“The Mountebank” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Mountebank”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


One day in July, 1952, the man dressed in mourning weeds appeared in that little village on the Chaco River.* He was a tall, thin man with vaguely Indian features and the inexpressive face of a half-wit or a mask. The townsfolk treated him with some deference, not because of who he was but because of the personage he was portraying or had by now become. He chose a house near the river; with the help of some neighbor women he laid a board across two sawhorses, and on it he set a pasteboard coffin with a blond-haired mannequin inside. In addition, they lighted four candles in tall candleholders and put flowers all around. The townsfolk soon began to gather. Old ladies bereft of hope, dumbstruck wide-eyed boys, peons who respectfully took off their pith hats—they filed past the coffin and said: My condolences, General. The man in mourning sat sorrowfully at the head of the coffin, his hands crossed over his belly like a pregnant woman. He would extend his right hand to shake the hand extended to him and answer with courage and resignation: It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done. A tin collection box received the two-peso price of admission, and many could not content themselves with a single visit.

What kind of man, I ask myself, thought up and then acted out that funereal farce—a
fanatic? a grief-stricken mourner? a madman? a cynical impostor? Did he, in acting out his mournful role as the macabre widower, believe himself to be Perón? It is an incredible story, but it actually happened—and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors and local variants. In it, one can see the perfect symbol of an unreal time, and it is like the reflection of a dream or like that play within a play in Hamlet.

The man in mourning was not Perón and the blond-haired mannequin was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón, either, nor was Eva, Eva—they were unknown or anonymous persons (whose secret name and true face we shall never know) who acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.

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The problems of Bartleby

What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?

This question seems like a bad starting place.

Let me share an anecdote instead.

—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”

At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).

Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.

So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.

I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:

“I would prefer not to.”

—While we’re here—

“I would prefer not to”

So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?

Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.

But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”

Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:

At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.

I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.

“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.

These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.

We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.

We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.

And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.

Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.

Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).

—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:

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I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.

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Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).

I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:

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So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?

—Slight shift:

The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.

I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?

First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”

The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.

Now, to shift back (perhaps):

Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?

Should they?

—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.

The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”

Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?

Should it?

—Well. No. And then no.

I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?

“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.

—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).

And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellowthe idea of a fellowa ghost.

So, look, here’s a take on it:

The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.

Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).

And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.

Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint.  But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.

Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s  “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.

And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).

So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).

Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.

And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.

Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.

Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.

Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.

Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.

So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.

— And the epilogue:

We all recall the epilogue, yes?

Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.

Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.

We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

?

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally posted this riff in November of 2012. I’m running it again for Herman Melville’s 200th birthday.]

Read James Purdy’s short story “Summer Tidings”

“Summer Tidings”

by

James Purdy


There was a children’s party in progress on the sloping wide lawn facing the estate of Mr Teyte and easily visible from there despite the high hedge. A dozen school-aged children, some barely out of the care and reach of their nursemaids, attended Mrs Aveline’s birthday party for her son Rupert. The banquet or party itself was held on the site of the croquet grounds, but the croquet set had only partially been taken down, and a few wickets were left standing, a mallet or two lay about, and a red and white wood ball rested in the nasturtium bed. Mr Teyte’s Jamaican gardener, bronzed as an idol, watched the children as he watered the millionaire’s grass with a great shiny black hose. The peonies had just come into full bloom. Over the greensward where the banquet was in progress one smelled in addition to the sharp odour of the nasturtiums and the marigolds, the soft perfume of June roses; the trees have their finest green at this season, and small gilt brown toads were about in the earth. The Jamaican servant hardly took his eyes off the children. Their gold heads and white summer clothing rose above the June verdure in remarkable contrast, and the brightness of so many colours made his eyes smart and caused him to pause frequently from his watering. Edna Gruber, Mrs Aveline’s secretary and companion, had promised the Jamaican a piece of the ‘second’ birthday cake when the banquet should be over, and told him the kind thought came from Mrs Aveline herself. He had nodded when Edna told him of this coming treat, yet it was not the anticipation of the cake which made him so absent-minded and broody as it was the unaccustomed sight of so many young children all at once. Edna could see that the party had stirred something within his mind for he spoke even less than usual to her today as she tossed one remark after another across the boundary of the privet hedge separating the two large properties.

