BASS 2022: Lauren Groff, “The Wind” from TNY, 2/1/21

TNY art by Ping Zhu
There are parts of this story that I have tried and failed to tell for over two decades. Bless my agent, Bill Clegg, for having read perhaps a dozen variations on some of these themes over the years, and each time ever so gently suggesting that I unhook the story and let it swim away to grow for a bit longer. It’s impossible to rush a story if it just isn’t ready to be finished.

Lauren Groff, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

Soon after this story originally appeared in The New Yorker, fellow story blogger Jon Duelfer emailed me to ask if he could do a Guest Post about it on my blog. I said sure, I was happy to publish a post of his – he’s a thoughtful, insightful reader – but I didn’t want to bother with the story. In retrospect, I see I claimed to have read the story. This was, well, let’s call it an exaggeration rather than a lie; I’d glanced at the first sentences (which use a construction I particularly dislike – “the woman,” “the girl” –  and at a couple of sentences of other posts about the story, and decided I didn’t want to be bothered with what seemed to be a harshly realistic story about a woman fleeing domestic violence. When I saw the story in the TOC for this year’s BASS, my heart sunk a little, but I figured it was fate catching me in a… exaggeration, forcing me to read the story after all.

You know that old saw about when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me? Well, I sure did. I should have trusted Jon. I should have trusted Lauren Groff. I can imagine some of the earlier versions of the story Groff mentions in her Contributor Note might have been closer to what I’d imagined when Jon contacted me. But she ended up doing something quite remarkable instead, turning a ripped-from-the-headlines piece into a smartly crafted narrative form that moves beyond the expected into themes that are, by now, familiar to those of us who’ve read these BASS stories in order: the generational transmission of trauma, and the use of story to form history.

The bare-bones plot is what you might expect: when an abusive man progresses from beating his wife to beating his child, the mother/wife grabs the kids and runs. One complication is that the husband is a police officer; how do you report a man for abuse when he and his buddies are the officials you would report it to?

Beyond that, Groff employs a narrative twist that lifts this story: originally it seems to be omniscient third person, but halfway down the page, we find out, as the three children leave for school, that isn’t the case: 

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

This allows several storytelling devices. It creates a narrative where the narrator’s mother is referred both as mother and a child, where the boys are both kids and uncles, and where the children’s mother is a grandmother, compressing time until there is no past, present, and future, but all three exist at once. One of the primary features of PTSD is time compression: the sufferer repeatedly experiences the past as if it is the present.

It’s also the first in a series of carefully timed reveals, some subtle (such as we now know the twelve-year-old girl will survive and have a child of her own, relieving a huge dread and allowing the reader to focus on other things) and some explicit (Ruby is the mother/grandmother’s name, Michelle is the twelve-year-old daughter/mother, Joseph and Ralph the nine- and six-year-old boys/uncles). And by the way, though unrelated to narration, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ruby takes care of three children, an unspecified number of sheep, and works a job outside the home.

Immediately after the narrator is introduced, she, safely in the future, will reveal the themes that are powerful enough to override even this harrowing plot:

Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.

And again, for the fourth time in this volume, we deal with family history passed on by story, how that story becomes history, and the sense that the past is always with us, it is indeed not dead or even past. In his Introduction, Greer highlights this choice:

Groff has not chosen to tell it in third person, or from the point of view of the woman, or even the point of view of her child. The narrator is the daughter of the child. The granddaughter. Someone who was not there. It makes the story somehow grander and more terrifying, because it is a story passed down through generations, a story told to make sense of who these women are. A myth, in the sense of story crucial to these women. That simple choice – and an unusual one – puts enough emotional distance between the narrator and the characters to remove any cliche or sentimentality. Instead: there is dignity, sorrow, and rage.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

The escape is as tension-filled as one would expect. The story manages to focus on the effects of the fear of detection, of decisions that must be made quickly, and on how compromised by terror Ruby is at this moment when she’s acted. At one point she’s paralyzed, and this becomes a moment of truth for Michelle. As Michelle’s daughter relates in the future:

Fine, my grandmother said. Yes. I can’t think of nothing else. I guess this will be our change of plans. But, for the first time since the night before, tears welled up in her eyes and began dripping down her bruised cheeks and she had to slow the car to see through them.
And then she started breathing crazily, and leaned forward until her forehead rested on the wheel, and the car stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. The wind howled around it.
…. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, my grandmother whispered. It’s just that my body is not really listening to me. I can’t move anything right now. I can’t move my feet. Oh, God.
It’s fine, my mother said softly. Don’t worry. You are fine. You can take the time you need to calm down.
And at this moment my mother saw with terrible clarity that everything depended on her. The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard.

