BASS 2014: Benjamin Nugent, “God” from Paris Review #206

We called her God because she wrote a poem about how Caleb Newton ejaculated prematurely the night she slept with him, and because she shared the poem with her friends.
         Caleb was the president of our fraternity. When he worked our booth in the dining hall he fund-raised a hundred dollars in an hour. He had the plaintive eyes and button nose of a child in a life-insurance commercial, the carriage of an armored soldier. He was not the most massive brother, but he was the most a man, the one who neither played video games nor rejoiced at videos in which people were injured. His inclination to help other brothers write papers and refine workouts bespoke a capacity for fatherhood. I had seen his genitals, in the locker room after lacrosse, and they reminded me of a Volvo sedan in that they were unspectacular but shaped so as to imply solidity and soundness. One morning when we were all writhing on the couches, hung over, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, attended by a cloud of steam. We agreed that the sight of his body alleviated our symptoms.
          “If you use a towel right after Newton uses it, your life expectancy is extended ten years,” said Stacks Animal.
          “If a man kisses Newton, he’ll turn into a beautiful woman,” I said, and everyone stared at me, because it was a too-imaginative joke.

I’ve never understand the Greek system. One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to college immediately after high school was that sororities seemed like one more way to not fit in, and the kinds of what would today be called Young Adult fiction I’d read made it sound like college was all about sororities. When, after ten years of night classes all over Boston, I spent a couple of full-time years finishing a degree and starting grad school, I went to a commuter branch of a state university, which had no sororities or fraternities. So aside from movies and books, fraternities are as foreign to me as the Korowai tribe in New Guinea. Given the way frat boys make the news these days – hazing, cheating, violence – I’m fine with that.

Just so you know where I’m coming from.

However, just as a writer’s job is to provide what volume guest editor Jennifer Egan calls “transport into alternate worlds,” it’s the reader’s job to permit that transportation, sometimes by looking underneath the purported setting – be it a fraternity or New Guinea – into what it is to be human. And what is more human than discovering the consequences of flying too close to the sun? Or wanting what we cannot have? It’s the story’s job, whatever the setting, to show us what makes people alike. And different.

The three main characters of this story are all like in being different.

Caleb is different in his perfection, and in his mild-mannered acceptance of that perfection and his ability to be who he is no matter what the expectations of anyone else. It’s a trait the narrator – his frat name is Oprah, because “there were books in my room and I asked questions” – probably admires even more about Caleb than his Volvo-esque genitals (which is such good imagery, I just had to repeat it). Oprah started out for me as an observational narrator, because the person I found most fascinating was God, aka, Melanie.

Melanie is the pivotal character in the story – the character who, as Ken Nichols points out in a great analysis at Great Writers Steal, shakes up the status quo at Delta Zeta Chi by not only vanquishing seemingly invincible Caleb, but by writing – and sharing – a poem about it, and since the poem is included in an online excerpt, why not, it’s great:

Who is this soldier who did not hold his fire
When the whites of my eyes were shrouded
In fluttering eyelids?
I thought I knew you
Knew you were the steady hand on the wheel
The prow itself
But what kind of captain are you?
Scared sailor with your hand on your mast
Betrayed by your own body
As we are all betrayed
On your knees
Above me
Begging my forgiveness
With the muscles of a demon
And the whites of your eyes
As white as a child’s?

But… the story isn’t about her. That disappointed me.

I suppose, had the story been about Melanie, I would’ve been disappointed as well. She would’ve turned into a kind of caricature of a Warrior; she hovers on the very brink as is, but doesn’t quite go over. Instead, she leads to another, more personal catastrophe, as Oprah goes from observational narrator to agent of his own doom, and the story follows a path predictable from the first paragraph.

I was a little surprised that several readers, including Ken, and writer Spencer Lenfield, found the story to be funny. Maybe you had to have been a frat boy to get the funny. Yes, there are comedic aspects (the poem’s obviously hilarious, and… ottering? Really?). But I found Caleb’s reaction to the poem to be downright inspired – “As if this thing that we had all most likely done, and had been ashamed of, was the least shameful thing in the world”.

Mostly, I just found it sad that it’s a fairly good representation of reality – at least, the reality I imagine goes on in contemporary colleges (in which case I was so much better off going to a commuter school). I liked a great deal about it, but a lot of it made me angry as well. Like Oprah’s post-graduation dream world: “I dreamed of a consulting firm that Nutella would one day helm, staffed by brothers, known for underpromising and overdelivering, with an insignia depicting a clock face in the talons of an eagle.” Seems like a lot of current tech is founded on this model: sistahs, beware.

Thing is, what made me angry was not only a reasonable representation of contemporary society, it was also absolutely central to the story. That makes it hard to read in places. But it doesn’t make it a bad story. Yes, it goes exactly where I’d expected it to go, before God distracted me. But to have it do other – to become the epiphany-leads-to-instant-change story – would’ve been worse. Because we all know, epiphanies happen quickly, but change is painfully, tragically slow.