BASS 2014: Joyce Carol Oates: “Mastiff” from TNY, 7/1/13

TNY art by Owen Freeman

TNY art by Owen Freeman

The woman hadn’t told the man much about her past. Not yet. And possibly wouldn’t. Her principle was Never reveal your weakness. Especially to strangers: this was essential. Technically, the woman and the man were “lovers,” but they were not yet intimate. You might say—the woman might have said—that they were still, fundamentally, strangers to each other.

One of the most interesting things about this story (available online) is also the most annoying to me: the use of “the man” and “the woman” instead of their names, which we know – Sam and Mariella. While it annoys me (just a personal quirk of mine; I recognize it’s a perfectly valid technique), I can appreciate the need for it here: these are two people who are not comfortable with intimacy. What is intimacy, after all, if not revealing your weakness, and understanding the weakness of another?

They’re a relatively new couple, she in her 40s, he in his 50s, though she doesn’t realize he’s that much older until late in the story. There’s a telling sign right there: how do you date someone for a few weeks, have sex with him, and not know how old he is? Typically there would be some curiosity, a few little hints about memories and past experiences, preferences, remarks that indicate someone was around during Camelot or Watergate or the disco years. She’s indicated she has deliberately not revealed much about her past, and it seems she hasn’t been that interested in his either. If that sounds like a rather stilted relationship, well, that’s exactly what they have, my mutual choice.

Until the dog bites.

Mariella has been anxious about the dog from the opening of the story, and that anxiety is well-transmitted to the reader through the text. The dog is described in distinctly sexual terms:

The woman stared at the animal, not twelve feet away, wheezing and panting. Its head was larger than hers, with a pronounced black muzzle, bulging glassy eyes. Its jaws were powerful and slack; its large, long tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber. The dog was pale-brindle-furred, with a deep chest, strong shoulders and legs, a taut tail. It must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. Its breathing was damply audible, unsettling.

I was afraid of the dog myself, after reading that.

Mariella and Simon encounter the dog on a hike, another of their less-than-intimate dates. They don’t seem to like each other that much, but they’re both trying to fall in love, because, well, it’s high time. The atmosphere of threat is so pronounced from the opening, I thought Simon was abducting her at one point, when he wanted to stay longer on the mountain trail than she did, when he forced her to drink their remaining water, when we learned of his irritation that she hadn’t brought her own water, that she’d worn the wrong shoes.

But the threat comes from the dog. The dog-owner, to be more precise; as JCO makes clear in her Page Turner interview, “In such situations, it is not ever an animal’s ‘fault’ — it is the dog-owner’s fault, of course.” That’s very true, but I’m sure she’ll get a lot of complaints anyway. She also wonders if the current mania for owning big, potentially vicious dogs is a way of showing off one’s power; she should read “A Full Service Shelter.” In this story, the dog owner is of course at fault, and runs off without taking any responsibility for the attack, without reporting it, leaving two injured people bleeding on a mountain trail. That’s close to hit-and-run.

In contrast, Simon plays protector general (Dan Madley at The Mookes and the Gripes calls him a “knight in shining armor”). I’m interested by the contrast between the two men, the one who is the actual threat, the one I perceived as a threat for a time – and whom Marielle perceives, with his impending intimacy, as a threat as well. She prefers conversations with people she’ll never see again. As it turns out, the man she’ll never see again is the one who is the actual threat, not only physically, but in that he intensifies the “imitation intimacy” she and Simon are playacting.

I’m also interested in the way JCO uses the point of view. We get into Simon’s head at times – his disdain of Mariella’s footwear, other disappointments – but she’s chosen to stay with Mariella once the attack starts. At times Simon is semi-conscious. This heightens the threat they face as a couple, ratcheting up the drama considerably, but I wonder if it’s also a good way to deny us access to his previously available thoughts. We don’t know if he is angry that Mariella got him into this (which she didn’t, of course; she did nothing to precipitate the attack), if he’s gratified that she’s caring for him, or if he wishes she’d go away.

Her caring for him – interesting phrase, “caring for him,” with its dual medical and psychological meanings – isn’t a straight line. This scene in the hospital, after Mariella (“the woman” in the text throughout, remember) creates a fascinating picture of her:

The woman was light-headed. Her hands and wrists began to burn. She heard her thin, plaintive voice, begging, “Don’t let him die!”
Looking around, she saw how others regarded her. A woman crazed with worry, fear. A woman whose voice was raised in panic. The sort of woman you pity even as you inch away from her.
She saw that her coarse-knit Scottish sweater—it had been one of her favorites—had been torn beyond repair.
In a fluorescent-lit rest room, her face in the mirror was blurred, like those faces on TV that are pixelated in order to disguise their identity. She was thinking of how the massive dog had thrown itself at her and how, astonishingly, the man had protected her. Did the man love her, then?

Here she goes from what seems like genuine concern for his well-being, to narcissistic analysis, in a heartbeat. Her self-absorption, once we get past the truly absurd concern under the circumstances over the damage to her sweater, has the flavor of insecurity: “Are people criticizing me? What does his behavior mean? What response is appropriate?” It’s interesting that her earlier self-identification as his fiancée had a more instinctive, non-analyzed quality; she said it without thinking, “Would this be appropriate?” but to establish a legitimate claim to concern, or perhaps, the unguarded expression of a subconscious wish. Or, in the words Mariella herself used earlier to describe their relationship, another “rehearsal of intimacy.”

The story ends as it began, with threat. I suspect she’ll be hearing that chuffing sound in many places – in bed underneath him, on her wedding day, when/if she holds her newborn baby for the first time, when she sends him off to kindergarten one future September, on your average dark and stormy night – for the rest of her life.

Addendum: This post was originally written in July 2013 when the story was published in TNY.

BASS 2014: Will Mackin: “Kattekoppen” from TNY, 3/11/13

TNY art by Grant Cornett

TNY art by Grant Cornett

We went through a number of howitzer liaisons before Levi. His predecessors, none of whose names I remember, were able to build artillery plans in support of our night raids. They were skilled enough to communicate these plans to the soldiers who would fire the howitzers. In fact, any one of them would’ve been perfectly fine as a liaison to a normal organization. But ours was not a normal organization. Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused we’d send them back and demand a replacement.

What Mackin – in his first published fiction – has done in four pages with war, postage stamps, and candy, is miraculous. Fortunately, it’s available online. Read it, I implore you, before (or instead of, if time is short) continuing here. Then sit with it for a few days. Then read it again. It’s that kind of story.

The story takes place at a military base in Afghanistan; the unnamed first person narrator’s voice is that same restrained, keeping-sane-in-an-unsane-place voice of much recent war fiction. He’s a member of Seal Team 6, and his mission for most of the story is to find two soldiers, referred to as Chin and No Chin on the basis of their photographs, who were kidnapped in an ambush.

If we’d been asked how long we’d go on searching, our answer would have been: as long as it takes. Think of the families back home. Baby Chin. Mother No Chin. But in truth there were limits, and we had methods for determining them. From the streaks of blood found in the drag marks, we ascertained wounds. From the wounds, we developed timelines. And we presented these timelines on a chart, which read from top to bottom, best case to worst. By the time that village lit up beside us, we were at the bottom of the chart. The next night, we started looking for graves

It’s one of those stories where every sentence, every clause, maybe even every word, relates to another part of the story, and as you read (the second, and third time) you see those interrelationships more and more.

Levi, the new howitzer liaison (I’m pretty vague on the precise function of this job, other than it involves calculations used in aiming artillery), is Dutch, but in the American military, and takes a brief leave to attend the birth of his son in Texas. This jumble, and the fact that no one tries to figure it out but just accepts it as one more bizarre thing, accentuates the atmosphere. It’s a crazy place, and thinking about it too much is crazy-making. Levi’s heritage also allows the inclusion of two essential elements of the story: packages from his Dutch mother come with Dutch postage stamps picturing Bruegel paintings, and contain Dutch candy, the Kattekoppen of the title.

Juxtaposition is the name of the game. The descriptive passages are necessarily short, but still use juxtaposition masterfully to include beauty and horror in one scene. For the narrator, even candy evokes death and destruction:

Kattekoppen were brown cat heads with bewildered faces. They made me think of a bombing attack I’d been involved in, in Helmand, during a previous deployment. We’d dropped a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb with a delayed fuse on a group of men standing in a circle in a dusty field. The round hit at the center of the circle and buried itself, by design, before the fuse triggered the explosion. The blast killed the men instantly, crushing their hearts and bursting their lungs, then flung their bodies radially. The dead landed on their backs, and a wave of rock and dirt, loosed by the explosion, sailed over them. The dust, however, floated above. As we walked in from our covered positions, it descended slowly. By the time we reached the impact site, it had settled evenly on the dead, shrouding their open eyes and filling their open mouths. Those dusty faces, their uniform expressions of astonishment, were what I thought of when I saw Kattekoppen.

The Dutch stamps provide the opportunity to include more imagery. I’m impressed with how these elements are chosen and woven seamlessly into the story. I don’t usually put art in the body of literary posts, but because they play such a key role in the story, I’m including the three paintings referenced. First, there’s “Hunters in the Snow.”

Returning from our manhunts through the snowy mountains west of Logar, I felt the weariness of Bruegel’s hunters. Cresting the hill that overlooked our frozen outpost, I saw their village. And, within its fortified boundaries, I watched men go about their daily tasks as if unaware of any higher purpose.

Later in the story, that scene, that painting, is recalled as the narrator watches another village. The observer, hidden from the observed.

Then there’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” William Carlos Williams wrote a heart-rending poem about Bruegel’s treatment of this scene, and Mackin’s narrator echoes his impression:

The stamps on the package from Levi’s mother featured “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The detail chosen was Icarus drowning. What was not shown was how the world went on without him

The final painting mentioned is “The Triumph of Death” which I discovered last year when I read Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” last year. It’s not surprising that it appears here. What is somewhat surprising is that it is brought into the story, not by a stamp, but by the recollection of the narrator:

…I looked out the windshield at the war, which, stamp-wise, could’ve been a scene from Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”—one that, even without a skeleton playing the hurdy-gurdy, or a wagon full of skulls, or a burning shipwreck, or a dark iron bell, still raised the question of salvation.

I see a link between the paintings, relating to observation. First, there are the unobserved observers of “Hunters,” then the non-observant villagers of Icarus, and finally, there’s no one left to observe in “Triumph.”

I’ve only skimmed the surface here. The paintings alone have depths to plumb, and each scene, each character, each event, evokes rich impressions. Hyperbolas into infinity. Pink snow. An owl. I suspect I’ll be encountering this story again in one of the prize volumes.

Just when I thought I’d read the best thing I was going to read all week, maybe all year, I read Mackin’s Page-Turner interview. He tells a story of an experience, at the Pentagon, with a parade of wounded soldiers, that should be made into a film, and explores the “ironic detachment” he so effectively created for his narrator.

