Antonya Nelson, “Chapter Two”
This is a story about the uses of story. The central character, a woman named Hil, tired of telling her own story at AA meetings, tells a story about her neighbor Bergeron Love, who comes to her house drunk and naked. Bergeron is the gadfly nuisance character of the neighborhood. She once reported a neighbor to the police for abusing his daughters, a false accusation that made it necessary to move her own son to another school to avoid retaliation. Hil sees her as a bully, a hypocrite, as pitiful, and as a legend. Hil tells other stories about Bergeron, but leaves out the final story of her death because, as she says, that would have ruined the fun. Her friend tells her that she could tell the dead story at the next meeting, as though it had just happened, a follow-up to the naked visit story, in other words, a “Chapter Two.”
However, the real “chapter two” may be the untold story of Hil’s displacement of her weaknesses onto Bergeron. The closest the story comes to a statement of theme is when Hil says, “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective.” The final section of the story makes clear that when Hil talks about herself at the AA meetings, she is lying, that her one-year mark is fictitious, that she is not living a life of sobriety. When she talks about Bergeron, at least she is telling the truth, but, she asks, “was it a story?” as she considers other scenarios she could tell about Bergeron. The story ends with Hil finding a new meeting to go to, conveniently near a pub, where she will begin a story of Bergeron by talking about her son trying to keep his drunken mother out of trouble. This is a doppelganger story, in which Hil uses story about another to avoid talking about herself, but, inevitably, she ends up talking about herself.
Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Nemecia”
I posted on Kirstin Valdez Quade’s New Yorker story “Five Wounds” in July 2009. I felt then that she was a very promising master of the short story form. This new story confirms my initial response to her work. ”Nemecia,” which won the 2013 Narrative Prize for a story by a new or emerging writer, is another doppelganger story, another sort of “evil twin ”tale. It is a first person pov story told by a young woman whose cousin Nemecia has been taken in by her family as a child. The story begins with Nemecia at thirteen and the narrator at six. The narrator says she was afraid of Nemecia because she says she killed her own mother (who came back to life after a month) and her grandfather. This convincing fictional tale has such power over the narrator that, “The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.”
Nemecia is jealous of the narrator and damages her things just enough to ruin them but avoid blame. When she develops acne, she begins scratching the narrator’s cheek, opening the scab each night until it leaves a permanent scar from her nose to her lip, making her look dissatisfied. The narrator feels she owes her sense of identity to Nemecia, until one day she tries to individualize herself by winning the honor of being the angel in the Corpus Christi parade. When the mother sympathetically allows Nemecia to take the narrator’s place, she responds so angrily that she is sent to live with her great aunt Paulita, who tells her the truth about Nemecia’s past—that Nemecia’s mother had been attacked by her husband; when the grandfather tried to intervene the man kills him. The narrator’s response is to hate Nemecia all the more for the demands she makes on her sympathy and for having such a tragedy she could call her own. It’s an honest, complex tangle of emotions that Quade explores masterfully.
The story ends with Nemecia’s mother sending for her from Los Angeles—a move that makes her even more glamorous in the narrator’s eyes and makes the doppelganger theme more explicit: “Night after night I told myself the story: a pettier me, swept away to California, and the boy who would find me and save me from my unhappiness.” A doll that Nemecia shattered when a child is the metaphor that concludes the story. Even though its repaired face stared at the girls in their bedroom for years, Nemecia does not remember it. Instead she collects dolls of the world and Waterford crystal. The last line of the story is a perfect metaphor for Nemecia’s effort to clear the shattered past of her life, but which simultaneously recalls the past that links her to the narrator: “Nemecia held a wineglass to the window and turned it. ‘See how clear?’ Shards of light moved across her face.” It’s a subtle story of sympathy and identification, damage and vulnerability.
Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy”
I previously posted a blog on Rivecca’s collection Death is Not an Option, which was short listed for the 2011 Frank O’Connor prize. In that essay, I praised her prose, even as I found the personae and plots weak. “Philanthropy” is the most “socially conscious” stories in this year’s BASS—a focus that, in my opinion, makes it too diffuse and general to work well as a short story. Once again, it is the symbolic use of doppelganger characters that energizes the social theme.
Cora, the central character, manages a Women’s Service program, which is visited by a successful popular novelist, Yvonne Borneo, who is also a philanthropist. Cora needs money from the woman, but Yvonne wants to know why Cora survived life on the streets and her daughter Angelica did not. The story focuses on the impossibility of knowing the other. Yvonne tells Cora that her daughter is like an ocean underneath an ocean, “a complete mystery.” Although Cora knows what it is like to be Angelica in a way that her mother never can, she insists that knowing her will not help Yvonne know Angelica, for “we are all different people.”
But if we cannot know one person by knowing someone who seems like that stranger, then how can we ever know anyone? I discuss this theme as a predominant one in the short story genre in my new book. The look Yvonne gives Cora, while neither remorse nor reproach, registers “something old and muddied and orphaned between them, a helpless moat of transference, brimming with the run-off of two people whose primary identities were….of someone else’s mother and someone else’s child.” This is not my favorite story in this year’s BASS, for, in my opinion, its focus on the general social issue of displaced young women blurs the specific human issue of the difficulty of knowing the other.
