A lot of stories can give you a great theme, but this story weaves at least four themes into it, blending them and then letting them stand alone for a time the way a great symphony can. Indeed, much like in listening to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, I find myself enjoying each new motif as it comes along so much, I’m disappointed when it’s interrupted, only to find I like the new one better, until it’s interrupted again by an even better one. The experience builds until all the themes are brought together.
Jake Weber: “Solid and Mutable Both”, post on Workshop Heretic
Regular readers, if there are any (given how my blog stats tend to swell in September and February, I gather my readers are typically English Lit 101 students who are desperately looking for something to say when a story is assigned in class) may have noticed that a few years ago, I shifted from using quotes from the story as a lead-in, to quotes from the author’s Contributor Note on how the story originated, or the guest editor’s Introduction on why the story was chosen, or perhaps an online review, either to generate interest in the story or to highlight an important aspect. I’ve never used one of my blogger buddy Jake’s posts before; it just felt a bit inbred or something.
It’s not that the other options weren’t eminently appropriate. McCracken discusses the importance of setting and how she uses real-life places in her stories, and how this one was chosen because she encountered a huge stone statue that looked just like her father in a Denmark museum. There’s also a very brief reference to her having been on her way to an exhibit of “stone noses that had lost their statues” when she saw her father’s image; she has a way of making these drop-dead references consisting of two to ten words that have more impact than any other author’s three elegantly crafted paragraphs.
Likewise, Greer celebrates the humor of the story, via his appreciation of seeing a character’s flaws as well as strengths, and how the seriousness of life is underlined by its absurdity: “how else could you tell the story of an old boyfriend discovered at a Viking reenactment park except with laughter?”
But I chose Jake’s post because it is extraordinary. While he often – even when he says he’s working hard on his comments – comes up with insights I have missed, here he not only displayed the structure and purpose of the story, but did so with the metaphor of a symphony, a vehicle I always appreciate but usually find trite. Here, it’s perfect. I could have replacd this entire post with the words “See here” and a link, but I have sworn to write something about each story, each year (which is the hard part; try it, no one other than the two of us has lasted more than three or four stories) and so I shall. But definitely, see there (link provided below).
To give myself due credit, I had begun a post using two elements Jake mentions: the coming-of-age story, and the blending of past, present, and future into a kind of melted-time soup that features so prominently in virtually all of the stories in this volume so far. So let’s begin at the beginning:
Perhaps she should have known that she would find her lost love—her Viking husband, gone these many years—in Sydesgaard, on the island of Funen, in the village of his people. Asleep in the hut of the medicine woman, comforted by the medicine woman, loved by the medicine woman, who was (it turned out) a podiatrist from Aarhus named Flora. The village itself was an educational site and a vacation spot where, if you wanted, you could wear a costume and spin wool for fun. As for Aksel—was he Joanna’s common-law ex-husband, or ex-common-law husband? Eleven years ago they had broken up after living together for ten. “Broken up”—one summer Aksel left for Denmark, and she never heard from him again.
Not never. He sent an apologetic postcard from London. But never after that, nothing for eleven years. She’d married, been made a mother, lost a mother, been legally divorced, finally was fully orphaned by her father’s death. Her father, who had been heartbroken when Aksel disappeared, for his own sake.
This opening paragraph introduces the three generations that form the backbone of the story: Joanna and Aksel as the middle generation, Joanna’s father as the elder, and, tangentially, her son Leo as the younger. I find it interesting that, in a sense, they all go through a kind of coming-of-age, though not the traditional one.
What is a coming-of-age story? The Masterclass site (where, for $15 a month, you can watch videos of Margaret Atwood talking about writing, or Gordon Ramsey talking about cooking, etc etc) has a how-to section and lists four kinds. Emily Temple gives her criteria and examples on LitHub. Other definitions abound. Since everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is, I might as well make up my own definition.
