Farscape: “They’ve Got a Secret”

12/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 10. Writer: Sally Lapiduss. Director: Ian Watson. Rating: B.

As we saw back in “I, E.T.” (which was incidentally the last episode that Sally Lapiduss wrote), the Peacekeepers didn’t just enslave the infant Leviathan ships — they installed all sorts of secret devices on them, from tracking beacons to communication arrays. It’s only natural, then, that a concerned Pilot would have the crew searching for other hidden installations, though probably a mistake to involve someone like D’Argo in the search. Sure, he may be able to find the damn things, but his idea of uninstalling hardware involves his Qualta blade, and in this case, his tampering with the propulsion equipment ends with him being ejected into deep space. And while Luxans can survive that sort of thing, it’s not without some residual hallucinations that cause him to mistake Zhaan for his late wife Lo’Laan; Rygel for his beloved son, Jothee; and Crichton for Lo’Laan’s treacherous brother, Macton?

As for the rest of the ship, D’Argo’s unwittingly released something into Moya’s systems, which are now failing and has led to Pilot’s incapacitation. (Aeryn, in a nod to her recent mutation in “DNA Mad Scientist” is able to temporarily take over his duties.) Even some of the DRDs have gone rogue, and while these golden-plated, glorified Roombas don’t look like the most menacing of droids, their ability to superglue Aeryn to the floor is pretty effective at forcing her and Crichton to spend some close-up time together. Later on, they seem to have gotten an upgrade: a whole Birds-like horde of them chase Crichton down a corridor while shooting lasers.

Without being able to find the Peacekeeper panel that D’Argo disabled, the crew realizes that they’ll be unable to reverse whatever’s ailing Moya; this means they’ll have to snap D’Argo out of his fantasies sooner rather than later. Humorous as it is to see D’Argo tucking Rygel in for bed, and valuable as it is to see Simcoe showing his emotional side to Zhaan, it comes down to Crichton’s provocations to help D’Argo separate his happier past from the dangerous present. It’s a wonderful payoff on the secret hinted at in “Back and Back and Back to the Future,” which is that D’Argo’s true crime was in having a mixed relationship with a Peacekeeper woman, Lo’Laan. Apparently, the affair was so illicit that Lo”Laan’s own brother, Macten, murdered her and then used his Peacekeeper rank to pin the crime on D’Argo (although not before D’Argo sent Jothee to safety.)

Satisfying and well-acted as these revelations are, they’re unfortunately largely revealed through exposition. There’s little clash between Crichton-as-Macten and D’Argo, mainly because there’s still one giant reveal left, which is “What’s wrong with Moya?” Keeping with Farscape‘s theme of expecting the unexpected, Moya is sick, but not from a virus: she’s pregnant. The device D’Argo neutralized was, essentially, a form of Leviathan birth control, and it’s out of the frightened need to protect her young that the DRDs have been sealing off passageways and attempting to fend off the crew. There’s no bad guy at the heart of this episode, just a series of unfortunate miscommunications — ones that almost lead to Aeryn performing a lobotomy on Moya’s higher functions. (And you thought their willingness to sever Pilot’s arm was rough?)

In all, the D’Argo development is terrific stuff, especially the way this colors all of his past and future interactions with Aeryn, but the episode itself suffers from major similarities to “Exodus from Genesis,” right down to the conclusion, in which Crichton manages to communicate with the pregnant host and to convince it to find a compromise that allows both the crew and the baby to survive. (You’d think Moya would have been smart enough to do this from the start, but I suppose that wouldn’t be very dramatic.) And while Crichton compares the lurking DRDs — innocuous until this episode — to Hitchcock, director Ian Watson fails to deliver on that fearful suspense. He’s not wrong to focus on characters, but the episode would have been stronger had it found ways to use the tension to reveal things about the characters, rather than separating them into distinct and less affecting parts.

Obsessive observations: 

  • The neat thing about Crichton as a character is that he’s constantly comparing things in this new galaxy to things back home on Earth. This week, he compares the symbiotic relationship between Pilot and Moya to its closest correlation: horsemen. “Horses are loyal and intelligent creatures,” he says. “That you capture and make work for you,” retorts Aeryn. “Yeah, but we love ’em, too.” “You love what you enslave?” “We don’t enslave them . . . [thinks about it] Fine, we enslave ’em.”
  • Aeryn continues to press Crichton later in the episode as to why he’d want to return to a planet so riddled with disease and destruction. It’s a good question; Crichton’s answer is better: “You guys don’t have chocolate.”

