Pushcart XLI: Deb Olin Unferth, “Voltaire Night” from Paris Review

Leonid Afremov: “Misty Café”

I didn’t usually go for drinks with my students. I knew teachers who did, and I found it unprofessional and revolting, though that would not have stopped me. Neither would have the fact that I had sworn to quit drinking. But the school had put in place a policy, which applied even to the dubious adult ed. I’d had to sign a statement. Still, an end-of-term drink seemed like a nice idea.
We walked four blocks through the freezing cold to an upscale, unpopular joint in the nighttime-deadtime downtown. We sat in giant, stuffed chairs in a dark room, empty of anyone but us and the bartender. They all looked over at me, waiting. At last I said, “Has anyone read Candide?”
“Yes, yes,” they murmured. “Voltaire. Of course.” As I said, this was an educated crowd. They’d read it in college, they said. Or they’d read it when they were twelve and had found it confusing. Or they’d liked it and had read his other works since and found them less fun.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s each tell the story of the worst thing that’s happened to us.”

Many writers, reviewers, and teachers talk a great deal about narrative drive. I’ve seen it described, in terms of craft, as one sentence introducing the next by raising a question, one paragraph as call and the next as both response and call, one action completing A yet starting B, a cascade effect through the entire text. As manifested in the reader, it’s often a sense of urgency, a desperate need to read the next sentence, to find out what happens, a “getting lost” in the work. Carefully constructed plot, good characterization, technical elements like structure, syntax, language, are all in the service of creating urgency. “It’s beautiful writing” isn’t narrative drive, though you might memorize entire passages. Narrative drive is more like: “I couldn’t put it down.”

This story has narrative drive on three levels: the story of the narrator, the story-within-the-story of the adult ed writing class over time, and the story-within-the-story-within-the story, a real-life adventure told by one of the students at a social event ending the term. It’s awash in urgency, yet each time it flips between them, the urgency of the paragraph before me overtook the lingering “But wait, what about…” from the paragraph before. I’d call that great writing, great structure, in the service of creating urgency.

The narrator is a successful writer and professor, recalling a time in her career when she taught an adult education course. She was struggling with the end of a romantic relationship, so suggested Voltaire Night: a light-hearted contest, after Chapter 19 in Candide, where participants tell of the worst thing that’s happened to them recently, and the worst worst wins. This becomes a regular event over several terms, with returning students looking forward to it and new students eager to join in. And of course, the last story is a doozie.

There was the Voltaire night that Max accidentally smashed several glasses onto the floor and Stuart threw up on the sidewalk. There was the Voltaire night I somehow found myself separated from them all at two in the morning, smoking pot with strangers at a faraway club. How had I gotten there?
There were other things going on with me. Voltaire night was just a handful of nights out of that year, but the other nights weren’t so very different.
I had to change. In many ways I had to change.

From time to time, the narrator will switch gears and return to the present to include something she’s recognized since about that time, or just to expand upon her feelings at the time. It’s how we learn more about her. It’s also an interesting way to keep the three timelines active at once, as opposed to an envelope technique where all the insight comes at the beginning and the end. It could get confusing. And as I’ve said, for me it had the paradoxical effect of heightening the urgency, since I found it easy to switch timelines. It was frustrating for a second – to be speeding along that final story, breathless, eager to find out what this twist meant, only to find myself back in the present – but somehow it worked for me. I can imagine it might not work for every reader.

So is this quality of narrative drive universal? It’s taught as if it is, but might I find something compelling that someone else finds boring? Some people prefer romance novels, other like spy thrillers, and I love any story where I learn something, but I’m typically bored with stories focusing on the emotional ravages of love’s failures. Yet this one, which begins with that foundation, captivated me. Is there a story that captivates everyone? In other words, is narrative drive a function of content, of form, or both, and in any case, is it intrinsic to the process of reading, or is it a matter of preference?

I had several possibilities in mind for the end of the each level of story. As it happens, two out of three turned out a bit different from any of my expectations in delightful ways. And yes, while I smiled all the way through the story – seriously, a rectal thermometer implanted for twelve weeks? – I teared up during the last couple of paragraphs. But of course I cry over all kinds of things.

Pushcart labels its fiction with the title, and doesn’t label poetry or nonfiction, so without a fiction label, I’d assumed this was a memoir. It’s a story about a writer and writing teacher, after all. However, on doing further checking, I see it’s in the Paris Review as fiction, and it’s in Unferth’s latest short fiction collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017).

