Barber James Carter closes shop for deer hunting season in Umatilla, Florida, 1967. (Florida Memory)
Faulkner’s sentimental streak. Henry Stribling is a barber in Jefferson who disappears for two weeks every April, nobody knows where or why. People call him Hawkshaw, slang for detective, and they play detective, trying to figure out why he disappears, why he takes after a young orphan girl called Susan, inventing all sorts of salacious implications about him though there’s only evidence of propriety on his part. The narrator is a salesman who crosses paths with Henry’s many paths. He’s been a barber elsewhere and quit his job, but not in Jefferson. “Susan,” writes the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project, “clearly belongs in the gallery of promiscuous female characters – Joan Heppleworth, Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, Addie and Dewey Dell Bundren, and so on – whose sexuality occupies, even preoccupies a good part of the text.” The mystery is explained: Henry had pledged to take care of the house of a woman even after she died, paying off the mortgage, maintaining the upkeep every April. He eventually marries Susan and moves there.
The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
This is where the future handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale go when they’re 12 to 14 years old, where they’re required to learn how to be a woman, to write letters to their future husband and learn all the ways of being with him (no gender traitors allowed), or when they’re caught playing X-rated versions of Barbie and Ken, as Josephine, or Fin, the narrator, was. A camp where girls are sent home for faking their periods. There are even “ceremonies,” as in handmaid, but not quite involving penetrative inseminations. Close enough though: “We had to put on our camp whites for the ceremony, and before we went into the lodge the female counselors told us stories about menstruating girls who were inhabited by demons. The demons could make the polish on our nails turn rotten. The smell of blood could bring snakes slithering into our cabins.”
“Everything here is a competition. Tampons versus sanitary napkins. Bras versus undershirts. On the first night, the Beav divided everyone into two teams: the Cubs versus the Colts. (I am, fortunately, a Colt.) Also, older girls versus younger girls, even though everyone at this camp achieved menarche in the past year. No one talks about the menstruation requirement. I only know because I found the brochure on Mother’s desk. The older girls are called Evening Primroses. The younger girls are called Morning Glories. (The camp is called Camp Moonflower. I am a Morning Glory.) The camp motto is Dignae et provisae iucundae, which we are made to chant three times at the beginning of each meal.” The latin translated: “Worthy and provided enjoyable.” There’s a great deal of competition between the girls. There’s meanness. There’s Fin’s crush on counselor Andrew, who takes her on a nighttime horseride intended to get her to orgasm, as it does him, though Fin seems oblivious both to the intention and to Andrew’s orgasm behind her. “My butt hurts,” is all she tells the disappointed, glassy-eyed Andrew. In the end Fin is made to swim a large distance in the lake in some form of representative ceremony, she representing Woman. She swims in the wrong direction.
‘Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite’ at the Liverpool Museum. See details.
A 12-year-old girl’s caustic, aggravating, proud, funny observations about her two 14-year-old girl cousins visiting from Mount St. Scholastica, a convent school. The title is taken from Corinthians 6:19 (“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself) and anticipates in remote ways The Handmaid’s Tale. The younger girl, who takes to the notion that she could be a temple of the holy ghost and becoming a saint but for the tortures she might have to endure, makes fun of the older, seemingly more simple-minded girls. The older girls go to a fair and see a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite shows them his genitals and says repeatedly, “God made me thisaway… and I ain’t disputing His way.” O’Connor would like us to think that he represents the acceptance of god’s will. Of course that implies that there’s something wrong with the hermaphrodite–a prejudicial, a priori judgment by O’Connor necessary as a premise for the story to “work.” The judgment is a distasteful construct. This being O’Connor, the girl has an epiphany at the end, accepting grace, letting go of her pride, embracing Catholicism. Drench the ending in sun all you like, it’s a preachy, flimsy story saved by its humor and the girl’s curious insights. But it’s no “Keela.”
