Pushcart XLII: Joyce Carol Oates, “Undocumented Alien (Very Rough Draft Report, Project JRD)” from Conjunctions #67

Test subject #293199/Joseph Saidu Maada (undocumented alien, home country Nigeria, b. 1990, d. 2016).
Most immediate and long-lasting effect of the neurotransmitter microchip (NTM) inserted in the cerebral cortex of the human brain appears to be a radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition….
In the last several months of Maada’s life, partly as a consequence (it is believed) of deteriorating vision, hearing, and cognitive functions, subject’s paranoia was heightened so that he became convinced that a team of black spies had been sent to abduct him and return him to Nigeria to be imprisoned and tortured in collusion with the CIA….
Simultaneously, and with no awareness of the contradictory nature of his assumptions, test subject Maada was made to believe that he was a “privileged alien agent” sent to Earth on a “secret stealth mission” from one of the orbiting moons of Jupiter….

JCO has a knack for twisting fiction into different shapes. An allegory built on the rebellion of a teenage mall rat? Sure. A master class in second person by way of mother-daughter tensions? No problem. An examination of subjectivity via an encounter between an aged poet and an up-and-coming writer? Done. An exploration of Emily Dickinson through that old standby SF trope, the android? Got it. And now she ties together elements from current events ranging from immigration to covert experimentation to suicide bombers to fraudulent universities, and styles it as a bureaucratic report starring disgruntled postdocs, a Floribunda rose bush, and the Jovian moon Ganymede.

I found this a very difficult story to read. Not in the sense of upsetting or infuriating; many of the events were horrific or deeply evil, but somehow it was distanced enough from reality by the presentation to keep the torture – and that’s what it amounts to, really – from feeling like I was reading about torture. I suspect that was one planned effect, and one subtheme, of the chosen format: a draft of a lab report consisting of “a compilation of lab notes with some expository and transitional material put together by a small team of postdocs”. The language of science claims to be objective, which means we never hear Joseph’s voice, only the observations and opinions of those who experimented on him. The pure outlandishness of the events further distanced it, removing it from real life; yet we live in a time when absurdity has become reality, as well as deep brain stimulation and smart prosthetics, so there really isn’t much in the story that is so far beyond reality. But it’s more comfortable to think of it as a John LeCarré thriller.

It was, nonetheless, difficult to read, in the sense of being hard to follow and just hard to read the next page. I actually gave up at one point, decided to skip it, something I very rarely do, but on about page 4 I really didn’t want to go through the next 19 pages. I came back to it after reading a few very brief comments about it in various online book reviews of Beautiful Days, the recently-published collection in which it appears. As with the distancing effect, I suspect the somewhat confusing “compilation of lab notes” structure was a deliberate choice, to manifest in the reader a sense of the temporal and spatial disorientation Joseph experienced.

The story, taken apart and put back together in chronological order, begins with Joseph enrolling in a university whose only purpose is to lure people from Africa and Asia with the promise of an engineering degree; when these people turn out to lack the requisite educational background and the instruction turns out to be substandard, they are unceremoniously kicked out of the program, losing their student visas in the process. The tuition, in Joseph’s case paid by a nonprofit, is not refunded, of course.

Joseph then disappears into the Nigerian-immigrant community of Edison, New Jersey, where he manages for a while until he is arrested for walking while black. His immigration status is discovered, and he is offered a choice: deportation, or participation in an experimental program. The experiments eventually include replacing his blood with a transparent substitute, implanting microchips to make him compliant, hear voices, and believe he is an alien from Ganymede, carrying an explosive device that will be detonated at some point; he “need do nothing but submit, and he would be blameless”. See what I mean about being distanced from real life?

For his participation, he would receive 150% of the salary he would otherwise have earned, because “PROJECT JRD has committed to ‘zero tolerance’ of exploitation of any of its subjects domestic or foreign” (the bureaucratic report format also highlights irony).

What could go wrong?

I kept wondering what the purpose was behind the program in general. In the 50s and 60s, the CIA experimented on unsuspecting Americans with LSD dosages given surreptitiously. The belief was that Russia was using LSD on Americans to brainwash them, so research was necessary to determine how it worked and how to combat it. Was this program a similar counterespionage thing, or something else? Something else, as it turns out.

In a sequence of surgeries, parts of the subject’s brain were excised and replaced with artificial devices – chips, stents. Such experimentation is crucial, for one day, and that day not far in the future, neurophysiologoical enhancements will be necessary to provide longevity to humankind, at least to world leaders and members of the ruling classes.

Something else.

Some fascinating psycho-neuro-philosophical questions are raised throughout. What would it be like to no longer understand sequence, to not know before or after or yesterday or tomorrow, to have no concept of now versus then? Can will be “hosed clean” from the brain? “Could one communicate with a region of the subject’s brain without involving the subject (‘consciousness’) at all? …. Could ‘consciousness’ be chased into a region of the brain, like a rat into a cage corner?” “Here, there. How do we distinguish?” Is this another distancing tactic? Anything but feeling the confusion and terror Joseph must have felt. Because, after all, this is just a story.

Pushcart XL: Joyce Carol Oates, “The Childhood of the Reader” (non-fiction) from Conjunctions, #63

At the roadside fruit and vegetable stand on Transit Road, in Millersport, New York, I would sit reading. Head lowered, scarcely aware of my surroundings, which is the consolation of reading.
… Quart baskets, bushel baskets of pears. How much did my parents charge for a bushel basket of pears? I have no idea; surely not much. Their prices had to be competitive with those of commercial vendors, if not lower. If you were a small-time farmer you could pitch your goods so low that you made virtually no profit and work for nothing. (All of the farms in our vicinity employed “child labor” – the farm owners children. Hours of such employment are not negotiable.) Yet I remember the sting of embarrassment when a potential customer, frowning over our pears, or strawberries, or tomatoes, deftly turning back the tight leaves of our sweet corn to examine the kernels, decided that our produce wasn’t priced low enough, or wasn’t good enough in some way, returned to her car, and drove off.
Sitting at a roadside, vulnerable as an exposed heart, you are liable to such rejections. As if, as a writer, you were obliged to sell your books in a night

Funny, I’ve heard writers describe book signings and readings in just that way. I suppose the commerce end of things is more private, but considering what writers go through in workshops, it’s still a study in vulnerability. Funny again: I have a hard time imagining JCO as vulnerable.

