Pushcart XLIII: Victor LaValle, “Spectral Evidence” from Ploughshares #43:2

“They think I’m a fraud.”
“They think I’m a fraud.”
I like to repeat this to myself in the mirror before I go out and do my job. It might seem weird to say something cruel right before I perform, but I thrive on self-doubt. If I go out there feeling too confident, then I don’t work as hard. It’s easy to get lazy in this trade but I take the job seriously. For instance, the word psychic does not appear anywhere in the window of my storefront. I never say it to my visitors. I call what I do “communication.”

Homer’s Odyssey, written several hundred years before the Golden Age we associate with classical Athens, gives us a glimpse into the beliefs about the Underworld at that time: although a few were selected for particular punishment or honor, most departed souls went to a grey place of little activity or interest, just a bunch of shades milling around. Then again, some people don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience this kind of meaninglessness.

Our narrator is a middle-aged psychic, or, as she prefers it, communicator with the dead, in New York City. She views her job as performance, which gives us the impression she doesn’t take it seriously. But as we get to know her better, we realize she now takes it very seriously: her own daughter Sonia committed suicide a year ago, and regularly calls to her across the divide with a single sentence: “It’s too dark in here.”

When a group of teenaged girls shows up at her shop, she’s a bit surprised, since most of her clients are far older. They ask silly questions. But it turns out Abby lost her mom six years earlier, and has a serious question: “Is there something… after all this?”, the question people have been asking since there were people. Our psychic isn’t really prepared for heavy-duty stuff like this; she’s all about the scarf and the delayed entrance and putting on a show, but she manages a little reassurance as Abby and her friends leave.

When, a week later, her father shows up, the psychic first thinks he’s trying to get her arrested for fraud. Turns out he, too, has something a lot more serious on his mind: Abby killed herself, and he’s trying to figure out why.

The parallels between the grieving parents are striking. They both fixate on a trinket left behind, some sentimental object that seems to symbolize the love that failed. For our psychic, it’s a broken wristwatch, the hands now lost (“time didn’t stop, it shattered”). For Dad, it’s a tiny keychain flashlight (“there’s a bit of fog on the inside of the protective glass, where the bulb is”). Both were gifts from parent to child. Both embody elements missing from the afterlife: time, and, if we believe Sonia’s voice, light.

My work changed after Sonia died. There is an afterlife and it’s worse than the world we live in. That’s what I know. I don’t understand why I kept the news to myself.
“It’s too dark in here.”
The kettle whistles in the other room but I can still hear my daughter. I suppose that will never stop. I make my tea, then I sit at the table and wait for visitors. From now on whoever comes to see me is going to hear the truth.

The turn of the story comes from the psychic’s recognition of the responsibility, rather than the entertainment value, of her occupation. Did her reassurance encourage Abby to join her mother? If she says the wrong thing, will Dad also die? Suddenly she’s no longer an entertainer; she’s got people’s lives in her hands. Now her scarf becomes another object that embodies emotion as she throws it in the trash.

In his post on the story, Jake Weber has a somewhat different view of the sentence the psychic keeps hearing, and of her plan to let people “hear the truth”.

But let’s change perspective on the story a bit. When I read a story where a dream, or a ghost, or a premonition, or any kind of supernatural force, I consider that it isn’t supernatural at all; all those things are generated by our neurons in our heads, or, in the case of fiction, the heads of the characters. They may be hallucinations, imaginings, subconscious perceptions of buried emotions, things of that nature. On both levels, it’s a story about the role of grief, but by making the voice calling “It’s too dark in here” part of the psychic’s natural mind, rather than something heard, it becomes something else. The afterlife becomes the life after for the survivors, and it is indeed different. The life after is indeed darker, a worse place, a place of self-recrimination and guilt and the constant “Why?”

And, since we’re dealing with fiction, we can step back a little further: it’s the mind of the writer, after all, who generated all of this.

I wonder if the Greek concept of the grey underworld of shades developed from the grey and aimless mourning of the bereaved in the wake of the death of loved ones, captured by tellers of tales and singers of mythical stories. Or perhaps from the grievings of the bards themselves.

Reading Matters: Public #Respect for Writers

I went to my Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore on Friday evening for a reading by Maine resident Eleanor Morse, author of the recently published White Dog Fell From the Sky. Typically, about 25 to 40 people attend these readings, and most show up at the last minute. The reading at 7pm was to be preceded by a half hour of what was billed as “Zimbabwean music” which could’ve meant anything from a recording to the Maine Marimba Ensemble (none of whom are Zimbabwean but they specialize in traditional and contemporary Zimbabwean music). I figured I’d listen to the music, snuggle into a corner seat out of the way of latecomers, and if the music was canned, I could always, ahem, find something to read.

