31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 24: “The Squirrel” by Tove Jansson; Thomas Teal, trans.

May 24, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Woman_Who_Borrowed_Memories_Tove_JanssonTove Jansson was in her fifties before she began writing stories and novels for adults. A prodigiously talented visual artist, Jansson gained international fame for her cartoon series about the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures that appeared in comics and books for children. The appeal of the Moomins is enduring; in 2014, to celebrate the centenary of Jansson’s birth, the Quebec publisher Drawn + Quarterly brought out a deluxe edition of the collected comics, and a hand-drawn animated film based on the characters, Moomins on the Riviera, was released.

So popular are Jansson’s creations for children, readers often forget that she was equally adept at writing for adults. Jansson turned to novels and short stories after becoming uncomfortable with the fame and attention her cartoon creations brought. As Lauren Groff writes in the introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Jansson’s selected stories, “She began to long for the isolation of her hungry early years, when her art was hers alone and she didn’t have to answer the thousands of letters sent every year from her young fans or live under the pressure of producing a weekly comic strip.”

The longing for isolation was not incidental for the author, who sought out a series of retreats on the Pellinki archipelago, where she had spent much time with her family as a child. According to the Tove Jansson Virtual Museum, the author scouted several locations in the region, eventually building a cottage on the rocky island of Klovharu. Though Jansson harboured “dreams of a hermit’s life,” her fame worked against her, drawing tourists to her island refuge. Though the Tove Jansson Virtual Museum notes that the author eventually found ways to “balance out periods of socializing with time spent working alone,” the tension between a desire for solitude and the pressures of being a public figure never entirely dissipated.

The pangs of interrupted solitude are at the heart of Jansson’s story “The Squirrel,” about (perhaps unsurprisingly) a woman of a certain age living alone on an island who craves both isolation and at least a small amount of human connection. (She flies into a terror when she spies a boat full of people approaching her island redoubt, then admits to crushing disappointment upon realizing they are not coming to visit her, but are merely scouting good fishing spots in the area.) The woman’s daily life is thrown into disarray when she encounters a visitor to the island: a squirrel that has apparently washed up on a piece of driftwood.

Jansson’s story takes up the relationship between the woman and the squirrel, but this is not the kind of human versus nature story that will be immediately familiar to North American readers. Jansson’s story is much quieter and more contemplative than anything one might find in the work of, say, Jack London or Farley Mowat. Nothing much happens in the story – there is no plot to speak of – and the interaction between the squirrel and the woman is based as much in the latter’s psychology as in anything external. Nor is the squirrel anthropomorphized to any degree. Devotees of the Moomins who anticipate a loveable, huggable rodent will be sorely disappointed.

This is central to Jansson’s point in the story, a work one can easily imagine was written in part as a response to the popularity the Moomins had engendered. The woman becomes fascinated with her visitor, but retains a healthy distance, not wanting to disturb it or frighten it away. She becomes distraught when she thinks she has inadvertently destroyed its nest and sets about finding a new home for it. She feeds it each morning, hoping that the animal might decide to remain on the island for the winter. Her interest in the squirrel becomes stronger, bordering on obsessive, but ends badly when the woman forgets the distance that exists in nature between humans and feral animals.

Like the man in the white suit in Diego Marani’s story “The Man Who Missed Trains,” the squirrel represents an interloper, a figure of disturbance throwing the established order out of balance. Prior to the squirrel’s arrival, the woman’s routine was set and rigid, but it becomes increasingly contingent as the story progresses. Only her daily dose of Madeira remains sacrosanct. Jansson uses the word “ritual” to describe the devotion to order and regularity the woman observes; this word is also applied to the relationship (such as it is) that develops between the woman and the squirrel. Importantly, though, this word is evoked following a key encounter between the two, the one time the squirrel ventures inside the woman’s cabin.

The squirrel attacks the woman after breaking her Madeira bottle; following this scene, Jansson tells us that “none of their rituals changed” – the woman continues to feed the squirrel each day, but the squirrel responds with “contempt,” and with “an indifference that didn’t stoop to revenge.” This indifference infuriates the woman, as does the disorder that has resulted from the squirrel’s presence: “The lack of order was because she no longer had the Madeira to divide the day into proper periods and make them clear and easy.”

The squirrel’s departure is as abrupt as its arrival, and tinged with irony: though she has left it several pieces of driftwood to float away on should it choose, it hops on the woman’s own boat which has come unmoored, leaving the woman effectively stranded on the island. The squirrel serves as an instrument of self-recognition for the woman, who becomes cognizant of her own loneliness and dissatisfaction with her self-imposed exile; following the attack in the cabin, the woman decides to rearrange her books, putting the ones she likes on the top shelves and the others at the bottom, but she can’t find any that she likes. Routine, it would appear, has solidified into a grinding sameness that to this point had been wholly internalized by the woman.

After the squirrel departs on the woman’s boat, she feels an “elated relief” because she no longer needs to concern herself with anyone or anything else. “All decisions had been taken from her.” She also recognizes that with the disappearance of the squirrel, “everything was radically altered.” After viewing the squirrel floating away on her boat, she drops her flashlight in the water: “It did not go out, it stayed on as it sank along the side of the rock face, a smaller and smaller vanishing light that illuminated quick glimpses of a ghostly brown landscape with moving shadows, and then there was nothing but darkness.”

The concluding sections of “The Squirrel” tilt in a direction Groff identifies in her introduction: the note of “terror that is the animating spirit for most of these stories.” The woman has been left alone once again – the pressures and antagonisms of the outside world have been banished from her – but she is also stranded without means of escape from the island, incapable even of accessing the mainland to purchase supplies, and without the Madeira that gave her world order. The recognition of her complete isolation seems to perversely energize the woman: she once again takes up the writing she had abandoned, and in the penultimate moment is seen at her kitchen table, writing “rapidly.”

The appearance in the story’s final line of a single human on the island’s boat beach might serve as a spark of hope for some compromise between the woman’s need for solitude and her desire for companionship, but even here Jansson remains ambiguous. The final sentence in the story is a precise replica of its opening sentence, except that the word “person” is substituted for the word “squirrel.” Whether this indicates the beginning of a cycle that will also end in abandonment and disappointment is unclear.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 23: “The Man Who Missed Trains” by Diego Marani; Elizabeth Harris, trans.

May 23, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Best European Fiction 2015

Best_European_Fiction_2015The best stories have something ineffable at their heart, some element of mystery or uncertainty that prompts a reader to question or re-evaluate his or her presuppositions and attitudes. Stories ask questions; rarely do they provide simple, prepackaged answers.

