BASS 2014: Brendan Mathews, “This is Not A Love Song” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013

Interior. Basement of Kat’s parents’ house. River Forest, Illinois.

If you can’t imagine Kat in the gray skirt and Peter Pan collar required by the nuns at our all-girls high school, it’s probably because you’ve never seen the pictures I took when I was the president and only dues-paying member of the photography club and Kat was spending afternoons
Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

and weekends punching out songs in her parents’ basement and running them through the four-track she bought with a summer’s worth of babysitting money. She was my only subject—my muse, you could say—but that was because she was the only one who would sit still while I fussed over lenses and light readings and angles. It wasn’t patience: Even then she was focused; even then she was very good at tuning out background noise. I took rolls and rolls of film of her bent over her guitar, her hair a veil over her eyes, her lips soundlessly counting out the beat. Then I’d disappear for days of red-light seclusion in my studio, which my parents insisted on calling the laundry room. A set of these pictures, soulful black-and-whites mostly, spiked with a few hallucinatory color shots, won the school art prize senior year and had the added bonus of convincing every girl in our graduating class that we were lesbians. It’s too bad we weren’t; maybe we wouldn’t have been so lonely, so frustrated, so perpetually amped up.

If this volume doesn’t cure me of my fondness for unusual structures and narratives, nothing will. It’s like every story is taunting me: “Here, figure this out!” See for yourself – it’s available online (thank you, VQR).

Then again, what fun is a story that makes itself wholly known from the first line. Maybe that’s what I like about what some people consider “tricks” – it turns a story into a puzzle, to be figured out: “Hmmm, what was the author doing here?” All I can say is that, though I start out hating most of these stories, once I put a little effort into them, I end up very impressed.

This is the second Mathews story I’ve encountered; the first was ” My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” from BASS 2010, and while that wasn’t quite as narratively unique, it too wasn’t standard exposition-rising action and all the rest. But this goes beyond that. I was initially annoyed, but I then found a way in.

It’s a story told through photographs, with the narrator the photographer obsessed with her childhood friend turned indie grunge star. Some of the initial entries, all set off by identification of the photograph (some by location, as above, some by index, as in “Box 5, Spool 3”). Sometimes they’re fragments of conversation. Sometimes they’re pure narrative. Sometimes they start off in present tense (“She stands in the doorway…”) which I interpret the narrator going through the photographs, describing them, explaining the circumstances behind them, the memories they evoke. Does this sound elegiac? Yes, of course it does; and, of course, it is.

It’s a variation on the epistolary story, I suppose. Because of the variety between sections, I got a real sense of someone going through photographs, reliving someone’s life, remembering. I can see why Egan would’ve been particularly attracted to this piece, dealing with the music industry as it does. In places it reminded me of some of the parts of Goon Squad that I didn’t particularly like. But here, it worked better for me, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because my attention was always on the narrator. Oh, Kat is interesting enough. Kat’s the star.

Not that she ever looked at the crowd when she sang. The eyes of other people distracted her; the way those eyes begged for instant intimacy wasn’t just an imposition, it was an affront. An assault, even.
She didn’t look into the crowd, she looked over it, at some safe, empty spot on a far wall, or a point on the ceiling where hands and faces could not reach. When she first started playing out in clubs where there was no stage, just a space on the floor to set up, her insistence on staring at the ceiling or squeezing her eyes shut tight gave her the look of some mad, ecstatic saint. People said she was blind, or epileptic, or terminally shy. Whatever they believed, they were talking about her, and she needed that kind of an advantage—that lingering hold on the crowd’s mayfly attention—if she didn’t want to get lumped in with every other band thrashing through its twenty-five minutes (“Which band? The one with the freaky girl singer with the messed-up eyes? Oh yeah, they were pretty good.”)

But the narrator – off in the corner, snapping pictures, reaching, longing, remembering, feeling – is the one I want to know.

I’m fascinated by the recurring eye imagery throughout the piece. The word “eye” or “eyes” appears 23 times in a 6200-word story. I checked a few other online stories, and none came close. The “I/eye am a camera” trope of course. It’s easy to just call this the “I/eye am a Camera” trope and move on, but Kat has some eye stuff going on, too. She’s the one who can’t look; the narrator is the one who can’t stop looking.

I once heard some lectures by Roy Flukinger, curator of the photographic archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas/Austin, that changed my conception of photography. Initially, photography – daguerrotypy, actually – was seen as a technical field; the 1851 Great Exhibition, a forerunner of the World’s Fair, classified daguerrotypes as “philosophical instruments” along with telescopes, partly because of the precise procedures, chemicals, and equipment involved in capturing images. The art involved in photography wasn’t recognized for some time, until the technology became more user-friendly and it became understood that, while the camera captures reality, it is the photographer who chooses what to capture, how to frame it, and how to render the image. And now cell phones capture history – and perhaps change it, one can only hope – daily. But what is chosen for capture is still in the thumb of the photographer.

You should do a book, someone said. You should put them all together so people can see what she was like, before. And I could. I have thousands of pictures. Each one different. Each one telling the same story.

I don’t think the story being told is of the rise of Kat the singer. I think it’s a much more personal story, and that’s because of how the image here was captured. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not that interested in Kat; I’m far more interested in the person, sitting on the floor, going through photographs and explaining them to the empty room.

BASS 2010: Brendan Mathews – “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer”

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Hello, I am Zin! I now have my own account! I am officially a Contributor to A Just Recompense! I am very happy about this! I want a T-shirt too but I will settle for a Gravatar. We took all day to figure out how to do this and I hope this post works. We will have to figure out who does what stories but for now we agreed whoever liked the story best gets it so I am doing “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” by Brendan Mathews – because how can you not love a story with a title like that?

It is not easy to write a story about unrequited love without getting all sappy and stupid and trite, so making the love triangle about a lion tamer, an aerialist, and a clown certainly helps avoid those things! I thought maybe Mathews worked in a circus for a while, but no, he was a nuclear weapons journalist before he went for his MFA. I did not even know that was a job! In his contributor notes (hey, he is a contributor too, just like me! But I think his contributorship is a lot more prestigious than mine) he said it took him five years to go from draft to story, with several major changes including the idea to put the “you” in there. I am still interested in the “you”. It is an unusual approach for a story and I think it works very well here, which is surprising, it could go bad very quickly but it does not. It makes me want to read more by this writer!

I love that this story is both surreal and very down-to-earth. I love the first line: “He wasn’t even a good lion tamer, not before you showed up.” Hah, I remember that writing exercise about first lines, and this one is a doozy. It sets up the situation, creates interest, and introduces the three characters. And all three characters are people I cared about very much! I knew from the beginning something would happen to the lion tamer of course, and I figured it would be bad, so it was not really surprising but somehow it was satisfying in terms of resolution. As usual the ending is not nailed down – this is something I need to work on, because I do not know that I could leave it literally up in the air like that, about the aerialist, but that is what fiction is now and I must learn to do this.

Richard Russo said on an NPR interview that he loved the story because of its whimsy and how well Mathews created a circus world. You can also read an excerpt from the beginning of the story in that same interview.

Thank you for reading my first review as a Contributor! Please let me know if you like it or not, so I can improve!

~ zin