Read “An Experiment in Misery,” a short story by Stephen Crane

“An Experiment in Misery”

by

Stephen Crane


It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. A youth was trudging slowly, without enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in his trouser’s pockets, towards the down-town places where beds can be hired for coppers. He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of “bum” and “hobo,” and with various unholy epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the old velvet collar of his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against his neck, he felt that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He looked about him searching for an outcast of highest degree that they too might share miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over rows and circles of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing patches of wet sod behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had fled on this night to better things. There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed towards the bridge.

The young man loitered about for a time and then went shuffling off down Park Row. In the sudden descent in style of the dress of the crowd he felt relief, and as if he were at last in his own country. He began to see tatters that matched his tatters. In Chatham Square there were aimless men strewn in front of saloons and lodging-houses, standing sadly, patiently, reminding one vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in a storm. He aligned himself with these men, and turned slowly to occupy himself with the flowing life of the great street.

Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the side walks, spattered with black mud, which made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead elevated trains with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black, on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers. Continue reading “Read “An Experiment in Misery,” a short story by Stephen Crane”

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The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Book acquired, 10 April 2017)

You probably know Leonora Carrington for her rich, wry surrealist paintings, sculptures, drawings, and sketches. She also wrote rich, wry surrealist tales, which the good people at Dorothy have collected in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.

I kind of flipped out when I first saw the publication announcement for this collection. Her work has been out of print for ages. Years ago, I found a samizdat copy of The Oval Lady (1975) on the internet (and shared some of the stories on this blog), and consumed it in an hour or two. Witty and weird, Carrington’s stuff defies easy allegory or staid symbolism. Her stories are fun but dark, paragraph unfurling into paragraph in a strange dream-logic that recalls her visual skill as a painter.

The Complete Stories is so complete that it contains a pawful of unpublished stories, including “Mr. Gregory’s Fly,” which you can read on LitHub. I’ve dipped into the stories a few times, reading slowly—Carrington’s sentences are loaded with imagery, rich, but somehow light and not dense. Full review to come, but for now, here’s Dorothy’s blurb (and a few paintings):

Surrealist writer and painter Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a master of the macabre, of gorgeous tableaus, biting satire, roguish comedy, and brilliant, effortless flights of the imagination. Nowhere are these qualities more ingeniously brought together than in the works of short fiction she wrote throughout her life.

Published to coincide with the centennial of her birth, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington collects for the first time all of her stories, including several never before seen in print. With a startling range of styles, subjects, and even languages (several of the stories are translated from French or Spanish), The Complete Stories captures the genius and irrepressible spirit of an amazing artist’s life.

Concurrent with The Complete Stories, the NYRBooks will be publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams.

“Tapiama,” a surreal and abject short story by Paul Bowles

“Tapiama”

by

Paul Bowles


JUST BEHIND the hotel was the river. If it had come from very far inland it would have been wide and silent, but because it was really only a creek swollen by the rains, and its bed was full of boulders, it made a roaring noise which the photographer briefly mistook for more rain. The heat and the trip had tired him out; he had eaten the cold fried fish and the leathery omelet that oozed grease, the brown bean paste with rice and burned bananas, and had been overtaken suddenly by a sleepiness powerful as the effect of a drug. Staggering to his bed, he had ripped off his shirt and trousers, lifted the stiff mosquito-net that reeked of dust, and dropped like a stone onto the mattress, only distantly noticing its hardness before he lost himself in sleep.

But in the night when he awoke he realized he had been in the false sleep of indigestion; staring into the blackness over his head he told himself that it was going to be hard to find the way back into oblivion. It was then that he had become aware of the night’s changeless backdrop of sound, and had taken it for rain. Now and then, far above his head (how could the ceiling be that high?) a firefly’s nervous little light flashed its indecipherable code for an instant or two. He was lying on his back; something small was crawling down his chest. He put his hand there; it was a slowly moving drop of sweat. The rough sheet under him was wet. He wanted to move, but if he did there would be no end to the shifting, and each new position would be more uncomfortable than the last. In the anonymous darkness of a nearby room someone coughed from time to time; he could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. The meal he had eaten lay like ten meals in his stomach. Slowly the memory of it was suffused with a nebulous horror—particularly the heavy cold omelet shining with grease.

