31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 22: “Eight-Ball” by Samuel Thomas Martin

May 22, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

From This Ramshackle Tabernacle

fix v. 1 tr. mend, repair. 2 tr. put in order, adjust. … n. slang a dose of a narcotic drug to which one is addicted.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary


You forgot your wrench, man! the waiter calls to Harold, who is halfway out the door. The young clean-shaven guy walks over to Harold and hands him the shiny new monkey wrench and asks: So what’re you going to fix with this?

I’m good at fixin things, Harold mumbles as he staggers out onto the sidewalk. Goin to go fix things. – “Eight-Ball”

Harold, the protagonist of Samuel Thomas Martin’s dissection of drug-addicted urban hell, comes by his desire to fix things naturally. As the story opens, he is seen in flashback talking to his father, who is working on the underside of a Chevette. “Friggin Carl could’ve drained the oil before he let this piece of crap car rust in his yard,” Harold’s father complains as his son stands, defiant, on the brink of leaving his small-town Ontario home to strike out for the big city of Toronto. Harold’s father has tried to fix what’s wrong with his son by administering copious corporal punishments when Harold was a boy. A budding violinist and a “Goth” in the eyes of his prejudiced father (“even though [Harold] never wore leather, painted his nails black, or listened to heavy metal”), Harold leaves home with a grand total of $180 in his pocket and dreams of making a mark for himself. “If he could just get to Toronto he’d be able to land a bar gig – that was the only thing in his life, at that moment, that he was certain of.”

Like so many starry-eyed dreamers before him, however, Harold finds the urban environment much more inimical than he’d supposed. “You need cover tunes, okay?” the manager of one establishment tells him. “And a back-up band. Violin’s great if you’re Stravinsky or some crazy stunt like Ashley MacIsaac’s.”

The problem is that Harold is not Stravinsky, not by a long shot. He plays reels and jigs on the violin like his grandfather, who only played “when he was drunk off his ass.” Harold “played best when he was drunk too,” a testament to the cycle of alcoholism that repeats itself down through generations of a family, and makes him an easy mark for Neb, a dealer in downtown Toronto who gets the aspiring musician hooked on crack cocaine, in part by telling him about all the “big-shot users” who dabbled in the drug:

“Like that Sir Conan guy.”

“The barbarian?”

“No! Not friggin Schwarzenegger! I’m talking about the guy who made up that detective Sherlock Holmes. He was a crack-head and his character was a crack-head. In those days crack-heads were the detectives and now the detectives are after the crack-heads.”

No one is going to give Neb points for historical accuracy, but in the cold of a Toronto winter, with nowhere to turn and nobody to offer him a break, Harold succumbs to his sales pitch and finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into uncontrollable addiction.

This is not blazingly original material, having been thoroughly covered already by everyone from William S. Burroughs to Hubert Selby, Jr. to Irvine Welsh. What elevates Martin’s story is its canny structure, shuttling back and forth between the present – which finds Harold being ejected from a bar where he has got stinking drunk and heading in the direction of the University of Toronto to locate a music professor who, in Harold’s mind, denied the violin virtuoso his big break – and the past – which traces the downward trajectory of Harold’s unfortunate experience on the streets of Toronto.

In the narrative past, Harold attempts a disastrous impromptu audition for the professor’s secretary, who ends up calling university security to have him thrown out. “I was trying to fix things!” he yells at the men who unceremoniously toss him and his violin to the curb. Although the idea of swallowing his pride and returning home to his father is, on one level at least, abhorrent, Harold decides to purchase a new monkey wrench as a peace offering and secure a bus ticket away from the city. He is sidetracked, however, by an offer of cheap shots at a campus bar, which leads to an unfortunate encounter with his would-be musical mentor. The wrench, a tool often employed to fix things, ends up being the instrument that lands Harold a kind of notoriety, although not precisely the kind he was hoping for.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 21: “Strange Tribe” by Donald Ward

May 21, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nobody Goes to Earth Any More

The unspoken subject of much horror fiction is faith. The dictionary definition of faith is first, “complete trust or confidence,” and second, “firm belief, especially without logical proof.” Donald Ward’s story, which follows an unnamed Catholic priest and a native tracker named Joel Natoweyes traversing a patch of boreal forest in search of the beast that slaughtered a group of campers, is both a straight-up supernatural horror story, and an explicit examination of the second kind of faith.

Ward sets the uncanny tone right from his opening sentences: “Billy Greyeyes told me he had seen a white moose at the narrows, with antlers as big as trees, but when he got it in his sights it vanished like smoke. A week later Annie Bear gave birth to a male child with six fingers on each hand, and all that day a dark cloud hovered over the south shore of the lake.” The moose “with antlers big as trees” that disappears “like smoke” when Billy Greyeyes catches it in the sights of his rifle, coupled with Annie Bear’s child, born with an abnormal number of fingers under an ominous dark cloud, are indications that something is askew in the natural order of things; from the start, the story is infused with a strikingly illogical aspect. The priest is straightforward in his recognition of these supernatural phenomena: when Joel tells him that he has “found the tracks of a cloven-hoofed animal where the white men had been camping,” the priest accepts the news as “confirmation rather than surprise.”

