccine, an election, a shipment of toilet paper. Or maybe I just became more aware of it right now, and noticed how frequently time showed up in these pages.

Multiple timelines blended together, or layered on top of each other, showing how past and future affect present. Or, time provided a mirror with which to view the past; in some cases, the story was about how that mirror could be distorted to yield a particular desired past, rather than reality. One story split apart time, and reality, into different streams, showing possibilities, yet returning to the core story at the end. And of course several stories showed how time changes our view of everything, past, present, and future. A teenager and a senior citizen have very different senses of those three concepts; part of that is directly related to where we are in our own personal timeline, and part is the process of learning from experience.

History-making via storytelling, another way of looking at time, was a central feature in several stories. The tales we tell about our pasts sometimes become codified into an imagined reality which is distorted by wishes and dreams, legends and lies. We think of written history as more accurate than oral versions, but any Biblical scholar can tell you errors can still creep in, embarrassing elements are edited out, and new material reflecting cultural changes are appended.

As always, family and relationships come front and center in many stories. Some of these have tragic overtones, others are familiar to all of us.

COVID appeared explicitly in only two stories, one a deliberate homage to a story written in the time of an older pandemic, and one as more of a setting. Other current events found their way into other stories featuring capitalism, immigration, and the rise of the authoritative right in several countries. Interestingly, humor played a part in that last group, casting a certain absurdity upon the efforts to control memory and history.

All of these themes combined in different ways in different stories. There were some very similar stories: two recounted the experience of trauma, with the time distortions that can cause; two described, with the help of a little magical realism and a touch of humor, contemporary issues with right-wing authoritarian governments trying to direct culture and history.

The sequence was interesting. Although stories are ordered alphabetically, limiting what can be done with how stories are ordered, there still seemed to be clusters: of trauma early on, then of more institutional crises later. I had a bit of a meltdown over what seemed a silly domestic realism story tucked among these institutional themes; it was hard to see that the story used time in a creative way, but eventually I got there.

Some stories didn’t catch my fancy at all. That’s inevitable; the purpose of BASS is to bring together a variety of fiction, so it’s unlikely each story will work for any individual person. What’s interesting is that stories set in contemporary Turkey and India, of which I have only the vaguest notion of current events, turned out to be my favorites; I had no trouble grasping what the narrators and protagonists were going through, enjoyed the satire and humor, and loved the touches of magical realism. Other stories, set in far more familiar places, passed me by. Two stories had me struggling, but I came to love them during that struggle. And I still seem to be susceptible to humor. And deus ex machina, or rather, deus ex aves.

[T]he power of good art, of excellent fiction to orient the reader toward what truly matters never fails to inspire me…. Reading these stories, I was reminded of the value of societal cohesion and kindness. We must take better care of each other.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword, BASS 2022

Good words to end with in this time. In all times.

BASS 2022: Bryan Washington, “Foster” from TNY, 06/14/21

For the last while, many of my running conversations with friends have revolved around the forms that a queer family can take. And it’s a question whose knots get exponentially sharper when we’re talking about queer folks of color. A lot of us didn’t grow up with accessible models for that…. The protagonist of this story and his boyfriend navigate similar questions – do we ever really let go of the relationships we’ve carried with us; what can be discovered if we abandon how we’ve “told to be” for who we actually wanted to become – and while neither of them finds an answer, I took a lot of solace in their realizing that this non-resolution was totally fine. And that their coupling doesn’t have to look like anything they’ve seen before. One of the tricks of this story was trying to delegate that epiphany into prose, which felt pretty impossible until the cat came along.

Bryan Washington, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I’ve spent a couple of days trying to figure out how to write about this story. It’s not that it’s complicated or difficult: it’s about a justifiably commitment-phobic guy trying to not louse up a pretty good relationship, told with backstory sprinkle throughout. It reads beautifully: a touch of humor, rampant symbols and nuance,  subtle progress, an ending that, to my great relief, feels cautiously optimistic. And a cat. I have a thing for cat stories. But I have a lot of questions. It’s hard to write about because you need to know everything all the time. It’s definitely a two-read story, even for a casual reader.

I made a list of things to mention. Maybe I’ll just go through the list, and assume you’ve read the story. But remember, though all this is packed in there, it’s about fear of losing someone important, told through the eyes of someone who’s never had anyone much to begin with.

The cat

He isn’t any kind of cat that I’ve ever seen. The paws look like something out of a storybook. And his fur shines an IKEA-bag blue. Some Googling tells me this means he’s a shorthair, maybe – but my older brother’s letter just called him a stray.
You have that in common, my brother wrote.
It’ll give you two something to talk about, he wrote.
So that’s what I think of him as: a fucking stray.
    *
A woman I can’t responsibly call my brother’s girlfriend dropped the cat off at my apartment in Montrose. Literally tossed him on the sidewalk. She didn’t wait for me to stumble outside before she drove off. There was a crumpled note, along with a food dispenser, and then this cat in his box.

I’m a little puzzled as to where the cat came from. We find out a little later that the brother has been in prison for three years. So the girlfriend has been taking care of it? And three of its siblings? And is just now finding homes for them? This doesn’t track for me, but I suppose, given other glimpses into the brother, it fits with his rather casual relationship with reality. It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but it starts the story, so it has significance.

And what’s the thing about responsibly calling the woman the brother’s girlfriend? I have no idea what that means. Is it slander to call her his girlfriend? It’s a little weird that it’s taken her three years to get rid of his cat, but I don’t get out much, maybe that’s how it goes when your boyfriend goes to prison.

On a micro level, there’s an ambiguous pronoun antecedent in the sentence “So that’s what I think of him as: a fucking stray.” Obviously this he should be the cat, but the most recent noun, in he wrote, was the brother. This technique crops up a few times. It could be by accident, but I don’t think so.

While it’s an engaging introduction, it’s also a little off-balance, so it sets a certain tone.

Names

So you’ve just been calling him Cat, Owen says.
Mr. Cat, I say. Excuse you.
Monsieur Chat, Owen says.
Herr Katze.
Señor Gato.
Cat-san.
Your big brother didn’t think to tell you his beloved’s title?
He can be a little careless, I say. But it doesn’t matter. This is temporary.
These cheeks aren’t temporary, Owen says, holding the cat in front of my face.
Don’t get attached, I say.
So Owen sighs, and the cat on his belly sighs, too.

Naming the cat takes up a lot of space. Eventually he’s named Taku, after a man the narrator (don’t worry, I’m getting there) spent considerable time with in Japan while on a research assignment. When the backstory is revealed – to the cat, not to Owen, who has stomped off after a fight – it’s not clear if the man was a lover, or even gay. What is clear is that he and the narrator were important to each other, and their sudden parting, an employment matter, was distressing to them both. That makes it an interesting choice for a name. Both a reminder of something akin to love, and a reminder of something akin to heartbreak.

More generally, nearly everyone who appears in the story has a name, even the minor characters:  the vet, the narrator’s coworker. Everyone except the narrator (see, I told you I’d get there), his brother, and the girlfriend. The narrator’s boss doesn’t have a name, but she’s only referred to, she doesn’t appear in the story. So we have this group of anonymous people. It’s not unusual for a first-person narrator to be unnamed – Jake and I even have that on our BASS Bingo Cards – but it seems to have significance here. Names create intimacy, indicate a personal relationship. Names create family. This is the family that lacks family.

Sex

Three times the narrator and Owen have sex; the first two times, they get it up but can’t finish it off (I hope I’m not being to indelicate). I wonder how unusual that is, for two men to have that problem at the same time. I’m pretty sure it’s a signal of general rather than sexual dysfunction.

The third time, after the coughing cat appears to be getting better, they manage to get the job done, at which point the protagonist turns a minor comment about keeping an eye on the cat into a big deal, bringing up Owen’s marriage and his family’s pressure to marry – a woman, that is – again. Improved sex can be scary to someone who isn’t sure he wants real intimacy.

This is where Owen takes off. He isn’t living there, so there’s no big departure, but it’s clear he’s pissed and leaving because of it. The narrator later tells his coworker he’s worried that he’s ruined “a good thing.”

Family

Calling us estranged gives our relationship more formality than I prefer – like most of my family, my brother and I simply don’t talk. And then, homicide. Every first of the month, I sent some cash from my shitty assistant’s stipend at the university. For months, I didn’t know if my brother actually received it.
Then, one time, I sent the money a few days late. My mom called to ask me what the fucking holdup was.

Family – or lack thereof – is one of the major touchstones in the story. There’s the brother he doesn’t talk to. The mother who only calls to ask why his check is late. But look at that closely: he doesn’t use the more distant “my mother,” but “my mom.” And he does send his brother money, even if they don’t talk. Then there are the letters he gets from his brother. The one about the cat was simply the latest; we don’t know what’s in the others.

What’s really interesting is that he answers the letters – sort of:

I put the letter in an envelope and stick the envelope in a book under the bed. Then I stick that book inside another, larger book, and shove it even farther back, against the wall, brushing up against every other letter I’ve never sent.

This is the same under-the-bed where the cat goes, where he can’t reach him: “My brother’s cat watches me straining, flexing my fingers toward his fur.” Remember that first ambiguous pronoun antecedent, where he could refer to the cat or the brother? They’re both there, under the bed, just out of reach. One deliberately put there; one takes refuge there. And for that matter, Owen is there, too, via another ambiguous pronoun.

Owen has dealt with the family thing head on; he declared, on their first date, that he’d never marry, having tried that with a woman, at the urging of his family. But Owen doesn’t rule out other types of attachment:

This was where I came in.
We’d form our own sort of family.
When Owen asked if I’d be up for that, at first I didn’t say much.
Then I said, fuck it. Why not.
    *
But here is the truth: sometimes family doesn’t last.
Owen knows this as well as I do.
If he can crash into my life, then he might, eventually, run out.
And I don’t need that.
It’s one thing to be alone, and another to be thrust back into loneliness.

The two of them are family-phobic, but Owen is open about wanting to try some kind of permanence. The narrator is not as sure; he’s rather flip about the idea, but underneath, you can see his fingers reaching for the fur hiding under the bed. Everything about him says “I want this” – Owen, his brother, the cat, all of it – but, like the sex that fizzles, he can’t bring it to a close, and when it all comes within reach, he sabotages it.

I have other smaller topics:

 The end of the story again features the brother who just isn’t capable of fulfilling the role of big brother, but might be able to be something else. I get into that all the time: maybe this relationship, be it friend or family, won’t give me exactly what I need or want, but maybe it’ll give me something that fills some small need, and I try to appreciate it for what it is, rather than resenting what it isn’t. that takes a kind of self-awareness our narrator might not yet have, but he’s getting there: he did mail the letters, and show other small signs of willingness.

There are small comments about race. Most satirically, since his Japanese research grant fell through, the narrator works at the university as an assistant to a white lady who tours with her book on ending racism. He and his coworker clean the office. Not literally, of course, but they process her receipts and do her paperwork. Thing is, there’s some truth to the idea that it’s white people who need to act to end racism, but it’s that fine line between alliance and appropriation.

Greer’s Introduction included a comment I took exception to:

The dialogue is told without quotation marks, a choice that creates a distance for the reader (quotation marks make reading dialogue “easy,” which is why you always see them in juicy airport novels).

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

First, I got a bit peeved at the elitist attitude towards “airport novels” and the association with quotation marks. David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy more or less turned quote-less prose into a thing, so I guess the association with highbrow literary fiction is somewhat warranted, but plenty of literary novels still use quotation marks.

Then I was surprised that he finds quotation marks easier. I’ve read just the opposite. I’ve also read that they clutter up a page visually, especially when there are a lot of short dialog lines, which there are in this story.

When I look at the physical page in BASS (I have no idea what it looked like in TNY), I see all these short lines resembling poetry. I thought at first they were poetic inserts into the prose, but no, they’re short paragraphs, brief lines of dialog, without quotation marks; it just looks like poetry. Given Washington’s comment about translating an epiphany into prose, I have to wonder if the physical layout is deliberate. At the very least, it’s consonant. I was doubly surprised to find this quote-less approach as imitating poetry backed up by an article in The Millions.

I like this story more and more each time I read it. So many ideas cross-reference themselves throughout the piece – family, distance, reaching, caretaking, intimacy, silence, communication – yet it isn’t confusing to read. What might seem a casual sentence takes deeper significance later, and often later again, as we cycle through different layers. It struck me as a spiral structure: we read about the present, then go back to the brother, then to the present again, retrace the earlier relationship with Owen,  then about the brother again, adding more to the picture each time. A spiral ends at the center: that makes the brother the center, maybe the genesis of the narrator’s fear of attachment. But we get there after he mails the letters, so can appreciate his attempt to reestablish contact, to try again.

It’s also a nice piece with which to end the volume. No one at BASS would’ve known this at the time the volume was put together, but right now cautious optimism feels like a good way to go forward. Maybe they did know it; or maybe they just hoped really hard.

*  *  *      

  • In his post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber makes a brilliant and well-supported connection between this story and… well, no, that would be a spoiler, go ahead and read it for yourself.
  • Jonathan Russell Clark wrote about quotation marks, and the lack thereof, at The Millions.

BASS 2022: Meghan Louise Wagner, “Elephant Seals” from Agni #93

Agni art by Deepa JayaramanAscending Sparks
Part of the joy of storytelling is the variety of storytelling. I wanted to point out and celebrate that variety.
Which leads me to innovations in storytelling beyond language: how the story is told. This all seems effortless to readers – and it is meant to be so. But imagine sitting before a blank piece of paper with the universe of possibilities before you – shall I tell it in first person? From the future? Looking into the future? The point of view of a bystander? A dog? In reverse? – and you almost want to give up. In fact, I suspect, many of these writers did give up. And then, one day (perhaps reading a beloved author or, secret of the trade, a poet) they found the way into the story. The way into the story; I mean those myriad choices writers make, sometimes without thinking, sometimes finding the right way by chance or experience but more often finding by trial and error. Consider, for instance, Megan Louise Wagner’s “Elephant Seals,” in which the initial story is rewritten over and over, variations on the theme, until every possible branch is laid out before us.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

My blogging buddy Jake Weber and I have different approaches to reading these stories and writing our posts about them. One of the biggest differences between our approaches is that Jake, an MFA-trained published writer, adheres to the critic’s classic “The story must stand on its own” requirement. I, on the other hand, just an old lady who reads a lot, sketch out some notes and ideas after reading, but then look for everything I can find about a story, form and content, before finalizing a post. That includes, in the case of BASS, the contributor notes in the back of the volume.

My first reading of this story left me annoyed. It seemed a pastiche of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings.” The difference, I felt, was that Atwood’s more successful story a) hammered home “John and Mary die” as the authentic ending, b) included a reference to plot-making (in fact, it’s almost a writer’s guide to plot), and c) at about four pages, is short enough to offer several variations without becoming tedious. Wagner’s story, on the other hand, just seemed like a collection of “in some other version” stories, most of them interesting in their own right, but adding up to elephant seals for some reason.

This annoyance immediately turned around when I read Wagner’s Contributor Note. Her account of writing the story showed a very different purpose from what I imagined Atwood’s was: the different versions were versions of the complete story, rewritten in different ways, put away, and written again to incorporate her recovery from alcoholism. Then, during the pandemic, the multiple stories crystalized into a single idea:

I spent a lot of time taking long, meandering walks. I must have written five or six different versions of “Elephant Seals” in those weeks – some from Paul’s point of view, some from Diana’s, some from Helen’s. I couldn’t get any one version right. I worried it was too big for a single story.
On one of these walks, I passed a few of my old haunts. They were all closed for the pandemic and my memories began to feel like trips through alternate realities. A different version of me used to drink at this bar. Another version of me got kicked out of that club. Another version of me was here, stuck.
I walked home and knocked out the first draft in about a day. But in the following months of revisions, I finally came to understand something about those characters that I couldn’t when I was still drinking. Recovery isn’t always about redemption.

Meghan Louise Wagner, Contributor Note, BASS 2022

I was then able to see the story, not as an exercise in storywriting, but as a very personal account of her own different versions, drunk and sober, active and recovered, before and after learning certain lessons. This opened the story for me, in a way similar to Greer’s reference to a writer finding a way in, except I was the reader finding the way in. I’d been too focused on the back door, when the front door was waiting for me all along.

The story opens with a specific version…  

Most versions of Paul and Diana stop to see the elephant seals. It’s Paul’s idea. He’s read about them, and even though the beach is out of the way, he wants to see them in the flesh. It’s 1969. Diana holds a Polaroid camera, ready to snap pictures of the creatures who, according to Paul, remain for years without anybody telling them what to do.
“Is it like a zoo?” she asks.
“No,” he says, “they just live there.”
On the drive, they pass green hills spotted with cows and horses. In the distance sits Hearst Castle. Paul says it was built by a millionaire to keep his mistress happy. Diana rolls her eyes and says, “I’ve seen Citizen Kane.” Diana is four months pregnant and wants to stop because she’s worried about a cramp that won’t go away. Paul wants to keep driving. When else will they get the chance? Diana, who isn’t even sure the seals exist, yells at him every time he misses a turn for a local hospital.
Finally Paul takes her to a clinic. An old doctor says it’s just the kind of nerves that young women get in their first pregnancies. He hands Paul an ice pack and Paul gives it to Diana.
From the parking lot, she can smell the ocean. She tosses the ice pack in the backseat and says, “Can we just go to my cousin’s now?”

… and then goes on to play with that version. We roll over into a version where Paul and Diana are working in Vegas with Paul’s twin sister Helen, and play that out several times. That leads to several backstory versions: Paul and Helen grow up in Cleveland, where a crossword puzzle game determines life or death in various combinations, and may or may not include Diana or Las Vegas, where Helen meets Hank, who may or may not play a further role, to Paul and Diana’s son, their various long term prospects in view of Paul’s alcoholism… you get the idea. While we don’t get to dwell in any one scenario long enough to get comfortable, they’re all prospectively interesting on their own.

The final version finds a much older Paul, long divorced from Diana and firmly in recovery with Linda, also driving by Hearst Castle to his nephew’s wedding.

He says,“Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we’d meant twenty, thirty years ago?”
“We’d have eaten each other alive,” Linda says, squeezing his hand.

This feels to me like the climax of the piece. It’s exactly right: an inverted version of If I’d known then what I know now. Linda and her sister reconcile from whatever past chaos separated them; Paul considers contacting Diana, but doesn’t. They both know what it was to eat someone alive, and know how lucky they are that they are now different. Different versions of themselves, not by jumping into another plot, but by experience and time, which always teach if we’d only listen. Let’s go back to finish Wagner’s Contributor Note:

There are some doors that will always stay closed. Some places you can never return to. Some people who will never let you back into their lives. But they still live in your bones. And they creak when you move.

Meghan Louise Wagner, Contributor Note, BASS 2022

I’ve got a few of those. And, there are a few people I never let back into my life as well.

Our final view of Paul ends with him finally seeing the elephant seals on the beach:

A couple of hundred elephant seals lounge on the shore. Others wiggle towards the water. From high up, he’s still close enough to make out their crooked snouts, their reptilian eyes, their goofy grins. He doesn’t need the informational signs that line the fence. He knows all about them.
They travel between eleven and thirteen thousand miles each migration cycle…. They go out in the world and explore, but they always return to the same spots, the same features, year after year. They don’t forget where they came from. They don’t forget where they really live.

Here I thought about one of the approaches that came up in that Short Story Reading Group I took earlier this fall: Who’s story is it? The story runs through a lot of characters – Paul, Helen, Diana, Hank, Liam, Linda – and through different choices they all make, different relationships and outcomes. The overall story begins and ends with Paul; he’s in all the vignettes or at least in more than anyone else. I see it as Paul’s story.

Then we have the destinies. The story repeats, over and over, “in another version” or “in most versions” or “in almost all versions” or, more rarely, “in all versions.”  Some examples:

There are many versions in which both Helen and Paul survive the robbery, yet their parents never do.
The versions where the twins end up in Las Vegas, Paul always falls in love with Diana…
in almost every version, the heel of Helen’s left pump snaps off one night as she rushes through the lobby of the casino on her way to the late shift…. an older man offers his hand.
In versions where Paul sobers up, he goes to culinary school…. in the versions where Paul doesn’t sober up, he doesn’t have these kinds of problems.
In versions where Diana doesn’t say anything to Paul about his drinking, they always go to California. In the end, Paul always leaves.
In almost every version, Hank dies when Helen is not quite sixty.

These seem like conditional destinies, with the exception of what happens if Paul stops drinking or doesn’t. Given the story’s origin, I find that an interesting detail, and it fits with this being Paul’s story.