Miroslav Penkov: “The Letter”

12/22/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

One of the first things the tough sixteen-year-old Bulgarian woman, Maria, tells us about her rich neighbors, the British Missis and Mister, aside from the fact that neither is British, is that Maria thinks “Missis would be prettier still if she didn’t pretend to be some other woman.” It’s obvious that she’s married for wealth and comfort, for she spends all day drinking, sighing, and occasionally surreptitiously sleeping with the hide-buyer (“And I know no pretense will ever justify your lying down with hide buyers”); it’s even more obvious that Missis has everything that Maria is capable, given her limited experience, of desiring. (Even in her dreams, she is criticized for thinking too small.) And yet, at the same time, it’s clear that Maria doesn’t fully understand any of this: hasn’t come to terms with her own kleptomania, nor with her fixation on identity, specifically whether it’s born from nature or from nurture. This story, then, is about Maria coming to terms with her own abandonment issues, and the hair’s-breadth that saved her two-year-old self (and doomed her twin sister) from a teacher’s steely smack: left in an orphanage by their mother, only Maria was saved by her grandmother; Magda, who suffered a retarding swelling in her brain, was left behind. “How’s life treating you?” isn’t the question; according to Maria, “Life doesn’t treat you. People do.”

Along that line, life — by which I mean people — has been savage. “Uncle” Pedro, the village bus driver, is an act away from pedophilia, and yet he’s one of the “good” people to Maria; as for Magda, even with a brain condition — or perhaps because of it — she’s been raped by someone at the orphanage, and they’re now planning to throw her out because she’s with child. (Earlier, Maria had considered that it might not be so bad, in a “parallel world” to be in Magda’s shoes, oblivious to all the harm done to and around her.) Desperate to help her twin, Maria semi-blackmails Missis into helping her, and while her plan is to write to her absent father — the mother’s no use, she hits the grandmother up for money five times a year, vanishing as quickly as she appears — Missis ultimately gives her the $1,000. Now, this is more money than she’s ever seen, and the story hinges on Maria’s realization of this, for although she picks up Magda and brings her to the clinic, she suddenly pauses and runs off instead. “I am my mother’s daughter,” she thinks, which is about as cruelly ironic as it gets (nurture leading to her nature), but she winds up torn between escaping the village and her own greed. She spends it all, first on a fashionable haircut, then expensive new clothes, and finally an extravagant meal at a hotel and club — “I barely touch them, but still I order more.”

She lives this one moment like an extravagant dream, and, unable to think big enough, she spends the money so that she no longer has the ability to live in a fantasy. The letter she has written to the father she does not know remains unsent, and her fictions about him working on the giant Ferris wheel in London are maintained; the life she can hardly bear to live is better than the illusion can cannot bear to lose. Is it so surprising that such a girl would choose to stick to the only world she has known? Penkov thinks not, and so her character’s final line is an echo of everything we’ve heard earlier in the story out of her mother’s mouth: “How’s life treating you? I need some money.” When the tone of the piece is doing as much, if not more, of the work as the story itself, you know you’ve got something going on; I only wish in the end there was a little bit more to help distinguish this story from the dozens of others with similarly sorrowful lessons to teach.

Farscape: “DNA Mad Scientist”

12/22/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 9. Writer: Tom Blomquist. Director: Andrew Prowse. Rating: A.

“Yeah, happens all the time, needle in the eye, no sweat.” It’s with this rather disturbing image, and a menacing (and ultra-cool) new alien, that we begin our latest adventure. The crew’s come to a reclusive scientist, the asteroid-dwelling sort, who can use DNA to craft genetically encoded star maps to lead each passenger back to their respective homeworld. Farscape teaches that looks can be deceptive, but it’s obvious from the moment NamTar (Adrian Getley) introduces his Igor-ishly deformed assistant Kornata (Sarah Burns), that we’re going to be dealing with (by fishnets and steel attire alone) a fetishistic Frankenstein. Sure enough, his price for this assistance is one of Pilot’s arms. (Cue ominous music.)

