Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020)

TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.

Interview with James Yeh for The Believer

In the category of Oh, I Get It Now: That explanation articulates for me the difference between these stories as science fiction, and literary fiction stories that use science to explain a setting or move into the future. Take, for example, Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” or Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure.” I greatly enjoyed those two stories, which tell personal stories in settings understood through science and time. But the connection between the science and the impact point of the story – the character’s epiphanies, decisions, and changes – is metaphor. In Chiang’s science fiction stories, the impact point is the moment a character sees the universe differently: understands the link between present, past, and future; debates the consequences of perfect memory technology; discovers entropy; sees evidence their world is not the center of the universe it has always been assumed to be.

But, having read this collection, my favorite stories of his are those that do both: where the expanded understanding of the universe contains the answer to a personal struggle. The man who understands the nature of time travel does so against the magic of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, and learns that the immutability of the past – or the future – is not necessarily tragic; the father who debates new technology also finds the human-ness of memory as he realizes an error in a key recollection of his own.  Or maybe it gives us as readers a window to view the extinction of one species against our fascination with extraterrestrial life, and leaves us wondering why one is considered expendible and the other is eagerly sought, and whether we ought to see that differently, all while mourning the death of the last parrot. 

There’s something paradoxical about many of these stories. They might end in failure, loss, or tragedy, yet the sense at the end is one of hope, of purposeful momentum. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but there’s a definite uplift that’s rare in literary fiction.

I must again admit I am not a big reader of contemporary science fiction, so there are references and nuances I may be missing. What’s interesting is that I’ve read a couple of Chiang stories before now: a friend recommended “The Story of Your Life” (which became the film Arrival), and I read “The Great Silence,” included in this collection, when I read BASS 2016. I greatly enjoyed both of those, so I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course several of these stories have won major prizes. Chiang isn’t a prolific writer, but he sure has a knack for hitting the sweet spot.

One exciting thing about this book had nothing to do with the stories themselves: it includes story notes! I’ve always loved the Contributor Notes in BASS; this is the first time I’ve encountered them in an author’s collection. In the Believer interview quoted above, he says he included them because he enjoys them in other collections (they’re more popular in science fiction than literary fiction) and it’s a handy way to reframe the question, “Where did you get the idea for the story” in a way that fits the circumstances. I know literary fiction writers are trained in “the story must stand on its own” but it’s so great to have a little more insight – and often, the context he chooses to share is surprising.

One of my clear favorites was the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” possibly because I’d just read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and was primed for the stories-within-a-story approach, this time in Baghdad and Cairo instead of Anatolia.

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Of the story, Chiang says: “While we can all understand the desire to change things in our past, I wanted to try writing a time-travel story where the inability to do so wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” In the first two of the embedded stories, the future enables the past to enfold in that head-spinning way time travel stories tend to work, yet nothing changes; the future and the past are linked, but immutable. The third of these tales delivers the impact point: we can’t change the past, but we can change how we feel about it.

“Exhalation,” the title story, is literally the discovery of entropy, albeit in a universe very different from ours.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

from “Exhalation”

The protagonist engages in self-study via dissection of her own self, a task perhaps easier than ours would be since she is made of metal. Chiang’s Note tells us this was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” involving a robot discovering his own nature; “That image of a person literally looking at his own mind has always stayed with me.” A lot of beginning neuroscience courses express the same wonder, as brains examine brains, though I’ve yet to read of a scientist studying his own brain. Such a thing via EEG or PET scan would not be impossible, however.

The story moves into the contemplation of the mechanism of life for the protagonist’s universe. It’s based on air pressure forming a gradient. This happens to coincide with the biological creation, in our universe, of ATP, the molecule of energy, through the creation of a proton gradient in our mitochondria. though it’s on a microscopic scale. Even the idea of air comes into it, as oxygen accepting protons becomes the last step allowing ATP production to continue. We breathe to enable this chain. It’s one of those elements of biochemistry that amazes me. And here, Chiang has my counterpart just as amazed as she notices the crucial function of air pressure.

But in doing this, she  makes another terrifying discovery: air pressure must, of necessity, be evening out all over the universe, just as, in our universe, entropy increases. He puts it very well in his Note, drawing from Roger Penrose: “In effect, we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder or the universe. It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.”

Our protagonist moves beyond this terrifying discovery, however, to hope, and this is where the power of the story lies. In envisioning a multiverse, she imagines other beings able to visit her universe and discover what remains even after the air pressure has equalized and life is no longer possible. And in that, she believes, her world will live again. It’s something like the way we send records with music and art and literature into space, hoping to show others who we were, when Voyager at last finds someone who can, and wants to, examine it. It’s an amazing feat to combine so many different scientific elements into one story, and yet have it be so emotionally satisfying. This is why this guy wins all the awards.

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they are the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. … Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulation’s that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Story note on “Exhalation”

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is another story that, when described, sounds like a mess, but works  beautifully to examine the difference between objective and subjective memory; that is, what we record in pictures and notes and data, and what we remember.

In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It’s this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seeing pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
What I feared was that Remem would make it impossible for this feedback loop to get rolling. By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it would prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin.

from “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

It’s two stories alternating in sections, one in the future, one in the past. The future story often reads more like a lecture, as it describes new technology that allows digital recording of everything we see, available on instant recall with merely a thought. The past story recounts the change from orality to literacy in a Nigerian village as European missionaries arrive. In his Note, Chiang cites Walter Ong’s work and notes, “…[T]here might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

The protagonist in the future story is a father whose primary emotional drive is his relationship with his daughter. They’ve recovered somewhat from a nasty fight years before, but ties between them are still strained. The past story focuses on one villager who learns to read and works with Europeans to keep records of tribal disputes. Both protagonists make discoveries about objective vs subjective memory that have great impact on their lives, and on how they view truth itself.

I keep running into this hazy idea of truth when I read memoirs, nonfiction essays that, theoretically, reflect what happened. Several scandals of embroidered memoirs have made this a touchy subject, and I’m probably too much of a hardass for expecting nonfiction to be, well, nonfiction. I went into this extensively in my post about Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” so I won’t relitigate. I’m perfectly fine with errors of memory, and with writing techniques that allow for lack of recall, but it seems to me if you add a conversation or a scene because it makes the story read better and don’t acknowledge it, that writing is called fiction.

In another of the coincidences that seem to happen with some regularity when I read good work, I happened to be looking at Plato’s Symposium for another book I’ll be posting about in a week or so, and came across this:

For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another?

Plato, Symposium

This connects memory with immortality via the love one has for one’s offspring, for the closest we can come to living forever is to leave someone to carry on for us.

But this story is more about how we sometimes remember wrong, not because we’re trying to lie, but because we can’t face the truth. It invites us to consider the wisdom of turning memory, with all its inconsistencies and glitches and individuations, into data. When I consider how the father-daughter relationship played out, I wonder what would have happened had the father’s recollection been more accurate. Better? Worse? By what means could that quality be measured, if at all?

“Omphalos” puts an interesting twist on the relationship between religion and science, in a world where they serve each other – until they don’t:

Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people? I agree that a project lasting longer than a human life span provides its participants with aspirations beyond the temporal. I even understand the motivation for carving a cathedral out of the Earth’s substrate, to create a testament to both human and divine architecture. But for me, science is the true modern cathedral, an edifice of knowledge every bit as majestic as anything made of stone.

from “Omphalos”

This story takes the form of a prayer, but not from a priest. The pray-er is a scientist who works on discovering artifacts of the original creation dated to eight thousand years before, when trees had no rings, and people had no navels. The central tenet of the religion was that the universe was created as a setting for humanity. The scientist encounters evidence that may shift that view. This is the moment at which science may need to split off from religion, or it may be the end of religion. It’s interesting because while it recalls certain historical conflicts between religion and science in Western history, it shifts things around sufficiently to keep us off-balance and the story fresh and new.

I’ve already written about “The Great Silence” so I’ll just link to that post; I did want to include it in this list of my favorite stories from this collection.

Here’s where I usually stop when I’m writing about story collections. But what about my not-favorite stories? I usually don’t mention them.  Time for a change-up: I want to mention one of my most not-favorite stories, because it won a Hugo, is universally adored by reviewers I’ve found (with one exception) and, hey, there isn’t anyone who really cares about my opinion of Ted Chiang, let’s be honest. That gives me a little freedom to state: I really did not like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” at all.

Based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person, and I see no reason that teaching an artificial being would go any faster. I wanted to write a story about what might happen during those twenty years.

Story note on “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

I’m not a gamer, and I suspect it would be a lot more fun for those who enjoy interacting with virtual characters and imagining how AI could take them to the next level. And remember: I’m not really a science fiction reader at heart.

I get the general idea: the ways in which AI digients (digital entities) might develop over time can be compared to some degree with raising a child, and certain issues develop. The issues are interesting, particularly set against the instability of the technical milieu required to instantiate the digients. What do you do when a website goes bust, if your digient’s existence depends on that website? What about when huge sums are offered to uses digients in ways that would be unspeakable if they were considered people or even pets? Can they gain autonomy (yes, along the lines of Asimov’s “Bicentenial Man”)? At what point can they make major decisions on their own, even against their owner’s (or is it parent’s) advice? These are all good questions.

And I have no doubt it was a good story. At 110 pages, it was the longest story in the book, and yet I think one of the problems was that it was too short. Paul Kincaid at SFSite gives his analysis:

In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play? There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.
Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.
This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang…. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

Paul Kincaid for SFSite

As I read, I felt the disconnect between the world at large, and the world of the story, was problematic. The only outside events were in the romantic lives of the two humans each raising digients, with a kind of hint that they would eventually get together. As much as that possibility dismayed me – it just seemed too Lifetime TV Movie – the fact that it went nowhere dismayed me more. Why not replace that with interactions with the world at large? Something significant must have happened during that time: a must-read book, a war, a hurricane or earthquake, a pandemic, an election… yes, I’m letting Real Life bleed through, but it’s like they were digients themselves. In fact, I thought that might be how things wrapped up. And yes, I was relieved when that didn’t happen, either, because if I can see it coming, it has to be cheesy.

I have a feeling that, in a novel setting, there might be more substrate for the main interaction to play out against. Alternatively, cutting it down might have worked better for me, since I really didn’t care about entire sections discussing various software issues.

But, it was not a story written for me; it was written for people who would be enthralled with such issues. And it seems they loved it. As a SF tourist, I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t expect Japan to stop serving sushi just because I chose to visit, after all; I can just eat something else. I have no complaints. There was plenty in this book that I loved.

Because I encountered him in a literary fiction setting, I tend to think of Chiang as a literary fiction writer. He does manage to write stories overflowing with human connections, with love and loss and moments of joy and pain. That they are based on science, and show a kind of wonder at the way the universe works at the same time as laying bare the human soul, is a plus. One of these days I’m going to pick up his first collection. Probably sooner than later. I suspect I’ll learn a lot there, too.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015)

When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn’t read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character’s fantasy to another’s nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I’m in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.