Like David Abrams, author of Fobbit, Mackin spent 20 years in the military. I’m glad we now get to hear from him; he’s got a lot to say, and a great way of saying it.

Addendum: This post was originally written in March 2013, after I’d read the story in TNY; I’m delighted to encounter it again in BASS 2014. Interesting: although the stories are, as always, arranged alphabetically by author, two stories about soldiers in recent US wars appear back-to-back.

BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

Marcel Duchamp, "Portrait of Chess Players," 1911

Marcel Duchamp, “Portrait of Chess Players,” 1911

After his second heart attack, the judge knew that he could no longer put off informing his wife about the contents of his will. He did this for the sake of the woman he had been keeping for twenty-five years, who, ever since his first attack, had been agitating about provisions for her future. These had long been in place in his will, known only to the lawyer who had drawn it up, but it was intolerable to the judge to think that their execution would be in the hands of his family; that is, his wife and son. Not because he expected them to make trouble but because they were both too impractical, too light-minded to carry out his wishes once he was not there to enforce them.

I don’t insist on likeable characters (or I’m trying not to), but I find it’s helpful to feel some kind of empathy for some character in a story. I felt none here. With the exception of one powerful scene, this story (available online) seemed to me to tread the space between farce and melodrama, leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of soap opera.

The Judge – for once, we have an unnamed male character, though I suppose his title is more imposing than a name would be – seems unconcerned about wife Binny’s reaction to his revelation, or even his admission that he’s put his paramour in the will. Binny isn’t concerned, either; she seems concerned only with son Yasi, who’s relation to her is so overwhelmingly incestuous in tone (though not in deed, relax), it’s hard to focus on anything else. Not only does she refer to him as a gossip-partner, as a substitute for the friends she dropped years ago, and as her closest confidante (including, presumably, her husband), she almost literally “left” her husband for her son when he was just a baby:

Although this bedroom had meant nothing to Binny for many years, now her thoughts were concentrated on it, as they had been at the beginning of the marriage. The judge had been an overwhelming lover, and those nights with him had been a flowering and a ripening that she’d thought would go on forever. Instead, after about two years, the judge’s presence in their bed was changed into a weight that oppressed her physically and in every other way. It had been a relief to her when Yasi was born and she could move with him into her own bedroom.

Again, I’m torn between looking at this as spoof or pathos. It doesn’t hit the sweet spot of funny, funny-in-a-sad-way, or sad-in-a-funny-way. Or even weird-in-an-interesting-way. I suppose I should look at my own need to categorize everything, but for me, it misses the mark, which is to impact me in some way. It’s a rather bizarre set of relationships, yet with the overdramatic judge and his paramour, and the strangely detached Binny, their situation doesn’t intrigue me as much as I’d expect.

The judge has been keeping Phul, sheltering her, since she was fifteen, and so she has only learned one thing: keeping him happy. Hence her concern about his impending death, leaving her without means, a reasonable concern; and also hence his concern to provide for her after his demise, a laudable intent though generated by a distinctly un-laudable root. In many ways, she’s the underside parallel of Binny: they’re both dependent on the judge, though Binny has the official claim and thus legitimacy.

Complications to the judge’s efforts to ensure Phul’s security ensue as Yasi starts out as the emissary but is soon replaced by Binny herself. I suspect there’s some important thematic development here, but it all seems a little overcomplicated to me, yet trivial at the same time.

Until the chess game, when things get interesting. Don’t they always, when chess is involved. It’s all very rich and powerful as Binny and the Judge finally relate to each other: an overwhelmingly understated move, followed by a dramatically overstated reply. The chess game seems to reflect the marriage: just who is in charge in this relationship, emotionally? Is Binny’s seeming indifference a gambit? It’s quite a nice climactic scene. Maybe that’s the point: a sudden rush of intense emotion and intimacy.

When I don’t invest emotionally in a story, I tend to pay more attention to mechanics, so there’s an up side to everything. Yet, here again, I’m left puzzled. The first two paragraphs are clearly from the judge’s point of view, and there’s a smooth and clever transition to Binny, his wife, in the third, using the opportunity created by her departure from the room. But since the narration remains with Binny for the rest of the story, I’m left wondering: why these two paragraphs? There must be a reason. Granted, POV-hopping isn’t the major sin it used to be, but it’s usually still done for a reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is here.

I’ve lately been thinking more about what my reaction to a story says about me, than what it says about the story. I’m not sure what my overall indifference to this one (in spite of the moments of brilliance) says about me. But I think I need to keep wondering.

Addendum: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away just yesterday; she leaves a rich legacy of work as a remembrance.

Second addendum:The above post (and addendum) was written in April 2013 when I first read the story in The New Yorker.

BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

Zadie Smith: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” from TNY, 2/10/14

Aert van der Neer: "Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" (c. 1650)

Aert van der Neer: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” (c. 1650)

Within the hour, efficient young Ari would drive the Minister to the airport, and from there—all being well—he would leave to join his wife and children in Paris. The car would not be a minute out of the driveway, he knew, before the household staff fell on these boxes like wild beasts upon carrion. The Minister of the Interior rubbed the trouser leg of the gray between his fingers. He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano—even the books.
“So it goes,” the philosophical Minister said out loud, surprising himself—it was a sentence from a previous existence. “So it goes.” Without furniture, without curtains, his voice rose unimpeded to the ceiling, as in a church.

As I read this story (available online), one margin note predominated: “Bullshit.” That isn’t an indictment of the story; it’s character analysis. Then again, the main character is a politician, so what else would you expect?

Smith’s last TNY story “Meet the President” was set in near-future Scotland under siege of rain and regime; this one is also a blend of weather and revolution. Coincidentally, as I read, I was receiving tweets from the UK about floods in Oxfordshire, just a few weeks after similar comments about similar storms. I’m not sure if the UK is unusually stormy this winter (as it has been here), or if it’s just coincidence, but combined with the setting of her last story it set the story for me somewhere in the UK. I had the sense the two stories were connected, perhaps initial parts of a novel-in-stories-in-progress, but Smith’s Page-Turner interview doesn’t indicate any such thing. In fact, it specifies that the country in this story is unnamed; she says it was written shortly after the typhoon in the Philippines last November (isn’t that a remarkably short turnaround?): “I think I always have the same thought when I read about disaster zones. Who are the people on those early flights out?”

And for the second time in three weeks, a TNY story makes heavy use of a painting as a symbol, in this case, “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Aert van der Neer. I wonder if that timing was planned, or a coincidence. Vonnegut also features in the story from the very top (“So it goes”) though it enraged me that this character could use Vonnegut for his own purposes: Vonnegut is supposed to be for the rest of us. But as Smith’s interview reminds us, sometimes the bad guys read good books, too.

As our Minister of the Interior attempts to get out of the drowning country, we discover just how little he thinks of the people – his housekeeper, his driver – who were put on this earth to serve him. Yet, this is a man who has better angels in his nature and occasionally indulges them: he has a humane instinct to stop and unload his trunkful of water for a group of bedraggled citizens clamoring along the road. His driver, alarmed at the prospect, turns out to be right: it’s this instinct, that leads to catastrophe. Not of the physical variety, though there is plenty of threat. No, this catastrophe is more like the Ghost of Christmas Past, made flesh.

So it goes. Together the Minister of the Interior and the thoughtful boy who would later give him that title had read a thrilling book by an American with a German name—Vonnegut! A tale of war. It had so electrified them at the time, and yet, forty years later, the Minister found that he retained only one sentence of it and could not even retrieve its title. But he remembered two young men bent over one battered paperback, under a tree in the cleared center of a village. Books had been important back then—they were always quoting from them. Long-haired boys, big ideas. These days, all the Prime Minister read was his bank statements. Yet, in essence, he was the same good and simple man, in the Minister’s view—naïve, almost, doglike in his loyalties and his hatreds. If you were on the right side of the Prime Minister, you stayed there. So, at least, it had been for the Minister. Whatever he had needed had always been granted, up to and including this evening’s flight. He had been lucky, always.

To a consummate politician capable of navigating the path he has, this too is manageable. Even as he’s recognizing his own failure as a human being, the bullshit never stops. I’m reminded of… well, never mind, insert your own favorite political scandal here. If you wait long enough, chances are, no matter how bad the offense, you’ll see a comeback. That’s the up side of cutting yourself off from your past. The down side: you may one day unexpectedly end up in a car on a flooded road, face to face with it.

Donald Antrim: “The Emerald Light in the Air” from TNY, 2/4/14

In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and, during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital in Charlottesville…. and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collection—it wasn’t a collection so much as a big box stuffed with comics—that he’d kept since he was a boy. He had long ago forgotten his old comics; and then, a few days before, he’d come across them on a dusty shelf at the back of the garage, while looking for a carton of ammo.

Is it suicide season or something? In the past month I’ve encountered four pieces with suicide as a central plot or theme. This one (available online) came too late in the procession for me to care.

In the present of the story, Billy, though he was very close to the edge at one point (“He’d got all but there. He’d had the Browning loaded. He’d had it ready and at hand, a few times”) is more or less on his way to recovery. The story is literally about getting out of the woods, for pete’s sake; it’s is not a will-he-or-won’t-he story.

Thing is, I’m not sure what kind of a story it is. That’s usually a good thing, when a story resists classification, when it leads me in one direction then surprises me with that unexpected-yet-inevitable turn. But not always. Here, we have the inevitable metaphor of his discombobulated car trip and his life, the decision of who gets the pills, and the return to the thrum of daily life and the promise of what is to come, complete with braised rabbit; is there a more fecund symbol? It’s a powerful metaphor, but in spite of his Page Turner interview about skirting fantasy, it seemed routine and clichéd. Maybe it’s a New York fantasy, to drive into a creek bed and find onesself in a cabin in the woods? Instead of creating a sense of unreality, it just left me clutching my favorite part: the discussion of Tiepolo’s painting.

She’d talked to him, as they stood together at the Accademia, gazing at “The Rape of Europa,” about the singular cloud hovering over Europa, its complete non-relation to the more natural-seeming clouds that dominate the painting as a whole, the delicate, pale clouds on the horizon, the spire of darker cloud rising up behind the rocks. “Everything is off in Tiepolo,” she’d said. “Spatial relations don’t cohere. It isn’t simply that people fly with angels through the air. What world are we looking at? The paintings at all points lead the eye toward infinity.”

I suppose that’s what the story is trying to do: lead the eye toward infinity. From suicide to death to life to the future, to possibility. I like that description of the cloud being different from the other clouds; it’s hard to explain Depression, capital-d Depression, to people who immediately think, “Well gee, people get depressed sometimes, but I don’t see how it’s a disease.” Yeah, we know about you and your snapping out of it. Some clouds are different.

In his Page-Turner interview, Antrim insists the story is “not meant to be anything but a trip, an experience, a pleasure.” Often, when a writer says something like that, I find enormous meaning in the details of the trip, and feel it’s been much, much more than transportation from first word to last. But not always.

