James Alan McPherson: Elbow Room (Fawcett, 1979)

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson's “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

A point of information. What has form to do with caste restrictions?
You are saying you want to be white?
A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology theory.
You are ashamed then of being black?
Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s straitjackets.
Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
I was cursed with a healthy imagination.
What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?
A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?
Unrestricted access to new stories for me.
Have you paid strict attention to the forming of this present one?
Once upon a time there was a wedding in San Francisco

As is evident to those who read here often, I’m fond of switching up narrative approaches to short stories. So I’ve got to hand it to a story that presents a kind of metanarrative of an editor questioning a narrator/writer along with the story itself about two young people searching for their own stories, and one of them finding it, perhaps, in their child. This is the title story of Elbow Room, a story that looks at stories, how we find and create them in our lives, and how we hear and use language in ways meaningful to us, all while protecting ourselves from walking into a shitload of pain.

It’s the last story in the collection, and I think that’s a good choice, partly because it’s a terrific story, and partly because we’ve had a chance to see other ways McPherson writes. There’s outright hilarity, irony, social commentary, warm and gentle memoir, and some bro-lit as my blogging buddy Jake likes to call it. The themes of language and storytelling come up often, as do ideas of hiding what is true behind a façade and self-protection against emotional damage. In this last story, it all comes together. Along with, in a central position, the n-word.

“I’m black. I’ve accepted myself as that. But didn’t I make some elbow room, though?” She tapped her temple with her forefinger. “I mean up here! Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. “When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain’t nothing new. But shit, wouldn’t it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?” She laughed. Then she said, “That would have been some nigger.”

It’s a word I will quote, obviously, but won’t use. It’s not just that I’m uncomfortable with it or that I feel it isn’t a word I have title to use (though both of those are true), but more that I don’t want to get used to using it; I want it to remain a word that’s difficult for me to speak or type. That’s my choice. But in this story, it becomes very important, so can’t be overlooked. Not that the word isn’t used in other stories; it is in many. But if this were the first story in the collection, showcasing the significance of the word, it might become the central issue of the book before the foundation is laid. Here, after having read story after story about people who view their own blackness in different ways, who experience blackness in the world differently, it becomes more of a climax, or an epiphany. At least, for me.

I chose to read this book after reading, in Pushcart 2020, Allen Gee’s memoir of McPherson, “Old School”. McPherson was Gee’s teacher, then mentor, at the Iowa MFA program, then friend for almost thirty years until McPherson’s death in 2016. It was through this essay that I learned McPherson was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this very book. I was embarrassed that I was unaware of him, so chose it to fill in yet another gap in my reading history.

Many of the stories deal with differences in the generational and geographical expectations of individual black people – and, for that matter, in the white community both within itself and as it interacted with the black community. As brought out most clearly in the final story, younger people were now writing their own stories of their lives and especially laying the groundwork for the next generation to be free to write its own story; the older generations had trouble catching up. There’s a terrific thought experiment in the story about an African mask in an art museum, and how to convince customers that it’s beautiful, since all the other art dealers think it is not.

That thought experiment, by the way, is a scene between the narrator and one of the characters. Throughout the story, I kept wondering if the narrator was a person he knew, or if this was more of a metaphor for a writer creating characters who sometimes do surprising things. I know a lot of writers who claim to talk with their characters. I can’t decide; maybe both, and that ambiguity is one of the reasons I liked this story so much.

The collection starts off with “Why I Like Country Music”, a wonderfully heart-warming story about a childhood crush. Even here, though, there is depth, starting from the beginning when our unnamed first-person narrator, decades and half a country removed from his South Carolina grade school, tries to explain his musical taste to his wife. It’s all about Gweneth, the little girl he pined for when he was ten. And, possibly, because square dancing is the only kind of dancing he has ever learned – from, or because of, Gweneth.

In those days, down in our small corner of South Carolina, proficiency in dance was a form of storytelling. ….But, sadly, I could do none of it. Development of these skills depended on the ministrations of family and neighbors. My family did not dance; our closest neighbor was a true-believing Seventh Day Adventist. Moreover, most new dances came from up North, brought to town usually by people returning to riff on the good life said to exist in those far northern places…. Each of their movements, as well as their world weary smoothness, told us locals meaningful tales of what was missing in our lives. Unfortunately, those of us under strict parental supervision, or those of us without northern connections, could only stand at a distance and worship these envoys of culture. We stood on the sidelines – styleless, gestureless, danceless, doing nothing more than an improvised one butt shuffle – hoping for one of them to touch our lives. It was my good fortune, during my tenth year on the sidelines, to have one of these Northerners introduced me to the square dance.

The plot concerns a school pageant including both a maypole dance and a square dance, and our narrator’s foiled attempts to squire Gweneth. His rival is the ebullient Leon Pugh whose father and brother told him “to git anything’ in this world you gotta learn how to blow your own horn.” Leon does that quite well. Our narrator, not so much. The stern teacher plays a role in all this, possibly the foiler, possibly the subtle, behind-the-scenes enabler. But it’s mostly a spotlight on our narrator’s ten-year-old heart, and powerful desire to do-si-do and allemande with Gweneth.

Included in the story are the differences between Northern and Southern Negroes, as already hinted at. That our narrator is now in New York shows how that works. He describes Gweneth in a wonderful way: “I remember the rainbow of deep, rich colors in which she lived.” The colors are the brown of her neck and the black of her hair against the white of her collar, and sometimes the blues or reds of the hair ribbons she wore on her braids. Black and brown as part of a color palette have a particular implication here.

Within this recognition of North and South is the realization that in this town there are two cultures that, somehow, coexist yet don’t:

Still, our school books, our required classroom songs, our flags, our very relation to the statues and monuments in public parks, negated the story that these dreamers from the North had ever come. …Given the silent circumstances of our cultural environment, it was ironic, and perhaps just, that we maintained a synthesis of two traditions no longer supportive of each other.

Like I said, it’s a lot deeper than a schoolboy crush.

“The Faithful” deals directly with what we used to call the generation gap back in my day. A barber / preacher can’t adjust to Afros or to more contemporary sermons. “The Story of a Dead Man” is more of a character gap between two cousins, one following the straight and narrow, one who’s constantly in trouble. The title hung over the whole story for me: who is the dead man? Then I found a wonderful paper from 1988 by the now late Prof. Jon Wallace that had an intriguing idea: does that last line echo Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

In looking into McPherson’s background, I discovered he was in law school when he published his first story. He graduated but apparently never practiced. In a few stories his legal background shows, once in a humorous tone, and once more somberly.

“Problems of Art” concerns one Mrs. Farragot who is facing a revocation of her drivers’ license for driving under the influence. The story begins with Milford, her lawyer from Project Gratis, interviewing her at her home; she’s insisted on a white lawyer, wanting someone who can “make logic” out of the story her witness tells. And it’s quite a story; I couldn’t quite follow it, except it involved her not wanting to “walk a line” because she was in her nightie. It’s a (very funny) story about making order out of chaos, but at the same time, about the false façade that order can create, masking the chaos underneath:

Milford’s suspicion of an undisclosed reality was heightened by the figure in the painting on the wall across the room. It was the portrait of a sad eyed Jesus.…A disturbing absence of nuance undermined the face: the small brown eyes were dimensionless, as if even they did not believe the message they had been calculated to convey….In the entire face, from forehead to chin, there was not the slightest hint of tragedy or transcendence. To appreciate it, Milford concluded, required of one an act of faith.

When her lawyer hears the witness, he’s kind of enchanted, but agrees that he can’t possibly testify: “And as colorful as were the circumstances of her case, there was not the slightest possibility that any responsible lawyer could include them in her defense.” Again I’m tweaked by word colorful. It’s clear that a court of law is no place for color. And Milford gets a bit of a surprise at the end – or maybe it’s just confirmation of what he suspected all along.

This theme of the law being white is played out far more seriously in “A Sense of Story”. Robert Charles, the black defendant, is charged with the murder of Frank Johnson, his boss at an auto repair shop. An outburst by the defendant forces the judge to dismiss the jury and issue a verdict based on the transcripts; we watch over his shoulder as he reads documents that glow with hints and nuance about the relationship between Charles and Johnson: Charles invented an engine lubricant that would work in foreign cars, but Johnson shut him down, or possibly stole it. At one point, Johnson hands out paychecks, which include a raise for one man but not for Charles, and mutters, “I’m white.” If Charles is convicted, he will be the first death row prisoner under a new law; his lawyer is arguing mitigation to reduce that to a prison term. The transcript is full of assumptions about Negroes and how ‘they’ are. The mitigation seems to focus on such points, like Charles drinking and carrying a gun, rather than any genuine circumstances of mitigation. As the judge reads the transcript the narration tells us, “The specially treated glass in the picture window made the sky seem more bright and blue than it really was.”

I still wasn’t sure what I was reading here, so I went poking around as I tend to do, and found a highly relevant passage in the book Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by the late Jon-Christian Suggs, a professor of African American History at CUNY. He puts it right out there:

That is, the transcript to which we have access shows nobility of character, perfectionism, commitment to hard work, genuine creative intelligence, and patience on the part of Charles and the blind racial insensitivity, class privilege, institutional racism, and personal betrayal in the larger world around him. We come away with solid intimations of the theology of the crime. But of course, that is not in any way admissible, nor was it even visible to Charles his own attorney. Nor did the judge admit it even on his review of the transcript. What was allowed to be told was enough to convict, though not enough to create an accessible and “true” story of a man’s life….McPherson’s story argues once again a larger point, one we saw in Wright, Motley, Bell, and Williams: the law is no lens through which to view the lives of African Americans. In McPherson’s text we see perhaps more clearly than in the others where the narrative shortcomings of the law may lie.

Whispered Consolations::Law and Narrative in African American Life By Jon-Christian Suggs

As Mrs. Farragot’s lawyer said, colorful is not for the courtroom.

McPherson turns his pen on economic inequality in “A Loaf of Bread”. Harold Green, a white grocer, has three stores, one in a black neighborhood. His black customers discover his prices are significantly higher in this store (55 cents vs 39 cents) than his prices in a wealthier neighborhood, or in a neighboring poor white area. The story is loaded with subtle commentary on ways capitalism screws over black folks while spinning credible excuses. When the customers picket, Green mutters, “Where do they get so much power?” He gives the obligatory “I’m not a racist” speech pointing out his name, and finishing with, “Green is the only color I’m interested in.” The association of green with money, of course, gives a double meaning to that remark. Then his brother-in-law has a suggestion to ease the situation:

“How would it be if you visited one of their meetings and chalked out, on a blackboard, the dollars and cents of your operation? Explain your overhead, your security fees, all the additional expenses. If you treat them with respect, they might understand.”
Green frowned. “That I would never do,” he said. “It would be admission of a certain guilt.”
The brother-in-law smiled, but only with one corner of his mouth. “Then you have something to feel guilty about?” he asked.
The grocer frowned at him. “Nothing! he said with great emphasis.

As in “Elbow Room”, there’s a wonderful thought experiment here, this time about a man buying a used stove. Green thinks it’s exonerating, but it’s actually quite damning, approving of exploitation. We, as readers, are given information the customers in the story don’t get: Green’s other two stores, the ones with lower prices, are basically subsidized by the higher prices at this one, so his rationale of paying more for security bars and such falls flat.

The story turns when his wife insists he run the store for one day selling everything for free. She also suggests he not buy any meats or expensive items beforehand to mitigate the loss, but otherwise give away anything anyone comes in to buy. She will leave him, and take his children, if he doesn’t do this. Talk about exploitation. He follows through, and the titular loaf of bread comes in at the very end in a spectacular way: even when being given a break, he has to tweak just a little more out of it.

“The Story of a Scar” features two people vying to tell a story only one of them knows. At one point I wrote “mansplaining!” in the margin. Something about the male figure seemed almost Satan-like to me, but I don’t see that anywhere else, so I’ll mark it as my idiosyncratic experience. At heart it’s about good people who seem bad, and bad people who seem good.

“I am an American” is another very funny story about a black couple touring Europe

One reason might have been our having grown tired of being mere tourists. In the Louvre two mornings before, among a crowd of American tourists standing transfixed before the Old Masters of Renaissance painting, I had suddenly found myself pointing a finger and exclaiming to Eunice, “Hey, didn’t they name a cheese after that guy?”
“Leroy, they did no such a-thing!” Eunice had hissed.
The other tourists had laughed nervously.
Eunice had pulled me out of the Louvre though not by the ear.
That same morning I had decided to wire one of a list of London people suggested to us by friends back home in Atlanta.

There’s a great deal of confusion over national identity of everyone: this guy might be Bulgarian because of the coat he wears, are the Orientals Chinese or Japanese, and one couple keeps asking what tribe in Africa the couple is from; the situation gets compounded when the husband tries to answer in what he thinks is Japanese. I had so much fun reading it, I didn’t really want to dissect the overriding necessity some people feel of figuring out who’s what. And then there’s the frequent refrain, “Eunice was right.” Now you’re talking.

There were a couple of stories that I couldn’t do much with. “Just Enough for the City” seems to be about religious alienation, but it could be anything; I kept wondering what city has that many proselytizers of so many widely different sects showing up every day. The language theme intrigued me, but I couldn’t connect with it; maybe I’ll run into something later on that will jog something loose. “The Silver Bullet” was too bro-lit; whereas “The Story of a Dead Man” was also strongly tough-guy, it had a center to return to. I started letting my eyes skim over sentences of “Bullet” and never really saw where it was going. That’s more or less a personal preference, or bias, if you will, and doesn’t reflect on the story as much as on my difficulty with certain styles.

I’m so glad I discovered McPherson, late as it is. I wondered why I haven’t seen this book out there more. Then I remember. Well, here it is. Yes, it’s more than 40 years old. Sadly, some things haven’t changed, and this book is a great touchstone for realizing how important it is that they do.

Jason Brown: A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed (Missouri Review Books, 2019)

I love reading a good novel, but the linked collection has always been my favorite form. When I first read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, my jaw dropped. While some people I knew felt as if the book straddled an awkward territory between the novel and a collection of stories, I felt that it was written for the way my mind works. Other linked collections have had a similar effect on me. Alice Munro’s books, Sebald’s The Emigrants. These books present cohesive but fractured narratives.

In an era in which commercial publishing has pushed out most forms of innovation and shown zero tolerance for risk, I believe linked collections represent some of the best work available because they are not commercial. A linked collection can establish a main character for the book and then wander away from that character and the central themes. A linked collection can function like a conventional novel by focusing on one or more main characters and following a narrative arc through time to some kind of crisis and resolution.

Jason Brown: Interview with Marjorie Celona for Fiction Writers Review

In searching for a theme or vantage point from which to discuss this book, I saw many options. Family ties that comfort even as they bind. A respect for the past that seems to be fading from American life. Boats. We will, in fact, talk about all these things, but I want to start with the overall structure of this book, which is classified as linked stories, and how that helps emphasize the themes and images within.

It wasn’t until I read Brown’s interview quoted above that I realized the form of the book reflects its subject: the fragmentation of narrative to heighten its themes, the fragmentation of a family to expose its push and pull, the fragmentation of the past in an effort to both remember and forget. Even the literal fragmentation of highly symbolic boats as they carry our loved ones, or maybe wander off on their own.

I’ve always been a little hazy on the concept of linked stories versus the novel in stories, but the more I thought about this book as a whole, the clearer it seemed to me that fragmented novel fit the bill. That feels a little arrogant, since the cover proclaims it is linked stories, as does Brown. But I felt like I read a novel, a saga over centuries with some of the pages, even entire chapters missing (at least two major events are referred to only in past tense from stories set well beyond their occurrence), maybe torn out by readers who loved them – or hated them – too much to leave them behind, or just disconnected from the tatters of age.

Then again, maybe I’ve been paying too much attention to medieval fragments. It’s an entire discipline, you know, the study of manuscript fragments used as backing for other manuscripts, or in some cases linings for hats or just pieces swept together long ago. And then, by coincidence – and coincidence plays such a big part in my reading, though I’m pretty sure it’s more like confirmation bias, something’s on my mind so I’m more prone to notice relevant items – an article by Sinéad Gleeson discussing her essay collection Constellations titled “Fragmented Narratives Are Broken, Independent, and Honest” came across my feed:

Sometimes the world steers you towards the broken apart, the work that refuses to be glued together, that basks in its un-ness.
What is a life but a series of fragments?

Sinéad Gleeson, article online at LitHub

That changed how I saw the book. And I’ll repeat: it not only describes the form of the book, but the families, stories, and lives within.

The family saga gives us a glimpse into how various characters deal with, or dispense with, the family’s legacy, which at this point is little more than bragging rights and a name recognized only on one small Maine island and another tiny inland town. This is to some extent the story of modernity; we used to grow where we were planted, now we have options to uproot and travel the world. Yet, for many, home soil keeps calling us back. And in this family, travel has been a tradition: across oceans, up and down continents, only recently have they rooted in Maine.

One of the minor recurring themes is the lure of California, the state farthest from Maine that serves as a way for some of the family to escape. In the informative podcast with G. P. Gottleib for New Books in Literature, Brown mentions a pertinent scene from The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “There’s a sense in California that everything is so new, and that you can reinvent yourself, and that the past is gone.” I can see this in at least two stories, though in one case, the escaping character comes to terms with the past and reclaims it. It’s also interesting that the primary point-of-view character ends up in Oregon (where Brown lives, btw), which I read as a way, not to escape the past, but to crawl out from under its domination. Brown’s comment also reminded me of a scene from Mad Men, the “Christmas Waltz” episode in which Harry encourages Paul to leave the Hare Krishna cult and go to California to start over: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure, this life, it’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” Lightness is on my list for this year’s in-between read because of these connections.

Each story is dated, but those dates are deceptive. Although most of the stories occur from the 80s to today, they often recount events from much earlier, events that underline what is going on in the present of the story. The first story is dated 2003, and in the second, we go back to 1981. From there the stories work their way forward in time to 2014; then the final piece looks back to 1741. This constant overlapping of present and past slightly unmoors the stories in time, adding to my impression that this is a novel, and emphasizes the importance of the past within the present for the primary characters. If I were to lapse into poetic metaphor, I might say it also feels like waves lapping forever at the same shore, but always different.

The tentpole character is John Howland, not to be confused with his grandfather, also John Howland. That’s the thing with these old New England families, with old families everywhere I suppose, they keep recycling the names. There’s a handy family tree in the first pages, and I think its main point is to underline the procession of Johns in the early years of the family, petering out in the present. It’s not by accident that grandson John is the last John Howland; in fact, it’s explicitly mentioned in one story and shows the kind of unspoken pressure he feels as part of a family that traces itself back to the sixteenth century. Other characters take their turns – sisters, parents, cousins, and people from outside the family entirely – but the story structure allows small groups of characters at a time, making it easier to keep track of who’s who. It’s a clever way to keep track of a large cast. The family tree helps, too.

The Stories: (hey, you knew I’d get there eventually, right?)

The first story, “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead,” introduces us to the family via grandfather John Howland, now a widower in his 90s. Some of the family, including great-grandson Will and his parents visiting from California, have descended on the family house in Vaughn, Maine, for Thanksgiving. So we have breadth of age and geography, as well as sensibility. John still feels his wife Sarah’s presence, and hears her voice in his ear. He has lately, however, been keeping company with Isabel Vaughn, a younger woman of eighty-five from the other prominent family of the town.

He decides he will bring Isabel a cupcake and a copy of Emily Dickinson (he was an English teacher) for her birthday. She will tell him her birthday isn’t until next week, but that isn’t the reason, shortly into the visit, he needs to “run for his life.” He shares something with her, something from the War, something he’s never shared with anyone, and she discounts it.

Cue the boat:

He hobbled around the edge of the woods. His breath seized every time a dry branch snapped under his boots. He had left the Dickinson in her kitchen , but he didn’t think he would read anymore Dickinson in the time he had left.
Isabel kept an old wooden rowboat down by the river for when her daughter and grandchildren visited. He spotted the upturned blue hull, made of plywood, half its paint gone. He flipped it over and found the gray oars rotting but still solid. Larry had pulled the dock for her already. With his back to the river, he tugged the boat a few feet at a time to the marshy shore. The tide would pinch anytime now. He waded up to his knees and pulled the boat in after him. Sensing Isabel watching him, he tried to climb quickly into the boat, but he couldn’t raise his feet. He dove head first over the side and used his arms to right himself. When he craned his neck, he spotted her halfway between the river and her house and moving fast on her springy legs.
“John,” he heard Sarah say in his ear, “why did you never tell me what you saw?”
“I just wanted to forget it,” he said.
“John…” Isabel, calling his name. Though he’d launched himself into ebbtide, he did have the wind in his favor. Before he could set the locks and oars in place, he’d already drifted out of Isabel’s view and traveled fifty yards, maybe seventy five. Rowing, he picked up speed and felt the satisfying whoosh of the oars and the bow cleaving the water. He had rowed this stretch as a boy many times, and now all he wanted to do was get home to Sarah.

The boat was leaking period up to his ankles now. Nothing he could do but harder. The rotten oar cracked, and his shoulder seized with pain. He sighted the field in front of his house and gave an extra hard tug. A small person stood at the shoreline shielding his eyes. His great grandson, Will, shouted, “Grand, Grand,“ over the water. “What are you doing?”

“There’s a problem with your boat,” Will observed from the safety of his position on the bank.…Despite his California origins, possibly Will had inherited a tendency to look at all boats, even this boat, with longing.

I wasn’t able to realize how well this story introduced the rest until I’d finished the book. The title, by the way, comes from a 1717 sermon by Cotton Mather concerning some shipwrecked pirates and their execution. The link between the living and the dead ranges from John’s continuation of his relationship with his dead wife Sarah, his memory of WWII, and the ever-increasing distance of the past, both as it pertains to family and to his life in general. This distance from the past, like the use of boats, continues through all the stories.

The second story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”, I’ve already discussed at length from its appearance in the 2020 Pushcart volume. It takes us back to 1981 and introduces us to grandson John at age 15, living with his grandparents during the summer on Howland Island. This is the story that details the decline of the Howland family, how it went from founding the island to owning one small house while the rich take over the rest, and shows John on the verge of finding his own path via a pair of sunglasses bestowed upon him by a visiting writer. The Alice B. Toklas is, need I say, a boat of significant symbolic value.

In “Return of the Native” we move ahead to the next summer, and stay focused on John again on Howland Island with his grandparents. This time, we learn about his relationship with his mother, now divorced. This comes about via a conversation with a family friend and his mother’s current boyfriend, Dickie Saltonstall, who had “a lot of problems with boats over the years.” The reference is to his family’s naval history, but as we’ll see, the story makes it trouble of a more personal nature. John’s mother has gone to Mexico for the summer, supposedly to teach, though there’s a distinct impression teaching has little to do with it. Dickie has received a letter from her, but isn’t yet disclosing what it says. Mom is due to return home that evening, so they’re going to take the skiff over to the mainland and meet her plane in Portland. Dickie tells John a few things in the meantime:

“Then there was the night your grandfather threw the ham through the window. You were only about three years old then, right before your mother went out to San Francisco for six months.”
I’d never heard of my grandfather doing such a thing, and I’d never heard of my mother going to San Francisco at all. I asked why she’d gone, though what I really wanted to know was why I didn’t know she had disappeared for such a long time when I was so young.

Dickey shook his head with his eyes closed. “When your mother went out to San Francisco, your father wouldn’t go after her, and neither would your other grandfather, the minister. They gave up on her. So I went. And, I have to tell you, people loved her out there. She still had that accent from Castine. I wish you could have seen her. She was the queen out there. She wanted everyone – all people – to be free. It wasn’t just to talk with her.” Dickey bobbed his head. “She felt it. And in the middle of this batshit circus, she raised people out of their chrysalis. Not everyone, though,” he said, nodding gravely, “not herself. She got arrested at People’s Park. I was there. They were jealous of her flame.”
The mother I knew took hour-long baths, blasted Neil Young until 1:00 a.m. on school nights, and heated up supper from cans. In the morning she guzzled coffee and never cooked breakfast.
“Your mom knew I was there to bring her back. You can’t rescue me, she told me. For as long as I’ve known her – when she first came here with her parents those two summers her father was the island minister – she’s dreamed of escaping. You have to understand the way she grew up in Castine, a smaller town than Vaughn, an only child living in that tiny house next to the vestry. Anyway, she did come back, but not because of me. She was starting to show with your sister by then.”

It’s one thing to dream of escaping. It’s another to be what someone is escaping from, especially when they’re supposed to love you and care for you. It isn’t until John and his grandparents get into the skiff to go pick up Mom that Dickie reveals she’s not coming back. Problems with boats, indeed. Even when the boat ride is aborted, it’s still central to the story. I keep wondering just how much of a friend Dickie was to Mom back then, and, of course, about the sister she’s carrying. Then there’s the California connection, the aborted attempt to escape, which becomes more manifest in a later story.

“Make Way for Ducklings” brings us forward another few years to 1990. John has not fared so well in his in-between youth. He’s been in rehab, and is now working in Portland as a house counselor for disturbed children. It’s not going well for him. Boats only appear as a promise in this story, but it’s an important promise, and a broken one. By the end of the story, he isn’t a counselor any more. I felt both disappointed and concerned, hoping he would land somewhere.

“Flood” detours from the Howlands and shows us similar issues of dealing with the effects of one’s past via a very different character. He doesn’t have the storied past, and is something of a town misfit in Vaughn. He treasures the past, running some kind of second-hand shop in which he knows and loves every item. As a flood approaches, he moves things out of harm’s way. It’s an interesting check of perspective to see this connection to family, this appreciation of the past, play out with a person from a different background.

“The Wreck of the Ipswich Sparrow features Phoebe, young John’s cousin, in the second story about the lure of California and its power to erase the past, and how the same place can seem suffocating one moment, and comforting the next. It’s a complicated story – and one of my favorites – with too much involved to summarize in a couple of paragraphs, but involves the same issues: what does it mean to be home, and how family history binds or boosts. Phoebe, recently divorced and raising two kids, finds herself dealing with the old family house in Vaughn, and discovers her Aunt Helen’s journal – her Aunt Helen’s heretofore unknown life, sailing with her husband, surviving a shipwreck – in a trunk. Predictably, it connects her to someone she never knew, and affects her previously cynical attitude towards what was, in her childhood, her home.

The kids fell asleep slouched against their seatbelts. Looking at them, she realized that she’d lived longer in California than in Maine, and now that she was selling the house the kids would never know the place where their mother, Grandfather, and ancestors had grown up. They were California kids – whatever that meant.

When the wave reached the height of its arc through the air, she began to tell her children about an island of blowing sand that swallowed ships whole – an island where horses stood as tall as buildings, where waves reached higher than skyscrapers, where storms lasted for weeks come up and wear a person with the wind at her back would fly thirty feet with one step. It was a place people could end up – an island where survivors waited for the drowned to walk out of the sea.

The title story, set in 2001, returns us to the narration of young John and his grandfather on Howland Island. John is not spending the summer there this time; he’s there with his fiancée Melissa to attend his sister’s wedding, except Melissa hasn’t yet answered his proposal and Bridget is already married. Add in that grandfather John digs a hole and declares he will die that day, and you’ve got a lot of fakery going on. When Grandfather tells the assembled family that John is to inherit the house – a house with no electricity, in need of repairs, on a summer island half a continent away from John’s home in Tuscon where he’s sleepwalking through life in recovery – the fun begins, with Uncle Alden contesting the bequeathal and Bridget, the only Howland with any money, coming up with ideas for the house. It’s a wonderful story, teetering on the edge of screwball comedy but always coming back to the central point:

We stared out our windows for awhile. [Melissa said] “It’s exciting that’s the house is really yours, John Howland. Of Howland island.”
This sounded better than John Howland, adjunct community college instructor. Back in Arizona, where no one gave a shit about New England, I could forget all that John Howland stuff, but here the name John Howland also belonged to my grandfather and his father, et cetera, in a more or less unbroken line of Johns going back twelve generations to the John Howland who accidentally fell off the stern of the Mayflower in a storm but thank God somehow managed to pull himself back aboard before landing at Plymouth so the rest of us could someday exist.
“Whenever I’m back here I feel as if I should be doing something more important with my life, “ I said.

To most of the family, my sister represented Greed, Ambition, Aggression. Striving constituted an unforgivable sin to those of us who believed ourselves chosen a priori and, therefore, beyond the indignity of scrabbling after the very things without which, of course, one found it difficult to feel chosen.
She [Bridget] looked over her shoulder. …”You’re the last John Howland, and not only that: you are the last chance at another John Howland – not that I care. But if the old man gives the house to everyone, it will be sold because everyone but me lives on minimum fucking wage. My name should be John Howland for Christ’s sake. That would solve a lot of problems.” Like the old man, my sister had gone to Harvard. He talked slowly, with silent r’s, while she (when she wasn’t cursing like a fisherman ) usually talked rapidly in lilting, hyperarticulate blocks of prose.

The title, by the way, is also from a Cotton Mather sermon.

We skip over a decade to the next story, “Goat,” and end up right back on the island, this time for uncle Alden’s funeral. A great deal has occurred in the ensuing years: Grandfather John has died, young John, no longer young, has married (not to Melissa), has a son (not named John) and lives quite happily in Oregon, where he can feel but not be overwhelmed by the gravitational pull of family history. The story involves John’s cousin Anna who has promised to take a goat to a house on a neighboring island that may or may not be inhabited by drug dealers. This involves, of course, a boat, which, loaded with Uncle Alden’s ashes and his cane, gets lost, as do I in weaving together “boat” and “goat” and “GOAT” and John’s Herculean effort to recover the boat and the ashes and the cane within. It’s magnificent, and is the third story to come very close to knocking Toklas out of its My Favorite Story In this Collection spot.

I had flown all the way back here for a funeral just to drown while returning a goat to its summer residence – an allegory my grandfather would have told about the dangers of moving west. Of course he hadn’t been worried about me as much as himself. What would happen to him without an audience? I never found out because I wasn’t here. I had just moved to Oregon when he flew over the handlebars of his electric tricycle and ended up in the hospital with broken ribs. When I called the hospital, I told him I would get on a plane right away. “It’s not that kind of thing,” he told me from his bed. I should have ignored him – he was ninety seven. That night he had a heart attack but survived. The next day he got out of bed, pulled the tubes out of his arms, pushed Uncle Alden and a nurse out of the way, and stormed down the hall. He died, I was told, five feet short of the front doors.

By the time I dog-paddled to the hull, I could touch bottom. Though I had a hard time pulling myself over the side (at home I exercised only to walk the dog), I still had enough energy to stand and wave to Anna. She waved back with her whole left arm, then both arms, swinging in the air. I was still alive. We were both still alive!
I yelled across the water that I was coming to get her, but the wind had picked up. I doubted she heard me.
The keys rested in the ignition of the console, the urn in the backpack on the floor of the boat next to my grandfather’s cane. I could push off the mud with the oar and pick up Anna in less than a minute. For the moment, though, I sat behind the wheel, looked across the water at my cousin, and thought of hanging out on the back deck with my family when I returned home to Oregon. I would slice up a cold watermelon while Mary passed out paper towels. They’d want to know about my trip, and I’d be eager to tell them the story. As soon as I let slip the part about the goat and the urn, the tale of how I almost drowned as I boldly swam through rough water and gale force winds to rescue my pregnant cousin would begin to tell itself. Before I even finished, Justin would ask me to stop and go back to the beginning. He’d want to know what I’d been wearing, about the time of day, the temperature of the water, the number of sharks. Just like me at his age, he’d want us to go over and over what had happened until he knew every detail by heart.

He didn’t need to name his kid John to carry forth the family tradition after all.

“Sarah Campbell’s Story” provides a nice coda instead of an ending for the collection. It brings us back to 1741 and the struggles she, at nineteen, faced when she and the rest of her family joined their father and husband in Pennsylvania. The relative ease of her life after marrying a Howland is comrepessed into a single sentence. It’s an effective way to finish off the collection.

Alert readers will note that I skipped over the next-to-last story, “Wintering Over.” While by itself it’s a good story – a failing writer and his wife rent the Howland house in Vaughn for the winter, and they both start to go a little bonkers (shades of The Shining), just how bonkers is for the reader to decide – I felt like it disrupted the wonderful flow from “Ipswich” to “Faithful” to “Goat”, the ending of which I just wanted to let echo around for a while before the brief denouement of “Sarah Campbell” closed the book. So I just ignored it for the purposes of this post, because I have the luxury to do so.