Her 2015 memoir The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age includes a form of this selection under a different title. In addition to the roadside stand opener with its whispers of loneliness and, yes, vulnerability, it includes the kinds of scenes you’d expect: a small child checking Plato out of the local library, a young woman discovering a previously unimagined world in college – in her case, the world of literary magazines, but I think, I hope, all college students discover previously unimagined worlds, since that’s what education is about – her job at the library, complete with her shock at a $1.00-an-hour paycheck shrunk to 70 cents. And then there are pointers to the JCO we will all know: she won the Mademoiselle fiction competition in college, the same spot won in other years by familiar names such as Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

But there’s also a bit of a surprise: the graduate school emphasis on reading and analysis, separated from aesthetic appreciation. And her frustration with the dearth of writing during that period.

Writers who are enrolled in graduate programs soon feel the frustration, the ignominy, the pain of being immersed in reading the work of others… When they are themselves unable to write or even to fantasize writing.

When I was doing online writer’s workshops (before I finally accepted that I am not a fiction writer, that in addition to lacking talent, imagination, and training, I’d rather read and write about my personal reactions to fiction than imagine layered characters and intricate narrative arcs to express “what I want to say” and just write what I want to say) I kept coming across blurbs claiming “Anyone can write stories, here’s all you need to do” with five, or seven, or twelve easy steps, more information available in this book for $15.95. Even great writers will claim it’s more about persistence than talent. But I do think there’s that calling, the inner drive to write stories, just as for journalists there’s an inner drive to record, for scientists to understand, for teachers to explain and develop. Anyone can be a writer – or a journalist, a scientist, a teacher – but to be a great anything, it has to start with the innate need to do the core of the job.

JCO’s been widely praised for her work in literary analysis, and some of her novels have become Lit101 standards. But for me, it’s when she writes stories – about Emily Dickinson, about Robert Frost, about mothers dealing with children, about children dealing with mothers, about women dealing with life – that she swims through the water she was born to breathe. Then again, I’m biased.

BASS 2014: Joyce Carol Oates: “Mastiff” from TNY, 7/1/13

TNY art by Owen Freeman

TNY art by Owen Freeman

The woman hadn’t told the man much about her past. Not yet. And possibly wouldn’t. Her principle was Never reveal your weakness. Especially to strangers: this was essential. Technically, the woman and the man were “lovers,” but they were not yet intimate. You might say—the woman might have said—that they were still, fundamentally, strangers to each other.

One of the most interesting things about this story (available online) is also the most annoying to me: the use of “the man” and “the woman” instead of their names, which we know – Sam and Mariella. While it annoys me (just a personal quirk of mine; I recognize it’s a perfectly valid technique), I can appreciate the need for it here: these are two people who are not comfortable with intimacy. What is intimacy, after all, if not revealing your weakness, and understanding the weakness of another?

They’re a relatively new couple, she in her 40s, he in his 50s, though she doesn’t realize he’s that much older until late in the story. There’s a telling sign right there: how do you date someone for a few weeks, have sex with him, and not know how old he is? Typically there would be some curiosity, a few little hints about memories and past experiences, preferences, remarks that indicate someone was around during Camelot or Watergate or the disco years. She’s indicated she has deliberately not revealed much about her past, and it seems she hasn’t been that interested in his either. If that sounds like a rather stilted relationship, well, that’s exactly what they have, my mutual choice.

Until the dog bites.

Mariella has been anxious about the dog from the opening of the story, and that anxiety is well-transmitted to the reader through the text. The dog is described in distinctly sexual terms:

The woman stared at the animal, not twelve feet away, wheezing and panting. Its head was larger than hers, with a pronounced black muzzle, bulging glassy eyes. Its jaws were powerful and slack; its large, long tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber. The dog was pale-brindle-furred, with a deep chest, strong shoulders and legs, a taut tail. It must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. Its breathing was damply audible, unsettling.

I was afraid of the dog myself, after reading that.

Mariella and Simon encounter the dog on a hike, another of their less-than-intimate dates. They don’t seem to like each other that much, but they’re both trying to fall in love, because, well, it’s high time. The atmosphere of threat is so pronounced from the opening, I thought Simon was abducting her at one point, when he wanted to stay longer on the mountain trail than she did, when he forced her to drink their remaining water, when we learned of his irritation that she hadn’t brought her own water, that she’d worn the wrong shoes.

But the threat comes from the dog. The dog-owner, to be more precise; as JCO makes clear in her Page Turner interview, “In such situations, it is not ever an animal’s ‘fault’ — it is the dog-owner’s fault, of course.” That’s very true, but I’m sure she’ll get a lot of complaints anyway. She also wonders if the current mania for owning big, potentially vicious dogs is a way of showing off one’s power; she should read “A Full Service Shelter.” In this story, the dog owner is of course at fault, and runs off without taking any responsibility for the attack, without reporting it, leaving two injured people bleeding on a mountain trail. That’s close to hit-and-run.

In contrast, Simon plays protector general (Dan Madley at The Mookes and the Gripes calls him a “knight in shining armor”). I’m interested by the contrast between the two men, the one who is the actual threat, the one I perceived as a threat for a time – and whom Marielle perceives, with his impending intimacy, as a threat as well. She prefers conversations with people she’ll never see again. As it turns out, the man she’ll never see again is the one who is the actual threat, not only physically, but in that he intensifies the “imitation intimacy” she and Simon are playacting.