Lying there smelling the dust from the netting was like being tied up inside a burlap bag. To get out into the street and walk—that was what he wanted, but there were difficulties. The electricity went off at midnight; the old man who ran the hotel had told him that. Instead of putting the matches under his pillow he had left them in his trouser-pocket, and the idea of stepping out on to the floor barefoot without a light did not appeal to him. Besides, he reminded himself, listening again to the wide, strangely distant clamor out there, it was raining. But to move along the dead streets even under the invisible rain would be a pleasure.…If he lay quite still, sleep might return. Finally, in desperation he yanked the net aside and sprang out of bed, across the room in the direction of the chair over which he had thrown his clothes. Continue reading ““Tapiama,” a surreal and abject short story by Paul Bowles”

“The Man of Adamant,” an apologue by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Man of Adamant”

An Apologue

by Nathaniel Hawthorne


IN the old times of religious gloom and intolerance lived Richard Digby, the gloomiest and most intolerant of a stern brotherhood. His plan of salvation was so narrow, that, like a plank in a tempestuous sea, it could avail no sinner but himself, who bestrode it triumphantly, and hurled anathemas against the wretches whom he saw struggling with the billows of eternal death. In his view of the matter, it was a most abominable crime–as, indeed, it is a great folly–for men to trust to their own strength, or even to grapple to any other fragment of the wreck, save this narrow plank, which, moreover, he took special care to keep out of their reach. In other words, as his creed was like no man’s else, and being well pleased that Providence had entrusted him, alone of mortals with the treasure of a true faith, Richard Digby determined to seclude himself to the sole and constant enjoyment of his happy fortune.

“And verily,” thought he, “I deem it a chief condition of Heaven’s mercy to myself, that I hold no communion with those abominable myriads which it hath cast off to perish. Peradventure, were I to tarry longer in the tents of Kedar, the gracious boon would be revoked, and I also be swallowed up in the deluge of wrath, or consumed in the storm of fire and brimstone, or involved in whatever new kind of ruin is ordained for the horrible perversity of this generation.”

So Richard Digby took an axe, to hew space enough for a tabernacle in the wilderness, and some few other necessaries, especially a sword and gun, to smite and slay any intruder upon his hallowed seclusion; and plunged into the dreariest depths of the forest. On its verge, however, he paused a moment, to shake off the dust of his feet against the village where he had dwelt, and to invoke a curse on the meetinghouse, which he regarded as a temple of heathen idolatry. He felt a curiosity, also, to see whether the fire and brimstone would not rush down from Heaven at once, now that the one righteous man had provided for his own safety. But, as the sunshine continued to fall peacefully on the cottages and fields, and the husbandmen labored and children played, and as there were many tokens of present happiness, and nothing ominous of a speedy judgment, he turned away, somewhat disappointed. The further he went, however, and the lonelier he felt himself, and the thicker the trees stood along his path, and the darker the shadow overhead, so much the more did Richard Digby exult. He talked to himself, as he strode onward; he read his Bible to himself, as he sat beneath the trees; and, as the gloom of the forest hid the blessed sky, I had almost added, that, at morning, noon, and eventide, he prayed to himself. So congenial was this mode of life to his disposition, that he often laughed to himself, but was displeased when an echo tossed him back the long, loud roar. Continue reading ““The Man of Adamant,” an apologue by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

Read a previously-unpublished F.Scott Fitzgerald story at The New Yorker

The New Yorker has published “The I.O.U.,” an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story from 1920 that hasn’t been published until now.

First two paragraphs:

The above is not my real name—the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. My real name I shall not divulge. I am a publisher. I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota, detective stories concerning wealthy clubmen and female apaches with “wide dark eyes,” essays about the menace of this and that and the color of the moon in Tahiti by college professors and other unemployed. I accept no novels by authors under fifteen years old. All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight) abuse me because they say I want money. I do—I want it terribly. My wife needs it. My children use it all the time. If someone offered me all the money in New York I should not refuse it. I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.