I seem to be alone in my meh on this one. I’m unusually up-to-date with my TNY reading so only a couple of the good folks at The Mookse and the Gripes have posted comments, but they loved this story. I defer to their wisdom. I may be simply worn out from dealing with literary suicide and depression, and thus closed off to entering into the communion that’s necessary. Or it’s simply not my cup of tea.

Robert Coover: “The Frog Prince” from TNY 1/27/13

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled the frog, wishing for more, and — presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.

At first I thought: This is the kind of story that couldn’t get published in the East Podunk Online Quarterly Frogblog if it didn’t have Coover’s name on it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you understand; I think restating the obvious in an interesting, highly entertaining way is underrated. The obvious in this case is that love, sexual obsession, is an addictive drug, and, like any addictive drug, will lead you to self-destruct as you pursue it. Anyone heretofore unaware of this hasn’t been paying attention to his or her own behavior (or perhaps to his or her own genitals).

But then I considered the twist:

…[B]ut she understood now, as she should have understood then, that he had been not an enchanted prince turned into a frog but a frog turned into a prince, and all he’d wanted was to be a frog again.

Initially, the woman in the story is the addict, willing to put up with all the disadvantages of her drug of choice. Depending on your addiction, you know what those are: financial cost, physical risk, personal degradation to degrees previously considered unthinkable. This single sentence recasts the relationship, the narrative itself, in a somewhat different mold: the frog in captivity, a golden cage. This is the story he will tell his frog buddies back in the pond, the account of his exile, escape, return. This becomes his story; the woman is reduced to an observer in the narrative, or perhaps, if we wish to give her more politically correct power, a captor.

Every relationship requires the parties meet somewhere outside themselves. Some relationships involve only small mutual corrections to allow for enough intersection to satisfy; others, less healthy ones perhaps, force one partner to leap into a new universe, and depend on the relationship to make up for what is left behind. Sometimes a frog just wants to be a frog. And, by the way, there’s no such thing as an enchanted prince, but if you’re lucky, you can find that out before you destroy your life trying to make one out of the next frog you meet.

In the end, it’s still a story no one would publish without Coover’s name attached to it. Me, I’m a Coover fan; I cut him a lot of slack, and I’m willing to work for his stories.

Akhil Sharma: “A Mistake” from TNY, 1/20/14

TNY Art by Gerald Slota

TNY Art by Gerald Slota

My father was an accountant. He had wanted to immigrate to the West ever since he was in his early twenties, ever since America liberalized its immigration policies in 1965. His wish rose out of self-loathing. Often when he walked down the street in Delhi, he would feel that the buildings he passed were indifferent to him, that he mattered so little to them that he might as well not have been born. Because he attributed this feeling to his circumstances—and not to the fact that he was the sort of person who sensed buildings’ having opinions—he believed that if he were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he was paid in dollars and thus was rich, he would be a different person and one whose life had meaning.

Yes, it’s an excerpt. But it’s also available online. I’ve decided I won’t be reading/blogging future TNY excerpts for a while, since they aren’t short stories, so they do justice to neither the short story form, nor the book from which they came; they only serve to publicize new book releases. Time’s more and more at a premium every week, and I’ve got to cut back somewhere; I’d just as soon cut back on other peoples’ marketing as anywhere else.

That said, I enjoyed this excerpt far more than Sharma’s June 2013 offering, which was a short story proper. Here, I find an authenticity in the younger brother’s realization, through tragedy, of how important his brother is to him, as well as a genuineness in the contrast, from a child’s point of view, between his experience in India, when his mother was in charge, and after arriving in the United States, where they were “rich” (meaning more or less middle-class) and Dad took over. The pressure put on the older son to get into Bronx Science High came across, too; perhaps it’s because these things just seem more familiar to me than the details of Indian funeral rites. That is why we read, however: to broaden our scope of what is familiar.

As I walked, I wondered if Birju had stepped on a nail. I wondered if he was dead. This was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son.
The sun pressed itself on me from above and also, its heat reflecting off the sidewalk, from below. I thought I should probably cry. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I imagined myself alone in the house. I imagined Birju in the hospital and my aunt there. I imagined the fall, with Birju at the Bronx High School of Science and me at my ordinary school. Then the tears came.

The title theme of one’s fate having followed a mistaken path is echoed several times in the text. The narrator has this sense when he encounters schoolyard bullying: “…I would think, There has been a mistake. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around.” That touched me quite sweetly, the garbled notion of what it takes to be the sort who is not pushed around. Still later, when news of his brother’s accident reaches him, he looks at the stars: “I suddenly had the sense that what was happening was a mistake, that we had been given somebody else’s life.” Maybe that’s the human reaction to a bad situation: this must be a mistake; how could this happen to me, how did I get here? At least for some; there are those who expect the blows to fall.

This excerpt, and the book as a whole, according to Sharma’s Page Turner interview, is based on actual family events. Given my recently-inflamed hypersensitivity to untruth-in-nonfiction, I was particularly interested in some comments he made about the process, and the reason he chose fiction as opposed to memoir:

I think one can be more honest in fiction than in a memoir. For me, memoir, because it claims to be factually true, restricts my ability to use dialogue, since I remember only a few things that were said. It also hampers my ability to collapse time, because collapsing time takes events out of context. And I wanted to focus on only certain aspects of the experience; in a memoir, I would have felt obligated to include things, such as boredom, that don’t interest me artistically but were an important part of the experience.

Akhil Sharma, Page Turner interview

That sums it up for me.

Dinaw Mengestu: “The Paper Revolution” from TNY, 1/13/14

When Isaac and I first met, at the University, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths of the rural villages where we had grown up and lived only a few months earlier. The capital in those days was booming with people, money, new cars, and even newer buildings, most of which had been thrown up quickly after independence, in a rush fueled by the ecstatic promises of a Socialist, Pan-African future that, almost ten years later, was still supposedly just around the corner.

This piece functions nicely as the opening to a novel (which it is; All Our Names is due out in March): it introduces us to the (presumably) central character, and gives us a good sense of where he came from and what motivations he might carry forward. As a short story, I didn’t think it worked at all, since it’s… not a short story. Far more is promised, but the end is more of a turning point than an ending. That’s the point with excerpts, after all; it’s not fair to hold them to the standards of short stories. Yet I wonder how many people read this, and think, “See, this is why I hate short stories; what happened?”

The setting is an unnamed African capital; the implication is that it’s Kampala, Uganda, but Mengestu makes it clear in his Page Turner interview that he’s set it generally in the optimistic time in Africa between colonialism and dictatorship, but not in a particular year (“the 70s” is a range) or place. Our first-person narrator never gives his name; he “gave up all the names” on the trip from village to capital. His friend Isaac calls him Professor; he later adopts the name Langston. These names are both rooted in his motivation to be at the capital, and at the University – not as a student, of course, that would be beyond his means; just there:

Though we couldn’t afford to take classes, we all wanted to be revolutionaries. On campus, and even in the poor quarters where Isaac and I lived, there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Cesaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive green costumes of their heroes.… I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, even though I had come to the capital with other ambitions. A decade or so earlier, there had been an important gathering of African writers and scholars at the University. I had read about it in a week old newspaper that had finally made its way to my village. That conference gave shape to my adolescent ambitions, which until then had consisted solely of leaving.

The title of the piece refers to paper signs anonymously posted around the university. When the Administration, in responses to some revolutionary graffiti, advises: “It Is a Crime against the Country to Deface Our University Walls,” Isaac’s signs read “It Is a Crime against the Country to Ask What Is a Crime against the Country” and, his pièce de résistance, “It Is a Crime against the Country to Read This.” Other students begin to regard Isaac as a kind of leader; a following develops. And you know what happens when the police arrive, right?

There’s an interesting element to that as well. The original graffiti was popularly attributed to an “invisible” revolutionary who may have existed only in campus mythology (my money’s on Isaac, though the original invisible revolutionary may have only served as the inspiration for Isaac’s turn as paper revolutionary). After the police crackdown, Isaac is invisible as well:

I didn’t have the heart or the courage to imagine him in prison, much less dead; I thought of it simply as lost, one of the millions across the world who vanished one day and can still rise again.
…I was no longer just a spectator. Isaac had ensured that. I could see him yet, but I was certain he was at the center of that crowd, ready for battle, waiting for me to join him.

The excerpt ends there, so we don’t know how this affects Langston’s future (unless of course you read the pre-release reviews), but we can assume that Isaac invisible is still a strong presence for him.

Antonya Nelson: “First Husband” from TNY, 1/6/14

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “…Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers. Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he hath trodden upon, and to his children, because he hath wholly followed the Lord.”

Deuteronomy1:34-36, NIV
 

The Lord replied, “…No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.”

Numbers 14:20-25, NIV

I don’t do well with Antonya Nelson for some reason. That makes me sad, because a lot of people I highly respect love her writing (and, happily, this story is available online so you can see what you think, for yourself). For a story that didn’t particularly appeal to me, I nevertheless found a great deal of interest to me; she does a lot with “sick” families, and she’s got the family dynamics of alcoholism from the inside out.

What we have here is your basic Chain of Fools. Lovey (Evelyn) is married to the very stable William. She used to be married to another guy:

Her first husband had been forty-five, at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, when she married him but still moving through the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all but the first few—when he was a beginner, on the receiving end of a romantic education—younger than him; he was a serial seducer. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where two others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love—they made you arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.
If you paid attention to all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

As the story opens, Lovey wakes from a dream of a naughty naked party in a burning building with her ex-husband; throughout, she compares her life now, with the stable William, and then. Most of us would consider she’s moved up in the world, and Lovey does as well, but she also misses that thrill of excitement. At least the thrill from before her thrilling-charmer husband decided she wasn’t attractive enough to sleep with any more. Secure William thinks she’s just fine to sleep with. Everything has tradeoffs.

So this comparison of the Wild Side and the Stable Side goes on throughout the story, and we see the theme repeated in the middle-of-the-night emergency phone call from Bernadette that wakes Lovey out of her naughty naked dream with the Serial Charmer: Bernadette is Charmer’s daughter, so was during the marriage Lovey’s step-daughter, or, more accurately, the step-daughter of her ex-husband, which makes her an… ex-step-daughter? We need new family vocabulary, seems to me. Like the Eskimos and their nineteen words for snow (which, by the way, is at best an oversimplification and at worst just wrong, but it makes a useful analogy at times), we could become the culture with dozens of words to describe ex-relationships, two-ex-ago-relationships, steps and ex-steps and whatever you call your former mother-in-law, whom you like and want to stay in touch with, after the divorce, not to mention the woman who was your father’s first and third wife (I’ve had some personal experience with these issues).