Now, that brings up two side issues. For one: There’s no hard and fast line for what does and doesn’t sound real, but the story the student tells was way over the top. Not only would a medical study as described require a residential stay, but the cascading difficulties stretched credibility. But while I was in the universe of the story, everything was real. That’s really good storytelling. It’s also an interesting quirk of human psychology which might bear some reflection at the current moment.

I’m not sure I have the details right. I want to be clear about that. I’m not sure if it was fifteen thousand or ten or eleven, or if she was five months along or four. I’m pretty sure it was twelve weeks. What one hears at Voltaire night, stays at Voltaire night, and it is only now that I am violating this contract.

The other issue is one I’ve brought up before, the issue of how true does non-fiction have to be. I’ve ranted before – over Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” most emphatically – about nonfiction that takes liberties with what really happened, padding truth with more interesting details to make a better story, and the defense that “nobody knows what really happened anyway, what difference does it make”. So here, where the narrator is relating the story after the fact, she admits she doesn’t remember the details – how many dollars, how many weeks. That’s how you handle the uncertainty of memory. It fit into the story so smoothly, so readably, so perfectly believably that it reinforced my reading of memoir. If fiction can turn itself into nonfiction with a disclaimer, nonfiction has no excuse to avoid similar techniques. Then again, I’m more sensitive than ever about lies masquerading as truth these days.

This was a story I couldn’t put down. I wish I could tell a clever anecdote about missing an important appointment or some such thing, because it felt that way. But that would be truthiness, not truth, and this post is nonfiction.

Pushcart 2014: Deb Olin Unferth, “Likeable” from Noon, 2012

She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person.

I know what that feels like.

On the surface (you can read the whole thing, all 300+ words of it, online and find out for yourself), this is self-explanatory: It’s true we can get away with more at 20 than we can at 40. Some of that is for good reason: we’re supposed to learn something with experience, and behavior that’s received as “cute” when one is young (“I did the same thing when I was your age” and “Just wait ’til she gets a little older, she’ll change her tune”) has an expiration date. That was the primary impetus behind my decision to leave home at 18: I knew I wasn’t prepared for the world, I knew that living at home was not going to prepare me, and I wanted to get all my mistakes out of the way while they’d still be forgivable. That still numbers among the five best decisions I’ve ever made in my life (the five worst decisions are, however, a lot more interesting).

The other side is implied here as well. Maybe as we get older – get some mileage on us, so to speak – we have a tendency to tire of the bullshit, of the make-nice, and start to gain the confidence to value our own view of the world, as opposed to that of others. We stop taking advice and start giving it, answer more questions than we ask, insist more than we wonder. We start to feel like we’ve earned the right, through hard experience. Assertiveness, particularly when exercised by women, can be seen as unlikeability, and I think the line for women is drawn differently than it is for men. And of course one can move beyond assertiveness, first into judgmental dogmatism, then into aggression.

I’ve always wondered if those who proudly frame their unlikeability in terms of confidence, who describe rudeness as honesty, are just unable or unwilling to learn or use the social skills necessary to walk the line between obsequiosity and offense, to determine which is appropriate (as they both are in different circumstances). As someone whose social skills frequently falter, I can sympathize, but own up to it – don’t claim it’s an asset. The story is, after all, titled “Likeable” rather than “Unlikeable” – is that an assertion? A hope? A contrast – or an expectation?

But keep in mind: this is a fiction piece, not an essay. It’s a character speaking – what if the character is speaking, not as a representation of a person, but as an actual self-aware character? An unlikeable character who, by page 43, finds herself put away on a shelf in favor of more likeable characters?

Roxane Gay had a great article on Buzzfeed about “the importance of unlikeable female protagonists.” I see no reason why a fictional character, male or female, must be likeable; I don’t think in terms of likeability as much as I do of how interested I am in what the character is doing, and those are different things.

I think I’m reaching, because otherwise, in spite of my appreciation for Unferth, I would have little to say about this piece. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s that I’m struggling to find anything unique about it, a reason it’s been selected. Does that make me unlikeable?

Pushcart 2011: Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet” from NOON, 2009

NOON 9 cover

NOON 9 cover

How has she come to this? How? She can put a heroic spin on it or a negative one. She could make herself look enlightened or close to tramphood. She has never seen a woman make worse choices than she. She has never known any person so transparently wrongheaded, so obviously in need of job counseling, parenting classes, therapy, help of any kind, any lifeboat, any raft, so obviously in need of a hard careful look at herself, and so obviously not going to do it. She is that unaware. That full of the opposite of insight, that doomed to middling livelihood at best, certain solitude, early illness, weakness, not-quite poverty, strained relations with her son, relatives who don’t really like her taking care of her when she is old. The indignity of all this, the shame. How exhausting, this life, this topic, how stupid, how difficult. She has her face in her hands. And what is that now – turtle shit in her hair? Well, this is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Does she feel better now, Miss Pity Party? The phone rings. That would be her date.