After the offer, we’re brooding in a nearby bar (I guess there are dives everywhere) with Crichton and Aeryn. The former is so depressed that he’s forsaken his “neurotically careful” approach to alien life: despite a database of over eleven million species, NamTar can’t even narrow Crichton’s search. He’s also oblivious to Aeryn’s own pain, as she observes that while her shipmates can use this information to return home, avoiding Peacekeeper territory, her home is Peacekeeper territory. And it’s all moot, anyway, since Pilot isn’t likely to volunteer one of his arms. Then again, perhaps looks are still deceptive: cut to a shot of Rygel futilely tugging on a protesting Pilot’s arm — this much we expected — and then zoom out to reveal Zhaan using her empathic powers to take Pilot’s pain as D’Argo uses his blade to sever the limb.

Equally surprising, at least to Crichton, is that Pilot’s not “insanely angry” about it: if not the damage (Pilot’s species has excellent regenerative powers) then at least the principle of it. As it turns out, Pilot’s more Zen than Zhaan: without bonding to a Leviathan, his race cannot see the stars, and so he considers pretty much anything that happens to him a part of the price he pays as a sycophantic creature. And while this pained stoicism fits with what we saw him endure in “I, E.T.,” it hurts to hear him call the harm done to him an “equitable arrangement”; at least he manages to get some passive-aggressive barbs in later: “At least you didn’t have to trade anything of real value,” he says, when it turns out that Moya cannot process the crystallized information for all three worlds.

Much drama ensues, as Rygel hides the data crystal and refuses to return it unless it’s used to find his homeworld, which leads to D’Argo playing murderous, lock-you-in-your-cell-until-you-starve cop and Zhaan playing flirtatious, two-consenting-adults-up-for-experimentation cop. (“You think I could find you attractive?” asks a flustered Rygel, trying to recompose himself. “You’re so, so . . . blue!”) Most impressive, however, is the way in which the episode’s writer, Tom Blomquist, finds time to address potential plot holes, not just with the in-fighting among the crew, but with the whole “star map” situation (which first arose in the similarly titled “PK Tech Girl”). It’s not retconning: it’s a loosening of the restrictive notion that heretical Zhaan, deposed Rygel, and dishonored D’Argo are definitively exiled. As D’Argo puts it, “My leaders imprisoned me. Not my people.” (This is how the delusional Rygel sees it, too.)

As for Aeryn, who opens up to Crichton about the fact that she’s never been alone, she’s in trouble, too. Having returned to NamTar in the hopes that he can help her find one of those rumored Sebacean colonies that does not belong to the Peacekeeper empire, she’s “intracted” by the experiment-happy scientist. Infected with Pilot’s DNA, she starts to mutate — extra arms growing out of her chest, strange webbing and purplish-blue scales, the whole nine parsecs — and now knows what it’s like to be Pilot, to hear all the delicate organic machinery of the ship operating all at once. As for NamTar, he’s a tricky creature: when Aeryn corners him, he temporarily instructs his nervous receptors to interpret pain as pleasure. “Please, press harder,” he grins. Later, as Crichton attacks him, the “good” doctor uses telekinesis to fling him aside. Oh, and after being shot, it turns out that he, too, has superior regenerative powers — he’s been grafting the genetic powers of other species onto himself, and Pilot’s multitasking ability is the one he’s now after.

Not to hammer this whole “looks can be deceiving” thesis home too harshly, but in a well-executed reveal, it comes out that NamTar’s isn’t a genius scientist: he’s an upwardly mobile lab rat, and Kornata’s the usurped master. And while the comparison to Josef Mengele would normally come across as heavy-handed, within the contexts of a debate on the ethics of evolution, it’s quite effective. This is what science-fiction does best, and why some literary people have lobbied to call it “speculative fiction”: it creates a world in which we can see the results of taking certain methods of so-called “rational” thoughts to their natural conclusions. It’s what happens in this confrontation between Crichton and NamTar; in a smooth piece of parallel plotting, it’s also what happens with the conflict between Rygel and his crewmates–that crystal, even if it weren’t also a virus meant to wipe Moya’s memory banks, was too important for any one side to ever own. In other words, the only way to end the war (hyperbole, a useful technique here) would be to destroy the thing being fought for.

There’s so much good stuff going on that it’s almost inevitable that the conclusion feel a little rushed, with NamTar all too susceptible to a devolving cocktail that surely someone would have injected him with earlier (Aeryn gets a dose of the same to reverse her mutation). The relationships between the crew are rather abruptly reset, too, but there’s at least a wonderful coda in which D’Argo tends to Pilot:

“You understand that if I was faced with the same choice again, I would do exactly the same.”

