Vanessa Veselka: “Just before Elena” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012 Portland-Brooklyn

There’s not going to be a baby shower, because there’s no one to plan it. Everyone thinks someone else, someone closer to me, is taking care of it, but they aren’t. And I’m sure as hell not going to ask people to come over and throw a party for me.… My midwife says I should look at my pregnancy as an opportunity to get closer to my women friends. But I figure they’ve had their chance. Ten years of punk shows, basement parties, and having sex with all the same people should have been enough to break the ice.

This story about faith struck me as remarkably similar to “The Shapeshifter Principle” from the same issue. That’s not a complaint, not at all; it’s a great story about another isolated woman showing great courage. And, in a coincidental tribute to The X-Files references in “Shapeshifter,” she really, really wants to believe.

The unnamed first-person narrator isn’t a teenager: she’s a pregnant adult who, technically, isn’t alone. She lives with Silas, the baby’s father, who may or may not be her husband. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t actually alone:

He doesn’t believe in anything. The difference between us is that he doesn’t want to. We aren’t much more than roommates now and my pregnancy feels more like coordinating a CSA share than having a child. You take the carrots and onions. I’ll take the kale and beets. You to the grocery store runs. I’ll go to the bank. I’ll take all the radiologist visits. You read at least one book on what’s happening with my body. Both of us have to go to the birthing classes and we split the Yukon Gold potatoes.

She feels the baby move for the first time, so she calls Silas at work to tell him. “That’s great,” he says, “call someone.” I think the loneliness when you’re with another person is maybe the most intense kind of loneliness there is.

Her midwife presses the issue of connecting with women friends, asking who she knew five years ago. The narrator tells her about her roommate at the time.

One day I left her espresso pot on the stove and burned the rings. She woke me up screaming, espresso pot in one hand, burnt rubber rings in the other, naked, with her legs covered in menstrual blood. “Get out!” she shrieked, her blue Mohawk an azure fountain, her pink skin red under the black ink of her tattoos.

Yeah, I think that’s probably not someone you’d want to be around when you’re pregnant. Or any time, really.

She turns to religion, and starts seeing Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere: painted on a taco truck outside work, on a calendar in the break room. She wonders if maybe she went to Spanish masses, she’d have an easier time believing because she wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said.

This story is one of three connected stories; the other two will be appearing in Zyzzyva and Swink (which, happily, is online). I have no idea how the stories are connected, but I’m curious.

Veselka is kind of hot stuff right now: her debut novel Zazen just won the 2012 Robert Bingham Prize. You can listen to her read six minutes of the opening, or read the litkicks.com interview about it. I’m not one for dystopian future novels, and I have no particular interest in self-immolation, but I’m intrigued by the implications of the question, “Is it possible to sit still while on fire?”

In the end, the narrator of “Just Before Elena” finds her faith, and it has nothing to do with the Virgin Mary. She finds faith in a far more powerful woman: herself. Except Veselka has a way of bringing you there without the cheese. Nice work.

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CJ Hauser: “The Shapeshifter Principle” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012

Tin House art by Nannette J. Stevenson

Tin House art by Nannette J. Stevenson

I wanted to go to John Jay and study criminal justice so I could learn how to be like the ladies on the paranormal shows. I wanted to wear a gray jacket and explain to men about science. I wanted to run fast in tall shoes and carry a gun and when some monster hit me I wanted to get right back up and keep fighting. Partway through I wanted to find out that I was wrong, that the paranormal did exist after all. I wanted to make all the clues add up inside sixty minutes and protect happy people from the ugly truth I’d seen.

Have you ever felt completely alone with a problem – something so scary, so shameful, you couldn’t even talk about it to yourself, let alone another person? That’s the kind of profound isolation Tina’s experiencing here. And whether she realizes it or not, she’s doing all of those things she wants to do above. Except the gray jacket and the tall shoes. But she’s got the courage of a hundred TV investigators.

The story is available online until the next issue comes out [too late]. I recommend reading it rather than reading about it, since the way the story is told adds to its power. It’s a story about a teenager who thinks her mother might have deserted her and her blind brother, told via a canvas of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and goalball.

“It’s like the fatal flaw of comics and sci-fi. They go to all the trouble to build a badass world with strict bizarro rules for how things work, and then suddenly in episode thirteen this guy shows up who can look like anybody? Anybody!”

Tina keeps on keeping on, keeps taking brother Joey to goalball practice – he’s a possible Paralympic contender for 2016 owing to his ability to sneak around silently on the court – but as the days go by and Mom doesn’t return, she starts looking for clues. She starts learning some things she didn’t know about her mother. Like though she quit smoking a couple of years before, she still sometimes buys a pack of Newports. She has a turquoise-and-gold bathing suit on layaway at the local discount store. And she’s pawned all her jewelry, including the Ankh ring once given to her by the father of her children.

Tina’s got a blend of casual street sophistication and complete naiveté that’s authentic and completely endearing. She assumes her father was Egyptian because of the ankh. But she knows to check the pawnshop, and she knows what it could mean.

And she knows Joey’s goalball coach is someone she might like to know. She accepts his offer of dinner after practice; he tells her the history of Ebbets Field, since he lives in the apartment building built where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play. In fact, he figures they’re eating roti right over where the pitcher’s mound would’ve been. On the 14th floor – the one right above the 12th.

Don’t you fucking know better than this? Bulldozed baseball field? Thirteenth floor? They’re never gonna let you into college if you ignore the clues that easy.

So here’s this girl, eyes wide open, surrounded by people in the neighborhood, her brother, a fledgling boyfriend – and still completely alone with the thought that her mother might have taken off for good with the pawn money to someplace she planned to wear a turquoise-and-gold bathing suit.

Back in time for us to catch another of my favorite shows. The one with the girl who’s so tough she’s always staking people in the heart. The girl lives on a hellmouth, so all sorts of weird shit happens. And every week she fixes it, whatever it is, even though she doesn’t want to. Even though she’s always telling everyone she just wants to be a girl in high school.

I won’t spoil the ending, which is as beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful as anything I’ve read lately. Go read it for yourself (like I said, too late).

This issue of Tin House is devoted to their bicoastal homes of Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York. Not just the Portlandia and hipster places – the darker corners as well. Since I come from the “other” Portland, I’m a little jealous, but so far it’s a great issue. And it comes with a poster and a free downloadable mix tape that’s a lot more interesting than I expected.

Addendum: The Tin House blog’s got a nice interview with author CJ Hauser covering science fiction, goalball, and Brooklyn.

Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Within moments of arriving at the cabin, you begin to suspect that the owner is a madman.

Now this is some seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror.

There’s something about the label “horror” that makes the seriously literary (and those of us not so serious literarily) cringe. It’s a spectrum, after all; most of the stuff of good fiction – broken hearts, betrayals, war, violence, madness, depravity, death – is to a large degree degree horrific, or it wouldn’t be interesting enough for a story. It’s kind of arbitrary, at what point a story becomes “horror” when the supernatural isn’t involved. So if it bothers you, just ignore that word. Because this story has chops, and it shouldn’t be lumped in with the lesser stuff.

The opening sentence is enough to discourage a lot of people: oh, no, second person again?!?! as if “you” is some kind of pungent green vegetable one encounters at the dinner table or the company cafeteria from time to time. But don’t be afraid, it’s got a delicious hollandaise sauce – the whole thing just glides down – and seldom has “you” been more essential in a story. The talking-to-himself vibe, fading into the unreality-vibe of the subjunctive. Very nice. I’m putting this in the Second Person Study.

The progression is the star here. The narrator – “you” – has answered an ad for a summer house-sitter, sight and site unseen. He’s a bit surprised to find the house is a run-down cabin in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. “If the property is disheveled, then it must mirror the dishevelment of his mind.” No personal items exist, no clothing, books, knickknacks, just the minimal furnishings. And dreamcatchers. Everywhere, dreamcatchers.

The sheer excess: no glass in the cabin is unprotected by these webs. By these prophylaxes against nightmare.
Now here, you think, is a man absolutely terrified of nightmares.

Right of the bat, from the second paragraph, that the narrator is projecting motives and personality onto his unseen employer (and, by the way – there’s really no reason the narrator has to be male, I don’t think. So here I am projecting onto the narrator. Put that into your gender study and smoke it).

There’s a gradual slide into madness, of course. And eventually into subjunctive mood (“Of course, if you were the owner, you might find ways of believing otherwise”), which is where the serious literary chops come from. It’s subtle, and feels entirely natural. And even when read on a sunny afternoon in a clean, modern house with other people ten feet away, there’s a sense of increasing darkness and isolation that makes for damn creepy reading.

Double meanings abound:

Yes, you think, he has done what it took to protect himself from these nightmares of his and neglected everything else. While in the meantime, what really encroaches on the cabin is wilderness.…That is what the cabin reminds you of, in the end: a nail. Five rooms and a roof hammered into the heart of the forest, where they wait, with the patience of a nail, to become ingrown.

Not only is the cabin a nail (later the cabin is the hammer, insanity the nail), but “nail” has two meanings, which of course it does. All this nail business brings to mind the adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And while the narrator is bemoaning the owner’s tendency to neglect everything but the nightmares, he himself is doing the same thing.

But he doesn’t have nightmares. He’s expecting them, but no. After a week, he has what he considers a “waking nightmare” while looking in the bathroom mirror through a web of streaks and grime; a spider comes crawling out from behind the mirror: “The fact that the spider lives behind the mirror strikes you as unnatural and unnerving. It lives behind the mirror the way monsters live beneath beds.” The feeling passes, and he’s fine again.