Italian novelist Diego Marani’s story “The Man Who Missed Trains” contains elements of what might be considered speculative fiction, but at its core it is a philosophical meditation on time and mortality, and our human relationship to the physical world we inhabit. At bottom, the story questions our notions of eternity.

The central incident in Marani’s narrative – the mysterious disappearance, as if into thin air, of an express train running from Crotone to Ferrara – does not even occur until halfway through the story. The preceding half is effectively set-up, but is nevertheless essential to Marani’s method, which involves careful modulation of the psychic distance between the narrative and the reader.

To this end, the story is narrated in the first-person, but the narrator is not the active agent in the events that transpire. When the story opens, our narrator is employed as a server at the café in the Ferrara train station. In his position he is able to act as the quintessential observer, watching the commuters and other travellers who pass through on their various ways to other destinations. Marani presents the narrator as a romantic who closely associates train travel with the state of being in love:

I suffered in train stations, but I reveled in them, too, in their gratifying confusion. Maybe it’s my fate to always take the train when I’m in love. When I’m lost in the memory of someone’s face or I don’t even know I’m in love yet – it’s just a feeling. This is why I gladly accepted my position in the snack bar overlooking Track One: to see this miraculous, enchanting world close up and fool myself into thinking I could understand it, and so avoid it.

The language here is telling. The world of the train station is “miraculous” and “enchanting,” and the narrator hopes to “fool [himself] into thinking [he] could understand it.” From the very opening passages, Marani creates a mood that is tinged by the uncanny, by notions of magic and the ethereal. Significantly, the narrator considers the station to offer a confusion that is “gratifying”: he is not someone closed to the possibilities of mystery and the intangible.

The story hinges on the appearance of an interloper, Zlatko, a mysterious stranger of Eastern European origin who speaks Italian with an Hispanic accent and is clad from head to toe in a brilliant white suit. Zlatko is the titular character, whose talent (if one can call it that) is missing trains, a notion that may sound comical, but that Marani uses as a springboard for some fairly heady philosophical rumination:

Taking a train is automatic; anyone can do it. Nothing’s required, you just show up on time, buy your ticket, and drink your coffee while you wait for the train to roll in. After you’ve found your seat in a car, every minute’s exactly like the next. The departure’s over before it begins. But missing a train is just one precise moment. Arrive a moment too soon or a moment too late and you’ve missed the point. A moment too soon, you haven’t missed the train at all; a moment too late, the train’s already gone. And you can’t miss a train if it’s already gone. Missing a train also means renouncing everything that could come with that train; it means sidestepping one life and choosing another. Every train’s a journey, and every journey’s a place, and we’re never the same from one moment to the next.

What Marani does with the second half of his story essentially involves taking these abstruse philosophical ideas and actualizing them. When the 754 Crotone express disappears, the citizens of Ferrara literally miss it: it does not show up for another twenty years, by which time the passengers have all aged precipitously. Marani includes genre elements – about different realms of time that move at varying speeds and the possibility of these realms colliding – but his core concerns remain the same.

It is equally significant that the bulk of the story’s action occurs twenty years in the past. Marani paints a picture of an idealized time in which romantic notions of train travel and adventure were still possible; when the 754 express rematerializes in the present, its passengers are wrinkled, dessicated husks, emblematic of an age that has had all the life and vitality sucked out of it. This, in fact, is what Zlatko offered, as much as entertainment for the local drunks and vagrants: possibility.

The final scene of the story has the narrator contemplating the past through the prism of a denuded and degraded present. “[T]hese days, trains don’t have door handles,” the narrator mourns, thinking of the impossibility of brushing one’s fingers against the handle of a train’s door as it pulls out of the station just ahead of one. “They’re convoys of washing machines with blind windows, and they don’t go anywhere at all.” What modernity offers in efficiency and sleekness, it loses in wonder. Twenty years on, the passengers on the 754 express train have turned to dust, and the narrator is left alone, longing to “escape somewhere far away from this time without poetry.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 22: “Labyrinth” by Amelia Gray

May 22, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Gutshot

Gutshot_Amelia_Gray“Disorienting” is perhaps the best word to describe the fiction of Amelia Gray. It’s a word novelist and story writer Lindsay Hunter uses to characterize Gray’s work, which Hunter says “makes you feel like you’ve been shot out of a cannon.” Indeed, there is an abiding strangeness to Gray’s stories that is not easily sloughed off or reckoned with; no matter the reader’s background or predilections, the territory Gray traverses will almost certainly appear unfamiliar and weird.

In part this is due to her subject matter. “House Heart,” for example, features a couple who essentially kidnap a prostitute and imprison her in the ductwork of their house. The brief story “Date Night” features a bizarrely Grand Guignol scene in a restaurant that includes a woman ripping off her own breasts and another emasculating a man and tossing his severed penis into a bowl of soup. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” provides a catalogue of exactly what its title suggests: “When he asks you to marry him, panfry his foreskin.”

The story “Labyrinth,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, is less extreme than these, but no less strange in its own way, and representative of one of Gray’s key tactics: it leaves its reader alone, without context or explanation for the events that transpire. We know the basics of what happens, but have few hints as to why. “Labyrinth” provides a bit more in the way of character motivation than, say, “House Heart,” in which the couple’s impetus for locking up the prostitute remains dizzyingly obscure. Here, the first person narrator, Jim, is provided with a sketchy backstory that offers a rationale for his actions and serves to situate him in a kind of mock-heroic mode.

The story takes place at a country jamboree somewhere in the U.S. Every year, Dale, one of the town residents, puts on a fair to raise money for the local fire department. The central feature of this fair is always the elaborate corn maze that Dale carves into his field, an attraction complex enough to entice teenagers and “hardcore maze-runners.”

On this particular occasion, Dale tells his guests he has created not a maze, but a labyrinth, the difference being in “the fact that the path is unicursal, not multicursal. There’s only one road, and it leads to one place.” The other distinction, according to Dale, is that the labyrinth “is known to possess magic.” He elaborates on precisely what he means by this: “Some say that once you find the center, you discover the one thing you desire most in the world. Others claim that God sits beyond the last bend. Individuals must learn for themselves.”

What Jim finds at the centre of the labyrinth extends his association with classical heroism, specifically with Theseus in Greek mythology, who entered the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. Jim’s need to establish his bravery stems from an incident the previous year in which an errant cigarette lit a hayride on fire and Jim, like a crazed George Costanza, fled the scene, eventually to be discovered cowering and (we are led to believe) having pissed his pants, a source of huge amusement for the townspeople. What Jim most desires, that is, what he expects to find at the centre of the labyrinth, is a demonstration of courage for the people who have mocked him – proof that, in the words of one of fairgoer, “He’s got balls.”

