PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up

I found this collection started out quite badly – at one point I debated giving up, but the second story and the promise of the Table of Contents, combined with the commitment already made when I bought the book and started blogging, was enough to keep me going. And as I’ve come to learn, patience and persistence is often rewarded. Despite the rough going for five of the first six stories, it turned out to be a nice little anthology.

My favorites:

Alice Munro: “Corrie” – the second read revealed the depth of craft.

Alice Mattison: “The Vandercook” – I found a personal connection to many elements, and enjoyed the thematic realization.

Other stories I found very enjoyable:

Anthony Doerr: “The Deep” – a period piece that worked for me; then again, I have a fondness for Anthony Doerr.

Karl Taro Greenfeld: “Mickey Mouse” – another period piece, again by an author I’m predisposed to appreciate.

Miroslav Penkov “East of the West” – this had more in common with “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived” by Tamas Dobozy from last year’s PEN/O.Henry than it did with Penkov’s own “A Picture with Yuki” but I can see how Penkov’s collection would require different types of stories. I found it engaging and moving, as well as informative.

Some stories took a while to figure out, but I eventually got there with a little help from the Contributor Notes or online sources:

Lauren Groff: “Eyewall” – once I got the connection between the imagery, plot, and theme, I greatly appreciated what she did here.

Salvatore Scibona: “The Woman Who Lived In The House” – I’m still not completely on board, but it’s growing on me.

And there were a few I just don’t get and felt resentful of the lost time I spent on them:

Sam Ruddick: “Leak” – I still hope someone will someday explain what Threepenny Review and Laura Furman saw in this.

Kevin Wilson: “A Birth In The Woods – I understand and appreciate the inclusion of literary horror (I hope the outstanding Bennett Sims story in the current Summer 2012 issue of Tin House, “House-Sitting,” finds its way into a future collection), but this ended up feeling like a farce.

Wendell Berry: “Nothing Living Lives Alone” – I get scolded enough in real life, I don’t need diatribes in my fiction too.

Maybe the approach to take with this volume is to read from both ends in.

And now – on to BASS 2012, expected in October.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Munro, “Corrie” from The New Yorker

Stonework by Lew French

Stonework by Lew French

“It isn’t a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family, the way you do in a place like this,” Mr. Carlton said. “I mean, for a girl like my daughter Corrie here. For example, I mean, like her. It isn’t good. Nobody on the same level.”

Corrie was right across the table, looking their guest in the eye. She seemed to think this was funny.

“Who’s she going to marry?” her father continued. “She’s twenty-five.”

Corrie raised her eyebrows, made a face.

“You missed a year,” she said. “Twenty-six.”

Here’s another one that should be read, not read about. Yet, it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

On first read, I was disappointed: it’s a simple story, and even allowing for that, there’s what seems to be a cheat. But that’s what second reads are for, as explained by Prof. Charles May’s first blog post on this story:

[A]s I have said many times, the real reading of a story occurs the second or third time, not the first—which is merely an internalizing of the plot and character configuration to make the important second reading possible. “What happens next” is not so important in the short story. “What it means and how it means” is everything.

(I’m going to rely extensively on Professor Charles May’s other two blog posts about this story as well. The comments are well worth reading, too.)

It doesn’t always work this way, but in this case, my second read opened up a treasure chest I simply did not recognize the first time I’d read it.

The dinner guest is Howard Ritchie, a (married) church architect Mr. Carlton has hired to fix the Anglican church steeple: “No hope looking to the Anglicans to do anything – they were a poor class of Irish Protestants who would have taken the tower down and put up something that was a blemish on the town.” How that leapt out at me on second read. In fact, there’s a great deal of symbolism about religion in this piece, as well as literature. I don’t believe it’s by accident Corrie has a lame leg, and is reading The Great Gatsby at a crucial point in the plot; Munro alludes to this in her Contributor Notes, in fact. I need to read Gatsby again.

Corrie shows Howard around the estate – her father is pretty much the lord of the fief, owning the shoe factory where everyone works – and tells him she’s about to tour Egypt. She’s ambivalent about the trip; does he think that would be fun?

“I have to earn a living.”

He was amazed at what he’d said, and, of course, it set her off giggling.

“I was speaking in general terms” she said grandly, when the giggling finished.

“Me, too.”

Some creepy fortune hunter was bound to snap her up, some Egyptian or whatever. She seemed both bold and childish. At first, a man might be intrigued by her, but then her forwardness, her self-satisfaction, if that was what it was, would become tiresome. Of course, there was money, and to some men that never became tiresome.

This, too, turns out to be foreshadowing. Or, perhaps more accurately, the germ of an idea.

On her return, Corrie drifts into an affair with Howard, and we learn she is a sort-of-virgin: at fifteen, she took piano lessons, and “had gone along with what the piano teacher wanted because she felt sorry for people who wanted things so badly.” Again, this leaps out on second read as an important aspect of her character.

Then comes the cheat. I’m still undecided; Professor May discusses it at length in his second blog post on secrecy and POV. Howard tells Corrie that Sadie, a former maid at her house, saw him attending a dinner with his wife, and was now blackmailing him:

She said this in a letter…Would his wife be interested in getting this information? was the way she had put it.…

Corrie decides she will pay the blackmail; after protesting too much, Howard agrees, and reveals further details about the arrangements:

[H]e remembered another thing from her letter. It had to be in bills, he said…A postal box was to be taken in Sadie’s name. The bills in an envelope addressed to her, left there twice a year. The dates to be set by her. Never a day late. Or, as she had said, she might start to worry.

Something about this scene struck me as off. The phrasing is odd. Prof. May calls it “free indirect discourse;” I really need to buckle down and do some study on point of view. Whenever it crops up, it’s crucial, and I only have a slippery grasp on the concept, not enough to really think in terms of what kind of discourse a passage is written in. However, I did notice the passive voice, having been scolded so many times for that sin.

Here I will invoke a quote by James Cary, used by Prof. May, who, at age 9, wrote it down on an index card as it seemed important to him (dang, I was reading the Jim Kjelgaard series about anthropomorphic Irish setters when I was 9):

Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’ – Joyce Cary

She wrote a clumsy passage because it needed to be clumsy. What seemed irritating on first read later became evidence of intricate craftswomanship, the touch of a master. I still think it’s a cheat; but I’m only about 53% convinced of it, and even if it is a cheat, I greatly admire the skill it took to pull it off. I don’t have the command of the topic to explain it, so I urge anyone who’s interested to check out May’s second post on secrecy and POV where the passage is examined in detail. I can follow his reasoning; I’m just not at the place where I can own it yet.

I call this a cheat because it feels to me the letter is presented to the reader, as well as Corrie, as fact. Again, I defer to Prof. May; I have some work to do before I can fully grasp the intricacies of narration at work here. In the meantime, I can still admire it, now that I’ve looked at it closely.

Move forward twenty years: two decades of meeting when possible, of Corrie hearing of Howard’s trips to Europe with his family, of his beginning piano lessons (oh, really? Piano lessons, eh?), of the collapse of the shoe business and further isolation of Corrie, of changes to the town (the Anglican church is gone, and another has sprung up) – all of these events are important, each and every one in itself and as an aggregate – and what must be forty or so payments of “ill-gotten gains” to the evil Sadie. Corrie is now working in the library a few days a week, and she’s reading Gatsby when she hears that Sadie has died at age 43. That night she starts several letters to Howard, to tell him the news, that they no longer have to worry: “The days of the Blackmail are over. The sound of the cuckoo is heard in the land.”

She falls asleep, and wakes up.

There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.

She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.

There is no news to give him. No news, because there never was any.

She’d been set up by Howard as his human ATM, handing him envelopes of cash every six months, never questioning that he passed them to Sadie via postbox… Sadie had nothing to do with this.

This would seem to be the end of the story, but there is yet another twist:

But then there is a surprise. She is capable, still, of shaping up another possibility….She could say a thing that would destroy them, but she does not have to.

What a time it has taken her, to figure this out….

[I]f what they had – what they have – demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.

May’s view is that Corrie and Howard are not to be seen as individual people, but as paradigms for adulterers; the story itself is a paradigm of adultery. With that in mind, when I read that line about paying, I get chills. Corrie, with no family, no friends, no standing in the community, really has little to lose, whereas Howard, with his family and his career, would indeed pay more dearly.

I’m reminded of a news item I saw about stonemason Lew French (photo of his work shown above), who fits stones together in exquisite harmony; how he would distinguish between the right stone and the almost-right one, between a beautiful one and a nothing stone, when they look the same to anyone else, and ends up with glorious fireplaces, walls, passageways, even a stone cottage, held together by nothing but stones gripping each other like they were created to do so. That’s what this story is, with words, sentences, images, themes, threads, symbols, instead of stones.

But only on second (or more) read.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Salvatore Scibona, “The Woman Who Lived In the House” from A Public Space, Summer 2010

Later on, Ásmundur saw that God had sent them the cyclist to foretell that, after twenty years of giving them the stamina and will that makes young Eros turn into the companionship of married love, he would now send bicycle accidents; a toilet seat that cracked under her behind at a friend’s dinner party; brackish water that pooled from untraceable faults in the basement just as they had to sell their house for debt; spoiled milk in fresh cartons; and contempt for all the differences between their characters that, before, they had turned into more and more baroque demonstrations that their love gained strength with exercise.

I missed it completely. The voice. The story opens with Sergei, café, CNN, Amsterdam, coffee, Putin, money, wife, all crowded into the first paragraph. I struggled so hard to get through it, I “heard” the story completely wrong. It’s humor – a dry, laid-back, wistful humor, with little tendrils sneaking into the heart at appropriate intervals to give it weight.

Ásmundur – I kept reading it as “asunder” which isn’t that far off – entered into a shady deal with the aforementioned Sergei, against the advice of his wife, and of course it all went south. That’s merely what starts off a chain of events, as enumerated in the paragraph quoted above, that leads to his divorce.

He had rarely referred to his wife by name. To her father, he called her “she” or “your girl”; to others, “my wife” or, satirizing himself, “the woman who lives with me in the house.” He liked the name and saved it like a child with Easter chocolate for private moments when the lights burned brightly in his mind.

The story stays true to this, never naming the wife. That her name is this precious to him signifies a lot about the relationship. But a dalliance with a university student puts the final blow on the marriage.

All that, however, is merely set-up. Now the story starts in earnest.

He makes an unexpected decision to move back to Iceland from the Netherlands where he’s been most of his adult life. This surprises him along with his now ex-wife, since “[a]s a young man, Ámundur had studied economics in the hope of little more than a one-bedroom flat in Germany or the Low Countries, where he might keep the vow he’d sworn that he would not die incarcerated on the smallholding in Iceland where his mother and grandparents had raised him.” But home he goes, nearby his sister Iris and her four-year-old daughter Frigg. After all, “he might find a warm future in his cold past.” Maybe –

Most comforting: the new sheets and pillowcases of Egyptian cotton that his sister brought from the city as a housewarming present. The stucco walls of the interior bore the trowel strokes of the dead man – who had taught young Ásmundur to shear a ewe, to sever its child’s throat, to wash the child’s intestines and stuff them with it’s ground-up shoulder, and to smoke its head over charcoal.

