31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 14: “Former Marine” by Russell Banks

May 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From A Permanent Member of the Family

A_Permanent_Member_of_the_FamilyThe fiction of Russell Banks frequently circles back to themes of guilt and innocence. Being a moral writer of a particularly American stripe, innocence in Banks’s work is a loaded concept, and one that is very rarely pure or untainted. His characters, often working class or beset by poverty and alcoholism, struggle to wrest some sense of dignity and purpose out of lives that seem to render them prisoners of circumstance. As Elizabeth Tallent wrote in a New York Times review of the novel Affliction,

any attempt to escape from poverty can go brutally wrong, yet once the bitterness of one’s existence begins to be even dimly realized, an escape attempt is inevitable. Therefore, in Mr. Banks’s fiction, every awakening mind is immediately at risk. Not to be aware of the implacable forces bent on keeping one down is to be, in the most absolute way, a victim – used, mute, manipulated and finally, in what seems a rather minimal step, dead. To be alive, then, to try for some sense of meaning in life, is to be deeply vulnerable from within as well as without – to be, in essence, a tragic figure.

“Former Marine,” the opening story in Banks’s 2013 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, fits Tallent’s description almost exactly. The central figure in the story is a seventy-year-old former Marine named Connie. The locution is important: former Marine, not ex-Marine. “[Y]ou’re never an ex-Marine, Jack,” Connie tells his son, a New York state trooper. Connie’s other sons are Chip, a Plattsburgh police officer, and Buzz, who works as a prison guard. (The boys’ all-American names are one outward manifestation of their father’s staunchly traditional notion of what constitutes a family.)

Connie, who lives in a trailer he inherited from his father, has lost his job at a local auction house and has embarked on a late career as a bank robber to make ends meet. A proud man who believes that it is a father’s responsibility to care for his children, and not the other way around, he would rather live as an outlaw than confess his situation to his sons. “Of course he’s okay financially,” he thinks at one point, in response to a question from Jack. “He’s the father. Still the man of the house. A former Marine.”

The repeated reference to Connie’s erstwhile military career carries with it the weight of nostalgia for a time, long passed, in which life was more clearly defined and comprehensible. As a younger man, Connie’s sense of self-worth was located in his ability to take care of his sons after his wife abandoned the family “so she could go off to live with an artist in a hippie commune in New Mexico.” (The wife’s free spirit is diametrically opposed to Connie’s slavish adherence to duty.) But when the bottom falls out of the real estate market, Connie finds himself unable to make payments on his trailer, or to pay off the loans he took so that he could do things like send one son to college and another to Hawaii on a honeymoon. “How can he explain this to his sons without them thinking he’s pathetic and weak and stupid?” Banks writes.

The particularly masculine strain of pridefulness is typical of Banks’s work, as are the fractured relationships between father and sons. In “Former Marine,” the family relationships are strained further as a result of the brothers’ jobs in law enforcement. They represent for Connie the full force of institutional censure as well as a vivid reminder of the price to be paid for the choices he has made in the name of pride. “Jesus Christ, Dad, make sense,” Buzz says after the boys discover what their father has been up to. “There’s two of us standing here who can arrest you! Is that what you want? To be arrested by your own sons? And make the third your prison guard?”

This scene takes place in a hospital room where Connie has been taken after running his car off an icy road. Winter is a constant, claustrophobic presence in much of Banks’s fiction: it pervades the novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and in “Former Marine” it serves as an instrument of deliverance for Connie, setting him on the path to a typically tragic end.

While it is true that Banks is a moralist, however, he is not judgmental, and it is significant that Connie is not cast as a villain in the story, but rather as a plaintively sympathetic character. Indeed, his insistence on his status as a former Marine points to a critique of American society that simmers just below the surface in Banks’s story. If the brothers represent institutional order by virtue of their jobs, Connie represents the class of American that has volunteered to serve their country by enlisting in the armed forces, only to be summarily forgotten once their term of service is up. Connie repeatedly insists that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine, but his own untenable situation seems to put the lie to this notion: at seventy years of age, he finds himself unemployed, unable to make payments on his trailer or to purchase the medical supplies he needs to live, and without recourse to a military pension or support.

In the story’s final irony, it is Connie’s service pistol that provides him the escape he seeks – from the sclerotic life he has endured and from his dreadful realization that he has failed to live up to the promise he made to take care of himself so that his boys do not have to. For a man as full of pride as Connie, the pull of family responsibility is a weight that drags him down and ultimately crushes him. “They would still be a family,” Connie insists to himself, “the four of them, and he would still be the father, the head of the household, because you’re never an ex-father, any more than you’re an ex-Marine.”

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 13: “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor

May 13, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Robot Uprisings

Robot_UprisingsIf genre fiction in general gets a bad rap among literary snobs, a special antipathy is reserved for science fiction, which is often seen as the playground of twelve-year-old boys. Despite the genre’s enduring popularity and persistent longevity, works of science fiction routinely find themselves shut out of contention for most of the prestigious literary awards and disdained by critics as frivolous or unworthy of study.

Even writers who have dipped their toes in the waters of sci-fi feel the need to distance themselves from the genre. Margaret Atwood bristles at the suggestion that she writes science fiction, which in her view involves aliens or dragons or other implausible creatures and events. She prefers the term “speculative fiction.”

In her introduction to the essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Atwood writes:

What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians.

Atwood’s rigid category distinctions seem too limiting; science fiction is a heterodox genre that can accommodate the interplanetary space opera of Frank Herbert’s Dune alongside Wells’s tale of Martians invading Earth and other, more immediately plausible speculations (think, for example, of how prescient Nineteen Eighty-Four seems from the perspective of a post–Edward Snowden 2014). The authors working in the genre today encompass all genders, a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds, and a vast array of perspectives and concerns. They may be optimistic about the future or deeply pessimistic but, at their core, their subject is us.

Nnedi Okorafor’s fiction is steeped in African traditions of storytelling and mythology, but it is also deeply resonant with our current historical moment. Her story “Spider the Artist” references the West African myths of Anansi and what the author has called “the lesser-known but equally formidable Nigerian story-spinning spider named Udide Okwanka” to tell a story about the greed and oppression of globalization, with the added benefit of a horde of killer robots to top things off.

The story takes place among impoverished villagers in the Niger Delta, who have become victims of a U.S. oil pipeline that has made its owners rich while wreaking havoc on the lives of the locals. “Drinking the water shriveled women’s wombs and eventually made men urinate blood,” Okorafor writes. “The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die.”