The story’s two protagonists adhere to differing belief systems, but both arise out of an acceptance of the supernatural steeped in longstanding tradition (the cannibal creature at the centre of the narrative bears certain resemblances to the Wendigo of native legend). The priest and the tracker are both, on one level at least, spiritualists who exist in opposition to the kind of secular rationalism that pervades modern Western culture. In the story’s key paragraph, the priest assesses the legitimacy of scientific evidence as against religious belief:

The scientific method gives us one way of thinking, one way of knowing. This the modern world has embraced because it comforts us and requires no sacrifice. Ghosts, demons, and the myriad creatures of nightmare do not exist because they cannot be explained by observation and experimentation. One might gaze into the abyss and postulate its origin, but one is not required to leap into it. A fine and rational faith. Religious faith follows a different logic that seems no logic at all, and offers us another way of knowing. It gives us rules and reasons and it comforts the credulous with certainty. But this was faith of a different order. This was faith as old as the rocks, as old as the water and the sky. It was the faith of the living earth, and the laws it conceived were designed to kill the weak and the faithless.

While disavowing the scientific method as inadequate to accommodate events that transcend rational explanation, the priest is equally unprepared to accept a kind of psychologically comfortable retreat into religious certainty that brooks no questions, or that does not allow for the presence of doubt. “I have said that faith gives us certainty,” the priest says elsewhere, “but at the end of the day the only certainty is doubt. Were I asked to define humankind, I would say not that we are toolmakers, monument builders, jesters, or chroniclers, but that we are the doubting animal.”

The priest remains steadfast in his adherence to his Catholic vows throughout the story, even when tempted by the beast in its latter stages. However, he retains a measure of doubt as to the legitimacy of the suffering that his god allows to exist in the world. He never questions the reality of the monster that savages the campers, but he does question the reason for their suffering. At the story’s close, he ponders on the fate of the people who must eke out their existence in the harshness of the boreal forest:

I thought, for a moment, of a strange tribe damned for the remainder of natural life to that vast and trackless land, killing, eating raw flesh, dying violently at the hands of nature or others like themselves. How many legends might spring from such a hapless fate – tales of evil spirits, of cries in the night, of faces on the edge of the fire, of creatures almost human in their ferocity and greed?

The notion of evil creatures “almost human” in their rapaciousness is a somewhat unflattering assessment of the nature of our species. The priest’s unwavering belief in the existence of supernatural evil, it would appear, is a direct consequence of his understanding of human nature. In this context, the story’s final image is startling and potent in its implications: “I went back into the church. I glanced up at the tortured man hanging eternally on his cross. Had that really been necessary to redeem miserable mankind? I wondered.”

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 20: “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving” by Patricia Highsmith

May 20, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories

Sanity was a central preoccupation of Patricia Highsmith, who, in certain solid ways, knew herself very well indeed. She worked hard at sanity and was mostly successful at it. Her icy, invigilator’s eye scanned her own behavior and monitored her own thoughts regularly and often, the way a searchlight sweeps a prison yard for escaping convicts. “I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched,” she wrote grimly. And then again, “I fear the madness in me, quite near the surface.”

– Joan Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith could hardly be called an autobiographical writer, although a casual awareness of her life story – the misanthropy, the serial love affairs, the recurring bouts of depression, the alcoholism – testifies to the prevalence of a persistent dark side that almost inevitably worked itself into her fiction. It is no accident that Highsmith chose murder, mayhem, and manipulation as her subjects.

The late-period story “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving” is in fact something of an anomaly in the Highsmith canon (along with the author’s second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story originally published pseudonymously), having nothing to do with crime or criminals. Which should not be taken to mean that it is not a dark story, or that it represents an abandonment of the author’s fascination with fractured or abnormal psychology. Highsmith’s use of the word “schizoid” in the letter Joan Schenkar quotes in the excerpt above is telling: the same word appears in a similar context in “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” although there it appears to refer more to multiple personality disorder than to schizophrenia.

The story focuses on a successful and settled middle-class woman named Diane Clarke. Diane, an ad copywriter, and her lawyer husband, Reg, live in Manhattan but have a cottage in Massachusetts. While walking along the beach one day, Diane discovers a basket shaped like a cradle, with a hole in its bottom. She takes the basket home and, using twigs she has on hand, mends the hole with a skill and efficiency she had no idea she possessed. Rather than being pleased with the outcome of her handiwork, however, she grows increasingly ill-at-ease as to the provenance of her ability, and the basket becomes a kind of menacing talisman, a primitive object that seems to implicate her in the whole history of humanity. This prospect elicits in her a stark terror.

