Integrating the Supernatural:
Louise Erdrich, "The Flower"
Karen Russell, "The Prospectors"
It seems appropriate that we take a look at these two stories together, not only because they both appeared in The New Yorker in June, 2015, but because they both share a similar structure: beginning as a realistic story with an historical context and then shifting into a supernatural story of the kind that has gained literary credence by being termed "magical realism."
Let me say right up front that I like Erdrich's story, but do not have any positive reaction to the Russell story. I know that part of this is due to my reactions to previous works by both writers. I have read Erdrich since she first started writing and have always valued the way she recreates a magical world of Native American folklore. I have read all of Karen Russell's short stories and have always found them light weight pop lit entertainments. You can take a look at my previous comments on both writers in earlier blogs by searching their names.
Basically, Russell's "The Prospectors" is about two young female hustlers in the 1930s who move to Oregon from Florida and are invited to a grand opening of a mountain lodge. However, they take the wrong chairlift and end up at another lodge—one that was destroyed in an avalanche killing all the Civilian Conservation Corps young men building it. Thus, the story focuses on the two women's encounter with these two dozen dead men who do not know they are dead.
The story just goes on and on and you can't wait until it ends. What irritates me most about Karen Russell is that she writes these superficial stories and then tries to convince us they are heavy-weight. In her interview for the "This Week in Fiction" blog and the BASS Contributor's Notes, she tries to justify this story as being a serious exploration of existential philosophy and cultural context. For example, she says the word "prospecting" was highly "resonant" (Aren't you tired of this terribly clichéd word?) for her of the notion of "staking an existential claim," for, after all, she says, the two women go to a party where their hosts demand that they "mint them into reality."
Russell says with high seriousness that she loved the idea of a story about two friends who "survive the painful collapse of a fantasy, of a phantom structure of reality, and live to tell the tale." In her interview with New Yorker editor Willing Davidson, she even dares to bring in Nietzsche to justify the dynamic between the two women: "Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species." Good Lord! All this to justify a silly superficial story that even Stephen King could do better.
Louise Erdrich says her story about a seventeen-year old young man who tries to rescue an eleven-year-old native American girl from an old drunken white trader has its roots in journals kept by fur traders, as well as traditional Ojibwe and Cree stories. In her "This Week in Fiction" interview with Deborah Treisman, Erdrich justifies the supernatural elements in the story, e.g. the disembodied rolling head of the trader that chases the young people, by saying it comes from an traditional Cree/Ojibwe origin story, which suggests the damned person is doomed to roll forever detached from his body. She says the situations are based on such well-known stories and skills that she did not think them fantastical while she was writing them, for the training of spiritual people in many indigenous societies involves learning how to leave one's body.
Basically what makes Erdrich's story of the supernatural believable and Russell's story of the supernatural silly is the difference between the voices that tell them. Whereas Russell's story has the kind of self-conscious, elevated language that characterizes much of her work, Erdrich's story has the restrained, matter-of-fact tone that can present the incredible as belonging to a cultural world that accepts it and therefore makes it credible. After the poison given to the old trader makes his head swell up to a grotesque size, the fact that the head can become an independent entity seems perfectly acceptable. The fairy tale nature of the young girl who is a beautiful princess beneath her muddied face and who is saved by a young prince charming pursued by a maddened detached head would seem absurd if it were not for the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the storyteller. Whereas there is nothing to motivate the entrance into the supernatural in Russell's story, Erdrich's story takes on the same kind of credibility that fairy tales do. We believe it because we have agreed to enter into the cultural world in which such tales explain what mystifies us.
Science as a Context:
Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age"
Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore"
It is curious, but perhaps only incidental, that there are two stories with a science context in this year's Best American Short Stories: Andrea Barrett's "Wonders of the Shore" and Yalitza Ferreras's "The Letician Age." Andrea Barrett has used science as a background context many times before. I have posted on her stories before. Ferreras, who grew up moving back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New York City, is younger than Barrett and published less. She describes the origin of her story in what she calls a terrifying incident at an Hawaiian lava field that she wrote an essay about in a nonfiction writing class at Mills College. This story is a fictionalized version of the essay, which maintains a list of famous geologists that appeared in the original.
Ferreras says that when she was writing the story, she realized the list was made up solely of white males, and thus she understood the "real engine" of her story: "the quest for power by someone who feels powerless. The story became about how Leticia embodies this desire."