“I have no doubt whatsoever. I also know that Luxans are not given to apologies.”

D’Argo cannot help being the warrior that he is; but he’s determined to also be more. It’s with that that he reveals the shukran he’s been working on, and no, it is not a weapon. It’s an instrument. Remember, things are not what they seem.

Other observations: 

  • You can’t have tragedy without firmly defined characters. Case in point: the tragic elements of this episode stem from the willingness of selfish Rygel, violent D’Argo, and even rational Zhaan to harm the defenseless Pilot so as to obtain NamTar’s data. Their actions are understandable, even rational, but not necessarily excusable, and this domestic-y stuff is so familiar that if not for the freaky mutant Pilot-hybrid chained up in NamTar’s home, this could be a Lifetime movie.
  • Have we heard the curse “frell” before? It’s a more original substitute than “frack,” but doesn’t sound quite as satisfying.
  • Rygel’s scooter is conveniently fast, isn’t it?
  • That’s a sweet gesture from Crichton, bringing the recovering Aeryn a tray of food cubes placed in the shape of a smiley face.

Jesmyn Ward: “Barefoot”

12/21/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 14, 2011.

The first story of Ward’s that I ever read was her debut, which dealt with truckers. Her latest offers the inverse of that: the sedentary life of gas station attendant, Alsace, who works with a flirtatious gay man named James (who, at high school, was known as FuckBoy, “to try and smoke him out of the closet”), and who lives with his sister Monet and, occasionally, her abusive boyfriend, Harrison. Al’s mother left as soon as they were old enough to take care of themselves (eighteen for him, sixteen for her), and remains only a scolding presence via letters, so he’s suffering from an absence of love in his life. This leads to the main thrust of Ward’s story, in which one night, he flirts and has sex with a customer named Candice, and then succumbs to James’s advances, too. (“Why not? I thought, even though a small voice said: Why?”) This latter choice, a new one for him, is prompted by a memory of teaching Monet to ride a bike at age eleven, in which he cared for and calmed her after a slight accident: “All still except for the remainder of the tears running down her face. Calm. I did that, I thought.” It’s this same quiet, this calm, that he’s looking to give to James, whereas love, to him, is something that he feels unable to provide to any of his partners. (“It’s not like that for me. With anyone.”)

But there’s something missing in the story. We know that Al is a passive guy who wants to be tender, so what flips the switch at the end that makes him finally beat the shit out of Harrison? (“One for every black eye,” he says of his punches.) It’s especially odd, given the final two lines, which seem to express that he still doesn’t want to use violence. (“My hands. They felt wrong.”) Likewise, the title of the story comes from the moment just before this, in which Al tries to smooth things over with a wounded James, who happens to be cleaning the bathroom barefoot. Down on all fours, James is every inch as pathetic as his sister, in that he represents a person who will continue to return to a person who has proven that they cannot love them in return (at least with Al, there’s less violence), but if there’s a sudden thought in Al’s mind of there being any similarity between he and Harrison — and the need to therefore destroy any connection — Ward is perhaps playing her cards too tightly. I can’t entirely fault her for that: less can often be more, and Ward’s language has a tight fragility to it that speaks to its wounded, angry characters. But any story that’s capable of finding a common ground between the learned movements of cooking and those of domestic abuse should also be capable of refining that last, necessary connection.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too easy on Ward: Monet’s a straw character, the tragic victim, and like her, we only see James through Al’s eyes, and perhaps the first-person choice for this type of story (especially given the well-trod territory of abuse) was a poor one for the author. We need to know what’s going on here, but the narrator’s circumstances leave him unable to explain it. Instead, Harrison is simply the drunk with whom Monet is in love, and James is simply the FuckBoy who works with him.

Cesar Aira: “The Musical Brain”

12/20/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 5, 2011. (Translated from the Spanish, by Chris Andrews.)

My confusion may be due, in part, to this story’s particular strangeness: although there is a compelling logic to the order in which the various episodes follow one another, they also exist independently, like the stars in the sky which were the only witnesses to the denouement, so the figures they compose may seem to owe more to fantasy than reality.

