BASS 2019: Alexis Schaitkin, “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone #24

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Art by Stephanie Peters: “Natural Disasters”

Jen’s job writing descriptions of houses for a realtor is very similar to the job I held for a few years in graduate school. To be honest, it was a job whose potential as material I was aware of from the very beginning. Architecture is such a classic metaphor for story. And this job – stepping into someone else’s home and observing, tiptoeing in the dark through a house where people are living their inimitable lives – was so like the writers task.…
Then, one day, my boss gave me an address way out of town. The house was completely dazzling, and it had an observatory, just like the house in the story. After years of visiting nothing but suburban sprawl, it was surreal to step into this incredible house out in the middle of nowhere. That was the very obvious inspiration for the story.
But as the story came together, it was all of the other houses I’d visited that fueled its essential questions: what makes something authentic versus imitative or ersatz, and does this distinction even matter, and if so, how and why – in architecture, in writing, in life?

Alexis Schaitkin, Contributor Note

Is it better to live an unpleasant reality, or create a fantasy that makes the reality bearable? That seems to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume. Here again, we have a protagonist who prefers her reality to be held at bay by some internal narrative. When that fails, she analyzes it as a writer would a plot. And it’s all very meta, all very distanced from any emotional core.

Just a few pages in, I was thinking, these are some beautiful lines, some interesting ideas, but is there a story here, or is it going to be a collection of these clever turns of phrase? Just in time, Jen gave me an answer of sorts by way of describing the way in which she was a good writer: “I could give the impression of meaning and insight, of grand convergence, and if you weren’t paying careful attention you might not notice that beneath the rhythms of thought the argument was facile. even specious.” I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Let me show you what I mean (lest I make a facile, specious argument here):

We were living in Oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party.

After starting the story with the delicious sentence about New Yorkers living ironically in Oklahoma, she immediately tells us how false this idea is, and how useless even recognizing it is at this point. So we’re left with an opening line that’s sound and (muted) fury, signifying nothing. But it’s not edited out of the story, so it signifies something.

Jen pulls this same facile-narration-over-absence about her husband’s job. She gives us a fairly detailed description – he’s a chemical engineer working on oil processing – then admits “I don’t mean to suggest that I understood any of this period I didn’t, nor did I try to. I delighted in letting the particulars of Stevens work – all that science, all those numbers – sail over my head. I suppose I thought my mind too pure to be sullied by such things.” Jen seems to enjoy undercutting her own arguments, not even waiting for us to find them specious. Maybe this is a post-epiphany tic; it leaves us with the sense that anything she says should be held in abeyance for a while, because she might tell us in a minute how wrong it is.

Her ironic approach to Oklahoma – “savoring the delicious irony of a place that conformed exactly to my hackneyed expectations” – isn’t working very well for her, in any case. She’s depressed, and starts having physical symptoms that Freudians might classify as a conversion disorder. As a sign of progress, the Mayo Clinic (and, presumably, contemporary medicine as a whole) now calls them functional nervous disorders, symptoms without a physical cause. And she’s afraid of the wide open spaces, of the tornadoes, and of the earthquakes, recent events brought on, presumably, by fracking.

I had developed a twinned obsession with tornadoes, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. They seemed to me to be part of a unified system, connected by some mystical sinister energy. The tornadoes funneled destructive force down from the sky, the oil wells pulled it up from the ground, And I was living where those forces met, on the perilous surface of the earth.

In the middle of this distress-beneath-the-irony, Jen lands a job that is perfect for her: she writes those little blurbs describing residential properties for sale. It’s not as much writing as rearranging a particular set of words, sort of like using refrigerator magnet words to make poetry.

I would draw up a list of evocative words and phrases that were more or less germane to the house at hand. Say: curb appeal, mint condition, stately, pristine. Or: stunning, sought after, the very best in country living, charmer. Then I would string those words together with the pertinent information. This pristine three-bedroom ranch oozes curb appeal, from its stately front lawn to its mint-condition brick facade. Or, For home-buyers looking for the very best in country living, this stunning charmer in sought-after Castlegate is a must-see. The copy was like candy floss – voluminous clouds that dissolved to sweetness, to the idea of substance.

It can’t be by accident that her neurological symptoms disappear after getting this job. At last, a way to bask in full ironic glory without the side effects. Embrace the meaninglessness.

She pulls the this-but-not thing again: she says there are anecdotes about visiting these houses she will not share –“and I would feel pretty good about myself, both for bearing witness and for keeping their secrets – and proceeds to tell us one of the anecdotes, about an elderly woman in a run-down property who keeps insisting she must write about the garden, which turns out to be a small patch of empty dirt that, if it ever held the snapdragons and bluebells the woman rambles on about, holds no evidene of them now. This is the kind of anecdote that would grip my heart, but Jen not only violates her own ethic about revealing secrets, she tells it in a way that removes the life-force.