I’m also interested in the way JCO uses the point of view. We get into Simon’s head at times – his disdain of Mariella’s footwear, other disappointments – but she’s chosen to stay with Mariella once the attack starts. At times Simon is semi-conscious. This heightens the threat they face as a couple, ratcheting up the drama considerably, but I wonder if it’s also a good way to deny us access to his previously available thoughts. We don’t know if he is angry that Mariella got him into this (which she didn’t, of course; she did nothing to precipitate the attack), if he’s gratified that she’s caring for him, or if he wishes she’d go away.

Her caring for him – interesting phrase, “caring for him,” with its dual medical and psychological meanings – isn’t a straight line. This scene in the hospital, after Mariella (“the woman” in the text throughout, remember) creates a fascinating picture of her:

The woman was light-headed. Her hands and wrists began to burn. She heard her thin, plaintive voice, begging, “Don’t let him die!”
Looking around, she saw how others regarded her. A woman crazed with worry, fear. A woman whose voice was raised in panic. The sort of woman you pity even as you inch away from her.
She saw that her coarse-knit Scottish sweater—it had been one of her favorites—had been torn beyond repair.
In a fluorescent-lit rest room, her face in the mirror was blurred, like those faces on TV that are pixelated in order to disguise their identity. She was thinking of how the massive dog had thrown itself at her and how, astonishingly, the man had protected her. Did the man love her, then?

Here she goes from what seems like genuine concern for his well-being, to narcissistic analysis, in a heartbeat. Her self-absorption, once we get past the truly absurd concern under the circumstances over the damage to her sweater, has the flavor of insecurity: “Are people criticizing me? What does his behavior mean? What response is appropriate?” It’s interesting that her earlier self-identification as his fiancée had a more instinctive, non-analyzed quality; she said it without thinking, “Would this be appropriate?” but to establish a legitimate claim to concern, or perhaps, the unguarded expression of a subconscious wish. Or, in the words Mariella herself used earlier to describe their relationship, another “rehearsal of intimacy.”

The story ends as it began, with threat. I suspect she’ll be hearing that chuffing sound in many places – in bed underneath him, on her wedding day, when/if she holds her newborn baby for the first time, when she sends him off to kindergarten one future September, on your average dark and stormy night – for the rest of her life.

Addendum: This post was originally written in July 2013 when the story was published in TNY.

Joyce Carol Oates: “EDickinsonRepliluxe” from Virginia Quarterly Review

JCO as Emily Dickinson

So lonely! Shyly they glanced at each other across the dining room table in whose polished cherry wood surface candle flames shivered like dimly recalled dreams. One said, “We should purchase a Repliluxe,” as if only now thinking of it, and the other said quickly, “Repliluxes are too expensive and you hear how they don’t survive the first year.”
“Not all! Only –”
“As of last week, it was thirty-one percent.”
So the husband had been on the Internet, too. The wife took note, and was pleased.
Four in her heart she’d be earning for more life! more life!
Nine years of marriage. Nineteen?
There is an hour when you realize: here is what you have been given. More than this, you won’t receive. And what this is, what your life has come to, will be taken from you. In time.

A few weeks ago, I heard about Oates’ “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” a story of a grad student’s encounter with Robert Frost, through ModPo, the poetry MOOC I’m taking. While I was working on that story, Prof. Al Filreis told us about this story about Emily Dickinson (it’s available online), the poet whose work kicked off our class. It’s from the story collection Wild Nights!, an entire collection of Oates stories about other writers: Poe, Hemingway, Henry James, Mark Twain, and, yes, Emily, whose poem gives the collection its title.

I found this to be lighter than the Frost story, perhaps because it’s in the form of speculative fiction. At some point in the future, it becomes possible to order a Repliluxe: a sort of android which somewhat conforms to certain characteristics of a famous person.

“What the Repliluxe is, technically speaking, is a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original individual, as if his or her essence, or ‘soul’ – if you believe in such concepts – had been sucked out of the original being, and reinstalled, in an entirely new environment, by the genius of Repliluxe.… What you have in EDickinsonRepliluxe is a simulation of the historical ‘Emily Dickinson’ that isn’t quite so complex of course as the original. Each Repliluxe varies, sometimes considerably, and can’t be predicted. But you must not expect from your Repliluxe anything like a ‘real’ human being, as of course you know, since you’ve read our contract, that Repliluxe are not equipped with gastrointestinal systems, or sex organs, or blood, or a ‘warm, beating heart’ – don’t be disappointed! They are programmed to respond to their new environment more or less as the original would have done, albeit in a simplified manner.”

While the details of the industry are interesting in themselves and feed into the plot, the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between a couple and their EDickinsonRepliluxe, and thus, is, as most stories are, the story of peoples’ relationships with and to each other.

The Emily automaton (one of the many benefits of Modpo has been that I now consider myself on a first-name basis with a number of poets, including Emily Dickinson) is indeed quite stilted, at least at first. So are the Krims, Maddie and Harold. The electronic Emily is initially as reclusive as she was reputed to be in life, but she starts baking and gardening, and eventually Maddie filches a scrap of paper from her pocket:

Why am — I —
Where am — I —
When am — I —
And — You? —
A poem! A poem by Emily Dickinson! Handwritten in the poet’s small, neat schoolgirl hand, which was perfectly legible if you peered closely. Eagerly the wife consulted the Collected Poems and saw that this was an entirely original poem that could only have been written in the Krim household in Golders Green.