I don’t mind so much when an author decides to write a story of the above nature, even if I think it’s merely fabulist stuff — i.e., dishonest, failed magical realism. But I fault Aira for not getting straight to this: do we really need two columns about the narrator’s memories of Sarita Subercaseaux, his supportive head librarian and eventual high-school headmistress, if this section exists only so far as to cast our narrator’s overly creative memories into question? (“She died before you were born,” his mother says. “You must be getting mixed up, remembering things I told you.”) The circumstances of the story also require far too much front-end explaining, which would be fine if it led to some sort of pay-off, but if it’s not going to make sense, or if it’s going to cheat the rules, why bother establishing any in the first place? Instead, Aira gives a lesson on the mysterious “Musical Brain,” some sort of miraculous appearance (of cardboard, painted “phosphorescent pink and crisscrossed with blue veins’) and which emits constant music at a whispered pitch. Here’s the opportunity, he thinks, to comment on the class divide of the community of Pringles, where they live, and so the son remembers how the mother has a serious aversion to the “unwashed masses” — the yokels — who chose to watch a “vulgar, broad comedy” instead of paying respects to the Musical Brain. No word, incidentally, on why these low comedies are so morally awful, while the circus — their next stop — is perfectly acceptable.

And here we pause, for “an explanation is required.” Again, I don’t mind Aira’s casual narrative style, the way in which he waffles from one beat to the next, pausing to occasionally rewrite an earlier scene, fill us in on the pertinent details, or to correct himself. These are acceptable quirks of an unreliable first-person narrative. And yet, again, I fault Aira for these insubstantial additions. Normally, the material you add in some way changes the stakes of the story, elevates the mood, or changes our appreciation of the characters; at the very least, they should tell us something about the narrator. But Aira’s child, as with mostly everything in this story, is a cipher. Aira even acknowledges this, noting as he tells the story that the arrival of three dwarfs (with the circus), two twins and the woman who is married to one and having an affair with the other, that this is really about the effect the disappearance of all three has on the town: “How could something as conspicuous as three dwarfs go unnoticed in that tiny glass box [of their town]? The episode began to take on a supernatural coloring. The dimensions of a dwarf turned out to be problematic, at least for the unsettled collective imagination.” Problematic, indeed! As it turns out, this isn’t really about the dwarfs, either: after the narrator’s sister accidentally shatters the Musical Brain (yes, shatters the cardboard object…), we find the corpses of the two dead dwarf twins, and even the best of descriptions would have trouble connecting these dots. (“They were like playing-card images, dressed in their little black suits, their faces and hands as white as porcelain; the color contrast made them visible through the dark red of the blood, which had escaped from wounds in both throats like open, screaming mouths.”)

I refer back to that opening quote, now. For remember: Aira thinks of his story as a series of stars. Perhaps you can arrange them into a constellation. Perhaps you can find fleeting momentum and narrative behind one shooting through the air. But ultimately, they’re individual objects, suspended in space, and if you try to fit them all together, the universe starts to collapse, be it from an unsustainable gravity, some sort of physical paradox, or just plain impracticality. I may have stretched that metaphor, mind you, but in no way have I gone as far as Aira, to whose story I now return: yes, there were dead dwarfs in the Musical Brain. As for that third dwarf, “the strangest creature ever produced by a theatrical deus ex machina” (and a self-reference to deus ex machina is hardly ever a good sign), she bursts out of “the large plaster effigy of Juan Pascual Pringles that adorned the apex of the proscenium” (where that low-comedy play is taking place), reveals her wings, turns into a giant dragonfly, and gives birth out atop the theater’s facade. Adding to the over-the-top descriptions of such mutant behaviors: “Down in the street, two of the clowns, with their motley costumes and painted smiles, climbed up on cars, and each waved a flattened dwarf body of his head like a banner.” Oh, and since we’ve come this far, remember Sarita Subercaseaux, the figment of the narrator’s inherited mother-memories? She shows up “with her big beehive hairdo, her pink, abundantly powdered face, her blue dress, and her little wedge-heeled shoes” and, without explanation (the author, again, comments on his own lack of said explanations) balances a book atop the egg the creature has left behind: “In the legendary history of Pringles,” reads the final line, “the curious figure thus produced has come to symbolize the founding of the Municipal Library.”

