BASS 2017: T. C Boyle, “Are We Not Men” from The New Yorker, 11/7/16

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my even noticing, except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in, and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me. The seed had been pricey—a blend of Chewings fescue, Bahia, and zoysia incorporating a gene from a species of algae that allowed it to glow under the porch light at night—and, while it was both disease- and drought-resistant, it didn’t take well to foot traffic, especially four-footed traffic.

Complete story available online at online at TNY

I’ve gone back a few times to figure out when I first realized what was going on in this story; it wasn’t in the opening paragraph. Oh, sure, a cherry-red dog is odd, but it was a scene of chaos and confusion, so I expected it to be explained in a few paragraphs – he’d been covered in blood, or paint, or maraschino cherry juice for that matter, something. Or the speaker was on drugs. The grass didn’t really strike me either, since most lawn grasses are hybrids; maybe it was a little weird getting down to the gene level, but again, I chalked that up to the speaker’s point of view. What I wrote in the margin was simply, “Colors!”

It’s a credit to the story that it took me so long to realize this wasn’t stylistics or character, but genetic engineering via CRISPR-Cas9. I mean, I’ve taken moocs about this stuff. And Tim Blais at Acapella Science made one of his most spectacular videos on the subject (seriously, even if you’re not interested in genetic technology, his riff on “Mr. Sandman” is extraordinary, go take a peek). So for the introduction to smoothly dive into near-future speculation without a lot of heavy-handed exposition is a credit to the story. Or maybe I’m just dense, but I’d rather go the other way.

Once the setting is nailed down (and there’s plenty of heavy-handed exposition in the middle for those who haven’t been spending a lot of time in biomoocs) the story’s a tragicomic romance about a couple of neighbors bonding over the micropig killed by the cherry pit (the name the marketers came up with for the maraschino-red dog) and the out-of-lab procreation that results…. But screw that, my favorite part is the crowparrots.

(I don’t know if you have crowparrots in your neighborhood yet, but, believe me, they’re coming. They were the inspiration of one of the molecular embryologists at the university here, who thought that inserting genes from the common crow into the invasive parrot population would put an end to the parrots’ raids on our orchards and vineyards, by giving them a taste for garbage and carrion instead of fruit on the vine. The only problem was the noise factor—something in the mix seemed to have redoubled not only the volume but the fury of the birds’ calls, so that you needed earplugs if you wanted to enjoy pretty much any outdoor activity.)
Which was the case now. The birds were everywhere, cursing fluidly (“Bad bird! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”) and flapping their spangled wings in one another’s faces.

When you consider that parrots only repeat what they’ve heard often enough to learn it, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s all a terrific situational setup.

But… does the story go anywhere after it’s set up? You’ve got a guy caught between new and old – his wife impregnated with a custom embryo via CRISPR, the neighbor who he just impregnated the old-fashioned way – and a teenage girl as an onlooker. Just as the story finishes the exposition and is ready to really start, it ends with a hint that the new world is going to destroy itself, just as the dogcat destroys the crowparrot.

In his TNY interview with Deboran Treisman, Boyle commented at length about his concerns about CRISPR. It’s a valid concern. But I’m brought back to something Heidi Pitlor wrote in her Foreword: “…fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas”.

I’ve read stories that connected me with issues I’d never heard of, that drew me closer to issues I already cared about, and I’ve read stories that shaped my views on some things. George Saunders won my heart with his early anti-consumerism work. But this wasn’t one of those. It read to me like George Saunders on a bad day.

I loved Boyle’s Burrito story from Pushcart XLI. I mentioned then that I wondered if I’d been a little harsh on some of his stories in the past. I think it’s more the case that, for me, he’s hit or miss. That one was a hit; this one’s a miss. But obviously other people liked it. Or maybe they liked the issue.

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Pushcart XLI: T.C. Boyle, “The Five Pound Burrito” from Kenyon Review #37.6

He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously—and no shower but a drawn bath—he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo. The grease itself was worked up under his nails and into the folds of his skin, folds that hung looser and penetrated deeper now that he was no longer young….
And so it began: first, then the lunch rush, furious work in the hot, cramped kitchen, and all he could see was people’s mouths opening and closing and the great wads of beans and rice and marinated pork, chicken, and beef swelling their throats.

