BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.

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BASS 2014: Lauren Groff, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” from Five Points #15.1&2

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of the swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.
Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the University, and if snakes hadn’t slept their way into the hot house, his father would have filled with them anyway. Coils of rattlers session formaldehyde on the window sills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coupes out back where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.

In many ways, this story was for me the opposite experience of the prior story, Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” in that I found the first half far more engrossing than the second half. Perhaps I gave up hope too soon. Or I was just too angry – first, at the adults who let this child down, and then, at his inability to heal.

Yet it was also a similar story; both use poetry, or song, to bring in a spiritual element. Instead of a bluegrass tune, here we have a sonnet by John Donne, arranged for chorus many times by a wide variety of composers:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

~~John Donne

Now, I’ll admit I’m no match for Donne. But Linda Gregerson is, and I got a great deal out of her reading of this sonnet.

For example: one important poetic element in his poem (besides “violent enjambment”; I do love coming across these new poetic terms) is the change of heart at the turn of the sonnet. For the first half, the speaker is all gung-ho for the End of Days; then he realizes, maybe he needs more time to deal with his own issues. That dovetails nicely with the story on several levels, particularly in Jude’s return to the Florida house, and in the way he was never able to fully accept “the density or lateness” of his mother’s love, but belatedly finds a different kind of peace in the knick of time.

Then we have the paradox of the title: how can a round earth have corners? Gregerson explains: It’s an allusion to the rising acceptance of scientific awareness of Donne’s time (he was a contemporary of Galileo). While the spherical nature of the globe was at least subliminally accepted in the educated (and seafaring) world, the Church was still irrationally doing everything it could to prevent official recognition of that fact, in honor of various biblical passages, including Revelation: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” Donne manages to grasp the paradox by the tail and tame it: he makes those corners imaginary, symbolic, metaphorical. This deals a blow to scriptural literalists everywhere, but so be it (if anyone wishes to take a lesson for contemporary society from this, be my guest).

The geometry of the title fits particularly nicely with the story in another aspect: Jude’s love of mathematics:

At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an ant hill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute he thought, that meant 720 departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother’s lap, the women chatting with her at the counter this took his something for sadness. “I’m sure the boy misses his father,” one lady said, intending to be kind.
“No,” his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.

Geometry in particular plays a larger part later on in the story, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say it’s not by accident that a letter has four square corners.

By the way: you know you’ve taken too many math moocs when you start to feel annoyed that writers, when they want to portray an alienated, emotionally inhibited, but highly intelligent character, will reach for a mathematician. At least the herpetologist-father was a twist.

But discovering Groff’s inspiration for the story (equal parts Central Florida, about which she admits feelings of both love and dread, and the Donne poem) in the Contributor Notes made the above a faint protest. Once she chose the title – or rather, once the title chose her – Jude the geometer was inevitable.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Lauren Groff, “Eyewall” from Subtropics, W/S 2011

Peter D'Aprix: "Young Woman in an Egg"

Peter D’Aprix: “Young Woman in an Egg”

It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d yelled before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

This story about a hurricane taught me something; or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, it reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten. It’s available online from Subtropics; see if your experience is different.

On first read, I was perplexed. The prose seemed a bit purple for literary fiction, like a high school student assignment: “Write 6000 words using description, imagery, and metaphor.” I’m all in favor of beautiful phrases and startling images, but it seemed a little much:

…the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.
The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.
The great hand of the storm would wipe them off the road like words from a chalkboard.
The house sucked in a shuddery breath…
…the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts.
There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds…
…waggling its oars like swimmers’ arms.
[The wind] riffled through my books one by one as if searching for marginalia…
Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch.
…towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted.
The storm had stolen the rest of the wine and the butler’s pantry, too.
My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked.

The language was getting in the way of the story. It’s something like Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet theory of typography, which I learned about when I read Simon Garfield’s Just My Type – the medium, be it words or letter forms, should serve the message, not overpower it. I felt like the language here was distancing me from the story, like an overeager performer who sticks out like a sore thumb in an ensemble performance.

I read Groff’s Contributor Note: the story came to her first in structure, as she watched a storm cloud approaching and felt “unbearable fragile and exposed.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, since I didn’t see anything particularly unique in the structure of the story: it covers the hours spent riding out a hurricane, including visits from three ghosts, and ends with an improbable image of hope and renewal.

But I set about my usual routine, checking out other commentary on the story, and found this by Charles May on his Reading the Short Story blog:

The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way.

Now I was able to more fully absorb Groff’s Contributor Note: “I saw a despairing character who was at the center of some harsh circular winds that were, in turn, whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.” The language was not for the sake of writing pretty words; it was integral to her concept of the story.