A month goes by without incident (a great example of pacing). Then he discovers a clearing in the overgrown grass, and within the clearing, six silhouettes painted in black on the grass:

The six shapes look like crows perched along a power line, or like the chalked outlines of murdered men….what they most resemble are scarecrows. Would the owner have thought they could ward off flocks of nightmares, established in the yard like this? You would not put it past him.

And again, while speculating about just how crazy the owner is, the narrator has no idea he’s sounding a little crazy himself. And of course he gets crazier, deciding he’s snared by parallel thought structures linked to the house itself (“It is almost as if you have been hired not to house-sit the physical cabin, but to house–sit its parallel thought structure). Where does the owner, the house, end, and the narrator begin?

A game of anagrams yields a momentous discovery: HOUSE-SITTING is an anagram of I UNGHOST SITE. The narrator gets more and more into the owner’s imagined state of mind, what he is supposed to do.

The mountain contains the forest; the forest contains the weed field; the weed field contains the enclosure, which contains the shadows, and it also contains the cabin, which is coextensive with the thought structure.; the cabin and the thought structure both contain the dining room, whose walls contain the table at which you are sitting. Each container smaller than the last, and embedded inside it, like a series of nested parentheses. And at the center of this series is you. Every layer presses inward to where you sit. The mechanism is trying to crush your mind from all sides. But you are not worried, because you will never be driven mad. You sit calmly in the smallest chamber of all, your skull, impervious to the currents rippling against you: wall, wall, shadow, field. You are the one sane sentence at the heart of the parenthetical. You cannot be erased.

It all comes down to a showdown with a lawnmower. And a lady-or-the-tiger ending. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of that technique (it usually feels like a cop-out) but I’ll keep an open mind on this one.

Since he doesn’t have a website and he’s new on the scene, I can’t find out much about Bennett Sims. Bios list him as originally from Baton Rouge, with a newly-minted Iowa MFA and stories in Zoetrope: All-Story (and I’m seriously considering ordering that issue, though I have a policy to resist these impulses; the excerpt is, however, delicious), A Public Space, and now, Tin House. I’d love to find out if there’s any relation between him, the now-deceased liberal activist Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, and the screenwriter of Homebodies (1974). But mostly I just want to read more of his work. [Addendum: In June 2013 I read his first novel, A Questionable Shapecomments here – and I’m now officially a huge fan]

I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of it.

Kristen Iskandrian: “The Inheritors” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Vladimir Kapustin: "Last Train"

Vladimir Kapustin: “Last Train”

The thing she reminded me of was a painting that used to hang in my parents’ living room of a girl waiting for a train that was approaching from the upper-right corner of the canvas. The girl stood with her back to the living room, relieved or frightened, who could know, by the train’s imminent arrival, with her wrists poking out from the too-short sleeves of her red jacket, one hand white-knuckling the handle of a weathered suitcase, the other stretching itself, fingers spread and pointing downward, as thought trying to pull clean of its arm…. Sad hair. The hair and the stance of protracted waiting are what brought her to mind when I thought of the painting, and what brought the painting to mind when I saw her.

We learn a great deal about these two women, coworkers at a second-hand shop called Second Chances, without ever learning their names. It didn’t bother me as I read; I didn’t even realize it until I started thinking about how to write about it. There’s a lot more we don’t know about them. They both seem to have some kind of trouble with relationships; whether this is a diagnosed condition, or just personality, is unclear. The narrator was looking for a volunteer position when she stumbled into this job (she thought the shop was some kind of shelter), and was so embarrassed to be wrong, “it seemed inevitable that I would either buy something or ask for a job.”

That may sound weird to you. It sounds weird to me, too. But it also sounds exactly like something I’d do.

The friendship between these two women seems unlikely.

She claimed as a pastime the reappropriation of words and was oblivious to how distracting it was in the midst of serious stories. She also greatly enjoyed using certain expressions and figures of speech, however wrongly, such as, for example, ad nauseam, trump card, au courant, and countless others. I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy delectable sorrow gets squandered.

In fact, a relationship with anyone, for either of these women, seems pretty unlikely.

But they try. At least, the narrator does; whether the other woman is trying, or is just there, we never truly know. The narrator is struggling with her usual relationship problems: “I wish that people, eligible friends like her, came with conversion charts. Without mile markers, material guidelines, I feel lost.” And again, I feel a lot of empathy. Where is too distant, stand-offish, unfriendly? Where is cloying, dependent, needy? They seem to differ for different people, and without boundary markers – or conversion charts – it can be damn difficult for those who are all too happy to play by the rules but have no idea what the rules are, or what the object of the game is.

Mornings, I looked hard at myself in the mirror and practiced making kind, open expressions. But then I would walk around brushing my teeth and return to the mirror and see my face as it normally was – worried and weirdly cavernous…Throughout the day I reminded myself to smile but then would do so at the wrong time…. Having a disruptive mein, I felt certain, was not conducive to making friends. This had been my problem throughout out school, throughout my life.

It’s bizarre, how alike we are, this narrator and I. My slack expression isn’t cavernous; it’s sulky and dull. Occasionally someone will assume I’m “slow” and speak to me in that sappy voice I’ve come to hate. So I remind myself to tighten things up a little – not a smile, exactly, just an alert, interested look. My “neutral expression.” The first story I published was originally titled “Maintain Neutral Expression.” And now I’m reading the story I wish I’d written instead.

You know, I have to keep reminding myself this story isn’t about me.

The narrator offers the woman a ride home a few times, and she admits she initially thought the narrator was stealing things; they laugh:

We were laughing hard now, just letting the laughter be the reason for more laughter. I felt something shift, something skeletal and real, like discovering a new vertebra and then walking differently. We were nearly friends now, and for the moment, I wasn’t questioning it.

It’s an odd relationship, they’re both odd people, and they’re odd in ways that don’t really mesh, but somehow it works out anyway:

It was okay with her that we did not share a sense of humor, that she liked to laugh at real things as they happened and I liked to laugh at imaginary and macabre things that would never happen, that she took most things seriously whereas I did not, and that these characteristics made each of us occasionally lonely and agitated around the other. I felt grateful, humbled by her forgiveness, and I did my best to leave it at that, without further aggravation for unknowingly having needed it.

The need to be grateful that someone accepts her for what she is, hits a sad note; it’s so rare for her to be appreciated. And yet, for people who are tone-deaf when it comes to getting along with people, it rings true.

They go out for a beer, and the woman talks about having been adopted, and her search for her birth parents. She’s adamant about not buying anything new – when you think about it, there really is enough stuff in the world for everyone to have some – including underwear, which is a little gross but, ok. When you think about it, being creeped out by wearing used underwear, after it’s been thoroughly washed, is a little irrational. But it’s a universal instinct. She may be the only person in history who lacks it. I find that fascinating.

One day the woman calls the narrator (I’m sorry, without names it’s the clearest way to refer to them) and, having “just had sex with someone,” says she has a squash she’s going to cook, come on over and have some. This strikes me as hilarious, partly for the casual way she drops in the sex (and who knows what it means), and partly because, well, who invites someone over for squash? It feels perfectly right for these two.

The narrator discovers her friend is a bit of a hoarder: “inches of mail on the table, birdhouses, mason jars, and hats on the counters, three ancient radios in a row … a towering stack of phone books.”

I felt as though I had walked inside of her, through the unruly glen of her instincts, past the exhausting expanse of her quirkiness, and arrived at some clearing, some place of deep wisdom, where she knew far more than I but would refrain from making me too aware of it. Here, there was a certain restraint emanating, it seemed, from the clocks and jars and paper; it was as if the items themselves owned the apartment.

I love that concept of a person being a place you arrive at after you’ve gotten past the exterior exhibits.

They chat, eat squash, watch a lot of television. When she gets home, the narrator is aware that she misses the woman, apparently something unexpected and perhaps unfamiliar.

The woman doesn’t come to work the next day; she assures the narrator by phone that she’s fine and she’ll be in the next day. And of course she isn’t. Or the next, or next. The narrator goes to her apartment and finds she’s left, given her landlord notice, left all her things saying someone would be by to pick them up.

It was here the tears started. I’d missed it – I was looking so hard at the narrator, I missed the other woman’s problem with intimacy. The exterior exhibits fooled me. Of course she had to leave, after letting someone inside. I was so wrapped up in the narrator, I missed it – and I’m pretty sure the writer planned it exactly that way.

The narrator strains to deal with this development:

I felt sick but also relieved – as though I’d had a fever and it was breaking and I could sit up and drink ginger ale, as though nausea and recuperation were happening in the same moment, the contrast its own kind of balm….she’s gone, she isn’t here, shoe’s no longer here, and if felt almost like joy; but not really.

These people are both so unable to identify emotions, I think, maybe because the feelings are rare, or because they’re so exquisitely sensitive to them, they’re overwhelming and it’s hard to tell exactly what they are, like incredibly bright light or a terribly loud sound.

The piece started with an image – the painting of the girl waiting for a train, at the top – and it ends with another one from the woman’s tv set:

…one woman facing the camera and pouring amber-colored liquid from an ornate decanter into a glass, and swirling it, and turning around slowly, deliberately, and another woman with her back to the camera, looking out a window and touching the edge of a lace curtain, framed by the window and the camera and the gaze of the other woman and waiting, it seemed, for some cue.

At least there are two people in the picture now. Even if we can’t see one’s face.

I first became aware of Kristen Iskandrian when I read “Phonics,” a flash posted on the Tin House blog last October. I was so taken with it, I added it to my “Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love” page. It’s also about a couple of outsiders, though they don’t connect, at least in the story. She has some other stories floating around online. I want to keep an eye out for her, being an outsider myself and all.

