Monday, January 25, 2016

Themes and Images, and Stories that Make Some Folks Cry: Best American Short Stories, 2015--Part II

"Bride," Julia Elliott
This seems to me to be primarily a theme-story based on the medieval concept of the basic evil of the female body.  It begins with a nun whipping herself in order to "chastise" her "animal body.  She has subdued her body to the extent that her menstrual flow  is no longer a flow, but a dribble. She thinks of her body as a "bundle of polluted flesh."  Just the night before the Abbot has said women are by "nature carnal"—that they have an "opening that the Devil may slip through unless she fiercely barricade against such entry."
In an interview in Fiction Writers Review, Julia Elliott said:  "In grad school I read a lot of Renaissance gynecology and obstetrics works and discovered that they are insane; they are like magic realism or something: monstrous births, weird reproductive theories, melancholy, all that stuff. When barber surgeons started to do anatomy theatres, it all got a little more 'scientific,' as we think of it today, but was still brutal and culturally loaded. If they had a woman out on the anatomy table, for example, you could pay admission and go and watch, and the anatomist would say things like 'Behold, here is the uterus, the origin of sin and death,' and then he would dissect it. Here, cultural ideas about femininity are obviously mixed in with the supposed science."
The notion that the uterus is the origin of sin and death is the basic thematic concept that energizes the story, but the story does not create it or explore it; it simply embodies or illustrates this preexisting cultural/religious idea.

"Big Cat," Louise Erdrich
Whereas Julia Elliott's story seems obviously the embodiment of a thematic idea, Louise Erdrich insists that her story is somewhat of a mystery to her and to those who read it. She said in her "Contributor's Notes" that when people mention this story to her their mouths open and their hands flap, and they laugh an odd laugh.  As a consequence, she says this story became a favorite of hers because it seemed to make people uncomfortable.
In her interview with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman, Erdrich said that when she was writing the story, the character Elida "seemed to thwart my narrator at every turn, yet she exuded a scholarly ascetic quality that was irresistible to him. I decided to give in to her perhaps unconscious malevolence, and after many revisions I wrote the ending. I was genuinely disturbed by this ending and have no idea how to account for it." When Treisman said she thought "The Big Cat” reads a little like a fairy tale or a fable, asking Erdrich there was a moral to this story, Erdrich said she liked the idea that "this story reads like a fairy tale, but there is no moral at all... Nothing I write ever has a moral. If it seems to a reader that there is one, that is unintentional."
The plot of this story focuses on a man married to a woman named Elida who snores. Not only Elida, but also her mother and her sisters are terrible snorers that no remedy seems to alleviate. After he divorces and marries someone else, he and his first wife become sexually involved again. This is less important than the significance Erdrich seems to develop out of the snoring and a short film Elida, edits together about the man's life, made up of snippets of bit parts he has played in movies.
The story ends with the man's recognition that the 30 minute film Elida has made which she entitled "Man of a Thousand Glimpses," makes a sort of narrative that has its own thematic significance.  From heroic acts to images of  being a good father, to infidelity, to criminal behavior, to multiple images of his death--the narrative is a "dark" one that makes the man feel he has wasted his life and acted ignobly. He realizes that the film reflects the way Elida really felt about him.
The story ends with them spending the night in Elida's parents' house. The snoring of the whole female side of the family hits him with "abrupt ferocity.  It is like a pack of wolves snarling over a kill and then lions driving off the wolves, gnawing off a leg and fending off a male. Elida sounds like a big cat ( thus the title of the story) digesting her prey, and he dreams he is the hunted animal being eaten alive.
Despite Erdrich's claim that she herself was not sure what to make of the ending of the story, it seems rather clear it evokes what Treisman recognizes as the fairy tale motif of the female revenging herself on the male for his treachery, for failing to be the good husband and good father that he promised to be, and finally devouring him like a wild animal—a big cat.

"The Fugue," Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Like Erdrich, Hemenway also disavows that he really knows how this story came about, as if the story somehow took control of the writing process.  He says, "I am embarrassed to admit that I don't remember actually writing this story," Suffering from sleep deprivation from having to wake up all though the night to feed a new baby who is having trouble eating, and feeling the pressure of having to turn a story in to a graduate workshop or risk failing began to get mixed up in his mind in an hallucinatory way.
The story seems to derive from Hemenway's research into the Iraq War, specifically about soldiers allegedly involved in atrocities.  He says in his "Contributor's Notes" that in his research, he learned  about the  U.S. military's strategy of re-creating whole Iraqi villages in the Mojave desert and hiring real Iraqi expatriates to "play out complex psychological behavioral profiles faked by various intelligence training units." The thematic concept that drives the story is the blurring of reality and fantasy as the central character, a soldier referred to as Wild Turkey, gets his memory of actual events and pretend events confused. It is all a bit too obvious for me.  Thom Jones did this war and fugue state theme several years ago with more style and energy than Hemenway does here.