Karen Russell can so convince you that the soul of a Joshua tree can jump into a human being, body-snatcher-like, and become a thinking, acting part of her that she can have you on the verge of Googling the possibilities. Angie is “three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land.” Andy is a “reader” with the words ever unfixed, from Melville, tattooed on his arm. They’ve eloped but aren’t married. “They’re in the Mojave desert. The Mojave “was a good place to launch into exile together.” Near Warren Peak, where the Joshua trees are, “the bad graft occurs.” The tree invades Angie. “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park, searching for the origin of the feeling that chooses this day to invade her and make its home under her skin,” a “ghostly leap” from the “pulsating” joshua. “The change is metaphysical: the tree’s spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness, where it lives on, intertwined with its host.” Kind of like this:
It’s neo-magical realism, a style The New Yorker seems to be fond of (Lennon’s “Loop” is too similar), that Russell excels at, but that has the same sort of limitations, the same convenience, as faith-based narratives: once you cross that threshold anything goes after all. It’s too facile. It depends a great deal on the writer’s imaginative capabilities. Russell’s are endless. You read Russell for those leaps, the luminousness of her prose, the tendrils of insights it allows: “This insoluble spirit, this refugee from the Joshua tree, understands itself to have leapt into Hell. The wrong place, the wrong vessel. It pulses outward in a fuzzy frenzy of investigation, flares greener, sends out feelers. Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac.”
A lot of threads are left dangling: the girl’s previous addiction, the boy’s poorly realized character, their ability to live month after month in that desert no land. The end is purposefully ambiguous. We never know whether she actually emerges from the last encounter with the trees, though that earlier line suggests the unspoken future: “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park…”
Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
A Hemingwayesque story in style, theme and development, if with a more defined plot. Lee Waite, 32, owns 60 acres on a reservation. A neighbor tells him people are hunting illegally on it. Again. He loads his rifle and goes. He is as apprehensive as his scared prey, two young people, when he catches them. Both his brothers have been killed, one by stabbing, the other not clear how. It’s clear that violence runs in the family. It intrudes, as it often does in Carver stories, out of nowhere. His characters are aware of their vulnerability to it. Sometimes they control the violence. Sometimes they don’t. They’re all like Zola’s Maquarts. Waite wants to control it. Waite did not like it when his sons asked him, as he was loading the rifle, if he was going to kill the hunters this time. He lets the hunters go, taking their hunting prizes. “He had put them off the land. That was all that mattered. Yet he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure.” Back home, with his wife, his ageing, glum mother, his two children, he talks about leasing the land so it can make some money and be off his back. His legs shake from under him as he thinks of the $1,000 he speculates he could get from leasing. It’s not clear whether they shake to the point of having him sit from anticipation of money or from giving away the land.
One of the lesser stories, about the arrival of “consular timber” John Atwood to the island, described at one point, in anticipation of the book’s more famous phrase, as ” this grocery and fruit stand that they call a country.” Banana republic is a few stories further. “I didn’t take this job with any intention of working,” the young Atwood says. One night the Andador is spotted offshore, with a sloop going to it with a certain H.P. Mellinger, leaving the island for New York. Atwood is speaking with Keough, who tells him of Mellinger’s phonograph, and graft. Atwood wants to hear more. It’s in the next story.
ƒMaupassant likes his stories spiked with brutality. The domestic violence of “Le Noyé” gets gratuitous. So it does in “Histoire d’une fille de ferme,” which culminates with the farmer brutalizing Rose, the farmhand, because she won’t get pregnant. (“All boys are thus,” London writes in the Priestly Prerogative.”) That’s after he invites himself to her bed and essentially rapes her to take possession of her. Six years before Rose had a fling with another farmhand and got pregnant. She went away to be with her dying mother at the convenient time when she gave birth far from her village, so she could leave her son with others to raise and return to the farm, where she becomes very skilled at making money for her farmer in hopes of getting a raise. She doesn’t get a raise, but a marriage proposal from the farmer, which she rebuffs, because of her unspoken son, until he takes her. It goes well at first, then sours. He beats her up. She finally tells him why she’s not having another child, since she has one already (it’s a flaw in the story: what would keep her from getting pregnant again, since she’s obviously fertile?) The farmer becomes all soft and happy to adopt her son. And so it’s a happy ending.