Throughout Highsmith’s story, the idea of modernity is opposed by images and recollections of a more primeval ontological state. Diane’s current work assignment involves writing copy for a mechanical device that sucks the air out of refrigerator bags, allowing food to be stored longer and to take up less room. The device is modern and expensive, but Diane finds it difficult to pen copy because her mind keeps drifting back to the basket she has rescued from the beach:

It was odd to be sitting in a cottage built in a simple style more than a hundred years ago, to have just repaired a basket in the manner that people would have made or repaired a basket thousands of years ago, and to be trying to compose a sentence about a gadget whose existence depended upon modern plumbing, sealed packaging, transport by machinery of fruit or vegetables grown hundreds of miles (possibly thousands) from the places where they would be consumed. If this weren’t so, people could simply carry fruit and vegetables home in a sack from the fields, or in baskets such as the one she had just mended.

Diane recognizes that the technology involved in creating and repairing the basket – a technology that is so common and easily replicable that she is capable of participating in it – is better and more useful than the technology that created the vacuum sealing device she is charged with promoting (a device that is, her ruminations imply, finally pretty inessential). Diane understands the vacuum gadget, having seen a demonstration of it at her office, but is not able to comprehend how it is put together, nor the specific mechanics that make it work, a recognition that leaves her feeling “odd and disoriented.”

She is equally disoriented during a dinner party the following week, when she considers the highest achievements of humanity – achievements she feels fundamentally estranged from – in light of her almost preternatural ability to repair a wooden basket:

While they were drinking coffee, Diane lit three candles and the oil lamp, and they listened to a record of Mozart divertimenti. They didn’t listen, but it served as background music for their conversation. Diane listened to the music. It sounded skillful, even modern, and extremely civilized. Diane enjoyed her brandy. The brandy too seemed the epitome of human skill, care, knowledge. Not like a basket any child could put together. Perhaps a child in years couldn’t, but a child as to progress in the evolution of the human race could weave a basket.

This is the central passage in Highsmith’s story, the one that most explicitly identifies the nature of Diane’s terror: the notion that all the skills and technologies in the modern world are unnecessary on an evolutionary level. The ability to weave a basket is more useful to the survival of the human race than the ability to appreciate a fine brandy or a Mozart composition. Diane considers various explanations for her unease, including the aforementioned mental illness, most of which she dismisses out of hand (“Diane did not believe in a soul, and found the idea of a collective unconscious too vague to be of importance”). What really seems to be bothering her, however, is the notion that civilization itself may be a chimera; that all the things she prizes in her sophisticated middle-class life are simply illusions; that all the wonders of human ingenuity ultimately pale in comparison to the ability to repair a simple woven basket.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 19: “The Houdini” by Elaine McCluskey

May 19, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Valery the Great

Competitiveness is at the heart of Elaine McCluskey’s story “The Houdini,” about a small-town swim team that travels from Myrtle, Nova Scotia (“a minor town with modest expectations”), to Ontario to participate in an ill-fated out-of-province meet.

The Myrtle Otters Swim Team – whose acronym is fodder for much comedy – is composed of a rag-tag group of misfit young people suffering every complaint imaginable, from low self-esteem to debilitating physical ailments: “We had forty swimmers, including twelve asthmatics, four kids with peanut allergies, and two boys who claimed, thought they may have been lying, that they were legally blind.” The one bona fide star on the team, the fifteen-year-old hunk improbably named Nathan Spearwater, is desired by all the girls on account of his “dreamy eyes and abs.” Nathan has hair “hardened like points of meringue” from the chlorine in the local pool, “which, in our minds, gave him a dangerous, yet vulnerable, air.” Nathan eventually decamps the swim team to play rugby, a sport at which he also excels, much to the consternation of his erstwhile swimmers: “When Nathan didn’t come back, but did become a rugby star, we comforted ourselves with cheap insults. ‘Anyone can play rugby,’ we decided. ‘It’s a goon sport.’ ”

The “cheap insults” are a clear cover for inadequacy on the part of the remaining swim team members, who hold no illusions about their own relative abilities. Some of the team members even revel in their vulnerabilities, flaunting and mythologizing them. Drew, a large young man who can’t dive off the blocks because his swimsuit will come off (“They don’t put drawstrings in Speedos that large”), boasts to Rita, the story’s narrator, about the inaccuracy of rumours that he has had surgery to correct a hernia: “It was a hydrocele, which is an abnormal swelling of the scrotum.”

