Sam Ruddick: “Leak” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/19/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The Threepenny Review, Summer 2010.

I was telling Peyton about a friend of mine who’d seen a documentary on polar bears one day and quit his job in marketing the next; he’d moved to Alaska and gone to work for an environmental nonprofit, and I thought there must have been something wrong with him, because he’d always been so business-minded in the past, and the polar bear thing came out of nowhere.

That’s a perfect opening sentence to Ruddick’s story, not because it’s particularly interesting (though it’s revealing that this is the sort of pillow-talk Oscar shares with Peyton), but because it sums up the casual nature of the writing itself, which feels like a story someone languorously related to you so as to pass the time. And while a polar bear doesn’t appear out of nowhere, the characters who do appear, gumming up the works — Oscar’s ex, Stacy, and Petyon’s understanding husband, George — might as well, given how insubstantial they are. “She said it was like that sometimes,” comes the ending of the next paragraph. “People just did things.” The problem being, of course, that a story in which people just do things — crazy things, like popping in on your ex in the middle of the night, inviting yourself in, and making pasta — doesn’t really hold up. Just as Oscar wonders whether his nonprofit friend is crazy, transferring emotions from his father’s sickness into his professional life, so too do we wonder if these people are crazy: how else to explain their actions? Ruddick’s one greatest strength — not playing to stereotypical drama, which would dictate that Peyton and Stacy must fight (or team up against the double-timing man they’ve been seeing) or that George must be wielding a gun and a lot of pent-up anger — ironically becomes his weakness, too. Having assembled all these places in one room, he only avoids confrontation and conflict, which makes us wonder why, exactly, he’s bothered to write them all in at all.

Part of my boredom, I know, is due to the aplomb with which Mad Men writes about characters like Oscar, who I see as a Pete Campbell type: a bachelor who, although involved in a relationship, is constantly looking for something more, never having fully grown-up or evolved. Moreover, although this story was published first, it’s Mad Men‘s “Signal 30” that smartly handles the whole metaphorical “leak” situation that Ruddick alludes to here. In Mad Men, Pete decides to fix a leak — although he doesn’t know how — by randomly applying tools to pipes. And while he stops the dripping, he’s inadvertently bottled the pressure, and the faucet later explodes, leading to him being one-upped by the far more capable and manly Don Draper. In “Leak,” the story culminates with George, having arrived to pick up his wife Peyton (who has smashed up her car while attempting to go home, believing Oscar to still be entangled with Stacy, which, to be fair, is a healthy assumption given his inability to get Stacy to leave), preparing to fix the mess — this leak — that Oscar has been ignoring or, as the story posits, is just completely ignorant of: that’s how blind he is. “I went to the closet to get the toolbox. My mother had given it to me when I moved out of my parents’ house, nearly twenty years before, and I don’t think I’d opened it but once or twice in all that time.” I know, I know: ten pages of fluff to get to this? Where’s the story?

What I’m saying is that I understand Ruddick’s metaphor — it’s not a very complicated one — but it’s lacking the rich characterizations that would help to drive it home. Although this is written in the first-person, this is about as much as we get out of Oscar: “I’d have real problems, depending on what [Stacy said], and that was up to Stacy. Kicking her out would be as good as telling Peyton I was fucking her, which–in truth–had not been the case for several weeks.” The revelation here is supposed to be that Oscar was sleeping with both Stacy and Peyton at one point, but what’s missing is Oscar’s feelings on the matter: did he stop screwing Stacy because he was getting serious with Peyton, or because Stacy was crazy? (There’s an allusion in the story, too, that Oscar likes to be bad; again, this is wholly undeveloped.) Worse are the ways in which Stacy and George are treated: the latter, at least, is described as a man with an arrangement, and although he’s no looker, he apparently has things on the side, too. But Stacy? Trust me, I know there are crazy girls out there, but when a girl interrupts your affair out of boredom (she spends much of her time flirting with a police officer who shows up to file the car-crash report), then you’ve got issues with motivation. Ultimately, this isn’t a story that allows a lot for interpretation — it’s quite clear — and so it’s hard to not be disappointed by the rather shallow, drip-like observations Ruddick concludes with.