Karen Russell at LOA, 2011

I confess that I, too, have been remiss; I’d never heard of Joy Williams until I encountered her last March via her story “Flour” in Pushcart 2020 (her appearances in BASS predated my annual reads which began in 2010). “I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about,” I wrote in my post. I did what I do in those cases: I researched it to death, both the story which hinged on a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and Williams herself. I had a blast with the former – I love mucking around in religious arcania – and as for the latter, was chastised to discover I was reading what many would call one of the best American short story writers around. “I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun,” I wrote, and that’s how I came to choose this book for my In-Between Reading this year, as a comfort-zone-stretcher.

It was a rough start. The first story went smoothly enough, but then I was befuddled by the next several. I took a Twitter break (oh, yeah, like you don’t) and saw Robert Long Foreman doing something with the “books no one wants on their bookshelves” meme that was going around last week (I always thought Infinite Jest was a sign of literary potency, color me surprised) and realized he might be helpful, since, while his stories and essays make perfect sense to me, I rarely understand what he’s talking about on Twitter:

Me: You might be able to educate me: have you read Joy Williams?
RLF: Oh yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I thought you’d think so. I have no idea what to do with her.
RLF: Yeah me neither! But I’m drawn to that.
Me: lol, ok, that makes me feel a little better.

(Yes, I still lol, go ahead, laugh. And by the way, Rob’s first novel Weird Pig was just published and everyone should be reading it)

So relieved of the need to make sense of things (as relieved as I can be; by nature I have that tendency Billy Collins described in “Introduction to Poetry” as “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” and to search for the authorial intent that anyone who’s taken litcrit will tell you is irrelevant), but this is comfort-zone-stretching time, so I read on.

The stories in this collection are taken from three prior collections, with thirteen new stories appended. That’s forty-six stories. Granted, most of them are fairly short – 490 pages total – but these are not stories you finish and turn the page to read the next one. I realized this wasn’t going to be a four- or five-day read when, at four days, I was still less than a quarter through. So I started skipping. As a result, I ended up reading most of her first and third collections, and all of the new stories.

Although there’s really no such thing as a spoiler to most of Williams’ stories, the final paragraphs tend to require what preceded them, and as they are often the most powerful I’ve quoted several below; use discretion. And, by the way, there is one story that has a clear spoiler; to point it out would be to spoil it already. Life’s tough, y’know?

I found a lot of help scattered around the interwebs. One particular moment came from Vincent Scarpa, writing about the story “Dangerous” featuring, among other things, a woman building a tortoise enclosure following the death of her husband. That was interesting enough, but there’s a moment that tripped me up, as our narrator, the woman’s also-bereaved daughter, is talking about a group of survivalists who lived in a nearby house:

They did have an ingenious water-collection system and I was given a tour of all the tanks and tubes and purifiers and washers and chambers that provided them with such good water and made them happy. They also kept bees and had an obese cat. The cat, or rather its alarming weight, seemed out of character for their way of life but I didn’t mention it. Instead, I asked them if his name was spelled with an ew or an ou. They found this wildly amusing and later told my mother they’d liked me very much. That and a dollar fifty will get me an organic peach, I said.

Dangerous

I must’ve spent ten minutes scouring that paragraph, and a couple before it, looking for the name of the cat that might be spelled one of two ways, literally reading word by word, I was so sure I’d missed it. Eventually I went on, and, a few paragraphs later: “It was Lewis with an ew that kept bringing diseased rodents into the house, is my suspicion.”

That missing name tormented me until I found Scarpa’s commentary:

It has everything to do with the delay. The delay between our being made aware of that which we do not know—in this case, simply the cat’s name—and then the unexpected revelation of it. It doesn’t take so long that we forget something has been withheld from us, but it is long enough for us to consider—indeed, to believe—that we may never be told. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates? That deferment of detail, that defying of narrative expectation, that disinterest in clarifying in a timely manner that which one has been made to see as concealed but knowable—these movements simulate the very essence of grief: its unwieldiness, its errancy, its total disregard for the yearnings of the grieving person.

Vincent Scarpa for Lithub

Then I could throw in, among the other interesting things in the story (like survivalists possibly killed by disease brought in by the cat, and the refrain “Grief is dangerous,” and the mother discovering she’d built the enclosure on the wrong land) how distracted I was from everything else by one little detail I couldn’t line up neatly, which also fits with grief. Just ask a funeral director how that fits with grief.

I have to say I found the new stories, like “Dangerous,” to be more comprehensible than the older ones. Jason DeYoung, writing in Numéro Cinq, finds a difference, citing “thematic or temporal iterations” creating density in her earlier stories, versus “longer, looser” style in her later ones, and they do seem more like typical stories to me, but I have to wonder if I just got better acclimated and stopped worrying so much as I read. By the way, that DeYoung article is, like Scarpa’s, great. So is Karen Russell’s, which opens this post and served as a kind of mast for this ship. And while I’m citing sources, Lincoln Michel’s article at Vice (I discovered it when I was working on “Flour”) and James Wood for TNY are both fundamental Williamsology.

The first story, “Taking Care,” was, as I said above, a good place for me to start; it seemed one of the most coherent of the early stories. The title tells it all: it’s a tour of the ways we take care of each other, of the world. Jones, a preacher, takes in his daughter’s baby and dog as his wife becomes ill and is hospitalized. On the day he baptizes the baby, his wife’s blood count is perilously low, and two sentences from the sermon predominate: We are not saved because we are worthy. We are saved because we are loved and There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something w4rong in what one becomes. At one point he plays some records, including Kindertotenlieder. “He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.” The translation, which he must on some level realize, is some version of “Songs for dead children.” Ignorance is sometimes the best defense.

The final paragraph is a mixture of reality and fantasy. At first I thought it was simple realism, but then I read Williams’s interview in Paris Review where she recalls she was advised to cut the last line. “Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.” Maybe this isn’t about actual dying, but at the very least it evokes the dying that will eventually occur for these two people connected by caring, and I am so happy that they will together enter shining rooms.

By the way, in that interview Williams also tells how TNY rejected the story, calling it “insincere, inorganic, labored.” Of course, this was one of her first stories, she wasn’t Joy Williams yet.

Then there are stories I don’t claim to understand at all, but they stick with me. Like “Yard Boy,” about the “spiritual materialist…free from the karmic chain” who, after two months of enlightenment, realizes it isn’t easy. “He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own.” I’d believe that if it didn’t come down to the rabbit’s foot fern and the Spanish bayonet fighting it out after he loses everything he owns and his girlfriend walks out on him. Then again, he said “not necessarily” which allows some wiggle room. Again, the final paragraph makes the preceding, however confusing, work:

The rabbit’s-foot-fern brightens at the yard boy’s true annoyance. Its fuzzy long-haired rhizomes clutch its pot tightly. The space around it simmers, it bubbles. Each cell mobilizes its intent of skillful and creative action. It turns its leaves toward the Spanish bayonet. It straightens and sways. Straightens and sways. A moment passes. The message of retribution is received along the heated air. The yard boy sees the Spanish bayonet uproot itself and move out.

Yard Boy

“Anodyne” presents us with a diabetic mother and daughter, recently bereaved by the loss of their husband/father. We see Mother through Daughter’s eyes, which is funny or horrifying, but more likely funny. Mother quits yoga and takes up shooting – “Be aware of who can do unto you” reads a sign at the door of the Pistol Institute – then takes up the Marksman, the owner of the Institute and instructor. Daughter kind of figures this out – “I knew my mother did not exactly want him in our life… but she wanted him somehow.” Mother arranged for Daughter to see a psychiatrist, which I’m thinking is more for Mother’s sake (so many anodynes in this story) since Daughter doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Then again, maybe that’s the problem. Again, I find the end of the story justifies it all, though I still can’t define exactly why:

When my time was almost up he said, “You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”
It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.
“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.

Anodyne

That last line makes me want to see what this kid’s like when she’s twenty-five.

Death, animals (especially dogs, but also cats and birds and elephants etc), and religion run through these stories, and in the later ones, the environment becomes a prominent theme. Sometimes these themes are subtle. In “Another Season,” the death and animals are evident, but the religion comes in through the name of the main character, Nicodemus. He lives on an island mostly populated in the summer by the well-to-do. He starts out as a handyman but after many years he ends up asked to pick up road kill to keep the island looking nice for the rich. “They would provide him with a truck, a gasoline card at the dock’s pumps, and two thousand dollars a year to make the island appear as though death on the minor plane were unknown to it.” Though it sounds grotesque, it’s the most realistic scenario in the book; this is exactly what such an island would do, and I’m willing to bet most have some kind of arrangements just like this, maybe with public works employees instead of individuals, but the motivation is recognizable.

The name Nicodemus is not random. In the Gospel of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a long talk about the means of salvation. It’s one of those passages that gets quoted a lot, all about light and dark and that famous one John 3:16 that someone’s always holding up on a big sign at baseball games. But what really makes it interesting is that Nicodemus provides the spices and other materials needed to care for Jesus’ body after death. He that hath an ear, let him hear who it is the animals are symbolizing. Uh oh, I’m beating it with a hose again, aren’t I.

Two stories feature mothers of murderers. “The Mother Cell” consists of seven such mothers who end up, coincidentally, in the same town for no apparent reason. Then one dies and there are only six. And again I get out my rubber hose: why seven? What does it mean that there are then only six? There’s this organic moment of suspense in which we wait to see if a replacement will show up, but is that enough of a reason? But I’ll put that away and instead enjoy the biological sense evoked by the title, the sense in which all of these women were a mother cell.

Fathers don’t look very good in this story. Not only are all the mothers now single, but the fathers seem to have gone on with their lives as if nothing happened, while the mothers huddle to defend themselves against the world’s blame. God doesn’t fare so well, either. After telling a story about Jupiter, a featherless bird, and a hairless goat (the story has a hilarious tag line about a Russian philosophy professor) they start to wonder if something like that could happen to the current God.

Then Barbara said, “Well, I don’t know why you told that story about the old god, but the nice thing about it was that he wasn’t alone at the end.”
“What about the one we got now,” Emily asked.
“The one what?”
“The god we got now. Do you think somebody in the future will be telling a story about finding him exiled to some desolate island and crying when he learns that everything he had fashioned and understood has vanished and that he is subject to the same miserable destiny as any created thing?”

The Mother Cell

One detail I love about that is the lack of capitalization. I wonder if Williams had to fight about that. Forgive me, I know it’s sacrilege to have me and Williams in the same sentence, but I once had the line “they called him god” in a story, and the editor insisted on capitalizing it or inserting a “the.” Whenever I see something like this, I wish I’d fought harder. Then again, I’m not Joy Williams.

