Monday, November 30, 2020

My limits as a reader: "Liberté" by Scott Nadelson

When I was an undergrad at Catholic Walsh University in 1998, I was taking one of the two required theology classes when our professor--the disappointingly named Dr. Weber, whose doctorate was actually in ministry, not theology--brought in a local priest to read to us from his book. He'd had the rather pedestrian idea of re-writing Bible stories in the style of thrillers. He read to us from his re-write of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. I remember the story started with, "Get your hands off me, you filthy ape." Somehow, it managed to go downhill from even that awful beginning. 

I don't know if trauma from having to listen to that reading is to blame, but I don't believe I've ever enjoyed reading a re-imagining of anyone who had a life of their own. You can slightly re-write someone so that even if I know where it's coming from, it's clear you've written your own character, like Carolynn Ferrell did in "Something Street," but I just do not like reading about the fictionalized lives of real historical characters. (I realize Dinah isn't historical in the way Abraham Lincoln is, but perhaps by traumatized brain doesn't realize this.) I'd greatly prefer to just read a well-researched biography. 

In the 2019 O.Henry Anthology, I did not care at all for "The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies" by Jo Lloyd, a fictionalized account of mining pioneer Humphrey Mackworth. I've also never read an Andrea Barrett story I liked, her agonizingly dull recounting of the secretly poetic thoughts she imagines real scientists had. I can't bring myself to read Lincoln in the Bard, partly because I admire Lincoln so much and don't want to taint that admiration.

So there was not much chance I was going to like "Liberté" by Scott Nadelson, a fictionalized account of sculptor Louise Nevelson, nee Berliawsky, and her relationship with French novelist/raving anti-Semite Louis Ferdinand-Celine, nee Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches. Particularly when you add in my general indifference to any kind of visual art. (Prior to this story, I'd never heard of Nevelson. I have enough interest in art in me to get through maybe two trips to museums a year.)

I thought at first maybe the story was about the banality of evil, a banality displayed by both Celine and Nevelson. That reading doesn't quite hold, though, because while Nevelson's self-justifications about leaving her son register somewhere on the banality of evil scale, Celine himself is nothing like Eichmann. He's openly hostile to communists and Jews, so much so, he even shocked the Nazis. His evil is remarkable, not banal.  

Rather, I think the heart of the story is somewhere in Nevelson's discovery that "someone can detest what he desires or desire what he detests. Which comes first, the wanting or the loathing, she doesn't know." She thinks this explains why the anti-Semite Celine could feel attracted to her, even though she is Jewish, but it also possibly explains why she is interested enough in someone as contemptible as Celine to continue a relationship with him for years. Her simultaneous fascination and revulsion of Celine seems to be a creative spark to what would become her monochromatic sculptures that so enraptured Nadelson, he started to study all about Nevelson's work for a different project and ended up writing this story instead. The narrator describes her sculptures as suggesting "the messy intricacies of mind and heart."

I don't know much about art, but I know that might represent the messy intricacies of mind and heart. 



That's about as far as I can go with this one. To dig deeper, I'd have to probably, I don't know, actually research Nevelson's sculpture or something, and I just don't have it in me. I almost never take a pass on a story, at least not in BASS, but this year, I'm going to take a pass on this one. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Self-loathing as a form of narcissism: "It's not you" by Elizabeth McCracken

I will confess that what I enjoy most about reading literature is examining themes. Maybe this is a bit adolescent of me, the way I like to find and underline the passages in the story that operate as keys to deciphering the whole text. I recognize that this need I have to find the "right" passages and explain why they're the right ones is very "diligent school boy" of me. (And oh, how delicious when, as a student, I would find the professor calling out the same passages for the same reasons, meaning I "got it.")

But it's not just the school boy in me wanting to be told he did a good job that makes me appreciate themes in literature, not just my narcissistic need to be told I'm a good student. It's an even deeper need than that, the need to find wisdom for how to live, how to think about the very weird fact that we are here. That's why my favorite stories tend to be the ones where the author, in an act of extreme kindness, has left a clear breadcrumb trail to the main treasure. Stories like Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck," which made the Best American Short Stories collection from 2015. That story contained several passages that all but screamed out, "This story is about how impossible it can feel to do parenting right." I've thought about that story nearly every day since reading it, because, well, I feel every day like I'm not doing a good job of being a parent. "It's Not You," McCracken's entry in the 2020 BASS, isn't quite as generous when it comes to pointing the reader toward its themes. 

Here, perhaps I should quickly digress into what a theme is, although I've done this many times before. A theme isn't a subject. So when you read, as you will on many, many literature-focused blogs and websites, that the theme of work X is "love," they're doing it wrong. A theme is an attitude toward a subject, like, "Love sucks," or, "Love is different from infatuation, because love involves sacrifice." The subject is still important. You need to figure out the story is about love in order to then do the work to figure out what it's saying or implying about love. It's just that it's only one step.

"It's Not You" holds its cards a little close to its chest about what it's saying about its subject, but it is very gracious in letting the reader know what the subject is. It does this by screaming at us several times the name of the hotel where the protagonist stays throughout the narrative: The Narcissus Hotel. And just in case we were tempted to think that no, there's no way this story would give us a symbol so obvious as to name the hotel for a character from Greek mythology, it then describes the hotel in such a way to make the link undeniable: "it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection."

There is clearly a boob in this painting. Art is awesome. 


The Narcissus Myth


In case you've forgotten the myth, there are several versions, and details from different versions seem to matter for "It's Not You." Overall, it goes something like this: Narcissus was the son of a minor god and a nymph who was renowned for his good looks. The nymph Echo fell in love with him, but because she had been cursed by Hera (long story there, but it has to do, like all Greek myths at some point, with Zeus being horny) to be only able to repeat the last words someone said to her, Narcissus ignored her. She eventually faded away until only her voice remained, while Narcissus, depending on the version of the story, either stared at his own reflection in a pond until he died or threw himself in, longing to be with the beautiful person he saw, and drowned. However he died, a flower bearing his name grew up in the spot by the spring. 

