BASS 2019: Jeffrey Eugenides, “Bronze” from The New Yorker Feb. 5, 2018

The working title of that fragment was called “Boy on Train.“ I knew that it involved an encounter between a college freshman and a professional actor who are forced to sit together on a crowded Amtrak train, during a trip from New York to Providence, in 1978. I knew that the point of view should shift back and forth between these two characters and that their meeting should be dramatised moment by moment. The idea was to give the story a feeling of immediacy, as if its events were happening in real time.
I made decent progress at first. The language of the story, highly inflected by the characters personalities, felt freeing, allowing me to reproduce the way the world, or at least my world, had sounded back in ‘78.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Contributor Note

Back a couple of stories ago, when I wrote about “The Third Tower”, I said something about different people’s minds running on different tracks when reading a story, since we all have different backgrounds that lead to different associations. I seem to have pulled onto a rarely-used siderail here, because while everyone else is fitting this into the #MeToo era – even though its genesis predates the hashtag by several years – I found myself fully immersed in what I imagined young gay culture to be in the late 70s thanks to frequent readings of And the Band Played On: the pre-AIDS bathhouses and orgies and post-Stonehenge defiant celebrations of sexuality seen now (at least by non-gay-male dinosaurs like me) mostly in gay pride parades, as public gay culture has turned to issues like marriage equality and job security.

This isn’t a story about being gay, however. It just seems like it is. It’s a story about how you figure out if you’re gay, set in a time before we started thinking about sexual preference as a continuum as established by the Kinsey report in the 40s. And before we realized that it isn’t the creepy stranger in the trench coat who’s the sexual predator.

The college freshman, being high, was also a little paranoid. Therefore, as he boarded the Amtrak Colonial he had the impression that people could tell. Why was everyone staring? Some smiling, some raising eyebrows, a few shaking their heads. Do I reek? Eugene thought. I used Binaca.
Then he remembered what he was wearing. The white fur coat. The pink sunglasses. The striped collegiate scarf knotted at his neck. Sort of a new look for him, part glam, part New Wave.
Eugene’s little secret? He wanted to be beautiful. If that didn’t work, noticeable would do.
He unzipped his coat and fanned himself, hot from running down the platform.
It was a late-November afternoon, in the confusing year of 1978, and Eugene was headed back to school after a wild weekend exploring the demimonde. Eugene knew that was a French word associated with women of dubious morals, but in his mind it included the teen runaways at that chicken-hawk bar Stigwood had taken him to, Saturday night; plus Stigwood himself, who was rich and debauched. The main thing about the demimonde was that nobody back at the dorm had a clue about it. Only Eugene.

Complete story available online at TNY

Eugene, Brown freshman and wannabe poet, is one of our two pov characters. For all the flamboyance and excess in these opening paragraphs, he’s been more of a spectator than a participant in this alternate world, carefully partitioned off from the academic world in which he spends most of his time.

In his TNY interview with Cressida Leyshon, Eugenedis says that he had trouble writing this opening section (interestingly, I found it difficult to follow) due partly to Eugene’s stonedness, an essential element, and his own personal experience, which kept getting in the way of the fictional version. That’s a writing problem I find fascinating. Back when I kept trying to be a fiction writer, it’s something I ran into all the time. Someone would suggest it would be better if the character did this instead of that, but I’d insist he couldn’t because that wasn’t what happened. I seem to be reality-bound, even when I’ve twisted that reality in my own mind into a pale imitation of objective truth.

Nevertheless, the section contained a couple of key passages, one that’s key for Eugene, and one that I find highly relevant to the present. In this alternate demimonde Eugene has found, he meets Rafael, a guy about his age, who he thinks of as concubine to an older, richer man. Rafael dabbles in pop-psychology:

Raphael passed the doobie and picked up a deck of cards. “Everybody has a word map,” he explained. “Your word map is how you feel, inside, as a person. Here. I show you.”
Raphael laid three cards on the bedspread. Each bore a word.
Sensitivity. Ardor. Celebration.
“Pick a card,” Raphael said. “How you feel, inside.”
Eugene took a hit and thought about it. His mom always called him sensitive. But not in a way he liked. You had to be sensitive to be a poet, of course, but Eugene’s mom meant more like that time at swimming lessons, when he’d refused to get into the pool.
You do something once and your family never stops talking about it.
So: no to Sensitivity.
Ardor was like armpit plus odor.
Celebration, on the other hand, had appeal.