Doing this will, of course, necessitate a confrontation with the monster, something that occurs at the very end of the story. Here Gray pulls back, disallowing access to what transpires; we do not know whether Jim survives or emerges from the labyrinth victorious, though the fact that he narrates the story in the first person (and the implied association with the hero of Greek myth) suggests that perhaps he does.

What is clear is that Gray is adapting and incorporating elements of classical mythology into a contemporary story while giving them a modern spin. Jim is required to carry an unwieldy trivet with him into the labyrinth; Dale tells him that the trivet is the Phaistos Disk, a disputed Bronze Age archeological relic. “According to mythology,” says the website World Mysteries.com, “Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthis, brother of king Minos.” It was Minos who angered the gods by refusing to sacrifice a majestic bull, resulting in the birth of the Minotaur – the progeny of the bull and Minos’s wife. The Minotaur was held captive in a labyrinth created by Daedalus and fed the blood of victims who were sacrificed to the monster.

Gray layers mythological resonance onto her tale, explicitly with the Phaistos Disk and the presence of the labyrinth itself, and implicitly through allusive details scattered throughout the story. Toward the end, one of the townspeople breaks out a guitar and sings the “origin story” of Jim: “Born to a rancher just a little west of here / Jim raised his head and never cowered out of fear.” This is a clear comic debasement of the Greek chorus. It also flies in the face of what we know about Jim, who was subject to ridicule precisely because he did cower in fear following the incident on the hayride. At one point as Jim navigates the labyrinth, he overhears the townspeople talking outside: “They were telling stories of my heroism and bravery, of underwater rescue and diplomacy – tales I couldn’t remember being a part of, though surely I was involved in some way, if so many recalled them so fondly.”

As is typical with Gray, the disconnect here is not fully explicated; the author prefers a kind of impressionistic approach that leaves the reader to make the important connections for herself. The labyrinth is an apt metaphor for the author’s own fictional approach: there is one road, leading to one place, and the edifice contains a kind of magic – surprising and finally inexplicable.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 21: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller, revisited

May 21, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Every critic,” writes Philip Marchand in the opening chapter of his 1998 book Ripostes, ” … must feel, at one time or another, a bit of a fake. Every critic must sometimes suspect, upon feeling baffled by a book, that there are other, more acute readers, who have understood the author’s intentions – understood them, and relished the results. They are not baffled. But meanwhile, intelligence has failed you, the critic. In a few cases, it may have failed so badly that your remarks will serve to amuse posterity.” These comments occur in a chapter not incidentally entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” and they are comments that have long struck a chord with me.

Any critic tries – or, at least, should try – not to get it wrong. A critic’s first responsibility, after all, is not to posterity, or to the aggrandizement of ego or reputation, but to the work under consideration. Honesty is important, yes, but so is intelligence, and a willingness to see things that might be difficult or outside the realm of one’s own experience. One might call this latter quality, for want of a better word, empathy.

Of course, being human, there are times that critics will get it wrong. They will be working too fast, or dealing with pressing matters in their personal lives – a sick relative, the pressures of a job (most literary critics in this country not being able to make a living off their writing alone), insomnia, a recalcitrant landlord – that may make them less attentive than they should be. There is the ringing telephone, background noise from the café or (on those few days the weather will allow) the park where one has taken refuge to read, or any number of other distractions.

Elsewhere in his essay, Marchand comments on the anxiety that accompanies the “feeling that if I read a given paragraph with less than maximum attention I might miss the key to the whole book.” He applies this principle to novels; it works equally powerfully with short stories.

One week ago in this space, I chose to focus on K.D. Miller’s story “Magnificat,” from her 2014 collection All Saints. This was not my first encounter with Miller’s story: I had reviewed the collection for the National Post when it first came out, and returned to it again at the end of the year, when I included it on my selection of standout books for Quill & Quire. “Magnificat” was, to my mind, one of the strongest stories in the collection, and as I was putting together the list of stories I wished to focus on for this year’s 31 Days of Stories, it bubbled to the top. I reread it and crafted a post explicating my experience of the story.

My interpretation of the characters and events in the piece involved a reading of the older character, Julia, as a spinster who was innocent of sex and sexual encounters, and used the church as a substitute for such carnal matters. From my first encounter with the story, there was something about the final sequence that bothered me, but it was nothing I could put my finger on precisely. It was just a feeling that something was off, that I was missing something. This feeling did nothing to diminish my admiration for the story, or for Miller’s writing, which is among the finest and most subtle I have encountered in some time.

These, of course, are the very qualities that should have given me pause.

Yesterday, I was pleased to read a post at the blog Matilda Magtree. In addition to saying nice things about this site and its annual focus on short fiction, the blog’s author, Carin Makuz, offered an alternate take on the events of the story from my own:

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

Makuz references the scene in the story in which Julia is in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary, a scene I also pointed to in my own post to illustrate a different reading of the story and the character. That scene, I believe, should best be read straight, with the character longing for a kind of immaculate conception, a kind of idealized relationship in the realm of sex.

However, that reading in no way negates Makuz’s idea that Julia, far from being virginal herself, has suffered abuse in her past. As she follows Cathy and Gabe into the park, the words “be not afraid” go through her head, and Miller writes, “Strange. Those words haven’t gone through her mind for – well, not since she was a girl.” There is nothing explicit here, only a hint that something wrong, something far beyond the simple shock of following a young couple into a park and witnessing them having sex.

The key passage occurs on the second-last page of the story, after Julia has dragged herself away from the scene of the couple and collapsed onto a stone bench in the park:

Out of habit, she looks at her watch. She can barely see the hands, and in any case cannot remember what time it was the last time she looked. No way of knowing how long she had been in the park, then. How long it took. The thing that happened. The thing that was done to her.

Yes. Something was done. And it was done to her. She begins to cry. And she was terribly frightened by it. She has suffered something dreadful, she whimpers to herself. Something that ought not to have been done.

To what does this passage refer? What is the something that has been done to Julia – something that Miller insists was done to her, emphasizing this through the use of italics on the page? My own reading had this as a kind of transference: the it referring to Julia’s somatic reaction to the sex between Cathy and Gabe; the “thing that was done to [Julia]” being her recognition of a burning desire for the same kind of carnal knowledge, something that has passed her by in her life.