Notice how similar this bodily reaction to fear – a shutting down of physical will, of control over one’s own muscles – is to what the daughter – “my mother” – feels in the present as noticed by her daughter.

Yes, it’s confusing, since who is mother and who is daughter depends on context, on whether we are in the story or in the narration. That’s reflective of the chaos of this family, where Michelle, at nine, is helping Ruby, her mother, cope in a moment when Ruby isn’t able to cope on her own. Michelle has her own black eye at this moment, but she must become the adult. This is one more perversion of abuse: adults become children, so children must become adults.

Groff finishes off with two paragraphs that hammer home the overriding themes of the story. First, how we tell stories, how we turn stories into history – or at least, try to:

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they watched on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold period the bus morning to life, wreathed in smoke, carrying them away. She told it almost as though she believed this happier version, but behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in the red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.

This is the fourth of four stories so far in this volume to make use, to greater or lesser effect, of this theme: by Lucy’s need to tell the story of her vision in “A Ravishing Sun,” by the way the Dominican girls tell the story of The Little Widow From the Capital to change both their participation and the ending in that story, and in Jeb’s efforts to put together his family story in “Man of the House,”

Then there’s the generational transmission of trauma, also reflected in both “A Ravishing Sun” as Lucy considers the torture and fear her family went through in Cuba, and in “Man of the House,” as Jeb remembers his father and his uncle and how their fear, predating his birth, is visited on him. It wasn’t until the third time I read this story, when I was pulling quotes, that I was driven to tears by Ruby’s strength in smiling as her husband dragged her away, trying to offer her children a view of her that did not reflect her fear and pain. Maybe it helped. Then again:

The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and to this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind.

We don’t know exactly what happened to this family. The impression is their mother was murdered by their father, and the kids were put into some kind of foster care, but Groff leaves those details out as they aren’t important. It’s the relationship between the mother and her children, in this context of violence, that matters, and that’s where Groff focuses our attention.

By a strange coincidence (I keep saying, I love a good coincidence), I just started watching This is Us a few days ago (yes, I’m always late to the party). I’m just a few episodes in, but I’m also blown away by the time compression used there, until there is no past, present, future. It’s used in a pleasant way there, rather than the grim way it’s used here. But the technique is the same: on some level, past, present, and future form a whole, where they aren’t separate. This also fits in with the mooc I recently took on metaphysics, which looked at ways time can be viewed. Do things in the past or future exist? Some schools of thought say yes. Do we look at time as moving, or do we look at our perception as moving along a timeline? How does now become then? Is there a present at all? And moving to ethics: if we realized how our actions in the present will affect those we will love in the future, would we perhaps act differently?

Maybe I just used these things to force the story into something I found more interesting than your standard tale of abuse. And what does it mean that I want to do that? Am I cold-hearted, don’t I care about abuse? I don’t think that’s it; I think it’s more that, at this point, when we’ve already seen the news specials and TV shows, it begins to feel a little emotionally exploitative to use such high-impact drama for fiction unless there’s something more than a display of horror. And here, I believe, there is, both aesthetically, and emotionally.

  *  *  *     

  • Lauren Groff reads this story on WNYC.
  • Jonathan Duelfer discussed this story in a guest post on this very site back when it first appeared in TNY. At the time I made some assumptions about it and declined to read it. I now recognize that was a mistake. Fortunately, BASS has corrected that mistake.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks at his wife’s experience at a shelter for battered women.

