Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A.L. Kennedy's "Wasps"

The vision of domestic motherhood in A.L. Kennedy’s “Wasps” is redolent of the former New Yorker writer John Cheever, except his hallucinations of patriarchal emancipation never expressed the misery or the loneliness of motherhood elucidated in “Wasps.” The story opens, like the mother’s morning, with the sound of two boys “thumping downstairs and straight out to the garden, Jimbo still wearing pajamas and Shawn in yesterday’s clothes, […] The first fight began as soon as they left the house: she has a memory of dozing through whole cycles of shouts and squealing.” This story’s mother drifts between asleep and awake, and her rambunctious boys, cascading down the stairs, penetrate even her dreams: “a place like a fishmonger’s shop, except all the fish in it were still alive –tethered by hooks through the bodies and heads, fluttering by the white tiled walls and hanging in strings of blood, staring at her while she kicked and wallowed.”

Except this morning is unique. The boys are bickering because “their Da was going away again,” and this is “how they dealt with it – the leaving – by giving each other reasons to cry and reasons to be angry.” The plot of "Wasps" is the chaos the father’s departure has on the boys and the mother, but its sympathies lay more with the mother than the boys. Often her sons – neither distinguishable from the other – have the petulant attitude of band mates. The mother says of them, “they were not speaking. Jimbo was tearful and Shawn brooding, each of them, she knew, on the verge of telling her how badly he’d been treated by the other.” Ray is leaving his boys as well as his wife, but the story knows he can’t totally abandon his sons the same way he can his wife. He's inside them. The mother alludes to this, saying “it occurred to her that [Shawn] would be an appalling teen-ager. Quite possibly Ray had been, too.” Another time she says, “the weight of an older brother’s responsibilities and trials hardened his jaw enough for him to look very much like his father.”

For the mother's sake, let’s hope they don’t become too much like him. Ray demeans his boys and his wife throughout the story. The night before his departure, for example, he tells his youngest son, “Well, Juggy, anyway – there would be no money to buy him if I didn’t go off and work. Your mother doesn’t earn any money. […] Your brother and you are both very expensive. […]Would you want to be a homeless boy with nothing?” The reader recognizes the cruelty of this transference: a boy being held responsible for his father’s departure. Ray does this again later in the story. He has overslept and tells his wife, “slept in. You should have woken me. I’ll be racing all the way now.” These moments of transference give a peak into Ray’s ability to remain blameless, which is important because the story suggests these supposed business trips admittedly involve other women. (This aspect of the story is never clear, likely because the reader - like the wife - never gets a straight story.) His damage, however, isn’t limited to the psychological. Right before leaving, the narrative shows him “play fighting, with easy strength in the thin forearms, wiry cunning. The boys squealed and he shook them more, going slightly too hard at it, the way he usually did, until their faces were still pleased but their eyes were very mildly afraid.”

At this point I had to stop. What the hell is going on? Last week’s story, this week’s story; neither presents a single redeemable quality in the male characters. Often Lit Up and I have agreed that male New Yorker authors have got kicks and giggles at the expense of the story's female characters, but both these authors aren’t giggling as they use these stories to kick these worthless men in the abdomen. This is where both stories fail for me. I know there are men with SOME positive qualities; therefore my sympathy for these female characters erodes. I ask: Why did they marry these assholes? Neither story offers any explanation. When the mother says, “I do believe that you still love me,” about Ray, the reader wants to roll the magazine and swat at her like swiping for wasps. What is she talking about? This guy hasn’t expressed any love for her or his children. He hits one of his boys with the door in the process of leaving and doesn’t break stride. No matter what this mother may think, her husband has nothing to do with Every Man. She has simply married a complete jerk.