But, again, the power comes at the end, here in the last two paragraphs:

“We’ve settled nothing,” the eldest mother said. “We cannot make amends for the sins of our children. We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
She struggled to her feet and was helped inside. Her old knees creaked like doors. She always liked to end these evenings on an uncompromising note. Of course it was all just whistling in the dark, but sometimes she would conclude by saying that despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.

The Mother Cell

I go back and forth on whether these two paragraphs, taken together, are an expression of hope, or hopelessness. Or both at once. Or either, as the day requires.

The other offspring-murderer story – and here I run into the spoiler that, simply by saying it’s a spoiler, spoils – is “Brass.” Until the last few sentences, it seems to be a father describing family life with his outspoken son. There’s some discussion of neurodiversity, and the kid can be pretty harsh, but he also takes poetry at the community college. The title is based on a passage in one of Rimbaud’s letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the Symphony begins to stir in the depths.
“That ain’t even grammatical,” I say.
For I is someone else, ” he says somberly. “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. ” Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
“Now that’s the translation,” he says. “But for class I’m going to translate the translation.”
“Somebody should translate you,” I say.
“No one’s going to be able to translate me,” he says.

Brass

At this point I could use a translation of the translation myself. But then, as with so many other stories, in the final sentences the focus shifts into tragedy and the rest of the story becomes relevant. Not comprehensible, but I know now why we’re looking at this kid and how he interacts with his family. The trumpet’s awake and trying to figure out how the hell it all happened.

So maybe this was, for me, a successful failure, to borrow from NASA. Yes, I skipped almost a quarter of the stories. It was too much book for me, for one reading. I saw some comments while webcrawling that made me very interested in reading “Honored Guest”, “Congress”, and “Marabou”, and I’m very curious to see why “Bromeliads” got separated from the other Escape stories and was moved to the end of the Collected Stories section, but I realized I was Done and little of value was to be accomplished by forcing myself forward. I needed to read something… easier. Something more eager to give itself up, sans hose.

I wonder if I’d have had a different experience if the nine new stories had been released on their own, or if I’d read them first. This seems more like a reference work, a Complete Works you take down and read a bit of once in a while or when something reminds you of it, not something you sit down and plow through in a week. But it did push on the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I will go back for another look. And I’m glad I now know something about Joy Williams; I look forward to seeing her again.

A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (RH, 1994)

Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.

Shelflove review, 11/24/2008

Did you ever lose a book for fifteen years? Not lose in the sense of leaving it on the subway or knocking it behind a massive dresser that never gets moved, but lose in the sense of wanting to read it but putting it aside for something else and way leads on to way and you never get back to reading it? That’s what happened for me with this book.

Some time in the early years of this misbegotten millennium, I read something about Byatt’s use of metafictional elements in her fairy tale “The Story of the Eldest Princess” contained within this collection. I was very interested to find out how that worked, but I was also short on funds, so I found a copy at my local public library. Before I read a word, I fell in love with the physical object of the book: it’s hardbound but small, between the size of mass-market and trade paperback, each story’s opening page is illustrated with a woodcut, and the dust jacket, with its lush green background and deep-toned images, is stunning. Poverty be damned, I had to buy it, but first, I read the story that had started my quest. When the book arrived, I’d already read the part that interested me, so I put it in a line-of-sight location rather than on my to-be-read shelf. Where it sat. And sat. I looked at it most days, admiring anew the cover design, but never read the other four stories.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when Rabia Chaudry announced her new podcast about djinn lore. I wondered: Why had I never read further in this book? And courtesy of that tiny nudge, so it moved, so belatedly, on-deck, unlost.

The individual stories have diverse origins – two are from an earlier novel, two were separately commissioned, and the final novella was written as a standalone – yet maintain a certain thematic constancy: self-awareness while in a story, familiarity with the conventions of fairy tales, conflicts between the expectations of society and personal desires, and a kind of self-reliance and courage that is sometimes noticeable in its absence. And the cleverness of women, unwilling to commit the mistakes of women in the past.

“The Glass Coffin”

There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be journeying through a forest, in search of work perhaps, for in those days men travelled great distances to make a meagre living, and the services of a fine craftsman, like our hero, were less in demand than cheap and cobbling hasty work that fitted ill and lasted only briefly. He believed he should come across someone who would want his skills — he was an incurable optimist, and imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner, though how that should come about was hard to see, as he advanced farther and farther into the dark, dense trees, where even the moonlight was split into dull little needles of bluish light on the moss, not enough to see by. But he did come upon the little house that was waiting for him, in a clearing in the depths, and was cheered by the lines of yellow light he could see between and under the shutters.

I have little background in the structure of fairy tales, but this is what I think of as typical: someone is offered choices. What seems a little different to me here is that often there are different participants who are used to demonstrate the results of each choice, with only one being the “right” one. But there is no bad-actor for contrast, so that’s just a guess.

Our tailor also seems to use different criteria to decide each set of choices. The first choice is triggered by his honorable good work in making dinner for the man he finds in the house in the woods:

And he laid before the tailor three things. The first was a little purse of soft leather, which clinked a little as he put it down. The second was a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside, solid and commodious. And the third was a little glass key, wrought into a fantastic fragile shape, and glittering with all the colours of the rainbow. And the tailor looked at the watching animals for advice, and they all stared benignly back. And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men’s lives. So he said to the little man, ‘I will take the pretty glass key.’ And the little man answered, ‘You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring. The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.’

He uses a combination of an appreciation for craftsmanship, and natural curiosity, to select the key, choosing daring over prudence. Yet his response to that observation is telling: “Why not? Since there is no use for my craft in this wild place.” We learn a lot in a short time about this tailor: he loves his craft, he is willing to work, and he has an imagination.

He follows the little man’s intricate and somewhat daunting instructions and arrives at his second choice, between a collection of sealed bottles, a tiny village encased in something like a snow globe, and a glass coffin containing a beautiful woman with long golden hair. And again, he wonders about the contents of the little bottles, admires the craftsmanship of the miniature village, yet chooses the woman in the coffin because “the true adventure was the release of this sleeper.” When she wakes, she tells him her story – fulfilling the story-within-a-story quality that runs through this collection – and he continues his adventure to reverse the evil magic that has brought her here.

In the end his love of craftsmanship is reduced to a mere mention in the denouement, which leads me to think that love of adventure supersedes all other motivations. I also get the sense, given how all the objects and characters are tied together, that any decisions he made along the way would have given him opportunity to arrive at the same end, and so it is less his decisions, and more his character in reacting to changing circumstances, that provides the fairy-tale happy ending.

“Gode’s Story”

There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes – but those were very bright – and the strength the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
He was not a good match for any girl in the village, for he was thought to be rash as well as poor, but the young girls liked to see him go by, you can believe, and they liked most particularly to see him dance, with his long, long legs and his clever feet and his laughing mouth.
And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the Millers daughter , beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked to see him, but look sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching. And so did many another. It is always so.

The danger of pride seems to be the overarching message of this tale, as the sailor and the miller’s daughter both come to poor ends when they could have lived as happily ever after as the tailor and the woman from the glass coffin in the previous tale. Both of these stories were set in Byatt’s novel Possession, and several online commentaries mention how they are set in a context there that is lost here. That might be why this story passed me by somehow, though it doesn’t explain why the Glass Coffin was such a delight to read.

In any case, it seems a counterweight to the first story, perhaps an externally situated example of following the wrong path or making the wrong decisions that was missing in that tale.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess”

When the eldest Princess was born, the sky was a speedwell blue, covered with very large, lazy, sheep-curly white clouds. When the second Princess was born, there were grey and creamy mares’ tails streaming at great speed across the blue. And when the third Princess was born, the sky was a perfectly clear pane of sky-blue, with not a cloud to be seen, so that you might think the blue was spangled with sun-gold, though this was an illusion.
By the time they were young women, things had changed greatly….

The great change is that the sky has now turned green. You might think that a story about the sky turning green instead of blue would be some kind of eco-fable, but other than the initiating event, that aspect isn’t significant. Byatt’s writing, both in terms of story and style, are strong enough to make the reader forget all about climate change and pollution, in fact, a pretty remarkable feat.

This was the story I originally wanted to read fifteen years ago, in my investigation of metafiction, and I’m just as charmed now on re-reading it as I was then, except more so. If you think fairy tales are boring, this one might change your mind, since it’s shot through with wit more aimed at an adult reader than a child:

The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might be usefully set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favored a quest.

Again I see what I imagine as a general fairy tale, but in this case, the Eldest Princess is also aware of fairy tale motifs and so watches her decisions, makes sure she isn’t rash or avoidant, and that she covers her bases as she searches for a way to make the sky blue again.

She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

Along the way she encounters a scorpion and a frog – no, not that substory, she’s on the alert for it, even mentions it, and thus turns their journey in a more successful direction – and an old woman who appeared at times to be ahead of her on the road, and behind her, and ends up with her.

The story-within-a-story motif plays out as the Eldest Princess, knowing that when she doesn’t return her sisters will be sent, imagines their journeys. The ending is surprising: not at all what you would have expected given the whole of the story, but quite positive. Downright happy-ending, in fact, and in favor of adapting to change. A lot better than what the ministers, the priests, and the generals came up with.

“Dragon’s Breath”

The short story ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was commissioned by the Scheherazade 2001 Foundation, a project which took place during the bombardment of Sarajevo in 1994. As Byatt explains, this project consisted in reading aloud commissioned tales from different European writers simultaneously in theatres in Sarajevo itself and all over Europe every Friday until the fighting ended. This tale features two dragons which destroy everything in their wake, thus representing war anywhere as the story is not set in Sarajevo. According to old tales, as one of the character puts it, dragon’s breath paralyses the will – an apt metaphor for war’s effects.

Alexandra Cheira: Evil Monsters as War Metaphors in A. S. Byatt’s Fiction, chapter abstract

With this kind of background, I’m intimidated by this story; some things seem too sacred to dissect. I’m also hesitant because I’m not sure I follow the story as written. But maybe by approaching it, with the background in mind, I’ll begin to understand it better.

We start out with a family including the children are Harry, Jack, and Eva. Their valley is surrounded by mountains, and their lives by ancient lore:

In England the circular impressions around certain hills are ascribed to the coiling grip of ancient dragons, and in that country there was a tale that in some primeval time the channels had been cut by the descent of giant worms from the peaks. In the night, by the fire, parents frightened children pleasurably with tales of the flaming, cavorting descent of the dragons.
Harry, Jack and Eva were not afraid of dragons, but they were, in their different ways, afraid of boredom. Life in that village repeated itself, generation after generation.

And again the inciting event might be seen as ecological: changes in water coming from the mountains, in colors of the sky. While they are afraid, they’re also excited, since this is something new. Until the hills seemed to generate fire and sent trails of burning rock towards the village: “almost as though it was not landslides but creatures, great worms with fat heads creeping down on us.” This Dragon’s Breath, slowly oozing lava from a volcanic source, is headed to the village, but the residents talk about it rather than planning to evacuate so are forced to leave hurriedly and too late, to take refuge in the forest.