When a pipeline bursts, by accident or sabotage, villagers take buckets to collect the valuable oil for themselves – a practice called “bunkering.” To combat this, the major U.S. oil companies have funded a Nigerian government project to create an army of Anansi Droids, which the villagers refer to as Zombies. These eight-legged robots are programmed to respond to disturbances along the pipelines; though they are supposed to “do as little harm as possible” when dealing with oil thieves or saboteurs, in reality they are vicious killing machines responsible for massacring many of the villagers. “The government and the oil people destroyed our land and dug up our oil,” thinks Eme, the story’s narrator, “then they created robots to keep us from taking it back.”

The central dramatic movement of the story involves a strange kind of friendship that develops between Eme and a Zombie she names Udide Okwanka, which means “Spider the Artist.” Udide accosts Eme one night after she has been driven out of her homestead by her abusive husband. Eme takes refuge by the pipeline to play the guitar she has inherited from her father; she comes to understand that Udide is attracted by the music, which forms an improbable bond between woman and robot.

Okorafor invests Udide with human characteristics and responses: he is able to convey pleasure and he creates a stringed instrument of his own which he uses to teach Eme a new composition. Udide’s artistic nature is in stark contrast to the other Zombies, which begin to rebel against their government programmers, stepping up their attacks on bunkerers and even beginning to lay siege to legitimate labourers: “Ten days later, a group of Zombies attacked some oil workers and soldiers in the delta. Ten of the men were torn limb from limb, their bloody remains scattered all over the swampy land.”

Okorafor uses the robots as metaphors for the unfeeling savagery of government officials and foreigners whose only interest in Nigeria is as a source of oil to be appropriated, with no attention paid to the effect their enterprise has on the lives of the locals. For her part, Eme faces a stark choice: submit to the threat posed by her husband, a violent alcoholic, or flee and risk being torn apart by Zombies.

The relationship between Eme and Udide is tender and loving, a stark contrast to the violence and self-interest that surrounds them. Okorafor’s tale ends on a note of cautious optimism for her protagonist and her Zombie protector, but there is also a warning about the price to be paid for unbridled greed and the unintended consequences that flow from it. The artificially intelligent Zombies may fall within the spectrum of the “science fiction” Atwood disavows, but they nevertheless provide a powerful fictional emblem for the misery that unfettered globalization is capable of inflicting.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 12: “The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin (T. Keane, trans.)

May 12, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories

Captain's_Daughter_PushkinAlexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is generally considered to be the progenitor of Russian literature; his writing is “as revered by Russians as Shakespeare is by the British,” claims Phoebe Taplin. An advocate of social reform, Pushkin suffered censorship and exile during his lifetime, but is known for expanding the lexicon of Russian fiction to incorporate both the elevated style of the nobility and the vernacular of the lower classes. The author wrote in numerous genres – poetry most especially, but also novels and plays. A contemporary of Poe and Hawthorne, it is possible to argue that the great Russian writer also had a formative influence on the short story.

One of Pushkin’s most famous, and oddest, stories is “The Queen of Spades,” about a German-born engineer who forswears gambling until he hears the story of a Countess who knows a secret that allows her to pick three winning cards in a row. The man, named Hermann, plots to court the Countess’s ward as a means of gaining access to the elderly noblewoman and learning from her the names of the three winning cards.

The story is quite obviously outlandish, and becomes more so the longer it goes on. Formally, “The Queen of Spades” has certain properties of a romance, in the classical sense. That is, as the Harper Handbook to Literature, 2nd ed. defines it, “a continuous narrative in which the emphasis is on what happens in the plot, rather than on what is reflected from ordinary life or experience.” The author incorporates Gothic elements – secret passageways, a ghost – in a tale that, over the course of its telling, increasingly disavows its naturalist underpinnings and becomes more and more uncanny.

Of course Hermann’s scheme goes awry and he ends up accidentally killing the Countess before he is able to wrest her secret from her. It is only after she is dead, as a ghostly apparition, that she visits the German and tells him the names of the three cards that will win him his fortune, on two conditions: that he marry Lizaveta, the ward he deceived in order to gain time alone with the Countess, and that he never gamble again. The Countess’s system proves startlingly accurate, but Hermann ends up going mad after accidentally playing the wrong card in the final hand.

What does this all add up to? Is “The Queen of Spades” a story of madness and mystery, a mere bagatelle, or something else altogether?

The first thing to notice is the sophistication of its construction. The plot involving Hermann and the Countess takes up the second half of the story, but in the opening section, the German is a peripheral figure. Here, the story of the Countess and her mysterious ability is relayed by Tomsky, one of the guests at a card party attended by a group of Russian soldiers. The scene shifts in the story’s second part to the Countess’s chamber, where she is shown in conversation with Lizaveta. The middle sections of the story shuttle between the ward and the German, the latter of whom only takes centre stage on his own in the final sections of this relatively long tale. (Pushkin’s story is broken into seven parts and an epilogue, and runs more than thirty pages.)

There is a self-reflexive quality to much of the action, as when the Countess asks Lizaveta to bring her a novel, but not one of the contemporary kind, in which the hero kills his parents and there are dead bodies all over the place. This comment becomes ironic only in retrospect, after the scene in which Hermann unwittingly murders the Countess.

Following Hermann’s encounter with the Countess’s ghost, Pushkin writes, “Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world than two bodies can occupy one and the same place in the physical world.” Hermann begins to fixate on the names of the three cards the ghost has divulged to him, and becomes determined to put the knowledge to use as soon as possible. Here the reader might recall an earlier description of Hermann as the heir to a small fortune who “convinced of the necessity of insuring his independence … did not touch even the interest on his capital, but lived on his pay, without allowing himself the slightest luxury.” Although we are told that the German is “a gambler at heart,” he refuses to play on the basis that it is foolish “to risk the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.”

Is “The Queen of Spades,” then, a kind of veiled morality tale, a warning against the evils of gambling? Certainly, Hermann’s fate is not a happy one, and it is notable that he loses by playing the title card; the story’s epigraph reads, “The Queen of Spades signifies secret ill-will.” This being the case, where does the ill will come from? The Countess, bent on revenge against her accidental murderer? Or is Hermann already mad, and prey to a suggestibility that makes him believe a delusional vision in the middle of the night is real?

There is a hint that the Countess’s murder may not be the only crime of its kind Hermann is responsible for. When Lizaveta encounters Tomsky at a ball, the soldier refers to Hermann as “a truly romantic character” with “the profile of a Napoleon, and the soul of a Mephistopheles. I believe that he has at least three crimes upon his conscience.” The explicit link between Hermann and Mephistopheles plays up the Faustian undertones in the story, and the concordance between the number of crimes Tomsky believes Hermann to be responsible for and the number of cards the Countess divulges cannot be coincidental.

