Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Junot Diaz, Michael Byers, Charles Baxter, Joan Wickersham--Best American Short Stories 2013

I love a good love story.  I don’t mean those faux romantic fictional fluffs that you often see at the movies or on television.  I mean a story that explores the mysterious complexity of love.
When I started this blog, almost five years ago, the profile program asked me what my favorite book was. I wrote, without hesitation, The Great Gatsby.  I was reminded what a classic love story it was when I saw the recent film version, which was just frothy cinematic display, until Gatsby came face to face again with Daisy, and from that point, it was all about that boyish look on his face and his effort, Tom Sawyer-like, to impress Daisy. It didn’t matter that she was not worthy of his adoration; that wasn’t the point. That’s never the point. For example, there is only one moment in Wuthering Heights when Cathy is worthy of the mad passion of Heathcliff—when she says “I am Heathcliff.”  The love object is not the result of evaluation but rather obsession.
When the profile program asked me my favorite movie, without hesitation, I wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is, to my mind, a brilliant exploration of the fiction/reality complexity of being in love. The character Jeremy Irons plays is no match for the magically mysterious fictional construct that Meryl Streep creates so brilliantly that one never knows when the French Lieutenant’s woman is acting and when she is….what? Well, when love is concerned what else is there but acting?
What’s all this preamble about love stories about?  I want to talk a bit about four love stories of sorts in the 2013 Best American Short Story collection. And since one of those stories is Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora,” for which I have expressed my distaste in an earlier blog this year, I thought it would give me one more chance to try to explain why I thought it was an inferior story—certainly not a story deserving of all the awards that Diaz has received this past year for it and the collection in which it appears. So far in my reading of the 2013 BASS, it is the only Elizabeth Strout selection that disappoints me. And she doesn’t give me any clue in her introduction why she chose it except to praise the vividness of the character Lora. However, since I respect Strout’s work, the fact that she chose it as one of the “Best” has forced me to go back and read the damned thing one more time—the sixth time.
The other three stories I want to talk a bit about, are Charles Baxter’s “Bravery,” Michael Byers’ “Malaria,” and Joan Wickersham’s “The Tunnel, or The News from Spain.”
I think the basic problem I have with “Miss Lora” is that the central character, a sixteen-year-old Dominican Republic male, has no depth of feeling.  He just wants to have sex.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  But if it is the only motivating force of a piece of fiction, we are apt to call it “pornography.” Nothing wrong with that either--except when the work is parading as something better than that, something meaningful or culturally relevant.
And Miss Lora herself, although we do get a bit of a backstory about her past sad life, is primarily just an older woman that Yunior can have sex with—what more about her do we really know than that? So what really happens in this story? A sixteen-year-old boy admires his older brother, who has recently died of cancer, because he was such a successful sexual predator. The boy’s girlfriend will not have sex with him, so he is delighted to hook up with an older woman who will. What sixteen-year-old horny boy wouldn’t? They have sex for a time; he graduates from high school, becomes involved with another woman and then graduates from college. Miss Lora disappears. It means nothing.
I have been accused of having a blind spot about this story, but so far, no one has told me why they think it is such a great piece of fiction. I assure I am no prude and am not put off by the explicitness of some of the sexual description. It’s just that the story offers me nothing complexly human.
  If Elizabeth Strout happens to read this, I hope she will tell me why she thinks it is one of the “Best.” Yes, the “voice” is an interesting mix of educated jargon and street patois.  But the story is so hollow, so cynical, so meaningless. Nuff said.  Never for the rest of my life will I say another word about “Miss Lora.” I hope Diaz is laughing all the way to the bank.
Diaz’s Yunior may be just the kind of guy that Susan, the central character of Charles Baxter’s “Bravery,” secretly desires.  Although she goes out with the kind ones, the considerate ones, what her roommate calls the “humane” ones, what she really seems to wants is a bit of a ”troublemaker.” She meets and marries a kind and considerate man, Elijah.  When they go to Prague on their honeymoon, they encounter on the street a madwoman, who Susan imagines tells her that in the future she will be terribly jealous of her good-hearted husband “because of the woman in him.” And this announces the story’s theme.
When they have a son they name him Raphael, the name of another angel. Soon after they bring him home from the hospital, Susan comes into the nursery and finds Elijah holding a bottle of her breast milk in his left hand with the boy cradled in his right arm. Baxter says, “A small twig snapped inside her” and, finding it hard to breathe, Susan tells her husband there is something about this she cannot stand, insisting that she is the mother here, and that she does not want him to feed the boy. “With one part of her mind, she saw this impulse as animal truth, not unique to her, but true for all women.” She shouts at him that this is her territory and that he must put the child down immediately.
