PEN/O.Henry 2012: Keith Ridgway, “Rothko Eggs” from Zoetrope All-Story, Spring 2011

Mimi O Chun: "Mark Rothko Cookies" via Martin Refsal at CMYBacon

Mimi O Chun: “Mark Rothko Cookies” via Martin Refsal at CMYBacon

She didn’t like realism very much, really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there. But she liked abstract art because it was empty. Sometimes it was only empty a tiny amount, and it was easy for her to see what the artist was trying to say or make her feel, and sometimes that was OK, but she usually liked the art that had lots of empty in it, where it was really hard to work out what the artist wanted, or whether the artist wanted anything at all, or was just, you know, trying to look like he had amazing ideas. But really good artists had lots of empty in their paintings or whatever they did. They left everything out, or most things, anyway, but suggested something, so that she could take her own things into the painting (or the installation or the video or whatever), and the best art of all was when she didn’t really know what she was taking in with her, but it felt right, and when she looked at that art and took herself into it she felt amazing.
She wanted to be able to do that. Make that.

Reading this story is like being inside the head of a teenager for a half hour. A fairly thoughtful, intelligent teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Go ahead, if you can handle that – it’s available online.

When I was reading this the first time, I was a little impatient with the style of the prose, the rhythm. Lots of choppy sentences. But it grew on me. Particularly ending long rambling paragraphs with short pithy sentences. I like that.

Cath’s pretty typical for all her thoughtfulness and intelligence. She lives with her mom, now divorced from her police detective father. She goes to school. She has a boyfriend named Stuart and a best friend named Beth and she’s very interested in Art. And like most teenagers, she’s bewildered by a lot of what goes on around her every hour of every day. Unlike most teenagers – and here’s the thoughtful part – she tries to work it out. Not very successfully, but she tries, and she doesn’t shrug and say “Oh well.” She lives with the ambiguity.

Like her parents being divorced, for instance:

She knew that if something terrible happened to her, her parents would have to meet in casualty or the morgue or something and they would break down and cry and hug each other and all the dumb fighting would be forgotten and they would love each other again, because she was dead or a vegetable and that was all they had. And then she imagined herself thinking that if she really loved them she’d kill herself and she laughed. Then she thought that if something terrible happened they would blame each other and spend the rest of their lives tied together by hatred and her death.
Everything was a cliché.

I think every kid who wants his parents to get back together (and some don’t, often for good reason) has had that same fantasy. And come to that exact conclusion. And see what I mean about short pithy sentences at the end of a rambling paragraph? Nice. But not used so often to be sing-songy.

She has the usual tiffs with her parents from time to time. Most recently, her father had delivered the news to her mom that someone they knew had died, and through a misunderstanding of whose friend the woman was, Cath got angry at the messenger. When she found out her father was the woman’s friend, her mind moved in the usual directions, but he wouldn’t give her any further details, other than the woman had lived a cautionary tale life – bright future deteriorating due to drugs and the wrong men, lengthy and slow recovery, suicide. Cath still doesn’t get exactly what’s going on – why is her mom so upset if the woman was her dad’s friend? – and is angry with her dad for not explaining further.

She was still annoyed at her Dad.
He closed down when he needed to be open. That was what she thought. When there was something wrong he became efficient, busy. He dealt with it. Like a policeman. Like you’d want from a policeman. He would arrive and sort it out. Then he’d leave. And it was sorted. It was fixed. It was a closed case and he was closed and everything was shut off and quiet and finished and he forgot about it.
But when there was nothing wrong he was funny and kind and patient and open.
She thought it through again. She wasn’t sure what she was complaining about.

This girl is playing teenager and parent in her head. Because that’s exactly what a parent would do: just what is it that annoys you about this father who is able to take care of problems competently and calmly, but switches gears to be a great guy otherwise? Nevertheless, she’s still mad. But it’s a thoughtful mad. I wish I handled my mad half as well now, let alone when I was a teenager.

She’s also trying to figure out friendship. Beth, BFF, is her closest confidant:

…she wanted to tell [Beth] that kissing Stuart was like being inside a Jackson Pollock painting. She really wanted to say that. She was determined to say that. But when it came to it she just said that it was really good, and bare sexy. It made her think that maybe Beth and her weren’t as close as she had thought. Because why else would she not say what she wanted to say? It was just stupid.

What I like about this character is that she never answers her own questions. That would be Judy Blume territory, the teenager delivering wisdom after every disappointment or mistake. No, Cath wonders, and resolves little, but in this case the lack of resolution is a good thing, both in terms of story/character, and in terms of Cath: this is where a lot of people calcify into cynicism and rage, developing into self-defeating attitudes, rather than keeping the question open, waiting for further information.

She’s also figuring out her boyfriend, and sex. They’ve had almost-sex, and she really likes him. But she’s not completely swept off her feet, either, and she doesn’t ignore those little nagging anxieties. In fact, she dissects them.

And even though he never blatantly pushed her into doing anything, he had a way of making her do stuff anyway, by getting the two of them arranged in such and such a way and leaving the opportunity open for her to do it if she wanted to, but to not do it if she didn’t want to. Which was how she ended up giving her first ever blow job for example. In her life.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Boys haven’t changed since 1968. I wonder if it’s part of the Y-chromosome, the knowledge of how to get a girl to do exactly what you want by saying, “You don’t have to, only if you want to.”

The story follows a rather meandering path through Cath’s life, which makes it difficult to pin down just where the climax is. But I’ll settle for the passage from which the title is taken. She and Stuart visit the Rothko Room at the Tate. Cath doesn’t quite get Rothko, and she’s trying to. Stuart, however, is moved to tears, though he can’t explain why. Later, they talk in a café, and he seems a little embarrassed by his emotional reaction.