Bernadette begs for help with child-care while she goes looking for Aaron, her husband (Lovey’s ex-stepson-in-law – we need those nineteen words now, please), who’s drinking somewhere the way he sometimes does. And Lovey is happy to oblige, introducing our second theme of the story: it’s nice to be needed, and being needed requires that you know someone needy who will turn to you from time to time and need you. Bernadette fits the bill for Lovey. Bernadette used to be a Wild Child. That’s why she ended up married to Aaron in the first place.

Then we have the third generation, Bernadette’s kids, specifically, Caleb, who, at seven, doesn’t quite realize Lovey is letting him win at his beloved Monopoly but knows exactly how to heat a bottle of stored breast milk for the baby and can explain why she tends to gag on it and just how gross it is to check her diaper until a swallowed foreign body shows up. At seven. He’s the perfect Adult – and that’s a loaded term in a chaotic family.

But the story seems to be more about projecting Lovey’s future, and whether or not she’ll tire of her stable life. Do Bernadette and Caleb supply enough neediness for her, enough excitement? What if Bernadette cleans up her act – will Lovey need to create other areas of chaos in her life to supply the excitement she craves? Or will she just have more naughty naked dreams with the Serial Charmer?

Without Aaron, there would be no Caleb. Lovey had to remind herself of this sad fact. Her ex-stepson-in-law caused a lot of trouble, but, because of him, here before her was a boy for her to love, who loved her. Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-. He would turn into a teen-ager and disappear, like his father, into the night.

Then there’s the discovery that changes everything. When I was on Zoetrope Virtual Studios about five years ago (how time flies!), there was a discussion about the changes cell phones had made to fictional plots, since you can no longer have someone stranded with no way to get in touch (similar complaints were probably raised when telephones were invented – for that matter, back when the wheel was invented a prehistoric writer probably bemoaned not being able to use multiple trips to carry three sabertoothed tigers as arrival delays anymore – but it’s a fun discussion to have with writers, anyway, who need to think up alternatives to dead batteries and phones slipping out of pockets, an issue that will go away once we’ve all got our biopowered implants). This story hinges on Facebook. I read something the other day about Facebook being obsolete with teenagers; see, we need another plot mechanism already.

I’m always intrigued by names, so I started with the Biblical Caleb; it’s a complicated story of faith, cowardice, and conquest with a lot of subtleties. The name Caleb has some interesting etymologies; depending on who you consult, it might mean “whole-hearted” or “faithful” or it might mean “dog.” I don’t see those as contradictory at all, but there are those who take offense at the idea that they named their son “dog.” It’s interesting that “dog” has both positive and negative connotations: loyalty and faithfulness, yes, but also, well, dog-dom, you dog, you.

The kicker: in the story, Caleb’s favorite Monopoly token is… no, not the dog; the hat. Maybe Nelson didn’t bother with etymology because she had a different symbolism in mind: The dog is for Lovey, so now consider her description of Bernadette:

Poor Bernadette. Had the girl ever not been miserable? Even as a child, she had cultivated hurtful friendships, had forever been suffering slights or neglect or flat-out cruelty, this girl like a loyal beaten dog.

Some people live up to the roles they’re assigned by their family. It’s often just easier. Others leave.

In her Page-Turner interview, Nelson discusses her interest in the “sweet, gentle boy” character. I believe that; in fact, I think the story lost me because I don’t care about Bernadette. I am curious about Caleb, though. Just figuring out the ex- and step- relationships of this family is chaotic enough; then add saving Bernadette from her Wild Child past and giving Lovey some needing. This seven-year-old has the emotional structure of the entire family depending on him; no wonder he looks tired – and Lovey did keep him up all night to play Monopoly and need her, just to add a little more chaos to his life. I wonder if he’ll continue to accept his role, or if he will run away into the night. I’m hoping for the latter.

Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle” from TNY, 12/23-30/13

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

Cats were dying. This happens, of course. But in this case they were dying in a gory way, one after another, and my nieces, who are six and seven years old, were witnessing the deaths, and it was Christmas, the most magical, horrible, spiritual, dark, and stressful time of the year.… I am telling this story to you, K, even though you are a Russian communist and a Jewish person who doesn’t believe Jesus was the son of God, and even though Christmas is an obnoxious holiday when millions of people decapitate pine trees and watch them slowly die in their living rooms, because miracles can happen on any day, and as long as man has existed he’s celebrated this weirdest time of year, the shortest stretch of sunlight, the winter solstice, as a time of fear, change, courage, and passion. I’m going to tell you the story of a miracle that happened at Christmas.

I did a 180 on this one – and at the last minute, too. This will be spoilery: it must be.

I truly hated this story while I was reading it. And after. And when I put together notes for this blog post, and when I did the draft of this post, and when I revised, and when I scheduled the post. Boy, it was great snark, better than my Project Runway finest; let me give you a sample:

Oh goodie, a dead cat story. Not just a dead cat story: a dead cats story. A Christmas dead cats story. And not just dead: mauled. Eaten by coyotes. Eviscerated. Dismembered. Don’t look too closely at the accompanying art. Enjoy, instead, the hilariously placed advertisement for TNY’s Big Book of Cats on the next-to-last page.
Hey, come on, it’s been over a year since they last ran a mauled-and-dead-cats-story. Which, by the way, I quite enjoyed, because it was a really good dead cats story, and I was even glad to see it in this year’s BASS, though it was the only story I didn’t read, seeing as I lost my final cat a couple of months ago and I’m still a little emotional. Of course, those were barn cats, and here, we have pets, pets with personality quirks and real names.
I’m guessing Deborah Treisman isn’t a cat person.

I had the post scheduled to go, but something bothered me; I’m not sure what, but I felt like I had to fine-tune exactly my complaints; I don’t want to be nasty unless I can back it up with unassailable evidence. But I couldn’t. Because, damn it, I’d been reading the story I’d assumed it was, instead of the story on the page.

The story – the story it actually is – does what it set out to do. A half-sentence changes everything. Somehow, I’d overlooked it; I missed The Christmas Miracle that resolves the chord – the Picardy third, a musical cadence to “give a somewhat optimistic cast to the ending of a piece” – and turns this from a self-indulgent “look how messed up these people are” shockfest description to a story about how change is possible.

So it’s Christmas, and the family has gathered at Sis’ house, where the coyotes are killing the cats one at a time. Sis is still insisting she’s got it under control, even now that she’s down to her last two cats. Auntie D, our letter-writing narrator, has arrived. She’s a creative writing teacher now, but she was a nutritionist (with a degree and everything, even if it is from an internet school) until she got Yelped pretty much out of business. She sees a potential upturn in her nutritionist career if she can just get her sister-in-law, who’s trying to get pregnant, to take her nutritional advice, since D’s specialty is nutritional infertility treatment and the woman’s husband is a respectable Canadian official of some kind whose endorsement would go a long way towards offsetting the Yelping. The problem is, the sister-in-law prefers to keep her fertility issues private (which is why everyone’s discussing it privately, behind her back) so not only is Auntie D told about the issue no one’s supposed to know about in the first place, she’s warned not to mention it to her.

Auntie D is herself beset by a trio of symbiotic pathogens causing Lyme disease, babesiosis, and the star of our show, a rambunctious bacterium named Bartonella (shades of Seth Fried’s “Animacula“), which causes a variety of psychiatric symptoms from sugar addiction to hallucinations. By the way, Bartonella turns out to be the family of bugs that causes Cat Scratch Fever; this tickled me for some reason, though I’d be surprised if it’s deliberate; I doubt it’s common knowledge, though the CDC will tell you all about it. For the record, the CDC site talks about Bartonella and encephalitis, which could cover a lot of territory, but doesn’t get into anything more interesting like sugar cravings or mental status changes. For that, you have to go to YouTube, where a woman (she may well be Curtis, who self-identifies as a holistic nutritionist in her Page-Turner interview; I have terrible facial recognition skills and the YouTuber doesn’t give her name or say anything about being a writer but she has a “healing channel” and all three of these diseases) carefully explains the difference between Bartonella rage, Babesia rage, Lyme rage and just plain old Rage rage, which I was experiencing a bit myself while reading this story.

Because there’s also the funny uncle.

… I was concerned, as always during family visits, about the safety and comfort of my nieces around our uncle, who was a pedophile, especially since the previous Christmas, when my sister and I weren’t vigilant enough, I’d caught him rubbing the butt of the elder girl, then six years old, in a dark, empty room. That, too, my sister assured me, was under control: the girls would never be left alone with him, and at night they’d sleep on cots in her room….
The counselor had warned her, my sister said, that telling her daughters our concerns would damage their psychological development, and that the issue must never be addressed.

At this point I felt like I was just being jerked around by the Grand Upworthy of stories. I have zero respect for this character, yet she’s the only one with the brains to say, “The therapist’s wrong,” though she has to be under the influence of Bartonella to do it. She even tries to do something about it, if you count bribing her to come up with excuses for not cooperating in his abuse as doing something. It’s about as effective as the way Sis is dealing with the coyotes killing the cats, or Auntie D is herself dealing with her own illnesses or snaring her sister-in-law’s nutritional clientship.

Thing is, there’s a family history here, though it’s disguised in verbiage. The uncle rescued Auntie D and Sis when their mother was widowed, alone with four kids, “not right in the head,” and broke. They went to live with him. I’m betting the counselor Sis cites doesn’t exist, and the bogus advice is from her own childhood, when she and Auntie D were told to keep their mouths shut because Uncle was supporting them and would send them to school, so now they keep their mouths shut still. He only visits once a year, after all. And the girls can sleep on cots for those few nights.

This isn’t trying to be Carol Anshaw’s “Last Speaker of the Language” (another story I very much enjoyed), a family of bumblers who really do love each other and pull together when needed to protect and help each other, or even the darker dysfunctional family romp “Things Said or Done” by Ann Packer where the chaotic past was, at least for the most part, overcome.

No, this is the view of dysfunction from the clueless, in-the-moment inside: a family that’s locked in its own reality, a reality that has little to do with the reality outside its borders. It’s a family where cats are rescued from shelters so they won’t be killed by vets, only to be killed by coyotes; where rich uncles support widows and orphans in order to abuse them, a place where that which is not spoken cannot be a problem because it doesn’t exist and everyone insists everything is under control when everything is so blatantly, obviously not under control at all.

Auntie D overtly relates the Christmas Miracle to K as: the last cat survived its mauling because it learned how to pick out a coyote’s eyeballs and spit them on the rug from being trained to eat Doritos off a piñata in Kamikaze Cat Training instituted by the seven-year-old. But she covertly reveals the true Christmas miracle was elsewhere:

My sister, who stuck up for me when she was a kid, but whom no one stuck up for – ever, in any way – thanked our mother and uncle for coming, and told our uncle that he had to go.

This is delivered in a second-hand sort of way, so that Auntie D still doesn’t have to own it or even quite acknowledge it. It’s an incredibly subtle touch at the very end of a long and brutal story. A Picardy Third of a story ending.

I’m glad I went back to tinker. This is why I blog about stories: it forces me to look to the text, even when that’s where the dead cats are.