Yet all that winter he woke in the bed from dreams in which he spoke and walked with none of the house’s former inhabitants, but instead with the woman who had attended the second half of his life.

– and maybe not.

Here’s where the story dug in for me, and I stopped worrying about Sergei and Putin and started enjoying things. Once I was relieved of the burden of remembering all the details thrown into the opening paragraph, I relaxed into the story. I suppose that’s my problem, but I wonder if there might have been a better story beginning here; the whole deal, while relevant, is hardly something that needs detailing, and leading with it made it seem far more important than it ultimately was in the context of the story. It’s just a couple of paragraphs, really, but it colored several pages. Then again, it was a lapse on my part that overlooked the word “kleptocratic.” That should’ve been a clue to not take it all so seriously.

On the farm in Iceland, he finds himself with a dog. She follows him home from the local gas station/tractor repair shop, and won’t leave him alone. He names the dog Hulda, after the university student (“…the joke being that the bitch would never leave him alone…). He marvels at the way the dog attaches itself to him, chooses him, and how that feels good, yet worries that “…the dog began to get mixed up in the very feelings he had come home to Iceland with the goal of never feeling again.”

We are born crippled and stupid, with a vast cavern of mind to fill with memories, conclusions, judgments: a warehouse where we build the store of implements with which we nightly torture ourselves in our dreams. But a dog is born already knowing nearly everything it will ever know.

Those dreams again!

I won’t continue with the plot, because, well, reading it would be preferable to reading about it. I’m quite fond of the way the language is used. And the end, well, it’s just one of those this-changes-everything endings that made me glad once again I vowed to read all these stories through and didn’t give up back in Paragraph 1 with Sergei.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Anthony Doerr, “The Deep” from Zoetrope All-Story, Fall 2010

Claire B. Cotts: "(untitled) girl with red hair"

Claire B. Cotts: “(untitled) girl with red hair”

Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, underinsulated boardinghouse populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

What might your life be like if you were born with a hole in your heart, back before open-heart surgery was possible? If you learned, at the age of four when fainting spells started, that your life expectancy was sixteen; eighteen, if you’re lucky? If the doctor advised against any excitement – your heart only had so many beats in it, after all – so your mother moved your bed into a closet away from lights and sound, then handed you the mop and steel wool to do your chores with the warning to “Go slow”? If the salt mines – what an image, those salt mines, a frequent metaphor for hard labor – were part of your minute-to-minute life:

Every day, all day, the salt finds its way in. It encrusts washbasins, settles on the rims of baseboards. It spills out of the boarders, too: from ears, boots, handkerchiefs. Furrows of glitter gather in the bedsheets: a daily lesson in insidiousness.

You might spend your heartbeats on a red-haired girl at school named Ruby, who brings to school a book about sea creatures, all the mysterious ways of the sea, the salt calling to your senses, maybe, from three million years ago. Even when you have to stop going to school because of all the fainting, Ruby might stop by with a jar of tadpoles because she noticed you’re interested in sea creatures. Your mom would throw them out, of course, but your friendship with Ruby could blossom anyway to include heartbeat-expensive clandestine meetings and explorations of the marsh and books and the world – “Everything, Tom thinks. follows a path worn by those who have gone before: egrets, clouds, tadpoles. Everything.” – might culminate in one single kiss before the Depression hit and nothing would be the same; Ruby disappears from your life, your mother dies, the boardinghouse is foreclosed, and you move downtown to find Mr. Weems, one of the boarders who was like a grandfather to you; he gets you a job in the maternity ward of the hospital, where you encounter Ruby, now a Mrs., again.

Who knows, you might live to be twenty-one, in spite of all the profligate heartbeating. And that might be just long enough for one ineffably sweet trip to the aquarium with Ruby and her baby.

For a moment Ruby is being slowly dragged away from him, as if he were a swimmer caught in a rip, and with every stroke the back of her neck recedes farther into the distance. Then she sits back, and the park heels over, and he can feel the bench become solid beneath him once more.
I used to think, Tom says, that I had to be careful with how much I lived. As if life wa a pocketful of coins. You only got so much and you didn’t want to spend it all in one place.
Ruby looks at him. Her eyelashes whisk up and down.
But now I know life is the one thing in the world that never runs out. I might run out of mine, and you might run out of yours, but the world will never run out of life. And we’re all very lucky to be part of something like that.

A trapdoor opens in the gravel between Tom’s feet, black as a keyhole, and he glances down.

Anthony Doerr has a way of melding setting with character and plot. The salt mines fade into the background as the story goes on, as the sea receded from Detroit, but salt remains as the tinder that starts the ball rolling and in Tom’s ongoing fascination with the sea. In his Contributor note, he recounts how the story came alive: he started with an interest in the life in the oceans, life we’ve only known about for a tiny fraction of our intellectual history; that story was, he says, “heavy on atmosphere and light on humanity.” He put it aside until a television news report compared the current recession to The Great Depression, at which point he researched the era to see how similar or dissimilar it was. Eventually the two ideas came together in one story, with Tom’s heart condition bringing “the right pressure.”

Ann Graham made an observation that added to my enjoyment of the story: “The present tense seems like it would make the story feel close and immediate but it doesn’t feel like that. But, what I think is the theme, living in the moment, the present tense is perfect.” I wouldn’t have thought of that. But she’s right: it is perfect.

This story won the prestigious (and valuable) London Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. You can watch a lovely reading of a significant excerpt (about six pages) by Damian Lewis from WordTheatre’s Sunday Best from the Oxford Literary Festival, part of the lead-in to the announcement of the winner of the Award.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Keith Ridgway, “Rothko Eggs” from Zoetrope All-Story, Spring 2011

Mimi O Chun: “Mark Rothko Cookies” via Martin Refsal at CMYBacon

She didn’t like realism very much, really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there. But she liked abstract art because it was empty. Sometimes it was only empty a tiny amount, and it was easy for her to see what the artist was trying to say or make her feel, and sometimes that was OK, but she usually liked the art that had lots of empty in it, where it was really hard to work out what the artist wanted, or whether the artist wanted anything at all, or was just, you know, trying to look like he had amazing ideas. But really good artists had lots of empty in their paintings or whatever they did. They left everything out, or most things, anyway, but suggested something, so that she could take her own things into the painting (or the installation or the video or whatever), and the best art of all was when she didn’t really know what she was taking in with her, but it felt right, and when she looked at that art and took herself into it she felt amazing.
She wanted to be able to do that. Make that.

Reading this story is like being inside the head of a teenager for a half hour. A fairly thoughtful, intelligent teenager, but a teenager nonetheless.

When I was reading this the first time, I was a little impatient with the style of the prose, the rhythm. Lots of choppy sentences. But it grew on me. Particularly ending long rambling paragraphs with short pithy sentences. I like that.

Cath’s pretty typical for all her thoughtfulness and intelligence. She lives with her mom, now divorced from her police detective father. She goes to school. She has a boyfriend named Stuart and a best friend named Beth and she’s very interested in Art. And like most teenagers, she’s bewildered by a lot of what goes on around her every hour of every day. Unlike most teenagers – and here’s the thoughtful part – she tries to work it out. Not very successfully, but she tries, and she doesn’t shrug and say “Oh well.” She lives with the ambiguity.

Like her parents being divorced, for instance:

She knew that if something terrible happened to her, her parents would have to meet in casualty or the morgue or something and they would break down and cry and hug each other and all the dumb fighting would be forgotten and they would love each other again, because she was dead or a vegetable and that was all they had. And then she imagined herself thinking that if she really loved them she’d kill herself and she laughed. Then she thought that if something terrible happened they would blame each other and spend the rest of their lives tied together by hatred and her death.
Everything was a cliché.

I think every kid who wants his parents to get back together (and some don’t, often for good reason) has had that same fantasy. And come to that exact conclusion. And see what I mean about short pithy sentences at the end of a rambling paragraph? Nice. But not used so often to be sing-songy.

She has the usual tiffs with her parents from time to time. Most recently, her father had delivered the news to her mom that someone they knew had died, and through a misunderstanding of whose friend the woman was, Cath got angry at the messenger. When she found out her father was the woman’s friend, her mind moved in the usual directions, but he wouldn’t give her any further details, other than the woman had lived a cautionary tale life – bright future deteriorating due to drugs and the wrong men, lengthy and slow recovery, suicide. Cath still doesn’t get exactly what’s going on – why is her mom so upset if the woman was her dad’s friend? – and is angry with her dad for not explaining further.

She was still annoyed at her Dad.
He closed down when he needed to be open. That was what she thought. When there was something wrong he became efficient, busy. He dealt with it. Like a policeman. Like you’d want from a policeman. He would arrive and sort it out. Then he’d leave. And it was sorted. It was fixed. It was a closed case and he was closed and everything was shut off and quiet and finished and he forgot about it.
But when there was nothing wrong he was funny and kind and patient and open.
She thought it through again. She wasn’t sure what she was complaining about.

This girl is playing teenager and parent in her head. Because that’s exactly what a parent would do: just what is it that annoys you about this father who is able to take care of problems competently and calmly, but switches gears to be a great guy otherwise? Nevertheless, she’s still mad. But it’s a thoughtful mad. I wish I handled my mad half as well now, let alone when I was a teenager.

She’s also trying to figure out friendship. Beth, BFF, is her closest confidant:

…she wanted to tell [Beth] that kissing Stuart was like being inside a Jackson Pollock painting. She really wanted to say that. She was determined to say that. But when it came to it she just said that it was really good, and bare sexy. It made her think that maybe Beth and her weren’t as close as she had thought. Because why else would she not say what she wanted to say? It was just stupid.

What I like about this character is that she never answers her own questions. That would be Judy Blume territory, the teenager delivering wisdom after every disappointment or mistake. No, Cath wonders, and resolves little, but in this case the lack of resolution is a good thing, both in terms of story/character, and in terms of Cath: this is where a lot of people calcify into cynicism and rage, developing into self-defeating attitudes, rather than keeping the question open, waiting for further information.

She’s also figuring out her boyfriend, and sex. They’ve had almost-sex, and she really likes him. But she’s not completely swept off her feet, either, and she doesn’t ignore those little nagging anxieties. In fact, she dissects them.

And even though he never blatantly pushed her into doing anything, he had a way of making her do stuff anyway, by getting the two of them arranged in such and such a way and leaving the opportunity open for her to do it if she wanted to, but to not do it if she didn’t want to. Which was how she ended up giving her first ever blow job for example. In her life.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Boys haven’t changed since 1968. I wonder if it’s part of the Y-chromosome, the knowledge of how to get a girl to do exactly what you want by saying, “You don’t have to, only if you want to.”

