New Yorker art by Riitta Päiväläinen - from her "Vestige" series
He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
I had a lot of trouble with this story. In fact, I only read parts of it, skipping over the fantasy sections looking for whatever was happening in the here-and-now, assuming Eber was mentally ill or drunk. That’s what I get for skimming. I only became interested enough to read it through when I found out what it was actually about after I’d read the terrific Book Bench interview with George Saunders, and comments by other bloggers, most notably Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes (always a go-to source when I’m struggling with a story). Trevor had a hard time with it, too, yet he led me right to it. So thanks, Trevor!
Still, it’s not an easy read. YMMV. It’s available online.
The principles are two:
Robin, a ten-year-old boy who’s escaping grade-school teasing by doing battle with a world of Netherlanders who live in a rock wall and “talk like that guy in ‘Mary Poppins’.” His companion, in his mind, is the lovely Suzanne from homeroom, to whom he is a hero, though in real life she doesn’t know his name. Oh, come on, don’t tell me you didn’t have similar fantasies.
And Don Eber, who is not at all mentally ill but has a brain tumor already affecting his word choice. He’s got a cast of characters in his head, too, though they’re real, if no longer alive. His dad and Kip, who abandoned him for California when he was a kid. Allen, his stepfather, who was a terrific guy until he got sick:
Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.
Again, let me thank Trevor: I would’ve missed this entirely if I hadn’t been directed back to the story, and this was worth whatever struggles I endured.
So we have a boy with Nethers in his head trying to be a hero, and a man with Dad, Kip and Allen in his head, trying to die before he becomes a burden to his current family, in the same woods. What are the odds.
Eber has left his coat near the mostly-frozen pond, as he’s decided freezing to death is the easiest way to go. Robin finds the coat and, since it’s ten degrees, decides to rescue whoever lost it. Unfortunately, he never saw the PSAs about how dangerous it is to trust ice early in the season, so he cuts across the pond rather than taking the long way around. It’s a terrific scene, both before and after he falls in. The pacing slows down to inch-by-inch action, which is perfect.
From there, it’s a matter of interaction, and it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of guilt and rescue. As the story proceeded, once I’d actually read it instead of skimming, it raised all sorts of feelings from me. The ending is slightly hokey, but it earns it.
The magic of this story, though, is the integration of internality and action, the very thing that so put me off at first. Per Saunders’ interview:
Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.”
….Robin’s internal dialogues were sort of voluntary—they’re little scenes that he’s consciously enacting in his mind, like when someone imagines being interviewed on a talk show, or gives himself a do-over with someone who’s insulted him. Robin is picturing Suzanne walking beside him; he’s actually “hearing” her say those words (those words that he’s giving her to say). Eber’s dialogues are more non-verbal, if you will. That is, I assign his father and Kip lines of dialogue, but I would imagine that in Eber’s mind these exchanges occur more as vague rushes of feeling that, if we could take them apart, would be attributable to long-standing and very deep archetypes in his mind. (I, for example, have a small group of inner nuns who appear now and then—also known as a “swarm” or a “mottle” of nuns.
As Trevor (thanks again) points out – this all takes place in an extremely close third person narration, which I didn’t even realize. It reads very naturally. There’s no intrusion of “he thought” or “he imagined,” it’s just a stream of consciousness of these two characters.
I’m glad I finally read this as it was meant to be read. There’s a lesson there for me.
Another interesting note: the art appearing in The New Yorker (and above) is supplied by photographer Riitta Päiväläinen from her “Vestige” series, featuring clothing from second-hand stores placed in landscapes: “By freezing the garment or letting the wind fill it with air, I am able to create a sculptural space, which reminds me of its former user. This ‘Imaginary Meeting’ represents, for me, the subtle distinction between absence and presence.” It’s so perfect for this story, I’m amazed the story and the art were created independently.
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Addendum: I re-read this as part of BASS 2012, and had a few additional thoughts.
Even though I’d read it before and knew what to expect (and the payoff), it was again a hard story to get into. The reader is plopped right down in the middle of a boy’s fantasy play, complete with imaginary creatures called Nethers and the fantasy version of Suzanne, whom he’s rescuing. So it makes no sense. Then you meet Eber, who is likewise lost in thought. As Perotta says in his Introduction, their “inner lives are fully accessible to the reader” which is cool, but takes some persistence to follow. It’s worth it.
I also picked up on something else: each of them was ineffectually trying to rescue himself initially, the boy by becoming a hero in his fantasy and rescuing Suzanne, the man by killing himself before the tumor in his brain could take away his capacity to do so. Yet, it isn’t until each rescues the other that actual rescue takes place: the boy becomes a hero in fact, the man realizes suicide would be a terrible thing to do to his beloved Molly. There’s something here like the old thing about helping others being the best way to forget about your own troubles, but in praxis. When the kid sees the old man’s coat and goes to get it, he thinks, “It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.” Exactly – except by trying to rescue the man, he’s rescuing himself.