Rivka Galchen: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” from TNY, 12/9/13

Most of the presenters at the conference in Key West were somewhat old, and the audience was very old, which was something J was accustomed to, being among people considerably older than herself, since it is the older people, generally, who have money, and who thus support the younger people, who have youth. Or something. The young have something to offer.
…J had invited not her gentle husband but her stepmother, Q, to join her.

Age is a character in this story, in spite of the fact that we’re never given the ages of the two main characters, J and Q. J is presumably somewhere in the 35-to-40 range or so, at the age where her stepmother Q figures children aren’t going to happen but J still hasn’t ruled that out. Q seems to be of an age where competence is becoming a concern – at least in J’s mind. I’ve always figured parents and children calculate age, and competence, using different measures, and that seems to be the case here.

J is worried about all manner of things concerning Q during this Key West writers’ meeting: is she going to stare at the author with the eyepatch; is she ill; has she lost all her money; is she living with the neighbor who’s now in the ICU, and if so, is it because she’s broke? As I read, I was reminded that how one person treats another can affect the outside observer’s impression of either, or both, people. Is the impression that Q’s history is deserving of such concern – or that J’s fears out of proportion? It might depend with whom you most identify, perhaps.

J’s mother died when she was a child, and her father just recently, so it’s not surprising she sees the world as an unstable, tricky place. This is played in all sorts of ways in the story: misread cues, uncertain situations, and, by the time we read the last lines, in the way she sees Q, who, in the end, may be the least unstable, least tricky person around.

J found herself in conversation with a woman whose mouth dragged left, perhaps from a stroke, or maybe it was just a thing….J realized that the host was the woman who had written a book called “Real Humans,” which J had for years been pretending to have read…
“You know what’s strange?” the woman asked.
“O.K. What’s strange?” J wondered where Q was.
“You’re going to go on living,” she said. “And I’m not going to go on living. I might go on for a while. I’m eighty-seven. But you’re going to continue into a future that I’m never going to see, and that I can’t even imagine. I mean, this cocktail party is just like one my parents might have thrown fifty years ago. But, in other ways, it’s a completely different world. I hear people on their cell phones saying, ‘Yes, I’m on the bus now. I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ Or, ‘I’m in the cereal aisle now.’ Well, that’s just so strange to me. I don’t find that normal. Do you find that normal? Do you do that tweeting? I know that I can’t follow. So I just don’t. But you’re just going forward into the future. You’ll go forward and forward, into it. And I won’t.”
“I’m here with my mom,” J said. “I better go check in with my mom.” J couldn’t ever recall ever having used that phrase out loud. It sounded almost like science fiction.

The party scene is both hilarious and heartbreaking; I suppose which depends on whether you’re 40 or 80, whether you’re there or a reader looking on. The house is full of more tricks and dangers in the form of steps – steps up into one room, down into another, and they’ve all been marked off with tape but a greeter (a greeter?) warns the guests to watch their step anyway. I realized as I read: my older sister’s house had a sunken living room with similar steps. Makes sense, in this context. My family of origin was full of booby traps.

Lots of comedic Chekhov’s Guns on the wall in this story, none of them fired; and I think that’s where it’s elevated so far above a routine movie script starring Meg Ryan and Shirley McLaine: no, no one trips over the steps. Q does not, in fact, stare at the guy with the eye patch, and J doesn’t blurt out “Q, this is Eye Patch” by mistake.” They’re not used as slapstick; they’re just textural details, and they’re great.

Like Gene Hackman; what does he have to do with all this? Turns out he was in the news, hit by a bus on day 1; J was pretty pessimistic about his chances – they guy is 81 (when did Gene Hackman turn 81?) and he was hit by a bus, for pete’s sake, you don’t have to be a pessimist to figure this isn’t going to end well. But Q, who is a lot closer to 81, has a clearer view of the road in this case, and we see who is the reliable narrator:

It was as if Q’s real secret wasn’t that she’d lost her home, or lost her money, or was secretly ill, but that she actually knew what she was doing. Or maybe she had lost her money and her home, and maybe she was ill, but she was able to handle it. All these partygoers seemed able to handle their lives.
“He was just scratched up a bit,” Norm’s lover said.
“Who was scratched up?”
“Gene Hackman. He wasn’t really hurt at all.”
“That’s what I thought,” Q said. “I thought he would be fine.”

There’s more Gene Hackman (UPI reported something like the accident in January 2012, though details differ if you google around about it – he was on a bike, a motorcycle, he was hit by a car, a pickup truck, a bus; in any event, he was indeed fine), but to me, it’s really about age and our attitudes towards the aging, and it has impact.

Galchen’s Page Turner interview indicates she used Roberto Bolano’s “Last Evenings on Earth” as a starting point for the narration (she calls it close 3rd person; it’s pretty intrusive at times). I haven’t read that story; I might read this one very differently if I had. In fact, I may do that; I’d be interested in seeing how Galchen (whose voice I admire very much, now that I’ve read three of her short fictions) turns what TNY archives describe as a story about “a Chilean father and son who vacation in Acapulco, visit a whorehouse bar, where the father angers people and they get into a fight.”