Elijah angrily leaves, and Susan falls asleep watching television, dreaming about her experience in Prague. When she wakes up, Elijah is standing over her with blood on the side of his mouth, but he is jubilant, telling her a story about seeing two men attacking a young woman and him charging in to rescue her by beating the men off, breaking the jaw of one of them. When she wipes the blood off his face and knuckles, she cannot believe his story. She tells him she loves him and then tucks him in bed as she would a child. The story ends with her looking in the mirror as she brushes her teeth. She does not recognize her own face, but she does recognize her milk-swollen breasts and her smile when she thinks of ”sweet Elijah bravely fighting someone, somewhere.”
This is not a highly complex story, for it seems a little too governed by its theme—the puzzling conflict women perhaps experience about nice guys vs. somewhat dangerous characters. Baxter explores several aspects of this conflict. Whether it is an “animal truth” deriving from the primitive need a woman had for a strong masculine male to protect her and her child or a socially instilled bit of claptrap, I like the way Baxter carefully sets the situation up. If you read it, please let me know if you think the story is true, or false, to a basic human truth.
I have to admit right up front that I was predisposed to like Michael Byer’s “Malaria” before I read it because I loved his first collection of stories, The Coast of Good Intentions, published in 1998 when he was only 28 years old.  I especially liked “Dirigibles,” which is a wonderful love story about a couple much too old for Byers to understand, except by the wondrous magic of authorial empathy. And indeed authorial empathy is what the story is really about.
I can understand why Elizabeth Strout was drawn to the first-person pov voice of this story, for Byers creates convincingly the rhythm of mind of the central character, Orlando, who is twenty and, as he says, unadventurous. The story focuses on his short relationship with a girl named Nora and her older brother George. The title comes from the fact that George tells Orlando that he caught malaria while in Ecuador, although Orlando knows that George has never been to Ecuador. “Everything changes" when George is arrested naked in the middle of the high school athletic field. Nora says he is hearing voices and she begins to worry that she is hearing voices also. Orlando admits that he does not know what to do about all this, since he has little experience with women and believes that “frictionless amiability” is his best way of handling things.
Orlando’s grappling with his relationship with Nora and Nora’s relationship with George makes him feel that for the first time he has an idea of ambition, that he could “be something in particular, rather than just me in general.”  But he does not know what to say to anyone about George’s delusions and Nora’s fears that “wouldn’t sound hollow and ridiculous.” He knows that his own life up to this point has been “featureless,” “free of pain,” and thus he has no training in delivering sympathy. The primary focus of the story ends with Nora trying to reassure Orlando that there was nothing they could have done about George.
But the story does not end until a final section some years later, after Orlando has married, and he is at home alone with the flu; in his fevered condition, he feels he is in a different world and senses a “hideous estrangement from the plain objects of everyday life.” He says he feels not only alone, but as if he were the only human left in the world. He knows his problem is that he does not know what he was supposed to do about George, asking: “What is George Vardon to me?”  He wonders if one is supposed to do anything; he thinks maybe what he is telling is just a story of something that happened to him or to George, concluding, “It’s really George’s story, that is, but naturally he can’t tell it, and neither can I.”
I like this story because it is such a conscientious and thoughtful exploration of our relationship to the “other.” Maybe I am prejudiced in its favor because it reaffirms much of the argument in my recent book about what Frank O’Connor saw years ago as a basic thematic impulse in the short story. The answer to Orlando’s question “What is George Vardon to me? is perhaps the answer that O’Connor says Gogol poses in”The Overcoat”: “I am your brother.”
I have to confess that I am not familiar with Joan Wickersham, although the Contributors’ Notes say that her work has appeared before in Best American Short Stories. Her most recent book, from which “The Tunnel or the News from Spain” is taken, is entitled The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story. I liked this story so much (and since I am such a sucker for a love story), I just ordered a copy). Wickersham says that the book is a “suite of asymmetrical, thwarted love stories” in which the title “the news from Spain” means something different in each story, but “acquires more resonance” (hate that overused word) as the book goes along.  I will talk more about that when I get the book and read it.  As for “The Tunnel,” there are multiple love stories involved here, although the primary one is the love story between Rebecca, age 45, and her mother Harriet, who is living, unhappily, in a nursing home.
The narrator of the story sums up the relationship between Harriet and Rebecca as one in which Harriet needs attention and Rebecca needs to feel like a hero. But more than this, they have discovered that they like each other and are having a good time together. Now that her mother is dying, “in some unexpected way she and Harreit had fallen in love.” Almost on the periphery of this love affair is the ten-year relationship Rebecca has with Peter and a short new relationship she has with Benjamin, who comes into her bookstore and buys a set of Chekhov stories.
This story is more “novelistic” that I usually like, lacking the language-based poetic focus and economy that make for a great short story, but it is so intelligent and sensitive about the various complex aspects of love that I find I can’t resist it.  It is not a story I will read over and over, but I did enjoy the experience of reading it the two times I did.