Six months ago I contracted for a book that was undoubtedly a sure thing. It was by Harden, the psychic-research man—Dr. Harden. His first book—I published it in 1913—had taken hold like a Long Island sand crab and at that time psychic research had nowhere near the vogue it has at present. We advertised his new one as being a fifty-heart-power document. His nephew had been killed in the war and Dr. Harden had written with distinction and reticence an account of his psychic communion through various mediums with this nephew, Cosgrove Harden.

Read the rest of Fitzgerald’s “The I.O.U.”

“The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles

“The Scorpion”

by

Paul Bowles


An old woman lived in a cave which her sons had hollowed out of a clay cliff near a spring before they went away to the town where many people live. She was neither happy nor unhappy to be there, because she knew that the end of life was near and that her sons would not be likely to return no matter what the season. In the town there are always many things to do, and they would be doing them, not caring to remember the time when they had lived in the hills looking after the old woman.

At the entrance to the cave at certain times of the year there was a curtain of water-drops through which the old woman had to pass to get inside. The water rolled down the bank from the plants above and dripped onto the clay below. So the old woman accustomed herself to sitting crouched in the cave for long periods of time in order to keep as dry as possible. Outside through the moving beads of water she saw the bare earth lighted by the gray sky, and sometimes large dry leaves went past, pushed by the wind that came from higher parts of the land. Inside where she was the light was pleasant and of a pink color from the clay all around.

A few people used to pass from time to time along the path not far away, and because there was a spring nearby, those travelers who knew that it existed but not just where it was would sometimes come near to the cave before they discovered that the spring was not there. The old woman would never call to them. She would merely watch them as they came near and suddenly saw her. Then she would go on watching as they turned back and went in other directions looking for the water to drink.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. Continue reading ““The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles”

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About (Paul Bowles, Robert Coover, Pierre Senges, Antonio di Benedetto)

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I’ve had a hard time reading much (let alone writing anything) since November 8th.

A Klimt puzzle has been soothing though.

And I’ve found audiobooks, which I’ve always loved, particularly wonderful lately. They have provided a kind of anti-noise, antidote, anti-?—against the NPR news and punditry I might normally adhere to in the car (and especially potent against my own thoughts at night before I fall asleep).

My pattern with audiobooks has long been to reread at night the chapters or passages I audited that day, or to audit after I had read—or to mix it all up, going back and forth. I like this method because it allows me, essentially, to reread.

I’ve been listening to The Stories of Paul Bowles, read by like a dozen different performers (not a full-cast group read, but rather different voices for different tales). Then (mostly at night but occasionally very early in the morning), I’ve been rereading some of the stories that are collected in Collected Stories. (My local bookshop had copies of the more-complete The Stories of, but hell, who can pass up a Black Sparrow Press edition? Plus—parenthetically—the BSP edition collects the more essential stories).

Anyway, I’m coming to the end of The Stories of Paul Bowles and I’m almost a bit sad about it. The sadness come partially from the fact that the stories are presented chronologically, and, simply put, the later tales are sadder than the earlier ones. Not in content, but in tone—Bowles’s later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also stylistically. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

But my sadness is also the feeling of Oh I want more. (Plus like, the aforereferenced general post-election malaise). This is all easily remedied by my plan to listen to the first two-thirds of these stories again—but probably after I take a crack at his novels.

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at The Sheltering Sky—16 I think. I was reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, William Burroughs, et al. But I couldn’t click with Bowles, which makes sense to me two decades later. His stories are spare but sharp, wild but obscure. His fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them; they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Often, the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together. Anyway, I’ll trek through again, for sure.

A late Bowles story, the epistolary “Unwelcome Words” (many of the later stories are epistolary affairs), offers me a neat transition to the audiobook I’ve been drifting off into unconsciousness the past few evenings with. Here’s Bowles’s narrator (a version of Bowles his-goddamn-self):

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself.