Yeah, I can see a story about an American daughter and stepmother at a Key West writers’ meeting who go to a party at an elderly science fiction writer’s house might come out of that. It’s all a matter of transposition. Some things are universal.

Rivka Galchen: “The Lost Order” from TNY, 1/7/13

TNY Art by Adam Stennett

TNY Art by Adam Stennett

I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened—I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me, on a visit, “I don’t recognize your legs”—I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to. I could be like those people who by trying to quit smoking or drinking manage to fit an accomplishment, or at least an attempt at an accomplishment, into every day. Just by aiming to not do something.

I was very happy to see another story by Rivka Galchen; I enjoyed last year’s “Appreciation” and was hoping to read more; turns out I liked this one even better. It’s available online.

She does something very interesting in this tale of mutual marital deception: she switches tenses. I was so into the story on first read – jumping ahead to the next image, the next phone call, the next phrase that perfectly summed up a marriage in which both spouses are denying something, the key moment when the issue is pressed and the pretense falls away – that I didn’t really notice. I frequently suffer from tense-deafness (my recaps in particular get jumbled up, quite by accident) unless I’m very focused on construction, so I’m not surprised I didn’t notice. And the edges of the shifts she does are sometimes blurred by recounting events of the past, or using either-tense words (like “read”). But still, I should’ve noticed. It’s not just a style fetish; it’s significant to the character of the narrator, as she explains in her Page-Turner interview:

She’s a bit of a magical thinker, the narrator, and she’s devoted to her own account of reality. When she speaks in the past tense, she can more easily maintain her account; she can edit out unwanted information pretty easily, and reclaim certain ignorances that are, in fact, no longer hers. Being “spacy” is her defense, and it’s a relatively effective one.
But certain situations—usually another person intruding on her solitude—startle her out of her perspective, and into the present tense. Then she’s no longer in control of the story, and she can’t really say with authority “how it was.”

I couldn’t get it to work quite as simply as that – isn’t there at least one reverie in present tense, about the UPS women’s pants? – but I love the idea. I love writers who really use language, all aspects of it. Like emphasizing what is not being done right off the top. What is not done, said, acknowledged, is far more important in this story than what is.

Our unemployed not-making-spaghetti narrator gets a call from a random wrong-number-dialer ordering Chinese food. I was so into this story already, I didn’t even worry about why the guy didn’t notice they didn’t answer the phone correctly or take his order in the usual way; I think I’d notice if I called a home instead of my go-to Chinese delivery place. Realistic details don’t seem to matter much here, and I went with that before I could even articulate “shaky grip on reality” as a foundation of the piece. The narrator promises prompt delivery, and even debates making Garlic Chicken (or was it Lemon Chicken?) for the man, but hasn’t written down his address.

This brings us back to her fantasy escapism. It’s how she copes with a lot of things, like being not employed, and oh, her husband’s wedding ring went missing for who knows how long before they happened to notice and “he got a little weird” about explaining it, but it isn’t like it matters, they aren’t into symbols, which is what someone who lives in Denial Fantasyland would do. It took me three weeks to notice my now-ex-husband’s ring was missing, and then he was pissed at me because it took me so long, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Though not really – Boo (narrator’s husband) gets pissed because she isn’t enthusiastic about looking for it in the courtyard where he’s sure it fell off due to an ice-cold water bottle he was holding, which beats any cock-and-bull story my ex ever tried to put over on me. And that’s saying quite a lot. Maybe that’s another reason I liked this story so much.

Through the argument she still maintains the fantasy:

Some people save their marriages—not that our marriage needs saving, not that it’s in danger, one can’t be seduced by the semantically empty loss of a ring, I remind myself—by having adventures together. We could pull a heist. Me and Boo. Boo and . . . well, we’d have some Bonnie-and-Clyde-type name, just between ourselves. We could heist a U.P.S. truck full of iPhones. On a rural delivery route. The guns wouldn’t need to be real, definitely not. We could then move to another country. An expensive and cold one where no one comes looking and where people leave their doors unlocked because wealth is distributed so equitably. This is not my kind of daydream, I think. This is not my sort of idyll at all. It is someone else’s idyll. I may be happy with that. I was never a Walter Mitty, though I always fell in love with and envied that type. But a Walter Mitty can’t be married to a Walter Mitty. There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household, that’s just how it goes.

I’m always interested in naming, and here, not only do we not get the narrator’s name, which happens sometimes in first-person narration, but she can’t even come up with a Bonnie-and-Clyde-type name for herself, this woman who’s so into fantasy. She’s so busy spinning wheels to run from the truth, she can’t be bothered to spin those not essential to her denial. I’m also very impressed with the graceful protesting-too-much about the ring being semantically empty.