George Saunders, “The Simplica-Girl Diaries”
Because I have written about the stories of George Saunders several times on this blog, particularly his collection Tenth of December, which contains “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” I will not spend any time here on it here. Although it is not one of my favorite Saunders stories, it is a very funny satire that pushes the old “keeping up with the Joneses” theme to futuristic extremes. Saunders creates a stylized but believable voice of the 40-year old guy who wants to make his daughter proud and thinks he has the chance when he wins a scratcher for $10,000 and hopes it will change his lackluster life—that is, until the ultimate prestige lawn adornments--exploited third world women—are set free by his other daughter. I like it; it made me laugh in a painfully relevant way in the way that good humor should. But still and all, it is basically a satire and therefore an illustration of a general social theme, not an exploration of a mysterious human complexity.
Jim Shepard, “The World to Come”
I have read many Jim Shepard stories. One characteristic they share is Shepard’s obsession with historical, factual detail, which he researches thoroughly and out of which he creates a meticulously detailed fiction. This one began, he says, with an old book he found in the dollar pile at a local Goodwill store, Sidney Parley’s Historic Storms of New England, which led him, as it often does, to other related books, e.g. books on nineteenth-century farming. In one such book, he found a farm wife’s journal about the one friend she had in the world being forced to move away. Then, he says, “Suddenly a whole vista of desolation and loneliness and foreclosed options seemed to peep forth.” And once again, we have an exploration of Frank O’Connor’s central short story theme of “the lonely voice.”
Written in a diary format, like “The Simplica-Girls’ Diaries,” the language is radically different from that of George Saunders’ comic satire. Not meant to be an exactly rendering of a farm wife’s voice, the language is poetically stylized but exactly right. For example: “I grew like a pot-bound root all curled in upon itself.” “I always imagine I’ve been plunged up to my eyes in a vat of the prosaic.” “He said to me this morning that contentment was like a friend he never gets to see.”
When the narrator and her close friend Tallie begin kissing, she says she does not know what is happening to her. “I told her that I believed that we were now encountering that species of education that proceeds from being forced to confront what we never before acknowledged.” After Tallie is forced to move away and later after her death, the narrator grieves and I struggles to banish the sentiments that she says Tallie “chastened and refined.” The story ends with this line: “I imagined continuing to write in this ledger, here; as though that were life; as though life were not elsewhere.” This was, for me, one of the most emotionally affecting stories in the book, for Shepard makes the voice of the woman so convincingly poetic that she is absolutely irresistible. Not many stories bring tears to my eyes, but this one, I confess, did—not out of easy sentimentality, but out of complex sympathetic identification.
Callan Wink, “Breatharians”
Twelve year-old farm boy, August literally lives between two worlds—that of his mother who lives in the “old house” and is trying to find a spiritual way to live, and his father, who lives in the new house with a 19-year-old girl with whom he is having sex and who offers August a dollar a tail for killing stray cats that have infested the barn.
Reader warning: If you are a cat-lover, you will hate this story.
The title comes from the fact that the boy’s mother tells him she has become a faster, a breatherian, a Hindu practice based on the belief that some holy people can live solely on the atmosphere in which they exist and need no food and water at all. She says she is trying to get to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied.
The story’s theme--a young boy trying to figure out how to live his life, torn between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh--is structured in a fairly straightforward way. Although the mother tells August that his barn days are coming to an end that believes that his father’s way have not won him over yet, the ending of the story makes her hope problematical. It’s one of the simpler stories in the collection, but, like all the stories in this year’s BASS, it is a powerful example of the short story form.
Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness”
This is one of the best stories about teaching literature and writing that I have read in many years. In an era when the liberal arts are being undervalued in favor of math and the sciences, it should be required reading for those discouraged students of the arts who struggle to follow what they love. If you are an English major worrying about getting a job, a literature graduate student concerned about finding a place in academia, a student of creative writing fearful that fiction and poetry are being ignored in favor of nonfiction, this is a story from which you might take hope.
In the Contributors’ Notes, Tallent says this story began with bewilderment about her delight in teaching, after which she watched for bits and pieces belonging to the story, a collage-like progression that was like browsing. She says when she teaches, she wants her student to have a Keatsian willingness to tolerate uncertainties while they are working. And indeed, the short story is a form that cannot begin with a formulated idea or a carefully built plan, but rather with some grain of sand that irritates until it is worked into a pearl of radiance.
My favorite sentence in a story filled with many radiant sentences is: “She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth.”
If you love lit, you will love this story. If you yearn to teach, you need this story.
It is Thanksgiving in America tomorrow. I have dry-brined the turkey and made the stuffing with my mother’s old-fashioned cornbread and sausage recipe; they wait in the refrigerator overnight. I will also make turkey gravy and mashed potatoes tomorrow when the turkey is a golden brown. After that, the vegetable side dish,whatever it may be, seems superfluous. Not good for my cholesterol, but very good for my sentimental soul.
I will begin posting about stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories next week.
BRITISH READERS: DON'T FORGET. AMAZON IS FEATURING A DISCOUNT ON THE KINDLE VERSION OF MY NEW BOOK, BEGINNING NOV. 29.