Steven Millhauser: “Coming Soon” from TNY, 12/16/13

TNY Art by James Caseberes

TNY Art by James Caseberes

On weekends and evenings, whenever he was free, Levinson likes nothing better than to explore the streets of his town. Main Street was always alive, but that wasn’t the only part of town with an energy you could feel. On residential streets, houses displayed new roofs, renovated porches, bigger windows, fancier doors; in outlying neighborhoods, empty tracts of land blossom with medical buildings, supermarkets, family restaurants. During early visits to the town, he’d seen a field of bramble bushes with a sluggish stream change into a flourishing shopping plaza, where stores shaded by awnings faced a parking lot studded with tree islands and flower beds, and shortly after his move he’d watched, day after day, as a stretch of woods at the west end of town was cut down and transformed into a community of stone-and-shingle houses on smooth streets lined with purple-leaved Norway maples. You could always find something new in this town – something you weren’t expecting.

I liked this story a lot more than most of the Mookse & Gripes crew, which surprised me, since it’s usually the other way around. I thought it did a really nice job of capturing progress, change, as a runaway train – one we don’t realize is runaway, until we do. I like how Millhauser makes concrete, through Levinson, the idea that we all have our own threshold of where the train goes from being pleasantly thrilling, to being scary, our own ideas of at what point we are no longer in control.

Much of the story for me was in the language, the slow shift from descriptions like “thriving” and “lively” to words like “oppressive” and “confused”. Where he once admired the cranes and accoutrements of construction and change, by the end there’s a dark undertone: “On the strip of lawn between his sidewalk and street, a sawhorse sat next to safety cone. He imagined them coming closer, advancing along his front walk.” I like that a sawhorse, and a safety cone, are things meant to keep us safe; yet now, as change has run amok and proceeds faster than Levinson can handle, they turn threatening.

The path widened, began to rise; guardrails appeared; he was on a ramp; all at once Levinson found himself on a six-lane highway, where ruby tail-lights brushed away into the distance. Under a blue-black sky, Levinson entered the second lane, passed below a sign with a name and exit number he did not recognize, and rode off into the night.

Although Levinson’s panic is less personalized here, and the language more sedate, the sky is nevertheless blue-black, not a description that conveys the beauty of the night sky but a more frightening image, perhaps a bruise. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s still going; it appears that, at this point, he has little choice.

I find the ending meshes with one of my own favorite little metaphors, and that causes me some concern, considering how it’s used. During a recent spate of medical procedures, I just considered it all like getting on a train: once you hop on, you don’t worry the route or how much fuel is needed or what speed is too fast, you just follow instructions and hope – hope very hard – the engineer and conductor will do their jobs correctly and get you to your planned destination safely. It involves surrendering control – someone else is driving the train, setting the speed and route – and a great deal of trust that those someones know what they’re doing (and aren’t impaired at the moment). There’s a time for questions during the decision-making process, but when it comes to the actual execution of medical procedures, it’s a time to let someone else take over. And here is where Levinson carries things too far, perhaps, and surrenders himself, a little at a time, to a world he no longer understands.

Of course, there is another reading. Maybe it isn’t that the world is speeding up on poor Levinson; maybe it’s him that’s slowing down… as someone who sometimes has trouble coping with the 21st century, I understand that, too.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? To have the perspective to see whether it’s us, or the world that’s operating at the wrong pace. In a world where technology can proceed from barely-conceived idea to expensive toy to essential tool for daily living in what seems like a heartbeat, it’s not an idle question. Nor is this: is there anything we can do about it?

Yes, I liked this story quite a bit.

Rivka Galchen: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” from TNY, 12/9/13

Most of the presenters at the conference in Key West were somewhat old, and the audience was very old, which was something J was accustomed to, being among people considerably older than herself, since it is the older people, generally, who have money, and who thus support the younger people, who have youth. Or something. The young have something to offer.
…J had invited not her gentle husband but her stepmother, Q, to join her.

Age is a character in this story, in spite of the fact that we’re never given the ages of the two main characters, J and Q. J is presumably somewhere in the 35-to-40 range or so, at the age where her stepmother Q figures children aren’t going to happen but J still hasn’t ruled that out. Q seems to be of an age where competence is becoming a concern – at least in J’s mind. I’ve always figured parents and children calculate age, and competence, using different measures, and that seems to be the case here.

J is worried about all manner of things concerning Q during this Key West writers’ meeting: is she going to stare at the author with the eyepatch; is she ill; has she lost all her money; is she living with the neighbor who’s now in the ICU, and if so, is it because she’s broke? As I read, I was reminded that how one person treats another can affect the outside observer’s impression of either, or both, people. Is the impression that Q’s history is deserving of such concern – or that J’s fears out of proportion? It might depend with whom you most identify, perhaps.

J’s mother died when she was a child, and her father just recently, so it’s not surprising she sees the world as an unstable, tricky place. This is played in all sorts of ways in the story: misread cues, uncertain situations, and, by the time we read the last lines, in the way she sees Q, who, in the end, may be the least unstable, least tricky person around.

J found herself in conversation with a woman whose mouth dragged left, perhaps from a stroke, or maybe it was just a thing….J realized that the host was the woman who had written a book called “Real Humans,” which J had for years been pretending to have read…
“You know what’s strange?” the woman asked.
“O.K. What’s strange?” J wondered where Q was.
“You’re going to go on living,” she said. “And I’m not going to go on living. I might go on for a while. I’m eighty-seven. But you’re going to continue into a future that I’m never going to see, and that I can’t even imagine. I mean, this cocktail party is just like one my parents might have thrown fifty years ago. But, in other ways, it’s a completely different world. I hear people on their cell phones saying, ‘Yes, I’m on the bus now. I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ Or, ‘I’m in the cereal aisle now.’ Well, that’s just so strange to me. I don’t find that normal. Do you find that normal? Do you do that tweeting? I know that I can’t follow. So I just don’t. But you’re just going forward into the future. You’ll go forward and forward, into it. And I won’t.”
“I’m here with my mom,” J said. “I better go check in with my mom.” J couldn’t ever recall ever having used that phrase out loud. It sounded almost like science fiction.

The party scene is both hilarious and heartbreaking; I suppose which depends on whether you’re 40 or 80, whether you’re there or a reader looking on. The house is full of more tricks and dangers in the form of steps – steps up into one room, down into another, and they’ve all been marked off with tape but a greeter (a greeter?) warns the guests to watch their step anyway. I realized as I read: my older sister’s house had a sunken living room with similar steps. Makes sense, in this context. My family of origin was full of booby traps.

Lots of comedic Chekhov’s Guns on the wall in this story, none of them fired; and I think that’s where it’s elevated so far above a routine movie script starring Meg Ryan and Shirley McLaine: no, no one trips over the steps. Q does not, in fact, stare at the guy with the eye patch, and J doesn’t blurt out “Q, this is Eye Patch” by mistake.” They’re not used as slapstick; they’re just textural details, and they’re great.

Like Gene Hackman; what does he have to do with all this? Turns out he was in the news, hit by a bus on day 1; J was pretty pessimistic about his chances – they guy is 81 (when did Gene Hackman turn 81?) and he was hit by a bus, for pete’s sake, you don’t have to be a pessimist to figure this isn’t going to end well. But Q, who is a lot closer to 81, has a clearer view of the road in this case, and we see who is the reliable narrator:

It was as if Q’s real secret wasn’t that she’d lost her home, or lost her money, or was secretly ill, but that she actually knew what she was doing. Or maybe she had lost her money and her home, and maybe she was ill, but she was able to handle it. All these partygoers seemed able to handle their lives.
“He was just scratched up a bit,” Norm’s lover said.
“Who was scratched up?”
“Gene Hackman. He wasn’t really hurt at all.”
“That’s what I thought,” Q said. “I thought he would be fine.”

There’s more Gene Hackman (UPI reported something like the accident in January 2012, though details differ if you google around about it – he was on a bike, a motorcycle, he was hit by a car, a pickup truck, a bus; in any event, he was indeed fine), but to me, it’s really about age and our attitudes towards the aging, and it has impact.

Galchen’s Page Turner interview indicates she used Roberto Bolano’s “Last Evenings on Earth” as a starting point for the narration (she calls it close 3rd person; it’s pretty intrusive at times). I haven’t read that story; I might read this one very differently if I had. In fact, I may do that; I’d be interested in seeing how Galchen (whose voice I admire very much, now that I’ve read three of her short fictions) turns what TNY archives describe as a story about “a Chilean father and son who vacation in Acapulco, visit a whorehouse bar, where the father angers people and they get into a fight.”

Yeah, I can see a story about an American daughter and stepmother at a Key West writers’ meeting who go to a party at an elderly science fiction writer’s house might come out of that. It’s all a matter of transposition. Some things are universal.

Romesh Gunesekera: “Roadkill” from TNY, 12/2/13

TNY Art by Leslie Herman

TNY Art by Leslie Herman

But that night, in the inky blackness in Kilinochchi, all these other things began to merge together: politics, history, even sex, in the form of Miss Saraswati, where it was bound up with mutilation and death. We all have a private past, a store of thoughts, feelings, sensations, disappointments that nobody else will ever unearth. That’s just life. But in Miss Saraswati’s case, it seemed to me, there was something more deliberately hidden. Areas cordoned off. I suppose it was only natural. So much is kept off limits these days. There are things we don’t speak of, things we not only don’t remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape.

What do we hide, what do we show? What do we remember, talk about, bring into the public debate – and what do we pretend never happened? When is it time to stop and examine, when is it time to move on? All of these issues might be considered as part of the larger question raised in this story: How does a nation recover from a twenty-six-year long civil war?

This story (available online; it’s shorter than most TNY stories; go read it) covers some of this territory; Gunesekera’s Page Turner interview indicates it’s one of a series of stories featuring Vasantha, all of which examine the larger question from a variety of contexts.

Vasantha is a cab driver, in this story driving a wealthy couple to look at property they’re buying in territory that was, only two years ago, part of the long and bloody conflict. He meets Miss Saraswati, the assistant manager of the hotel; she’s interested in cultivating future business, but their conversation must skirt around delicate matters. It’s fascinating how they both negotiate the territory of wanting, yet fearing, to know.

My familiarity with the issues is scanty at best; your best bet (after reading the story) is to head over to The Mookse and the Gripes where avataram has written a spectacular series of comments – particularly this one, outlining some of the very specific symbolism embedded the story. I’m grateful his comments are available. My background does not permit such depth, so I’m limited to a more surface reading; even so, there’s plenty here to keep me interested. That’s artful writing: to allow readers to appreciate a story at whatever level it finds them. It’s also a great way to stimulate interest in further exploration.

The primary theme that emerged for me as I read was overall one of what is hidden, and what is exposed. In the crucial scene between Vasantha and Miss Saraswati, he notices a scar on her neck, briefly exposed by her collar; the next time he sees her, the collar is buttoned tight. Given the supreme competence she displays throughout, the momentary exposure can’t be an accident. Concealment is only powerful when one knows something is being concealed.