Sam Ruddick on “Leak”

Ouch. Sam notes that his first draft “was a solemn and dull affair,” and it can’t be a good sign that he’s only now making a “breakthrough in the way I think about writing.” Then again, his breakthrough is exactly what I take issue with: whereas he was once “overly concerned with plausibility: The actions of my characters had to make sense,” he’s now convinced that people, especially fictional ones, don’t act that way. I disagree, or at least think he’s oversimplified things. Characters don’t have to make sense to us, but they, for the most part, have to make sense to themselves, and as the author who is creating them, he still needs to be able to get inside their minds. I don’t think that “Leak” is “much more interesting” having been unshackled from reason; as I pointed out in my observations about “Signal 30” above, the joy of this scenario is in watching characters that you know react to unusual things. They might surprise you in the moment, but in hindsight, we should be able to understand where they were coming from . . . and perhaps because this story is so short, we haven’t learned enough to adequately look back.

Karen Carlson on “Leak”

Wow. I love disagreements, but I can’t say I’m not relieved to find that Karen Carlson is on almost exactly the same page as me. We even quoted the same sections from both the story and Sam’s notes about his story. The one thing Carlson gives to Ruddick’s writing is the way it’s “straddling the line between realism and absurdism.” I can’t say I agree with this — even with that quote about “clown cars” (which I believe is the editor’s observation, not Ruddick’s) — but that may be because I’m approaching this, as I said, with “Signal 30” still on the mind, and perhaps with Ionesco as too ready a touchstone for absurdism. In any case, while “mild amusement” is fine for a story, I think we’d all agree that the standards for a PEN/O. Henry Prize Story ought to be a great deal higher than that.

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Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage”

05/16/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 21, 2012.

You know what’s romantic? Sincerity. And how better to illustrate the depths of said sincerity in the one-directional love that William (“tall and thin and shy and awkward”) feels for his high school classmate, Bridey, than by watching him stifle his feelings over the years, lest he be rejected like Monty and the many other men she has flings with, lest he show her a hint of the earnestness that she, whose mother had left at the age of nine (at the advice of a psychic channeler), has no capacity for taking seriously. To put this to the test, Maile Meloy has chosen an excellent device, the sort that somebody surely must have written about before, but which comes across in a wholly fresh way here: Bridey’s father is a lawyer, and they all live in Montana, which allows an apocryphal scrap of law known as the “double proxy wedding,” in which neither party actually needs to be present to legally wed. (It was used primarily for soldiers, so as be sure that death benefits, if necessary, would be properly paid out.) So as the years pass by, with Bridey leaving first for a conservatory and then New York (to Make It as an actress), their lives keep intersecting, and we get updates on their growth after each new proxy wedding. And although the story is primarily told from a third-person that’s clearly siding with William, Meloy’s precise with her observations: Bridey’s emotions feel fully developed, even when they’re occasionally described in shorthand. (“Her eyes went through a whole sequence of emotions: surprise, then compassion and sadness, and then something that looked like joy. Her face flushed pink again, and she looked like the Bridey Taylor he had fallen in love with.”)

What makes this odd love story so effective, though, is Meloy’s commitment to its length: as the years pass, William finally gets a girlfriend of his own — an oboist at Oberlin (nice sense of humor) — and finds a rhythm in his piano playing that shifts him to the creative art of composition. He attempts to suture shut the unrequited wounds in his heart, and the flicker of hope that he feels comes from the thought “not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free.” Disappointment breezes through the door for both of them:

“Maybe my mother was right,” she said. “I’m just not pretty enough.”

“Bridey,” he said. “You’ve been there eight months.”

But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. Sometimes there were happy calls abut jobs: a cat-food ad that paid bills, a touring company that never made it to Indiana. But rejection was wearing her down. Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him.

