Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Why "low-maintenance" girls aren't: Kristen Iskandrian's "Good with Boys"

In a traditional narrative cycle, a character will come in with a certain perspective of the world, have that perspective tested, face a climax of the test in which some modification to the original perspective happens, and then the story ends with the character in a new place. There are all kinds of variations on this cycle. In a happy ending, the protagonist's change allows her to finally overcome the thing that is challenging her original worldview. Alternately, the character can completely fail the test, sinking backwards in life or staying static instead of improving.

There are also varieties of scale with epiphanies. There are massive realizations that lead to epic results. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor realizes he has a power inside him he hasn't tapped into, and it leads to victory in a battle that destroys a world. In Emma Cline's "Los Angeles," worlds aren't shaken, but the main character, Alice, has a pretty rude shock that is likely to change her attitudes about life quite profoundly and suddenly.

And then there are the tiny little epiphanies, the ones that more closely mirror how learning and getting better actually happens in the real world. Most people have one or two truly profound moments of self-realization in life, the kind that lead to abrupt U-turns where you never go back. The rest of life is slow and gradual change, sometimes in a good direction and sometimes in a bad one. If you have more changes in the good direction than the bad one, you're winning.

Jill is winning, but slowly 

While we're all in this process of gradual change, we are capable of holding contradictory ideas. That's because we're still partly in an old mode of being while changing to the new one. We can do this even if we are capable of identifying our ideas as self-contradictory. That's where Jill is in Kristen Iskandrian's "Good with Boys." Jill isn't a hot girl. She's not going to win attention from boys off her looks. Jill craves this attention even while she is ashamed of it: "I loved boys so much, it was a sickness, it was a secret. I had to pretend I didn't love them as much as I actually did. I didn't want to be boy crazy. Once boy craziness became your signifier you couldn't be taken seriously as an artist." (Her art fantasies seem no more realistic than her romantic ones, but she's a kid and allowed to dream.)

Jill develops a strategy of trying to corner a niche market in the boy hunting game. She decides to become what you might call a "low maintenance chick" or a girl who is "one of the boys." Jill describes her attraction like this: "I was zany, I really went for it, I knew all the good dick jokes. Everyone talks about personality like it's a bad thing but the fact is without one, you've got nowhere to go but ugly." She is trying to be what the other girls are not, but in the process, she's also being what she isn't.

She has studied boys in an attempt to infiltrate them, to sneak past their defenses and get them to notice her. Jill isn't without success, and she does have some insight into the male mind, although even her insight is full of questionable conclusions:

I was good with boys because I knew what they wanted. I could enter the simple machines of their minds and see how their gears turned. Most of them needed a lot of oil. To be told, a lot, how correct their opinions were, because most of them believed that opinions were like facts--provable and true. Thinking something, for a boy, meant not-thinking all other things. When two even vaguely conflicting ideas rubbed together, they either quickly chose one and discarded the other, or abandoned them both for a new and better topic...
She sees boys as the opposite of her own, riven mind. To her, they overcome self-doubt by smashing whatever doubts they might have. It never occurs to her, in spite of her own pretensions she is putting forth, that the boys might also be acting, might be suffering as many internal struggles with opposing ideas as she is.

I'm sure there will readers who highlight that passage and think it's meant as a straightforward critique of men, but to some extent, that would be like saying Robert Frost posited that good fences make good neighbors. These are words from an unreliable narrator, beguiling because much of the passage is true, but sometimes true for the wrong reasons. In any event, practically speaking, the effect of Jill's belief is that when she carries it out, it's not going to have the effect she wants. She even seems to have an understanding that her strategy is flawed, admitting she occupied for boys "a genderless place where I neither quickened the blood like the obvious girls, nor inspired the bravado often necessary around other boys." She is safe for them to be themselves. Which, of course, means they do not see her in the way she wants to be seen.

Jill would be a good character on this show

Jill's contradictions

Jill's self-contradictory logic gets toppled during an overnight trip with her school to a science museum. She is interested in a boy named Esau Abraham, whose mother, inconveniently, is chaperoning the trip. Even more inconveniently, she is a stereotypical Jewish mother, hawking over her son's every move. Jill actually has to stop watching Esau as his mother puts hand-sanitizer on him, because it's a turn-off for her.

Jill's main contradiction is that she is trying to be casual, but it's impossible to be casual when she really wants something so badly. She has tried to imbibe a Zen sense of not wanting from her aunt, who tried to tell her that the ideal state was one of neutrality. But she is, as the kids would say, thirsty AF. Her plotting is obvious to Esau's mother, and also to the other girls, one of whom tells her, "Could you be any more obvious?" Jill even realizes that neutrality is probably a pipe dream--she notes that the aunt who preached it to her was a QVC addict--but she strives for it anyway.

Another of Jill's contradictions is that she can see the hypocrisy of other girls, but not in herself. This is partly because she necessarily sees the other girls as competition. During an earlier class trip, she saw a girl use a cheap ploy to get next to a boy Jill had been plotting to get close to. She was offended by it, but also admired the girl for using it. From that day, she decided that "If you wanted a boy's attention, you had to get it. You had to take it." Her first move at the museum is to try to stake out a sleeping spot away from the other girls and near Esau.

She is quick to see other girls as silly or false. When Caroline protests too much about being offended by a boy's idle threat to do a panty raid that night, Jill mentally derides her: "Caroline definitely wanted her underwear to be stolen. I could see right through her. I didn't like this kind of game-playing. I didn't like silliness, the silliness so often ascribed to our sex. I was constantly trying to get out from under it."

She thinks she is direct, when she's actually being quite coy in some ways (like not telling Esau she likes him). She thinks she is hiding her true intentions when she isn't hiding them from anyone who knows how the game is played. She thinks she's neutral, when she's entirely too emotionally invested. She thinks she's got a grown-up understanding of the true meaning of middle school, but she's the most middle school girl in middle school.