The story follows a rather meandering path through Cath’s life, which makes it difficult to pin down just where the climax is. But I’ll settle for the passage from which the title is taken. She and Stuart visit the Rothko Room at the Tate. Cath doesn’t quite get Rothko, and she’s trying to. Stuart, however, is moved to tears, though he can’t explain why. Later, they talk in a café, and he seems a little embarrassed by his emotional reaction.

She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
—I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah?… And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art—he’s always doing this—and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn’t know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he’d gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!
She laughed.
Stuart smiled.
—So now he still calls scrambled eggs Rothko eggs. I never corrected him. He hasn’t realized yet. So he’s always asking for Rothko eggs. I bet he does it at work and everything. Trying to show off how cultured he is. Down the police station, you know? Pretending he knows his art. Had some great Rothko eggs this morning. And no one has a clue what he’s on about. It’s so funny.
And she laughed, to show how funny it was.

It’s the last line of that – laughing to show how funny it was – that elevates it. In fact, I’d say it’s the most important sentence of the entire story. Because she’s doing it again, saying not what she’s feeling but something else, and she’s determined to find this egg business funny, to find a way to laugh at her father’s touching efforts to connect with her. Yet she’s moved by them as well – so moved, she can’t begin to approach the emotion directly. Maybe. I could be misreading this whole thing – but there’s a lot of empty space in this story, and that’s what fills it up for me. Your mileage may vary.

I was drowning in this story, unable to find anything to hang on to – the relentless teenager vibe, the lack of any sense of progression beyond a sequence of events, no complication or goal, the style, even the method of quoting conversation, had me pretty turned off. I’d enjoyed Ridgway’s “The Goo Book” last year, and I was looking forward to this story. Both appear in his just-published collection Hawthorn & Child, a collection of stories linked by the policemen that appear within. Such as Cath’s father. And, in a way, Cath, who is tentatively investigating life and her reactions to it with all the tenacity of a junior Bobby Goren.

So I went looking for help, and as usual, I found it, in the person of Alan Bowden of WordsOfMercury:

There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’ explore this sense very effectively in their different ways.

So this story about a girl searching for answers, and being uncertain of the ones she’s proposing, has turned me into a reader doing the same thing. That’s pretty cool. Embrace the empty space, but keep trying to see what fits.

Cath’s last thought:

She went home. She thought about their day. Something had gone wrong but she didn’t know what.

Of course not.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Lauren Groff, “Eyewall” from Subtropics, W/S 2011

Peter D’Aprix: “Young Woman in an Egg”

It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d yelled before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

This story about a hurricane taught me something; or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, it reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten.

On first read, I was perplexed. The prose seemed a bit purple for literary fiction, like a high school student assignment: “Write 6000 words using description, imagery, and metaphor.” I’m all in favor of beautiful phrases and startling images, but it seemed a little much:

…the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.
The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.
The great hand of the storm would wipe them off the road like words from a chalkboard.
The house sucked in a shuddery breath…
…the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts.
There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds…
…waggling its oars like swimmers’ arms.
[The wind] riffled through my books one by one as if searching for marginalia…
Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch.
…towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted.
The storm had stolen the rest of the wine and the butler’s pantry, too.
My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked.

The language was getting in the way of the story. It’s something like Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet theory of typography, which I learned about when I read Simon Garfield’s Just My Type – the medium, be it words or letter forms, should serve the message, not overpower it. I felt like the language here was distancing me from the story, like an overeager performer who sticks out like a sore thumb in an ensemble performance.

I read Groff’s Contributor Note: the story came to her first in structure, as she watched a storm cloud approaching and felt “unbearable fragile and exposed.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, since I didn’t see anything particularly unique in the structure of the story: it covers the hours spent riding out a hurricane, including visits from three ghosts, and ends with an improbable image of hope and renewal.

But I set about my usual routine, checking out other commentary on the story, and found this by Charles May on his Reading the Short Story blog:

The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way.

Now I was able to more fully absorb Groff’s Contributor Note: “I saw a despairing character who was at the center of some harsh circular winds that were, in turn, whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.” The language was not for the sake of writing pretty words; it was integral to her concept of the story.

This made a huge difference to me as I reread the story. I was able to see a lot that I hadn’t before. The chickens, for instance. The story begins with chickens, in the opening paragraph quoted above, and they appear – or disappear – throughout

My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.

As each man from her life – the ex-husband who died a week after he left her for his younger mistress, the boyfriend she “lost” in Barcelona, who later killed himself – “There it was, the wet rose blossoming above his ear” – her father, who died while she was away at camp, her mother deliberately not telling her he was sick – she confronts a different part of her past, a different kind of loss.

Her childlessness – perhaps infertility – is another different kind of loss that comes back to her. She remembers her first impression of the house the storm is now battering:

I fell for the long swing in the heritage oak over the lake, which had thrilled some child, which was waiting for another. My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.

And at the end of the storm, alone again, she surveys the destruction of her house and neighborhood, culminating in one final image:

Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.

I’m really impressed how this ties so much of the story together. It’s a bit over the top, still, but it’s got the chickens, the infertility, the destruction, the survival, all wrapped up there in one perfect, improbable egg.

Groff’s interview with Subtropics focuses more on general issues – altering facts in historical fiction, the perils of using ghosts in literary short stories – than on the story itself. But that’s ok. By the time I got there, I had it already. And again I remember why I do this – it’s so easy to put aside a story that doesn’t work on first read, but if I keep an open mind and go digging, consult those wiser than I, it’s possible I just might find what I’d overlooked. This is the third of Groff’s stories I’ve read, and it’s by far my favorite.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Yiyun Li, “Kindness” from A Public Space #10, Summer 2010

Art from SF Gate

Art from SF Gate

But it is Professor Shan’s collection that I truly live with, Dickens and Hardy and Lawrence, who once saw me as a young girl and who will one day see me as an old woman. The people who live out their lives in those books, like their creators, are not my people, and I wonder if it is this irrelevance that makes it easy for me to wander among them, the same way that my not being related to my parents by blood makes it easy for me to claim their love story as mine.

Moyan tells us of her life: she learned not to love from a couple of chicklings, a flautist, and a teacher who, though she warned her about the pain love brings, ended up being the closest relationship of her life.

It’s a very long story – 70 pages in this edition – really a novella rather than a short story. It’s also in Li’s collection Gold Boy Emerald Girl, and has received high praise from everyone, including two of the three PEN/O.Henry jurors who chose it as the best story of the anthology.

It starts out with Moyan’s self-assessment; this seems grim, but is merely straightforward:

I am a forty-one-year-old woman living by myself, in the same one- bedroom flat where I have always lived, in a derelict building on the outskirts of Beijing that is threatened to be demolished by government-backed real estate developers. Apart from a trip to a cheap seaside resort, taken with my parents the summer I turned five, I have not traveled much; I spent a year in an army camp in central China, but other than that I have never lived away from home…. I have not married, and naturally have no children. I have few friends, though as I have never left the neighborhood, I have enough acquaintances, most of them a generation or two older. Being around them is comforting; never is there a day when I feel that I am alone in aging.
I teach mathematics in a third-tier middle school. I do not love my job or my students, but I have noticed that even the most meager attention I give to the students is returned by a few of them with respect and gratitude and sometimes inexplicable infatuation. I pity those children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else’s life.
I have no hobby that takes me outside my flat during my spare time. I do not own a television set, but I have a roomful of books at least half a century older than I am. I have never in my life hurt a soul, or, if I have done any harm unintentionally the pain I inflicted was the most trivial kind, forgotten the moment it was felt-if indeed it could be felt in any way. But that cannot be a happy life, or much of a life at all, you might say. That may very well be true. “Why are you unhappy?” To this day, if I close my eyes I can feel Lieutenant Wei’s finger under my chin, lifting my face to a spring night. “Tell me, how can we make you happy?”
The questions, put to me twenty-three years ago, have remained unanswerable, though it no longer matters, as, you see, Lieutenant Wei died three weeks ago…

The notice of Lt. Wei’s death is the motivation for her telling of the story of her life, focusing on the time spent in the army camp but bringing in the few other important relationships that led to her decision to avoid love and attachment. These sidetrips into the past inform her life in the army camp, and her present.

Her mother was crazy, perhaps not clinically but by social standards, rendered that way by unrequited love for a married man. She was offered a choice: marry another man, much older, or go to an institution. She chose marriage. Moyan remembers her as spending most of her time languishing in bed, reading old romance novels.

Her father, a department store janitor, seems to mean well. An early incident she recalls involves two chicks, bought for her by some neighbors since her father could not afford them:

My father, on the way home, warned me gently that the chicks were too young to last more than a day or two. I built a nest for the chicks out of a shoe box and ripped newspaper, and fed them water-softened millet grains and a day later, when they looked ill, aspirin dissolved in water. Two days later they died, the one I named Dot and marked with ink on his forehead the first one to go, followed by Mushroom. I stole two eggs from the kitchen when my father went to help a neighbor fix a leaking sink – my mother was not often around in those days – and cracked them carefully and washed away the yolks and whites; but no matter how hard I tried I could not fit the chicks back into the shells, and I can see, to this day, the half shell on Dot’s head, covering the ink spot like a funny little hat.
I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the eggshell.

This is not when Moyan decides not to love; it is merely the first step, and I respect that the story doesn’t try to reduce things down to a single moment. A neighborhood teacher, Professor Shan, calls Moyan aside when she is twelve, first to tell her that her that she is adopted, then to teach her to read English via David Copperfield (among others).

Just before high school, as they move on to D. H. Lawrence, another neighbor enters her awareness. They relate almost entirely through his baby daughter: he calls her Nini’s Sister; she calls him Nini’s Father. When he leaves suddenly, he calls her aside to say goodbye in a very sweet and touching way; she is distracted for her lesson with Professor Shan, who surmises the reason and offers some advice:
“The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool…. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you. Do you understand, Moyan?”

Moyan understands perfectly. She stops visiting Professor Shan, but surreptitiously takes a volume of D. H. Lawrence stories with her.

These incidents are woven into the primary plot line of her time in the army camp, where she has good relationships with several soldiers (including Jie, who asks her to underline the “good” parts of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and then is later disappointed when reality doesn’t match literary license), but still keeps her distance, especially from Lt. Wei, who switches back and forth from drill sergeant to counselor. Whatever her role, Moyan maintains a steely presence, never accepting the friendship offered.

Her time in the army is not joyless: she finds comfort and enjoyment in a march, a day in the woods, in a field of fireflies. These are small joys, to be sure, brief, and solitary. She returns home because of a family emergency, and discovers something new about her mother, another defining trait, a startling piece of the puzzle. She returns to Professor Shan for daily readings that continue until her death twelve years later, at which point Moyan finds herself excluded from the funeral by the Professor’s family; they seemed to think she was trying to get her hands on an inheritance.