That elision between eight months and years sneaks right by, because isn’t that just how it is with some people, especially the ones you still feel something for? And time isn’t the only thing shifting: feelings are afoot, too. For those first few proxy weddings, Bridey comes across as a sullen child — and understandably so, given the failed marriage between her parents; toward the middle of their “career” of proxy weddings, she opens herself up to the possibility of true love — “What are the chances? That you’ll meet that one person?” she asks. “Better than the chances of contacting a dead pioneer woman,” he replies with the easy comfort of a friend who knows all about your mother’s psychic obsessions. Bridey’s final realizations come as shocks to her: one couple requests that they read their vows, and although Bridey guardedly begins by almost laughing at the romantic notion of the script’s “I will run through the rain for you,” she’s blown away by the ending: “‘You are irreplaceable to me, you are the man I was meant to spend my life with, and I hereby put my heart in your hands.’ She put down the script. ‘Oh,’ she said, startled. ‘That’s really–I’m sorry I laughed.'” The last push comes from their final proxy wedding, with the bride and groom watching via Skype; it turns out that the bride is superstitious, and asks them to seal the deal with a kiss: “But then it just seemed to happen, as if by magnetic force, as if human lips couldn’t be in such proximity and not meet.” That’s some A-grade romance right there, this notion of inevitability, of the forces — no, rules — of attraction.

By this point, Bridey has been in a failed marriage, at least one of the soldiers they “married” has died in Afghanistan, and William has worked his way, musically, through an unsettling depression (“Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe”). So when they finally reach one another, as she realizes what he has felt (or known) all along, there’s a real sense of the ending being earned, and if it’s a bit sappy, well sure, but that’s because I don’t think any of us handle earnestness all that well. I’ll let Meloy close it, then, as she’s fully earned these last lines:

He thought he might weep at the relief of it, with the release of all the years of waiting, the intermittent periods of suppressed grief. Equal affection. Was this it? It didn’t have to be exactly equal. He would take anything close.

Phillipe Claudel: “The Investigation” (Excerpt)

05/15/2012 § Leave a comment

From Harper’s, May 2012. (Excerpted from The Investigation and translated from the French by John Cullen.)

“Something was ringing. A timorous, quavering, tired sound.” So begins this excerpt, and hopefully the novel itself, for while what’s here provokes only a purgatorial atmosphere, it hints at exciting things for the larger work. For one, the exciting present tense and the Investigator’s manic questioning and on the other, the suspension of normal rules, thereby rendering much of this man’s questions moot. What do we think Sherlock, say, would make of his inexplicable nudity, the telephone installed in the ceiling, or narrowness of this hotel room, so tight that one must stack a bed atop a dresser in order to unblock and reach the bathroom? And it’s not all just gimmickry either: Claudel uses this strange and uncomfortable situation to reflect back on the unconscious quirks of humanity itself. The way the Investigator covers his groin upon realizing that he’s naked, even though he is alone and the window shuttered. (The author calls this “an idiotic reflex.”) Or, in my favorite snippet, the way in which the Investigator is on the verge of calling an elderly man out on his immodest, flagrant use of a toilet, and the embarrassing decorum that holds him back “when it occurred to him that perhaps it was he himself who was not in his proper place. Suppose this bathroom wasn’t his?” When you add farcical elements to it, such as the image of this naked Inspector, lathered in Mauve Lilac, attempting to creep past the newspaper-reading man (no accident that his toes are scarlet, having been scalded earlier), it grows even more damnably entertaining. Claudel hardly needs to throw in allusions to that Other Place (“The beauty of the bathroom served no useful purpose. It was a Paradise warmed by the flames of Hell”); in my mind, I was already recalling that wonderful advertisement for the Got Milk? people, in which a man enjoys a lavishly white room and a mountain of cookies served by lovely ladies before realizing that there’s no milk, and that nobody said this was heaven.