Alas, similar to last week’s main character, this one feels paralyzed. So much so that her inaction has permeated the language to the extent that several sentences have no verbs. But, different from last week, this narrative uses the weather to express the turmoil the mother feels inside. The story’s third paragraph describes how “the house had grown disturbed – doors pestering at their frames whenever the weather drew breath, clatters on the roof, something twisting, searching overhead.” Later, “in the garden, wind was clawing at the flowers, breaking things; the trees wild with it beyond the fence.” And, finally the last image of the story provided some reprieve; I rejoiced as the weather punished the absent father/husband in a way I’d wanted the entire story: “it buffeted him, punched his tie against his face, slapped under his coat.”

This ending gave a minuscule of satisfaction to a story determined to illustrate the despair of domestication. (I am not making this stuff up people; these stories are filled with extremely unhappy people. One wonders if the writers aren’t guilty of a little transference.) I enjoyed the story , especially appreciating the intelligence of the writing and the willfulness of the vision. (The story made me want to send an email to female friends: your biological clocks may be ticking, marriage bells ringing, but those bells will turn to a deafening shrill, and children will mean the end of time.) But for the life of the New Yorker's fiction, I have to object to the domestication of the reader. Please, New Yorker, let’s take these stories outside for a change. The summer is almost over.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Antonya Nelson's Shauntrelle

The most elegantly hypnotic aspect of Shauntrelle is the setting. Never lifting to a bird’s eye view of the Texas town, the narrator’s observations show a Houston in transition: the wealth is spreading, the neighborhoods changing. This place, a limbo between poverty and wealth, is the new home of our recently divorced main character, Constance. Her first night at Laventura corporate housing, she looks “directly below, six floors down, [at] people waiting for a bus.” These cursing neighbors are part of the “empty businesses, their doors padlocked, […] while on the street loitered a fleet of people pushing grocery carts. This detritus, man-made, earth-grown, was a kind of moat surrounding the building proper, this modern fortress.” A castle surrounded by a wasteland is the narrator’s metaphor for gentrification, and the characters are aware of their tenuous residence. Constance’s new roommate, the renovating Fanny Mann, notes “the neighborhood’s gentrifying, but somebody forgot to tell the winos.”

The displacement of New Orleans – antithetical to gentrification – isn’t forgotten by the story, either. One night, Constance dreams of a town “with unsteady buildings teetering up its sides, a body of water lapping at its base.” And out of the detritus of New Orleans comes Fanny Mann. But, instead of suffering the alienation of dislocation, “she was taking advantage of the exodus to have her nose sculpted, her face vacuumed, her tummy tucked, her breasts bolstered, her neck tightened, her teeth veneered, and the spare skin around her eyes snipped away.” The story uses Fanny’s plastic surgery binge to literalize its metaphorical theme: transformation. Constance and Fanny Mann are both abandoned women – Constance from her daughter, husband, and lover; Fanny from her dying best friend – and the story illuminates the potential loneliness of their lives. They weather this coming storm, however, with different colored umbrellas. I want to say Fanny Mann is in the tradition of the elegant, bitter grandmothers of Faulkner’s Mississippi, but really she reminds me of the sad and swanky housewives of Dallas – a show Nancy Franklin’s television review mentions. We are told Fanny Mann “worked hard to make people laugh. Or at least smile, if only at her effort. It was Fanny Mann’s most appealing characteristic; she was a flirt, down to the makeup and heels.”

This is the opposite of Constance, a character as dry as Houston, she depresses the story. What is it about this woman that drove me to the brink? I didn’t understand how she could have partaken in an affair for five years and been unaware of her lover’s lack of interest in a relationship. People’s personality shifts can hit us like blindside blitzes, but her paralyzed desperateness made her voice stifling. My frustration reached its peak when Constance opened her computer, hoping “it would sparkle like a treasure chest, perched here on the windowsill of the living room. The screen would be radiant, flooding the dark apartment, and a hundred messages would await her. She longed for every single space to be filled with Kendal Kirkendoll.”