It’s a beautifully written, quiet story, very internal, all in Moyan’s revelations and discoveries of her family and herself. There’s a lot said in what isn’t said. In her Contributor Notes, Li says she wrote this as an homage to William Trevor:

I opened the novella with three sentences that echoed the opening sentences of Nights at the Alexandra, and while writing it, I imagined my narrator speaking to the narrator in Trevor’s novella – both characters lead a stoically solitary life, yet both are capable, and are proofs, of love, and affection and loyalty. Their conversation would not have happened in reality, but I hope that by speaking to one person in her mind, my narrator, in the end, speaks to many.

I love that technique. It’s always strange when a narrator just starts relating a story out of thin air. It’s what we’re used to, of course; it’s what a story is. But it does require a certain suspension of disbelief, that upon receiving the notice of Lt. Wei’s death, Moyan would stop and write down this story, as in a journal. Having this extra layer, though it’s not explicitly part of the text, seems like a great way to define Moyan and to keep the purpose of the story crystal-clear throughout.

I’m perhaps not as taken with the story as a whole as most, a reaction I find is similar to that I had to Claire Keegan’s “Foster,” an Irish novella from last year. Maybe it’s novellas, especially where short stories are expected (there’s a different way of reading involved, and a different type of discussion, and I found myself annoyed to be interrupted from the rhythm I’d set for this volume; that’s entirely my problem, and a pretty ridiculous one, but fact is I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this novella had it been presented separately); maybe I’m just moving away from the internal narrative I’ve always been so fixated on. That, in fact, would be a good thing. I’m still envious that someone is allowed to write such an internal story – or maybe it’s that she’s able to do so in a way that still has momentum, something I never learned.

Still, it’s lovely, and I’m glad PEN/O.Henry snuck it in on me here.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: John Berger, “A Brush” from Harper’s, September 2010

Fernand Legere, “Les Grandes Plongeurs Noirs”

I first noticed her because she swam differently. The movements of her arms and legs were curiously slow, like those of a frog, and at the same time her speed was not dramatically reduced. She had a different relationship to the element of water.

I’ve been looking forward to this story ever since Aaron Riccio mentioned, as we were starting this anthology, that it was perhaps his least favorite story of all time. I’m not sure I’d go that far; but I have to admit, if I’d encountered it in a workshop rather than in a prize volume, I’d have some serious criticism.

Isn’t that an odd thing – because it’s written by someone who’s published numerous novels and stories, won prestigious prizes (including the Booker prize), and is a recognized authority on art, and because it first appeared in Harper’s and now here – I’m willing to work harder for it. If so many learned people saw great value in this, I need to find out what that value is.

I see glimmers. The overall story is very simple – a man encounters a Cambodian woman in a French public pool, finds out she’s an artist; he gives her a brush he’s treasured, and she paints him a picture. In between there’s reference to art and Cambodian history.

For me, a good part of the problem is that stylistically it’s nearly unreadable. That sounds harsh, I know, but the prose is what anyone who’s ever been workshopped would call clumsy. The opening paragraph:

I want to tell you the story of how I gave away this Sho Japanese brush. Where it happened and how. The brush had been given to me by an actor friend who had gone to work for a while with some Noh performers in Japan.

I can hear minimalists and writing teachers everywhere saying, “Don’t tell me what you want to do, do it! And if you’re going to bring in an actor friend, s/he’d better have more significance than this passing reference.”

The story continues:

I drew often with it. It was made of the hairs of horse and sheep. These hairs once grew out of a skin. Maybe this is why when gathered together into a brush with a bamboo handle they transmit sensations so vividly. When I drew with it I had the impression that it and my fingers loosely holding it were touching not paper but a skin. The notion that a paper being drawn on is like a skin is there in the very word: brushstroke. The one and only touch of the brush! as the great draftsman Shitao termed it.

There’s a lovely idea here, the brush touching skin – a kind of communication (I instinctively took the skin to be that of a living, breathing person, not some kind of dead animal skin like parchment, though using “a skin” casts doubt on that). The idea of a single brushstroke is a motif that plays throughout. But… those three choppy sentences that begin the paragraph, what is that? And again, it feels like someone just talking randomly, not telling a story.

The setting for the story was a municipal swimming pool in a popular, not chic, Paris suburb…
The building is long and squat, and its walls are of glass and brick….

Seen from the outside, it’s an urban not a rural building, and if you didn’t know it was a swimming pool and you forgot about the trees you might suppose it was some kind of railway building, a cleaning shed for coaches, a loading bay.

Again, there’s some good material here – appearances being deceiving, the long squat shape, the contrast of glass and brick, of rural and urban. But add tense changes to the “here is what I’m going to do” explanation, and I’m pulling my hair out. In fact, when I was reading, at this point I went looking for a translator, thinking maybe it wasn’t originally written in English, or the writer was more comfortable in another language and was using that syntax. But no.

This went through two editors. It has to be a deliberate choice. But why? Because the artist does not look like an artist? An emphasis on the horizontal (I vaguely recall from Art for Dummies that horizontal lines convey rest and stability)? Is it really necessary to torment me with style to convey these things?

Three times the narrative is interrupted by a short paragraph about a specific artwork: Huang Shen’s drawing of a cicada on a willow to explain the single brushstrokes used for each leaf; Ferdnand Leger’s plongeur series (one of which is shown above) which brings in the dream of leisure (how interesting the series was painted mostly during WWII, not a great period for leisure); and Qi Baishi, whose frogs, a symbol of freedom, seem to the narrator to be wearing bathing caps, like the Cambodian swimmer. Then there’s a lengthy review of the tragedy of modern Cambodian history. I wonder if Berger, a Brit, is scolding us Yanks. As though we need it.

The last line – “And again I understood a little more about homelesness.” – while powerful, doesn’t seem earned to me. I understand the Cambodian woman has been cut off from her home. Maybe the horizontal building becomes a symbol of home, rest, stability; maybe the branch the bird she paints sits on is the same; it’s hanging upside down and so perhaps its grasp on home seems precarious.

All of this is good material, but again, it stops the narrative in its tracks and is conveyed as if the author suddenly decided to give an art lecture. I was thinking maybe it’s something like how he describes the painting of bamboo the Cambodian artist makes for him:

The bamboo is drawn according to all the rules of the art. A single brushstroke beginning at the top of the stalk, stopping at each section, descending and becomming slightly wider. The branches, narrow as matches, drawn with the tip of the brush. The dark leaves rendered in single strokes like darting fish. And last on the horizontal nodes, bruched from left to right, between each section of the hollow stalk.

I see a clue here: in the same way, the narrative stops, and a horizontal rest point – a description of art, or the history of Cambodia – is inserted before beginning again; it is one story, one brushstroke, but is chopped up, and the tiny sentences, perhaps imitate the leaves and branches.

But that’s really reaching. It’s a kind of respect, I suppose, to allow for an author of Berger’s stature and experience. But like the paintings that “could’ve been done by a 5-year-old” (which, by the way, is virtually never true even if it does make a great put-down), this story feels like it needs serious editing. Maybe it’s perfect, just the way it is, and I’m being narrow-minded and not appreciating the artistic value of what he’s done here.

But I don’t think so. I think it’s an interesting theoretical idea that doesn’t work in practice. And damn, couldn’t he at least fix those tense shifts?

PEN/O.Henry 2012: by Miroslav Penkov, “East of the West” from Orion, May/June 2011

It takes me thirty years, and the loss of those I love, to finally arrive in Beograd. Now I’m pacing outside my cousin’s apartment, flowers in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other, rehearsing the simple questions I want to ask her. A moment ago, a Serbian cabdriver spat on me and I take time to wipe the spot on my shirt. I count to eleven.
Vera, I repeat once more in my head, will you marry me?

Know any Bulgarians? I feel as if I know several, having read this story.

It’s a story as complicated as the region in which it’s set. I plead guilty to being a little hazy in my Balkan history, but look up “balkanize” and you’ll get the general idea. It’s a story that’s part folk tale, part historical romance, part sociological treatise – and it ends with Nose coming to terms with Bobby McGee: freedom truly is just another word for nothing left to lose.

But it starts with Nose on the porch waiting for Vera to open the door. He’s called Nose – we never find out his real name – because thirty years earlier, Vera punched him in the nose and broke it, so it’s his most distinctive feature.

Then we go back to find out how he came to be there on the doorstep, and delve into the junction of personal and geopolitical history:

A long time ago these two villages had been one – that of Staro Selo – but after the great wars Bulgaria had lost land and that land had been given to the Serbs. The river, splitting the village in two hamlets, had served as a boundary – what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria and what lay west belonged to Serbia.

As you can tell, the idea of “east” and “west” are crucial to this story. But a little more history makes it much clearer:

Back in the day, before the Balkan Wars, a rich man lived east of the river. He had no offspring and no wife, so when he lay down dying he called his servant with a final wish – to build, with his money, a village church. The church was built, west of the river, and the peasants hired from afar a young zograf, a master of icons. The master painted for two years and there he met a girl and fell in love with her and married her and they too lived west of the river, near the church.
Then came the Balkan Wars and after that the First World War. All these wars Bulgaria lost, and much Bulgarian land was given to the Serbs. Three officials arrived in the village: one was a Russian, one was French, one was British. East of the river, they said, stays in Bulgaria. Soldiers guarded the banks and planned to take the bridge down, and when the young master, who had gone away to work on another church, came back, the soldiers refused to let him cross the border and return to his wife.
In his desperation the gathered people and convinced them to divert the river, to push it west until it went around the village. Because according to the orders, what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria.
How they carried all those stones, all those logs, how they piled them up, I cannot imagine. Why the soldiers did not stop them, I don’t know. The river moved west and it looked like she would serpent around the village. But then she twisted, wiggled, and tasted with her tongue a route of lesser resistance – through the lower hamlet she swept, devouring people and houses. Even the church, in which the master had left two years of his life, was lost in her belly.

Nose and Vera grew up on opposite sides of the river, meeting in reunions and once in a while illicitly by swimming the river. The church’s cross still sticks up through the water halfway across at one point. The river is part of the culture of the two towns; it’s also a character in the story.

Uncle Radko had taken his sheep by the cliffs, where the river narrowed, and seeing Grandpa herding his animals on the opposite bluff, shouted, I bet your Bulgars will lose in London, and Grandpa shouted back, You wanna put some money on it? And that’s how the bet was made, thirty years ago.

But those to the East are still Bulgarians, while those on the West are now considered Serbs, come to consider themselves Serbs. This idea of identity, how it strains when some men from somewhere else meet in a room to draw lines on maps, is a central theme, and this is a story those men from somewhere else should read when they meet in those rooms to draw those maps. Nose envies her access to Adidas shoes and Levi’s jeans and Western music, but when he presses her to declare if she is Bulgarian or Serb, she doesn’t answer.

I knew she was sad. And I liked it. She had nice shoes, and jeans, and could listen to bands from the West, but I owned something that had been taken away from her forever.