Romance, social satire, Gothic horror story, parable: “The Queen of Spades” contains elements of all of these. As a complex work of fiction it is ultimately irreducible to the kind of précis attempted here: Pushkin’s ambiguity and allusiveness ensure that any attempt to corral the story into a single definitive reading will fall short of the mark.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 11: “Black Dahlia & White Rose” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Black Dahlia & White Rose

Black_Dahlia_White_RoseElizabeth Short was twenty-two years old in 1947. Born in Massachusetts, she had come to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. She ended up being savagely murdered, her body severely disfigured, bisected at the torso, exsanguinated, and left obscenely posed in a Los Angeles field. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the tabloids, Short’s murder remains one of the most notorious unsolved homicides in Los Angeles history.

The case is a source of abiding fascination for amateur sleuths, true-crime buffs, gorehounds, and those with an interest in the corrosive aspects of celebrity culture. Unsurprisingly, it captures the imagination of Joyce Carol Oates, who has forged a five-decade-long career examining, at least in part, a particularly American strain of violence, a strain quite frequently associated with race, gender, and class.

In an essay entitled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?,” Oates addresses the question thus: “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.” This is somewhat disingenuous: the question was not “Why is your writing violent?” but “Why is your writing so violent?” Why, that is, over a career that has been staggeringly, almost incomprehensibly, prolific and protean, shifting focus among genres, modes of storytelling, narrative voices and approaches, does Oates’s authorial sensibility always seem to circle back around to the subject of violence?

Elsewhere in her essay, Oates takes umbrage at the implication that as a woman writer, she should follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf and confine herself to more reliably domestic or subjective material: “The implication is that if Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf had lived in Detroit, they might have been successful in ‘transcending’ their environment and writing novels in which not a hint of ‘violence’ could be detected.” This neglects, on the one hand, the fact that most of the violence in Oates’s fiction occurs in the domestic sphere and, on the other, that the initial question (once again) refers to much more than “a hint” of violence in her work.

A writer does not choose her sensibility. Oates’s sensibility is, above all, grounded in the history and psychology of America, a country that was born in revolution and that remains steeped in social, personal, and political violence. It is also, thanks to Hollywood, a country that maintains a fraught and largely contradictory relationship with celebrity. One of Oates’s most scabrous novels – Zombie – is a first-person account of a serial killer modelled on Jeffrey Dahmer, who (along with Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, et al.) has some claim to celebrity status in the American psyche.

Unlike Zombie, “Black Dahlia & White Rose” focuses not on the perpetrator of violent crime, but the victim. This is also typical of Oates, who, as a feminist writer, is deeply concerned with the gendered nature of violence. “War, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes evidently fall within the exclusive province of the male writer,” Oates comments in her essay, “just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.”

In the story, the voice of Elizabeth (Betty) Short narrates her experience posthumously, or, as she puts it, “post mortem“: “Post mortem is this state I am in, now. That you do not know exists when you are ‘alive’ & you cannot guess how vast & infinite post mortem is for it is all of the time – forever and ever – after you have died.” In fractured and stuttering prose – which resembles, perhaps not incidentally, a police officer’s crime-scene notes – Betty recalls her encounter with Dr. Mortenson (Dr. M.), colloquially known as The Bone Doctor. Dr. M. “did seem like a ‘gentleman,'” Betty claims, “though old & starched-stuffy as hell but clearly he had $$$ & seemed kindly disposed and not a tightwad.”

What Betty doesn’t know is that Dr. M. has a history with a venal celebrity photographer named K. Keinhardt, who shoots nude women for men’s magazines and pinup calendars. Their relationship is this: Dr. M. pays Keinhardt a sum of money ($25 each time, thought Keinhardt eventually ups it to $35) to watch through a peephole as the photographer shoots his naked models. One of these models is a shy young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Baker, who would later find immortality as Marilyn Monroe.

Oates’s masterstroke in “Black Dahlia & White Rose” is to imagine that Betty and Norma Jeane were roommates, and to alternate the narrative POV to include Norma Jeane and Keinhardt’s voices alongside Betty’s. By providing a variety of perspectives, Oates is able to zero in on the poisonous aspect of celebrity culture, which forces the women who enter it to divest themselves of their own identities and individuality in the name of selling a manufactured image to a willing public.

Norma Jeane and Betty Short both found fame – albeit of a very different nature – but both had their own selves obliterated in the process. Both women lost even the claim to their own names: In Oates’s story, Norma Jeane is told that her Christian name is “an Okie name,” and Baker is “dull.” Marilyn Monroe, by contrast, “did not seem real but a concoction like meringue, that would melt in the slightest rain.” For her part, Betty loses her identity along with her life, being remembered in the popular psyche through the moniker attached to her mutilated corpse by a rapacious media hungry for a sensational story.

The women who submit themselves to the celebrity machine also find themselves prey to the depredations of an exploitative male-dominated industry that can only ironically be called the “entertainment” business. “Guess what I paid Norma Jeane?” Keinhardt asks after he manages to talk her into posing naked for him (having accurately recognized that the starlet is “desperate for money & broken-hearted,” her film career “stalled at zero”). “Fifty bucks. I made nine hundred!” Keinhardt dehumanizes Norma Jeane even further, referring to her as “a piece of candy – to be sucked.”

In Oates’s conception, the debasement of this culture is directly responsible for harm inflicted on the women who work in it; unbeknownst to Betty, it is Norma Jeane that Dr. M. had his eye on initially, having witnessed her posing for Keinhardt. Here Oates elides the distinction between those who inflict harm on women by exploiting or degrading them in the process of making a buck, and those who inflict physical harm on them through murder and desecration. She also asks provocative questions about the role fate plays in all of our lives: if Norma Jeane missed being the Black Dahlia killer’s victim merely by chance, what does that say about the nebulousness of celebrity, and the capricious nature of those of us who consume it?

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 10: “A Passion in the Desert” by Honoré de Balzac (Carol Cosman, trans.)

May 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

The_Human_Comedy_BalzacLong before Yann Martel set Pi Patel adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac conceived of a fictional interaction between a human male and a large feline that scholar Peter Brooks calls “surely one of the strangest tales ever published.” Certainly, “A Passion in the Desert” is a strange tale for a writer better known as a realistic chronicler of French society.

