BASS 2015: Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus” from The New Yorker, 6/23/14

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.
“Please,” James said. “Let’s just see how it goes.”

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

I had the poor luck to read this story in public, during my monthly cheeseburger-and-fries splurge at a local pub. I’ve been remarkably dry-eyed through most of the stories in this volume so far, but I am a complete sap when it comes to dying pet stories. Fortunately, the pub staff is used to me, and, since I make it a point to be there during off-hours of mid-afternoon, lets me read and cry or laugh or whatever without comment or fuss beyond refilling my coffee.

On the surface, this is a dying pet story. But with references to Lear, Waugh, and Plath, it becomes more. And, for the second time in two stories, I found the contributor notes to be extremely helpful. Meloy intended this as a story about “human illness and aging, the breakdown and betrayal of the body (and, in the past, of a country),” and was surprised when emails and letters about the deaths of readers’ beloved dogs poured in, rather than memories of postwar France and the necessity of collaborators and resisters living and working together to rebuild. This says a lot about authorial intent: it only goes so far. An author can put all the symbolism and depth she wants into a work, but it’s a talent as well to be gracious when readers embrace the surface story instead. I still remember reading how perturbed Robert Frost was at readings of “The Road Not Taken” – “You have to be careful of that one,” he said; “it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” But people didn’t want a tricky poem, they wanted a Hallmark card.

I quite like Betsy’s take on the story at The Mookse and Gripes, particularly her speculation about the narrator’s part in his distant relationship with the people in his life. She’s right: it’s easy to think of him as a victim of his callow lover, but there might be a reason he’s in the relationships he’s in. The narrator is unnamed; is that a narrative technique to make him more universal, or a character indicator as he withholds his very name from the reader?

I think there’s a lot of universality to the story. The narrator and his lover are gay, but there’s nothing gender specific about age and experience using money to attract those who would otherwise be unavailable, nor about youth taking advantage of its assets to achieve some measure of security. The Parisian setting increases the sophistication, and it is in fact central to Meloy’s intent, but the surface story plays out in grittier cities, in tiny towns, all over the world. Someone is always betraying something, and we’re always afraid to die alone. I suppose the layered interpretation is what makes the story literary.

At first I believed that the appearance of love from a dog is only a strategy, to win protection. Cordelia chose me because I was the one to feed her and to chase away the hawks and the wolves. But after a time we crossed over a line, Cordelia and I.… A creature’s eyes are on you all the time, or the warm body is next to you. There is an understanding. And I think this becomes something like love.

Plath, as Lady Lazarus, said: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Cordelia gives a master class to a man who knows he will soon face death. Judging from the last sentence, maybe the lesson was learned.

Maile Meloy: “Demeter” from The New Yorker, 11/19/12

New Yorker art by Silja Götz.

New Yorker art by Silja Götz.

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer. It was easier that way. It meant that she delivered her daughter to her ex-husband in the late, bright Montana summer and she could handle it then, most of the time, with a little pharmaceutical help. She could not handle giving her up in the dead of winter.
Hank could have fought for sole custody, since Demeter had a reputation for erratic behavior. But granting her half the year had been a gesture on his part: generosity as a sign of power. He would not have it said that he took a child from her mother. He was always more subtle than that.

In Meloy’s first collection, Half in Love, she introduced Demeter and Hank in the story “Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976.” Now, ten years later, Demeter appears again. Reading the review of the old story changed my view of this one; there’s an element of backstory that’s not included in the newer one, and it lends an air of dramatic irony that I think I would’ve liked. But that wasn’t Meloy’s choice.

I love the start of this story. In her Page-Turner interview, Meloy equates the mythological Demeter and Persephone with shared child custody. That’s a great connection. And Perry, the teenager being shared, kind of sees it that way, too. Except she has a slightly different metaphor:

Married, they had tempered each other, made compromises in the way they lived their lives. Apart, they had gone to opposite extremes. Perry said that joint custody with them was like jumping back and forth between a hot tub and a snow bank.
“Which is which?” Demeter had asked.
“You know what I mean,” Perry had said. “You’re just different.”
But Hank would be the hot tub, of course. Which left Demeter the snowbank.

This is Hank’s “more subtle” way of “taking” the girl from her mother: with television and junk food and jet skis. Though he has the more logical mind, he’s the “fun” parent.

But that’s just background. The story meanders through a trip to a local swimming pool so it can culminate with a playful run across a pool tarp in a freak August snowstorm. As an aside, while I have no doubts that snow can fall in August, I have serious doubts that, in the time that passes in this story (at most, a half hour), it can fall enough to stick. But, of course, that isn’t the point: the coming together of winter and summer, combining the hot tub (pool) and the snowbank, is (I think) the point. Demeter would have no problem with this. Hank, with his logical mind, would.