More absent-minded than ever, he went on hosing the peony bed until a slight flood filled the earth about the blooms and squashed onto his open sandals. He moved off then and began sprinkling with tempered nozzle the quince trees. Mr Teyte, his employer and the owner of the property which stretched far and wide before the eye with the exception of Mrs Aveline’s, had gone to a golf tournament today. Only the white maids were inside his big house, and in his absence they were sleeping most of the day, or if they were about would be indifferently spying the Jamaican’s progress across the lawn, as he laboured to water the already refreshed black earth and the grass as perfectly green and motionless as in a painted backdrop. Yes, his eyes, his mind were dreaming today despite the almost infernal noise of all those young throats, the guests of the birthday party. His long black lashes gave the impression of having been dampened incessantly either by the water from the hose or some long siege of tears.

Mr Teyte, if not attentive or kind to him, was his benefactor, for somehow that word had come to be used by people who knew both the gardener and the employer from far back, and the word had come to be associated with Mr Teyte by Galway himself, the Jamaican servant. But Mr Teyte, if not unkind, was undemonstrative, and if not indifferent, paid low wages, and almost never spoke to him, issuing his commands, which were legion, through the kitchen and parlour maids. But once when the servant had caught pneumonia, Mr Teyte had come unannounced to the hospital in the morning, ignoring the rules that no visits were to be allowed except in early evening, and though he had not spoken to Galway, he had stood by his bedside a few moments, gazing at the sick man as if her were inspecting one of his own ailing riding horses.

But Mrs Aveline and Edna Gruber talked to Galway, were kind to him. Mrs Aveline even ‘made’ over him. She always spoke to him over the hedge every morning, and was not offended or surprised when he said almost nothing to her in exchange. She seemed to know something about him from his beginnings, at any rate she knew Jamaica, having visited there three or four times. And so the women – Edna and Mrs Aveline – went on speaking to him over the years, inquiring of his health, and of his tasks with the yard, and so often bestowing on him delicacies from their liberal table, as one might give tidbits to a prized dog which wandered in also from the great estate.

The children’s golden heads remained in his mind after they had all left the banquet table and gone into the interior of the house, and from thence their limousines had come and taken them to their own great houses. The blonde heads of hair continued to swim before his eyes like the remembered sight of fields of wild buttercups outside the great estate, stray flowers of which occasionally cropped up in his own immaculate greensward, each golden corolla as bright as the strong rays of the noon sun. And then the memory came of the glimpsed birthday cake with the yellow centre. His mouth watered with painful anticipation, and his eyes again filled with tears.

Read the rest of “Summer Tidings” at Granta

Robert Coover’s short story “Hulk”

“Hulk”

by

Robert Coover


Hulk, in a fit of pique (can’t help it), beats up an old lady who gets in his way, and suddenly his role in the world zigs from hero to villain. Fake distinction. He can always zag back. If they want him to be a bad guy, he’ll do it, but he could do either, or both at the same time. He’s good at them.

To tell the truth (which he always does), he probably likes being a bad guy best. As a hero, he was supposed to save lives, but was anyone except himself really worth it? As a bad guy, he’s free to take lives without remorse, and more or less at random. Which is easier. No pretending. More fun. He’s grown old and fat and is not so great for the hero part anyway. The amazing thing is, everyone still loves him. He understands that. He loves himself.

The only one who won’t admit he loves him and can get away with it is Sam. Sam’s an old buddy. Well, not a buddy exactly. His uncle doesn’t have buddies. More like a family business partner. He runs the corporation, which Sam says is in a gutter fight over what’s left of the Earth’s goods before it all ends catastrophically. His uncle sometimes takes Hulk on as a kind of enforcer. Mr Fixit. Nasty work, but it unleashes him. And it’s for a good cause. Sam calls Hulk a bloated, blank-brained, shit-green abomination, and says he is embarrassed to be anywhere near him, but Hulk knows he’s only kidding. Stupidity is a handicap, Sam always says with a big toothy smile, little tuft of white beard wagging, his finger pointing straight at Hulk like a command: Absolute stupidity rules!

His pal Cap says the Sam may be a ruthless sonofabitch, but he’s also a true-blue patriot who always gave him room to swing, when he could still do that and not fall down. The old fellow’s Captain America costume doesn’t fit him anymore; it bags in the seat, bulges in the middle, hangs like limp rags over his bony shoulders. Thanks to cataract operations, his sight’s back, some of it, but his wits are still missing. Remembers old World War II comic book fantasies better than he remembers five minutes ago. Something off about his smell, too. Good guy, though. Sentinel of Liberty. They both had tyrannical alcoholic fathers and are, consequently, both teetotalers. They understand each other, to the extent that Cap can understand anything. When rage invades Hulk and makes him lose it, Cap’s still there for him. Hero, villain, Cap doesn’t give a shit.