Alice Munro – “Dolly” from Tin House #52, Summer 2012

Octavio Ocampo: "Forever Always"

Octavio Ocampo: “Forever Always”

There had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Jackson being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.

What a great opening. I’m particularly fond of the use of passive voice in the first sentence – a big no-no – which means it’s very important. And it is, in what it says about this woman, whose name we never learn – an interesting choice, since the other two characters get two names apiece.

She’s 71, a retired math teacher who now writes biographies of Canadian authors who aren’t all that famous. Jackson, to whom she’s technically not married, is a poet and sometimes-lecturer who describes himself as a horse trainer. She isn’t crazy about what she calls his “‘aw-shucks’ persona”, but she understands it: “When you’re busy with horses, people can see that you are busy, but when you’re busy making a poem, you look as if you’re in a state of idleness and you feel a little strange or embarrassed having to explain what’s going on.” I love that; I suspect Alice Munro came up against that all the time, back before she was famous. Maybe even now. Just sitting and thinking isn’t all that respected any more.

She and Jackson have put their plans on hold, however, since he thinks she’s too young to die just yet. They’ll talk about it again in four years.

I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore, in our lives.

He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?

It was too polite, I said.

We leave this little scene, which at the time disappointed me. I should’ve trusted Alice Munro.

Months later, Gwen comes to the door selling cosmetics. She’s not exactly the poster girl for the business: “If she hadn’t told me she was wearing makeup, I would have thought her face was a bare as mine. Bare, sallow, an amazing mass of wrinkles.” She’s invited in, and the two women have coffee and a pleasant conversation. There’s an interesting observation around Gwen’s smoking: “Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything.” I quit smoking three years ago, but I understand that entirely; like the idle poet, it’s a tiny, perfect observation.

The woman orders skin lotion, more from sympathy (Gwen’s family is in disarray) than a real desire to look younger. She’s surprised when Gwen actually delivers it some time later, and they have another nice chat about one of the earlier biographies.

When they’ve finished and it’s time to go home, Gwen’s car won’t start, and the garage doesn’t answer the phone; the woman invites her to stay for dinner, of course, and figures she’ll need to stay the night. Jackson arrives home, and is also unable to get the car started.

And then the twist:

She and Jackson were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” Gwen said.
“No, it isn’t,” said Jackson. “It’s just me.”
They stood halted in their tracks. How could they have missed it? It would not do to spread their arms and fall upon each other, so instead they made some strange disconnected movements, as if they had to look all around them in order to be sure this was reality. They said each other’s names with tones of mockery and dismay. Not the names I would have expected them to say, either.
“Jack.”
“Dolly.”
After a moment I realized that Gwen, Gwendolyn, could indeed by teased into Dolly.
And any young man would rather be called Jack than Jackson.

Notice the “young man.” There’s no question, in the woman’s mind, this is someone from Jack’s youth. Everyone has an ex, several exes; running into one in your own living room sixty years on is a pretty strange event. But that isn’t the half of it.

But I did know, in a highly celebratory way, about her two weeks with Jackson, and so, as I have said, did many others. At least if they read poetry. They knew how lavish she was with her love, but they did not know how she’d believed that she couldn’t get pregnant because she’d been a twin and wore her dead sister’s hair in a locket around her neck. She had all kinds of notions like that….This wasn’t all in the poem, of course. I had badgered him into telling me things, and was privately unenthralled. I knew how men are charmed by stubborn quirks, by idiocy, if the girl is good-looking enough. Of course that’s long gone out of fashion. Or I hope it has. All that delight in the infantile female brain.
But the girl I had teased out of Jackson might, of course, be his creation, as much as the girl in the poem. Somebody Gwen or Dolly wouldn’t recognize.

It isn’t exactly Dante and Beatrice, but it’s a pretty cool setup. A bit of craziness ensues as the woman comes unhinged, and the next day, runs away from home. A different kind of Runaway. She mails a letter to Jackson – one of those letters one should write but never send, alas – but comes to her senses soon after and returns home.

Strange. In the middle of my rage, it had seemed as if we had gotten time back, as if there was all this time in the world to suffer and complain. Or make rows, if that was what you wanted to call it. Whether or not we could spare the time for that had never come into it, no more than it would have done if we were thirty….
I would have to be on the lookout for the letter I had written him. What a joke it would be – well, hardly a joke – if I should die in the meantime.
That made me think about the conversation we’d had earlier in the fall, and our notion of being beyond all savagery and elation.

Some of the story lines didn’t quite make sense, but then again, that’s how people are sometimes. As I read, it all felt completely authentic; even as I marvelled that the woman overreacted the way she did, I never for a moment doubted that she did exactly that. And of course her overreaction was, perhaps, more of an affirmation of the promise that life might not yet be completely over, that surprises can still await us even at 71 years of age.

Even though it’s slightly forced, I greatly appreciated how the circle was closed at the end by bringing it back to the beginning; I’m very fond of circular structure. I’m also fond of the writerly details, such as the notion that it might do to consider carefully who gets immortalized in one’s work.

Holly Goddard Jones, “The Right Way to End a Story” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Tin House cover art: "Annie Duels the Sun" by Angie Wang

Tin House cover art: “Annie Duels the Sun” by Angie Wang

Juliet had been tending a fantasy about the famous photographer who would be lodging with her at the college’s guest house. She knew that he was older than she – twenty years at least – but that was perhaps a good thing at this point in her life, as recently separated as she was, as recently thirty as she was. An older man, an artist, a jet-setter in (she imagined) khaki trousers and a vest: she’d seen his self-portrait on the Internet and felt very kindly toward him.

This is the third story in the past couple of months (see “The Golden Vanity” and “Sweet Dreams“) in which there’s a close relationship between the main character and the narrator. I’m not complaining – I like it. I just hope it’s not suddenly a fashionable trend, because I’d like to continue to like it. It’s also about a writer, which is so often considered a litfic taboo (probably because teachers and editors see so many of them). Jones acknowledges this in a blog post:

This is a very different story for me. It’s about a writer — I long swore to myself that I would never write a story about a writer, because doing so seemed like such a navel-gazing act of indulgence — and it’s quite barbed. It’s a little bit satirical and a littler bit metafictional, and it’s a perhaps-dangerous mix of stuff I’ve really thought about this writing and academic life I’ve chosen and stuff I suspect other people think about it and stuff that I find outright wrong and offensive, all in the perspective of a character who’s superficially enough like me to get me in trouble. But that was part of the fun and the experiment, too…

I happen to like stories about writers – and again, I probably wouldn’t if I encountered it in every third story. And academia just begs for barbing. I enjoyed this one. Just a few months ago I was debating dropping Tin House when the next renewal came around, and here they send me an issue that makes me reconsider.

In addition to the lost-ness in her personal life described in the opening paragraph above, Juliet’s career isn’t taking off, either. She published her debut story collection and has been working on a novel, but she’s working as a lowly adjunct, and picking up random visiting-artist classes like the one in the story. She had an affair with Evan, her thesis advisor, before meeting her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and he thinks this gig is beneath her, but then, he’s got 5 novels plus poetry and story collections (just ask any MFA about the job market; it’s tough out there as colleges embrace vocational education and dismiss anything that isn’t engineering, computer science, or business admin). He’s scolded her also for publishing in an online magazine, for god’s sake – just once. This little touch is so perfect, it would’ve won me over by itself, since it’s a topic that frequently comes up on writer-oriented message boards.

She was self-aware enough to hate all of this hate, to recognize how pathetic and bitter she’d become, and the awareness only angered her more, because she couldn’t fix herself right now. She was homeless and nearly broke and her marriage had failed, and the only comfort she’d been able to find was through her laptop, on pirated Wi-Fi: the image of her famous photographer and the fantasy of what three weeks with him in a quaint guest cottage would be like.

You can imagine that the reality doesn’t match up to the fantasy: as she’s shown around the guest house she’ll be sharing with famous photographer Paul Sacca, she finds out quite abruptly from a cold encounter with his wife that they do not want to share a kitchen with her, so she hardly meets the guy for the first week. She’s assigned his lecture to her class, and she makes a bit of a fuss there, calling bullshit on the artistry in a photograph of a plate titled “Afghani.” She’s very specific and makes a perfectly good argument, but I’m not sure it’s ok to for one visiting artist to challenge another, and he slaps her down pretty good. I sympathize so much with her here. She goes to a nearby tavern, gets drunk and calls her thesis advisor, stumbles around in the snow – and who should drive by but the photographer, helpfully offering a ride.

What makes this story, though, isn’t that plot (which I’ve just sketched; the scenes are wonderfully drawn, and there are many more significant details) but the relationship between this story and the comments made throughout about writing. She hates exposition:

“Readers don’t want to wade through pages of backstory,” she would say. “They want to know the problem and know it quick. It’s the writer’s job to deliver the problem.” She was good at delivering problems, she had decided. Good at zeroing in on trouble.

This is after seven pages of backstory. And to be honest, the backstory was my favorite part. Of course, the “problem” is framed in the opening paragraph, which is pretty much the standard structure – start in media res, then flashback to fill in the colors, and proceed. I like how she works this into the story.

It’s fun to match up all the opinions on writing – hers on her husband’s stories, her husband’s on her stories, Evan’s recommendations – with the story. It’s more complex than a one-to-one system; she seems to take Evan’s advice over her husband’s on pov-shifts then maybe violates her own on story endings. I can see some elements of her husband’s characters in her, and Evan’s offhand remark that her stories are “too domestic” to be appreciated by male editors – an opinion he seems to have revised, or at least softened – seems to have been heeded. So it was a bit of a game as well as a story – trace that character, what’s that technique. I’m not always sure whether she’s following the given rules, or breaking them – but that’s on me.

