Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.

Complete story available online at Pleides

“There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey” is one of the many writers’ aphorisms taken as gospel (QI credits this one, not to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but to a metamorphosis of an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). In this story, the stranger is Barnes Harlow, former soap opera star come to a ragtag Missouri theater company. But I got sidetracked by something else.

In 2011, Makkai published a novel titled The Borrower, about a children’s librarian who either kidnaps or is kidnapped by Ian, one of her 10-year-old patrons, leading to a road trip (the other side of the stranger comes to town) that reverses with a single phrase: “They lost.” I read that book in 2012, and I still remember sobbing over my cheeseburger at the local pub where I was reading. I’ve been thinking of those words for weeks, maybe because I saw Makkai’s name in the table of contents, or maybe because I never forgot that moment, and I try to remember that, even though Ian returned home, the trip was not a failure but ended with a kind of slow-motion salvation. That librarian (and possibly Ian) is in this story. It’s not her story, but as a secondary character she allows for additional perspective.

I even see a structural comparison between novel and story: the story turns, reverses itself, on a single sentence. I know how that feels; does everyone? To have one phrase, one utterance, change the context, the mood, the background assumptions, the momentum of a gathering or a road trip or a theater company’s mission, a call to reality? It works so many ways in this story, with so many characters, it’s as if it explodes. Or maybe implodes.

There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays…. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.

Beth has an additional relationship to Barnes once they sleep together, and it’s into this theater-world confusion about what is real and what is fictional that Barnes, cornered about his petty theft of multiple trivial items from everyone in the company, says the words that implodes it all: “You’re not real. I made you up.” And then, worse: “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”

Exit Barnes. As Soledad says, “Beth broke the soap star.” But exit the company as well; they disintegrate during the town performance of A Christmas Carol they’d been rehearsing (with Barnes hastily replaced). They all start quoting lines from random plays. And the librarian holds on to her Starbucks cup and smiles through it all (who wouldn’t; it seems hilarious to me), while a 10-year-old boy plays along. I don’t think the 10-year-old is Ian, but I’m happy that he could be.

By the way, the use of the name “George Spelvin” by an actor who doesn’t want to be associated with a terrible play, or a terrible theater troupe, is true. I hadn’t known that, though I was aware that “Alan Smithee” was sometimes used by film directors who didn’t want their name on a movie once the studio execs cut it for reasons having nothing to do with art. I wasn’t aware there was a similar tradition, probably an earlier one, in theater.

I’m thinking back over the works in this volume so far, and art seems to be a frequent theme. It might even be hidden in less obviously art-related works, like the poem “Elk” or the hornet article. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I read on.

Rebecca Makkai: The Borrower (Viking, 2011)

The Makkai Family Crest

The Makkai Family Crest

I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: one day, I will know my guilt.

I’ve got to stop climaxing in public.

Don’t worry – it’s not what you think. But it’s still embarrassing.

In the past, I’ve giggled over One Story at the mall and cried while reading “Blue” by David Brooks and Dean Paschal’s “the Puppies” on the bench outside the supermarket. I even told a bus driver about this great music story I’d just read, Didi Wood’s “ Elliot Carter is a Dead Man.” I’m not a publicly demonstrative person, really, I’m not; it’s the stories that make me do it.

And I never learn.

So there I was, in the local pub-and-grill I’ve mentioned before, scarfing down my once-a-month treat of a deliciously smoky grilled cheeseburger and impossibly crunchy-tender fries, engrossed in this novel (again; you’ll see what I mean presently). Everything was under control.

Then I hit these two italicized words on Page 279. They’re unassuming words; meaningless out of context, but if I told you what they are, you’d be prepped for them, and you really should stumble upon them, as I did. They hit me like a truck, brought all the disparate themes together, and imbued this slightly madcap road trip with a sense of purpose retroactively.

The waitress – magnificent in her patience and tolerance for oddities – is used to me by now. She’s seen me giggle, frown, scribble, highlight – and now, cry.

The family crest my father brought all the way from Moscow on a thick gold ring, with its carving of a man – book in right hand, severed head on pike in left. (This most famous Hulkinov was a seventeenth-century scholar-warrior, a man who heard the distant trumpets, left his careful books, fought for justice or freedom or honor. And here I am, the end of the line: twenty-first-century librarian-felon.)