"The Letician Age" begins with episodes from Leticia's childhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and in New York City. These episodes are interspersed with brief bios and accomplishments of famous geologists, e.g. Louis Agassiz, Georgius Agricola, George Barrow, etc. Leticia is fascinated, even obsessed with geology, keeping a rock collection and talking to the rocks. The geology obsession becomes a unifying metaphor in which Leticia thinks of her sister in terms of a mineral hardness scale, sees the eyes of a boy she meets as translucent crystals, her falling in love as a polarity reversal of the earth, etc.
All this moves along in metaphoric fashion until something powerful must happen, and it does when she and her beloved boyfriend go to Hawaii and she obsessively tries to put her hand in molten lava and loses fingers and part of her hand. After surgery, she decides she and her boyfriend are mismatched, and she becomes convinced that her injury is due to a curse of the God Pele for taking a volcanic rock from a volcano the day before the accident. The story ends with her scratching the rock and thinking of a painting of Pele that hangs in the post office in Hawaii. Her boyfriend had said that Leticia looked like Pele—a goddess who moves the earth.
The story works too self-consciously to make the science context an integral structural device. And it stretches the reader's imagination to believe that Leticia would put her hand in molten lava just because the story thematically demands it.
The difference between Andrea Barrett's use of a scientific context and Ferreras's is the difference between a purely human story that just happens to have a scientific context, and a somewhat forced story that depends solely on the scientific obsession that energizes it.
I have read all of Andrea Barrett's stories in Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, and Archangel; the first two I reviewed, and the last I posted a blog on. I like her short stories--not because they are grounded in an historical context or because they are often linked together—but because of the careful prose with which they are written and the delicate and mysterious human relationships on which they focus.
As usual with Barrett's stories, this one features a fictional character embedded in a context of historically real characters—usually late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century scientists. "Wonders of the Shore" focuses on an invented character, a thirty-three-year old teacher named Henrietta Atkins, who assists the botanist Daphne Bannister, particularly one summer vacation in 1885, when they visit the Isle of Shoals off the coast of Maine, where Bannister becomes friends with writer Celia Thaxter, well-known as a friend of writers Whittier and Sarah Orne Jewett, and painter William Morris Hunt.
When Thaxter shuns the company of Henrietta and increasingly pulls Daphne away to entertain her famous friends, Henrietta is drawn to a young painter named Sebby Quint. The crucial event in the story takes place when Henrietta receives a chatty letter from a well-meaning but dull man named Mason who wants to marry her. Although some part of her thinks she wants a life with him, when she finishes reading the letter, she crumples the pages and her eyes fill with tears. When Sebby asks her what is wrong, she says Mason has met someone else and wants to break off with her. She has no idea why she impulsively tells this lie, but it immediately increases Sebby's interest in her, and so she persists in it.
In 1901, after Thaxter has died and Bannister has published her book Wonders of the Shore, Bannister brings to Henrietta a package of Sebby's sketchbooks dated the summer of 1885, sent to her by a roommate of Sebby, informing her that he has died in an accident. It is only then that we learn that Henrietta had an affair with Sebby that summer, and for sixteen years he had been present in her imagination, "leaping to mind unexpectedly when a wave lapped at a hull with a particular sound, or a cedar branch shook off the rain drops beading up on its needles." Many of the sketches are of Henrietta—a woman's hand, wrist, and forearm, a woman's naked back, a woman with her face hidden by her raised arms, a pair of woman's legs dangling over the edge of a rowboat.
The story ends by reminding us of the framework announced at the beginning—the friendship of Daphne and Henrietta that has lasted many years—with Daphne making frequent visits, about which notes are published in the newspaper, "which are colored by something that wouldn't be there if either of the women had married. Now they seem to point at something. They might not have read that way then."
It is the secret life of Henrietta with Sebby and the secret night life of Daphne with Mrs. Thaxter that binds the two women together. Only the lie that had started it all remains Henrietta's secret, although Daphne probably knew about the affair. The story ends with Henrietta, who for a week after receiving Sebby's sketchbook, can feel his hair against her lips.
It is a delicate story that one must read slowly and carefully. You have to love the language to love the story. If you read it hurriedly, you will think it much about nothing, but if you let your lips move as you articulate the words and follow the rhythm of the syntax, you will appreciate the mysterious motivation of the two women whose relationship lies at its heart. Although science provides an historical context for the story, it is the complexly human that animates it—not an artificial plot provided by science.