BASS 2020: Anna Reeser, “Octopus VII” from Fourteen Hills #25

When I wrote “Octopus VII,” I was interested in artists moving from an academic world into an economic world, balancing creative practices with jobs and relationships. I was curious about the mix of feelings that can arise when an artist’s vocation begins to replace his art practice, and the moment when he experiences creative block in his original medium.
The giant metal octopus grew out of this idea – an unwieldy reminder of past potential that feels difficult to match. As a sculpture, it felt endearing and bizarre. Why an octopus? It seemed like a piece that looked physically impressive but that the artist hadn’t fully rationalized conceptually. In imagining who might make that sculpture, Tyler’s voice emerged.

Anna Reeser, Contributor Note

I have great sympathy for those who spend years, and a good deal of money which may need to be paid back, developing the skill, credentials, and creative sense needed to pursue a career in the arts, be they visual, written, musical, kinetic, or combinations of those, and then discover the world is cruel to the beginning artist / writer / composer / dancer: while a few may break out, the lucky ones end up teaching and the rest tend bar or do customer service or administration while writing / singing / dancing / painting nights and weekends. Some give up all together.

That may well be the story Reeser wrote. But that isn’t the story I read.

The story I read is a slacker story. Tyler produced one substantial work in school, and his vision for that piece was so tenuous, he didn’t even blink when his professor interpreted it differently.

Professor Yao had called Octopus VII accosting and masculine yet vulnerable. “A creature stripped bare of its flesh, straining against something,” he’d said. “Against social pressure? Pressure to fall into the crippling morass of the economy? Octopus VII is raw anatomy, motion, danger of feeling.” Yao had stepped in front of the sculpture, obscuring it, staring at Tyler through his oval glasses. “In your future work,” he continued, “I see total abstraction.”
Tyler had nodded, like that’s what he meant all along. He could never have described it so well. And maybe Yao had a point – Tyler had chosen the octopus for its constantly shifting shape, and he finally got the sculpture to look like it was twisting, thrashing, changing.

He’s so focused on the extraneous details of the art life – his girlfriend, his status above a potential client who would buy the Octopus if he made it a bit more practical – that he seems to have forgotten the art entirely. Part of that is no doubt excitement: it’s his first exhibition. I can imagine that, like one’s first published book, comes with a rush of entitlement and heady optimism about the future (though I’ve heard it also comes with imposter syndrome and disappointment when instant fame doesn’t result). But still, Tyler doesn’t strike me as an artist as much as a guy enjoying the idea of being an artist.

And now, post-graduation, MFA in his hot little hands, he has no idea what he wants to do next. Most artists I know have rooms – as many rooms as they can find, storage spaces, friends’ attics, whatever – full of half-started projects that might turn into something, ideas awaiting the mysterious blossoming that turns them into actual pieces. For writers, it’s a computer full of drafts, a drawer full of novels, outlines, stories that need polishing. Tyler has Octopus VII. And when his girlfriend leaves him and heads to LA, he’s even more lost. The story nearly lost me at this point.

Now, I suppose I could read all this as the insecurity of the young artist trying to hide his intimidation. But Tyler has a trust fund and parents who’ll send him $5000 to buy into a new media venture – which, it happens, is cosmetology school. Tyler’s going to learn to cut hair for a living.

This intrigued me and brought me back to the story. It starts with an impromptu haircut for his now-ex-girlfriend Kelsa:

He lifted a section of hair and smoothed it out, then snipped. It made a hssk sound and fell to the floor, becoming limp and material, no longer part of her body. He snipped again, in the front, making a sharper angle that hit at her chin. She grinned.
“It feels lighter,” she said. “Keep going.”
He kept smoothing the hairs and snipping . It was satisfying. “So what’s the job interview? I thought he were painting the apocalypse.”
“Pinkberry – the fro-yo.” She rolled her eyes. “All artists have a lame day job right?”
“Yeah, sure.” Tyler pictured himself washing pans at the Taco place, getting yelled at in Spanish. “Have you done any new paintings?”
“I will.”
Tyler lifted and cut strands, so they hit at different lengths, pointing out her sharp chin and skinny neck. The pieces on the floor began to dry, expanding into blonde whorls all over the chartreuse linoleum.

This makes him seem more like an artist than all the verbiage about the Octopus. Which, by the way, does a great deal of work as a symbol. Following his disdain of the woman who wanted the tentacles curled so they wouldn’t catch on a sweater, he finds it’s in his own way in his car as he drives to LA, in his apartment where he’s always having to work around it and finally stubs his toe hard enough to draw blood. It’s the wrath of the sea monster, cutting down his pride.

Not that his pride needs cutting down at this point. He’s seen Kelsa, who was one of the most talented students in school, reduced to scooping fro-yo. And now he’s figuring he’ll find “something blue-collar, entry-level, something that wouldn’t take over his identity” – a day job to pay the bills. “But that’s what artists did. Felt terrible and made something out of it.” That’s the Dr. Who version, isn’t it: Van Gogh “transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.” Again, Tyler seems so caught up in the romanticism of being an artist, he can’t get anywhere near art.