I still can’t believe how much I like this book, since I really can’t claim connection on the overall issues. My family was pretty low on the identity thing; there’s no legacy there. But I greatly enjoyed the combination of humor and loneliness, the urgency with which some characters approach family and others ignore it, the conflict between escape and belonging.

Brown has a couple of other short story collections out there, one focusing on Portland, and one on the fictional town of Vaughn. It’s likely at least one of them will show up on my shelves at some point in the future.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (HMH, 2018)

I use fiction as a way to find truth. I try to avoid the lies that come from euphemism or complete erasure. I’d say, in general, my work is concerned specifically with making the truth unavoidably clear.

Adjei-Brenyah’s PEN Ten Interview with Lily Phipott

Going into this, I didn’t think, “Let me try to write dystopian fiction.” I think I just sort of create spaces that I know I can create energy from. So if that ends up feeling like dystopia, I guess that’s just what happens. But what I do like is sometimes turning the volume up on something so that you can’t ignore it. Or pushing the needle just a little bit, shining a light on whatever issue….
[I]f the house is on fire, I’m not going to talk about what’s in the fridge. If people are getting killed around me, that’s something I care about and have to talk about. And so maybe I have to be violent on the page to represent that meaningfully. And on some level, getting people to react to violence on the page is part of the project of the book because there’s already violence that I don’t feel like we’re reacting to. I’m just trying to be as ethical as possible when creating this violence as I can be, and I try my best to do different things to make sure it’s done purposefully.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

That’s a great description of the stories in this book. Whether he’s writing about the shortcomings of justice when the victims are black people, or about abortion, or about rampant consumerism, or gun violence, or troubled families, Adjei-Brenyah scrapes the veneer of civilization off our savage moments and shines a spotlight on what lies beneath. Some of his stories literally go inside character’s minds to take a closer look. There is a lot of violence in this book; if that sounds like a trigger warning, maybe that’s what it is. It can be a difficult experience, reading this book, but a worthwhile one if you’re sick of thoughts and prayers and bullshit.

We start right off with “The Finklestein 5” which highlights the ease with which “I was afraid for my life” is accepted as an excuse for any violence against any black person, including a group of five kids standing outside a public library. In an interview with Christian Coleman at Lightspeed, Adjei-Brenyah said he put that story first because “if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that.” Other elements get blended in – a job interview, how Blackness needs to be calibrated for particular activities to minimize obstacles, Say Her Name – but it’s the beheadings with a chain saw that overwhelmed me. Thing is, it’s not that exaggerated, if you examine our trajectory.

Another story clearly emanates from the Trayvon Martin murder: “Zimmer Land”, a kind of theme park where hunting black people for sport is monetized.

Zimmer Land Mission
1) To create a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.
2) To provide the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations.
3) To entertain.

The question keeps coming up: safe for whom? Is the mecha-suit, protecting the body, enough? For that matter, in a discussion with management, it becomes clear the mecha-suit isn’t primarily about safety of the hunted, but the paying hunter’s experience. When they add on a new feature, Isaiah has to rethink things.

That brings us to the consumerism part of our program. The title story takes Black Friday – which I’ve never done, by the way, I avoid going anywhere near a store on Thanksgiving Weekend – and takes it up to eleven. The guy with the job of pulling bodies out of the way isn’t even the worst part. It’s the desperation of the various customers, the needs they see their purchases fulfilling, that makes my heart ache:

“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!

I’m the only one at work without one…. How can I be a senior manager without one?

I won’t be alone with this. They’ll like me.

And again, I feel like, while this is exaggerated and surreal, is it that far off reality? This is followed up by two more stories, one featuring the same sales associate, and one about a sales clerk’s suicide at the mall, which generates a new verb, to Lucy. “I didn’t know her name then” pretty much sums it up. Turns out Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in retail for a while, experienced a similar incident.

“Lark Street” takes all the rhetoric about abortion and turns it into a teenage guy who finds himself surrounded by the fetuses his girlfriend just aborted. It’s a well-imagined story: “We’re not gonna be people” just keeps echoing over and over. “The Era” manages to combine pushback to political correctness, genetic engineering, and the high-priced side of the self-help industry; this story will appear in BASS 2019 so I’ll save my comments for then.

There are subtler stories, based more on relationships. “The Hospital Where” is something like a hallucinatory horror story; I read it several times before I got some idea of what was happening. A boy who, during a childhood of poverty, evictions, dark cold nights without any lights, makes a deal with the Twelve-Tongued God:

“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”

To write, in other words. But the effects are, you might say, not what he expected.

“The Lion & The Spider” also features a duel between reality and story, though in a very different way, entwining a folk tale from West Africa about a trickster god, Anansi, who appears as a spider, with a teen’s efforts to keep going when his father disappears on him. “I imagined you gone forever, and I survived.” I thought, Thank you. I don’t know why. This is the story that inspired the cover art by Mark Robinson, using uniquely colored stock images of engravings. The chaotic lion’s mane appears to be many things before it is recognized, just like the story.

School shootings make up the background of “Light Spitter”, but as usual, Adjei-Brenyah gives it a twist, this time a post-mortem fantasy: the shooter and the victim meet when he is dying and she is dead, become an angel of sorts, and pay a visit on another incipient shooter.

Most of the stories feature young black men, often teenagers, as protagonists. A debut collection, the book has received a lot of attention from a lot of heavy-hitters, picked up a major prize, and made some impressive lists.

I just write whatever a story needs, but I did spend a lot of time with the surreal, or I guess stories that were outside the realm of straight literary fiction or straight reality. I spent a long time wondering if they could coexist in a cohesive book with stories that are a little bit more bound to reality or at least closer to reality. Working with George Saunders, I asked him, “Should I be this kind of writer, or should I be that kind of writer?” And he just said, “Yes.” And that was very helpful for me.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

Who knows where he’ll go next.

Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015)

For the abyss. Thanks for always gazing back.

~~Upright Beasts dedication

“The guy’s crazy” can mean a lot of things. There’s cross-the-street-to-avoid-him crazy, and there’s courage-to-go-there / think-outside-the-box creativity. So let’s be specific: when I say Lincoln Michel is crazy, I mean the second kind. Mostly. Because there’s also some very grim stuff here. Stuff from the abyss.

I put this book on my TBR list about three years ago, when I read “If It Were Anyone Else” in the 2015 Pushcart anthology. I struggled with it, until I gave up, at which point it was no struggle at all (the main reason I write all these posts is so I can look back back three years later and know exactly what I was thinking; it sure isn’t for fame and fortune). I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but that doesn’t always have to be the point of reading, does it? Emily dwelt in possibility; so can I.Turns out, Michel’s ok with that:

I’m a big fan of mystery and ambiguity in writing. I don’t think that writing should be a mystery, but rather open the mysterious inside you. Which is to say, I’m not as much of a fan of “puzzle” fiction that you are supposed to solve (unless it’s a good mystery novel) and more of a fan of work that’s dreamy, evocative, and can be read in different ways.

Reddit AMA

Most of the stories are short, four to six pages; some are barely two, a few are much longer. The book is divided into four named sections; Michel paid a lot of attention to the organization, but stops short of explaining it. While I can see hints of patterns – the first section is surreal and very flash-like in tone if not length, the second section is more about realism, the last are longer stories – that doesn’t quite work for all of them. But I learned my lesson three years ago; I’m not going to beat myself up for not figuring it out.

“The River Trick” is my emotionally-favorite story.

One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. They fall straighter than I ever though possible.
“Will there be love?”
“That I can’t promise,” I say, “but we can try to fight our way through it together.”
And perhaps seconds later, the people come rocketing back to the surface, having abandoned their appliances. They bob and gasp. And maybe they will have found something down there while starving for air. On the surface, they will seek each other out and cling tightly, saying, “This is what I need. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I’m not sure. Patricia and I have walked too far away to see.

The narrator’s job is showing up just in time to save people from pre-arranged suicide attempts. The thematic emphasis on the need for connecting brought to mind the Australian David Brooks’ story “Blue” – still on any top-five-flashes list I would make – though it’s completely different in tone. It’s a theme that’s been front and center for me this summer: I moved in July, and I keep saying I feel so much more open and connected in my new place, thanks to huge windows overlooking both busy streets and distant waters. My sense of well-being has greatly improved as a result, even though it’s all illusory. But what works, works.

But wait, there’s more to the story. At one point, the government, so alarmed by all these attempted (and, occasionally, accidentally successful) suicides, tries to connect people by projecting pictures on building walls, and by pouring a dye into the city river that turns it into a giant mood ring (I’m old enough to remember mood rings; are you?). That reminded me of something Facebook tried several years back (well after I’d left), before it went into the election-tampering-enablement business; didn’t they push posts that were upbeat, according to an algorithm, to make everyone happy to be on Facebook reading ads? I was happy to find Kyle Lucia Wu was thinking along the same lines when she interviewed Michel for The Rumpus. But it turns out the story was written before social media was really a big thing; AIM and ICQ were around, but they weren’t anywhere near as public as the current generation of apps.

The idiocy of government features into several other stories in the collection. In “The Mayor’s Plan”, the plan is to give keys to the city to pretty much anyone, causing a business boom and massive expansion. “I’m not sure if the keys are saving his job. I do know that everyone I meet seems angry.” Good thing they weren’t red hats.

And then continuing along the theme of government there’s my intellectually-favorite story, “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation”: a historian/anthropologist of the future trying to make sense of the United States, and characterizing government as a pagan religion.

Long assumed to be a prince or demon of a lesser cult, we now know that John Adams was an important figure in the dominant United Statsian mythology. He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.

A hundred presidents, eh? Not sure we’re going to make it to 46 at this point, but this story was first published in 2012 when we never would have believed this is where we’d be. Turns out Michel wrote it for an election-year anthology about the Presidents; that anthology is available online.

Some of the creepiest stories feature kids. “Our Education” presents a school sans teachers, with just one student who still wants to complete his assignment:

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

It gave me something of a Lord of the Flies meets the Inquisition vibe, but man, Halimah Marcus really nailed: “…in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge.”

Even creepier is “Little Girls By the Side of the Pool” which should come with a trigger warning. But there’s something else, an amazing writing technique. Over the course of four pages, the little girls subtly grow up, but keep talking about the same thing (men’s hands – I told you, trigger warning) until it ends where it began and it all makes horrible sense.

The stories based in realism have their charm as well. “Some Notes on my Brother’s Brief Travels” takes us to a town where Foster is photographing old abandoned mines, maybe to put together an exhibition, maybe on his way to law school, but really, as his brother says, “he just wanted to pretend he was doing something with his life.” Don’t we all. There’s a guy in a chicken suit by the road most days, advertising a fast-food joint, and this leads us in two related directions: they can’t know who the guy in the chicken suit is – maybe he was sitting at the next table in the bar they just left – but everybody in town knows he dresses up like a chicken, and what’s it like to know everyone knows. The unknowability, right next to the familiarity you can’t escape. Neither really feels good, does it. It’s close to a slacker story – in fact, it is a slacker story – but it got to me anyway.

The Deer in Virginia” is a little gruesome, unless you’re a hunter in which case it’s probably milquetoast, but, like the girls at the pool, there’s a writing technique I admire. The first sentence starts with “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” It’s a pair of anecdotes about injuring deer, one on purpose, one accidentally. Either way, they’re just as injured. Then it ends with “So many days seem to end this way:….” and we’re back to this deep sense of being lost in an ongoing horror.

Like Michel says, “Ideally, I’d like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader’s mind.” Yeah, that they do. “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” was just a reasonably clever piece about a son’s room nested in his father’s room nested in his father’s room ad infinitum, until I got to the father’s line, “I did the best I could.” Then it turned into something else, a memoir, a therapy session, a spider hiding in a corner. Michel couldn’t have known that was the line my father trotted out every time a therapist put the two of us in a room together. He said it with an almost playful, self-depreciating self-depreciating shrug, less concerned that I was broken than that someone might think he was to blame (and, to be fair, he wasn’t, not more than five or ten percent, anyway). We’re all born in our parents’ rooms; it’s amazing how long it takes some of us to realize we can leave, we can bust out through a wall if that’s what it takes.

Then there’s the chef’s kiss on an already good read: “A Note on the Type”. I’d read a couple of pages before it occurred to me that Berdych probably isn’t an actual font. No, an actual printer’s note tells us the font is Weiss, and again, you never know what’s going on in this book. At least I wasn’t the only one fooled; Ilana Masad of The Collagist calls it a bonus track, and admits he got her, too.

I think it’s good it took me three years to get to this book. I’d like to think I can handle weirdness better, though handling it well is still a ways off. But see, even in his weirdest stories, the weirdness isn’t the point; it’s a path to the point. Or maybe a whole bunch of points. Good read.

Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Riverhead, 2017)

There was something in my father’s eyes, in his voice, as though he hadn’t meant to tell this much of the story, as though, perhaps, he had forgotten that this was how it had ended.

This 2017 collection started cropping up in my twitter feed this summer, mostly because Arimah won the Caine Prize for African Fiction for a more recent story (“Skinned”, published in McSweeney’s Quarterly). I kept thinking I should look into it; Michael Schaub loved it, and I seem to enjoy stories by Nigerian women. But I had my list, and I’d already deviated from it several times, so I kept resisting. Eventually, gave in, because we all have our breaking point. I’m glad I did; it’s wonderful.

I’ll have to admit, though, it’s not a cheerful book. These aren’t stories of heroic characters breaking out of desperate situations, perpetuating the myth that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. It’s about those for whom it’s all they can do to survive; their stories are just as worth telling. Amy Weiss-Meyer of The Atlantic put it perfectly in her review: “These tales don’t celebrate virtue, but they pay tribute to tenacity.”

Most of the stories deal with family issues, particularly mother-daughter problems. Some are straighforward realism; some are fanciful with touches of the supernatural; others are outright spec-fic, and one is a lovely folk tale of the gods. A couple are notable for writing techniques, and in all, wonderful lines tend to bubble up unexpectedly, lines like “My mother was a small woman who carried her weight in her personality.“

I noticed that for several of the stories, I loved them while reading, caught up in the story, and when I finished and, perhaps, came to put down some notes about them for this post, I had second thoughts about certain aspects. I don’t think that means they’re flawed; I think they’re going in unexpected directions. I still loved the stories, even when I wasn’t sure about an ending, or an element, just like you still love your dog – or your kid, or your best friend, or your country – even when they don’t quite meet your expectations. Maybe it’s time to examine those expectations, hmmm?

Some of my favorites:

The Future Looks Good

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her.

The paradigm of short story structure is: begin near the end, in media res, then fill in the backstory once you’ve got the reader hooked on the present conflict. This story takes some liberties with that. The initial sentence, which is indeed in media res, very near the end of the action of the story, is repeated four times. It’s that phrase, “what came behind her” that works the magic: for the first three iterations, what comes behind Enzinma is her past. This sets us up perfectly for the fourth iteration, the completion of the present of the story in a single phrase that hits like a ton of bricks. Given my fondness for using structure, it’s my favorite of the collection.

Second Chances

Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years ….Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.

Again, I find this division between story and backstory to be key. The backstory is of course crucial; without it, there wouldn’t be much of a story. I wasn’t really sure where this was going for a while, but I had to keep reading to find out, and then it was worth it. I have a nagging feeling that it ends twice, and I’d prefer it only end once, but I’m not sure, maybe it works better this way.


The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity.

Again, I’m ambivalent. I loved it while I was reading; I was totally immersed. I loved thinking about how well second-person worked here, distanced the narrator from her own victimhood, gave her some control at least over how her story is related, avoided cloying pathos. But it is still a child-abuse story, and I balk at those. The girl is not in denial at all; at one point her mother asks, “Do you think I’m a bad mother?” and the girl thinks, “Was she a bad mother? You were fifteen years old and pregnant because she wanted a price cut on a battered green Toyota.” But, crucially, she stays silent. The ending intrigues and repulses me; the silence, again, is maddening. But, remember, it isn’t the end of her, it’s just the end of the story; she goes on, and there’s hope in that. In this case, my ambivalence fits with the story, which, as the last line makes clear, is all about how we look at things. And I do appreciate good use of second person. So in the end, yes, I loved it.

Who Will Greet You At Home

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love.

Another mother-daughter struggle, told in a magical realism setting where young women make pretend-babies which are blessed into life by their mothers – unless they fall apart first. Ogechi’s mother charges for her blessing in the currency of empathy and joy. I was intrigued by the premise of the story, then went back to figure out what the ending was telling me.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky

When things began to fall apart, the world cracked open by earthquakes and long dormant volcanoes stretched, yawned and bellowed, the churches (mosques, temples) fell, not just the physical buildings shaken to dust by tremors, but the institutions as well. Into the vacuum stepped Francisco Furcal, a Chilean Mathematician who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe, was infinite and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension, humanity had no end, was exactly what the world had needed.

But then a man fell from the sky. Something always goes wrong, when you think you’ve got the perfect solution. This is another story I loved; it’s set in the future, and combines environmental disaster, racism, everyday hubris, news vultures, and a few family dramas. On the other hand, I have some reservations. I don’t like the use of the word Mathematician for those who are more like healers; to me, the mathematicians are the ones experimenting with the formula. Hard-SF fans might not go with the math and science, but they are put to terrific use in the story so I’ll go with them. If you like, you can listen to LeVar Burton read this one on his podcast.

What Is a Volcano?

The god of ants and the goddess of rivers were feuding.

This is pure fable, and remarkably enjoyable as the feud escalates. It’s also packed with wonderful phrases and sentences: “…and who even knew there was a god of ants, did you?” Reader address is pretty unusual, and works beautifully here; I kept flashing to Peter Falk reading about Westley and Buttercup. “They backed and forthed for five human centuries…” “The problem with those who don’t know real power is that they do not know real power.” And at the end, we do indeed get an answer.

It’s a short book; it’s literally small, and the type is set with wide spacing, so even the long stories read quickly. Because the stories work in different genres, it’s possible for a reader to dislike a couple and love others; I tend to be less enthusiastic about straight-off domestic realism, but even there, the stories worked. Given the payoff of even two or three of the stories, it’s more than worth the time to read.

C. Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (HM, 1998)

This is a collection of stories about spiritual experiences of several sorts. Some are comic, some vaguely anticlerical, some only grudgingly engaged with any sort of denominational mainstream, at least a few outwardly skeptical of a divine presence or intention at any level. Others, however, make their way shrewdly into the perplexities and challenges of belief, explore the hazy perimeter of unconditional love and forgiveness, examine sympathetically the paradoxes of discipleship. Above all, these stories encounter spirituality in its human dimensions. They are about men and women, children and venerables, proselytizers and skeptics, the obsessed and the weak at heart. They tell us something important about our literary culture, point to the impact of religious sensibility in the way we lead or question our lives. Holding them together is a recognition that God, however conceived, challenges our deepest yearnings, provides our greatest comfort, assures us of our fundamental worth, grants us the only absolution we fully trust, makes possible, in ways both mysterious and immense, a loving regard for other characters in the larger narrative of life.

~~ Introduction, C. Michael Curtis

In his introduction, Curtis, a long-time editor at The Atlantic (among other things), tells us this anthology grew out of a cobbled-together text for an adult education class on story and religion. Turns out, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the stories by prominent writers spanning the 20th century (1914 to 1997, as far as I can tell). Most of the stories are based in Christianity, though a few are distinctly Jewish, and the writers are predominantly American. The stories feature clergy, believers, and doubters; those who believe devoutly and thoughtfully, and those who casually connect with a religion for reasons other than spiritual longing.

While I was reading this book, the podcast for Jo Walton’s historical-theological-fantasy novel Lent was released. I was surprised to realize that book, for me, was far more powerful and made a deeper spiritual impression on me than this collection. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy these stories; some were delightful, and several raised interesting questions. But apparently the path to my soul is more in history, with Hypa and his battles with Azazeel, and with the tormented Girolamo and his Renaissance humanist friends.

The James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor stories (“Grace” and “Parker’s Back”) were, unsurprisingly, the most deeply symbolic; it was only through a bit of internet research that I glimpsed the intensity under the surface story. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” was a terrific read, and I was delighted to find an academic paper by Gillian Steinberg proposing a connection to the Haggadah of the Four Sons. Her question: which of the two main characters is the Defender of the Faith, the “good” son? The question doesn’t need to be answered; just raising it is interesting enough.

Brendan Gill’s “The Knife” and William Hoffman’s “A Question of Rain” gave insights into the purpose of prayer. The child in the Gill story is given a rather glib explanation of prayer, giving his father something of a shock when he follows it to its logical conclusion. Hoffman’s minister, taking a more sophisticated view of prayer, is shocked by unexpected results.

And speaking of shock: the minister in Peggy Payne’s “The Pure in Heart” hears the voice of God. Twice. Nothing profound or specific – in fact, its petty cryptic – but what really surprises him is the reaction of his congregation, who debate whether he should be ousted.

“Doesn’t it seem contradictory?” Swain says. Bill is watching him carefully. “It’s okay to believe in God, but only if God is distant. A presence in history. Is that the idea?”

“I thought maybe a few people would be curious about what actually happened. Would want to hear more.” He shakes his head. “They don’t.” It makes him mad to think about it. They’ve decided to put up with him – that’s what they’ve made of all this. They’re being broad-minded and tolerant, that’s all.

“The Rabbi in the Attic” by Eileen Pollack is also a lively, fun read, but here’s where I wish I hadn’t gone researching. Pollack relates that the plot came from an overheard conversation. She added an interesting element, pitting an Orthodox rabbi against a young Reform woman; this presents such wonderful opportunities, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more. But the moment with the scroll was everything: Solomon speaks yet again.

This was an interesting way to expand my reading of several short-story authors I’ve mostly ignored. And if it wasn’t the most personally meaningful anthology I’ve read, that doesn’t mean it was meaningless. I prefer a more oblique approach: tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson says, and several of these stories did just that.

Ellen Litman , The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007)

I used to have this confused idea, this delirious noble dream – we come to America and I immediately begin to work, an unglamorous, hard job. I support the whole family and they are grateful, grateful and also proud of me because I go to school at night. But things are different. I can’t get a job because of the welfare thing, and I can’t go to school because of the financial aid thing. So instead I translate and interpret for my parents. I make all the phone calls too, while they argue over my head, pushing me to say contradictory things. I told them that if they want to argue they can make their own phone calls. I tell them that I’m tired and nervous, and that my English isn’t good, at least not good enough to deal with them screaming and with an American person on the other end not understanding me. They call me lazy and irresponsible and say that the next time they will have to ask Alick, a stranger, for help, because their own daughter is too damn selfish. Which is fine, they say, because the next time I needed something from them, I better be prepared to wait a long, very long time.

– “The Last Chicken in America”

With all the political focus on immigration these days, it’s easy to forget that immigrants aren’t all alike. Not only do they come from different places, for different reasons, and in different circumstances, but even within those subdivisions, there are differences, differences between generations, sexes, and just differences in personalities, expectations, and goals. Litman’s story collection does a nice job of introducing us to several members of a community of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in Pittsburgh, and pointing out how, while there are some common threads, each of them has different challenges and different approaches to life in America.

Many of the stories feature Masha, who in the first story is about eighteen. We follow her from shortly after arrival, her anxiety and frustration abounding as shown in the quote above, and through college as a commuter student studying computer science (“The safest job in Squirrel Hill was still in computer programming”); then, in the last story, we catch up with her a few years later and see she left Pittsburgh, and left her programming job, for Harvard’s Slavic Languages graduate program.

In the meantime we meet other members of the community: Liberman, an older widower encouraged – or coerced – by his kids to emigrate for health reasons; Natasha, a divorcee trying to find a social circle; Anya, another teenager torn between obedience and her own desires; Mike, aka Mishka, who gets entangled in a coworker’s personal life; a group of three men and their wives, bound together by circumstance. Among the ancillary characters we see glimpses of twin teenage girls from Donetsk, Ukraine, and how they form a closed circle; we meet Pamela, an American who shows Masha a different way of being Jewish; and we run across a visiting Russian professor who is everyone’s idea of the egotistical visiting professor, and has his own idea of what it is to be Russian, an idea Masha recognizes can’t share.

It’s subtitled “a novel in stories” but Litman tells Arsen Kashkashian of Kash’s Book Corner that was the publisher’s decision for marketing purposes; she simply wrote a set of stories set in the same neighborhood, sometimes sharing characters. There is a chronological progression, particularly in the “Masha” stories, and the hallmarks of a novel – change over a span of time – holds true. I was reminded of Ernie’s Ark, Monica Wood’s similarly constructed, though thematically different, collection of linked about numerous characters in a papermill town in Maine. Wood resisted the novel-in-stories label in favor of linked stories because she feared readers might have different expectations of a novelization. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Masha, the central character of the collection, has a number of similarities to Litman, who came here at age 19 with her family. In an interview with Katharine Whittemore of UConn Magazine (where Litman is a professor of creative writing), she tells of a specific incident in 1990, after Perestroika but before the breakup of the Soviet Union, that spurred her parents to emigrate: a Russian general on television called for pogroms against Jews. This was an exacerbation of the typical anti-Semitic sentiment, as Litman explained in the interview:

In Russia, you simply couldn’t be a writer if you were Jewish. You couldn’t aspire to certain things. We were taught very early that you have to work twice as hard as others to get things. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, but there was no way to “be a writer.”
You have to understand that Russian Jews were never considered Russians. On my passport under nationality, it said “Jewish,” not “Russian.” Being Jewish affects a lot of things, unofficially and officially. Which college you can attend, which job you can get. Some colleges won’t accept Jews because “they have bad vision.” Others admit under a quota from the local party district.

This background is reflected in Masha’s story line in a couple of places.

Several online reviews refer to the humor in the book. I tend to be more finely attuned to darkness, but yes, there are many humorous scenes, not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way but more in a recognition of our common frailties way. Airplane behavior; expressions of romantic interest; unexpected houseguests; and that great American coming of age story, father-daughter driving lessons.

As might be expected, references to Russian culture abound. Two Russian songs make their appearance in separate stories. Poets are quoted. I did my second read in front of my computer so I could be better acquainted with these elements.

And then there’s the language. Just in the first story, I was struck by two phrases that I figured had to be some kind of reference: God’s dandelion, in reference to an elderly woman, and How many winters? How many springs? opening a phone call to someone not heard from in a long time. It turns out, these are typical Russian phrases, and, in fact, Penn State Slavic Language professor Adrian Wanner used these, and other examples from the collection, in his book Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora:

A stylistic feature of Litman’s book that deserves special mention is her loan translations of Russian idioms. The result is a “strange’-sounding discourse which, while not technically wrong, gives English language a vaguely foreign feel. …
Litman’s English language becomes a sort of palimpsest of an imaginary primary text – it is as if the narrative were a clumsy, literal translation of a Russian original, or perhaps the conscious choice of a translator who rejects a “smooth,” assimilationist rendering in favor of a “foreignizing” solution. But in the present case this translational effect is illusionary, of course, since the author wrote the text directly in English. The hybrid discourse, mimicking an English surface rendering of a Russian deep structure, serves as an apt representation of the heroine’s own bicultural background and unresolved tension between her Russian and American identities.

And again I come across that idea of the immigrant as palimpsest.

Norton has a Reading Group Guide that includes some excellent discussion questions and a brief interview with Litman. She mentions the title: it comes from a supermarket scene in the first story in which Lina, Masha’s mother, keeps picking up frozen chickens. “It’s not the last chicken in America,” her husband tells her. This phrase was chosen for the story’s title following the suggestion of a teacher. This is, in fact, how I became aware of the book; the teacher’s advice shows up in Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since. So it took me six or seven years, so what.

A brief (hah; I’m not known for brevity) rundown of my favorite stories:

“The Last Chicken in America”
As the lead story, this sets us up with a picture of the early days of a family’s immigration. Teenage Masha struggles to figure out her role in America, while her parents struggle to learn enough English to find jobs, having left good employment as an engineer and a teacher. This all causes a great deal of conflict within the family, but also a good deal of resilience. The ending of the story leaves a lot of room for hope, hope that pays off as we read through the rest of the stories.

This is what’s wrong with immigration. Those who could be your friends at home here become cautious competitors. Parents envy their children. Sisters become dangerous – all that private information they can unleash at a strategically chosen moment. It’s about surviving. Immigration distorts people. We walk around distorted.

In my room I study what it means to be an American woman: strappy sandals, skimpy suits, the hair – straight and shiny. A Russian woman is all about hardships, guilt, and endurance. She waits and forgives and then waits some more. But an American woman doesn’t wait: she puts on a push up bra and has meaningless sex whenever she feels like it.

My parents are irrational, impossible to be around. There seems to be an angry electric current running through their blood. I understand. I try to be understanding. it’s because of the jobs, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh. They’ve been to the resume-writing workshops and to the interview-going workshops ; they’ve memorized hundreds of sample dialogues and know how to write the perfect thank you letter. But nobody wants a former teacher and an engineer with minimal English skills.
They take it out on me and on each other. We don’t look much like a family anymore. But we have to stick together – there are still appointments, phone calls, and Giant Eagle.

And it probably won’t last, the way the three of us are together like this and laughing. But tonight we are perfect. Tonight we’re the way a family should be. It’s warm and the heat is rattling in the basement like a high speed train, sending puffs of hot air through the floor vents. There’s plenty of chicken and frozen pizza in our refrigerator. And there’s Child’s Play 2 starting on the Movie Channel, which we somehow get for free. After supper my mother will distribute the bars of Klondike ice cream and we will huddle together in front of the TV, shuddering and laughing at the horrors of Chucky the doll, feeling warm and fortunate in our American apartment. Feeling like we have everything.

“What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?”
Now we get a look at immigration through the eyes of an older man, a widower whose adult children have nagged him to come to America, where his daughter has lived for five years. He’s rather ambivalent about the transition, which isn’t helped by his daughter’s attitude once he’s here, or by his grandson’s fear of him. On the plane, he plays a game of I’m ignoring you with the woman across the aisle from him, a tactic he uses again later in the story. The title comes from a Soviet song about a historically-laden warship, now a museum in St. Petersburg.

Liberman met Mira on the flight to New York. For twelve hours, they sat across the aisle from each other –
stretching, lurching into bleary dreams, stirring awake when there was turbulence, sipping tomato juice from plastic see-through cups, not risking anything stronger – two ponderous old people, both traveling alone. He didn’t want to talk to her. She was a chatterbox; he could tell by the way she’d been going on to her neighbor, an Armenian woman in the window seat. To avoid conversation, he kept his eyes closed. But eventually a restrained understanding developed between them. When Mira’s earphones broke, Lieberman offered her his pair. When he had to use the bathroom, he asked her to look after his things.
They were on a charter flight from Leningrad, an uneasy mass of immigrants, and everybody had a story to tell.

Had he made a mistake? Could he go back now? Or was it too late? He’d left his Leningrad apartment to Arkasha, which meant he would have nowhere to live. He could live with Arkasha, but Arkasha’s wife wouldn’t like it. He wondered now if Mira had ideas like that. Of course they weren’t acquainted enough so he could ask her.

In the lunchroom, Russian seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets – bright, excessively painted, and cheerful.

We, she said, and he knew she had come with her family. That was how people at JFK airport had talked – we – perched on top of their orphans’ bags, each family banded together, spreading like a gypsy encampment. That was the proper way to emigrate, so you wouldn’t feel like an intruder later, so your grandson wouldn’t get afraid.

“Russian Club”
We join Masha, still living at home but now in college studying computer science. She joins the campus Russian Club, a lightweight social club light on actual Russians, on a whim. Victor Harlamov, a visiting philology professor from Moscow, shows up at a meeting, and she is bewitched; whether it’s a literary or a romantic crush is never quite clear, but she joins his class and he treats her as a star pupil. The Russian Club works on a trip to Russia, but Masha has trouble arranging the logistics; she might be less than eager to begin with. This causes a rift between her and the professor. This could play as a romcom, but the resonances (all Russians are not alike) allow for much more.

“What do you miss the most?“ he asked.
I said I missed walking in Moscow, traversing old boulevards, the sidewalks glistening in the night, Pushkin Square, the lovers clutching flowers beneath the poets statue – the sentinels of love.
He said he also liked the boulevards, and Eskimo ice cream sticks for twenty-five kopecks.
What Victor missed was the Russian brokenness. He said it was the core of the Russian soul. “You see it in poets: Tsvetaeva’s suicide, Esenin, Mayakovsky. But it’s not just the poets. We are sensitive, foolish, illogical. We live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from the next drunken bout.”
I knew what he meant. I had my own brokenness.