Truthfully, one wonders if Fanny Mann isn’t actually worse off. Despite her sanguine personality, Constance comes to see Fanny as a “person built of incongruous parts, her calves too fine for her feet, her neck too brief, her chest too broad.” The story may joke about this character’s quixotic belief in plastic surgery, but it reminds the reader this dream is Fanny’s fortress against the sadness gathering, spiraling, and waiting to destroy her castle. At the story’s end, Fanny tells Constance, “You visit and I’ll introduce you to my future sugar daddy’s unmarried son. I have the whole fantasy worked out!” This exchange stings the reader with its emptiness, because Fanny likely shared similar ones with her recently deceased best friend. These single older women, white and privileged, seem to be in an emotional limbo as well as a physical one. Beneath them is a crushing loneliness that haunts the characters and the story.

Like many New Yorker stories, this one uses a metaphor to imply the story’s theme. Constance is reading the book her daughter loaned her, and the narrator describes its plot as “two gay girls, runaways, [who] were making their living as prostitutes. One, Jo, was a heroin addict. The other, Deezy, merely drank. […] When they reconvened, after desperate nights, they wanted only to abuse their respective substances.” This novel's plot speaks directly to the situation of Constance and Fanny. They have come here together, both addicted to a drug called fantasy. Fanny dreams of a fairy tale husband as a reward for her desperate attempt to recreate her body, and Constance is waiting for a prince charming she knows isn’t coming.

Up till now, I have ignored the most mysterious device in the story: the several cases of mistaken identity. Two times Fanny Mann leaves Constance home alone, and a visitor comes to the apartment looking for its former residents. The first is a woman knocking on her door, asking for the Shauntrelle of the story’s title, next is a man calling, pretending to be downstairs, and yelling to see Gerald. The story is cluttered with these former patrons of the apartment: Ray, Shauntrelle, Gabrielle, Felicia; and these ghosts become the shared identities of Fanny and Constance. So much so, that at one point Constance calls Fanny, Felicia, and later Fanny does the same, mistaking Constance for Shauntrelle.

Yet, towards the end I wondered about Constance’s husband. Couldn’t she return to him? The reader is told he has too much pride, but doesn’t loneliness await men same as it does women. Constance remembers a time when Kendall, her lover, complimented her college aged daughter, and realizes, Kendall “was of an age, his mid-thirties, that had sexual rights on either side of it – to both mother’s and daughter’s generation.” This is important, because this story focuses on these two women gone with the wind, rain, and levees, but doesn't allow the reader or the characters any vision of a Clark Gable to save the two Scarletts up in the burning mansion.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Seven Stories

There’s no New Yorker magazine story to digest this week, so I have decided to discuss the relationship between the seven stories we have dissected here together. First though, I want to make sure all readers of this blog know they are very, very welcome to post comments. I don’t delete anyone’s comments, besides my own once, and I don’t mind if you disagree with me. I welcome all perspectives: hipsters, casual readers, rappers, player haters, anybody, even Vegetarians. The reason I started this blog is because I would often read New Yorker stories and want to share thoughts with someone. Sure, I have a few friends, but I wanted a wider discussion. Therefore, please comment.

A few different friends have asked me which of the seven stories so far is my favorite, and this is a hard question. With the exception of Homework, all these stories, in some way or another, bear the mark of great fiction. People often speak despairingly about The New Yorker’s fiction; however, I find the magazine’s stories offer some of the most interesting work around. So, my favorite story was a close contest between Saunders’ Puppy and Biller’s Mahogany Elephant, but my final choice would have to be Saunders’ Puppy. This story prompted my first post, and I remember reading it twice and feeling amazed by its language, its two main characters, and the way it subverted my expectations and associations. My post on this story has more than a few typos (as many do), and I hadn’t yet learned the narrowness of blog world, so my paragraphs are tyrannical, but I do think the story is worth readers’ attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was anthologized in the Best American Collection.