The story twists and turns like a river. Communism falls; Vera moves away, marries, has a son (whose name she expects him to recognize; it’s unclear if it’s his name), then loses her husband in another war. Nose’s sister is shot by border guards on the night before her marriage to a boy from across the river; his mother dies of grief; he begins to drink. Eventually he is alone, in a town he doesn’t recognize, so he goes to Vera to ask for her hand. The end, I’ll leave unrevealed.

Penkov is a Bulgarian who came to Arkansas in 2001 on scholarship and now lives and teaches in North Texas. He’s much younger than the story makes the author seem. He’s done a 10-minute podcast interview with Orion, the journal that originally published this story, which is very much worth listening to. He read an article about a town in Bulgaria that was split apart after the Balkan Wars, and they did hold reunions every five years; he thought that would make an interesting story. At the same time, he was here in the States, separated from his family by a huge body of water, so he wanted to incorporate a river, with wide and narrow parts, fast and slow. I think he did a terrific job.

I first read Penkov in One Story, which published “A Picture With Yuki” last year. Both stories appear in his debut collection, titled East of the West. You may see the other stories in these pages at some point; I think I want to know more Bulgarians.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Ann Packer, “Things Said or Done” from Zoetrope All-Story, Summer 2010

Tim Slowinsky, "Dysfunctional Family"

Tim Slowinsky, “Dysfunctional Family”

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.

– William Butler Yeats

Which is worse, guilt or humiliation? It depends on whether you’re the enabler or the enabled.

Sasha, 50-ish, divorced, attends her brother’s wedding, accompanied by her father. Mom, who took off 35 years ago, will also be there, and Sasha’s worried about how the parents will conduct themselves. The story is a glacially slow and excruciatingly close examination of the family dynamics between all four players, but primarily between Sasha and her father. In fact, the plot of the wedding is more or less an excuse for stringing together descriptions of the interactions of the principals over the years.

Dad (it should be noted Sasha refers to both parents by their first names, Dan and Joanie, in an interesting manifestation of the lack of parenting that has gone on) is the textbook definition of narcissistic personality disorder: superior, dramatic, attention-seeking, manipulative.

Other people throw parties; my father throws emergencies. It’s been like this forever. When I was a kid I thought the difference between my father and other parents was that my father was more fun. It took me years to see it clearly. My father was a rabble-rouser. He was fun like a cyclone.

Sasha is not without insight about the effect he had on her:

Beginning when I was very young, he conferred specialness on me and then required that I earn it, and I was only too happy to comply, dividing my efforts between precocity (memorizing at age seven the prologue to The Canterbury Tales) and fussiness (insisting on two thick foam rubber pillows for sleep every night; refusing ever to wear green). We lived in tacit agreement that I could be anything but ordinary. Like him, I was to breathe only the rarefied air of the never-quite-satisfied, and the more difficult I was, the more entranced he became. Which is not, it turns out, the best preparation for life. Or marriage, as my ex-husband would certainly attest.

Mom’s departure left its mark on Dad, and, because she too was left behind, on Sasha as well:

It’s been thirty-five years since she left him, but I remember it vividly: his heartsick weeping, his enervation, his despair….he’d sit behind the desk and ask if I thought she’d ever come back, or even, incredibly, why she’d left, as if he’d been away for the bulk of their marriage and needed me to tell him what had happened. … I joked to friends that if only my father had been more absent, things might have worked out between him and my mother.

And she also sees the effects of the family on brother Peter as he prepares to wed Cressida:

Last night, staring across the picnic table at Peter, I caught a glimpse of the boy he was at thirteen, when his family fell apart, and I thought it made sense, how late he was marrying: he’d waited till he was older than our father was at the time his marriage ended. What this means, though, is that he’s old enough to be Cressida’s father, and I worry about the strains of gratitude in his voice when he talks about her.

These insights are interesting and well-phrased, but a little much after a while. Still, the story is well-constructed, with a built-in structure of the wedding allowing for the various scenes to unfold, allowing for more revelations about Sasha’s life with Father. It occurred to me when the lines from Passover seder were brought in that this is the kind of story that frequently is played for humor with the Jewish mother as the histrionic hypochondriac and the dutiful son alternating between anger and guilt.

We all know families like this, someone who must at all times be the center of attention, someone who complains about the burden placed on him but does nothing to rid himself of it, someone who has given up and just walled himself off. But for all this analysis of character and interpersonal relationships, a couple of important details remain unaddressed: when Mom left, why did Sasha not go with her? Just how much rage does she carry about being abandoned with her needy father? Did brother Peter also stay behind, or was he warped by leaving?

The story goes on this way, painting an intricate picture of these four disasters and how they skim past each other. The above poem comes into play late in the game and cements the theme of action and equal and opposite reaction. The climax comes when Mom, whom Sasha admires for having taken detachment to its most elegant level, reveals she thought about leaving three years before she actually did – “It took me three years to figure out that if I wasn’t doing it to you, then I could do it” – though I’m not sure why this is such an earth-shaking revelation.

This is the second of two linked novellas, as Packer calls them, about this family that open and close her collection Swim Back To Me. The first shows Sasha at age 13 when she was involved with a boy. In this later closing chapter, her father mentions him, and while she remembers the chaos of that time, she does not remember the boy. People who read both stories found this odd. I don’t, actually, since it’s often the case that something that seems central is only a means to a far more important end. But I haven’t read the earlier story. I suspect I would have enjoyed this continuation more if I had.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Mickey Mouse” from Santa Monica Review, Fall 2010, and the collection NowTrends

Mickey Mouse montage celebrating the 25th anniversary of Disney Resort in Tokyo (2007)

Mickey Mouse montage celebrating 25th anniversary of Disney Resort in Tokyo (2007)

He was dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, worsted wool from London, with a paisley pocket square peeking over the selvage and a gold watch chain dangling from another cavity into the fabric. He had always been a dandy, and now, in his new prosperity, in his high office, with his surfeit of imperial spoils, he could afford such finery. He shook an English cigarette from a box and lit it with an American lighter.
I had been seated at my drafting table, working on some pen and ink sketches, and as the ink was still wet I did not cover the illustration before answering the door. Kunugi immediately crossed the room and inspected the drawing, a mother and son, each tightly bundled in a kimono, walking on a country road, first snow falling. The mother was carrying a military uniform bound in white string. My first attempt had them walking with a crippled soldier hobbling on crutches, still in uniform but with one leg missing. In this version, I had tried it without the soldier, and it was more effective, his absence implied.
This does not inspire, Kunugi observed as he exhaled.

I can see the painting in my head: I can see Kunugi. The juxtaposition is a powerful statement, a terrific opening scene that snared me right in to this story. And the painting itself, with the emphasis on what is implied by what is not there, begins a key element of this story: the importance of what is not said.

I realized right away I’d read very little about life in WWII Japan. The same period in Germany and the rest of Europe is richly documented in fiction, biography, memoir, documentary, etc. Greenfeld, in his Contributor Note, says he hadn’t, either, so he was interested in examining the period, particularly the repression of art that did not meet national goals.

He does so by way of Ohta, a middle-aged artist and university teacher whose career is dying “by attrition” as the “liberal” magazine that published most of his work was shut down, and young people had no time or thought for art. His art school classmate, Kunugi, appears. The two weren’t friends; Kunugi was far more recognized as a student, though Ohta hasn’t seen his name in connection with art in quite some time. It was Kunugi who issued the memo shutting down the magazine, and now Kunugi comes to Ohta with an official national problem:

Mickey Mouse, he began, is on the list of enemy characters.
This did not surprise me.

Kunugi, decked in English and American finery, assigns Ohta the task of creating a character that will displace Mickey Mouse, better personify the Japanese culture, and boost morale. Ohta is a bit dubious, since he’s never done animation, but it’s work he needs, and he reports to the appropriate office.

They took my card and my identification card, filled out a form on onionskin paper, and rolled that into a leather-capped bamboo tube which they dropped into a pneumatic cylinder beside them. With a shhhhoooop, the bamboo tube was sucked away.

I love that touch of detail, the bamboo tube used in a pneumatic chute: the familiar and the exotic. It’s one of the many things that makes this story work so well. Greenfeld is very good at describing details that stand out, not because they are beautifully worded but because they are unique and resonant. It’s a story of implication.

Over the years as the war progresses, Ohta brings many sketches for his Japanese Mickey Mouse to the supervisor – “a badger, a deer, a pair of monkeys, and a sympathetic ape in a samurai headdress” – but none are acceptable. There’s a wonderfully rendered scene with Kunugi, now in uniform, the second and final time they meet. Ohta has just sketched a scene from the subway stampede where he was caught during the first bombing of Japan; Kunugi glances at it while rifling through the Mickey Mouse work, and when Ohta suggests he find someone more suited to the task at hand, Kunugi slaps him and tells him to bring one of the sketches, a cat in uniform, to the supervisor. It, too, is rejected, but Ohta continues to work on the project, as it’s a source of income and access to art materials.

Eventually the propaganda office, too, suffers from attrition, as war reverses change the tenor of things from imminent victory to waiting for defeat. Ohta is drafted, but unable to serve in combat, survives the war; Kunugi does not.

The story ends – with an ear-splitting whisper that sent me back to the beginning to re-read with a different set of eyes – with an exhibition of Ohta’s work a few years later; he was surprised it, too, survived the war, crated in the University basement; surprised there was interest in putting on an exhibition; and surprised by excellent attendance. He’s also surprised by Kunugi’s widow, who seeks him out:

He said you were a real artist. He said it was important that a real artist like you survive the war.
She looked around the gallery. I expected her to compliment my work.
But she had already told me what she came to say.

I’ve always thought of Greenfeld as a journalist, but now I’ve read three of his short stories (including “Partisans” from One Story). I think it’s time I started thinking of him as a fiction writer with a day job. Because this story reminds me that, for all our efforts to make a living and secure a future, it is art, expression, creativity, that we live for.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Kevin Wilson, “A Birth in the Woods” from Ecotone 11, Spring 2011

Ecotone photo: Emery Way

Ecotone photo: Emery Way

His father whittled a block of wood into a duck for the unborn baby before he took his penknife and dug it into the tip of his thumb. When the blood rose to the surface of the skin and trickled down his father’s hand, Caleb looked away, nauseated. His father swung him around, softly, and held up the sliced thumb. “It’s just blood,” he said. “It gets out sometimes and that’s not the worst thing in the world.” Caleb held out his hand, and his father made a quick slice into the boy’s own thumb. When the blood bubbled up, Caleb and his father laughed. “Blood’s nothing to worry about,” his father said, and Caleb felt safe, another lesson learned. His father regarded the half-whittled duck, now streaked with brown-red blood, and threw it into the woods surrounding their cabin, the expanse of trees so dense for miles in every direction that it seemed to Caleb that no one else in the world existed. “Don’t show your mother what we’ve done,” his father said, and Caleb nodded. He wondered how long he would have to wait until he could retrieve the duck for himself.