Yet does one not have to work hard to read the passage this way? Is it not simpler, more obvious, to read it as Makuz does, as indicating that Julia has been the victim of abuse (“Something was done. And it was done to her“)? She tells herself not to be afraid upon entering the park, not because she is trailing the couple and fears being caught, or is fearful of what she might witness them doing, but because the park was the scene of her long-ago violation. “She has suffered something dreadful … Something that ought not to have been done.” How much more explicit does Miller need to be?

Makuz is extraordinarily generous in suggesting that my own reading of the story is not wrong, merely a different interpretation of the events on the page. Perhaps. Though returning to the story now, having digested Makuz’s reading, the passage above appears to stand out as though in neon. Perhaps this is another instance of transference. Or, perhaps more likely, my earlier post must go down as one of those failures of intelligence that Marchand warned of.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 20: “The Invisible Collection” by Stefan Zweig; Anthea Bell, trans.

May 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Invisible Collection: Tales of Obsession and Desire

The_Invisible_Collection_Stefan_Zweig“No one will know how we lived,” mourns Stephen Henighan in his essay “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel.” Henighan was bemoaning the rising tide of globalization that resulted in a raft of 1990s CanLit novels that failed to engage with the country’s experience in any meaningful way; the decade’s most lauded, bestselling books evinced, in Henighan’s view, an “inability to pull our own society into focus.” One reason for this, Henighan suggests, was Canada’s position in the world at the time, having emerged from under the colonial thumb of Britain only to succumb to economic and cultural colonization by the U.S. However, Henighan suggests, “[a] country that no longer exists in spirit may still exist in literature: this is one of the lessons of German-language literatures.”

One of the writers Henighan points to is Stefan Zweig, the Vienna-born author of the early twentieth century, whose signature theme, like Henry James before him, was the disintegration of an old world, with its particular manners and ways of life, and its replacement with a new, in many ways degraded and dissolute, society. Henighan views Zweig as an Austro-Hungarian novelist practicing long after Austro-Hungary had disappeared: an argument could be made. It is true, also, that Zweig was capable of capturing the tenor of the time in which he lived with the kind of perspicacity and insight that allow his fiction to retain resonance for a modern reader.

“The Invisible Collection” is set during the period of German “hyperinflation” following the end of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles was in many ways a manifestation of Europe’s anger at Germany, forcing upon the Weimar Republic crippling reparation payments that had the effect of eroding a once-prosperous economy and sentencing the German population to poverty and strife. By 1923, so-called hyperinflation had set in, rendering the country’s paper money essentially valueless. “At its height,” states an article in The Economist, “prices were rising so fast that waiters had to climb on tables to call out new menu prices in restaurants every half hour. Banknotes became sufficiently useless that workers had to bring wheelbarrows with them to work to collect their daily pay, and bundles were given to children to play with, being cheaper than actual toys.”

This is the backdrop against which Zweig’s story is set. “The Invisible Collection” is framed as an encounter between an anonymous narrator and a prestigious art dealer. The two meet on a train outside Dresden, and the dealer relates a tale of an extraordinary interaction he has just had with a collector. The dealer had hoped to track down this man in an attempt to uncover some paintings he might auction; with the value of the currency so depleted, many of the country’s “nouveau riche” had discovered a taste for fine art, and the supply of original work had dwindled precipitously. The dealer tracks down the collector in what is admittedly a mercenary endeavour; upon locating him, the dealer discovers that the collector is blind and that his wife and daughter have sold his collection in an attempt to feed the family and keep a roof over their heads. The aged man’s beloved “collection,” which is kept in portfolios that he rifles obsessively, consists of nothing more than stained sheets of blank paper.

On one level, “The Invisible Collection” operates as a satirical allegory of the depredations that befell the German populace in the interwar period. “[Y]ou know what these times are like,” the daughter tells the art dealer as she explains how she and her mother have sold of her father’s collection in an attempt to keep the family afloat. Given the pitiful state of the economy, even the wholesale depletion of what should have been a highly valuable collection of paintings leaves them with barely enough to get by:

It was a very valuable item that we sold, a Rembrandt etching. The dealer offered us many, many thousand marks for it, and we hoped that would provide for us for years. But you know how money melts away these days … we had deposited most of it in the bank, but two months later it was all gone. So we had to sell another work, and then another, and the dealer was always so late sending the money that it was already devalued when it arrived. Then we tried auctions, but there too we were cheated, although the prices were in the millions … by the time the millions reached us they were nothing but worthless paper.

The connection here between the worthless paper of the national currency and the worthless paper that has replaced the paintings the mother and daughter have sold is clear; this is also where the story escapes its specific historical setting and takes on a more universal tenor.

That the old man is blind is resonant in the story on both a metaphorical and a literal level. His vision had been “disturbed” before the outbreak of war, but it was the global conflagration that prompted his complete loss of sight. “You see,” the daughter says, “even though he was seventy-six at the time he wanted to go to France with the army, and when the army didn’t advance at once, as it had in 1870, he was dreadfully upset, and his sight went downhill at terrifying speed.” The man’s blindness is symbolically linked to the war and its effects on Germany: pain and suffering that had been gradual prior to 1914 suddenly erupted in widespread, unchecked misery.

But his blindness also literally prevents him from seeing the paintings that make up his collection; likewise, he is unable to recognize when those paintings are replaced with blank pieces of paper. However, his memory remains intact, and he is able to take the dealer step by step through a detailed description of the great works of art that he believes still reside between the leaves of his portfolios. His appreciation of these artworks, unlike those “philistines” who snap up paintings for piles of valueless currency, but with no solid knowledge or recognition of their artistic merit, provides him solace and elevates him from the faceless masses who eke out miserable lives in a depleted country.

The old man, then, is representative of the transcendent power of art: the fact that he cannot see the work does not limit his enjoyment of or devotion to it. Indeed, he exacts a promise from the dealer that when he dies, the dealer will sell his collection at auction: “Just promise me to draw up a handsome catalogue,” the old man insists. “[I]t will be my tombstone, and I couldn’t ask for a better memorial.” In this way, Zweig’s story likewise transcends its historical moment and provides a modern reader with a note of universal insight.

By bringing his society into clear focus at a particular moment in time, as Henighan suggests literature can – and should – do, Zweig has provided his reader with not only a document of German life between the two world wars, but a memorable and expansive meditation on an enduring theme.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 19: “Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash

May 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Burning Bright

Burning_Bright_Ron_RashOne aspect of short fiction that makes many readers wary is its frequent resistance to closure. Stories focus on moments in time, but often exclude what happened before or after those moments. The resolution stories offer is frequently implied, or takes place with the reader rather than on the page. In her introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, Joyce Carol Oates has this to say:

[T]he short story is a prose piece that is not a mere concatenation of events, as in a news account or an anecdote, but an intensification of meaning by way of events. Its “plot” may be wholly interior, seemingly static, a matter of the progression of a character’s thought. Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement, as in many of Hawthorne’s more didactic tales … but it signals a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness; a deepening of insight. … Because the meaning of a story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.

