I didn’t know I was afraid of flying until I took my first flight when I was 18. It was from Calgary to Toronto, from high school to university, from everything I had known into a strange galaxy made of new stars. And I was shaking and pale and sweaty and one of the flight attendants had to rub my arms and back to keep me from completely losing my shit. I cried in absolute terror for two of those four hours over Canada.

Now I can manage a plane ride without a full on panic attack, thanks to a little help from Ativan and some strictly managed pre-flight rituals.  But reading Lydia Davis’s new story, “The Landing” still filled me with a familiar terror.

I generally don’t spoil endings here, so I’ll try to think through this without giving the last minute reward away, but the story is about how we tell ourselves stories in order to neutralize trauma. The narrator details a rough patch of flight, thinks through what may be last thoughts, tries to get right with the world before possibly being thrust out of it. The narrator looks to the steward, to in flight companions, others as they silently face down an immediate future that might include death. The plane has something wrong with it, and so it has to land at a dangerous clip, and there are risks, and the captain makes an announcement, and the narrator tries to plan out the last thing they want in mind, a possible last minute of mindfulness. I felt anxious and nauseous, and really wish I hadn’t read this right before what became a failed attempt to fall peacefully asleep.

Davis is so good here, her words so loaded and measured, her sentences mostly short but never stuttering, some longs one there to string you along. The calm rhythm of her prose is just right, like when you start to hyperventilate and force yourself to slow your thoughts down, or when you look back in wonder at something that excited or upset you. The feeling is that the narrator is making the event a little less shockingly exterior, making sense of what almost happened by telling you that it did and it didn’t. You can actually watch experience turning into narrative, into memory.

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Photo by William Eggleston, and is the one I would’ve chosen even if the folks at Telegraph hadn’t, which by the way, is where you can read this story.

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Susan Minot’s “Lust” is about sex.  It’s made up of short paragraphs that get just a little longer, describing the intimacies  with various very young men one very young woman experiences at boarding school. And the way she comes to feel about giving herself over, “surrendering” to sex and the men she’s having it with.

In part because of the shortness of the paragraphs, and that there are a lot of different men in this story, individuated from each other  only through single actions, features, little collapsible moments, “Lust” feels very fragmentary. And also very personal. Minot’s prose is deadly in it’s clarity, there’s no poetry here to distance you from her subject. In fact, she brings you as close as possible, executing a perfect and barely perceptible transition from the first to the second person somewhere in the middle of the story. It becomes all but impossible not to recognize your history in that of the unnamed narrator towards the end.

I think that this subtle switch in voice, this mingling of histories (yours and hers), is one of the main sources of the power this story had over me. It was impossible not to think backwards, about the sex I had as a teenager, about discovering this thing “that felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck.”

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This story was kindly sent to me by Nick Moran,  my co-captain over at millionsmillions.

One of the things I like about twitter is that it feels just a little like eavesdropping. You can see people talking to each other, and while it’s true that some tweets are a little more banal than others, it’s still fun to piece together your impression of a person, or more rarely, corporate entity, through the short and sometimes jumbled tweets they release into the world. I’m obviously not alone in this fascination.

A couple months ago, Jim Hanas, in collaboration with @storyvilleapp published a multistranded short story, “@M1racleM0m”, on Twitter. The story is about a woman, a mother of genetically mutated fraternal twins, and her paronoia about her pot smoking neighbor. It’s a little weird, and it feels really voyeuristic to read @M1racleM0m‘s tweets interrupting the story that the neighbor is telling. I was lucky enough to read this story live, as it was being published, which was pretty exciting, this little fiction exploding in my tweet stream.

The story itself is compelling, more about the interaction between the characters than about an event or plot per se. It’s kind of about the medium, too, in a roundabout way, that we can broadcast our acts of micro surveillance and neighborly aggression. It’s also a welcome experiment with fictionalizing social media, those devices we use to tell our stories. I’m into it.

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Photo sourced from the story itself, which you can read here.

Pet Milk, Emily M Keeler, Matt Pearce, Bookside Table

So this one’s a little different. I asked my friend Matt Pearce to chat about one of his favorite stories, Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk.”  Though he was in Toronto last week, Matt lives mostly in Missouri, and we generally talk to each other over Gchat. Our dialog about Dybek’s charming story went mostly as follows:

EMK: First of all, thank you for recommending “Pet Milk.” I’d never heard of Stuart Dybek before, and this was delightful.

MP: Do you want to talk about why we’re doing this on Gchat first? So, Emily, why are we doing this on Gchat?

EMK: 1: We’re presently in different cities. 2: It’s easier than transcribing a face to face conversation. 3: It’s our primary mode of communication with each other anyway.

One thing that’s kind of interesting, though, is that the characters in Pet Milk are so mired in a romantic past, that they couldn’t be like they are if they had Gchat.

MP: Yeah. That’s one of the reasons that I picked the story. It’s long been one of my very favorites, but there’s also something a little like a period piece about it. It’s set sometime in postwar Chicago, and the story is almost as much about the city as it is about the relationship between the narrator and the woman, Kate, that he loves at that time. Most of the story takes place in his reminiscence of a love he had when he was our age — that 23-to-26 period where things tend to be pretty unsettled.