Something interesting happened while I was reading this story. The father, Felix, who started out, in my mind, as a wise old geezer, got more and more foolish and younger and younger, until by the end he was, again in my mind, barely a teenager. Let me emphasize his actual age did not change, was never specified to begin with. He just seemed a lot more mature in the first half than in the last.

There’s more than enough nuance and structural intricacy to earn a “Literary/” label, but it is a Horror story. A couple lives in the woods with what Linda Furman in her introduction calls “the joyful, arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise their child in a utopia.” And we all know how Utopian stories end.

Charles May notes that the story begins and ends with blood (he often sees a lot more in these PEN/O.Henry stories than I do). I found the opening quoted above to be quite gripping, and was relieved to find Caleb “felt safe.” I became more dubious when Mom had the idea to show Caleb how babies were made by, well, showing him how babies are made. Fortunately, Dad balked, in what turns out to be his final show of common sense.

Mom insists on giving birth at home, when the increasingly foolish Dad not only agrees to that but doesn’t even have another adult hanging around to help out if needed. They use it as an educational experience for six-year-old Caleb. It’s educational, all right, when Mom bleeds out after giving birth to a bear-child and Dad, finally realizing help is needed, skids on ice right off a cliff on his way to obtain it. That leaves Caleb with the baby and the wooden duck that opened the story. I liked the continuity the duck provides.

More than the story itself, I’m interested in what Wilson says about its origins. He gives two somewhat different versions, though they’re probably the same but from two different points of view. In his Contributor Notes, he says before he and his wife decided to become parents themselves, he wrote “story after story about monstrous babies that ruined the lives of their parents.” That’s pretty interesting right there, imagining the inception of that creative urge – seeing himself as the monstrous baby? Or fearing what a someday-baby will do to him?

But when I’d finished the story, I had the impression the “real” story, the part I was most interested in, was yet to come: how did this day affect Caleb’s life, and what was his relationship with his bear-child brother – who took his parents from him, but towards whom he clearly feels responsible and protective – like as they grew up? So I was interested to read Wilson’s other explanation, in an interview with Ecotone, that this story was the aftermath of a failed and abandoned draft of a novel, “a Cormac McCarthy fairy tale” about a boy and his bear-child brother, an attempt to do justice for the characters he’d already created. Maybe the novel was itself part of the monstrous-baby-story binge.

But the story itself? I’m growing more and more discouraged with this volume. The next story, “Naima,” is one I already read when it appeared in The New Yorker, and I take some hope that things will be looking up from here.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Christine Sneed, “The First Wife” from New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

How did it end? Before I say what it was like to be courted by him, to fall in love, however briefly or genuinely, I prefer to talk about the end because it is rarely ever given its due. It is the filmmaker’s and the writer’s most reliable trick to seduce us with the details of a marvelous and improbable coupling while hinting darkly that things did not end well, that some tragedy or tragic character flaw in one or both of the principals brought on a heart-breaking collapse. And when the collapse comes, it is rarely given more than a few pages, a few sodden minutes at the end of the film.

As a writer, Emma knows, of course, that endings must be earned by the story, that the seeds of the ending are sown by the beginning and nurtured by the middle. Does this story plant, nurture, earn its ending?

In fact there are two stories to consider: Emma’s marriage, and the story as written by Sneed. First, the story. It opens with this declaration:

The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics – refinements or corporeal variations – that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.

She then goes on to set up the backwards structure, or sort-of backwards. The timeline shifts around pretty freely. Section 2 begins with Anders’ background before shifting to the end of the marriage, delivered by Anders over the phone while he’s shooting a film somewhere in Canada. There’s more flashback musing, before moving back in section 6 to the actress Anders is leaving Emma for. I’m very fond of backwards-told stories; I can’t think offhand of any literary examples (suggestions welcomed) but remember a couple of TV episodes (thirtysomething, ER) that pulled it off fairly well. That isn’t what we have here, though, and I’ll admit I was disappointed.

And again, as with the Berry piece, I felt lectured to, like I was reading a precautionary tale: Do not marry a movie star. Ok, I’ll try to avoid that.

Throughout the middle, Emma reveals pieces of Anders’ character that hint he is not really such a catch. At their first lunch, she makes a clever joke, a play off of “What I really want to do is direct,” and he doesn’t get it. He proposed, with no forewarning, on The Tonight Show. His success just happened to him; he was discovered. Still, he’s reasonably thrifty for a celebrity, and she loves him. But:

If you are married to a man whom thousands, possibly millions of women believe themselves to be in love with, some of them, inevitably, more beautiful and charming than you are, it is not a question of if but of when.

There’s a universality to that statement that makes it ironic.

But back to endings. Does Emma’s marriage earn its ending? I’ll go to the ending of the story to answer that: Emma’s thoughts on their first night together:

This isn’t real, I kept thinking all of that night and the next morning. This is a joke, isn’t it?

Turns out, it was.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

Such settled and decided people are parts of the world, as the unresting, never-satisfied seekers of something better can never be.

Full disclosure: Wendell Berry annoys me (for a ludicrously unfair reason based on old hearsay: I was told he once made a comment to someone I knew that seemed unnecessarily arrogant and imperious), so I came into this an attitude, which the story itself did nothing to dislodge. I have put a lot of effort into seeing the story honestly and without my own filter; I do not think I have been successful.

He admits in his Contributor Notes that it “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story.” I’m ok with that; some non-story stories work for me, others don’t; the failure for me isn’t in the lack of story-ness but in other things. It’s mostly polemic, and hey, that’s what a lot of The Jungle and Magic Mountain is too, back before nonstop narrative forward motion was the order of the day. Jess Row, Seth Fried – some of my favorite recent fiction leans towards polemic, though there’s usually a character involved.

Thing is – I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.

Berry has used the character of Andy Catlett before: a young boy growing up on Kentucky farm during WWII. Here, he uses third person present to describe a reminiscence, lending what is a kind of distance and evaluative quality to Andy’s recounting of his story: “As he looks back across many years from his old age to his childhood, it seems to him….” The narration is a story of a man looking back, one level removed from the looking back, and two removed from the events. Much of it seems like the narrator’s interpretation of Andy’s life, lending the polemic feel.

The main themes are freedom, work, and “being in the world” which is a kind of naturalistic non-industrialized existence:

Andy felt himself in the presence of the world itself; in the world’s native silence as yet only rarely disturbed by the sound of a machine, its darkness after bedtime unbroken by human light, its daylight as yet unsmudged, its springs and streams still drinkable. It was a creaturely world, substantial and alive… In those days he simply lived in it and loved it without premonition. Eventually, seeing it as it would become, he would remember with sorrow how it had been.

His grandparents go back to Civil War times:

For most of their lives the country had been powered almost entirely by the bodily strength of people and of horses and mules, and the people had been dependent for their lives mostly on the country and on their own knowledge and skills.

Andy aspires, even as a small child, to be capable of doing “real” work, not just bringing water to the men who are doing such work:

Andy learned there was a difference between good and bad work, and that good work was worthy, even that it was expected, even of him.He wanted to work, to work well, to be a good hand, long before he was capable. By the time he became more or less capable of work, he had become capable also of laziness. Because he knew about work, he knew about laziness.

He admires the Brightleafs, who are tobacco farmers, the most skilled and hard-working of farmers. And in a lovely turn of phrase, he describes freedom as “an interval with responsibilities at either end.” He sees, in contrast to the modern world, a time and place when people were what they were and didn’t worry about being something else:

It’s chief quality can be suggested by the absence from it of a vocabulary that in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first would become dominant in the minds of nearly everybody. Nobody then and there was speaking of “alternatives” or “alternative lifestyles,” of “technology” or “technological progress,” of “mobility” or “upward mobility.” …. People did not call themselves, even to themselves, “just a farmer” or “just a housewife.” It required talk of an infinitude of choices endlessly available to everybody, essentially sales talk, to embitter the work of husbandry and wifery, to suggest the possibility always elsewhere of something better, and to make people long to give up whatever they had for the promise of something they might have – at whatever cost, at whatever loss.

Here’s where I have those conflicting feelings. I’ve long ranted against the “just a…” sentence. But do choices necessarily poison the status quo? I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Charles Du Bos, a Frenchman of roughly the same era as Andy’s grandparents: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” Aren’t dreams, aspirations, good things? Isn’t Andy’s aspiration to work an example? Wouldn’t we all be living in caves and dying of impacted wisdom teeth or bear attacks in our 20s if we didn’t think, “Maybe I can do better”?

Which leads to the whole question of industrialization. Running water is a good thing; I love the internet. When the narrator (at most points I’m assuming the narrator is Andy in his older years, but it reads more like authorial intrusion) wonders: “Suppose we had refused to countenance the industrialization of everything from agriculture to medicine to education to religion” I wonder if we can balance out progress and depersonalization, or if without agribusiness and HMOs there could be no WorldWideWeb.

The three-part piece ends with an actual narrative of Andy in one of his brackets of freedom climbing a tree to unsuccessfully chase a squirrel, who leaps easily from limbtip to limbtip to outmaneuver the boy:

What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and its aerial life, and of his aerial life while he tried to catch it….He had not wondered how, if he had caught the squirrel, he would have made his way back to the ground. It would take him several days to get around to thinking of that. The heights of that afternoon he had achieved as a quadruped. From where he had got to he could not have climbed down with his two feet and only one hand. If he had caught the squirrel, he would have had to turn it loose.

This serves as an effective metaphor for the industrialization theme: now that everything is mechanized, industrialized, and efficient, can we handle it? Or do we have to let it go to get down from the damned tree?

Something occurred to me as I was working on this post: I wondered if the piece is meant to be ironic, like “The Road Not Taken,” which generations of high-school students have been lead to misunderstand. I should think about this a little more before putting it out there, but it seems to me there’s enough irony in the story to allow for that conclusion.
Irony #1:

In his later years Andy Catlett has tried to use appropriate hesitation and care in speaking, in any way particularly personal, of the diminishment of the world. He dislikes hearing old men, including himself, begin sentences with such phrases as “In my day” and “when I was a boy.”

Oh, don’t we all? It’s a kind of in-joke, we all do it. And then of course the narrator proceeds to tell us exactly how and why it was better back then, though he does soften it a bit:

…it was not a time that a person of good sense would consider “going back to.” But that time, to the end of the war and a while after in that part of the world, had certain qualities, certain goodnesses, that might have been cherished and enlarged, but instead were disvalued and discarded as of no worth.

Isn’t that the way with the current world, too, that there are qualities to be cherished and kept? Political correctness might be a joke, but it comes from a well-meaning place and starts people thinking in terms of why they use certain language, why it is offensive to some people, and whether it truly reflects their views. The internet is full of porn, but it’s also full of literature and art and science and connection (though this last can be debated). The narrator misses that dual quality of the present time, so focused he is on the past.
In any case, Andy goes ahead with “When I was a boy” in spite of his awareness of the annoyance value.