They were watching the destruction of their world, and yet they felt a kind of ennui which was part of all the other distress they felt. You might ask – where were the knights, where were the warriors…. The old women said that old tales told that dragons’ breath paralyzed the will, but when they were asked for practical advice, now, they had none to offer.

The lava eventually burrows under a lake and the villagers can return. Jack and Eva find their house, amazingly enough, intact, even the rug Eva was weaving. Harry’s pig returns, and they wait for Harry to return – “But he did not.”

In spite of all the action of this story, of villagers watching their homes destroyed, living in primitive conditions in the forest, what stands out is the final paragraph. For they made the event into stories, naturally enough. Some things they left out.

And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became in time, charms against boredom for their children and grandchildren, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.

This theme of boredom interests me (how paradoxical). Some people are bored under any circumstances, others are never bored, though they may be frustrated by an inability to access resources. I think we sometimes claim to be bored as a way of expressing that lack of access; it’s not that we’re bored, but we’re disappointed that the game was cancelled or we can’t hang out with our friends and nothing else fills that particular gap. I can understand how containment, even in the midst of horrible conditions like dragon’s breath or war, can generate a kind of boredom that becomes blended with the horror. And I very much understand how stories might be used to alleviate that boredom, and to motivate actions that, however limited, are possible in restricted circumstances.

I can’t begin to understand how the people of Sarajevo might have felt listening to this story as their own city was being destroyed. But let’s look at it more broadly. Stories survive disaster. Stories grow out of disaster, using destruction as a kind of fertile soil. How many war stories are in the contemporary canon, from Anne Frank to The Things They Carried? My generation’s equivalent of “What’s your major” was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” 9/11 is still generating stories. In the first days of the stay-at-home phase of pandemic control in Maine, the library started its “Isolating Together” archive, a collection of comments, poems, diary entries, etc. from patrons. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares with the stories we tell ten years from now.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”

In this case, it’s a present-day story-teller meditating on Scheherazade, rather than Scheherazade seen directly. (The other two stories, “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragons’ Breath,” are also meditations on the nature of story-telling.) It’s less optimistic than Barth on the possibility of any stable union possible within marriage, but Gillian the story-teller wins through to a reasonably happy­after­ever ending. She confronts the misogyny built into classics both Western (Chaucer’s “Patient Griselda”) and Eastern (Scheherazade), and when she winds up with a djinn of very own, she defeats the traditional dangerousness of wishes by a mixture of cleverness (one of her wishes is that the djinn should love her) and generosity (another is to give the djinn his own wish, which is for freedom). The balance between freedom for the djinn and his continued love for her leaves them with choices and possibilities.

~ Ruth Berman review in Mythprint 35:2, published and excerpted online by the Mythopoeic Society

The title story is more of a novella, comprising half the book. It’s an absolute delight to read, with its hat trick of 1) stories that teach me something, 2) stories that resonate with something I’ve seen before, and 3) stories that aren’t afraid to have fun.

Unlike the other stories, it takes place in the present day and, for at least the first half, in total realism, or at least as close to realism as academia gets. Dr. Gillian Perholt is a British narratologist who spends the story attending academic conferences on mythic storytelling. Yet it is told in fairy tale style:

Once upon a time, when men and women hurled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jew­elled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium…. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholar­ship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.

Having just read Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s short story collection The Trojan War Museum, I wondered if that opening was a salute to the traditional Turkish fairy tale openings; later in the story, Dr. Perholt travels to Turkey and confirms it. For this opening, we are informed via a rather present narrator that Dr. Perholt is in her 50s and happily divorced with a couple of children now independent of her, and that she is professionally in great demand at narratology conferences.

In Ankara she presents an analysis of The Clerk’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, analyzing the woes of Patient Griselda, and her outrage that, though the moral of the tale is that women should bear all things and will be rewarded, as a woman she has a different reaction: “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies… and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.” The story as a whole shows how she has refused, and continues to refuse, to let this happen to her.

We are also treated to an analysis of Scheherazade by Perholt’s good friend and in-country host, Orhan Rifat, as well as tours of Ankara and Istanbul, antiquity museums and soirees and Hagia Sophia, places that serve as settings for more story analysis (an old soldier who may or may not be a guide relates Gilgamesh, partygoers discuss Persian tales). With these in mind, with echoes of Paul in Ephesus, with remembrances of prior trips when she was younger and more comfortable in her body, we arrive at a small shop selling, among other things, glass bottles.

‘I’m not an expert in glass,’ he said. ‘It could be çeşm-i bülbül, nightingale’s eye. Or it could be fairly recent Venetian glass. “Çeşm-i Bülbül” means nightingale’s eye. There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at İncirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it’s called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales.’
‘Before pollution,’ said Orhan, ‘before television, everyone came out and walked along the Bosphorus and in all the gardens, to hear the first nightingales of the year. It was very beautiful. Like the Japanese and the cherry blossom. A whole people, walking quietly in the spring weather, listening.’

I wasn’t able to find anything by searching for “nightingale’s eye,” but had much better luck with “Çeşm-i Bülbül.” The most interesting site I found is, alas, in Turkish, but Google Translate does the job. NYT also has a travel story that gives a clearer history.

And then the title begins to make sense, as Dr. Perholt brings the bottle back to her hotel room and discovers there’s a djinn – what we in the West would call a genie – inside. This rests on the previously encountered information about wishing and fairy tales, so we have some context in which to understand how Perholt applies her knowledge, and her personal history, to get the most out of her genie, and at the same time learns his history (more storytelling within the story) and introduces him to the contemporary world.

It’s a story held together by style, linking the academic world with the mythic imagination and cultural artifact. I wish I’d read it, and the other stories here, fifteen years ago. Then again, I hadn’t started blogging at that point, and was a much less experienced reader, so maybe the book wasn’t so much lost as waiting for me to be ready to read it.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories (Norton, 2019)

“I would like to tell a story,” Emineh said and everyone turned to her, surprised.
She tried to make the nightingale’s sound, but her voice came out as sharp as the cold wind on the top of the eastern mountains.
Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers, during that time there was a baby bird who broke its wing and so could not make the winter migration to warmer air. And so the baby bird’s mother went first to the oak tree to ask if it would shelter her baby bird in winter, but the oak tree said no. And then she asked the walnut tree. And the olive tree. And every tree she could find, but they all said no. Until finally she asked the pine. And the pine made a nest among its needles for the baby bird, and all winter long, it kept the baby bird warm and safe by not dropping its needles. And ever since that winter, the pine tree has never shed its needles.
“It would have been kinder to let the bird die,” Mother Zeyno said. “It probably grew up weak and coddled and couldn’t take care of itself.”
“I think that’s very cruel,” Emineh said.
“Then you take care of the baby bird,” Mother Zeyno said, and all the others laughed.

“Little Sister and Emineh”

Folk tales; elaborated stories about real, if obscure, people; timelines that reach from antiquity to today and even a bit beyond; stories containing stories; stories that address the reader; stories with mystery and tragedy and love: it’s all in here. This is a collection for those who want to hear a storyteller when they read, who want to get a peek at the unusual alongside the ordinary. Interested in chess-playing automatons? A Turkish wrestler on tour? A man who got rich harvesting sponges and never bothered to contemplate his life? An art collection full of stories? A series of museums created by the Gods of Olympus? The poetic, the harsh, the episodic, the subtle, the overt? It’s in here.

Back in 2014, I fell in love with Bucak’s story “Iconography” after reading it in Pushcart XLVIII. When I saw this collection hit the market last year, I put it on my list, but wanted to wait for the paperback. I just find them easier to carry around and to read. And I see via Twitter that Bucak has the same preference, one of several minor intersections between us.

The “storyteller voice” is prominent in these stories, which sometimes include little preludes and/or postludes that use storyteller formulas or revert to first-person. In her FWR interview, Bucak explains she’s drawn to that style, and discusses an Armenian folk tale formula for ending a story:

With a couple of stories I wanted to end with the storyteller addressing the reader more overtly, which is something I think I stole from Armenian folktales, which often end “Three apples fell from heaven” and then usually include some variation on “one for the storyteller, one for the listener” and one for some odd third. I like the breaking of the wall that happens there.

Interview with Natalie Rowland at FWR

That closing formula is another intersection I have with Bucak, one with particular power for me. The Portland (Maine) Public Library, just a couple of blocks from where I sit, a sculpture
by local artist and teacher John Ventimiglia titled “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” decorates the elevator niche on the first floor. Folds of metal form an alphabet based on Armenian calligraphy of a bygone century, and cast shadows on the wall behind the piece. The artist’s statement explains how it honors the traditional folk tale formula. I’ve loved that scupture for years. In 2011, in fact, when I was in my Zin Kenter phase (if you don’t know, you don’t want to, trust me) I wrote a goofy flash about an Armenian man who, while looking for a book elsewhere in the library, finds himself drawn back to that sculpture, and to his own story, by the yarn of his own sweater which caught on it as he walked past. Alas, Prick of the Spindle is no more so I can’t link to it, but it was there.

Bucak links that third apple to her sense, as someone of mixed heritage (her father was Turkish, her mother American), of writing from “the third position of being both.” All of the stories feature Turks, usually as main characters, and in her Rumpus Book Club chat she admits she’s amused, having been raised in America, that readers might get the impression she’s more culturally Turkish than she is. “I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness,” she says, which was, for most stories, the case for me. I’d love to know the impression of Turkish readers!

I’m always interested in how a collection is put together. She’d written two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography’ – before she started thinking in terms of a collection. She wanted variety, so moved away from girls to “A Cautionary Tale” featuring a wrestler, then a Southern story, perhaps the most traditional narrative in the book. She started fitting stories within stories, which created some wonderful effects. When things started to feel “too magical” she went back to reality. Then came the process of ordering the stories:

Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.

I now want to go through all my favorite albums and see what the sixth cut is. The problem is: whereas she’s of the age when album probably meant CD, I gathered my music in the vinyl age, and the sixth cut tends to be right at the side flip, which probably has some impact on the song chosen for that spot – either the last song on side A or the first on side B. In any case, I find her stories to have such intriguing beginnings, and such strong endings, I’d be fine beginning and finishing the collection with any one of them.

How about a more detailed look at some of the stories.

The History of Girls (available online at LitHub)

While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died. Those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day, expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows? we thought.… The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.

Given my fondness for unusual narrative points of view, of course I was enchanted by this first-person-plural story. Then, at the end, it shifts into singular, a change Bucak made at the urging of one of her early readers. It’s interesting that she chose an accident, rather than malfeasance, for the cause of the explosion. Throughout, the girls show caring for each other – whether living or dead – and fear is pushed into the background. They produce their own hope, and they aim to survive, even when that seems unlikely. This is the history of girls.