He was convinced that had I stayed in Moscow, I would have applied to Moscow State. He was mistaken. Philology was too prestigious, the competition rigorous, with tens of applicants contending for each space, and a Jewish person with no connections would have been felled. That’s what we called it – felled – when you did well on the exams, but the committee tricked or failed you.
“This doesn’t happen anymore,“ said Victor.

There were topics we never discussed. My Jewishness, for example. He never asked about my parents or why we had come to America. I wanted to tell him. I thought he’d understand. He was open-minded, intelligent, a boy from a little Siberian village who’d made his way up, first to Moscow, then to America.
But he never asked, never shared his own reasons for I leaving.

Here they were, burning to save my old country, spoiling for a fight. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I love it?
But it wasn’t my country anymore. I’d never really belonged there, in the Russian they imagined, among its fields and chapels, the clamor of its bells, the beggars in black shadows along the walls, the golden light bleeding from tiles, candles, and icons. It had been the fall of my senior year in high school, our class trip to the Troitsky monastery, and the boy I liked was crossing himself by the icon of Nikolai the Miracle Worker. He had a silver crucifix under his shirt, which probably meant nothing, except it was what nationalist patriots wore in those days, when they went on TV at midnight and talked of planned pogroms. No I didn’t miss Russia.

At our last class, Victor said the silver age outlived itself. The best poets perished in Russia, while those who escaped were nothing but pale imitations. He wrote on the back of my paper, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration. “

“When the Neighbors Love You”
Anya wants to go to BU, her parents want her to go to Pittsburgh and live at home. She resolves the conflict on a secret roadtrip with a friend. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.

You think: you were twelve and wore brown corduroys. You once read Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet , but you don’t remember the plots anymore. The neighbors called you a clever girl and a darling. You weren’t supposed to hear but you did anyway, through the running water in the kitchen, where mother-of-pearl teacups lay in your hands like seashells. Your heart swooped at the praise and you imagined a brilliant future: articles, book jackets, scholarships to Europe. You were Anna Akhmatova , with her choker and rosary beads; you were Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, austere in her grief. You were in love with the handsomest of professors – British, possibly married, with a sarcastic crinkle around his eyes. But the romance, too, had an exceptionally happy ending, because you were a smart girl, a girl who made smart decisions, and nothing bad could happen to a girl like this.

One aspect of the book that initially didn’t impress me at all was the cover. But the more I read, the more I realized the girl-jumping-over-puddle image was perfect. It’s a long leap; she might land on her butt in the middle; she might get her boots muddy. But she’ll get to the other side.

Those who were born here often have the idea that immigrants arrive brimming with eagerness and gratitude. What’s often left out of the picture is the anxiety of adjusting, and the sorrow at leaving behind what – and who – was, for however many years, home. Litman gives us a more complete picture than our imaginations allow, and also shows how heterogeneous the immigrant experience can be. Masha’s journey is very different from her parents’ or Liberman’s, and everyone’s journey changes en route. Moving to a new town can be unsettling; how much more unsettling then is moving to a new country. Give ‘em a break while they work it out.

David Brooks: The Book of Sei (Faber and Faber, 1988)

How so many could have interpreted such diverse things in so similar away I cannot tell. Perhaps the sight or rumor of what others were doing influenced their understandings; perhaps there were dimensions to these signs and portents that none could detect or consciously register. Whatever it was, in Vincentia, in St. Mary’s, in Albatross and Mooney Creek and all the small hamlets in between, on hillsides, on neighboring streets, on curves of the highway, roofs came off the houses, the paneling of weatherboard and fibro left the walls, and here a man could be seen showering in a cage of two-by-fours, there a family could be seen in their lounge room watching the sky over their television, in the manse at Albatross the housekeeper could be seen through the gaps of the bookshelf she was cleaning, staring across to where the SP bookie was tearing the paper from his shop-front, digging away at the putty of the windows, and from the first stirrings of this strange exposure, just after six on Friday, to the time of the shower on Sunday evening, people all down The Head began living out-of-doors in the comfort of their own carpeted rooms, sitting up late by unseasonal hearth-fires, making toast as they had once done as children while all the stars of the southern hemisphere attended. True enough, we laughed at ourselves, but we sat there just the same, against the cool night air, listening to the possums, yarning as we haven’t since our honeymoon.


A couple of decades ago, I acquired a book titled Sudden Fiction International, one of several anthologies of very short stories edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. I’m not sure when, how, or why the book came into my possession, or if I even read it at the time (the 90s were a pretty weird time for me, much like the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the aughts, the 10s…). I did pick it up (again?) about ten years ago, when I started writing a bit of flash, to read as a model. I loved these stories, but one in particular stood out: “Blue” by David Brooks (who is, I should clarify, an Australian writer and professor, not the American journalist), originally published in his collection The Book of Sei. It remains one of my favorite stories.

For some reason, I never followed up to see what else Brooks had written, though I thought about it from time to time. And for some other reason, I finally decided it was time, a few months ago, to read the collection whence what has remained one of my favorite short-shorts ever came.

The twenty-three stories in the collection live in a world of possibilities, as Emily Dickinson imagined, but express those possibilities quite differently. A few are science fiction. Many are metaphysical, dancing around ontological questions. Some read like essays, some like history, anthropology, or biography. Most are fairly short; many are very short, two to four pages. They are all lyrical, mysterious, and intriguing.

A few exemplars:

Du” – a traveller, ill from his journey, spends a year in the city of Du, and discovers a strangely universal game that persists in him after he leaves, even as he travels to other cities. “In the City of the Game all things bear up on the stranger to the same effect, the dance of streets, the dance of customers, the dance of pieces on the board all linked, all governed by rules as deeply graven as topography itself…. Could it be, as some have claimed, that the modern game is a ritualization of the ancient conflict, a refinement of all its subsequent eruptions?”

The Dolphin” – A people come from another star just as Earth is forming, and end up, during a period of constant rain, splitting into two groups, one on land, one on sea. They hope to reunite, but never quite do.

The Journal of Roberto De Castellán” – A young naval officer tries to document the different peoples living on several separate islands; initially the largest island was populated with convicts, but some escaped to the second island, and some escaped to the third, etc etc. A sociological mystery.

The Lost Wedding” – A woman washes and hangs out her wedding dress periodically. She remembers getting engaged, spending a month preparing for nuptials, dressing for her wedding, nearing the church, then returning home for some forgotten item; but when she got back to the church, no one was there. And now, no one remembers it at all. Did it happen? “When she talks about her wedding, as she sometimes still does, Jennifer Cooley keeps changing things – one time, say, it’ll be a brooch she goes back for, another time a ribbon – as if fitting the wedding into the real history of things were a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, or like one of those shapes that in the children’s game you have to get into the right shaped holes…..Maybe she just doesn’t have the right shape yet.”

Black” – Various philosophers over time – among them, quoted in the story, are Grosseteste and Scotos Erigena, but Thomas Aquinas could be added to the list – have proposed that “Everything that is, is light.” What if it’s the other way? There’s an intriguing image of dark underneath writing, bringing to mind the idea that, instead of implanting black ink on white paper, maybe writing is scraping appearance enough to show the black reality underneath.

The Line” – What if one’s writing took on a will, a life of its own, independent of one’s pen? Where might it go, where might it end up?

Striptease” – Essayish examination of striptease, through the person of a man living with an artist who sometimes works as a stripper when finances require. It brought to mind two paintings by Manet, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. All, of course, are from male viewpoints. But I also recall a short piece from an old Pushcart that featured a stripper’s musing on her art, on the men who watched her, written by a woman. I loved that piece. I had to mark it as Private, at the author’s request, because she worried it would impede her job search. I would have hired her on the spot.

The Tape-Recorder of Dreams” – Science says we dream far more than we remember. What if we had access to those forgotten dreams? Would we become addicted to listening, to ours, to the dreams of others? Remember, this was written pre-Internet. Would we become more compassionate, realizing that we all harbor evil? Would we be inspired? Might we think differently about consciousness, the border between life and death? Would recordings be banned? Required? Metaphysics as speculative fiction: “Although the face of society was not thus greatly altered, ones judgments upon its extremities were dramatically curtailed. One had to admit that deep within one’s self was very likely, in embryo, all evil, all perversity, and so one trod all the more gingerly…. It came to be suggested that at death we are not transported to some new and unaccustomed place, but into that parallel world towards which our dreams had always gestured.”

These have been compared to stories of Borges and Calvino, and I see the similarities. Sometimes they’re also highly spiritual, occasionally anthropological. The only story that didn’t interest me at all was the first and title story, the longest in the collection; it’s a tale of a lost wanderer in the woods that turns into a kind of Kama Sutra.

But the rest, to varying degrees, were stories I greatly enjoyed, though none quite reached me the way “Blue” did. Even as I dictated the paragraphs for this post (using voice recognition to save wear and tear on my wrists), I kept choking up.

And at last it came by the bucket full. A short, torrential pour which no one could have predicted and which all, mysteriously, recognized as the only true and likely culmination of those strange three days of air and light. Children ran about with buckets, the young people danced, and we who are older just sat in mute amazement: a short, sharp burst of blue carnations, tiny blooms like great, sky-petalled snowflakes in the evening dust. And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been, and we sat there or sang in the phenomenal rain, and something deep within us was drinking, every stem, every petal, every tiny perfect flower, slaking, in that long, imperfect summer, a deep, deep need for miracles, for something a little more than rain.


When I first started blogging back in fall of 2010 – my third start, after deleting my first two attempts – I had no idea what I wanted to do in this space. I keep wanting to delete those old posts, a mishmash of TV recaps and random thoughts. But among them is a post titled “Favorite Stories” which includes this one, and generated the idea to blog BASS and Pushcart. I’m not sure why it took me so long to look at Brooks’ other work, or why it struck me to do so now. Maybe that’s another metaphysical/psychological mystery, an impulse with its genesis in a forgotten past, an unseen present, or a looming future. In any case, I’m glad I finally got around to it. Maybe I should put Dean Paschal – another writer whose story, “The Puppies”, shows up in that old post – on my read list for next summer, after Pushcart.


Anis Shivani: Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2009)

Over the next hour, as the natural light declined further, she began to see the painting in all sorts of ways forbidden to her before. It struck her for the first time that paintings ought to be appreciated in their natural habitats for some period of time, then let go of, consigned to the mists of time and memory …

As I’ve been completing and blogging the reading list I compiled a couple of months ago, I’ve been listing the reasons I chose to read each book. I picked this one for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake, a big fan of some of Shivani’s essays, didn’t like it. Jake and I often agree on stories, but we just as often disagree, and that’s the case here: with a couple of exceptions, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this collection. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything I could have out of it, but, like the painting that changes as the natural light shifts, I suspect I’ll be recalling some of them quite frequently.

I can easily see why Jake takes issue with some of the stories. Often, the plot seems like a scaffold, existing only to give a place for characters to voice their opinions – voice, not discuss, since there’s rarely any interaction. It’s just that this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m also not concerned that Shivani’s personal views are front and center in most of the stories. First, I’m not that familiar with him, beyond his anti-workshop essay (which was in one of the first Pushcarts I blogged, but before I blogged anything but fiction) and a rather startling fairly recent article in Salon, voicing his longstanding argument against identity politics.

I’m not qualified to assess either opinion, but I find it interesting in the light of the Salon article that so many of the characters in the stories find it impossible to assimilate into the dominant culture, not because they aren’t willing, but because they simply aren’t accepted. The most stark occurrence of this is in “Manzanar”, where an interned American of Japanese descent during WWII speaks quite bluntly of the problem: “The wind groans a dirge for time lost to fatal error. How was it we thought we could become fully American, one hundred percent American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” This echoed for me the line spoken by Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank: “I always thought of myself as Dutch.”

I encountered a review of the book that complained about the characters being “stuck”, of the lack of change in the stories. I can’t find that review now, however; I don’t think I made it up or dreamed it, since I doubt it would have occurred to me, but once I thought about it, I realized this was indeed the case in all but a couple of the pieces. This goes along with the “plot is a structure to hang philosophizing on” approach, I think, and again, while it’s probably a valid complaint, it’s just not something that bothers me.

Nowhere is this lack of change more prominent than in “Conservation”, one of my favorite stories. A conservator at a small Boston museum goes to great lengths to smuggle a painting out and take it home with her, in order to rescue it from the restoration plans of her superior to remove the imperfections that were not from accumulated damage, but were part of the original work: “Why should a lowly latter-day conservator go against the master’s intentions and try to cure the painting of its alleged defects by removing all hint of anomaly and conflict from the surface of the painting?” The brought to mind the enormously complex Japanese concept of wabi, an affinity for a natural state rather than artificial perfection, which I have corrupted to “the flaw that perfects”.

I know so little about art, but the recent History of Architecture mooc I took acquainted me with different views on building preservation: whether, in view of the frequent changes to buildings in ancient times, it makes sense to lock down a building’s structure by declaring it a historic landmark, whether recreating a city after the destruction of war erases something important, and the unusual point of view of Jorge Otero-Pailos, an artist who removed and preserved years of soot from various structures.

But in the end, the smuggler changes her mind and returns the painting, and it is as if nothing has happened. The stuffy European decides to go back to Europe where his stuffiness will be appreciated, and the director continues her plans to make the museum more appealing to a modern audience to increase funding. The lack of change was perhaps the point; there was that moment of seeing the painting change in the fading light, a moment of rash courage that existed, then was retracted. And, more important to me than any narrative drive, I got something of an education in attitudes towards art conservation. I’m never happier than when a story teaches me something, plot or no plot.

The most Shivanian (can that be a word, please?) story is “Go Sell It On The Mountain”, a takedown of Bread Loaf-style writing conferences powered and paid for by hope and vanity. I happen to know someone who went to a session, under the same conditions as the narrator (you pay your couple of grand, you get to workshop with other hopefuls and breathe the air of Success); he was quite enthusiastic about the experience, and I adored the story he wrote as a result (however, I was in the throes of a major crush at the time, so my judgment may be skewed). The Director of the fictional contest, seen as sort of the Archbishop of American Writing Programs, has a mission: he is, very much like the popularity-oriented art curator in “Conservation”,

… bent on cleaning up the filth and decadence in American writing, of which tidying up the Conference was a necessary though minor component. Professionalisation, standardisation, systematization , these were his obsessions, from the administering of contests to the editing of manuscripts, and his aim was no lower than rigorous enforcement of the rule of law to the three hundred and fifty writing programs in the country, to the extent his influence had any meaning. “The quirky personal element has been to romanticized. I want to establish the business of writing” …

I know very little about MFA programs or literary publishing, but I can tell you what happened when moocs got standardized by best-practices teams and slick instructional design departments. The best ones, to me, were put together with spit and glue back in the early days, by professors who felt a mission to share their excitement about their field. Their innovations – live sessions with call-in and tweet-in participation, 25-minute videos thoroughly exploring a single thought, message boards that encouraged students to connect and teach each other – have all been discarded as ineffective and inefficient in favor of the profitable development of mcMoocs and marketing them as products.

Oddly, I didn’t connect much with the Bread Loaf story, perhaps because it’s been redone several times. That’s a little unfair, like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in clichés. But here’s where I get why pontificating fiction is less popular now: whereas the story’s heart was to show the arrogance of the Director against the desperate hope of the newbie, with a couple of supporting characters for ballast (those in the know must’ve had a lot of fun solving the Roman à clef aspects), it felt like everyone was operating by a script not their own. I compare this to something like Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” which has characters operating by their own beacons, not as participants in a morality play, and I felt the difference.

Another story that showed a similar locked-in quality was “Profession”. It was more than anything else an outline of different approaches to literary education, by way of a husband and wife at the University of Wisconsin. He, of “common sense” and the traditional approach to literature, is fading into the woodwork, while she, offering talks on the hermeneutics of a Mexican restaurant menu (forgive me, but I’d love to hear this), has become a superstar. She lives across campus, and he visits on weekends; they’ve just adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and he’s trying to figure out how to be a father while she’s just breezing along doing the literary equivalent of circus tricks. “Without compromise, there was no family,” he notes. But there’s compromise and there’s absurdity.

One of the things that pricked up my ears on this story was his frequent descriptions of her as “petite.” I wonder if he’s trying to make her smaller, or is trying to convince himself she is not the Sun and he does not have to revolve around her. Or if he’s just hung up on weight.

Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was a look at his despair: “Arthur couldn’t even pretend that teaching mattered. In four decades, had he been able to sway a single student to his point of view?” Is that the point of teaching, or is teaching about showing students how to find their own point of view, how to distinguish between wheat and chaff, how to discover what they value most versus least? Are we seeing two extremes here, with the golden mean – the compromise – lost in the egos and struggle for power in an academic system where, as many have said, the stakes are so small?

“Texas” also is, in my view, a plotless story that nevertheless has some interesting undercurrents. It consists of the musings of Amy, babysitter to a high-flying Malaysian oil engineer’s family. The interesting detail is that the engineer works at Enron, obviously before the fall (the story was published in 2006, well after the shit hit the fan). “Amy felt second-class in her own country.” That’s the double-bind of the immigrant, isn’t it: if you’re a highly trained engineer or doctor or software designer, you’re taking jobs away from Americans, but if you’re untrained, you’re not good enough to be here.

“Gypsy” gives another example of the difficulty of living among yet apart. A young girl from a Rom family is about to be promised into marriage, and she’s not happy about it. She has non-Rom friends, and wants to go to school, have a career, but her father, horribly old in his 30s, is counting on her bride price to settle a debt. As it happens, she goes through with it, but her husband comes to an unexpected early end, so she gets to pick up her life after all. “I’ve shed many generations of weight off my frail shoulders, without having betrayed anyone.” A little deus-ex-machina, but it’s an engrossing story, one of the few that has a relatively genuine progression of events. I ended up caring about her, whereas most of the other characters in the book were exemplars rather than people to me.

I found “Repatriation” to be interesting for only one reason: context. I’ve been obsessed with context lately, since most of the books in my summer reading project are from Before and now we are in the After (if you don’t know Before or After what, well, you haven’t been paying attention). I’m sure when Shivani wrote this story in 2006, it was a bizarre little apocalyptic tale about kicking brown and black people out of America, not something that was actually happening.

I found the title story to be pleasantly frustrating. Because of my unfamiliarity with the norms and vocabulary of the 17th century Ottoman empire, it was a little difficult to follow, but basically concerned a Jewish merchant in some kind of legal trouble; he expected it would go away, but the powers that be had other ideas, and while it didn’t go as badly for him as it could have, neither did it go away. What interested me were two moments towards the end of the story: first, a casual conversation turns into an invitation to a Muslim gathering of some sort. “I’m a Jew,” he replies with a sort of amused scorn. His interlocutor indicates surprise; he’s not wearing a kipah, but our merchant doesn’t think that’s so unusual at all. He’d even bought a ring, thinking he might convert to Islam and marry a colleague’s daughter. But given the legal outcome (which I’m quite hazy on), he reconsiders: “Perhaps there was beauty after all in keeping things separate, not letting odd combinations mix and match at will.” I just ran into a similar sentiment in The Sellout, with a farming metaphor to emphasize the different kinds of conditions various species might need, and compared it to HBCUs and single-sex schools, both of which have shown some good results.

The story becomes chilling in the last paragraph, when he declares, “What had happened to him was an individual incident with no universal meaning.” I find it odd a Jew would think such a thing, but I suppose it had been a few centuries since the expulsions from Spain and England, and it seems the restrictions of 15th century Italy might not be that much of a factor in his consciousness. But just wait, dear man, until the 20th century. And the 21st.

The final story, “Tehran”, seemed very different to me. It’s a reconstruction, in fragmented leaps, of a suicide bombing at a café. The bomber turns out to be, oh dear, a frustrated writer whose work, while brilliant, has been censored. The innocent people he takes with him are people he would probably like: a caring schoolteacher trying to help women continue their education in spite of restrictions, and a young religious court official trying to reconcile his beliefs, and the poetry he loves, with post-Revolutionary Iran. It’s a beautiful, sad story, and a tragic reminder that no one has suffered more from terrorism and Islamic extremism than Muslims.

I’m very glad I read this collection. I wish this post did it justice; I find I have so much to say – and I’ve left out some things – I just haven’t been able to organize it properly. But obscurity has its benefits; when I make a fool of myself, the witnesses are few. It’s full of things to think about, and, like the painting, I suspect I will see it differently as time passes. I hope it will be with more wisdom and understanding.

Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water (Mariner, 2013)

“Happiness is like water,” she says. “We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.” She looks down at her hands,. “And my fingers are thin,” she says. “With lots of gaps in between.”

She holds out the object in the space above my thighs. “For you,” she says to me. “A wedding favour,” she says.
I reach out to accept. She places the object into my cupped hand, and then she covers my hand with her own. Our hands linger in mid-air that way, mine in hers. Then I pull away, because the whole thing feels not quite like a celebration, something like unadorned acceptance, just a bit short of joyful.
And I think that perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun is high in the sky. The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold. Grace is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its own form of happiness.

~~ Grace

Rooted in domestic drama – marriages, families, and the conflicts that arise – the stories in this collection look at women struggling to cup their hands around happiness, and finding, in most cases, it runs right through their fingers. Perhaps the lucky ones learn to live with that, the verge of happiness. Or perhaps they’re the unlucky ones.

I chose this book because I’ve quite enjoyed the work of several other Nigerian women over the past few years. Okparanta has generated a lot of buzz, and I was curious to see the kind of scope a collection about nine different Nigerian women could generate. The first five stories are set in Nigeria; the sixth concerns a woman preparing to emigrate the US, and the last four show Nigerian women after migration here. But they are all different and face different issues.

“On Ohaeto Street” gives us a somewhat reluctant bride who discovers her husband loves his car more than he loves her, forming an instant bond with a lot of American women right there. It’s told by a relator-narrator, a term I’m inventing because I lack the formal training to use the proper terminology. It’s something like an observer narrator, but O-Ns are typically involved in the action of the story, or at least appear in it, and witness the action themselves; the relator-narrator is repeating what someone else has told them (yes, I have finally taken to plural objects, it makes sense, and face it, language changes or I’d be writing in proto-Indo-European). The tone is a slightly brittle repressed humor rather than outright horror or condemnation, which gives it an interesting twist. The reveal of the narrator’s identity at the end underlines the voice.

“Wahala!” is the story of a wife whose family is getting impatient for her to be fruitful and multiply. Nobody cares that she has pain with each act of intercourse; they keep trying different things to make her fertile, and hear her moans of pain as sounds of delight. It’s incredibly sad.

“Fairness” deals with the obsession, even among African women, with lighter skin, and the lengths they will go to for a few shades. The semantic confusion between the two meanings of “fair” elevates the story from movie-of-the-week territory: “She is now one of the others, one of the girls with fair skin…. We are thirsty for fairness.” “Story, Story!” is a kind of urban legend turned gruesome, something like the Psycho version of Arsenic and Old Lace.

“Runs Girl” didn’t interest me much at first, but I was drawn in as the emotional complexity increased. It seems a Run Girl is similar to an escort in the US. In this case, the girl only gets into it, at the urging of a friend, because her mother desperately needs medical care they can’t afford. The ironic twist comes when mom figures out what happened – only once – so refuses to use the money for anything. The story turns to a meditation on forgiveness, one of my always-favorite notes:

And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.

~~ Runs Girl

I’m just about to begin a study of Paradise Lost, and this question of the opportunity to repent fits in nicely.

“America” is another story that starts out as one thing and becomes another. It also forms a transition point in the book, from stories set in Nigeria to those of immigrants to the US, as Okparanta was at the age of 10. Nnenna is a teacher whose primary reason for emigration is to be with her girlfriend in a place they won’t be jailed or executed for loving each other, but of course she needs to come up with something better than that, so decides to obtain another degree, this time from an American college. The story slowly morphs into the ecological and social impact of Shell Oil on Nigeria, a topic on which I confess I am ignorant, but I’d be surprised if exploitation and ecological ruin was not involved just as described. During the visa process, Nnenna starts to consider “getting lost in America”, otherwise known as the brain drain. It’s a thoughtful story with a lot to consider.

“Shelter” and “Designs” are, to me, less developed stories, offering fairly stereotypical views of domestic abuse and adultery, respectively. But then we come to “Grace”, which ends with the lead-off quote above. It’s a story of an American professor and the Nigerian student who develops a crush on her, a story of boundaries and keeping limits, but also about the outskirts of happiness. While it seemed too long for what is, after all, a fairly routine plot, I was quite taken with the ending, and realized the search for happiness, women hanging on to the fringes of happiness, is the connecting thread for the collection.

“Tumours and Butterflies” was the most complex story of the bunch, recapitulating some themes of belonging and exile, domestic abuse, forgiveness, and the outskirts of happiness. I have to wonder about the title, which is, well, awful, but the story is engrossing. There’s a passage about a doormat that captures the subdued eddies running through the piece:

… I recognize the doormat, the same one from nearly a decade ago. But it’s still looking brand new, not fraying at the edges at all. I wonder how often doormats are replaced. I wonder if they have just gotten into the habit of replacing it with the exact same type. I wonder if maybe there is just no one stepping on the mat, perhaps it is always just the two of them, never any guests, never any extra footsteps.

~~ Tumours and Butterflies

Okparenta’s 2016 novel, Under the Udala Trees, combines the stormy Nigerian civil war period with the protagonist’s illicit relationship with another woman. It’s probably not a novel I’ll read, but I continue to enjoy the voices of Nigerian women through their books and stories.

Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead, 2016)

Especially in our era, it’s become really hard to find meaning. Because there’s a multiplicity of meaning in any simple story that we’re told. There is a great temptation to move toward alienation and nihilism and just say, “Nothing means anything.” I think a faith in stories is an assertion that anything that happens to you does have meaning.

Dreamy. Fantastical. Feverish. Dizzying. These are some of the words reviewers use to describe this story collection. They’re accurate, but they still don’t begin to capture the sense of velocity and stillness, inevitability and surprise, frustration and satisfaction, that I felt after reading any one of these stories. But not during; while I was reading, there was only story, the need to turn the page.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy read. A few stories went down smoothly, but others required some wrestling. I let a few sit for a time before moving on, outlined a couple, fell asleep thinking about the puppets or the Presence or the goose (sometimes jumping up to check a detail or scribble a note, which, grrr, I can never read the next morning). In this I agree with Sebastian Sarti, who writes, “Oyeyemi’s stories refuse interpretation… Yet the reasons for my dissatisfaction point to Oyeyemi’s powers as a stylist. After three-hundred pages and hours of reading, I felt I’d only scratched the surface….” It’s the kind of puzzlement that insists there’s something there worth looking for, that comes back over and over in different shades and echoes, rather than the good-riddance kind. The kind of hard reading I love.

I read the stories in order because I feel like there’s a reason an author orders stories. Characters from earlier stories showed up in some later ones, sometimes just in mention but often as updated versions of the original, maybe a few years older and with different interests. Yet I wouldn’t call these stories linked; it’s more like Europe is a town and we see different aspects of it as we go from Spain to England to Prague to places not found on any map. The characters are likewise diverse; as Oyeyemi says, they’re “populated by the people I see.” She’s lived in Paris, Toronto, London, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky, so she’s seen a great deal.

Keys are the connective tissue of the collection, appearing in various ways in each story. In an NPR interview, Oyeyemi explains her visit to a bazaar shop in Cairo that sold swords and keys: “I think keys can cut — it divides property, it separates what is yours from what is not yours. A key defends what you have, but it also protects other people’s property from you.” We lock up what we treasure; and we lock up what we fear. Sometimes keys are central to the action; sometimes they’re tangentially symbolic.

Titling is another interesting quirk. Although this doesn’t seem to be the case in previously published editions of the stories, all titles are in lower case, including the title of the collection itself (and the author’s name). I’m not sure why, but that interests me; any decisions about how a book is put together has some significance, even if I can’t see it. Only one title comes directly from a line in the story; a couple of others are fairly straightforward descriptions. But the most interesting titles “inform the story”, a phrase I’ve heard so many times but never truly understood until I saw it used here, particularly in “sorry”, “freddy”, and the final story.

Then there’s the title of the book. It isn’t directly in any of the stories, but is implied in most of them. First, in the key theme by association; a key, a lock, is meant to be a barrier between what is and isn’t yours. But secondly, whether it’s a reputation, a body, a diary, a book, or a life: beware of taking what is not yours.

The nine stories:

She sketched with an effort that strained every limb. Montse saw that the Señora sometimes grew short of breath though she’d hardly stirred: a consequence of snatching images out of the air – the air took something back.

books and roses

It begins with “Once upon a time”, this fairy tale of two women each waiting for someone to return, but finding something else. Because there are several subnarrations, I found it worthwhile to outline the story to keep things straight. I kept thinking of Isak Dinesen, a feeling that came back to me later in the collection as well; I think here it was the subnarrations, the characters in the story who tell their own story. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t set in the 19th century; it had that feeling. One moment was particularly jarring, an outburst of annoyed sarcasm that sounded like any 21st century teenager. I still wonder about that. I have no doubt it’s there for a reason, but what is the reason? In any case, this ended up as one of my favorites in this collection.

“Imagine not being able to stop me from coming in, imagine not being able to cast me out because I own all thresholds. As an additional bonus, imagine me with three faces. That’s who we’re sending to have a little chat with Matyas Füst.”

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

Part ghost story, part revenge narrative, I struggled for a while to put the two together, then decided Hecate was the, um, key. This was first published in Summer 2015 in Ploughshares; it’s hard to remember there was a time before #MeToo, yet there it is, perfectly outlined: the denigrating comments a woman gets when she accuses a superstar of physical abuse, the sequence of “she’s lying” to “she deserved it” to “she asked for it”, the self-serving apology. Damn, it’s perfect. Enter Hecate, at the behest of Tyche, part-time beauty clinic attendant, part time invocation caster. Oh, and a beta splendens. I had one of those once upon a time; the exaggeration of its fierceness gives me a clue as to where the woman who keeps unlocking doors might be.

“And I’d say his puppets have a nihilistic spirit, if you’d understand what I meant by that….
Sometimes his puppets won’t perform at all. He just lets them sit there, watching us. Then he has them look at each other and then back at us until it feels as if they have information, some kind of dreadful information about each and every one of us, and you begin to wish they’d decide to keep their mouths shut forever.”

is your blood as red as this?

I couldn’t quite get this one to land; I don’t think it was meant to land, for one thing, but I’ll take 90% of the blame. Nevertheless, it’s captivating, and I sense something beautiful, and important, that’s waiting for me if I can just persevere. The structure alone fascinates me, and that’s before puppet school comes into it. The title is a line spoken by a puppet. The first half of the story, subtitled “No”, is narrated by Radha in the form of a letter to Myrna, whom she loves. The second half, subtitled “Yes”, is narrated by a puppet, Gepetta. Tyche, from “sorry”, makes an appearance. I felt the need to spend more time with the story, but not just now; I want to return to it later.

Puppets make for great stories, whether as characters, props, or just atmosphere. In an interview with Heather Akumiah at Bookforum, Oyeyemi explained how she got there:

“Writing about keys led me to puppets—trying to write from the perspective of something that is inanimate unless moved. It makes you start to think about the life of objects. Whether they can be alive even though they never exhibit any signs of life, and what they witness, and how they come to reflect the personality of the person who spends time around them.”

Additionally, Aaron Brady reports in his for New Republic that she discussed Kenneth Gross’s book about puppet theater (she also mentions it in the Acknowledgments):

In Kenneth Gross’s book about puppets (Puppets: An Essay on Uncanny Life), she read about a master puppet-maker who would make his puppets as perfect as he could, and then smash them, and then repair them. It was brokenness that made them human, she said: A puppet that perfectly resembled the perfect human form would be worrying, even obscene. It was their flaws—and the struggle to live through them—that made them most human. As Gross puts it, “The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement.”

A similar scene shows up on the story, except it is a story told by the ghost of a puppet about a group of puppets who each sacrifice a part to make a new, whole puppet. Yeah, I really want to spend more time with this story, and maybe with Gross’s puppet book as well. It’s somewhat pivotal in the collection, as other stories refer not only to these characters but to the puppet school and puppet shows.