There’s also the irony of the Brightleafs admired so for farming tobacco (more disclosure: I’m an ex-smoker). It’s a complex issue for those who grew up in tobacco country, who see their way of life, their family businesses, dissolving. And I think it’s true that historically, smoking was an occasional thing; chain-smoking and two-pack-a-day habits weren’t really part of the landscape until the last half-century, perhaps due to a combination of marketing, the desire for greater and greater profit, and nicotine manipulation by industrialized agribusiness intent on increasing profits. Maybe what I’m reading as irony is really rage, that something as work-and-craft intensive as tobacco farming has been demonized, when tobacco farmers are as much victims as the people on the PSAs with tubes in their throats.

And then there’s the irony that Andy was of the generation that seems to have ruined life, in the view of the narrator. While in his older years he’s telling us, “No one will ever have it as good as I had it” he’s also telling us it was on his watch things went downhill. So why the f- is he scolding me? (Wow, I’m taking this way too personally, y’think? I’ve been kind of pissy towards a lot of stories lately; I seem to be, as they say, “in a mood.”)

But back to irony: no, I don’t think it’s irony. He’s dead serious, and that’s underlined by the earnestness his Contributor Notes:

It belongs to a stretch of new work attempting to deal directly and explicitly with what I see as the paramount change in my time and place: …. Life here has become increasingly mechanical. Machines of various kinds now dominate work and economy, and also the thoughts and aspirations of the people. I would like, as so far as I am able, to understand what is implied by this.

I think I’m looking, through irony, for a way out, a way to not take this story at face value. While I agree with a lot of the negatives of modern life, I resist the notion that it’s a good thing a child born on a farm will not, should not, cannot dream of doing anything but farming. I also see a certain narrowness of focus in this paean to childhood: what about the kids who aren’t sons of farmers? It seems to me we’ve all bought into the myth of the “good old days” but they weren’t so good for some people. And the Industrial Revolution started in the nineteenth century, not the mid-twentieth – there were people already living highly mechanized lives in cities; he seems to feel it only matters when it filters down to his farm.

Maybe it’s as he says: there are things of value in modern life, with all its mechanization, too, which should not be cast off in an attempt to recapture what was good about the past. I’ve seen Food, Inc. – I’m not going to defend agribusiness. But when I go to buy an apple and I have to decide between the Monsanto version or the local, organic variety (when available – buying local in Maine means potatoes and beets six months of the year), it might depend on whether I have four times as much to spend. I can rail about doctors who look at the computer screen instead of the patient, but when your kid has leukemia or your mother has a stroke or you have four of six high-risk factors for breast cancer, chemotherapy and TPA and computer-guided stereotactic biopsies don’t seem like the enemy.

I’m taking this story way too personally to be objective about it. just got my back up early on, triggering extraordinary (even for me) defensiveness. Maybe I’ll just admit it wasn’t my cup of tea and move on.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Sam Ruddick, “Leak” from Threepenny Review, Summer 2010

I was telling Peyton about a friend of mine who’d seen a documentary on polar bears one day and quit his mob in marketing the next; he’d moved to Alaska and gone to work for an environmental nonprofit, and I thought there must have been something wrong with him, because he’d always been so business-minded in the past, and the polar bear thing came out of nowhere…. She said it was like that sometimes. People just did things.”

Oscar wants the world to make sense. It doesn’t.

He’s lolling in bed with the lovely (and married) Peyton when his ex-girlfriend Stacy waltzes in to make pasta. Peyton takes this in stride. They’re opposites: Peyton is the smooth professional in a silk blouse he met at the National Gallery, and Stacy’s the Lollipop girl with dyed red hair in pigtails. I’m not sure why the switch from business to polar bears surprises him. And, oh, he has a drippy kitchen faucet.

I may be too old for this kind of story. There’s lots of momentum, and it’s entertaining – Furman’s introduction captures it well: the additional characters enter “like clowns exploding from a car”. There’s what should be a huge turning point in the middle when Peyton has a car accident while leaving – with Oscar “standing firmly in the moment for the first time all night” – but it isn’t a turning point at all, since Oscar’s befuddlement continues as Peyton’s husband George, easy-going grease monkey who’s fine with the affair since he’s had his share, comes over to pick her up and by the way fix the leak.

In his Contributor Notes, Ruddick says: “I used to be overly concerned with plausibility: The actions of my characters had to make sense. People don’t work that way. I don’t know why I thought fictional characters would. Ridding myself of the notion has made the work much more interesting.” I’m not sure if by “the work” he means the work of writing, or this particular story. In any case, he does a nice job of straddling the line between realism and absurdism.

But… nothing really connects with me other than some mild amusement, so I’m still not sure I get it. All three of the others are completely different from each other? Oscar in the center of chaos? He’s had a tool box (one his mother gave him, no less) for twenty years and it takes George to fix his leak? There’s got to be a huge message here. I’m sure Peyton, Stacy, and George know exactly what it is, so, like Oscar, I’m just living with the drip until someone fixes it for me. Hmmm… I wonder if that means something.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook” from Ecotone, Spring 2011

Ecotone photo: Sax

Ecotone photo: Sax

I thought of something else my father had said when he said that Gil had secrets: that he himself had secrets, and that I did, and Molly didn’t. Molly held the secret of her unpredictable self, but did she have no secrets of the conventional sort? Some of my secrets had to do with Molly. I had not kept secret from her how I felt about the incidents in which I felt she’d been unfair in the past – far from it – but I’d kept secret how I counted and reconsidered them.

As I read this story, I thought of something Roger Ebert wrote once about the car in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: “how much the movie’s opening scenes benefited from the character of his automobile…” The Vandercook – an old-fashioned letterpress printing press – has a similar function in this story, as an exquisite symbol of an abstract concept: the past, which stalks the narrator throughout. I call it exquisite because the printing press, in addition to conveying the image of something from days of yore, perfectly embodies the function of the Past-as-Character, which is: to record, inform, remind.

As you may have guessed, I really liked this story. It’s available online at Ecotone – a journal whose motto is “Reimagining Place.” For them, place goes way beyond the city, the latitude and longitude, and in this story, encompasses the entire situation. As in the psychobabble phrase: Lorenzo’s in a bad place. Which he is.

Lorenzo, his wife Molly, and his two sons are living in California when his dad decides to retire from his New Haven print shop after suffering a heart attack. Molly, who’s just had a fight with her boss, decides to take over the family business. Lorenzo’s ok with that, even though he thought her boss was in the right, so they move back East.

Enter Past-as-Character.

Lorenzo isn’t totally inexperienced with the Vandercook: his grandfather introduced him to it, and he’s been doing some work with a local printer though he’s not really talented. Gil started working at the shop when he was a stupid teenager, and now, in his 50s, has managed the place for years.

Along the way, Lorenzo starts dealing with his own recollections. You know how you overlook some things, especially early in a relationship, because you aren’t sure if they’re character flaws or fleeting errors in judgment? Well, these are beginning to pile up – “When several events in my life with Molly might have made me take heed, I did not take heed” – and he’s seeing Molly in a new light, remembering things such as her fight with her boss, and this post-coital session:

I was easing into sleep at last when Molly said, “There are people I could kill if I had to, and people I couldn’t kill, no matter what.”
“Where do I fit?” I said. I was used to being startled by what she said, but she still regularly startled me.
“I think I could kill you,” she said. “I mean if I had to – say, to save the life of one of the children. I could shoot you or stab you.”

What Molly had said seemed funny, but it wasn’t simply funny. The next morning, working on my big job at the back of the store, I was still thinking about her cool assessment as to whether she could kill me. I knew she wasn’t a murderer and wouldn’t become one: what interested me – and, okay, scared me – was her freedom of thought.

Past-as-Character is fully realized when the block is turned into a movie set from the 30s. And things come to a head when the shop is vandalized, and Molly makes some ugly racist assumptions about Gil and plans to fire him.

The primary conflict is between Lorenzo and himself. What do you do when you realize the person you’re married to is, well, not up-to-snuff, morally? When you know what the right thing is, but you can’t face the consequences of doing it? When you realize the moral failing is actually your own: “I needed to become someone I was not, someone who’d know what to say. It was too late.”

I’m interested in some sentence-level elements. There’s a lot of word-phrase repetition – “Molly was restless – she did not rest”, and “take heed” above. This stood out to me, and not all that pleasantly, though I can see the contextual reason for it in most cases – “she did not rest” is very different from being “restless”. In spite of those minor and infrequent hiccups, the story was highly readable, with smooth narrative flow and a satisfying, if ambiguous, ending. As Laura Furman says in her Introduction: “The beauty of the story lies in its sense of the continuity of the lives narrated.” I can see several ways this story could go on, each equally plausible. I like that. And I like that I’m interested enough to imagine the scenarios, but not frustrated that the author didn’t tell me which one – if any – will come to pass.

Lots of universal issues here. We’ve all struggled with things we shouldn’t have overlooked, and wondered later why we didn’t take heed. When to speak up, when to let things pass, how much leeway we give someone we love. And with how much responsibility we actually bear when we feel victimized.

On a more personal (and less profound) level, I lived on Beacon Hill in Boston back in the 70s when a brief scene from a (truly terrible) 50s movie was shot – and I saw all that goes into transforming a street, from blocking traffic to bringing in antique cars (hah, 50s cars weren’t antique back then, just old) to spraying the sidewalks with foam to simulate snow; it took all day to get 10 seconds on the screen. As well, I have an enjoyment of all things paper, including printing – I browse office-supply and stationery stores for fun, the way most women browse shoe boutiques. I have a perfectly good pair of shoes, why would I browse for more? Pens, inks, papers of different weights and finishes, end papers – now that’s stuff worth browsing.

And the god of Coincidence made sure the library copy of Just My Type: a book about fonts, which I requested back in February when it was acquired, came in just as I was reading this story. I swear, it really did – I have the email to prove it.

So it might be that this was the Perfect Storm of stories for me. No, not Perfect. Not even Great. That’s ok, Very Good will do just fine.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock” from The New Yorker, 5/10/10

New Yorker illustration by Paul Pope

New Yorker illustration by Paul Pope

In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top. He’d be sitting there, eating with his mother, not bothering anybody, and life was good, when a man started changing it all. Most of the time it was just a man staring too much—but then one would come over….
She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her.

Does this really happen? I mean with such regularity that a kid can’t eat breakfast without getting tangled in Oedipal drama? Breakfast, for god’s sake!

I suppose there are women like this, women with “Looking, apply within” flashing in neon over their heads. This is a child’s-eye view (Erick is 11) of what it’s like to be the child of such a woman. By the end of the story, Erick has grown, in terms of maturity about relationships, way past his mom.

I guess that’s the point of this story, but you can read it online for yourself (it’s only about three pages) and see.