Coming-of-age has nothing to do with age, but with transformation, with ending one phase of life and starting a new one. The key element is sacrificing one element of comfort and safety for an element of growth and freedom: The safety of dependence is given up for the risk of self-determination; or, passivity becomes activity; or, innocence becomes experience. In this story, it’s more like a view of the past, a view that has buffered against pain, is sacrificed for honesty and the ability to move forward unimpeded by one’s own history.
In the case of ten-year-old Leo, this shift is made quite literal via a pair of eyeglasses:
He was newly bespectacled, having failed a vision test at school. Because he hadn’t cared, she’d picked him out a pair of square black frames, so that he looked not like the bookish skinny wan pubescent boy he was, but like a skinny wan Eighties rocker. Wow, he’d said, stepping out of the optician’s, scanning the parking lot, the parking lot trees, the Starbucks and the Staples. Wow. Just like that, both he and the world looked different.
In lesser hands, this could be clunky. However, McCracken makes it a small part of a whole; it doesn’t bear the entire weight of the story. It’s just Leo’s visual experience. He has other experiences which supersede it: his discovery that Legoland, even to a Legofan, is a cheesy rip-off, and that playing Viking hoop rolling with a Danish boy could be more fun than he’d expected. And that he needs – wants – his mom, still.
The Danish Iron Age Viking village serves as the meeting place for Aksel and Joanna, bordered by the memory of Joanna’s dad on one side and the presence of Joanna’s son on the other. Aksel seems to have made his major coming-of-age transition years earlier, though he does go through some transition in the scene with the watch. He and Joanna argue. They both consider it might be better to give the watch to Leo, Joanna in the hopes that he might take an interest in horology, Aksel in the interests of getting rid of old ties. This is all amidst a dreamy world of in-between: “The Viking village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep that didn’t know what millennium they were in, either.” While arguing about, on the surface at least, a watch.
He retrieved the watch from his pouch, his Viking pocketbook, and weighed it in his hand as though he himself would throw it bogward. Instead he wound it up—later, when Leo did become interested in old watches, she would discover this was the worst thing you could do, wind a dormant watch—and displayed it. First he popped open the front to exhibit the handsome porcelain face, the elegant black numbers. “Works,” he remarked. Then he turned it over and opened the back.
There, in his palm, a tiny animated scene: a man in a powdered wig, a woman in a milkmaid’s costume, her legs open, his pants down, his tiny pink enamel penis with its red tip tick-tock-ticking at her crotch, also pink and white and red. It was ridiculous what passed for arousing in the old days. She was aroused.
“Old Walter,” said Aksel. “He lasted a while, then. He started taking care of himself?”
“No. He got worse and worse. He was eighty.”
“He never wanted to be,” said Aksel, in a sympathetic voice.
“I know it.”
He offered the watch. “In four years perhaps your boy will be interested.”
Ah, no: it was ruined. Not because of the ticking genitalia, but because it was somebody else’s private joke, and she the cartoon wife wanting in, in a robe and curlers, brandishing a rolling pin. Even a cartoon wife might love her rascal husband. She did.
It’s a tough thing to do, let go of the past we believe in, and accept the past that was.
So where was the Souvenir museum? It was tucked in between Legoland and Odins Odense. It’s a quantum world when time melts: effect precedes cause. We are thus prepped for the Passing of the Pornographic Watch, and then for the descent into quantum time that makes up the final few paragraphs, where there is no present, no past, no future, just a boy deciding he still wants his mother, and a mother deciding she wouldn’t trade the present for the past after all.
I urge you again to read Jake’s post. He claims he only scratched the surface, but I, a master of surface-scratching, think he did a lot more than that.
* * *
- The story is (at least temporarily) available online at Harper’s.
- Jake Weber’s insightful post about this story can be found online at Workshop Heretic.
- The MasterClass discussion of coming-of-age stories
- Emily Temple discusses coming-of-age stories on LitHub.
- Do you really want to know more about Legoland after reading this story? Do you? Really?
- And Odins Odense? Surely you want to know more about the European Iron Age version of Plimouth Plantation?
- And just because it’s so cool and where else could I ever fit this in: you might want to know about the museum collection of “stone noses that had lost their statues.”