Stories, at least those using traditional narrative form, tend to start in the middle, the in media res technique hammered home by Creative Writing 101. Personally, I think it’s a tossup as to whether readers prefer it, or whether it’s simply that editors prefer it because they can more quickly decide whether or not to move on to the next of the thousand stories in the slush pile. Too gimmicky an opening line is cringe-inducing, but one that arouses curiosity about just what’s going on is the golden ticket.

This story starts not with events, but with an atmosphere, a characterization/setting so palpable you might have an impulse to wipe off your hands or dab at your mouth with a napkin. Nothing special is happening – at least, not for two pages, unless you count the waitress being late – but we know this guy by the time we’ve gone through those two pages. He’s tired. He’s depressed. He’s discouraged. He speaks with “a voice that was dying in his throat a little more each day as he groped toward old age.”

We really want something to happen for this guy. And, of course, it does.

When he saw the face in the tortilla that provided the foundation for the burrito he was just then constructing, he ignored it. It was nobody’s face, eyes, nose, cheek bones, brow, and it meant nothing except that he was exhausted, already exhausted, and he still had six and a half hours to go. And sure, he’d seen faces before – Mohammed, Buddha, Sandy Koufax once, but Jesus? Never. The woman over on Broadway had seen Jesus, exactly as he was in the shroud of Turin, only the shroud in this case was made of unleavened flour, lard, and water. He could have used Jesus himself, because that woman got rich and the lines for her place went around the whole city block. If only he had Jesus, he could hire somebody more competent – and dependable – than Sepideh and sit back and take a load off. That was what he was thinking as he smeared refritos over the face of the tortilla and piled up rice and meat and guacamole and crema, cheese, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, the works – and why not? – for yet another pair of footballers who were sitting there at the back table like statues come to life. Call it whimsy, or maybe revenge, but he mounted the ingredients up till the burrito was as big as a stuffed pillowcase. Let them complain about this one.
That was when he had his moment of inspiration, divine or otherwise. He would weigh it. Actually weigh it, and that would be his ammunition and his pride, too, the biggest burrito in town. If he didn’t have Jesus, at least he would have that.

It’s a paragraph that’s a lot of fun to read, but the elements also seem carefully chosen to me. The face in the tortilla doesn’t impress him. Is that because he’s a fact-based guy with little use for faith, or because all the romance and imagination and inspiration and hope have drained out of him down the grease trap? Any element of the supernatural is converted to practical benefits reaped by the woman over on Broadway. He just goes about his job, a little pissed off, and makes a super-huge burrito… in revenge? Sure, he’s sick of burritos – having seen them through his eyes for a few minutes, I’m pretty disgusted by them myself – but I doubt the college footballer who ordered it would think a five-pound burrito was a bad thing. And then inspiration finally arrives in the form of a marketing plan rather than the face of Jesus.

And we still don’t know his name.

Then the story gives us some white space, and restarts on a completely different note:

We each live our days in accumulation of milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years, and life is a half we must follow, invariably, until the end. Is there change, or hope of it? Yes, but change is wearing and bad for the nerves and almost always for the worse. So it was with Sal, the American-born son of Mexican immigrants who opened Salvador’s Café with a loan from his uncle James when he was still in his twenties, and now, nearly forty years later, saw his business take off like a rocket on the fuel of the five-Pound burrito.

This reads so much like a typical opening paragraph, I have to wonder if it was originally written that way. Maybe it was moved, maybe the prelude was added; in any case, I think it was a great move. I know so much more about Sal from smelling the onions, and now I’m curious about how he ended up where he is, so this doesn’t seem like exposition at all but fine touches on an almost-finished portrait. As well, something about this reminds me of a novel with a short introductory vignette followed by grounding material. I’ve often read longish stories that felt like novel excerpts, but it’s unusual to read a shortish story that feels like a novel – not a story that needs to be fleshed out as a novel, but as a complete work, just reduced in size. Even the language is expansive and full, rather than streamlined or minimal.

And if it seems like these large quotes, such a detailed discussion of the first four pages of a nine-page story would be a spoiler, trust me, it isn’t. If the first half was packed, the second half is more so: a five-pound burrito in a bite-sized form.

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of magical realism other than it pervades much of late 20th century Latin American literature. The most important thing I gather from poking around is that it involves something extraordinary among the plebian. That fits. There’s nothing more plebian than Sal. And as for the extraordinary… I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.