Bowles here licenses my transition to Robert Coover’s latest, Huck Out West, a sorta-sequel to Twain’s problematic American masterpiece. Sure, Coover’s not rewriting the end of Huck Finn so much as he’s carrying out the mission of the novel’s final lines: “…I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” So Coover sets Huck out in the Territory, away from the maternal bodies that would otherwise sivilize him. I’ve gotten maybe two hours into the audiobook (it’s short, fewer than ten hours), but I keep launching in to different points, and only auditing late at night. I need a physical copy.

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Physical copies report:

I’m crawling through Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation (Eng. trans. by Jacob Siefring), mostly because I have to look up names, look for images, get lost in early depictions of “The New World” (and, uh, the refutation of the New World). . So far, it reminds me of the kind of fantasy-based literary criticism that I love: Eco, Borges, Calvino. Excerpt here.

A friend loaned me his copy of Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel Zama (Eng. translation by Esther Allen) last week, insisting I read it, and informing me that Bolaño based the titular figure of his story “Sensini” on di Benedetto. I read the first four chapters this afternoon; they were very short and I want to keep reading. Short chapters are working for me right now.

Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Sensini”

“Sensini”

by

Roberto Bolaño

(English translation by Chris Andrews)


The way in which my friendship with Sensini developed was somewhat unusual. At the time I was twenty-something and poorer than a church mouse. I was living on the outskirts of Girona, in a dilapidated house that my sister and brother-in-law had left me when they moved to Mexico, and I had just lost my job as a night watchman in a Barcelona campsite, a job that had exacerbated my tendency not to sleep at night. I had practically no friends and all I did was write and go for long walks. starting at seven in the evening, just after getting up, with a feeling like jet lag: an odd sensation of fragility, of being there and not there, somehow distant from my surroundings. I was living on what I had saved during the summer. and although I spent very little, my savings dwindled as autumn drew on. Perhaps that was what prompted me to enter the Alcoy National Literature Competition, open to writers in Spanish, whatever their nationality or place of residence. There were three categories: for poems, stories, and essays. First I thought about going in for the poetry prize, but I felt it would be demeaning to send what I did best into the ring with the lions (or hyenas). Then I thought about the essay, but when they sent me the conditions, I discovered that it had to be about Alcoy, its environs, its history, its eminent sons, its future prospects, and I couldn’t face it. So I decided to enter for the story prize, sent off three copies of the best one I had (not that I had many), and sat down to wait.

Continue reading “Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Sensini””

Robert Coover reading his short story “The Cat in the Hat for President”

Read Robert Coover’s satirical short story “Invasion of the Martians”

Robert Coover’s “Invasion of the Martians” is a wonderful little satire of contemporary American politics. Read the full thing at The New Yorker (or listen to Coover read it there).

First two paragraphs:

The handsome Senator from Texas, the Capitol’s leading heartthrob, a former astronaut, and a likely future President, was in bed with two ladies, a young intern and the more mature Secretary of the Interior (the Senator called her the Secretary of the Posterior and had just made several charming off-color but complimentary remarks about hers, bringing an embarrassed flush to all four of her cheeks, and giggles from the intern, who was playing with two of them), when his private security phone chimed with the news: “The Martians have landed! In Texas!” He kissed the ladies, donned his spacesuit and helmet, and sprang into action.

The Senator flew his private jet directly from his ranch to the Martians’ landing site, not at all surprised that they had chosen the great state of Texas for this historic occasion. There, in an internationally televised address, he welcomed them to the once sovereign Republic of Texas, the last best place on earth and the heartland of the American nation, to which it also presently owed allegiance. The Martians poured out of their pear-shaped spaceship like spilled soup. They were pea-green, as anticipated, but with fluid bodies and multiple limbs that appeared and disappeared in the sticky flow. A random scattering of startled eyes blinked like tree lights. It wasn’t easy to see what separated one Martian from another.

Read “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm,” new fiction from Robert Coover

Robert Coover’s short story “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” is new in this week’s New Yorker. It’s of a piece with the last Coover story The New Yorker published, “Invasion of the Martians.”

Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”:

The schoolmarm is playing poker in the town saloon. The stake is the saloon itself. As she is preparing to deal the cards, one of the men demands that she cut the fuckin’ deck, and she shoots him from her lap. “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .”