Read the rest of “Hulk” at Granta.

“Covered Mirrors,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“Covered Mirrors”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Islam tells us that on the unappealable Day of Judgment, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. As a child, I knew that horror of the spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but mine would come as I stood before large mirrors. As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me. One of my insistent pleas to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream of mirrors; I recall clearly that I would keep one eye on them uneasily. I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes. I have learned that this horror is monstrously abroad in the world again. The story is quite simple, and terribly unpleasant.

In 1927, I met a grave young woman, first by telephone (because Julia began as a voice without a name or face) and then on a corner at nightfall. Her eyes were alarmingly large, her hair jet black and straight, her figure severe. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of Federalists, as I was the grandson and great-grandson of Unitarians, but that ancient discord between our lineages was, for us, a bond, a fuller possession of our homeland. She lived with her family in a big run-down high-ceiling’d house, in the resentment and savorlessness of genteel poverty. In the afternoons— only very rarely at night—we would go out walking through her neighbor-hood, which was Balvanera.  We would stroll along beside the high blank wall of the railway yard; once we walked down Sarmien to all the way to the cleared grounds of the Parque Centenario. Between us there was neither love itself nor the fiction of love; I sensed in her an intensity that was utterly unlike the intensity of eroticism, and I feared it. In order to forge an intimacy with women, one often tells them about true or apocryphal things that happened in one’s youth; I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.

What dreadful bondage, the bondage of my face—or one of my former faces. Its odious fate makes me odious as well, but I don’t care anymore.

“Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes

“Slice ’em Down”

by

Langston Hughes


In Reno, among the colored folks of the town, there are two main social classes: those who came to the city on a freight train, and those who did not. The latter, or cushion-riders, are sometimes inclined to turn flat noses high at those who rode the rods by way of entry to the city. Supercilious glances on the part of old settlers and chair-car arrivals toboggan down broad Negro noses at the black bums who, like white bums, both male and female, stream through Nevada on their way to or from the Coast, to remain awhile, if the law will let them in THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD—RENO—according to the official sign in electric lights near the station.

But, of course, the rod-riders get off nowhere near the station. If they’re wise, bums from the East get off at Sparks, several miles from the famous mecca of unhappy wives, then they foot it into Reno. (Only passengers with tickets, coaches or Pullmans, can afford the luxury of alighting directly in front of any station, anywhere.)

Terry and Sling came in on a fast freight from Salt Lake. Before that they had come from Cheyenne. And before that from Chicago—and then the line went south and got lost somewhere in a tangle of years and cotton fields and God-knows-what fantasies of blackness. Continue reading ““Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes”

A review of Taking Care, Joy Williams’ debut short story collection

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Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:

Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.

The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?

Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.

In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.

There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:

The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”

A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).

“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:

I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.

“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:

It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!

Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.

What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).

“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:

“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …

“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.

While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:

Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.

Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:

The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.

The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.

In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:

“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.

Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”

“Oh,” Dan said.

In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:

I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.

Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.

The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.

Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.

Read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a fiction by Gertrude Stein

“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”

by

Gertrude Stein


Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked travelling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.

They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there, they were regularly working there both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there. Georgine Skeene was gay there and she was regular, regular in being gay, regular in not being gay, regular in being a gay one who was one not being gay longer than was needed to be one being quite a gay one. They were both gay then there and both working there then.

They were in a way both gay there where there were many cultivating something. They were both regular in being gay there. Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there and really she was just gay there, she was gayer and gayer there, that is to say she found ways of being gay there that she was using in being gay there. She was gay there, not gayer and gayer, just gay there, that is to say she was not gayer by using the things she found there that were gay things, she was gay there, always she was gay there.

They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.

To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that they did every day. To be regularly gay was to end every day at the same time after they had been regularly gay. They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay.

The voice Helen Furr was cultivating was quite a pleasant one. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating was, some said, a better one. The voice Helen Furr was cultivating she cultivated and it was quite completely a pleasant enough one then, a cultivated enough one then. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating she did not cultivate too much. She cultivated it quite some. She cultivated and she would sometime go on cultivating it and it was not then an unpleasant one, it would not be then an unpleasant one, it would be a quite richly enough cultivated one, it would be quite richly enough to be a pleasant enough one.