As a bonus, Bucak followed this up with “Microeditorial: The History of Girls, Part II”, also available online, a contemplation of the difference between Anne Frank and Malala based on a conversation she had with her mother, and how hard it is for girls to find the right balance between power and humility. Or, more accurately, how difficult it is for the world to see girls who don’t fit the expected balance. Just ask any female political candidate; it doesn’t get easier with age.

A Cautionary Tale

I imagine that before the collision, on the boat, Yusuf must have thought often of reaching home. He was ready to retire. But I imagine, too, that he was afraid. He had some money, he had a family to return to, but it was all unknown; he had spent his life wrestling, traveling. He was famous, of course, but he had daughters he barely knew and a wife who had grown accustomed to living without a husband. He had things to be ashamed of. He had never had much of a life outside of wrestling, So what would it be like to no longer have wrestling?
It would be nice to imagine that in the water he did not think of his fights with men but, rather, of how he used to train against nature, and how though he never defeated it, nature always made him stronger. How beautiful if he was able to remember his home with the cypress trees, the wind from the east, and the fields full of filberts and pistachios and chestnuts, later to be roasted in a fire.

There was, in the late 19th century a real Yusuf Ismail, a Turkish wrestler whose life did follow the path outlined in this story. That in itself would be an interesting story – Ismail is what tactful sources often refer to as colorful – but what makes it really work is that it’s being told, by an immigration officer, to an applicant during an entry interview:

You don’t like my asking you questions, do you?
You’re just doing your job.
Yes. But you don’t like it.
It’s not what I expected.
What did you expect?
Different kinds of questions.
What kind?
About my work. About where I’ll live. About, I don’t know, paying taxes, obeying the law.
We’ll get to those.
Do you tell everybody these stories?
I tell everybody stories.
But not these stories.
No, not these stories.

We have no information about the officer or the applicant, other than their conversation about Ismail’s story, which lets us as readers tell the real story ourselves. It’s hard to resist, given the present moment in which we are living, putting a malevolent spin on the officer, but it’s possible he (or she) has some understanding of the transitions involved in immigration, and is hoping to reduce expectations a bit. Bucak shared her motivations in an interview with Joshua Graber for Asterix:

The interview style of this story was inspired by the young adult novel I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. There’s an interviewer/interviewee format to much of the novel that I found hugely [word(s) omitted]. So I wanted to try it. On the simplest level, the border agent (as I imagine him) is offering the interviewee a cautionary tale about leaving home. And while I view the interviewer as a fairly negative force, trying to control things he shouldn’t, I wrote the story out of the ambivalence that I know my father felt about having immigrated to the United States. He never really knew if he wanted to be here or there. I worry now about how this story will be read in an unnuanced world that doesn’t necessarily have room for the idea that immigration doesn’t always work out. But it doesn’t always work out. (That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed, of course.)

Interview at Asterix

Having read quite a few stories by immigrants about immigrants, I’ll agree that there’s often at least some ambivalence involved, even in cases where they go to great lengths to get here. Literary fiction, re-nuancing the world one story at a time. It’s a great use of the story-within-a-story technique.

Mysteries of the Mountain South

As much as I continue to love “Iconography,” this story is stiff competition for my favorite of the collection. It’s quite different from most of the other stories in several ways. First, it’s set in the present, with blogs and drones and computer simulations, all of which are critical to the turn of events. Second, though it’s set in the rural South, it doesn’t borrow much from folk tales. Third, its Turkish content is minimal, though it does have a powerful theme around race and ethnicity. But other similarities remain, in particular the storyteller voice, though in more subdued form. And it does have a pov-switching coda at the end, including a final paragraph that shook loose all the tears I had stored up.

Edie is a recent college graduate who expected to go to Mountain View and code 24/7, but she ends up in Mountain Home, North Carolina, instead, due to her grandmother’s terminal illness and need for a caretaker. Armed with a video-equipped drone, she puts her technical expertise to work creating Virtual Valley, a computer simulation of the area.

Her relationship with her grandmother blossoms, and she finds out her great-great-grandfather was black. Or, rather, Melungeon, as her grandmother explains. I’d never heard of Melungeons, people of mixed ethnicity that’s described as white, black, and Indian, maybe Portuguese and Turkish. Edie reacts to this, but carefully – “trying to sound nonchalant, utterly and absolutely unsurprised, nothing that could make her sound insensitive or racist. Because she wasn’t!” This is such an incredibly authentic thought I had to smile.

This thickens when Grandma starts planning for her green funeral. Edie meets Michael, the young, and black, owner of the local mortuary which specializes in “environmentally sustainable practices and death midwifery – but also the regular stuff, if you want it.” After some paperwork, Michael goes over a delicate issue with Edie:

“She understands,” he said, “that I’ll be the one to prepare her?
“Prepare her how?”
“Her body,” he said.
“I’m sure she understands. That’s why we called you. What are you saying?”
“It’s just that sometimes… people think they aren’t prejudiced, and they thing they can handle” – he paused again – “a black man washing their body, but then suddenly they can’t.”
“Well, she’ll be dead anyway, right?” Edie said, her voice rising in pitch. God, how she hated that.
“Right,” he said and looked at her.
“So you mean me? Do I understand?”
“You and your family.”
“We’re not racist,” Edie said. “My grandmother’s black. Melungeon. Whatever.” How convenient to have this information to wield! She was not a racist! How could she be! She kept going: “My father’s grandfather was black. No, my grandmother’s grandfather was black. My great-great-grandfather or something, was black. Melungeon.”
Michael laughed.
“What?”
“So you’re black?”
“What do you mean, preparing the body?” Edie asked suddenly. She nearly stumbled right into him, as if her words were spewing her rather than the other way round.

She stumbles into him, all right. Again I had to laugh at the perfection of this interaction. In her FWR interview, Bucak worries that she’s lost her dialog-writing skills, but it seems like she found them again for this section. It’s exactly that awkward conversation that would happen. I’m relieved Edie stumbled into Michael in private, face-to-face, rather than over Twitter, where she would immediately be eviscerated and Cancelled. Here, there’s a chance for someone to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept there’s a learning curve. May we all stumble into someone who will give us that break.

This is one of those stories that makes me wish we had something like General Electric Theater, a way of making short stories into half-hour or one-hour television spots (movies involve too much money) so maybe people will learn to love short stories, like this one, again.

The Trojan War Museum (available online at Guernica)

Sing to me now, you Muses, of armies bursting forth like flowers in a blaze of bronze.
Soldier: I begged for sleep, and if not sleep, death. I was willing to settle for death. Then again, I’ve never felt more loved.
He looked at his father, a veteran; his grandfather, a veteran; his uncle, a veteran; his sister, a veteran; and he saw his future foretold, no different than birds and snakes foretelling nine more years of war.
Think: museums turn war to poetry. So to poets. So to war.
You know, Athena forgot Odysseus was out there.
Oh Muses.

This beautifully imaginative piece gives us a series of Trojan War museums – the first one being “not much more than a field of remains” – run by the Gods of Olympus, from antiquity to the 22nd century as a meditation on the wisdom of glorifying war. In recent days, there’s been a lot of discussion about soldiers as losers and as heroes. I’d never think of anyone who volunteers for service out of duty, or family tradition, or because it’s the only path to a job or college, as a loser. But lionizing dead soldiers also bothers me, because I have to wonder if it creates more dead soldiers. What if war was a rare necessity rather than a chance for glory? What if monuments to schoolteachers were as common as those honoring military figures? Even without the present impinging on it, it’s a beautiful story, poetic and allusive. And yes, there’s a real irony to poeticizing a story that critiques the romanticizing of war.

The Dead (available online at Bomb)

In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.

Although it may not seem like it from those opening lines, this is less a story about genocide than it is a story about what seems to be true versus what is true, which is, now that I think about it, the story of the Armenian genocide after all. And it’s about the violence that pervades our lives, in ways large and small: “…his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.” Arapian’s wife indicates, somewhat subtly but clearly enough, that she’s ready to die, and he misreads her, either deliberately or through inattention. Then there’s the societal violence: “People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenian’s behalf,” just as American kids are told to “think of the starving children in Europe/Asia/Africa” (depending on their generation) and clean their plates, not to do anything to actually benefit starving children.

The Sponge King and his wife are hosting a party for Anahid, who escaped those who would murder her. Though he himself could have been in her shoes, he shows no particular compassion towards her, but only uses her as a focus of the party. Anahid is rather incapacitated by trauma, so others take her place, at the party, and in the commercialization of her story. She’s based on Aurora Mardiganian, who was an actual escapee, and was likewise commercialized beyond her actuality.

It’s a story with a lot of layers and many subtleties, yet it’s a compelling narrative.

The Gathering of Desire

And once there was, and once there wasn’t,
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet,
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen,
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess playing mechanical man.

And again we have this wonderful blend of folk tale and reality, delivered with several varieties of chiasmus from the traditional opening to the text itself.

There was a Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton built in the late 18th century, and it was of course a fake; there are automatons, and some of them can perform very complex maneuvers, but they weren’t computers. At the time of the story, hidden inside the cabinet was a former chess master, here referred to as S. but known to be William Schlumberger. He was past his prime but still able to consistently beat non-masters. And, like most of us, he’s a little confused about his fate: “When all options were open to him, he desired only chess, but now that only chess is open to him, he desires everything else” (I told you, chiasmus).

And there was a woman who beat him, here unnamed but recorded in chess history as Mrs. Fisher (in fact, the game they played has been recorded as well). The unnamed woman in the story has two children and a husband who was lost for months and then died, the circumstances unknown. The children see him while she’s playing the Turk. There are times when she feels him “emanating from the machine opposite her.”

To deepen these characters with backstories is not an unusual technique; Bucak has done it in many of these stories. But it’s what she does with the Turk that makes this special: “The Turk knows that inside each of us is a black light and a love without end. He wishes he could tell her so.”

I hate to go all sappy and romantic here, but it’s a story about our desires and our hopes and grief and love and whatever there is, be it in us, around us, or be it us, all tempered by placing it within a chess match between a has-been, a widow, and… something else.

Iconography

Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is the story I’d encountered in Pushcart 2014. In my post about it from six years ago, I blathered at length about the narrator. That seems a bit silly to me now (hey, it could have been worse; the further I go back in this blog, the more embarrassed I get), but I’d like to think it’s a good thing I’ve developed a better sense for the storyteller voice, a subtype of third-person narration – with accents of first-person – Bucak uses so effectively throughout this collection. It’s still a great story about projection, our need to fit others into roles that suit our needs. But it’s also about a girl who comes to understand what matters.


I’ve always been partial to fiction that teaches me something about the world, and every story here held something new for me to discover. It was a collection worth the six-year wait.