Both Echo and Narcissus Matter


Narcissus isn't the only Greek mythological figure impacting "It's Not You." Echo is also important, because our main character is bad with faces but remembers voices. She's also been told before she has a great voice. She works in radio, but not as on-air talent; she works in HR.

Our unnamed narrator, a twenty-seven-year-old woman, has checked into the Narcissus Hotel on New Year's Day 1993. We know she is telling the story from some time near the present, because she is frequently interrupting the story to reflect on how things were different in those days. This has an effect on the tone of the story. Rather than learning what the character learns as she learns it, we are getting it from a woman who has already absorbed the meaning (or lack of meaning) of the story. This is a story from experience, not a story of innocence. 

The narrator has gone to the hotel to drink and feel bad in order to get over a breakup. It's a good set-up for a country song, because she's brought with her "one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples," and she plans to cry herself over the blues, to "feel bad as fast as I could in highfalutin privacy, then leave the tatters of my sadness behind, along with the empty bottle and six apple cores." 

Anything coming to you, Lurleen? 


This could be empowering, if it were a country song, where a woman would plan to cry hard for a while and then get over it, but there's something a little perverse about the narrator's attachment to sadness. She doesn't own a TV at home, but in the hotel, she plans to watch TV to help her cry, because it allows her to achieve a "self-excoriating" level she can't without TV. Baths are also a big part of her plan. 

We later learn that she'd only been in this relationship that's got her so down for a few weeks. What was so devastating about it to her wasn't the time spent, it's how it ended. The lover had "...apologized and explained enormous deficiencies, self-loathing, an unsuitability for any kind of extended human contact." In other words, he's used the "it's not you, it's me" line on her.   

This might not have been so bad if the guy in question hadn't then ended up conspicuously necking a few weeks later with someone else in the small town where the narrator lives. The message she received from this quick transition from "It's not you, it's me" to "I'm in love with someone else" is that it was very much "her." It wasn't a lost love she was crying about, it's how that lost relationship made her feel about herself, a thought so maudlin in its self-pity, it nearly wipes away any pathos one might feel for her: "Even at the time, I knew I wasn’t weeping over anything actual that I’d lost, but because I’d wanted love and did not deserve it. My soul was deformed. It couldn’t bear weight. It would never fit together with another person’s." 

Enter Echo


We as readers can see that the narrator is being foolish. Even the narrator isn't trying too hard to sidestep her own youthful foolishness. We can, of course, be kind about her foolishness, remembering that we, too, have likely been there at some point, feeling the pain of rejection mostly because of what we think that rejection says about us. The mature narrator paints a portrait of herself as a younger woman in which the younger version is a bit of a Narcissist, drawn to the spring of the bathtub, reflecting on herself too much. 

Her plan to drink, cry, and bathe her sorrow away might have worked, but probably only for a while. There'd be another heartache to absorb, one that would have hit her just as hard. But fate intervenes when she overhears Dr. Benjamin, a radio advice-giver, talking to the waiter at the hotel, and she recognizes his voice. 

Like a lot of counselors, Dr. Benjamin mirrors back some of what the narrator tells him. Echoing is, in fact, a key component of therapy. Anyone who's ever been to therapy is familiar with the, "What I'm hearing is ___" formula. At first, the mimicry from Dr. Benjamin registers as possibly playful, flirty banter, and the reader wonders if this run-in is leading to something romantic that will allow the narrator to get her groove back:

"What are you doing in this neck of the woods?"
"Is it a neck?"

The two do, in fact, go to the good doctor's room. But he's not into her, not in that way. She can see that she comes across to him as more a girl who needs to get her act together than someone sexy. The mirroring that Dr. Benjamin does of the girl moves slowly from sounding flirty to sounding clinical, like an exchange between therapist and patient:

"...How long?”
“How long what?”
“Was your relationship with whoever broke your heart.”
“He didn’t break my heart.”
“ ‘Was mean’ to you,” he said, with a playacting look on his face.
I did the math in my head, and rounded up. “A month.”
“You,” he said, in his own voice, which I understood I was hearing for the first time, “have got to be fucking kidding me.”
It had actually been two-and-a-half weeks. “Don’t say I’m young,” I told him.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “But someday something terrible will happen to you and you’ll hate this version of yourself.”
“I don’t plan on coming in versions.”
“Jesus, you are young.” Then his voice shifted back to its radio frequency, a fancy chocolate in its little matching, rustling crenellated wrapper. “How mean was he?”
“He was nice, right up until the moment he wasn’t.”
“Well,” he said. “So. You’re making progress. Wish him well.”
“I wish him well but not that well.”
But that wasn’t true. I wanted them both dead.
“The only way forward is to wish peace for those who have wronged you. Otherwise, it eats you up.”

Dr. Benjamin, Echo that he is, has used the narrator's own words back on her. "Was mean to you" were her own words. He has also pretty clearly provided a way out of the woman's narcissism and the unhappiness it causes her.

But it's not that simple

Dr. Benjamin isn't a magical radio therapist who appeared right when the narrator needed him to give her the magical words to get over. He was there to meet with one of his frequent callers, Dawn from Baton Rouge. And while Dr. Benjamin doesn't seem to have predatory designs on the narrator, his interest in Dawn does seem to be romantic. He bought her a collectible stuffed rabbit, and not long after revealing to the narrator that he had come to the hotel to meet Dawn, he tells her that "in another life, (he'd) have been a better man," which seems like a pretty obvious lament that he hasn't been faithful to his wife, the "love of his life" he talks about all the time on his show. 

Furthermore, Dr. Benjamin allows the narrator to first get incredibly drunk off the mini-bar, and then to get naked and into the bath of his suite. Perhaps he is actually going to have sex with the narrator after all, we think, but when he comes into the bathroom to talk to her, he again seems to be there more for her good than his own desires. 