The main section of the story involves a soldier in the Napoleonic army who has been dispatched to the Maghreb region of North Africa, where he has been taken prisoner. After escaping from his captors, the soldier takes refuge in a grotto at the base of a hill. Disturbed by a presence in the middle of the night, the soldier wakes to find the entrance to his refuge blocked by the giant figure of a spotted panther. He contemplates killing the animal as it sleeps, but decides this would be too dangerous; the rest of the story involves man and beast negotiating a detente that eventually gives way to friendship.

Boiled down to its bare essentials, Balzac’s tale sounds like a kind of charming children’s story; rest assured, it is anything but. The author of Eugénie Grandet and Cousin Bette was known, among other things, for his frank explorations of eroticism and human sexuality; “A Passion in the Desert” examines animalistic aspects of human desire by literalizing the metaphor and substituting an actual animal for the object of the soldier’s affection.

Not that Balzac takes the same tack as, say, Marian Engel in her novel Bear. But the language used to describe the relationship between the soldier and the panther is telling, and unmistakable. Early on, the soldier determines the panther is female; from that point on, their relationship is characterized by words and phrases that evoke erotic longing and sexual congress. The panther rolls on the ground in “the gentlest, most flirtatious movements” and raises her tail “voluptuously”; the soldier gazes at her “caressingly and steadily,” and when he strokes her fur, he does so “with a movement as gentle, as amorous as if he had wanted to caress the prettiest woman.”

The soldier dubs the panther “Mignonne,” a French word that means “pretty” or “sweet,” and which he used as a nickname for his former lover. In that case, the term of endearment was meant “ironically,” because his mistress “was so violently jealous that as long as their passion lasted, he was afraid of the knife with which she used to threaten him.”

The image of the mistress’s knife is recalled in the focus on the panther’s claws, which are “curved like steel blades.” The feline’s claws are also implicitly compared to the soldier’s own blade, a scimitar stolen from his Maghrebi captors. (He initially contemplates using the scimitar to decapitate the sleeping panther, but decides against it, thinking reasonably that should he fail to cut through the beast’s tough hide, it would surely kill him before he had a chance to regroup.)

The conflation of blades and claws, and their continued association with women, is indicative of a kind of masculine terror of the female, and her potential for violence. In Balzac’s story, female violence is precipitated by jealousy, an emotion that is not associated with the soldier. His former mistress was not just jealous, she was violently jealous; when Mignonne witnesses the soldier admiring the grace of large eagle in the sky, she growls at him, a reaction he instantly interprets as similar to that of his ex-lover. “‘God help me, I think she is jealous,’ he cried to himself, seeing her eyes harden. ‘Virginie’s soul must surely have passed into this body!'”

If the female is associated with violence toward males in Balzac’s story, it is perhaps a stretch to imagine that when the panther bites the soldier on the leg, resulting in him killing the beast, this is meant as an allusion to the folkloric idea of vagina dentata, although there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

Balzac’s story is presented as a framed tale, the beginning and end of which are related by a man to his female companion. The two have just been to visit Monsieur Martin’s menagerie, a popular circus spectacle in Europe during Balzac’s lifetime. Monsieur Martin was a noted animal tamer who was able to enter the cages of wild animals and emerge unscathed. When the woman expresses astonishment at this capability, her companion is moved to tell her about an evening spent in the company of “an old veteran with a missing right leg”; the veteran relates the story of the panther to the man, who writes it down for his female companion.

The structure Balzac employs in “A Passion in the Desert” is complex and multivalent; it is arguably necessary to filter the soldier’s story through the consciousness of another, lest it appear too utterly fantastic. But the framing device also serves to complicate our responses to the soldier’s experience. How did the soldier lose his leg? Balzac leave this unspecified, although we know that Mignonne died after biting the soldier’s thigh, in what is described as “a misunderstanding,” as between lovers.

In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Balzac’s selected stories, Peter Brooks writes about the ambiguities that result from the framing device employed in “A Passion in the Desert”:

The links between the tale told and the situation of its telling are by no means obvious here. What, if anything, does the soldier’s amputated leg have to do with his adventure with the panther? Are her teeth responsible? And if we learn from contemporary accounts that Monsieur Martin was reputed to master his wild beasts by satisfying them sexually before a performance, what further connections do we want to tease out among the various forms of passion?

There is, undoubtedly, more than enough evidence in the soldier’s tale to suggest that the passion between him and Mignonne is, on some level at least, erotically charged. In the light of 21st-century sensibilities, it is also possible to locate a strain of misogyny in the story’s attitude toward women as jealous, devouring harpies, although such criticisms may be mitigated by the real tenderness the soldier feels toward the panther, his frank awe at her majesty (her refers to her as “the sultana of the desert”), and his observation, late in the story, that “She has a soul.”

In the event, “A Passion in the Desert” resists summary or potted interpretation, straining against attempts to constrain its unruly nature. More than 180 years after its first publication, the story remains full of contradictions and ambiguities – but this is also what makes it such a fascinating work of fiction.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 8: “The Freeloader” by Nescio (Damion Searls, trans.)

May 8, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam_Stories_NescioNescio’s real name was Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, a Dutch man who found success in business as the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. Although his work brought him the financial stability required to support a family (he married in his twenties and fathered four daughters), it took a toll on his health; one year after being promoted to director, he suffered a nervous breakdown that required hospitalization. The tensions he felt in his life – between his early idealism and his capitulation in adulthood to the exigencies of capitalism – inform his few works of fiction, written under a pseudonym (which means “I don’t know” in Latin) in order to avoid any professional repercussions at his office job.

Long considered one of the finest – if not the finest – Dutch prose stylists of the 20th century, Nescio’s fiction was unavailable in English translation until 2012, when New York Review Books brought out a selection of the author’s most famous works under the title Amsterdam Stories.

Perhaps his most famous creation is Japi, the eponymous figure in “The Freeloader.” Like the youthful Grönloh, Japi is an idealistic flaneur, someone who walks and sits and observes the world, without caring about the quotidian concerns associated with food, shelter, and earning a living. Somehow, these things seem to come to Japi, often at the expense of the people whose lives he wheedles himself into. (An alternate translation of the story’s title is “The Mooch.”)

“I am nothing and I do nothing,” Japi tells the landscape artist Bavink when the two first meet on a boat from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. Many critics have pointed out the resonance between Japi’s assertion and Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” Indeed, Nescio’s character shares attributes (if that is the correct word) in common with Melville’s: both Japi and Bartleby make conscious decisions to absent themselves from the mechanisms of capitalist society and live outside the generally accepted way of doing things.