She's a victim of her own worst impulses, meanwhile thinking she's outsmarted them. She is wise enough to realize Esau is probably just a passing phase, yet she still imagines a complicated future for her and Esau. She tells herself she's "good with boys" when she isn't. (The two bawdy jokes she tries to tell to prove how she can think like a boy are both flops.) She tells herself she's a favorite of mothers and grandmothers, but the only mother who sees her in the story is immediately wise to her ploys.

And yet, she's going to be okay

The reason Esau's mother is on to Jill so fast is because Jill is trying something a lot of women try. Jill is actually kind of precocious to be experimenting with being a guy's girl at such a young age. Other women don't try it until they are adults, at which point they get locked into it and end up in romantic disaster land for much of the prime of their adult lives. Jill is finding out now the limitations of this approach. She will refine her ideas and move on to something new, something where she can be more authentically herself. Something better, if only better by inches.

Jill realizes she is on the wrong path when her plot with Esau fails. It turns out Esau is more into his friend than he is into her. The mother embarrasses her. When Jill's epiphany happens, it's quiet. She doesn't even realize it's an epiphany, because it comes to her as a question:

What was this broken mirror inside of me, that showed me I was ugly, showed me I was wrong, but persisted in its reflection that I was better than other people? Could low self-esteem loop all the way around and become narcissism? 

Yes, Jill, I think you answered your own question. Nicely done. While Emma Cline's "Los Angeles" was about giving yourself too much slack as a young person to make bad decisions, "Good with Boys" is about the right kind of mistakes, the inevitable learning curve of growing up. I've been watching Netflix's "Big Mouth" recently, which is entirely about the awfulness of adolescence. One of the major themes of the show is how much kids going through it want to know that they're normal. Jill is normal. In fact, she's ahead of normal.

The story ends with a sweet little denouement. Like Jill, I was dreading the release of the butterflies, because I thought it would be a little too sweet. But it isn't. Jill leans on Sarah, "whose tallness usually got on my nerves." Jill is learning that other women are not her enemy. She longer has to occupy space away from them. She can get close to them. She expects a lecture on butterflies, but "the three men merely counted to three and unlatched the doors, and all of us were made to forget for a second, as wings filled the air, what was hurting."

Jill is going to be okay, even if she doesn't know it yet.

Monday, October 15, 2018

BASS 2018 finally hits an off note: "Everything is Far from Here" by Cristina Henriquez

Back when I started blogging my way through the 2018 Best American Short Stories anthology, I was thinking I'd be doing at least a few scathing reviews. But for the first nine stories, I had to stretch pretty far to find anything at all to object to. There were none I really disliked, and at least three I thought were brilliant. Nearly halfway through the anthology, I was worried I was sounding like a shill, and that my integrity as a reviewer would be in question.

Finally, on the anthology's tenth story, I got one I don't like, but I absolutely do not have the heart to go much into why. How do I dump on a story about an immigrant who's been through hell, when the story is based on the real lives of so many people? Nothing in me wants to criticize this story.

And yet, it doesn't really work for me. I think it just didn't do anything that hasn't already been done. (Says the writer who has published his own stories about  the harrowing journeys of migrants.) It's telling us a story we kind of already know, and I don't feel like what's new about it is significant enough to make much of a difference. It's not going to change the minds of the people who carry signs that say "Illegal is a crime" or "Send them back with birth control," as Henriquez's story has it. And the people likely to find the unnamed main character sympathetic are already sympathetic to those running from hell to hell.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote what I think is the greatest book on World War II, the book that comes closest to expressing the insanity that engulfed the human race (Slaughter-House Five). But it took him decades to do it. It was the first book he tried to write, but he kept failing at it. He didn't get it right until he'd had time to distance himself from the events and many other novels to learn from. I think this short story hits me like what Vonnegut's early failures must have been like. I'm sure Vonnegut's failure was still excellent, because it's Vonnegut. Henriquez's story isn't bad. It just isn't really new ground. It isn't the story that really nails the essence of the border on big and small levels. I feel like both the New Yorker, who published it to begin with, and the BASS anthology chose it because it seems like immigration and the border ought to appear SOMEWHERE in American literature about now. They're too important to be absent, it seems. But this just isn't the powerful story they seem to feel it is. I saw this movie twenty-five years ago. The political landscape has changed since then, but the human drama is pretty similar. It was awful then and it's awful now.

That's all the criticism I have the heart to offer, which makes this a pretty weak review. Something just feels wrong about shitting on a story about this topic. Even though I didn't feel like it hit it in the sweet spot, any attempt to get readers to connect with the human side of the border seems like it's worth trying. Criticizing this story too much feels like telling the neighbor who brought you lasagna when your dog died that it needed more oregano.

Quick note for students: I know that a lot of the folks who read these reviews are students who get assigned these stories for class. Be careful when reading this story. The main character is separated from her son, but this story was written before the current policy of arresting and trying illegal immigrants as criminals--the one that has led to widespread separation of children from their parents--began. That policy began in spring 2018. This story was written in 2016 or 2017 and published in 2017. The separation in the story happened because the coyote (the person hired to bring the migrants into the U.S.) split up the women from the men and children. It can be very difficult to get an unbiased view of what the government is actually doing, but this write-up by factcheck.org seems about as impartial as you're likely to get.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Someone wrote a sweet coming of age story and I'm just thinking about eating tacos: Jacob Guajardo's "What Got into Us"

It's no accident, I think, that this story came where it did in order of publication in the 2018 Best American Short Stories anthology. It's just after "Come on, Silver" by Ann Glaviano, which has to do with the confusing messages young women get concerning sexuality. Guajardo's story is about two homosexual boys dealing with equally confusing messages about their sexuality coming from society and from their own bodies.

It's a pretty simple story. Delmar and Rio, both named for the water, are growing up in a Michigan tourist town along the lake. It's a small town most of the year, then overrun during the summer. Delmar and Rio live like brothers, with their mothers, both named Maria, living together in one bedroom while Delmar and Rio share a bed in the other. The Marias aren't a lesbian couple; they are just close friends who have joined forces to raise kids and own a house they couldn't otherwise afford. The mothers run a taqueria together. Meanwhile, the boys roam freely along the beach during the summer.