Another miraculous story. The POV is so all over the place, I can’t even begin to figure it out. In the above quoted paragraph, for instance, is the woman herself the narrator, or is it a third person narration? Is she thinking these things, or is the narrator explaining this is what she’s thinking? Is she so keenly aware that she’s unaware? Is she recognizing she can put a positive or negative spin on it, and then turning it into such a tirade of self-hatred it’s almost comic, especially when the turtle shit comes in? At times it’s more like the instruction-manual second person voice. This is way beyond my understanding of POV and narration. Thankfully, Matt Bell has done a line-by-line analysis of the opening four paragraphs [which, sadly, seems to have disappeared now, in Oct 2012], from which we gratefully reap the benefits:

The paragraph is narration, but it’s so, so close to the characters, blending words that were probably said aloud into summary. Even that [fourth] paragraph reads like a blend of dialogue and thought, making the barriers between the woman’s inner and outer voices permeable and transparent. This is done throughout the story to some degree, and makes for a story where the narratorial voice is as much a part of the characters as the dialogue and action it describes, as it’s almost always buried in one character’s sensibility or another.

There’s also a narrative analysis by Justin Taylor on his HTMLGiant review of this issue of NOON. I clearly need to learn more about narrative technique.

As a reader lacking their sophistication, I can only say the story reads like chaos. The woman is a divorced mother of an absurdly smart-ass teenage son, and she admits she hasn’t been the best mother. She may or may not be aware of all the ways she hasn’t been the best mother; she explains she only left him with someone twice, once when he had chicken pox and once when she was in rehab, and he reminds her she didn’t actually leave him with those friends, he called them and asked them to pick him up. So his attitude isn’t totally uncalled for.

But she’s trying. She’s sympathetic, if flawed. She’s in AA. Her sister asked her to watch the house during vacation, and she found these two turtles in a tank in the basement. She was afraid they’d die in the dank basement; one of them appeared to be drowning himself. In a “philanthropic moment,” she takes the tank home with her. Her son pulls out the snidery only teens can pull off: “…the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.”

One turtle is sick. She takes it to a vet, who charges her $40 to say he’s a mammal vet and has no idea what’s wrong or what to do about it. She calls pet shops, and they don’t know what to do. Someone finally suggests vitamin sticks and a special light, which she gets and the turtle improves. Except then it starts fighting with the other turtle. Someone tells her about the Reptile Swap where you give up your reptile and take another, but no one wants her turtles. So she gets another tank; now has to clean two tanks, which clogs up the bathtub drain, which explodes when she pours in drain cleaner…

And then there’s that moment of change. It’s so beautiful, just perfectly executed. A couple of sentences in clear, straightforward style. The chaos of language and situation returns – the son is still a teenager, after all – but the mood changes completely. The Deus ex Machina in a beam of light from the sky. I cried, much to my surprise; I didn’t think I was that emotionally involved in the story. Maybe I wasn’t, until that moment.

I was reminded of 1) “Tenderoni” by Kathy Fish, which executes the same dismal scene suddenly turning on a single sentence, and 2) “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus, a story I hated because it had the dismal part down pat, and the closed doors and the attempts to fix things leading only to dead ends, but left out the turning point. It felt incomplete to me, and now I know why.

So many layers here – I haven’t even touched on the similarity of children and pets, which seems like an awful thing to say, but I feel that’s being made very clear here. She doesn’t like these turtles. They’re ugly. They smell bad. It isn’t like a cute kitten or puppy that may poop on the rug but is cute and cuddly after all. Still, she doesn’t throw them out. Her son isn’t cute and cuddly, either. He’s far more obnoxious than the turtles. And she still works at it. We all know, or have read about, parents who have given up. She doesn’t. And I think the son, for all his nastiness, knows that somewhere.

I think there’s some psychology at work here as well. There’s a point where even the littlest thing, like a turtle, seems truly overwhelming. It’s a point recovering addicts and depressives tend to reach easily. The comment Matt Bell made about the narration seeming permeable made me think of a variety of personality disorders, including the “porous ego” of borderline personality disorder or the projection of narcissism. But I’m not an expert in these matters.

It’s a lot to fit into a turtle story.