The others tip their crumpled hats. “No, ma’am, you just go ahead and deal.”

The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot—in fact, all the time—but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.

After winning the saloon in the poker hand, the schoolmarm has the deceased removed and turns the card tables into school desks. The bar becomes an altar on Sundays, but there’s no preacher, so the schoolmarm provides temperance lectures from it, which the men are obliged to attend. In their minds, it’s still the old bar, the old saloon, so they carry along hip flasks and beef jerky to ease themselves through the unholy tedium, belching and snorting noisily.

Read “The Forgetful Ghost,” a supernatural tale by William T. Vollmann

“The Forgetful Ghost”

by

William T. Vollmann


After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn’t my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?

If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun’s loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant’s postmortem Buddhist name.

The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard’s eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun’s darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave. 

The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?

Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn’t a priest have even less use for me? 

So I pulled myself up to the temple’s narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk. 

A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death’s call. 

So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?

Read the rest of “The Forgetful Ghost” at VICE.

The tale is collected in Vollmann’s forthcoming book, Last Stories and Other Stories.

“The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” — H.G. Wells

“The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost”

by

H.G. Wells


The scene amidst which Clayton told his last story comes back very vividly to my mind. There he sat, for the greater part of the time, in the corner of the authentic settle by the spacious open fire, and Sanderson sat beside him smoking the Broseley clay that bore his name. There was Evans, and that marvel among actors, Wish, who is also a modest man. We had all come down to the Mermaid Club that Saturday morning, except Clayton, who had slept there overnight—which indeed gave him the opening of his story. We had golfed until golfing was invisible; we had dined, and we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying. It may be that indeed he was lying—of that the reader will speedily be able to judge as well as I. He began, it is true, with an air of matter-of-fact anecdote, but that we thought was only the incurable artifice of the man.

“I say!” he remarked, after a long consideration of the upward rain of sparks from the log that Sanderson had thumped, “you know I was alone here last night?”

“Except for the domestics,” said Wish.

“Who sleep in the other wing,” said Clayton. “Yes. Well—” He pulled at his cigar for some little time as though he still hesitated about his confidence. Then he said, quite quietly, “I caught a ghost!”

“Caught a ghost, did you?” said Sanderson. “Where is it?”

And Evans, who admires Clayton immensely and has been four weeks in America, shouted, “CAUGHT a ghost, did you, Clayton? I’m glad of it! Tell us all about it right now.”

Clayton said he would in a minute, and asked him to shut the door.

He looked apologetically at me. “There’s no eavesdropping of course, but we don’t want to upset our very excellent service with any rumours of ghosts in the place. There’s too much shadow and oak panelling to trifle with that. And this, you know, wasn’t a regular ghost. I don’t think it will come again—ever.”

“You mean to say you didn’t keep it?” said Sanderson.

“I hadn’t the heart to,” said Clayton.

And Sanderson said he was surprised.

We laughed, and Clayton looked aggrieved. “I know,” he said, with the flicker of a smile, “but the fact is it really WAS a ghost, and I’m as sure of it as I am that I am talking to you now. I’m not joking. I mean what I say.”

Sanderson drew deeply at his pipe, with one reddish eye on Clayton, and then emitted a thin jet of smoke more eloquent than many words.

Clayton ignored the comment. “It is the strangest thing that has ever happened in my life. You know, I never believed in ghosts or anything of the sort, before, ever; and then, you know, I bag one in a corner; and the whole business is in my hands.”

He meditated still more profoundly, and produced and began to pierce a second cigar with a curious little stabber he affected.

“You talked to it?” asked Wish.

“For the space, probably, of an hour.”

“Chatty?” I said, joining the party of the sceptics.

“The poor devil was in trouble,” said Clayton, bowed over his cigar-end and with the very faintest note of reproof.

“Sobbing?” some one asked.

Clayton heaved a realistic sigh at the memory. “Good Lord!” he said; “yes.” And then, “Poor fellow! yes.”

“Where did you strike it?” asked Evans, in his best American accent.

“I never realised,” said Clayton, ignoring him, “the poor sort of thing a ghost might be,” and he hung us up again for a time, while he sought for matches in his pocket and lit and warmed to his cigar.