As always in Maupassant stories, there are genial asides, like this: “Au milieu d’elles, le coq, superbe, se dressait. À chaque instant il en choisissait une et tournait autour avec un petit gloussement d’appel. La poule se levait nonchalamment et le recevait d’un air tranquille, pliant les pattes et le supportant sur ses ailes ; puis elle secouait ses plumes d’où sortait de la poussière et s’étendait de nouveau sur le fumier, tandis que lui chantait, comptant ses triomphes ; et dans toutes les cours tous les coqs lui répondaient, comme si, d’une ferme à l’autre, ils se fussent envoyé des défis amoureux.”
But there are also awfully prejudiced lines that accent Maupassant’s limitations: “Elle ne consentait pas, pour sûr, mais elle résistaitnonchalamment, luttant elle-même contre l’instinct toujours plus puissant chez les natures simples, et mal protégée par la volonté indécise de ces races inertes et molles.” The story’s shallow presumptions about Rose frame its soft-porn paternalism, the paternalism only amplified by the happy ending, which does not resolve the hell Rose had to go through, hiding, pretending, denying, and submitting to such denigration and violence before the farmer’s epiphany–not for Rose’s sake, but because he finally could have a son he could adopt and call his own. Rose remains a vessel, abused and stepped on, to the end.
A study of condescension, manipulation, Machiavellian scheming in a love quadrangle. The rich Gertrude plays with poor Richard and almost-as poor Severn, the latter a wounded veteran of the civil war still ongoing. One of the questions neither posed nor answered is why Richard isn’t at the war. He joins it only at the end, out of a need for redemption. No telling what he was doing meanwhile other than drinking whisky and tending his farm. No “Lamp of Psyche” here, no wondering or questioning why, though he’s 24 years old, Richard did not go to war. He loves Gertrude. She claims not to, but she wants to fix him. “I propose, with your consent, to appoint myself your counsellor.” He is insecure enough to accept: “He wished that he might incontinently lay bare all his shortcomings to her delicious reproof.” She hooks him up with Severn. It doesn’t go well when both men realize they’re competing for Gertrude, while Gertrude is playing the game, playing with “her long blockaded ports.”
And so it goes for poor Richard: “He was good enough to be better; he was good enough not to sit by the hour soaking his limited understanding in whiskey. And at the very least, if he was not worthy to possess Gertrude, he was yet worthy to strive to obtain her, and to live for evermore upon the glory of there having been such a question between himself and the great Miss Whittaker. He would raise himself then to that level from which he could address her as an equal, from which he would have the right to insist on something.”
A stroll in the country with Severn and a fourth wheel doesn’t go well. Richard is upset. Before long the fourth wheel is the Machiavellian Major James Lutterel, scheming to bag himself Gertrude, pretending to be Poor Richard’s friend. Richard falls ill, Severn and his broken heart go back to war where he gets killed, Gertrude briefly considers marrying Luttrell, then not. She marries no one. The story picks up intricacies and interest as it wears along its 60 pages, one of James’s longest, but in the end the circling around Gertrude is shallow, and Gertrude herself is uninteresting. It’s too much plodding for too little payoff.
One of Singer’s monologuish stories. Freidle the monologuist is a free-spirited woman, a physician hedonist who claims to believe in nothing, who cheated on her husband on her honeymoon and sleeps with everything that moves, but whose free spirit crumbles the moment it’s about her 16-year-old daughter, who despises her. Her life is a double-standard. The daughter is living with Tobias, the husband, who, according to Feidle, is making a whore of the girl to spite Freidle. (“There is one sphere in which everyone is a genius, and that is in being spiteful.”) It’s a thin story that wears thinner as you read. Som of the better lines:
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), “The Shoemaker” (1945). From the Met: “The Shoemaker was among the first works Lawrence painted after returning from military service in World War II in early December 1945. Resuming one of his most enduring themes, these pictures from late 1945-46 focus on workers in the Harlem and show the range of occupations open to African Americans at the time, from teachers and office assistants to barbers, seamstresses, and steelworkers. Although Lawrence’s art was never overtly political, his subjects highlighted social issues, often with pathos and humor. Here, he contrasts the enormous body of the cobbler with his cramped quarters and the delicate shoes and tacks that occupy his attention.”