Ardor will come back later – and you’ve got to love the wordplay of this fledgling poet – but it’s the “you do something once” that really sticks the landing, suggesting a rigidity of identity that is the heart of the story.

The other note rang for me like a pronouncement on our present time:

New York was dying. But that was O.K. It was in dying empires that the greatest poets appeared. Virgil in Rome. Dante in Florence. Baudelaire in Paris. Decadence. Eugene liked that word. It was like “decay” and “hence.” Things falling apart over time. A sweet smell like that of rotten bananas, or of bodies ripe from iniquitous exertion, could pervade an entire age, at which point someone came along to give voice to how messed up things were and, in so doing, made them beautiful again.

Every moment, I suppose, is the end of something and the beginning of something else, but these I’m overwhelmed with the sense that something is at an end right now, maybe America, maybe democracy, maybe capitalism, maybe what we think of as civilization as the waters rise and the biosphere changes. I’m old (which may well contribute to this sense of ending), so whatever is coming, I won’t miss what’s past for long, but it is a lonely resignation since I can’t discuss this with people with kids, who still want to think of those kids as having a future of great choices and limitless possibilities.

Eugene’s looking for a seat on the crowded train back to Brown, which is how we meet the second pov character, Kent. “This seat’s free,” he calls out to Eugene. “Not again”, Eugene thinks. He compares it to being a pretty girl: older guys are always hitting on him. But this older guy’s life plays out in Eugene’s life. Because Kent was once a teenager, drunk and flamboyantly dressed, when Jasper, then Kent’s current age, picked him up and let him sleep it off. Eugene won’t be quite so lucky. But neither will Jasper. Eugene was molested by his high school drama teacher. Jasper is dying of emphysema down in Texas. And Kent’s trying to have it all.

Several images compete for the embodiment, or lack of, permanence. One is Horace, Ode XXX, Aere Perennius:

I have made a monument more lasting than bronze
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids
which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind can erode
Nor the countless succession of years, and the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! And a large part of me will avoid the grave.

Eugene is thinking of it in terms of poetry: how do you write something that will be read two thousand years hence? As a poet in the making, he can’t even imagine it. Permanence must feel great. But permanence has the other side, the Family that Never Forgets.

Eugene, looking out the window, acutely aware he’s sitting next to this guy who offered him a seat, writes his own poem:

Each window I see into
contains a slice of life
sliced by the train I’m in
two kids watching TV on the floor
an old man reading the paper
and just a couch, all alone
like me

This takes a less bronze view, seeing life as a series of unrelated moments rather than one monolithic thing in which you are what you were forever. But moments are related, even if we don’t see what happens between the window views. And while we’re at it: when he was trying to find a seat on the crowded train, passing from one car to the next, he discovered the interim spaces are safer than he thought:

Now he was between cars. Daredevil-like. He looked down, expecting to see tracks below—the train had started moving—but the area was an enclosed, accordion-like sleeve that bent gracefully as the train pulled out of the station.

And then there’s the ballerina. We never get her name, making her more an abstract quality than a person, even though in the closing scene she’s definitely a person.

He was thinking that dancing wasn’t like making a monument in bronze. With dance you did it once, perfectly or not, and then it was gone forever.

The ephemeral, here and gone. But it leaves open a chance for a second shot.

I see the story as Eugene emerging from his own personal Bronze age, initiated by the drama teacher, into something that makes more sense to him, leaving behind Horace and Kent – literally – and following the ballerina. I found Jake Weber’s take on the story to be particularly interesting since, it seems to me, men and women see male gayness differently; and, because of a personal anecdote Jake mentions at the beginning of his post. I’d really like to see a gay man’s view, particularly an older gay man who would be familiar with the era, of the work.

Chances are I will, in the future: Both Eugenides’ interview and his contributor note indicate this story, which was intended for his last story collection but wasn’t ready in time, is being expanded into a novel. That’s good; I hope we get to know the ballerina’s name, and I hope Eugene allows himself to be whatever he wants to be, at any moment.

Jeffrey Eugenides: “Find the Bad Guy” from TNY, 11/18/13

TNY art by Jens Mortensen

TNY art by Jens Mortensen

Find the Bad Guy means how, when you’re arguing with your spouse, both people are trying to win the argument. Who didn’t close the garage door? Who left the Bigfoot hair clump in the shower drain? What you have to realize, as a couple, is that there is no bad guy. You can’t win an argument when you’re married. Because if you win, your spouse loses, and resents losing, and then you lose, too, pretty much.