Their freedom while their mothers are working gives the boys a chance to explore their feelings for each other. The opening scene has them trying on their mothers' dresses. Delmar, the tougher of the two, whom the narrator Rio thought of as "the bravest person he knew when he was fourteen," feels it's important to try to become like a woman, because if he and Rio are sexually attracted to one another as men, then that means they are gay. The most difficult part for the boys about growing up is that on the one hand, evidence of who they are is all around them, but at the same time, they are trying not to see who they are: "I have not said out loud what I am but I think about it all the time."

Being gay would put the boys in a category they call "monsters," which for them is "anything we cannot explain that June." They make occasional attempts to resist what they feel, but their attraction overwhelms them. The strongest part of the story is its believable treatment of the powerful onrush of a first love.

After that we are fucking everywhere. We are naked when our mothers are at work in the taco stand. We fumble around in the darkness for each other, like moths to the only light in a room. Our sex life will never again be as exciting as when we are fourteen and sharing a bed. 

But it doesn't last. The boys are reckless as they sneak off everywhere to have sex. Eventually, they get caught sneaking into an unoccupied summer home. The owner who comes back unexpectedly finds them en flagrante delicto, a fact that gets back to their mothers. The mothers separate the boys from then on, each sleeping in a bed with his own mother.

The boys grow up. Rio plays baseball, flunks out of college and comes back to work at the taqueria. Delmar goes off to college and does well. When he comes home, he finds that Rio has "become the kind of brave that says yes to everything," and he ends up in rehab for a heroin addiction. Delmar, however, eventually manages to find a saner love and marries a man with whom he can raise a family.

The tragedy of the story is that although Delmar thought Rio was the bravest boy he knew, that only extended to the exploration of their sexuality when they were teens. Rio is brave about trying things, but not brave about facing up to who he really is. When it comes to facing up to who he is, Delmar is the braver one. He's the one who at least tries to bring home a husband to meet the Marias. He at least tries to explain to them who he is and what he needs his life to be. Rio may have been brave enough to face the monster on the shore of Lake Michigan when they find a dead moose, but Delmar was the one able to look back at "what got into us" and answer the question. This is the truer form of bravery, and the one that enables Delmar to find happiness that eludes Rio.

Personal notes on the writing

There are some really nice evocative, sensual lines in the story. The spell only broke for me on three occasions, all of which are a little picayune.

First, when the boys are caught in one of the vacation homes and the police officer ends up taking them home, we read that "the cop had been able to speak Spanish and had told our mothers what we'd been doing." But the story had already told us that the Marias speak English: "They are childhood friends--immigrant daughters who grew up translating for their mothers and fathers." When the boys ask about their fathers, the mothers answer in English. It's English with a mistaken turn of phrase in it, but it's serviceable English. They could have understood what they boys had been doing even if the cop didn't speak English.

Secondly, one of the Marias goes away to Mexico for the entire month of July. While she is gone, Delmar's mother "spends July harvesting the garden in our backyard." I don't understand how two mothers on an apparently rather fixed income, an income that seems to mostly depend on selling tacos to tourists during a short tourist season, can afford to do this. Surely, running the taco stand during the busiest part of the season would have required both mothers? And if not, if only one was running it, surely she wouldn't have had time to focus on gardening throughout that month after she got done at the taco stand?

Finally, and this really is a small nitpick here, there is a sentence near the end of the story where Delmar has to tell his fiancee about his past with Rio: "I will have to explain that night on the drive home about Rio and I." The correct grammar there, of course, would call for "Rio and me," since they are the thing he is talking about, the grammatical object. You could try to explain this by saying Delmar is himself a kid who grew up in a mixed-language house, so he has his own little mistakes that bleed into his English. But that's really the only mistake like that I saw him make in the story. It felt to me like that was just something the editors missed. It's small of course. I probably make a more egregious mistake than that in every blog post I put out. But in something that I assume was edited as heavily as this story was, I'm surprised nobody caught it. Which would mean that maybe it's there intentionally, but if so, I can't understand why.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am getting crushed by the patriarchy: Ann Glaviano's "Come on, Silver"

We've had a couple of entries so far in the 2018 Best American Short Stories anthology that, although acknowledging that society can present people with obstacles, still held people accountable for their actions. Danielle Evans's "Boys Go to Jupiter" and Emma Cline's "Los Angeles" both presented us with lead characters who had problems that were to some extent not of their own making, but who both needed to make changes in order to "stop making it worse."

The question over whether society is to blame for the bad actions of people or they are responsible for their own bad actions is one of the longest running threads in our current cultural divide. It's also a false dichotomy. The sum of our lives is a mix of social forces we cannot control and individual choices we can, but to varying degrees. It's important to emphasize controlling what we can. It's also important to call out those social forces that put obstacles in our way. Getting too focused on one or the other is an imbalanced way to approach the problem of how to make humans improve. Too much focus on the problem of individual responsibility becomes hypocritical at some point, asking people to overcome more than is reasonable, but focusing too much on the responsibility society bears for individual action can deaden individuals to their own agency for improving themselves.

Glaviano's "Come on, Silver," brings balance to the anthology by focusing on the social failures, rather than the individual ones, that impede human happiness and fulfillment. When Josephine, who prefers to be called "Fin," goes off to a summer camp that's sort of like a week-long finishing school, you'd think that would be the perfect example of the belief that by making ourselves better, we can actively control our fate. She is there for no less a reason than to learn "what it means to be a woman."

She is sent to camp because her grandmother caught Josephine playing with Barbie dolls, but playing with them in a sexually explicit way: "On this particular day, Ken and Skipper were naked, and Ken had tied Skipper up with a broken necklace that my grandmother had given me from her junk drawer." She is both too childish and too grown up to stay home during the summer, and she needs some kind of education. This won't be the last time that symbols of childhood innocence are mixed up for Fin with an awakening sexual curiosity. Her obsession with horses--that most quintessentially girlish of obsessions, at least in popular imagination--quickly gets turned into an interest in Andrew, the counselor who teaches the girls to ride horses. Fin describes Andrew at one point as looking like a Ken doll, as well, meaning she has associated him with both ponies and dolls.