There’s another clue: his sister Helen, after Hank dies, goes on a cruise where another passenger shouts out a crossword puzzle clue: “The man in black.” Given how crossword puzzles are associated with the death of her parents, it’s not surprising she answers, “Grim reaper.” It is, however, wrong. “In another version, she gets it right.” This forms a transition to the final vignette, starting with Paul and Helen at the wedding, that begins, “There’s only one version in which Paul gets it right.” I love that almost-zeugma, changing the referent of “it” from a crossword puzzle clue, so entrenched with meaning to Paul and Helen, to Paul’s mature life, where he no longer lectures and corrects, accepts that he can’t go backwards, and finally gets his reward on the beach: he sees the seals.

This turned out to be a much more complicated story than I thought at first. Look at the different versions: what pushed things in that particular direction? It isn’t fate, in most cases, but a choice, an action by one of the characters. In the Cincinnati vignette, Paul’s cheating on the crossword got him killed; Helen’s cheating didn’t get her killed, but it was Paul who actually saved her. Sometimes the choice isn’t spelled out: when Helen brings a bottle of wine to Paul’s house, he’s upset, but does he throw it out, serve it to her, drink it? We never know. Did she bring it out of ignorance, or as a subtle test – or, worse, as a destructive impulse?

It’s also totally different from the Atwood story; I  doubt I would have realized this had I not cheated and read the Contributor Note. The flaw was not in the story, but in the reader; I’m still working on developing the reading skill and patience to understand things like this without looking at the answers in the back of the book. Whereas Atwood was using a story to write about storytelling, Wagner uses her experience of storytelling, the trial-and-error multiple versions writing she’d done, to write a story about recovery. But it could apply to pretty much anyone who’s screwed up the early part of their life and finally finds the version where they get it right. While it would certainly be preferable to get it right when we’re young, that any of us find that version at all is a minor miracle. 

 * * *      

  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic mentions Atwood but moves on to a very astute observation about versions – versions of what? – with a little play on multiverses.

BASS 2022: Héctor Tobar, “The Sins of Others” from Zyzzyva #120

For the longest time, I had been wanting to write a story about immigration detention…. But how to approach such a story? One day, as I was taking a long walk through my Los Angeles neighborhood, I noticed a small graffito repeated on the sidewalk again and again: Weedwolf. I imagined a Mexican immigrant in his holding cell, contemplating the lawlessness and decay he had seen in the United States. He realizes he is being punished for breaking a rule – by a nation of rampant rule-breakers. But the two or three times I tried to actually write the story, it came out too maudlin and too bitter to be interesting.
Some months or years later, I was driving cross-country, alone, listening to a wonderful audio book reading of The Trial. It occurred to me that I could write my detention story as the tale of a man caught up in a bizarre quasi-legal system, à la Kafka. I soon came up with a suitably weird and disturbing premise: a law allowing U.S. citizens to choose immigrants to serve their prison sentences. With that, the story just took off. I was aided, in large measure, by the real- world surrealism of the immigration “justice” system.

Héctor Tobar, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

One of the many useful approaches to short stories I discovered in the recent Reading Group I took through the Catherine Project was in regard to expectations. How does the author set up expectations? Are they met, or thwarted? What effect does this produce? In the Group, Prof. Piper referred to this as canonicity and breach, briefly explained as something expected doesn’t happen. It turns out it’s a far more complicated concept outlined by psychologist Jerome Bruner; it’s something I want to look into and understand better. But for now, I’ll focus on this simplification: “[w]hen conventional expectation is breached, Trouble ensues. And it is Trouble that provides the engine of drama.”

This story breaches expectations both within the story, and in a meta-sense. That’s a lot of engine, and it left me a bit off-balance, unsure of exactly what was happening even though it’s all pretty clear.

Let’s take it from the top:

Juan H. woke up one Saturday morning with two strange men standing over his bed. One was wearing a loose-fitting navy-colored vest labeled “ICE”: his purpose was clear enough. But the other guy was in jeans smudged with grease stains. A workingman, “Karl,” according to the oval patch on his shirt. There was something disheveled about both of them. As if they, and not him, had just been roused from their slumbers.
The agent held a piece of paper before Juan, and gestured for him to stand up. When Juan moved to take the paper, the agent pulled it back.
“I’d like to be out of here by seven thirty, if you don’t mind,” the agent said.

First meta-expectation: the first sentence bears a vague similarity to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Instead of a transformation into an insect, there’s a bizarre situation facing Juan. Who is Karl and why is he there? Why is the agent blaming him for some delay? Why are the two strangers disheveled? The expectation of weirdness is met.

Second meta-expectation: the combination of ICE and a Latino can’t be good. Another met expectation, though not in exactly the way expected.

The agent was a lean man with the gray and brittle sheen of a lifelong smoker, and a nicotine patch on his neck. He looked around the room, and the orderliness he saw seemed to unsettle him: a hardwood floor, and pictures of Juan and his family members on a dresser, a humidifier, purring steadily, and nothing else. There was something Spartan, or Scandinavian about this space. Not a single article of clothing was tossed about.

Third meta-expectation: Juan was the initial point of view character, and we more or less expect it to stay that way. But now we’ve head-hopped to the ICE agent as POV character. It’s not that unusual, but it’s a bit unexpected.

First story expectation: The agent was expecting a messy room for some reason. His expectation has been thwarted. His association with a Scandinavian space might be influenced by the presence of Karl, who has a vaguely Scandinavian first name.

“You think this is easy for me?” the agent said. “I’ve got a wife and kid. They see me leave with my gun, my taser, my handcuffs at five in the morning. They wonder what their father does.”
Juan climbed out of bed, and as he did so the officer approached, took him by the arm, turned him so that he was facing Karl, and prepared to wrap plastic ties around Juan’s wrists.

Second story expectation: Juan is the one who should be complaining, but it seems the ICE officer thinks it’s all about him.

Third story expectation: Juan is being detained as an undocumented alien. This will be partially violated.

The officer watched Juan take some pants and a shirt from his dresser and said, “We feel terrible about what Karl did.”
“I do too,” Karl said.
“But the law’s the law.”

Meta-expectation whatever: When a character says “we” it typically has an antecedent or is clear from the context who is included. Here, there’s no indication, particularly since Karl seems to assume he is not included in the “we” and admits his own regret.

Meta-expectation whatever: When a person does something against the law, he is punished. So why is Juan being arrested if Karl, who he doesn’t know, did something illegal?

Juan considered himself an informed person. He had read stories about the Replacement Law. But up to this moment they were like folk tales, or dispatches from another country, because the substance of the Replacement Law was strange, mean, and, in its own way, childish.

Another meta-explanation: Ok, it’s supposed to be strange, and now we’re going to get some idea of what’s going on. Yes to the first; no to the latter.

Meta expectation: Oh, we’re dealing with the Great Replacement Theory, a favorite of white supremacists (and, in disguised form, used by the politicians who want their votes) who feel non-white people are deliberately being brought into the US to remove white people from power, to promote a kind of white genocide by replacement. Um, no, not exactly what’s going on here.

This is roughly the first page of the story, and by now, I had no idea what was going on. But this last paragraph gave me hope that I’d soon find out. And I did, but in dribs and drabs, by inference more than by direct explanation.

It seems in this alternate US, citizens can escape punishment for their crimes by designating a non-citizen to take the punishment for them, go to jail in their stead. So it’s not Great Replacement Theory at all; it’s almost the opposite, but based on the same racism. One meta-expectation violated.

Karl has just tried to murder his wife by running her over. He remembers Juan from an auto shop where they both worked some time ago, and has named Juan as his Replacement. This meets story expectations, but violates a second, and major, meta-expectation. Justice has become injustice.

Juan’s detention seems quite haphazard; after all, these detainees aren’t criminals. The legal process he goes through is as bizarre as you might expect. Eventually he’s cleared, since Karl’s wife wants to drop the charges. “Your continued parole from detention is conditional on the good behavior of the Accused,” he’s told on official government letterhead. Now there’s a violated meta-expectation for you: as long as Karl is law-abiding, Juan can remain free, but should Karl re-offend, Juan’s still on the hook.

Two guesses what happens, and the first doesn’t count. But things have a way of working out, and Juan is eventually free and clear. Unless, of course, someone else names him as their Replacement.

If Tobar’s intention was to inflame the reader’s sense of justice on behalf of immigrants, even those who found their way here without legal papers, he’s done a great job. I was ready to tear the story out of the book and burn it.

But there’s an odd coda: Juan, on long walks through his neighborhood, sees a lot of graffiti reading “Weedwolf.”

The Weedwolf probably lived in this neighborhood, and he might know Juan, or know of him. People talked about Juan H.’s case, he sensed this. For decades he’d belonged to the category “Unauthorized Alien,” and now his neighbors knew the government had classified him into the subcategory “Nominated Alien Inmate Second.” Each time he took a walk, he saw the name Weedwolf, and after a while he imagined the Weedwolf as a bearded man of about his own age, a trickster with ivory teeth, a man who didn’t give a shit. He felt the eyes of Weedwolf gazing upon him, surreptitiously. The tortured, slanted writing of the graffito suggested mental illness, and Juan wondered how much longer would pass before the police arrested Weedwolf and chose Juan to serve his detention.

This, then, is the life of the law-abiding Juan. He’s been in the US for twenty-four years, has earned a good living, put a son through college. But his very freedom hinges on some ghoul named Weedwolf not naming him as a Replacement.

Immigration is, of course, a complicated subject. But by violating not only expectations within the story to create a sense of instability, but meta-expectations we have as a society to create a sense of injustice, Tobar has immersed the reader in an experience they otherwise would not understand, the precarious nature of everyday life for the Juans in this country.

 * * *           

  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic has a particularly interesting view of Weedwolf.
  • A very brief outline of Jerome Bruner’s theory of canonicity and breach can be found online.

BASS 2022: Sanjena Sathian, “Mr. Ashok’s Monument” from Conjunctions #76

India is still shaking off the shame, injury, infuriating indignity, and pillage of British colonialism. I found some aspects of the quest to create a post-colonial identity moving – proof that we can remake a national identity through acts of imagination. But another part of the construction of India’s new post-colonial identity is dark. The Conservative government hawks a false picture of the country, painting it not as a pluralist society but as a rightfully Hindu nation. This has resulted in the persecution of minorities – and in a fabrication of a new, fantastical history….
History exerts a powerful pull on me, like many people whose origins are in formerly colonized nations. “Mr. Ashok’s Monument” is about the complicity of that pull – its seductions, its dangers, and its myriad mysteries.

Sanjena Sathian, Contributor Note, BASS 2022

If your academic experience was anything like mine, in high school you viewed history as names, dates, wars, kings, presidents, and other boring stuff to memorize. For those of us who were lucky to find better history classes or books in college and beyond, history became something else: a way of understanding the past, based on evidence from dependable sources; the process of developing an understanding of cause and effect; and a realization that history is not only written by the victors, it’s written by the people who control printing presses, textbooks, and internet sources. History depends on who’s doing the telling.

It also depends on when the telling is happening. History changes, for perfectly good reasons. New documents or artefacts are discovered: a bunch of scrolls in a desert cave no one ever bothered to look in before; a manuscript page bound as scrap into another book (or a hat, or a lampshade). New technologies become available: the original writings of palimpsests are suddenly readable by UV, the scrolls covered by Vesuvius’s ash for two thousand years can be digitally unrolled. New voices enter the arena and previously ignored histories achieve more prominence: Africa and Latin America had cultures and, in many places, writing systems, before Europeans came along and decided they weren’t worth preserving. Old attitudes become less certain. There are those who don’t like such changes, who feel it threatens their place in the world, and those who push for such changes to the historical record on little evidence, to reclaim a legendary past.

This story takes place in a slightly alternate India where ancient history, preserved in myths and religion, are being presented as fact, where feeling good about India is more important than historical accuracy.

The summer of 20—, when all this strangeness struck, was a hectic season in New Delhi. It was particularly busy in the Department of Symbolic Meaning, which is situated in the Ministry of Culture, National Identity, and Historical Interpretation. That year I was serving as Undersecretary of Historical Records, working beneath a Symbolic Meaning official named Mr. Satya Mishra, whose first name means Truth. Mishra-Sir, as we knew him, had not been in the office much of late, as he had been traveling the country in order to improve public confidence in the nation’s ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY). Mishra-Sir had on his person at most times a number of ITIHAS-Preservation Campaign pamphlets, which he distributed wherever he went. The pamphlets, translated into regional languages, read something like: IS IT TRUE THAT OUR ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY) IS IN DANGER? and included instructions on WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN UNPRESERVED/DAMAGED/ AT-RISK ELEMENT OF ITIHAS (GLORIOUS HISTORY)….
If anything sells in our nation, it is a story of heroes, and of history.

Our narrator is unnamed (at least, I think so; I went through the text carefully looking for his name but didn’t find it. Please tell me if I missed it). He himself admits, “I am not a famous man. I am merely a record keeper, one of many bureaucratic stewards of ITIHAS.” The story he tells is of another formerly ordinary man, Mr. Ashok Jagtap, who undergoes an extraordinary change: he turns to stone.

Caution: extensive spoilers ahead. The story is available online; I highly recommend reading it, as the pacing is excellent and preserves a kind of tension even when it’s evident where things are going.

Mr. Ashok (who is referred to by several variations that seem to have significance; I’m not familiar with the naming conventions in use, so I’ll just call him Mr. Ashok, following the lead of the story title) is an English-language guide at the sacred temples and caves at Ellora. If you’re not familiar with these caves, I urge you to use the link below to see them; I became aware of them through that mooc on the history of architecture I referred to a few stories ago (the course that keeps on giving), and they’re astounding: the side of a mountain carved top down into temples and shrines intricately decorated inside and out.

Our narrator tells of Mr. Ashok’s transformation, and of the government reaction: he is declared a monument, and placed within a fence to protect him from damage. He wants to continue working but that is denied him. He eventually escapes his enclosure, and places himself in the arms of his favorite statue, a questionable image of Shiva’s consort, Parvati. It’s rumored that this particular rendition of the goddess is actually the wife of the sculptor. But she is Mr. Ashok’s favorite, and it is into her that he blends, stone on stone.

When I crept into the caves that morning, searching for evidence of Mr. Ashok’s final moments, I found that three-armed Parvati at the very edge of the cave. She appeared unfinished. Something protruded from the rock, overlaying her. Her chest was obscured by the inchoate shape of Mr. Ashok’s body covering hers. Morning light fell around me, illumining her inscrutable expression. Like candle flickers, a pattern of curses and prayers and questions. I felt I knew nothing, knew absolutely nothing of that pattern of the past, of flesh and stone, of how our history is one moment living, and the next, preserved.

So why am I revealing the end of the story, the whole point about living people being subsumed into rock as a metaphor for what the government is doing to the history of India? Because, while this is an important point and beautifully executed, it is not the whole story.

Our nameless narrator could be considered an observer narrator. He functions to tell us about the government office that is in charge of rewriting India’s history in a more positive light, a story Mr. Ashok wouldn’t have access to, and he knows Mr. Ashok’s actions and thoughts as he went through his metamorphosis, because he studied him to see if he was a suitable candidate for monument-hood. For most of the story, when talking about Mr. Ashok and, to some degree, about his boss Mishra-sir, he reads as an omniscient third-person narrator might read.

But we get a peek at his own thoughts when we discover a tragedy in his past, and his view of his role as Undersecretary of Historical Records in the Ministry of Culture, National Identity, and Historical Interpretation:

This was something you came to understand if you were, as I was, servant to history as much as government. That no matter how much you grasp the events that propelled us from then to now, there are always more questions than answers. What did Gandhi feel in the moments before his life ended; how did Jinnah sleep on the night of August 14? What brought Tagore his poems, or Aurobindo to his meditation cell? And earlier, where did the Upanishads come from?—for there was God in them, but there was also the world.
These were thoughts I managed carefully, especially in the moment of the narrative patriotism polygraphs, and while at work, but suddenly, looking up at this poor Mr. Ashok and his transformation, which we had arrived to make sense of, I felt transmogrified in my own way, trapped in all I would not be able to answer for Mishra-Sir.
But this is not my story.

Maybe it’s my own obstinacy, but the minute someone tells me something isn’t, I wonder if that means it is. Add to this the short story reading group I just completed, where one of the approaches we used was to ask the question, “Whose story is it?”, and to be willing to overlook the obvious in favor of a subtler approach. He’s not an observer narrator; he’s a protagonist.

Then there was the word “complicit” in Sathian’s Contributor Note. It’s easy to focus on the dramatic events happening to Mr. Ashok, the title character for that matter, and miss the story of the historian who is complicit in the government’s rewriting of history for political purposes. Our narrator is telling the story, after all. Why is he telling it? What if it’s his story, told out of guilt for his role in the demise of Mr. Ashok? History, after all, depends on who’s doing the telling, and the narrator is doing the telling here.

And if you think this sort of thing only happens in places like India, check out the laws being passed in some states limiting discussion of race and slavery in US classrooms.

We seem to be continuing with a cluster of stories highlighting the dangers of institutions run amok, usually with a touch of magical realism and/or humor. I enjoyed this one, maybe because it’s focused on an ordinary man who doesn’t quite understand the extraordinary thing that’s happening to him, maybe because I learned a few things along the way. And maybe because there’s an interesting narrative twist to it. I just love a good narrative twist.

 * * *         

  • The story can be read online at Conjunctions.
  • In his post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber looks at the limitations of reading a story like this one that contains so many elements of a culture the US reader may not be familiar with.
  • The Ellora Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

BASS 2022: Karen Russell, “The Ghost Birds” from TNY, Oct. 4, 2021

Swiftwatch Art by Susan Cornelis
On the day “The Ghost Birds” was published, the ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct. For years it had been a rumor in the deep swamp, “at the edge of existence”; now a formal obituary had been issued by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although this story is set in the future, in many ways I felt like I was writing about our high-stakes present moment on a planet already haunted by the finality of extinction…. One reason I love reading and writing speculative fiction is that it reveals other modes of being, and reminds me that the darkest outcomes are not fixed.

Karen Russell, Contributor Note BASS 2022

The heart of this story is lovely: in a future where birds have all gone extinct, a small group of people devote themselves to tracking ghost birds:

People assume that to haunt means to stay rooted to one coordinate, like a star in heaven, or a murdered gangster pacing around his last Chicago hotel room. But, if there is one myth the ghost birds have exposed, it’s that death means stasis. The flocks we track continue to cross oceans and continents, and the Paranormal Birding Society has been collecting fresh data on their distribution patterns, undead coloration, and evolving calls and songs.
Paranormal Birding Society sounds awfully official for what amounts to a rumor mill of several hundred people in four hemispheres….
Gradually, as people accepted that birds were gone for good, the Paranormal Birding Society took flight. But so many questions remain. The most profound of these is the one a child would ask: why are the ghosts still here with us?

The question I’m left with is nowhere near as profound as the one Jasper suggests, and is unavoidably a bit snide though I don’t want it to be: Are these people crackpots, or visionaries? It’s always so hard to tell. If we see the ghost birds as metaphorical memories, or regret, or resistance, or even as Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe,” maybe that helps.

That generates another question:  does it matter if they’re crazy or if they’re on to something? Wars have been fought over which vision of the Divine is the correct one, sometimes splitting very delicate hairs, and every one of those wars was fought on the strength of belief rather than fact. Belief in something one sees as crucial is a powerful thing.

This core story begins when Jasper takes his daughter, Starling, on an illegal mission to trace the ghosts of the extinct Vaux’s Swifts that still haunt the remains of what was once a school in the former state of Oregon. Ore-gone, as he notes. His ex-wife isn’t crazy about the idea, much as she was never crazy about his ghost-birding all along, but has somehow decided not to forbid it. The heart of the story focuses on why this trip is so important to Jasper, what he wants to pass on to his daughter: “openness to revelation. Which is another way of saying, to being wrong about what is possible and true.”

I sense maybe Russell hopes to get the reader to aspire to that attitude as well.

The trip does not go smoothly; there’s a crisis, which is resolved by either a deathbed hallucination, or a miracle of the birds. If we choose to enter into the spirit of the story, we will know the answer to Jasper’s profound question of why the ghost birds are still here: in a mirror image of an incident from years before, when the birds were found roosting in the school chimney and the students decided to wear coats to class rather than fire up the furnace that would kill them, they are here to save us, one at a time, if that is all we will permit.  

Now, here’s the problem: all this lovely, evocative father-daughter bonding, this faith-based mission, this desire to instill a sense of past and future hope in the next generation, is only about half of the story. The rest is… in the way.

That isn’t to say I’m opposed to looking at the details of the ecological catastrophe, or the capitalist greed that survives to skim off what remains (anyone want to own a slice of sky?), or the repressive tactics turning exploration into criminal activity. I’m just opposed to it taking up so much space and diffusing energy in this story.