It’s an interesting question – JCO wrote those lines, of course, as part of the story, but in the world inside the story, is this an Emily Dickinson poem? Is it a poem by whomever created the electronic brain of the EDickinsonRepliluxe? Is it a distillation of other poems, or the confused ramblings of an imperfect automated computerized language generating system? Right now in ModPo we’re considering poetry written by chance – rule-generated extracts from other text – and we’re sorting out where the creativity lies. Is the art of John Cage’s “Writing Through Howl” in the Ginsberg source material, in the creation of a process to extract the mesostic, or in the decision to use the name “Allen Ginsberg” as the spine and the text of the poem as the source? Is there art there at all? Add to that the issue of “What is a Mind?” from last week’s Intro to Philosophy course – if artificial intelligence hasn’t yet reached a state of sufficient complexity to be considered a mind, what about the system consisting of programmer and computer, is that a mind plus, a shared mind, an offspring mind? – and that’ll keep me busy for a while.

But back to Emily and the Krims. On second read, I was struck by how much like an automaton Maddie seemed in the opening paragraph. In fact, I dabbled with the notion that she, too, was a replica Harold had created from an earlier wife, adding to his reluctance to bring in another model, but that didn’t really fit. The voice of the story overall is odd, keeping me at bay much of the time, with third person omniscient head-hopping on a grand scale, zooming out to long shots and in to Maddie and out again, and to Harold. Not a good place to be, Harold’s head. Even worse to be in the same room with him, Emily discovers.

The ending brings it all home – poetry, Emily, Maddie, Harold – in a perfect little circle. Or, more accurately, frees it out into the world, where perhaps it should’ve been all along, and leaves a satisfying aftertone.

Last year, Oates turned the story into a play titled “Wild Nights!”, read at Vinyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vinyard. Emily is a central figure for her: “She represents something mysterious, elusive; I’ve read her poetry every day all my life”; she’s written quite a bit about the poet. So it’s fitting she’s created this story, perhaps a wish to bring Emily into the future for herself.

It’s equally fitting that in the past year I’ve come to appreciate both Emily and Oates (with whom I’m not yet on a first-name basis, though I do sometimes follow her on Twitter during those times when I’m not overwhelmed by the whole Twitter thing) far more in the past year.

Joyce Carol Oates: “Lovely, Dark, Deep” from Harper’s, November 2013

Harper's Art by Steven Dana

Harper’s Art by Steven Dana

Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, then I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of the middle-aged woman. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted. The snowy-quite hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep. The entire face was large – larger than you expect a poet’s face to be – and the thick jaws were covered in glittering little hairs, as if the poet hadn’t shaved for a day or two. The eyelids were drooping, nearly shut.
“Excuse me – Mr. Frost?”

I was minding my own business when a retweet rolled down my feed: “Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost”, with a link to a juicy WaPo teaser about “Lovely, Dark, Deep” in the November issue of Harper’s. Mention was also made of a July article (which I haven’t finished yet) dissing modern poetry in general. Having been sensitized to all things modern-poetic, including Frost, by my currently running ModPo class where we considered “Mending Wall” just a couple of weeks ago, I left a comment on the class message board, and ended up in possession of the article (thanks, Tracy!) without having to run over to the library.

I often call stories “interesting,” meaning that as the most sincere praise. Well, this one is really interesting, on a couple of levels. It starts out as your typical Young Wannabe Disillusioned by Great Icon story, but it moves beyond that pretty quickly. I’ve had my struggles with JCO for decades, but nearly every time I’ve encountered a story of hers over the past few years, I’ve been smitten. Maybe she’s becoming a better writer. Or maybe, just maybe, could it be I’m becoming a better reader?

First-person narrator Evangeline Fife is a grad student assigned to interview Robert Frost at the 1951 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for an obscure poetry magazine. She comes on him asleep on his porch, and notes how he doesn’t match his public image. When he comes to, he morphs into a bit of a cad, making mild sexual innuendos which, for the 50s, would’ve been not only highly embarrassing but difficult to deflect, as it was still assumed that men sexualizing women was both a basic human right and a compliment. Evangeline recognizes Frost as “the sort of bully, very familiar to girls and women, who is fond of his victim even as he is contemptuous of her, whose fondness for her may be an expression of his contempt…”

So she lets him have it. Right between the eyes, except, you know, lower. The escalation is gradual, the barbs on both sides well-placed; I actually felt my heart racing as I read, unusual considering there was no action other than conversation. Then again, to call this “conversation” would be to call a tsunami an inconvenience.

“Mr. Frost. Do you remember when your daughter Lesley was six years old? When you were still a young man—a young father—living on that wretched farm in Derry, New Hampshire? You woke your daughter with a loaded pistol in your hand and you forced the terrified child to come downstairs in her nightgown, and barefoot, to the kitchen, where the child saw her mother seated at the table, her hair in her face, weeping. Your wife had been an attractive woman once, but living with you in that desolate farmhouse, enduring your moods, your rages, your sloth, your fumbling incapacity as a farmer, your sexual bullying and clumsiness, already at the age of thirty-one she’d become a broken, defeated woman. You told the child Lesley that she must choose between her mother and her father—which of you was to live and which to die. ‘By morning, only one of us will be alive.’”
“No. That did not—happen. . . It did not.”
“Yet Lesley remembers it vividly and will reproach you with the memory throughout your life, Mr. Frost. Is she mistaken?”

I don’t know much – anything, really – about Robert Frost’s personal life. I don’t know that much of his poetry, either; beyond the standards, all that’s familiar is “Choose Something Like a Star” (my high school chorus sang a wonderful Randall Thompson setting of this from his Frostiana suite, and, not that I’m an apologist at all, but I’ve always associated “when in time the crowd is swayed to carry praise or blame too far” with Richard Nixon, somehow). Oates’ note at the end of the piece reads: “This is a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers (1996).”