Japi’s attitude appeals to Bavink’s bohemian tendencies, as does his almost preternatural ability to recall details of physical scenery:

He knew everything along the railroad line from Middleburg to Amsterdam: every field, every ditch, every house, every road, every stand of trees, every patch of heather in Brabant, every switch in the tracks. If you had been traveling for hours in the dark and Japi was stretched out asleep on the seats the whole time and you woke him up and asked “Japi, where are we?” you would just have to wait until he fully woke up and all he had to do was listen to the sound of the train on the tracks and then he’d say, “I think we’re in Etten-Leur.” And he’d be right.

Such feeling for detail would obviously impress an artist, especially a landscape painter like Bavink. But more than this, it is Japi’s entire worldview – the carefree pose that allows him to disavow all worries and concerns – that entices Bavink, who, we are told, “was someone who usually worked hard.”

This easy acceptance of Japi is not initially shared by Bavink’s friends, including the writer Koekebakker. When Japi and Bavink descend on Koekebakker’s modest home, the latter reacts with plain astonishment at Japi’s willingness to help himself to pretty much anything: “Japi sat in my room one night and smoked the cigars sitting on my table for the taking, one after another. My cigars.”

Though the early scenes focus on Bavink’s character and his developing friendship with Japi, the story is actually narrated in the first person by Koekebakker. The famous opening sentence provides a humorous précis of Kokebakker’s attitude toward Japi: “Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.” By shifting the focus from Kokebakker speaking in the first person to scenes featuring Bavink and Japi written in the third person, Nescio modulates the psychic distance and forces the reader to constantly reassess her evolving reactions to the title character. There is, after all, something enviable about a figure who can eat and drink extravagantly, help himself to clothes and books and apparently never feel the need to pay for room or board, though Koekebakker remains a constant presence, reeling us in when we become too enamoured with Japi’s indulgences. “I think my soul is too big,” Japi says at one point, and we are liable to interpret this as the confession of a deeply spiritual figure, except for Koekebakker’s immediate rejoinder: “Can you believe it? The sponger!”

Nescio’s prevailing tone is dry comedy, but at the core of “The Freeloader” is a serious examination of the layered tensions that exist between youthful idealism and a world organized along the principles of stultifying bureaucracy. As Joseph O’Neill notes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, Grönloh “came of age when the social and existential predicament of the clerical classes was coming under unprecedented literary scrutiny, not least from the clerks themselves. Nescio (b. 1882) was a contemporary of Franz Kafka (b. 1882) and Robert Walser (b. 1878).”

Bavink and Koekebakker earn their meagre livings through creative activity; in the world of “The Freeloader” there is nothing more threatening to a man’s spiritual well-being than office work. If there were any doubt about that, Japi himself recognizes that he cannot continue going through life prevailing upon the largesse of others and retreating back to his father with his tail between his legs when he finds himself unable to beg or borrow his necessities. He secures an office job, which renders him virtually unrecognizable to his artist friend: “Bavink saw him sitting on the fourth floor of some office building. He was sitting at the window, working, and the place was brightly lit. Bavink went upstairs. Japi was alone and very busy. Bavink couldn’t get anything out of him – he just kept working and hardly said a thing.”

The anonymous generality of “some office building” stands in stark contrast to the lush specificity in the descriptions of the way Japi once viewed the Dutch countryside, and Japi’s silence is diametrically opposed to his former easygoing loquacity. “Japi turned into a hard worker,” we are told, and as a result his company sends him to Africa, where he becomes deathly ill. The explicit connection between office work and illness is extended in the final scene, which alludes to the erstwhile freeloader’s tragic end.

As a businessman himself, Nescio was aware at first hand of capitalism’s many contradictions and compromises; as a jaded adult casting his eye back on the unsullied optimism of youth, he is able to dramatize the stifling regret and spiritual despondency inherent in the drudgery of daily toil. There is, Nescio recognizes, a painful irony in the idea of earning a living.

In the final stages of the story, having realized that his life as an office worker is as unsustainable as was his freeloading, Japi indulges in a poignant reverie about a bridge that passes over running water, a reverie that resounds uncomfortably with anyone who has given in to the logic of capitalism:

Thousands of worriers who saw that bridge are dead now. And still, it’s only been there a short time. The water there has been flowing for much, much longer. And there was a time when the water didn’t flow there. That time was even longer, much longer. The worriers have died by the hundreds and hundreds of millions. Who remembers them now? And how many more are going to die after them? They just worry away until God gathers them up. And you’d think God was doing them a favor when he suddenly wiped them away. But God knows better than you or me. All they want to do is fret, and struggle, and keep on struggling. And meanwhile the sun rises, the sun sets, the river there flows to the west and keeps flowing until that too will come to an end.


31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 7: “Everybody Needs a Mink” by Dorothy B. Hughes

May 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense

Troubled_Daughters_Twisted_WivesThe term “domestic suspense” may not be immediately familiar to most readers, although as Sarah Weinman, the editor of the 2013 anthology Troubled Daughers, Twisted Wives, points out in her introduction, many readers will have encountered a work that could fit this classification. Weinman offers Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, “2012’s most popular and critically acclaimed suspense novel,” as an example, along with the work of Laura Lippman, Sophie Hannah, and Louise Penny. A.S.A. Harrison’s 2013 novel The Silent Wife would also qualify.

But what, precisely, does the term “domestic suspense” connote? On the Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives website, Weinman writes that works of domestic suspense “operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality.” They delve “into the dark side of human behaviour that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines.”

“Everybody Needs a Mink” might seem at first to be a counterintuitive choice for inclusion in Weinman’s anthology, but for the reputation of the author. Known as a writer of hardboiled noir mysteries and spy thrillers in the 1940s, Hughes had largely faded from memory until 2012, when New York Review Books brought back into print her final novel, The Expendable Man, a paranoia thriller written in 1963, on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, and dealing in part with the racial tensions that were about to boil over in the U.S.

What sets “Everybody Needs a Mink” apart from the bulk of Hughes’s writing is its lack of an explicit crime element. It tells the story of a woman in thrall to a postwar attitude of conspicuous consumption who is gifted a mink coat – albeit under blatantly mysterious circumstances – but the tropes and techniques of noir fiction that characterize Hughes’s novels are largely absent. The suspense in the story is entirely psychological, involving a woman whose desires outstrip her means, and what might transpire when she gets what she covets.

Meggy Tashman is an example of a type of person who is rapidly disappearing in our 21st-century economy: she is comfortably middle-class. Or, as Hughes has it, she is a “soignee young socialite of Larksville-nearly-on-the-Hudson” who is waiting for a rich uncle in Australia to die and bequeath her his fortune. When she browses Randolph’s department store, she imagines the quick jaunt to Florida she might take to work on a tan to match a gold pair of shoes. Or she might jet off to Hawaii or Arizona, which would be “quite chic.” “When you were selecting,” Hughes writes, “you didn’t have to think practical, you could let yourself go.”