I think Russell wanted to write an ecological essay, but because she’s a fiction writer, she had to create a world instead. That’s fine; it worked in her tornado story a few years ago, but for me it doesn’t work here. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve been reading a bunch of evil government stories in a row, like when we started this volume with all those trauma stories. Maybe it’s that the father-daughter thing is really beautiful and I resent my attention being diverted to harsher issues. Maybe it’s that this is crying out to be a novel instead of a short story.

And maybe it’s because I’m really annoyed that Russell missed a golden opportunity.

Children wake up to the knowledge that they have missed almost everything – millennia of life on earth, and the blank blooming that preceded us. All children are haunted, I’m sure, by the irretrievably lost worlds behind them. My generation felt this vertigo keenly. By the time I was born, half of the world’s ten thousand species of birds had gone extinct.

Thing is, birds are dinosaurs. No, I’m not crazy, they are, look it up. When we refer to the mass extinction 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, we might more accurately term them the non-avian dinosaurs, as the avian varieties survived and their descendants are still with us. If you’re going to talk about lost worlds, past mass extinctions, and the threat of another one, is a great place to go, and birds are the link, birds that survived one mass extinction but have now been defeated in the Anthropocene period. And, by the way, one of the results of the dinosaur mass extinction was the emergence of mammals, leading to… us. So this would have also provided an interesting path towards looking at what comes next: maybe that’s why the ghost birds are hanging around, to find out, to re-animate?

(Come on, kids, start your own reading blog, you too can rewrite Karen Russell, Pulitzer Prize finalist, McArthur “Genius” grant recipient, habitué of The New Yorker, BASS, and Pushcart, on the strength of… having once, ten years ago, had a piece on Wigleaf’s longlist of 200 online flashes. Second-guessing the year’s best stories is like playing Jeopardy! in your living room, or the literary version of Monday morning quarterbacking. It’s great fun.)

I learned one fascinating thing from this story: the Portland, Oregon elementary school with the Vaux’s swifts roosting in the chimney is a real thing. Every September, people flock at sunset to the Chapman Elementary School for Swift Watch, the return of the birds to the chimney for the night. I wonder if they know about this story. I wonder if they make decisions, in their daily lives and their polling places, to prevent it from becoming real.

* * *

  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic outlines similar concerns about the story, though he’s a bit more outspoken about his disbelief in ghosts.
  • The Portland, Oregon Audubon Society website describes Swift Watch.

BASS 2022: Kenan Orhan, “The Beyoğlu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra” from The Paris Review #237

[T]he title itself reveals the absurdity we are about to encounter, the absurdity of authoritarian regimes, of arbitrary violence, of cultural repression…. It is a masterpiece, both roaringly funny and deadly serious. We know these horrors are happening right now. We live in a time of death and repression, of war and bigotry. Orhan’s story captures it all with intelligence and, magnificently, laughter.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

A few weeks ago, after reading Kevin Moffett’s “Bears Among the Living,” my blogging buddy Jake Weber tweeted, “Holy balls, this story was good.” I’ve decided to steal his phraseology and give my own Holy Balls award to this story. Maybe it’s the music; I tend to be somewhat content-focused, and music and art are my sweet spots. But it’s also the absurdist humor that never lets you forget that it’s only a few steps away from reality.

We start off with an anecdote the veteran trash collectors tell Fatima on her first day of work: Selim hoarded too much stuff he took from the trash, leading to his death under the collapse of his house under the weight of it all. “And you are doubly at risk,” they tell her, “because a woman hoards more than a man.”

This led to my first question about the story: Why did Orhan make his protagonist a woman? Where is her gender pertinent:

A day became a week, became a month, became a year, as it happens. Mehmet and Hamdi made me go down the thinnest alleys of Beyoğlu because they had round bellies they couldn’t squeeze between the buildings, and they laughed at themselves so that their laughter accentuated their jiggling bellies. They gave me a slender handcart to navigate and said, So long, we’ll see you at the end of the maze.
I went down the alleys because I was the thinnest, but it’s not hard to be the thinnest garbageman when you’re a woman. My small handcart scraped its sides against brick and stucco and stone—sometimes my shoulders, too, would scrape the walls, and I worried that over time I might erode a small, Fatima-shaped tunnel into the alley, or worse, that the alley would grind me down into a rectangle.

That Fatima-shaped tunnel is an interesting phrase. It’s the only reference to her name, and, to be honest, it wasn’t until I read Jake’s post on the story that I realized it was her name. Then there’s the major question of whether she will carve the alleyway in her image, or whether it will carve her into its shape.

But wait, we were asking, why did Orhan write the protagonist as a woman?

I find it interesting that she refers to herself as a garbageman, several times in fact, and is referred to that way by others. Is this a subtle way to show how language has become separated from reality? Or is it just too damn hard to say “garbagewoman” or “garbage collector” for the sake of one woman? Hey, I came of age back in the late 60s and early 70s when “Ms.” was considered an insanely difficult societal disruption, and, having survived that, have now lived long enough to find pronouns are impossibly hard for some to navigate, so calling a woman a man is just another round.

In any case, the supposed increase of the female hoarding tendency allows her to be the mechanism by which the story occurs. After all, her colleagues warn her:

“Garbagemen, for who knows why, make up myths and tales more readily than any other profession. Still, it is not good to take from the trash. Once you start, there’s no stopping. Eventually you’ll find yourself buried under it.”

This also allows the story to exist in a framework of reality: it’s a myth of the garbageman who was a woman who found an attic above her closet-sized apartment and began to store items rescued from the trash – a violin, a composer, a violinist – until discarded things and people started just appearing. The attic seemed to expand to hold it all, remaining silent from the outside even as the orchestra played. The intensification of this process is pitch perfect, creating a compelling sequence as exciting as a chase scene. But don’t think that’s all there is to the story.

One morning, I showed Mehmet the latest violin from the composer’s trash. He told me the city’s orchestras and philharmonics had been ordered to compose and perform with uniquely Turkish instruments. “Every day it’s something new stolen away from us,” he said. I thought he was being dramatic but I remembered now a few things—tampons, waffle makers, coconuts—and then just as quickly reforgot them. As we rode along the Golden Horn toward the dump, we passed at the shore a building that had not been there yesterday. They must have thrown it up overnight, or else when my back was turned. Enormous, gray concrete reached from the water to the sky.

The discarded items aren’t just things people decided to throw away: they are items banned by the government. Not discarded, but stolen; not just missing, but forgotten. Does that not rob us of our past? And at the same time, a huge edifice arises out of nowhere: but if you don’t remember it wasn’t there yesterday, doesn’t that bestow it a past? Is the adjustment of memory the altering of reality?

Eventually, of course, books are banned, first only certain books, then all books. Fatima’s colleague is worried, since he has some books that are “more than books…It is not about reading only.” No, it isn’t, is it. The books join the musicians in Fatima’s ever-expanding attic.  

Let’s not overlook the imposing gray structure that seems to have sprung up overnight, and increases daily. Fatima hears rumors: they’re growing space, they’re building catacombs. In the meantime, they’re slapping handcuffs on trees and arresting them until “the city was no longer emerald and azure but instead the temper of sunbaked limestone.”

And Fatima’s attic contains more and more people:

It was just an old woman at first, wrapped in a ratty blanket that maybe her mother had made decades ago. She stayed under the piano bench. But this one guest turned into two who turned into three, then five, then twelve, then an artist who had watched his portfolios being dismantled by police…. And then came a sculptor and a farmer and a baklava baker and two professors of literature and a French teacher and a pregnant woman and a man in a wheelchair and a family of Syrians, until the whole attic took on the strange and anticipatory pressure of a liminal station and filled each of us to the core with expectation.

Ok, let’s talk about liminal space.

I first heard the term in a mooc on the history of architecture, applied to items and structures that serve as the boundary between us and the divine: Orthodox icons, the Kaaba in Mecca, church domes and mosque vaults, Buddhist mandalas and stupas. In a more general sense, a liminal space is a transition zone, such as a hallway, parking garage, or waiting room. I’ve read that the shutdown early in the pandemic created an entire sub-aesthetic photographic genre, as liminal spaces emptied out, giving the photographs an eerie sense:

In the context of this new movement, liminal spaces, including so-called backrooms, are a type of emotional space that conveys a sense of nostalgia, lostness, and uncertainty. They often lack activity and purpose either because they lay unused or because they are spaces of transition – of becoming instead of being. They connect to the basic human condition of ephemerality, the notion that nothing lasts forever. As generic as liminal spaces are, they become impossible to locate and thus transcend time and place, attaining an eerie otherworldly feeling.
….The liminal space is a waiting space. You could land here for any number of reasons. Perhaps a particular event or circumstance has interrupted the life you were living and now everything is up in the air. Or maybe something is unfolding around you that will have a significant impact on your next steps. Yet you have no control over those circumstances and their timing. Or perhaps you are clear about your next steps, yet somehow you sense that now is not the time to take them.

Karl Emil Koch: “Architecture: The Cult Following Of Liminal Space,” Musée Magazine

It isn’t emptiness of this liminal space in the attic that’s freaking out Fatima; it’s the fullness. The fullness beyond capacity. How are all these people fitting in a tiny attic she could barely stand up in when she first discovered it? Since we’ve already been primed to think about memory, is that what the attic is: a liminal space connecting reality to memory, connecting so powerfully, it seems real to her? After all, her discovery of the violin, the composer, all the trash she has rescued, takes place in an alleyway: the epitome of liminal space. An alleyway that was perhaps reshaped by her, or that reshaped her. Or both.

The final paragraph wraps everything up in a supremely satisfying way: the huge gray building is a prison, containing not just people but objects. A societal memory, a culture, if you will: a liminal space for what is being discarded by the political repression of the moment. The country’s attic.

Oh, but that final scene:

The guard who had escorted me was now halfway down the catwalk, stopping in front of another cell. A different guard came to him and shrugged his shoulders and relieved the first guard of his hat and his baton and his radio before locking him up behind the barred door. Then that guard continued down the catwalk, stopping before another empty cell where another guard met him and relieved him of his hat and his baton and his radio before locking him up and moving on down to another empty cell. I lost sight of anything else.

What an embodiment of Hilbert’s Hotel, the hotel with infinite rooms that can be full, but can still fit another guest by moving each guest down one room! I was bouncing in my seat, crowing, “I see what you did there!”

It should be a comfort that our minds can hold infinite memories, or at least seem to. But in the story, it’s a tragedy that Fatima’s mind, the cultural mind, must. Just as the story is both hilarious and horrific.

I mentioned in my last story post that I’m fond of biological models as metaphors, so let me bring one out here: Our cerebral cortexes, the “thinking” parts of our brains, have a much larger surface area than might be expected given their encasement in our rather small skulls. The secret is folding of the surface into gyri and sulci, giving the brain its characteristically wrinkled appearance. Our intestines do the same thing using villi and microvilli to expand the surface area available to absorb nutrients. This story is full of such foldings, so that a comment by Mehmet about reading or an observation of judas trees being handcuffed (I have no idea if there is a cultural association around Judas in Turkey, but to the Western Christian mind, it rings loudly) create literary wormholes that pass meaning paragraphs away. While there’s a clear plot that progresses along a timeline, the folded meanings swirl around in a kind of subliminal soup, resulting in a rather jumbled post. It’s a marvelous read. I only wish I had done it justice.

In his Contributor Note, Orhan explains that he read a newspaper article about a library in Ankara stocked by books garbage collectors had rescued from the trash. It turned out the books were merely old and unwanted, not banned, but it provided the initial idea for this story. Even the origin story tickles me. His debut story collection, I Am My Country, is due out in February 2023 and includes this story; I’m not sure I’ll be able to restrain myself until the paperback edition follows.

* * *          

  • The story is (at least temporarily) available online at The Paris Review.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic also brings in folding and infinity, even the ideas of different kinds of infinities.
  • I don’t know which news story was Orhan’s inspiration for the story, but here is one report of the Ankara library that grew from the trash.
  • Karl Emil Koch’s article “Architecture: The Cult Following Of Liminal Space,” in Musée Magazine discusses the aesthetic craze for liminal photography early in the pandemic.
  • For those who are wondering just what Hilbert’s Hotel is, here’s a brief video demonstration.

BASS 2022: Alix Ohlin, “The Meeting” from VQR, Spring 2021

VQR art by Jarett Sitter
Alix Ohlin’s “The Meeting” describes the slow self-destruction of the technology industry – still ongoing as I write – with all the gobbledygook biz-talk and half-witted confidence of Silicon Valley, the Californian exuberance and arrogance that I suppose I myself possess, the blindness to the human condition, to the actual threats in our lives. What seemed so important in 2019… How could we have cared so much? How could any boss have made us think to care? How could we have forgotten we’re people? How can we prevent ourselves from forgetting again?

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction to Best American Short Stories 2022

It’s almost humorous to read Greer’s comments – written not that long ago, earlier this year, I would guess – in the current moment, when half the country seems to be on strike, the other half is laying off employees at an alarming rate, the government is doing what it can to raise the unemployment rate, people who swore cryptocurrency was forever found out they were wrong, and the richest man in the world spent a ton of money to (possibly) destroy a thriving, if problematic, online meeting space. I wonder if everyone has Long COVID and we just don’t realize it.

Then there’s the author’s Contributor Note about this story:

This story was written against the backdrop of the wildfires in Australia in 2019 – 2020 and my constant thrumming worry about climate change. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the language used to describe economic systems – health, growth, disruption, expansion – seems fundamentally divorced from the people and places affected by those systems.

Alix Ohlin, Best American Short Stories 2022 Contributor Note

I tend to see biological systems as metaphors for all kinds of processes, just because I like biology (though, be forewarned, my knowledge of same is still at the freshman or sophomore level). I always wonder if those who keep insisting on growth as the metric for economic health understand that cancer is in essence a disease of unrestricted growth, that malignancy is what happens when biological regulatory systems break down. For that matter, pretty much all disasters – floods, and, most pertinent to this story, fires – are breakdowns of regulatory mechanisms. Fires and floods themselves can be looked at as regulatory systems, last-ditch efforts to restore balance when other means have been dismantled for, let’s say, short-term economic gain.

All of that was rolling around in my head as I read this story. My head is a noisy, confused place to be these days.

The title of the story is an interesting place to start, since there are several meetings in “The Meeting.” It starts with one. There are several late in the story. And, in a manner of speaking, it ends with one, when Fuck Around meets Find Out – except that those who Fucked Around are not those who Found Out. That’s another feature of contemporary economic reality: those at the top of the food chain have lawyers who often assure they will declare bankruptcy and move on to their next catastrophe, not even stopping to glance at the bodies left in their wake.

In the meeting, James Halliday announced the company was being sold and then he couldn’t stop coughing. This was bad timing—both the sale of the company and the coughing— because everyone, including Mallory, had a lot of questions about the sale and the coughing fit seemed a little too prolonged to be real, theatrically timed and thus suspect, though James was well-liked overall and thought to be a straight shooter by the kind of people who used the term straight shooter and believed in such a thing. Mallory was also sick, though she wasn’t coughing. She had multiple doctor’s appointments scheduled but she kept canceling them and coming to work instead, because she, like everyone else, knew the sale was coming and wanted to be there when the news came out. She poured James a glass of water. He drank, his eyes wild and red and teary, then said, “As I was saying—” and started coughing all over again.

James and Mallory are sick to begin with, and they haven’t even descended into hell yet.

In addition to the title, I find another element of this story very interesting: repetition. Mallory’s illness, which is never explicitly identified, is referenced three times as not the cause of various symptoms:

(1) Mallory felt, as she often did lately, light-headed. The doctor said this was not necessarily a symptom of her illness, though it could be. Eat small, frequent meals, the doctor said.
 
(2) She threw up a lot lately, a symptom the doctor ascribed to stress related to the illness and not to the illness itself.
 
(3) [S]he woke up and discovered that she’d wet the bed.
…. She thought of calling her doctor, but what could the doctor say? That it was a symptom of the illness and not the illness itself; the illness hid in the recesses of her body, lurking, indecipherable.

Nothing to see here, your disease isn’t causing your symptoms.  Gee, we don’t know why the wheels are falling off the wagon, but it isn’t because, not just is what’s good for General Motors good for the country, but corporations are people. And anyone who thinks someone who works full time should earn a living wage and be able to visit a doctor when they’re sick is a Communist. Pass around the wheat grass shots, Shayma, and fulfill your role as HR in charge of wellness. I wonder if the story is meant to be dark humor. I often miss the signs of dark humor; should I be laughing?

I’m getting carried away, am I not.

Mostly I don’t know what to say about this story. It’s pretty extreme, so it’s driving me to extremes. One company is eaten up by a bigger company, which is consumed by fire. What nourishes me destroys me. I think I’m supposed to feel sorry for James and Mallory, holding hands as they await their fiery deaths, but I wonder what they consumed before the story started. Maybe the conflagration started long ago, and we’re just beginning to see its effects.

* * *     

  • The story is available online at VQR.
  • Jake Weber has a more literary post about this story on Workshop Heretic – but even he gets caught up a little bit, listing three ways capitalism will kill us all.

BASS 2022: Okwiri Oduor, “Mbui Dash” from Granta #156

Granta art by Arcmanoro Niles
After writing my debut novel, I felt so full of longing for my protagonist…. The novel was about the ways in which Ayosa reconciles with her mother’s faltering and inadequate love, the ways in which she sought and found herself in other people and places. One of those people was Mbui, who then became more than a friend to Ayosa. In the novel, they had a sister-making ceremony, and henceforth, were completely, irrevocably, sisters. The novel was told from Ayosa’s perspective, but in this story, Ayosa was demanding that we meet her sister Mbui and get to know her too. It is an addendum to the novel. It is a postscript from the protagonist, saying goodbye-see-you-later-we-are-all-right-we-have-each-other-okay-then.

Okwiri Oduor, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

In his Introduction to this edition, guest editor Andrew Sean Greer recognizes stories for their excellence in various categories: the use of imagination, the language with which it is told, how a hard story is told, the use of humor. He sees the use of words as the highlight in this story, focusing on the meter of the first sentence, and the “hook” of the opening phrases. He’s right; look at the opening paragraph:

We were all there the day Mr. Man came to town, driving that blister-coloured tin car. It looked like he had scrounged the dumpsters for scraps, like he had welded them together under a flaying sun, building an automobile out of tractor parts and posho mill parts and old radiator and washing machine parts. We thought to ourselves, ‘A man like this must have a good story lodged beneath his tongue.’ We knew that we wanted him to stay for as long as it took to get that story out.

I won’t argue that it’s a great opening paragraph. Even the piece that I tripped over – just what color is blister-colored? – is intriguing, and it set up the classic “A Stranger Comes to Town” perfectly. I read on a bit: As a reader who’s quite fond of the first-person-plural narrative voice, I was certainly hooked, and “A Stranger Comes to Town” is a great framework for setting the united “we” voice against a newcomer for a variety of effects. But it turns out there’s a whole other element hiding, waiting through these first two or three pages to jump out and surprise us.

Through these initial pages, we learn it’s Epitaph Day, a sort of Day of the Dead where this “we” town in Kenya has a brief religious service then goes over to the brewhouse for mead and remembrance of those who’ve passed. We learn the stories of a couple of the recently deceased, and meet some of the townsfolk, including Philomena who’s literally all over Mr. Man, feeling for his wallet, as it turns out, “to learn how fat its contents were, so she could make up her mind whether he was worth her time or not.” Her sister, embarrassed for her, throws her out the window, literally.

We find out little about Mr. Man himself, except for one interesting detail: he has a “wretched soul” following him around. “We looked at it, curled up at Mr. Man’s feet. Where had Mr. Man picked it up?” I wasn’t sure if this was a metaphor, a dead body, a live person, or something else. We – the townspeople – are intensely curious, and sympathetic to this stranger dragging the wretched soul around. “’Stay,’ we said to him. ‘Stay for as long as you want.’”

White space. Then:

“Me,…”

Wow, ok, so we’re not in first person plural. At least, not any more. There’s a me in this we and the language hits it pretty hard. Updating priors…

Me, I always thought of my mama on Epitaph Day. Now I wanted to gulp down a mug of mead in her honour. I wanted to pour some on the ground and say, ‘Dottie Nyairo, you old scoundrel.’ But Mama Chibwire wouldn’t let me drink any mead. She said, ‘Mbiu Dash, you’re only thirteen.’