They were gay where there were many cultivating something. The two were gay there, were regularly gay there. Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling. They did some travelling, not very much travelling, Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling, Helen Furr did not care about doing travelling, she liked to stay in a place and be gay there.

They stayed in a place and were gay there, both of them stayed there, they stayed together there, they were gay there, they were regularly gay there. Continue reading “Read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a fiction by Gertrude Stein”

Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry”

“In the Dry”

by

Breece D’J Pancake


He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.

This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.

At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door. Continue reading “Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry””

Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams

“The Lover”

by

Joy Williams


THE girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate. Once he lost a fifty-dollar pair of sunglasses while surf casting off Gay Head and felt badly about it for days. He did like kidneys, that was one thing. He loved kidneys for weekend lunch. She would voyage through the supermarkets, her stomach sweetly sloped, her hair in a twist, searching for fresh kidneys for this young man, her husband. When he kissed her, his kisses, or so she imagined, would have the faint odor of urine. Understandably, she did not want to think about this. It hardly seemed that the same problem would arise again, that is, with another man. Nothing could possibly be gained from such an experience! The child cannot remember him, this man, this daddy, and she cannot remember him. He had been with her when she gave birth to the child. Not beside her, but close by, in the corridor. He had left his work and come to the hospital. As they wheeled her by, he said, “Now you are going to have to learn how to love something, you wicked woman.” It is difficult for her to believe he said such a thing.

The girl does not sleep well and recently has acquired the habit of listening all night to the radio. It is a weak, not very good radio and at night she can only get one station. From midnight until four she listens to Action Line. People call the station and make comments on the world and their community and they ask questions. Music is played and a brand of beef and beans is advertised. A woman calls up and says, “Could you tell me why the filling in my lemon meringue pie is runny?” These people have obscene materials in their mailboxes. They want to know where they can purchase small flags suitable for waving on Armed Forces Day. There is a man on the air who answers these questions right away. Another woman calls. She says, “Can you get us a report on the progress of the collection of Betty Crocker coupons for the lung machine?” The man can and does. He answers the woman’s question. Astonishingly, he complies with her request. The girl thinks such a talent is bleak and wonderful. She thinks this man can help her.

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! The doctor was above her, waiting for the pains. “No, I still can’t play tennis,” the doctor said. “I haven’t been able to play for two months. I have spurs on both heels and it’s just about wrecked our marriage. Air conditioning and concrete floors is what does it. Murder on your feet.” A few minutes later, the nurse had said, “Isn’t it wonderful to work with Teflon? I mean for those arterial repairs? I just love it.” The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born. They fastened a plastic identification bracelet around her wrist and the baby’s wrist. Three days later, after they had come home, her husband sawed off the bracelets with a grapefruit knife. The girl had wanted to make it an occasion. She yelled, “I have a lovely pair of tiny silver scissors that belonged to my grandmother and you have used a grapefruit knife!” Her husband was flushed and nervous but he smiled at her as he always did. “You are insecure,” she said tearfully. “You are insecure because you had mumps when you were eight.” Their divorce was one year and two months away. “It was not mumps,” he said carefully. “Once I broke my arm while swimming is all.” Continue reading “Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams”

A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Witness”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little  poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“Life”

by

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated by Isaac Goldberg


 

End of time. Ahasverus, seated upon a rock, gazes for a long while upon the horizon, athwart which wing two eagles, crossing each other in their path. He meditates, then falls into a doze. The day wanes.

Ahasverus. I have come to the end of time; this is the threshold of eternity. The earth is deserted; no other man breathes the air of life. I am the last; I can die. Die! Precious thought! For centuries of centuries I have lived, wearied, mortified, wandering ever, but now the centuries are coming to an end, and I shall die with them. Ancient nature, farewell! Azure sky, clouds ever reborn, roses of a day and of every day, perennial waters, hostile earth that never would devour my bones, farewell! The eternal wanderer will wander no longer. God may pardon me if He wishes, but death will console me. That mountain is as unyielding as my grief; those eagles that fly yonder must be as famished as my despair. Shall you, too, die, divine eagles?

Prometheus. Of a surety the race of man is perished; the earth is bare of them.