It’s a good read, and the academic barbs (which are perfect) and writing commentary give it energy it might not have had otherwise – brings it out of the realm of the “domestic drama” while still keeping her personal emotional turmoil the nucleus. I haven’t read any of her work before, but I think maybe I should.

Jess Row: “Summer Song” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Someone said, the problem with summer is that it goes on too long. It’s an interstice, a pause, a suspended sentence. You want it so desperately, then you can’t wait to get out of it. It gives you the illusion of permanence on earth. No matter what, it always comes back.
Someone else said, if I have to eat another bowl of gazpacho, or drink another glass of sangria, I’m going to fucking kill myself.

More prose poem than narrative, this reminds me of one of those party scenes in a movie – there’s a crowd of voices, the camera focuses on this conversation or that one, zooming in to listen more closely, then flitting away to find another knot of chatters, another party.

If you’ve been to that party – where in one corner someone is earnestly trying to raise a serious issue about current events, the big academic question of the day, or the less-than-admirable behavior of a group of which he’s a part (Americans, or the Middle Class, say), and a bored self-important blowhard (or half-drunk attention-seeker out of his intellectual depth) hijacks the conversation with a clumsy joke to himself become the center of attention again – then you know this story.

They worried about the inchoate, almost unmentionable things you can’t talk about at parties, like the problem of evil in light of God’s omniscience, or the potential for decades-long economic depression following a global credit collapse, or the future of the country, given that, I mean, half the kids in Alexa’s kindergarten class barely even speak English. Was it ok to hang bunting across your porch even if you disagreed with the war in Afghanistan to promote the success of Wallaby’s Organic Market, where red, white, and blue vegan cookies were on sale for $10.99 a pound?
But perhaps all those were forms of avoidance, of eliding the real problems, the intimate problems.

There’s a reference to Ray Bradbury – “A few wondered if Bradbury was still alive, and one or two said, oh yes, I read an interview with him in the Paris Review – made extra-bittersweet by random chance of timing, and the ending paragraph lands a glancing blow on terrorism-ism, but overall it reminds me of Cheever. Or post-9/11 Prufrock.

I love Jess Row’s writing (and forgive him when his character starts pontificating), and again he doesn’t disappoint. He juxtaposes the general and the specific, the thoughtful and inane, in a short (six-page) lyric that’s embarrassing as we maybe see ourselves, and beautiful. It’s kind of strange that the two stories I chose to read because they were very short (I was in a waiting room, not expecting to wait as long as I did, so as it happens I had time for this and Amy Hempel before my name was called) turned out to be more essay than narrative. In fact, I thought that might be the theme for the issue –I hadn’t read the Introduction yet, shame on me – but the “miserabilism” theme fits just as well.

There will never be another summer like this one. There will be another summer like this one. There will be, like, another summer. There will be another summerlike summer. One summer will be like another. A summer will never be like another one.

Amy Hempel: “A Full-Service Shelter” from Tin House, Summer 2012

They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose—and liked it. And would rather do that than go to a movie or have dinner with a friend. They knew me as one who came two nights a week, who came at four and stayed till after ten, and knew it was not enough, because there was no such thing as enough at the animal shelter in Spanish Harlem that was run by the city, which kept cutting the funds.

Reading this story is a lot like watching that Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA spot on a continuous loop for 20 minutes. But Tin House provided fair warning in their Introduction to the Summer Issue in which it appears: “Consider this summer reading as providing a few grains of sand in your suntan lotion, a little bit of grit to remind you of the depth and breadth of the human condition.” Welcome to an exploration of Miserabilism.

They knew us as the ones who had no time for the argument that caring about animals means you don’t also care about people; one of us did! Evelyne, a pediatrician who treated abused children.

I’m not so sure it’s a short story, no matter how flexible you are in your definition, or fiction, for that matter. Chuck Pahalniuk, Amy Hempel’s #1 Fan, called something by the same title an essaytwice – though he also said it was about to appear in Electric Literature back in August and October 2011 and now here it is in Summer 2012 Tin House, so it’s possible he was referring to something else. Amy Hempel does in fact volunteer in a Manhattan animal shelter. She’s listed as one of the founders of the Deja Foundation which attempts to rescue dogs on shelter kill lists. And she already wrote the haunting flash “In The Animal Shelter” which isn’t about the animals at all but shows a familiarity with shelters that goes back .

But all that said – and I’m aware I haven’t yet addressed what the story is, at all – it’s great writing.

They knew me as one who decoded the civic boast of a “full-service” shelter, that it means the place kills animals, that the “full-service” offered is death.

The paragraphs alternate between “They know us” and “They know me” with more standard declarative sentences thrown in to keep it from getting sing-song. But that sentence structure keeps the silent, unseen subject, the dogs in the shelter, at the forefront at all times. To me it also invokes the biblical “By their works you shall know them.” There’s no plot; it’s a string of brief scenes, some uplifting, some outrageous, all heartbreaking.

It’s also informative. I watch the Westminster Kennel Club dog show – both nights – every year, and yet I’d never heard the terms “molosser“, “catahoulas,” or “presa canario” before.

The first line is from a short story, “In The Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, from his second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. It also uses the “They” construction, though much more sparingly.

They knew me as one who asked another volunteer if she would mind holding Creamsicle, a young vanilla and orange pup, while I cleaned his soiled kennel and made his bed at the end of a night. I knew that Katerina would leave the shelter in minutes for the hospital nearby where her father was about to die. She rocked the sleepy pup in her arms. She said, “You are working too fast.” She kissed the pup. She handed him to me. She said to me, “You should take your time.” We were both tired, and took turns holding the pup against our hearts. They saw this; they knew this. The ward went quiet. We took our time.

If you have your tissues and your Paypal account handy (you’ll want to make a donation to someone somewhere afterwards), you can read it online while the Summer 2012 issue is current (addendum: too late). It’s quite short, and it is beautiful writing. And for me, knowing it isn’t really fiction only makes it better.

Addendum: I’m delighted to see this is included in the 2014 Pushcart volume. I don’t have much more to say about it, certainly not enough for an extra post, but I do find it interesting, in view of my current obsession with the theme of “truth” I see in the early stories (of which this is one, the very first fiction piece, in fact), that I initially wasn’t sure if it was fiction or non-, and concluded that it was called fiction, but was really closer to truth. This is what you do with nonfiction when you want to make little changes that improve the narrative flow, or combine events and people into more easily writeable scenes. This had the ring of truth when I originally read it, and still does.

Sunday with Zin: Richard Osgood, Tin House Plotto Master!

Richard chasing his wife - 'his momentum like the untwisting of a perpetual knot'

Richard chasing his wife - 'his momentum like the untwisting of a perpetual knot'

Hello, I am Zin! What a special Sunday: Richard Osgood won the first-ever Tin House blog Plotto flash contest Final Round on March 28 with his story “Millennium House” (he won the qualifying round in Week 2 with his entry “Rapid Eye”). Since I know Richard from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, I asked him a few questions! I want to jump right into his comments, so I will put FMI about the Plotto contest and the Flash Factory at the end!

Hello, Richard, and Congratulations – what a major success, to win this contest! Was the Plotto three-clause method familiar to you, other than through this contest?

No, I had never heard of it before. Also I had never heard of the author, William Wallace Cook, but it is said he was singularly responsible for the deforestation of Canada. He was the author of adventure stories in the form of dime novels and serials. It might be fun one day to read some of his work.

I will admit, the Plotto prompts still do not quite make sense to me! But you seem to get it just fine.

Plotto is a methodology, a mechanical process from which stories can be written. It’s not really a “How To” book because it doesn’t contain anything on character development, creation of setting, story structure, or any of those “tips” and “insights” other authors might profess. The clauses represent three parts to a story: The A Clause establishes the protagonist (in general terms); the B Clause originates and continues the action; and the C Clause continues and resolves the action. A Masterplot (according to William Wallace Cook) “serves as a general theme or summary of the story at its most basic level.” The Plotto Chart contains a matrix of interchangeable clauses in order to mix and match story components, which can lead to what some say is an unlimited array of plots.

How did you go about creating the Master Plot for the final challenge – or did you have the story first?

I allowed the process to do its job and guide the story. First, let me back up a bit. I was confused initially about how Tin House wanted us to proceed using Plotto. The first five weeks (the Plotto Contest weeks) consisted of them providing a Conflict Statement (you can review them on the TH blog) but the Master Challenge required each of us to compose a Master Plot by utilizing the Clause matrix. I decided first to browse the conflict statements, and when I found one that suited my needs, I selected three clauses to match the conflict statement. So I wrote the story from an idea brought to fruition by means of the Plotto exercise. I didn’t have a completed version until a few hours before the deadline, but I had prepared for this story by digging deep into Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium.”

And your protagonist builds a very interesting house! At what point did you start to go that way?

It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition. Camus was not an existentialist or a nihilist, rather he recognized the futility of attempting to create meaning from thin air, to use human acceptance of unquantifiable explanations (faith) as wrap-and-bow on the otherwise unexplainable. This was the basic concept I wanted to address in the Master Plotto story. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman, with the caveat that no matter how hard we as humans attempt to manipulate our environment, no matter how hard we attempt to build something concrete from the perpetually fluid, ultimate possession of the absurd remains elusive. This house and this story is about the non-place of place. I used as building blocks my analysis of Calvino’s “Six Memos,” in particular the basic concepts for each: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency, so in a way it’s Calvino’s house this story represents. I suspect he would feel at home.