I ended up with a couple of pages of notes on second read; I’ll present them, only slightly edited. You may decide if I am revealing what is usually concealed, or if I have taken the lazy way out:

clint eastwood right off the bat – fictional image of violence in a setting of real horror.

“lingering spoor of the vanished big cats” – all the perfume and disinfectant can’t completely erase what went down here. Tamil Tigers.

Mrs. A is pregnant – the future, no memory of the past.

“I am already around the bleeding bend.” – two meanings to “bleeding”, intensifier and literal slang

You’ll be able to rest very quietly here.” – where people have died, rest in peace, rest with the history unspoken.

“even rice would turn to rubble.” – !

“People who have made more informed choices in their lives than I have always impress me.” – he’s referring to her hotel training, which at this point he assumes was a routine educational choice, but it’s more than that; she’s made decisions that go far deeper, as has he. Decisions to fight, to hide, to move on, to reconsider old decisions.

“E.T.s are pouring into the south” – Not sure if this abbreviation for “European tourists” has the “extraterrestrial/alien” connotation in Sri Lanka.

Something like that.” evasive about her training. we begin here to understand it had nothing to do with hospitality college, education of a different sort.

“You learn to do that at Jaffna hotel school?” killing the rat – he begins to get it, who this woman, his hospitalier, is.

discussion about rats –He had dog, it was roadkill by the govt, but a different govt –
he thinks: “This happened a long time ago—it was not the fault of the current government” – more moving on. What is gained, lost when he moves on?

she says: “You have to bury the dead and move on.” and “What matters is what you carry inside” – you never move on, really; she will always remember, carry it inside, but it will stay hidden. But now, through this story, he is telling us about her. or, the author is. Because in order to hide something, you must reveal what you have, so others know it is hidden, otherwise it is lost & this is abt capturing that loss.

“Some want to know about our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.” – because how can you know your own history in such a muddled, confused place; can you know your history when you are living it? When memory = pain? Maybe it takes time before you can look?

“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” she says. Oh, but that’s exactly when we need to talk about the past; we need to look at what happened, how ridiculous it was, or how unjust, or how it came to be the necessary option, so it doesn’t happen again. But that’s my pov; I’ve never been in a war zone; I’ve never lost anyone close to me to war. I would imagine I could feel differently in her shoes.

He gets it too: “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened? And if we don’t know, will it not be repeated? At any rate, we should not let war or half-baked political decrees pervert our native habits of curiosity and easy engagement. But I didn’t say any of this” He keeps this thought hidden.

even he sank into the darkness, into crime movies as escape – sex wasn’t available and politics was a nightmare, he escaped from reality in his way. Back to Clint Eastwood, fictional violence easier to take than the history of the land.

“You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know how to make it right.” the answer is hidden as well, but we must keep looking, mustn’t we?

note language as he observes her looking over the grounds at night: guardian, revolver, shot, did a sweep, caught, held, military.

recommending sound-blocking headphones to his cab customers for snoring; he knows a thing or two about blocking out unwanted noise pollution.

closing: “I wished for a moment that I knew what she was thinking, and then I was glad that I didn’t. There comes a point when you don’t want to know.” he chooses to let what is hidden remain hidden.

Moving on as forgiveness, or as the seeds of the next bloody chapter? What of this “moving on” in other contexts – South Africa, our own Civil War, and more presently, the current US administration’s refusal to prosecute the war crimes of the past administration, coupled with the decision to continue programs of dubious morality and legality? Just who gets to decide what is to be forgiven, when it’s time to move on?

It’s an overwhelming story, both because of the subject matter, and because of the background I wish I had to comprehend more of it. It makes me want to read the rest of the stories in the collection. It makes me want to learn more. What higher recommendation for a story?

Lionel Shriver: “Kilifi Creek” from TNY, 11/18/13

TNY Photograph by Eric Ogden

TNY Photograph by Eric Ogden

It was a brand of imposition of which young people like Liana felt nothing: showing up on an older couple’s doorstep, the home of friends of friends of friends, playing on a tentative enough connection that she’d have had difficulty constructing the sequence of referrals.… Mature adulthood – and the experience of being imposed upon herself – might have encouraged her to consider what showing up as an uninvited, impecunious houseguest would require of her hosts.

It was all in the second read for me. Some stories are like that. Maybe the reason I’ve come to appreciate short stories so much is that it’s easy to read them a second time, particularly when the ending is as intriguing as this one; and sure enough, I missed the structure the first time through. Understanding that structure made all the difference.

No less than four times in the first two-and-a-quarter columns does Shriver refer to Liana’s youth, clearly contrasting it with a more mature state. I should’ve seen it: this section is a sort of prelude, a set-up, for what is to follow: a snapshot of this youthful state, then a movement through time into a different place that is, nevertheless, the same.

Yet midway through this casual mooching off the teeny-tiny-bit-pretentious photographer and her retired safari-guide husband… Liana entered one eerily elongated window during which her eventual capacity to make sterner judgments of her youthful impositions from the perspective of a more worldly adulthood became imperiled. A window after which there might be no woman. There might only, ever, have been a girl – remembered, guiltily, uneasily, resentfully, by her aging, unwilling hosts more often than they would have preferred.

Discussion of this story in any detail at all will necessarily contain spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

We first hear the tale of the young Liana’s adventures in Kenya, specifically, a particular day swimming in Kilifi Creek, a cut foot, and a riptide that threatens to drag her out into the Indian Ocean. Shriver plays suspense for all its worth, POV-hopping back to the impromptu hosts wondering where the girl after nightfall. She eventually shows up, but doesn’t reveal how close she came to dying:

Now she knew: there was such a thing as private.
Having aged far more than a few hours this evening, Liana was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller.

I’ve never had, in a conscious state, a sudden, acute near-death experience; the two times I’ve come close to dying, I was unaware of the situation at the time (once due to anesthesia, once to delirium), and it was more a matter of looking back and realizing, wow, that could’ve been bad. I would imagine that a more in-the-moment realization would have had a much greater impact.

Nevertheless, even after such a thing, life goes on, and Liana returns to the US and becomes a marketing manager in New York for Brace Yourself, maker of neoprene joint supports for weekend warriors. A clever writer’s choice, perhaps too clever for my taste, but I can appreciate the continuity. I particularly liked her discovery upon finally, after so many years of keeping the incident private, of telling the story:

Having never shared the tale, she was startled by how little time it took to tell. But that was the nature of these stories: they were about what could have happened, or should have happened, but didn’t. They were very nearly not stories at all.

I can see the disappointment on her friend’s face; there’s a reason news broadcasts don’t include who didn’t drown today.

There’s also a nice consideration of the caution that age brings, even young ages like one’s 30s (the older I get, the younger the decades I left behind look). Children run barefoot through the grass in the rain; adults worry they’ll slip, or step on something sharp, because they’ve had experience with those things. If we’re lucky, we don’t get completely paralyzed by our experiences. Liana has been perhaps a little too lucky, leading to a dramatic, unexpected ending.

It wasn’t until I understood the structure – the prelude, the first act in Kenya, the time lapse to maturity, and the coda – that the story clicked for me into a harmonious whole. I’m glad it did.

Jeffrey Eugenides: “Find the Bad Guy” from TNY, 11/18/13

TNY art by Jens Mortensen

TNY art by Jens Mortensen

Find the Bad Guy means how, when you’re arguing with your spouse, both people are trying to win the argument. Who didn’t close the garage door? Who left the Bigfoot hair clump in the shower drain? What you have to realize, as a couple, is that there is no bad guy. You can’t win an argument when you’re married. Because if you win, your spouse loses, and resents losing, and then you lose, too, pretty much.

I spent about half of my marriage in couples counselling. You’d think I would’ve realized, long before the fifteen years it took me to move on, that was a bad sign. To be fair, I did call it quits at ten years, but he knew me well enough to wait until Christmas Eve and call from the New Jersey Turnpike.… So I had mixed reactions to this story (available online), very personal reactions. Amusement at the way counselling plays language games, takes complex feelings and situations and turns them into handy slogans. Anxiety about the manipulative guy who’s used to breaking the rules and very good at getting what he wants. Compassion for that same guy who truly does seem to know what he’s lost. Anger towards him for trading that compassion in for another chance to break more rules. Is Charlie D. an abusive husband, or is he a needy schlub who makes a lot of mistakes? Is the Bad Guy? Not sure.

Johanna originally asked Charlie to marry her so she could get a green card and extend her German visa. He was smitten anyway, but eventually, she fell as well – “Love at fifteenth sight, I guess you’d call it” – abut now, 21 years and three kids later, he got the babysitter not-pregnant and she’s finally had enough. In the present of the story, he’s violating a restraining order by hanging around outside her, formerly their, house, hoping to catch a glimpse of his family.

What I liked most about this story, possibly because I just focused on it in my comments on “The Chair”, was how a couple of simple things were used as tropes: Fire, and electronic communications. They’re even woven together. Some guys have the man cave; Charlie has a fire pit. But it’s a fire pit he’s been enjoying alone:

For instance, regarding the fire pit. Didn’t I try to corral everyone out there every night? Did I ever say I wanted to sit out there alone? No, sir. I’d like us to be together, as a family, under the stars, with the mesquite flaming and popping. But Johanna, Bryce, Meg, and even Lucas—they never want to. Too busy on their computers or their Instagrams.

The babysitter joined him at the fire pit. Not subtle, but effective. And in the present of the story, standing outside his house, he’s playing Words with Friends with his daughter: the computer she was too busy with has become his lifeline now. If the daughter won’t come to the fire pit, follow the electronic data stream to the daughter. When he’s finally arrested, he finds heartbreaking comfort in another play of the game:

When a new word comes on Words with Friends, it’s a beautiful sight to see. The letters appear out of nowhere, like a sprinkle of stardust. I could be anywhere, doing anything, but when Meg’s next word flies through the night to skip and dance across my phone, I’ll know she’s thinking of me, even if she’s trying to beat me.

I’m one of those people who’s taken to electronic connections, so I understand how that might’ve felt. It’s a powerful image: the only connection to his daughter is through a smartphone screen.

Back to the fire. In the therapist’s office after confessing the affair with the not-pregnant babysitter, he understands that he’s blown it, and it’s been Johanna who’s been doing the heavy lifting, relationship-wise:

Over in the Alps, when they found that prehistoric man frozen in the tundra and dug him out, the guy they call Ötzi, they saw that aside from wearing leather shoes filled with grass and a bearskin hat he was carrying a little wooden box that contained an ember. That’s what Johanna and I were doing, going to marital therapy. We were living through an Ice Age, armed with bows and arrows. We had wounds from previous skirmishes. All we had if we got sick were some medicinal herbs. There’s a flint arrowhead lodged in my left shoulder. Ouch. But we had this ember box with us, and if we could just get it somewhere—I don’t know, a cave, or a stand of pines—we could use this ember to reignite the fire of our love…. She’s been carrying our ember the whole time, for years now, despite all my attempts to blow it out.