There might be something more immediately identifiable with little girls than ponies and dolls, but I don't know what it is.

Manners camp or sex-ed? 

The camp, which is supposed to be about teaching girls to be women, seems to focus a lot on sexuality. The only requirement to attend the camp seems to be that the girls have to have had their first period. But it's never clear what the camp teaches about sex. It's surrounded by rituals meant to frighten them, but not to enlighten them. And that's the whole paradox that these young women are confronted with. The camp's motto is dignae et provisae iucundae, which Google Translate renders, unhelpfully, as "worthy and provided enjoyable." Fortunately, I have a Ph.D. friend with the correct expertise to help with this, but he came away confused by it as well. His take: "if it's a girls' camp, then maybe 'worthy and pleasing;' I wouldn't know what to do with provis- which means 'foreseen.'"

It's a motto, then, with no apparent meaning, although whatever meaning there is seems to be self-contradictory, especially when thought of in a sexual context. Dignified would suggest sexual restraint, but pleasing, of course, connotes sexual license. Even Fin, at the end of the story, is asking what it means, meaning the girls have been repeating a motto three times before each meal without knowing what it means. 

There is a scene that I found hilarious, although maybe I was supposed to be horrified by it. Fin sneaks out at night to try to ride her horse faster than she is allowed to do during the day. Andrew, who is obviously into Fin sexually because of her large breasts, takes her for a bareback ride that is such an obvious metaphor of a woman's first sexual intercourse, I have to imagine the writer was giggling while putting it together. It's all rather over-the-top, but in a good way. It starts with Andrew convincing her to ride bareback: "'Plus it's natural,' he said. 'Think about it.'" That's how teen pregnancies happen, Andrew.

When they get down to it, it's pretty bad:

I sat in front and his arms around me and his thighs pinning me and my back slamming against his chest and my butt slamming against the horse and all of it hurt....And Andrew rocking and grunting behind me. Finally it ended...'Did you feel anything?' he asked." 

The nighttime horse ride ends with a rude good-bye from Andrew, which is why I'm not sure I was supposed to find the whole thing funny. Fin says her butt hurts, and he tells her to grow up. "You got just what you wanted," he tells her. There was a rape allusion earlier, and while it doesn't seem to me that this was a metaphorical rape, I don't think Fin realized what she was getting into, either.

Sisters turn against each other

When the escapade with the horse is over, Fin finds she is the target of some private joke among the other girls. There is a song Fin's friend plays on her flute, a Christmas song about a hooker. (Anyone know what this is? I have no idea. Is this a red herring?) The song suddenly seems to be directed at Fin. A note is pinned to the door of the dining hall that Fin didn't write but that has her name signed to it, asking Andrew to touch her breasts. The real irony, Fin notes, is that she is being accused of having wanted to have sex, but she "had failed, in fact, to like or want these things."

In fact, Fin realizes, she is damned no matter what attitude she takes toward sex. "I was supposed to want, and not to want, simultaneously. Those were the rules. There was no winning. I would fail either way." It's the same unwinnable paradox she faces on the first day of camp. "My mother says it's rude to keep someone waiting. She also says that I am an impatient girl." As one camper says of the "sisterhood" they are all trying to get into at camp, "the secret of the sisterhood is that there is no secret." Indeed.

At the end, Fin is forced to prove she is the paragon of womanhood by swimming across the lake, even though her large breasts make swimming difficult for her. At this point, I found her preferred "Fin" moniker meaningful in two ways: We are both at the "Fin" or end of the story, and also the girl who can't swim is named "Fin."

Personal notes on the writing

This is the kind of story that appeals to me. It's easy to read on a basic level, and then, when you read it a little closer, it rewards a reasonable amount of effort by putting the thematic gold in a place where it's just the right amount of work to get to it.

I was a little surprised by the vehicle of the story. It's an epistolary story, written in letters by Fin to her future husband. She's assigned this task by her counselor, a woman the campers call "Beaver." Beaver immediately criticizes Fin for the letters she's writing, so Fin starts to write fake letters for Beaver to see and the real ones in a hidden notebook.

A story in letters is an old technique, but I wouldn't say it's worn-out. (I was amused to read Glaviano say in the contributor notes that she has "hated epistolary novels her whole life.") There are so many things you can do with it, I don't think it'll ever go away. But when Fin has to switch to a secret notebook, that presents certain logistical problems in the story and also certain suspension-of-disbelief issues. Fin has to keep checking on the notebook, and we have to imagine she has time for the long and secret dalliance of these letters every day without anyone noticing she's been gone. The story ends with Fin somehow sticking the notebook into the empty wrapper of a sanitary pad, which she then stuffs into her underwear. I guess that act was meant to show that the notebook would survive her eventual dip in the lake because it was wrapped in plastic. Or did she put it in her underwear in her trunk, not the underwear she was wearing? Either way, it's a thing the author has to account for, in order for us to be reading the contents of the notebook. But these little things weren't enough to take away from enjoying the story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Confederacy of Mermaid Matriarchs: Carolyn Ferrell's "A History of China"

It's really nice when a story smacks you in the face with what it's telling you. I'm talking about lines like "She was having fun, wasn't she?" as in Emma Cline's "Los Angeles." Lines you can highlight with confidence, knowing those are the breadcrumbs that will lead you to the heart of the meaning of the story.

Then, there are the stories like "A History of China," where I start to follow half a dozen different trails, only to have them all lead me into a brier patch. If I hadn't committed to blogging my way through Best American Short Stories this year, this is the kind of story where I'd finish reading it, think "Huh" to myself, and move on to the next one. But committing to critiquing something means committing to being a good reader, even with a story that asks a lot of you.

I don't think I'm going to be able to get to the mother lode of meaning on this story, but maybe I can trace some of the excavations I did looking for it.