The impulse to aggrandize everything is a function of living in Myrtle, a town that has no import to speak of. The town’s persistent ordinariness requires an almost wilful act of revisionism on the part of its citizens, who are desperate to rise above a pervasive sense of underachievement:

[T]he weekly newspaper covered our every undertaking: meets, bottle drives, Swim-A-Thons. One week earlier, a reporter had interviewed Drew, who boasted, without a hint of self-consciousness, “I like to play mind games in distance races,” and the reporter, without a whiff of irony, printed it. When the story appeared, Drew’s mother looked so proud of her son that I thought she might cry. Swim team was my mother’s idea. There was no reason, declared Ethna, with a tenacious optimism that bordered on madness, that I could not become the best in the province or maybe the world.

Ethna’s optimism bordering on madness is simply one manifestation of the almost pathological need for recognition that infects the denizens of Myrtle. Roger, the husband of Ethna’s sister, Irene, is a denturist who boasts wildly about the need to hire an additional assistant for his practice: “I need someone to handle the overflow,” he brags, with a smile that is “threatening and ugly as a stump fence.” Pammy, the Otters’ swim coach, is convinced the team will not improve unless they attend “big meets” in Ontario and Quebec, “something she had earlier dismissed as a waste of money.” She enrolls her kids in a skills class with a big-city trainer named Beluga, whose “pool was located in a neighbourhood of neck tattoos and knives.” Georgina Vogel, a teenager from a troubled family, has “a lascivious side” and “often posed with her mouth half-open, tongue suggestively exposed like in a porno movie.”

All of these characters are engaged in a vain attempt to rise above their circumstances; the sense of competition they succumb to becomes a kind of grinding torture for the people who feel the weight of the town’s expectations bearing down upon them but are unable to acquit themselves satisfactorily. The townspeople manage to puff themselves up with empty rhetoric about how grand they all are, but there is an equally virulent sense of satisfaction at witnessing others fail. “It wasn’t just relief,” Rita thinks of the feelings in the air after the disastrous Ontario swim meet. “It was the same schadenfreude we had felt when Drew dove off the blocks and his suit fell down; the same joy I had seen on Irene’s face, when she realized, long before Ethna, that I was hopeless.”

The word “schadenfreude” literally means “pleasure derived from another’s misfortune”: the citizens of Myrtle take pleasure in the shortcomings of their neighbours because it is easier, and much less painful, than focusing on their own.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 18: Intermission

May 18, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

There will now be a short intermission.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 17: “We So Seldom Look on Love” by Barbara Gowdy

May 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From We So Seldom Look on Love

In his Preface to the New York Edition of The American, Henry James writes of the principle by which artistic genius may produce, unconsciously in the making but evident in retrospect, a work that tugs in two directions at once – romance and realism in the case of James’s own novel (it being typical of the author to impute the condition of artistic genius upon himself). Art, James supposes, is greatest when the artist commits himself to “the law of some rich passion in him for extremes.” James continues:

Of the men of largest responding imagination before the human scene, of Scott, of Balzac, even of the coarse, comprehensive, prodigious Zola, we feel, I think, that the deflexion toward either quarter has never taken place; that neither the nature of the man’s faculty nor the nature of his experience has ever quite determined it. His current remains therefore extraordinarily rich and mixed, washing us successively with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock, as may be, of the far and strange.

While in one sense it seems utterly foolish to compare Barbara Gowdy to Scott, Balzac, and Zola, her fiction nevertheless embodies the kind of “rich passion … for extremes” that James admired, and it is possible to locate in her work, as with few other late 20th or early 21st century authors, “the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock … of the far and strange.” Unlike the authors James mentions, however, these conditions are not successive – that is, discrete – in Gowdy’s fiction: they are inextricably mingled.

If Gowdy’s preferred mode is one of mimetic realism, her subject matter is often limned from the margins or the extremities of polite society. She finds sympathy and solace in outcasts and freaks, people (or, in the case of The White Bone, creatures) who are the focus of derision, hatred, or fear: the child abductor in Helpless, the brain-damaged (possibly reincarnated) albino daughter in Mister Sandman, and, not least of all, the necrophile protagonist in the title story of Gowdy’s 1992 collection, We So Seldom Look on Love.

Told in the first person, and employing a light, almost conversational cadence, the story traces the unnamed narrator’s experience with corpses, from her childhood fascination with dead birds and chipmunks, to her eventual obsession – beginning at age sixteen – with making love to human cadavers. Neither an apologia nor a justification, the narration is an exploration of the narrator’s attempt to harness the “energy emission” that occurs in “the act of life alchemizing into death,” and the concomitant transformation that can be effected at such a moment. “I’ve seen cadavers shining like stars,” she says.