Practicality is very important to Meg, and to the story; the word “practical” reappears numerous times in the course of this brief tale. When she first spies the $10,000 mink coat, Meg thinks that it would serve a number of practical purposes: “Something to cover the beat-up terry jump suit when she drove the children to school. Something to sling over the faded blues and Tash’s old shirt on the dash from the vacuum cleaner to the supermarket.” The juxtapositions here are telling: the extravagance of the fur coat set against the shabbiness of the clothes she wears when picking up her children and the quotidian drudgery of her domestic chores is played for humour, but it also testifies to an aspirational impulse tied explicitly to the notion of expensive consumer goods.

Of course, Meg cannot possibly afford the mink coat, although she models it at the behest of an old man in the department store, and jokes with the saleslady about having her initials embroidered in it. But if, by some set of circumstances, she were able to acquire the coat, would it fulfill her desire, or would it leave her feeling, in Hughes’s words “a little feather of sadness”?

The way Meg comes to own the mink provides the central – indeed, the only – mysterious element in a story that otherwise reads as a kind of social comedy about a woman whose Horatio Algeresque dreams of riches have been stymied by her domestic situation and, not incidentally, her gender. When her “modern, intelligent” husband first hears of the coat, he assumes she is kidding, telling her, “Everybody needs a mink.” (Not for nothing does Hughes specify that this comment is uttered “practically.”) When he finds out that it is not a gag, he would prefer to believe a concocted story about how the coat came into his wife’s possession rather than the plain, and frankly inexplicable, truth.

An atypical story for Hughes, “Everybody Needs a Mink” perhaps qualifies as domestic suspense on the basis of the “hairline fractures” in the Tashmans’ marriage that are hinted at by Meg’s unwillingness to tell the truth about how she came to own the coat, an unwillingness clearly springing from a knowledge that her husband would not believe her. The assurance that Meg’s husband is not “one of those old-fashioned, suspicious, my-wife’s-got-a-secret-lover guys” rings somewhat hollow, freighted as it is with irony in the story’s final stages. Although there is no climactic explosion leading to murder, the marital fault lines are present in subtle ways, if only in the knowledge that Meg has encountered someone able to provide what her heart truly desires – something her husband, with his limited resources of cash, is incapable of doing.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 6: “Petrified Man” by Eudora Welty

May 6, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Collected_Stories_Eudora_WeltyThe fiction of the American South is steeped in an oral tradition of storytelling. The cadences and rhythms of the local vernacular provide Southern writers a unique lexicon, and the best of them – from Faulkner to McCullers to Styron and beyond – have found in this tradition a rich vein of gold to tap in their fiction. “A great deal of the Southern writer’s work is done for him before he begins,” writes Flannery O’Connor, “because our history lives in our talk.”

Few writers understood this better than the great Eudora Welty, whose novels and stories positively seethe with a Southern idiom. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty was highly attuned to the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of her region and its people, and to the deep scars of history that inform their attitudes and opinions. Welty’s great gift was her ability to hold this society, in all its attributes and foibles, up for examination, bringing her characters to life in almost forensic detail and, at the same time, crafting out of these specifics something universal.

As befits a Southern writer with a keen ear for speech and dialect, “Petrified Man” is cast as a dialogue story, focusing on two separate conversations between a hairdresser, Leota, and her haughty client, Mrs. Fletcher. It is interesting to note that on the level of dramaturgy, nothing much happens in the story: the two women chatter and converse while Mrs. Fletcher submits to her weekly styling appointment. The bulk of the story’s significant action takes place offstage, as it were, and is only reported by one of the two lead characters. But it is precisely the women’s talk that gives the tale its vibrancy and its momentum.

The talk that Leota and Mrs. Fletcher engage in is of a particular stripe, one familiar to salons and barber shops the world over: at base, the two women gossip. As Joseph Epstein points out in his book on the subject, the nature of gossip implies an intimate and complex transaction among the people who engage in it. Epstein quotes Wilhelm Busch, who defined gossip as “the confession of other people’s sins,” and goes on to remark that “[a]lthough almost all gossip speaks to one or another form of moral contamination, by no means does all gossip require the response of moral indignation.” Of course, a work of fiction is predicated upon the conflict between particular individuals, so in the case of Welty’s story, moral indignation is practically demanded.

The source of indignation is Mrs. Fletcher, who, unbeknownst to most of the other townsfolk, is pregnant. When she discovers that Leota knows her secret (something about which even Mr. Fletcher remains innocent), Mrs. Fletcher becomes irate. Her ire is not mollified when Leota confesses that it was Mrs. Pike, a New Orleans native who has been renting a room from Leota, who put the suggestion in the hairdresser’s head. “I bet you another Jax [beer] that lady’s three months on the way,” says Mrs. Pike when she and Leota observe Mrs. Fletcher exiting a local pharmacy. “What gall!” is Mrs. Fletcher’s scandalized response.

Like O’Connor, Welty was fond of caricaturing the snootier elements of Southern gentility; Mrs. Fletcher is pictured as a petty, jealous woman who assumes Mrs. Pike, whom she has never met, must be older and plainer than she is, and who gets sniffy when she discovers that the Pikes own a new model Dodge. Mrs Fletcher is happier to find out that Mrs. Pike, like Leota, is a beautician – that is, someone of a reliably lower station than herself. Mrs. Fletcher is engaged in a constant battle to prove her superiority: when Leota tells her about conjoined twins in a bottle at a carnival freak show, born congenitally defective due to inbreeding on the part of their parents, Mrs. Fletcher assures the hairdresser, “Me and Mr. Fletcher aren’t one speck of kin.” Similarly, Mr. Fletcher is “five foot nine and a half,” much taller than the freak show’s Pygmies. (Leota makes a point of telling Mrs. Fletcher that her own husband, Fred, is five foot ten.)

The freak show Leota and Mrs. Pike attend forms the central metaphor in Welty’s story, which is about various kinds of deformation. There is actual deformation – the so-called freaks Leota and Mrs. Pike view at the travelling show – and there is spiritual deformation, manifest most insistently in Mrs. Fletcher. (Welty ironically highlights this when she has Mrs. Fletcher declare to Leota, “I despise freaks,” to which Leota responds that “talkin’ about bein’ pregnant an’ all, you ought to see those twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself.”)