If you’re not sure this book is for you, read the FAQ page page on Rebecca Makkai’s website. That should convince you. Or warn you away, for that matter; there are people who will take offense at some of the material here; though if you’re reading this blog, chances are you aren’t one of them. Unless you’re praying for me.

I’ve been reading Rebecca Makkai stories since I’ve been regularly reading BASS; She’s in the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 collections (I’ve only blogged the last two) and I’ve liked all her stories. But I wasn’t planning to read this novel. Somewhere in my brain I connected it to the kid’s book The Borrowers (which, duh, it does refer to) and just wasn’t interested, until I read her aforementioned FAQ page (the cat-and-mustard joke is googleable) prior to attending a reading she gave at my local fiercely independent bookstore. Then I had to have it.

The horns didn’t lie. My father and I were alike, wagging our forked tails and stealing what we wanted. The devil only thinks of himself.

I loved so much the themes and riffs in this book: revolution, rebellion, lineage, what it means to be an American, what it means to be an immigrant in America, what the Patriot Act means to library patrons, children’s literature, family, repressive religion, the role books can play in discovering and accepting your own self apart from the expectations and demands of others – these were all wonderfully expressed and integrated. I suspect I would’ve been even more impressed if I knew more about kidlit, which is referenced throughout the book in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I got Huck Finn (most of it anyway), The Borrowers (obviously), and a couple of others, but I probably missed half a dozen at least. At its best, it really cooked.

Which isn’t to say I found it perfect. In fact, I have some major complaints.

The story follows Lucy, accidental children’s librarian, and 10-year-old Ian, library patron. Mostly everyone thinks Ian is gay, including his fundamentalist Christian mother, who sends him to a “gay rehab” group run by a megapastor. Ian’s very bright, and a little annoying the way very bright children can be. Lucy’s dad, a Russian immigrant, spent most of his life working in the Russian mob and telling stories of revolution. She, however, has drifted into this librarian position in a small town, and at age twenty-five has shown no signs of revolting against anything except her father.

Like a good Russian, I wanted to break into Pastor Bob’s house and poison him. Like a good American, I wanted to sue somebody. But like a good librarian, I just sat at my desk and waited.

Lucy finds Ian in the library early one morning; he’s run away from home and spent the night there. They hit the road together. Though throughout Lucy refers to herself as having kidnapped, stolen, or borrowed Ian, one of the masterful things Makkai does is maintain this uncertainty about just who is kidnapping whom, just who is in charge of the situation.

To be honest, she lost me a little with the beginning of the road trip. It’s just too preposterous, really. I was enjoying getting to know these people, the wonderfully constructed details of Lucy’s life (she lives above a theater with a dependably wacky cast, and she’s just started to date a man who’s written his first major orchestral symphony that to her sounds like the jingle from the old Mr. Clean commercials; all of this is somewhat determinedly kooky, but it worked well enough for me) and her sometimes exasperated interactions with Ian (as well as her opinions of the Patriot Act vis-à-vis the duty of librarians) when she makes this absurd decision.

Half a Russian was someone who carried inconsequential shoeboxes through the night, who played games with no strategy. Whose only revolution was to run.

My credulity was further strained by her lies to her father, and her calls to the library to explain her absence. Then there’s the question of just how absurdly incompetent the police in this town are that a ten-year-old can disappear and no one thinks to look for the librarian who disappeared at the same time. The Ferret-Glo seemed, like the kooky theater troupe, a little added in, like MSG. To be honest, I put the book down for a few days, disheartened.

And if I were going to toss Ian back, without his being ready, without his gaining some kind of magical strength to face the next eight years of his life, then what had all this been for? As accidental as it all had been, surely there must have been some kind of point.

I’m very glad, however, that I picked it up again. Once the focus shifted to her quality ingredients – Lucy and Ian, the themes of family and heritage, running away, rebellion, how to save another person – the MSG fell away as unnecessary, and I was again entranced. And by the time the climax on page 279 (in my edition; YMMV) fell out of the blue and brought everything together, I was in love.

The denouement does a very nice job cleaning up the loose ends strewn throughout, but there’s a scene that again had me in tears (fortunately, these were shed in the privacy of my living room). I could feel love radiating from those pages. And I think that’s why one of the most popular questions she gets is about a sequel.

“If I were copying a book, I would always put in some of my own words, or a secret message. About some really huge secret. Do you think they ever did that?”

