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.

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

  • pincusb says:

    It’s a shame that you really did not understand this wonderful story. Obviously it was not formulaic enough and the complexity was beyond your comprehension.
    Mattison is a brilliant writer and this story proves it.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      You know, Pincusb, I don’t understand responses like these; this goal of this site is to struggle — as a writer — toward a better comprehension of what each author is attempting to do and either failing at, or succeeding, on a personal level. I’m engaging with other writer/readers (like Karen Carlson, and probably Charles May, too, now that she’s led me to him) in the hopes of getting as wide a variety of viewpoints, too. So for you to blindly drop by to insult my intelligence and taste (I’m *not* a fan of formula — at worst, you can accuse me of overly enjoying resolution) and not even offer a few reasons for your *own* enjoyment, well, it accomplishes nothing. Obviously Mattison’s a talented writer to have been so prestigiously anthologized; I’d love to learn what great complexities I’m missing, misinterpreting, or glossing over.

  • It’s really the story-as-read, isn’t it – what was it you said before, filtered through the reader. I was so struck by the Past looming throughout. The title of the story, and the movie – they push this forward to me, require that I focus there. Had it been titled “Curtis Printing” and the movie omitted, I probably would have felt much the same as you did. By the way, I had no idea what a Vandercook was before reading the story – I was thinking something to do with hunting, a species of bird, for some reason ( possibly misread it as “Vandercock” but still, I’m always perplexed by how I project from strange unknown places onto unfamiliar blank canvases.

    How interesting that the projection into the future I found so acceptable here, whereas I found this such a problem in “Hand on the Shoulder,’ the New Yorker spy story from a few weeks ago. That was playing in the back of my head but I just saw it clearly now when I read this. For me, this story did not promise to deliver something, then stop short of it.

    By the way, Charles May is also reading this collection over at “Reading the Short Story,” though he hasn’t included this one yet.

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    Interesting response, Karen, and it’s great to try to come to terms with your reaction to this story in relation to another (“Hand on the Shoulder”) or even farther back to “Transatlantic,” which I believe you liked, despite knowing that there was more to come. A former professor of mine encouraged me to come up with rubrics for what I found most effective in fiction, and this blog, if anything, is an extension of that: are there some overall rules that I might apply to fiction (with the understanding that rules will occasionally be broken), and might I then apply that knowledge to better crafting my own stories?

    One of the issues I often have with details in stories is that they’re relatively easy to write, and then have the Dickensian effect of lengthening a story and creating an illusion of “realism.” Look, it proclaims, look at how many facts I’ve embedded in this story: surely you’ll accept everything at face value now! However, unless these facts serve to *inform* us about the actual characters, their plight, the central story itself, then they’re just dressing. (That’s why I fixated so much on the excellent scene-building done in “Uncle Rock.”) You, if I may presume, were sucked into these details because you had a previous connection to them — without that, you say you might have questioned some of the same things as me.

    That said, I loved getting to know that Vandercook itself; as I said in my post, the author at least made a valid attempt at linking the laborious printing press to Lorenzo’s personality — his rapidly boiling one. (Look at how *he* becomes the restless one in that relationship.) I wish I could find a way to really tie the period-piece filming in to this story, and more importantly, I wish that Mattison had given me as many details about Gil (who, I know, is a tight-lipped person, and maybe that’s the problem: he makes everyone else clam up, too) and his relations to everyone as she did about the Vandercook itself. After all, that’s why I can’t connect with the ending — there isn’t really enough information for me to draw a conclusion that I feel satisfied with.

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