This happened and it didn’t happen:
A man threw a key into a fire. Yes, there are people who do such things. This one was trying to cure a fever. He probably wouldn’t have done it if he’d had his head on straight, but it’s not easy to think clearly when rent is due and there isn’t enough money to pay it, and one who relies on you falls ill for want of nourishment but you have to leave him to walk around looking for work to do. Then even when you find some there still isn’t enough money for both food and shelter, and the worry never stops for a moment. Somehow it would be easier to go home to the one who relies on you if they greeted you with anger, or even disappointment. But returning to someone who has made their own feeble but noticeable attempts to make the place a little nicer while you were gone, someone who only says “Oh, never mind” and speaks of tomorrow as they turn their trusting gaze upon you . . . it was really too much, as if tomorrow was up to him, or any of us . . .

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

This sounds bleak and tragic – and it is, of course (and we haven’t even come to the part about the evil King drowning anyone who says anything mean about him) – but it’s also an engrossing story that ends up hopeful. It’s a fairy tale, of course; in an interview with Paste, Oyeyemi explains the opening lines as a more literal translation of the traditional Czech fairytale opening bylo, nebylo. Don’t you just love it when you run across a writer who uses Czech fairytale openings?

All I could think of in the description of the swamp where the King drowned his detractors was the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in the Caribbean. But that ignores the intricacy of the story, the adulterous queen, the lovely daughter, Arkady and his beloved, and all the ways they interact without interacting to get a key to the right lock.

His project focused on a particular type of experience that a large number of his clients reported having undergone. “To oversimplify the descriptions I’ve been given, this experience presents as . . . an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone. These presences aren’t reported as ghostly, but living ones . . . minutes, sometimes hours when the mourner feels as if they’ve either returned to a day when the deceased was still alive or the deceased has just arrived in the present time with them . . . and what’s interesting about these lapses people experience is that most of them happen under fairly similar physical conditions.”
“So you’ve put together some sort of program that induces this feeling of . . . presence?”


This started out as a domestic drama that didn’t interest me at all, but morphed, as all these stories tend to do, into something else. In this case, it was more like science fiction than fairy tale or fantasy: a physical environment that allows the bereaved to reconnect with their lost loved ones, and, presumably, provides some kind of closure or comfort.

I got a bit more interested when Jill finds herself experiencing the presence of her son, a son she never had, a son who goes from about 12 years of age to his 50s over the course of their time together. Maybe its my total indifference to motherhood, but in spite of the interesting premise – and the slight echoes of Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” – I still wasn’t drawn into it.

Among Cambridge University’s many clubs, unions, academic forums, interest groups, activist cells and societies, there’s a sisterhood that emerged in direct opposition to a brotherhood. What this sisterhood lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in lionheartedness: The Homely Wench Society. The Homely Wenches can’t be discussed without first noting that it was the Bettencourt Society that necessitated the existence of precisely this type of organized and occasionally belligerent female presence at the university.

a brief history of the homely wench society

This story shows that Oyeyemi doesn’t have to rely on fantasy or fairy tales to captivate. It’s straightforward realism-grounded, and it’s a lot of fun. The above quote is taken from a memo that serves as an invitation to Dayang (from “sorry”) and comes complete with wee conversations via footnotes between the senders. And that’s just the formal aspect of it.

It’s a battle-of-the-sexes story set at Cambridge University. It involves an elaborate scheme, and an eventual surrender. And, by the way, while it is fun, it hooks into a real issue: the boys read boy books and the girls read girl books, and through a surreptitious library swap, the girls discover, amidst the blossoming of a forbidden love and the possibility of peace, they… kind of like the boy books.

Well, Dornička met a wolf on Mount Radhošť.
Actually let’s try to speak of things as they are: It was not a wolf she met, but something that had recently consumed a wolf and was playing about with the remnants.

dornička and the st. martin’s day goose

So it starts off as Little Red Riding Hood, and then goes in a very different direction. And this, too, is a lot of fun. We’re in the Czech Republic now; Oyeyemi made her home in Prague for a time (and may still, I’m not sure). To say she writes diversely is an understatement.

As I was saying, I’m an inadequate son.

freddy barrandov checks . . . in?

Poor Freddy. His father was a master handyman, a legend at the Glissando, a hotel that might remind you of an Eagles’ song from the 70s. Freddy tries to step into his shoes, but really just isn’t that handy. So he sets himself to another task: breaking up a couple. As it happens, we’ve met the couple before, though they weren’t a couple then; in fact, in this story, a great many characters come together, some in mention, some in cameo, and a few more centrally. I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what happened at the end. But instead of feeling unfinished, it feels more like having a lot of options.

Every time someone comes out of the lift in the building where you work you wish lift doors were made of glass. That way you’d be able to see who’s arriving a little before they actually arrive and there’d be just enough time to prepare the correct facial expression.

if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think

Available online at Buzzfeed

I don’t think that would work; it would just push back the moment of uncertainty a few seconds, because, after all, the elevator occupant could see you, too, as well as any other people standing around waiting. I suppose one-way glass would obviate the first issue, but wouldn’t that be pretty creepy, knowing someone could see you and you couldn’t see them?

As it happens, that has a lot to do with this story, this idea of one-way information. The unnamed narrator analyzes data for client corporations to determine which employees are less profitable and should be let go. Eva, a new employee in the office, isn’t very forthcoming about herself and prefers to eat lunch alone rather than with coworkers. She’d been something of a sensation at first, having a great deal of panache, but a visitor accusing her of unseeming behavior changes that, and the coworkers go all wolf pack on her. And then there’s the diary. The locked diary. Of course. I love Eva. I want to be Eva. It’s a remarkable story.

I chose to read this collection because of Michael Shaub’s NPR review. In addition to words like “dreamy” and “flawless”, he brought up the keys and the puppets and her sense of humor, and I was hooked. I’m interested in her novels now as well, particularly Boy, Snow, Bird, a reimagination of Snow White, now that I’ve seen what she can do with the kernel of a fairy tale, and a key idea.

Robert Walser: The Schoolboy’s Diary (NYREV, 2013)

A poet is bent over his poems, of which he has assembled twenty. He turns one page after another and find that every poem awakens a very particular feeling inside him. He racks and racks his brain to try to figure out what kind of something it is hovering over or around his poeticizings. He presses hard but nothing comes out, he strikes with the ball of his hand but nothing comes out, he pulls but everything stays exactly as it is, namely shrouded in darkness. He lays his head down on his crossed arms and completely covers the open book with the body and cries.

From “The Poet” (first half)

I got off to a very bad start with this book, entirely due to my own careless reading process. In my (weak) defense, it’s a reconstructed collection, a compilation of work from throughout Walser’s writing career, which spanned the first quarter of the 20th century. This was, however, one of the reasons I chose to read the book when a neighbor, wildly enthusiastic about it, recommended it to me: I felt it would be a good idea to get out of my fixation with immediately contemporaneous works for a bit. I’d never heard of Walser – I strained to recall any other Swiss writers, in fact, and came up blank, but in fact Herman Hesse and Rousseau were both Swiss, so I wonder if I just never recognized them as such – but discovered, in Ben Lerner’s effusive Introduction to this edition, high praise from such literary heavyweights as Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and W. G . Sebald, not to mention Hesse himself. I like uncovering previously unknown lacunae in my knowledge of the world.

The collection comprises three sections. First, we have “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, twenty short prose pieces published as Walser’s first novel. And here is where I went astray: I was confused, ungrounded. What am I reading? These schoolboy essays, probably from a young teen, seemed fairly typical, and I could not find a story, a theme, or much of anything. I buttonholed my neighbor on a street corner (the up- and down-side of trading book recs with neighbors) and he mentioned the boy’s isolation in space and time. We talked about Calvinism (Calvin was Swiss) and the connection of material prosperity and Godliness (the boy at one point is quite dismissive of the poor, though he seems ambivalent shading into sympathetic overall), but I was still uncertain.

I went googling, and discovered Trevor Berret, who runs the excellent the Mookse and the Gripes website, is a Walser fan (how have I never heard of this writer?), and the unique site Schlemiel Theory (where Comparative Literature scholar, Jewish Studies professor, and Berfrois editor Menachem Feuer analyzes “real-life-schlemiels and fictional ones”) had further insights into Kocher. Both mentioned that the boy had died shortly after writing these essays. Now I was really confused: how did they know this? Was it subtly mentioned in the pieces, so subtly I’d overlooked it completely?

Not really. I had, however, skipped the Introduction to the section. Again in my defense (very defensive today, aren’t we, Karen – that’s how it is when I’m out of my element), I’d read the Lerner intro to the edition, and skimmed, quickly, the Translator’s Introduction by Damion Searle, and by the time I got to the third Introduction, I was just sick of intros, so I skipped over it. Turns out that was a big mistake, as it is part and parcel of the novel that is “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, and a very important part at that:

The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school. I had some difficulty convincing his mother, a dear and honorable lady, to allow me to publish them. She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son. Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree. The essays may seem unboyish in many places, and all too boyish in others. But please keep in mind that my hand has not altered them anywhere. A boy can speak words of great wisdom and words of great stupidity at practically the same moment: that is how these essays are, too.

From “Introduction”

This intro created a foundation, a context in which the essays made far more sense, and indeed acquired a distinct poignancy. I’d found the story I was looking for.

Each essay is on an assigned topic, but it’s clear the boy has trouble with some topics so wanders into more fruitful areas as soon as possible. One of my former English professors used to say, “The art of being an English major is to write about whatever you want while still fulfilling the assignment.” Fritz is a natural.

He also has an adolescent inconsistency that allows him to go from judgmental to transcendent to uncertain in the span of a few sentences. His essay on Poverty is a case in point: he despises poor men because they beg, he likes poor women because they ask for money beautifully, “asking someone you love for forgiveness” is a kind of beautiful request, he doesn’t respect the poor boys in class because “they see me as an enemy for no reason”. The “Careers” essay shows a kind of unfocused energy that, read in the knowledge that he will not embark on any career at all, feels quietly tragic. And his comments on colors and music show a kind of sensitivity that, if it had time to mature and unfold, would have been glorious:

Colors are too sweet a muddle, nothing more. I love things in one color, monotonous things. Snow is such a monotonous song. Why shouldn’t a color be able to make the same impression as singing? White is like a murmuring, whispering, praying. Fiery colors, like for instance Autumn colors, are a shriek. Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes. Is it true? I don’t know if that’s right. Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it.

From “Autumn”

I would like to be dying while listening to a piece of music. I imagine it as so easy, so natural, but of course it’s impossible. Sounds stab too sweetly. The wounds hurt but they don’t fester. Melancholy and suffering trickle out instead of blood.

From “Music”

The second section of the collection includes very short prose pieces from Walser’s entire writing career, some of which have not been previously published in English. So much for the claim that flash fiction was invented in the 90s and is linked to the digital generation’s shrinking attention span; it was Walser’s primary mode of writing.

Some of these pieces are fantastical; some are realism-based; some are more like essays than stories, some are letters, others are little episodes. Many of them feature authorial intrusion, primarily explanations and observations to the reader. Some are pure lyric expression. Favorite themes include nature and writing.

Remember our Poet from the lead quote in this post? The writer who couldn’t figure out his own poems? In the second half of that story, we see from another angle:

I, on the other hand, the wag of a writer, am bent over his work and can solve with infinite ease the riddle of his volume. Very simply, it contains twenty poems, one of which is simple, one pompous, one enchanting, one boring, one moving, one divine, one childish, one very bad, one animalistic, one awkward, one impermissible, one incomprehensible, one repulsive, one charming, one reticent, one magnificent, one tasteful, one worthless, one poor, one unspeakable, and one more cannot be because there are only twenty different poems, each of which has received from my lips perhaps not exactly a just but at least a quick judgment, which always takes the least trouble on my part. One thing is certain, though, the poet who wrote them is still crying, bent over the book , the sun is shining over him, and my laughter is the wind that violently, coldly musses his hair.

From “The Poet” (second half)

Had I started here, I would have been on far more solid ground; this is the flash, and the artistic temperament, I can parse. On the one hand, what writer hasn’t been too close to his work to see the simplicity; and on the other, what writer hasn’t been afraid a reader will casually riff on months, years of intricate work, and render it ordinary. What poet wouldn’t be delighted that a reader could see so clearly, yet devastated that it was so clear to all but himself?

(I also toyed with the idea of applying these twenty adjectives to the twenty Fritz Kocher essays, but I’m not sure if those were selected from the original publication and represent a larger group, or if there were indeed twenty to begin with. In any case, I couldn’t seem to line them up.)

Many of these stories are wonderful. A poet, having received a request from a gentleman to meet, writes back to refuse because he doesn’t want to bother with the civility that would require; yet, the letter itself, far longer than necessary to say “no”, bespeaks an urge to establish genuine contact. In the more personal but no less loneliness-assuaging “Ascent by Night”, a traveler climbs a mountain first by train, then by foot, and arrives at a door: “I was recognized, oh how beautiful it was, it was so beautiful – “. The pain of the writing life becomes almost absurdly humorous in “The New Novel” – or, perhaps I only read it as humorous because it’s such a cliché – with a novelist constantly asked how his new project is coming along. My understanding is that PhD students have the same problem with their dissertation.

One story describes a schoolboy game of Hat-Chitti, involving revenge and retaliation for humiliation which is expanded to a situation particularly relevant to the year in which it was published, 1915: “That is how wars arise between nations that could have a wonderful friendship with each other if only the one nation could get over the humiliation it has received and the other refrain from reminding the first of the wound, humiliation, and insult it has been given.” Indeed.

In reading this section, I was acutely aware that Walser, his family peppered with mental illness, spent the last twenty years of his life in sanitariums and taking long, solitary walks. I try to resist the urge to project biography onto story, but I was unable to resist. Even the illustration that adorns the cover of the book – the work is illustrated throughout by his brother Karl, a highly esteemed artist and stage designer – echoes a kind of loneliness, someone walking away and disappearing, leaving only footprints behind, footprints that fade as the snow falls.

The third section is a single work titled “Hans”. Rather a slacker, Hans is quite happy making rather ethereal observations until war breaks out, at which point: “All at once there rose up before Hans a tall and imperious figure: Duty.” Again, I can’t avoid imposing Walser’s bio on top of this: although he had been in the military, as were all Swiss, earlier, he was again brought in during WWI. Did the war affect him? How could it not?

I’m glad I read this, struggle though it may have started out. I still don’t quite understand what so many people see here, but I’m no Susan Sontag. Maybe I just need to keep expanding my view to incorporate more so that I can better recognize genius when I read it.

Jacob Weber: Don’t Wait To Be Called (Short fiction collection; WWPH 2017)

It’s common for short story collections to “go together,” to have common plots or subjects. These stories are the result of my disparate life, which feels like about twelve different lives coincidentally lived by the same person. I couldn’t begin to thank everyone who helped me survive every one of those little lives within the larger life I’ve lived…. Thanks most of all to God, whom on any given day I’m 51% certain does not exist. If I’d have been more certain God did exist, I’d never have been able to write these stories.

~~ Jake Weber

For the past couple of years, Jake Weber and I have been trading comments on stories from BASS and Pushcart, both here and on his blog. I was delighted to hear that his story collection been selected by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House for publication, and of course bought it and planned to write about it. But in the background I was a little worried, as I always am when someone I know publishes: what if I didn’t like it? As usual, I needn’t have worried.

Don’t Wait to be Called is full of stories about people I came to care about, sometimes in spite of myself and my pre-existing attitudes. It transforms the vague current-event descriptor “refugee” into flesh and blood and tears and hope in people like Daud and Hiwet and Tesfay. A sensitive, insecure wreck of a bodybuilder idolizes the wrong role model, a teenager tries to connect with his dying father through algebra, and a veteran with longstanding self-doubt deals with, shall we say, a very personal injury.

Through it all, I wondered about the title of the collection, a collection that begins and ends with calling. I heard an exhortation to reach out, to help. I wouldn’t know until the last story that I was wrong, which, in addition to generating some self-reflection, led me to view the entire collection in a different light, almost as different stories: instead of presenting hurting and flawed characters as needing help, it presents them as active agents getting what they need. I asked Jake if this ambiguity was planned, since it had such an impact on me, but it turns out he had something else in mind:

Ultimately, I just love the proverb the last story plays with: dogs and days don’t wait to be called. Time moves on, as much as we don’t want it to. That compels decisions before we’re ready to make them. Our whole lives come to an end eventually, built on a series of hurried decisions. So the title of the book to me is maybe a little bit about letting yourself off the hook for making imperfect choices. Like what title to give your book, for example.

I also asked about how the stories were ordered, one of my favorite guessing games.

I had a mess of stories that didn’t go together. Other than the four Eritrean/Ethiopian stories, I was all over the place. When I looked at it a little closer, I felt like Brokedick, Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint, Strongest I’ve Ever Been and What Every Parent Should Know… all kind of fit the category of “bro lit.” That left four miscellaneous stories. So I took the four immigrant pieces, the four bro-lit pieces, and the four miscellaneous pieces, and decided to just layer them like lasagna. Sauce-noodles-cheese. That’s all the thinking that went into it, other than I altered the formula a bit so it would begin and end with Eritrea/Ethiopia stories, and hopefully start with some of my best stuff. Other than that, the order was just as they felt right, trying to break things up for the reader between heavy and light so the whole book wasn’t a downer.

While many of the themes and situations were disturbing, the book wasn’t a downer at all. When I think of downer books, I think of Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which so overwhelmed me with macho self-destruction I gave up halfway through. Jake’s most desperate characters are never hopeless, and while his bro-lit does involve macho posturing, the characters retain a humanity that made them relatable. Ultimately we’re all dealing with the same insecurities: Am I good enough?

A few of my favorites:

“Everything is Peaceful Here Except for Missing You” from Bartleby Snopes

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
-Matthew 5:45


After hello, there are five phrases in Tigrinya you must repeat at least several times each in every phone call. None means anything, which is why they are so important to say over and over. Mama has hit them all at least twice. She’s surprisingly adept at using Skype for a woman who never had a phone growing up or a computer until eight years ago.
How are you? Is everything peaceful? How is your health? How about your family? We are all fine here, except for missing you.

The opening story is quite short and exists in what is unsaid; such restraint is a gift few writers have. We come to realize, through the simplest of narrations, that family is family, a mother is a mother, no matter who the son may be.

Whenever a white middle-class American writes about African refugees, there’s a tendency to wonder if they know what they’re talking about. Jake is, in fact, a translator who knows Tigrinya (and Korean and Spanish) and has worked with newly arrived refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia; his stories come from real life rather than news and partisan commentary. I asked him if he worried about being accused of appropriation:

I don’t know what is good and bad appropriation, given that all artists steal something.There’s definitely good and bad ways to do it. You hit on some of the bad ways. White savior, talking over them, etc. I mean, I kind of have to speak from a white, male perspective. I have to temper my stories written with the hope of giving voice to someone else by knowing it’s also my voice in there, too. But there’s a way to do that in good faith and a way to do it as theft. I hope I did the right one. I just know I have to write about what moves me. Sometimes, that’s weight lifting and male enhancement. Sometimes, it’s the cruelty of the world to most of its inhabitants….I realize that my reading of Ethiopians or Eritreans is filtered through my own, privileged, white, male, Western perspective…That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid, immoral, or unworthy perspective.


Standing in a row on a counter next to Chase were four foam phalluses, in varying shades of purple, mounted to a plastic display tray. They reminded Chase of stele lined up to meet the sun by a tribe lost to history millennia ago, a tribe whose sole remaining heritage brought busloads of European tourists to guess wrongly at their purpose. Periwinkle was for the completely limp dick, already leaning over on its own. Phlox was the penis that could get hard, but not hard enough for penetration. The one that could penetrate but not maintain erectness was thistle. Finally, the fully erect rod capable of satisfying an entire cheerleading squad, the penis the pills could give you, was a deep, throbbing, royal purple.

I never realized I have a policy against reading stories that begin with prosthetic penises, until I read that paragraph. It’s a good thing I ignored that subconscious quirk, because this ended up not only one of my favorite stories in the collection, but one I’ve come back to over and over. It’s beautifully plotted, paced, and played.

Funny stories can be told many ways. This funny story is told with grim seriousness that recalls an old definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: comedy is when you fall on a banana peel and break your leg; tragedy is when I fall on a banana peel and break my leg. It’s easy to laugh at a guy who breaks his penis (and, yes, it happens; seriously, google “penile fracture” if you don’t believe me) while screwing his girlfriend in her dorm room. The detail – he screams, punches her laptop (“the backspace button was still falling back down from where it had ricocheted, knew before it landed upside down again just three keys away from where it began…”), and transfers for a semester in Mexico to get away from the rumors that he was “the Marine with PTSD who’d beat some girl in the dorms nearly to death.”

But when the backstory comes in, and the Marine Corps reunion rolls around, we stop laughing. If we’re lucky, we know what we need. If we’re very lucky, we know when we don’t need it any more.

I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren’t a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.

Mr. Sympathy

It isn’t that my father had no love to give me. His love merely stayed balled up as potential energy, always wanting to be unleashed like a wound spring if I ever managed to be good at the thing he wanted me to be good at….

Math stories are rarely about math, and this one is no exception; it provides plot and setting around which characters revolve, hide, fall down, get up, grow.

Corfu – yes, like the Greek island – is struggling through remedial math class. His father is the actuary’s actuary. As he puts it: “I had an unconscious tendency to change math problems from the problem in front of me to the problem I wanted it to be.” Coincidentally, he turns his father’s terminal cancer into the desire to learn algebra and ace the SATs in two months, which is, of course, not about math and all about connecting. As Dad’s illness gets worse, he loses his voice which turns out to be exactly what was needed: because love can be conveyed with little circles that look like tadpoles, and the smell of Ben-Gay on a math book can equal parental pride.

…I had something of a breakdown on Saturday night. Suddenly, numbers made no sense to me. What did they even mean? Were they real? How could zero mean nothing and also still be a number?

I immediately thought, “This kid’s a mathematician, he just doesn’t know it yet,” because that’s exactly the sort of thing a mathematician would think – not formulas and equations and what a negative exponent means, but the nitty gritty about zero. Worrying about whether numbers are real wanders into mathy philosophy territory, also a fun place, and so much more fun than the quadratic equation and solving for x. And sure enough, Corfu became a math major.

I did have some qualms. The remedial-math-to-quant path seemed a bit much, for one thing. For another, I have to question the pedagogy outlined; anyone who can learn algebra from doing the odd-numbered problems in a textbook either didn’t learn algebra, but rather learned how to answer textbook algebra problems (in which case, he never would’ve made it through an undergrad math degree) or wasn’t that confused to begin with (in which case I’m interested in his actual problem). And again I checked in with Jake to see how he developed Corfu’s path:

I was good at math in elementary school, then progressively worse as it took more and more caution and care to get answers right. I nearly failed it my junior year…. I learn from reading. A few months before I started college (after a six-year break after high school to go into the Marines), I picked up an algebra book. I taught myself algebra by doing the odd-numbered problems. Then I taught myself geometry. I really wish I’d kept going.

We’re going to have to talk more about math, Jake and I; but this is all peripheral to the heart of the story, which remains one of my favorites as is.

American as Berbere from Baltimore Review

For Meb, and everyone I know like him.


When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him. There had been a few years, soon after he came to the United States at eight, a fugitive of famine and the Derg’s policies he knew nothing about, when he would listen with admiration to the beat of the kebero, as the horns and krar and flute-like thing with the name he couldn’t pronounce all worked around it, like pilgrims weaving their strands around a May-pole. But over time, it became harder for the Greater D.C. Tigrayan People’s Cultural Center to find anyone who knew how to play the krar, so they settled for a competent drum player and a synthesizer. In this arrangement, Tesfay heard only the drum’s repetitious “ba-bump, ba-bump” drubbing away at the same speed. It filled him with a sense of futility, that no matter how many times someone hit the drum, the cycle would just keep going around, until someone finally yelled “d’rub!” and the drummer sped up to reach the merciful death of the song.

There’s something about running that makes for a great story, even for non-athletes like me. Maybe because it’s both a simple sport – just the runner, and time – and a complex one involving physiological and psychological strategy. Maybe because running borrows off the journey metaphors.

Tesfay’s journey is again an immigrant story. His family showed up in a fanfare of publicity, since he’d been one of the starving children in a fundraising video, but they were forgotten shortly after and became just another struggling family trying to get by and Tesfay becomes the butt of jokes as the images make the rounds at his school. He becomes a runner by accident, after making a deal with his phys ed teacher to run the whole period instead of subjecting himself to peer torment in whatever game the class is playing.

Some time ago, I came across a magnificent turn of phrase by writer Michelle Janssens Keller: the immigrant as palimpsest. One story written over by another. Tesfay’s story weaves together the American and the Ethiopian in ways both harmonious and discordant: Tesfay and his cousin Robel; ambition versus faith; celebrity versus scorn; violin versus kebero. And throughout, Tesfay is moving between two cultures, never fully at home in either. A subtle but devastating clash during the Olympic trials 10K brings us to the climax of the story, and Tesfay finds his own path.

While I’ve picked these four as detailed examples, other stories stand out. “A Cinnabon at Mondawmin” outlines the two Americas in a way even earnest commentary can’t. “Savage, Maryland” creates a fascinating character in an old misanthrope who constructs a bath house so he can just soak his retirement away, and had me on the edge of my seat at the end. “The Strongest I’ve Ever Been” had me angry, sad, and amused in rotation, then finally landed on a resolution neither sentimental nor tragic.

I asked Jake the question I always ask authors I’m lucky enough to talk to: what question do you wished I’d asked?

I just like talking about the stories with people who liked them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did Tesfay come in second? Does Bill end up with Alisha? Does Chase call the girl when he gets home from the reunion? Is the guy at the end of “Dawn” really happy, or was that a false epiphany? Those kinds of questions. I have my answers, but I like to discuss these things. And now that the book is out, of course, my answers are not final.

I felt a little guilty since I didn’t address those things at all in these posts. The resolutions felt clear to me – of course Bill and Alisha get together, but they later come apart as most couples do. Chase doesn’t need to call the girl any more, he’s going to work on getting his shit together for real, and he’s probably going to lose it again, but he’ll even out as time goes on and he realizes war and sex are neither necessary nor sufficient for manhood. It doesn’t matter where Tesfay finished, he’s going to be fine. The guy in “Dawn,” well, that I had some trouble with; it was the story I least liked (hey, there’s gotta be one, or I’m not being honest) so I’d rather think about all the other wonderful people I met in these pages. But I’d love to discuss other opinions; maybe someone will change my mind.

And finally, I asked about the cover of the book. The Acknowledgment mention his brother did the design; was there anything he’d like to share about that?

Oh, man, I thought my brother was going to never talk to me again at one point. I’m just not a visual art guy. I can go to a museum and find something to like. Matisse moves me, for example. Maybe I just like bold colors. So I kind of said to Ben, “Here’s the manuscript, read it and come up with something.” He refused to do it without some collaboration from me. I had no good ideas. Originally, the best I had was to put all the animals from the last story on there: a red cobra, a dog, a chicken, a cow. I had in mind some weird, minimalist, neo-cubist thing. It didn’t work, because it was too busy for a small cover. Eventually, I said maybe he could just have the dog on there. He threw something together and I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted without knowing it. I feel like the deeper yellow around the two black figures calls forth another motif from a different story: the endless circles of “American as Berbere.” I was just really happy with it, after it was almost a disaster. I’m sure Ben’s glad it’s over, too! I’m a nightmare for an artist to work with, even though I was just trying not to be too picky.

Jake’s working on a satirical novel “about the adventures of a translator of a pretend language working for a government agency” and blogs at Workshop Heretic.

Jeanne Holtzman: Maybe Even Wanton (Red Bird Chapbooks 2014)

Angela hated the word horny. It sounded so crude. There must be a better way to describe the way she felt these days. Lascivious. Aflame. Maybe even wanton.

~~”Waiting for Mr. Goodman”

I’m always thrilled to see one of my former writing-and-reviewing comrades publish.

I spent some time in Zoetrope’s Flash Factory with Jeanne Holtzman; in fact, she’s one of only two Zoetrope people I’ve met in person (which is why I refer to her by her first name), since, by one of those bizarre coincidences, her daughter Molly lived in the same building as I do while she was a student at the Maine College of Art. The three of us went to a Steve Almond reading, in fact, and we ran into each other a few other times.

When she offered to send me a copy of her first published chapbook, I bought it myself, instead, since, well, I knew I wanted a copy but I didn’t want to feel like a leech once again. The hand-made book from Red Bird Chapbooks is lovely, with French flaps and bound with a delicate cord dangling enticingly from the spine. It’s something of a family project, as one of daughter Molly’s paintings serves as the cover art.

The first thing I did when the book arrived was look up “wanton”.

I was surprised: the initial meaning of the word was “undisciplined”. Of boys, “childishly cruel and unruly”. Of animals: “skittish, refractory”; also, “frisky, frolicsome”. Of color or music, “cheerful, exuberant”. Of money, “luxurious, extravagant”. Of plants, “abundant, prolific”. Of health: “robust, vigorous”. Of an act: “reckless, arbitrary”.

And of course, of a woman: “Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous”.

It’s true that most of the stories revolve around sex, but there many sides to sex – curiosity, heartbreak, generosity, secrecy – and this collection gives us a tour of them all, as well as the less obvious kinds of wantonness. These are women – girls, in some cases – who color outside the lines of societal dictates, in thought or deed. Jeanne’s done something very interesting in the ordering of these fifteen flashes: they’re arranged by age of the main character, so we see how “wanton” changes over time, from pre-pubescence, with all the bewilderment that entails, to old age, with its wealth of experience.

These are stories that illuminate the possibilities of wantonness in ways I never could have imagined. Some of my favorites sorted by variety of wantonness:

Of a woman: Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous

Teddy laughs like a machine gun.

~~ “Better than Chocolate”

Three stories – “I Know My Love Can Save The World” (on the 2012 Wigleaf Longlist for best online flash) and “Better than Chocolate” (which contains my favorite first line quoted above, so evocative), and “(Com)passion”, are indeed lustful, yet the wanton women involved are more interested in healing others – and perhaps, obliquely, the broken parts of themselves – through sex than in carnal pleasure. Is it not good, to help others? Who decides when some line has been crossed?

“Pink Ribbon” by demonrat

Of an act: reckless

The next day Ana came home to a mailbox stuffed with invitations. She heard voices inside them, calling to her. “Come join us Ana. You’re special now. You belong.”

~~ “One of Them”

Two stories about reactions to breast cancer show how restrictive society’s expectations have become: “Million Dollar Movie” brings to mind the unique relationship between best friends, and “One of Them” – the 2009 Whidbey Students Choice Award winner – made me wish I’d been at that meeting, so I could stand up and cheer at the recklessness.

Of Secret wantonness

He posts pictures of the two of them labeled Mr. and Mrs. Gummi. He’s gaining weight.”

~~”You Don’t Unfriend Them”

Most of my favorite stories fell in this category, a wantonness of mind or emotion, a wantonness no one but the wantonee knew about. Maybe the person sitting next to you, some stranger who passes by unnoticed, or the person who shares your life, is being secretly wanton, right now.

“Gummy Murder” by raynebowbear

“You Don’t Unfriend Them” – published in Necessary Fiction as “You Don’t Defriend Them” (it took some time for Facebook lingo to settle down) is a story Zin Kenter recognized because – it was from Zin’s Flash Factory prompt: a flash in second person including Gummi bears and gruel. Yep, that’s Zin – and Jeanne turned it out.

“No Dysfunctional Lovers” and “Cry of the Loon Lodge” similarly feature women who let their wantonness remain in their thoughts.

And then there’s the title story, “Waiting for Mr. Goodman”, secret wantonness caught in the act. There’s a terrific “turn” in this story, right about when the g-string starts to chafe… but then, our fantasies rarely survive the transplant to reality.

I asked Jeanne what it feels like to have her collection published:

I’m not a particularly goal-oriented person and my one and only writing goal, really the only specific goal in my life, was to have a chapbook of my flash fiction published. I’m thrilled that Red Bird Chapbooks chose my manuscript. Evan Kingston was wonderful to work with and Dana Hoeschen was completely open to my cover suggestions. I’m so pleased with the hand sewn binding and beautiful physicality of the book and proud and tickled that my daughter’s art graces the cover!

Beautiful job, both of you – and congratulations!