This gives us the impression that the we of the town are looking out for the me, Mbui. But our new “I” narrator disabuses us of that notion in the next paragraph:

They made a mule out of me every chance they got. Everyone in the town did. They said, ‘I see you’re headed towards the marketplace, Mbiu Dash, be a good girl and take this bag of charcoal with you to the maize-roaster.’ They said, ‘What’s an orphan like you running around for? You’ve got no place to go, and no people to see either. Here, scrub this bucketful of bed sheets. And mind, I’ll be checking your pockets later, so don’t think you can pinch any of the Omo.’ They said, ‘Mbiu Dash, hop on over and fetch the apothecary. Tell her that the rabbit keeper got that dirty thing of his stuck inside maid’s hole again.’
When they had things for me to do, no one gave a squirrel’s tail that I was thirteen. And when I was darting through the streets, knocking on their doors, saying, ‘Please-please-please you’ve got to let me in before they catch me,’ no one minded that I was thirteen either. They only tugged at their curtains, and said, ‘Not my problem.’

Ok, so what have we here? A town that welcomes a stranger (plus a wretched soul), but uses an orphan girl as free labor and fails to help her when she’s in danger. It seems there are “throwaway kids” all over this town, all similarly ignored. Mbui is one of them, possibly because she’s an orphan, possibly because of the genesis of her orphanship: her mother was gunned down after she robbed a bank and killed a couple of cops while driving around town throwing the money to the townspeople. No word on whether they kept the cash, but I’d say it’s a safe bet.

For one paragraph we fall back into “we” mode describing the community dancing on Epitaph Day, but when Mbui tries to join in, she’s chased away, told to sit with Mr. Man. Boy, this town really holds a grudge. And the story does a terrific job of highlighting the exclusion by this switching between plural and singular first person.

Mr. Man wants to talk to Mbui, but she assumes he’s up to no good so runs away from him, over and over. She takes brief refuge in the arms of Philomena, lying on the street still unconscious from being thrown out the window, and pretends she’s her mother, a dentist who let her girl eat candy because she would fix any cavities she had.

But Mr. Man pursues her, so she runs through streets he wouldn’t know, “to the vulgar house where my darling lived”: Ayosa Ataraxis Brown of the prior novel Oduor described above, another young girl with whom she shares a special bond, with whom she talks without talking. They build a bicycle together, but Mr. Man finds them, and while Ayosa runs to get help, Mbui takes off, having learned the hard way there is no help.

Mr. Man finally shows her a photograph of her mother, and Mbui stops running. At least, for a while, though she keeps her distance. They go to the home of one of the recently deceased, GodBlessAmen, where they can talk. Mr. Man is carrying the wretched soul, who turns out to be his son, a boy named Magnanimous. He tells her how he knew her mother at University in Moscow: not as a lover, but as a kind of soulmate. He has a very specific question to ask her:

“The thing I came all this way to ask is, did she suffer?”
I shook my head. “I guess she did not. She laughed a lot, even when she was getting hit. She held me and laughed until all the laughter inside her was finished.”
Mr. Man went and poured himself more lemongrass tea. He took a huge swig. Then he said, “You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to give the guilt only a knuckle, not the whole finger.”
“I’ve got no guilt. She was the one that robbed the bank.
“Why should I have any guilt about it?”
“Survivor’s guilt.”
“You are speaking mud, Mr. Man.”
“Maybe I am,” he conceded. “In any case, I’ve got some.
“Mine follows me around like a stray mongrel.”
He was talking about his boy Magnanimous, I knew. I said,
“Tell me your story, Mr. Man.”
“It’s the same story as your mama’s.”

The physical structuring of this section is curious. Note some of the lines break during a quote. It’s correct to not close the quotation marks at the end of a line when the quote is continued in the next paragraph, to only use opening quotes for each paragraph. But with such short sentences, it looks odd. I wonder how Greer would feel about the scanning of these lines; I’m stupid about poetic meter, but maybe the paragraph breaks indicate a kind of emphasis; there is a kind of sing-song quality to “(She was the one) (that robbed) (the bank)” and a distinct feel to “(Why should I) (have any) (guilt)a-bout-it?” Mr. Man’s paragraphed lines are less musical to me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

The effect it created, for me at least, on first read was to confuse me about who was speaking. That feels significant, since they are both mourning the same person, and, although we don’t see it yet, both carry their guilt and grief, though Mbui is far more cautious about to whom she reveals hers. We don’t see it until the last paragraph.

It’s interesting that the art Granta used for this story was cropped, as shown above. The figure appears male. When viewed at the artist’s website in full, it appears quite female. Although it wouldn’t be obvious without some checking, it’s yet another way Mr. Man and Mbui’s mother are blended together. But there’s the obvious difference of who is alive and who is dead. They both have damaged offspring, who are also somewhat blended together.

It turns out Mr. Man, suspected of being a Communist, was the target of a police raid, but only his son was home; he was shot over and over. When Mr. Man goes out to get food and leaves Mbui and Magnanimous, the ‘wretched soul,’ in GodBlessAmen’s shack (I’ll get into names in a minute), she asks the boy what it was like when he was shot, no doubt wondering what it was like for her mother, who she’s already said laughed through it. Magnanimous gives an astonishing answer:

“The sky was yellow, like gooseberry. The clouds were turning, making shapes. I saw minarets, and strings of Chinese lamps, and canary birds big as airplanes. There were cowbells on my ankles and tambourines on my wrists. When I moved, there was song, and when I stopped moving there was song too. I saw pixies in cotton candy skirts, twirling to the music of my bones. And I was laughing, and my body was falling apart, turning to millet grains, and the snipes and the wagtails were pecking at it. It felt like hallelujah.”

This must give Mbui comfort; it almost feels like ecstasy. Magnanimous, not seeming so wretched any more, sure lives up to his name.

Names do a lot of work here. Mr. Man is such an anonymous name, only having meaning in that he has no name in a community of people known by their names. Magnanimous is obviously a loaded name, given his circumstances; he must be a virtual Gandhi.

Mbui Dash has a story about her name as well:

Dottie Nyairo, who had been mighty proud of her name, so proud that she had taken it with her when she laughed her way out of this world. With her, I had been Mbui Nyairo. Afterward, the name just did not fit me right, like a cardigan that had got shrunken in the wash. Now I had a blank space where my momma’s name had been. Mbui Dash.

I find it interesting that the town has adopted that nomenclature as well. I’m not sure why; do they blame Mbui, is it a taunt to remind her of her mother’s crime, or is it cooperation? All of the above?

The final paragraph shows us the wretched soul Mbui drags around with her, both like and unlike Mr. Man’s. It’s beautiful and sad and terrifying and well worth finding the story to read it.

Oduor’s biography tells us she was born in Nigeria, then received her MFA from Iowa’s prestigious Writer’s Workshop as well as a string of other fellowships, appointments, and prizes for her stories and a novella. I’ve said before I tend to like the works of Nigerian women – Taiye Selasi, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Chinelo Okparanta, Helen Oyeyemi  – so I’m interested in the novel she mentioned, Things They Lost, for an upcoming  IBR period. I might like to know more about Ayoso Ataraxis Brown and the origins of her friendship with Mbui.

*   *   *

  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic picks up on the contrast of absence and presence in the two main characters; it’s one of those I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that observations.

BASS 2022: Gina Ochsner, “Soon the Light” from Ploughshares, Winter 2020/2021

Saputiit (Handmade Fish Weir) by Simeonie Teevee
Five years ago, when I started work on this story, I was curious about the Finnish population in Astoria. I wondered about their role in the fishing and logging industry. I also wondered about how the sense of Finnish identity would or would not be maintained during the 1930s and 40s, when many people felt pressure to assimilate. I wondered, too, about the stories people tell themselves and how someone might maintain multiple versions of the same story. Writing a letter about an event, for example, seems to allow for squishy self-editing, evasion, reshaping. Initially, I thought I would write about people building up one another’s wounds. I thought I would write a simple love story. The child arrived and I thought would write about joy. And then the story took a different turn and I decided to let it go where it wanted to.

Gina Ochsner, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

This could be viewed as the simplest of stories: a strange child washes ashore in an early 20th century fishing village in Oregon; a man and his sister view him as beautiful and evil, respectively; the sister must make a decision to save one of them. But there’s a lot layered into the story – Indian, Finnish, and Christian mythology, social history, nature’s capricious way, letters from Mother – that makes it hard to see it so simply. I’m a little frustrated with it because all my attempts to research it under control failed; ah, doomed by my own inclinations! So I need to keep some simplicity, while acknowledging there’s more going on underneath.

We start out with Indian legend:

In the old Clatsop story, God pinched the mud of the north Oregon shore into mountains, carved rock to jagged crags. That’s how he cut his hands and his blood stained the flats of the north plains. Every autumn, as if remembering this event, the soil north and east of Astoria pushes forth blood-bright cranberries. That’s the way Jaska heard Indian Jennie tell it, anyway. Because God suffered, those who work the north plains harvest suffer. This part Jaska could vouch for. Thirty years of hauling fishing nets had pulled his chest toward his hips and put a thick hump between his shoulders. Thirty years of work had turned his bones to chalk. That’s the reward of hard work, Mother says in her many letters, but he knows fear has stove him up as much as the work.

So Indian Jennie is the portal for Indian legend in the story. The town is populated by Finns, including our protagonists Jaska and his sister Kaari.  They’re in their fifties, living together as one household since neither ever married. They and their mother, with whom they correspond, are Lutherans, which brings in the Christian elements. Bolshevism plays a role in the town, but neither Jaska nor Kaari participate; Jaska “didn’t know socialism from rheumatism,” and doesn’t have much to do with either the church or the union halls. Kaari seems to be distanced from the town, except for Indian Jennie, due to her past: as a young girl, she became pregnant out of wedlock. The baby died at one day old. The man who impregnated her later took up with Indian Jennie, then died, and Jennie has recently begun a rather severe cognitive decline. So it’s a confusing setting, people connected in atypical ways and disconnected otherwise.

I wonder if there’s some reflection of Finland in these relationships. Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia. Its language isn’t related to the Scandinavian languages, but to those used in Estonia and, strangely, Hungary. Politically, Finland has battled its border with Russia for centuries; Karelia, mentioned in the story as the Promised Land, is a section that has been variously split between the two countries. These are all peculiar relationships, perhaps reflecting Jaska and Kaari in the town.

But let’s begin the story. Jaska discovers another child in his fishing weir one day. The boy is literally stuck in the mud, and about to drown from incoming tide, but Jaska pulls him out.

Jaska figured the child to be seven maybe eight years of age. Not from these parts, he was sure of it. “How do they call you?” He asked in Swedish, English, Spanish, and Finnish. A chunk of horehound candy lured the boy into the metal wash tub. The boy squirmed beneath the pitchers of warm water Jaska poured over him, as if the fresh water were acid. “Settle down,” Jaska murmured, pouring with one hand, holding the boy in the tub with the other. Layers of bladderwrack and seaweed clung to his back, torso, and limbs. More warm water, more candy, and a good long sit before the greens peeled away and the boy beneath the mud slowly emerged. Jaska rested on his heels, blinked at the creature before him. Hard to believe this was the same child pulled up from the marl. So beautiful now to behold. A cherub, like something from a fine painting that belonged on the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral somewhere. If God existed, he existed in this boy; that’s how beautiful the child seemed to Jaska. And yet, he could not discount the otherworldly quality of his alabaster white skin, hair white as dry clouds, eyes an odd cornflower blue. Well. Did not Jonah step out of the open mouth of the whale, his skin blanched blister white? Did he not stumble upon that shore, dumbfounded and disoriented? The boy, Jaska decided, must have suffered a similar fate. We do, after all, still live in the age of miracles.

Here’s the first place my tendency to nail things down gets in the way. I’ve looked at every mention of Jonah in the Bible; there’s nothing about him being bleached white, but it’s mentioned in nearly every faith-based (as opposed to academic) commentary. It’s why the people at Nineveh listened to his warnings and reformed their ways so quickly. I don’t know where this piece came from, but there was, in the 19th century, a story about a sailor, James Bartley, who was eaten by a spermback (or a shark, the story has several versions) and emerged 36 hours later bleached white. This story has all the earmarks of a tall tale; could it be the source of the inspirational, but non-canonical, transformation of Jonah? Or is there a Biblical source I just didn’t find?

Why does it matter? It shows how mythology blends into reality, heightening the sense of the supernatural when an albino child with deformed feet shows up. It wasn’t until I read the word “selkie” in Greer’s Introduction that I realized what was being hinted at. Selkies are, from what I understand, of Celtic origin, throwing another ethnicity into the mix.

Kaari echoes something of an inverse Jonah story: instead of being bleached white, she is darkened:

In Mother’s most recent letter she made requests. Tell me the untellable story. Tell me a story that outstrips time.
She wanted a love story. She wanted joy. Those are stories Kaari can’t tell. About love she never wrote. About Bucky she never wrote. She wrote about the woods, the way they swallowed her up. The darkness brewed within them–that was her meat, her milk. Her music. Darkness, she wrote, made a clean heart in her. About her own child, who lived for only a day, she never wrote. Only Indian Jennie and Liila, the pastor’s wife, knew about the infant she put into the water down by the docks. Liila said, God understands all, but the look on her face said that’s what you get for chippy-ing around with men in the woods. And sure, she was forgiven on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday nobody wanted a thing to do with her.

This might explain Kaari’s fear of the bleached boy: he threatens her darkness, or perhaps highlights her darkness.

But let’s stay simple, because frankly, I’m tired of this story that dares me to figure out if the weir is representative of Jaska and Kaari trapped in Astoria, if the Mother of the letters is the Voice of God (God of which mythology?), if the boy is a reluctant prophet come to save them or a selkie come to curse them, if Kaari’s action is her salvation or her damnation. So let’s keep it simple: Bad things happen when the boy arrives. The weather turns nasty; people die. Maybe the weather has always been nasty and people, I’m sure, have always died, but Kaari and Jennie see it as the boy’s influence, while Jaska sees him as beautiful.

After a singular tragedy, they decide to take him to the city where someone can take charge of him, put him in an orphanage or find him a family to live with. Before that can happen, the boy again gets caught in Jaska’s fishing weir. At first he’s playing, but then begins to thrash in earnest. Jaska goes to save him and gets stuck himself. Kaari has a rope. Jaska tells her to save the boy. Whom should she save? The final paragraph gives us her decision, her reasons, and a sense of the consequences.

Anyone who wishes to expound upon the underlying motifs and symbols, please, have at it in the comments. I’d love to know.

*  *  *  

  • Jake Weber, in his post on Workshop Heretic, likens the story to putting together IKEA furniture, and concludes: “Maybe it’s not a chair…Maybe it’s supposed to rock.”  Maybe so. I give him credit for all the work he put into it, whether it’s a chair or not. And bless his heart, he even tackled the title, which I studiously ignored.
  • If you’re curious about weirs, here’s a nice video that explains generally how they work.
  • If you’re curious about James Bartley, Richard Woolveridge has written a good myth-busting account in Australian Geographic.

BASS 2022: Kevin Moffett, “Bears Among the Living” from McSweeney’s #63

When I was a kid the newspaper published a column called Chatterbox, which was full of local gossip, mostly wedding engagements and job promotions and news that readers probably sent in themselves. Every once in a while, though, there’d be a blind item written in a tantalizingly cryptic code, so only those really in the know would be able to identify the subject. Like, H. T. lost his keys but not his sense of humor. Must have been some rehearsal dinner!
I was well into writing a story about the town where I live when I realized I was mimicking the brevity, if not the civic heft, of Chatterbox. More and more, as both a writer and a reader, I’m drawn to short, self-contained pieces, ones that arrive late to the party and leave before they say anything too stupid. Which is surely less reflective of the imperatives of the subject matter than the limitation of this writer’s (and reader’s) attention span. I’ve been trying to finish what I begin in a given day, which often means writing stories that are only a few sentences long.

Kevin Moffet, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I do see clusters of topics. Oh, it’s about language, I thought. The opening page has some intriguing language and structure, complete with a quote by Wittgenstein on the limits of language. But then his father enters the picture. And his son. And throughout, he describes his town and his interactions within it.

Just a couple of days ago in my Short Story Reading Group, I said I was struggling with a story. “I’m perplexed, so I’m just going to sit here in my perplexity and see if someone else says something that shows me the way.” That led to the leader commenting that maybe the goal isn’t always “to understand” but to ask questions. I also remember a comment in a prior reading group (I’ve become quite a fan of online reading groups) in which someone said something like, “The writer could have written it very clearly, but they didn’t, so we’re being given permission to wonder, to speculate.” Ok. If you’re going to write it this way, I’m going to speculate.

The Wittgenstein quote bothered me. Yes, he did write  “The limits of language are the limits of my world” in his first work, mapping language to reality via logic. But he changed his mind later, inventing the idea of language games in which we communicate by playing by a set of rules; we agree what words mean, and reality has nothing to do with it. Sort of like the cryptic sentences in Chatterbox: if one is playing the same game, they’re not so cryptic, but without the rules, we’re lost. Maybe Moffett is playing a language game in this piece, and I’m confused because I don’t have the rules.

The first paragraph gets us started:

They call our town the City of Trees because of the trees. Along Harrison Avenue, sycamores with their tops sheared to accommodate power lines overhead, massive peeling eucalyptuses. On Mills, prim maidenhairs dropping their rancid berries. Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and the people: punctuation. Trees are just trees. We hear church bells on Sunday but never see anyone coming out or going in. The Church of Christ has a new sign in front that says HE’S STILL LISTENING, which makes me a little sad. It makes me want to say something worth listening to. Less and less, I’m in control of what I broadcast. At a park the other day I was reading on a bench while my wife pushed her son on the swings. A woman walked up to her and said, just a heads-up: there’s a man reading over there on the bench and he’s not with anybody. We’re all keeping an eye on him. His zipper’s wide open.

Just the first sentence is enough to lend a playful cast to the piece. Yet when he describes the trees, they don’t sound like something a city would be proud of: the sycamores are mowed to fit electric wires, the eucalyptuses are peeling (which is normal, and often seen as pretty, but sounds gross when you call it peeling), the maidenhairs have rancid berries. Wouldn’t you expect the trees in the City  of Trees to be more impressive? Is this irony, or a warning?

Then there’s the sentence, “Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and people: punctuation.” It’s that colon that does it, separates people from things by means of, wow, punctuation. The story is right there, and we’re just the dots and squiggles.

The town looks more dismal as we read on. Church bells summon no one. Then there’s the intimidation he feels when assured God is listening; that’s supposed to be a comfort, or at least a lifeline, not added pressure to perform adequately.

Then we move into another topic: the misbroadcasting incident at the playground, which is funny, but… why isn’t it in its own paragraph? The language in this paragraph – semantics and structure – has me off-balance, while I’m dealing with a guy who literally can’t keep his fly zipped, not out of lasciviousness but out of absent-mindedness. This has to mean something.

Then some additional scenery, and we’ve got:

Asleep at night, I plot and replot my jogging circuit. Seventh to Mountain, Mountain to Baseline, Baseline to Mills, Mills to Bonita… I wake up exhausted.

I love this, because… I do something similar. I frequently dream about trying to figure out a math problem, or a geographic location, or a Spanish sentence, or something in whatever mooc I’m taking, and I drive myself nuts trying to get it right. I can’t, of course, because what I’m working with, be it math or a map or a language, is nonsense in the dream. When I wake up it’s a relief. I used to tell my husband, “I have to take a break from sleeping.” So I can sympathize with Kevin.

When we move into father material, I feel slightly more secure; this is the stuff of stories. Kevin’s father died when he was eleven; we see some of his flaws. But we no sooner get introduced than we’re back to this terrifying town with coyotes and snakes, before another church sign assures us, GOD ISN’T ANGRY. He’s just disappointed, Kevin decides.

New scene. Kevin’s waiting for his son, chatting idly with parents to pass the time. One says he misses maps that fold, or rather, that can never be refolded correctly. Why you’d miss that I’m not sure, but I get missing paper maps. There’s a flurry of nostalgia – one misses thinking Columbus discovered America, another ant farms, etc.  Kevin makes his contribution.

I miss when my future was more interesting to me than my past, I thought. The other parents paused and looked at me, which meant I’d set it out loud as well. They waited for an explanation. The least I could do was tell them how I used to dream of being a landscape architect, as opposed to dreaming of when I used to dream of being a landscape architect. Dreaming ahead instead of dreaming behind. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk and finally said I also miss scratch and sniff stickers. Sighs of relief from the other parents, robust communal nodding. It felt good to think about things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Harmless, nearly forgotten things. Some of the stickers smelled like what they were supposed to smell like and some didn’t, and every time you scratched them the smell grew fainter. Remember that? You had to make sure to ration it out because the stickers wouldn’t last long. It was an object lesson. Remember? Scratching and knowing that every time you scratched erasing the very thing you were savoring.

Been there. Funny how even scratch-n-sniff can be depressing. But don’t bring it up with people who are just killing time.