N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018)

Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories.
….
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Takes its name from an essay that I wrote in 2013…. It’s a shameless paean to an Afrofuturist icon, the artist Janelle Monáe, but it’s also a meditation on how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. How much I’ve had to fight my own internalised racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.
….
Now I mentor up-and-coming writers of color wherever I find them …And there are so many to find. Now I am bolder, and angrier, and more joyful; none of those things contradict each other. Now I am the writer that short stories made me.
So come on. There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read much contemporary science fiction. Nearly every year now, BASS and Pushcart have stories that use science-fiction elements, particularly near-future dystopias predictable by current climate science. But they still read as literary fiction rather than science fiction. I’ve never understood the sharp line of demarcation between them, but it’s there. The point is, I’m out of my element. The most recent SF/F writer I’ve read to any degree is Harlan Ellison (I did read Sagan’s Contact if that counts); my bookshelves hold an assortment of Golden Age collections and anthologies: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc.

Be that as it may, I greatly enjoyed nearly all of the stories in this collection. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in fact, since there are twenty-two stories. I take three months and twenty-two posts to consider a BASS anthology; most collections include maybe ten or twelve stories. So I’m off-balance, not sure how to communicate how beautifully something like “The Ones who Stay and Fight” or “Cloud Dragon Skies” or “The Narcomancer” worked, or how much fun “The Effluent Engine” was, or how deeply “Red Dirt Witch” touched me. There are many, many professional reviews of this volume, so I can stick to my own method of reacting and analyzing my reaction. But still, how to do that with so much to react to?

I decided to let Jemison lead the way via her Introduction.

As she mentions above, the title is from an essay available on her website, an essay inspired by her childhood sense of being excluded from a genre she loved, and by Janelle Monáe’s video
“Tightrope”. It starts with her noticing, as an adult, the cartoon The Jetsons doesn’t include any black people at all. The future was all white.

So Jemisin created a future with black people in it. Even black women. In many of the stories, race isn’t a primary issue, it’s just one of the many features of a character, a feature that brings along a history and a culture and preferences, which is true of white characters as well (surprise!).

<div On rereading my fiction to select pieces for this collection, I've been struck by how hesitant I once was to mention characters’ races. I notice that many of my stories are about accepting differences and change …and very few are about fighting threats from elsewhere. I’m surprised to realize how often I’d write stories that are talking back at classics of the genre.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

That “talking back” made the first story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” unforgettable. It’s talking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story published in 1973. I just read it a few months ago. LeGuin’s story “Pity and Shame” appeared in BASS 2019. I hadn’t read her before (stop judging) and it didn’t seem commensurate with her reputation, so I went looking for something to get a better idea of her work. “Omelas” it was, a story that shows the ugly truth that beneath any Utopia is an ugly Dystopia, a story that kicks Utilitarianism to the curb (I just this week am reading Bentham’s presentation of felicific calculus for a philosophy mooc and I couldn’t get either of these stories out of my mind).

But where LeGuin honors those who walk away from Omelas – forego the pleasures of a Utopia built on the suffering of another person – Jemisin challenges us to do more: to stay and fight. Her situation is a bit different, as she’s dealing with the pollution caused by the ugly idea that some people are worth more than other people. For me, it brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the original Utopia, which makes the case that, if people are going to be more than mindless automatons, evil is going to happen. So do you throw up your hands and give up? Do you accept it in the “what a shame” category? Do you walk away? Jemisin’s Paris Review interview makes the case that, at this time, there’s really no place to go that isn’t benefiting from the underpaid, suffering-laden labors of others – that is, those who have been “othered.” That leaves staying, and fighting to change things.

Perhaps you will speak of Um-Helat to others, and spread the notion farther still, like joyous birds migrating on trade winds. It’s possible. Everyone—even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable—can matter. Do you see how just the idea of this provokes utter rage in some? That is the infection defending itself . . . because if enough of us believe a thing is possible, then it becomes so.

Literary conversations are a great tradition. Sometimes they span centuries, sometimes years, sometimes months.

Another story I read as not really pushing back but running along the same lines is “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I thought of Heinlein’s story, “The Year of the Jackpot” when a statistician noticed all the cycles he keeps track of – the 54-year cycle, the 18.3, the 9+ year cycles, the 41 month cycle, and all the others – would peak and trough at a single moment in the near future. He predicted massive acts of random craziness, such as people taking their clothes off for no reason (which is the instigating incident in the story).

Adele, the protagonist of Jemisin’s story, is obsessed with luck. She prays in the tradition of several religions, uses special herbs, wears a St. Christopher medal and personal good-luck charms, things she happened to be wearing when something good happened.

And for good reason: New York is experiencing an upswing in the occurrence of very-low-probability events, which all seem to be happening. Some are bad (a train derailment downtown) (but some are, arguably, good (cancer remissions, more lottery winners). Adele finds herself in the middle of one of these events, a concatenation of unlikeliness involving a child, a frisbee, and a snowcone vendor.

“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We’re the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

I love this idea of non-zero probability. No matter how low it is, if it’s not zero, it can happen. I still remember a science teacher long ago telling us about uncertainty and randomness in physics, and how it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in the room in which you’re sitting will move to one side and leave you gasping for breath. Possible, yes. Of course, there really isn’t enough time in the history of the universe for this to have happened anywhere in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

While the math in Heinlein’s story provided lots of fun in other stories (“The Crazy Years” came up frequently), the plot was romance, as the statistician and the impulsive ecdysiast find themselves, unlikely as it is, in love. Jemisin’s story goes in a deeper direction, as she confronts the idea that maybe this isn’t all bad:

She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger spots – but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names. …
Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

I connected that with the current moment. We can acknowledge the tragedy and loss of the past few months: so many have died, have long-lasting symptoms, have financial catastrophes, and for families with children there’s incredible stress. But there are also some moments of wonder, brilliantly creative work coming across the internet, examples of neighbors helping each other, nature’s residents reclaiming empty streets, some people finding the slower pace of life without the running to the gym and appointments after work is kind of nice. Maybe some of us might want to keep some aspects of lockdown.

I’m sure there are other correlations I don’t recognize given my thin repertoire of SF/F reading. For example, Jemisin gives “Walking Awake” as a response to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which I haven’t read.

<div On If you're coming to these tales as someone who primarily knows me through my novels, you're going to see the early forms of plot elements or characters that later got refined in novels. Sometimes that's deliberate, since I write “proof of concept” stories in order to test drive potential novel worlds….sometimes the re versioning is completely unconscious And I don't realize I've trodden familiar ground until long after. The world of the Broken Earth trilogy wasn't my first time playing with genii locorum, for example – places with minds of their own. The concept appears in several of my stories, sometimes flavored with a dash of animism.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read Jemisin’s trilogy, but I recognize immediately the stories she’s referring to here. One is “The City Born Great,” a tale of a New York street kid who discovers he has a role to play in a great drama: “This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” This isn’t a metaphor; it’s an actual quickening and he’s instrumental in the birth. One of the later stories, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” gives us a young man struggling to stay alive in New Orleans during Katrina; he, too, discovers a city can be more than roads and buildings.

Then there’s “Cloud Dragon Skies” which isn’t about a city but about the Earth deserted by most after an ecological catastrophe. Those who remain have made a life for themselves, a life different from before, but a life they enjoy and celebrate:

I was a child when the sky changed. I can still remember days when it was endlessly blue, the clouds passive and gentle. The change occurred without warning: one morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
We adapted. We had never taken more than we needed from the land, and we always kept our animals far from water. Now we moistened wild cotton and stretched this across our smoke holes as filters. Sometimes the clouds would gather over fires that were out in the open. A tendril would stretch down, weaving like a snake’s head, opening delicate mist jaws to nip the plume of smoke. Even the bravest warriors would quickly put such fires out.

But those who left Earth for an artificial ring habitat think they’ve figured out a way to fix Earth. The people who live there want nothing of it. Turns out, Earth wants nothing of it, either. It’s a story where we’re never sure if the cloud dragons and the reactions of the sky are natural or supernatural; it could play either way, which is a delightful trick.

I’m guessing the world imagined in “The Narcomancer” is at least related to Jemisin’s Dreamblood novel series. It’s a wonderful story that blends characters with different viewpoints into a single mission, and requires each of them to do something for the other. It is one of the few “threat from without” stories, but it also has several threats from within that are strung along the thread of the rescue mission. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit at the end.

I can’t close this post without mentioning a few other stories that don’t fall into one of these categories. “The Elevator Dancer” is very short, pretty much a current-day story with fascist overtones about a guy who’s just run out of enthusiasm for life and maybe, just maybe, rediscovers it while monitoring the elevator security cameras.

It is shameful and sinful to question the will of God. Still, the guard cannot help wondering. He does not want to think this thought, but it’s like, like temptation, it comes anyhow. And, well …
if …
if a tree falls …
if a tree falls and there’s no one around to hear it (but God)…
would it really bother with anything so mundane as making a sound?
 
or would it
            dance

One of the longest stories is “The Effluent Engine” which I have discovered is a Steampunk Romance. I’ve finally read something Steampunk! It’s set in New Orleans in the early 19th century (I’m gathering) and features a spy who is a Haitian woman trying to help her country get back on its feet following the slave rebellion that freed her people. That she falls in love with a Creole woman is the icing on the cake. Some of the escapes and double-crosses are a little facile, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Cuisine des Mémoires” is a natural for this former Top Chef addict. The cooks and judges on the show always talk about how the greatest food evokes emotion and memory; Jemisin turns that into a story that’s part mystery and part delicious. It features a very special restaurant, and a very curious diner who just can’t leave well enough alone:

The hunger to know burned in me right alongside the warm satisfaction of the meal itself, and underneath all of that lay anger. It was irrational anger, I knew. Someone had looked into my heart and found a long forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day of the memory was made. But I didn’t have Angelina anymore, and that turned the memory from one of sweetness into one of pain.
So I had to know how they done it.

As a special treat, you can listen to LeVar Burton read the story at Stitcher.

There’s another cuisine story, “L’Alchemista”, on more of a Chopped theme. A stranger shows up with a bag of strange ingredients and a recipe. What do you think might happen?

I could go on about nearly all the stories. Several involve computers, AI, robots, and the like. Some are about the struggles to stop abuses of power. Some are about skills they don’t teach in computer programming classes. And, of course, race and power: “Red Dirt Witch” takes a look at the future from the past, and a mother makes the wisest decision a mother ever made: to believe in the hope of her daughter, even when her own hope has run out.

If this is contemporary science fiction, maybe I should be reading more of it.

Robert Long Foreman: I Am Here to Make Friends (Sundress, 2020)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

The stories in I’m Just Here to Make Friends are not what the stories are about. Wait, let me say that better. The stories – at least most of them – feature a character rather obsessed with something. Maybe it’s watching a woman give birth in order to experience awe. Or getting a random trinket appraised at an Antiques Road Show event. Or reading someone else’s dream journal. But it turns out, what the character is obsessed with, is not what the story is about; the story is about what’s going on while the character chases down pregnant ladies willing to give birth in front of a stranger, or invades an ARS venue and accidentally sets up shop as an appraiser, or reads a dream journal which itself has to be the product of someone who was in a story about something else.