Charles E. May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (2013) – “Introduction”

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second.… There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relations – a realm that the novel has always taken for its own – and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable – a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

I discovered Charles May – Professor Emeritus at Cal State, short story specialist – several years ago through his blog in which he discussed some BASS and PEN/O’Henry stories; he was particularly helpful as I untangled Alice Munro’s “Corrie” and a few other of her stories. I don’t always see what he sees in particular short stories, but I’m always interested in what he has to say, so when he recently self-published I Am Your Brother, a collection of previously published essays on the short story form, I bought it right away. I’ll be going through it slowly, chapter by chapter, over the coming months, enjoying along the way some of the stories he uses to illustrate his points.

In the Introduction (which is available online via two posts on his blog) May delimits the short story and the novel: “As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams–not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.” Maybe this is why short stories appeal to me, given my fondness for the “weird” – unusual narrative techniques, structures, diction, characters, situations, reactions.

Another key concept May uses is that of the “I” versus “other”, which weaves through psychology, theology, philosophy, cognitive science, and, of course, literature. Last summer I spent a few months happily exploring this theme (“the only way to understand the other is to become the other”) in literature via The Fiction of Relationship , a MOOC taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, which spanned novels – Beloved, Jane Eyre, Disgrace – as well as short-form (Borges, Kafka, Melville), so I’m not sure I’m ready to concede the “mythic” to the short story quite yet. Still, it’s a theme that resonates with me:

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.… This tension constitute fiction’s chief resemblance to life, says CS Lewis… For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and events.

I’m intrigued by May’s exploration of this theme through, first, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. During my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I encountered several explanations for various parts of this tale: Cain’s “fruits on the ground” meant rotten fruit, it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, he didn’t offer enough. Just poking around the Internet, I see lots of similar explanations, including one that admits the appearance of unfairness, and incorporates it into the theme of the story. All of these, however, have a religious, rather than a literary, grounding. May sees it a bit differently, as I understand it: it’s almost as if God models free will by capriciously rejecting Cain’s offering, then Cain turns around and exercises his own free will by killing Abel, resulting in separation from his brother, and, later, from his people.

He also examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one of my own favorites from the standard Western canon I’ve otherwise largely ignored. I spent some time listening to a splendid dramatic reading (Richard Burton, John Neville) while following along with the text. May’s reading: the Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is an expression of free will, one pole of the human dilemma mentioned above; the rest of the poem shows the consequences of this free will, this separation from the whole resulting in a loss of unity, in aloneness: “The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world… a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck.…”

May also references Robert Penn Warren’s essay on Coleridge, “A Poem of Pure Imagination.” I have to admit I don’t quite see the distinction, as May does, between Robert Penn Warren’s “One Life” assertion, and his own “Separation of Life” but they both go deeper into literary theory than I’m equipped to handle. What I love about Penn’s essay is his discussion of the Mariner’s motivation for shooting the albatross in the first place, a starting place for many an English Lit paper:

The fact that the act is unmotivated in any practical sense, that it appears merely perverse, has offended literalists and Aristotelians alike… The lack of motivation, the perversity, which flies in the face of the Aristotelian doctrine of hamartia, is exactly the significant thing about the Mariner’s act. The act symbolizes the Fall, and the Fall has two qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says, “out of time,” and it is the result of no single human motive.

It’s right there in the poem, with the placement of a comma: we are all, all alone. Whether you want to call it Original Sin – separation from God – or free will – separation from each other – and whether you see one as a creation, or consequence of the other, is up to you.

May also uses Andre Dubus’ “Dancing After Hours,” from the story collection of the same name, in this Introduction. It’s a story new to me, and though I didn’t see what he saw in it (that happens sometimes). I enjoyed it for the focus on time from the very start. “Dancing after Hours” is an evocative phrase itself, speaking of an evening that’s over but must continue. The story opens with Emily’s age – 40 – which, as unfair and ridiculous as it is, has a certain echo; a 40-year-old woman bartender is very different from a 40-year-old male bartender, or a 25-year-old female bartender (stop before you write that nasty comment: 40 was a long time ago for me). In the first paragraph: “….she went outside to see the sun before it set.…” And she does.

Where Prof. May and I didn’t connect on this one was in the central climax of the story, the actual dancing after hours, which I saw as clichéd and overwrought with a Hallmark Hall of Fame Epiphany of the Week: Let Love In Even If You Fear Getting Hurt. May sees in the dancing that occurs, this union that fulfills the yearning proposed of the psyche. I see it in terms of what might be called “flow,” the sense of time stopping when you’re fully immersed in a soul-deep venture, be it physical (like sports), creative (writing), or exploration (reading, listening to music). I can see how the possibilities intersect I can also see the wonderful writer’s touches that go into the story, from the details of the opening I’ve already mentioned, to how Emily observes in great detail a man in a wheelchair exiting his van, eating, talking. That kind of detail, taking it all in, noticing, isn’t just exposition; it’s part of her character to be so intrigued. But the “And they all rode off into the sunset having grown a bit and everything will be all right and tomorrow’s full of possibility” ending felt a bit too pat for me; I have a nasty urge to see a postscript in which Emily gets seasick on her fishing trip with Jeff, Kay and Rita find no chemistry and come to work the next day awkward and embarrassed, and Drew never returns to the bar. I still have some growing to do as a reader.

I’m looking forward to continuing this book, and to encountering more stories new to me along the way and learning more about how the short story works.

Tim Horvath: Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)

The title of the collection, “Understories” has several layers of meaning. The most literal is a reference from “The Understory” to the plants that grow at the base of the forest canopy, farthest from the crowns’ light and glory but just as critical to the overall habitat, and surely as intriguing when you hunker down close and know what to look for. I took a class called Forest Communities of New Hampshire where we went out hiking and examined the various layers in different forest stands, and I was amazed at how much you could learn by looking down as well as up and discerning connections between the levels. Even in “The Understory,” though, the word has a double meaning, referring also to the hidden stories, the stories that lie underneath the received version of events or the surface narrative that a person presents.

~~Tim Horvath, BLP Book Extra

Ok, now I’m mad. How come no one ever told me about Tim Horvath? Why did no one ever say, “Hey, Karen, you’ve got to read this book, you really do”?

So that this mistake is not repeated, let me say it to you: You’ve got to read this book. You really do.

In his htmlgiant review, Jarret Middleton refers to the collection as a city with the longer stories as skyscrapers surrounded by the shorter works. Sure, the big stories are magnificent – truly they are – but the little ones are gems as well; do not overlook the charming little bodegas and mom & pop shops while you are agape in wonder at the loftier architecture. As the man said, look down as well as up. And, by the way, look up as well as down. Look.

It’s not what I’d call an “easy” read. More than a few of the stories, especially the early ones, had me a little dubious at first: is this “the story”? Are we there yet? If you’re wondering that as you read – nope, you’re not there yet. Keep going. Suddenly, you’ll hit it, and you’ll realize, oh, that’s what it’s about, and a universe opens in your mind and heart. It’s worth the wait.

I loved this book. And it had to climb over a few barriers to get me to say that.

Tim contacted me through Goodreads after seeing some of my comments on BASS stories and One Story issues – he uses both as sources of fiction in his teaching – and asked if he could send me his book. I’m always thrilled to talk stories with anyone (and always surprised anyone wants to bother talking stories, or anything else, with me), and I very much want to hear about books I might like, but I always (on the few occasions it’s happened) feel a bit awkward when I’m (rarely) handed a free book; no matter how many times they say “no obligation,” I feel there surely is, somewhere; I can’t escape it, so why not admit it and go from there. I’m also hesitant to commit myself to an unexpected reading/posting project (I’m slow), particularly when I’m conscious of the author metaphorically looking over my shoulder on every page (“is she smiling? She isn’t crying, is that a bad sign?“). But no author ever worked harder to get an obscure blogger with virtually no following to read his book (Tim is almost as addicted to loquacious email discussions of Books/Stories I Have Loved as I, with my middle name of “TL;DR” am). I made some ambiguous comments about having a full plate from January through March (which is true), to leave my options open should I discover this was not my cup of tea, figuring by Spring he’d have forgotten all about me and I could avoid any potential discomfort entirely.

The book arrived at my door in mid-December, and I glanced at the table of contents. Just this first one, maybe – “The Lobby” – it’s very, very short flash – to get a sense of things before I put it aside, but that flash worked so well (and it was so short) I had to read “Urban Planning Case Study Number One,” also very short – I read them both standing in my hallway – and I was hooked before I’d even put down the shreds of the postal envelope it came in. Note to myself: if you’re trying not to read a book, do not start reading the book. But hey, I had this three-week hiatus, and sure, I have Hamlet to re-read before the class starts on Jan. 13 (oh, come on, I can do that during the class, right?) and a group read of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day to celebrate the Solstice with ModPo (the MOOC that never ends) and calculus to brush up on and Platonic solids to assemble as prep for three – THREE?? – upcoming math courses, and there are the those Uncreative Writing projects I have started (and have stalled on… someone give me a push, please?) and pfeffernusse to make and all the usual holiday and end-of-year things to do… but I can fit in one final collection. Especially this one.

A slowness, a quasi-geological time governs the circulation of books: the punctuation of frantic movements as a book takes on a buzz, gets reviewed, followed by years of stillness, silence, neglect. Perhaps a motion picture is commissioned, produced, released; the book stirs, reenters the commerce of the world, mingles and becomes inebriated in the gala of its success, and eventually tapers off, only somewhat reluctantly, into a second retirement. Envision a remake 30 years later – it happens. There is always hope, you see.

~~from “Circulation”

Most of the Understories reviews you’ll find around the blogosphere (let me say once again for the record: I don’t do book reviews because I don’t know how; I’m not sure what these posts are, but they’re just my reactions to what I read) will talk about similarities to Calvino and Borges; even I can see those very clearly. You can’t have a book with eight Urban Planning: Case Study stories sprinkled throughout and not think Invisible Cities, but if you can, then there’s the cover itself, and Borges is explicitly referenced in one of the stories and intimated in the interplay of philosophy, science, and literature in others. In a conversation with Philadelphia Review of Books, Tim himself cites DFW and Tobias Wolff as influences; I’m not familiar enough with Wolff to speak to that, and DFW, well, who isn’t influenced (or doesn’t wish she were) by him. I’m not very good at this kind of literogenetic tracing, since I tend to come up with oddball connections, but this isn’t high-stakes so I’ll play: If Calvino and Borges had a baby, it was adopted by Aimee Bender (who is always wacky) and Bennett Sims (who combines lyric prose with academia), lived next door to Jim Shepard (who personalizes history with exquisite detail and heart) and down the block from Manuel Gonzales (whose The Miniature Wife and Other Stories interspersed its fantasy stories with brief stories-in-the-form-of-obituaries), you might come close.

But why not just look on it as what it is: Tim Horvath (website here), who, like all those other souls, takes what he likes and combines it with a little something of his own, be it shadows, or caves, or a historic New England storm.

The stories (in somewhat disheveled order):

“The Lobby”

Note that a voyeur is not even capable of fully appreciating the lobby, since architect’s express mission was “to create a transitional venue to be absorbed molecularly in daily passage, subordinating ocular experience to a dopaminergic rush simulating the intake of certain illicit substances and overcoming the perils of habit(u)ation.” Note that even we have only a partial clue of what the fuck the architect was talking about, hence to pretend that you, a mere pedestrian onlooker (henceforth “voyeur”), will “get it” in some fell swoop like some mathematician-savant bypassing all the dirty little scratchpad pencil-and-eraserwork is just plain ludicrous.

Having finished the collection, I can say that seldom has an initial story so perfectly introduced the feel and content of a collection as “The Lobby” did this one. Taken by itself, well, I love a writer who can turn a legal contract into a heartbreaking little sigh. Note, however, that like the Residents contemplating their Architect, I also have only a partial clue of what the fuck the author is talking about – even Tim admits in his ShortForm interview that the guy is “somewhat cryptic” – but it’s one of those enticing mysteries I encounter from time to time that upholsters my lostness in an ineffable beauty. After all, no one knows what God is, or why we fall in love, or how music makes us cry, or what “Hotel California” is about (which is perhaps the most concrete comparison that occurred to me, and that should tell you something), but that doesn’t stop us from building entire cultures around such things. Surely a flash can have some mystery, and still be beautiful.


When we were awash with youth, we were all led to believe that our father was assembling a book called The Atlas of Voyages of Things, or, as we shortened it, The Atlas. That it was eventually destined to enter the world was incontestable – one day, assuredly, we would march into the bookshop behind his gallant stride, and there, on the shelf, which set the book, sprawling, coffee-table-ready, his name beaming from the front as on a theater marquee. “You see, boys?” he’d say, and we would solemnly nod.

The premise, for all of the book’s unwieldy history, was disarmingly straightforward. My father was eternally fascinated by how things came to be where they currently were.

I’m tempted to just list a bunch of excerpts and let that whet your appetite – and you would get mighty hungry – but I suppose that wouldn’t be helpful in conveying what the story is about. But, like many of the stories in this book, it’s nearly impossible for me to say what this one is about. An unfinished book? A son saying goodbye to his dying father? Sure. But so much more than that.

Trying to explain the plot requires retelling the story, and Horvath does that just fine on his own. So why not just read the original? You’ll be glad you did. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out and you see where it’s going (“oh, it’s storyline G42, the estranged brother subdivision”), something completely unexpected happens.

So what’s it about? The overpowering, narcissistic father Gus, son Jay, and how books hold them together: the unfinished Atlas, through their congruent lives, then Spelos: An Ode to Caves as those lives diverge. And in one of the most charming surprises I’ve read, Scheherezade: the librarian son who spins tales of the voyages of a book that’s never left its shelf, and wonders: “My father was on his deathbed, and I was hardly saving my own life. Or was I?”

It’s about who runs for daylight, and who finds the only daylight he needs right where he is. It’s about Ding an Sich, Kant’s essence of things, and Borges’ Library of Babel. Connections between things, one of my personal favorite themes. How we survive. Family. How, when we think we’re least able to learn, it turns out we can learn everything we ever wanted to know.

The Atlas, in its non-existence the central image of the story, is itself about circulation. I don’t think it was even intended to be written – yet it was the heartbeat of the family, that pumped the hot blood through the arteries and brought them each nourishment and oxygen:

Do all families have such unifying themes? And if not, what replaces them? How, otherwise, do they make sense of it all, bring together the noblest and the basest in their histories within a single binding?

How, indeed?

Family is about circulation. Library books are about circulation – most literally, perhaps, but let’s face it, every atom on this planet is in circulation (I was going James Burke with the Atlas, but in a great interview with Greg Gerke on The Nervous Breakdown, Tim cites Primo Levy’s “Carbon” chapter of The Periodic Table which is just something I’m going to have to read now. As you’re going to have to read “Circulation.”

Within the library that Borges conjures, not only is every book ever written shelved somewhere but every possible book, every conceivable configuration of the alphabet. The conceit is too dizzying to think about for very long, but it serves as a good antidote to certain fundamental realities: funds are limited, books go unread, tumble out of print, serve as door stops – all too effectively, I might add; the greatest libraries of civilizations burn down, suns collapse, abandon planets without child support. And each life is limited – there is only so much reading that one can consume in the course of a lifetime, and the guests are waiting for the ham.

See? Circulation. Let the guests wait for their ham. They’ll enjoy it more afterwards, I promise.

“The Understory”

“A rainforest,” his daughter, Sabine, calls it, “in the middle of Peterborough, New Hampshire.”
He jokes that if they can find an anaconda there, they can have the woods, do with them what they will.… But he will wait it out until they drag out that anaconda. Will not submit to the desire to clean up the woods, to haul away the degenerating matter that trips one up at every turn. It is not purity he is after; on the contrary, it is precisely the lack of purity on which he insists.

Where I found “Circulation” so difficult to summarize, this one’s a lot easier: Schöner, aging philosopher-turned landscaper, a German Jew who escaped to the US just in the nick of time back in the 30s, reflects on his deep personal and intellectual friendship with Martin Heidegger during his post at University, and the feelings of betrayal as Heidegger failed to stand against the Nazis back when people still thought that was possible. And of course, it isn’t anywhere near that simple; the present-time story brings several strong symbolic elements – gardening, storms, and lots of philosophy – to give depth and resonance to what could have been merely an extended flashback.

I wish I knew more about Heidegger, yet another point of brilliance ruined by the Nazis; so much of what they couldn’t kill, they tainted, more of the incalculable waste (we all like to think we would’ve been among those who spoke up, or at least among those who left – but would we have? Are we, now? For make no mistake, it could happen again, and it could happen, could be happening right now, here, wherever “here” is for you, wherever the will to power gains enough momentum through fear to override reason). But after the storm, something new grew up, and that – the understory – is part of the legacy, too.

In addition to the figurative storm of fascism and WWII, there’s a literal (and historical) storm: the Great Hurricane of 1938, a storm before storms were named, a storm that destroyed great swaths of the Northeast – including Schöner’s newly acquired New Hampshire woods, the woods he so staunchly defends in the present against even benign encroaching civilization.

So it is with an eagerness verging on rapture that he looks forward to Heidegger’s Rectoral address. The program has been printed, and its title, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” is already creating a buzz. Heidegger will, it is thought, speak out against tyranny. He will speak up for the intellectual life, Hitler’s impatience for such things be damned.… But he’s jarred awake. Phrases like “German destiny” and “the historical spiritual mission of the German people.” He hears “‘Knowing, however, is far weaker than necessity.'” Again and again – it is unmistakable. “German.” “Destiny.” “Historical mission.” “Spiritual.” “German.” “German.” The new rector repeats them like mantras. Wide awake now, Schöner shivers at the thunderous applause that greets each one. He looks around, expecting monsters, and sees worse: aught but the ruddy enthusiasm of a pep rally.… Where is the assertion of the University that was promised? Where is Heidegger? Finally, with a flourish Schöner imagines he must bring to his great lectures, Heidegger quotes Plato: “‘All that is great stands in the storm.'” And he is done.

This is indeed Heidegger’s actual Rectoral address, including that controversial modification of Plato. I’m afraid I lack the knowledge of either The Republic or, especially, Heidegger, to thoughtfully discuss the nuances, but many such discussions are just a google away (and the insertion of Google, and googlebooks, is not an accident at this juncture; “Where is Heidegger?” is a question I’ve been asking a lot this year, though not in that form).

“You know, Martin, it’s strange. Trees have always defined the forest for me. I climbed in the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was. But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined. I will not burden you with their Latin names, but I do urge you to take notice of them the next time you’re out walking in the woods.”

When Heidegger dies in 1976, Schöner rushes to read a post-war interview he gave, on the condition it only be released after his death. He is disappointed; and I’ll say no more other than I get a whiff of my buddy Wittgenstein from the Fall (no, I haven’t forgotten you, my friend) who famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

The forest with its crowns and understory: the University and the woods? The Ivory Tower and the gardener? Hurricane and the holocaust, both destroy, and the understory builds up anew; in some cases, surprising, and different; a tree from Finland – or a German philosophy professor – landing in New Hampshire.

“The Discipline of Shadows”

“Umbrology? The study of umbrellas?” Impossible to know, then, how typical this reaction will be. Countless times I’ll hear it over the years, even hear about ingenious designs from closet inventors, giddy for an audience. “No,” I’ll learn to cut in gently, “the study of shadows.” (Always shadows, the vernacular, never shadow, though semantics is hardly uncontroversial in the field; one either deems it substance or quantifiable entity and thus divisible. Each has consequences.)

This one was written for me, with my fondness for finding meaning in that which is regarded as meaningless, and connections between the broadest dissimilarities possible. Yet at first I thought I was “missing” the story.The central conflict – one professor trying to make a fortune from an algorithm discovered as part of his University study, everyone else trying to stop him – didn’t interest me much, maybe because, though it’s dramatically staged in a final legal meeting, it isn’t all that well-defined, at least to those of us outside the battles of intellectual property against an academic backdrop. I found the underlying faculty shenanigans are confusing and not that interesting. I was far more taken with the shadows than with the reality – then I realized, that may be the very point: as our narrator says, “It is not what shadows show about the figure but the ground.”

I was very affected by a somewhat ancillary character development: our narrator has things he wants to share with people, like the miracle of an eclipse, or his idea about words being shadows, but there’s no one to share with. He is the Introduction to Umbrology guy, the one who does the orientation and then watches his newbies, his students, leave to find their specialties; he is thus alone, acquaintance to all, but friends with none. A shadow: mysterious, unique, omnipresent, impactful, but not really there.

Who am I kidding; I loved this character, this umbrologist forever explaining what that is, lost in the shadows, with his intolerance of flatness and his understandable antipathy towards Plato. And in this era of shrinking budgets for anything that doesn’t show up immediately on standardized tests or a higher profit margin, I loved the ethos of this story.

In his interview with Larry Dark for the Story Prize blog, Tim described the origin of this story in a prompt for his writing group:

We decided to open up books at random and choose a sentence that would be our prompt for the next meeting, and the first thing I opened to was from an Antonya Nelson story: “How is it the squirrel did not slide?” What a line, I thought. My fellow writers had some imaginative takes, and as for me, I envisioned someone observing a squirrel whose shadow moved even while the squirrel itself didn’t budge, and this was a total crisis for him (the man, not the squirrel). Why was it a crisis? Well, clearly he was obsessed with shadows himself, and the reason the squirrel didn’t slide was because he was losing his mind because he was studying something outlandish. But what if it wasn’t crazy? And then I began to watch some Wayang Kulit Indonesian shadow theater and the work of a San Francisco company called Shadowlight Productions that brilliantly combines traditional work with a modern vibe, and I felt, “It’s crazy not to study this.” Hence, I invented a field I called umbrology, the study of shadows, and that got the story off and running, with shadow theater and optics and film noir all rubbing shoulders. The squirrel didn’t slide, but plenty of other things did.

~~Tim Horvath, interview from The Story Prize blog

I’ve been discovering shadows everywhere in the couple of weeks since I read this story: in two – two! – mathematical lectures, plus coverage of an art exhibit. And by the way, Shadowlight Productions is doing some amazing things combining traditional Balinese shadow theater with stories from a variety of cultures; I spent some time watching their YouTube videos referenced above and by the image at the left; “Ghosts of the River” was heartbreaking, but the technique is fascinating.This is why I love reading: the universe, reality, so wants to be a whole, and we so insist on dividing it up into departments and categories: serious things here – math in this room, literature next door, art down the hall – and frivolous shadows way, way over there. The shadows have beauty and meaning, and are part of reality, too. Don’t just walk through them to something else; see them.

The “Urban Planning”stories:

Each of these eight Studies – seven flashes and one story – examines a unique city, and when I say unique, I mean just that: the cities, and the residents, are unlike anything in our experience. Yet we’re still able to find our truths in them. Some things are universal, no matter how strange the setting. One of the particular charms of these selections is that the stories refer to other cities in passing, giving them a sense of unity.

Those still paying attention will notice only six Case Studies listed in this section; since Number Seven is a full-length story, with a title and everything, I’ve treated it as such in a separate heading, and because Number Eight is the final story of the collection, I’m likewise placing it on its own at the end, to give the close the same due I have the opening flash “The Lobby.” To further confuse matters, a few of them were published with numbers that differ from those used in this volume. It is what it is. Any complaints, go see Emerson for a lesson on foolish consistency. It’s not likely you’ll confuse one Case Study with another, trust me.

“Case Study Number One”: available online at Sein und Werden #12; audio at Soundzine

The mayor of Morrisania decreed that no longer would its citizens be plagued by rain.… Immediately, building began citywide with fanfare and all-hands-on-deck resolve. Grandmothers simmered marvelous soups, salvaging bones from the near oblivion of trash mounds. Construction teams went out their brawniest, resplendent in colorful T-shirts sporting memorable slogans. Street performers busked with renewed vigor, sending sweat and falcons skyward and forging their own signatures in luminous contrails. Philosophers set up tables at which they contemplated in lively and vigorous fashion the premises and consequences of the whole endeavor, debating, for instance, whether the open or closed form of the umbrella was more authentic and fundamental. Closed was originary, yet its very existence had meaning only in the context of the open; never had these pallid intellectuals come so close to blows.…
Then, it began to rain.

Call it what you will: a random fantasy, a study of political megalomania and its aftermath, a climate change fable. For me, the umbrella question alone was worth it.

“Case Study Number Two”:

I was mystified, as I would be in those early weeks. How was it that no one in Delagotha complained about these suffocating crowds, this steady bombardment, this all-at-onceness? How could a place persist under such conditions? Why didn’t its citizens unite their voices and demand respites – parks, plazas, sound-swallowing walls? And yet I was stunned at how easily and smoothly I was able to get along without the glasses, girded by the flesh of those around me.

Like a Vegas showgirl, I’m torn between showing my favorite parts, and avoiding spoilers; one of the features of these stories is that the final paragraphs twist the focusing ring and make everything sharp and clear, but it’s that process that is the delight of each piece. So forgive me for not saying more, other than: multitasking.

“Case Study Number Three”:

For a city so utterly shut down, it is strangely alive, bustling with pedestrians. After some of the places he’s been prior, he is most grateful for this heavy foot traffic, this to-and-fro. Whenever he thinks about starting, he reminds himself that when he has pictured his own death in the past, it has always been him alone. Because nonexistence runs so counter to the spirit of such company, he feels protected by the crowds. So long as he can distract the part of himself that will decide to die, he reasons, it cannot happen.

He is, of course, wrong, and trapped in a place where he can’t sit down and rest, not even for a moment. But he doesn’t yet understand why. In fact, he still doesn’t at the close of the story – but we do.

“Case Study Number Four” – available online at Conjunctions, 5/13/08

Planning to relocate here? Great! However, please keep some advice from those who have preceded you here (and there are many). Your first days and nights (but especially days) in Ganzoneer can be disconcerting… Remember that YOU are mostly water yourself, and thus that the polymer-based proprietary hydropolylipidinous compounds that comprise most of the city’s architecture are hardly alien to your own anatomical makeup. In fact, you are more like Ganzoneer then you are like Paris, Delagotha, New York, or Raedmeon (unless you are a cement-, metal-, and glass-based sentient creature. In which case, Welcome, Cement-, Metal-, and Glass-based Sentient Creature!). Become, then, more like what you are…

One of the many smaller delights of these Case Studies is that several of them refer to other Case Study cities, creating a network of stories that fulfill the structural and transitional role in the collection, as well as making the fantastic more real. Ganzoneer is soft, rather than hard; pliant, rather than rigid. I find the sociological theory advanced within to be most interesting; who’s to say it isn’t true, somewhere?
Oh, wait, yes, there is someone to say that, isn’t there… people are still people, even in fantastic stories.

“Case Study Number Five”:

An unfathomable gulf divides us from that time, makes it so hard to believe that people were people then, moving about in three robust dimensions with the vivacity,… flinging spices blindly into the waiting maws of pots, sometimes checking the label afterward, the stovetop a welter of activity, a percussive clatter, the cook whistling or gossiping all the while – unthinking, careless, saucy. They needed no justification for their indulgence; food was the cornerstone of Vassilonian existence. Our existence – I remind myself, “this people” was me.
…The collapse was, looking back, as inevitable as it was sudden.

This was published in Alimentum – “The Literature of Food” – but it goes so far beyond that, it’s almost (almost) unfortunate the food is so well-written; it’s a story that’ll make you hungry, maybe make you want to cook. But it could be anything, really: Austria and music (until the Nazis showed up), Indiana and basketball, American insouciance before. Yeah. Like I said, it goes way beyond food.

“Case Study Number Six” – available online from wigleaf (as #7), 11/7/10

The city that was in denial that it was a city called the skyscrapers “mountains,” its giant central train station “The Butte,” its industrial waterfront “the marshlands,” its spindly bridges “land bridges,” its vacant lots “the ocotillo patches,” its sewers “the arroyos,” its sidewalks “eskers,” its elevated trains “cutbanks,” its skyline “the treeline”…. They glanced occasionally at their watches, which they stopped short of calling “the sun.”
… Under a weird sky in which silvery pollution had congealed into a solid concavity, the city that was in denial that it was a city caught a glimpse of itself one day.

For the record: as a lifelong city girl, I had to look up exactly what some of these words mean, and I still couldn’t tell an esker from a hill if my life depended on it. But that’s beside the point. I’m not sure exactly what the point is – the self-congratulatory feeling that one is not like all those others, until one happens to stare uncomprehendingly at one’s reflection when it refuses to fall in line with one’s self-image, perhaps.

Additional Flash Fiction:

In addition to the opening and closing stories and the Urban Planning group, there’s other flash fiction interspersed. I find I like that; it isn’t a rigid pattern, but it’s nice to have the variety. I think it also encourages me as a reader to treat the flashes more seriously. I read a lot of flash, but typically online, one at a time. In a book of flash, there’s a tendency to end up turning pages faster and faster, without allowing each story to have its moment; I found that by encountering them here, never knowing whether the next story would go on for two pages or twenty, I was more likely to pause and let things sink in a bit, ponder what I’d just read and what it connected to, either in this collection, or in daily reading and living. That said: overall, these flashes didn’t work for me as well as the rest of the collection.

“The Gendarmes”:

“We’re trying to teach animals to grasp the concept of extinction,” said Pitcher/Spokesperson. “We’re tired of having to bail out endangered species. It’s high time they learned individual responsibility.”

It may seem improbable that a story titled “The Gendarmes” might feature the above lines and a baseball game played on a roof, but there’s also a leech-cauliflower salad and by the way the baseballs are highly combustible. This story left me behind in the dust, but I do love that above quote.

“A Box of One’s Own“:

“I will not relent,” said the box. “Narrative structure would dictate a gradual withering away of my defenses and a climactic divulgence of the contents of my secret interiority. But I know all about narrative structure. So don’t even try it, buddy.”

I adored this flash; I’m fond of self-referential fiction anyway, so add talking boxes and I’m all yours. The whimsy is not without its point; don’t we all need a box of our own? And who can’t identify with:

When you are not in need of a box, the prospect of snaring one appears piddlingly easy and straightforward. Boxes abound, this world a surfeit of boxes.… And yet, when bereft of a box, in a non-box-possessing state, the simple procurement of one becomes staggeringly difficult obstacle, as I was soon to discover.

So the next time you’re walking down the street toting your box, and you hear a chorus chanting, “This End Up! This End Up! This End Up!” brace yourself – you might just be ready to invert, and then, who knows what will happen. You could find yourself writing a city of stories.


Whatever else we are, we are surely a beard that has convinced its owner to stop shaving.

Another one I can’t make heads nor tails out of, so I’m a bit at a loss and would have to classify it as a not-favorite – but I do love the sentences. How they hang together, I don’t know. At least not yet.

“Pocket” – available online at Diagram 9.2

My father is semiporous. Even now that he’s been fully disassembled and the schematics rendered in a dizzying cross-section, he remains largely unknowable to us.… Oh, his pocket. Plural: Pocket. Not pockets. Pocket – like deer, like moose. His coinage. I can still hear him rage at those times when, still young, we threw an s onto the end.…

((())) If the string theorists are right, the universe teems with hidden dimensions; pockets abound. To make even a
single new one, then, is to play at being God.

I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for footnotes in fiction. Especially footnotes that aren’t really footnotes; the compounded weirdness appeals to me. If this went on for any longer than it does – a bare paragraph, plus footnotes – it’d get annoying, but it knows when to stop, and I appreciate that. Understanding is a different matter. But I wouldn’t be so inflexible as to insist that everything must be understandable.

“Altered Native” – available online as an MP3 audio reading by Tim Horvath, from Conjunctions Audio Vault.

1. Crossing Tahiti of his itinerary, Gauguin heads instead for points north in his gambit to ditch civilization. The more his mind has lolled in the tropics, the more convinced he’s become that the languorous heat, syrupy voyeurism, and ornate adzes will merely reiterate Parisian clamor and clutter sans the solace of steaming coffee and pain. Greenland – now that promises true primitivism. Shifting ice tetrahedrons, shuddering rumbles, and terns’ glancing landings will translate nature morte more exactly than gaudy mangoes.

I don’t know nearly enough about Gaugin to fully appreciate this (other than Tahiti, does anyone other than an artist know much about Gaugin? Jaclyn Michelle at wineandbook.com makes me want to read a biography when she says the story is “Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin’s Tahiti experiences”; it was “Vincent” by Don McLean that first got me interested in Van Gogh, after all; who cares where the urge comes from as long as you go looking for something) but I like the whole idea of considering what might’ve happened had he headed for Greenland (and, for all I know, he considered it).