I am sure he would, since the Tin House blog describes as “Calvino-esque”! You have inspired me to read the “Six Memos” lectures, but I have just started and am not really able to frame a good question yet. So: just go for it! Tell us about the Six Memos!

Calvino didn’t write these memos to predict the future or speculate about the trajectory of fiction but to reinforce the value of literature in the context of a millennial transition. His intent was to present these as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1985 but a month before the scheduled event he died while still in Italy. He never finished the sixth memo, which was to be on Consistency, so the title “Six Memos” is in fact a bit deceiving. I don’t use this text as instructive but as reinforcement of the tendencies in my writing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them . . .”

“What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the ‘civilization of the image’? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?”

“. . . to represent the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn; to represent it without in the least diminishing the inextricable complexity or, to put it better, the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements that converge to determine every event.”

“Think of what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language . . .”

Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.

This is my interpretation of Calvino’s quote above, or at least how I hope to benefit from it. I believe, to varying degrees, that this method of indirect “connection” can apply to anything and anyone, from a squirrel on a fencepost to an inmate on death row, but not without the oblique sidestep necessary to indirectly assimilate the direct experience of a squirrel or a death row inmate. Ah, then comes arrogance, the spritely jokester at the edge of our peripheral vision, the single-minded obsession of individual ego to take control, to assume the shape and psyche of all perception, because the individual ego cannot stand the unlimited perspectives of otherness. But we’ve reached an agreement, my ego and me, where I am allowed to create landscapes of life as experience, to include the emotional, psychological, spatial, transcendental, and sensuous details, and like Millennium House, to indirectly connect a reader with the direct experience of (and within) the story.

So he is one of your major influences?

Yes, he’s on the stand next to my Vonnegut chair. You see, I’ve got this room with a half dozen chairs of different yet equal comfiness, each with a straight-on view through a different window, and each with a stack of books from authors I consider stylistically similar. I also have a Kerouac chair, a DeLillo chair, a John Irving chair, a Colum McCann chair, and a Donald Barthelme chair, each with other related authors of similar styles and tendencies. As I suspect most writers do, I read to re-ground myself, to seek refuge from the labyrinth of my wandering ways.

I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys. This is also where I read works by John Hawkes and Georges Bataille, which can be quite exhausting, so I am grateful for its close proximity to the kitchen.

You are an Architect, yes? Aha! I love that you combine that with writing! When did you start writing fiction? Did you study writing (formally) at all as an undergrad or outside of college? Or is it purely a natural talent?

Currently I am the Building and Planning Director for a city in the Cincinnati metro area. My undergraduate work at Wesleyan University (in Connecticut) was in studio art with an architecture concentration. My graduate work at the University of Cincinnati was exclusively in architecture with a concentration on history, theory and criticism. I process all my stories in a spatial, architectural context, which I believe helps me create multi-dimensional characters, settings, and story structure. I tend to write from the inside out, or to put it another way, I visualize the story from within, emanating in multi-directional spatiality.

I didn’t start writing fiction (really) until the end of 2006 when I joined Zoe and the Flash Factory. I didn’t study writing–meaning, I never took any creative writing courses–but in building my own architectural “sensibility” I took a lot of philosophy and architectural theory classes, as well as history and of course studio art classes. Natural talent? I don’t know about that. I think it all has to do with perspective, and a back room deal with my ego for a polygamous sort of lifestyle.

How was working with the people at the Tin House blog?

They were wonderful. When “Rapid Eye” won the Week 2 Plotto Contest they sent me a couple e-mails to say how many “reads” the story was getting and that they were very pleased with how the Plotto contest was being received out there. They were very patient with me during the Master Plotto Challenge because I was so thick-headed about the instructions. We had an exchange of three or four e-mails before I finally “got it.” They also said to submit something for Flash Fiction Fridays and they would post it because I am a Plotto winner, which is really cool, but I haven’t sent anything yet. I can’t seem to find anything good enough.

I have known you for several years as the Guy In Charge of the Flash Factory at Zoetrope! How much of your published work comes from the Factory?

Most of my published work comes directly from participation in the Weekly Flash Gigs. I’ve participated in fifty or sixty Factory challenges over the past five years, which given the duration doesn’t amount to much. But I credit the Factory and the workers therein for all my successes, no matter how obscure or minimal. 2011 was a light year (definitely not a light-year) but 2012 has started strong, with 12 acceptances/publications in the first 2 1/2 months.

Why Flash Fiction?

I have always been non-traditional in my art and architecture projects, first at Wesleyan (where I was, in fact, a non-traditional student), and then with my critical and theoretical studies at the University of Cincinnati. Compressed fiction is a non-traditional form, a fusion of prose and poetics, where experimentation and the challenge of boundaries is the modus operandi. Flash Fiction is not pre-school or a training ground for longer fiction. It is a legitimate style worthy of serious consideration.

I am happy Tin House is finally recognizing the value and unique character of compressed fiction. Maybe they are following the lead of National Public Radio who has their own Three Minute Fiction segment, or maybe they have discovered that the quality of Flash Fiction in today’s environment rivals that of the traditional short story, at least in terms of a legitimate style and format.

Thank you, Richard! And again, Congratulations!

FMI:
The Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope, has a weekly flash contest (and members also work on their Plotto entries!) and welcomes new members! If you sign up for Zoetrope Virtual Studios, you can send Richard Osgood a z-mail so he can add you to the office member list!

Check out the second Plotto Master Contest of All Plots at the Tin House blog, running right now! Do not be afraid! Get in on the fun!

Learn more about William Wallace Cook’s Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Or win one of the Weekly challenges and Tin House will send you a copy as your prize!

And best of all: Read more flash fiction by Richard online:

“Litchfield to Ashtabula”in apt, April 2012

“Brazil” in kill author Issue Nine Vonnegut, October 2010

“(Please) Don’t Walk On The Wet Floor, Edgar” in Ink Sweat and Tears, April 2010

“Unspoken” in decomP February 2012

“I Make Candy Every Day” in metazen September 2009

“Summer of ’74” in Dogzplot September 2009

“A Beautiful Day for Coop Renner to Play” in Mudluscious 9

“TubeTopia” from Nighttrain

“Urban Thoreau” in Clockwise Cat, October 2009

Andrea Barrett: “The Particles” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012

Art by Julie Huang: UWOMJ Vol 78 No 3, Back Cover

Art by Julie Huang: UWOMJ Vol 78 No 3, Back Cover

In particular, a recent symposium that many in his audience had attended and that had examined this crucial question: could an injury to one generation cause an effect that was inherited by the next?

I was nervous at the beginning of this story. For one thing, it’s fairly long. For another, it begins aboard a lifeboat, and for several pages shows no sign of moving on.

I shouldn’t have feared. Andrea Barrett again – as she did in “The Ether of Space” from last Spring – beautifully demonstrates scientific principles through the emotional lives of her characters, all located properly in historical context.

The present of the story is shortly after the (historically accurate) German sinking of the British ship Athenia immediately following the invasion of Poland and the onset of World War II in September, 1939. We have Sam, 34-year-old scientist in the very new field of genetics; his college mentor Alex; and fellow mentee and seemingly favorite son Duncan. You know how there’s always that guy that’s always a step ahead of you, no matter what? Who’s always invited to lunch with the boss, and always finds ways to brag about it, yet seems determined to step on your neck to keep you from catching up? That’s Duncan.

From the books that Mr. Spacek loaned him, Sam finally gained the language to shape what he’d been feeling since he could remember: Who am I? Who do I resemble, and who not? What makes me me, what makes you you; where did we come from, who are we like? What do we inherit, and what not?

The passengers who survived the sinking (and the lifeboats – one was destroyed by a rescue ship’s propellers) are crowded on board the too-small City of Flint, which headed for Nova Scotia. They include the three principles, who have all attended (though not together) a genetics conference in Edinburgh. It didn’t go well for Sam, though we don’t know why until later in the story. And Sam just wants to talk to Alex, but he’s protected by Duncan and surrounded by other acolytes: “Why was it, he thought, that even here Duncan seemed able to keep him and Axel apart?”

If this sounds like sibling rivalry, yes, it is. And it just gets worse. While we follow Sam’s thwarted attempts to have a private conversation with his mentor, we pick up the backstory via a series of long flashbacks: how he met professor Alex and senior student Duncan when he arrived at college, the summer he spent in Woods Hole and the professional mistake he made then, his fledgling career interrupted by the Depression, his time in Russia, his current position, and the presentation he just gave in Edinburgh.

Every living individual had two parts, one patent, visible to our eyes – the me you see, the tree you touch; that was the somatoplasm – and the other latent, perceptible only by its effect on subsequent generations but continuing forever, part of the immortal stream that was the germplasm.

The prose is beautiful, and as before, lush and rich – maybe a little too lush and rich. I thought this style fit “The Ether of Space” but here it seems a bit overdone somehow. Maybe I just wanted to find out if Sam would ever get to talk to Alex, and what happened in Edinburgh (all of which comes along in due time). I’ve always questioned the whole push to “stay in scene, describe everything” and here, I think I could’ve used a little less. Not that it wasn’t great reading – the art student who was now travelling home alone, because his friend was in the lifeboat ground up by the rescue ship’s propeller, the little girl who sees Sam as a comforting figure, the crowding, all the Titanic-esque stuff (I suppose timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary while not directly referencing it) with nascent war on top of it. But I cared so much about Sam and Alex (and for the longest time I had no idea who Alex was, male or female, friend, spouse, child) that I just wanted to skip over the texture.