“I took an advantage,” he reflected at last.

We were none of us in a hurry. “A character,” he said, “remains just the same character for all that it’s been disembodied. That’s a thing we too often forget. People with a certain strength or fixity of purpose may have ghosts of a certain strength and fixity of purpose—most haunting ghosts, you know, must be as one-idea’d as monomaniacs and as obstinate as mules to come back again and again. This poor creature wasn’t.” He suddenly looked up rather queerly, and his eye went round the room. “I say it,” he said, “in all kindliness, but that is the plain truth of the case. Even at the first glance he struck me as weak.”

He punctuated with the help of his cigar. Continue reading ““The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” — H.G. Wells”

A review of Lucia Berlin’s excellent short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women

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The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso.

The center of this world—I’ll call it the Berlinverse, okay?—the center of the Berlinverse is Lucia Berlin herself. “Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic and wide-ranging,” writes Lydia Davis in her foreword to Manual. (You can read Davis’s foreword at The New Yorker; it’s a far more convincing case for Berlin than I can manage here). Yes, Berlin’s life was crammed with incident—-so perhaps the strangest moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women is the three-page biography that appends the volume. The bio is strange in how un-strange it is, how it neatly lays out in a few paragraphs the information of Berlin’s life, information we already know as real, as true, from reading the preceding stories. She’s large, she contains multitudes.

Truth is a central theme in these stories. In “Here It Is Saturday,” a version of Berlin teaches fiction writing to prison inmates. She tells them, “you can lie and still tell the truth.” (As I describe the scenario for “Here It Is Saturday” I realize how hokey it sounds—I suppose there are lots of potentially-hokey moments in Berlin’s stories, yet her cruelty and humor deflate them).

In a crucial moment in the late short story “Silence,” the narrator tells us,

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.

The narrator of “Silence” is, of course, a version of Berlin—fictionalized, sure, a persona, yep, an exaggeration, maybe—but she’s utterly believable.

“Silence” is one of many stories that repeat aspects of Berlin’s biography—we get little Lu’s childhood, a father away at the big war, a drunkenly absent mother, a bad drunk grandfather. A Syrian friend betrayed. Nuns. A good drunk uncle. A hit and run. Am I rushing through it? Sorry. To read Berlin is to read this material again and again, in different ways, through different perspectives and filters. “Silence” is particularly interesting to me because it combines material from two earlier stories not collected in Manual: “Stars and Saints” and “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” both published in Black Sparrow Press’s 1990 collection Homesick. These earlier stories are sharper, rawer, and dirtier; the later story—and Berlin’s later stories in general—strike me as more refined. Wiser, perhaps, sussing grace from abject memory.

Berlin’s recollections of the different figures in her life drive these stories, and it’s fascinating to see how key memories erupt into different tales. Berlin’s narrator’s alcoholic grandfather, a famous Texan dentist, sometimes emerges as a sympathetic if grotesque comedic figure, only to appear elsewhere as an abusive monster. Cousin Bella Lynn is a comedic foil in “Sex Appeal,” but an important confidante in “Tiger Bites” (a story of a visit to an abortion provider in Juarez). Several stories center on sister Sally, dying of cancer.

Berlin’s narrator’s four sons (Berlin had four sons) are often in the margins of the stories, but when she mines material from them the results are painful and superb. I note “her sons” in the previous line, but what I really want to note is the friend of one of her sons, a boy she calls Jesse. He shows up in the short “Teenage Punk,” where he’s our narrator’s date to go look at some cranes in a ditch at sunrise. That’s pure Lucia Berlin—weird abject unnatural natural beauty.:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything. It is true though that we lay there freezing for a long time in the fog. It wasn’t fog. Must have been mist from the ditch or maybe just the steam from our mouths.

That brief paragraph showcases much of her technique: Inflation-deflation-resolution-hesitation. The high, low, the in-between. Jesse shows up again in one of the volume’s lengthier (and more painful) tales, “Let Me See You Smile,” a story of police brutality, scandal, and alcoholism.