When he comes into the bathroom, the narrator describes herself as not covered by "a little cocktail dress of bubbles" that would have made her more modest. She says that perhaps she would have been so covered in "another version of this story," which is something of a sly nod to the fact that much of the story is playing with the mythology. 

In the version that's there, however, Dr. Benjamin seems to be, if anything, turned off by her in all her nakedness. "Just like you to bathe in your birthday suit," she imagines him thinking. She has explained that she doesn't like bubble baths because bubbles are a "form of protection." They "hide you from your own view." In other words, the baths she's been taking as part of her break-up ritual are the severest form of her narcissism, because they force her to see herself completely naked. 

We tend to think of narcissists as people obsessed with how wonderful they are, but self-loathing can also be a form of narcissism. Whether you're staring at yourself to see how beautiful you are or how ugly you are, either way, you're staring at yourself. What the narrator needs to do in order to get over isn't actually to do MORE introspection, as is usually the case, but less. She needs to focus outward, not inward, and accept that her recent breakup, and in fact many of the rejections life throws at her, really aren't about her. When someone says, "It's not you," she needs to believe it, even if it's true in a different way from how it's said.

A weird denouement I'm not sure how to parse

The narrator asks Dr. Benjamin while he's sitting on the edge of the tub to tell her to change her life. He's reluctant at first, because he's more into the empathy kind of counseling than the "straighten up and fly right" brand. But he eventually relents, and he mirrors back what she's asked him to say. He then says that if he keeps sitting by the tub, he's going to fall in, which seems to indicate he's realizing that he can't fall into the same trap that killed Narcissus. The story could have ended with him walking away, and we'd assume that the narrator eventually got over.

But it doesn't end there. His last words to the woman are actually, "You know where to find me," suggesting that he might be up for sex if she gets herself out of the bath. Or maybe he's saying that if she gets out and puts some damn clothes on, they can talk some more, because he's not looking to get in the tub and have sex with her self-pitying ass. 

The woman wakes up, face-down in the tub, having somehow jolted awake as she was about to drown. The water is running, and someone from the hotel is banging on the door, because the water was running into the room downstairs. The narrator nearly died from passing out drunk in the tub of a radio personality. The hotel helps her find replacement clothes for her soaked garments that were beside the tub. She walks home, sort of wishing her ex and his girlfriend well as she goes past their house.

What the hell happened? Why was the tap on? Did Dr. Benjamin turn it on, or did she while she was blackout drunk? Here, suddenly, the narrative is uncharacteristically stingy about helping the reader out. The narrator tells us that, "There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me." What on Earth does that mean? "Neither of us is in the right" and "decades later, it still bothers me" tend to suggest that something happened off the page that the narrator isn't telling us about. There are various versions of the story that are possible in this myth, too. 

It's also not clear from what position the narrator is speaking to us years later. She has actually learned something from her time at the hotel, but she almost brushes off this epiphany as though it wasn't the point and it's not that important: "I would like to say that this was when my life changed. No. That came pretty quick, within weeks, but not yet. I would like to say that the suggestion of kindness took. That I went home and wished everyone well. That I forgave myself and found that my self-loathing was the curse: forgiveness transformed me, and I became lovely. But all that would wait." Even when it does come, she doesn't embrace kindness beyond its pragmatic utility: "I became kinder the way anybody does, because it costs less and is, nine times out of ten, more effective."

Does this kind of epiphany really pull the woman out of narcissism? We can't be sure. She used to hate the way not being loved made her "vivid to herself," but now, she tells us, she is "loved and in black and white." She also is told everywhere she goes she has a familiar voice. She won't tell anyone why, but we do know they found a new host to Dr. Benjamin's show when he died of a heart attack a few months after he met the narrator. Did she take over somehow? Is she now referring to her callers as "caller," because calling them by their names is too personal? 

One possible version of this story--and I think ultimately, true to its mythical origins, there are only versions, not one version--could see the ending as something of an authorial intrusion. The story need not be historical for it to be partly auto-biographical. The author can insert her own thoughts into it anywhere, even if she never got naked in a radio host's bathtub at twenty-seven. Is the woman who is loved "in black and white" the author, whose texts appear in black and white? Is this also the person who is refusing to reveal her identity to the curious at the end, the one who doesn't mind if people figure out the secret, but who isn't going to be kind enough to help them, because why be kind when life itself isn't? 

If not, I'm not sure how else to take it, although there are, quite by design, other versions of this story that are possible. While McCracken wasn't quite kind enough in this story to give us the keys to the mystery, she was kind enough to tell us what box the answer was hidden in, and that seems like kindness enough. At least, for a riddle as fun to puzzle over as this one was. 











Saturday, November 28, 2020

Portrait of the artist as a young shithead: "Rubberdust" by Sarah Thankam Mathews

After hitting us with three novelettes in the first half of Best American Short Stories 2020, it was nice (from the point-of-view of someone trying to write about all twenty stories) to get into part two with a shorter entry. This one, "Rubberdust" by Sarah Thankam Mathews, is standard short story stuff, a coming-of-age story with a quick build-up to a conflict in which the main character changes. The change seems to be that the main character (an unnamed character/first-person narrator whose lack of a name is called out within the narrative) goes from being the type of person who reads to escape being a weird kid to someone who writes to try to understand why she feels so weird. 

The story is so approachable, so immediately accessible, the funniest thing about it is when it breaks the fourth wall to talk about the reception the story got in a writing group, where one participant, seemingly speaking for the group, complains it has a "cultural specificity that the narrator doesn't include the audience in on." Yeah, that kind of dumb comment is pretty much every writing group I've ever been in, which is why I'm not in writing groups. 