Sobel is a Polish refugee who knows no trade but learns it from the fundamentally kind-hearted and trusting Feld, the shoemaker who’d have rather had a son. For seven years Sobel pounds away at leather, on measly wages, his life spent reading books and lending them to Miriam, Feld’s daughter. As she turns 19, Feld sets her up with Max, a materialist. Sobel is upset and leaves the store in a huff. Feld doesn’t know why, or pretends not to, though at heart he knew all along that Sobel had had his eyes on his daughter. But he’s almost twice her age. Feld has heart attacks. Sobel had kept them at bay, being so trustworthy. When Feld hires someone else, he discovers after a while that the employee was stealing from him. Feld has a heart attack. He realizes Sobel is his only hope. Sobel asks him why he never considered Miriam for him, Sobel. Feld relents, asking Sobel to wait two more years. It’s fairytale like, a warm hearted story in the margins, like the love-letter marginalia that was in the books Sobel would lend Miriam. But it’s almost too focused on the two men, with Miriam too much in the background, taken for granted by all.
Groundhog Day meets a less interesting Gregor Samsa, the “ghoulish, insectile” characters being observed more than incarnated by the narrator. It’s the somewhat hokey but interesting story of a newly divorced woman with too much time on her hand who decides to volunteer for Movin’ On Up, a philanthropic moving company whose name winks, we’re not sure why (irony man, irony!), at the theme song from The Jeffersons. The people for whom furniture is being moved in the story generally have not much further room to go down. The story is interesting because of the insights within those homes, the characterizations of the “clients.” Its hook is less interesting, because unconvincing, unconnected to anything other than a device, a decision to create that “loop” where Bev relives again and again the Saturday when she puts in her volunteer hours, with a college girl who reminds her of her half-estranged daughter. Strange things begin to happen, like the bed frame that disappears, the second futon that appears next to the first, the table a client wants she never knew was in the truck. Things–“flaws,” Lennon calls them–like that. Things that aren’t even explicated by the loop, which is explained toward the end of the story. “The only time Bev felt she had her shit together was every other Saturday.” Turns out the only time she doesn’t have her shit together is every other Saturday, which apparently becomes every day. She wants her boring life back. But “That’s what had been taken from her–the absolute pristine uniqueness of each boring moment of existence.” Her memory loops, then there’s “the acceptance of the superfluity even of memory itself.” Strained words, strained theme, worth the ride in the truck, but unsatisfying: the experiment doesn;t sparkle.
A tedious, pretentious sequel to “The End of Something” cloaked in the three-day blow’s vaguely biblical connotations of a break between past and future, Nick Adams, annoyingly referred to as “Wemedge” by his friend Bill–and by Hemingway’s friends in his actual life–talks literature, booze and Marge with Bill as they talk of getting drunk more than they actually do get drunk. The story ostensibly reflects Nick’s uncertainty about his break-up with Marge, but not without a good dose of misogyny in the mouth of Bill:
“Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched,” Bill went on. “He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for. You’ve seen the guys that get married.”
Nick said nothing.
“You can tell them,” Bill said. “They get this sort of fat married look. They’re done for.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
Nick doesn’t want to talk about it but keeps talking about it. The dialogue is that clipped Nick-Adams-Stories type, mostly circular, a good pastiche of Hemingway.
Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.
She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.
