What I Read in September
October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Children in the Woods, Frederick Busch. Read again, for the second or third time. Frederick Busch is my favorite writer whom a lot of my fellow writers don’t know about. He is also a writer I try to emulate in style; I love how he tucks wryness and the pain that comes with the experience of disillusion into the folds of his sentences. One of the stories here, “Ralph the Duck,” was later expanded into my favorite novel of his, Girls, about a campus security officer in upstate New York who helps look for a missing teenager.
Several of the stories in The Children in the Woods reference fairy tales (“Bread”; “The Wicked Stepmother”; “Berceuse”), particularly “Hansel and Gretel,” and some reference the Holocaust, and more than one make sinister connections between the two. Busch explains his choice of subject in A Dangerous Profession, his excellent book about the writing life:
In the 1990s, I was drawn again by the story. I reread it. I thought about it. And I began to write stories in response to it. The stories were replies, I suppose, to the original story and to the interior self that kept returning to the first part of “Hansel and Gretel”—the part in which a mother convinces a father that they should abandon their children to the creatures of the forest so that the parents might survive.
In “Bread,” a brother and sister pack up the belongings of their parents, killed in a plane crash. How would you find a house that had been unlived in for a long while? Among other things, it makes sense that the smoke alarms would be dying:
First I went from room to chilly room, smoke alarm to smoke alarm. I saw little of the dust-fogged furniture or drapes, or the cobwebs blooming with cluster flies—the slatternly housekeeping for which our mother had been celebrated. Later, we discussed our pride in her carelessness. But this was first. I found the one. It was on the wall, near the molding, above the back-room cellar door. It squeaked like a floorboard, where no one had walked for a week, beneath someone’s foot. Every minute or so it squeaked . It was the battery. The battery gives out, and the gizmo makes its little I’m-a-ghostly-footfall cry, and you hunt it down and tear the failing battery away: one ghost less.
Most of the protagonists in The Children in the Woods are melancholy men who get their own jokes and find comfort in having their wits turned around, such as the oversized brothers in “Extra Extra Large”:
Bernie nodded judiciously. His lips frowned in evaluation and then turned up in approval. He said, “Bill, you’re looking good.”
I said, “For a dead person.”
“You keep up the regimen,” he said, “and you’ll be svelte. Does Joanne make sandwiches for you, with bean sprouts in them, on homemade whole-wheat bread? You’re so lucky. Does she nag you to drink mineral water and kiss your earlobes when you push your plate away?”
As I read I paid particular attention to the endings, which are quiet, subtle, natural, and yet carry weight, sometimes in one pinpointed line. In “Widow Water,” a plumber helps an inept homeowner understand why his sump pump isn’t working. The man’s limitations are revealed not just through the conversation, and his caution in dealing with the eccentric plumber, but his aggravation at his curious young son, whom he lashes out at for getting in the way. There aren’t many ways to end service-call stories. This one ends with a connection:
I picked the mouse up by its tail after the pump had stopped and Samuels, waiting for my approval, watching my face, had pulled out the plug. I carried my tools under my arm, the jeep can in my hand. I nodded to Samuels and he was going to speak, then didn’t, just nodded back. I walked past Mac on the steps, not crying anymore, but wet-faced and stunned. I bent down as I passed him. I whispered, “What shall we do with your Daddy?” and went on, not smiling.
An End to All Things, Jared Yates Sexton. A story collection picked up at AWP Boston. The characters in An End to All Things do not have extensive vocabularies and are confounded by situations they do not have the wit to turn around to their advantage. Living in the Midwest (many of the stories are set in the author’s native Indiana) in the 21st century, they possess skills without a corresponding market in the changing American economy. They argue, act out, and occasionally get distrustful with each other and violent. They are understandably exhausted and bewildered, and so the stories, many of which are told in the first person, are intimately told, complete with slants and hesitations, as in the voice of a friend spilling out his soul to another over drinks:
Once, I said to her, please, can you lay off? She didn’t understand. Sober she was as sweet as a saint. I don’t know what to do, she said. I said, Hey, you’re gonna kill me. That’s what I said. You’re gonna kill me if you keep this up.
For awhile she was better. I’d get home from work on a Friday afternoon and the two of us would make a nice dinner and drink a little on the porch. Watch the neighbor kids walk around. We’d talk and things got back to normal. I was healing up and getting used to the peace and quiet.
Then she went out for drinks one night and called me close to three in the morning. Said there was trouble. I drove down and by the time I walked in there was this guy with a shaved head grabbing her by her shirt. Didn’t even have the chance to take off my jacket before she had me in it. (“A Man Gets Tired”)
Chicago Stories, Michael Czyzniejewski. Chicago is a city of diverse literary personalities, from Upton Sinclair to Studs Terkel to Carl Sandburg to Mike Royko to Oprah. This is a book of little one-page yarns in the voices of several real and imagined characters from the city, such as Jane Addams, Roger Ebert, Jane Byrne, and Shawon Dunston, with illustrations by artist Rob Funderburk.
An Untamed State, Roxane Gay. If you are a writer on social media you know about Roxane Gay. She is seemingly everywhere, with a story in every anthology released, serving as guest judge for every journal’s story contest, and this year saw the publication of two of her books—An Untamed State, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. She writes regular, flowing columns in The Guardian and The Millions on race and sexism and literary citizenship, putting hot-button issues into welcoming, but challenging, perspective. She is nothing short of a hero.