Stories – and in particular, contemporary stories – traffic in ambiguity, a condition that makes a lot of readers nervous. Our culture has educated us to prefer the easy pleasures of final resolution and a discernible moral, but stories, by their nature, frequently withhold these things. They do not take us by the hand and instruct us on what to think or how to feel; rather, they require the kind of active engagement that is increasingly avoided in a culture that takes its cues from Harry Potter and comic books.

Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which won its author an O. Henry Prize and was included in the 2010 edition of the anthology Best American Short Stories, is exactly the kind of work that is liable to frighten off readers who demand to know, like anxious children, what happened. The story’s final scene leaves its protagonist, a man in his sixties named Jesse, alone in the Appalachain woods, being hunted by the law. Jesse is not a typical criminal – his transgressions spring from the act of harvesting a crop of ginseng that should by rights belong to him – and his contingent fate is open to interpretation.

Jesse has lived his entire life in the area; the land on which the crop he attempts to harvest sits once belonged to his father and aunts. They sold the property to the government in 1959 for sixty dollars an acre; half a century later, there are signs prohibiting trespassing and the land is being taken over by real estate developers who plan to set up gated communities for wealthy home buyers.

Now entering the twilight of his life, Jesse determines he needs money: “His house and twenty acres were paid for, as was his truck. The tobacco allotment earned less each year but still enough for a widower with grown children. Enough as long as he didn’t have to go to the hospital or his truck throw a rod. He needed some extra money put away for that. Not a million, but some.” His solution is to return to the ginseng crop his father abandoned more than fifty years ago and harvest it (ginseng being worth more than marijuana on the open market).

While he is in the process of harvesting the crop – as the story’s title suggests, this involves a descent into the gorge behind the family’s old homestead: significantly, a trip downward – he is accosted by a park ranger who wants to arrest him for poaching on public land, a crime that comes with jail time. Jesse panics and pushes the ranger down an abandoned well (a further descent), then flees, after having heard the sickening crunch of breaking bones as the ranger falls.

There is much that Rash does not tell us here. We never discover the exact nature or extent of the ranger’s injuries, though the consequence is clear: Jesse becomes a fugitive, hunted through the woods by lawmen and sniffer dogs. Though we discover the ranger’s name – Barry Wilson – when Jesse reads it on the man’s uniform, he remains a cipher as a character, as do the other officers of the law. They are institutional forces arrayed to prevent Jesse from taking what he feels is rightfully his, but like so many such instruments of bureaucracy, they are anonymous and unindividuated.

And, significantly, we never find out what ultimately befalls Jesse. Does he die in the woods? The final image of the story has the aging man alone in the night, waiting “for what would or would not come” – this could easily mean death, or it could mean capture and arrest.

What is significant here is the connection the author draws between the story’s conclusion and its opening, a description of Jesse’s great aunt who lived on the same patch of land and suffered from Alzheimer’s in her old age. After her memory abandoned her, the one thing that remained was her instinct to hoe the field behind her farmhouse, “breaking ground for a crop she never sowed, but the rows were always straight, right-depthed.” Though her mind has broken down, Rash writes, “her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.” Importantly, her empty body is tied in the story to the land on which she has lived her entire life; so central is this connection that it is believed her ghost continues to haunt the property decades after her death.

When Jesse’s great aunt tilled her fields, Rash tells us, “the woods had been communal, No Trespassing signs an affront, but after her death neighbors soon found places other than the gorge to hunt and fish, gather blackberries and galax.” The notion of ownership – of private property versus communal land – is at the heart of Jesse’s run-in with the park ranger, which echoes and recapitulates the treatment of American aboriginals at the hands of European colonials (though one hesitates to stretch that association too far). And it is clear that in encroaching upon government land and pulling up crops – whatever their original provenance might be – Jesse is breaking at least the letter of the law.

In the final stages of the story, Jesse recalls the people who found his great aunt’s corpse in the woods: she had apparently died of exposure after stripping off all her clothes, an act that Jesse considers “a final abdication of everything she had once been.” At the end of the story, Jesse himself removes his boots in an attempt to avoid leaving tracks the police could match to him later; this act implicitly associates him with his great aunt and her final determination to die on the land where she had lived.

Whether Jesse similarly perishes is not clear; neither is it the point. The point of Rash’s brief story involves how we define our lives, what belongs to us, and what can be taken away before we are no longer able to call our lives our own.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 18: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

May 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara

Africa_39Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine Prize – colloquially known as “the African Booker” – for “Jambula Tree,” a lesbian love story. The simple act of writing the story was not without risk for the author; homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since the time of British colonial rule and in 2007 a conviction carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A 2014 law strengthening anti-gay sanctions in the country was struck down on a technicality, but president Yoweri Museveni’s government is apparently determined to pass a revised version of the law.

All of which is to say that Arac de Nyeko is unafraid to deal with fraught political material in her stories, which are devoted to shedding light on social injustices in her native country.

“The Banana Eater” is not about homosexuality, but it does focus on systemic oppression, in this case of women. The story is narrated by a girl, Amito, who lives with her mother in Kampala’s low-income housing estates. According to Richard Campbell Mayer of MIT’s department of urban study and planning, “The majority of government and private developers who build new housing are only providing units affordable to Kampala’s minority of wealthy and well-connected elites. The majority of Kampala’s residents are low-income earners who currently live in unplanned slum neighborhoods that consist of mostly informal rental housing.” In 2011, the government evicted more than 1,700 tenants from the Naguru-Nakawa housing estate where Arac de Nyeko grew up.

This is the backdrop against which Amito and her mother, a labourer at a printing press, attempt to eke out an existence. Ma’s sole capitulation to a creative impulse is her backyard garden, which is the most attractive and welcoming in the housing development. So welcoming is Ma’s garden that the men who work as market vendors have taken to squatting there, using the family backyard as their own personal resting ground where they engage in loud talk and thoughtlessly dump their detritus.

The dramatic arc of the story involves the confrontation that develops between Amito, her friend Naalu, and the vendors. Amito will not leave the matter to her mother, whom she fears is ineffectual in opposing the men. When Ma tells the vendors to leave, saying that the backyard garden is on her property, they react with indignation and undisguised hatred: “They told her that no one came into the estates with any piece of land on their heads. They called my mother a whore. They said she was a husbandless slut, a fanatic Christian, a sex-starved bitch who should migrate back to the north of the country where people were uncivilized and lacked manners.” The gendered nature of the vendors’ attack is key here: they assert their supposed right to Ma’s land on the principle of some unstated patriarchal fiat, while belittling the woman by calling her a slut and a whore.