At the story’s opening, the narrator explains this energy transference in terms that echo James: “There is always energy given off when a thing turns into its opposite, when love, for instance, turns into hate. There are always sparks at those extreme points. But life turning into death is the most extreme of extreme points.” The equation of sex and death is axiomatic (the French metaphor for orgasm, la petite mort, invoked particularly by literary critic Roland Barthes, literally means “little death”), and certainly has no short history in literature. Arguably the most famous novel to equate the sex act with the condition of being (un)dead is Dracula, but the correlation has also appeared in the work of writers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, William Shakespeare, and Christina Rossetti. Woody Allen has said that “all great literature is about sex and death.” Gowdy simultaneously reflects and extends this tradition by emphasizing the moment of transition between life and death and the way death (in her story, quite literally) bleeds into life.

Indeed, blood is the signal bodily fluid for Gowdy’s narrator. As a child experimenting with death, the narrator develops numerous rituals to help pay respect to the bodies of the animals she buries; one such ritual involves dancing around with the carcass in her hands (this she calls “Anonitment”). On one occasion she appalls her best friend (and future sister-in-law) by stripping naked and rubbing the corpse of a chipmunk over her skin: “Carol stopped dancing. I looked at her, and the expression on her face stopped me dancing too. I looked down at the chipmunk in my hand. It was bloody. There were streaks of blood all over my body. I was horrified. I thought I’d squeezed the chipmunk too hard . But what had happened was, I’d begun my period. I figured this out a few minutes after Carol ran off. I wrapped the chipmunk in a shroud and buried it.” Carol reacts to the sight of her friend’s blood with horror and disgust. Whether she has also assumed the blood belongs to the chipmunk is unclear; what is abundantly clear is that the narrator’s menstrual blood is a symbol both of her transition into womanhood – her ability to carry and birth a child – as well as her loss of an unfertilized egg: literally, life and death are commingled here.

When she begins making love to corpses, the narrator uses blood from the dead bodies as a lubricant, something that her lover, Matt, is the only person to comprehend: “He was a medical student, so he knew that if you apply pressure to the chest of certain fresh corpses, they purge blood out of their mouths.” Rather than reacting to the narrator’s admission in the way Carol does – that is, with revulsion – Matt is fascinated, and seems to understand the essential connection between blood and sex, life and death: “Sperm propagates life,” he says. “But blood sustains it. Blood is primary.”

In Carol and Matt, Gowdy has provided another set of extremes: the former is disgusted and horrified by the narrator’s obsession, the latter is sympathetic and non-judgmental. These are, of course, the two poles that the reader is offered. One of the essential aspects of Gowdy’s fiction in general, and “We So Seldom Look on Love” in particular, is its refusal to provide any pat moral or to imply any “correct” reading. Because she also traffics in the extremes of human behaviour, it is hardly possible for a reader to adopt an ambivalent position. In this case, she has confronted us with a narrator who acts outside the confines of what society considers normative or acceptable, but she has done so without casting moral judgment. Any moral outrage brought to the story is the reader’s, not the author’s. As readers, we are given a choice: we can side with Carol or we can side with Matt.

The latter choice is fraught, since Matt’s unrequited love for the narrator can only be returned if he dies. True love, the story posits, is dangerous, sacrificial, and potentially fatal. Matt’s desire for the narrator can only find its reflection in her through his death: “He was playing with fire,” she says, “playing with me.” Matt finally commits suicide, albeit with help from the narrator (exactly how much help is another matter that is left indeterminate in the text), whereby he hopes to effect the transformation that will allow the narrator finally to love him.

The end of the story returns us full circle to the beginning, to “the most extreme of extreme points,” when life transforms itself into death. “I think that all desire is desire for transformation,” the narrator says, “and that all transformation – all movement, all process – happens because life turns into death.” This insistence on process belies the idea of polarities – between life and death, love and hate – that have been identified previously, but the final line of the story finds a return to a juxtaposition of extremes in the “torrid serenity” the narrator discovers making love to cadavers. If Carol and Matt represent the poles of conventional society, the narrator is in some ways the synthesis of these poles, these extremes. She represents otherness, which may either be embraced by society or shunned, but cannot be ignored. James would have approved.

(This piece first appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries)

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 16: “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” by Adam Marek

May 16, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Instruction Manual for Swallowing

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as television stations the world over were showing a seemingly endless loop of the second plane piercing the World Trade Center tower, one of the comments repeated with such frequency that it quickly took on the mantle of cliché was, “It looks like something from a movie.” Hollywood had become so sophisticated in its representations of mass chaos, simultaneous with a general disbelief that anything of such magnitude could possibly occur in the real world (at least, the real world of the privileged and technologically superior West), that the initial reaction to the events of that blue September morning amounted to a stark disbelief, a feeling that the images parading across the screen must be fictitious.

The echoes of 9/11 in Adam Marek’s story, about a man named Austin, who discovers he has testicular cancer on the same day that a giant, lizard-like beast attacks his home city, may or may not be coincidental, but the author includes certain elements that invite the comparison. Chief among these is the name of the restaurant where Molly, Austin’s girlfriend, takes refuge in the wake of the monster’s assault. The restaurant is called Osma’s, and it’s difficult to believe that the one-letter separation from the name of the mastermind behind the 9/11 atrocity is unintentional.