Ultimately, this story seems unnecessary to me. The point that I take away from it is that imagination is a powerful thing, and yet, all stories demonstrate that. By making this about nothing more than a literally literary creation myth (while at the same time abandoning anything “literal”), the story achieves nothing other than its own existence. No plot development, no character growth, just mass confusion for the sake of demonstrative art.

Peter Orner: “You Can’t Say Dallas Doesn’t Love You”

12/16/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 14, 2011.

I’m not sure if this is an excerpt or a leftover from Orner’s recently published novel, Love and Shame and Love, which takes a more expansive and multi-generational look at the Popper family; that is, each of the the sixteen sections read well, spanning 1976 to 2000, but they’re not entirely unified around any theme or character, nor do they have much to do with the title, the last words supposedly said to President Kennedy before he was assassinated. (The story takes place in the Chicago suburbs, mostly.) Since we’re here to read into things, these are perhaps glimpses at the last “words” spoken before the end of a marriage — that of Philip and Miriam Popper — an act that slowly boils up through an affair Miriam has with Philip’s legal partner, the highly intellectual Hal Rosencrantz, before exploding in an act of violence, and then slowly simmering away as the years pass by. You can make a strong argument for Orner’s placement of the pivotal act, too: “The Green Couch” subtitle repeats for both sections 7 and 8 (bridging the exact center of the story) and offers two slightly similar takes. It’s an aesthetic choice:

(Or maybe it was Alexander who leaped on Philip’s back and Alexander who teethed him in the neck, and it was Leo who called 911? Alexander and his father and his mother gumbling off the couch to the hardwood floor, the floor waking them up, and his mother standing and his father on his knees, hoarse and half-crying. Then, not long after, all of them, the whole tattered family, in the front hall, the two blue oafs, shifting their weight from foot to foot, hands fidgeting, looking at the floor not looking at Miriam, trying not to look at Miriam, staring at Miriam. We are not the kind of people who)

Not only does this pivotal section loop back into where the previous section was going (the unfinished “we are not the kind of people who”), but it leads into the next, which is filled not with one silence, but many, “building on themselves, multiplying like cells.” Should we want to, we can feed back into an earlier scene, too, in which Miriam spends time with Hal’s strongly feminist, cultured wife, Martha (the sort to throw Hal out on the principle of adultery, only to quickly then take him back out of efficiency). She listens to lectures in French that she cannot understand, but it’s enough to help her dream of other things — implying unhappiness with Philip, who will later note to his grown-up son, Alexander, that they simply had so little in common — and she notes that she enjoys “the music of the language.” In contemplation, that’s much the effect of Orner’s writing, too: on a first pass through, much goes over our heads, particularly the initial focus on the Rosencrantz kids (to be fair to Shakespeare and Stoppard, these are characters renowned for their insignificance to the pl0t). In second and third reads, it becomes clearer that Miriam’s unhappy, both from the way her kids act around the wildly gifted Rosencrantzes (sobbing for no particular reason, astonished by Martha’s welcoming hugs), and from her discussion with her husband about “class,” which she feels she lacks. (“Class is defined not by those who have it but by people who are worried sick they don’t. How can you buy it if the whole point is you can’t buy it?”)

Orner is an educated author, with a soft hand and plenty of imagination. It shows in his quiet, efficient explanations:

Maybe they wanted to be caught. But for Miriam, the truth was it was less those Tuesdays in Martha and Hal’s extra bedroom (the old maid’s room in the back of the townhouse)–fumbling and graceless but somehow untiring, years since it had been untiring–than the coffee after. Miriam was in her mid-thirties by then. It had been a long time since anybody asked her things about her life.

The significance of the term “old maid,” the perfectly chosen word for this sad sort of sex (“untiring”), and the one piece of small talk Orner gives us — lists of names Miriam’s father collected, for “knowing there was so many people he’d never know, never meet, somehow made him feel less alone” — it’s all lying right there in the open. It’s just, like the mostly unconnected sections, been left partially unassembled. Which, come to think of it, is another clever way to show a disassembling (and dissembling) marriage. So, too, with the ending, which leaps back from a chance encounter between a grown-up Alexander and Leah (one of the precocious Rosencrantz children) that’s the one particularly off-target “Where are they now?” part of the story, to a clear morning in 1979, the moment — we can assume, since we’re only given a sidelong glimpse — at which Miriam makes up her mind to leave her husband (by means of an affair). I’m not a hundred percent sold on the trimming that Orner appears to have done to get from a novel to this short, but so far as the parts focusing on (or providing details about) Miriam go, this is solid stuff.

Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress”

12/15/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2011.

I always find Atwood to be at her best when she’s writing speculative fiction (the literary term for science-fiction), for without that extra twist of something obviously invented, it can be hard to see how excellent and clever Atwood is, thorough and clear as she is. That’s what ails this final piece of the year, which only seems obvious because Atwood is so straightforward and deliberate in her immaculate prose. This is what a professional reads like; there’s not a single off-note, but at the same time, there’s nothing overly exciting or surprising. “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone,” begins the piece, and we spend the next few columns understanding her past crimes — she’s a black widow, driving her older husbands to an earlier, albeit natural death, for their inheritances (which she fairly divides with any other heirs) — before meeting her latest target, Bob Goreham, aboard a Magnetic Northward cruise/tour of the Arctic. Verna’s mind is made up, however, once she realizes that this is the same Bob who got her drunk back all those many years ago at the Snow Queen’s Palace winter formal and then raped her: “Pretty Verna, three years younger; studious, grade-skipping, innocent Verna, tolerated but not included, clawing her way toward a scholarship as her ticket out of town. Gullible Verna, who’d believed she was in love. Or who was in love. When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing?”

Atwood’s always been interested in the cause-and-effect, and because it’s a short story, she hastily — but smoothly — maps it all out for us: her religious mother’s exiling of her to the church-run Home for Unwed Mothers, the difficult labor, the setting off on her own, and finally “It was only by great good luck that she stumbled upon an older married man who took an interest in her. She traded three years of noontime sex with him for her education.” This is an exceedingly smart girl who, despite massive setbacks, managed on her own to become a successful physiotherapist and much desired wife, and now she can finally take revenge on the panty-girdle-stealing man who basically turned her into the cold murderer she is today.

As I stated before, this isn’t a particularly deep story, and the plot’s fairly standard; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, say, Joyce Carol Oates had written much the same story. The flashbacks are handled in what you might call textbook fashion, and the details are slotted in with studious panache. Verna must find a way to kill and dispose of Bob without anyone noticing, and so she listens extra closely to the lecture given by the tour guides regarding safety policies, which Atwood provides to us more or less in full. It’s, in her words, a “discouragingly capable” talk, which could be used to describe this story, too, which seems too well written to merely be about the planning and execution of one’s revenge. (Then again, the television show Revenge makes for some campy entertainment, as there’s nothing wrong with light fiction like this: at least the writing is stronger, and Verna’s better mapped out, than your average beach read.) In any case, whether it’s cleverly been done or not, Atwood succeeds in setting the Arctic scene, doubling down on some foreshadowing while she’s at it: “There’s a classic iceberg on the port side, with a center so blue it looks dyed, and ahead of them is a mirage–a fata morgana, towering like an ice castle on the horizon, completely real except for the faint shimmering at its edges.” It’s too perfect, perhaps: the glacier’s color echoing those of Verna’s first pair of high heels (the ones she was raped in), the setting not so different from that winter palace, the title’s “stromatolite” translation leading to an event that is both hard and soft, good and bad.

It’s not fair to Atwood to call her less subtle than Alice Munro, and “Stone Mattress” does a fine job of capturing the fluttering second thoughts in Verna’s mind. (“Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormone puppets at that age?”) But it does seem as if the writing’s so pleased with itself that it dares not risk being subtle; it presents interesting factoids about the Arctic landscape and then literally asks the reader “Isn’t that astonishing?” Atwood’s smart enough not to hurt her own momentum; she still finds ways to intermix (instead of interrupt) the action with beautiful descriptions: “Still others have been ground, so that all that’s left of them is a series of raised concentric oblongs, like a cinnamon bun or the growth rings on a tree. And here’s one shattered into four, like a Dutch cheese sliced into wedges.” She’s even got a built-in qualifier for her choices:

A raven flies overhead, circles around. Can it tell? is it waiting? she looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman–because, face it, she is an old woman now–on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

For me, that’s what ultimately sells the story — which again, doesn’t have a bad moment in it. Life is paltry, and it is vicious, but most of all, it is normal, and given all of our expectations, especially to the hardened reader, it literally cannot always surprise us. Giving in at last, then, I admit to enjoying everything here, but here’s to a more ambitious 2012.

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