The simplified plot

Sasha Jean is at a family reunion in North Carolina. Her father, the black sheep of the family, has died, and Sasha Jean feels it is on her to let the family know. Before dying, Sasha Jean's father willed the 37 acres of North Carolina land where the reunion is taking place to Sasha Jean. He'd swindled the matriarch of the family, Elldine, out of it before she died. In the father's will, he told Sasha Jean to bulldoze the entire land and build something new on it. The family suspects Sasha Jean's father had tried to do this, but don't know he succeeded. They're still looking for this black sheep to come back home so they can forgive but not forget. Sasha Jean can't bring herself to tell them about her father's death or the will.

A giant-ass family tree

I tried to sketch out the family as it's given to us in this story, but I failed. I think great-aunts are being calls "aunts," which made a mess of all my branches. We are told that Sasha Jean's father, Bobby Lee, had only one sister, Vitrine, but then the story goes on to name several other "aunts" of Sasha Jean. They definitely aren't coming from her mother's side, so I don't know where they're coming from.

More immediately to Sasha Jean, besides her father, black sheep Bobby Lee, there is her mother, a post-WWII German girl the father met while stationed in Germany in the Army. The mother, Elspeth, came to the U.S. after running away from her mother, stealing the dishes meant for her wedding day. When Elspeth comes to the U.S., she lives with Bobby Lee in the house of his mother, Barbara.

A janky timeline

One of the things that frustrated my attempt to crack this story open was a timeline I couldn't get to make sense. I don't think these are plot holes, but I did have a hard time with placing the times in this story. The reunion is happening some time after 1997, although it's not clear how long after 1997. Elspeth came to live with Bobby Lee five months after getting a letter from him in April 1961. However, the second day she is in Bobby Lee's mother's house, she sees a photo of MLK on the wall with the words "I have been to the mountaintop." I realize MLK probably used that allusion before 1968, but would it have been that closely associated with him before then?

More confusingly, it is also 1961 when Bobby Lee and Elspeth are talking to a real estate agent about buying a house on Long Island. And Bobby Lee is rocking little baby Sasha Jean while they're looking at the house. But that's impossible, because Elspeth just came to New York in late 1961.

How old is Sasha Jean at the reunion? At least 36. She might be pregnant. How old is she when she might be pregnant? Over 40?

Elspeth is old enough to remember World War II. So,  let's say was born in 1935. Then, she'd have been four when Germany invaded Poland and ten when the war ended. Old enough to remember a lot of it. But then she'd have been 26 when she came to Long Island, and she seemed much younger than that.

I don't believe this carefully written story has plot holes. Maybe I made mistakes not realizing we had jumped from one time to another in the story, although handy little lines usually clued the reader in that a break in time was coming. But if they're not mistakes, then how do I read these things?

Some of the false paths I went down

So here are some of the ways I tried to peel back the onion on this story and didn't quite have it work out:

1. The family's old land is a relic that needs to go. Bobby Lee was a not a good person. When everyone realizes Elspeth is in New York to marry him, they all worry that he won't be able to settle down. The family cites an entire page of grudges against him. Easily worst of all, he sexually molests Sasha Jean when she is ten.

The plot of land where the reunion takes place is reminiscent of an old-South plantation. It's got a big, old, crumbling house and seven ramshackle trailers on it. At least one family seems to have lived in one of those trailers. Sasha Jean frequently associates the land at the reunion with slavery. She muses that she will eat "slave food" at the reunion. Sasha Jean has sewed her father's will into her dress, "sort of like the way slaves traveled with their papers." Sasha Jean remembers her father encouraging her to remember slave history in school. Finally, in the final dream-like pages of the story, in which Sasha Jean and her closest cousins will continue to stay on the land:

...even with the brays and hollers of the slave women in these woods, their feet smashing snakes, their arms tattered by thorned vines, their minds agape with the babies they could not afford to carry. The slave women are deafening, the slave women are worse than ghosts. You wonder if your parents are trapped here with the slave women. Would they torture your parents like ghosts in a cheap horror flick? Would that make you feel any better?

As flawed as Bobby Lee was, maybe he was on to something. Maybe there was a reason he left North Carolina and never came back. Maybe knocking the the plantation down is a good thing, and needed so everyone else can start over again, too. Although the rituals of the family carried over from slave days were useful for surviving slavery, they make less and less sense the further from slavery we move in time.

But does that make sense? The cousins closest to Sasha Jean, the ones most forward-thinking, seem to be a little mixed on the notion of what to do with the house. Although Kate, the white girlfriend of cousin Monique, agrees with tearing it down (and then immediately says she loves it), Monique vows defiance: "If Bobby Lee (who she doesn't know is dead) intends to take back Grandma Elldine's house, he's got another thing coming. Family is family. We got our own ideas."

2. It's about matriarchy and the power of women. The men are hardly named in this story. Bobby Lee gets a big role, and cousin Stanley comes in to get his pills stolen, but mostly, we don't know who the men are. All the old men are just "the uncles." In the dream-like sequence at the end, the four friends all turn into mermaids (known to lure male sailors to their death) as they swim in the pond in the woods full of slave ghosts. Sasha Jean might be pregnant, but we hear nary a word about who the father might be.

Does that make sense? It's an incomplete takeover of the system by the women, if it's supposed to be about the power of women. When Sasha Jean sees her fellow mermaids, they seem strangely "bloodless," meaning they've failed to kill any men. Monique's rebellion against the men amounts to nothing more than low-level vandalism. Elspeth fails to take Sasha Jean away from her molesting father. And there is rebellion within the matriarchy: Elspeth's entire reason for leaving Germany seems to have had been largely fueled by revenge for her mother.

3. It's about being syncretic and absorbing the best of other cultures in order to keep yours healthy and vibrant: The family immediately takes to Elspeth when she arrives from Germany. And she turns out to be good for them. Cousin Meggie calls Elspeth the best mother ever, and credits Elspeth with saving her life. When Meggie was living in poverty and neglect (I think in a trailer on the land where the reunion takes place), Elspeth confronted Meggie's mother to make her take care of Meggie. "Your mama saw, Sasha Jean. And she said something. And at that point, my mama had no choice but to look at me."

There are children in the family with names suggesting influence from many cultures: Juan, Cleopatra, Johann, Clotilda.