Obviously, I can’t judge the success of the work as a whole, but that’s not what I’m here to do. What works, then, about this excerpt, is the visually precise manner in which Claudel captures these surroundings, and the tense in which he uses each new discovery (readers like mysteries) to further enmesh us. Mixing comedy and philosophy keeps both the high and low parts of our brain active: we justify the sheer entertainment by the moral lessons we presume to be hidden within, much as with, say, Moliere. A self-referential twist, allowed by the third-person narrative, only serves to push this point home, and I’ll end by letting the excerpt speak for itself:

He’d been compelled to read a little poetry for school assignments in his youth, but he’d never understood any of it. And what he’d found especially hard to understand was that men could waste their time writing poems, which served no useful purpose, none at all, whereas cold, precise investigative reports written to give an account of proven facts, to narrow a search for truth, and to draw valid conclusions struck him as a more intelligent–indeed, as the only valid–way of using language and serving humanity. How ill and unnerved must he be, that the mere sight of an opulent bathroom could set him daydreaming about languorous negresses and palm wine, oriental pastries and belly dances?

To be more precise, the excerpt is literally speaking for itself: the text promises to demonstrate, at length, the point that its main character declaims. It’s been done before, but then again, I’ve always enjoyed such cleverness (e.g., Paul Auster), and so I’m hooked.

Paul Theroux: “Our Raccoon Year”

05/11/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, May 2012.

Very nice, what Theroux is doing here, in linking a father’s attempts to hold things together after the moody departure of his wife to the arrival/infestation of a horde of raccoons laying waste to these fragile attempts at keeping up appearances. The pacing is terrific, and the story takes on a device well-perfected in The Scarlet Letter — i.e., the sections mirror each other, as do many of the lines spoken by the characters — but without being heavy-handed about it. As Pa goes through some variant on the stages of grief, we see him getting all choked up at the sight of a “plump mother raccoon with a black eye mask, tottering a little and poking her snout along the edge of the brick apron of the pool” and saying, “‘There’s a real mother.'” It’s only a matter of time, however, before he’s calling them “coons,” and while he starts out by merely trapping the vermin and releasing them miles away, he’s soon getting satisfaction out of transferring his rage against his absent wife onto the vile creatures. How extreme does he get? “‘Know what? I’d like to crucify one.'” Ouch. His food goes to waste, too: he begins the story taking on all of Ma’s former tasks and in his determination to one-up and prove how little he needs her, he takes up “fancy cooking, the sort of cooking that makes a person bossy, talking about his sauces and his fresh ingredients.” (The story is narrated in the first-person by the older of his two sons, so “bossy” is terrific word choice.) “‘Anything with a mouth would eat that,'” says Pa, but by the end, when he’s telling his kids to “just fix yourselves something,” he’s gone to the other extreme: “‘I eat anything that fits into my mouth.'”

But while the execution of the structure is subtle and the language manages to be lightly playful and descriptive all at once, the plot itself is rather blunt. We’re told, at least three times, that the father is becoming a bit of a raccoon himself: at first, it’s a quiet parallel between the parting mother’s “bright anxious eyes” and the father’s eyes, described toward the end as “dark in the day and yellowish at night.” Do we then need to be told that “He’d begun keeping raccoon hours”? The fact that the story ends with this line — “When I looked back I saw him staring with yellow eyes at Ma leading us away from him” — makes me recognize how unsubstantial the story is. Is that really it? A man’s year-long reversion to animal habits, consumed by pettiness and anger? And despite writing from the eldest’s perspective, we’re given very little on how this actually impacts the kids, and what little we do get is often played for jokes, or shock. The sons overhear the father yelling at a visitor — when they round the corner, believing it to be their mother, they see instead “the masked face and the snout and the greasy fur.” The story is utterly believable, and far from boring, especially with all those comic twists and reversals, but the conclusion is a bit too mundane: you’re not really going to need or want to revisit this.

Does that make “Our Raccoon Year” a failure? That depends largely on why one writes: is it to entertain, to surprise, to delight? Is it to demonstrate, teach, or terrify? Is it to help bridge a gap between lies we can accept and truths we cannot? I believe that the best fiction is capable of all these things, and more. Theroux’s tale unambitiously aims and succeeds and hitting the low, animal, notes: taken for what it is, then, it’s quite good.

