So I have fallen a little behind my goal here.

But I’m planning to keep on going! I think I can still make it to 100, even if it means a few especially readerly weeks.

Here’s the deal:

Last week I was laid under with some terrible virus. I’ll spare you the details, but I was not well, warm, or awake for many of those hours.

I have also been incredibly busy which is kind of great. I’ve been reviewing books for Canada’s book trade mag, The Quill and Quire, including Carrie Snyder’s beautiful novel in stories The Juliet Stories, and for The National Post, and as part of my column on the Toronto Standard.  So I have definitely been reading. And now that I’m kind of used to working on these things, in addition to what I’m doing at The Millions and The New Inquiry,  I will be much better at keeping up with my work here.

Which is ideal, seeing how I  really like what we’re doing here on Bookside Table, and I am planning to keep coming at you with short stories. I wanted to read 100 short stories this year because I want to keep getting better at reading them. Plus, I think it’s fun to talk about them! So let’s keep doing it!

Oh, Marilyn. How can we keep writing you over, how is it that you have become a palimpsest for our anxieties as we keep on  moving from your time into ours? We love you for your apparent need for us to love you, we love you for everything we’ve been told to think of you. We write about you and think about you because we must still want you, your glamourous tragedy, your elegant stabs in the darkness of what it could mean to be ever a contradiction, an unknowable sadness and a tune that people keep humming, our lips always spreading in the direction of joy.

***

One of my  friends paid me a nice compliment about the work I’ve done on this blog. He said that some of the photos brought to mind that famous picture of Monroe reading Ulysses, that some of the pictures I’ve posted of myself glamorized reading in a similar way. I still can’t quite accept the compliment; it seems so unreal to me that an image of me could ever activate neurons in proximity to those that have been lit up by pictures of the woman bearing the historical imprimatur of practically paranormal desirability.

I share this with you now not as an attempt to cast myself in her glowing light, nor to invite you to remind me that I’m no Marilyn (believe me, I know).  I’m telling you this because she is more than a star, perhaps even more than an icon. Well, not her, but her image. Her image continues to captivate us. Why else would we always be searching for more of her, in endless nostalgic films and magazine spreads? We’re still looking so hard at her and for our idea of her that we will ourselves to find it everywhere, in ourselves and those around us. Even in book blogs, of all places.

I can’t say I wasn’t flattered, because I obviously was. Tremendously so. But I also wanted to assert some distance between my image and hers, to say “but I’m no Monroe.” Now I’ve even said it twice here. This distancing is a function of my not knowing how to be looked at, not knowing how to be distilled in this way, I think. But it’s also a function of a desire to preserve a magic in my understanding of Monroe, to deify her allure rather than humanize it. I assert that I am no Marilyn because I can’t bear even a fraction of the weight that the idea of her carries.

***

How then, did Lindsay Lohan do it? I’m no Lindsay, either, but we’re around the same age and she seems of this world in a way that I recognize, in a way that Marilyn never will again, if she ever did. Justin Wolfe works through these pains  in a story of his that ran on The Awl last year, “Exquisite Corpse.” It’s about that strange photo-shoot she did for New York Mag, re-enacting the strangely playful final nude shoot Monroe did for playboy. Lohan mirrors Monroe, and we gorge on the morbid project, hungry for tragedies of the past and participating in a dark death wish for the future.

Wolfe’s story is framed, like the character herself, by the photo session. It takes place in a very close third person, and explores some of what she was feeling as she tries to be Monroe, even as she knows that to do so is a literal impossibility. She persuades herself in isolated moment that she can, she’s and actor after all, and the spell is repeatedly broken by the classless photographer, the vulgarity of our time compared with that which we imagine to be Marilyn‘s, and her own thoughts on jail, on rehab.

As you might expect from both the title and the content of this tricky little story, it’s kind of dark. Even more so in that it refers to the real world, it’s a fiction superimposed on a fact. There are pictures; this happened. One of the most technically inspired aspects of “Exquisite Corpse” is the way that Wolfe casts reality in a sort of fractured mental life, abandoning the photo-shoot mid paragraph to explore other experiences that Lohan can re-live, both in public because of who she is, and in private because who she is is still a human. Even as she tries to be Marilyn, to perform for the camera as an imagined Goddess refracted through time, the lens, and a collective misremembering, she still craves a little distance, still reflects on her mere humanness. She thinks of death, which is a fundamental impossibility for Marilyn even if she’s gone now. She lives on because we just can’t let her go.

***

You can read Justin Wolfe’s story here. I would also recommend this recent interview that Sheila Heti conducted with Marilyn Monroe.

This one, “How,” was written by Lorrie Moore and it is gutting. It’s in the second person, and it is about love and pain and neither, because it’s really about how to leave, how it ends, how to fall out of love.

You. What a tricky word. And love is another one of those, the kind of word that seems small but has so many nuanced meanings, and some of them are so big that they seem outsized, and the word is overloaded, a dense small thing plummeting within you. You, again.