The whole name of the story is about "China," but not the country. It's about China the dishes. Elspeth brought dishes with her from Germany, but later was gifted others and then bought an expensive set the day after she learned her child had been abused. So the title is a clue that the story has something to do with bringing new things from other cultures into the mix.

Does that make sense? Elspeth also comes across as menacing, like a rich tourist walking through the third world to find poor children to help. She is also described as a "queen," suggesting she is something like the lady of the manor come down to the slave quarters. And all three sets of dishes have negative connotations to them.

Ultimately, I can't really make any way of reading this story stick. Here are a few other random bits I don't know how to parse:

-The name Bobby Lee. Sasha Jean's dad is named for the guy nearly synonymous with the old south. What's the significance of this?

-The story ends not with Sasha Jean, but with her mother on the day after she moves to America. Elspeth is thinking that her mother will now be finding out that not only did her daughter run off, but that she took the dishes. She imagines her mother's face, "disappointed and yearning at the same time. Not at all the right punishment for the crime."

What does this mean? Whose punishment are we talking about? It could mean the mother's crime, the one that made Elspeth run off. Elspeth remembers the mother refusing to help Jews just out of the concentration camps, pretending not to know they were starving. It would be consistent with Elspeth's character to consider not helping someone in need a crime. In this sense, maybe Elspeth thinks the mother's punishment is too light. But Elspeth has also committed a crime in running off with the dishes. Her punishment, that of raising children with what she now sees "Bob" to be, seems too severe.

People often describe stories like this as "haunting." I think that's code for "I didn't understand it, but I kept thinking about it, trying to make sense of it." I might describe how I feel right now as more hungover than haunted. I need a day off before I read the next story.

Personal notes on the writing

Nearly all stories are a little disorienting at first. Starting en media res is good for drawing a reader in, but it's also a struggle for the reader. The stories in this anthology so far have been more disorienting at the opening than most, I've felt. "A History of China" came at me right off the bat with a lot of names to keep straight.

It's always such a struggle for me to write openings that won't immediately get me thrown off the island. I'm scared of challenging slush pile readers too much, most of whom I know don't read beyond the first few pages. I tend to baby them. But these stories don't. I think this kind of confidence, this kind of trust in your reader, can only come from success. Right now, I don't trust myself, much less the reader, because I keep sending in work I like and seeing it come back rejected. Maybe writing something that trusts the reader like these stories do is something to strive for, because it will mean I trust my own writing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

This is all your fault. This is not your fault at all. Danielle Evans's "Boys Go to Jupiter"

I've been reading Best American Short Stories since the 2013 edition, according to my Kindle. In those six years, this is the first year I've felt awed by the output of American fiction. Most years, I read what's there, find one or two to be really amazing, but mostly wonder why I don't feel knocked down by the stories the way I did back when I first started reading stories seriously as an adult. It made me feel like American letters had peaked sometime in the past, and the most anyone could accomplish now was an echo of a better age.

So far, this year's BASS is, in fact, knocking me down, and Danielle Evans's "Boys Go to Jupiter" is just another story that's got me crumpled on the floor. 

The set-up, which takes very little time

I love a story that gets right to the conflict, and this one gives us nearly a straight line to it. Claire is down in Florida from college in Vermont to see her father and the woman he married after Claire's mother died. Claire hates her stepmom and, because the stepmom's name is Puppy, the readers are invited to hate her, too. Claire is dating a dirt bag while down there to annoy Puppy, and the dirt bag gives her a Confederate-flag-themed bikini, which she wears partly because she doesn't own another swimsuit and partly because it annoys Puppy. Quite without a plan, the dirt bag takes a quick pic of her in the bikini against his pickup truck and posts it to his social media, tagging Claire. 

The next day, a black student in the same dormitory as Claire re-posts the picture to her own social media, expressing anger that a student in her own dorm would wear something like that. Add 8 million tons of slacktivist, online righteous anger, and Claire is in the middle of a psycho-billy freakout social media shit storm.

Claire in the docket

Last year, when my son's class read "Lamb to the Slaughter" in language arts, the class had a mock trial to determine whether the woman should be guilty for killing her husband. It was kind of corny, but it might actually work really well for this story. Is Claire guilty? If so, of what? There are two ways to look at what happens to Claire and what her responsibility is.

Claire is just misunderstood and we should sympathize with her

At the heart of this story is its strong-willed pro/ant agonist, Claire. It's hard not to like Claire. We sympathize with her for the same reason a lot of people sympathize with the Confederacy: as Americans, we have a natural respect for people who don't want to be told what to do. "Don't tread on me" has a lot of instinctive currency for us. That's Claire in a nutshell. Her reaction to finding out the photo of herself in the bikini is going viral isn't, as one would expect, to rush to make explanations for herself. She has a couple of avenues open to her. She could go the route a lot of white people do when something like this happens. She could say, "But I can't be racist, I have black friends." It's not an approach that usually works out well, but in Claire's case, she might plausibly gain some traction from it. She could also go the route suggested by the campus Libertarian who comes to visit her: she could say she's just proud of her heritage (although her heritage isn't really Southern, as only she seems to notice).

Claire doesn't initially want to take either of these routes. Her instinct is defiance for all of it: "She distrusts collective anger; Claire's anger has always been her own." The funny thing is that the girl who wore the rebel flag bikini is, in a sense, right. Much of the bluster surrounding the incident is utterly false. She sees it for what it is, and rather than cower to it, she's ready to give it the finger. It's hard not to root for her.

As people continue to throw accusations at her, Claire tries to keep her own sense of self. What stood out about the bikini for Claire from the beginning was its distance from her, how it made her feel like someone other than herself. Those are actually the opening lines of the story: "The bikini isn't even Claire's thing." When she puts it on, she feels "hot," but also "like someone she's not." When white supremacists contact her to voice their support, she rejects a link between them. Their "thinking they are the same doesn't make them the same." Claire is determined not to be defined by the bikini.

Claire is a wonderfully stubborn girl. It's very much in her nature to refuse help offered to her. She's certainly not going to apologize when she doesn't think she's done anything wrong. And in a sense, she hasn't. She wore the bikini to piss off her step-mom, which makes it doubly difficult for Claire to understand the "aggrieved reaction" of her black hallmate, since the step-mom, Claire thinks, "is half-racist anyway." She sees this as "doubly hilarious."