A line from Mad Men comes back to me: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” [I had a long bit in here about how new iPhones every two years and designer coffees are distractions to keep us from noticing how everything’s going to hell, and how college debt isn’t a bug but a feature since by the time a kid racks up $20, $100, $300 grand of loans, she’s going to be distracted from social justice and instead worrying about the stock market and how that homeless guy is devaluing her property, but it seemed… inappropriate. So I cut it.] That these stories foreground the anything only highlights the anxiety in the background. The stories tell the truth – but tell it slant.

The thing is, the distractions, the surface stories, are mesmerizing. They’re bright shiny lights and Led Zeppelin and the man on the flying trapeze. And the Truth is quietly sitting alone under a tree, easy to miss.

After the first few stories, I was really confused. I knew I was missing the Truth, but I didn’t know how or where. So I went to story sherpa Jake Weber’s post, which I’d been so careful not to read other than a couple of phrases about bemused narrators and warm-hearted stories. And I saw what my problem was: I needed to stop looking for the usual landmarks.

We’re so used to the cycle of want, followed by inability to achieve the wanted thing, followed then by some kind of epiphany that allows the character to achieve what he wants–the “tyranny of the epiphany” as Jim Shepard calls it–that it’s entirely arresting to read Robert Long Foreman’s short story collection I Am Here To Make Friends (Sundress Publications, 2020, 215 pages). Arresting, because most of the stories involve a protagonist who breaks the rules by not being sure what they really want, mostly being passive and misunderstood, and yet every one of the stories is a joy with more than enough forward momentum to keep the reader happily flipping pages to the end….
Much more than this, though, is the way these stories remind us how appropriate it is to feel disoriented.

– Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic

If there was ever a time when we needed to be reminded that disorientation is a normal reaction to disorienting circumstances, it’s 2020.

The title of the collection isn’t the title of a story; it isn’t a quote from a story. It’s just the title of the collection. That’s not unheard of – I found a couple of examples on my own bookshelves – but it’s unusual. It plays off the reality-TV trope I’ve heard so many times on Top Chef and Project Runway, the well-armored, obnoxious contestant assuring viewers “I’m not here to make friends” but to win, because somehow they can’t conceive of doing both successfully. In this context, it’s more ironic: the characters in these stories may truly want friends, but their efforts are ineffective or counterproductive. Still, in most of the stories they connect: maybe not with the important people in their lives, maybe not with themselves, but with the reader. Maybe we see our own thrashing through their lives.

My curiosity about the title, some other questions that cropped up during my reading (as questions always do), and a few prior conversations with Foreman led me to ask if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for this post. Turns out he would. I don’t often do author interviews, mostly because few authors would bother with me, so when I have the opportunity I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful for his willingness to spend time answering what might seem some pretty strange questions:

1 The title – it looks like it’s not in the text anywhere (if i missed it, please let me know); obviously it’s not a title of a story. I’m assuming it’s an overall title – So many of the characters are losing relationships while they’re distracted by goofy stuff, or they’re distracting themselves from their relationships with goofy stuff, is it more of an overall title about all these people? With the melting snowman, it makes me so sad – like Frosty the Snowman, hurry up and make friends with me before I melt! Anything you want to say about it?

You’re right; the title is not in the text. I had thought of calling it Here to Make Friends; my friend Kate suggested adding I Am Here since all the stories are in the first-person, since it would indicate something about the collection. At first I just thought it would be a funny title, but then I realized it’s actually an accurate statement about me. I am indeed here to make friends! And my hope is that something else comes out in it, too, a sense of something bordering on desperation, which I think the narrators in the stories feel. They tell their stories because they want so badly to be better understood, and there’s so much about themselves they don’t see.

 
 
2 I often have trouble telling if the narrator/main char is male or female. Is that deliberate? It could be a statement about gender fluidity, or it could be, well, just the byproduct of first person narration.

I think it’s mostly the latter–a consequence of first-person narration. But I don’t usually make it a priority to identify the narrator’s gender. Sometimes you have to make gender apparent for the sake of clarity, but I like the idea of a story being read differently based on what you perceive the narrator’s gender to be. I’ve been told I need to make it clearer when my narrator is a woman, because I’m a man, but I still don’t usually do that.

 
 
3 Story order, selection – how did you decide the order of the stories? It seemed to me the last two stories are the most “traditional”. Is that a matter of your writing evolving, or a deliberate choice? How did you decide what stories to include or leave out?

I put the longest story last; that seemed to make sense. For the longest time, in earlier drafts of the collection, I had “Cadiz, Missouri” first in the collection, because it won a Pushcart, and is therefore the most decorated story, maybe the best one. But I think that was holding it back; it’s a subdued, essayistic story, and doesn’t leap out at the reader. “Awe” is a story that does, and once I put it first I found the collection got a much better reaction–was a finalist for a contest, was published by Sundress. I didn’t think that mattered for the longest time, that I needed to ensnare a reader quickly. But I did! Anyway, I mostly just wanted to make sure the collection was ordered in a way that would keep the reader interested, keep surprising them. It’s all about justifying putting the stories together in a collection by creating a book-length experience that you can’t get by reading each story out in the wild.

 
 
4 When was Gunmen written? In an interview after The Man with the Nightmare Gun, you said you’d lost interest in guns, couldn’t write it that way now (then). The scenario is very different, of course, but you did return to guns, was that to change the conversation the earlier story started, or was it more about reality calling for a reaction?

It’s true; I finished writing my other gun story in the collection right before I found out Trayvon Martin was shot, and I was then more repulsed by guns as a fact of American life than I ever was before. I felt gross for having written about guns with even a character’s fictionalized fascination, even if I still think that’s a good story. But then guns never went anywhere, and years later people were talking seriously about arming teachers. I was a teacher at the time, and knew what a horrible, stupid idea that was and still is. So I felt compelled to write about how I think that might actually look in practice, with all the decent people leaving the profession and the only teachers left being rotten and vacuous, hanging onto their jobs just because they’re willing to carry firearms into classrooms. I was also feeling really out-of-place in academia, which I then left, and that informs the story, too.

 
 
5 I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, if I had, would I have noticed all kinds of connections and references in Gunmen? As much as I liked the story, I wonder if I missed a whole world.

I don’t think you missed too much. There are some jokes that are funnier if you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, like how the narrator says The Orchard Keeper is a terrible novel that no one should read. But all you really need to know is how McCarthy is perceived, as a kind of man’s man of writers, who writes about guns and horses, to get why he’s in that story.

 
 
6 This isn’t a question, though you’re welcome to respond if you’d like. I guess the Rob Save America tour is cancelled; too bad, I was hoping it would work. We’re screwed now. And I was hoping you’d get to Maine, though I communicate much better online than in person. I feel so bad for all of the writers who’ve worked so hard, and had their book releases coincide with this crap.

It’s not a great time to have a book coming out! Let alone to have two coming out (my novel’s out in October). I’m not with any big, monied presses, so it’s hard to get much attention on my books as it is; one way that works is to make personal appearances in different places. And that’s not possible right now. I wish I could do Rob, Save America! and visit all fifty states; it was always meant to be a comical way to set myself up for failure, since I have kids at home and lots of work always and can barely leave the house to do anything ever. But I would have liked to go to a few places. I really wanted to, like, go to Lawrence, Kansas with a map of the US and just two thumbtacks on it to mark the states I’ve been to, in November, and talk about how hard it would be to get to 48 more states by December 31st, and ask the audience if they knew anyone in Montana who owned a bookstore that could host me.

 
 
7 Is there anything you wish someone would ask you so you could say something in an answer?

I wish people would ask why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.
 
 
– Interview with Robert Long Foreman, July 2020

As to that last: I have no idea what it means, but to me it brings up Thomas Nagel, Stevie Smith, and BoJack Horseman (which I haven’t really watched, but my blogging buddy Jake Weber keeps dropping pearls of wisdom he’s found in it, so, like Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those things I may need to grit my teeth and tolerate for a while to get to the good part). Rob’s whole Twitter feed is like this, I’m never sure if I should be laughing at a joke that went over my head, or calling a suicide hotline.

But let’s go back to his stories. Some of my favorites:

Gunmen

Had I known the gunman was on his way, had I known what I was dreaming when I dreamt his arrival in advance, I would have prepared for his coming. I would have stashed an extra gun in the desk at the front of the room and ensured that the students knew it was there. I would have planted a claymore at the entrance to the classroom, just above the door. I would have rigged a steel trap that might have kept the gunman from bringing any harm to the students I was meant to keep safe.
Better yet: I would have told the students not to come in that day. Had I known not only that he would come, but when, I would have cancelled my class and saved the lives of nine people.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph. This is the last story of the book – Foreman refers to it as a novella, and, at 62 pages, that makes sense – but I wanted to start off with it in case readers get discouraged by the length of this post and stop reading (who am I kidding; too late) to make sure at least this one gets on their radar screen. There’s a huge range here: one bit about adjuncts had me giggling, another about trademark violations got a full-blown snort; the climactic scene had me hyperventilating and brought me to the edge of a panic attack. And it almost has me wanting to read Cormac McCarthy. But not quite.

It’s a campus novella with a terrifyingly possible alternative-present premise: teachers at all levels are required to carry guns. Our protagonist is an English professor, and a pretty crappy one at that. When the Must Carry law went into effect, most of the professors quit, so he’s what’s left. To his credit, he knows he’s not much of a scholar or a professor. His students keep complaining that the World Literature course he’s teaching only covers Cormac McCarthy novels. He hopes that somehow, in a class with students fresh with ideas, he’ll find an idea worth writing about.

His transition to arms hasn’t gone totally smoothly. His girlfriend left him because he started checking for dangers everywhere, and talked about gunmen in his sleep. But he’s found the bright side of Must Carry: respect.

… before we had guns I’d found that the respect I was supposed to get as a professor eluded me….
The United States had always seemed to look on its teachers as an enormous population of lay-about distant cousins, living liabilities to the sensible and business-minded world. We were bad examples to the children, they seemed to think, and should have all gone to school for business and opened a business.
That attitude changed, when we got our guns. Everything changed, except how much students didn’t like the things I assigned them to read. They kept not liking any of that.

I’ve never read McCarthy, but I suspect I’d find multiple intersections. In fact, I noticed one even from my unenlightened state: the lack of quotation marks. Foreman uses them in other stories, so it’s a choice not to use them here. McCarthy wasn’t the first to eliminate quotation marks in his writing, but he’s rather famous for it (since even I know about it). The three epigraphs from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West come into play. Wiki lists them and Shmoop tells me they’re about the continued savagery of the human animal even as we become supposedly more and more civilized. That certainly plays in a story about arming English professors and holding gun fairs on campus so they can choose their University-supplied firearms, because (and I’m editorializing here) it’s more profitable for campaign contributors than getting military weapons away from people who might be crazy enough to shoot up a classroom.