Maybe genes weren’t particles after all, weren’t arranged like beads on a string, but were more like spiderwebs, susceptible to the influence of events in the cytoplasm; maybe they weren’t quite as impregnable to outside influence as previously thought?

But of course, in the end texture is everything, and perhaps the reason I cared so much about the principles was the great job the supporting material did in making me care.

The final scene with Sam and Alex is truly great:

“I do the best I can,” Axel said. “You must have found yourself in similar situations with students. You know how sometimes you have to treat the one you actually feel least close to as the favorite, just so he won’t lose confidence entirely?”
“I do,” Sam said miserably. Not that he’d ever felt treated as a favorite, but he knew what Axel meant: he’d always acted more kindly toward Sam than he really felt, so that Sam wouldn’t be too crushed to go on.
“I’ve always had to do that with Duncan,” Axel said. His bandage, unpleasantly stained, had shifted farther back on his head. “I still do. I find, in certain situations. And here – what could I do? He wanted so badly to take care of me.”
“You gave him his start,” Sam said, not knowing what he meant.
“It’s a good thing I can count on you to understand,” Axel said. “You’re strong enough to go your own way. That’s part of what gets you into such trouble. And part of why your work is so interesting.”

Poor Sam, so clueless he doesn’t even realize who he is, not even now as Alex spells it out to him. And it’s because of the texture, because I know about his failed romances – including one girlfriend who ended up as Duncan’s wife (I told you it got worse) – and his fears that he is sterile and his kindness towards a little girl on the lifeboat and his memories of his father who died when he was four and the struggles he’s had professionally for bringing up scientific thoughts before they’re completely nailed down – more discussion points than solid research, which seems to be a major mistake – I’m left wondering, as Sam did, if it’s all about timing: “could an injury to one generation cause an effect that was inherited by the next?” And the answer: of course.

Julia Elliott: “LIMBs” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012 – Science Fair

Tin House #51, "Science Fair"

Tin House #51, "Science Fair"

“Elise.” He squints at her. “You still got it. Prettiest girl at Eden Village.”
She flashes her dentures but says nothing.
“You remember me. Ulysses Stokes, aka Pip. We went to the BBQ place that time.”
Elise nods, but she doesn’t remember. And she’s relieved to see a tech nurse headed her way, the one with the platinum hair.
“Come on, Miss Elise,” she says. “You got Memories at three.”
Elise points at the plastic Power Units strapped to her lower limbs.
“You’re gonna walk it today,” says the nurse. “I think you got it down.”
Elise grins. Only three people from the Dementia Ward were chosen for the test group. So far, she’s the only one with nerve signals strong enough to stimulate the sensors. As she strides along amid flowers and bees, she rolls the name around on her tongue – Pip Stokes – recalling something familiar in the wry twist of his mouth.

I like science fiction and science-based fiction, but I have to confess this story didn’t really work for me. You can read it for yourself (at least for now, but hurry, it may disappear when the Summer issue of Tin House comes out) at the Tin House website. [addendum: too late, it’s no longer online]

Elise is a patient in a nursing home. She’s just getting used to her Leg IntuitiveMotion Bionics (LIMBs, hence the title) which, if she gets the hang of it, will restore her mobility. She’s also participating in a study to enhance her memories. The staff wasn’t overly optimistic, given the state of her dementia, but she seems to be progressing: she eventually remembers suave Pip, with whom she had an affair many years ago during a difficult period of time when her husband, Bob, was in a deep depression following a disabling accident.

She discovers both Pip and long-estranged husband Bob are in the nursing home with her. What are the odds on that? I’m all for strange occurrences, but this bothered me. Makes me wonder, in fact, if all this is taking place in her head, and I’m being too literal. But it seems pretty literal to me.

Many things bothered me in this story. Little things, like the phrase “nanobots have been rebuilding Elise’s degenerative neural structures, refortifying the cell production…” Shouldn’t it be “degenerated” or “degenerating?” I must be wrong – the folks at Tin House are pretty high-powered, literarily speaking. But, like the coincidence of Pip and Bob and Elise all at the same facility, it bothers me.

I think the direction of the piece is to show how technology and science are tools that allow the deepest wishes of our hearts to be made manifest, so are in fact very humanistic. I’m down with that, sure. But the technical elements seem unnecessary to the true story, which is: whom does Elise choose? Add to that the choppy style that veers from memory to present and back again repeatedly, and I wished her story (which is quite lovely) had been couched very differently.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m probably just not “getting” it, that there are depths of meaning I haven’t come close to perceiving. Maybe I need a few of those nanobots myself. And as always, guidance from those more astute than I is welcomed.

BASS 2011: Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body” from Tin House

Coach Freeman, aka your pop, calls Drew’s type “woodsy.” They’re loners, Pop says – skiers, woodchoppers – not team players. But you know all about teams, you can talk to people on teams (Only Sasha knows you picked NYU because it hasn’t had a football team in thirty years). On your best day you registered twelve team-playing Democrats, prompting Drew to exclaim, when you gave him the paperwork, “You’ve got the touch, Rob!” But you never registered yourself, that was the thing, and the longer you waited, the more ashamed of this you got. Then it was too late. Even Sasha, who knows all your secrets, has no idea that you never cast a vote for Bill Clinton.

I’ve now read 5 stories from (or chapters of) The Goon Squad, and I still couldn’t read it when I checked it out of the library a few months ago. I tried, I really did. I seem to be the only person in the country who looks at a few pages and goes, “Meh.”

It’s strange, because individually, I’ve liked many of the stories. I read “Safari,” in BASS 2010, and liked some things but not others. Then I read the first story/chapter, “Found Objects” in The New Yorker (it’s available online) and I loved it. After the book won the Pulitzer Prize, I checked it out of the library and read the second story, “The Gold Cure,” and liked it quite a bit. Then chapter 3 lost me. I’m not sure where “Out of Body” fell in the book, since I gave up at Chapter 5.

I enjoyed this story. It’s in second person – now how did that get by Zin? The second person POV works to emphasize how Rob, already alienated and now out of school temporarily following a suicide attempt, has become an observer of his own life. In her Contributor Notes, Egan says she used it because when she worked as a journalist she notice “people tend to slip into the second person when discussing emotional things, to distance themselves from those emotions.” It switches back to first person at the very end when there’s a change in consciousness, a technique I liked tremendously in “Scordatura.”

Also in the Contributor Notes, I enjoyed reading about the evolution of this chapter. It started out as a chapter about Sasha travelling in Asia and meeting a young man named Lief, but Egan decided it wasn’t working. She liked Lief, so she moved him to NYU where he turned into Bobbie who turned into Rob after she glimpsed a young man on a subway train: “That’s when the story finally began to come together; when Lief transformed into Bobbie, bulked up, grew some stubble, and became Rob.” I think that’s a technique I need to get on board with. I tend to cling to my initial vision when I write, and resist taking something in a different direction, which is rigid and self-defeating. And obviously, using this story as an example, it works. At least sometimes.

It’s an engrossing tale of a set of college pals. Sasha (from “Found Objects”) is now 21. She latched on to Rob as a “pretend boyfriend” for the sake of the private detective her stepfather has watching her. She insisted they trade dirty little secrets, things so bad it would ensure they’d never be interested in being an actual couple. Her secret was her time in Naples shoplifting and screwing around with her fence. His secret is a homosexual encounter he had with a teammate. He assures her he’s not gay. Vehemently. His father is a famous football coach. He’s not gay. He’s not.

It’s predictable that Rob falls for her anyway, and is hurt when Drew enters the picture. Still, they all remain friends, along with Sasha’s roommate Lizzie and her boyfriend Bix. There’s an entertaining side plot about those two – Bix is black, and Lizzie’s mom is a bigot; Bix is a computer geek who’s predicting “computer message sending” will be the next big thing” – but this story overall belongs to Rob, Sasha, and Drew. I’m not sure if Lizzie and Bix appear elsewhere in the book; they seem like accessories here, though they do provide some context for the main story lines.

I love Rob’s evaluations of how people treat him differently since his wrist slashing. He makes a minor joke, and reacts to the laugh he gets:

…you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street even at something so small.

And:

In high school you’d get in fights when you felt like this, but no one will fight with you now – the fact that you hacked open your wrists with a box cutter three months ago and nearly bled to death seems to be a deterrent. It functions like a force field, paralyzing everyone in range with an encouraging smile on their lips. You want to hold up a mirror and ask, How exactly are those smiles supposed to help me?

The critical event of the story is a betrayal. It’s powerful and engrossing. It almost makes me want to try to read the book again.

But not quite. I’m a bit tired of all the hype over Goon Squad. It’s an attitude thing. Like my attitude towards Joyce Carol Oates – I’ve enjoyed several of her stories, but I have to be dragged to them kicking and screaming, and I groan whenever I see her name.

Maybe I’ll keep running into individual stories and enjoying them, and who knows, one day I may find I’ve read the entire book, quite by accident, and loved it, after all.

Patrick Ryan: “Which Way To the Osterling Cloud?” from Tin House, Summer 2011

Art by Ove Tøpfer

Art by Ove Tøpfer

Of this much I’m sure: the Subject doesn’t like being told what he is or how he should live. He’s never understood nor desired to understand this world.