Alice Mattison: “The Vandercook” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/10/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in Ecotone, Spring 2011.

“Splendid Molly, difficult Molly,” writes Mattison, interjecting this odd descriptive clause into the middle of the first sentence, which tells us quite a lot about Lorenzo’s wife of thirteen years. In case that’s not clear, we’re told that “Once she came to a decision, she was alone with it; even if the decision made everyone unhappy–including her–her determination was unwavering. The two of us mostly shared political beliefs, but it was Molly who went online and made the donation.” Stubborn Molly, committed Molly. “I want it,” she says one night, while Lorenzo mulls the necessity of selling his father’s printing shop; just like that, the family of four (they have two young boys, Julian and Tony) is off to New Haven, where Lorenzo can easily find teaching work, and where his wife, a software marketer, can presumably teach herself to run Conte’s Printing, with the assistance of the long-time manager, soft-spoken Gilbert. Lorenzo can even continue his hobby of fiddling around on the old-fashioned letterpress, a Vandercook, and to Mattison’s credit, this slow, laborious work can serve a a sterling reflection of Lorenzo’s laid-back energy (as in contrast with his wife’s literal restlessness) and his increasing distraction with such work. (On a side note, there’s also a Hollywood movie filming in the neighborhood; it’s perhaps the most distracting thing in the story, since it doesn’t really affect anything. It’s a period piece, too, so it’s entirely out of place.)

The action of the story is driven by a secret that Gil has, something that the father keeps hinting at: “Gilbert has problems he may not mention.” The father seems to be sinking little barbs in Molly, too: his trailed-off sentence about Molly (“Of course, Molly is a wonderful girl…”) would suggest that Molly had been rebuffed by Gil and was therefore taking out her uncontrollable energies on him, looking to see him fired — except that the father adds an observation about Molly’s major difference from Lorenzo and Gil: “Some people–no secrets. Molly. No secrets. Maybe temporary secrets or minor secrets.” (We see this much is true, too, not only from the introduction, but from an odd little scene where, one night after a bit of joking that leads to sex — “Sex and laughter were closely connected for Molly” — she restlessly announces that “There are people I could kill if I had to, and people I couldn’t kill, no matter what.” It’s another mark of contrast between Lorenzo and his wife, too, in that Zo can’t imagine actually shooting Molly — not even if it were to save his own children, not even out of anger at her brash and steadfast decisions.) In any case, the drama occurs between the pages: one night, the store is vandalized and Molly believes it to be Gil (in fairly racist terms, despite the story’s political suggestions that she is, if anything, one of those people who fights tirelessly for equality).

We don’t focus on the action events: we stick on the outskirts, with depictions of the copying job Lorenzo is attempting to finish — typesetting poems written by inner-city children for a fundraiser — and of the film being shot in the streets of New Haven — a gangster-type piece, in which his son is appearing as an extra who innocently plays jacks on the street before being startled by gunshots. When we come back to the main plot, more time has passed: Gil has apparently confessed to Molly that while he did not vandalize the store, he believes it to have been done by an angry ex-lover of his (he’s a closeted gay man, or at least a bi-sexual one, as he’s married): she now wants to let Gil go, despite his own innocence and long-time involvement with the store. Once again, there’s an implication that Molly is merely following through on a decision she’d already made but could not previously justify, an wrong-headed assessment of Gil as a troublesome type.

The story’s conclusion — unearned, unclear, and certainly unjustified — skips ahead to the moment right after Molly has fired Gil. Gil turns to comfort/protect Lorenzo’s father — implying that they’re the ones who are (or were) in a relationship —  while Molly slowly turns to look at Tony, not her husband: “I understood that it was because she didn’t want to find out–yet–how much she had lost.” Again, the glossed-over read of this would suggest that Zo has walked in on Molly having sex with Gil, but that makes no sense. (A brief sequence just before entering the shop hints at this, too, with Tony interpreting the plot of the film that’s shooting outside as “It’s her own fault.”) And that’s the difficult part of this scene and this story: we know that it’s about fault and about acceptance of fault, but the vagaries of Mattison’s writing leave us no way either to blame or to excuse. Is the point that some things are just too terrible to speak of? Or that enough minor things can blow up in your face?