Ma has been carrying on an affair with a man named Patrick Aculu, who is the subject of much mockery on the part of the vendors. Aculu is known locally as “Red Devil” on account of eyes “the colour of red devil peppers”; his presence in the family home upsets Amito, who secretly wishes he would appear to confront the vendors so that they might attack him and put him in hospital. Amito resents Red Devil for taking the place of her absent father, and worries that his “brain was not wired properly,” a condition she fears is being passed on to her mother.

In the face of her mother’s inability to roust the vendors – she alters her routine so that she returns from work late, but they merely wait her out and confront her after dark instead – Amito decides to enlist Naalu in a retaliatory campaign: “The bastards must pay. It is war. It is war!” Amito and Naalu’s series of attacks, which culminate in dumping a bucket of rancid fish water on the vendors’ heads, provokes the intervention of Naalu’s father, a local chairman who is successful in evicting the vendors, but also separates the girls by sending Naalu off to a Catholic boarding school.

There are a series of ironies at work here. Naalu’s father and Amito’s mother dislike each other because they come from different backgrounds. The former is a Catholic and, like the majority of the vendors, a Muganda. According to Amito’s mother, the Baganda ethnic group “were thieving traitors who’d been selling the country to the highest bidder right from the time of the British.” For his part, Naalu’s father believes that northerners like Ma “were to blame for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in the country – the coups d’état, the bad roads, the hospitals without medicine, the high price of sugar, his addiction to nicotine, and the fact that the country was landlocked.”

Ethnicity, class, and gender all become entangled in the story’s finale, which reasserts the dominance of the male figure – this time Naalu’s father – who solves Ma’s problem but also banishes Naalu from what he feels is a bad influence on her. The institutional forces in the country continue to dictate how women must exist (Red Devil also disappears following the chairman’s intervention), and the only recourse for Ma is to accept what appears to be the lesser of two evils. Arac de Nyeko illustrates the impossibility of Ugandan women – especially those confined by straitened economic circumstances (which means the majority of them) – to make decisions about their own lives or to live without interference. The situation Ma and Amito are caught up in is summed up nicely in the girl’s repeated epithet: “Such nonsense.”

NOTE: The version of “The Banana Eater” referred to here is the one contained in the Hay Festival and Rainbow Foundation Project anthology Africa 39. A slightly different version appears online at the website of the literary journal AGNI. The online version is not substantially different, although it contains material that is deleted from the print version, much of it providing context and nuance to the story’s characters and their situations. The online version makes connections within the story more explicit – the vendors, for example, are pictured dropping banana skins in Ma’s backyard, which connects them definitively with Naalu’s father; this detail is left out of the print version. It is unclear whether these changes were made due to space considerations or at the request of the author; for the fullest version of this story, a reader is advised to consult the text online.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 17: “The Old Tavern Sign” by Regina Ullmann; Kurt Beals, trans.

May 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Country Road

The_Country_Road_Regina_UllmannThe stories of Swiss-born author and poet Regina Ullmann do not appear immediately familiar to a twenty-first century reader. Her settings are rural, her language abstruse, her characters frequently grotesque, and her poetic sensibility more characteristic of symbolism than straightforward naturalism. Of Jewish heritage but a convert to Catholicism, Ullmann also includes a streak of religious imagery running through her stories: in “The Hunchback,” there is a mirror in a door in which an observer “could glimpse a Christ child under a glass dome,” and the collection’s title story ends, “For what is God’s will, but that we should be reconciled to ourselves.”

Reconciliation with oneself is the theme that gets taken up in the following story, “The Old Tavern Sign,” which translator Kurt Beals suggests is “perhaps the masterpiece of this collection.” It is also, Beals asserts, the story that prompted Rainer Maria Rilke to comment, “[T]his was what I had been waiting for, this final emergence of the power of her artistic will.”

First published in 1921 – and, remarkably, never before translated into English – The Old Country Road precedes by one year the modernist breakthroughs of The Waste Land and Ulysses, though Ullmann’s work unsurprisingly shares more in common with fellow German-language writers Rilke, Mann, and Hesse than it does with Eliot or Joyce. In the place of modern urban decay and anomie, “The Old Tavern Sign” hearkens back to fables and fairy tales, right from its opening lines: “Some years ago, in a hidden corner of Styria, there stood an old tavern. There it stood, where no one would ever have hoped to find it.”

The story focuses on a young farmhand who falls in love with a “feeble-minded” girl. The young man is troubled by the strength of his feelings for this addled lady, whom he has known since childhood; in an attempt to divest himself of his lust, he rides off to a neighbouring village to search for an alternate marriage prospect. Unable to slough off his love for the young woman in back home, he sets off to return, but encounters a stag on the road and is trampled to death.

A simple synopsis of the events in Ullmann’s story conveys the strangeness of the piece, but not the extraordinary care with which the author unifies the various elements in the narrative. Central to the work is the young woman’s condition, which is not specified. “In the city,” we are told, “her affliction might have been accounted a mental illness. But here in the country she was feeble-minded, simply feeble-minded.” As the child of a wealthy farmer (that she is illegitimate is heavily implied), she is treated with respect by the villagers and not forced into hard labour, which has the effect of maintaining her innocence: “[S]he was not pressed into service, not forced to acquire a consciousness she didn’t have: that consciousness that so terribly transforms young beasts of burden, and makes them into something quite unlike animals – something truly low.”

That consciousness is seen as separating humans from animals – with the former being “truly low” – is significant; equally significant is the extent to which Ullmann goes to insist upon the correspondence between the young woman and the natural world. Nature is a pervasive presence in Ullmann’s stories; it is here, more often than not, that a condition resembling Godliness is located. In the case of the girl, she is explicitly pictured in communion with the natural world, though her condition renders her oblivious to its presence:

To be sure, it was soon clear that she didn’t actually look at anyone, she didn’t even look at the animals as they passed by with their billowing manes. And she could not have missed them, if she’d had a soul at all. But the animals knew her and loved her. First one, then another enjoyed the company of this senseless, idle nothingness. When the child drank from the artesian well, animals liked to come too, to quench their thirst alongside her. And often the girl lay between two horses as they joyfully rolled in the flowers. Other times one of them would come from behind and press its head against her back, as if to push her up the mountain, and yet another time one of them thoughtfully touched its mouth to the girl’s head as she sat with her hair undone, staring blankly forward.

