Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40: Shun-Lien Bynum, Mengestu, Russell

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, “The Erlking” July 4, 2010

Based on Goethe’s poem of the same name, "The Erlking" was written for an edited collection of fairy tales to be published later this year. And, indeed, it does seem to follow many of the basic fairy tale conventions, although it does not take place “once upon a time,” (However, as I recall, the German phrase from which this is translated is “once there was, once there will be.”) Bruno Bettleheim’s wonderful book on fairy tales, Uses of Enchantment, suggests that fairy tales serve a therapeutic function for children, allowing them to work out many of the fears they have of the adult world—which is why there are so many giants in fairy tales and why there are often wicked step parents. (Children can never really be sure if the person they call mother and dad are truly their parents.)

Bynum’s story takes place in the present world of anxieties experienced both by the mother and the child (In Goethe’s poem, it is a father and son). The mother feels the common stresses of getting her daughter into the best schools, trying to manage her money, wanting to be loved by her child, etc. The child, who is named Ondine (name for mermaid, and also the name of a wonderful fairy tale film my wife and I saw recently, directed by Neil Jordan), but she prefers the more ordinary name of Ruthie. Kate, the mother, wants magic for her daughter, but the daughter is not quite sure about magic and the mysterious, for she seems to be at that crucial point in-between point, where she is no longer really a child, but not quite yet an adult.

The man that Ruthie sees with a cape around his neck is not the same man that her mother sees, who might be a musician at the faire or the actor John C. Riley (I am not quite sure why John C. Riley was chosen by Bynum.) Perhaps the man is that perennial mysterious man who always comes to take the child away from her parents, for indeed every parent fears him. Ruthie knows from the look on the man’s face that her mother does not have to come along, just her. She believes the man is going to give her a present, and when she opens it she will be the kindest, luckiest, prettiest person in the world—“Not for pretend—for real life.”

Ruthie is angry with her mother for naming the mystery man and thus somehow co-opting her adventure. She feels the man is able to do things her mother cannot do, such as let her live in a castle in a beautiful tower and have a little kitten and pet butterflies. The story also makes use of some anxiety about racial difference, (which may suggest the fear of difference) for Kate hopes she will find a brown doll among all the white ones for Ruthie, and Ruthie thinks the man will paint her skin so it’s bright rather than brown and make her hair smooth and in braids like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

The final paragraph of the story focuses on Ruthie’s feeling that her surprise is turning into something other than a beautiful secret, a thing she knows will happen whether she wants it or not. While her mother looks at the prices of the dolls, Ruthie pees her pants, and while the puddle gets bigger, her mother squeezes her hand—“which is impossible, actually, because Ruthie, clever girl, kind girl, ballet dancer, thumb-sucker, brave and bright Dorothy, is already gone.”

The story is similar to Conrad Aiken’s wonderful parable, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” in which a young boy becomes so involved in his secret sense of snow falling that he separates himself from contact with the world around him. “The Erlking” is a fairy tale in the sense that it deals in a magical way with that inevitable separation between the adult and the child, the mother/daughter or father/son, in which the parent feels a sense of the child’s otherness. All parents experience it most pointedly when the child reaches the age of secrets and self. I can remember when I felt I knew what my young daughter was thinking; it all seemed simple enough, but then a time came when I did not. I would drive her to school in the morning, and she was no longer that laughing, chatty little girl, but this silent and serious young woman lost in a world of her own creation. I like this story, for like a bit of magic, mystery, and myth, especially when the story glows with a sense of timeless significance of “once there was, once there will be.”

Daniel Mengestu, “An Honest Exit” July 12 & 19, 2010

This is a section from Megestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, due out in Oct. 2010. Although I usually don’t care to spend much time with novel excerpts, this piece interested me and forced be back to more than one reading. On the one hand, it is a simple narrative in which a man tells the story of his father, who escapes from Ethiopia to a port town in Sudan, where he finds work and, with the help of a friend, stows away on a boat to Europe. It is well told, and I liked it, but what I liked most about it was the method by which Mengestu constructed the narrative, a method that made the story transcend a simple immigrant story.

The narrator is a teacher who teaches a class in Early American literature to privileged freshman in a New York School. His father has died recently, and when he apologizes to his students for having missed class to tend to his father’s affairs, he realizes he needs a history more complete than “the strangled bits” his father had passed on to him. So he tells his students the story of his father, knowing he can make up the missing details as he goes along.

He first tells how his father walks and hitchhikes from his home in Ethiopia to a port town in Sudan. In the process, his students who had hitherto been only just bodies to him, become, as they are transformed into an audience to his story, more individualized as young people still in the process of being made. So the next day, he takes up the story again, introducing the character Abrahim, who befriends his father and prepares him for his eventual escape as a stowaway on a ship. He also tells how a rebellion breaks out in the port city and how government soldiers try to quell it. By this point, the story takes over completely and we forget all about the students sitting in their seats and the teacher in front of them relating the events. Abrahim’s stake in the father’s life becomes clear: He tells the father that when he gets to Europe, he must inform the authorities that he has a wife left behind in the Sudan whose life is in danger. Then Abrahim shows the father a photo of a young girl, Abrahim’s daughter, who lives in Khartoum with her mother and aunts. Abrahim says: “When you get to England you’re going to say that she’s your wife. This is how you’re going to repay me.”

The story now shifts back to the time of the telling; the narrator says that in the halls he hears snippets of his own story in slightly distorted form being played back to him by his students. His students feel a great deal of sympathy for him and his father, and they smile at him when they pass. “I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience.”

When the Dean asks him how much of the story he has been telling is true, he says almost none of it, that he has made up most of it, e.g. the invading rebel army, the late nights at the port. The Dean approves, for he says it is good to hear the students talking about something important. “I had given my students something to think about, and whether what they heard from me had any relationship to reality hardly mattered; real or not, it was all imaginary for them.”

The narrator continues telling the story of how Abrahim got the father stowed away in a small box on a ship, so small he is hunched down in an excruciating position. When he ship pulls up anchors and slowly heads up to sea, the narrator knows it is the last thing he will tell his class about his father. But since the story has now sprung free of its dependence on the student audience, he continues to summarize the narrative of how his father got first to Italy and then to England to the reader. The story ends with the father finding a quiet place on Hampstead Heath and burning all the fake marriage license and the picture of the daughter that Abrahim had given him.

Why does the father do this? Because he knows that Abrahim’s dreams are hopeless. “There were no rewards in life for such stupidity, and he promised himself never to fall victim to that kind of blind, wishful thinking. Anyone who did deserved whatever suffering he was bound to meet.”

Since this is part of a novel, I assume there will be further adventures of the father making a home in America, and further stories of the son. There may even be some sort of future meeting of Abrahim and the father. I don’t know. And, since I am not great on “what happens next” I don’t really plan to read Mengestu’s novel.

I like this little piece just as it is. I think it stands alone quite nicely as a story about how one feels compelled to create a history for oneself when he does not have the facts. I like it that the students sympathize with the story, the father, and the narrator. I like it that they become involved in the story, learn something from it, even though it may not be true. I like it that the narrator and even the Dean knows that it doesn’t matter whether it really happened or not. (I have never met such a Dean. Have you?) Fiction does not have to be based on fact to matter.

Karen Russell, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” July 26, 2010

Russell says this is a little “story within a story” in her novel Swamplandia, due out in February 2011. And I think she is right to recognize that it is a self-contained story within the larger fiction of her novel. I liked it, mainly because I liked the language that controls the story. I liked it so much that as soon as I read it the second time, I ordered Russell’s collection of stories, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which came out a few years ago and which somehow I missed.

The story is simple enough. A young boy named Louis Thanksgiving is stillborn, but survives when his unmarried mother dies. He is dropped off an orphan train and taken up by a German dairy farmer named Auschenbliss, until he comes of age and leaves to join a dredging crew in the swamps of Florida. Louis’s experiences, which make up most of this excerpt, on the dredging crew have an hallucinatory effect that I like.

Some things I like in this story:

“At birth, his skull had looked like a little violin, cinched and silent.”

A nun’s written description of Louis: MIRACLE BABY ALIVE PRAISE GOD FOR LOUIS, THANKSGIVING (But the nun’s comma gets smudged and thus the baby is named Louis Thanksgiving. A little hokey, but it made me smile.)

During the night while the other men sleep, Louis peels a kiwi to eat, and the fruit’s perfume releases through the tent and makes the men smile in their sleep. He does it every night, “smiling himself as he imagined pleasant dreams wafting over them.”

“White-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations among the tree islands. Sometimes Louis fell asleep watching them from the deck, and it worried him that he couldn’t pinpoint when his sleep began: deer rent the mist with their tiny hooves, a spotted contagion of dreams galloping inside Louis’s head.”

At the end of the story, after the barge has exploded, hundreds of huge vultures arrive and several of them hook their talons into the skin of Louis’s dead friend Gid and carry him off. “’You guys ever see birds do anything like that? Hector asked.” Moe and more buzzards arrive and Louis thinks, with sadness because he is seventeen and didn’t want to go, “Oh God, I’m next.” (It’s a risky business, those damned vultures, and highly unlikely, but it seems to work within the half real/half hallucinatory atmosphere of the story. They spooked me.

Some things in the story I am more than a little suspicious of:

“The drained and solemn pines reminded Louis of a daguerreotype of Lee’s emaciated Confederate forces that he had once seen as a child.” (I suspect the pines remind the author of this photo and that Louis would never have seen them that way)

Louis experiences Terraphobia—a fear “of the rooted urban world, of cars and towns and years on calendars.” (This seems a little forced to me)

One of the men tells Louis: “Jesus, Louis, you’re just like what’s his name? Greek guy. Narcissus. Making puppy eyes down at your face in that bucket.” (Another one of those irresistible authorial intrusion into the mouth of a character who is unlikely to make this kind of mythic connection.)

When the barge blows up and Louis’s friend Gid is horribly hurt, he stands looking at Louis, his mouth moving, but saying nothing. “The mariner, Louis thought—this line bubbled up to him from long-forgotten event, a poetry recitation that the youngest Auschenbliss had given at a church assembly many winters before. The bright-eyed Mariner.” (Again, this reference to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is unlikely to have occurred to Louis, but it obviously proved irresistible to Karen Russell.) This is the stanza Louis is supposed to remember:

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

But I like the Ancient Mariner reference, because the Mariner is the archetypal romantic storyteller, who grabs us and holds us with his glittering eye, forcing us to hear a tale that terrifies us with the knowledge of our ultimate loneliness.

That’s all for me and the New Yorker’s “Twenty Under Forty” Fictions for a while. I will come back to them later if they include some stories that grab me like the Mariner.

Next week, I will post my 100th blog since beginning "Reading the Short Story." To commemorate that occasion, I am going to post a list of 100 of my favorite short story collections of the first decade of the 21st century.

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