I spent about half of my marriage in couples counselling. You’d think I would’ve realized, long before the fifteen years it took me to move on, that was a bad sign. To be fair, I did call it quits at ten years, but he knew me well enough to wait until Christmas Eve and call from the New Jersey Turnpike.… So I had mixed reactions to this story (available online), very personal reactions. Amusement at the way counselling plays language games, takes complex feelings and situations and turns them into handy slogans. Anxiety about the manipulative guy who’s used to breaking the rules and very good at getting what he wants. Compassion for that same guy who truly does seem to know what he’s lost. Anger towards him for trading that compassion in for another chance to break more rules. Is Charlie D. an abusive husband, or is he a needy schlub who makes a lot of mistakes? Is the Bad Guy? Not sure.

Johanna originally asked Charlie to marry her so she could get a green card and extend her German visa. He was smitten anyway, but eventually, she fell as well – “Love at fifteenth sight, I guess you’d call it” – abut now, 21 years and three kids later, he got the babysitter not-pregnant and she’s finally had enough. In the present of the story, he’s violating a restraining order by hanging around outside her, formerly their, house, hoping to catch a glimpse of his family.

What I liked most about this story, possibly because I just focused on it in my comments on “The Chair”, was how a couple of simple things were used as tropes: Fire, and electronic communications. They’re even woven together. Some guys have the man cave; Charlie has a fire pit. But it’s a fire pit he’s been enjoying alone:

For instance, regarding the fire pit. Didn’t I try to corral everyone out there every night? Did I ever say I wanted to sit out there alone? No, sir. I’d like us to be together, as a family, under the stars, with the mesquite flaming and popping. But Johanna, Bryce, Meg, and even Lucas—they never want to. Too busy on their computers or their Instagrams.

The babysitter joined him at the fire pit. Not subtle, but effective. And in the present of the story, standing outside his house, he’s playing Words with Friends with his daughter: the computer she was too busy with has become his lifeline now. If the daughter won’t come to the fire pit, follow the electronic data stream to the daughter. When he’s finally arrested, he finds heartbreaking comfort in another play of the game:

When a new word comes on Words with Friends, it’s a beautiful sight to see. The letters appear out of nowhere, like a sprinkle of stardust. I could be anywhere, doing anything, but when Meg’s next word flies through the night to skip and dance across my phone, I’ll know she’s thinking of me, even if she’s trying to beat me.

I’m one of those people who’s taken to electronic connections, so I understand how that might’ve felt. It’s a powerful image: the only connection to his daughter is through a smartphone screen.

Back to the fire. In the therapist’s office after confessing the affair with the not-pregnant babysitter, he understands that he’s blown it, and it’s been Johanna who’s been doing the heavy lifting, relationship-wise:

Over in the Alps, when they found that prehistoric man frozen in the tundra and dug him out, the guy they call Ötzi, they saw that aside from wearing leather shoes filled with grass and a bearskin hat he was carrying a little wooden box that contained an ember. That’s what Johanna and I were doing, going to marital therapy. We were living through an Ice Age, armed with bows and arrows. We had wounds from previous skirmishes. All we had if we got sick were some medicinal herbs. There’s a flint arrowhead lodged in my left shoulder. Ouch. But we had this ember box with us, and if we could just get it somewhere—I don’t know, a cave, or a stand of pines—we could use this ember to reignite the fire of our love…. She’s been carrying our ember the whole time, for years now, despite all my attempts to blow it out.

It’s easy to see Charlie as a basically good guy; I can understand that. But don’t forget: he beat his dog, he got it on with the babysitter, and he’s violating a restraining order. He’s an unreliable narrator of himself: his apologies, realizations, longings, sound great; his behavior, not so much. Those of us who have heard these realizations, these apologies, these promises, a million times, grow a bit weary of them. It’s no way to make a marriage. But it does make for good story-telling.

Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord” from The New Yorker, 6/13-20/11

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

New Yorker Illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

“Man,” Mike said, “I’m starting to feel sorry for myself. You’ve got the Bhagwan, Herbie. Mitchell’s got Mother Teresa. Who do I have? Nobody.”

Whether or not Mitchell’s “got” Mother Teresa is more or less the story here. I find the overarching need to “have” somebody – something, some belief, something to belong to, an identity for yourself – a fascinating insight into the human mind. Whether it plays into the story or not depends on subsequent chapters; yes, this is another novel excerpt.