The two types of deformation come together in the person of the freak show’s “petrified man,” so called because of a digestive disorder that results in his joints calcifying, or, as Leota delicately puts it, he “has been turning to stone.” The petrified man is actually Mr. Petrie, who is wanted in California for raping four women. It is Mrs. Pike who discovers this, recognizing his picture in Leota’s copy of Startling G-Man Tales, along with a notice offering $500 for information leading to his apprehension. The realization prompts indignation in Leota, who had discarded the old magazine and failed to recognize Mr. Petrie as the petrified man; Mrs. Pike’s discovery also seems to bear out the precognition of a carnival fortune teller who predicts that Mr. Pike will soon come into money.

All of this is played in tones of black comedy, but at its core, “Petrified Man” is also a kind of horror story. The Pikes’ good fortune, after all, comes on the backs of four unfortunate California rape victims, women Leota says “didn’t have the faintest notion at the time they’d be worth a hundred an’ twenty-five bucks apiece some day.” Leota’s callous disregard of the victims’ trauma points to a spiritual disfigurement every bit as vile as that of Mrs. Fletcher. Nor does Welty allow the latter off the moral hook, having her delight in the small victory of knowing that the reward money could have been Leota’s if only she’d been perspicacious enough to make the connection between the picture in the magazine and the petrified man.

Asked about why Southern writers continually return to the grotesque in their fiction, O’Connor suggested that the reason is they are still able to recognize it when they see it. Welty lures us unawares into her tale with the idle gossip of two women in a beauty parlour; by the time we realize that the subject of their conversation is much different, and much, much darker than we initially surmised, it is too late to prevent the shock of moral opprobrium that, ultimately, implicates us as well.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 5: “The Agonized Face” by Mary Gaitskill

May 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Don’t Cry

Don't_Cry_Mary_GaitskillMary Gaitskill’s story “The Agonized Face” takes place during “the annual literary festival in Toronto,” where the first-person narrator, a divorced mother who works as a journalist, has been assigned to write “something light and funny on the social scene.” The festival, as she describes it in frankly overheated terms, is “dazzling … in its variety,” a “social blaze of little heads rolling by in a ball of light.” The narrator, who admits she “arrived at the festival tense and already prone to aggravation,” marvels at the subjects the talking heads expound upon, subjects rife with the kind of cultural clichés that proliferate in literary journals and newspaper arts columns: “No one should ever write about the Holocaust again!” or “Irony is ruining our culture!”

Here it might be prudent to take a step back, because the subject of irony is germane to Gaitskill’s writing in general, and to “The Agonized Face” in particular. Gaitskill has always used irony as a weapon, and her writing is typically savage, though her later work – the novel Veronica and the stories collected in Don’t Cry – layer their ironies in more complex ways, with the authorial psyche disappearing further and further into the background. These are fictions through which a reader is well advised to tread cautiously: they are strewn with traps and landmines.

On its surface, “The Agonized Face” tells the story of the narrator’s experience at the Toronto literary festival, where she encounters a feminist author – “one of the good-looking types with expensive clothes who look younger than they are (which is irritating, even though it shouldn’t be), the kind of person who plays with her hair when she talks, who always seems to be asking you to like her.” The narrator views the feminist author as less serious than some of the other feminists in attendance at the festival, who might in fact have been “annoyed” by her. The feminist author “had apparently been a prostitute at some point in her colorful youth” and “had gone on record describing prostitutes as fighters against the patriarchy,” an intellectual pose the narrator characterizes as “stupid.”

The core of Gaitskill’s narrative involves the narrator’s examination of a “particularly aggravating” reading the feminist author gives, which she opens by discussing her dissatisfaction at the way she has been characterized in the brochure used as promotion by the festival organizers. Her author write-up focuses on “the most sensational aspects of her life” – her stint as a prostitute, her time in a mental facility – while ignoring her other accomplishments (“I am forty-five years old and now I teach at Impala University West!” she exclaims). Although the feminist author does not deny the veracity of any of the details in her past, she claims that focusing exclusively on this bygone time in her life is at once “salacious and puritanical,” denying her humanity in all its “complexity and tenderness.”

To this point, things are relatively straightforward. The feminist author espouses a fairly traditional ideological line, with which the narrator finds easy sympathy and rapport. It is what the feminist author does next that causes problems.

Having voiced her concerns about the reduction of a human being to a set of provocative and titillating line items in a biographical sketch, she then proceeds to read a story she wrote about a middle-aged woman who attends a party “held in a bar decorated with various sex toys.” After a flirtatious dialogue with one of the male party guests, she invites the man home with her, where “she alternates between fellating him and chatting cleverly while he tries to leave.”

The story the feminist author reads disturbs the narrator intensely, in large part because it centres on a woman’s sexuality without judgment or condemnation. The story does not proselytize, nor does it pause to examine its protagonist’s inner pain, the wound at her core that must be present (or so the narrator assumes) to allow her to take a man home from a party and perform oral sex on him. What is missing from the story, in the narrator’s conception, is “the agonized face” that all wounded women – that is, all women – must have.

The narrator, who admits she is “not really a feminist” herself, worries about the pundits on television who suggest that sexually open feminists have turned young women into “sluts,” a viewpoint that is opposed by others who want to coddle young women to prevent any harm from coming to them. “I do know this,” the narrator says:

When I hear that feminism is overprotecting girls, I am very sympathetic to it. When I see my fashion-conscious ten-year-old in her nylon nightie, peering spellbound before the beguiling screen at the fleeting queendom of some twelve-year-old manufactured pop star with the wardrobe of a hooker, a jerry-rigged personality, and bulimia, it seems to me that she has a protection deficit that I may not be able to compensate for. When she comes home wild with tears because she lost the spelling contest, or her ex–best friend called her fat, or a boy said she’s not the prettiest girl in class, and I press her to me, comforting her, even as that day’s AMBER Alert flashes in my brain, it is hard for me to imagine this girl as “overprotected.”

There are a number of things to note here, not the least of them being the narrator’s intellectual incoherence. This is manifest in the ease with which she slides from visions of her daughter losing a spelling bee to images of “that day’s AMBER Alert” about a missing, possibly abducted, child. And while the motherly impulse to protect a vulnerable young child is understandable – indeed, it is the responsibility of any parent – note that there is no acceptance of agency on the narrator’s part. Her ten-year-old daughter is prey to the depredations of television and fashion, but the mother nonetheless buys the nylon nighties for her, and allows her to watch the “twelve-year-old manufactured pop star” perform.

In a subsequent scene, the narrator recalls attending the taping of a television talk show in which two rape victims confront their rapist. The narrator approves of the program because, unlike the feminist author’s reading, it gives free rein to the agonized face. “But wait!” she says. “The feminist author was not talking about rape, was she? Being a prostitute is not the same as being raped, is it? And of course they are not the same. But for the purposes of my discussion here … they are close enough!”