No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899
Toward the end of the story Aileen, the young protagonist college girl reluctantly spending her vacation with her mother and her mother’s homebreaking lover Prue in a Colombian jungle, Aileen is walking by the huts of poor natives. A young man beckons her over through a mesh fence, then spits a mouthful of water at her face and dress. Westerners are not liked in the jungle, because they presume too much: “if Luz could only learn a little more about what white people like to eat an how they like it served,” Aileen’s mother writes her in the three-page letter that opens the story as Aileen is flying in through the white clouds she wants to step on, like a comic book character. The letter hints at the way Prue broke up the marriage between Aileen’s father and mother. The tension between Aileen and Prue is obvious from the letter. Prue to Aileen is “ungracious, ugly and something of an interloper.” Tension builds: it’s the story’s most appealing strength, that build-up. It explodes in a physical pummeling, by Aileen of Prue, after Prue flicks water from her glass at Aileen the morning of Aileen’s early departure, after her mother essentially threw her out for not getting along with Prue. A sense of the primeval recurs down to that primeval fight and the scream Aileen lets out at the end, when she is reduced to something primal, bashing the woman who’s taken possession of her mother. There’s nothing appealing in Prue, but Aileen is not much more so, and the intrusive sense Bowles builds up, of Aileen’s visit, is secondary to how obliviously intrusive all three of these characters are on the jungle around them. None of them belongs, not just Aileen.
One of Cheever’s dreadfully tragic stories of eternal loss in the chase for fortune, set out in one of his gems of an opening:
Ralph and Laura Whittemore never get their pot of gold. There is, as in “Torch Song,” that enumeration of cases, of failed ventures, of dashed hopes, building up to the final one shortly after a party where Laura was face to face with Alice, another woman who’s known 15 years of failures and of living in hotels. Laura at that point is still under the illusion of a coming break, though the man who was going to make her and her husband rich will have a stroke, and the deal will be off. Alice can’t believe Laura’s luck. It’s a Cheeverian set-up, the more to hammer the latest downfall. Ralph “was such a prisoner of his schemes and expectations,” and he was sentenced to life in that prison.
Oddly, the story is set in post-war American and makes a reference to the wealth all around. But not enough for Ralph and Laura to know how to tap into.
“… and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” The penultimate lines in Munro’s “Walker Brother Cowboy,” the first story in her first collection of stories, the lines that sealed my conversion to her, though I was well on the way after the briefest of pages in this story of a young daughter’s realization that fathers have pasts, that sometimes those pasts took the form of intimacies that, seen again up close, even as distant shimmers of what once was, can still have the shock of something adulterous. The girl and her little brother have joined their traveling-salesman father in the poor drab backwoods of the Ontario prairie (“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours.” It’s details like this that say drab without saying it.) It’s the 1930s. Their mother stays home, and after a failed sale and a bit of humiliation–the father got pee sprinkled on him–he takes a detour down, well, yes, memory lane. Nora had been his former girlfriend, his lover, something intimate enough that they’d danced and don’t a lot more. She discovers that her father does drink whisky after all, at least with a certain person, from a certain time. The girl witnesses the visit, and learns that certain things must be kept between her and her father, who earlier had described to her the formation of the Great Lakes. The immensity of time, prompting this from the girl: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.”
Indifference, corruption and obsequiousness in a government office: a property owner is inquiring about his property to an oblivious functionary who only reacts when three rubles have made it to his desk. From that point on, all is well, basted in the functionary’s obsequiousness. Puzzling though is the property owner’s puzzlement: is he not used to this? The detail of the fly repeatedly loitering on the functionary’s right nostril as the functionary extends his lower lip to blow it away is like a reflection of the property owner’s condition at that moment.
The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?
Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:
There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?
Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.
A train wreck of a story, all over the place and no place, written from the second-person perspective of Sasha Jean, daughter of a mixed couple: North Carolinian black man, German woman, the man, a clever swindler with money, having molested her for weeks when she was 10. She cut off all contact with him after she turned 18. The story is framed around the reunion she is attending in Carolina on the acreage she has now inherited: “What your father has left you is a deed to these dusty thirty-seven acres, populated by fallen-down prefabs and trailers, at least seven in total, and at the end of the road, a rusted old church.”
At the reunion she keeps referring to “the uncles” not yet aware of her father’s death of a heart attack. “In reality, it should be easy to tell everyone that your father died (in his armchair, surrounded only by his home healthcare aide and General Hospital playing on the tablet in her hands). Perhaps they will expect you to cry, and then for you to expect them to cry back.” She never tells. The uncles are set up as a focal point only to drop out of sight by story’s end, one of the many false threads the reader is made to care about.
The story trundles back and forth between various pasts, her mother’s (the “china” of the title is the china she stole from her mother when she made her getaway to the United States to marry), her father’s, her own, there’s also Monique the happy lesbian and her girlfriends, one of them disapproving of the lesbianism but still friends. The writing trundles back and forth between fantasy and reality too, too sure of its creative flights: “During the fourth gin and tonic, El gazed again out the window and imagined she saw the chocolate-wafer edge of America.” It’s not a bad image, but it’s disconnected, like so much else.
Like this: “She hurries off in a cloud of roadside dust and pollen. You imagine Monique finding her white lover and kissing her under a pile of stale pillows, in a wrought-iron bed, under dozens of family photographs—the ancestors. Forgetting about you for whole hours. When you attend their commitment ceremony three years later—only one uncle will come to the church where two females are saying “I do”—you notice the same crystals of love in her eyes, the same spike of deliverance as you see on this day, the last reunion you’ll ever attend.”
The crime is the central point: It was nothing more than a few weeks’ worth of touching. The moon came out from your Mother Goose window and stared in shock. His finger didn’t even make it in all the way. Do you like this, your father asked. No, you answered. It took another five and a half weeks for him to get that through his head.” But somehow the relationship between age 10 and 18 is not explored, nor, really, the years afterward, though this passage is the strongest of the story:
Would it be wrong to tell them that the last time you saw your father, you said nothing specific? That the words forgive and forget never made it past your lips? That you engaged the reams of selves who came before you—the little baby in the carriage, the kindergartner, the science project acolyte—and told them it was time to close up shop, as though your father had never ever existed? He once was alive, and was all things to those former selves. You, on the other hand, despise that idea. Was it wrong to turn your head away from the phone the last time he called? Was it wrong to crunch up the letter in which he explained he’d suffered a major heart attack and needed just a touch of kindness? You hate him for keeping your mother, and you hate your mother for having been kept.
Her mother died the day after she told her. “Grudges are about as real as cotton candy,” the father paraphrasedly told her, but she doesn’t go for it. Toward the end there’s a whole flight about Sasha and her friends turning into mermaids, but it drifts, like so much of the story.
Ploughshares: Solos Omnibus, vol. 5, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, Roxane Gay, ed.
Joe Welling, a man who works for Standard Oil as a distributing agent and who floods his audience with ideas, a man “who is subject to fits” of such ideas, and who falls in love with the daughter of an unliked man in town, Edward, whose 27-year-old son is a brute who may have killed a man and who was fined $10 for killing a dog with a stick in public. Joe Welling is an oddball, his ideas are absurd, he makes leaps of logic no one could (or should) follow, but his ideas are harmless, though he manages to capture an audience when he goes off on his fits: Winesburg is not exactly rich either in entertainment or in original ideas. Of course he tells George Willard that he would have wanted to be a reporter, that he should have been a reporter. George witnesses what’s expected to be a confrontation between the two King men and Joe Welling, but Welling “was carrying the two men in the room off their feet with a tidal wave of words,” a wave powerful enough to carry all three men out to go meet Sarah, the King daughter, in what appears to be the Kings’ approval of the relationship. Joe Welling is a rare type in Winesburg, Ohio: a happy man, his happiness bred on enthusiasm. Who cares if it’s irrational. Isn’t happiness inherently a suspension of the rational, considering our existential condition? (I have Welty’s Whistle still in my ears.)
A story of coldness without and within. Jason and Sara Morton, a couple, only 50 years old, farmers, are in bed at night freezing, silent, all words and warmth having fled from their marriage, on a night when the whistle blows to alert farmers of a freeze. They get up, cover the tomatoes with their own clothes, return to the house, then start burning their last logs, a chair, the kitchen table that had sat there thirty years. It’s all gone, the night isn;t over and the whistle is still blowing. A terribly existential story from the first line: “The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that had been worn and worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones.” The coldness, the whiteness of the moon’s light, drenching everything indifferently without hint of warmth, amplifies the existential condition of the couple and their isolated farm, as alone as could be.