I feel about Claire the way I feel about America; I really love her, I'd just like her to be a little less of herself sometimes. 

And it is, in a sense. One could read this story as one long series of tragicomic misunderstandings. (One of the best parts of this story is that Claire doesn't fall in with white supremacists who come to her aid; she falls in with Libertarians who are more obnoxious than they are dangerous. When Claire sees one at her door, she thinks that he smiles "like he's just won second place.") If we were to trace the events of this story back to their roots, we could say that it all started when Claire's mother got sick with cancer. We could say Claire had no control over most of the main events in the story.

Until her mother got sick, Claire seemed headed for happiness. She certainly didn't seem like a candidate for most likely to invoke the wrath of the Black Student Union. Although she was raised in a home where she felt a little frightened of herself, there were always Angela and Aaron next door. These are the black friends Claire didn't cite as proof she's not a racist, although she could have. They had an uncommonly tight friendship, one that's described in terms that are exactly the right amount of sweet. Just before everything goes to shit, Angela and Claire get drunk at camp together and are dreaming of the future. They are in the grass, and Claire turns to Angela: "It is a love that requires touch, and so Claire snuggles against her, nuzzles into her neck to say it out loud against her. Love love love. Angela is her best friend, her other self."

But then both Angela and Claire's moms get cancer at almost the same time. For a while, it just makes Angela and Claire closer, and Claire also becomes closer with Aaron, the brother who used to just be a target for Claire and Angela to torment. She has sex with Aaron once, although to her it doesn't mean they're falling in love but just finding a new level of intimacy in their friendship. But then Angela's mom survives and Claire's doesn't. Claire resents Angela and Aaron for still having a mother.

From there, the series of unfortunate events goes something like this: Claire's dad gets married again almost right away to someone Claire hates; Claire self-destructs; Claire goes to a party trying to get drunk and taken advantage of; Aaron tries to take her home to keep her safe; another person at the party sees a "large black man" carrying passed-out Claire to her car and rooting around in her purse for the keys and misunderstands; this leads to a car chase that kills Aaron; Nobody believes Claire when she tries to say Aaron wasn't doing anything wrong; Claire loses the friendship of Angela; Claire goes off to school in Vermont hating everyone and pretty much using "don't tread on me" as her one operative principle; which leads to wearing the bikini to piss off Puppy and setting off the whole firestorm.

In a sense, although it's a long chain of events, Claire isn't the one responsible for them.

Counterpoint: Claire has done terrible things and we should hold her accountable

About that night with Aaron, though. Claire's mom had been dead for four months, and Claire was still angry with Angela about it. She hadn't been talking to her friend, which made coping with a bad situation far worse. When Aaron finds her at the party, he can see she's headed for something bad: "You're messed up right now, I get that, but at some point you're going to have to stop making it worse."

Instead of getting her shit together, though, Claire dives headlong into "making it worse." Only it's Aaron, trying to help her, who bears the brunt of her actions.

In fact, it's Claire's own solipsistic view of her suffering that is the proximate cause of a lot of the suffering in the story. While it's easy to admire Claire's independence and her keen nose for bullshit, there's a telling little line early on that clues us in to her tragic flaw. When she realizes that the black girl in her dorm has objected to a "hallmate" of hers (Claire) wearing the rebel bikini, Claire is her sarcastic self: "she wasn't really aware that hallmate was a thing, a relationship carrying some expectation of trust of camaraderie."

It's a funny line, and it's easy to see Claire's side of it, but she's missing something. As sympathetic as we might be in America to "don't tread on me" kinds of thinking, living in society means that at times, you really have to allow others to tread on you. You have to modify your own choices for the sake of others. The libertarians might be right that at the heart of it, Claire has a right to flaunt the Confederate flag all she wants, but that's missing the point. The point is that there are people in society who will be aggrieved--hurt, offended, scared even--by Claire's actions, and Claire can't be so anti-social as to pretend that's got nothing to do with her.

As a matter of fact, Claire seems utterly surprised to realize that her actions have real consequences for others. When Carmen, the black "hallmate" who has objected to Claire's choice in bikinis, gets interviewed, "there is genuine fear in her eyes, which startles Claire." The entire outcry over the photo, in fact, is a mystery to Claire. Because she can't see what started the uproar in the first place, she doubles and then triples down in disastrous ways, first slipping a printed-out Confederate flag under Carmen's door with the note "Hope you had a nice vacation," and then posting the flag to her dorm window.

One thing that's a little bit ambiguous is how much she is to blame for what happened to Aaron. We can probably forgive her for the accident. In a different world, a young black man in Virginia wouldn't feel he had to floor it to get away from a car full of white kids pursuing him. But also in a different world, a good young man wouldn't have to carry a drunk girl away from a party to keep bad things from happening to her. So Claire can't really be blamed for the accident itself, even if her self-destructive behavior was part of what put Aaron at risk.

But she might have some responsibility for how the media viewed the accident. Most people seem to have sided with the boys who chased Aaron down and assumed Aaron was up to no good. Claire tried to clear it up:

Claire tells the reporter Aaron was a friend, that she was drunk and he was taking her home, but the bones of that story don't convince anyone it wasn't all, at best, a tragic misunderstanding; at worst, a danger she didn't see coming. Claire tells the reporter some innocuous nice thing about (the boy who chased Aaron down), and the paper calls him one of her best friends, after which she stops trying to explain.

The media can be incredibly obtuse. It's why Claire doesn't trust them when Bikinigate breaks. She has also learned that the reactions of the public are false. When Aaron died, "the people who give him the benefit of the doubt mostly feel themselves to be magnanimous." Claire is right about how full of bullshit the media and the people who get themselves in an uproar about it are, but she is wrong to give up trying to get her message across. The public might not get it right, but the people involved still needed to hear the truth from her.