Another story that snuck up on me. I was all ready to dismiss it as a cutesy stylistic near-future spec-fic romp – a report (complete with footnotes) from an alien observer (guardian angel?) reporting to his/her superior, The Elected, on The Subject, an aged artist, in that defamiliarizing sense of “look how these humans live”. Yeah, yeah, been there, done that. A few chuckles over the footnotes about earlier reports, about interpretations of the phrase “pack rat”… Except – not so fast. What makes humans cry? “My theory is that, in a more immediate sense, accumulated frustration makes him cry. Recently, I’ve observed the Subject trying to draw – for the first time in many years – a self-portrait, and the undertaking hasn’t been going well. In one effort, he has the appearance of a wire spring in motion. In another. He looks like a question mark.” What prevents them from crying? “…[H]e’s somehow managed to maintain his belief that We’ll facilitate his departure.”

Then the pilgrims come. A couple of teenage kids have located The Adherent, as the artist was known in his heydey. They already have his painting, “Which Way To The Osterling Cloud?” purchased at a garage sale and they just want to talk to him, perhaps in the belief that blogging about the encounter will increase the value of the painting. Their chat reveals more about The Adherent and the near-future world in which they all live, and he gives them the portrait he painted of his mother. This is the reason for this Report to The Elected:

I submit to the Elected that we may have made a mistake in waiting so long. The Subject’s belief seems to be slipping, yielding to the accumulation of so many years, so much loss. As mentioned in several earlier transmissions, the portraits – of his mother, his father, his three siblings, and the rest – all were created so that when We finally arrived, we would see the state of things and correct all wrongs by carrying these people away. But I think we may have gotten off track. We may have become too preoccupied with collecting information and pondering over reports that, if compiled, would roughly equal the size of the Subject’s diary. Meanwhile, his stripping the walls of the house and either packing or giving away nearly all of his possessions suggests to me that he is no longer certain We will arrive at all.

Ok, I’m a sap, but it was quite a moving Report. I’m hoping the Elected gets his ass in gear.

Karen Shepard: “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” from Tin House, Summer 2011

"Born to be Wild" by Marcia Petty, mixed media

People who don’t know better envy Zizi. She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch. She dresses East Village-extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her complexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage. She’s twentysomething. Her body is Japanese-teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt Scotch are an everyday thing….not even her guy has seen her cry.

I’ll be honest, if I didn’t watch way too much Project Runway, I’d have no idea what any of the above meant except the last phrase. But I’d know Zizi anywhere. She’s the girl who’ll never admit her life isn’t just too too every single second, no matter how clear it is to everyone else. Holly GoLightly, 2001.

Zizi is dealing with the death of her older, married lover on 9/11. He (he is never named, a wonderful choice) lives, lived, with his wife in the apartment above hers (which he bought for her, as a convenience). On 9/11, as the news starts playing, she opens her apartment door for no particular reason and finds Mabel, his wife, standing there. They watch the news coverage together. He was in her bed, in her, two hours before. Mabel doesn’t know who Zizi is, at least that’s what she says.

At the funeral (the casket is empty, of course, except for a suit of clothes, Mabel explains), a friend of his hits on her lightly. Her lover had sometimes brought over various friends of his so he could watch. “He wanted her to enjoy it. And so she thought of fucking his friends while he watched as swimming across a wide lake. She closed her eyes and moved below the surface in ways that suggested pleasure and power. Occasionally, she rose to the surface, opened her eyes, and turned her head to find him. And there he always was.” And afterwards: “‘What did I tell you,’ he’d say to his friend, taking his shoulder. ‘Was I right, or was I right?'” Sort of like letting your friend test-drive your car so he knows what great taste you have. This guy, Ray, was next in line. So why not. She calls him a couple of weeks later. It’s never stated that she’s performing with dead lover looking down (or up) from somewhere else, or if she’s auditioning a replacement, but to me it was pretty clear: this is her way of bringing him back. Ray says, “Poor Zizi. Spends her life being the tower, when all she’s ever wanted is to be the plane.” They exchange two sentences about their dead friend; his nonchalance “is like a wave receding to reveal the hard, wet sand that she already knew would be there. The effortless of his understanding and the indifference that accompanies it breaks her heart.” See, that’s the real down side of being the mistress: you don’t get much public sympathy when he bites the dust and you suddenly don’t have the hormonal rush to make up for realizing you’ve been treated like a commodity. Mourning the flawed is a central theme. Both Mabel and Zizi mourn their deceased, of course, but I think there’s another level, where Zizi mourns something in herself.

I’m skeptical of 9/11 stories but I’ve enjoyed many of them, including this one. It feels a little strange, being set in that month right after, when there was still so much chaos. But that’s Zizi, I guess. She manages to be pathetic and sympathetic at the same time, which intrigues me, because she’s nobody’s victim: everything that’s been done to her, she’s done to herself. I keep wondering, is the excitement, unpredictability and overall hipness of her life so wonderful it makes up for the hard, wet sand? Really, just what is the draw? That’s maybe where the story falls down: we get no satisfying explanation. There’s a phrase or two about Mom and Dad, but nothing that explains why someone would settle – no, arrange – for this kind of life.

I was looking forward to reading this story. I’ve read so much Jim Shepard, and now I had the chance to read his wife. I enjoyed it. While I was reading, I was involved, I wanted to keep reading, and I did a lot of underlining and sidebarring. On the surface, it’s pretty simplistic, but the imagery is powerful and there are some nice touches that go along with his lack of a name and the empty clothes in the casket. Mabel’s cat, which Zizi only hears now that he is dead (Holly GoLightly again?). The choice of music – “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, “Hello Goodbye” – echo this emptiness. At his funeral, Zizi is outside in the sun thinking of his favorite song, “We’ll Meet Again” when Ray introduces himself to her. I’ve been singing the song for two days now, and I have a strong desire to see Dr. Strangelove again.

Jodi Angel – “A Good Deuce” from Tin House, Summer 2011

(sic)

It was Christy who’d found her, and I wished it was me – not because I wanted to spare Christy the sight of what she’d seen, but for the rest of Christy’s life she could fuck up or give up or not show up, and nobody would hold it against her because Jesus Christ you know her mother died, and she was the one who found the body. Christy had a free ticket to minimum. I came in when Christy called for me, but when your mother dies, there is no prize for coming in second. No one was ever going to keep some slack in my rope. The one who comes in second is the one who is supposed to spend the rest of his life cleaning up the mess.

Yep, I should’ve started reading this Tin House from the beginning, instead of picking stories at random.

I can hear the workshop voices now: the writing is too careful, not troubled teenage boy at all, “it takes me out of the story.” You know what? It’s amazing writing. It’s beautiful. There are sentences, paragraphs, metaphors, images that touch the face of God. And they’re bitching about taking them out of the story? Deal with it! This is gorgeous, a wonderful read, another example of everything happening being inevitable yet surprising, little things being dropped in so casually there’s no sign of their importance until they become important, and all of it works together to illuminate the heart of a scared kid. Don’t blame her if you’re distracted by exquisite emotion.

So this is about Roy. It’s first person, and for the first half of the story I thought the narrator was female. I’m not sure why, there were plenty of clues. As in the quote above: “the rest of his life”, I even noticed that, thought it was sad that a girl would switch the pronoun because “he” is typically used to include both sexes. And the ticket to the army recruiting station, I didn’t find it odd at all that a girl would be given such a thing, after all, girls join the army these days. And Phillip the best friend – well, girls have male best friends now, too, right? The Robert Redford movies helped. After all, why would boys watch Robert Redford movies? Even when Phillip was described as “six months older, four inches taller, and thirty pounds heavier, with shoulders broad from the football he thought he might someday play” I read that as in comparison to a girl. It wasn’t until they discussed which one would get Veronica, and which one would get Candy, that I realized the narrator was a guy. I kind of wish the name Roy had been dropped in a little earlier. But I liked the way I read it, too. I don’t know why I clung to the female narrator for so long, maybe because the author is Jodi-with-an-I-female? I’ve become interested in gender perception in fiction lately, so maybe it’s something I just did to amuse myself.

Anyway, Roy’s mom just died of an overdose. Just, as is yesterday. Apparently it wasn’t the first overdose but it was the first time she died. Little sister Christy, 13, gets taken away by Grandma Hannah. Roy does not, perhaps because he said some cruel things to her when he was eleven and maybe saw a Nazi armband in grampa’s closet, or maybe that never happened, or maybe he saw something and thought it was a swastika. Anyway, Roy gets the ticket to the Army. Best friend Phillip – the one who has a nice home and two stable parents but comes over to see what it’s like not to sometimes then goes back to his world, leaving Roy both grateful and resentful – comes over and they watch Robert Redford movies for nineteen hours. I’m guessing The Sting, Jeremiah Johnson, maybe the ski movie or Sneakers, not The Way We Were or The Horse Whisperer (sigh). Then they decide to go out for a beer, because Phillip knows a place that doesn’t card. “We got out of the car and stretched and kicked at the gravel for a minute. Neither of us wanted to be the first one through the door, and even though Phillip had been positive that we could drink here without a hassle, I could tell that he wasn’t so sure now, and maybe he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth back at the house and we were still watching movies in the dark and debating over a pizza, because when push meets shove, it’s a lot of responsibility to have an idea.” This is so perfect, that cockiness-uncertainty that teenagers have, and the final phrase is gasp-worthy in a story about being lost and adrift and getting slack and free tickets to minimum.

Candy and Veronica pick the boys up, though Roy doesn’t realize much of what’s going on (he gets lost in a memory of his grandma Hannah making him drown kittens that spotlights differences between him and Phillip, between Candy and Veronica; I think I actually did hold my breath for a couple of paragraphs there) until Phillip asks him which one he wants, the ugly one or the fat one. The climax is coming-of-age-in-the-face-of-tragedy-predictable, perhaps, but it’s highlighted by a few twists that make it special. And even though it’s a dog that’s barking, I swear I could hear kittens screaming.