Because the story more than lets us in on everything we need to know. It's India. Other than that, there's not much that goes on in the story that a reader from anywhere in the world couldn't understand. Some of the words would have been pronounced differently, and the girl's father roots for India to beat Pakistan in soccer rather than for whatever an American father would be doing while watching sports on television. It's a bildungsroman. It's pretty universal. We all did bad things as kids, and the reasons why we did them were a mystery to ourselves. Even the girl's obsession with peeling crepe paper sheets off the softboard is easy to understand. Who doesn't remember obsessing over random objects in a classroom while young? 

The only problem in commenting on this story is that there isn't much room for commentary. It's like commenting on the parable of the prodigal son. There's a pretty easy-to-trace character arc, quick as it is, where the narrator goes from tormented to tormentor, realizes what that means, and then that starts her on a lifelong journey to understand why people, herself included, carry in them the ability to be so terrible. This ability to be awful even applies to the best of us, like Gandhi, she learns. It's not a story of how she solves this riddle, but how she learned to recognize it and begin to grapple with it. 

Okay, I'll say this about it, since the idea of "cultural specificity" came up

The qualifications to be included in Best American Short Stories are these: the story has to have been originally published in either a U.S. or Canadian journal, in English, during the given time period, and the author has to have made either the U.S. or Canada their home. (I wonder, if we're going to use the continental meaning of "American," why we include Canada but not the rest of North America, but let's put that to the side.)

Canada and the U.S. are pluralist democracies. An American story can literally come from anywhere. If a girl grows up in India and then immigrates to the U.S., the experiences that formed her psyche in India are now part of the American experience, too. They're part of what make us us, because Indians who have transplanted here are part of us.

This makes American literature different from, say, Korean literature, which I'll use as a counter-example because it's the national literature I read the most other than American. Most Korean literature takes place in Korea, featuring Korean characters who were born in Korea, who speak Korean, and who interact with others like them. If a story is set outside Korea, it's almost always a Korean ex-pat living there, not someone who is going to move to Korea later in her life. There is almost always something tying it back to Korea. Korean literature, generally, doesn't feel the need to create its own stories about the rest of the world. For that, Koreans read books in translation. 

One effect of this specificity is that nearly any reader is able to call bullshit on anything that doesn't ring true. When you put a character on the Seoul metro, there's no getting anything past an audience where nearly everyone reading has also been on the Seoul metro. And you can't get away with any cliches about the Seoul metro, either, things that everyone has already said about it. You'll have to look at a thing everyone knows about and still find something new to say about it.

That's a different kind of literature than what American literature now is, if by "American" literature we include the stories of things that have revealed themselves to Americans through their interactions with the rest of the planet. America doubtlessly benefits from its diversity. It gives us advantages in business, in understanding global politics, and in the ability to fill niches in our own economy. It brings in new ideas. 

It also, however, develops in educated Americans a felt need to try to understand a little bit of every culture out there. In literature, this means stories that are there to introduce different cultures to American audiences more than they are there to be part of the literary tradition of the culture from which they come. A Korean-American story often wouldn't hold up well within the canon of Korean literature. One reason for that is that stories from a Korean context written for American audiences often necessarily include something that would come across as a cliche or as false if it were presented to Koreans.

A story set in Korea written for an American audience comes across as very different to Koreans than it would to Americans. It's like eating at a Korean restaurant in D.C. frequented by white people versus a restaurant in some back alley of Seoul. Whereas a real Korean is eating some part of a cow I didn't know you could eat, or some fish I've never heard of, Americans are being fed a sweetened-up version of bulgogi, because, you know, you can't expect an American to eat that other stuff. 

This doesn't mean the literature that's now "American" literature coming from cultures all over the world is bad. I like bulgogi. It just means that the stories we are reading written to be part of "American literature" are different from those that exist in the rest of the world, even if they're written by someone with first-hand experience of those other cultures. It's important to keep this in mind when reading a lot of the stories in BASS, because BASS often takes us around the world in its twenty stories. 

None of this really applies to "Rubberdust," though, which is incredibly universal. It could have been set anywhere, or at least anywhere children still use erasers.  

    

Friday, November 27, 2020

What more could I have done? "The Children" by Andrea Lee

"The Children" by Andrea Lee takes what is normally a rhetorical question meant to suggest there was nothing more anyone could have done--"what more could I have done?"--and interrogates that question seriously, treating it like an earnest question rather than a rhetorical one. There may not be an answer that emerges by the story's end, but it's clear that the theme of the story is to make the question much more uncomfortable than it normally is, less a soothing balm and more of an accusation.

The story focuses on the actions of Shay and Giustina, two women spending part of the year in Madagascar, women who enjoy varying levels of privilege not available to those around them. In Giustina's case, hers is ancestral privilege. Her "noble family has ancient roots in Tuscany," and she is "one of those rare aristocrats who are still safely contained within their insular history," someone who navigates within the "tight circles of old Italian nobility."

Shay, on the other hand, seems to have married into her privilege. It's not clear where her husband Senna gets his wealth from, but he clearly has it, because he and Shay own the hotel where her friend Giustina is staying. 

Shay is a person of color, and although her skin is described as brown, which made me think she was Indian, like many of the rich visitors to Madagascar, she is also described as African-American. Whatever she looks like, she feels her skin color gives her some kind of familiarity with the natives of Madagascar, an assumption the narrator tells us is false: "...her brown skin and her American expansiveness lend her a false sense of familiarity with the people of color around her: people of the island, whose language she doesn't speak, and whose values and motives she will never fully understand." 

Shay and Giustina may have come by their privilege in different ways, but they both now possess it, meaning they both now have a similar responsibility to use their privilege to seek justice for those lacking privilege. However much Shay and Giustina might indulge intellectually in post-colonial artistic movements, they both are claiming a place of privilege in Madagascar that dates back to colonialism. They are the owners of capital while the locals work for them.