This made a huge difference to me as I reread the story. I was able to see a lot that I hadn’t before. The chickens, for instance. The story begins with chickens, in the opening paragraph quoted above, and they appear – or disappear – throughout

My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.

As each man from her life – the ex-husband who died a week after he left her for his younger mistress, the boyfriend she “lost” in Barcelona, who later killed himself – “There it was, the wet rose blossoming above his ear” – her father, who died while she was away at camp, her mother deliberately not telling her he was sick – she confronts a different part of her past, a different kind of loss.

Her childlessness – perhaps infertility – is another different kind of loss that comes back to her. She remembers her first impression of the house the storm is now battering:

I fell for the long swing in the heritage oak over the lake, which had thrilled some child, which was waiting for another. My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.

And at the end of the storm, alone again, she surveys the destruction of her house and neighborhood, culminating in one final image:

Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.

I’m really impressed how this ties so much of the story together. It’s a bit over the top, still, but it’s got the chickens, the infertility, the destruction, the survival, all wrapped up there in one perfect, improbable egg.

Groff’s interview with Subtropics focuses more on general issues – altering facts in historical fiction, the perils of using ghosts in literary short stories – than on the story itself. But that’s ok. By the time I got there, I had it already. And again I remember why I do this – it’s so easy to put aside a story that doesn’t work on first read, but if I keep an open mind and go digging, consult those wiser than I, it’s possible I just might find what I’d overlooked. This is the third of Groff’s stories I’ve read, and it’s by far my favorite.

Lauren Groff: “Above and Below” from The New Yorker, 6/13-20/11

Karine Laval, "Yellow Screen" (Los Angeles, 2010)

Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.

I confess I started this story with a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t care for Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds” when I read BASS 2010; I resented that she used an existing character (Martha Gelhorn), and an existing plot (Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”), and while I was thrilled to recognize the ortolan ritual, I felt it was incongruously placed.

Yet, I wanted to like this story; it embodies a theme I am highly sensitive to. Few people realize how easy it is to slide down the ladder of success. Most of us feel there is something in us that makes us superior to the people lining up at the local soup kitchen – even those who feel compassionate, perhaps work there, still find it unthinkable that they could end up on the other side of the counter some dinner time. Maybe this is the case. But maybe it isn’t. Connections, family, luck, these all play a role. Sure, someone who works hard to build safety nets for their lives might be less likely to hit the ground. But it happens. And I wanted to like this story that gives the guided tour of such a fall.

The unnamed main character of this story doesn’t really resist the slide. She’s an academic who just lost her funding and can’t afford to keep her apartment now that she’s only a TA and now that her boyfriend has moved out. Her mother isn’t in any position to help. The woman has options – she could get another job, move to a smaller place, get a roommate – but, possibly because of depression from all the losses, she gives up, packs a crate of books in her car, and drives off to live on the beach.

Things go downhill from there, and we take a tour with her of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the hopeless. She has some relationships – a man named Euclid that gives her a job helping him clean clubs, enabling her to get a motel room; a homeless mother who shares her tent and food in exchange for child care while she works (yes, a homeless woman works, it happens). We visit tent cities and a squat house. We never see anything really horrifying – she is never in real danger, she never experiences violence, drugs and alcohol are not really factors, which is not realistic. There’s a lot of deus ex machina in this.

And that’s my gripe. When we get to the squat house, the last location in the story, the story suddenly flash forwards to her having a baby daughter and the connection between them, evoking the less-than-ideal relationship she had with her mother, and possibly hinting there’s another cycle starting here. But we don’t really know, because the information is withheld. We don’t know how she climbs out of the hole she spent at least a year in. We don’t know if her life is more satisfactory than her mother’s. It’s a sort of “let’s just skip all the hard stuff and pretend” ending. It’s unbalanced – the ending is too brief for the story, as if she just got tired of writing so wrapped it up real quick. I’m not satisfied with that. Either skip it, or give it the weight and importance it deserves.

In her New Yorker interview, Groff says she thought of the story as a dark fairy tale. Maybe that’s where the “and she lived happily ever after” fast forward comes in. I think, as she did in “Delicate Edible Birds”, Groff took small pieces of something she saw or knew (her husband’s parents used to own a prairie house, she says in her New Yorker interview, she’s seen the desperately poor in her town) and wrote a story that’s not so much bad as superficial, that doesn’t really work, that misses the underlying thrum that says, “This is real, it’s important, listen.”

But, I admit, I had an attitude going in. And I’m not the one in BASS 2010.

BASS 2010: Lauren Groff – “Delicate Edible Birds”

I found this story in BASS 2010; the story was published in Glimmer Train in Spring 2009, and it is also the title story of her January 2009 collection.