It’s easy to see Charlie as a basically good guy; I can understand that. But don’t forget: he beat his dog, he got it on with the babysitter, and he’s violating a restraining order. He’s an unreliable narrator of himself: his apologies, realizations, longings, sound great; his behavior, not so much. Those of us who have heard these realizations, these apologies, these promises, a million times, grow a bit weary of them. It’s no way to make a marriage. But it does make for good story-telling.

Chinelo Okparanta: “Benji” from TNY, 11/8/13

TNY art by Merlin

TNY art by Merlin

This is the year I got fed up with many things, big and small.

I got fed up with the Supreme Court and the general assault on voting rights the June decision precipitated; I got fed up with Florida for legally permitting the following and killing of people with dark skin who are presumed armed if they’re walking on a sidewalk; I got fed up with a Texas senator who decided pouring money into his campaign war chest was more important than the ~800,000 workers who went unpaid for three weeks, or the $24 billion it cost the American economy to shut down the government for reasons that shifted every hour as one then another became increasingly ludicrous for even the most deluded to claim; I got fed up with the United States accidentally killing children and adult innocents, in my name for the theoretical sake of national security. I got fed up with myself and the rest of America for not rioting in the streets over the string of outrages generating from the mouths and computers of people in power. I got fed up with us for saying words like “freedom” and “justice” without having a clue what those words mean to those who constantly see their basic human, civil, and legal rights shot down again and again by those who say them the loudest.

And I got fed up with the small stuff, too. Though, let’s face it, everything’s small stuff after that.

I got fed up with Project Runway for finally degrading into The Heidi Klum Ego Trip and Product Placement Hour subtitled: Let’s find out just how stupid is our viewership is. I confess to being stupid enough to hang on a couple of years too long, so now I’m outraged with myself. And, in a somewhat-but-not-entirely-unearned move of guilt-by-association, with Top Chef, which I haven’t even been watching, much less recapping. I’m counting on Ben Folds to restore my faith in the possibility that someone in show business has integrity.

So maybe I’m primed. Maybe I’m just so used to being fed up, I get fed up over everything.

Because now I’m fed up with The New Yorker.

The story in the November 11, 2013 issue, “Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta, is a point-by-point rewrite of Alice Munro’s “Corrie” from the October 11, 2010 issue (I wasn’t reading TNY regularly then; I encountered it via the PEN/O.Henry 2012 prize anthology).

Now, TNY has published “tributes” and “recastings” before; two I recall right off the bat are Lorrie Moore’s “Referential” (an homage to Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”) and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from the 12/12/11 issue. In both cases, the author interviews discussed primarily the reason for the rewrite, though for the latter, it’s hardly necessary. Repurposings of that title – WWTAWWTA Mad Cow, Cancer, Bubbles (of the economic variety, to my great disappointment, though I now have a desire to write something about other bubbles… hmmm… crank up the Mesostomatic, I feel another round coming on), Haruki Murakami, balls (which lived up to its title) are almost as common as “This is Just To Say” spoofs.

I have no problem with homages, “after” works, tributes, recastings, whatever you want to call them. I very much enjoyed “Referential” – I used it as a springboard into the Nabokov – and I liked the Englander version better than the original (which, to be honest, never hit home for me). But here’s the thing: in both cases, there were clear indications as to what was going on. I wish it had been in the print issue, where the stories were, instead of the blog, but that’s where they hide the “novel excerpt” notices, too, so that’s just the way it is (good reason to always, and I mean always, read the online interview). With Okparanta’s story, however, the Page-Turner interview never mentioned the “homage” angle until the blogosphere exploded, at which point they edited in a “new” question.

Now, I think there are two basic possibilities, and several variations of each of those.

First possibility: TNY didn’t recognize the rewrite. Okparanta is a fairly “hot” author at the moment, and I would imagine they were glad to have her name in the TOC. But was the story accepted without editing, or even reading? That’s a genuine question; I have no idea how these things work at the level of TNY. I recognized the similarity right away, and I’m an idiot (though I did spend an unusually large amount of time on “Corrie” and learned a great deal from it, courtesy of several blog posts at Reading the Short Story by Charles May); is it possible someone read Okparanta’s story and didn’t recognize it? Don’t the TNY fiction editors actually read the magazine beyond what their boss puts on their desk?

Second possibility: TNY knew it was a reframing of the Munro story, but chose to leave that out of the author interview. Maybe they think their readers are stupid. Maybe they thought it’d be more fun that way. Maybe they think differently now, since something got them to edit the original Page-Turner interview to include the “tribute” angle. And what was Okparanta’s role in this? It’s a sad situation no matter what happened, and could’ve been so easily prevented.

As for the story, read “Corrie,” reverse the sexes, remove the religious references and the language play, and what’s left is “Benji.” A woman who’s poorer than she feels she deserves meets a man who’s wealthier than she thinks he deserves, sleeps with him, gets him to eagerly offer her money for specific but factitious purposes. He eventually figures out he’s being duped. Okparanta has kept the initial meeting over a meal, and the transfer of a servant from one household to the other (she did add a twist to that). It’s not a bad story. In fact, it’s interesting to read, in light of the updated Page-Turner interview:

I had the story in my mind for a long time before I sat down to write it, and by the time I began writing it, I knew that there would be certain aspects of the story that each character would know, and certain aspects that each character could not possibly know. Also, I knew that there were certain things that the reader would need to know, and certain things that the reader could not be allowed to know, at least not right away…. After reading “Corrie,” I wanted “Benji” to work as an homage to Munro regarding the parallel plot/structure points, but with different sociocultural contexts, in a way that gave rise to, I hope, a wholly new story.

Had all of that been in the original interview (I didn’t see it until after the update, I’m not sure what it contained other than there was no reference to Munro or her story), I’d be writing about the story now, instead of the mishandling of the story (don’t worry, the fine folks at The Mookse and the Gripes have it covered). But that’s what happens when you don’t read your own magazine. Or you think your readers are stupid. Or whatever it was that went on here.

So I’m fed up with TNY. I’ll get over it; at least I hope I will. I’ve discovered some great stories in the two years I’ve been reading them weekly, and though the frequent inclusion of excerpts-disguised-as-stories annoys me, there’s something of value in that as well. Next week, or maybe tomorrow, or even an hour from now, some official will say or do something stupid, and I’ll be on to something else. Maybe that’s why we’re not rioting in the streets. Outrage fatigue. We’re fed up with being fed up, that there’s more where that came from, that it’s an endless stream, and after a while, it’s just easier to tell yourself you’re overreacting and watch cute cat videos.

And if you’re thinking it’s deceptive to title a post and then barely mention the story in the post, you’re right. It is.

Thomas McGuane: “Weight Watchers” from TNY, 11/4/13

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

I have no real complaints about my upbringing. My parents were self-absorbed and never knew where I was, which meant that I was free, and I made good use of that freedom. I’ve been asked if I was damaged by my family life, and the answer is a qualified no; I know I’ll never marry, and, halfway through my life, I’m unable to imagine letting anyone’s new stay in my house for more than a night – and preferably not a whole night. Rolling over in the morning and finding… Let’s not go there. I build houses for other people, and it works for me.

I’ve run hot and cold with Thomas McGuane stories (he, like Tessa Hadley, has made frequent appearances in TNY over the past couple of years). I was running cold on this one until I read what Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes had to say, at which point I thought I should probably go back and read his other stories that ran cold to find out what I’d missed. It’s not running cold any more.

The title is loaded with meaning, as all of us could stand to lose a little weight. And that isn’t referring to pounds of fat. The story purports to tell the story of a father’s visit to his son, a visit precipitated by mom kicking him out of the marital home because he’d gained too much weight. But that’s just structure; functionally, it’s a biography of a family.

Per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and these parents seem happily unhappy. They cheat on each other; they fight; they blame each other for the emptiness of their lives and find ways to punish each other for giving them what they want. The narrator is the product of this dysfunctional family; that is the weight he has had to lose, and he has; but that came at a cost of the ability to connect with other people.

He’s also lost the weight of his “fine education” to work as a contractor. Some of the most searing passages come from his observations about class in this country where we have historically insisted we are classless:

He felt that he had clambered up a few rungs, and his big fear was that I was clambering back down. As a tradesman – I run a construction crew – I had clearly fallen below the social class to which my father thought I should belong. He believed that fine education he’d paid for should have led me to greater abstraction, but while it’s true that the farther you get from an actual product the better your chances for economic success, I and many of my classmates wanted more physical evidence of our efforts. I had friends who’d trained as historians, literary scholars, and philosophers who were now shoeing horses, wiring houses, and installing toilets. There’d been no suicides so far.

When I finished the first read of this story, I thought, “Well, gee, this one didn’t go anywhere, did it.” That’s true; it’s more of an extended monologue than a narrative. Dad, kicked out by Mom, visits Son; Dad loses the weight required to return home; instead of returning home-home, he is returning to a hotel near home, as if on a trial basis. But it did go somewhere, just not in a plotwise direction.

I kept trying to link this to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but that doesn’t quite work. It is the general idea, though: two people who make a life out of torturing each other, and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’d be perfect, if it weren’t for the kid they’d screwed up.

Throughout, the son insists he’s not that damaged.

I like to be tired. In some ways, that’s the point of what I do. I don’t want to be thinking when I go to bed, or, if there is some residue from the day, I wanted to drain out and precipitate me into nothingness. I’ve always enjoyed to the idea of nonexistence. I view pets with extraordinary suspicion: we need to stay out of their lives.… It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.

I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because in many ways I am this guy, right down to insisting my family wasn’t dysfunctional (and truth is my family isn’t anywhere near the craziness of the family in the story). I’ve been a lot happier since I gave up on trying to be “normal.” The internet helps me tremendously with this: I can be part of the world in a way I can handle. Where in “real” life I alternate between insecure reticence and inarticulate nonsense, when given time to form thoughts without someone waiting for me to hold up my end of the conversation (and without worrying about whether I’m making a strange face or I look like a bag lady or I’m in the way of someone more worthy of taking up space and time), I do ok. I said not so long ago that I wasn’t cut out for real time; neither was I cut out for real people. I do fine with virtual people, though. A lot of people think that doesn’t count. Maybe not. But for people like me and this narrator, we’ve found a way to live with ourselves that works for us. It may be your idea of hell. That’s fine; your life is our idea of hell, too, but we wouldn’t dream of telling you to go get yourself some therapy to fix it.

Haruki Murakami: “Samsa in Love” from TNY, 10/28/13

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” the woman said in a pensive voice. “Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it. . . . But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”

Who better to reverse Kafka than Murakami. I’m a little miffed, because I did it first. Then again, I’m not Murakami. But more about that later.