There’s also some intrigue around the word “tender.” It’s an interesting word coming in three parts of speech and having several different meanings but all stemming back via French and Latin to the proto-Indo-European root of “ten-” meaning “to stretch” (to reference stretching the truth?). It’s used five times, mostly as a verb in the phrase “tender my resignation,” and her recollections of that word and phrase, but also as an adjective in describing her telephone argument (between Chinese food phone calls) with her husband over whether or not she should go out into the courtyard and look for the missing ring: “His voice has hairpin-turned to tender.” Notice, not “turned tender” but “to tender.” To tender his resignation, perhaps, in the argument, or, in the larger scheme of things, the marriage? Is this a place where her mind is tricking her, reminding her of that phrase, connecting it with her recollection of tendering her resignation, which becomes so crucial in the closing scene, when the other shoe falls and we find out Boo isn’t the only one pulling a fast one?

The title also reflects the woman’s unmooring in reality, and I began to wonder after I sat with this a while – is the husband real at all? Or is he a part of her own mind, reminding and accusing her? I’m not sure. I feel like there’s a lot more to this story than I realize, yet I very much enjoyed it, which perhaps means it’s leading me somewhere and I just haven’t quite arrived there yet.

I’m not going to spill the ending – other than to say I felt a shift in her (“A faint fleeting smile, in front of the firing squad”), a certain relief, a sharpening of focus even in her fantasizing state – I have to leave some impetus to read the story. Go ahead – it’s relatively short, and it’s very readable.

I’m really liking Rivka Galchen. In addition to a 2008 novel, she’s got about a dozen fiction and non-fiction pieces here and there; I’ve got a list, largely from and inspired by Paul Debrasky’s Rivka Galchen read from last year. So I’ve got a project. Coming soon to a blog page near this one.

Rivka Galchen: “Appreciation” from The New Yorker, 3/19/12

New Yorker art by Stephanie Pierce

New Yorker art by Stephanie Pierce

From 2007 to 2011, the daughter put $170,000 into savings, $25,000 went into a SEP-IR. A., $9,000 went into a Roth I. R. A., and the remainder was placed into a money-market fund. Other money went, as the mother might put it, into the hands of petty charlatans who didn’t make it into law or medical school and whose parents, with their valueless American values, never taught them anything, poor things, actually, poor things. Or it went, as others might put it, into the hands of venders of artisanal chocolates and ninety-dollar T-shirts.

Right off the bat, let me highly recommend the Book Bench interview Willing Davis conducts with author Rivka Galchen, in which the questions are as illuminating as the answers: “I really like how you’ve made a narrative out of disparate parts, the way elements rub up against each other to create a story. When you’re writing something that’s not a traditional narrative, how do you ensure that resonances will come through? More specifically, what gave you the confidence that the mother’s story of her real-estate brokering would juxtapose so nicely with the story to that point?”

I was intimidated by the first sentence of this story, packed as it is with financial data, but it soon transitioned, as you can see in the second paragraph quoted above, into more typical material. Still, it is a story of a mother-daughter relationship viewed through the lens of their financial experiences.

One moment that still sticks with me occurs after we learn how Mom has done a great job giving Daughter every opportunity to be in a position to buy artisanal chocolates and ninety-dollar T-shirts, and while Daughter has been thrifty and reasonable in most arenas (excepting those maternal hot-button issues like Daughter’s separation from her husband and her childlessness), she’s lost some perspective:

The daughter said, All you care about is money and weight, and you give me all this advice; but I’m thinner than you and I make more money than you.

It’s a very effective moment, though it requires the background of the story to appreciate it. I’ve never been a mother, but I’ve been a daughter, and while I laughed at Mom sometimes in this story, I felt guilty when I read the above line. I think I once said something similar to my father; I suspect most middle-class kids have said something similar to their parents, because that is, after all, the goal of parenting, to bring one’s kids to better circumstances than oneself, and thus, ironically, leave oneself open to their superiority. This jibes with Galchen’s intent: “I knew the story would only work if the mother was, on some deep level, the more appealing character. I hope that’s the way the story reads.” Yes, it is, though Mom has her comic catastrophes, particularly in a hellish encounter with Jenny Craig.

I enjoyed the voice in the beginning of the story; it seemed to peter out a bit as things went on. But it picks up again in a pitch-perfect last paragraph:

But you have to stop confusing things. That’s why you come to the wrong conclusions.Because you start in the wrong place. By then you’re not really even talking about what you’re talking about, the daughter went on, not really sure what she herself was talking about, and realizing that she had lost track of precisely what it was that she was trying to estimate justly, and why she had imagined that she could.

This brings me back to the opening Book Bench interview question by Willing Davidson: “This story hinges on a pun, or a duality—that ‘appreciation’ can be used in a financial as well as a kind of moral sense.” This story effectively juxtaposes and interweaves that duality; not perfectly, perhaps, but well.