As Evangeline looks behind the Image, so does the reader. The darkness is there; it’s always been there (even as a twelve-year-old, I found “Stopping By Woods” to reek of suicide, but then, I was a pretty depressed twelve-year-old and had learned early not to say things like that lest I scare the adults) but Americana doesn’t want to see darkness any more than they want to see a depressed twelve-year-old, they want to see the “Yankee sage who was also a Yankee wit—a ‘homespun’ American who was also a seer,” as Evangeline puts it. She accuses Frost of playing into that, performing only his more familiar, more mass-marketable if you will, poems in public readings. That may be true, but he’s reputed to have said of “The Road Not Taken,” “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a trick poem – very tricky.” Nobody cared that he intended the irony of looking back on a choice and making it out to be more than it was; America wanted the Hallmark Card reading. Can’t blame Frost for that, really; once you release a work of art into the world, you lose ownership, and it becomes what it becomes. But Evangeline blames him anyway.

When the narrative voice changes, you know something interesting is going on. I’m a big fan of Oates’ earlier story “You” which I encountered during Zin’s Second Person Study (wow, I edited nearly all the Zin out of that post, didn’t I… sorry, Zin, come back, you can use all the short sentences and exclamation points you want), where she moved from reflector to homocommunicative (in the words of Monica Fludernik) second person. Here, the shift from first person to third person is nearly obscured by long passages of untagged dialogue. In fact, I initially thought the shift occurred later than it did, though that’s probably careless reading on my part.

Right after this narrative shift, Frost recalls another published comment he’s made: “… To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come upon him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in the pain of his life had faith he’d made… graceful.” What a great melding of real life and story and craft – and what a great place to put it! (that one’s for you, Zin.) Who here is the subject, and who the object? And isn’t what happened in the first paragraph, exactly this quote: Evangeline coming upon the artist presumptuously and rendering him ungraceful with her Kodak Hawkeye snapshot?

Here’s where the ModPo discussion on “Mending Wall” comes in. My (slightly edited; it was originally a full page, after all) notes from that class discussion:

There’s a danger in the erosion of the boundary. … Frost disliked free verse because it was like playing tennis without a net. Rules are beautiful; distinctions between I and other are the reason we have culture. The danger of merging subjectivities is horrifying…. If you take the net down, it’s not tennis any more, unrecognizable.…He knows the tradition and still wants to use it.
Clear distinction between subject and object. Object is the guy on the other side of the wall, lives in darkness. Who could the other be? It’s been argued that it’s an alter ego, Frost meeting himself…
He (the speaker) doesn’t know what makes the wall come down over the year – “something there is.” It’s nature, it likes things to go horizontal. He’s in favor of the artifice, the culture, that allows us to maintain the wall. It is “frost” – winter frost – that brings the wall down, expanding and contracting, the winter frost, the poet Frost; his speaker wants the wall up, to have a relationship w/neighbor who’s unselfconscious, but the poet brings the wall down, so we can put it back up. Frost is fighting with the author of this somewhat anti-modernist view of subject-object relations.

— ModPo discussion, led by Prof. Al Filreis, UPenn

This narrative shift in the story – the tearing down of the wall between Evangeline and Frost, the melding of subject and object – and its placement at this point in the story, gave me goosebumps, because, if I’m correctly absorbing what ModPo has put out there (and that’s a big “if”): this story is “Mending Wall,” showing the wall in place, and come down, and yes, it is horrifying. Perhaps to be a bit more Freudian about it: the boundary between ego and superego has been collapsed, and the guilt is just tearing through pale, tender skin like acid.

It was Evangeline who first noticed his “udder” in the beginning, and Frost himself who sees himself that way at the end, that image of udder – source of nutrition and succor but also an animal thing, a coarse, ugly thing – bridging the transitions. His poetry notebook, held first like a shield, then clutched for desperately like a lifeline, provides another continuous image.

His notebook! Precious notebook! It had slipped from his fingers. He strained to reach it, to hold it against his chest. Strangely it seemed that he was suddenly bare-chested, the shame of his soft, slack torso, the udderlike breasts, exposed to all the world. He could not call for help; the shame was too deep. The poet was not a weakling to call for help. The obstinacy of his aging flesh had been a source of great frustration to him and shame, but he had not succumbed to it, and he would not.

I’m always interested in the names writers choose, and here we’ve got the name “Evangeline Fife.” I’m not sure if a fife is immediately symbolic of something, but I get a somewhat military image, as in fife and drums; this story is certainly about a battle. As for “Evangeline,” I immediately wondered if this was a reference to the Longfellow poem (Frost made several references to Longfellow in his works) in which Evangeline followed a loyal and persistent path over the course of decades after expulsion from Acadia only to be reunited with her beloved Gabriel moments before their death (I live a block away from Longfellow’s birthplace, and sang parts of a vaudeville send-up of Evangeline a few years ago with the Longfellow Chorus, so it’s rather inevitable I’d go there). Yet I don’t see a clear connection to this story, other than the faithful pursuit and eventual reunion. Just as a name, “Evangeline” is from “evangel” or “bearer of good tidings,” but this evangel brings Frost face to face with that which he would prefer to avoid. Irony? Or something different altogether? I don’t know. There’s also the fictitious literary journal Poetry Parnassus which makes perfect sense as both a journal and as a metaphor for Frost’s Bread Loaf cabin; if there’s some more urgent echo, I’m afraid it’s lost on me.

You might hear a lot about this story. You might hear, for instance, that it’s “a wicked takedown of the kindly grandfather of 20th-century American verse: Robert Frost.” Or, that Oates “skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore.” That’s pretty accurate, if sensationalist. Or you might hear “It’s about a woman who interviews Robert Frost” which is less sensational but inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s a terrific story as a story.

Is it accurate, or fair to Robert Frost? No idea; not my department. I will say this: having read it, I very much want to know more about Frost, and to read more of his poetry. How can that be a bad thing?