For Ullmann, this connection to nature is akin to a knowledge of the divine; the girl is pictured as not having “a soul at all,” yet she remains capable of communing with the world around her, and the animals respond to her purity and innocence with affection. Writing in The Quarterly Conversation, Rosie Clarke posits that Ullmann’s “devotion to nature gives her writing a pantheistic undercurrent, and a sense of awe of nature’s ambivalent beauty in the face of human sorrow.” This seems to be the dynamic at work here, especially when it is counterpointed by the young farmhand’s violent encounter with nature at the story’s end.

The meeting with the stag on the road back to town is depicted in dreamlike, hallucinatory language: the stag is pictured leaping over the farmhand “as if engaging the man in a wicked joust.” Later, he imagines (or perhaps not) that other stags materialize to join in the attack: “He felt their hooves, light but hard on his jacket. He could almost count them. They seemed to be releasing all their rutting fury upon him.”

The explicitly sexual imagery here is redolent of the young man’s agony at the thought of his lustful feelings for the feeble-minded young woman; there are implications that these feelings arise out of an impurity that sets the man apart from nature and from the object of his affection. In the scene on the road, the young man thinks of the stag, “It must have known that he was a man, and not a beast. Didn’t it know who he was, that this was him? He was the hunter. He might have a gun, or a scythe. Why wasn’t it afraid of those things?”

Yet Ullmann’s story contains multiple instances of nature remaining unafraid or unharmed in the face of human intervention. The story’s title refers to a sign that hangs outside the village tavern, depicting a stag fleeing from a hunter’s gaze. The stag in the image is “magnificent,” while the hunter is described as being “small and insignificant.” The scene, we are told, is “meant to depict the power and grandeur of the animal,” while the hunter is rendered impotent: “He aimed and aimed, as if it had only belatedly occurred to him, when the stag had long since leapt away.”

The echoes with the farmhand and the girl are obvious (and in case we missed them, Ullmann returns to the tavern sign in the final lines of the story). Here the theme and action of the tale come together and are given meaning. Which is not to say that the story is explicable, even after a second or third reading. Yet as with the best short fiction, it leaves its reader with a sense of something ineffable, as if the reader, too, is adrift in the dark woods, liable to fall prey to whatever forest denizens might pass by.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 16: “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle

May 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes

Penguin_Complete_Sherlock_HolmesAs Ruth Rendell points out in the foreword to the single-volume edition of The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories did not constitute the first works of detective fiction – Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Godwin all predate them. But Rendell also notes that in Holmes, Conan Doyle had created “the first detective to be presented as personality, hero, and star.” Without Holmes, there would be no Poirot, no Father Brown, no Rebus, no Inspector Banks.

Nor would there be the ongoing cottage industry of movies, television shows, spinoffs, book clubs, and fan groups that continue to capitalize on Holmes’s legacy. From the Baker Street Irregulars to Basil Rathbone, from Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes continues to retain a strong hold on the popular imagination. In the genre of detective fiction, Conan Doyle is akin to Shakespeare.

The enduring popularity of his fictional detective was something that bothered the author during his own lifetime. Written as straightforward entertainments, the Sherlock Holmes stories were less substantial in the author’s eyes than his other writing, and the fanatical attention paid to the detective left the balance of Conan Doyle’s output languishing in relative obscurity. As Rendell writes:

[F]or Doyle the success of Sherlock Holmes obscured his more serious work and he called his stories a “lower stratum of literary achievement.” It was the old story of the popular entertainer who dreams of playing Hamlet. For Doyle’s literary historical novels were never very readable and are now largely forgotten, while the Holmes stories, which their author categorized as potboilers, are recognized as original works of genius.

Such recognition notwithstanding, Conan Doyle was quite right: the Sherlock Holmes stories are potboilers, replete with outrageous plots and sensational subject matter. It is also true that much of Conan Doyle’s other writing – Rendell rightly excepts his science fiction novel The Lost World – is virtually unreadable. In any event, popular fiction is popular for a reason: it allows its readers escape and adventure without placing serious intellectual or ideological demands on them.

Regardless, by 1894, Conan Doyle had had enough. That year, the author published Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which he clearly intended to be the terminal volume of fiction featuring his celebrated detective. The last story in that collection, “The Final Problem,” is among the author’s most famous – or, perhaps more accurately, infamous – for it is the story in which Conan Doyle apparently kills off Sherlock Holmes.

“The Final Problem” is equally famous for introducing Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, whose reputation as a Holmes antagonist far outstrips his actual importance in the Conan Doyle canon. The character is mentioned in only a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories, and has a driving role in only two: “The Final Problem” and the 1914 novel The Valley of Fear. Despite the relatively scanty number of pages Conan Doyle devoted to the professor, his status in Holmes mythology is assured, likely as a result of being the instrument of the detective’s putative demise.

Before Moriarty even appears in “The Final Problem,” Holmes has built him up to such a degree that the man seems almost superhuman. Holmes calls him “the Napoleon of crime” and says that he is “on a pinnacle in the records” of criminal malfeasance. Holmes suggests that in addition to being a towering intellect “endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” Moriarty is also a crime kingpin in London, directing from the shadows a vast army of underlings who do his bidding.

He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. If there is a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed – the word is passed to the professor, the matter is organized and carried out.

There is a strain of hyperbole in all this that is frankly comical, but it is important for Holmes to recognize Moriarty’s ability and heightened intellect; anyone less capable would not be a match for the great detective. Conan Doyle realized that if someone were going to cause Holmes’s death, that someone would have to be at least his equal, both mentally and physically. Indeed, Moriarty is a kind of shrouded mirror image of Holmes – equally brilliant, but devious where Holmes is upright, and as devoted to committing crime as Holmes is to uncovering it.

It is also significant to note that the reader never actually encounters Moriarty directly. Everything we know about him is based on what Holmes tells his collaborator, Dr. Watson, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator. Watson claims to know “the absolute truth of the matter,” but this is not based on his own scientific observation, rather on a complete belief in the story as Holmes relates it to him. We have no reason to doubt this account – there is no reasonable way in which either Holmes or Watson could be considered an unreliable narrator – but the several levels of removal from the action make for an interesting narrative approach.

Also a canny one. Having Watson encounter the events of the story, as it were, at second-hand allows Conan Doyle an out with regard to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, which famously takes place at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Watson is not present at the final moments during which Holmes and Moriarty apparently tumble to their deaths; he surmises what happened based on evidence he finds at the scene and a short note left by Holmes.