Later in the story, the narrator listens to a Somali author read a selection from his critically acclaimed novel. The passage is frankly sexist, verging on misogynist, but the narrator feels that the author, being Somali, can get away with it, because in his own experience he has encountered the agonized face of oppression. This is the difference between his reading and that of the feminist author: “glib acceptance does not respect the profound nature of the agonized face.”

And here should be noted one of the story’s key ironies, arguably the key that unlocks how to read “The Agonized Face.” The biographical details of the feminist author’s life – the sex work, the teaching, work as a proofreader – closely mirror those of her creator. And, as Matthew Sharpe has pointed out, the story she reads shares details with Gaitskill’s own story “Turgor” (right down to the sex toys at the party). This, it might be suggested, is the author’s way of disavowing approval for her protagonist, of suggesting to the reader that the narrator is not someone to be altogether trusted.

Yet for all that, the narrator of “The Agonized Face” is not entirely unsympathetic. Her ideological approach may be highly confused, but it proceeds from a pure impulse: a desire to protect her daughter from the evils of the world.

A scene in flashback involving the narrator in bed with her husband offers another clue as to how to read the story. The imagery is animalistic and vaguely sadomasochistic – the narrator is pictured as an animal being led on a chain by her husband. In sexual congress, the couple roll around “laughing at ourselves, laughing at the agonized face.” This scene takes place before the birth of the narrator’s daughter, before the narrator’s own divorce. Before, that is, her own wounds have been allowed to develop and fester. The narrator insists throughout the story that the feminist author’s sin of omission is in not respecting the agonized face; it is hard not to presume that the face the narrator is referring to is her own.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 2: “The Other Side of Death” by Gabriel García Márquez (trans. by Gregory Rabassa)

May 2, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Collected_Stories_Gabriel_Garcia_MarquezFrom Collected Stories

At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life.

– Gabriel García Márqez, The Paris Review interviews (The Art of Fiction No. 69)

Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s early stories, it is easy to see what the author meant by classifying them as “intellectual” (as opposed to, say, “magical,” a word often used in conjunction with his later work, most especially the major novels). His early stories experiment insistently with the idea of the narrative consciousness, as befits an author heavily influenced by Kafka; they float in and out of different perspectives and often flirt with a kind of dreamlike aspect.

“The Other Side of Death,” in particular, begins with a dream, from which a man awakes “with a start.” The association, in the story’s first line, between death and dreaming immediately calls to mind another literary influence to place alongside Kafka: Sigmund Freud. Indeed, there is a strong Freudian aspect to the dream, when it is described in the story’s long second paragraph. The anonymous man who has awoken from sleep imagines himself on a train, from the windows of which he observes his twin brother – whom we will subsequently learn has recently died – standing behind a tree.

The landscape outside the train windows, we are told, resembles a still life, “sown with false, artificial trees bearing fruit of razors, scissors, and other diverse items.” We will not fully comprehend this strange image until close to the story’s end, when the man recalls the barber who was summoned to “arrange” his brother’s corpse so that it might be presentable for viewing.

In Freud’s theory, the foreconscious, which dominates our waking hours, lies dormant during sleep, allowing our subconscious free rein. “But once the dream becomes a perception,” Freud writes, “it is then capable of exciting consciousness through the qualities thus gained.” Why should the image of the barber shaving his twin bother trouble the story’s protagonist sufficiently to wake him from sleep? Surely, a twin brother’s death is a traumatic experience on its own, but what is it in this particular image that makes it capable of exerting such a psychic pull?

The answer involves another literary device: the double. This motif has been pervasive in short fiction since the form’s inception; the man generally credited with inaugurating a theory of the short story in English – Edgar Allan Poe – employed doubles throughout much of his fiction, most especially in his classic tale “William Wilson.” In “The Other Side of Death,” Márquez incorporates the device most explicitly by making the brothers twins, that is, literal doubles of one another.

But this doubling motif also adopts a psychological aspect in the story. Recalling the barber shaving the face of his dead brother, the character’s thoughts begin to take on an uncanny aspect:

He had the strange feeling that his kin had extracted his image from the mirror, the one he saw reflected in the glass when he shaved. Now that image, which used to respond to every movement of his, had gained independence. He had watched it being shaved other times, every morning. But now he was witnessing the dramatic experience of another man’s taking the beard off the image in his mirror, his own physical presence unneeded. He had the certainty, the assurance, that if he had gone over to a mirror at that moment he would have found it blank, even though physics had no precise explanation for the phenomenon. It was an awareness of splitting in two! His double was a corpse!

There is a conflation here between the brothers’ individual consciousnesses. This conflation manifests itself in the disappearing image in the mirror, a glass which of course reflects the user, in much the same way one would see oneself “reflected” in the face of an identical twin. The idea that there would be no reflection should the protagonist turn the mirror toward his own face involves a psychic (and, in the fantasia of Márquez’s story, a physical) erasure. “He imagined that the separation of the two bodies in space was just appearance,” Márquez writes, “while in reality the two of them had a single, total nature. Maybe when organic decomposition reaches the dead one, he, the living one, will begin to decay within his animated world.”

This dreamlike elision of the two characters – the narrative voice slides from the first to the third person, and there is even the hint of a suggestion that the twin brothers may indeed be one in the same person – is pervasive throughout the story. A further aspect of the protagonist’s dream involves a pus-filled tumour being extracted from his toe with a screwdriver, reminiscent of the tumour that claimed his brother’s life. The dream, with which the protagonist claims to be “displeased,” ends with the image of a woman in front of a mirror, “trying to extract his left eye with a pair of scissors.” The repetition of the mirror imagery is clear enough; the woman’s action resonates in the scene with the barber, who finishes his ablutions by using the tip of his scissors to close the corpse’s eyes.

“The Other Side of Death,” which in its doubling imagery and insistence on mirrors as a pattern of metaphor resembles another early Márquez story, “Dialogue with the Mirror,” is indeed an intellectual exercise, but it is also tightly calibrated and possessed of a marvellous internal integrity. It opens with the protagonist, having risen from his dream, smelling violets and formaldehyde. The association with death and embalming is clear, but looking back over the author’s whole career, it is also possible to see in this an anticipation of the classic opening line from Love in the Time of Cholera, which also invokes a smell associated with death, in that case the bitter almonds of cyanide. His approach may have evolved over the course of a long and remarkable career, but Márquez’s themes and obsessions can be detected, in nascent form, even in his earliest, intriguing output.

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