I could imagine any of several shapes for the second half of the story, and sure enough, it followed one of them with a few surprises along the way. Again, the elements seem carefully chosen, tailored to fit. I know I’ve been somewhat harsh on TC Boyle’s stories in the past, and I have to wonder if I should take another look at some of them, because not only was this one great fun to read, it was also effectively executed.

But it’s going to be a long time before I eat another burrito.

BASS 2014: T. C. Boyle, “Night of the Satellite” from The New Yorker, 4/15/13

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: "Installation"

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: “Installation”

What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 A.M. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. A small thing, really, but by this time it had grown out of all proportion and poisoned everything we said, as if we didn’t have enough problems already. Mallory was relentless. And I was feeling defensive and maybe more than a little paranoid. We were both drunk…. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
“You asshole,” she snarled.
“You’re the asshole,” I said.
“I hate you.”
“Ditto,” I said. “Ditto and square it.”

Ah, love.

I was considering this story at the same time I stumbled across a poem new to me on the discussion boards of the “Art of Poetry” MOOC: Billy Collins’ “Men in Space.” Then there’s #Gamergate as background music.

Don’t you just love it when things fall together like that?

Because this story (available online) isn’t so much about male-female power struggles, as it is about how men and women see the other sex’s power. Perception has caused more wars than reality has, I suspect.

It begins, not just in media res, but in media bellum – perhaps in media bella would be more accurate, since several wars rage over the course of the story: Mallory and the narrator, the couple on the road, dogs vs. sheep, man vs. satellite, civilization vs. gravity.

We then back up to a “before” snapshot and discover: “The day had begun peaceably enough…” But just look at the language:

I got up with a feeling that the world was a hospitable place…. Mallory was sitting up waiting for me, still in her nightgown but with her glasses on—boxy little black-framed things that looked like a pair of the generic reading glasses you find in the drugstore but were in fact ground to the optometrist’s specifications and which she wore as a kind of combative fashion statement.

Even the atmosphere is defensive: the weather is “…too hot, up in the nineties, and so humid the air hung on your shoulders like a flak jacket…”

And then they run into the silver Toyota, “stopped in our lane and facing the wrong direction.” Bring on the bella (and my apologies; my last Latin class was sometime in the 80s).

It’s an epiphany story. “If something from the sky tapped you on the shoulder, you might consider it an omen of some sort,” says Boyle in his TNY interview. And if, at the same time, if you’re watching another couple engage in the same path of mutually assured destruction you’re on, you might see yourself, and wonder why you’re on that path.

At first, I thought this was a continuation of the lives of the couple Boyle portrayed in “Birnam Wood” a couple of years ago. There’s the same sense of “why are these people together anyway?” and the same grad-student aimlessness (so many writers with graduate degrees seem to like this; makes me wonder why anyone bothers to go to grad school – or, if those who got in are trying to close the door behind them). Apparently he also used the things-falling-from-the-sky plot before as well: a meteor shows up in his 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. It’s kind of an interesting post-modern technique to mix-and-match pieces of other works into a collage of a new work, but I don’t get the impression that’s what he was doing. I almost which it had been.

TC Boyle: “Birnam Wood” from The New Yorker, 9/3/12

New Yorker art by Mikael Kennedy from the Series “Passport to Trespass”

New Yorker art by Mikael Kennedy from the Series “Passport to Trespass”

Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage. But it wasn’t a cottage. It was a shack, a converted chicken coop from a time long gone, and the landlord collected his rent in summer, then drained the pipes and shut the place down over the winter, so that everything in it froze to the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts

My first impression, after having read the story once, was that the first two pages – one-quarter of the story – should have been more like two paragraphs. Looking back on the reading, the “cottage” section seemed to me to have dragged on forever, and I only felt engaged in the story on page 3. But the more I tried writing a post explaining that – I had to keep adding little disclaimers like, “Well, he did do this” and “There is that” and the section I was complaining about shrunk from half the story to a third to quarter – the more I disagreed with myself. So what could I do but change my mind?