Alice Mattison on “The Vandercook”

It seems as if Mattison also doesn’t have the answers to the questions I pose: in her notes, she speaks about her desire to write only about flawed people and acknowledges that these people therefore cannot solve their problem. Apparently, this also means that the flaw has infected her work and made it so that she cannot explain them or their problem to us without somehow violating this crucial defect of character. In this, she may have been pigeonholed by the choice to write in the first-person: Lorenzo, clearly, is working through his own issues and is perhaps not the most reliable person when it comes to what Molly may or may not be doing behind his back.

Karen Carlson on “The Vandercook”

I advise you to read her interpretation on your own, but Karen is compelled by the use of past-as-character in the story, and less concerned with the nature of Molly’s flaws than with the mere fact that they exist and that the story serves to push Lorenzo into a place where he must at last confront them. We’re in agreement about what the story is doing, but I’m interested in the ways in which these devilish details can either suck someone in or pull someone out — for Karen, there’s a “perfect storm” sort of atmosphere, in that she has a personal connection to films being shot in a neighborhood and a fascination in old-fashioned print shops (i.e., anti-Kinkos); for me, as I noted above, the film seems to have no connection to the story (save for allowing Tony to re-enforce this concept of a protagonist who brings it all on herself), and while I appreciate learning about a relic like the Vandercook, it’s not being used as a metaphor and if it’s paralleling Zo, it’s in an generally uninteresting way — what does it reveal about him, after all, that we don’t already know? For Carlson (and apparently the editor, Laura Furman), the story pans out as such: “I’m interested enough to imagine the scenarios [that could play out], but not frustrated that the author didn’t tell me which one — if any — will come to pass.” And I, clearly, am more frustrated than filled with a sense of wonder or imagination: I think “The Vandercook” is filled with confusing double-speak; to put it in terms more appropriate to the story, it has been poorly typeset, leading to errors in spacing and the general readability of the overall concept. Life is blurry enough without a story running the ink every which way.

Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams”

05/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 14, 2012. (Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.)

Apropos of nothing comes Stamm’s lovely dream of a story, which spends six or so pages establishing the firm yet forever tenuous reality of Lara, a bank employee, and Simon, who hiply works electronics and music in a hi-fi store: young lovers who have been living for four months in a fixer-upper apartment in a run-down neighborhood, slowly building a life for one another by buying random new objects, discovering an appreciation for the “unexpected charm” of conjoined life (“a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them”) and a deep pride in this parent-free independence. They’re grown-ups at last — well, at least in their eyes — even if Lara is still a bit shy about sex, only now getting used to the fact that they don’t have to be wary of making too much noise, or mortified by the thought of a parent walking in on them. On Lara’s mind, at least, is the thought that this might all vanish one day: the story opens with her remembering childhood photographs of a lost family that is only half-remembered now: “The colors were faded, which made them somehow more garish. It was as though the photographs had captured the sun, the sun of childhood, pale and ever-present. Thereafter the family had fallen apart, and people had gone their separate ways.” You might say she’s actively in the process of clinging to that sun, and you can see this reflected in the nervousness she feels around strange men or potentially meddlesome women — like their young Serbian neighbor, Danica — that might interfere with the perfect little life she’s carving out of nothingness. The story is a blend of introspective insecurities and external manifestations of them, shown in charming little quirks.

Lara remembered what Simon had said: “Forever is along time.” Presumably, the towels would outlast their relationship, she thought, and that gave her a shock. She loved Simon, and he loved her, but was there any guarantee that he would still love her in five or ten years’ time? Her notions of the future were both very precise and very vague.