Mitchell, recent college grad, is in India for a short while trying to firm up his belief in William James via Mother Teresa. He’s not having an easy time of it. He’s volunteering at one the Home for the Dying Destitutes, and can do some things – give out medications, massage aching heads – but is terrified of the day he will have to bathe a patient – or worse. Like most people, Mitchell has a good heart, and truly wants to help the needy, but doesn’t want to get too close to them in certain specific ways. By the end, he discovers he is a sinner. It’s analagous to Socrates discovering he is not wise.

Along the way, there’s some fascinating scenery. The Home doesn’t seem to do much for the dying destitute other than provide a bed and an occasional bath. The medications are usually the wrong ones – drug companies donate whatever is about to expire for the tax write-off, so they have lots of antihypertensives and few antibiotics. I’m a little puzzled by this: tetracycline is pretty cheap, why isn’t it available? The patients are bathed whether they want to be or not. There’s a truly grim picture of a nearly comatose man being dragged around to the bath room, and you wonder if he’d be better off lying in a gutter somewhere. Some hints of organizational corruption are plain: Mother Teresa is friends with Pinochet for fund-raising purposes, yet we see no evidence of funds.

Mitchell goes to a mass to meet Mother Teresa, and as she kneels before the altar, he sees the soles of her bare feet: “They were cracked and yellow – an old woman’s feet – but they seemed invested with the utmost significance.” I wonder if he meant to imply “feet of clay” or if I’m just cynical. Anyone who’s been involved with a religious organization beyond showing up for holiday services once a year knows every church, temple, whatever, has some degree of vanity, corruption, greed, and arrogance lurking beneath the surface. Many times it’s simply a deacon who cheats on his taxes (rather than a governor supporting a secret second family or a congressman sexting), but occasionally it’s more, a la Jim Jones. This is nothing new. You put two people together, eventually they’re going to butt heads over something, and you put three people together and two are going to keep a secret from the third. That it happens in the Catholic church is something Mitchell doesn’t yet understand.

The supporting cast is interesting: a beekeeper from New Mexico who works in the Home, a variety of roommates and fellow travellers from the Salvation Army house where Mitchell is staying. Mitchell finds Herb, of the Bhangwan, particularly irritating as he defends the orgies they are rumored to have: “It’s not the acts in themselves that are good or evil. It’s the intention of the acts. For a lot of people, it’s best to keep things simple. Sex is bad. Sex is a no-no. But for other people, who have, let’s say, attained a higher level of enlightenment, the categories of good and evil pass away.” Uh huh. No wonder Mitchell is irritated. “If Mitchell was ever to become a good Christian, he would have to stop disliking people so intensely. But it was maybe asking too much to begin with Herb.”

That’s exactly what Mitchell is doing at the Home, though – he’s starting on a path of Christian compassion at the hardest point, rather than easing into it. And if I may digress (and who’s going to stop me, that’s why I started blogging, so I could say what I wanted), a lot of people do this, or the variation of forgiving a lifetime of sins by a weekend in a leper colony. Why not start with being compassionate to the lady who’s cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store? Or the guy at work who wears too much after-shave? Or the DMV clerk who’s moving veee-rrrr-y sloooow-llly while processing your license renewal? That’s the hardest compassion of all. If you can do that, giving a bath to a guy with a tumor on his scrotum will be a snap.

The title “Asleep in the Lord” is a euphemism for death, though I think it can also be taken as a kind of stupor, and possibly, drawing on Herb’s psychobabble about orgies, the kind of pink-cloud devotion someone new to a belief system can feel when everything seems incredibly wise, before the little inconsistencies, hypocrisies and double-talk comes in. A hypnotic state, perhaps.The volunteers at the Home often seem to be in this kind of hypnosis, doing tasks like bathing or shaving without taking in what’s actually going on, what the patient actually needs at the moment – medicine, rest, a bedpan. Their busyness is their task, not actually easing suffering, and some go about it like little robots.

I consider this a very successful story because I felt Mitchell’s naiveté and earnestness throughout. I felt sorry for him when he encountered the man about to defecate in his bed, and couldn’t measure up to his own standards. And when I read in the author interview that this is yet another excerpt from another novel, I felt cheated, not because the story felt incomplete (it does, but not painfully so) but because it is, in fact, incomplete: I haven’t heard Mitchell’s story yet, I don’t know what he does with this experience. And that’s, perhaps, where the real story lies.