 This story was a strange journey for me, but the ones that aren’t never make it to these pages, they’re read and forgotten. I had several points of complaint, then read the afternotes (I completely forgot, which is odd since the afternotes are my favorite part of the BASS volumes) and discovered my complaints were the product of my own ignorance. This is quite embarrassing. Perhaps the story should come with a warning: know a little about Martha Gellhorn, Mitterand’s last meal, and the Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif” before reading.

 Before I even got to the story, the title reminded me of the introductory passage from Anthony Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, which I read and posted about here about three weeks ago. He recounts some secret underground dinner, attended by chefs who are not named but who, the reader is assured, are widely recognized, and features a ritual eating of ortolan (small finches), now illegal to hunt, traditionally (but not in this case) blinded, overfed, and drowned in a distinctive brandy, pan roasted and fried in oil and butter, eaten whole – yes, bones, beak, guts, and all, just dropped into the mouth feet first – while a napkin covers the face of each diner. At the time I wasn’t sure if his account was a dark fantasy (it smacked of The Freshman, which featured a dinner of endangered species) or something real.

 Groff’s story includes, in flashback, an account of female war correspondent Bern’s affair at age 16 with the mayor of Philadelphia and their attendance at such a feast in Montreal. Having just read of this ritual made me fond of the story, because I felt like an insider – my hand waving wildly over my head, “Hey, call on me, yes, I know about this, I’ve heard of it!”  But it also struck me as odd, that I should hear about something so strange twice within three weeks, having never heard of it before. Then again, the list of things I’ve never heard of is quite long, by its very nature far longer than I realize. Groff mentions in her afternotes that this ritual dinner was reputed to be Mitterand’s last meal in 1995, and apparently it’s been a quite popular topic lately, at least to those in certain circles. Oops, my bad.

I wondered about the timeline of the story. The character Bern was 22 when covering the Spanish Civil War, awfully young for a war correspondent, and making her 16 some time between 1930 and 1933 – during the Great Depression, which is not mentioned even in passing during her recollection of the limo drive to Montreal where they are served this exotic meal under silver. And then she a prize-winning story published, which has people calling her L’Ortolan, as her last name is Orton. This seems a bit coincidental and forced. Groff’s afternotes again to the rescue – she based the character on Martha Gellhorn, who was indeed a novelist and war correspondent (and Hemingway’s third wife) at a very young age, though not quite as young as the character Bern. My bad again.

 Overall the story carries some interesting and hard-hitting images of WWII, and the “delicate, edible birds” image works throughout, applying to French countrymen strafed by a German plane, to pretty much everyone in the path of the Nazis as they occupied France, to these journalists, to women in general, and to Bern herself. They are racing to get to Bordeaux, believing it to be safe there. I’m a little hazy on the Occupation and Vichy France and all, but my understanding is that journalists were interned at Lourdes and Baden Baden, safely and relatively comfortably, so I had trouble understanding the urgency to escape – but I am willing to accept that history may show things very differently from how they would’ve been perceived at the time, and had I been a journalist I would’ve been quite eager to get the hell out of there before any swastikas showed up. And again, Groff’s afternotes point out that the Maupassant short story “Boule de Suif”, as well as the collected letters of Ms. Gellhorn, were the basis for the journalists’ escapades. And by now I’m downright embarrassed by my stupidity. And as a result, of course, I hate this story. Wouldn’t you? But I realize that isn’t fair.

 The crux of the story of this carload of journalists – from Italy, Russia, the US and England – is whether or not Bern should sleep with a civilian captor to obtain his help to flee the approaching German army. There is little surprise here; it’s a story not of plot but of people, interactions, backstories, and personality, though the people don’t surprise me either. Their French civilian captor (with his family of aged mother and two sons) at times seems like something out of a cross between the playwright in The Producers and the banjo people in Deliverance, but then he becomes quite eloquent and articulate, which seems odd, as if the character changes. But I may be supplying the oafish quality on my own.

 There’s something about the story that I enjoyed, and I’m not sure it was limited to the “Me, too” phenomenon. It seemed a little too precious at times (one of the male correspondents sees Bern as “the future” and I’ve already mentioned her last name being coincidentally similar to ortolan).  And maybe, if truth is stranger than fiction, I’d rather read about the real Martha Gellhorn than the fictional Bern, because, frankly, Bern seems a bit too staged to me. But there’s great potential as a discussion piece. How would it go down today? What are the motives of the men as they urge her to act in one way or another? How does the time in the barn change things? When she says, “It isn’t about courage” what is it about? Does she go because the men pressure her, or because she, too, is scared? There are many powerful moments, particularly regarding the car of journalists passing a crowd of straffed French civilians, and the backstories the journalists reveal. It’s a story worth reading and contains a lot of food for thought (other than birds). Especially for those smarter than I.