Pushcart 2013: Joyce Carol Oates, “Mudgirl Saved by the King of Crows. April 1965.” From Boulevard, Spring 2011

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: "King of the Crows"

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: “King of the Crows”

In Beecham County it would be told – told and retold – how Mudgirl was saved by the King of the Crows.
How in the vast mud-flats beside the black snake River in that desolate region of the Southern Adirondacks there were a thousand crows and of these thousand crows the largest and fiercest and most sleek-black-feathered was the King of the Crows.
How the King of the Crows had observed the cruel behavior of the woman half-dragging half-carrying a weeping child out into the mud flats to be thrown down into the mud soft-sinking as quicksand and left the child alone there to die in that terrible place.

Joyce Carol Oates has gone down a completely different path with this one. That’s not a huge surprise in itself, since she frequently goes down different paths, but I wouldn’t have expected an Indian folk tale out of her.

I have to admit, having JCO’s name attached to this colored my view of it, at least initially. I have a long-standing grudge against her over “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” And We Were the Mulvaneys. But I must reluctantly admit to very much enjoying, against my will, the stories I’ve read recently, stories like “ID” and “You” which Zin discovered during the Second Person Study. And now this. Maybe I’m going to have to get over myself when it comes to JCO.

As I read this, I was charmed. The language takes some getting used to. I dictated the quotes into Dragon and found myself struggling in places to get the word order correct. It isn’t drastic, but there’s a style here, a consistent style, that’s just slightly different.

It’s a simple story about a simple man, Suttis Coldham:

In Suttis’s immediate family there were five sons and of these sons Suttis was the youngest and the most bad-luck-prone of the generally luckless Coldham family as Suttis was one for whom Amos Colton the father had the least hope. As if there hadn’t been enough brains left for poor Suttis, by the time Suttis came along.
Saying with a sour look in his face – like you’re shake-shake-shaking brains out of some damn bottle – like a ketchup bottle – and by the time it came to Suttis’s turn there just ain’t enough brains left in the bottle.

Suttis is a trapper. This story is set in fairly recent times, so the notion of a trapper, even in the hills of rural upstate New York, carries some liability. But Suttis is doing what his people have done for generations, the only thing he knows how to do. He does everything he can, whatever the weather, to get to his traps before predators come upon whatever lies helplessly caught, so he isn’t without compassion. It’s a mindset those of us who grew up in cities and suburbs or on farms and ranches might not understand, and it’s something to keep an open mind about. And as the story proceeds, that open-mindedness is rewarded.

Suttis has three times in the past received communications from animals.

The first – a screech owl out behind the back pasture when Suttis had been a young boy. Spoke his name SSSuttisss all hissing syllables so the soft hairs on his neck stood on end and staring up – upward – up to the very top of the ruin of a dead oak trunk where the owl was perched utterly motionless except for its feathers rippling in the wind and its eyes glaring like gasoline flame seeing how the owl knew him – a spindly-limbed boy twenty feet below gaping and grimacing and struck dumb hearing SSSuttisss and seeing that look in the owl’s eyes of such significance, it could not have been named except the knowledge was imparted – You are Suttis, and you are known.

So it doesn’t come as a terrific surprise to him when the King of the Crows lets him know to go down to the mud-flats. He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do there, but presently he comes across a doll, which creeps him out. Not half as much as the little girl he comes across next:

A terrifying sight, a living child – part-sunken in the mud, a glint of iridescent insects about her face – has to be flies – suddenly Suttis is panicked, scrabbling on hands and knees to escape this terrible vision, moaning, gibbering as the King of the Crows berates him from a perch overhead and like a frenzied calf Suttis blunders into a maze of vines, a noose of vines catches him around the neck and near-garrots him the shock of it bringing him to his senses so chastened like a calf swatted with a stiff hunk of rope he turns to crawl back to the edge of the embankment. There is no escaping the fact that Suttis will have to wade into the mud-flat to rescue the girl as he has been bidden.

I’ve found numerous references to crows in Native American lore, but I have no way of determining which source is authentic and which is nonsense. Many refer to the crow as a symbol of justice, a messenger of the gods, as a shape-shifter, and as a leader of souls from darkness to light. I’ve also found similarities to the raven, in that the crow is a trickster and has a sense of humor. For the purposes of this story, I pick a messenger from the gods, and a leader of souls from darkness to light. Maybe a little Justice as well.

I think this story has been done a great disservice. It’s a fine little folk tale, nicely and consistently told. But it wasn’t until I found out it’s part of Oates’s novel Mudwoman, published last March, and read some descriptions of that novel, that I started to get some sense of the depth of the story. The style is based on Native American legends and tales, and while I wouldn’t be able to tell, knowing JCO, I’m betting it’s completely authentic. The girl Suttis rescues becomes a University president – which is a little cliché – and goes crazy – which is a different cliché. It’s a novel I’ve got to read, and, trust me, I’ve never said that about a JCO novel before. But how this folk tale gets folded into that novel, if/how the style turns into standard prose, if this episode comes back to play a part later on – well, that I’ve got to see.

And, unlike most of her writing, this is not based on any event in Oates’s life (though presumably the University president is the first female president of Princeton, where Oates teaches). It was inspired by a dream. That’s very un-Oatsian.

And it is the child in the mud-flat Suttis Coldham will recall and cherish through his life.

Normally, I get all indignant about novel excerpts masquerading as short stories. I’m not outraged here. Maybe I’m getting over that particular bit of pettiness. It’s a complete story on its own, that’s not the issue. I just think its significance, as a part of something bigger, is missed.

But I won’t know for sure until I read the novel. Mission accomplished, JCO.

The Second Person Study, Part 15: “You” by Joyce Carol Oates

YOU! Who?

This story does some fascinating things with second person; Monika Fludernik analyzes it in the third part of her treatise “Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist.”