Guest Post by Jonathan Duelfer: Review of “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, from The New Yorker, February 1, 2021

Jon reviews short stories and books on his website The Inquiring Reader. As a Software Developer, he is developing the beta version of a web application for reviewing and discussing articles from magazines and journals, named The Commons App.

I am typically moved most by short stories that focus on a single event, a single emotion, and swiftly make progress to their objective. Writers tend to pause in their narrations. They tend to change topics, setting, or embroider their language in lieu of a steady plot.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Experimenting with form and style is what makes such a wonderfully diverse, literary landscape. But what moves me most is when I feel an overwhelming urgency, too afraid to put the story down in the fear that if I look up, it will leave me.

This sense of passion and urgency is what I felt from Lauren Groff’s masterful piece, “The Wind.” There is a single emotion that surfaces above all others: despair. It builds gradually throughout the story, entirely nonexistent at first, until it becomes the driving force behind it all. It reaches its breaking point and shatters into pieces of sorrow, remorse, guilt, and even a bit of optimism.

I found Groff’s prose to be captivating. It reminded me of Hemingway in its directness, its simple pronouns representing characters, and its rolling sentences combined with endless “ands.”

So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside the porch.

Groff uses an interesting narrative structure. The story starts off as if told from an unrelated third-person, referring to the characters as the mother, the daughter, the older boy. All of a sudden, the narrator’s true voice breaks in.

He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

The narrator tells the story as herself, but also as if she was summarizing the words of her mother, Michelle, at the time the events occurred. It’s an intriguing structure, providing us a sort of redemption that at least some of the characters survive while the story spirals into chaos and sorrow.

It doesn’t start off all doom-and-gloom. It begins seemingly lighthearted, as if the siblings are playing some practical joke on each other. One of the brothers tells the narrator’s mother that “Kids are going to make fun of you, your face all mashed up like that.” I imagined that Michelle had done something to herself on accident or as a joke simply to mess with her brothers.

The tone changes as the kids jump onto the school bus. The driver, Mrs. Palmer, makes a sarcastic comment about Michelle’s “shiner,” slang for a black eye, as if she didn’t know its provenance. Then, Michelle asks Mrs. Palmer, very seriously, to drop them off at a stop before school to meet their mother. Mrs. Palmer immediately knows something is wrong. But why didn’t she acknowledge it before?

Mrs. Palmer lets the kids off the bus. They get into the car with their mother and drive to her work to pick up her last paycheck. She plans to get them all out of town as soon as possible. As they walk into the restaurant where the mother works, the manager changes the mood.

Without looking he barked, You’re late, Ruby. But then the children caught his eye, and he saw the state of them, and put the potatoes down and reached out and touched my mother’s face gently with his hot rough hand. Lord. She get it too? He said. She’s just a kid.

As the reader, we are no longer kept in the dark as to what could have happened. We are no longer spared the grim details.

Shoved his gun in my mouth this time, my grandmother said. She didn’t bother to whisper, because the kids had been there, they had seen it.

It’s clear that the kids got off the bus to meet their mother and escape from their abusive father. But there is an undercurrent of futility coming from the community. They seem to notice the abuse – Mrs. Palmer on the school bus, the manager in the store – but don’t take action the change things.

This is because the father is a police officer. For the sake of the short story, it makes the situation even more dire, but I found this detail to be allegorical more than anything. What happens when the entire structure of society is bent against you, your freedom, and your well-being?

Groff throws us a rope, suggesting that the children make it out of the situation – although deeply scarred. In the middle of her narration, she changes settings momentarily, to a point sometimes in the future when the children are grown up and out of the town.

My younger uncle reached out his little hand, and Joseph, who hated all show of affection, held it. Ralphie had a fishing accident when I was a teenager, and my cold, dry uncle Joseph fell apart at the funeral, sobbing and letting snot run down his face, all twisted grotesquely in pain.

The fascinating narrative structure doesn’t stop here. Before finishing the story, Groff makes it seem like they all escape to safety. But the narrator knows better. Of her mother’s retelling, she says that “behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in red and blue.” For a moment, we had a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe all we are left with is despair.

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia budding gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in the ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they waited on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold.