Instead of succumbing to gloom, Demeter experiences joy; the snow on the pool, goofing around with kids, including Annie, the daughter of the guy she was cheating on Hank with when he died in a diving accident (that accident, and the funeral, is the topic of the earlier story):

That was the bad old days, summed up. It could be a kind of haiku:

I slept with my friend.
Then I got high.
Spring of ’76.

She discovers, in the course of the time between leaving Demeter with Hank and going for a swim, that she wishes she’d never had a child. That’s a remarkably brave thought for a woman to have, to admit, even to herself. And of course she’s ambivalent about it, but there’s still that notion that, if she weren’t a mother, she could enjoy the kind of freedom she’d known as a child. I’m not sure this is developed well, but it’s part of the final scene as she joins Annie and the kids in horseplay she’d normally consider too risky.

For a few steps she was magically on the surface. She was sixteen and unfettered, untouched by grief. Nothing had consequence

I always wonder about people who have that kind of memory about their teens. Were they not paying attention? Were they stoned all the time? Or is it just wishful thinking, the view of being sixteen from forty-two? Because I remember a different kind of sixteen. Sure, I didn’t have bills to pay, but I had plenty of worry, of fear, of doubt, of grief. Maybe some of those worries seem ridiculous now (though most still hurt, at least a little), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t serious problems then. “Unfettered” is the last term I’d apply. But I get the idea. I’ve known moments of freedom. It’s just that, for me, most of them have come in the past ten years. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.

It’s a nice enough story, though not a profound one, I don’t think. I made the rounds to see if there was something I’d missed, but I see most other bloggers were fairly tepid. That’s ok. TNY has been really cooking for me since late summer; maybe it’s time for its turn in the underworld, and how appropriate if this should be the story to mark that.

Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage” from The New Yorker, 5/21/12

Finally, he started working again. Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe. It was a peculiarly freeing state. He didn’t worry about whether the music he was writing was good or bad. Sometimes he seemed only to be channelling it. He thought about Bridey’s mother’s psychic, calling up past lives, and wondered if the music was coming from somewhere else. Sometimes he knew that he was actively composing—thinking about what a bassoon could do, how long a note could be sustained, how long dissonance could be tolerated before it had to resolve into something sweet. But even then he felt cut loose from his critical sense. He was making something, and it gave him pleasure, and it didn’t matter if it ever left his apartment, or if he ever left his apartment. As long as he never went out, there was no crashing self-consciousness, no awareness of the outside world.

I’d never heard of proxy marriage before reading this story. There was that episode of M*A*S*H where Klinger married his childhood sweetheart by shortwave radio (she later divorced him, having never spent a single minute in the same hemisphere) but I never thought it could actually happen that way. Meloy discusses her use of this and how it came about in her interview.

The story (which is available online) follows Bridey (named after Bridey Murphy) and William (secretly in love with her) from the end of high school into their early careers, as their lives weave around each other. Bridey’s father performs occasional proxy marriages for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the two kids serve as the proxies.

He thought he would be either a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally….But William could imagine another kind of life.

I found this particularly important to me, given my reaction to Wendell Berry’s story a few days ago. Bridey – “confident, even a little vain, and she was good at school, except for math, which didn’t interest her” – has boyfriends, and William pines for her but never asks her out or indicates any interest beyond friendship. They go off to school, both to study music, and keep in touch as friends, returning home at intervals, and, once in a while, serving in proxy weddings. William changes from performance to composition, and Bridey finds out she’s too old for her face – that she’s just not pretty enough to be a performer, just like her mother said.

They fall out of touch for a while, and William discovers to his dismay that Bridey has married, leading to the scene quoted above. I like the use of music as a metaphor for the relationship. I love the relationship William has with girlfriend Gillian, an ambitious oboist hoping for an opening in a Tampa symphony:

…he realized that he wouldn’t go to Tampa if an oboist dropped dead and Gillian got the job. He wondered if this was how other people plumbed the secrets of their own hearts, with tests like “Will you go to Tampa?”

The whole story is predicated on the wars, since that necessitates the proxy marriages in the first place. After Abu Ghraib is exposed, Bridey’s father refuses to perform further ceremonies.

William thought there must be a long compound German word for the way that large events in the world could affect your personal life; the scale was reduced to the point of insignificance, but the everyday effect was amplified.

I won’t reveal the resolution, but with stories of unrequited love there are only two possibilities.

What struck me about this story more than anything else was timing. I typically use the story art, rather than cover art, but I made an exception because I don’t think it’s an accident this story appeared in this issue; and I think it makes an interesting statement.