It didn’t work out that way.

At 6:32 the main room of the store was jammed. Forget sitting – there was barely room to stand. The instrumentalist and vocalist were indeed playing and singing from the side room. I wandered back and thought I’d snagged a reasonable spot to stand.. but they kept coming, and coming, and coming… I ended up on the steps to the basement. I couldn’t see the table where the speaker would be, or the musicians, or, really, anything other than a wall of people in front of me. I had to leave; I was getting claustrophobic, and I wasn’t going to be able to see or hear anything from where I’d ended up.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I’m rejoicing! On this Friday night in January, in Maine, at least 100, perhaps 150 people came out to hear a 62-year-old female author talk about her novel set in Botswana during South Africa’s Apartheid. It helped that Oprah listed it as a Must-Read for January 2013. It helped, of course, that she’s a local (she’s from Peak’s Island, and the store owner said the latest ferry had deposited half of the island’s winter residents in time for the event). And I suppose it helped that we’re in our January Thaw and it was well above freezing. But still, the enthusiasm of that attendance, the mellow intensity in that store, more than compensated for any disappointment I felt at missing the talk.

This is good news.

Skip to Saturday morning, with me working on calculus (yes, I’m taking yet another math course) and half-listening to UP with Chris Hayes, part of the weekend-morning liberal porn block on MSNBC. I could’ve sworn I heard him say George Saunders would be at the table next, which, of course, would be silly; UP features political, economic, and social policy wonks, activists, commentators, and academics, not fiction writers, not even fiction writers known for their anti-consumerism viewpoints.

But it was indeed George Saunders, whose recently-published collection Tenth of December includes several terrific stories I’ve read from TNY and BASS, like the great title story, the truly astonishing “Semplica Girl Diaries” and the heartbreaking “Home.”

But it wasn’t just George Sanders. It was also Ayana Mathis, whose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie I started last week. And Victor Lavalle, who I’m not familiar with (but perhaps I should be; The Devil in Silver looks interesting), and Michael Chabon whose name I seem to have been mispronouncing all along.

Four literary fiction writers. On a political commentary show? Yes – discussing President Obama’s political narrative, multiple voices, a foot in two worlds… politics and literary theory collide.

It’s all available online [addendum; no, it isn’t, just one segment is still available here] in four six-minute segments. Yes, it is political. Yes, everyone there likes Barack Obama. Yes, there are some places they could’ve gone, maybe should’ve gone, but didn’t. But the storytellers are gathered around the Pastry Plate (which is so popular to viewers, it has its own Twitter account with 2000+ followers; no, not me, I have enough trouble following people, let alone carbohydrates) to talk about storytelling, and they do.

Some highlights:

Section introduction (Chris Hayes):

Perhaps more than any other national political feature in recent memory, Barack Obama has used speeches and big rhetorical set pieces to define his character, tell his story, and propel actual political events….
Given Barack Obama’s remarkable gift in storytelling and the impending second act of the drama of his presidency, we thought it would be enlightening to invite some genuine experts in storytelling to give their thoughts on the narrative President Obama is creating.

George Saunders:

What he’s really doing is saying to the listener, ‘I trust you deeply. I’m going to be as honest as I can, I’m going to tell you the weirdest marginal truths, and because you’re as smart as I am, you’re going to lean forward.’ In fiction that’s an important principle, to assume the best of your reader, don’t puppeteer, don’t condescend.

Ayana Mathis:

It is this question of creating a narrative of yourself… and it is a combination of public perception and his own perception of himself.

Victor Lavalle:

People who are drawn to fiction are asking the writer, “Do a good enough job to help me become invested in someone else for a time, so I can see our common humanity, our common pain, our common everything, and maybe come out of here with the sense that I’m not the only one feeling this loneliness, this sadness…” that’s part of the pact of writing fiction vs nonfiction.

Chris reads a quote from the January 2010 Junot Diaz TNY essay, which may have inspired this whole angle; even Flannery Connor gets a quick mention as an aside.

Then there’s the usual closer of the show, “Now We Know,” a report of something each guest has learned this week. Mathis talks about her discovery of the use of a blossoming pear tree in two disparate works, Saunders comments on the value of humor thanks to some galley proofs he read, Lavalle bemoans the poor quality of bootleg DVDs, and Chabon worries about this giant thing scientists just discovered floating around out there in the universe, a cluster of quasars so huge it can’t possibly exist. It was the most fun Now We Know segment in a long time. That’s what happens when you talk to writers.

Two public displays of affection for books and writers: What a great start to the weekend.