“How” is about a woman loving a man until she doesn’t anymore, and she doesn’t know how to leave, or she if wants to, until she does. It is complicated, her relationship with this person, and her feelings about it. She is cruel to the man sometimes, even when he is nice to her, and she feels smothered by his goodness a little, maybe, or perhaps it’s something else, but sometimes she loves him and sometimes she doesn’t, and then by the end she doesn’t ever, anymore, and there is not real reason why she does or doesn’t because that kind of how it works.

It’s hard to imbue the written word with a sense of music, of real auditory music, perhaps because words are tied to the page and music is a physical thing, moving through your body in sound waves. Imagine if stories did that, physically reverberated through you!

“The Saxophonist’s Book of the Dead,”  Gary Barwin’s sweet little story in the Christmas Issue of Taddle Creek, is about music. It’s about those reverbations, sort of, though it’s thankfully free from any cheap trickery aimed to make you mistake its rhythms for a sound coming out of John Coltrane. Instead, “TSBOTD” challenges you to embody the eternal promise of jazz music, ever young though the greats are long gone. The cosmic imagery in the story rings true, the isolation of these dead men in some sort of school for spirits amid “the chorus of the stars.” By situating Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and John Coltrane as pupils in a never ending lesson taught by an absurdly matronly Billie Holiday, Barwin rewrites their tragic ends. Instead he celebrates the spirit, if you’ll forgive me, of  Jazz to come, the eternal promise of more even as the form remains mostly stopped up in time.

With the occasionally splendid but mostly pragmatic approach to language that Barwin’s using in this story, with some jubilant frission thrown in here and there, I feel like he comes pretty close to writing down sensation of the music, the endless practices, the pride bound up with talent and competence, and a sense of invention too. How lovely to imagine that there is a place where these musicians are ever playing on, how tragic to know that they are trapped there eternally, never developing further, dead rather than alive.

***

You can read this story on Taddle Creek‘s website. The image I’ve used at the top of this post also appears there.

EM Keeler, Bookside Table, Selected Busines Correspondence

When I met with Andrew Kaufman in his office to talk about book design for something I wrote for the Toronto Standard,  I kept pawing at this book on his shelf.  I almost stopped the interview so I could read it on the spot, and then he kindly took the hint and offered to lend it to me.

Selected Business Correspondence  is a collection of (extremely) short stories printed as letters on vintage letterheads. “We Assure You of Our Best Intentions” is one of my favorites, partially because of the tricky onsided-ness of these letters, and partially because of the strange name for the business involved: Hanger Standard Limb Company. The letters in this story are from the manager, David Harris) of this bizarre place of work, and are in response to complaints registered by one Roger Sales. Roger has recently acquired a prosthetic leg, and his initial discomfort with this new extension of his body grows increasingly poetic (according to Harris) and dire. Like many of the employees at Hanger Standard Limb, Harris is an amputee and relies on a prosthetic; based on this common trait, he feels a certain fraternity with Sales, and when his correspondent tries to convince him of a rather peculiar plight he is a consummate professional. It turns out that Mr. Sales’ body is regrowing its own leg gradually over the scaffolding provided by the prosthetic, though Mr. Harris refuses to believe it.

The amazing thing is that Kaufman sets it up so that you, the reader, can’t help but feel that Harris is wrong, that this seemingly impossible thing must’ve actually happened! Harris’ letters are initially so warm and flattering that you almost wish he were writing to you, and by the end of the story you feel as if he has been. How terrible to be called a liar, to have accidentally offended a man who had been so kind trough the sheer unlikelihood of the extraordinary circumstances in which you find yourself.

***

Selected Business Correspondence is available from the Book Bakery.

I loved this story. John Chu’s “Thirty Seconds from Now” is wonderful in it’s ability to mirror the sense of destiny that comes with falling in love, especially young love. The main character, Scott, is a juggler and a college junior. He has a magical ability to sensually preview the future, well, kind of.  He is attuned to the myriad possible forms the future may take, and he can explore these possible futures with all of his senses. He’s kind of like a synesthetic daydreamer, haunted by the phantoms of what may be. And his future is love, and his future is heartbreak.

Because of Scott’s unique ability to sense the feelings of a future self, to embody the present and project that same body into the futurally orientated search for sensual experiences, Chu can rely on an inventive structure for this love story. He mixes past, present, and future tenses, overwhelming the reader in the same way that infatuation, that the early stages of love, can wreak havoc on one’s sense of linear time. We stay in the moment before Scott meets Tony, but we also wander with him through the intense build up and the break down of their love.

***

You can read this story in The Boston Review.

Image source.

Michelle Berry’s “Knock, Knock” isn’t about anything. Well, okay, so it’s about being a mom, it’s about working from home, it’s about danger coming to the door, about presumption and disorder and even a little bit about dogs and teddy bears. Or at least, all these things are in the story, which I guess doesn’t mean that these are things the story is about.

The narrator is a busy woman, who makes specialty bears and frequently trips over her dog, and the dog doesn’t even eat crumbs off the floor, so the woman still has to do things like vacuum. There’s a weird turn when a small bald man knocks on the door, and then says ‘Knock knock,” out loud on the stoop, because he uses onomatopoeia to punctuate his strangeness.

