31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 18: “All the Suffering” by Alice Zorn

May 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Ruins and Relics

Ruins_and_Relics“Images and moments run through Alice Zorn’s stories,” writes poet Neil MacRae in his review of Zorn’s 2009 story collection, Ruins and Relics, “smearing together the foreign and familiar; past and present; what we expect, what we wish for, what we get.” Structurally, “All the Suffering” straddles the divide between past and present, focusing on a woman’s sexual awakening and her dawning realization of how it affects one of her classmates, a troubled young man who has been horribly abused at home.

The woman is Delia, now a mother to two children, Zoe and Zach. Her concerns on the morning the story opens are quotidian and ordinary: locating Zoe’s hair brush so that she can get her daughter ready and send her children off to school. But the search for the hair brush triggers memories from Delia’s past, as everyday objects and events are often wont to do, frequently with little or no warning. The immediate impulse for Delia’s reverie is a voice on the radio “droning the world’s misery.” This puts her in mind of Pete, an old school friend of hers who grew up to become an activist, beginning in high school with attendance at demonstrations protesting U.S. activity in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America.

Zorn does not employ the high modernist style of Virginia Woolf or Marcel Proust to indicate a slide into memory. Rather than stream-of-consciousness, Zorn breaks her story into short sections, frequently cut off in the middle of a sentence, that slash abruptly between present and past. The technique is clunky and not entirely effective, but it does have the virtue of replicating the way an individual consciousness can jump from one seemingly unconnected moment to another almost instantly.

Much better is the interaction between Delia and Pete, who initially connect with one another as high school misfits. Both are bookish and lack the ability to play sports well, and Delia’s teacher initially pairs them up because they don’t seem to belong with anyone else. They spend their time in the library, devouring books and beginning to question the received wisdom of the world. The books in the library tell them, for instance, that “all the famous British novelists were men; Tamils were highly adept at climbing trees; Communism was misguided.” But Delia “wondered how a nation could function on a system of thought that was misguided. Why wasn’t Jane Austen a novelist as much as Charles Dickens? Did Tamils, who were human, really have arms as long as a monkey’s, the way the drawing showed?”

Delia’s inquisitive nature extends to the realm of sex, which confuses and mystifies her. Her mother shows her the box of feminine hygiene products hidden away in the bathroom and sketches the basic facts for her – “That’s how you get a baby. With sperm and an egg. And don’t think it can’t happen because it can – as soon as you get your period. Not just when you’re older and married.” But Delia’s curiosity impels her to investigate the murky world of sexual relations that her mother warns her about, particularly the nature of boys and their impulses: “Boys always try,” Delia’s mother says, “and once they start, they can’t even stop. It’s up to you not to let it start.”

Ignoring her mother’s advice, Delia takes Pete to a secluded location in the middle of a glade, in the hope that he will “try” something with her, but all he does is pull out a book and begin to read. Later, when she does get her period, Delia retreats to the glade where she discovers Pete hiding, and she confronts him about his unwillingness to initiate any activity earlier: “Some kind of boy! What’s the matter with you?”

The matter with Pete turns out to involve hideous cigarette burns around his nipples and genitals, administered by his puritanical mother. Zorn unfolds the scene in an unadorned manner, only later allowing Delia to recognize the way in which her combined horror and lack of empathy must have added to Pete’s shame.

By the time they reach university in Toronto, the two have grown apart, and argue about the relative importance of poetry over an active engagement with the problems of the world. That the distance between them has anything to do with the scene in the glade does not occur to Delia, and in fact will not occur to her until the very close of the story, set in the narrative present. The ruin of Pete’s body was more than a young girl on the cusp of womanhood could be expected to comprehend or process at the time; once the damage has been done, all that is left are the relics of her relationship with the troubled boy, and her regret at not having acted differently.


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 18: “All the Suffering” by Alice Zorn”
  1. Alice Zorn says:

    Chuffed to be included here. Thank you!