Also, friends have asked which post and discussion is my favorite. This is easy. The discussion of Wildwood was intense; with Yunior coming in to correct my assertions about the end of the story. Really, our different perspectives stemmed from the subtle line between the narrator and the writer. Often, the narrator makes decisions about how to describe a character’s emotions to make a point. I found the narrator’s description of the story’s last moment to be unsatisfactory, but Yunior argued the ending was suppose to be unsatisfactory, and hopeful, and elastic. Then, ended his last post with, “What I’m celebrating, if I’m celebrating anything at the end of that story, is that a VISION IS COMING! Which is my way of metaphorizing my belief that on its best days the world i inhabit and try to represent the life, never fails to keep offering us chances to awaken to ourselves.” Such a great, hopeful sentiment, it was worth repeating.

Speaking of comments, there have been some damn good ones. Sometimes, I feel like the comments outshine my posts, so they are worth their weight in.....megabytes? Particularly great ones are Lit Up’s response to “Homework”, Fitzcarraldo’s response to “1966,” and Pena’s response to “Wildwood.”

Now to what exists in common between these seven stories. I would say all of them deal with relationships, whether between siblings, parents and children, or lovers. They illuminate the struggle of relationships. Even the most functional pair in the batch, for example, Hester and Bartholomew, shield thoughts from one another. Bartholomew never tells his sister, the closes person to him in the world, how he has lost his faith; instead he sacrifices for her and finds religious ecstasy in her death.

Maybe sacrifice can be understood as one of the larger themes of all these stories. In If I Vanished, the main character has to sacrifice his girlfriend to grow and understand the importance of a question. Wildwood; the daughter’s desire for change, liberation, and freedom, come with the sacrifice of conformity, whether there is beauty in her potential for change or not, there is also tragedy in her false epiphany. Biller’s girlfriend has to make one of the most surprising and tragic sacrifices of the group: an unwanted one. She decides to sacrifice herself to a boyfriend, who no longer really cares for her. Her decision seems to stem from a desire for oblivion, similar to a gambler’s dingy, green-eyed desire to lose his money. Helen Simpson’s story is the exception. No one sacrifices anything in her story, except maybe the reader who loses his or her time. (I am kidding. The story wasn’t that bad; really it felt like the New Yorker’s editors failed to ask her to write a second draft…?) Back to sacrifices; in 1966, both brothers sacrifice their innocence (and possibly their lives) for the perverse, false machismo of war culture, a trap more harmful than any of the drugs taken in Jesus’ Son. And Saunders’ Puppy may have the funniest and most poetic sacrifice of all: an innocent little dog is killed so a wife can feel the intimacy of her husband’s fart-like wail, once again.

One could argue these stories taken together illuminate the sacrifices life demands from us all. I agree. So you all better give it up. New post, next week.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"If I Vanished" by Stuart Dybek

This story, If I Vanished, put in my mind the image of a pie graph. In red, twenty percent of the story is about the movie, Open Range; blue shades the thirty percent that focuses on Jack’s emotional response to abandonment by his former girlfriend, another twenty-five, cloaked in digital green, is an expression of cyber-space neurosis, and the last quarter of this dubious story is the white repetition of a conversation. Pretty confusing image, I agree, and a second read makes it less clear what holds all this data together.

Yet, the repeated conversation, like someone going through old diary entries and discovering a trivial detail predicted the outcome of a past relationship, does show a compelling change in Jack. The diary entry of the story is the remembrance of a conversation, during which Jack’s nomadic girlfriend divulges her desire to leave him. The first time she asks what if she vanished, Jack answers like a boy talking to his mother: “But there’s always a reason, or at least a context,” and proceeds to describe how the C.I.A or aliens must have her. He jokes about listening to her goodbye on his answering machine, or looking for her at the “Department of Missing Persons.” Soon, he is lecturing her on Westerns and Kevin Costner, getting the conversation so wrong, his girlfriend says, “in other words, you’d make fun of me.”