Perhaps Conan Doyle realized his audience would not allow him to dispatch his famous investigator so easily. Indeed, like the Jason Voorhees of classical detective fiction, Holmes arose from the dead several years later, in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” That story would become the first entry in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a volume that was likely as inevitable as it was incredible.

“The Final Problem” remains sui generis in the Holmes catalogue. It is not a story of ratiocination, but more closely resembles a chase narrative, with Holmes and Watson fleeing London for the continent to escape the clutches of the maniacal professor. There are outrageous moments – Holmes disguises himself as an aged Italian cleric to escape detection on a train – that lend credence to Conan Doyle’s assertion that these stories are little more than potboilers. Yet for being the one story in which Holmes and his bête noir go toe to toe (albeit offstage in the story itself), “The Final Problem” retains a central place in the history of Conan Doyle’s writing specifically, and detective fiction in general.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 15: “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System” by Phil Klay

May 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Redeployment

Redeployment_Phil_Klay“Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be.” So begins Phil Klay’s story “Money as a Weapons System,” an acidic satire about the various ways the American government and its agents mishandled reconstruction following the abbreviated Iraq war.

On May 1, 2003, a mere forty-three days after the U.S. and its so-called “coalition of the willing” invaded a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11, then President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq,” Bush asserted, “the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” These statements were made while the president stood at a podium that was placed in front of a large sign declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Of course, history has shown that the triumphalism of Bush’s speech was severely misplaced. An unforeseen insurgency, sectarian violence, the rise of ISIS – all these and more made “securing and reconstructing” Iraq a dicey proposition. In his speech, Bush invoked the military victories at Normandy and Iwo Jima as precursors to the Iraq adventure, but Klay’s story goes on to point out that such resemblances are inapplicable. In Iraq, Klay writes, “[t]here was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues, but that was years ago.” Instead, U.S. forces that remained in country confronted suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, to say nothing of the bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate greed that forestalled any real progress in putting a broken country back together again.

Klay is a U.S. Marine who participated in the so-called “surge” of 2007; he is also a skilled fiction writer whose military background and experience in Iraq lends the stories in Redeployment (which won the 2014 National Book Award) an authenticity that other stories coming out of the Iraq war don’t possess. His book has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War collection The Things We Carried; it also recalls Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The stories in the collection run the gamut, from tales of front-line combat to pieces about veterans struggling to reintegrate themselves into normal life upon returning home. “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System,” two of the volume’s best pieces, illustrate two sides of the U.S. experience in Iraq in the years following Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. The former is told from the perspective of a grunt named Paul, whose convoy is blown up by an IED and who takes credit for the subsequent killing of an Iraqi teenager at the request of fellow soldier Timhead, the actual shooter. “Money as a Weapons System” is a Helleresque satire about bureaucratic malfeasance and ineptitude in attempts to rebuild what the U.S. has so effectively destroyed, all while satisfying interested parties backed by political or corporate influence.

The two stories are, necessarily, very different in tone. “After Action Report” is sober and violent, and unsparing in its depiction of the psychological toll the soldiers’ deployment takes on them. “Money as a Weapons System,” by contrast, is sardonic and infused with mordant comedy.

What they share in common is a tenor of incipient threat, the feeling that violence – either directed or accidental – could erupt at any moment. “Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror,” Paul muses at one point. “They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time.” The sentiment is echoed in “Money as a Weapons System,” about a Foreign Service Officer who is dropped into an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) tasked with restoring infrastructure in the rural area of Taji. “Nobody’s been that way in a long time,” one soldier tells him in advance of a road trip. “There’s probably IEDs there from ’04. We have no idea what we might hit.”

The convoy is headed for an outpost the Americans have named “Istalquaal.” The narrator asks his translator, a former professor, what the word means. “‘Istiqlal means independence,’ he said. ‘Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.'” This is typical of the level of understanding the ranking ePRT members display about the country they are charged with rebuilding. A Jordanian company has been contracted to build a water pipeline across a highway, but they used the wrong equipment, so that if the water is turned on, pressure in the pipes will cause all the toilets in the area to explode. Meanwhile, government agents stymie attempts to bolster a women’s clinic in favour of implementing job initiatives such as turning widows into beekeepers, and a U.S. businessman advocates “sports diplomacy” by sending useless baseball uniforms to be distributed to Iraqi children.

The clumsiness and incompetence of the various groups charged with reconstruction, Klay implies, is a betrayal of the very people the U.S. forces were supposed to be liberating. What “After Action Report” makes clear is that it is also a betrayal of the U.S. forces themselves, who are putting their lives on the line for ideals that have proven to be chimerical at best. Soldiers thrown into combat in a country their leaders don’t understand, and for reasons that are not at all clear or defensible, nevertheless face constant peril in the course of trying to serve their country to the best of their abilities, while receiving little in the way of support or assistance.

Following the incident on the road and the subsequent debriefing, and against his better judgment, Paul consults his platoon’s chaplain for spiritual counsel. The chaplain advises him to pray, but Paul balks at this notion: “Every time I hear an explosion, I’m like, That could be one of my friends. And when I’m on a convoy, every time I see a pile of trash or rocks or dirt, I’m like, That could be me. I don’t want to go out anymore. But it’s all there is. And I’m supposed to pray?”

Still, the soldiers remain more clear-eyed and grounded about their mission than the speechifiers and propagandists back home. Paul relates a joke told among the Marines about a “liberal pussy journalist” who is “trying to get the touchy-feely side of war” by asking a sniper what it is like to kill someone. “What do you feel when you pull the trigger?” The Marine’s reply: “Recoil.” Elsewhere, Paul’s staff sergeant puts into perspective the soldier’s reaction to a little girl who witnessed the killing of what is assumed to be a family member:

“This kid’s Iraqi, right?”

“Sure.”

“Then this might not even be the most fucked-up thing she’s seen.”

“Okay.”

“How long we been here?”

“Two and a half months.”

“Right. And how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s bee here for years.”

Klay’s unsentimental portraits of the damage exacted in the fallout from the 2003 invasion are infuriating, but also undeniably valuable for the light they shed on the American experience, both overseas and back home. Paul and Timhead’s final consensus is that their efforts putting their lives on the line are ultimately inconsequential: they don’t matter to the Iraqis or, indeed, to their superiors or the government that sent them into harm’s way in the first place. This recognition lends the finale of “Money as a Weapons System,” several dozen pages later in the collection, an added sting. Circling back to the story’s opening, the ending is contingent and infused with dripping irony. After finally outfitting a clutch of Iraqi kids in the businessman’s baseball uniforms, the narrator manages to snap a photo to send back to the mandarins stateside. The Iraqi translator’s sarcastic assessment is summed up in the story’s corrosive final word: “Success.”

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