I just re-read “Metamorphosis” this summer for a class; this helped me notice a few things I might’ve otherwise overlooked. For the sake of clarity (which will get convoluted anyway, but so be it), I’ll refer to the original character as Gregor, and the character here (the story’s available online sans Page-Turner commentary) as Samsa, which is how Murakami refers to him throughout.

From the first sentence, role reversal is the name of the game. “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Murakami preserves a symmetry to the original, which (depending on the translation) reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Bugs don’t have names, of course, and people do, so the process of going from bug to human includes going from unnamed to named. Yet from then on, it’s “Samsa,” not “Gregor,” a more formal name for self-reference. The kind of name by which an outsider might call him; Samsa is, after all, a stranger to himself. Nice.

As in the original, Samsa begins his new state with a detailed examination of physical environment and body. He doesn’t see the pleasant room furnishings that awaited Gregor-the-bug on his awakening; instead, he finds a bare room, where “all vestiges of human life had been stripped away”; he even finds the ceiling disappointing: “It fulfilled its structural role but aspired to nothing further.” Much as had Gregor Samsa in his original incarnation. Again, nice.

We follow Samsa through the process of learning how to walk and figuring out what’s going on, just as with Gregor. He’s naked, feeling exposed, and terribly concerned about his vulnerability, to birds in particular. I’d never thought of bugs as being specifically concerned about birds, but birds do eat bugs, and perhaps to the roach scuttling along the floor, the bottom of a shoe smashing down from above, perhaps accompanied by the shrieking scream, is a giant bird.

This isn’t the novella-length story the original was, but we see enough from the course of this one day that Samsa is becoming more human, just as Gregor became more roach-like.
As the title promises, he falls in love, the ultimate human experience. It’s a nice little dance, the cross-communication with the locksmith. A locksmith! Murakami’s choice to make her hunchbacked, and give her a defensive personality, speaks to her own means of protection, the equivalent of a hard chitin shell. Very nice.

The story is not without humor – particularly when Samsa discovers the male human’s propensity to unexpectedly sprout an erection – but that humor ultimately serves the plot purpose of moving Samsa and the locksmith together:

While he stood behind her, watching her move in that fashion, Samsa’s own body began to respond in a strange way. He was growing hot all over, and his nostrils were flaring. His mouth was so dry that he produced a loud gulp whenever he swallowed. His earlobes itched. And his sexual organ, which had dangled in such a sloppy way until that point, began to stiffen and expand. As it rose, a bulge developed at the front of his gown. He was in the dark, however, as to what that might signify.
…The young woman craned her head at Samsa. “Are you saying you want to see me again?”
“Yes. I want to see you one more time.”
“With your thing sticking out like that?”
Samsa looked down again at the bulge. “I don’t know how to explain it, but that has nothing to do with my feelings. It must be some kind of heart problem.”
“No kidding,” she said, impressed. “A heart problem, you say. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Never heard that one before.”

They’re using the term “heart” in different ways, of course; she thinks he’s declaring love for her, he’s honestly bewildered about what’s happening in this unfamiliar body. If she thinks he’s the one who cares about the lock, she’s wrong about that as well, as he didn’t even know it was broken. But it’s enough to get them started, and sometimes, that’s all you need; the human need to connect with an other, to feel belonging, takes over from there, whether you’re a hunchbacked locksmith or a transmigrated bug.

Despite the obvious references to the original, I find myself tangled up trying to connect the tiny details. Gregor-the-bug died and his family went on, under much improved circumstances; has Samsa transmigrated, reincarnated through that bug, or a different one? Samsa awakes in a bed, on a mattress, but the mattress had been removed from Gregor’s room; all that had remained was the couch under which he died. There’s a breakfast table set for four places, but no people; is this Gregor’s family, his parents and sister Grete? Who is the fourth place? And where have they gone? They did go for a tram ride to the country to celebrate Gregor’s death at the end of the original, but why would four places have been set? Have they been rounded up? Is this a much later time and a completely different family? A completely different house? If so, why the empty room with the boarded up windows and broken lock, so reminiscent of Gregor’s room?

We get few specific time-markers. No cars or telephones are mentioned, though absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. We do get references to military turmoil in Prague, people being “taken in”, tanks and machine guns. I can’t find any reference to tanks in Prague in WWI, the approximate time of the original (written in 1912, published in 1915), but I wouldn’t rule it out based on that. It sounds more like the Prague Spring, though that seems too future to be plausible. The uncertain time may be an intrinsic element of the story rather than my confusion: to read a story is, after all, to be suddenly metamorphosized into another world.

I’m not able to parse it, but neither am I willing to get bogged down in such details; it’s an enjoyable story that makes its point, even without that resolution.

I think everyone has tried his or her hand at reversing Gregor’s plight in some way; as I mentioned earlier, I gave it a shot in a “creative paper” assigned for this past summer’s Fiction of Relationship MOOC out of Brown University: “How does Kafka’s ‘law of metamorphosis’ bear on the ‘fiction of relationship’?…The form your creative paper takes is yours to determine. It is the work of your imagination, but you should make every effort to connect it to the week’s reading and the questions set out in the prompt.…” We were given a limit of 500 words, and could include a 200-word “rationale statement.” My submission:

Rationale Statement: I’ve written an alternate ending to “Metamorphosis” in which Gregor “turns back.” I tried to retain some of the voice of the original text.
I decided to focus on the idea that it was the family that underwent a metamorphosis, emphasize Gregor’s sacrifice. Now that he had been a bug, he knew what it felt like, so seeing someone kill a bug would have extra impact. I wanted to show him as going “back” to being a bug by choice (I used the word “back” three times in the last paragraph), because he could not endure human life, knowing what he now knows about himself, and his family.
Because of the word limits I took some liberties. I just imagined the story without the death scene at all, with the family picnic following their locking him in the room and forgetting about him. There’s a logical flaw in his unlocking the door, but that’s not something I can deal with in 500 words. If I had another few hundred, I’d love to expand the scene where he realizes the door has been locked, goes out the window, and peers into the parlor from outside.

“Aftermath”

Gregor woke up one evening to discover the pain in his back was gone. He savored the relief a moment before he noticed other changes. A hand lay beside him on the floor, a familiar hand.

‘What is this,’ he thought. The floor, which had felt fine to his chitin exoskeleton, felt hard and rough against a fleshy soft belly; numerous nerve endings in soft skin protested the weight pressing on them. He tried to move his many legs to scurry out from under the sofa, but all he had now were two arms and two legs, clumsy and enormously heavy, laden with bone and muscle and fat. As he struggled out from under the sofa, his back, unprotected by carapace, was raked by splinters.

It took him several minutes to clamber to his feet and find a vertical axis instead of the horizontal plane to which he had become accustomed. ‘How do they manage these bodies,’ he thought, ‘so sensitive, so difficult to balance?’ He took a step, and fell. ‘One thing about crawling on the floor,’ he thought, ‘I never had to worry about falling.’

He spend a quarter of an hour practicing this upright walk, then unlocked the door to his room, the door Grete had locked days ago. He approached the parlor carefully, using a wall to steady himself. He stayed in the shadow of the hallway and peered into the brightly lit room.

Oh, his first sight of his mother, chatting with one of the boarders, as cheerful a look on her face as he had ever seen! His father in a glowing silk jacket, smoking a carved pipe. And Grete! She was setting up her music stand, laughing gaily with a young man who appeared quite smitten with her charms.

His mother cried out in alarm. At first Gregor thought she had seen him, but she had instead seen a small insect crawling above the mantelpiece. His father patted her hand, chuckled affectionately, rose and drew his handkerchief from his pocket. He went to the mantel and plucked the creature from the wall. “There, I’ve crushed it,” he called out. “All is well.”

Gregor saw a greyness fall over them, starting at the edges of his vision and moving inwards. This was the man who had thrown the apple. This was the woman who had not come to see her son. This was Grete – the Grete whose dreams of Conservatory he had cherished, the Grete he imagined would happily join him in his room forever until the key turned in the lock and he heard those terrible words, “At last!”

He backed away into the shadows, back into his room. He saw the apple that had until today been rotting in his back. He saw the dim, barren space, the dirty floor, the bowl of garbage that had been left many days before the lock turned.

He returned to his place under the sofa, and waited.

As I’ve already admitted, I’m not Murakami, and I took a somewhat different path, but it was great fun. I’ll bet Murakami had fun with his, too.

Lara Vapnyar: “Katania” from TNY, 10/14/13

TNY Art by Clang, Trunk Archive

TNY Art by Clang, Trunk Archive

When I was a child, I had a family of doll people. … What my family lacked was a father, but a father doll was a true rarity. Nobody I knew had a father doll. Most of the kids I knew didn’t even have fathers. I didn’t have a father; mine died when I was two. …Fatherlessness was so common that even the Soviet authorities were aware of it. The Soviet authorities were famous for being protective of their citizens, so whenever a certain item was scarce they did their best to make that scarcity less conspicuous. My mother, who used to write school textbooks, was prohibited from even mentioning those scarce items. When composing a math problem, for instance, she couldn’t mention bananas, because they were impossible to get in most parts of Russia. She could use apples, but not bananas. Chicken, but not beef. Mothers, but not fathers. She was allowed to write, “A mother gave her three children six apples and asked them to divide the fruit equally,” but forbidden to write about a father asking his kids to do the same thing with bananas. She told me this when I was in my teens, and I didn’t believe her. I combed through my old textbooks to try to prove her wrong, but I couldn’t find a single mention of a father, beef, or bananas.

I’ve been looking at this story (available online) for a week now, trying to find something interesting to say about it. It’s not that it’s a bad story – the insight into Soviet-era Russian families in this city is quite nicely done – but it seems to me to exist on the surface. I suspect that’s because I’m not looking hard enough. I felt the same way about the last Vapnyar story in TNY; good writing, very interesting in places, and the parts worked, but I didn’t see the whole. Here, I see the whole, I just feel like there must be more to it than I’m seeing. I’m probably not doing justice to this story, but at some point, I have to move on.

Katya and Tania are childhood friends who form a bond over their separate doll families, and the country of Katania they create for them. They grow apart after a nasty fight about fathers, and both move to the US in adulthood, where they reunite.

The closer I got to Tania’s place, the more I dreaded our initial conversation. I did want to talk about our childhood, but to get there we would need to catch up first. I’d have to tell her that my mother had died. That I probably wouldn’t be able to have children. And that my husband had left me. “Up and went. Because he was sick of me.” (I guess I didn’t really understand the cruelty of those words until my divorce.) At least my career was on the right track. That was something.
“Recalculating,” the G.P.S. informed me for the twentieth time…

Katya herself is in for some recalculation; she and Tania have not traded places, exactly, but it’s close.

Vapnyar discusses the switch, and the significance of GPS in light of the line, “You may be rich, but I have my freedom,” in her Page-Turner interview.