So many little anecdotes packed in here, all of them poignant, hinting at deeper meaning. I was fond of the comment about Kevin, as a boy, seeing a couple of books on the one bookshelf in the house: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and The Good Earth. As a seven-year-old, I remember seeing The Hinge of Fate and The Carpetbaggers on my parents’ sole bookshelf. And I was horrified to read an object lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences:

Another friend came to the house during the funeral and took away all my father’s clothes, donated them to the Salvation Army. She thought she was doing us a favor, scrubbing our closet of unwanted reminders. Years later, we’d still see his golf shirts all around town. On a man pumping gas into a motorcycle. On a supermarket bag boy.

I wrote, “Oh God” in the margin.

The story – I feel strange calling it that, it’s still more of a loose collection of thoughts, almost a diary – seems to focus more and more on Kevin as a son, and as a father. His son has shining moments of sweetness, surely edited for heartwarmingness. Aren’t all our memories?

Then we come to what might be considered a climax, only because it contains the title:

We are bears among the living, agile and fearsome. We range and rut. We hunt. We return to our dens to sleep and let torpid winters seal our wounds. When we die our pelts are stripped from our bones, draped over plausible likenesses, nailed to pedestals in telltale poses. Children still flinch at the sight of us, though our eyes are flat and lifeless. For now death seems to have perfectly arrested our essence. One day we’re moved to the garage, replaced by a Christmas tree, and we stay there, surviving, yes, but shrinking. Time declaws us, softens our contours and our blood matted fur, and it gives us a bow tie, and one day, where a life-size bear once stood, there’s a cute little plush toy stuffed with foam and air, a harmless abbreviation consigned to spend a third life in the land of make believe.

Again, I try to understand the language. Who is we? Who are the living? Are we not the living? For a moment I had a brilliant idea, a way to solve the puzzle: Kevin is dead, remembering his life. But, no, that doesn’t work, because he dies early in the paragraph and becomes something else, a taxidermied image. And over time, that image becomes less and less present, until it becomes less painful, less threatening.

Who is we? Fathers, perhaps? Because there’s a follow-up:

Sometimes I think I can still summon the sound of his voice. A thin, distant rasp. My childhood is a song I’ve heard so many times I’ve stopped listening to the words. Probably half the things my father said to me he never said to me.

The final paragraph takes on the voice of the father, in words he probably never said – words Kevin wishes he’d said?

You are the man of the house now…. Is it my voice you’re hearing right now or someone else’s? And how old are you now? Old enough to watch over yourself? Old enough to watch over someone else? Children, and I quote, are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. Something along those lines. So what are you trying to say and why are you still trying to say it? Do you think this is a game, Kevin? Do you think you are winning?

Is Kevin’s father challenging him, or is Kevin talking to himself?

That quote line sounded like something someone must’ve said, so I went hunting. Indeed, it is a genuine quote, not the almost-quote from Wittgenstein tailored to the needs of the story, but the genuine first line from The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, listed as a professor of media ecology (hey, I’m just reporting here), who sounds a lot like Marshall McLuhan and has the same distrust of media and mass entertainment. The Childhood book proposes that infancy is a given, but childhood is a social construct that began with literacy, when education became necessary instead of learning by doing, and that childhood will again disappear once literacy is replaced with imagery in the form of television.

I’m still not sure what’s going on here, but again I see this melting of past, present, and future into a pool of time, the motif that’s been so prominent in this volume. Kevin, his son, his father: messages going back and forth, reconstructed memories, a father fading from a bear to a toy over time. That somewhat ignores the rest of the story, which maybe is setting:  this City of Miserable Trees where the word of God is displayed on signage and memorabilia is confined to the cheerfully pleasant, unless your dead dad’s shirts end up on strangers unaware of the effect they’re having on you.

I’d read Moffet before, in my first BASS read, in fact, back in 2010. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” I didn’t clearly remember the story, though I did remember the name and that I’d liked the story. Like I keep saying, this is why I blog, so I can remember. I re-read the older story after reading this one; it’s what set me on the track of the fathers-and-sons theme, because it’s about an angst-ridden writer (is there any other kind?) frustrated by his lack of success, who discovers his father is writing thinly-disguised stories about their family life.

I’ll end as I began: admitting I have no idea what’s going on here. But I’m choosing to believe that, if Moffett had wanted it to be clear and easy, he would have written it that way, so groping for meaning is the task. So I’ll just sit here in my perplexity, hoping someday I’ll have the wisdom to see.  

 * * *  

  • Jake Weber loved this story; he does  much better job of parsing it than I did in his post at Workshop Heretic.
  • For those so inclined, David Auerbach has written a brief explanation of Wittgenstein at Slate.
  • For those so inclined, Frank Elwell has written a brief summary of Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood.
  • For those so inclined, I wrote about Moffet’s beautifully sweet 2010 story “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events”  back in 2011.

BASS 2022: Alice McDermott, “Post” from One Story #280

“Reflection” by Jasmine Newman
I wrote “Post” to pay homage to Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, one of the first stories I was moved to reread as the pandemic began to unfold. Porter’s brilliant account of two young people falling in love in the midst of the 1918 flu epidemic and the First World War has always struck me as a masterpiece: witty, compassionate, devastating. Reading it in 2020, I recognized as well how honestly, how brutally, how generously, Porter’s story captured our own era’s collective confrontation with mortality. A confrontation popular discourse, or perhaps the politics of the moment, seemed reluctant to acknowledge. But how to pay homage to a classic while also making it new? Porter’s Miranda and Adam are at the beginning of their romance; I imagined my Mira and Adam as post.

Alice McDermott, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I had an easier time than most adjusting to the shutdowns early on in the COVID pandemic. I’m retired, so didn’t have to worry about going to work, converting to working from home, or getting laid off. I’m something of a hermit, so reduced in-person social activities didn’t bother me; in fact, I found the increase in formerly in-person groups meeting online to be a plus, since I could attend things I’d never known about. Of course, that was all balanced against knowing I was more likely to die of the thing due to age, but that’s how it goes.

Perhaps to distract myself from horrifying statistics and grim images like refrigerated trucks storing bodies when morgues were overflowing, I wondered a lot about how this would affect people in the long run, particularly those who had rites of passage – senior prom, college graduation, a wedding a year in the planning – that would not happen now. I wonder if these few chaotic years will have aftereffects for specific generations. The COVID kids, like young Robert in “Detective Dog,” stuck at home, listening to ambulance sirens, writing a story about dancing morgues. I wondered about some hypothetical couple who just met at a bar, or on a blind date, or at a wedding, and felt a real connection. How would their relationship develop without the usual structures of going to dinner and movies and away for the weekend or whatever people do these days? Would it be better in the long run to have an online relationship, long talks about scary moments, about the anxieties of the day, than to engage in superficial pleasantries? Or would relationships just not happen because no one would have the energy to invest?

We won’t know for some time; it’s too soon yet to tell.

I can understand the impulse to tell this story, this reworking of a story set in a similar time. I wonder if it was too soon, set in the early part of the pandemic. I wonder if their outlook will change over time. “There are so many things we don’t know” is a repeated refrain in the story; add whether they would write a different story about the same time now, in two years, in twenty, to the list of unknowns.

They had weathered it together. Inadvertently, it seemed. Their relationship had mostly ended in early February, weeks before the shutdown began. A mutual lack of enthusiasm, they said. Which was too bad. They had gotten from all so well, pre-passion, as they called it then, well before they were saying pre-pandemic, back when they were just friends. They remained apart through the hellish spring and the long summer and the spiking fall, with only reports from mutual acquaintances that they’d each stayed in town, managing. In early December, he sent her a text, How are you doing in all this? She’d replied, Scratchy throat, fever, going for a test. Three times, he texted to the single word: Results? Until she finally wrote: Positive. Sleeping.

I found McDermott’s Contributor Note explaining the origin of the story had a lot of impact on my read. It was one of those “I wanted to explore… “ stories rather than, “I wanted to tell this story about these people.” I haven’t read the Porter story she’s paying homage to, but I can see its general bones here: a couple dealing with something they can’t escape. And while there wasn’t a war raging during our pandemic as there was in Porter’s, there was an election that often felt like a war. McDermott  doesn’t go there, however, not at all. She sticks to the pandemic.

The story interweaves an afterview with the actual experience of illness. We start off with Mira and Adam discussing Mira’s most noticeable sequela to her illness: marijuana now smells awful, like garbage, rot. But we end with a paragraph that indicates there are more profound consequences.

The story lingers initially on the isolation and loneliness of the two main characters. They were once lovers, but hadn’t seen each other for a while. Mira is surprised when Adam shows up at her apartment as she battles fevers and the exhaustion of troubled breathing.

“Call your mother,” he said. “And your sister. They’re frantic.”
“They called you?”
He shrugged. The mask made it difficult to tell if he looked good. She thought, yes. “Guess I’m the boyfriend of last report. Or resort. They called your friend Angie.”
“She’s in New Hampshire.”
“And your downstairs neighbors.”
“Roy and Carol went home to Virginia.”
“Your landlord. Who’s in the Hamptons.”
“I know.”
“And then me.”

Mira has friends, has acquaintances, has contacts, but they’ve all disappeared, no doubt looking for a safer place where the virus wasn’t spreading as rapidly.  Personally, I think Adam is an idiot for staying with her during her illness. “I’m careful,” he say, adjusting his mask. No, you’re not; careful is if you bring her orange juice and Gatorade every day and leave it outside her door and call to see if she needs anything in the afternoon. Careful is not moving in with someone in the throes of a contagious viral illness. And of course, as she recovers, he gets sick, and and the polarity reverses as she takes care of him. “I told you so,” I screamed at the page. (No, I didn’t, but I thought it).

I wasn’t interested at all in hearing about the course of their illnesses. Odd, given my fondness for all things medical, but nope, not this time. I felt it made up too much of the story, but I suspect the proportion of present to past had to be that way to lend balance, or perhaps even as part of the homage element, and present needed to include possible future as well. Some interesting  stories got mixed in the past. This timescape is quite different than how time is handled in prior stories. There’s no melting of time, blending present, past, and future into one. Instead, while there’s an acknowledgement that the future will look different because of the past, each tense is clearly delineated. It’s a much more traditional approach to time.

But the far more interesting parts were in the Afterview sections, when they got together to share their thoughts a few months later.

“Have you been over?” he asked her. And nodded toward the skyline.
She shook her head. “In the beginning, I pictured my office every day. Eerie and empty. My desk, the bathrooms, the elevators. Now I’m having trouble believing they still exist. Or ever existed. Over there.” “I miss the place,” he said.
“Me too.”
The water lapped, silver and black against the apron of rough stones. There were the usual odd bits of wood, the ugly brown tatters and frills of what might once have been seaweed, a rolling plastic bottle, a Starbucks cup. “We sound like refugees,” she told him. “A couple of lonely immigrants.”
Distractedly, his thumb brushed the shoulder of his own coat. “Exiles,” he said.

I suspect this is the most relatable moment for a lot of readers. Some things have changed; others haven’t. What’s most changed is the way they view things, how they feel about things. And the overriding question is: what now?

It was what she had wanted to ask him as they walked, what she had, in fact, called him to discover. But she hadn’t found the chance. As they walked, the question – what now? – had become a betrayal of something, some intimacy, some fear or despondence, that was too fragile for this emerging post-pandemic life.

Their downfall as a couple was intimacy. Now, as they kiss through masks in the final scene, I wonder if the restricted intimacy makes it more likely that they will try again, having shared an incredibly intimate experience that had nothing to do with sex. She mentions, when she misunderstands something he says because of the masks, that she feels like not only her smell and taste but her hearing and vision have altered as well. “Changed utterly.” Does that mean they might find themselves together, or does it mean they have found friendship more rewarding than a romantic bond? And… is this a ridiculously trivial concern when so many have lost loved ones in a country resistant to mourning?

I thought this was a successful transposition of how she describes Porter’s story, the “post” referring to post-relationship as well as post-illness. War makes brothers of strangers; can this kind of stress make friends of unsuitable lovers?

 I’m still a little uncomfortable with it being too soon for this kind of story, which was published in August 2021. But maybe it’s not so bad an idea to write stories too soon, before time yields more answers. It documents a moment, and this way it’s more honest than trying to remember how we felt when so much was unknown. I also appreciated her comment, when asked if she was going to write the great pandemic novel: “I said the author of the great Coronavirus novel probably I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.been born yet. Tincture of time seems necessary here.” I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.

*  *  * 

  • McDermott’s One Story author interview can be found online.
  • Jake Weber was less than impressed with this story, and he does a good job of explaining exactly why (with three reasons, to make it feel official) in his post on Workshop Heretic.

BASS 2022: Elizabeth McCracken, “The Souvenir Museum” from Harper’s, January 2021

Illustration for Harper’s by Icinori
A lot of stories can give you a great theme, but this story weaves at least four themes into it, blending them and then letting them stand alone for a time the way a great symphony can. Indeed, much like in listening to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, I find myself enjoying each new motif as it comes along so much, I’m disappointed when it’s interrupted, only to find I like the new one better, until it’s interrupted again by an even better one. The experience builds until all the themes are brought together.

Jake Weber: “Solid and Mutable Both”, post on Workshop Heretic

Regular readers, if there are any (given how my blog stats tend to swell in September and February, I gather my readers are typically English Lit 101 students who are desperately looking for something to say when a story is assigned in class) may have noticed that a few years ago, I shifted from using quotes from the story as a lead-in, to quotes from the author’s Contributor Note on how the story originated, or the guest editor’s Introduction on why the story was chosen, or perhaps an online review, either to generate interest in the story or to highlight an important aspect. I’ve never used one of my blogger buddy Jake’s posts before; it just felt a bit inbred or something.

It’s not that the other options weren’t eminently appropriate. McCracken discusses the importance of setting and how she uses real-life places in her stories, and how this one was chosen because she encountered a huge stone statue that looked just like her father in a Denmark museum. There’s also a very brief reference to her having been on her way to an exhibit of “stone noses that had lost their statues” when she saw her father’s image; she has a way of making these drop-dead references consisting of two to ten words that have more impact than any other author’s three elegantly crafted paragraphs.

Likewise, Greer celebrates the humor of the story, via his appreciation of seeing a character’s flaws as well as strengths, and how the seriousness of life is underlined by its absurdity: “how else could you tell the story of an old boyfriend discovered at a Viking reenactment park except with laughter?”

But I chose Jake’s post because it is extraordinary. While he often – even when he says he’s working hard on his comments – comes up with insights I have missed, here he not only displayed the structure and purpose of the story, but did so with the metaphor of a symphony, a vehicle I always appreciate but usually find trite. Here, it’s perfect. I could have replacd this entire post with the words “See here” and a link, but I have sworn to write something about each story, each year (which is the hard part; try it, no one other than the two of us has lasted more than three or four stories) and so I shall. But definitely, see there (link provided below).

To give myself due credit, I had begun a post using two elements Jake mentions: the coming-of-age story, and the blending of past, present, and future into a kind of melted-time soup that features so prominently in virtually all of the stories in this volume so far. So let’s begin at the beginning:

Perhaps she should have known that she would find her lost love—her Viking husband, gone these many years—in Sydesgaard, on the island of Funen, in the village of his people. Asleep in the hut of the medicine woman, comforted by the medicine woman, loved by the medicine woman, who was (it turned out) a podiatrist from Aarhus named Flora. The village itself was an educational site and a vacation spot where, if you wanted, you could wear a costume and spin wool for fun. As for Aksel—was he Joanna’s common-law ex-husband, or ex-common-law husband? Eleven years ago they had broken up after living together for ten. “Broken up”—one summer Aksel left for Denmark, and she never heard from him again.
Not never. He sent an apologetic postcard from London. But never after that, nothing for eleven years. She’d married, been made a mother, lost a mother, been legally divorced, finally was fully orphaned by her father’s death. Her father, who had been heartbroken when Aksel disappeared, for his own sake.

This opening paragraph introduces the three generations that form the backbone of the story: Joanna and Aksel as the middle generation, Joanna’s father as the elder, and, tangentially, her son Leo as the younger. I find it interesting that, in a sense, they all go through a kind of coming-of-age, though not the traditional one.

What is a coming-of-age story? The Masterclass site (where, for $15 a month, you can watch videos of Margaret Atwood talking about writing, or Gordon Ramsey talking about cooking, etc etc) has a how-to section and lists four kinds. Emily Temple gives her criteria and examples on LitHub. Other definitions abound. Since everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is, I might as well make up my own definition.

Coming-of-age has nothing to do with age, but with transformation, with ending one phase of life and starting a new one. The key element is sacrificing one element of comfort and safety for an element of growth and freedom: The safety of dependence is given up for the risk of self-determination; or, passivity becomes activity; or, innocence becomes experience. In this story, it’s more like a view of the past, a view that has buffered against pain, is sacrificed for honesty and the ability to move forward unimpeded by one’s own history.

In the case of ten-year-old Leo, this shift is made quite literal via a pair of eyeglasses:

He was newly bespectacled, having failed a vision test at school. Because he hadn’t cared, she’d picked him out a pair of square black frames, so that he looked not like the bookish skinny wan pubescent boy he was, but like a skinny wan Eighties rocker. Wow, he’d said, stepping out of the optician’s, scanning the parking lot, the parking lot trees, the Starbucks and the Staples. Wow. Just like that, both he and the world looked different.

In lesser hands, this could be clunky. However, McCracken makes it a small part of a whole; it doesn’t bear the entire weight of the story. It’s just Leo’s visual experience. He has other experiences which supersede it: his discovery that Legoland, even to a Legofan, is a cheesy rip-off, and that playing Viking hoop rolling with a Danish boy could be more fun than he’d expected. And that he needs – wants – his mom, still.

The Danish Iron Age Viking village serves as the meeting place for Aksel and Joanna, bordered by the memory of Joanna’s dad on one side and the presence of Joanna’s son on the other. Aksel seems to have made his major coming-of-age transition years earlier, though he does go through some transition in the scene with the watch. He and Joanna argue. They both consider it might be better to give the watch to Leo, Joanna in the hopes that he might take an interest in horology, Aksel in the interests of getting rid of old ties. This is all amidst a dreamy world of in-between: “The Viking village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep that didn’t know what millennium they were in, either.”  While arguing about, on the surface at least, a watch.

He retrieved the watch from his pouch, his Viking pocketbook, and weighed it in his hand as though he himself would throw it bogward. Instead he wound it up—later, when Leo did become interested in old watches, she would discover this was the worst thing you could do, wind a dormant watch—and displayed it. First he popped open the front to exhibit the handsome porcelain face, the elegant black numbers. “Works,” he remarked. Then he turned it over and opened the back.
There, in his palm, a tiny animated scene: a man in a powdered wig, a woman in a milkmaid’s costume, her legs open, his pants down, his tiny pink enamel penis with its red tip tick-tock-ticking at her crotch, also pink and white and red. It was ridiculous what passed for arousing in the old days. She was aroused.
“Old Walter,” said Aksel. “He lasted a while, then. He started taking care of himself?”
“No. He got worse and worse. He was eighty.”
“He never wanted to be,” said Aksel, in a sympathetic voice.
“I know it.”
He offered the watch. “In four years perhaps your boy will be interested.”
Ah, no: it was ruined. Not because of the ticking genitalia, but because it was somebody else’s private joke, and she the cartoon wife wanting in, in a robe and curlers, brandishing a rolling pin. Even a cartoon wife might love her rascal husband. She did.

It’s a tough thing to do, let go of the past we believe in, and accept the past that was.

So where was the Souvenir museum? It was tucked in between Legoland and Odins Odense.  It’s a quantum world when time melts: effect precedes cause. We are thus prepped for the Passing of the Pornographic Watch, and then for the descent into quantum time that makes up the final few paragraphs, where there is no present, no past, no future, just a boy deciding he still wants his mother, and a mother deciding she wouldn’t trade the present for the past after all.

I urge you again to read Jake’s post. He claims he only scratched the surface, but I, a master of surface-scratching, think he did a lot more than that.

*  *  *  

  • The story is (at least temporarily) available online at Harper’s.
  • Jake Weber’s insightful post about this story can be found online at Workshop Heretic.  
  • The MasterClass discussion of coming-of-age stories
  • Emily Temple discusses coming-of-age stories on LitHub.
  • Do you really want to know more about Legoland after reading this story? Do you? Really?
  • And Odins Odense? Surely you want to know more about the European Iron Age version of Plimouth Plantation?
  • And just because it’s so cool and where else could I ever fit this in: you might want to know about the museum collection of “stone noses that had lost their statues.”