I enjoyed her presentation and reading as well. She discussed all the usual things and answered the usual questions: she doesn’t consciously write for an audience, but is always aware of “the first 20 pages” which is what a publisher will typically ask to see; she’s found a lot of positive feedback from librarians and, surprisingly (or maybe not) from gay men in their 20s. A sequel is not on her agenda, but she might include a line or two in a future novel – and it will have to be significantly future, since Ian only turns 11 in this book – to give some view into Ian’s adult life. To me, there’s no question, given that denouement scene, that he’s going to be fine.

Her advice to readers: read the good stuff, both classics and modern. Her influences include Chekhov, Gogol, Lorrie Moore, and Alice Munro. She sees the process of writing a novel as similar to painting a mural: if she’s close enough to work on it, she can’t see the whole thing, so she has to step back to make sure what she’s working on fits. This means taking a few days every once in a while to read through the whole thing from beginning to end and see what needs adjusting. The characters also need to be scaled up from short story size to maintain them over the course of a novel.

…It was still an effort, in this age of cheap flights and e-mail and long-distance phone calls, to imagine what it mean for my father and his brother to pack up and leave, to understand that everyone they’d ever known in twenty years of life they’d never meet again, that they’d either die in the sweaters they were wearing or live in them for the next three months, that they, who had spoken such beautiful Russian, would become awkward, accented foreigners. That their children would belong to some other place.

A new novel, The Happensack, is underway, a haunted house story told in reverse, and a story collection, Music for Wartime, is also in the works.

And about the Patriot Act: I was curious, so I checked with my own library to see if they’re of the “burn the records” school of thought or the “Big Brother Knows Best” contingent. I vaguely remember someone back when the Patriot Act was first passed telling me the library wasn’t going to turn over records, but I never knew (and didn’t care beyond the curiosity stage) if she was really in-the-know or just acting like a big-shot. Turns out, she was right: I got this response from the library director:

Portland Public Library does not retain the checkout history of any patron’s use of library items. We keep statistical counts and only keep the detail we consider necessary to our business purposes — who is the current patron who has an item or who was the last patron to have it in case there is something about the item that requires follow-up. Our public computer use relates a patron to a specific computer until the following morning but not what sites have been visited.

Nice to know. I never should’ve doubted them.

Rebecca Makkai – “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

"Gum Trees" by Steve Ingham, 2005

When Carlos asked why I would risk my whole career for Peter Torrelli, I told him he had to understand that in those last three years of high school, Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago.

So Drew starts his tale. He and Peter were best friends in high school, shared a phobia that they would be suddenly transported into the body of an actor or priest or musician or speaker and would have to figure a way out. They kissed once, and didn’t speak for two weeks after; sometimes intimacy is too hard to bear. Peter, extremely good-looking, became an actor because “the only way he could enjoy a play was from the inside.” Drew does publicity for NPR, and his partner Carlos has been leaving him in slow-motion at the time the story opens, with Peter Torrelli, falling apart.

Peter does this falling apart during a performance of Richard III when he forgets how to act in between two lines: “…I was some kid in eighth-grade English and I had to read my poem out loud. It was just me, and there was no character, no play, just these words I had to say. You know our whole thing about leapfrogging into someone else’s body? It was like that, but like I suddenly leapfrogged into myself.” I love this description, and I understand exactly what it means. What I don’t understand is why it happened at that moment, which would seem to me to add some meaning to the event.

Predictably, Peter’s career declines. Third-rate dinner theatre becomes a way of life. Then Drew, playing caretaker, offers Peter a job reading stories at an art exhibit. This seems to be a career risk for Drew, though I don’t quite see why. It isn’t a command performance, things always go wrong at events like this. And of course things do go wrong, and the story becomes unbearably beautiful. The art exhibit is wonderful, stories and poems inspired by paintings. Peter reads a story titled “The Gum Flies Away” to accompany a painting of a giant pack of gum hovering over the city. A dream about things leaving, notice of a landmark disappearing, things flying away all over the place. Things change. The gum flies away. And we get used to it, which is the saddest part of all.

Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story in BASS 2011. Rebecca Makkai’s Contributor Note is almost as good as the story:

When I started this story, I was at that point in my twenties when I realized that the adult world to which I had worked so hard to acclimate myself was in fact changing and disappearing…. two local icons, Marshall Field and the Berghoff, went up in smoke at around the same time (although the Berghoff has since reinvented and reopened), while the Art Institute hid its armor upstairs and put its crown jewel, Marc Chagall’s America Windows, in storage…I wanted to write about the metamorphosis of one person – someone around whom the narrator’s adult personality had grown like a vine – whose existential crisis would seem, to his friend, like a crumbling of the entire known world.
It should be noted that Rob Spillman of Tin House edited this story under the most heroic of circumstances. Shortly after his hand was badly injured when a water-filled light fixture fell on it, I emailed him to say (rather hormonally, I fear) that my c-section was scheduled in a week, and if he wanted anything changed, he’d better act fast. Between the two of us – he typing one-handed, I separated from my desk by an enormous belly – we managed to get it done.