One comment the professor makes about McCarthy’s writing style also seems in line with the story:

When McCarthy has the novel trudge along the way it does, with significant events mixed with insignificant events, indiscriminately, in a perfectly linear fashion, it makes the narrative seem more real. It makes it plain that McCarthy is anchoring his imagination to a historical record.

This seems particularly appropriate when he interrupts an account of a class discussion to inform us that Philip, one of his students is black. Not only is it a bit of a digression, but he relates it directly to writing. And it’s one of those writing issues that gets tossed around once in a while: will a reader assume all characters are white unless they have characteristics associated with black people, and in that case, isn’t that stereotyping, etc etc. In the context of the story it’s more about how a McCarthy narrative suddenly stops and a long passage about a horse ensues, but it’s also a genuine social issue that’s pretty front-burner right now. The whole story is chock full of front-burner issues. Then again, right now just about everything is a front-burner issue.

And about Philip: it seems to me he’s the reason the students were still in the classroom when the gunman burst in. The narrator never states it outright, but does indicate Philip’s course evaluation was very long and they probably would have left earlier if he hadn’t been so diligent at outlining the Professor’s weaknesses. Which gives us a deeper answer to the question, who was the real reason the students were in the room? And then leaves us with, why the hell should it matter how long they were there, or why, since the real issue is why isn’t the classroom safe no matter how long they say?

At the center of all of it is the professor, whose name we never know, someone who isn’t up to his job or his relationship or much of anything, really. And he knows it, and seems to accept it without feeling a need to do anything about it. At the end, he’s alone, but he seems to have some direction for the future. Or at least, he knows one thing he doesn’t want to to do, which is a start.

Awe

Maybe he was right, I thought, and I could use some awe in my life. It was making Gary glow. What could it do for me?

This is a story that could have been written another way – a more traditional way – and it would have been sweet and sad and moving, but written this way, it’s kind of like white-water rafting (at least, as I imagine it, since I’ve never been anywhere close to white water nor have I ever been within shouting distance of a raft).

I happen to be very fond of awe, in the Edmund Burke sense (he’s kind of a jerk otherwise, but he knew awe), and I always feel like I find it in places I’m not supposed to. The night sky is beautiful, but awe? Naw. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. People who find awe there, are they serious? Then again, I’ve never been, so who knows. No, where I find awe is in an animation of DNA replication, in all of biology really: we need oxygen for the last of around 30 steps that somehow just happen, in every cell of our bodies, not because molecules make decisions but because positive and negative attract. It’s amazing we’re alive, let alone reading books and having babies. But people look at me like I’m weird when I say stuff like this.

Our narrator – nameless, again – gets some advice from a friend: get some awe in your life, watch a baby get born. The friend just watched his son being born, which it seems to me is a very different experience from watching a stranger give birth, but our guy doesn’t have a son in the oven, so he uses Craigslist to find a woman willing to give birth in front of him. I wasn’t kidding when I said these stories were full of bright shiny lights and stuff.

And then there’s the Truth, sitting in the corner smiling a half-smile:

“I haven’t touched a camera in a year,” I said. “Not since my last subject. She died. She killed herself.” With a half smile, I said, “I guess that’s what I get for making a film about people on the brink of suicide.”

Life and death weave around each other throughout the story, amid sinks and semicolons and a house that looks “as if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it after banging his head and forgetting what century he lived in.”

As the first story in the collection, it sets the tone. It’s not as baffling as some other ones – there’s an actual resolution – but it’s not your standard How I Came Through the Darkness thing either. At the beginning of the story he’s recovering from having seen something awful. At the end, he’s healed by having seen something aweful.

Appraisals

I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth.

One of the best pieces of advice in the hundreds of pages Miss Manners has published (I love Miss Manners) is about answering a question like, “Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?” A literal answer would almost always be “No,” but she fudges it by looking at “the truth of the situation, rather than the crude literal surface truth.” The grandparent is really asking for communication, sharing, some kind of connection, and only a heartless bastard would refuse that.

The problem is, Antiques Roadshow assumes that, when you show up with a useless trinket, you want to know the actual value of the thing. They don’t know it’s your mother’s, and that you just buried her hours before. They only know it’s worthless crap.

Our bereaved narrator (need I mention he is unnamed) tries to drink off his disappointment, but is mistaken for one of the appraisers. “I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I heard that morning. It was my dad.” But he has more freedom than the appraisers, so he starts giving out more uplifting judgments. He gets more and more elaborate as time goes on – the “Sears” doesn’t refer to the store, but to subversive artists making a statement – and also more and more generous. “A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals.” Of course it did.

The end feels wrenching, like any tragedy worth its salt.

The Vinyl Canal

I’ve spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don’t really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that – sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something – to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, for the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn’t a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in my apartment, who would serve the same purpose?

Sometimes, the distraction of the story is, in fact, a lot more interesting to me than the story itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what the Truth is, besides this woman going through some lousy relationships she’s only half paying attention to, because they aren’t worth it. And because the Vinyl Canal is a lot more interesting.

The Vinyl Canal starts out as a way of skipping over tracks of a record you don’t like. I miss records. I still have a few, though I got rid of most of them, things that could be replaced, a long time ago. Records would develop their own quirks over time: skips, repeats, and so forth. Those of us with cheap phonographs (and cheap records that could be replaced) balanced quarters on the tone arm to keep the stylus in slightly damaged grooves, even though this resulted in more damage.

Ben found a way to use those skips to his advantage: by creating canals that would move across cuts he didn’t want to listen to. That’s pretty brilliant; I have to wonder if Foreman actually did this at some point, or knew someone who did. But Ben discovers it’s a lot more work to carve these canals than it is to just let the record play as it was made (by the way, there were turntables available from the late 70s that offered programmable track selection with linear tracking tonearms; my husband had a couple); thus the term Vinyl Canal evolves to mean a way of avoiding something you don’t want to deal with, but actually causing yourself more trouble than if you’d just gone ahead and faced it like a grownup.

This meaning keeps expanding, and he applies it to a wide variety of societal ills: The poisoned water in Flint, MI; the Iraq war; police violence; defunding libraries. It’s maybe the story most broadly pertinent to today, and by today, I mean literally today, this week, 2020 in general, as we’re at 130,000 deaths and the fourth month of pandemic affecting people’s lives every day because someone (we won’t name names) thought it would be better to ignore it. We’re in the Vinyl Canal right now.

The story is available online at Willow Springs, along with a contributor note from Foreman:

What surprised me most as I wrote the story was that it didn’t end where I meant it to, at first. I thought the narrator’s exit from the radio station, about 2/3 of the way into the story, would be the right place to leave her. I realized, when I extended the story to where it ultimately went, that it wasn’t until later that the story’s animating tension was resolved, or its anxiety soothed (I don’t like the word “conflict”). It seemed to me that the right place to leave the narrator was at the mouth of the canal her weird acquaintance had dug. And so I learned a lot from continuing to work on this story, even after I saw I could have decided it was finished and moved on. I used to be less patient than that.

~ Robert Foreman, contributor note

It seems to me that the shorter version makes the narrator the focus, and the longer version makes Ben the primary character; I far prefer it that way, since I have no idea what the narrator’s issues are. I’m too distracted by the Vinyl Canal. See, it works.

On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines

I told some of these dreams to Brian – my husband Brian – as we ate breakfast, but he wasn’t interested. It takes him an hour every morning to be ready to engage with the world, and he’d only been awake for thirty minutes when I relayed my dreams to him , so that was part of it , but I also think he just didn’t care.
I developed a theory, that dreams are interesting to people other than their dreamer only when they’ve been written down and processed through the act of writing into something more concrete. If I wrote down my dreams and left them in a folder in the apartment, Brian might find them when I was dead or at a conference, and he might be as engrossed in my dreams as I was in those had by work-Brian

I always feel inadequate when I read a story about dreams, because my dreams aren’t anything like the dreams in stories or books. I have categories of dreams (house dreams, still-married nightmares, pain dreams) but I never have the same dream, or even close to the same dream twice. And my dreams are very fragmented, but the fragments rarely connect.

In spite of my inferiority complex around dreams, this was another fascinating story with a brilliant distraction. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Vinyl Canal” except to me it worked better as a story, since I understood the narrator’s underlying Truth: her marriage was dying of disinterest.

The narrator is tasked with cleaning out the desk of Brian, who quit his job precipitously some time ago. She finds a notebook which she initially thinks is a technical manual of some kind: it’s typed and has charts and diagrams. It turns out to be Brian’s dream journal. The charts are ways of categorizing his dreams by themes, by gender or race of the population in the dream, by deaths in the dream, etc. These charts are reproduced in the book, by the way; I can only assume that Mid-American Review also reproduced them when they printed the story in 2013, and offer them a high-five for doing so; it’s the sort of thing that befuddles text-only litmags, but allows so much to blossom forth from fiction.

The narrator’s husband is also named Brian. This is not the first time I’ve sensed Foreman playing with doubling. In this case, there’s a hint of the narrator being work-wife and home-wife, even though she and work-Brian rarely interacted. That just emphasizes how distant she and her husband have become.

The title refers to a series of submarine dreams, in which everyone on board is killed. There’s a lot of concern about whether this includes Brian, if he’s the crew, as the dreamer, or if he’s the captain, or something else. These aren’t just plug-in dreams, these are detailed examinations, which makes the story work. I’m reminded of Seth Fried explaining he kept a notebook of creative ways for people to be killed when writing his story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and at one point he got worried that if he left the notebook somewhere and someone else found it, they might call SWAT on him. Work went into these dreams. And it wasn’t Brian’s work.

Our narrator comments at one point she thinks this journal might be a practical joke played by her boss to freak her out. That sounds like a fun story right there.

The diary turns out to affect the narrator’s life as she and her husband discuss the submarine dreams. It’s a delightful pun on the cliché about marriage being founded on shared dreams. The graph that results from that evening (hey, I can’t reveal everything) makes a delightfully happy ending to a story.

—————————————————————–

I’ve followed Foreman on Twitter for quite some time, and usually have no idea what he’s talking about (I understand less and less of what’s on Twitter every day; pretty soon, it’ll be like a stream of undecipherable language, but I’ve arranged it so that I get lots of pretty pictures, which comfort me). I read his essay collection last year, and it surprised me: I always figured he was just too cool for me, but I discovered we have lots of intersections. This story collection sometimes gets beyond me, but much of it hits the target perfectly: I am these people, way too much. His novel, Weird Pig, is scheduled for release in October 2020.

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?
Everything.
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?
Everything.
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.

Windfalls

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.

”Blue”

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.

”Blue”

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?”

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.

“Brokedick”

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!