15. Over a century later, Museum, his works make spectators unpleasantly cold. Some say, “We should go someplace warm.” “Starbucks?” “Tahiti!”

And I’m particularly fond of list formats. By the way, one of my claims to fame is that I’ve never been inside a Starbucks.

And back to full-length short stories for a while:


What I mean is, he wasn’t the guy I’d always assumed he’d become. I hadn’t really thought about him over the years, but in my non-thinking, punctuated with the occasional thought, he’d become someone else. An engineer, like me. Or a lawyer. Or maybe gotten his MBA, gone into business.… The guy in front of me quite simply wasn’t the right Scully. It was someone who had begun as Scully but whose life had diverged imperceptibly from Scully’s at some point, two vectors departing from a single node.

This is probably the story with the most traditional arc, including a dramatic confrontation fraught with danger (as any confrontation on the side of a mountain is liable to be), yet (or, perhaps, thus) I think it’s my least favorite of the full-length stories. A man on vacation with his family runs into an old high school pal at the Continental Divide, and since the pal has changed a great deal, he wonders if he may have left pieces of his own self unexplored. Their adventures at the high school planetarium feature in their reminiscence (the second high school I went to had a planetarium that was hardly ever used; we had no astronomy courses, but I took the full three years of science classes and was only allowed inside once), as well as their relative roles as leader and follower, as the guy who does the work and the guy who gets the credit, the guy who’s remembered and the one who’s forgotten. Dualism is well-played throughout: the east/west of the Continental Divide itself, inside and outside, the old Scully and the new Scully, the planetarium/city vs the stars/nature (a theme that shows up in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Six”); there’s also the thricefold denial (of himself, interestingly enough), which is so subtle and underplayed I even wonder if it was intended to evoke the Biblical betrayal (I have been known to overread… often).

I was slightly distracted by a couple of things: the guy named his kids Emmett and Kelly – after the clown? And Emmett has to be reminded not to stick his finger in his eye? Shades of Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels!

All of this orbited around me, but I somehow couldn’t get into the rhythm. It’s a well-done story. But it didn’t quite reach me the way the others did. That’s a good thing, though; it shows me I’m not just star-struck.

Tim’s comments on the story, and the “voice” he tries to capture in his works, in his Story Prize interview, however… now this resonated: “I think he embodies a key aspect of why we’re reading and writing fiction, partly to get out of our skins, even while another part of us wants to be more fully inside them. This tension—or maybe these impulses dovetail perfectly — is an element that drives some of my favorite stories: they make us other in some way that makes us more fully ourselves….” Having just spent most of last summer examining the need to become “the other” in order to understand the other through the Fiction of Relationship MOOC I took (and blogged about extensively for months; still do in fact, as “the other” crops up a lot in literature), I get this. At least, I get it in “The Understory” and “Circulation” and “The Discipline of Shadows” and in most of the Urban Planning: Case Studies; I just don’t get it in this story. Maybe I will on next read, now that I know what to look for here.


It seemed as if Angus has picked up their father’s ingenuity, while Pete had inherited his patience and gumption. Everyone could see what a shame it was that these traits had been doled out to two distinct sons. Really, Angus and Pete’s father’s ultimate invention would have been a way to combine Angus and Pete.… Instead, Pete and Angus stagger around like severed halves of a whole.… And let’s face it, having these traits combined into one hadn’t worked out for their dad to begin with, so maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

I’m reverting to list format, which I do when I’m overwhelmed with much to say and unsure how to say it. This is a cleaned-up version of my notes, because the best thing I learned from ModPo is, if you can’t get it right, show the process:

1. In his recent interview with Edward Rathke at Monkeybicycle, Tim said this story began, not with an idea, but “with the title, which in turn set the stage for a certain mood, an energy that would propel the dynamics of the story. The challenge was to write a story manic enough to earn out the advance of that outrageous title, but also to have characters who could stand in the midst of mania and juvenileness and have you somehow care about them.” To me, Pete was the epitome of responsibility and maturity, dealing in a somewhat detached and bemused way with the flow of juvenalia around him. More on the theme of two-halves-of-a-whole?

2. We have invented indoor playgrounds; playgrounds have become meat markets; adults are children; leaders are followers and the follower becomes the leader when he’s finally, at long last, able to see the leader is not someone he should be following. As an experienced follower (and crappy leader), I’m big on recognizing the skill needed for effective followship.

3. It begins and ends with bad weather, and with Runaroundandscreamalot. Don’t you just want to start an indoor playground with that name, now? A chain of playcenters all over the country? But that’s what everyone does, in different ways – trying to make ends meet, to maintain their dominance, to find companionship, to adjust to life’s changes.

4. Like Gus to his father in “Circulation,” Pete has always been the planet revolving around his brother, the son. Until the end.

5. If Docent isn’t a real online game, it should be. I don’t know who’s in charge of stuff like that, but if you do, send them this story.

6. The playcenter is in the same space as the porn video shop was before it “mysteriously” burned down – I’m gonna get some weird hits on this post (like I don’t already; you wouldn’t believe…), but I must, I simply must:

Now, as he makes his way around the space, he can remember, vile though it is, exactly where each aisle was, the one that held interracial videos, the one that was devoted to amateurs and teens, the one for thirtysomethings, the aisle set aside for “gonzo,” whatever that was, and the fellatio section, right where now there is a giant whale beanbag, like someone’s sick joke. It is as disgusting as though a child was murdered here, the bones interred beneath the ground, he thinks. But he also thinks about the irony of it all…

7. Aha, a shortcoming: Angus’ offbeat business ideas (trail surface simulating treadmills, the vacation that never ends, an obsession swap reality TV show) aren’t anywhere near bad enough. Or offbeat enough. I wonder if that’s a bug, or a feature?

8. It doesn’t have much to do with the overall story (but it must, or it wouldn’t be in there; what am I missing?) but Ariana’s story about adopting her son– she wonders what she was doing when the mother’s contractions started, what she was doing when the mother signed the papers giving up her child – is just beautiful. And I’m not big on maternal instinct.

9. Any story with the dialogue line “Can the parent or guardian of this stingray please remove him from my daughter?” – in a perfectly sensible context – should be bronzed.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven, The City in the Light of Moths available online at Conjunctions, June 20, 2011

Till he was three, Wes had fallen asleep each night with Mothlight flickering against his ceiling: semitranslucent red-pink wings that burst into petals and fading leaves and ratifying shapes that then broke apart into a red-pink snow, all of it fluttering above him gentle as a blanket.

Here’s another one where a basic description of the story – in a city where life is lived around movies, through movies, about movies, a projectionist discovers an unpleasant little secret in a unique way, and moves from rage to confusion to resolution – doesn’t begin to cover the scope or the impact.

Mothlight (1963) is a real movie, made by Stan Brakhage:

Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me….

David Blakeslee describes it as a “three-and-a-half minute experiment that mostly consists of gluing insect parts and plant debris on to strips of clear tape that was later transferred to 16mm film.” In every frame, you can see something different: maybe a moth wing, sure, or a leaf, but also, maybe a guy in a baseball cap and his girlfriend running through Central Park, or a mountain climber braving a snowstorm to get to the top. Yeah, you’ve got to want it. But I was so glad the story brought me to this film.

Everything in Palamoa is done in mothlight, literal or figurative; movies are the background of life. It wasn’t always that way, and we get some sense of how things came to be this way: the decision that led to The Dimming, and the ascendance of movies – as ubiquitous in Palamoa as cell phones, computers, email in our lives today. And in Palamoa, as today, there are some hold-outs.

It was something of a cliché: you’d go anticinemitic in college and then become some industry clone a year after graduation. There were, too, the older ones who predated the Dimming and still spoke nostalgically of before, right up to the citywide debates that tried their tongues and brought forth arguments of such verve and eloquence, they were sure they’d triumph. But the darkness had gone forward.

One of these hold-outs is Gunther, an old friend of Wes. He becomes crucial later on as Wes seeks solace and finds his own strength instead; what better friend than that.

We pick up the norms as we read. Cineaddiction may or may not be a real thing; Wes didn’t believe in it himself (“Nervous systems so enmeshed with films that they were needed?”) until he saw a guy freak out from staying at a movie-less party too long. The town itself is wonderfully conceived and demonstrated: an Xtown for X-rated movies, and, far more touchingly, the Memorial District:

Here they showed sold the home movies of the dead, and it was transfixing simply to stand there, taking in snippets of life, candid moments…. Only the wealthy got their own walls; for most, an hour if they were lucky, and you learned to time your paying of respects, developed a fondness for the spirits who shared that brick space with you and loves. Visiting his own dad’s four-minute, thirty-seven second wall, he’d been struck at various times by:

– Though they never spoke, the mourner who came after him, a woman who said she could never place, who slipped her black male only in the blank seconds before her own father or husband came on, then lower it immediately after, like a curtain
– the awareness that the moths who brought him such comfort as an infant had been dead, allowed to live again only as long as the film played
– the notion that one day the Memorial District would run out of walls

A projectionist, not surprisingly, is not a high-status job. It’s always been my experience that closer any worker is to the ultimate customer (a projectionist is at least in the same building as the moviegoer, unlike the actors and directors) the less status they have; this is particularly true in the medical sphere, where the nurse’s aide who has the most hands-on role in patient care (and spends the most time at the bedside, as well) has the least status – and the least pay, while the doctor, who pokes her head in for thirty seconds a day, is a different story. This connection came to me only because the projectionist’s status is mentioned specifically in the story, and from his bio I saw that Tim worked in a hospital for a time. Whether he intended this connection is not for me to say.

There’s a brilliant idea about playing movies together, one over the other: “One night he took a nature documentary and draped it, like sheer fabric, over a thriller about investment bankers…. Was that plankton in the vending machines? Marvelous.” Yes, it is. Has anyone tried this? It sounds like a Ken Goldsmith-y idea.

Narratively, the standout moment is the end, when Wes, dealing with his own confusion, gets his audience to participate in a new way of viewing a movie:

Wordlessly, then, they began to rise to their feet, some quicker than others, and reach out, tentatively at first, then with growing resolve, for the film, each of them taking a small strand, positioning their fingers carefully, pinching at the edges. To disentangle it, they had to spread out, and the line that began to form went in both directions, up the stairs, down the block. He could envision a whole new way of watching a film, walking beside it, even zooming along at twenty-four frames per second – what a ride that would be! Their arms were outstretched: matronly women, businessmen with sleeves rolled up, a woman in a wheelchair, familiar faces and new ones, arms with wrist chains and bare ones. Even Gunther, it struck him, could get behind this. In the lamplight, they resembled nothing more than mourners bearing aloft a long, winding casket. All films, he thought – everyone – should be held like this once.

In the context of the story, it’s a victory for Wes in several ways; even without that connotation, it’s a brilliant idea for a community art project. Fiction that generates art: what could be better?


… Well, the way you described it to me triggered, as I was writing it all down afterward, what I can only call a pang of jealousy toward the damned language. Yes, I know, I sound like a little bit retarded just confessing such a thing, but the way you talked about it it was like you were describing a person, and to me Tilkez is undoubtedly guy, buff/chiseled/loaded…

I think it’s quite adorable that, according to his interview at The Short Form, Tim placed this story late in the collection, because it “gets a little racy, and I feel like it only works after, you know, the reader’s gotten to know me a little bit.” It also makes sense that this is the story he chose to read at the Boston Literary Death Match in October, 2010, given the natural “racy” aura of the LDMs I’ve attended.

This epistolary story is so completely different at the end from what it seemed to be at the beginning, it’s like a seed that turns into a stem then leaves and finally a flower: how’d it do that? It covers a lot of very interesting ground for a story without much of a plot. That’s not a complaint, by the way; as long as there’s something there to read, I’m happy, and there’s definitely something here to read.

Is it flattering, or creepy, if someone takes notes on conversations you’ve had with them, and studies them before dates? If flattering, consider this: which would it be if a written record of one’s sexual encounters were kept, complete with metrics of observable enjoyment indices (I’m trying to be delicate here, rather than racy, and when I get delicate, I frequently turn academic)?

and, Is it possible to be jealous of a language?

Of course it is. Not a language, specifically, but a passion for something, anything, which appears to exceed the passion one’s beloved has for oneself; Jonathan Lethem made wonderful hay of this in Then She Climbed Across the Table. This is why human relationships are so hard; the very thing that is what interests us in a person becomes the thing we must compete with. No one wants to hang out with someone who has nothing to do but gaze adoringly all day, no matter how much fun that may be for a few minutes, but that necessarily means the gaze is diverted to something else at some point.

… But something about the way you knew the tiny quirks of the language, the exceptions and inflections – how the a rises musically through the ribs in words related to good fortune, how th and thht distinguish the two clans split by the river, how their eight words for types of fog use all thirty-seven consonants – and the passion with which you told me about these, demonstrating with your hands and mouth and throat, and by the way, as we played Scrabble, you lamented the “tragedy” of not being able to put to words in the language, and even those you were joking, partly, you still imagined moves you might have made, tallied points accordingly, rearranging your tiles, for all I know, so that they spelled out little things in Tilkez, all this even while you lacked the ability to speak it fluently, only enhanced the sense of your being in a relationship with him/it.

And since I concentrated in linguistics in college, I have to admit a fondness for any story that brings in the Sapir Whorf hypothesis (language is linked to our perception of reality) and phonemic analysis (or is it phonetic? I never could keep them straight). Tim informs me that Jennifer Haigh declared this story “The most Doritian” of LDM; I’m not sure if that refers to Doritos or a gaming character (or something that doesn’t come up on the first page of a google search), but I’m fine with it either way.

“The Conversations” – available online at The Collagist, 5/8/12

The first of the Conversations had taken place at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken. No one knew then what they were, of course; they just seemed the talk of talkers, mundane as could be, the little dramas that unfold in the lives of all in front of the private audience of the participants and whoever else happens to be within earshot.
… The other thing that made it difficult to pick up the Conversations is that no one had the faintest fucking clue as to what they could possibly be.
They were, it ought to be emphasized, about everything and nothing. … No one knew exactly how long the Conversations had been going on before it was recognized what they were. It took a damned spot of time to figure these things out.

And what, you may be wondering, makes these conversations Conversations? Ah, now that would be spoiling; the story is online, after all. Much better to read it to find out.

One of the things that so struck me as I read was how contemporary it was. It was published in May 2012, so I suppose that’s not surprising, and the theme of lack of willingness to compromise, of rancorous argument, is hardly new. But then there’s the privacy issue.

It was only with the design of the pocket black boxes that it became possible to trace them, to record them as they transpired and then play them back….[I]t was surprising that the black boxes made it through the Court’s strenuous weeks of deliberation. They did, with the proviso that the only time their contents would be open to screening would be after a Conversation or if a Conversation was strongly suspected to be imminent. Over time, the free market took the boxes and compressed them, made them compact and funky, allowed you to personalize yours so that you felt some ownership over it, the sides aglow with yellow-green, imprinted with your floating genome map or a rotating skull. It was, like, your life. It would outlast your body.

This was written pre-Snowden. I suppose we all knew all along what Snowden finally told us, anyway, didn’t we. Maybe that’s the root of the anger directed towards him now; he’s forcing us to look at what we’ve given up, and to wonder about why.

I’m not sure this is the most successful story in terms of traditional narrative flow – it just kind of goes into reverse and stops, with no single protagonist, nor with any sign of lasting change – but that’s beside the point (or, maybe that is the point); we have very short memory spans – poor Tad, the Pro-Privacy advocate (“His trademark shirt read on the front THE ORIGINAL BLACK BOX, a play on the notion that he had “recorded” his Conversation — that is, could recall it — without the government shoving its wires into his personal space, and on the back, REMEMBER TO REMEMBER WHY WE REMEMBER…”) never stood a chance – and without memory, a long, durable memory, an accurate cultural memory of what happened, not what we want to tell our kids happened, change is impossible.

Still, I found it impossible to stop reading, and that’s probably the best definition there is of narrative flow. Maybe what it’s not successful at is presenting a narrative flow that can be described in a traditional three-point arc; it’s more of a circle, and it just so happens circular stories are a particular favorite of mine.

What scares me most in this collection is a single sentence from this story: “It would be years before the Conversations petered out into nonexistence, and by that time people had grown inured to all the changes wrought by them.” In context, it doesn’t even carry the same connotation, but it still leaps out at me and asks me, What are we doing? Don’t we realize we’ll look back in twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years and wonder what the hell were we thinking? Two hundred years ago, slavery was the way things were; seventy years ago, throwing American citizens into internment camps simply because of their origins seemed like a great idea; what will our grandchildren make of the past ten years, and especially the past five, or just this year just completed? Will the sounds of 9/11 ever completely stop, or will it just echo on and on? Will we even remember a time when we didn’t take off our shoes in the airport, or wonder who was reading our email? Will the wounds of even the past few years heal, or will we see the scars as our inheritance? But the story ends on a hopeful note: “We started back, started to come back. We started to talk again.”

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Let’s start to come back.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Eight”

Raedmeon is a city built by committee, riding in on slow, lumbering beasts of burden, Weston a committee man if ever there was one. Among his secret joys is the way the dry cleaner folds and boxes his shirts, the new-map sensation of the creases cascading over his shoulders and chest each morning….
When and how did he come to be “the Bread Machine”?… So into the Machine go problems that beleaguer any self-respecting city.… Out come Proposals. Solutions (or leastways Disasters Narrowly Averted).

I think I was tired when I first read this; it went by me completely. I was a little disappointed, to be honest: here’s this great collection, and for the final word, you give me this? The next time I read it, I got it. At least I think I did; I’m becoming more and more a devotee of the “reader writes the story” idea, so what I got, may not be what you get. I got a writer, constantly asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I got a writer in a job that requires a certain kind of writing, perhaps, a certain discipline, a writer who, when he put this collection together, this city of stories, had one thing in mind:

…relishing the thought of devoting himself fully at last to the Raedmeon he’s been quietly constructing all along, one that would never appoint a committee, where the streets are lined with luminous balustrades, and planning means nothing other than dancing in the pineapple rotundas of an untranslatable night.

Not a committee in sight in this book. But lots of pineapple rotundas.

I’m glad Tim happened along my Goodreads profile, and in spite of my initial reluctance, I’m very glad I ended up reading this book. Next time a book like this comes along – someone tell me about it, ok? And if I won’t stand still long enough to listen, remind me of Understories.

Robin Black: If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2011)

Every single one of my stories grew out of a need on my part to deal with something. The plots don’t come from my life but the central issues do. Loss. Anger. A certain stuckness in one’s own story. Grief over a child’s uncertain path. The way we disappoint and both knowingly and unknowingly betray those whom we love. I needed a way to sort through a life that by the time I was forty felt overwhelming to me. Writing stories is how I did that. And do that still.

~~Robin Black, Rumpus interview with Natalie Baszile

When is it an act of love to keep a secret? Is honesty always the best policy, or are some truths better kept to oneself? Perhaps I was overly influenced by the title of this wonderful collection, but it seemed to me each story had at its core the question of revealing and withholding information from loved ones. When is it a betrayal to speak, when is it a kindness? Knowledge can also be a weapon: Once we know something, we can’t un-know it, so it’s a crucial decision, to tell or not to tell. So often, it’s one we make for imperfect reasons, or even without any conscious thought at all. These stories make us think about it.

Each story is an intense emotional journey. Some have a hint of odd about them. Maybe not odd, just unusual; yes, that’s it, an unusual element. A father thinks about his mistress while on the way to introduce his teenaged daughter to her first guide dog. A woman writes a letter – in second-person conditional, no less – to a neighbor about the intrusive fence he’s planned. A young widow mentally remodels a fellow soccer-mom’s kitchen to better accommodate the sound of her prosthetic leg. A house develops electrified water (and this is directly from Black’s real-life experience). Come on, when was the last time you read a story that not just mentioned but featured – starred – such things? Yet each story is clearly, unmistakably real, with a very human purpose.

Black has a number of excellent interviews online (I’ll refer to a few of them in connection with individual stories), as well as an essay about “late bloomers” on Oprah.com, with the lead-in, “If you’re one of the legions of people who didn’t hit their sweet spot at age 25, there are a few things Robin Black would like you to know”:

Dear fellow late-bloomer, I thought you could use some advice. I know I would have benefited from some along the way, but back when I most needed it, there wasn’t much to be found. I earned my MFA in writing in 2005, when I was 43 years old and, much to my distress, the phrase “young emerging artist” seemed to be everywhere. There were prizes for young emerging artists; there were words of wisdom for young emerging artists; there were lists of the most exciting young emerging artists to watch. Anxious to find my peers, I did an online search—only to be told: “Your search for middle-aged emerging artists has yielded no results.”

~~Robin Black, ““Why It’s Never Too Late” on Oprah.com

Several of her stories feature older main characters. I like that, heading as I am for 60, a lot. But there’s also a 10-year-old who leaps off the page. Three stories are from a male perspective. Most of the stories include nuggets of humor, but one (the “extra story” added for the paperback edition) is wall-to-wall hilarity. I thought about this as I read what Black had to say in her Bombsite interview about her tendency to focus on rather grim circumstances:

You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out that I’m just into Old Testament-type vengeance and that’s why all my characters are so miserable. As my friends are fond of pointing out, no one wants to be a character in a Robin Black story…. I’ve been wondering lately if the people who don’t like story collections would like them more if they had permission to take a year to read through them. After my book came out it really hit me that people might sit down and read it straight through in a day or a few, and I have to say, it wasn’t a happy thought. In part because If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This does deal with so much tragedy, I think it’s better taken in small bits.

~~Robin Black, Bombsite.com interview

While I typically take three or four months to read BASS or PEN/O.Henry, I read this in about six days. I guess I have a high tolerance for tragedy, because I thought it was wonderful; I didn’t notice these stories were any more or less tragedy-laden than other collections. Then again, I’d just read a boatload of tragic novels for a class, including Light in August, Beloved, and Disgrace; after those, mere tragedy seems like a vacation. I would’ve liked to have taken longer, but only because I enjoy digging into a story in great detail, often posting about one at a time. The title story in particular would’ve been fun to dissect on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but that wasn’t practical for me. So I just read, and reacted.

The stories:

“If I Loved You” (The Southern Review, Autumn 2006 as “A Fence Between Our Homes”)

If I loved you, I would invite you in, sit you down in our kitchen, and I would say to you: You just never know. You, the yeti. You don’t know why this matters so much to us, why we care. You don’t know what secret pains we have that we haven’t shared with you. You don’t know us.
But then I would have to admit that I don’t know everything either, wouldn’t I? Like I don’t know why it matters so much to you to build that fence exactly there.
What happened in your life that makes a property line mean so much?

I know a lot of people who hate cancer stories, no matter what. I know a lot of people who hate second-person stories, no matter what. A second person cancer story – one that luxuriates in sentiment as well as technique (for instance, use of the conditional mood) and eschews action – that’s a tough sell. But this isn’t a cancer story (though there is cancer in it) and it isn’t a technique story (though the technique fascinates me) and it isn’t a sentimental story. It’s just a human story. It’s beautiful reading, shading towards prose poetry in places. But it’s also the kind of story that shines a spotlight on the little corners of your own life, makes you wonder just where and when you could’ve moved the fence a foot, and just why you didn’t – and makes you wonder who the lady with 37 items who got into the express line might be, and what she’s dealing with, before you start harrumphing. And in that, in its potential to affect the reader’s life and possibly even better the world, it’s important, as well as beautiful.

I further wondered about the withholding of truth in the context of this story: is it an act of hostility? Or an act of self-protection? Is there an expectation, a hope even, that at some point, the yeti will learn what she did not tell him and feel terrible, or is there a fear that even if they did humble themselves to the point of revealing what may or may not be new information to him, it would not matter? I’m not sure; it could go either way, and that’s what’s ultimately mesmerizing to me.

“The Guide” (Indiana Review, Winter 2004)

“Would you like to compare coping mechanisms?” she’d asked him once, when he let fly his rapidly growing anger at her rapidly shrinking world. “Yours versus mine? What’s her name, again? Amanda? Miranda? Would you like to have this conversation? Or should we just keep trying to help each other stumble through for a few more years? For Lila’s good?”
Stumble. It was the obvious answer. They would stumble through, of course.

It’d be easy to sum this story up as “A man takes his teenaged daughter to get her first guide dog and encounters his feelings about her approaching departure for college” but that would be doing it a disservice; it’s a lot more complicated than that. Just who are we protecting when we shield others from difficult realities? When we tell someone, “Don’t cry,” or “Don’t feel bad, it’ll be ok,” is it to soothe them, or to protect ourselves from the intense emotion they radiate? This for me was the crux of this story, but how Black got there – the journey she planned for me – was particularly interesting.

In her Rumpus interview, she specifically discusses the technique she used: “[O]ne form of misbehavior that interests me a lot is inattention. That question of where the gravitational center of one’s thoughts is at any given time – which is so very often not in the scene that’s unfolding and in which one is participating. There’s just something kind of flat to me about characters who are always, in mind and body, fully engaged in a scene. It’s a delicate balance though because when you have a character perpetually preoccupied or whose memories are continually competing with the scene it can begin to make that character seem oddly hollow, just a vehicle for the author to dump out a lot of exposition or back story.” I think she hit it right on the money, since in the first paragraphs I despised Jack for thinking about his mistress while driving his teenaged daughter Lila to meet her first guide dog. Later I came to reluctantly acknowledge some good points, even admire him. Then I hated him again. And like that, back and forth. Because you know what: people are complicated, when we tell the truth about them. And Black tells us the truth.

So does Lila:

“Maybe I could have the first ever seeing-eye cat.” Lila crosses her arms. “Some real haughty feline with attitude.”
“You mean like you?”
But his daughter shakes her head. “No.” She turns her face toward the breeze of the open window, lifting her sunglasses. “No,” she repeats. “I’d want a guide cat who really doesn’t give a flying fuck.” She draws an audible breath through her nose. “Manure?”

It’s also a story laced with Lila’s black humor, such as her t-shirt printed with: “If you can read this T-shirt, maybe YOU can tell ME what it says.” But it’s Lila who delivers the take-home here, as she decides what to reveal, what not, and to whom.

“Tableau Vivant” (Georgia Review, Winter 2009)

So what choice did she have to but unbraid the different strands of love and learn devotion without desire again? Desire without devotion?

Every family has secrets; every family member has her own set of secrets, and there’s nothing like a family visit to expose the seams. It’s an intricate story about, among other things, the importance of retelling family stories over and over, just for the reassurance. I find this a difficult story to comment on, and I’m not sure why; I enjoyed it a great deal. Maybe the story itself says what needs to be said. I could talk about symbols and the passage of time, but I think I’ll just leave it at this, with a sad smile.

“Immortalizing John Parker” (available online at Freight Stories

And his brows have grown so bushy that if she were still his wife, she decides, she would insist that he deal with them—somehow. If necessary, she would cut them herself, in his sleep. She finds it ridiculous the way they trail down over his eyes, so one must look at him as though through an upside down, overgrown hedge. She wouldn’t be able to live with them, she’s sure. For a moment, she is sure. But then something else occurs to her. Maybe she would love them, she thinks. If she still loved him. Maybe she would want him as he is.
It’s a painful thought. The ravages of time rendered irrelevant by love.

Clara Feinberg is a portrait artist who for thirty years has been driven to study faces and reveal their secrets on canvas. But: “the paintings themselves upset her now. The act of painting them upsets her now.” It’s the analogue to death: both her portraits, and death, freeze us in a moment of time. And, at 70 years of age, it’s not like death is an abstract concept any more, especially after the recent death of the man she had an affair with, unbeknownst to his wife. Once, almost. Once, later on, in fact. After, of course, she’d thrown her own husband out for cheating.

But she has this portrait to paint, this John Parker, who seems… dulled. “The word isn’t dull. It’s dulled.… A process.” She normally doesn’t like direct eye contact with her portrait subjects, but “the only route through that dullness she had detected in John Parker, back to whatever had preceded it, would be through his gaze.”

Black brings these threads together with the issue of what to tell, what not, primary in both. It’s so rare to see an older woman – a real older woman, not a 40-year-old who’s called an “older woman” because the ideal age of our era is somehow absurdly considered to be 25 – revealed so fully. She has flaws, but she isn’t an old biddy. She has passions, but she isn’t sentimental. And she has some decisions to make. Did she make the right ones?

“Pine” (Colorado Review, Spring 2005)

… [H]e has been my yes-man for years and I, his yes-woman – which for all this time has meant that we weren’t allowed to disagree with each other… Kevin has long been my best friend, and this unquestioning affirmation of each other has formed the central tenet of our best friendship.
…But Kevin’s inherently agreeable nature ruined the sex for me….With Joe gone, I needed sex to be something more like a knock-down drag-out fight, one I could only win by fucking the living crap out of someone. And without having to think about making love. Or about love at all. Most importantly, not about love. And I couldn’t fuck the living crap out of Kevin; he was just too nice.

Claire and Heidi: two women – no, maybe the same woman in two different stages of adjustment. Heidi has adjusted to the loss of her leg, the sound of it on the kitchen floor, her husband’s hand on plastic knee. Claire has not adjusted to her widowhood at all. Claire explains to best-friend-husband-substitute Kevin: “Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” The original limb, lost to cancer – just like Claire’s original husband. Heidi’s had half a lifetime and five different legs; Claire’s only had three years, and Kevin. So far. Yes, she botches it with Kevin, but I’m willing to bet Heidi’s experience with her first prosthesis wasn’t a picnic, either.

The opening scene in Heidi’s kitchen is terrific: Claire introduces us to Heidi by way of the sound Heidi’s prosthetic leg makes moving across the kitchen floor, and the steps Claire would take to mitigate that sound. Heidi’s way beyond the need to mitigate anything to do with her leg.

Black captures Claire’s “outsider” feel in the cooking scene perfectly: “I don’t really know Roger, I admit; and as if I have disqualified myself somehow, the tall woman allows her eyes to drift off me as she states to no one in particular: ‘Well, anyway.'” That’s as authentic as it gets; I’ve been in that scene. She also captures Claire’s widow’s envy in numerous ways throughout the piece (“‘I lost my leg to cancer, when I was sixteen,’ she said, catching me stare. I lost my husband to cancer when I was thirty-six.“), but nowhere more honestly and surprisingly than in her observations of Heidi and her husband at the kids’ soccer practice:

… I see Roger across the field place his hand on Heidi’s knee. It is a casual, marital gesture, except that it’s her senseless, artificial leg touches. He rests his palm on her as though she can feel him. Or as though that bloodless leg cannot disrupt any aspect of their bond. And Heidi sees the caress she cannot feel. She turns a little, smiles at him, and lays her hand over his. I look away and say nothing to Kevin. I make no jokes, no smart comments about Heidi and her feet.

But here’s where I start nit-picking (and I wonder if I’m just looking for flaws now, because, come on, every story I’ve read so far has been so pitch perfect): I wish the last two or three sentences had been edited out of that paragraph. To me, it’s a turn towards construct that continues for the rest of the piece, and finally culminates in exactly the conversation you’d expect between Claire and her not-boyfriend Kevin. That conversation, unlike the other conversations in the book, could come from some 80s Meg Ryan romcom. But that’s ok; it was one of the Black’s earlier stories. Her third, maybe fourth, leg, so to speak. And a pretty damn good third or fourth leg at that.

“Harriet Elliot” (One Story #104, 4/30/08)

We were taught tolerance by our Quaker teacher at every chance. There was God in each of us – even in those of us, like me, who had been raised to believe there was no God. …
When our parents asked us how the new girl was fitting in, we shrugged, knowing better than to share our unanimous judgment. We said she seemed okay. We tried to make our faces look as though we had found a glimpse of God inside of her.
As there was God in each of us. Sometimes I would try to find him there. At night, in my room, my eyes closed, escaping the unmistakable tones of an unending parental argument forcing its way up the stairwell through my door, I would stare inside myself… I would look until I slept for the God I had been told did not exist.

I loved this coming-of-age (well, coming-of-something) story; after I read Black’s One Story Q&A, I loved it even more. It’s an emotionally satisfying story – as the narrator finds God, the capacity to believe, within herself – and a technically intriguing one, playing with voice and person. The last sentence is almost Borgean – then again, I have been a little stuck on Borges and ideas of interpretive reality lately, so I may be reading way past the text, but it seems to me there are multiple readings here. Black does say, “For this story to work, it really has to end with that final blink” in her Q&A; it certainly does. That final blink is magic.