BASS 2022: Claire Luchette, “Sugar Island” from Ploughshares #147

It is the simplest kind of story – two lovers picking up a couch for an apartment – but there is a telescoping of time within the story, and especially at the end, that allows it to be told both in the moment of romantic doubt and pleasure and in a future memory of pain. And isn’t this how we really look on the past? Both with the purity of how we felt colored by how we feel now?

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

How do you tell an end-of-love story? With a really big symbolic couch, of course. Open it like this:

Maggie and Joan took the two o’clock boat to Sugar Island. A man was supposed to show them his camelback sofa, green velvet upholstery, scrolled arms, feet like talons. Seven hundred. The ad said it dated back to 1908. This struck Maggie as disgusting – a hundred years of butts – But Joan loved old things, and she wanted to buy Maggie a sofa, somewhere they could sit together and read when Joan visited. Joan’s love language was gift-giving. Maggie’s was gift-receiving.

The skill of gift-receiving is underappreciated. What is there to it, you ask: you smile, say “Thank you” with as much enthusiasm as the gift, and the relationship, calls for, and move on. And that’s fine for the casual friend or the cousin you see at Christmas and every five years at the family reunion. But what about when your spouse brings home, time and again, elaborately jewel-encrusted silver jewelry when you’ve only ever worn a plain gold chain and almost-invisible gold ball studs? Or when at an office event you make an idle comment about a teapot displayed on a shelf just for the sake of having something to say and suddenly it shows up at your plate, courtesy of your boss who’s trying to impress his high-end colleagues with his magnanimity?

Or, more relevantly to the story, when your girlfriend wants to sit closer to you when you read together, so she drags you a few hundred miles and a ferry ride to buy a century of butts?

We get the backstory of the relationship intermingled with the saga of the trip to the guy with the camelback. They met over blood, literally; Maggie was a phlebotomist, Joan needed a blood test. Notice the language and imagery. A camelback: sure, it’s a sofa, but there’s some extraneous feel to it, like a deformity or an unfamiliar means of travel. It has “feet like talons”: the better to grab on to you my dear? Then there’s Sugar Island: what a sweet place that must be! Google tells me, “From thrilling boat rides to sweeping views and extreme relaxation in your own secluded paradise, Sugar Island truly has it all.” Well, ok, if everything you want is on that list. Apparently there’s also at least one antique store. Phlebotomy: the story points out how even that initial encounter was give-and-receive. “It was convenient to sleep with a woman whose bodily fluids she’d already handled.” Ok, convenient, but also weird. All of this is weird, but in a playful, rather than a creepy, way. Oddball, then, rather than weird.

The relationship was initially a good one, it seems, though Maggie seems to have just accepted it rather than it being something she craved. Even when Joan moved 445 miles away, she continued via a kind of inertia. But inertia doesn’t last forever in a universe full of friction:

They took turns making 445-mile trip, and with each trip, it took Maggie longer and longer to get there. She would park at the rest stop in Ceylon, get a car wash, do a crossword. One time, she pulled off the turnpike to play eighteen holes of mini-golf. She could not identify the exact moment at which her love for Joan folded in on itself. But somewhere on the turnpike, when she was going to the minimum speed in the rightmost lane, she found she could not make it sit up straight.
… The last time Maggie tried to end things, she practiced what she would say during the 445-mile drive to Sandusky. She decided to tell Joan the truth. “The trouble is,” she would say, “I don’t care what you have to say about anything at all.”

Yeah, that sounds pretty out-of-love. Yet here they are buying the couch. To Joan, it’s a great find. The owner is an artist of sorts, as is Joan, and they have a great time while Maggie stands around idly.

Maggie’s decision to take the couch, to literally carry it back rather than wait for the offered white-glove delivery, is part of her effort to “take and active interest in the events of her life.” Nothing displays her any-way-the-wind- blows attitude better than an art piece Joan made for her the day after their first night together:

Joan had attached a long tube of ripstop to a fan. The tube inflated and seemed to sway, like an air dancer, and Maggie saw that Joan had painted the tube to look like her. The ripstop woman was wearing the same striped shirt she wore the day before. Maggie watched her nylon self lean one way, then the other. Her arms swung by wide, and when the wind blew, she kinked at the waist and bent low, then stood up again. It was so startling, so moving, but even now, years on, Maggie pulse still quickens when she drives past a car worship.

Which brings me to another feature of this story: the occasional narratorial shift into present tense. The narrator has a powerful voice. I found it distracting. It’s almost as if there’s an observer narrator, but no one’s there. I suspect there’s some writerly reason for this – you don’t go through all the rounds of edits involved to get to BASS without someone saying, Hey, what’s this here – but I’m not perceptive enough to get it. Maybe some day I’ll run into something that will clarify it, so I document it here for future insight. Note: Some day will come sooner than expected. Before the end of this post, in fact.

Then there’s the highly symbolic couch with its years of butts. As they carry it to the ferry, Joan at the lead end is walking backwards. “’You have to be my eyes,’ Joan said, stepping backward. ‘Tell me if I’m going to walk into something.’” Oh, honey, you are. But Maggie’s not gonna warn you.

From Maggie’s POV:

Past Joan, Maggie saw fields of rushes and creeping thistle. There was so much nothing. The street was flat and seemed deserted, but then Joan said, “Hello,” and a boy in big jeans pulled up next to them on a bike, no helmet. He nodded as he glided past them, and peddled with lassitude, knees wide, aimless. The only sound was his bike chain slipping over the sprocket.

So much nothing, except the kid only Joan sees. Maybe it’s Maggie who’s going to need the warning.

When they finally get to the ferry, Maggie can’t manage any more. She puts her end of the couch down and one of the ferry staff comes over to help. She watches how easily they manage: “She wished she hadn’t given up so quickly.”

The whole relationship is right there in those three moments of the camelback.

Ah, but then the final act opens:

The boat left Sugar Island with a lurch, and Joan put an arm around Maggie. Joan smelled like sweat and Bagley’s wine. They sat on the camelback, looking out over Lake Michigan, and it was nice, after hauling the couch, to be held by Joan. More than the material goods and the attention and the eye contact during sex, Maggie expected she would miss this the most: the way Joan clung, close as plum to pit.
She expected, too, that only she was capable of ending things.

I wish the story had ended here, with all that last sentence implies. I think that’s my main complaint about the story. I want it to be Carvered-down, leave me something to contribute. It’s not that the final page isn’t interesting; it is. The final paragraph is pretty cool, in fact, showing what we hold on to and what we let go, how we often want, reject, and regret no matter which wins out. But that line above about expectation is so eloquent, I just wish it had room to resonate more.

But we get the guided tour of what happens next, complete with all of Maggie’s feelings about it. And I notice here the mixture of past, present, and future: when they get the couch home, when they break up, long after they break up, many years after in fact, and the intent implied by the last sentence of the piece.

Here’s where some day happens. I read Jake’s post on the story: he refers to it as lyric, rather than narrative. Feelings, rather than events. That reminded me of something I’d encountered in a story last year:

I listened to a podcast that explained the difference between narrative and lyric. Narrative proceeds along a time line: one event, then the next, with connections that might be lyric or explicit, but time moves and the story changes with it. Lyric occurs in a moment of time. That’s what this final paragraph does: it encompasses the narrator’s experience, both leading up to her trip and as the manager of the crying rooms, it embraces her confusion, her sorrow, even her medical training. But it stays in that one moment, happening all at once.

Post on Pushcart 2022’s story, “The Crying Room” by Lucas Southworth

Maybe this is why present tense shows up, why in the final paragraph it all blends together, and when I wrote about all of Maggie’s feelings and the shifting time frame, I was describing this lyric moment, just as Jake and Justin St. Germain describe. Which is why Carvering it down would not be a good idea, why it’s right the way it is.

In her Contributor Note, Luchette writes, “I wanted to explore the consequences of receiving – gifts, kindness, love.” That’s the kind of thing authors often write in these notes, how the story “explores” something. It’s a concept I don’t understand, this idea of a story written to explore something. When I want to explore something, I want to write about it, not make up characters and situations and plots and narrators and pretend they have lives and wills of their own. Fiction writers tend to be adamant about this. I remember someone at Zoetrope, back in the day, saying she had been writing a short story but then the character did something so unexpected, she had to write a novel about it. I don’t think this is any form of rationalization or self-deception; a lot of fiction writers feel this way, they are following the character’s lead, at least when they do their best work. I’ve been reading stories for twelve years now, trying to understand this, and I still think everything that comes out of a writer’s head was in the writer’s head to begin with, and if a character does something unexpected, it’s because the writer chose that path. That’s why I was such a crappy fiction writer.

Insights about lyric structure aside, this story felt overly written to me, which is more about me than about the story. I’m surprised at my reaction. I’ve never thought I was much of a minimalist, but maybe I’m shifting in that direction.

I was quite fond of Luchette’s Pushcart 2020 story “New Bees” and have her novel Agatha of Little Neon on my TBR list.  

  *  *  *   

  • Jake Weber focuses on the lyric aspects of the story in his post at Workshop Heretic.  
  • The podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, S4E6, explaining narrative and lyric can be found here; the passage is at about the 1:08 mark.

BASS 2022: Gish Jen, “Detective Dog” from TNY, 11/22/21

Photograph by Justin T. Wee for TNY
Gish Jen’s “Detective Dog” is a miracle of both timely and enduring storytelling. In it, our present situation provides the tension that forces the characters to action. That tension is of a Chinese émigré family living in New York City in the era of COVID and anti-Asian bigotry. Their locked-in life brings a teenaged son’s rage to a boil, accusing them of not caring about protests in Hong Kong; he takes up and leaves them in disgust. Jen writes of his mother, Betty, our protagonist: “What is a mother but someone who cannot stop anyone?” That helplessness surfaces when their boy Robert asks for help with his homework: explaining a family mystery to a pet. The kind of Zoom homework so many parents have helped with. Robert calls himself Detective Dog. Quietly, lovingly, Betty answers his questions. And, in answering them, a moment in time is captured perfectly: the past that precedes it, the anxiety that shapes it, and the unknown future that undoes every effort to keep it safe.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

And again, I’m faced with writing about a story that, although packed with interesting moments, I can’t fully grasp as a whole. That’s three out of six so far.

So let’s start with the basics, the things I’m sure of. Betty, the POV character, was born in Hong Kong but moved to New York with her husband and children just in time, thanks to the advice her mother gave her:

“No politics, just make money,” Betty’s mother, Tina, liked to say. And when it came to China: “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. Do you hear me?”
“I hear nothing,” Betty had wanted to say something. Or, well, many times, really. But instead she’d said nothing and, as directed, made a lot of money. After all, she was the good daughter.
And that was how it was that when umbrellas took over Hong Kong she had a nice place in Vancouver. And that was how it was, too, that when racism took over Vancouver she could up and move to New York. It was convenient to be rich, you had to say. In New York, she didn’t even have to buy an apartment. She and her husband and the boys just moved into her sister’s old place, which they liked so much that they bought the apartment next door, and then the apartment on the other side, too. They figured they’d turn the extra kitchens into bathrooms.

We learn early on that Betty’s older sister Bobby had taken a different path, that of a dissident; a recent letter, sent through an uncle but destroyed to prevent its use as evidence, gives Betty the strong impression that Bobby has been arrested and very possibly executed.

Betty’s children are central to the story. Theo, at seventeen, shows signs of adolescent rage at the Chinese regime; he remembers people he knew in Hong Kong before the move, and considers his mother to be complicit in the anti-protester violence, watching on TV from her lilac leather couch in New York instead of being on the front lines. I often feel the same way, sans the lilac leather couch. I wonder why I’m not in the street protesting all that seems to be wrong, or at least something, one thing.  By the same token, sometimes I’m surprised when I get off Twitter and notice people laughing and talking and enjoying lunch on the sidewalk outside the taqueria across the street, or walking by with bags and bundles, living lives unrelated to shootings and protests and the end of democracy in America. The irony that Theo is able to throw such tantrums safely because of his mother’s actions is lost on him. He buys a car with money he made gambling online, and takes off. Not forever, she hopes.

It’s interesting that the story doesn’t use this as a focal point, but more as background to the central drama of the story: a homework assignment the younger son, Robert, adopted as a baby in Hong Kong, needs Betty’s help with: solve a family mystery.

I’m always wary of stories featuring children. Too often they’re shown as victims, in a way that feels exploitive and manipulative to me. On the other hand, they can be overly precocious, bringing a little too much wisdom from the mouths of babes to be believable. The photograph TNY paired with the story didn’t help.

It does help that the story is set during the COVID lockdown (or what we called a lockdown; we never had a real lockdown, no matter how many times we call it that). This provides some ballast, material still very real to the readers. There’s a description of remote learning that might give some parents flashbacks. Robert himself has a blend of goofy childishness and precocity that saves him a bit:

Whether Theo would have been so riled up were it not for the ambulance sirens going and going was hard to say. It shook Betty up, too, that even nine-year-old Robert knew “ventilator” was spelled with an “or”; she was just glad he wasn’t sure how to spell “morgue.” Although, as imaginative and intense as he was, he was writing a story about dancing morgues for the mystery unit in his English class. It was a murder mystery, he told her, in his quiet, unnerving way. He was not like other boys at all. The last story he’d written was about mind reading hats that looked like regular fur hats but then stole your thoughts right through your scalp. How they did it was the mystery.

The morgue story is hilarious: when the morgues stop dancing they let all the people out and they’re alive again, complaining, “Hey, what happened to my phone?” It’s kind of the opposite of magical realism, where you’ve got realism with a single instance of magic; here you’ve got fantasy with a single touch of realism (would that be realistic fantasy?), because that’s exactly the first thing people brought back to life would say. I had to remind myself the story is the product of Jen’s mind, not an eight-year-old. I’d love to see a graphic version, a sort of dark humor companion to the pandemic.  Some future day will be ripe for that sort of thing. But not yet; too soon.

But Bobby is also a kid who refers to getting a new dog as an “upgrade.” Makes perfect sense if you think about it. I asked Jake, to be sure (I rarely consult him before posting, but I was unusually at sea with this one so I needed to make sure I had some basic plot points right) that Bongbong, the original dog, was an actual dog and not Aibo, the robot dog companion from Sony.

It’s the homework assignment about the mystery that brings the story to its climax. Prompted by Robert, Betty tells him the story of her sister Bobby, and of the letter that was sent but not received, and what it could mean. In the last sentence of the story, literally the last word, she reveals a mystery I didn’t even realize was a mystery, which may be why I missed it so many times. The mystery to me is why I’d assumed it prior to that last word.

I find many parts of this interesting, mostly in what is underplayed. Theo’s departure. Betty’s husband, who is barely a character as much as a way to allow Betty to talk about her concerns. The means by which Betty, and/or her husband, made so much money.

But at heart, it’s a story of a family struggling with history and history-in-the-making, and again, a story about storytelling, and its role in creating the family’s history.

*  *  *            

  • Gish Jen reads the story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic compares the story to last year’s “Love Letter” by George Saunders.

BASS 2022: Greg Jackson, “The Hollow” from TNY, 11/29/21

Van Gogh: Sheet with Numerous Figure Sketches, 1890
I usually have an idea for a story rattling around in my head, which I return to over a period of months, often in those moments just before sleep. If I keep coming back to it, I know there’s something to it, a latent energy or bottled meaning. The premise of the house with an unexplained hollow seems, in retrospect, like a literalization of this maxim…. The characters’ catalytic volatility blasted the path forward, and slowly the life force in Valente overwhelmed the donnée, the hollow, fastening the story with progressive firmness to his peculiar magnetism. That I didn’t anticipate! But it’s nice to be surprised.

Greg Jackson, Contributor Note BASS 2022

This fifth story in this year’s BASS breaks with the first four in that it has nothing to do with trauma or with storytelling as a way of creating history. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed. It did, however, share something in common, for me at least, with the third story, Foote’s “Man of the House,” in that I found a great many interesting ideas, but in the end was puzzled by the whole of the story. Instead of fighting it, I’m going to go with it, starting with the word “donnée” from Jackson’s Contributor Note. I’d never heard it before, had no idea what it meant. Merriam-Webster tells mit it’s “the set of assumptions on which a work of fiction or drama proceeds.” In this story, it seems, the donnée is the hollow itself.

And there’s my second issue. It took me a while to figure out just what the hollow literally is. I finally came up with: if my closet had a wall instead of a door, there’d be a walled-off, inaccessible space in the house. I might not notice it, at least, until a Jonah came along and pointed it out to me. It might be a place where once there was a fireplace and chimney, or maybe there’s a dead body in there. Metaphorically, I’m seeing it as a space we all might have inside us where we can’t really see, possibly because we’ve just never noticed it, or because we’re scared to look that closely. Here be dragons, perchance.

Jack had intended to get past the hollow, but he found that he couldn’t. At night, before falling asleep, or having awoken to darkness, he felt the eerie, mystical nearness of it, and this unsettled him. He started, without realizing it at first, to orient himself in the house and on the property in relation to the hollow. “Like Mecca, or Jerusalem,” he said, chuckling to himself as if the joke would rob the hollow of its power.

Here’s where I turned to Jake Weber’s post, which helped me get a grip on the hollow’s part in the story. He suggests comparing and contrasting how the three primary characters each regard the hollow: Jonah instantly notices it and is intrigued by the possibilities; Jack never noticed it before but then became obsessed, and Sophie… shrugs. Sophie does a lot of shrugging. What Jack sees in her, why he’s waiting for her to realize she made a mistake leaving him, is beyond me. But he waits, and she returns, shrugging. Turns out Jonah and Jack both forget about the hollow at various times. You can forget about the hollow, but it doesn’t forget about you. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds appropriate here.

Sophie is, perhaps, the human embodiment of a hollow:

Jack soothed his hot cheeks and brow against the cool wood of the door frame. “Do you remember that concert we went to over the holidays, Soph? Somewhere uptown, off Park maybe. There were these trucks moving in the street. You could hear them through the walls while the music played.”
She didn’t respond for so long Jack thought the line had gone dead. “I remember the concert,” she said finally. “I don’t remember the trucks.”
“There were trucks.”
“All right, there were trucks.”
“And the sound of the music…” He no longer knew what he meant to say. The scope of something inexpressible, a mammoth, ungraspable intimation, had overtaken him.

Here’s Jack, wrestling with something profound, trying to peer into his hollow, and she’s shrugging, an impenetrable hollow, nothing there, so nothing it can’t even be visualized.

What really grabs me about that scene, however, isn’t about the story, but about John Cage. You know, the guy who wrote 4:33, a concert piece of silence, who debated the idea of what music was, what it might be, who asked, “Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” Turns out, Cage had a thing about trucks:

For many years, the composer John Cage lived in a building on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan where, even with the windows closed, his apartment filled with the loud and ever-present hum of traffic. At first Cage considered the sound annoying but then he decided to change how he received or perceived the noise. By remaining present with it, he discovered that the constant sound rising from the avenue through his window subtly changed but nevertheless had a sort of homogeneity that he could enjoy. “If you listen to Mozart and Beethoven, it’s always the same,” he claimed. “But if you listen to the traffic here on Sixth Avenue, it’s always different.”

“John Cage – Manhattan Music” from Gramophone magazine

I have no idea what intimation Jack was grasping for, but I’m betting he would’ve loved Cage.

Jack and Jonah were acquaintances in high school, but they have very different recollections of that time. I get the sense neither of them is a totally reliable narrator, each curating his own memories to guard their personal hollows. Jonah’s most salient characteristic at the time was that he gave up football to study art.

“Tell me more about Van Gogh,” he said. And Valente spoke, of wheat fields and flowers and crows and turbulent skies, of painting loneliness and sorrow and anguish, of moments when the veil of time and of inevitability (to use the painter’s own words) seems to open for the blink of an eye…. Valente described an impossible person, a scoundrel, a tramp, difficult and gruff, prone to fighting, taking up with prostitutes, rejected by everyone, repulsive even to his parents, unlovable, homeless, driven by inexpressible love, or love that was expressible only in a particular form that did not allow it to be shared between two people, and that was therefore cursed, above that was refused while he was alive, and only, when this cretin, this parasite, offensive to every standard of good taste, was gone, did everyone see how much they did want his peculiar, displaced, and overripe love, and the same respectable people who had found him so revolting now clutched him to their breast with the fiercest longing, because a certain intensity of color reminded them, or so then he said in his own way, of intimations of such intensity in moments of their own that they had forgotten or suppressed.