Moreover, when Austin, having just been diagnosed, arrives at his sister’s apartment to break the news to her, he finds his sister and their parents gathered around the television, watching what appears to be a cinema verité movie: “He looked at the television again. Why are they watching this stupid programme? The film was done in a real-time docu-drama style. Jerky camera movements, shot on video to make it look like the news. Icons in the corner of the screen. Panicked anchorwoman. Everything.” If the enormity of a gigantic, Godzillaesque creature laying waste to Austin’s city is too difficult to comprehend, it is complicated by a zeitgeist that includes the blurring of the line between fiction and reality in such documentary manqué fare as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Rec.

However, Austin’s inability to comprehend the actuality of the circumstances befalling his urban surroundings is also explicable by his utterly understandable absorption in his own diagnosis. How completely does the world contract into a single, malignant aspect in the wake of a medical judgment that sounds like a coarsely delivered death sentence? When Austin leaves his doctor’s office, he is confronted by scenes of disarray, but they fail to register on him, so wrapped up is he in the personally momentous news he has just received:

Outside, the sun was baking the street, melting ice-lollies, making people crazy. Austin watched the pavement as he walked. He was half-aware of people running past him, of screams and exclamations. Two cars collided, and then a third drove into them, but Austin barely noticed. The ground shook again, and he stumbled.

Neither is Austin’s specific diagnosis accidental. He initially ignores the signs of trouble because he is afraid of a positive diagnosis, and because he has recently embarked on a relationship with Molly, and does not want to endanger his sexual potency in the wake of his nascent love affair:

He knew if he went to the doctor, he’d have it chopped off. And he wondered what would happen to his sex drive if he only had one ball, or no balls? What if they had to remove both? So he left it. He would go next week when things weren’t so hectic at work, when he’d been with Molly for a little longer. They’d been together for less than a year. It was too soon to be going to her with things growing on his balls.

When Austin realizes that the images on his sister’s television represent the reality unfolding outside her apartment window, he determines to cross the city and rescue his girlfriend, who is trapped in the area being ravaged by the creature. This act is reckless and intemperate, but it is also a manifestation of the masculine imperative he feels at risk of losing to cancer, even before the illness claims his life. When he eventually reaches the zone of devastation, he appropriates a machine gun from a dead soldier and shoots the lizard – appropriately enough – in the groin.

All of this is presented in the manner of high comedy, burlesquing a kind of Michael Bay–inspired machismo that prizes courage, guts, and balls above all else. But the beating heart of Marek’s story involves a collision between tenuous masculinity and the painful, quivering result of a terrifying and debilitating medical diagnosis. When the ground shakes in the story’s opening sentence, it could be attributable to the marauding lizard – or to something more quotidian, but equally catastrophic.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 15: “The Soother” by Elyse Friedman

May 15, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Long Story Short

Postmodern adulthood can be both wearying and stressful, with pressures impinging from all sides: responsibilities on the family and job front abutting a persistent sense of low self-worth and ennui. It’s little wonder so many of us long for the simple joys of childhood. It’s little wonder some of us long to return to that carefree, antediluvian state.

Elyse Friedman opens “The Soother” with a description of a woman breastfeeding: “Irma unfastened the plastic clip on her nursing bra and brought a hard brown nipple to Lucas’s mouth. He latched on and sucked greedily. She watched his hands curl into fists. ‘There,’ she said, ‘There there …’ ” The kicker is that Irma is a prostitute, and Lucas is a grown man who pays her $200 an hour to treat him like a baby, from diapering him to suckling him to reading him stories from picture books. “His hour with Irma,” we are told, “was the fastest in the week.”

And it’s no surprise, really. Lucas works as a marketer for a tobacco company: not the easiest or most politically correct career choice in the cigarette-averse environment of 21st-century Canada. His children are openly derisive of his job – Leo, his middle child, refuses to allow his father to pay for meals when they go out together, saying he doesn’t “want a dime of Lucas’s ‘dirty cancer money’ ” – but they are absolutely willing to avail themselves of the salary he earns.

Megan, Lucas’s youngest, is pregnant, and sends him on errands for ferrous gluconate (an iron supplement) and mango-vanilla ice cream, then becomes irate when he arrives at her apartment with mango and vanilla and suggests she mix the two together herself. His eldest child, Kate, insists that he negotiate with the management of a local hotel to recoup the money for her upcoming wedding after she pulls out at the last minute because her mother, Lucas’s wife, has come down with a medical condition (possibly psychosomatic) that makes her highly intolerant of the kinds of perfumes and pesticides that are liberally dispersed in public venues. And his brother, Andrew, is trying to get him to invest a not insubstantial amount of money in his latest hare-brained get-rich-quick scheme.