As a story that implies we are all complicit in the injustices in the world, "The Children" is a little bit heavier than other Madagascar-based fiction of the 21st century. 



The immediate candidate for justice that appears to Shay and Giustina is Harena, the child of a local woman and a reprobate, old-nobility Italian who happens to be part of Giustina's social circle. Giusitina insists on meeting the girl in order to know more of her story, then promises to try to find the girl's father. What she hopes will happen when she brings the fact of the girl's existence up to him isn't clear, but she is struck by the injustice of Harena living in relative squalor while her father lives off ancestral wealth in Italy, so she decides she will at least try to do something.

Giustina goes back to Italy, Shay having kept several facts hidden from her, like the fact there was a serial murderer on the loose or that locals thought thirty-something Giustina was Harena's grandmother come to claim her. Shay feels that Giustina is too gentle a soul for some facts. Shay also finds out there is another child of the Italian reprobate, a half-brother to Harena, living far to the south in Madagascar. 

Using "the way the world is" as an excuse


Throughout the story, there are phrases that seem to operate to emphasize the inevitability of injustice. These have the effect of distancing Giustina and Shay from responsibility. Examples of these distancing phrases include:

  • "...you go tracking down all the white men who leave children behind, that too will never end."
  • "You're trying....what more can you do?"
  • "...and soon afterward died there of malaria, as so many do in that harsh line of work."
  • "And so bureaucracy performs its traditional task of transmogrifying action into inaction, and the two women lose themselves in their own busy lives."
  • "placidly seem to accept..."

On the one hand, Shay is right. "Man hands on misery to man," as Larkin put it, and the misery goes back so deep, there are limited things anyone can do about the injustice now rampant in the world. If you aren't going to become a zealot who devotes her whole life to stamping out the injustice, to the extent you deny yourself your own happiness, you have to either accept your limits or go insane. Shay isn't wrong.

Yet Shay also senses that retreating into a "what's to be done?" sort of philosophy is the surest way to make certain nothing ever changes. Telling herself she did "the best she could" is no truer than a "lullaby or nursery rhyme." Because honestly, the best anyone can do is quite a lot, and few of us ever really reach this level. Shay realizes this when she has her own children and understands the "crushing force of incomparable love" that comes with it. She realizes she has not worked for Harena's interests with the same level of care she would have for her own children. 

Ultimately, we all are living in the wreckage of colonialism. Those who caused the initial harm are now, like the Italian family of the father, only a shadow of their former selves, so they cannot fix their own mistakes alone. Which means that righting injustices means taking an active interest in something you yourself didn't actually cause. It means having a different meaning of "doing what you can," one that is extremely demanding on the person doing the introspection.

This seems unfair, but it's better than pretending not to see what the world is like. To do that, to fail to do more than our fair share to fix a world others have broken, is to invite the scorn of those who come after us. As Shay thinks, "it is all too easy to lose" the respect of her children when they think of the consoling lies we told ourselves. That's true of all the children of the world who will come after us. 

 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Apropos of America's football holiday, my latest story comes out in The Adirondack Review

I'm still trying to fit in my Best American Short Stories analysis between all that's going on this week, with the holiday and the end-of-semester home schooling work and my daughter suddenly needing surgery for an ankle she mangled on her birthday. I barely have time to enjoy the release of my latest story to get published, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. It's appropriate that it came out right on Thanksgiving, the day we all watch football, since it's about a model married to a famous quarterback. 

In the sense that anyone who knows anything about football will immediately think of Tom Brady and his wife Gisele Bundchen, I had the same challenge to face that Carolynn Ferrell did in her short story "Something Street," which I recently looked at: how to draw inspiration from real-world events, but still let the characters in the story have a life of their own. Feel free to let me know how you think I did. 

You may notice that this is the second story to come out in a short period of time. I was just commenting on social media about how crazily feast-or-famine writing is. I've gone over a year twice with nothing but rejections. In 2020, while the whole world has been on fire, I've had nine acceptances. That includes three in the last three weeks. This story actually got accepted and then published in the same day, something I've never seen happen before, but I guess that's just how the Adirondack Review works. I'm hoping I can store up the good feelings of all this acceptance for the lean times that are no doubt up ahead. In any event, enjoy the story and happy Thanksgiving.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Would it have been so terrible to just say "San Francisco"?: "In the Event" by Meng Jin

Unlike the last few entries in the 2020 Best American Short Stories anthology, I think I can do justice to "In the Event" in reasonably short order. It's about the futility of planning for surprises, how try as we might by following every recommendation, there will always be things that catch us off guard. 

Chenchen is the planner, while Tony is the let-life-come-to me guy. Tony has learned to go with the flow from his upbringing, which, in a lot of ways, is the new face of America that showed itself in the 2020 election. While pundits focus on groups as though they were homogenous, because that allows pundits to feel like they have some control over the chaos of elections, the 2020 election showed that even groups we think of as predictable are not that easy to forecast the actions of. Latinx voters in Florida aren't Latinx voters in Arizona. Young Latinx voters aren't old Latinx voters. The solid South isn't solid. 

Tony is one of those voters who'd be hard to classify. He's a second-generation Chinese-American whose family lives in South Carolina as the kind of lower-middle-class existence we mostly associate with Trump voters. (One aspect of Chinese American life not examined in this story is the tendency of older Chinese Americans to lean conservative. As one Chinese-American friend of mine puts it, "My family thinks that of course Republicans are racist, but at least they're less racist toward us than they are toward blacks.") 

Tony is anything but a Trump voter though. It's not the 2020 election casting its shadow over "In the Event," of course, since it hadn't happened yet when the story was written, but the 2016 election. Tony had worked himself to near sickness trying to be ready for when Clinton won what seemed to be her sure-thing election. He was helping to design what he hoped would be a revolutionary citizen-government interface. The one time in Tony's life he tried to plan for something, and it blew up in his face. No wonder he's indifferent to Chenchen's attempts to prep for "the big one" we all know will eventually wreck half of California. 