I feel justified in calling this a coming-of-age story, though the main character is only 10 years old, because that’s what it felt like, culminating in a growth spurt rather than a mere epiphany. In her “Conversation” with Karen Russell included at the end of the collection (almost, but not quite, an interview; very informative), Black defines coming-of-age stories, and their importance to her:

I think of coming-of-age stories as narratives in which the balance between innocence and experience shifts, and I absolutely believe my stories fit that definition…. [W]hat adult life reveals is that our capacity to perceive complexity always outpaces our ability to understand it, so life never actually seems simpler. If anything, quite the opposite. And it’s that process that I am drawn to as I write – the business of life becoming more and more complicated and all of us working to keep up with that. So I am drawn to the points in life at which that process is exposed.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

The Conversation (which I’ll return to it later; I love books that include supplementary information) is looking at the older-adult stories at that point, but I think it applies to this story as well. It’s also a “stranger comes to town” set in fourth grade. I didn’t even realize the first-person narrator was unnamed until I started writing notes on the story; it’s almost a first-person plural narration for quite some time, in fact; I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate, as we’re introduced to Harriet, the oddball newcomer who doesn’t fit in at all.

I just read The Ice Palace for a class, and though the girls there are older and there’s a very different synergy between them, this story recalled it. The narrator befriends Harriet, learns from her, and is changed. I also greatly appreciated the setting of the progressive Quaker school; all that effort to foster respect, community, and individualism, and yet the odd girl is shunned, just like in any fourth grade classroom.

“Gaining Ground” (Alaska Quarterly Review, Fall/Winter 2003)

My dad died on the night my bathwater ran with an electric current in it. Or maybe it was the other way around. My water ran electric on the night my father died. In some ways that sounds better, more poetic, I guess. For one thing, it scans. Ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh. But it isn’t truly accurate as to what it felt like at the time. It felt more like the first way.

This was Black’s first published story. It’s surprising how different the style is from every other story in the collection: short rhythmic bursts instead of smooth lyricism, flat-out sarcasm and confusion instead of thoughtfulness and occasional humor. That isn’t to say it’s any less thoughtful; it’s just a different kind of thoughtful.

Like many of the stories, if you think you’ve got the story figured out by the first paragraph quoted above, you’ll find out in the second paragraph that you’re wrong about everything:

Harris says the whole worry is stupid, the whole question of how to put it, because it makes it sound like I’m debating some point of causality, as if the two events were in some way related. Linked. Which they obviously were not. The water ran electric because the house was not properly grounded. Because my electrician is an asshole. And always has been. And ought to be shot. Or at the very least not be an electrician anymore. My father died because he walked in front of a train. On purpose. Like in a movie. Like Anna Karenina. Because he was a whack job. Mentally ill. And always had been. No connection.

We’re all trying to gain ground. In the Conversation, Black calls this her “unintentional manifesto…I think that the subtext there is me saying: I am going to try to make sense of the world and of my own existence by telling stories.” The narrator tries to make sense of the craziness of her father and the electricity in her home water supply by phrasing things in scanning lines, finally coming up with a poem, as her ex-husband looks on with a sneer. The style is disjointed, and the story elements don’t quite fit together in a neat little package, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

“A Country Where You Once Lived” (available online from Hunger Mountain, Winter 2009)

… But what Cathleen said in jest resonated with him. It’s strangely appealing to imagine himself and his daughter slaughtering a bird, engaging together in so blessedly impolite and uncivil an act, making it impossible to keep the niceties so unremittingly nice after that, impossible to ignore life’s darker, more difficult side. And it’s more than that. They would be killing something. It’s fitting somehow. He’s hesitant to pin the symbolism down, to let the thoughts go very far, but he’s aware of a longing in himself that he hadn’t thought possible. The desire to solve a problem without working it through for once, the hope that a ritual might do all the labor for him.

In her self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, Black said she’s surprised by critical reactions including words like “brutal” or phrases like “not for the faint of heart.” I’m guessing those reactions were thinking of metaphorical, psychic brutality – you know, like we all have in our lives from time to time – but that word might’ve also come up in connection with this story’s planned father-daughter outing to slaughter a chicken, a ritual dad seems to view as a cross between burying the hatchet and scapegoating. That ritual is, however, superseded by a far more challenging event (in her Conversation, she explains she knew reconciliation over a chicken beheading would’ve been “capital B Bad and capital H Hokey”; she’s right; by this story, she’d moved on to her fifth leg) and Black returns to the heart of this collection: what to tell, what to keep secret, from those we love.

I’m very fond of the train imagery that opens the story and is echoed near the close:

… It’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much farther than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken off all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two.… Jeremy is riding backwards so is watching it all recede, and the sensation is oddly saddening.… He knows well that for all the brain’s cellular elegance, it has too this kind of simple, simplistic aspect to it. Leaving is sad. Even just the illusion of leaving is sad. As each view receipts, his eyes are tricked and in turn trick his brain: he is leaving… leaving… leaving… of course he feels sad.

I’m so glad this story is available online; it’s a journey of its own, with wonderful sights to see along the way, including the backstory of the daughter’s youth, and the interesting interpretation of Skype-sex: “We’ve never experienced the pleasures of absence.” In the same self-interview mentioned above, Black says she started writing about one character, but ended up wondering about another. So it seems the story itself was on a journey.

“…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” (Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2004)

I was afraid my brother’s face would become a fearful thing for them. And maybe for me as well, with kids of my own. So I put him in the dresser drawer I use for the few really fine scarves and gloves I possess, the softest place for storage I could find.
But of course the children have always known that I had a brother and that he died. A brother named Terrance, Terry. They know about him without my ever having had to tell either of them. Uncle Terry, he would have been. It’s family information. The kind that travels in the air the children breathe.

I was ready to love this story before I read a word of it, just from the title; after I read it, I loved it more. It’s shorter than the other stories in the collection (Black mentions in several interviews that she writes long stories), and maybe in some ways the least developed; the path from beginning to end is fairly straight, with few surprises. But as a meditation on loss, it’s beautiful; if you’ve ever lost anyone – and who hasn’t? – it’ll make you cry as you nod along. BLR, who first published it in 2004, has an online guide. Study guide, actually, but this isn’t a story you have to study; just breathe.

“Some Women Eat Tar” (available online at $.99 for iOS or Adobe DRM )

“People say things to me that make no sense at all,” she told her mother on the phone that afternoon. “No restrictions? You should see me. What does that even mean?”
“Your problem, Nina,” her mother replied, “is that you are unable to contextualize discourse. Within the context of weighing six hundred pounds and being kicked brutally from within, you are free as a bird. Welcome to motherhood.”

And now, amongst all the preceding poignancy and pathos, a complete change of pace in the form of a hilarious pregnancy story. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or have shared bed and board with someone who was pregnant, you’ll love it too. I’ve kept as far away from pregnancy and the results thereof as possible, but even I loved it. Still, I have to admit, it’s a pretty thin story; it’s more of an excuse to string pregnancy jokes together. But they’re such great jokes, and it’s such a great change of pace (Black is one versatile writer) I’m more than ok with that.

The pregnancy was Artie’s idea; too bad it’s Nina’s body. She isn’t sure she likes the doctor Artie picked out: a “young, pretty woman” with “perfect hair and makeup,” and a sign reading “Because I’m the Pediatrician, That’s Why” on her desk, a woman “who made Nina feel invisible from the moment they met. Especially when she repeated the phrase Nipple Confusion and Artie nodded knowingly. For just a second there, Nina thought she would rather steal her own car, jump on a plane, and take on a new identity than hear her husband discussed her potentially confusing nipples with this girl.”

Then we have Nina’s job:

She took on extra work from the greeting card company where she had freelanced for years, doubling the number of witty/touching/rhyming/not rhyming captions she produced for them each week. Her just-out-of-college editor at Rainwater Greetings thought it was way cool that pregnancy really did bring on creative bursts.
…She wrote a total of eighty-seven salutations/congratulations/condolences – an inordinate number of which ended with the phrase Believe me, I understand – between weeks eighteen and twenty-eight…

I’m willing to bet Black has held, or knows someone who held, a similar job. Nina’s response to the doctor’s instruction to “notify us immediately if the baby stops kicking” is pure writer/editor/usage geek: “Shouldn’t that be if you no longer feel the baby kick? How do you feel someone stop kicking you?”

Plot-wise, the story moves along with Nina’s crush on the florist. But as I said, it’s thin. And, as I said, I didn’t care; I loved every word of it.

“A History of the World”

As a child Kate suspected that it was her own umbilical cord, and not his, that had wrapped itself around Arthur’s neck, depriving him of oxygen for just long enough. No one ever told her this. No one ever told her much of anything about why Arthur spoke the way he did why his otherwise razor-sharp brain seemed to have these holes in it, lacunae into which words would disappear. Their parents chose silence on the subject of Arthur’s odd silences as the kindest and maybe the easiest course and left it to their daughter to glean what little she might from bits of private conversations slipping out from under closed doors, or from relatives who gossiped, neighbors who thought they knew.

And here we are, back at the heart of things, with what we keep secret and what we reveal, and how our history affects us forever. Kate and Arthur are sixty-five-year-old twins, in Italy to celebrate their shared birthday. It’s literally a guilt trip – and it only gets guiltier. I’m afraid this wasn’t my favorite story of the book; it read much to “long” for me. Yet when I asked myself, as I do when a story seems “too long,” what should be cut, I could see how everything was necessary to the piece as a whole. Chalk it up to a matter of personal preference, and probably my mood at the time.

I can see why it was chosen to end the collection. The final scene is glorious: a history of the world from Eve on, drawn in flower petals along the streets of this Italian village. Forever, just waiting for the lady with the broom to sweep it all away at the end of the day. The Infiorata, Flower Festival, is a real thing, by the way, taking place in many Italian cities. The symbolism, the connection to the story, is unmistakable.

In her Conversation, the section on coming-of-age stories in fact, Black refers to ending the collection with this: “The appearance of Adam and Eve in the flower scene at the end of ‘The History of the World’ is a kind of clue to the fact that everything that comes before in the book really has been about the double-edged nature of the acquisition of knowledge and the accompanying loss of innocence.”

As I read through the first three or four stories in this collection, I wondered, “These are extraordinary; why aren’t more people talking about this book?” And I realized people were talking about it back in 2010 when it was originally published (and when it appeared on the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlist), but I was doing something else back then and consigned it to a bookmark in my “highly-recommended-library-available” list, where it waited patiently until about a week ago when I felt the need, after a long stretch of reading novels for classes, to revel in short stories again (I’m suffering withdrawal, thanks to PEN/O.Henry delaying publication from Spring to Fall). I chose it now from my very long highly-recommended list because, among other more sensible reasons, I loved the cover. Yes, I am that shallow. That shallowness becomes stupidity when you realize there are multiple covers, and by the way the UK cover is awful enough to deserve Isobel Montgomery’s scorn in her Guardian review. The cover doesn’t matter; what’s under the cover is wonderful.

I envision the ending of a story as the point at which I complete the process by handing the story over to the reader. It belongs to her by then. It’s common for people to recommend starting stories in mid-action or in media res, but there’s at least as good an argument for ending them that way too. There’s a kind of generosity to not closing down a story entirely, a way that includes the reader, and I aspire to that.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

I’ve said before (most recently, by coincidence, in a post about a story by Karen Russell, with whom Black’s Conversation takes place) that I like stories that project into the future. I can’t define exactly what I mean by that, other than what it isn’t: it’s not an unfinished story, or a lady-or-the-tiger ending, but an ending that lets me imagine a future – several possible futures – for the characters. I’m especially happy to see Black has the same idea. Most of the stories invited such projection; a few demanded it.

I very much enjoyed this collection. If I seem to have nitpicked a few times, well, that’s my way of keeping myself honest, making sure I’m not being carried away by a beautiful read. Also: I need to make myself aware, on a regular basis, that a few flaws are inevitable, acceptable, and even desirable – in people, and in stories.

Black has a novel, Life Drawing, due out in 2014: “a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a marriage—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.”

Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones

Art by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Art by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The work of Jorge Luis Borges is a species of international literary metaphor. He knowledgeably makes a transfer of inherited meanings from Spanish and English, French and German, and sums up a series of analogies, of confrontations, of appositions in other nations’ literatures. His Argentinians act out Parisian dramas, his central European Jews are wise in the ways of the Amazon, his Babylonians are fluent in the paradigms of Babel.… Perhaps, though, his meaning is simply in the ritual tone of voice with which he suggests some eternal, an answerable question.

~~ Anthony Kerrigan, Introduction to Ficciones

Now this was fun.

Ficciones is another of the assigned texts for the Fiction of Relationship mooc taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera (sadly, it’s no longer on the schedule). I see a distinct progression now that I understand better the drift of the course: we’ve had something of a progression from love relationships to societal relationships to family relationships, even self-relationships, relationships with “the other” – and now we start considering our relationship with reality.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course; Jane Eyre is as much a novel about the relation to society as is Light In August, and Manon Lescaut has as much to do with our relationship to reality as does Borges. Maybe this is the mark of a “great” novel: it covers a multitude of relationships. Or maybe it’s inherent in all literature. Maybe people are incapable of writing, thinking even, except in terms of relationship. Or maybe it’s all just sophistry: if there is more than one thing, one element to a story, if there is a setting and a character, there must be a relationship. I wonder if it’s possible to write a story where there is no relationship – doesn’t any story have a relationship with the author and the reader, at the very least? Is it possible to have a story with no relationship to reality?

Where to start with this book: One of the themes that recurs a few times in these stories is the overwhelmingness of an abundance of riches: a library with too many books, a man with too many memories. It is an overwhelming book: I am left a reader with too many ideas.

So let’s start with the outlandish: Did Borges foresee the Internet?

Noam Cohen makes a decent case in his 2008 NYT article “Borges and the Forseeable Future.” The collaborative, mutating encyclopedia of Tlön, for instance, sounds like (brace yourself) Wikipedia; Funes’ prodigious memory a mega-gig drive; the Universal Library comes closer to your fingertips every day. I’m pretty sure these story elements read a lot differently now – less “gee whiz” – than they did in the 30s and 40s.

Laura Delgado, 'La Otra'As I read the collection, something else occurred to me: where are the women? Only a handful of his stories include women in more than a fleeting role, and they aren’t in this collection. Scholarly opinions differ as to the significance of this. Daniel Balderston and Herbert Brandt feel the homosocial relationships of the stories are standins for more homosexual images. E. D. Carter argues that women “ultimately stand in the way of what Borges has called ‘the one redeeming Argentine passion’: friendship.” I’ll forgive Borges for that, seeing as early 20th century Argentinian academia was quite different from 21st century America… isn’t it? Please tell me it is. In any event, no matter how tangled and folded on itself reality becomes in these stories, Ficciones is a men-only club.

October 1944, in the sky above Paris, sheets of paper are floating down to the ground. A few people below are looking up, waiting for the sheets to reach them. Most pay no particular attention, accustomed as they are to receiving political pamphlets in such a fashion…
…The pages are written in French, but they come from far away: from across the ocean, from Argentina. The pages include Néstor Ibarra’s French translations of Majstorovic 48 Jorge Luis Borges’ stories “[The Babylon Lottery]” and “[The Library of Babel]”.

~~ Gorica Majstorovic, A Contracorriente, Spring 2006

Borges has been recommended to me several times over the years, usually by people way, way out of my intellectual league, so I’ve always been too intimidated to just pick it up and start reading; I’m glad this course has forced the issue. I spent nearly an hour on just the Introduction (by translator Andrew Kerrigan) and Prologue (where Borges blogs his own book). Much of that was remedial (heresiarch? propitiatory lupanar?) but much was just an effort to clarify concepts vaguely familiar (Pascal’s Abyss turned out to be something Find out more about David Shook's Poetry Drone Kickstarter Campaigncompletely different from what I’d thought; the passing mention of a previous “Library of Babel” led me to the above-quoted story of Victoria Ocampo, editor of the Argentinian literary magazine Sur, dropping literary pamphlets over Paris shortly after the Liberation, a move David Shook right now seeks to update via his Poetry Drone Kickstarter campaign). I didn’t want to miss a thing.

I’m sure I did, of course, but these are stories to read over and over, to remember, to link to other readings and other courses and other ideas. I used to be a spec-fic reader, favoring the more oddball works that involved time folding over itself and Möbius strips; much of that sprang from these stories, and, to pick a concrete example, with some stories I was reminded structurally of Manuel Gonzales’ “fictional journalism.” Borges himself found inspiration in everyone from Aristotle to Schopenhauer to C.S. Lewis to German writer Kurd Lasswitz. Let’s face it: everyone stands on the shoulders of giants, even giants. It just gets harder and harder to reach those shoulders as history goes on.

Borges wrote these stories before “the linked collection” became a marketing concept; they’re gathered for convenience, not because they fit some publisher’s idea of what the market wants (though wouldn’t that be fun, a series of collections of linked stories using these stories as a base…then a series of linked stories for each of those stories… an infinite collection…). They vary in technique and mood, but certain motifs recur: Mirrors. Labyrinths. Time, history, reality. Most are very short; the entire collection of seventeen stories is only 174 pages. Most of the stories are available online; I’ve linked the titles where possible.

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

~~ JL Borges, Prologue to Ficciones

Several of the stories, particularly in Part 1 of the collection, feature invented books (and in one case an invented library), but they also look for explanations behind our assumptions, making them something like myths. Why do bad things happen to good people? “The Babylon Lottery” may explain it. Do we have control over our lives? Look to “The Circular Ruin” and “Garden of the Forking Paths.” Labyrinths, mirrors; time, reality; philosophy, history, science, mathematics, psychology: Borges’ palette is broad and draws from a variety of disciplines. Like I said: Now this was fun.

The stories:

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

If you write it, they will come, in this extreme life-imitates-art tale. It’s also a mystery, an investigation, into an elusive (fictional) encyclopedia entry that leads to a (fictional) encyclopedia originated by a multigenerational group that invented a country. But it didn’t stop there; an eccentric American millionaire got into the act and “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of the whole planet.” Borges understood America, all right.

The planet exists in a state of Berkeleyan idealism: the world is “not a concurrence of objects in space, but a heterogeneous series of independent acts”; “the present is undefined, that the future has no other reality than as present hope, that the past is no more than present memory”; even numbers are “indefinite” and “the operation of counting modifies the quantities and converts them from indefinite into definite sums” (aha! I always suspected); some objects are “brought into being by hope”, and all objects “lose their detail when people forget them.”

Most dramatically, in a theme echoed by Borges again and again in these stories: “there is only one Individual, and that this indivisible Individual is every one of the separate beings in the universe, and that those beings are the instruments and masks of divinity itself.”

While all of this is fascinating – and leads me to resolve yet again to improve my understanding of philosophical schools – the thrust of the story is that this fictional encyclopedia about a fictional world transformed the actual world into Tlön. If that seems far-fetched, consider the New Testament – or any public school textbook. Wars have been fought over who gets to write the history, because history only exists in memory, and we cannot help but live under the thumb of what has come before. Or, at least, what we believe has come before.

The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim

This fictional review of a fictional book about an Indian pilgrimage is so detailed, it’s hard to remember the levels of invention. The review judges the second edition of the book to be far inferior – “In the 1932 version, the supernatural notes are scarce… Unfortunately, this literary good conduct did not last long. In the 1934 version – which I have at hand – the novel sinks into allegory… ” This jazzing up of a text to appeal to a more widespread audience sounds familiar. Geraldo Rivera was once a real journalist, Jim Jones started out as an earnest preacher, and everyone knows how I feel about what’s happened to Bravo and The Food Network.

Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote

He did not want to compose another Don Quixote – which would be easy – but the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
…To be, in some way, Cervantes and to arrive at Don Quixote seemed to him less arduous – and consequently less interesting – then to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

I remember an art course in which the instructor said that painting flowers during the sixteenth century was not the same as painting flowers during the Industrial Revolution, or in the Information Age. Context matters. You can’t wade into the same stream twice.

Borges drew this self-portrait - after he went blind - for Burt BrittonBy creating an author, start with his bibliography, showing his struggles (“The number of rough drafts kept on increasing; he tenaciously made corrections and tore up thousands of manuscript pages”), as well as the reviewer’s reader experience of the work (“…the fragmentary Don Quixote of Menard is more subtle than that of Cervantes. The latter indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the Meeker, provincial reality of his country; Menard chooses as ‘reality’ the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope.”), Borges turns an aphorism into flesh and blood: an idea becomes a story.

John T. Irwin adds some background to the piece: “One of the more interesting aspects of Borges’ development as a fiction writer in the late 30’s and early 40’s was his decision to turn away from the French literary influence that represented the artistic ideal for most of his fellow Argentinians (an Argentine obsession that he was to satirize in “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”) and to turn toward English, and particularly North American, fiction as the principal foreign literary influence on his work.” That was the point at which he became interested in Poe.

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these “imperfect writers,” whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them – not the best – insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them. I was ingenuous enough to extract from the third, “The Rose of Yesterday,” my story of “The Circular Ruins.”

A literary obituary of sorts. The books Borges invents are so clever, it’s easy to forgive him for not actually writing them. The narrator is indignant that Quain’s books are compared to Agatha Christie and Gertrude Stein; “evocations which no one would consider inevitable and which would not have gratified the deceased.” This becomes especially delicious when we consider that Borges wrote three “doubles” of Poe stories as homages, and he himself served as inspiration for so many. This story itself folds back on itself, with the reference to his own story at the end. Is this Borges’ self-litobit? A tongue-in-cheek future impression of his oeuvre? Much of his work has this sense of humor about it; it’s almost like he’s entering into a shared joke with the reader – laughing with us, not at us.

“The Library of Babel”

I have just written the word “infinite.” I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end — which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

This may be one of Borges’ most famous stories; I’d actually read it before, though I didn’t realize it was Borges. There are, after all, only so many books, so many combinations of letters one could possibly write. In 1913, Emile Borel started the “infinite monkeys” concept (enough monkeys for enough time would eventually produce Hamlet), to be carried forward by physicist Arthur Edington; here Borges makes it concrete. It’s interesting that this Library has so much information as to make it unintelligible; it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, thus everyone goes hungry. Yet, The Book exists: the perfect book, and that is what we’re looking for.

Prof. Weinstein mentions in the introductory material to the Fiction of Relationship course, “Dry, esoteric and philosophical, Borges appears to have none of the heat our other writers bring, but think again.” Yes: look at the quote above, and think again. Look at Borges referring to the story: “In my story there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself.” Anything but dry and esoteric. I want to hug him.

The Circular Ruins

In his Prologue, Borges refers to this as a story in which “nothing is real.” It’s interesting, then, especially in light of the above-mentioned comments about Borges being esoteric and philosophical, that I found this story dripping with human passion. It’s another strange story: the protagonist simply enters the scene, from where or why or even how we don’t really know. His mission is to dream a son.

The choice I love here is that his first attempt fails; he dreams a classroom setting and chooses the most thoughtful student but is unable to bring him to life. It’s only when he tries again, and begins at the heart (“He dreamed that it was warm, secret, about the size of a clenched fist, and of a garnet color within the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex; during fourteen lucid nights he dreamt of it with meticulous love”) that he is able to create. I was so captivated by the phrase “meticulous love” I looked up the original Spanish: con minucioso amor lo soñó; while there is the word meticuloso for “meticulous,” minucioso also translates there, as well as “thorough” and “minute.” A new kind of reproduction, perhaps, but one that is, literally, heartfelt.

Of course, that isn’t the end of the story; this is Borges, and everything has to fold back in on itself.

The Babylon Lottery

In the early 70s, when I visited Boston (from Florida) for the first time, I was confused by all the advertisements I saw for The Game; they never explained what The Game was, just exhorted people to play it. Forget notions of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence: God is the guy who sells the lottery tickets. In his Prologue, Borges notes the story is “not entirely innocent of symbolism.” Neil D. Isaacs raises the same thought I did (boy, do I feel smart!) in his article “The Labyrinth of Art in Four Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges”: of course there’s symbolism, all his stories are symbolic, pretty much all literature is symbolic. But Isaacs identifies the symbolism at a level that would have never occurred to me:

[I]n “The Babylon Lottery” one must appreciate the ironic inversion of the typical, the traditional, and the archetypal.

Borges’ “symbolism” is a remarkably sustained piece of irony. “The Babylon Lottery” describes an attempt to impose a deliberate and infinitely various disorder upon an orderly world. Yet the lottery (both the story itself and the institutions it describes) is systematic and formal. In other words, it is a program (or programmatic presentation) designed to give the semblance of formal order, that is to say, a semblance of meaning, to the chaotic and ostensibly meaningless world of human experience.…

It’s a lot more sophisticated than “S#&t Happens,” you have to admit.

The Garden of the Forking Paths

Borges wrote this story with Poe in mind (and it was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; he puts a slight spoiler in his Prologue, calling it a “detective story; its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand – it seems to me – until the last paragraph.” That’s true, but it also gets into destiny and parallel universes, not to mention a mathematical theory of bifurcation. In fact, this story and “The Library of Babel” was recommended to me by my math class last Spring when I was looking for a “mathlit” series of readings (I still intend to get there, it’s just taking a while).Of course, this theory is way beyond me – much of this is beyond me – but that doesn’t stop me from having fun. Although Edward Packer wouldn’t invent Choose Your Own Adventure stories until the 1970s, I see it as an exploration of a CYOA structure in life. We do, in fact, choose our own adventures, every moment of every day, but most of the time we don’t realize it.

Funes, the Memorious

Funes the Memorious is as Borgesian a character as they come, a man tormented by his hyperencylopedic mind, tragically unable to forget anything…. he is incapacitated by the compulsive absoluteness of his knowledge, unable to think and communicate with the rest of the humanity. Casting himself as the imperfect, inferior countercharacter to Funes, Borges suggests that forgetting—that is, forgetting ceaselessly—is essential and necessary for thought and language and literature, for simply being a human being.

~~ Aleksander Hemon, from Object Lessons, excerpted online

An anthropology professor once told our class that death was essential to life; it seems forgetting works somewhat the same way with knowledge. The story itself makes this point: “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything,” which brings us back to the “every man is all men” theme sprinkled throughout this volume.

I’m also reminded of “The Library of Babel,” or, for that matter, the internet, where a flood of information means nothing gets through. Hemon goes on to equate Funes’ memory with omniscience, and thus, Godhood, which leads to those thoughts about divinity – literally, separateness – and how perhaps that is what people long for when they long for God: to know everything. But that itself separates the now-God from the rest of humanity, and leaves him paralyzed, lying alone on a cot in a hut. But, by his own account, quite content: “immobility was a minimum price to pay.”

The Form of the Sword

I realized then that his cowardice was irreparable. I awkwardly urged him to take care of himself and took my leave. I blushed for this fearful man, as if I, and not Vincent Moon, were the coward. What one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men. For that reason a disobedience committed in a garden contaminates the human race; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew suffices to save it.”

Mauricio Nizzero: 'El otro'There it is, that theme again. I knew what was going on some time before the story revealed it; I wondered for a time if the narrator knew where the story would end up, but gave the storyteller the opportunity to make his confession. It’s a story about becoming “the other” through narrative – telling your story from someone else’s angle. For this character, this role-swap must take place in front of an audience in order to accomplish his aim.

In Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations, with Richard Burgin, Borges is quite dismissive of this story: “That’s one of the stories I like least, because it’s a trick story after all… But of course, when I wrote that story I was quite young and then I believed in cleverness, and now I think that cleverness is a hindrance.” Still, I found it to be an interesting examination of identity, fitting the “law of metamorphosis” that’s running through the class.

Theme of the Traitor and Hero

If you like mind-twisting paradoxical mazes, this is the story for you: a consideration of free will and destiny, all wrapped up in a Shakespearean paradox of art imitating life. Or is it life imitating art? For a very short story – barely five pages – it gets a lot done.

Death and the Compass

Erik Lonnrot studied the documents. The three sites were in fact equidistant. Symmetry in time (the third of December, the third of January, the third of February); symmetry in space as well . . . Of a sudden he sensed he was about to decipher the mystery. A set of calipers and a compass completed his sudden intuition. He smiled, pronounced the word “Tetragrammaton” (of recent acquisition), and called the Commissioner on the telephone.

His second detective story after “Garden of the Forking Paths,” this one was, in his words, “flatly rejected” by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. If that doesn’t serve as a balm to rejected writers everywhere, I don’t know what will. In order to solve this mystery, the detective calls upon religion, geometry, and Zeno; for the reader, a knowledge of German helps, but I confess I mostly just followed along and went back to pick up what I missed. After all, a Borges mystery is not just any mystery; there’s going to be a philosophical question in there somewhere, and here, it’s symmetry and, again, identity.

The Secret Miracle

A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you
looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine.

'El paraíso según Borges' (or 'Paradise According to Borges') by Gabriel CapraIf libraries – infinite, divine libraries, whose vast stores of information create problems of locating any one particular item for mere mortals – feature prominently in Borges – “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” he said – it’s worth remembering that he was Director of the National Library of Argentina for nearly twenty years, until political issues made that untenable. This story blends notions of this Divine Library, dreams, and time, yet for me it above all is a writer’s story; I see a link to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” If you write something and no one reads it – have you written anything at all? In fact, yes. I write a blog very few people read, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time on these posts, but I write it because it forces me to organize my thoughts; I frequently uncover new evidence and thus change my mind when I put together notes and write a coherent post, and that is worth the time it takes. Writing for me exists for its own sake, it is the discovery; having a place to “publish” it is merely a bonus.

It’s something of a reframing of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” though it adds some elements and creates a convincing emotional picture (something Bierce never did for me). Clark M. Zlotchew goes into great detail about the use of mise en abyme, a term new to me though I recognize the concept. See, that’s why I write blog posts no one may ever read (certainly not ones this long): I learn things. Writing is its own reward.

And we haven’t heard the last of protagonist Jaromir Hladik…

Three Versions of Judas

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, some years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously dilate: Not one thing, but everything tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false. (De Quincey, 1857.)

I was seriously religious in my early teens, and I never understood the scorn heaped upon Judas: it seemed to me his betrayal of Jesus was a necessary part of the plan. I never said a word, of course; I got into enough trouble asking where all the people after Adam and Eve came from. But it’s nice to see someone else wonders the same thing, though this story takes it a step beyond that.

I promised more Jaromir Hladik from “The Secret Miracle,” and here he is in a footnote, though I’ll admit I wouldn’t have noticed it but for Borges’ bio page on the Poetry Foundation website: “The note refers the reader to the “Vindication of Eternity,” a work said to be written by Hladik. In this instance, Borges used a fictional work written by one of his fictitious characters to lend an air of erudition to another fictional work about the works of another fictitious author.” Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

I wonder what else I’ve been missing in these stories – like the small detail of protagonist Nils Runeberg’s name pointed out by Edna Aizenberg: “Runes were ancient mystic letters, and ‘Nils’ suggests null, or nothingness, as well as ‘Nil,’ the River Nile.” I suppose it would help if Aizenberg’s essay were not a spot-on spoof of the story itself, which also makes my head spin. I just love it when my head spins. But for more practical analysis, Timothy McGrath examines Borges’ use of historical narrative. It isn’t as much fun, but it does provide some of the religious background those who didn’t spend years in Sunday School might find helpful.

The End

Borges: “Aside from one character, Recabarren, whose immobility and passivity serve as contrast., nothing (or almost nothing ) in the brief course of that last story is of my invention-everything in it is implicit in a famous book, though I have been the first to perceive it, or at least to declare openly that I have.” Turns out Martin Fierro is a rather popular figure in an Argentinian story of the “gaucho genre” (similar to the American Western), and this story continues his tale.

The South

In his Prologue, Borges says: “Of ‘The South,’ which may be my best story, I shall tell the reader only that it is possible to read it both as a forthright narration of novelistic events and in quite another way, as well.” Again, I’m puzzled, since this could be said of all his stories. Time and reality are again twisted, leading us to wonder if we are really where and when we think we are. Having had some experience, due to a “medical misadventure,” with a delirious state a few years ago during which I could not tell the difference between dreams and reality, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the protagonist.

The Sect of the Phoenix

Once upon a time, in addition to the Secret, there was a legend (and perhaps also a cosmogonic myth), but the superficial men of the Phoenix have forgotten it, and today… they scarcely hint at the verdict of a God who grants eternity to a race of men if they will only carry out a certain rite, generation after generation. I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians; and I can testify that the performance of the rite is the only religious practice observed by the sectarians. The rite itself constitutes the Secret.