"M&L," Sarah Kokernot
Kokernot says this story began with the image of a man picking up a woman's dress shoes as he followed her into the woods.  This is the image that the story moves toward and concludes with.  It has two separate points of view—one by Miriam, the ""M of the title, who was sexually attacked when she was thirteen and then sees the man years later at the time of this story at a wedding, and the second pov by Liam, the "L" of the title, who loves her.  It's a slim narrative striving for a kind of romantic, painful lyricism, but the language is not strong enough to support the delicacy the circumstance demands, for example: "He saws from her face that she'd gone to a place deep inside herself, and he knew she would never allow him to go there."  That's just too easy, isn't it?

"Jack, July," Victor Lodato
Lodata says the story started with body language—the way he pictured the central character's way of moving down the street. This is a story of a meth addict on the streets of Tucson, Arizona, on a journey across town in search of more drugs. Lodato, who once lived in Tucson, says he never really knows where he is going when he begins a story and that the character in this story perfectly mirrored his own state of mind.  He adds that the central character's heightened state of mind made him feel free to "go a little crazy, to edit myself less as I wrote—and in doing so, I ended up in in some unlikely places."
Maybe it is just my impatience with stories about guys on drugs, wandering about that makes me unimpressed with this story.  Maybe it is just the loose and lost sense of movement and style of this story that makes me lose any interest in what happens to Jack or in what that means, if anything. Maybe a little more editing might have been a good idea.

"Madame Lazarus," Maile Meloy
T. C. Boyle says in his Introduction that he felt this story was the most moving one in the collection.  He says he read it out doors and found himself in the "mortifying position" of sitting there exposed and sobbing in public, concluding that what Meloy has accomplished here is evoking "true emotion" over the ties that bind us to the world and how they are cruelly broken forever.
This is the story of an elderly gay man living in Paris with a younger man, who brings home a small terrier to keep the older man company after he retired. The story focuses on the man's fears that the young man will grow tired of him; it also centers around his memory of the first boy he loved and a tragedy that marked that love.
The story moves to a conclusion when the dog seems to have died and then revives, leading the vet to refer to the animal as "Madame Lazarus." A few months later, the dog becomes much more ill and must be taken to the animal hospital to be euthanized. And this is what makes T. C. Boyle cry.  Of course it does.  I cried when our dog of fifteen years died.  Everybody cries when a dog dies.  But this story is a fairly simple account that unfairly evokes an emotion that no one, at least no one who has ever had a dog, can resist.

"Mr. Voice," Jess Walter
In his "Contributor's Notes," Jess Walter says this story began with the first line that just popped into his head like a song lyric, "Mother was a stunner."  Calling it a story that kept surprising him as he discovered more about it every day, when he got to the end of the first draft and wrote the line the mother says to her daughter,("Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are"), he realized that's what he wanted to say to his own daughters concluding, "sentimental goof that I am, I started crying."
I can understand Walter's response, but I am not sure the story is what T. S. Eliot would call an "objective correlative" of the emotion.  It deals with a young girl whose mother is a beauty who goes out with lots of men, and then marries one who does commercials and announcements on the radio—earning the nickname "Mr. Voice."  When the narrator is age twelve, her mother leaves Mr. Voice and her for another man, and Mr. Voice becomes her guardian—and a good guardian and protector he is—not merely a stepfather, but, by the end of the story her "father."  It's a nice story, but a bit too easy in the emotion it evokes. "Thunderstruck," by Elizabeth McCracken, is, it seems to me, a more complex father/daughter story. (More about this story next time)

My favorite three stories in this year's Bass collection (which for me means they are the "best" of the "Best") are Denis Johnson's "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck," and Colum McCann's "Sh'khol." They all made me feel a strong emotion--not because they evoked anything personal or purposely played on my feelings, but because they were so damned well-written. More about that next week. For me, the "best" stories are always the best-written stories.

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