One of the coolest points she makes is that the story “illustrates the excellent suitability of second person fiction for the expression and description of intimacy.” It is a superb way of telling this story of mother and daughter, since it is capable of increasing the intimacy between reader and narrator (by “even if only initially, seeming to involve the actual reader in her role as a potential addressee”) and of increasing and decreasing the intimacy between narrator and protagonist:

Since address combines a distancing factor (foregrounding the non-identity of the I and You) with the presupposition of an acquaintance with the person thus addressed, it proves to be a fictional mode adaptable to detailing the jig-saw structure of the mother-daughter relationship. As feminist studies have revealed in detail, that relation alternates between dominant intimacy and the continual struggle on the daughter’s part for liberation from the boundedness of that very intimacy.

I personally feel there is also a great deal of accusatory tone here, that teen-age scorn done with finesse, and this is possible without spelling it out by use of second person, as the daughter relates what mother is doing while daughter is trying to find her lost sister. It is quite remarkable.

The story starts with one “you” protagonist: “You are leaving the airplane…. You hate mornings – anger rises in you, bubbling like something sour in your throat – but you grin into the morning because someone is approaching you, shouting a magic word. Your name.” Wow, the egotism! We learn “You” is Madeline Randall, B-list actress, met at the airport by her agent and a friend who fetch her luggage and discuss the part she is about to film: “But that part is exactly you,” her agent tells her. ” The new you. It could have been written exactly for you!” At the motel (“the odor of chlorine and bug spray” – this is not the Beverly Hills Hotel) someone asks if she is Madeline Randall. Her identity is the focus of so much of the opening, and we keep reading along, learning who “you” is without ever getting a clue of who this person is.

The scene continues to play. “You” works on the part, goes to dinner, and threatens to go back to New York – “It’s my daughter….there’s trouble with my daughter.”

It strikes you that this is an important scene, an emotional scene. People are watching you anxiously. You might be in a play. Not one of those crappy television plays, like the kind you have flown out here to film (you’ll do five tapes and make thousands of dollars, thousands!) but a real play, like Chekhov, like… like Chekhov, where people do cry out at each other and hold up their shaking hands, pleading.

Yes, this is a scene in an important life, your own.

But they need you to be you, so you prove your worth with pushups and get ready for dinner. And here, it’s casually dropped in, the first “I” – four pages into the story! There is an “I” in this story! It is not a reflector narrator at all, it is the “homocommunicative address mode” Monika has outlined, the “person-and-a-half” as I call it. Aha! This changes the narrative – four pages into the story!
We do not know who this “I” is yet. We return to “You” for a paragraph and learn “You” “like to set traps but don’t like to clean up after them. As a matter of fact, you never clean up after anything!”

And then in the next paragraph, nearly a page after the first ‘I” is dropped, we find out who that is:

Now they are herding you to the elevator and now I am walking through the rooms of our apartment in New York, my head pounding – now they are herding you out to a taxi , fussing over you, admiring you, and now I am dialing the telephone again.

This juxtaposes “You” – in the lap of luxury – with “I“, in distress, though we do not yet know the nature of that distress. But the scorn comes through loud and clear. Yes, while I am here taking care of what must be taken care of – cleaning up – you are off partying! This reversal of parent and child roles (it is usually the child who is having fun while the parent takes care of things) adds to the effect, I think! It is quite wonderful!

After a page of this, we learn more of what is actually happening right now – twin sister/daughter Miranda is missing. We do not know what the urgency of this is. But we realize it is more than just a girl who forgot to tell anyone she had a sleepover with a friend.

We then learn about the night before; we get more of an idea what is actually happening here when “You” tells Miranda: “I have renounced that man! I have discarded him! If you persist in seeing him I will discard you! If you persist in refusing to see the doctor I am finished, finished, finished with you!”

At this point, I thought I could not be getting it right. I thought, Miranda is pregnant by a man Mom-Madeline used to date. But, wait, would not Madeline be outraged at the man, not at Miranda? Would she not have stayed in New York? Is that not what anyone would do in that crazy situation? So I must be wrong… but I was not wrong. I will not go into the rest of the story, only to say this wonderful use of second person continues right up until the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence.

I think the power of this story comes from that “what the hell” feeling, the slow reveal of information that includes a really shocking situation (or am I too easily shocked?) along with the juxtaposition of “You” and “I” as mentioned above – what mother and daughter/sister are doing about the girl who goes missing after this argument over this truly abhorrent mess. And I think the use of second person is the perfect way of telling this story. And of course the title – perfect! The narcissism of Madeline, her constant performing, the accusatory “YOU!” It sums it all up in three letters.

However… I will tread into a region that I still do not understand, and that I am not sure I need to understand right now to appreciate second person. We get everything through the POV of Marion. Is Marion reliable? There is no reason to think otherwise, but even a reliable, reasonable daughter can exaggerate and blow Mom out of all proportion (who has not said, or heard, “I hate you” or “I never want to see you again”?). Was Madeline truly thinking so egocentrically? Did she really drop the “trouble with my daughter” angle as soon as it failed to yield drama, as depicted? Still, the conversation (“finished!”) was apparently real. I am inclined to believe Marion. But is the story more about Marion, about her view of Madeline, than it is about Madeline? Madeline is clearly the villain, but is that because Madeline is the villain, or because Marion sees her as the villain? What is real, and what is Marion? If I tell you a story about how my great-grandfather beat me, then you discover it was all something I made up (which would have to be the case, since all my great-grandfathers died before I was born), would that be a story about my great-grandfather, or a story about me?

As part of her view of the story as “a superb example of what one may consider to be the postmodernist tendency to subvert the realistic, representational mode,” (sheesh, do they not teach tight prose in Austria?) Monika says:

…the story in fact allows one to observe the naturallistically and narratologically ‘impossible’ combination of voyeuristic omniscience (seeing into and knowing the minds both of the actress/mother Madeline and that of the fictional “I“, the daughter Marion) with no realistically recuperable teller or reflector agent who might view events unfold….important almost epistemological questions remain unanswered. Are we getting Marion’s view of her mother’s psyche, or a ‘real’ figural mode presentation of it?