An Untamed State, set in Haiti, is a novel about a place struggling to reconcile its class war, where rules are not heeded, the privileged find ways to congratulate themselves among poverty, and civilization is lit by the cruel instincts of pride, resentment, and revenge. Mireille Jameson, a Haitian-born lawyer, visiting her family with her husband and young son in Port-au-Prince, is kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight, in front of her family, and held for ransom. Mireille is targeted because her father, a well-known architect and businessman, has money, and also for what her family represents: the walled-in Haitian elite, free to ignore the plight of the huddled masses.
Mireille is raped and tortured repeatedly by her captors, and the descriptions of these acts receive no short shrift, in fact serving as the bloody marrow of the first half of the book. Much like the attacks they describe, they are intended to stun at first and later leave one desensitized to their occasion. Mireille’s father, stunningly, refuses to negotiate the terms of her release, fearing that accession to her captors’ demands will only encourage them to kidnap others like Mireille, either in the family or elsewhere. This, we learn, is how lives are bargained over in Haiti.
Gay alternates between Mireille’s first-person narration and third-person relays of Michael and the family’s efforts to communicate to her. She also bounces between time-frames to provide backstory on Mireille’s and Michael’s complicated, tug-of-war courtship. The figurative sundering of Mireille’s flesh, psyche, and security lead up to the actual sundering of Haiti by the 2010 earthquake.
Gay equips Mireille with a voice of quiet fury and a realistic ambivalence that does not cooperate with her need to heal. The last thing a victim wants is to be told what to do and where to go, or follow instructions on whom to trust. All of the signals she receives are scrambled. Mireille is a complex, freshly resistant character, who at times questions her judgment of herself, along with her angles to happiness, and despite Gay’s structuring the novel like a fairy tale (it begins, cheekily, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land…”), bucks the archetype of the grateful heroine awaiting rescue. Unlike a fairy tale, there is very much an aftermath in An Untamed State. In the second half of the book, Mireille must come to grips not only with her lingering resentment (particularly at her father) but also her post-traumatic dread of anyone seeking to get close enough to help her heal, and Gay gives this aspect of the story the time and space it needs to play out.
After I finished An Untamed State I reread Gay’s short story “North Country” (in Hobart 12 and Best American Short Stories 2012), which has nothing to do with Haiti, but similarly features a proud character reluctant to let herself be won over. The courtship scenes in “North Country,” where the protagonist, a lonely, newly transplanted assistant professor of civil engineering in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is wooed by a persistent stranger named Magnus, reminded me of Mireille’s initial coldness and heartbreaking skepticism toward Michael at various points in the novel.
Desperate Characters, Paula Fox. Second read. I learned about Desperate Characters the same way almost everybody else has—Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s in which he fretted over the cultural status of novels at a time of so many other available distractions and informational stimuli. (This about ten years before social media.) He found a copy of Fox’s book on a shelf at Yaddo, and it “spoke directly to the ambiguities [he] was experiencing.” In response to the newfound attention, the book was re-released by Norton in 1999 with a new introduction by Franzen.
The novel’s plot etches a period of literary directness, which Franzen found encouraging:
The reader who happens on Desperate Characters today will be as struck by the foreignness of the Bentwoods’ world as by its familiarity. A quarter-century has only broadened and confirmed the sense of cultural crisis that Fox was registering. But what now feels like the locus of that crisis—the banal ascendancy of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse—is nowhere to be seen in the novel. Communication for the Bentwoods meant books, a telephone, and letters. Portents didn’t stream uninterrupted through a cable converter or a modem; they were only dimly glimpsed, on the margins of existence.
Otto and Sophie Bentwood are a cultured couple living in Brooklyn while the U.S. is in the midst of the Vietnam War. He is a lawyer who has had an apparent falling-out with his partner, who wishes to sever the partnership; she is a translator of French novels, and volumes of Goethe line their shelves. For all the bubble of protection they work to sustain, the couple struggles with indications of having that bubble shattered, beginning when Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a stray cat.
Sophie puts off getting the wound treated; infection sets in, literal and figurative. Things break in and walls break down. The couple drives to their Long Island vacation home, only to find it has been vandalized. In the final scene, an argument ends with Otto hurling a bottle of ink at a wall, the ink “running down to the floor in black lines.” Fox excels at inserting discomfiting details just off the corners of scenes; Otto and Sophie are streamed breathlessly through rooms and confrontations with reveals shadowing them:
“Who…?” he began. “At this time of night,” she said, as Otto went to the phone. But he didn’t touch it. It rang three more times, then Sophie pushed past him and grabbed the receiver. Otto went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Yes?” he heard her say. “Hello, hello hello?”
No one answered, but there was a faint throb as though darkness had a voice which thumped along the wire. Then she heard an exhalation of breath.
“It’s some degenerate,” she said loudly. Otto, a piece of cheese in one hand, gestured to her with the other. “Hang up! For God’s sake, hang up!”
“A degenerate,” she said into the mouthpiece. “An American cretin.” Otto stuffed the cheese in his mouth, then snatched the phone from her hand and replaced it with a bang in its cradle. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you!” he cried.
“You could ask,” she said, and began to cry. “I’ve been poisoned by that cat.” They turned to look at the back door.
“My God! It’s back!” she exclaimed.