The whole story is an unbroken sequence of attempts to plan for something, attempts that are then ruined. Chenchen is something of an obsessive planner, but the only place she has complete control in orchestrating things the way she wants them to go is in her music, which she retreats into more and more. She's a composer of "electronic folk songs with acoustic sounds," a highly niche type of music that apparently allows her to rely on a lot less collaboration than most musicians do. She dislikes performing at concerts, though, because of how unpredictable the performances can be.

Chenchen strikes me as likely being some type of neuro-divergent person; she has a hard time shutting out sounds sometimes, to such an extent they nearly cause her a panic attack at one point. The world is too much with her in almost every way. No wonder she listens to an audio book about the destruction of Earth. No wonder she speeds the rate of reading on the audio up. She can't wait for the end of the world, because the end of the world means the worst has finally happened, and there's no more need to fret about what might one day go wrong. 

Ultimately, while Chenchen is preparing for all kinds of potential disasters and dealing with the actual ones going on, like how climate change is heating up San Francisco, making summer in San Francisco no longer the coldest winter, as the old joke goes, she misses the personal calamity that's been under her nose the whole time. Tony has feelings for mutual friend Jen, something Chenchen has apparently sensed. The story ends with a low-key disaster she never planned for, one that will almost certainly cause her more emotional damage than all the other events she feared. 

Generally, it was a solid story with a consistent theme that held the work together. It hit a few buttons that tend to automatically turn me off, like how liberals are depicted as so undone by the election of Trump it has us all wandering shell-shocked throughout the Earth, just waiting for the nightmare to end. As though liberals don't realize that politics involves unavoidable losses as well as gains, or as if the election of 2016 was entirely something that happened to us, like a tsunami, instead of something we bear some responsibility for causing ourselves. 

I also don't know why the story couldn't just say Tony and Chenchecn were in San Francisco. From the first mention of the setting, I assumed that's where they were, although I don't really know that much about the city. It's clearly somewhere in California. When I Googled Chinaman's Vista, the spot Chenchen wanted to use as their rallying point, nothing came up, making me wonder if it's a made-up location in the real city of San Francisco. What confused me is that when Tony is talking about the danger of a nuclear attack, he says the real target would be the big-tech companies "in the cities south of them." I thought all the big tech companies were in San Francisco, so suddenly I was trying to figure out where north of San Fran they might be. Tony gives some math saying they'd be about three minutes from the nuclear fallout, and using his numbers, I figure they're about thirty-some miles north of where he thinks the real target would be. I think I finally figured out that what he means is that Silicon Valley, what I assume he meant by his real target, is a bit south of San Fran. I just didn't know that, so I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out the geography. Maybe my failed attempts to figure out where they were was apropos of a story where trying to achieve control over art and history is ultimately pointless.  

Monday, November 23, 2020

The return of literary court: "This is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill

For the second time in the first eight entries of the 2020 Best American Short Stories, the reader might be tempted to forget that BASS orders its stories alphabetically based on the last names of authors. "This is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill might seem to be chosen to go after "Something Street" by Carolynn Ferrell based on similar themes, since both involve bad sexual behavior of men, but that's just a coincidence.

**College BASS students looking to plagiarize your way to a C on a compare-and-contrast assignment, begin copy-and-paste now**

Furthermore, beyond a surface level, the two stories are pretty different. In "Something Street," comedian Craw Daddy has definitely done bad things, up to and including rape. In "This is Pleasure," though, the entire story isn't about a character's need to recognize the obviously criminal behavior of someone close to her, it's about how agonizing it can be to determine, in some cases of alleged sexual misconduct, not just whether the person charged is guilty, but how guilty, and whether the degree of guilt ought to matter when it comes to consequences. As Margot, friend to Quin the accused says, "Rape is one thing, but it's not like (Quin's accuser) can go to the media to report some weird thing (Quin) said years ago." 

Quin isn't a rapist. He hasn't, in fact, had sex with any of the women accusing him of misconduct. It's very hard to pin down exactly what his crime is, because, as Margot points out, he's not like any other man. Quin does enjoy shocking and inappropriate behavior. He likes "going up to the very line of acceptability and not crossing it." He loves flirting, because it makes him feel alive, although he never seems to have intended or expected the flirting to lead to sex, especially after meeting his wife Carolina, whom he does genuinely seem to love. 

He's a very rare case in the annals of #metoo incidents, just as "This is Pleasure" is a rare story in what will one day, I'm sure, be some type of #metoo anthology. What makes the story rare is the way Gaitskill has shown a willingness to be fair to the accused, maybe even too fair. Gaitskill makes use of the novella-pushing nearly 14,000 words in her story to not just allow Quin to tell his side of the story, but to allow nearly every argument the "not-so-fast-with-the-#metoo" critics have levelled to be considered duly. There's the "infantilization of women" argument, the "the whole fun of flirting is that it's transgressive" argument, the "we used to have crazy sex in the sixties, and nobody was crying foul then" argument, even the "women enjoy painting themselves as victims" argument. It's all there, and not just as a strawman to beat up on. 

Much of the tension in "This is Pleasure" comes from the sometimes razor-thin line between pleasure and pain, a line many regularly enjoy crossing. 

I'm sure there will be critics who will say Gaitskill was too fair, that she is, in writing this story, being something of a traitor to women, much as Margot's younger colleagues look upon her as a traitor for defending Quin. Worse, there will likely be critics of #metoo (pretending #metoo is a somewhat monolithic philosophy) who will treat the story as though they have, at last, been heard and championed by someone who "gets it." Both Quin and Margot, the only two narrators in the story, have some shots to take at the women who accuse Quin and at the propensity to too quickly make accusations rather than simply establish boundaries. 