Except for one thing:

Still, the haircut turned over and over in his mind, the hssk sound, the sea of blonde on the floor, the way he made it fall at angles, reducing it to something better.

A billboard across the street from his apartment changes its ad to one for cosmetology school, which seems like a message for him. I question the use of this magical kind of thing in a story like this; it’s Just a little too convienient. Why not a billboard he sees randomly on one of his long walks, that reminds him of the haircut? But this is the story that three editors chose to make it to this volume of Best American Short Stories, so I guess I’ll defer, or at least accept that I don’t know anything about writing.

The haircutting is a nice segue into the real world:  a kind of art, if Tyler could just see it as that, and a kind of art he seems to have a visceral connection with. But at some point he had that connection with Octopus VII, before it became this annoying piece of junk in his way. And that’s the question posed by the story: is haircutting just another phase, or has he found something that really engages him?

I don’t think so. I think the final paragraph shows haircutting as just another Octopus:

Was this how it happened to people? How your life gets going, making a living, watching TV at night, the whole thing tapping out in a nice rhythm, a little simple and a little sad – but that’s what people did. Fidgeting, he carved a slice of wood off the table’s edge and watched it curl. He cut another, revealing the raw wood under the varnish. Another cut, deeper, scooping a canyon, a ridge. It felt good. He paused and blood rushed through his arms and hands. He picked up his phone, then laid the day’s tips on the work table, the bills crisp and flat, one with numbers in loops of ballpoint pen.

He’s sculpting the table by habit, returning to art, perhaps – but he gets distracted by money, and the phone number of a girl whose hair he’d cut earlier that day. Once again, the artist recedes and more practical needs – money and sex – take over. This can happen, of course, but when it happens over and over, in metal, hair, and wood, maybe it’s time to accept you’re just not an artist. At least, not yet. Maybe he just needs a little more time to cook. And, by the way, again that’s some masterful symbolism Reeser has used there, especially the merging of money and sex.

I’m intrigued by something Sittenfeld wrote in her Introduction, in the section where she lists the individual reasons she loved each story she chose for this anthology:

I loved “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser because of its spot-on depiction of creative young people and various kinds of privilege, including the privileges of money and gender.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Introduction

First, I understand the kind of reality-blindness that students go through; it’s not specific to the arts, by the way. I can remember a workshop in college for the Writing Proficiency Test required for upper-level courses and graduation, where a business major sneered, “I don’t see why we have to take this, I’ll have a secretary to write my letters for me.” That a 21-year-old would take such a dim view of writing as a task to be outsourced to a subordinate, and that she would think her marketing degree from a third-rate commuter branch of a state university would land her a job with a secretary on graduation, sticks with me to this day. She makes Tyler’s dreams of Octopus VIII seem almost reasonable. I’ve also seen the disappointment when writers learn that the MFA they worked so hard on does not open doors and lure agents and publishers like catnip, and is viewed as a bare minimum when looking for teaching work. It’s a tough transition, school to reality. I was lucky enough to do it in my 30s, so I had something of a better idea of what to expect. But I’m sympathetic to the naïve who heard the warnings but figured they didn’t apply to them.

As for the question of privilege, it is always better to have money than not. It gives Tyler a certain cushion that Kelsa doesn’t have. That he squanders it is infuriating, but everyone is limited in one way or another. And, by the way, I’m very aware that my own biases are probably at play here, including my resistance to slacker stories, or those I perceive to be slackr stories. If I read this story a year from now, I might have a very different reaction to it.

I see Tyler and Kelsa as art dropouts with very different stories. She has to earn a living, and seems to have little energy for art. He just doesn’t strike me as that interested in art to begin with. It’s possible both of them will find their path. I’d like to think Kelsa is in a germinating stage right now, and will burst forth with new paintings as she finds ways to put art in her foreground. Then again, I don’t have access to her thought processes like I do to Tyler’s. Maybe she’s in the same place, realizing she’s just wasted a lot of time and money learning to do something the world really doesn’t care about, and she has to care enough for the whole world to make a go of it.

I’d like to think Tyler will find himself drawn back to sculpture, whether it be metal, hair, or wood, once his pride and his hormones settle down and he’s able to focus. But I’ll admit – and this is my bias – I’m far more optimistic about the former than the latter.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “There’s a real difference in working in the medium of hair and metal for Tyler. Working with wire and found metal is all about straining. Working with hair, the scissors just kind of cut through the medium with a satisfying “hssk” sound. I’m not going to claim some mastery of Taoism based on reading a translation of the Tao Te Ching in college, but I do remember how the Tao Te Ching recommends people be like water, flowing where there is room to flow. Tyler’s eighth sculpture is even more an embodiment of the notion of change than the octopus; he’s water itself.”  For someone who claims he has a “general indifference to any kind of visual art” Jake sure pulls off some striking analysis here.