The members of Lucas’s family are all insufferably self-centred and entitled, but he puts up with them willingly, indulging their every whim and demand. His wife’s ailment is the result of her lover committing suicide, “seemingly, because he had written a twelve-hundred-page novel that thirty-seven consecutive editors had declined to publish.” Lucas is aware of his wife’s infidelity because he has had her followed by a private detective. “Not that he wanted to confront his wife,” Friedman writes. “No. He just wanted to know why she was suddenly looking so well and feeling so breezy and at the same time having frequent, guilt-induced nightmares.”

Friedman employs a sharply ironic tone and relies heavily on dialogue to drive her story about a man so severely put-upon that he retreats to the only haven he knows: his nurturing, adoring maternal replacement, Irma. The soother in the title has a number of different connotations: it refers, literally, to the pacifier (or “binky”) that Irma employs with her client; it refers to the prostitute’s function in the life of an otherwise harried and unacknowledged man; and it refers to the dissociation from the pressures and perils of modern life that Lucas’s time with Irma represents. A return to a blissful state in which ungratefulness and hypocrisy are banished, and all that remains is a quiet mobile spinning above him in the air, “the soft music and those blue geese, moving slowly, slowly around the smiling sun.”

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 14: “Bartleby” by Herman Melville

May 14, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From Billy Budd and Other Stories

For Dani Couture

Although it is now widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, when it was first published in 1851, Moby-Dick was both a critical and commercial failure. The book’s enduring success would likely have astounded its author, who was himself so convinced of its greatness – “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers,” Melville wrote. “A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it” – that its early failure (the first American edition sold a mere 2,300 copies), combined with that of its successor, Pierre (1852), left him despondent and angry at a reading public that seemed unwilling to engage with his dark and unruly vision of America.

It is important not to put too much emphasis on parallels between an author’s life and his fiction, but certain critics have nevertheless suggested that “Bartleby” is, on one level at least, a response to the poor reaction his novels received. “And so we come to the exhausted Melville of 1852,” writes Frederick Busch in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd and Other Stories. “He begins to speak – it is nearly impossible, still, for him to be silent – of what obsesses him: the failure of crucial messages to get through.”

This is not, of course, the only reading of “Bartleby” – it is not even the most convincing. However, to the extent that psychologists have been able to locate in the story’s title character an early example of what has come to be understood as clinical depression, it is a reading that cannot entirely be dismissed. Other, more text-based readings see the story as an exercise in psychological doubling, of the kind frequently employed by Poe (and, indeed, by Melville himself in parts of Moby-Dick); a commentary on the dialectic between free will and determinism; and an examination of the alienating nature of modern life in the immediate aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. It is a measure of the story’s greatness that it allows for aspects of all these readings.

On its surface, “Bartleby” (the full title is “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”) could not be simpler: the first-person narrator, a New York lawyer, requires the help of a third scrivener, or copyist, to aid in the day-to-day business of his office. His two existing scriveners, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, are unable to handle the office workload, and are only efficient for opposing parts of the work day (Nippers suffers from indigestion, and is irritable in the mornings; Turkey is an alcoholic, and is drunk after lunch). The narrator hires Bartleby, whose single-minded dedication to his work is initially impressive, but who out of the blue refuses to proofread a document when his employer requests it. The formula Bartleby invokes in his refusal – “I would prefer not to” – becomes a refrain for the character, who gradually ceases to do anything, but also ignores any attempt to have him evicted from the law offices.

“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance,” muses the narrator at one point, advancing at least a partial explanation for why he not only puts up with Bartleby’s refusals, but also goes out of his way to understand the man and eventually even offers to take him in at his own home (an offer that is, predictably, met with the polite deferral, “I would prefer not to”). The reason for the narrator’s persistent sufferance of his obstreperous scrivener is one of the story’s abiding questions; in part it can be explained by Bartleby’s diligence in remaining at his post at all hours, regardless of circumstances. “His late remarkable conduct,” the narrator states, “led me to regard his ways narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere. As yet I had never, of my personal knowledge, known him to be outside of my office.” When the new scrivener first arrives, the lawyer erects a screen “which might isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” This area of the office, with a small window that looks out on the wall of another building, becomes Bartleby’s lonely “hermitage.”

The scrivener’s physical and social isolation within the office positions him as a kind of avatar for modern ennui, but his active disavowal of the daily workings of the business world indicates a greater degree of agency. The story’s setting is not incidental: imagine what would happen, Melville seems to be suggesting, if someone consciously and determinedly disassociated himself from the entire capitalist mechanism. How would others around him, who have wholeheartedly bought into the money-making endeavour, react to such an iconoclast? For his part, Bartleby’s employer reacts with a kind of bald astonishment; the two other scriveners become irate.

Bartleby, however, effects a not-so-subtle influence on his fellow workers, insinuating his peculiar turn of phrase, almost unwittingly, into their own interactions:

As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.