Most of the stories in Manual are in some way about alcoholism, with the ur-narrator’s mother’s alcoholism haunting the book. In the near-elegy “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator finds her mother drunk and weeping. When she tries to comfort her mother, she’s rejected; the mother wails, “…the only romance in my life is a midget lamp salesman!” The narrator-daughter reflects, “this sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break.” Berlin often punctures her punchlines. In “Mama,” Berlin consoles her dying sister Sally by weaving a fictional ditty about their mother, a paragraph that ends, “She has never before known such happiness.” The story assuages some of her sister’s grief by transmuting it into a realization of love, but the narrator? — “Me…I have no mercy.”

And yet a search for some kind of mercy, some kind of grace propels so many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. The three-pager “Step,” set in a half-way house, details the residents watching a boxing match between Wilfred Benitez and Sugar Ray Leonard. The recovering (and not-so-recovering) drunks “weren’t asking Benitez to win, just to stay in the fight.” He stays in to the last round before touching his right knee to the canvas. Berlin’s stand-in whispers, “God, please help me.” In “Unmanageable,” the alcoholic narrator finds some measure of grace from others. First from the NyQuil-swilling drunks who share saltine crackers with her in a kind of communion as they wait, shaking, for the liquor store to open at six a.m. And then, from her children. Her oldest son hides her car keys from her.

The same sons are on the narrator’s mind at the end of “Her First Detox,” in which Berlin’s stand-in’s plan for the future takes the form of a shopping list. She’ll cook for her boys when she gets home:

Flour. Milk. Ajax. She only had wine vinegar at home, which, with Antabuse, could throw her into convulsions. She wrote cider vinegar on the list.

Berlin’s various viewpoint characters don’t always do the best job of taking care of themselves, but taking care of other people is nevertheless a preoccupation with the tales in Manual. “Lu” takes care of her dying father in “Phantom Pain”; there’s sick sister Sally; the four sons, of course; a heroin-addicted husband; assorted strays, sure; an old couple in failing health in “Friends”; and the disparate patients who wander in and out of these tales, into doctor’s offices, into emergency rooms, into detox clinics.

And the cleaning women. Caretakers too, of a sort. Laundromats and washing machines are motifs throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it’s no surprise that “Ajax” made the shopping list from “Her First Detox” that I quoted above. An easy point of comparison for Berlin’s writing is the so-called “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and Carson McCullers. But if Berlin’s realism is dirty, what are we to make of her concern with cleaning, with detox?

As a way of (non-)answering this question, here’s the entirety of the shortest tale in A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Macadam”:

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

There’s so much in those four paragraphs. Berlin collapses geography and genealogy into ten sentences: daughter, mother, grandmother. Texas, “squalor,” convicts. A road—a new road. Berlin’s narrator converts crushed stone into caviar, then the ice left over after sweet lemonade—and then into the magic of a friend. There’s a lot of beauty in dirt.

I could go on and on about A Manual for Cleaning Women—about how its loose, sharp tales are far more precise than their jagged edges suggest, about its warmth, its depth, its shocking humor, its sadness, its insight. But all I really mean to say is: It’s great, it’s real, it’s true—read it.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. You can read the first story in the collection, “Angel’s Laundromat,” at Picador’s website.

 

 

“Macadam” — Lucia Berlin

“Macadam” by Lucia Berlin

from A Manual for Cleaning Women


 

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

As a rule, never work for friends (Lucia Berlin)

Linda’s today.

(Cleaning women: As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.)

But Linda and Bob are good, old friends. I feel their warmth even though they aren’t there. Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom. Notes from Bob to Linda: “Buy some smokes and take the car . . . dooh-dah doo-dah.” Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.

It is the only place I work that isn’t spotless to begin with. It’s filthy in fact. Every Wednesday I climb the stairs like Sisyphus into their living room where it always looks like they are in the middle of moving.

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof. Mostly I just look out the window at the house next door, where we used to live. 2129 1/2 Russell Street. I look at the tree that grows wooden pears Ter used to shoot at. The wooden fence glistens with BBs. The BEKINS sign that lit our bed at night. I miss Ter and I smoke. You can’t hear the trains during the day.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women.