One problem writers always risk when writing from the point-of-view of the perpetrator of a wrong is that the audience will think they are supposed to identify with the perpetrator. Call it the Archie Bunker Phenomenon, if you will, although you could also possibly call it the Lucifer Phenomenon for the way many people read Paradise Lost as though Satan were the hero. 

"This is Pleasure" isn't ultimately trying to argue for a return to the bad old days when men were men and women let them be men. Rather, by granting that some criticisms of the modern sexual climate are valid, the story is able to make a stronger moral claim that men really do need to change. 

By arguing from the perspective of the one committing the wrong, "This is Pleasure" reminded me of two other stories from recent BASS collections. One is "Wrong Object" by Mona Simpson, which may have been my favorite from last year's collection. By focusing on the struggle of a pedophile to not abuse children, it called into question America's "kill or castrate all pedophiles" culture while also maintaining an absolute line on the need to protect the innocent. The other is "Boys Go to Jupiter" by Danielle Evans, which was told from the point-of-view of a girl who started racial angst on her college campus when she wore a confederate flag bikini to irritate her stepmother. 

So let's steal an idea for a second time

When I looked at Evans's story a few years ago, I stole an idea from my son's middle school teacher, that of the trial of a literary character. It's appropriate to re-use this idea for Quin, partly because Quin really is about to face trial from at least one of his accusers. The question, though, is what kind of a trial? Are we the jury in his (likely civil) case, the one Quin thinks might be thrown out? Or are we the executives of the publishing house, charged with deciding whether we should fire him? Or are we the court of public opinion, in charge with deciding whether Quin remains a pariah, and if so, for how long and under what terms? 

Maybe rather than any of these three, it might be more appropriate to pretend we are the execs at a publishing company in New York, one that is considering hiring Quin two years after his civil case is dismissed. Although a number of women threatened to boycott any company that hired him, let's say it's now 2020, that we do most of our business virtually, meaning Quin's interaction with others, especially women, would be necessarily limited. Our business is in trouble, and we could desperately use Quin's proven ability to pick a winner. We're talking about hiring him to sit in the background and give his opinion on books quietly, for a bargain salary, given his ability. We are reasonably sure nobody will notice we have done this, as long as Quin can stay out of trouble. 

Our company lawyer has obtained the complete text of "This is Pleasure," which reads like the diary entries of Quin and his long-time friend Margot. Using this text as evidence, what do we decide to do?


The affirmative case: we should hire him

Quin's perversity and his acute perception, the perception that allowed him to pick literary winners, were always intricately linked. Quin took pride in his ability to "perceive people's most essential nature just by looking at them." It was this pride in his ability that often led Quin to test boundaries early on in a relationship through what could be described as a series of breaching experiments, behaving badly in order to see how people would react. Nearly every human being's best qualities are somehow directly linked to their worst, and Quin is no exception. He wasn't seeking sexual gratification when he raised sexual topics with women; he was seeking amusement and possibly intimacy by learning about the people he spoke with. Nobody has charged him with sexual assault. Other than one woman--a novelist who did not even join in the charges against him--nobody said publicly that he even touched them inappropriately.  

Nearly every woman who signed the petition against Quin can be shown to have carried on a long relationship with him, in many cases for years, in which they at least seemed to be willing participants in his eccentric behavior. Margot has testified in her diary that she personally witnessed many of those who signed the complaint willingly listening to Quin's romantic advice--which was often good advice, no less. 

Moreover, Quin is a good friend and a good person whose friendliness has obviously been misunderstood. He is someone who "imbibes people," who is overly friendly, "comical and strangely lewd," but as Margot has explained, he also cares deeply about those around him, wants to ease their suffering, even their minor suffering. His ability to assuage pain is, in a strange way, linked to his lewdness. Margot has explained that it was not just Quin's kindness that made her feel better many times when dealing with pain, it was his "silliness, his humor, his dirtiness that rekindled (her) spirit."

Quin has shown himself to be a good person to more than just women; he has even, for reasons that involved no personal gain to himself, helped a troubled young boy. 

The woman who started all the accusations against Quin once used words to describe him that suggest he seemed to her almost like a homosexual: "straight fairy," "fop," and "buttercup." Indeed, Quin's relationship with most women seems to be similar to a stereotypical gay man-straight woman relationship, down to the advice Quin gave on men, the makeovers Quin initiated, and the free touching of women, as if Quin represented no threat, so that gave him license. Caitlin's long-term relationship with Quin, a relationship with ample evidence she enjoyed having him as a friend, only ended when Quin did not invite her to his parties, suggesting her accusations came from manufactured, post-facto jealousy.  

Quin seems to have been a victim of the times, the bycatch of too wide a net. One woman who signed the petition apparently did not even mean to include him in her accusations, was in fact horrified to realize his name had been included in the list. He has many, many defenders, including those who know about his worst actions. 

His friend Margot has compared women to horses in that they need to be both led and respected, but it is Quin who has proven himself to be like a horse. When Margot laid down firm boundaries with him at the beginning of their relationship, she even alluded to horses stopping at a hand in the face, a gesture she used to stop Quin from an inappropriate action. From that moment on, Quin never seems to have stepped over a line with her. Other women showed the same ability to set boundaries, and it was these women whose company Quin seems to have enjoyed most of all. Quin can, in other words, be trained, and as long as we as a company train him, he will likely not cause us problems.

I should be made a judge of more things.

The negative case: we shouldn't touch this guy with a ten-foot pole, and we also shouldn't mention a "ten-foot pole" around him, because he's liable to make that into something sexual

Okay, granted, he's got a lot of women defending him, but isn't that number in itself troubling? I understand office flirting as much as the next guy. It's just like Quin described it--a way to feel alive without actually cheating on anyone. But does anyone need to flirt with a hundred different women? Who needs to feel that alive? The sheer volume of women Quin flirted with--assuming we can actually write off his behavior as just flirting--is extremely troubling. It tells the story not of a man from a different era with a different way of thinking about being true and open, but a man with a pathology that will require years of therapy to correct. That he has done this while it apparently has caused pain for a wife he seems to genuinely love only deepens the suspicion that he has a very deep-seated issue to work out. 