“With submission, sir,” said he, “yesterday I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers.”

“So you have got the word, too,” said I, slightly excited.

“With submission, what word, sir,” asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. “What word, sir?”

“I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

That’s the word, Turkey,” said I – “that’s it.”

“Oh, prefer? oh yes – queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer –”

“Turkey,” interrupted I, “you will please withdraw.”

“Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I would.”

This exchange underscores an aspect of the story that many critics avoid talking about: its humour. Critics tend to emphasize Melville’s coldness, and his focus on disaffection and anomie, but “Bartleby” is in many ways an absurdist piece, and the lawyer’s increasing bafflement at his employee’s abject refusals to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the office are fodder for some not insubstantial laughs.

This is not to deny the essential sadness at the story’s centre, a sadness born of the inimical nature of the modern world. It is notable that Bartleby is literally a figure without a history: nothing is know of him in the story – not his past, not his family – save one telling detail the narrator divulges at the very end. Before being hired on as a scrivener at the narrator’s law office, Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office of the U.S. Postal Service, a place where, in Melville’s conception, all hope for communication dies. “Sometimes from out the folded paper,” the narrator thinks, “the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life these letters speed to death.” Here we are reminded of Busch’s assertion that the story is about an author who felt he was finally unable to get his meaning across to a recalcitrant public. The final words of the story – “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” – are an anguished cri de couer to a world that wants to hear nothing of it.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 13: “What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” by Etgar Keret

May 13, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Nathan Englander, trans.)

“There is something about Jewish writing that’s very reflective,” says Etgar Keret, “while Israeli writing is more active and epic in nature.” Although Keret’s fiction is generally active – and could never be mistaken for the work of, say, Saul Bellow or Cynthia Ozick – the adjective “epic” appears counterintuitive: a typical Keret story runs only a few pages, and usually deals with one or two characters in a specific moment or situation. But, if his approach lacks a certain grandiosity, it is also the case that he traffics in major themes: life, death, war and peace, the nature of human existence.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Keret’s writing is remarkable for its apolitical nature; he refuses to proselytize, preferring to come at complicated sociopolitical issues from a position based in humanism and a striking empathy for the painful realities that attend to the business of being alive. (All of which makes Keret’s writing sound tortured and unwelcoming: it is important to emphasize how funny his fiction is.) What is most impressive, however (and most worthy of the “epic” appellation), is the author’s ability to infuse his remarkably brief stories with a staggering amount of emotion and resonance.

“What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” begins with Yonatan, an Israeli filmmaker who comes up with “a brilliant idea for a documentary.” Camera in hand, he will go door to door, beginning in his Tel Aviv suburb and branching out to other areas in Israel, and ask people one question: “If you found a talking goldfish that granted you three wishes, what would you wish for?” He will film each subject providing answers, then sell this footage to a local television station. With enough material, he thinks, he might end up with “a poignant piece of social commentary, a testament to the massive rift between our dreams and the often compromised reality in which we live.”

The people he visits enumerate all kinds of wishes: an old spinster lady wishes for a child; others wish for money or health or youth; a Holocaust survivor wishes “for all the Nazis left living in the world to be held accountable for their crimes.” But Yonatan has one specific desire: he wants to find one Arab living in Israel who would wish for peace.

Eventually, Yonatan arrives at the apartment of a Russian named Sergei Goralick, an expat living in Jaffa. Sergei is not fluent in Hebrew, and mistakenly thinks that Yonatan wants to steal his goldfish. In a frenzy, Sergei hits Yonatan over the head with the burner off his stove, killing him.

At this point, it is important to note several things. First, Keret does not go out of his way to make the political elements of his story explicit, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of Middle Eastern politics should be aware of how charged the situation he has set up is. Russia is an ally of several Arab states that pose a direct threat to Israel’s existence, and Sergei is old enough to remember the intimidating nature a knock on the door from the KGB could constitute. When confronted with a stranger intent on filming him, and speaking a language he remains uneasy with, it is not entirely surprising that Sergei should panic and react in an unfortunately violent manner.

On a technical level, it is also appropriate to note the bait-and-switch that Keret pulls approximately one third of the way into his story: all of a sudden, the perspective shifts from the filmmaker Yonatan to his putative subject. This is significant because it also represents a shift in genre, from naturalism to the kind of magic realism that Keret is perhaps most famous for.

Writing in The Washington Post Book World, Alana Newhouse says, “Keret is a cynic who can’t manage to shake off his hopefulness,” and her assessment seems particularly well suited to this story. Sergei acts in a manner that is arguably self-interested, but in doing so, he also commits an act of self-sacrifice that offers hope for a kind of reconciliation among the conflicting elements of Israeli society. By refusing to betray his essential nature, Sergei tacitly acknowledges the essential human imperative that insists we care for one another, even if it means denying ourselves in the process.

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