All this is plainly, superbly written. I buy these characters in an instant. Which is what makes Stamm’s ending so frustrating: he throws back the curtain and emphasizes that these characters are mere fictions. Throughout the story, Lara keeps coming back to the familiar face of a stranger she made eye contact with on the bus; now, in the middle of the night, with Simon asleep after a crucially un-prudish bit of sex (“She rode him until she could no longer feel the burning in her knees, and sensed the blood rushing to her face”), she watches television and sees the man — who is a writer — giving an interview. In this interview, he describes making eye contact with Lara from his perspective, noting that Lara and Simon had reminded him “terribly earnestly” of his own youth, and proceeds to describe the “blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out.” He’s describing, of course, the story we’ve just read, and in the next beat he notes that in reality, the people who inspired Lara and Simon weren’t actually a couple at all — they got off at different stops. And while it’s unclear in the final sentences if that transforms the Lara that is still the focal point of this story, it’s painfully obvious of empty of a shell “Lara” now is, and the story goes on to end as follows: “For a month, the channel would keep replaying this conversation with him, in an endless loop, until he himself had become just as imaginary a figure as Lara or Simon.” I want to say that this reminds me a bit of the fake-outs you’d find in classic German literature, say the constant unease and distrust of reality found in E. T. A. Hoffman, but I don’t really know it all that well; I can speak only to the effect Stamm’s writing has here, which needlessly pulls us out of the story. Must we be woken up from the dream in order to realize that it’s a dream? Must the awakening be so rude?

Dagoberto Gilb: “Uncle Rock” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/05/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 10, 2010. (Read it here.)

This is the sort of short story that sells collections, both by dint of being the first of the twenty stories anthologized by the PEN/O. Henry editor Laura Furman, but also in terms of Dagoberto Gilb’s own collection, Before the End, After the Beginning, which also contains one of my all time favorite stories, “please, thank you.” All that, and it has a relatively happy ending, too: a sort of coming-of-age for this young son of a Mexican immigrant, torn not only between cultures but set adrift by the lack of a proper father figure. Most importantly to my own rubrics, each line is rich, textured, and justified through the context of the story as a whole. “In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top.” This isn’t mere description, mind you, this is our introduction to a ritual, to the sort of life this boy leads — that’s why this restaurant is modified by “favorite.” The emphasis on American food gives you a hint to how he defines himself, culturally, but note also the bilingual choice, then, for papitas. As the paragraph develops, we learn, too, exactly why he focuses so much on his food — a thing that most of us non foodies would gloss straight over to get to the good stuff. It’s because there’s another part to this ritual, in which a man will first be “staring too much” and then will come over, all friendly like, to hit on his beautiful mother. Appearances and descriptions are important here, too: who are the types of men that the boy’s mother attracts? (“Friendly, he’d put his thick hands on the table as if he were touching water, and squat low, so that he was sitting level, as though he were being polite, and he’d smile, with coffee-and-tobacoo-stained teeth.” Bold emphasis is mine.) And who are the types of men that the mother responds to? (“She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her.”) Meanwhile, there’s our eleven-year-old boy: “Erick drove a fork into a goopy American egg yolk and bled it into his American potatoes.” (Note the mono-lingual choice, this time around, reflecting his anger toward these callous, piggish American men: stabbing, bleeding into what he loves.)

That’s rich material, ripe for simply digesting or some deeper dissecting, and as the story continues, we see that Erick’s response to what he sees and disapproves of is to simply remain, for the most part, mute. What’s the point of engaging these shallow, transient “fathers’? And what is there, really, to say to his mother, given that, on the worst possible level within himself, he can understand why she continues to see these people? (She often threatens him with stories of what life was like back home: “He saw this Mexico as if it were the backdrop of a movie on afternoon TV, where children walked around barefoot in the dirt or on broken sidewalks and small men wore wide-brimmed straw hats and baggy white shirts and pants.”) No wonder he tells his one friend, a white neighbor named Albert, that the rich engineer his mother is dating is his father. No wonder he burns with shame when her mother’s poor(er) Mexican love, Roque, shows up to comfort her after the engineer both dumps and fires her, when he must pretend to Albert that this is his Uncle Rock, a lie — and another matter of appearances — that is quickly dispelled. Then again, listen to the way Uncle Rock appears (in contrast to the other men we’ve met): “He wore nothing flashy or expensive, just ordinary clothes that were clean and ironed, and shoes he kept shined. He combed and parted his hair neatly. He didn’t have a buzzcut like the men who didn’t like kids.” This man, unlike all the others, is clean, and while we’re on the subject of appearances: “He loved her so much–anybody could see his pride when he was with her.”