The surprising thing is he gets a second chance to get this conversation right. The girlfriend vanishes, and the reader sees Jack’s changed perspective through a remix of this conversation. He imagines telling her, “O.K., I’ll play. I’d ride to the ends of the earth, to the silver mountains of the moon. […] I’d follow your footprints across borax craters, ford molten rivers that parted like mercury.” This continues, and by the end he is searching through the C.I.A he earlier joked would have her, while also employing the help of a “hypnotist who specialized in negotiating the release of alien abductess.” These melodramas sound more desperate than humorous, and Jack returns to the line from the first conversation: “there’s always a why, or at least a context,” and reveals “You suddenly moved away in the middle of the night. Changed your unlisted phone number. Left no forwarding address so that mail was returned and e-mails disappeared into whatever graveyard file they go to.” Often memories become so heavy, one wants to return to them and try to lighten the load by saying the thing you wished you had said; this story provides Jack this opportunity, and he shows a transformation from cool sarcasm to desperate pleading.

What happens between these conversations, however, doesn’t have the same preciseness. The movie reviews, cyberspace obsessions, pornographic and drugged back-stories are plenty for the story’s hand, so the actual movie "Open Range" sticks out like an extra finger. I’ve imagined a short story using a movie as a conceit, but this one employs "Open Range" more as a diversion than a device. The most relevant connection between the movie and the story is a shared interest in “the war between free grazers and landowners.” Sure, the reader understands the girlfriend represents the free grazers, and the boyfriend is possessed by a virtual landscape, but "Open Range" has such a different tone than this emotional drama; actually it shuns emotions and prides in the campiness of nostalgic, tough guy, reticent morals. This isn’t the right movie for this story – maybe Tarintino’s "True Romance," with its mixture of sex and violence, would’ve worked better. The girlfriend of the story felt like Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in "Pulp Fiction", anyhow, and the car salesman ex-boyfriend reminded me of Sharon Stone’s Lester Diamond from "Casino". In addition, lines from Jack like “her face was so lovely to him that he hadn’t yet allowed himself to gaze at her with the full force of recognition. That was true of her nakedness, too; it dazzles him, and he found he could take it in only glimpses,” ring so false he sounds like Josh Hartnett’s character from "Wicker Park". (Or a dream stud in “Sex in the City,” such crap, too; in relationships, the more beautiful the girl, the more a guy looks. We, men, are consumers. We consume beauty like popcorn.)

Still, the movie reviews do help the story show the cyber-soaked, information overload of contemporary life; opinions so available the main character knows what to think about the movie before he sees it. All this criticism is a click away, and Jack’s compulsive search for the thoughts of others successfully overwhelms the reader. Also, the way the story uses the present tense camera to catch details like the “hygienically bright lighting” of Dunkin Doughnuts, and the quirky sadness of a computer asking “you sure you want to shut down,” is effective. But the back-story, presented in long, sweaty flashbacks, reminded me why movies are in the present tense. These flashbacks were unnerving and tediously incongruous. We are told Dom is a car salesman in upstate New York, for example, but Jack imagines her “along a familiar cobbled street, past the candy shop and their breakfast cafĂ©, […] to a Victorian house, where clothes of hers still hang in the closet of the ornate master bedroom, where on a velvet chair the photographs she asks him to delete were taken.” This isn’t upstate New York, it’s Westchester, maybe Maine. This velvet chair belongs to a college professor, not a used car salesman. And, Dom’s pleas to the girl sound like Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris": “[what’s] this horseshit about differences –as if they ever mattered to you with your clothes off. You’re most devious to yourself. Do you think you’ll ever be as intimate? If you leave, you’ll always be lying. We’ll be, for each other, an absence, like a phantom limb.” This moment of dialogue felt like a porno director trying to add emotional ‘drama!’ to his movie with 'a deep, dirty flashback', when the right money shot would’ve worked just fine.