Caution: Spoiler-ish notes. It’s really a story you should read before you read about it; much of the fun is in the reading. And it’s quite a hilarious story, once you’re in on the joke.

Borges: “I set myself the problem of suggesting a common act – the Secret – hesitatingly, gradually, and yet, in the end, unequivocally; I am not sure to what extent I have succeeded.” While I was on to “The Form of the Sword” and I had a pretty good idea how “The Circular Ruins” would turn out, I missed this one completely. That may say more about me than about Borges, who, I read somewhere (though I can never find it when I need it; damn, I’ve recorded it at least twice, too) was a bit awkward and possibly uninformed about the subject himself, making it one of the few things he knew little about. While there is fairly uniform agreement on the nature of the Secret described, some, like Daniel Balderston, have a slightly different angle. And in his Borges overview The Mythmaker, Carter Wheelock denies that the Rite is anything at all; the whole story is an allegory for “the creation of the esthetic situation.” Take your pick, or make up your own interpretation.

In Borges and his Fiction, Bell-Villada enumerates the debatable points one by one (gum Arabic being the, shall we say, stickiest wicket, cork and wax being fairly easy to dispense with): “As the narrator of the story himself points out, all words allude to this rite – frequently to the discomfort of both speaker and listener – is the result that the hallowed ‘secret’ can often seem ‘ridiculous.'” That’s rather true – ask any six-year-old.

Like I said: This was fun. I’m delighted I finally had a reason to break through the intimidation factor, and surprised at how accessible most of the stories were. Not that I caught everything, of course; I’m woefully undereducated in the various philosophical schools, and the more I learn about literature, the less I seem to know. But it’s a start, and an inspiration. And fun.

Bonnie ZoBell: The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2013)

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

You know who they are – the women who can’t get out of their own way, or can’t get started; the ones lost in whatever dreams they’ve had since childhood that are preferable to reality, women who’ve missed the mark somewhere, gone over the edge, around the bend. Women who never cared about the mark, the edge, the bend in the first place. Whack-job girls. They aren’t stupid. And they aren’t crazy, certainly not in a technical sense, not at first, though in time, they could be. They’re just like the rest of us, and they’re just doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

These are the women Bonnie ZoBell has gathered together in her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls.

I knew Bonnie back in my Zoetrope days, from the Newbie office and the Flash Factory where we read and reviewed each others’ work (and I understand Zin lurks in her latest Office there even now). One of the benefits of Zoetrope was the opportunity to hang around with writers like Bonnie (who, I should mention, has an MFA from Columbia, an NEA Grant, and serves as associate editor of the Northville Review and contributing editor of the Flash Fiction Chronicles, among other things like her day job teaching writing to college students). I was lucky enough to see the beginnings of some of these stories; I recognize the prompts from a few of them (“500 words combining public transportation and the death of a pet…” “…using the name of a Factory member and at least one of these elements…”). I knew I had to read the collection, and I was very happy to find it in downloadable format as well as in paperback.

I asked Bonnie a few question, and, bless her heart, she answered.

How did the collection come about? Did you decide to put together a collection of your favorites, and noticed they were all about, well, whack-job girls, or was it a conscious decision to select pieces that fit that description?

Funny you should put it that way, Karen. That’s pretty close to how the collection came about. I had a lot of flash I’d written, so I made a list of the ones that I thought were my best. As I’m sure you know, flash writer that you are, it’s pretty hard to be objective about that since they’re all your babies. Yes, I looked through them trying to see any connecting themes. I did know that I thought “The Whack-Job Girls” was my best title for a story, which was confirmed by some writer friends I asked. And then, yes, I noticed that there were a lot of, well, whacky girls in these stories—alienated, acting in unusual ways, not quite right socially. So then I took out all the stories with male protagonists and started trying to arrange the rest of the stories around the theme of whackiness.

Though I read a lot of collections, I don’t know much about how they’re organized. How did you decide on the order of the stories?

I considered several things when I put the stories in order and changed my mind a few times as well. I wanted the first few stories to be some of my strongest as well as my last story. But also I was trying to vary the stories so that, for instance, if there were only two second-person stories, I didn’t put them next to each other. I tried to have a nice mix of first-, second-, and third-person stories throughout, though other considerations meant I couldn’t always do that. The other type of stories I tried to keep apart were stories on the same topic. For instance, I think there ended up being two stories with domestic abuse in them, and since it’s definitely not a book about domestic abuse, I made sure those weren’t right next to each other because I didn’t want people to get that idea.

I love the trailer – can you talk about the process of creating it?

The trailer was a lot of fun. I’m writing an article about that and other trailers for Flash Fiction Chronicles. I wanted a trailer because I think they’re cool and help give a flavor for a book you might be considering buying. However, I’m not rich and I have very little time since I teach. I knew there were big-shot places that you could spend a lot of money on them, but I also had friends who had friends who had made them, so I started looking around for someone more reasonable who might make one for me. A friend, Talia Carner, referred me to John Ray Gutierrez at Big Burrito Media. He’s very reasonable, a lot of fun to work with, and best of all, a lot of his work his crazy, which went right along with the book.

I recognize some of the stories and prompts from the Flash Factory. What do you think are the benefits of working from prompts? The drawbacks?

Every single one of the flashes in the book came from The Flash Factory on Zoetrope. I’ve gotten a lot of story ideas from the prompts given in that office, too. The biggest benefit of working from prompts, at least for me, is that they encourage me to write about topics and characters that wouldn’t normally come to mind. There are no drawbacks that I know of. If you don’t want to write from a prompt because you already have a story in mind, then don’t!

You have another book coming out next year – What Happened Here. I read at least one story (I think) that will be included in that collection. Did you set out to write a series of linked stories, or did it just evolve that way?

Yes, the publisher of my dreams, Press 53, has taken my connected collection, What Happened Here. I couldn’t be happier about that because I think Kevin Morgan Watson is so smart and a wonderful editor. I’m still having some trouble getting the title story the way I’d like it to be, and he’s given me some great advice—not prescriptive so much as talking to me and helping me to understand what it is I’m trying to say in that story. No, they weren’t originally connected, but I came up with a central incident to connect them all to, which was a plane crash that occurred in my neighborhood of North Park in San Diego some thirty years ago. I do think that even when we writers are writing about wildly different topics—or so we tell ourselves—the stories are still all from the core of who we are, so they weren’t very hard to connect.

With all this going on, are you having the time of your life right now?

Ha! Silly girl. You’d think, huh? I’m very happy that more people will be reading my work, most of all. But I’m also on a big learning curve finding out how to promote a book, which takes a lot of time—both the learning and the promoting. I’m looking forward to a time in the future when I can sort of unplug from everything and go back to doing more writing.

A quick take on a few of my favorite flashes:

Nonnie Wore No Clothes” from Foundling Review, December 2011.

Nonnie felt that if she bared as much of herself as she could, if she were as open as she could possibly be, she might glean something from the Virgin, some deeper understanding and therefore willingness might be accorded to her. Maybe she’d catch a break. Maybe Mary would perceive that while Nonnie wasn’t perfect, she really did need some help right now.

What it’s like to be desperate enough to see the Virgin Mary in a smudge on the wall – and how sometimes that can let you love, just enough. Since I recognized the prompt, I was particularly interested in Bonnie’s contributor note about the origin of the story. It’s also available as an audio recording, complete with music and sound effects.

Black Thumb” from Used Furniture Review

“She’s only heard me once. I take great pains. And it wasn’t that bad, simply me telling a man he had beautiful nose, no matter what other women told him.”

You can’t be everywhere at once – or all things to all people – but that doesn’t stop some women. The problem is when worlds collide, and your daughter hears you on the phone with a client.

You Are Not Langston Hughes” from FRiGG, Winter 2008.

You wanted something different. In Spokane, you were tired of working as a lunch waitress at the Bon Marche department store. You wanted more urbane city centers than the NorthTown Mall, to surround yourself with more important bodies of water than Lake Coeur d’Alene, to know people whose dreams extended beyond nine to five.

I’ve never been bitten by the New York bug, but if I ever were, this is the way I’d want to do it. I love the voice – and yes, second person might be why.

The Whack-Job Girls” from Bartleby Snopes, January 2010.

That’s what the men have started calling the regulars at Nellie’s since all the trouble started, the Whack-Job Girls. And the Girls call them the Short-Fuse Dudes. The Girls don’t have to sit around and take it. Not according to Oprah.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going on here (except for the dedication) but it’s a story with snakes and Chinese food and a Loretta Lynn song, “Love is Like Bad Noodles.” Would you think I was incredibly stupid if I admitted I googled that to see if there really was such a song? There is, actually – it’s on the trailer created by Big Burrito Media – but Loretta Lynn had nothing to do with it. The fun part is, I know who these women are. I recognize them. I see them every day.

Black Friday” from Night Train,

Howard lit a cigarette, not seeming to notice anything amiss. A clear sign that it was never going to work with him.

The leftover turkey was just the first hint.

Serial” from Necessary Fiction, October 2010

Rich is still seated, but soon after dinner we’ll recline into prone positions on our separate couches, our “boats,” as we like to call them. On our boats we are safe, neither sharks nor serial killers can get us. We idle unthreatened in our living room.

When I heard this passage on the trailer, I knew I had to have this book.

Graveyard from Wigleaf, October 28, 2011

Could the man or the woman in the hotel room have been defecating on the wall and using the hair dryer at the same time? I should want to know, since my major is anthropology, what makes human beings do the things they do.

Hotel maids have all the fun.

The stories are very short – they’re flash, after all – and display a variety of voices and styles. Some are wildly abstract. Some are somber and earnest; they led me into my own heart, and I nodded along as I read. Many are funny, in that way that seems so about-someone-else and becomes so surprising when we see ourselves in a mirror. All are fundamentally heartbreaking.

And they all feature whack-job girls: women in various stages of oddness, of differentness; women who are just a thought away from being… us.

Manuel Gonzales: The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead Books, 2013)

…I can’t help but wonder that maybe we need this kinds of moments. Not moments of quiet, but moments when our lives are upended by violent tragedy, monsters, zombies, because without them, how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for the sins of our pasts, how would we show our true natures – brave, caring, strong, intelligent?
I wonder, How would we?

—“Escape from the Mall”

Manuel Gonzales bakes pies. And he writes fiction. I have no idea if his pies are any good, but his short stories are terrific.

I’ll admit it: I prefer my fiction weird. Oh, it’s not that I don’t truly appreciate a gentle coming-of-age tale, or a piece that powerfully employs characterization and conflict in a conventional setting; I can be truly captivated by great realism. But – my heart belongs to weird.

In The Miniature Wife, Gonzales approaches weird from every possible angle. And a few impossible ones.

There’s the discourse-weird: the fictional obituaries, the fake journalistic interviews. And the situation-weird: the plane circling the airport for twenty years, a woman who’s injured by sound. And the supernatural-weird: zombies, a werewolf, a unicorn. But when was the last time a werewolf story turned out to be about family structure and Oedipal conflict? Or a zombie story left you wondering about the premise, or a war story shifted, like the figure-ground vase optical illusion, into something else?

This is weird in the service of the living, breathing soul of people who experience weird every day of their lives, whether it’s a guy in “The Artist’s Voice” who talks through his ears – or just one of us real-life people trying to get through to our spouse. This is weird that makes you forget it’s a zombie story because it becomes a story of growth and change; weird that makes the werewolf the least important character in the story; weird that forces you up against all the trials of the real world, weird that makes you cry.

How do people deal with extraordinary circumstances – retreat, attack, adapt? What needs – for love, for communication, for creation – are so great, they overcome impossible obstacles? What’s amazing to me is how effectively these things can be evoked by, say, an obituary. Or a zombie story.

It’s a weird that is always, always, about something else. Read these stories twice: once for the surface story, and once for the meta story. It’s immense fun.

I decided to read this book because Aimee Bender loved it, though I was primed by the time I read that review: he’d published in One Story, my favorite literary magazine (before I’d subscribed, unfortunately), and I’d been hearing a lot of good things about this collection.

I’ve only recently begun paying attention to how story collection are put together. In this case, I might not have been able to miss it. The opening story – the One Story offering from 2005 – provides a splendid introduction, setting us up for an unexpected ride. The final story, quoted above, puts the entire book in perspective. Maybe we need to look outside the ordinary, the safe, the comfortable, to find out what we’re capable of. Who knows, we might find a zombie that makes us cry, or a hit man who makes us laugh.

Rather than enumerate the stories in the order they appear, I’m going to clump them into categories.

Fictional Journalism

As nervous as it makes me to put those two words together, given how recent events have been handled by the news media, that’s the only thing I can call this: the interview as fiction. As a narrative technique it creates a third-person story via first-person: a story, told in third-person, and there’s the meta story, told in first person. I’m not sure if there’s a technical description of this (please tell me if there is), but it’s wonderful. It evokes much of the medical non-fiction I have (Sacks, Roueche, Klawans). It may not be by accident that the content of these stories leans scientific.

Farewell, Africa” (available online at Guernica)

It was not the speech we knew. Mitchell had managed somehow to boil it down to its essence, or maybe he made it into something entirely new. I can’t remember it now, not its specifics, not past those first few words, and Mitchell hadn’t written it down, had abandoned, at the last moment, his own notes, and cannot remember it himself. It spoke of tragedy, I think. I think, too, that it spoke to the enormous loss of life, to the sense that this world had been pushed to the brink, but in truth, the speech might not have been about any of that. It was not the speech we knew, yet by the end of the speech, I felt as if I weren’t listening to Mitchell as he spoke in front of us, as if the words weren’t coming from him, but had been born inside my own head, had always been part of my own thoughts, that Mitchell was simply reminding me of something I already knew and had somehow forgotten.

I’m astounded at how wonderful this was to read on so many levels. The overt story, a near-future history about the snafus at an elaborate art gala and a former presidential speech-writer who’s never managed to live up to the one great speech he once wrote. But then, with the last paragraph, it becomes a different story entirely, a story about how this story is told, about the story some are telling right now. About where the characters – where we – are directing our attention. And, by the way, there’s some great writer-stuff in there as well:

Whenever he would come across the speech in a bookstore or when he was at someone’s house and saw that they owned a copy of the speech, which was, for a long time, being reprinted in textbooks and on its own, he would pull it off the shelf and turn to the beginning of his speech and then start to cross out words and sentences and, sometimes, entire sections.
“Once,” he told me, “I got carried away and accidentally edited a friend’s copy of the speech down to a five-minute affair. Ten minutes if you read it really slowly.” He laughed and said, “I saw what I’d done and quietly put the book back on the shelf and then, later in the evening, made a show of finding it on the shelf again and pulling it down and then pretended to be shocked at what someone else had done to it. My friend was so embarrassed and upset that for a moment I almost told him the truth, but I never did.”

Read it for the speech. Read it for the flirtation. Read it for Australia, Japan, and Africa, before it’s too late.

The Artist’s Voice

The question I want to ask him, but don’t have the heart to, or don’t need to because I feel like I already know the answer to it, is this: is it worth it? This piece of music you are composing in your head, will it really be so good that it is worth all of this?

What would you sacrifice for art? What if the very thought process involved in creation left you tied up in knots, unable to move? Would you still create? But that isn’t the only question raised by this story. It’s also, again, about the human need to communicate, no matter what. Karl Abbasonov speaks through his ears. There’s a fairly technical explanation of how this is possible (which seems fairly reasonable until the final stages), but don’t let that scare you away; the heart of the story requires no scientific knowledge at all. If you ever read Berton Roueche in TNY (I have several volumes of his collected “Annals of Medicine” columns) or Oliver Sacks (the neurologist with the heart of a poet), you’ll feel right at home. And if you haven’t, but you’ve ever had a need that couldn’t be squelched by the limitations of reality, you’ll feel right at home anyway. The presence of the first-person narrator allows for voices, points of view, other than Karl’s, to be heard. It’s a terrific technique, and if I ever take another crack at fiction, it’s one I may explore.

The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe

If you were to ask her, as I did, how it felt knowing that she had helped uncover the Sebali tribe hoax, she might shake her head and smile, somewhat ruefully, and say, “I hardly did a thing about it, really.” She might then ask you where you’re from, if you’d had a nice trip, if you needed another cup of coffee, if you’d ever been to Boston before, if you’d made a visit to the Common yet, “which is really much nicer in the spring and early summer,” she might go on to say, “but we just had a good snow, and you should really go see the park before too many other people go tramping through it.” And then she might mention Frederick Law Olmsted, who, she will explain, is best known for his design of Central Park in Manhattan, but who also designed a series of parks joining the Boston Common to its outlying neighbors, which is called the Emerald Necklace, and then she might suggest that you visit Jamaica Pond, a component of the Emerald Necklace, located in Jamaica Plain, “which hardly anyone ever goes to anymore,” she will continue, “because the neighborhood’s been run down a bit, but it’s a nice park really and if you go at the right time, it’s quiet and empty, and you can sit on the bench and look out over the pond that is there and sometimes see a goose or a swan or a cormorant, even. But if you go there, then you’ve got to visit El Oriental for lunch, and since the thought of anyone else going to El Oriental only makes me want to go there, too, then I just might have to join you,” which is how I eventually found myself sitting with her, one recent afternoon, in a small Cuban restaurant (El Oriental de Cuba) in Jamaica Plain… I tried my best to figure out how this small, unassuming young woman from Abilene, Texas, uncovered the truth behind one of the largest anthropological scams of the past 50 years.

Gonzales doesn’t just have a grasp on narrative technique and theme; his prose is beautiful, too. But it’s not just beautiful: this paragraph, wandering and meandering, also reveals character, character that I think becomes crucial later in the story. And by the end, I had a whole different theory of the Sebali Tribe hoax.

A Meritorious Life: The Fictional Obituaries

These short interstitial pieces, a subdivision of “Fictional Journalism,” yet with a flavor all their own, capture some of the little absurdities of life.

Juan Refugio Rocha: A Meritorious Life

When the fire started, Rocha was with the gorillas, standing outside their habitat talking to them, as he often did, from a safe distance.

Remember the old E. M. Forster tenet: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” This piece gives us the story, and plenty of nuance to construct our own plot. I love a writer who trusts the reader – but still prepares for the worst, just in case.

William Corbin: A Meritorious Life

Corbin owed his fascination with Klouns to his father, a village constable, who often took his three sons (of which William was the youngest) to variety acts and lowbrow, death-defying street shows, carnivals performed by traveling circuses hailing from Eastern European regions near or bordering the Black Sea. Inevitably, performing as part of one troupe or another, would be a Kloun, who, big-footed, of pale complexion, and with an over-expressive face, would often steal the show through popular movements skits and drama tumbles and the performance of ineffable sleights of hand.… One day, a young William broke from his family, found his way to a small congregation of Klouns, separate from the amassing crowd, and offer himself to them as an apprentice.

Oh come on, where did you think clowns came from? The “obit voice” of this adds to the mounting humor; I couldn’t stop smiling.

Henry Richard Niles: A Meritorious Life

Niles’s first words were oeghene lachen. And from there, he let loose with a string of vowel sounds, grunts, and guttural whines released at an imperceptible and near constant speed: “The sound of it hurt our ears,” his father said. It would be another three years before his parents would learn that his first words, when translated into English, were eyes laughing. Some believe this to have been Niles’s first poem.

Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Ostrogothic; no one is. You’ll get the jist of it anyway. Language – poetry – is a very strange thing, and sometimes the need for expression is so powerful, it leaps over what is possible.

Juan Manuel Gonzales: A Meritorious Life

A cute little O. Henry story. I keep wondering if there’s any significance to the character’s name.

Harold Withy Keith: A Meritorious Life

According to hospital records, Harold and Martin Keith were born simultaneously, and, never quite the younger or the elder twin, H. W. Keith was referred to by family members as the Left Twin.

Seems a man tries to turn himself into a plant, but maybe not. I didn’t quite get this one, which tells me I’ve still got my judgment in spite of my growing enthusiasm for this collection.

Supernatural Creature Stories: The Werewolf, the Unicorn, the Zombies

I’m a little concerned these stories might lose the literary-fiction audience – though they might also lure in a whole other audience. Wouldn’t that be… zombie-like.

While I’ve always loved high-end spec fic, I’ve also been pretty dismissive of zombie and werewolf stories (and vampire stories as well, though none are included in this volume). It’s the anti-Twilight reaction. I don’t know much about the folklore of these things, something about silver bullets and Jack Nicholson in a terrible movie quite some time ago. But here, these creatures become participants in something else, something wonderful. Recalculating…

All of Me

The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear. The zombie in me would like to make it clear that there is no zombie in me, per se. Would like to make it known that there is only me, in fact, and that all of me is zombie.

What I find especially fascinating about this story is, again, how it’s told. I can’t say more without venturing into spoiler territory, but some nuances pointed me in a particular direction. Of course, sometimes I go in wrong directions, but I still wonder. No matter how you see it, this is, again, beautiful writing – beautiful for a purpose (motion, train of thought: look at the rhythm in this paragraph) – beautiful enough to make a zombie seem sympathetic, courageous, heroically flawed:

There was that one time. There was that one time with the memories, a slew of them. Relentless memories, a series of them, flashing through my head for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, one right after the other, nonstop, these memories, in no particular order, of no special significance, but personal, deeply personal, brief sensations, images, smells, sounds, forced out of hiding, maybe, by that darker part of me, forced out into the open to be devoured or simply to dissipate, those last remaining pieces of the me that was made before. A park bench, the quality of light in a dormitory cafeteria, the smell of lavender, the smell of cooking oil cooked too hot, a swimming pool, a bloodied knee, soft, soft lips, a blue couch, a darkroom, a bright blue sky, a man’s voice saying “sometimes I just don’t know about you, son,” a flat tire, a long, hot stretch of road, mist rising off a small pond, a kite shaped like a swan overhead, the first cool day in October, and on and on, these memories rose up from within me, traveled through me and then out. I staggered under the rush of them, and then they were gone, so quickly gone, I stumbled, grabbed for a chair, sat down hard on the floor, and that was it. I remember them still, but I remember them now as things I have seen in a movie or on the television, as disconnected sensations that don’t touch me at all.
So let’s not demean ourselves with talk of who I was and if this person still lives inside me. If my eyes are this person’s eyes and if in them you can see remnants of who this person once was.
Let’s not resort to this kind of nostalgic preening.
Let’s not reduce my story to that kind of tragedy.
Instead, let’s remark on how unsurprising this outcome really is, and then let’s move on, inexorably, deliberately on.

In his Book Club Conversation with The Rumpus, Gonzales said he wrote this a long time ago, “just on the cusp or right before the cusp of all the zombie stuff happening,” but he never placed it. Someone dropped the ball when they rejected this one; it’s great. And I say that as someone who hates zombie stories. I do wish I could get Lily Tomlin out of my head, though.

Escape from the Mall

This story has nothing to do with me. I know this, even as I am in the middle of it. This story has everything to do with Roger and Mary and Tyrone and the security guard. I don’t know the security guard’s name, but he’s got a look about him, a look that makes me think that this story is his story, too, more his story, anyway, than my own. He’s got that reformed-addict-turned-security-guard-waiting-to-make-the-ultimate-sacrifice-for-the-misery-he-caused-in-his-youth kind of look. That, or maybe it’s just that he looks bigger than the rest of us.

This final story of the collection is in itself suspenseful and psychologically astute. It also sums up the collection as a whole: how do we react when confronted with the unexpected? With danger? When we don’t have a lot of information and need to trust our instincts? I read this just after the Boston Marathon bombing, but it’ll apply to the next mass casualty situation as well, whether it’s a tornado or a gas leak or violence. Some people grow into leadership. Even when the zombies are out to get you. Dang, I love what this guy does with zombies.


What if I were to confess that I loved my mother dearly but that I am happy the rest of them are gone, eaten, disposed of? Noah, Josephine, William, Richard, Sarah, Rebecca, and Ruth? Even Father?
What then? Am I a bad son? A bad brother? A bad person, if I tell you that I liked that it was just Mother and me and no one else? Does that make me a monster, too?

Any story can be told in many ways. One of the most obvious choices a writer makes is to decide who’s telling the story; who is the Point of View character? Here, Gonzales makes an interesting choice. When a man is bitten by a wolf and turns into a werewolf, we don’t hear about what it’s like for him. We don’t even hear about what it’s like for his wife. We hear, instead, what it’s like for his son. Turns out, even a werewolf story can have a great deal of psychological complexity.

I did not build a cage for my father. Nor did I knock him unconscious, secure him, with a rope and tape, to the kitchen table in order to slice him open, figure him out.
I did not drag him by chains from town to town, calling out, “Come, see the eighth natural wonder! Come, look upon the horror that is my father, the Wolfman!”
I did not charge for admission, did not benefit by his capture in any way whatsoever.
What I mean to say is: I was not cruel. Not at first.

Dang, I love what he does with werewolves, too.

One-Horned & Wild-Eyed” (available online at IO9)

After he first told me it was a unicorn, and after I got over the initial shock of the thing, and when I was still just playing along, I asked him, “Does it have a name?” ignoring for the moment the unreality of the thing he was showing me, or, rather, the unreality of his belief in it.

We all have to ignore the unreality of something. Might as well be a unicorn.

Weirdness Not Otherwise Specified

In a recent interview with Book People Blog, Gonzales discussed his use of the bizarre in his stories:

“When it comes to the fantastic or science-fiction elements, what compels me about them is the idea that you can introduce something fantastic or horrific—like a unicorn or a zombie—to a story and then play around with expectations and actions and reactions. These set-pieces are there to act as a catalyst, to stir things up in these characters’ lives, but not generally in an expected way. The unicorn in the unicorn story isn’t typical, doesn’t bring a goodness or purity to the world it inhabits, but causes rifts and strife. I always feel that the fantastic, when introduced into real life, will complicate life, not make life better, and I think it’s fun to play with those complications, and speculate on how characters will react to them.”

But he doesn’t need zombies or unicorns. He can create weird with anything.

Pilot, Copilot, Writer” (excerpt available at Poets & Writers)

We had become a fixture of the Dallas skyline, no different or more exciting than the neon Mobile Pegasus.

People will get used to anything if they see it long enough.

As the lead story in the collection, this snared me in right away with the bizarre premise of a plane hijacked not to go somewhere, but to circle the airport for twenty years. The story kept me, however, with its depth of exploration of how such an event might affect people. I don’t think the reactions are specific to the extraordinary situation here, but rather might occur, at some level, in any context in which a group of strangers discovers they will be spending more time together than planned. Maybe it’s universal, considering we’re all pretty much stuck here together on this planet. And what of the boy born to one of the passengers on the plane, a child of the sky? Was it by chance the Pilot chose him to be his successor? How does the social structure mutate over time? What do they see as the eventual outcome? As resistant as Gonzales was, in his 2005 One Story Q&A when the story was first published, to characterize this as a fable or allegory, I find that impulse to be irresistible. I will agree, however, that the practical matters added a (forgive me) grounding touch.

The Miniature Wife

The truth of the matter is: I have managed to make my wife very, very small.
This was done unintentionally. This was an accident.

Many of the stories here feature a restrained, calm voice, but it’s in this story I think Gonzales best uses that restraint as a painter uses brush strokes to indicate movement or stasis. The calm initially felt rather dismissive towards the wife (“she doesn’t have a job to speak of” nor her own friends; miniaturized indeed. Hey, whaddya know, this is feminist fiction). But as the situation escalates, it sounds more forced, until it seems to mask hysteria, resignation, triumph. But that could just be my reaction. And again, the choice of the point-of-view character is amazing. We don’t hear anything from the, ahem, little woman, only from him. That can’t be an accident, now can it?

My wife is stronger than I am. I am ready to admit that now.
You are stronger than me.
I haven’t slept in three days.
Can you see the white flag, dear? Am I waving it high enough for you?

And we all know what happens when a woman proves herself to be stronger than a man.

The Sounds of Early Morning

My, I’m jumpy, she said.
She said this thinking she should at least be able to hear her own voice inside her head.
Anxious, she said.
Anxious, she said again.
Anxious, she said. And again. Louder. And louder. Straining her throat. Yelling, screaming.
She closed her eyes and cupped her hands over her ears as if she were in a concert hall and yelled as loud as she possibly could. Try to imagine what her voice, so loud, might sound like.
She opened her eyes then, and, seeing what was left now of her husband’s face, she let out a small gasp and then covered her mouth, afraid even the softest sound might ruin him beyond repair.

I’m always relieved, when I have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a book, to find a few negatives. It shows I’m not deluded. This one went by me. Sound is a destructive force, I get that, but there’s something going on with the husband – home surgery? – and there are looters and kids… The whole idea of sound hurting makes me a little nervous in itself, since it’s along the lines of Ben Marcus’ Flame Alphabet (or maybe I’m just free-associating; Gonzales studied under Ben Marcus when he was working on his MFA at Columbia) in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults. But mostly, I just can’t follow the story.

Cash to a Killing” (available online at Esquire)

I wish I could say that killing the guy was an accident, and maybe if you were to take the long view of the situation, take into account the events of his life, those of my life, of Roger’s, the arbitrary successes and failures that befell the three of us, or, even further back, befell our parents, grandparents, great grands, back to our oldest ancestors, and determined that it was some accident of fate that he ended up who he was and I ended up who I am, and Roger ended up as Roger, you might say it was an accident, but taking the short view of things, we killed him deliberately and with specific purpose. And despite Roger’s argument, just because we killed the wrong guy doesn’t change, for me, the fact of the matter: he was the guy we intended to kill, we killed him, end of story.

If you feared Gonzales could only write in a restrained, formal voice, this story will ease your mind. But I don’t think it’s one of the strongest stories; it’s almost an extended Abbot & Costello routine.

The Animal House” (available online at Five Chapters)

You could say, too, that over time I became attached to these animals. Not to all of them, but to enough of them that on occasion I had to stop myself from giving a certain squirrel or a certain pigeon a name, and that on other occasions, unable to stop myself from naming a raccoon, say, I had to stop from speaking that name aloud, from trying to scratch it behind its ears, had to stop myself from thinking of them as pets or friends.

Like “Escape from the Mall,” this story deals with the ways in which we change under certain circumstances, like when your town is clearing out and you’re at loose ends so you end up squatting in an abandoned house with this girl who’s really into animals. Again, not one of my favorites, but the last scene is powerful.

Life on Capra II

I think about hoisting him up out of the muck and throwing him over my shoulder and pushing him back to the convoy, if only to have some good story to tell Becky once we get back to the barracks, maybe make like he wasn’t killed with the first shot, that he was barely breathing but that I wouldn’t leave my good friend Ricky behind, and that he expended his last breath to tell me to keep going, to never give up, that I would someday find true love in the sympathetic heart of a beautiful woman. But then I figure I don’t actually have to go through all the trouble of carrying Ricky’s deadweight body to be able to tell the same story, so I leave him where he is and start beating a hasty retreat.
That’s one of the first lessons any new cadet learns here on Capra II: Simplify your life.

The best part of the story is the gradual (or, if you’re sharper than me, not so gradual) realization of what’s going on (or what I think is going on), so I won’t spoil it. Becky, who never appears, but is nonetheless a cool character. I got the sense I got a whiff of Heinlein’s Venus fiction (maybe “Logic of Empire” without the slavery angle) and Stephen O’Connor’s “Ziggurat.”

Manuel Gonzales is himself an interesting character. He owned a pie company before heading off to Columbia to get his MFA. In his One Story Q&A that accompanied publication of “Pilot, Copilot, Author,” he tells a story about going through the airport on the way to a pie-baking contest and worrying they’d take away his favorite whisk. You gotta love a guy with a favorite whisk. While he’s a little puzzled at the curiosity it generates, he credits his pie baking with getting him in to Columbia’s MFA program.

And, in case I didn’t mention it, he writes great stories.

But I’m not done yet. I can pull myself up. I can pull myself to my feet and run and run harder and faster than I’ve ever run before. I can make it to those stores and burst through them and into the parking lot and find my car. I can outrun those bastards and start this all over. I will watch less television. I will spend more time outside. I will foster stray animals and donate to charity walk-a-thons and look both ways at intersections. I will call my sister and apologize for what I said to her on her wedding day. I will let love into my heart. I can survive this. I can run and my life will be different and I will not look back.

— from “Escape From the Mall”