I just finished Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, which is mostly about the problems of aristocrats. Digging into Berlin’s lovely dirty stories feels like an antidote. Balzac said that Stendhal’s novel contained a book on every page; each paragraph in Berlin is like its own little film: “Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom…Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.” Good lord. img_3120

Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin

“Loka”

by

Kate Chopin

from Bayou Folk (1894)


 

She was a half-breed Indian girl, with hardly a rag to her back. To the ladies of the Band of United Endeavor who questioned her, she said her name was Loka, and she did not know where she belonged, unless it was on Bayou Choctaw.

She had appeared one day at the side door of Frobissaint’s “oyster saloon” in Natchitoches, asking for food. Frobissaint, a practical philanthropist, engaged her on the spot as tumbler-washer.

She was not successful at that; she broke too many tumblers. But, as Frobissaint charged her with the broken glasses, he did not mind, until she began to break them over the heads of his customers. Then he seized her by the wrist and dragged her before the Band of United Endeavor, then in session around the corner. This was considerate on Frobissaint’s part, for he could have dragged her just as well to the police station.

Loka was not beautiful, as she stood in her red calico rags before the scrutinizing band. Her coarse, black, unkempt hair framed a broad, swarthy face without a redeeming feature, except eyes that were not bad; slow in their movements, but frank eyes enough. She was big—boned and clumsy.

She did not know how old she was. The minister’s wife reckoned she might be sixteen. The judge’s wife thought that it made no difference. The doctor’s wife suggested that the girl have a bath and change before she be handled, even in discussion. The motion was not seconded. Loka’s ultimate disposal was an urgent and difficult consideration.

Some one mentioned a reformatory. Every one else objected.

Madame Laballière, the planter’s wife, knew a respectable family of ‘Cadians living some miles below, who, she thought, would give the girl a home, with benefit to all concerned. The ‘Cadian woman was a deserving one, with a large family of small children, who had all her own work to do. The husband cropped in a modest way. Loka would not only be taught to work at the Padues’, but would receive a good moral training beside.

That settled it. Every one agreed with the planter’s wife that it was a chance in a thousand;-and Loka was sent to sit on the steps outside, while the band proceeded to the business next in order.

Loka was afraid of treading upon the little Padues when she first got amongst them,—there were so many of them,—and her feet were like leaden weights, encased in the strong brogans with which the band had equipped her.

Madame Padue, a small, black-eyed, aggressive woman, questioned her in a sharp, direct fashion peculiar to herself.

“How come you don’t talk French, you?” Loka shrugged her shoulders.

“I kin talk English good ‘s anybody; an’ lit’ bit Choctaw, too,” she offered, apologetically.

Ma foi, you kin fo’git yo’ Choctaw. Soona the betta for me. Now if you wil-lin’, an’ ent too lazy an’ sassy, we ‘ll git ‘long somehow. Vrai sauvage ça,” she muttered under her breath, as she turned to initiate Loka into some of her new duties.

She herself was a worker. A good deal more fussy one than her easy-going husband and children thought necessary or agreeable. Loka’s slow ways and heavy motions aggravated her. It was in vain Monsieur Padue expostulated:—

“She’s on’y a chile, rememba, Tontine.”

“She’s vrai sauvage, that’s w’at. It’s got to be work out of her,” was Tontine’s only reply to such remonstrance.

The girl was indeed so deliberate about her tasks that she had to be urged constantly to accomplish the amount of labor that Tontine required of her. Moreover, she carried to her work a stolid indifference that was exasperating. Whether at the wash-tub, scrubbing the floors, weeding the garden, or learning her lessons and catechism with the children on Sundays, it was the same.

It was only when intrusted with the care of little Bibine, the baby, that Loka crept somewhat out of her apathy. She grew very fond of him. No wonder; such a baby as he was! So good, so fat, and complaisant! He had such, a way of clasping Loka’s broad face between his pudgy fists and savagely biting her chin with his hard, toothless gums! Such a way of bouncing in her arms as if he were mounted upon springs! At his antics the girl would laugh a wholesome, ringing laugh that was good to hear. Continue reading “Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin”