Tuesday, September 28, 2010

James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt

It’s a great pleasure when I discover a writer who makes me smile knowingly, nod my head vigorously, and exult out loud, “that’s wonderful, that’s just right, that’s brilliant.” I have just finished reading, for the second time, James Lasdun’s latest short story collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt (2009). ” I first read him in the 2010 O. Henry Award collection, which included his story “O Death.” This is his third collection. Based on this reading, I have just ordered his first two, The Silver Age (1985) and Three Evenings (1992). I’m embarrassed that I have somehow missed his work up till now. I think he is an excellent short story writer. I recommend him to you very highly.

I would like to tell you why I think he is so good, but it is of course easier to explain why you think a writer is weak than it is to explain why he is so strong. I like most all the stories in this collection. I would like to sit down beside you and point to each one in turn, saying “read this, read this.” I would like to watch your face as you read and say, “See, see, what did I tell you?” Isn’t he great?” But hell, that’s no good. It’s like when I was a teenager and really liked a new song I heard on the radio and wanted so badly to share it with someone, preferably a pretty girl, and watch her face while she listened, knowing that she felt exactly the same way that I did. But that never happened. So I will lamely try to convey why I think Lasdun is so damned good. I will just comment on two of the stories. But you gotta promise you will read them all.

The title story is only about 500 words or so. If you Google Lasdun’s name under the video category, you can find a short film of his reading it. Here’s what happens in the story: A guy’s wife calls him at work to tell him to pick up a salmon for dinner. He has been at a funeral of a woman who had been his mistress seven years earlier. The salmon is too long for the office fridge, so he goes to the stock room, where it is cooler than in his office, and puts it in a filing cabinet. But he forgets it, and when he gets home and tells his wife, the last line of the story has her say: “You’re a fool. You’re a complete bloody fool.”

That’s it. That’s the whole plot line. But the story has many complex implications that it is not easy to explain. The one paragraph remembrance of the dead woman on the train ride home is sufficient to convey what the man has lost. He is in real estate, and since he and his mistress cannot afford hotels they pretended she is a client and made love in a number of the houses he represented. They could pretend they were bohemian students, or rich socialites. He felt he was the happiest man alive, for she did not ask him to leave his family. Then she ended it abruptly by saying: “I’m in love with you, and it’s beginning to hurt.”

I like the choices Lasdun has made in this story. It’s just right that the central metaphor is that oversized salmon turning rank in a filing cabinet drawer, where things are filed away to be forgotten. It’s just right that he and his lover have made love in many different transitory houses, for that not only communicates the temporary nature of the relationship but also the fantasy nature of it. All is well, until that fateful day when matter-of-factly, she tells him that because she loves him, “it’s beginning to hurt.” A perfectly apt and irresistible one line! When he goes home, it is just right that his wife calls him a bloody fool. For that not only justifies the happy affair he has had and reminds us that he was a bloody fool for giving up a woman who loved him, it also reminds him. The poor son of a bitch! You can judge him, but you have to sympathize with him. This final reader situation of being torn between sympathy and judgment is what the short story does so well.

“The Anxious Man” won the first UK National Short Story Prize in 2006, beating out one of my top three favorite short-story writers, William Trevor. Here’s what happens in the story: Joseph Nagel is on vacation with his wife, Elise, and daughter on Cape Cod, but he is not having a relaxing time. He is a dealer in antique prints and furniture, and his wife does web design, making them modestly comfortable. However, his wife has inherited some money—a little under a quarter million after estate taxes—and for the first time they have some capital. He now feels a sense of responsibility he has never felt before; desirable things now seem necessities to him. He and his wife go to a Wall Street money manager. Joseph is enthusiastic; but Elise thinks the man is a creep. Joseph comes to agree and urges Elise to invest the money herself. At first, things go well and the stock goes up, but then it goes down just as rapidly. Watching the market exhausts Joseph, and he feels that by investing the money his wife has “unwittingly attached him by invisible filaments to some vast, seeing, collective psyche that never rested.”

The stock market comes to represent some uncontrollable reality that torments him. It is a “nightmarish discovery” that when you get in you cannot get out—can’t sell when you are ahead because you might miss getting further ahead, can’t sell when you are down because the market might come back. “Whatever you did, it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner…It was as though some malicious higher power, having inspected the workings of the human mind, had calibrated a torment for it based on precisely the instincts of desire and caution that were supposed to enable it to survive.”

Joseph goes into a market to buy scallops and witnesses an incident in which a woman first in line to buy the last two lobsters is distracted for a moment, allowing another smartly dressed woman confidently to claim them. He feels ashamed that he did nothing to correct the matter. When he gets back to the house where they are staying, his wife and daughter are not there and he begins to worry. He swims across a quarter-mile lake worrying all the while, falling into a superstitious mode in which he thinks on the swim back, “If I close my eyes and hold my breath for seventeen strokes, Elise and Darcy will be there on the jetty.” When he gets back, they are standing there and he cannot resist the joyful relief he feels. “A surge of love came into him, and with it a feeling of shame. How crazily out of perspective he had let things get, to have allowed money to loom larger in his mind than his own daughter!”

The daughter has found a young friend who she is visiting next door, and when Joseph and Elise got to get her, he discovers that the wife is the imperious woman who claimed the lobsters. They agree to have a cook-out with them, and Joseph goes home to get the scallops to go along with the lobster. The husband has made successful investments on Wall Street and Joseph experiences a new feeling of well being at the possibilities the market will rebound. He even thinks the wife has eyes for him. He feels too good and drinks too much.

Elise becomes very angry with Joseph when he agrees to let their daughter spend the night. The situation worsens next morning when Elise goes to get the girl and there is no one at the house. They become panicked and Joseph wonders if this catastrophe is what he has felt preparing itself inside him. ‘His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty and he was being punished.” He thinks of ways he can propitiate, thinking if his daughter will return, he will sacrifice something valuable. He will devote himself to the poor and needy, and this makes him feel a joyous calm. He feels full of faith and hope. When the daughter does return and all is well, he feels that his panic was absurd and shameful. The story ends with him listening to the Marketplace morning report. “Lifting a watermelon from the fridge, he set it on the counter and cut himself a thick slice. He ate it nervously while he listened.”

As is usual with a great short story, a plot summary is totally inadequate to explain what makes it a great short story. What Lasdun does so brilliantly here is put a man in a situation in which he knows he has no control—either over the world around him or within himself. He bounces back and forth between anxiety and relief, between being in his wife’s good graces and being out of favor with her, between feeling confident and feeling inadequate. I like how Lasdun captures that familiar feeling we all have when we make promises to some invisible and impossible power outside ourselves, saying, “please, if you will only give me this, I promise I will do that.” There is always that sense that there is something out there or in me that I cannot control, no matter how hard I try. I want to be strong, but I am often weak. I want to be honest with myself, but sometimes I do not see myself clearly. I don’t believe in mysterious ominous forces in the world, but sometimes there seems no other explanation.

“An Anxious Man,” like all of Lasdun’s stories, reaffirms my long-held conviction that short stories are not about specific events, social movements, concepts, ideas, themes, etc., but rather about some ineffable, complex, universal, human experience. What is this story about? It’s about anxiety, an anxious man. At the end when he is sitting there eating that thick slice of watermelon, it is just right that he is eating it “nervously.” He has a right to be nervous. Who knows what’s going to happen next? Damn. Who knows if I can handle it or if it will have its way with me. What do I do now?

Well, what I’m going to do now is to read more James Lasdun’s short stories. I hope you will too. If you do, let me know what you think. You’ll see what I mean. I’m telling you, the guy is great.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

I am trying to catch up with all the collections suggested and recommended to me after posting my “favorite 100 short story collection of the 21st century” list. So, here’s my response to my favorite question—“I would really like to know what you think about…--”vis-a-vis Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006).

This is a youthful book in many ways. Russell was only 25 when the book came out. Lord, one of the stories, “Haunting Olivia,” came out in the New Yorker when she was only 22! A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program (No. 25 in Poets and Writers' Top Fifty MFA programs in the Sept/Oct issue), Russell raises the suspicion that many of these stories were written as class assignments. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except writing to an assignment is sort of like teaching to the test, isn’t it? Could lead to a narrow sort of focus aimed to please.

I read the first two stories—“Ava Wrestles the Alligator” and “Haunting Olivia” with pleasure. They made me smile. The basic concept that seems to guide the book-- a concept that Russell probably discovered as she wrote the first couple of stories—might be expressed this way: Since from their own perspective, children sometimes feel they live in a quite different universe than their parents (which is why fairy tales appeal to children), why not explore some of the basic conflicts that young people experience—peer pressure, sibling rivalry, conflict with parents, burgeoning sexuality—from the perspective of a world that, while it seems somehow familiarly real, is really most definitely strange and surreal? Not a bad idea, right? But for me, a little of this goes a long way. After reading subsequent stories in the book about alternate worlds—such as a sleep-away camp for disordered dreamers, a palace of artificial snows, and a city of shells—by the time I got to the last story about a home for girls raised by wolves, I was not smiling quite so much.

I will comment only on the two stories that I liked the best. In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Ava (whose name she tells us is a palindrome—where she got that little byte of info is not known) is jealous of her overweight sister named Ossie, who, like Karen Russell herself (who is not overweight, but is cheerleader cute) “has entire kingdoms inside of her.” Mainly, Ossie is “possessed” by horny boyfriends, currently one named Luscious, invoked by her for masturbatory fantasies. Ava and Ossie’s family own a Gator Theme Park in the Everglades named Swamplandia (Russell is currently working on a novel named Swamplandia, from which the New Yorker recently published an excerpt in its “20 under 40” series—see my earlier blog on this).

Russell has one little literary tic that trips me up occasionally. I mentioned it in my earlier blog on her New Yorker story. She likes to throw in little “educated” references uttered by her uneducated narrators. But then she has to justify the allusion by citing its origin. For example, she wants to use the metaphor of having Ava “graph the coordinates” of her love and courage, but has to tell us she is learning latitude and longitude in school. She wants to use the concept of language as being what separates us from animals, but Ava must attribute it to her science teacher, Ms. Huerta. Lord knows where Ava got the idea of “affect” when she says she feels a numb surprise at her “own lack of affect” or where she got the word “turbid” when she says she peers into a “turbid pit.”

There’s no doubt that Russell has a facile way with imagery and language. At the end of the story, Ossie, whose fleshy sexuality contrasts with Ava’s pancake-flat breasts, walks naked into the swamp with all her mysterious animality in evidence: “As she walks toward the water, flying sparks come shivering out of her hair, off of her shoulders, a miniature hailstorm. It’s the lizards! I realize. She is shaking them off in a scaly shower, flakes of living armor.” When Ava drags her out of the swamp, her finger nails make little half moon marks on Ossie’s arm which swell into puffy welts, “As if something were still clawing at her from within, pushing outwards, a pressure that is trying to break the skin.” Nice metaphor, don’t you think, for the id-like forces that threaten to break out, like the creature in the first Alien movie that scared the crap out of us.

In “Haunting Olivia,” two brothers are co-conspirators in the accidental disappearance/death of their sister Olivia. The story begins at Gannon’s Boat Graveyard, a “watery junkyard” where people abandon old boats, when they find a pair of magical goggles that allow them to see things in the water that others cannot see (the old magical glasses fairy tale gimmick). Russell has the narrator, Timothy Sparrow, say that his brother, Waldo Swallow, has a thick pelt of black hair because his father jokes that his mother must have had “dalliances with a Minotaur”— (For a little intertextual in joke, the reader should fast forward to the story in the book “from Children’s’ Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” for a tale about a boy who does have a Minotaur for a father).

Olivia, 8 years old, disappears in a whimsical way (everything is whimsy in Karen Russell’s stories). Her brothers simply push her too hard down a slide at in a crab shell (a sort of sled made out of giant crab shells), and a wave takes her away. This does not seem to be a great tragedy in the story overall, for Olivia, like Ossie in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is another Russell avatar. Described by her brother as a “cartographer of imaginary places,” she creates an underwater hideaway called Glowworm Grotto.” In an echo of what Russell’s parents may have felt about her as a child, Timothy the narrator says, “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Olivia was an adoptee from some other planet.” The grotto’s walls are coated with the feces of glowworms, which, as everyone knows, glows in the dark, giving it a yucky beauty. At the end of the story, when the brothers try to find Olivia there, Timothy goes into the Grotto with the magical goggles. “Every fish burns lantern-bright, and I can’t tell the living from the dead. It’s all just blurry light, light smeared like some celestial fingerprint all over the rocks and the reef and the sunken garbage. Olivia could be everywhere.”

Another nice concluding metaphor to reflect that basic human desire for transcendence, metamorphosis, spiritual dissolution, and the ultimate return of the self to that which it was before it was.

I enjoyed these two stories. They seem to get at the heart of Russell’s narrative ploy. Although “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” makes for an intriguing book title, I felt that the concept of using fantastical wolfish transformations to reflect childhood and early adolescent feelings of bestial urges and alienation—they are little animals, after all, aren’t they? —was just too predictable. And too much "keeping with the concept."

My old guy reaction to these stories is that they are fun to read as childlike fantasies and illuminate some of childhood’s strangeness, they lack the depth that real exploration of these experiences require. When it comes to magical realism or philosophically significant fantasies, Karen Russell just needs more intellectual background. She is still so young. For profound explorations of the issues she explores superficially here, I prefer the mature vision of Borges, Garcia Marquez, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Steven Millhauser. But then, that’s just the way we old guys are. We prefer fiction that makes us think, not just makes us smile.