Jen is then sent to a home unlike the others she’s seen. It’s in an isolated spot rather than in the town; it’s inhabited by a man; the owner shows no interest in her presence. “This story, the one I’ve been getting to all along, is the story of that single instance.” And I’m already braced for the denial. But it doesn’t come. Her experience changes her.

Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret. A girl left the city and learned a thing or two. A silly young woman hoped to be ravished by a man who was not her husband. A marriage fell apart, and afterwards a wife was wiser, though in some ways no better, than she had been before. Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that a life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us. It is amazing, it is exquisite, it is a stunning charmer, and it is noted in water and jotted in dust and the wind lifts it away.

Except… does it? I’m still not convinced. Yes, she looked up the background of the house at the City Hall archives, giving some indication that she is serious about uncovering reality beneath the beauty of the house and the slick story she constructed about it. But I’m suspicious of such sudden, complete reversals. Even as I’m struck by exquisite phrases, charmed by the inclusion of all the real estate buzzwords, and mesmerized by the final line about water and dust and wind that ties together earthquakes and tornadoes, I’m resisting buying into it. I wonder if seeing life as “the disasters we carry within us” instead of as a story is merely a change of object, not a change of view.

Yet the story of this last house feels so much more real than the preceding, it’s as if it’s a different story entirely. Or maybe I’m just projecting that onto it because I want to believe it, following a narrative of my own.

And here I go off onto a wild tangent; brace yourself. I’ve been reading Don Quixote for the past month or so. The primary feature is a poor old guy who, unhappy with the way life is unfolding personally and politically, immerses himself in chivalric stories of knights-errant, who travel the land and help out all who are oppressed or in distress. It’s usually considered the first modern European novel, and employs a number of wonderful narrative techniques that were abandoned until the twentieth century, like layering of narrators and self-referentiality. I just started Part II, published ten years after Part I, and there’s a crucial switch from enchantment and illusion to disenchantment and disillusion – in Spanish, desengaño – which parallel the transition from Renaissance humanism to the Baroque period, from a loss of optimism that human reason and knowledge can prevail, to seeing the world as ugly and grotesque and overly complicated. I’m using an OCW and a mooc to get the most out of it, and since this is all quite new to me, let me quote from some of the lectures of Professor Roberto González Echevarría of Yale University, to avoid misstatements:

Part II is going to be that of Baroque desengaño….When the games prove to be nothing more than that, games of illusions, Renaissance optimism gives way to Baroque disillusionment.

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’ This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.…It signified a passing from ignorance to knowledge, and awakening from the falsity of one’s dream.

Professor Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW

There are major differences of course, but there’s this similarity of motion from self-deceit to awakening. In the same way Jen’s engaño, living ironically or in the context of some narrative from outside, wasn’t really working for her and caused physical problems, Don Quixote’s engaño by way of living chivalric stories caused a great deal of suffering for him: beatings, losing teeth, hanging by his wrists, all presented in comedic absurdity, but nonetheless painful. And in the same way Don Quixote moves from illusion to disillusionment – from fantasy to reality – so does Jen, in her last adventure.

The story seems to be a lightning rod for other stories I’ve read. Compare Jen with the character of Laura in Mary Gordon’s story “Ugly” from BASS 2017; she, too, goes from New York to elsewhere, and after a period of trepidation, embraces it to the point where she feels her ugliness rather than the ugliness of Missouri. I’ve also recalled Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Anyway?” from Pushcart XLIII, a full-throated cry for authenticity in place of cynicism. And there are the other stories in this volume that touch on fantasy vs reality, such as “Audition” and “Letter of Apology”.

In another thought-provoking post, Jake Weber addresses, not for the first time, the question of whether literature is good for us. Which, I’m dying to tell him, is one of the many core questions raised in Don Quixote. But I think I’ll back off; I can be a little evangelical about whatever I’ve read that’s had an impact on me.

Addendum 12/4/19: This story has been hanging with me, and I think I may have been distracted by Don Quixote and overlooked something important: the observatory.

He stopped at a door I had assumed to be a closet and opened it to reveal a narrow spiral staircase.
“It’s all one tree trunk,“ he said, sliding his hand along the banister. The wood was exquisite – intricately grained and polished to a whispery smoothness. I had the sense, then, that I was about to ascend into the house’s “essence.“…
There were no walls, only windows, and through them the Prairie stretched in every direction.

This may be what Schaitkin was thinking of when she referred to architecture as a metaphor for story: the path to true observation is hard to find, and in the best cases, is fashioned with exquisite care. But there’s something else speaking to the conflict between living ironically, and living, between cynicism and engagement: the observatory is all windows. What a fragile structure here in tornado country, yet it must be so in order to provide complete observation of all that is. Risk is an inherent part of engaging with our surroundings. But clear observation also makes it possible to notice the approach of danger in time to take precautions.