She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
—I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah?… And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art—he’s always doing this—and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn’t know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he’d gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!
She laughed.
Stuart smiled.
—So now he still calls scrambled eggs Rothko eggs. I never corrected him. He hasn’t realized yet. So he’s always asking for Rothko eggs. I bet he does it at work and everything. Trying to show off how cultured he is. Down the police station, you know? Pretending he knows his art. Had some great Rothko eggs this morning. And no one has a clue what he’s on about. It’s so funny.
And she laughed, to show how funny it was.

It’s the last line of that – laughing to show how funny it was – that elevates it. In fact, I’d say it’s the most important sentence of the entire story. Because she’s doing it again, saying not what she’s feeling but something else, and she’s determined to find this egg business funny, to find a way to laugh at her father’s touching efforts to connect with her. Yet she’s moved by them as well – so moved, she can’t begin to approach the emotion directly. Maybe. I could be misreading this whole thing – but there’s a lot of empty space in this story, and that’s what fills it up for me. Your mileage may vary.

I was drowning in this story, unable to find anything to hang on to – the relentless teenager vibe, the lack of any sense of progression beyond a sequence of events, no complication or goal, the style, even the method of quoting conversation, had me pretty turned off. I’d enjoyed Ridgway’s “The Goo Book” last year, and I was looking forward to this story. Both appear in his just-published collection Hawthorn & Child, a collection of stories linked by the policemen that appear within. Such as Cath’s father. And, in a way, Cath, who is tentatively investigating life and her reactions to it with all the tenacity of a junior Bobby Goren.

So I went looking for help, and as usual, I found it, in the person of Alan Bowden of WordsOfMercury:

There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’ explore this sense very effectively in their different ways.

So this story about a girl searching for answers, and being uncertain of the ones she’s proposing, has turned me into a reader doing the same thing. That’s pretty cool. Embrace the empty space, but keep trying to see what fits.

Cath’s last thought:

She went home. She thought about their day. Something had gone wrong but she didn’t know what.

Of course not.

Keith Ridgway – “Goo Book” from The New Yorker, 4/11/11

Art by Thierry Guitard

His mind was dividing. Parts of it were roped off. There were things he could not say. There were things he could not say but could write in the book. And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight.

I didn’t think I’d like this story. It started out as a story about a pickpocket, became a mob story with this love story running throughout, and I fully expected it to follow the mob thread (whatever the London version of the Mob is called) at the end. But that didn’t happen. I loved the ending. So I was very happy. As I understand it from the interview, this is one story in a forthcoming collection of linked stories, linked by the policemen Hawthorn and Childs who appear here. Says Ridgway of the collection: “I was interested in writing about story itself really. About our addiction to narrative. We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.” I’m going to chew on that for a while. But back to the story at hand.

Our unnamed third person narrator is a pickpocket who 1) does not like violence, 2) does not consider himself a “crook,” and 3) sometimes drives for a mob boss named Mishazzo. That’s an interesting setup right there. But there’s more to him. He lifts a personal notebook thinking it was a wallet; instead of tossing it in the nearest trash can, he gives it to a kid to return. When Mishazzo starts asking about his girlfriend, he gets protective and lies about her name and occupation. When asked what he thinks about, he replies myself and considers that includes his girlfriend, the two of them, together. And in a thread that runs through the piece, he starts writing love notes to his girlfriend in a notebook she leaves on the table. And she writes love notes back to him. They don’t discuss it. They only write when the other is out of the house. “But he thought that maybe they touched each other differently. It was like the book freed stuff up, allowed it to happen, that the tenderness was covered, they had it covered, they had all the love and kindness and gentleness covered, and the sex became something else.” Like ropes. But there’s clearly some feeling going on here. I love this idea – that this is separated out so it doesn’t become embarrassing, and later events are separated out even more as his (justifiable) paranoia and fear grow.

The police, Hawthorn and Childs, bulldoze this tender pickpocket/driver into giving information about Mishazzo. It doesn’t seem like serious information, he tells himself. Not only is he not a crook, he’s not a snitch, either. A friend of mine enraged me a few months ago by talking about “the things we tell ourselves” and I think this is the story he is telling himself. An odd relationship develops between him and Hawthorn, the policeman he deals with most. Our non-violent narrator then commits some minor violence on Hawthorn, and ends up getting the worst of it himself. That, plus his increasing paranoia about Mishazzo being on to his relationship with the police, sends him running. At this point, I had an idea (hey, I’ve read too many thrillers) that the girlfriend was one of Mishazzo’s daughters. I was all set to be very disappointed with the story. But it surprised me.

Our tender pickpocket collects his girlfriend and they head off to Paris, or Spain, or Morocco, somewhere. On the train, he realizes he’s forgotten the book. This breaks his heart, and his girlfriend reveals she packed it. While that’s a good thing, it’s the realization that he forgot it that really bothers him. Which is a pretty sophisticated guilt for a tender pickpocket/driver/informant/fugitive.

There’s a lot beyond the plot that impressed me here. The style is quite nice. Each section starts of with short sentences then by the end there are some breathless stretches of words that work very well. It’s a nice rhythm. I’ve never been a huge fan of the current avoid-the-quotation-mark fad, but it also works here. And while the girlfriend is not a fully fleshed-out character, she’s enough. The pickpocket-with-a-heart-of-gold is kind of overdone, but I’m enough of a sap to enjoy it anyway.

I love the title as well. I had a hard time getting the title right; I kept reading it as “God Book” or just turning it into “Good Book”. But “Goo Book” is perfect. It isn’t used in the story at all, which is right; it just isn’t something either the pickpocket, however tender, or his girlfriend, however incompletely sketched, would say. But that’s exactly what it is. Turning that into the title, with the play on the Bible, is perfect.