More to the point, although some of his worst offenses were kept out of the public view, we now know that he touched the breast of at least one female employee with a junior position at the company. She did not, apparently, take offense to the gesture, and seems to have considered it "sacred," just as Quin did. But the sheer recklessness of the action represents a risk this company cannot afford to take. Quin's wife Carolina hit the nail on the head with Quin when she said he's "not even a predator" but "a fool...a pinching, creeping fool." Perhaps his friends can afford to forgive him his foolishness, but this company cannot. A fool is a liability. 

One is tempted to wonder, as Margot's own friends did, why he had so many friends willing to forgive him. Reading over Quin's behavior over many decades, one has to ask the same question Margot's friends did: "Why would you want to have a friendship with someone like that?" Clearly, Quin was personally compelling, which was why so many people overlooked their warnings about him. This charisma is what makes him dangerous, though, as it allows him to take advantage of people in ways the less charismatic cannot. 

Perhaps Quin's own perceptiveness is what makes him so dangerous. He understands people, which gives him a strange ability to sense how far he can push them. This leads to multiple relationships with people whose friendship to Quin causes them a mixture of pleasure and pain, a mixture just pleasant enough they continue it, all the while slowly becoming angrier and angrier at him. Quin apparently uses his high emotional intelligence and ability to read people for evil purposes, even just to torture them for his own amusement--Quin is, apparently, one who enjoys spanking more than being spanked. (Strike that last comment from the record; the company should not seem to be trivializing this by comparing it to BDSM-type sexual preferences.) 

To sum up, Quin has: 1) touched the breast of a junior company employee without expressed consent, 2) reached for the inner thigh of another woman at a lunch without being invited to, 3) apparently done enough to be slapped by several other women 4) commented on the physical appearance of a number of other women. Whether these things make him a bad person is outside the concern of this company. He's simply a risk we can't take. 

But okay, let's us as readers take a second to consider what the story is saying about good and bad behavior

I think literary court, under the terms I described, would have to decide not to hire Quin. It doesn't matter if he's guilty, or, more to the point, HOW guilty, and if he deserves to meet the same fate as, say, Louis C.K., which Quin effectively has by being run out of his profession. (In fact, Louis C.K. doesn't seem to be totally dead in comedy, which means that maybe Quin got screwed by comparison.) As a company, we only care about what's good for our bottom line, and hiring Quin would too greatly risk running afoul of public opinion to justify.

But what if we interrogate that public opinion for a moment, as "This is Pleasure" does so well? Although I'm sure Gaitskill will occasionally be mortified to find some people using her story as an illustration of "how #metoo goes too far" or something like that, I think the very strength of the story is in how well it does take seriously some criticisms of #metoo. Modern political rhetoric, especially on forums like Twitter, seems to have abandoned the ancient practice of granting when your opponent has a strong point in order to be seen yourself as more reasonable when you go to make your own point. But that's exactly what "This is Pleasure" does. It allows us to inhabit, for a long time, the minds of one partially-but-not-by-any-means-totally innocent man accused of sexual misconduct and another, older woman, one somewhat impatient with younger women's complaints. Quin's friend Margot would likely have agreed with this editorial in The Atlantic from back when Aziz Ansari was first called into question for a date that was close to the line between "bad date" and "assault." The writer's basic take is, "This woman acted like an idiot." The writer of that editorial was then attacked for "blaming the victim," much like Margot.

But Margot isn't totally on Quin's side, and we need not be, either. The wonder of a novella this long is that it has a chance to interrogate #metoo in a way nothing else does. It admits to some oversteps, but it also has a core that I (as a guy who sometimes wonders about the rectitude of #metoo things) found pretty compelling.

The story understands--in wonderful detail, often explaining the "con" argument better than most #metoo enemies themselves could ever do--that there is a complex line between pleasure and pain, that the two often go hand-in-hand. It also understands the life-giving joy of flirting, and how often it is mutually beneficial to helping those who do the flirting when it comes to getting by in life. 

By admitting to all of this, the story can be taken much more seriously when it posits, slyly, a sort of heuristic for navigating our way through this. The three-part heuristic is something like this: 

1) When there is transgression of social norms going on, priority should be placed on the perceptions of the person facing the transgression. When trying to explain to Quin why some of what he did was actually wrong, Margot's husband, Todd, asks Quin, "But would they say they were hurt?" 

2) The rules of experimentation should be much stricter when the power relationship is unbalanced.

3) If someone has been hurt by a transgression, start with an apology. Quin never looks as bad in this story as he does when he thinks he is being inspired to write his explanation of everything that went down. Right away, we can see it's going in entirely the wrong, self-justifying direction: "I come from a generation that values freedom and honesty above politeness..." Oh, boy. 

Again, it's Todd who suggests a better way, a way Quin ignores: "I think you should start with an apology." Quin doesn't see why he should apologize, and maybe that's to be expected. Apologizing would mean having to change everything about Quin, at least as he sees it. Quin believes his own licentiousness is what makes life worth living, and he doesn't believe the licentiousness can be reformed with a little change here and there without making life entirely too little fun to be worth living. 


I think Quin is wrong. It is possible to make small but significant changes that could allow most of the fun of flirting to remain while still reducing the number of times people end up feeling pain. And it could be as simple as a "first do no harm" rule when transgression is involved. While it would ruin the fun to have to ask for permission before trying anything, there are certain things you should never try out without talking them over first. If you have a spanking fetish, for example, you don't just start by spanking your partner to see how they react.  

Is it too didactic of me to turn literary analysis into rules for flirting in 2020? Is that too narrow a purpose, too pedestrian a use to make of art? I'd argue no, that in fact, one of literature's best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story's artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.