This leap into pure narratology and discourse analysis is beyond me, and I would love to study it further. Some day, I may! You may find a “Narratology for Dummies” section here! But for now, I will just appreciate that there is the impossibility that Marion can factually relate what Madeline is doing, and that is part of the intriguing magic of this story. It is like thinking about infinity plus one!

I am shocked at how good this story is – and very surprised, and perplexed, that I have not run into any mention of this story in the course of my study until now! Monika, I forgive you for all your insane nomenclature and twisted syntax, for you led me here! It is extraordinary, not only as a story but as a use of second person – two modes of second person! – to add to the story of the relationship! This should be at the top of every second-person-story list! And I am not even a big Joyce Carol Oates fan – but this story could have made me one, if some one had suggested I read it instead of shoving “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” down my throat over and over again!

Joyce Carol Oates – “I.D.”

I’m going to be reading the stories Cliff Garstang’s Perpetual Folly blog has listed as The New Yorker’s best stories of 2010, and this one happens to be online so is the easiest for me to access.

I found an article about a lecture Oates gave at Stanford last September during which she called “I.D.” a story of denial. It started from a prompt she used in a class she taught at Princeton: write a story about someone saying “Come with me” to a student in class.

Let me state for the record that I am not a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates. In particular, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” I’m sorry, I know, it’s the most anthogized story in the history of the universe and it’s perfect and leaves parents and teens alike nervous and teary, but it just left me a big so what. But Cliff states he is not a fan of JCO either, and he loved this story.

I had mixed feelings about “I.D.” It breaks so many rules I’ve been dinged for, I guess I hold some resentment for that. For example, opening with a quote, a loosely attributed quote at that, and then a lapse into flashback and background for half the story before getting back to the point were “they” say “Eiii-dee”. And while I’m at it, I wish the title was different, because of course “eiii-dee” is obviously “I.D.” and I think it would’ve been interesting to not know that, because the main character didn’t know that. Isn’t that the thing, the reader needs to know what the main character knows? These are not rules I particularly treasure, they’re just things people have told me I should not do. I think they should start explaining how to do them well, instead.

Despite – or because of? – the broken rules, it was a pretty cool story with lots of heartbreaking moments and a lot of wonderful images. Sad-wonderful. My favorite kind.

Lisette is your typical 13-year-old-at-risk. Here is a list of things we find out about her life:
– she drank some beer that morning at the urging of some older guys.
– she’s not doing well in math or in school, though she was a B student last year.
– she’s curious about sex but doesn’t really know much about it.
– she’s hanging out with girls who are more mature than her.
– she’s sending lipstick-blots to an older boy, the meaning of which is uncertain but may include “I will hav sex with you.”
– her parents are divorced after a couple of separations.
– her mother has worked at a lot of different casinos.
– she has had eye surgery recently and her eyes are not doing well.
– one of her mother’s man friends told her she looks older than 13 (there’s nothing better to a 13 year old)
– her mother is borrowing money for Lisette’s eye surgery.
– she has been living alone for five days as her mother is off somewhere.

And here are some great manifestations about Lisette’s powers of perception:
– she thinks – but isn’t sure – the older boys are laughing at her because they like her, not because they’re being mean.
– she can’t see the blackboard in math class because of her eye problems.
– the blackboard is green. (This always bothered me, too).
– her mother says they’ll go to a casino and count cards, then denies that’s what she meant.
– she feels like there are red ants crawling in her armpits and her crotch.
– her nose is numb from injury and surgery.
– her eye tears but she isn’t crying.
– MTV videos include moans of something she knows is sex-pain though she doesn’t know what that is.
– when her mother sex-pain moans in the shower Lisette can’t tell if she’s happy or angry.
– sitting in the front by the windows in math class makes her feel like she’s in a bright room looking in.
– she isn’t sure if her mother is a blackjack dealer or a cocktail waitress.

And that’s just the first page. This girl has some problems perceiving reality, made concrete by her eye surgery and post-surgical tearing. When you don’t want to see something, it’s a lot easier if you’ve had recent eye surgery and are wearing dark purple glasses.

There’s a very touching scene when she won’t answer the phone because she sees on Caller ID it’s her mom, and she’s angry her mom went away and left her alone – a real, honest moment. But then she regrets this when she starts hearing noises and tries to call her mom, but gets no answer, and converts that back to anger again. Heartbreaking.

When the police show up in the classroom, she uses the distraction, not realizing they are there for her, to flip her lipstick-covered note to JC, the slightly older, left-back (i.e., bad news) boy she has a crush on. And he doesn’t pay much attention to it, crumples it and stuffs it in his pocket, because after all, he’s cute and popular and she’s got snarled hair and weird purple glasses for her healing eyes. More heartbreak. And more when we find out what caused the eye problem in the first place: think dad. Dad who is in the Army in Iraq except he isn’t.

The playing with perception continues, as she hears “eiii-dee” and has no idea what that means, and she thinks the cops are looking at her with disgust which later she decides is sympathy. And things progress to the ultimate perception disturbance, so disturbed even the reader isn’t totally sure which way it goes. At least this reader. And Lisette goes on, keeping up her front because reality isn’t so bad if you completely ignore it.

My main complaint about the story is that I want to know what happens now. It’s rather odd the police mention Family Services then just take her back to school, “for now.” Then what? At what point does someone figure out if this 13-year-old has adult supervision or not? Or is that the way things are now, in which case maybe I don’t want to know what happens next. I guess the reader has to forget about reality as well.

Addendum: This story was chosen for BASS 2011.