Here’s my problem: I don’t know what “a good deuce” means. Is it something obscene? Hey, I’m still trying to figure out… well, never mind, just know that I’m not really up on all the x-rated lingo. Does it mean she weighs 200 pounds? Or she’s a good egg? A good lay? I’ve seen scatalogical references, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. Maybe Phillip means one, then it morphs into another? I don’t know. It feels important. But it’s out of my reach.

While I’m at it: there’s a typo in the story: the last paragraph on page 26, “mouthif” – I’m all for linguistic variance but I can’t believe that’s intentional. Shame on Tin House! And the online story graphic has the title misspelled, another huge disappointment. As disappointments go, not that huge, really, but noticeable. I used it anyway. 😉

What counts: The story is awesome. Read it.

[ETA: when the issue was current, the story was available online. It’s not any more. The good news: the typos are now moot. Moral: does every cloud have a silver lining, or does every silver lining have a cloud?] [Oh, stop complaining, sometimes a moral is a question.]

Walter Mosley: “Familiar Music” from Tin House, Summer 2011

We talked like that from the beginning, in a meandering way that had a kind of circuitous logic. There was a weave to the conversation, a crossing over and then returning, skipping over and reaching past, then back again.

Bill Laughton works for Craighton’s Cartons. But it’s ok, by the end he learns to think outside the box.

The story starts with a very detailed minute-by-minute account of the afternoon on which he quits, and then we go back from there to learn about his relationship with Portia Liand, the temp, and Annabelle Lee, his neighbor and sometimes sex partner. There has to be something going on with the names here. Annabelle Lee? Portia? Hawthorne? I’m just not clever enough to pick up a pattern. Then there’s the title. That’s kind of my problem with the story in general: it’s a good read, but I’m pretty sure there’s something I’m just not getting. But it’s not the story’s fault I’m stupid.

Portia and Annabelle are in some ways opposites, in some ways the same. He knows Portia only from work, Annabelle only from his apartment building. They’re both younger than he is. Portia is a dark-skinned black woman, a dancer who doesn’t like choreography; Annabelle is white, with a seven-year-old son, and a much older man who pays her rent. Bill himself is a light-skinned black man, 45. When I start recounting demographics about characters, I know I’ve lost the essence of the story, but it really was a better read than that. I loved the conversations Portia and Bill had, the kind of looping around referred to in the above quote. There’s some symbolism, I’m thinking, involved in a necklace with three opals. He bought it for Annabelle but she can’t take it because of her sugar daddy. He tries to give it to Portia but she doesn’t want it. He tries to marry both of them, but both say no. He spends a couple of days drinking. And when Portia’s temp assignment is up and Virginia Hawthorne returns to glare at him for coming back late from lunch, he quits his job.

I feel bad that I missed the story. I have to say I’m delighted to see someone use “nauseated” instead of “nauseous” but, like character descriptions, that’s hardly a glowing recommendation. I’m worried about this Summer Reading 2011 issue. So far I’m not doing too well with it. I’ve been picking stories at random; maybe I should’ve started at the beginning and read through like I usually do.

Gary Lutz: “Divorcer” from Tin House, Summer 2011

Photo by Arina Sergei

I’m sorry, but they had a different way of talking about subtraction back when I was in school. It wasn’t “Take this away from that”; it was never a matter of minus. It was “Find the difference of.” E.g., “Find the difference of fifty-four and thirty-one.” So go ahead. Find the difference of her and me.

This is my first experience with Gary Lutz. By coincidence, I happened to have recently stumbled across his “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” in The Believer (from a speech he gave at Columbia) and was astonished: here I’ve been beating myself up about character development and everyone must want something and narrative distance and here this guy is talking about sentences and assonance and stressed syllables, the things I love dearly. And I’ve been brainwashed to believe “writing” (which I adore) is secondary to “storytelling” (which is some mysterious process I do not understand). Can I switch sides?

I fear it may be too late for me, because I was lost in this story. It struck me as a collection of wonderful aphorisms and anecdotes. The girl who keeps going back to her exes to get her stuff, but never actually gets her stuff. “The book was the kind whose pages couldn’t be tamed to lie flat. The thing kept shutting itself.” “She would always start off a new notebook on the fifth or seventh page. The hope was that what came to her later would be good enough for the front.” (I used to do the same thing, back in the days when I could write with a pen on notebooks, before my hands curled permanently into keyboard-ready position). His job writing pamphlets which must use other terms for “spouse.” The narrator’s nephew: there is no I in team, but there is an M and an E and that would be ME (I love this so much I want to tattoo it to my forehead) – oh, yeah, the tattoos, too. The neighbors that are “teeming out of their apartment and into the hall.” The supermarket. The urinals at work. “And the different ways I was hated by different people!” The paperwork. “‘Gone through’ = impaled.”

I have no idea what this story is about (other than a marriage and divorce) but it sure was fun to read. And I have a lot to learn.

Kenneth Calhoun: “Then” from Tin House, Spring 2011, The Mysterious

Art by Ronfromyork on dreamstime.com

Who could have ever thought of it all and how did human living get so cluttered with detail? For a lucid moment, she believed she understood that the epidemic was somehow connected to this accumulation of practical – not ornamental – details. A threshold had been reached.

This is one of those weird stories. I don’t quite have a handle on it yet (that will require diagrams with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back), but I’m obsessed with it. It’s basically (forgive my bluntness) a dead-baby story. At least, I think it is. But it’s a lot more than that.

At one point new mom Jorie is confused because she is suddenly pregnant with the baby, who’s already been born: “She felt confused and grounded at the same time. That was why, she recognized. Because everything is happening now at the same time.” Adam, the husband, has already noted, “The flow of reality now had jump cuts.” He is in the chair, then in bed, without anything in between. And the baby talks several times, tells them not to answer the phone: “It’s undoubtedly those telemarketers again.” And tells Adam a bedtime story as creepy as all that stuff about evil witches and wolves eating Grandma in fairy tales.

Whether all this strangeness is part of an absurdist/surrealist view of the excuses people make for themselves, or is an excellent exposition of ordinary parents who’ve crossed over from tired to insane, I’m not sure. See, there’s an insomnia epidemic going on. In the story, I mean. Now, I’m familiar with new parents claiming sleep deprivation, and I’m not sure if this insomnia epidemic is real (in the context of this story), or if it’s just that these parents have gone around the bend because they haven’t been sleeping since their baby was born. And of course Jorie, the wife, may have additional problems with post-partum depression or psychosis.

Structurally, every section – most are short, one paragraph – starts with THEN. Time. Insomnia. Confusion. And where did we put the baby? A touch of creepy foreshadowing here and there, and we’re dreading the ending…

Like I said, it’s a weird story. It fits perfectly in this issue devoted to weird.

Luis Alberto Urrea: “Chametla” from Tin House Spring 2011, The Mysterious

Picasso, Bird No. 83, 1963 (Ceramic)

Men were raised to fight and enjoy fighting. None dared admit they were weary of it, weary of fear, and each had learned to dream, and dreamed at all hours – dreamed while sleeping, while awake and marching, while fighting. Only dreaming carried them though the unending battles.

What do you dream of? What would you dream of if you were on the battlefield most of your life? This short-short starts out as a standard battlefield story, then morphs into something goosebumpy, at first from creepiness, then from poignancy with a little horror at the edges.

Althought there’s no longer a link to the story through the magaine website, it’s available online via the “From the Vault” series at the Tin House blog. It’s very short (1200 words). Go ahead, read it, it’s worth it. Then tell the author what you think of it.

Andrea Barrett – “The Ether of Space” from Tin House #47 “The Mysterious” Spring 2011

Where you lived and what you knew determined what you expected to see. Once the moon was a smooth glowing orb, and then it had mountains and seas. Once Jupiter wandered alone, and then he had moons; once orbits were round and stars stayed still in space. In earlier books, she’d traced those changing perceptions. Now she was trying to write about the universe beyond the solar system. Who first thought those glowing specks were other suns, like ours? Or that some were island universes, far beyond the Milky Way?

She is Phoebe, a 41-year-old widowed mother with a young son, living with her parents, as writing books for the general readership about science does not pay enough for her to remain on her own, or to return to her original, pre-mom profession of Astronomer. It is just after World War I. Thanks to a solar eclipse that provided the means for experimentation, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is gaining ground, changing physics by eliminating the troublesome need for an ether. And an established scientist named Oliver Lodge defends the existing view of the ether as the substance that permeates space and, in fact, captures personalities after death – including that of his son, Raymond, who died in the war.

Phoebe becomes obsessed with the conflict between the two theories. She is outraged that a scientist of Lodge’s stature would talk mumbo-jumbo about an afterlife, rather than using mathematics and the scientific method to prove or disprove theories. But she can’t stop thinking about it: this ether that may contain her husband’s soul. “Lodge must be wrong, he has to be wrong. If he’s right, then Michael’s been within my reach this whole time and I could have been talking to him. I could be talking to him now.

Her son, who has been a bit distant of late, attends a lecture with her. He is enthralled, but they don’t discuss much of it. Later, she finds out he’s written a paper for English, which concludes:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think…. I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart. What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

It’s a beautifully written story, moving slowly and thoughtfully in a slightly lush but restrained voice that feels right for that time just before the Roaring Twenties, the time that created the Lost Generation. Sir Oliver Lodge, professor of physics and mathematics, was one of the creators of radio (it was a crowded field) and invented spark plugs among other things. And he was tethered to the dying ether by his son.