It has been sometime that I’ve read a short story so moving and well written. I believe this last paragraph speaks for itself for how skilled a writer Groff really is.

On the other hand, the author of this website, Karen, made a fantastic point when I asked to write guest post on this piece. She said that it reminded her of Alejandro Puyana’s “The Hands of Dirty Children” which she reviewed last year.In that review, she writes “somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids.”

Could we interpret Groff’s story in a similar way? Could she be exploiting the terror at the heart of this story for “shock value”? As she says in this interview with the New Yorker, the story was inspired by a person she really didn’t know a “few decades ago, in a ratty booth at some bar in Philadelphia.”

Given this background, does Groff have the right to use this story? She says the “the original teller would never recognize their story here” but that she kept the “truth at the center of it.”

I’m not able to come up with an answer. I lean towards thinking that it’s more representative than “exploitive.” Either way, it’s a very good question to think about. I also may be more susceptible to shock value than other readers, as I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s oddly gruesome novels (you can read my review of Blood Meridian if you are interested).

Regardless, I think the story is well-worth the read. It’s emotional, gripping, powerful, and extremely well-written. On my first Read, it completely blew me away. Coming back to it after briefly discussing the story with Karen, it lost some of its allure, but I still cannot help seeing it as an excellent piece of short fiction.

BASS 2017: Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone” from The New Yorker 5/23/16

TNY art by Jason Holley

TNY art by Jason Holley

It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat.

Complete story available online at TNY

And now for something completely different: a horror story. At least, that’s the direction Groff’s Contributor Note leans in: “Part of the horror of this story comes from the narrator being stuck in a confined space, with intense responsibilities, and having no real way out.” We have a mother with her two small children and a fairly serious head injury in a cabin surrounded by Florida critters. Add in the context that she’s had trouble doing some typical mother things, like shopping and cooking, while she’s been wildly successful doing other things, like taking them on adventures.

I’m sure it must be horrifying to be incapacitated yet still be responsible for the kids. But I didn’t really feel any of that while reading the story, I’m sorry to say. I wasn’t worried about the panther, or whatever creature left scat, or the kids going outside. I’m afraid this one was lost on me. I was completely perplexed, and a bit annoyed, by two lines, phrases really, one at the very beginning: “…I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately….” This implies a pre-existing illness, most likely cancer, but there’s no mention of anything like that in the rest of the story. I don’t understand that. Who leaves a sick woman alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere surrounded by panthers and bears? Who takes a sick woman there? A debilitated condition would also have a huge effect on the head injury; is she just not willing to think about it? Has she blocked any thoughts that lead to death for so long, it’s just second nature now?

The second annoying phrase came at the very end, when her husband returns, an event that should signal Everything Is Going To Be Fine but instead signals perhaps The Worst Has Happened:

In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

Again, I’m not sure what “the silk of my pelt” means. Has she died and merged with the panther? Or is she just delirious from the head injury? I don’t like feeling stupid, and this story made me feel very stupid. I kept going back to one particular place, a dissociative episode that I thought might bring me closer to understanding what was happening in the story:

I counted slow breaths and was not calm by two hundred; I counted to a thousand.
The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in.
The moon rose in the skylight and backed itself across the black.
When it was gone and I was alone again, I felt the dissociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief….
Where my body and those of my two sons lay together was a black and pulsing mass, a hole of light.
I passed outside…. I couldn’t go away from it, I couldn’t return, I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible, stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.

I don’t think she speaks with the kids after this, though one is lying snuggled up to her, chewing her hair as he did when an infant. Is that regression of a terrified child whose mother is lying dead on the floor, or just a scared kid self-comforting? There is a midnight zone as described in the story: the dark depths of the ocean. I’m going to imagine she’s in a metaphorical midnight zone, except that isn’t really satisfying either.

The story reminded me of another Groff story, “Eyewall” in which, as I recall (it’s been a long time), a woman took a personal journey into her soul while curled up in a bathtub during a severe hurricane. Then there was Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” which added a more emphatic supernatural element. But I drew a blank here.

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.

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”

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.

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.