He gives her a pamphlet, and she’s trying to get rid of him, and when she sees whatever it is that he’s placed in her hand, that’s the exact point you get that there’s a lot in this story, even if it’s not about the things that happen in it.

Berry’s style seems dead realist right up until this little dip into the dark, into something vauge and sinister and a little bit surreal. It’s a great effect, but she nearly ruins it by trying to explain it away with the last paragraph. If you can help yourself, read only to the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph and you’ll walk away just a little off kilter. Disturbed, but in a good way, by a story that roughs up the edges of the world, just a little, just enough.

***

You can read this story here,  in The New Quarterly.

Image taken from a post about dogs and couches in the Albany Times Union, um,  dog blog.

“Citizen Conn” is about partnerships. The narrator is partnered doubly, to her academic husband David and to God through her work as a rabbi, and it becomes her project to heal the partnership of two old men, Artie Conn and Morty Feather: two comics legends whose early collaborative work grew into something hugely popular and became the foundation of a whole publishing company. There was money involved, and Artie signed away some of those rights for a large lump sum, but the betrayal runs deeper.

The rabbi is employed by a sort of hospice, and I kind of love her. She’s sure of her work, her abilities to give comfort and spiritual solace to the dying, and she is certainly up for the continual trials of revelation that dealing with people in pain entail. But she also recognizes her limitations, and she waivers between the feeling of being called to her vocation and her own human weaknesses, when communication breaks down, or when she feels burdened by her feelings or sadness or irritation.

It’s no secret that Chabon is a master of long sentences, that he can pack a whole universe into a few linked clauses. But they move quickly and they never lose you in their vastness. Because this story is told from the rabbi’s perspective, it is also littered with comments on the one of the central questions of the faith, being of course ‘what is it to be a Jew?’ Rabbi observes: “Aged Jews tend to shrug with practiced eloquence, expressing subtle fluctuations in the nature of their doubt.” Doubt and miscommunication and faithfulness are at the centre of the larger Venn diagram of the partnerships explored in “Citizen Conn”, with having both love and the knowledge that you are loving always an unknowable thing, because that’s part of what it means to be with other people,  or even with God.

***

I read this story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.

Sometimes I feel like I read fiction in lieu of traveling. I’d rather be a story tourist, I think, getting into heads and language, picking apart sentences, than a real tourist, walking around a strange place to see how it feels to be somewhere else. Plus, it’s nice to be at home. I bring this up because travel, or, more precisely, the culturally loaded notion of tourism, is integral to  Zoë Ferraris’s bracing story, “A Tarantella.”

Opening with a collection of gruff and grunted descriptions of the main character, Massimo, you immediately get a sense that Ferraris is interested in messing you up a little with this one. Massimo is a legitimately tough guy; he’s a recovered heroin addict, an ex-con, and a scarred up survivor. His mother once stabbed him repeatedly in the chest. In the story, he cooks the same slop of penne and meatballs day after day for the guests at his brother’s hostel, where Massimo also scrubs toilets and makes sexually aggressive advances on some of the female travelers staying in the hostel.

In the end, “A Tarantella” is a kind of broken love story, about music and pain and the tricky correlation between destructive and erotic impulses. Massimo woos a young woman staying at the hostel, Ingrid, and though she seldom speaks she listens and he empties himself out to her, telling her every shit thing that’s happened to him, every shit thing he’s ever done, and of course he doesn’t do this often, not with these tourist women, and so it’s a big deal and he ends up making himself crazy about her, about Ingrid. And she gets a little crazy too, but not too crazy. She’s kind of better at love than he is, which is understandable given the story of his life, which is to say, I guess, given this story, “A Tarantella.”

***

Joyland published this story, so you should go and read it over there.

Photo from  www.simplygoodeating.com

Junot Diaz’s “How to Date” is written in the second person, but like most successful second person stories, that tricky little ‘you’ is anything but general. You, in this case, are a young man living in America. You’re from the Dominican Republic. Some of your family still lives there, and you take  the photographs of shirtless young cousins leading goats around off of the walls of the crummy apartment you live in when you’re expecting to host a girl. You are also totally girl crazy, or maybe just crazy in general, because you’re a teenager. Because of who you are and where you live you’re a little fucked up by racism, by poverty, and by the way that desire is so often tied to big things outside of what it is you want. Mostly, you just want to bang, but even that’s imbricated within a larger social structure.

I like Diaz, and he’s so good with this story. The details feel so right, hiding the government supplied foodstuffs so your date wont know the extent of your poverty, the awkwardness of making conversation, experimenting with boundaries and social roles… they just feel right. But the story is painful, too, because it’s not just about being girl crazy, it’s about negotiating the complexities of race, and about the hierarchy of racialized desires, about stereotypes and sounding ‘smooth’ when the person you want to snuggle up to is categorically collapsing you. But now I’ve made it sound heavy, and parts of “How to Date” are, but it’s also fun and sweet! In that respect, it’s a lot like adolescence itself.

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