One nice thing about finding New Yorker stories in these anthologies is that there are always lots of past blog entries to check, to see if I’m totally off base and completely missed something when I get to the end and say, “So?” In this case, I found opinion pretty evenly divided. Paul was downright verklempt: “The story has an amazingly unexpected ending….I was delighted by how much I enjoyed this story after how tepid I was about the beginning (and I’m not even a baseball fan).” Tim, not so much: “Overall, this story is a quick read that has some good touches, but doesn’t carry the impact to keep a reader coming back.” Trevor loved it, and I wondered if he read a different story: “The story quickly becomes a child’s perspective of a parent flailing to meet aspirations in a brutal America that doesn’t seem to recognize the American Dream.” I would’ve liked that story, too, but I read the Federico edition, the one that “goes nowhere. Yes, you can fish out tiny specks that, stringed together, show that the main character is changing. But the story’s three short pages require much more patience than they should.”

By the way, where are the women blogging New Yorker stories?

Back to Erick and Uncle Rock. Uncle Rock is actually Roque, not an uncle at all, but he seems like a very nice guy. After mom’s latest suit dumps her, she goes back to Roque. One of the nice touches in this story is how Erick gradually comes around, and by the end sacrifices to save mom from herself, at least temporarily, in the way that children of the dysfunctional, the immature, the addicted, often do.

In his Contributor Note, Gilb admits it’s pretty much an autobiographical story: “When I got a note not unlike the one Erick did, it was one of those pieces of paper that becomes light and moans hymnal, until moments later when I was pissed.” I’m intrigued by a story decision he made: “I made Erick verging on mute, as Mexican Americans are both not heard and trained to feel…” I still don’t quite “get” it, but I can see there’s something there very worth getting. I just wish it was in the story.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Page i

Louai Kayyali, "Woman Reading"

Louai Kayyali, "Woman Reading"

Is there anything more promising than a new book? Not necessarily a brand-new book: while there is a certain excitement in the first bending of the still-flat paperback cover to a gentle curve, or the ruffling of perfect edges before they wear in different ways depending on whether you’re a top or bottom turner, a dog-earer, or a spine- cracker, there’s also a kind of delight in handling a book some unknown person has read before it landed in your hands, in discovering what kind of physical reading they did, to what page the book naturally falls open, where they underlined or circled or dog-eared or spilled coffee or even sneezed or bled – wow, this is getting far more disgusting than I’d intended. That’s where the best new book, whether it’s brand-new and pristine or has spent the past forty years in someone’s basement, takes you: someplace you didn’t expect.

I first started reading and blogging the three major American prize collections about a year and a half ago, in an effort to write better by studying “good” writing. These aren’t really the “best” stories published in any given year, of course – I’ve seen others in contributing publications that I prefer, and some of my favorite stories ever never get off the Internet. But it’s a place to start, to see what makes editors salivate. There’s an effort to include different types of story-telling; there’s usually a non-narrative selection, something from the spec-fic category, and settings that go beyond familiar times and places. It’s been a good way to pick up on “oh, that’s what they mean by surprising-yet-inevitable” or “the person/tense adds an element of [something] to this story” or “wow, that exposition was handled really smoothly” and to consider why the writer used third person instead of first, or what was added by changing up the usual structure. And it’s a great way, though not a foolproof one, to find writers for additional reading.

On a ridiculously shallow note, this year’s PEN/O.Henry cover makes me happy. I’ve been suffering from the lime-green of BASS 2011, and the orange of the Pushcart 2012, for so long (my two least-favorite colors on the spectrum), this cherry-red, though I wouldn’t normally list it as my preference for a book cover, comes as a relief. It’s silly, really, but I fell in love with Tin House because the first issue had a strong smell I greatly enjoyed (subsequent issues have the same notes, but far less intense; my overall enjoyment of Tin House has proportionally declined, to the point where I will probably let my subscription expire; I might swap in Harpers, based on the recent blog posts I’ve seen coming from I Just Read About That; I wonder how Harper’s smells? Though I’ll use a library copy so I might not want to find out), a smell of something I can’t identify – printer’s ink, most likely. Book pheromones (powerful stuff) – a flattering dress, a nice cover: All’s fair in love and reading.

I did my now-traditional reading of the Table of Contents, Introduction and Contributor Notes over my now-traditional cheeseburger-and-fries at my favorite local pub with the waitress who knows me and my order though I go in there less than once a month.

The TOC whetted my appetite. Plenty of standard-bearers: Wendell Berry, Alice Munro. A few stories I’ve already enjoyed and am delighted to see here: “Naima” by Hisham Matar, “The Hare’s Mask” by Mark Slouka. A couple I’m not so happy to see: “Phantoms” by Steven Millhauser (that makes it a trifecta – Pushcart, BASS, and P/O, what am I missing, someone, please explain it to me?), and Jim Shephard’s “Boys Town” (which, as I said in my comments on the collection You Think That’s Bad, “annoyed me terribly…It’s ironic that a measure of how well Shepard did his job is that I hated it” so I have to acknowledge it isn’t a bad story, just a story that makes me feel bad). A few familiar faces I’m happy to see again, and eager to read more of: Keith Ridgeway, Anthony Doerr, Karl Taro Greenfeld (I discovered his fiction through “Partisans” in One Story), Miroslav Penkov (I’ve wanted to read his East of the West collection since encountering “A Picture With Yuki” in, again, my beloved One Story, and here’s the title story); a few writers I’ve had on my list for a while but haven’t yet read (Yiyun Li, Ann Packer), and several who are brand-new to me.

Laura Furman’s Introduction muses on the origin of a story, then skitters through a capsulization of each story, showcasing its highlights. She’s very good at this. Of course, I’m gullible to begin with, but I wanted to read each story right there and then, even the ones I already knew I didn’t particularly like. I showed restraint; after all, I was already gorging on a thousand-calorie lunch, I had to balance it out with some kind of discipline.

I love the PEN/O.Henry and BASS contributor notes, it’s why these two collections remain among my favorites; the Pushcart notes merely list brief bios, no story commentary. And while the comments mean a lot more after having read the corresponding story, who wouldn’t respond to a note like, “I hope the story is most itself when read out loud. The hair of “the reader” still a little damp from the water of the swimming pool” (John Berger, “A Brush,” which fellow blogger Aaron Riccio has already told me is one of his least favorite stories ever – now there’s a challenge). I have no idea if the note has anything to do with the story (I suspect not from Laura Furman’s introductory comments) but I’m champing at the bit now. The authors care about a great many things – industrialization, anomie, ecology – and notice so much in small things – the smile of a father when his daughter comes into view – and this all makes it into these stories.

I can’t wait to get started.

BASS 2011: Mark Slouka, “The Hare’s Mask” from Harper’s

Linoleum cut (created for this story) by Raymond Verdaguer

Odd, how I miss his voice, and yet it’s his silences I remember now: the deliberateness with which he moved, the way he’d listen, that particular smile, as if, having long ago given up expecting anything from the world, he continually found himself mugged by its beauty. Even as a kid I wanted to protect him, and because he saw the danger in this, he did what he could.

What a perfect end to this anthology. In fact, it’s so perfect, I wonder (since the stories are arranged alphabetically) if R.T.Smith, Christine Sneed, Wells Tower, Judy Troy, the V’s and the W’s, were just out of luck this year because their names follow Slouka. No, of course not. But it is a perfect final story – brief, emotionally wrenching, poetically beautiful.

It’s told memoir-style. Double-memoir, in fact.

When Dad was a boy, in Czechoslovakia during WWII, one of his chores was to slaughter a rabbit from the hutch every Friday for dinner. This became more painful as the population dwindled. And for a week, the family hid a partisan in a coffin-sized hidden space in the back of the hutch. Dad saw his family – his father, mother, sister – taken away. He escaped only because he was at a neighbor’s.

I’d imagine him remembering himself as a boy. He’d be standing in the back of a train at night, the metal of the railing beneath his palms. Behind him, huddled together under the light as if on a cement raft, he’d see his family, falling away so quickly that already he had to strain to make out their features, his father’s hat, his mother’s hand against the black coat, his sister’s face, small as a fingertip… And holding on to the whitewashed mantelpiece, struggling to draw breath into my shrinking lungs, I’d quickly put the picture back as though it were something shameful. Who knows what somber ancestor had passed on to me this talent, this precocious ear for loss? For a while, because of it, I misheard almost everything.

It’s too intricate, too well-written, to be summarized, and it’s only available online to Harper’s subscribers. Such is life; not everything wonderful is free. The story comes to a head when Dad’s nine-year-old son, safe and secure all his life in upstate New York, discovers Sister wants a pet rabbit, and feels the need to protect Dad from what he imagines will be excruciating associations with prior losses.

The emotional recollection is so powerful it reads like a true memoir, but though some elements are taken from fact (Slouka’s family did hide a partisan in the war; he himself ties flies), it is fiction. There’s memory, and there’s emotional memory. And there’s constructed memory, what we imagine when we’re very young, or we don’t have all the facts, or we have our own fears. This story treats them all beautifully. It’s one of my favorites in this anthology.

This is the second father-son story I’ve read by Slouka: he caught another very different perspective perfectly in “Crossing.” I’m so impressed with the way he’s handled both scenarios. This is how writing is done. I just wish I could analyze it, learn it, bottle it, drink it. But, if it was easy, anyone could be a writer.

Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story included in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.

BASS 2011: Steven Millhauser – “Phantoms” from McSweeney’s #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

The Phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not trnanslucent, or smokelike, or hazy; they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know…. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and switftly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

I want so badly to like Steven Millhauser. This is the second of his stories I’ve read recently, and I’m not really seeing the appeal. I enjoyed “Miracle Polish” considerably more than this piece. I think I’ll read his new collection, “We Others: New and Selected Stories” and see if I can develop whatever sense it is that makes him so highly revered by people I highly revere.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the BASS people want to make sure each annual volume contains a variety of stories, so they encourage – perhaps require – that perhaps a couple of non-traditional narratives are included. Maybe they want one speculative fiction story. With this story, they get two quotas for the price of one. Of course, I could be overcomplicating the process.

It’s written in the form of a report, describing the phenomonon of Phantoms in a small town. It’s broken into sections, including multiple Explanations (with evidence against each one) and Case Studies. I tried looking at is as a portrait of a small town, but that didn’t really work. Is there some significance to the study of things we don’t understand? Of course, but that seems like too small a payoff. The phantoms depicted in the case studies behave in different ways (probably why they were chosen as case studies; you wouldn’t pick all the same types of encounters, after all) and the people who experience them vary widely as well. I don’t even find it to be a particularly interesting examination of astral phenomena. I feel like a failure.

There are people who love cilantro, and those who insist it tastes like soap. This has led to speculation about a “cilantro gene.” Maybe I’m missing the Millhauser gene. That thought makes me sad. So I’ll keep trying. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Addendum: This story is also in the Pushcart 2012 volume, making me feel even more stupid.

And again: it’s in the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories anthology too; three for three. I still don’t get it.