The right amount of tension

Writers sometimes suffer from readers getting the wrong message from what writers create. I'm sure there will be readers who think the point of "Boys Go to Jupiter" has something to do with how full of shit the media is when stories take off, or how phony the fake righteousness of those who hop on the indignation bandwagon is. Danielle Evans has almost certainly been at a reading somewhere where a reader came up and said her story was a great farce about the hypocrisies of social media storms. That's an element of the story, but it's not all of what it's about.

I know a lot of white people who complain that Black Lives Matter (or any person they perceive as linked to BLM because that person is stating that life isn't equal in this here republic) is just "blaming white people for everything." This story ought to satisfy people with that particular complaint. The white person in it who starts all the mess isn't a bad person. In fact, she's pretty likable. This is better than just saying, "Not all white people are bad." It actually gives us a fully realized white person who's a lot better than just not bad. But she still makes mistakes she needs to correct.

I don't like when we talk about "balance" between opposing points of view. Balance suggests that there is some point of stasis between forces that are in opposition. It implies that each are equal in some way, and we could ideally reach a place where the two cease to oppose each other, a place where all the kinetic energy is gone. That's not usually the case in the real world that two things are really equally balanced. Just because Claire is really a pretty great character doesn't mean she doesn't have some serious moral defects to amend. Her good and her bad are in tension with each other, just as the reasons for us to forgive her and condemn her are in tension. The story doesn't offer us a point where we can harmonize the two; it offers us forces that continually push against one another.

That's why the ending is perfect. Claire, coached by the Libertarians, is all set to give a big speech at the end in defense of herself. But the black students in attendance get up and leave. They leave comment cards that are blank. She might have something to say, but they've got nothing to say to her. She's been shunned, which is far worse than a hate storm. It means she's lost her chance to have a voice.

Whichever way you view Claire's arc, whether she's a sympathetic victim or a self-deceiving antagonist who lacks empathy for others, the end works. If she's the victim, then at the end, she is denied the chance to tell her whole story, the one with Angela and Aaron in it, the one that will clear everything up and maybe bring some healing. If she's the antagonist, then she's denied the chance to offer her own self-justification because she doesn't deserve that chance.

The two forces are opposed, but not equal. The story is called "Boys Go to Jupiter," which was a child's chant Angela and Claire said as kids to harass Aaron: "Girls go to college to get more knowledge; boys go to Jupiter and get more stupider." Claire's had a lot of chances in the pages of the story to have her say, but the title goes to Aaron, who had a story of his own he never gets to tell.

It's interesting to me that Aaron tells her she is "making it worse." That's the same line the creepy man tells Alice at the end of "Los Angeles," the fourth story in this anthology. The two stories have a lot in common in what they have to say. It's okay to be messed up. There are plenty of things the world can do to you to make you that way. But at some point, you have to accept responsibility to stop making them worse.

Will Claire stop making it worse? Depends on which force she decides to get behind and push with after the story is over. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

When the past is better dealt with in the present: Alicia Elliott's "Unearth"

This is one of the shortest entries in this year's Best American Short Stories anthology, and my critique of it is going to be short, as well. I've rushed to get it out a bit, since today is the recognition of Columbus Day here in the U.S., and today seemed the day to put this out.

This was a donut story for me, as it had a bit of a hole in the middle. It started strong, with a grotesque juxtaposition. The body of a Mohawk child who died under suspicious circumstances back during the days of residential schools for native peoples in Canada is found underneath what will be the foundation for the latest sleek fast food joint in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood. It's a literal Indian burial ground, although nobody knew it until now.

The story then slows down for me a bit as we go into the past. I'm never sure what to do with a story when it goes into detail about terrible wrongs done in the past. Hopefully, most people now know about the crimes done to native children when they were taken into residential schools, where the idea was often to forcibly remove the Indian from the child. It's not just the U.S.; Canada has its own troubled past with this, too. They've done better in some ways than the U.S., but as this story makes clear, they've still got more than their share of baggage. Early in the story, there is a reference to a quote from Canada's first prime minister, "Kill the Indian, save the man." With the younger brother of Beth, the story's main character, the school seems to have killed both. "Turned out killing the Indian saved no one. It just killed Indians."

Maybe the reason "Unearth" slogs when it's in flashback mode for me is because the subject matter is kind of familiar. I've heard this story before about the terrible treatment indigenous peoples suffered. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. Maybe, as the story puts it, it doesn't "do much for me" because I'm not the one this happened to. I'm like the people living in the new development next to the site of the old residential school. They forget because it's easier to forget. "It was always easier to forget when it didn't happen to you."

Beth tried to forget, but couldn't. Her younger brother disappeared right after going to the residential school, and he was never found nor was any justice done. Her mother went to prison for attacking the Anglican priest who brokered sending the boy to the school. Beth wore masks and adapted. She became a nurse, had a daughter of her own.

What helped her to adapt was the same thing that made her unhappy as a child: she doesn't look like a Mohawk. That was a problem for her when she was young, because she felt alienated from her own people. But it allowed her to blend in outside the reservation. She "let people think she was Portuguese or Italian or Greek."

Where the story really comes together for me is at the end. Beth has a daughter, it turns out, and this now-grown daughter never knew anything about Beth's past or about the brother who never came back from residential school. The daughter, although somewhat annoyed by her mother's call, still answers, and has no problem dashing off reasons why the mother should be proud of the life she lived: "You were a nurse--you helped so many people."

The real beautiful part of this story is when Beth goes back to her old home. She's looking for the ingredients to the corn mush her mother used to make. She wants to feel some connection to the life that was severed. And even in the middle of the smoke shops and the obvious devastation European colonialism still has left on the land, she finds when she is ready to go looking for it, that life is waiting for her. A young Mohawk who is studying the language, trying in her own way to connect to her own roots, calls Beth "Istha," meaning "auntie." Beth doesn't remember the word, but she is happy that someone recognized her as Mohawk. The girl says of course she knew she was Mohawk, because she's "got that tough Mohawk look" to her.

The story reminds us of the best way to handle our past traumas. You need to go back to the past to remember, but life can get stuck in the mud if you stay there too long. The best way to deal with the past is in redeeming what you still can here in the present. That's how you honor your past.