The final third of this story, then, involves yet another great American pastime: a trip to a Dodgers game, where the splendor of another world of riches and fame can be held even by a poor child sitting in the bleachers: “For him the green of the field was a magic light: the stadium decks surrounding them seemed as far away as Rome.” And indeed, there’s opportunity for all here, all are equal: he catches a home-run. Perhaps all of his prayers have been answered. After the game, as the Phillies board their bus, they call to the boy to throw them the ball so that they can autograph it for him. And they do! It’s a better life! Except, and here’s the rub, then one of the players and his voice from above add a little more: “The hand threw something at him. For your mom, okay? Comprendes? Erick stared at the asphalt lot where the object lay, as if he’d never seen a folded-up piece of paper before. Para tu mama, bueno?” These people could give one shit about him, about his small-time dreams. They want to sleep with his mother. To use her up, like everyone else, of course they do. So as he turns back across the lot, as he sees her with Roque — no more Uncle Rock — he throws the paper on the ground and runs over to them, ending the story with this line, the first that he’s spoken: “Look, he said in a full voice. They all signed the ball.” He’s made his choice; he’s found a truer happiness, the sort that can’t be bought.

Dagoberto Gilb on “Uncle Rock”

One wonderful thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that they have feedback from the editor, jurors, and authors. I normally don’t read the interviews that are run online, say, at The New Yorker, but I’ll make an exception here, because I’m interested. According to his notes, Gilb writes from “an experience–personal or observed–that gets loaded onto and chipped away at and artistically distorted by the various obsessions I have.” I buy that: it’s a twist on the whole “Write what you know” spiel that most workshops attempt to drill into you. But more importantly, it’s in line with my own philosophies on fiction — particularly in opposition to non-fiction, or memoir — which is that truths are actually easier to digest by an audience once they’ve been slightly altered, just enough to slip secretly in under your skin. We’re so conditioned to cope with the world around us, to put up defensive walls, that we rarely let them down, unless we think we’re reading something Other. In that, fiction remains “the truth that tells a lie,” and if you start from a real place and find artistic ways to harness, adapt, and reveal that, I feel as if you can’t possibly miss.

Karen Carlson on “Uncle Rock”

Another nice thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that other people tend to blog about it. Karen Carlson is one of those people who has diligently been at this for a few years, covering BASS, Pushcart, and the stray collections that catch her eye. I enjoy a hearty literary discussion, and as I mentioned above, as I believe fiction works best when it sneaks in and refracts itself through the reader, I find it informative and interesting to see how others interpret it. (Karen goes a few steps further, too, in linking to some of the other literary blogs out there, people who covered this story back when it was first published. I guess I’m in the Trevor camp.) From her reactions, I don’t think she’s missed anything in the story — although she may be reading the mother too harshly; she wants what’s best for her child, not necessarily for herself, and she seems to have come around to Roque’s camp, even broaching the possibility of marrying him — rather, she simply hasn’t connected with the material in the same way that I have. (And mind you, my way isn’t the right way.) Does that have to do with the embedded cultural references? Is it a difference of perspectives across genders? (Karen brings up the question of where all the women bloggers are; it’s a good one.) Or is it a matter of brevity/density? (Karen seems to agree most with Federico’s view, in that these pages require too much patience.) I dig that; sometimes a longer, looser story has more time to work its rhythms and ways into you; a shorter, tauter story can seem harsh and unapproachable by comparison. If it immediately misses, there’s no chance for it to correct. Well, hey, I started this blog to talk about fiction, so let’s talk!

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