I think this is a story of structure, about the tendency people have to repeat their personal history (it’s available online so you can read it for yourself). The first part (the summer months in the cottage) and the second part (in Birnam Woods) work in tandem. Sometimes there’s a congruence, and sometimes an opposing symmetry instead. For example, Nora returns to Keith in the beginning of the first part; symmetrically, the relationship (presumably) fails in the second. It’s interesting that there’s a congruent element to this symmetricality: Keith is the agent of both the rekindling and the re-disintegrating of the couple. Is this self-destruction, hubris, or fate?

The Macbeth connection is also important, but at first a little fuzzy to me. In his online interview with Deborah Treisman, Boyle explains:

Birnam Wood could never come to Dunsinane—that is a physical impossibility—and so, presumably, all would be well with Macbeth. By the same token, in a place like the Birnam Wood of the story, a couple could never have any essential problems with their relationship.

I suppose that’s another example of symmetricality, though with a source outside the story – Birnam Wood doesn’t come to Keith, Keith goes to Birnam Wood, and there meets his match, though obviously in a less fatal way than Macbeth. Though it’s interesting any development would receive that name, there’s no reason Keith should see any personal significance in it, so I was a little dubious. But at the very end of the piece – Keith standing in the snow, watching the older couple (the future he’ll never have – “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” – through their window, feeling sick and guilty – I can imagine he’s feeling very much like Macbeth did when he realized Birnam Wood was, indeed, coming to him. So again – I disagreed with myself.

I’m still confused by exactly what happened in the bar that becomes Keith’s betrayal of Nora:

My feelings were complicated. I’d been drinking. And what I said next was inexcusable, I know that, and I didn’t mean it, not in any literal sense, not in the real world of twin beds and Persian carpets and all the rest, but what I was trying to convey here was that I wasn’t tied down—old lady—wasn’t a husband, not yet, anyway, and that all my potentialities were intact. “I don’t know,” I said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.” I took a sip of my drink, let out a long, withering sigh. “Sometimes I think she’s more trouble than she’s worth, know what I mean?”

Maybe I’ve known the wrong kinds of men, but it seems to me just about every man alive has said something like that at one point or another. Is it grounds for a fight? Sure. But the end of the relationship? I don’t get it. The real problem is that he said to the wrong person, and it comes back to haunt him when Steve shows up later that night at the house in Birnam Wood. But I really don’t see what the big deal is; it isn’t like he invited Steve over. I suppose there could be some kind of history that I’m just not picking up on. Am I tone-deaf here? Why does Nora see this as such a major betrayal? Why does Steve see it as the end of the good times? Or is he just so sure the good times won’t last, he latches onto this is a harbinger?

Why am I asking so many questions?

In his online interview with Deborah Treisman, Boyle says: “My job is to put you in the situation. Your job is to experience it.” To me, this sounds something like what Alice Munro said about her story, “Amundson“: “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure…” In his blog post on this story, Prof. May (on whose blog I discovered the quote about “Amundson”) seems to disagree. That’s okay; if I can disagree with myself, I’m not surprised I disagree with someone else. The story is clearly not Munro; it’s not Macbeth, either, but I think it works as Boyle.

Treisman raises another interesting issue in her interview with Boyle; she sees “something almost Biblical about this story” with Steve as the “serpent of temptation.” She admits she maybe overreading, and Boyle seems to agree that she is. But that’s okay, overreading is, like digression, one of my favorite hobbies.

T. C. Boyle – “Los Gigantes” from The New Yorker, 2/6/12

New Yorker illustration by Brian Cronin

New Yorker illustration by Brian Cronin

My legend grew. Of course, to be a legend, to attain that status, is to court attention. That was how they found me. And truly? I wish they never had.

Yeah, this one went by me. It’s a fine little story, there’s plenty of momentum, but there isn’t much to it. A fictional South American dictator is breeding an army of giants, and maybe another of tiny people. The men are treated well, the women are not. One of the giants escapes in Samsonian fashion and returns to his as-yet-unrecruited tiny wife…. So? If there’s a point, I don’t see it.

I’m seriously disappointed. I like TC Boyle. At least I thought I did. Maybe there’s something that I’m not grasping, but it seems almost cartoonish. The Book Bench interview is singularly uninformative (the interviewer seems to be desperately casting about for something interesting to talk about in connection with the story), except for mention of the paperback release of his novel When the Killing’s Done. Which gives me some conspiracy theories of my own. Fail.