Drew said...

I loved Miss Lora. Why should Yunior have any feelings? He was 16.

Jeff said...

Re: your thoughts on "Miss Lora." You tell us your main problem with the story is "the central character, a sixteen-year-old Dominican Republic male, has no depth of feeling. He just wants to have sex." Perhaps try considering a few things. (1) Yunior is grieving the loss of his brother but simultaneously lacks the maturity to understand the toll the death is taking on him emotionally. He also lacks the wherewithal to articulate this about himself. (2) Yunior's affair with Miss Lora is an expression (in part) of this grief. (3) Yunior has been raised in a culture where sexual objectification of women is normal. (4) Yunior lacks positive role models that might teach him to deal with his grief/fears in healthy ways. (5) Yunior, as urban Dominican, lacks what Diaz might call "spaces of deliberation,” ie. literature, art, or narratives that might help guide him toward a healthier understanding of himself and his impulses. (6) Yunior most certainly does not idolize his brother and father. Look at pages 64-65 of BASS: “Shit, your father used to take you on his pussy runs, leave you in the car while he ran up into cribs to bone his girlfriends. Your brother was no better, boning girls in the bed next to yours. Sucios of the worst kind.” Does this sound like idolization to you? (7) Yunior’s affair with Miss Lora traumatizes him, leading to a long string of failed relationships and acts of infidelity. Remember that this story is part of serial work examining the character's failed relationships. (8) Miss Lora is a traumatized person herself; as the story tells us, her father’s emotional instabilities “messed her up good.” (9) This traumatized past perhaps motivates her own sexual manipulation of Yunior, as well as her manipulation of other young men (of whom she has framed pictures in her home). (10) Miss Lora probably doesn’t even realize she is manipulating Yunior. Or perhaps she is in denial; she isn’t allowing herself to realize how much this relationship will screw with Yunior’s future relationships and his sense of self. (11) Look at the final image of the story—the photograph he is showing when searching for Lora years later: “It is of the two of you, the one time you went to the beach. Both of you are smiling. Both of you blinked.” They're smiling and they have their eyes closed. When we consider this imagine alongside negative effects of the affair, we realize these characters are inflicting emotional damage they are on themselves and each other and they don't even know it. (12) Perhaps the story makes a powerful statement about our blindness to our own self-destructive behaviors. You have to look closely, because this is not the sort of story that spells its ideas out for you, but it’s all there.
I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Charles May, for this blog. I've read 3 of the stories in BASS 2013, so far, and had a desire to read something about the stories.

You have a good blog going here. I'm happy I found it.

I am,
Just a girl from New Orleans

ben said...

You made some good points Jeff. The aura of aliens from the movies Yunior watched mixed with grief can also be linked to Yunior's loneliness. And the conclusion explained everything about Yunior and Lora not knowing what they were doing. Dr May read between the lines next time. This along with the Alacorn story was the best story in BASS 13.

johnny said...

I tend to agree with your criticism of the Diaz story. I got a feeling of one dimensionality (if there is such a word). I can see that perhaps one can, as previous posters commented, read between the lines, but for me, at least in this story, it's asking a bit too much. That said a good story usually doesn't explain stuff to the reader, stories tend to work better when ideas are intuited. But in this story at least I came away feeling similar to y way you did.