Ahasverus. I hear a voice…. The voice of a human being? Implacable heavens, am I not then the last? He approaches…. Who are you? There shines in your large eyes something like the mysterious light of the archangels of Israel; you are not a human being?…

Prometheus. No.

Ahasverus. Of a race divine, then?

Prometheus. You have said it. Continue reading “Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis”

Read “Lost in the Louvre,” a short story by Lucia Berlin

“Lost in the Louvre” is a short story from Lucia Berlin’s collection of previously-uncompiled stories, Evening in Paradise. You can read the entire story at FS&G’s Work in Progress site.

Here are the first four paragraphs:

9780374279486As a child I would try to capture the exact moment that I passed from awake to asleep. I lay very still and waited, but the next thing I knew, it was morning. I did this off and on as I grew older. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever tried this, but they never understand what I mean. I was over forty when it first happened, and I wasn’t even trying. A hot summer night. Arcs from car headlights swept across the ceiling. The whirr of a neighbor’s sprinklers. I caught sleep. Just as it came quiet as a cool sheet to cover me, a light caress on my eyelids. I felt sleep as it took me. In the morning I woke up happy and I never needed to try it again.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did. That I saw how it comes upon you.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic. I was very happy in Paris, but sad too. My lover and my father had died the year before. My mother had quite recently died. I thought about them as I walked the streets or sat in cafés. Especially Bruno, talking to him in my head, laughing with him. My childhood friends, girls lying around on the grass, on the beach, talking about going to Paris someday. They were dead too. So was Andres, who had given me Remembrance of Things Past.

The first few weeks I explored every tourist destination in the city. L’Orangerie, the lovely Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day. Balzac’s house, Hugo’s museum. I sat upstairs at the Deux Magots, where everyone looked like a Californian or Camus. I went to Baudelaire’s grave in Montmartre and thought it was funny for feminist Simone de Beauvoir to be buried with Sartre. I even went to a museum for medical instruments and a stamp museum. I loitered on the rue de Courcelles and walked the Champs Elysées. Napoleon’s tomb, the Sunday bird market. La Serpente. Some days I took random combinations of Metros and walked and walked in each new quarter. I sat in the square beneath Colette’s apartment and walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with everybody from Flaubert to Gertrude Stein. I went to Boulevard Haussmann and to the Bois de Boulogne with Albertine. Everything I saw seemed vividly déjà vu, but I was seeing what I had read.

Read the rest of “Lost in the Louvre.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Book acquired, 29 Oct. 2018)

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Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.

From “Music for Church Organs.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.

From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”

There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.

I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.

From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”

I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.

While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.

From “Stories About You.”

Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.

To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.

From “Hellhole.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

 

Chris Power’s Mothers (Book acquired, 23 Oct. 2018)

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I’ve been reading Chris Power’s series “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” for years now at The Guardian, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a while back that he was working on his own collection of short fiction. I’ve read the first two in this collection, and so far, it’s Good Stuff. Proper review to come.

Mothers is forthcoming in the U.S. in January of 2019 from FS&G. Their blurb:

Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.

Read Anne Carson’s short story “Flaubert Again”

Objects would suddenly fall or fall apart, cars go off course, dogs drop to their knees. The Army was doing sound experiments at a nearby desert in those days. I was nervous all the rest of my life, she wrote. She was a novelist and enjoyed some success. But always she had the fantasy of a different kind of novel, and although gradually realizing that all novelists share this fantasy, she persisted in it, without knowing what the novel would be except true and obvious while it was happening. Now I’m writing, she would be able to say.

She broke off.

Where would you put a third arm? is a question asked in creativity-assessment tests, or so I have heard. Will this different kind of novel be like that, like a third arm? I hate creativity, she said. Certainly not like a third arm. It would be less and less and less, not more. Barthes died, he never got there. She named other attempts—Flaubert, etc. Other renunciators, none of them clear on what to renounce. This chair I’m sitting in, she thought. Its fantastic wovenness, a wicker chair, old, from the back porch, brought in for winter. Me sitting here, by a lamp, wrapped in a quilt, beside the giant black windows, this December blackness, this 4:30 a.m. kitchen as it reflects on the glass. The glass too cold to touch. The loudness of the silence of a kitchen at night. The small creak of my chair.

The first three paragraphs of “Flaubert Again,” a new short story by Anne Carson. You can read the whole story (all eight paragraphs of it) at The New Yorker.