There’s also a mourning for NPR (sigh), and a challenge to the Art Institute to put on an event something like the one Drew coordinates. And I am thinking of Painters, Players and Poets, the exhibition of Maine artists, poets, musicians and chairmakers. Not exactly the same thing (it wasn’t live, for one thing), but in that direction.

BASS 2010: Rebecca Makkai – “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

Jane Morris as Rossetti's Proserpine

This story originally appeared in Ploughshares 2009/2010.

In her afternotes, Rebecca Makkai says the origin of this tale was an idea to write a series of stories about English professors hoisted on their own petards, so to speak. I love that concept!

And I loved the story while I was reading it, and, like strip-mall Chinese take-out, for about an hour after. Then I started seeing some issues. Mainly, that the Ancient Mariner shot his Albatross on purpose, in a fit of spite, after the bird had been so helpful; thus he deserved his penance. Alex, the character here, shot her albatross purely by mistake. And bad luck? Where is that part of the Rime? An English professor should know better. Though I suppose it is clever enough, to have an accidental albatross shooting (a unique event, to be sure) become the beginning of a turn of bad luck, to loosely follow the story rather than stay true thematically. Am I picking nits?

Well, here’s another one. Her encounter with Eden Su is complex and interesting. I have to admire the multiple layers here. I’m a little bewildered by how the situation began, however. Why does she assume an Asian student is an exchange student from Korea? It seems bizarre to me. Maybe this university is a really popular place for Korean exchange students, but that wouldn’t be the first assumption on my list. The offense taken at her remarks seemed out of proportion as well, and turns out, it was. But… I’m still a little confused, because Eden was on track for a B and could’ve ended up with an A if she’d spoken out in class. Are we to presume her papers were not hers, and she hadn’t read anything the whole semester, so she couldn’t earn the A? Would she go to such great lengths to avoid a B? It doesn’t quite play for me.

The story is, by the way, chick lit. No man would feel any remorse about the albatross. A man would bribe someone to smuggle it out of Australia and have it stuffed and mounted on his living room wall, wings spanning the full six feet. Men do not worry about how their women see them. They don’t have to. Their women reassure them constantly, because men do not, um, function without such props. And no man would sit still for the Grievance Committee lashing.

Still, Alex does remedy all these things. She pays the fine for the albatross. She probably could’ve wept her way out of it, but more power to her, she didn’t. And eventually, with the help of Tossman (a wonderful character, sadly overlooked by me until the very end, which is impressive because that’s exactly what should have happened), she realizes it is not a curse, and deals with the other troubles in her life. She faces fiancé Malcolm and gets one of the sweetest reassurances I’ve read. Guys, next time your woman asks how she looks to you, draw a stick figure with wavy lines emanating from it, and tell her, “That’s your awesomeness.” Benefits will ensue, I promise. I was ready to do Malcolm after reading that and he isn’t even a real person. See? Chick lit.

Ah, Tossman, the man with the crush on the unattainable Alex, the man with the lucky cards. In another BASS story – “Safari” by Jennifer Egan – I was critical of a super-fast flash-forward that occurred at the end; it felt disjointed and tacked-on. I have no problem with this one; it flows smoothly from the story. And Bill Tossman had for me the opposite of the Chinese Food Effect: I wasn’t sure what he was doing in the story until I thought about it for a while. I’m still not sure I can articulate it – sure, he provides an axis on which Alex turns her luck around. And he provides the third option for her closing comments on her penitential telling of the story to friends later: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it, kill it, or at least fail to save it.” But you know what? Sometimes people have to make some effort to make themselves recognizable.

So Alex corrects her perceptions: the albatross was just an expensive accident, Malcolm thinks she’s beautiful, sometimes a quiet Asian student is a shark in disguise. While I was reading, I was charmed, so I’d call it successful. I’m not sure some of the details hold up to scrutiny, however. But hell, do you scrutinize your Kung Pao, or do you just enjoy it?