As it happens, I’ve recently become obsessed with Van Gogh myself via an artbot on Twitter. In the past six months I’ve discovered how well he could do realism, yet chose something else; how amazingly he could sketch a few lines that created a woman or a farmer; and I’ve become fascinated with the way he drew and painted old beat-up shoes – damn, those paintings, they smell like old beat-up shoes right through my computer screen. And sure, the Starry Night which I’ve loved since I was a depressed teenager in about 1972 and Don McLean let me know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and ok, Sunflowers is nice and it’s my favorite Dr. Who episode, but it’s Hannah Gadsby who brought it home much more recently via her comedy special Nanette on Netflix:

Vincent van Gogh. The way we tell his story… it’s no good. It’s destructive. Because we’ve reduced it to a tale of rags to riches. He only sold one painting in his life…. And people believe, with that story, that van Gogh was this misunderstood genius. You know, he was born ahead of his time…. He was not ahead of his time. He was a Post-Impressionist painter, painting at the peak of Post-Impressionism,… He wasn’t born ahead of his time. He couldn’t network. ‘Cause he was mental. He was… crazy. He had unstable energy. People would cross the street to avoid him. That’s why he didn’t sell any more than one painting in his lifetime. He couldn’t network. This whole idea, this romanticizing of mental illness, is ridiculous. It is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Jack and Jonah lose touch again when Jonah goes into some kind of unspecified mental health treatment. They cross paths years later, with Jack and Sophie back together, at an art fair. Jonah denies the art is his;

I have my suspicions, but no evidence. They discuss the hollow, start laughing, and when Sophie asks what’s going on, Jack “was about to shrug” when Jonah names it: Sadness.

Jack makes a choice that passes for an epiphany:

Valente was smiling broadly, entirely in earnest. It was the earnestness of a large, clumsy person, crashing through a world of glass doors and gossamer screens. Jack realized that he was waiting for Sophie to suggest that she had misheard, but she said nothing. Only pursed her lips. He breathed quietly. The day was crystalline, blue, touched by clouds. Cool. A light breeze. The market hummed. A burble of chatter. Dogs’ barks. The smell of cut flowers, of burning. Colors. Crushed leaves. Exhaust. A chime, tinkling. A yellow shawl. Time pooling. Opening. A moment, before anyone spoke.

As I’ve said, I’m incredibly stupid about art, but I like to look things up. So I looked up post-impressionism, which Hannah Gadsby taught me (she has a degree in art history) is Van Gogh’s world. And I looked up the difference between impressionism and post-impressionism.

Impressionists…painted contemporary landscapes and scenes of modern life, especially of bourgeois leisure and recreation, instead of drawing on past art or historical and mythological narrative for their inspiration. Interested in capturing transitory moments, the Impressionists paid attention to the fleeting effect of light, atmosphere and movement…. the Impressionists differed from their antecedents because they painted en plein air (in the open air) and used a palette of pure colors. Post-Impressionism is a term used to describe the reaction in the 1880s against Impressionism…. The Post-Impressionists rejected Impressionism’s concern with the spontaneous and naturalistic rendering of light and color. Instead they favored an emphasis on more symbolic content, formal order and structure. Similar to the Impressionists, however, they stressed the artificiality of the picture. The Post-Impressionists also believed that color could be independent from form and composition as an emotional and aesthetic bearer of meaning.

Impressionism vs post-impressionism via OxfordArtOnline

It seems to me (take this with a grain of salt; I am, remember, art-challenged) that Jack is having an Impressionist experience, both visually and aurally, combining plein-air naturalism with Cage’s sense of music in ordinary sound. It’s quite beautiful, this aesthetic experience, in someone who hasn’t shown a whole lot of interest in aesthetics until now. He’s about to shrug – to stand with Sophie – but when Jonah in all his earnestness, this earnestness that crashes into hollows, into Jack’s hollow, he instead joins with Jonah and experiences something he’s never experienced before. He lets down his own barriers and feels, rather than shrugging and pursing his lips. He chooses authenticity over cynicism. It’s a bumpier ride, maybe, all that feeling and seeing and hearing, but he gets inside his hollow at last.

Then you have to wonder, when the moment was over, who spoke, and what they said. Do you want it to be Jack, revealing his experience and keeping the moment in play? Or will he revert to cool? Will it be Jonah? Or, lord forbid, Sophie, with some kind of verbal shrug (“I’m going to find some chai”)? In any case, there’s a momentum that allows – that begs – the reader to take the story in whatever direction seems warranted at the moment.

Andrew Sean Greer focuses on the stylistic change here, from long complex sentences to these short fragments, in his Introduction; it’s a sign of change in the character. I’m thinking that’s why I’m struggling with this story: it’s a writer’s story, rather than a reader’s story. When I used to follow figure skating, every once in a while there’s be a skater who didn’t have the fancy quad jumps or even a full arsenal of triples, but who had deep edges and perfect technique and form on every move. A skater’s skater. They didn’t get the high scores or have the fan clubs, but they were admired by those who could tell they were superb at their craft. In the same way, maybe this story grabs Greer’s attention because of its attention to technique and form, rather than its flashy emotional outlays and clever phraseology.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a clue what’s actually going on here, but I too have had an experience made up of bits and pieces, like Jack noticing the colors and sounds, resulting in my impression. Yours is for you to create.

  *   *   *

  • Greg Jackson reads his story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic gives a handy guide to compare/contrast analysis.
  • The transcript from Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is available online at Scraps From the Loft
  • Gramophone Magazine provides the synopsis of John Cage’s New York experience in the article “John Cage – Manhattan Music.”
  • Oxford Art Online writes about the differences between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

BASS 2022: Lauren Groff, “The Wind” from TNY, 2/1/21

TNY art by Ping Zhu
There are parts of this story that I have tried and failed to tell for over two decades. Bless my agent, Bill Clegg, for having read perhaps a dozen variations on some of these themes over the years, and each time ever so gently suggesting that I unhook the story and let it swim away to grow for a bit longer. It’s impossible to rush a story if it just isn’t ready to be finished.

Lauren Groff, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

Soon after this story originally appeared in The New Yorker, fellow story blogger Jon Duelfer emailed me to ask if he could do a Guest Post about it on my blog. I said sure, I was happy to publish a post of his – he’s a thoughtful, insightful reader – but I didn’t want to bother with the story. In retrospect, I see I claimed to have read the story. This was, well, let’s call it an exaggeration rather than a lie; I’d glanced at the first sentences (which use a construction I particularly dislike – “the woman,” “the girl” –  and at a couple of sentences of other posts about the story, and decided I didn’t want to be bothered with what seemed to be a harshly realistic story about a woman fleeing domestic violence. When I saw the story in the TOC for this year’s BASS, my heart sunk a little, but I figured it was fate catching me in a… exaggeration, forcing me to read the story after all.

You know that old saw about when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me? Well, I sure did. I should have trusted Jon. I should have trusted Lauren Groff. I can imagine some of the earlier versions of the story Groff mentions in her Contributor Note might have been closer to what I’d imagined when Jon contacted me. But she ended up doing something quite remarkable instead, turning a ripped-from-the-headlines piece into a smartly crafted narrative form that moves beyond the expected into themes that are, by now, familiar to those of us who’ve read these BASS stories in order: the generational transmission of trauma, and the use of story to form history.

The bare-bones plot is what you might expect: when an abusive man progresses from beating his wife to beating his child, the mother/wife grabs the kids and runs. One complication is that the husband is a police officer; how do you report a man for abuse when he and his buddies are the officials you would report it to?

Beyond that, Groff employs a narrative twist that lifts this story: originally it seems to be omniscient third person, but halfway down the page, we find out, as the three children leave for school, that isn’t the case: 

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

This allows several storytelling devices. It creates a narrative where the narrator’s mother is referred both as mother and a child, where the boys are both kids and uncles, and where the children’s mother is a grandmother, compressing time until there is no past, present, and future, but all three exist at once. One of the primary features of PTSD is time compression: the sufferer repeatedly experiences the past as if it is the present.

It’s also the first in a series of carefully timed reveals, some subtle (such as we now know the twelve-year-old girl will survive and have a child of her own, relieving a huge dread and allowing the reader to focus on other things) and some explicit (Ruby is the mother/grandmother’s name, Michelle is the twelve-year-old daughter/mother, Joseph and Ralph the nine- and six-year-old boys/uncles). And by the way, though unrelated to narration, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ruby takes care of three children, an unspecified number of sheep, and works a job outside the home.

Immediately after the narrator is introduced, she, safely in the future, will reveal the themes that are powerful enough to override even this harrowing plot:

Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.

And again, for the fourth time in this volume, we deal with family history passed on by story, how that story becomes history, and the sense that the past is always with us, it is indeed not dead or even past. In his Introduction, Greer highlights this choice:

Groff has not chosen to tell it in third person, or from the point of view of the woman, or even the point of view of her child. The narrator is the daughter of the child. The granddaughter. Someone who was not there. It makes the story somehow grander and more terrifying, because it is a story passed down through generations, a story told to make sense of who these women are. A myth, in the sense of story crucial to these women. That simple choice – and an unusual one – puts enough emotional distance between the narrator and the characters to remove any cliche or sentimentality. Instead: there is dignity, sorrow, and rage.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

The escape is as tension-filled as one would expect. The story manages to focus on the effects of the fear of detection, of decisions that must be made quickly, and on how compromised by terror Ruby is at this moment when she’s acted. At one point she’s paralyzed, and this becomes a moment of truth for Michelle. As Michelle’s daughter relates in the future:

Fine, my grandmother said. Yes. I can’t think of nothing else. I guess this will be our change of plans. But, for the first time since the night before, tears welled up in her eyes and began dripping down her bruised cheeks and she had to slow the car to see through them.
And then she started breathing crazily, and leaned forward until her forehead rested on the wheel, and the car stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. The wind howled around it.
…. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, my grandmother whispered. It’s just that my body is not really listening to me. I can’t move anything right now. I can’t move my feet. Oh, God.
It’s fine, my mother said softly. Don’t worry. You are fine. You can take the time you need to calm down.
And at this moment my mother saw with terrible clarity that everything depended on her. The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard.

Notice how similar this bodily reaction to fear – a shutting down of physical will, of control over one’s own muscles – is to what the daughter – “my mother” – feels in the present as noticed by her daughter.

Yes, it’s confusing, since who is mother and who is daughter depends on context, on whether we are in the story or in the narration. That’s reflective of the chaos of this family, where Michelle, at nine, is helping Ruby, her mother, cope in a moment when Ruby isn’t able to cope on her own. Michelle has her own black eye at this moment, but she must become the adult. This is one more perversion of abuse: adults become children, so children must become adults.

Groff finishes off with two paragraphs that hammer home the overriding themes of the story. First, how we tell stories, how we turn stories into history – or at least, try to:

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they watched on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold period the bus morning to life, wreathed in smoke, carrying them away. She told it almost as though she believed this happier version, but behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in the red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.

This is the fourth of four stories so far in this volume to make use, to greater or lesser effect, of this theme: by Lucy’s need to tell the story of her vision in “A Ravishing Sun,” by the way the Dominican girls tell the story of The Little Widow From the Capital to change both their participation and the ending in that story, and in Jeb’s efforts to put together his family story in “Man of the House,”

Then there’s the generational transmission of trauma, also reflected in both “A Ravishing Sun” as Lucy considers the torture and fear her family went through in Cuba, and in “Man of the House,” as Jeb remembers his father and his uncle and how their fear, predating his birth, is visited on him. It wasn’t until the third time I read this story, when I was pulling quotes, that I was driven to tears by Ruby’s strength in smiling as her husband dragged her away, trying to offer her children a view of her that did not reflect her fear and pain. Maybe it helped. Then again:

The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and to this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind.

We don’t know exactly what happened to this family. The impression is their mother was murdered by their father, and the kids were put into some kind of foster care, but Groff leaves those details out as they aren’t important. It’s the relationship between the mother and her children, in this context of violence, that matters, and that’s where Groff focuses our attention.

By a strange coincidence (I keep saying, I love a good coincidence), I just started watching This is Us a few days ago (yes, I’m always late to the party). I’m just a few episodes in, but I’m also blown away by the time compression used there, until there is no past, present, future. It’s used in a pleasant way there, rather than the grim way it’s used here. But the technique is the same: on some level, past, present, and future form a whole, where they aren’t separate. This also fits in with the mooc I recently took on metaphysics, which looked at ways time can be viewed. Do things in the past or future exist? Some schools of thought say yes. Do we look at time as moving, or do we look at our perception as moving along a timeline? How does now become then? Is there a present at all? And moving to ethics: if we realized how our actions in the present will affect those we will love in the future, would we perhaps act differently?

Maybe I just used these things to force the story into something I found more interesting than your standard tale of abuse. And what does it mean that I want to do that? Am I cold-hearted, don’t I care about abuse? I don’t think that’s it; I think it’s more that, at this point, when we’ve already seen the news specials and TV shows, it begins to feel a little emotionally exploitative to use such high-impact drama for fiction unless there’s something more than a display of horror. And here, I believe, there is, both aesthetically, and emotionally.

  *  *  *     

  • Lauren Groff reads this story on WNYC.
  • Jonathan Duelfer discussed this story in a guest post on this very site back when it first appeared in TNY. At the time I made some assumptions about it and declined to read it. I now recognize that was a mistake. Fortunately, BASS has corrected that mistake.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks at his wife’s experience at a shelter for battered women.

BASS 2022: Kim Coleman Foote, “Man of the House” from Ecotone #30

A few years before “Man Of The House” came into existence, I started a fiction collection based on my family’s experience of the Great Migration, thinking I would feature women’s voices only. Then one day, while perusing an anthology of stories and struggling to connect with one about a man on the road, I saw my grandfather on I-95, driving to Florida to meet his uncle. Details of his trip or scant; I’d heard he talked about it often and that his sister couldn’t join him at the last minute, and I’d seen the Polaroid. And yet, I found myself urgently starting a story from his very male perspective, moments of toxic masculinity and all.

Kim Coleman Foote, BASS 2020 Contributor Note

I’ve noticed that when I struggle with a story, my tendency is to get overly concrete and analytical. That happened with the first story: I got fixated on contradictory details of the motorcycle accident. It happened with a story I read for my current reading group, where I kept trying to figure out how the black square was orbiting the earth, as if it were a science fiction story instead of magical realism and very, very emotional. So when I noticed myself picking out details of this story as if they were crucial to my reading, I knew I was doing it wrong.

It’s not that the details weren’t useful, or at least interesting, in the long run. The setting, for instance. I was puzzled by the place name Vauxhall, a name I associate with England, though this seemed to be a very American story. It turns out it’s set in Virginia, and there is no town named Vauxhall; I still don’t know what that name refers to, but it seems less important now that I’ve eliminated England from the equation.

In order to figure out the time that was the present of the story, I actually got out paper and pencil and used a calculator: if Jeb was eight years old in 1920, and is now sixty-one, it must be 1973. Except that the line that gave me his current age was ambiguous: “She had two years on him at sixty-three” could mean his sister Verna is now sixty-three and that makes him sixty-one, or it could be he is sixty-three and she is sixty-five, which would make it 1975. The difference is insignificant.

Then there are the Maxwell House bottles Verna asks Jeb about. I was around in 1973, as well as 1975, and I don’t remember Maxwell House coffee coming in bottles. Turns out, it has nothing to do with coffee, but with Jack Daniels whiskey; in 1971, in honor of the Maxwell House Hotel, the company produced a replica of the whiskey bottle originally designed in the 19th century for the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, TN – the place where Nathan Bedford Forrest was crowned (or whatever you call it) grand pooh-bah of the KKK, and where the first national KKK meeting was held. The coffee was named for the hotel. Makes you want to switch to Nescafe, doesn’t it. But I’m betting if you dig hard enough, Nescafe, developed in Switzerland just prior to WWII, has its own dark history. That’s the thing, isn’t it: to the dismay of anti-CRT school boards, racism is embedded in history.

But the point is, although little of this is of direct importance to the story, it was something concrete I could focus on while the story swirled by me. It’s background, and the story seems to be a great deal of background, which is probably why I struggled with it. It’s less about plot than about a period of time, one family’s experience with the Great Migration, when so many Black people left the South, some just ahead of a lynch mob, to head for what seemed like less racist territory in the North, and the aftereffects.

In his Introduction, Andrew Sean Greer looked at how the way Foote wrote the story reflects Jeb’s place in the history of his family, and the larger history of The Great Migration:

We are given the family first. And then his journey. Jeb is not himself aware of the history of the great migration; he is not even fully aware why he awakens one morning and drives south. But his choice of how to tell the story places him in the history of his family, and places the simple story against the complex and grief-stricken story of black migration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Foote paints this history in the background, which makes Jeb’s actions and struggles both his own and part of a legacy of hope and pain. It is a profound choice by Foote, one that makes for a powerful story.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

After reading Foote’s Contributor Note quoted above, I thought of the story, though fiction, as memoir, which helped me.

Her friends had been by before and seen the yard, along with everybody else in Vauxhall. And their mother never called it junk. She didn’t exactly offer compliments, but she once compared it to artwork in a museum she visited over in New York with the family she kept house for. But the man who created the work in the museum was white, and an artist at that. Jeb didn’t consider his things art. They were simply what people no longer wanted—what they thought was worthless. When he started working as a trash man, he was shocked at what people threw away. The broken chairs and rusted doorknobs, patched tires and dented pots, scrap metal and auto parts, used cans and bottles. So much of it could be mended and resurrected, unlike people when they die.

Jeb is a retired trash collector who has a massive collection of stuff he rescued from the trash. His mother recently died, and now his sister, as owner of the house, wants him to move his stuff out of the yard. He’s not happy about it, but does so, burying it in the woods since his girlfriend won’t let him keep it at her place where he lives.

His mother’s death, and his forced evacuation of stuff, starts him thinking about his Uncle Abe, who returned to the South after his brother, Jeb’s father, died in 1920. It takes a while for the story to get there, but Jeb heads down to find Abe, not an easy task since all he knows is the town. But, amidst a few racist interactions with white folks, a Black post office clerk recalls a guy named Abe and he heads over.

Again, I got all analytical about this, from a 2022 perspective. A post office clerk gives a random stranger someone’s address based on a first name? Jeb doesn’t seem to think this is unusual, and maybe for a very small town – population 316 – it isn’t that strange, but it seems terrifying to me. It might be the presence of an obnoxious white guy makes the clerk feel more bonded with Jeb, more willing to help him out. Jeb comments later about Southern hospitality, but that’s in connection to his uncle’s wife inviting him in so warmly, not the Post Office giving out addresses.

Jeb finds his uncle is past the point of coherence, so he can’t ask him any of the questions about why he’d go back to the South after having left. He does find out one of Verna’s stories is true: he left in the first place because he’d stolen some clothes off someone’s clothesline, and they were coming to get him for it. There’s a certain irony that Jeb can’t understand how someone would return to the South, even in the post-segregation era, a fairly recent development in 1971, when he’s quite aware of how he was denied advancement available to others in his job. I suppose there’s a difference between not getting promoted, being kept in poverty, and being murdered for whatever slight some white person decided to avenge.

Jeb had been planning to stay overnight, but decides to head back.

He grabbed his bag, heaved himself off the bed, then paused. A feeling of unsettlement came over him—the same as when he saw the bare yard on Waldorf. He was about to stuff the lumberjack shirt into his bag when he visualized Verna doing likewise with her baby-doll furniture, the ketchup bottle, his muh’s wedding ring. He fingered the soft red material, which had the slightest scent of aftershave, suddenly understanding why Verna stole. And he was no thief.
Remembering his camera, he tossed the shirt back onto the chair and dug through his bag. He told himself that as soon as he got back home, he would fabricate a story for Verna. He would say that their uncle never wrote because he had difficulty establishing himself in Florida, that he wanted no more visits because he was ill, and that he had a good woman looking after him. If Jeb told the truth, Verna might think he was hiding some historical detail their uncle had shared. She might try to come see him herself. Jeb wanted to spare her the disappointment. And who knew what she might try to pilfer?
He’d give Faye and his friends the real version, though, focusing on the heat and how hospitable everyone was, the red dirt, the lone bolls of cotton, and the overalls everywhere. A surge passed through him as he considered sharing the story of the trip with his children too. When they next visited, Faye wouldn’t have to prompt him to mention the latest trout he’d caught or the bears and deer he’d felled. Those stories made his children look like they were sleeping with their eyes open. Jeb even considered telling all of his children, whoever was willing to listen, about Uncle Abe. The man was, after all, their uncle too.

This is the third BASS story, and also the third one to deal with the relationship between story, memory, and history. Jeb’s collecting is the embodiment of memory. And now he’s ready to pass it on to his next generation. Foote’s story collection is also her way of passing on her family’s part in the history of the African diaspora. She has an additional story from Jeb’s childhood on The Rumpus website.

  *   *   *

  • This story can be read online at Ecotone.
  • Foote’s other story about Jeb, “Daddies and Sons,” can be read online at The Rumpus.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks more closely at Jeb’s inability to let go of the past.

BASS 2022: Yohanca Delgado, “The Little Widow from the Capital” from Paris Review #236

This story is inspired by a Latin American nursery rhyme I sang growing up called “Arros Con Leche.”
…This story takes the collective first person because nursery rhymes are stories we sing together, retelling and reinforcing them for ourselves and for each other. As I wrote, the story swiftly revealed itself to be an exploration of collective narrative – which we sometimes call gossip and sometimes call history – and its ability to transform and subvert itself, even when we think we’ve got all the facts. That the story is set entirely in the domestic sphere is no accident; I wanted to celebrate how full of life, magic, and imagination domestic spaces are because they are the spaces women have traditionally occupied. This is a story about women talking to each other at home.

Yohanca Delgado, Contributor Note BASS 2022

I had a quick and simple post planned. A nod to first person plural (I’m a sucker for oddball narrations), a look at the two-act-plus-an-epilogue structure, a bit about muñecas Limé, and bam, I’m going to get caught up so I can blog through BASS by January 1st. But the more I read about the narration, and the dolls, and the closer I read the text of the story, the more intricate it became: less of a nursery rhyme, more of a meditation on the tension between individuals and groups. Because we all live in both contexts.

To start with the simple view, let me defend my two-acts-and-an-epilogue structure (and be forewarned, there will be spoilers). I have no training in theatre or drama, so have no idea what technically constitutes an act of a play, but I saw two reciprocal halves in the story. The first half rises in mood, the second half falls, and then there’s a tiny little ending that allows fitting it all into a concept.

What?

On the day the widow finally arrived in New York, the rain came in fast, heavy drops that sounded like tiny birds slamming into our windows. She emerged from the taxi with a single battered suitcase and, little-girl small, stared up at our building as the rain pelted her face. Behind us our men and children called out for their dinners, but we ignored them. We would wonder later if she had seen our faces pressed up against the windows, on all six floors, peering out over flowerpots full of barren dirt.
…. She was younger than we expected her to be, thirty, maybe. The amber outfit was all wrong for the chilly autumn weather. She was from Santo Domingo, but she looked like a campesina visiting the city for the first time, everything hand-sewn and outdated by decades. She wore an old-fashioned skirt suit, tailored and nipped at her round waist, and a pair of low-heeled black leather pumps. Seeing them made us glance down at our own scuffed sneakers and leggings. On her head, she wore a pillbox hat, in matching yellow wool sculpted butter-smooth. She dressed her short, plump body as though she adored it.
Instantly, we took a dislike.

On first read, this seemed straightforward enough. A stranger comes to town. A woman in a building of women with husbands, a woman who doesn’t fit in. “We ourselves had been raised on a diet of telenovelas and American magazines, and we knew what beauty was,” the group confidently proclaims, and the little widow is not beautiful, but seems to adore herself nonetheless. On rereading, I recognized so much more: a persistence of images, from birds to families calling out for the women who are busy snooping to all that home-sewn getup.

The little widow and the residents fall into a stable if slightly uneasy truce of moderately friendly greetings in hallways but restricted access beyond. When they discover she can sew, the residents use this to get a look at her apartment: she’s hung burlap on the walls of her sewing room and embroidered scenes of palm trees and ocean vistas down to individual grains of sand. They arrange for a cousin new to town to rent a room from her, and use that as a way to get a look at the widow’s bedroom, which is also embroidered, though with a different motif:

Like the wall of her sewing room, the wall across from her bed was covered with burlap, and on that canvas the little widow had hand-stitched tidy rows of Limé dolls.
The faceless dolls looked just like the clay figurines tourists bought as souvenirs. They varied in hair and clothing—some wore their hair in a single thick plait, draped down the side of their necks, and some wore it down around their shoulders. Their dresses were every color of the rainbow and some wore Sunday hats and carried baskets of flowers. But rendered in the little widow’s hand, these familiar dolls took on an eerie quality. Sonia studied the wall for a long time and became convinced that the dolls represented us.
She took a picture and texted it to the group. We looked at the faceless dolls, with their caramel skin and their ink-black hair styled into bouffants and braids and pigtails. Then we looked at each other, with our jeans and winter boots and blonde highlights.
The resemblances are uncanny, we said.

It takes a lot to look at faceless dolls with black hair wearing rainbow dresses and carrying flowers and decide the resemblance to one’s blonde highlights, jeans, and winter boots is uncanny. You really have to want to see it that way. It makes for a more exciting life, just as it does for a more exciting story. And it gives them an excuse to dislike her, mistrust her, think she’s a witch out to steal their husbands. And by the way, this is only the second time in my life I’ve encountered the word “ensorcel” in any form.

Of course, given my love for researching all manner of trivia from these stories, I had to look up Limé dolls, better known as Muñecas Limé.

Muñecas Limé, also known as Dominican faceless dolls, are a celebrated handicraft of the Dominican Republic and in Dominican homes. Over 40 years ago, in 1981, pottery worker Liliana Mera Limé began sculpting small clay dolls in the town of Moca, located in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic.
Two challenges faced Limé on the potter’s wheel as she set out to depict the beauty of Dominican women in the small, ceramic figures. First, she lacked the necessary tools to define small facial features. Second, no single face could depict the broad spectrum of Dominican diversity. Her solution gave the dolls their most significant feature. Each ceramic figure was given a smooth surface without facial features. Therefore, Muñecas Limé (Limé dolls) became Dominican faceless dolls.
Limé’s original figures were styled with baskets of fruit, hands holding flowers, colorful hats, and dresses with ruffles. Their simple beauty attracted mass appeal and quickly drew interest in Dominican shops.
Today, Dominican faceless dolls are crafted by numerous artists across the Dominican Republic. Their styles and features have broadened to better encompass diverse Dominican identities.
The dolls have many skin tones and depict the mixed heritage and diversity of Dominican people. They honor African, European, and Indigenous identity.
Dominican faceless dolls reflect the multifaceted roles of Dominican women—roles recognized and unrecognized, celebrated or ignored. They depict Dominican mothers, children, wives, farmers, street-vendors, artists, breadwinners, laborers, and more.

“Muñecas Limé: Dominican Faceless Dolls”: article available online

These dolls incorporate the tension between individuality and group identity that runs through the story. The artist sacrificed the individuality of faces to appeal to group identity, yet they must be individuals, for she had to select skin tones, clothing, role indicators, and other details. There’s a subconscious (or maybe not so sub-) tendency to associate these dolls with voodoo, but I could find no connection; voodoo is more a Haitian phenomenon. Still, the connection remains, and the group reinforces it with their concerns about witchcraft.

But this act, as I’m calling it, does start to lift in mood with the arrival of Andrés, the little widow’s suitor. “[W]e heard her laugh ringing in the halls, a lovely, alien sound.” When he proposes, the group runs to see her engagement ring, “[r]elieved that she was finally on the right track, heading toward a life we understood…” The individual has found a way into the group, and the group has found a way to incorporate her. End Act One.

Act Two goes in the other direction, as Andrés turns out to be a scumbag. She sends him away while wearing “a silk dressing gown, embroidered with human hearts the size of silver dollars.” I have to struggle to visualize this detail. Had it read “embroidered with hearts” I wouldn’t have given it much thought, but why the detail of human hearts? That makes me think of anatomical hearts, but I’d be surprised if that’s the case; the anatomical heart doesn’t really resemble the more common Valentine’s heart. I wonder if the idea is to generate imagery of the dress being covered with actual hearts. Now that’s creepy.

Andrés is devastated by the little widow’s rejection, first begging for forgiveness, then asserting the same idiotic masculinity that got him in trouble in the first place. The group all listen at their doors, “swatting away needy children and chatty husbands,” as he tries to beat down the door, while Cheryl, the one of the group who lives across from the little widow, surreptitiously watches the results:

Only Cheryl – who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all the while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andrés – can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.
Andrés raised his arm again, and as he drew it back for another blow, it froze. The arm appeared to be stuck to his head, as if glued there. His back still to Cheryl, Andrés shook himself and tried to use his other hand to pry it loose, but that one became attached, too, and then it looked like he was holding his hands to his head, the way men do when their baseball team is losing. He began to make a frantic humming sound.
When he turned to Cheryl, with the purest, most desperate panic she had ever seen blazing in his eyes, she discovered that his lips had been sewn shut with large, sloppy stitches.
He dropped to his knees with a grunt, and then bent in half at the waist. He kept folding in on himself, over and over, becoming smaller and smaller, his moans of distress more and more distant, until he was just a small scrap of cream fabric that fluttered to the floor in front of apartment 4E.

Thus the witchcraft – in literary terms, magical realism, a realistic story with one magical element as opposed to a fantasy story in which magical events predominate – the group has been assuming, that has been hanging over the story like a faint vapor, becomes realized. This is cool enough, but two outside sources helped me see it in other terms.

First was Jake Weber, my blogging buddy, who in his post (link below) writes: “When something that doesn’t happen in the real world happens in a story where most things do happen in the real world, then, I look at it like a song in a musical. It’s not about the thing, it’s about what the thing signifies.” That sort of takes the fun out of musicals and the magic out of magic realism. Of course we can note that the little widow’s will shut the guy up and reduced him to nothing; there’s reference later that he might have been seen elsewhere, but it’s presented as highly questionable. As the story says, you get to decide what to believe.

The other reference was a post on the Ploughshares blog (again, link below) which compares the story to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and discusses how a named character from the group, in this case, Cheryl, is discredited, punished, temporarily ejected, to maintain the homogeneity of the group:

Named individuals, importantly, are doomed in both pieces… The group narrator, however, casts doubt on the credibility of Cheryl, its chief spy, who allegedly witnessed the incident: “Only Cheryl, who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andres—can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.” In undermining Cheryl, the group narrator communicates that she has outlived her usefulness: she sees and is seen as an individual. Cheryl comes to this realization as well: when the widow locks eyes with her, Cheryl “nearly died of shame.”…
The group narrator is threatened only by individual agency. But, in a twist of fate, the group narrator grows by recruiting individuals. When the group’s desires go unfulfilled by the individual resisting affiliation, group aggression corners the individual until they are vanquished. Groups form when individuals relinquish their autonomy, but they cannot exist without individuals.

“The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” by Dedria Humphries available online at the Ploughshares blog

I’m not sure I buy this. There are two other named characters, and neither are excluded in any way; in fact, their information is incorporated into the group. But it’s still an interesting point: individuality again must be sacrificed to belong to the group, which may or may not accept individual contributions. In the case of Sonia and Florencia, the group absorbs their individual contributions; in the case of Cheryl, they doubt. Even Cheryl’s name is different from the other two. Is her story too outrageous for belief, even by this group that’s already considering witchcraft?

But we still haven’t finished Act Two: the little widow – who, notice, is never named, who is not afforded that particular individuation – is still on stage. It is her wedding day, and the rejection of the groom doesn’t deter her from putting on her wedding dress – embroidered with women’s names – and marching down the aisle – er, hall – and climbs up to the roof, raising herself, where of course she throws herself off before the group realizes what’s going to happen and belatedly moves to stop her.

The dress dissolved into a thousand pigeons, and they filled the space between our building and the next with brown and grey and white, with the sounds of wings flapping. The air was thick with the feathery thrum of their wings as they flew away in different directions, toward downtown, toward the river, toward the Bronx, and skyward, toward heaven.
The little widow was gone. All we had left – as we huddled together for warmth on that silver roof and watched the sky deepen to the bruised plum of Manhattan night – was the story. And so we told it again, and again, until we had stitched the details into our memory.

And now that trifecta of images from that early paragraph – birds, neglected families, snooping – is fulfilled. While it’s perfectly understandable that someone falling off a roof in a city would disturb the ubiquitous pigeons, it’s so much more magical to imagine the dress transforming, the widow disappearing, perhaps embodied in the birds as they fly everywhere. Whichever, she is, for the group in the building, gone.  And all that is left is the story, as is – or will be – the case with all of us. End Act Two.

The final few paragraphs, what I see as the epilogue, are all about the story. In this, the group not only absorb the little widow into their group, but they can “write” their wrongs: the little widow is not gone, but shows up in another town to a warmer welcome, her magical sewing ability now something wonderful instead of frightening: “[W]e, too, thrilled to imagine it.” They now see her as Legendary.

Although this is only the second story in this year’s anthology (and I’ve briefly glanced at the third story), I’m beginning to sense a thematic connection: the connection between stories and history, for better or worse, since stories can range from accurate reports to gossip to wishful thinking to outright lies. A historian requires documentation; a storyteller can rely on imagination. We might do well to mind the distance between the two; both can be enjoyed for themselves.

I greatly enjoyed this story both as a fun read and as a more technical work that plays with narration and imagery. It’s worth considering how we embrace and exclude people from our overlapping communities, and worth thinking about what individualities we must give up in order to join a group – and which ones the group can absorb.

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  • Delgado reads the story (starting at about the 10-minute mark) at the Paris Review podcast #19, “A Memory of the Species”
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic disenchants, perhaps, but makes a valid point, by comparing the story to musical theater. And he taught me the word “diegetic.”
  • Dedria Humphries compares the story to Faulkner in her post “The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” at the Ploughshares blog.
  • Find out more about Muñecas Limé at the National Park Service website (if you’re wondering why the Salem, MA branch of NPS is doing an article on Dominican dolls, it’s because there’s a sizeable Dominican population in the town).
  • The song “Arroz con Leche” and the lyrics are easily available; there are several variations.

BASS 2022: Leslie Blanco, “A Ravishing Sun” from New Letters, 87.1/2

The Tower Tarot card represents chaos and destruction. It is the Major Arcana card of sudden upheaval and unexpected change. This change usually is scary, life changing and often unavoidable. A negative Tower event can be akin to a bomb going off in your life. You don’t know how you will survive but somehow you will and later you will realise that while it was a tremendously difficult thing to go through and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, it has made you into the person you are. One positive aspect of The Tower is that the destruction it brings is usually directed at something that was built on a false beliefs and foundations or unrealistic goals and dreams. Also on the bright side, the destruction The Tower brings is always followed by renewal and creation.

The Tower Tarot card, online at TheTarotGuide.com

I resisted this story. I immersed myself in the neuroscience: epigenetics, PTSD, somatic memory. I played blame-the-protagonist. I played blame-the-writer, resented the flagrant style abuse – I love me some sentence fragments and weird sentence constructions, but come on – and the everything-but-the kitchen-sink content. I focused on minute details: how did the guy’s brains end up going through the windshield if his helmet was still on? I put it aside for a few days and came back to it. Because what it really was, was too close.

The opening values style over information:

I look for the motorcycle, for the body. I look everywhere except at my feet.
At my feet.
By then, people are milling, afraid to go near him.
Not me.
I touch him.
I speak to him.
I see his spirit leave. I see it. Like an S rising up, swishing its tail like a fish, wishing, longing. Then a whoosh – not a sound, a feeling in the silence – so fast in every direction, touching every tree, every molecule, every drop of sky.
Exhilarating.
Until I understand what I am seeing. And then the swarm of dark flies, the stink of carrion, the weight – a boulder – that falls and pins me to that asphalt, to that story. For years.

It’s oddly beautiful – that S shape of the spirit, the image of being pinned – but what’s going on? Persistence is a necessary virtue. This paragraph makes a lot more sense when read after finishing the story. A million Creative Writing 101 teachers will tell you not to start a story by confusing the reader, but sometimes it works, it draws one into the story, arouses curiosity: what’s literal, what’s figurative?  As the opening lines of an anthology, I wonder if it’s a wise choice. Would I have persisted if I hadn’t committed myself to yet another annual BASS read?

The story follows Lucy through her recovery from trauma, a journey that includes a lot of side trips through privilege, the psychosociology of the immigrant, cultural norms, and medical treatments that range from ineffective to quackery.

While the motorcycle accident is the inciting incident in the story, the inciting incident in Lucy’s life is elsewhere. We find out that at the time of the accident, she’s left her husband and her career as a doctor to return to grad school and study Cuban history. She blames medical school for the failure of her marriage: “The world drained slowly of wonder, of beauty, until all that was left was illness…. I want to be outside, with the living.”

It’s not clear exactly clear why this discovery, this decision to change everything about her life, happened at the moment it did, but that is the ultimate inciting incident. The question is muted but hangs over the story: had she not been in the middle of such a massive life change, would the accident have been as traumatic? She sees herself as being punished by karma, Santeria, genetics, the Universe; but what if she’s doing the punishing herself?

 Xavier has been a nice feature of living, though it took her a while to get to the point where she took their relationship seriously. And then a motorcycle crashed into them on a blind curve. Aside from a few lacerations, she and Xavier were not injured, but the motorcyclist died. And this is where her symptoms started. Fear. Lack of motivation. Inability to work. Flashbacks of Xavier’s bleeding face, of the dead man’s brains on his shirt, of the dead man’s soul leaving, coming back to her, over and over.

Her father waits a few days before bringing out the tough love:

Consider this your wake-up call, Lucy, he says, the universe is telling you to get your life in order.
What the hell are you saying? I ask him.
But I know what he’s saying. He wants me to regress. To my husband. To my career. To socially condoned misery.
Scholar? my father’s said. What does that mean, scholar? Are you changing it to historian now? What does historian mean? What will they pay you for, exactly? He acts like he’s never heard of a university. Like he’s never read a history book. Seeing a documentary. Do you have any idea how much I paid for your medical school? You’re a doctor. Do you hear me? A doctor. And every time he’s greeted Xavier – not a doctor – he’s looked him up and down with a scowl, as if Xavier was an intruder, a hitchhiking vagrant I picked up at the side of the road.
This is your wake up call.
Wearily, with no anger or amusement, my sister’s words echo in my head. If you’re going to rebel, couldn’t you have picked something more exciting than Cuban history, for God’s sake? Couldn’t you have become a fucking stripper? My sister. Also a doctor. Married to – what else – a doctor.

That thing about “what does a historian do anyway?” reminded me of my own father. He once told us some news about a cousin: “He teaches a class at some university, and he wrote a book about cults, but I don’t know what he does for a living.” Sociologist, like historian, is not on the scorecard for some people.

The thing is, we learn that Lucy’s father, who emigrated from Cuba, knows something about trauma. About being held at gunpoint by government agents. About secret police. About his father’s torture for insufficient fealty to Communism. Lucy doesn’t know these details for a long time, but she knew her father:

I know which by the way my father holds his body, by the way his papers have to be arranged just so, by the way he cleaves so tightly to the notion of progress, of never looking back. You can’t slow down, he said to me so many times. You’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to go forward. You’ve got to succeed. And at night, he surfs the news channels with a look on his face of intense vigilance. As if reading facial expressions for code. For deception. For apocalypse.
…For a child, from a parent, panic is heritable by touch, by proximity. Calamitous thinking, too. Threatening, traumatized, dysfunctional patterns. Threaded into the DNA.
All it takes, then, is a confluence of traumatic events in a short period of time – a divorce, a career change, a family feud, actual, physical violence – and your brain connects a zillion dots of personal and ancestral suffering.

This process of epigenetic inheritance – generational transmission of trauma, not by genetic mutation, but by changes in the supporting structures that up- and down-regulate the expression of genes – is one of the hot topics in molecular biology these days.  It’s hard to tease out nature from nurture, however.

Xavier becomes an enemy of sorts: Lucy sees his optimism as the product of white privilege. I have a lot of problems with that categorization, but it gives her something to think about, this issue of memory being different for immigrants and people of color. Her Tarot card is The Tower, a warning of danger; his is The Sun, the symbol of optimism – and it just occurs to me now, as I type this, how that resonates with the title and the final line of the story. He leaves. But he comes back. Is that optimism, or is it love?

This is the part of the story where there’s supposed to be a big climax.
There’s no big climax.
One day I do the simple thing. The hard thing. I get up.
I can’t tell you why. Why that day. Why at all.
Except: for getting up is a form of revenge.
…What is history, really, but collective adrenal time? Memories that exist collectively with an altered time signature. Memories collectively stored in isolation from reality. Memories rehearsed as if for a guarantee against the future which never, no matter what historians say, repeat, not really, not to the same people, not to the same way.

When I say this story was too close, this is one of those points where it’s like reading my own biography. Several times, I’ve emotionally collapsed in a heap for months, and several times, one day I got up. I understand the mystery here. But the revenge belongs to Lucy. As are the memories, which become her profession. 

Blanco’s contributor note describes how she originally wrote this as a micro-memoir of a similar series of events in her life, events that culminated on 9/11, but put it aside to work on a novel instead, as she felt “too exposed.” She picked it up once, turned it into fiction, but it still felt exposed, so she put it aside for another novel. The pandemic gave her the chance to get it done. “It only took me twenty years to finish it.”

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  • The story can be found online at New Letters.
  • Jake Weber does a stellar analysis of the many aspects of this story barely mentioned here at Workshop Heretic.