EMK: I think that the characters are fascinated with a sense of history, too. We like the story because it’s from a period outside of our own, but they’re equally obsessed with some imagined history. The narrator makes constant reference to ‘the old country’ and they play at glamor by dining in an ‘old world’ restaurant, knowing full well that they are heading towards separate but exciting futures.

MP: There’s such a sense of history to it — either in physical objects, like his grandmother’s staticky radio, or in the city itself, which was then a mutating mishmash of working-class Polish, Irish and Mexican neighborhoods. Everything comes from somewhere and leaves a physical stamp on the city. Which says something about how the relationship he describes with Kate — it’s not something that happened over Gchat.

EMK: Perhaps because there’s a feeling that the narrator is re-telling this story, and definitely with the ending scene, there’s such a sense of moving both forward and backward, of hope intermingling with nostalgia. But I think people in our age still have that, it’s just expressed differently. When we talk on the internet, we can still talk about place, we can still obsess over the mixed bag that is the expanding cultural archive.

MP: But this is different! Everything about this story is so sensual.

EMK: That’s true. I was really struck by the way that Dybek’s language is practically a caress.The waiter deboning the trout… The pet milk blooming in a cup of coffee in the first scene.

MP: I think he’s describing a memory of love in this story. But it’s not a memory about narrative, right? We don’t get the big back-story about how they met, or what they’ve done together. Instead it’s this semifrozen moment in time that’s inescapably… physical. You see it when she blushes, you feel it when he touches her knee. He’s not telling the story as much as he’s giving us an emotional snapshot, which is why I think Chicago springs out of the backdrop so much.

EMK: Absolutely. But even in the memory there are the constant projections to a time without her. The sense of the impermanence is part of the pleasure. He says “It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.” So even as it’s wrapped up in memory, it revolves around the sweetness of that first time, the sense of longing and knowing that something is ever out of reach. Like the past itself.

MP: So, here’s where I out myself as a huge Dybek fan. I like his style a lot, which is perfectly matched to his nostalgic mode. It’s very lyrical and incantatory, with commas floating all over the place so he can crowbar in another physical detail. And then there’s that ending…You just can’t hold on to anything.

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If you subscribe to The New Yorker you can read Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” here.

AM Homes’s  “A Real Doll”  is powerful, playful, and a little dark. This might be the story I’ve re-read the most in my life, because it’s the best piece of writing I’ve ever read on burgeoning adolescent sexuality, the dangerously rigid confines of commercially defined gender binaryism, the exciting wilderness of negotiation during those first few tentative steps toward sexual relationships, and the way that the mediated cliches of love and attraction make it difficult to feel the things you want to feel.

The story unfolds in the voice of an unnamed young man, who falls into something that seems to approximate love with his younger sister’s barbie doll. Homes’s prose is engaging and funny, and the story of this  boy-on-Barbie fling is totally captivating for it’s sheer fuckedupitude. But it’s tricky, because it’s not actually shocking, that a person would confuse plastic for the pleasure of the flesh.  Sex is one of the only arenas of adult life that allows for real play, for trying on stories and identities and tying your imagination to your body. Because Homes’s narrator is right on the cusp of adulthood the posturing he does is a little more anxiously free, outside of the implied boundaries of the adult world between the bedroom  and everywhere else. His footing is made even more unsure by the socially constructed world of desire, of men and women and boys and girls, and of course that his feelings are wrapped up in a literalness of the phrase ‘object of his desire.’

“A Real Doll” is so full of detail and expertly used syntactical contradiction that I feel a bit guilty for talking about the themes of this one instead of just gushing over the humour and dark warmth of Homes’s craft in this story. It’s a blessing and a curse that this story is so good because I just want to keep reading it over and over.

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You can read “A Real Doll” in the Barcelona Review here.

Photograph borrowed from the Flickr account of Keven Fredirko.

Bookside Table, The Angel Esmeralda, EM Keeler

“The Runner,” from Don DeLillo’s first short story collection The Angel Esmeralda,  is about a young man out on a jog in the park near his apartment. While in this public space, he and a few other park patrons witness a kidnapping, which is a violent but ultimately momentary eruption; a bold ripple on the still water of their weekend leisure.

Sometimes I think that Don DeLillo can be a little show offy, that his trademark minimalism can be a bit precious, too self conscious to draw you in. But certainly not here in “The Runner.” Here it’s perfect. The elements of this story–the kidnapping; the cadence of a good run, the feeling of body and sun warming up; the way we sometimes negotiate relationships with our neighbors when there is nothing but proximity to bind us; the way we try to take care of each other, notice each other, even if we do it with kind untruths and from a distance; the immediate reliance on stories to make a little meaning out of our pleasures and our traumas– are so minutely drawn.

And, what’s more, the dialog is really good. Not for it’s verisimilitude to ‘real’ speech, but for the fractured sputter stop of sense making and connection.  “The Runner” is a finely crafted story, shivery and sad and strangely sweet, and affectingly hollowed out.


I felt like I wouldn’t really like this Aurelie Sheehan story, “Recognition”, in the latest dispatch from Guernica. But I did!

Reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it:

1. It’s literally compiled of false starts, which struck me as a little gimmicky before I read it.

2. It’s about a woman trying to get a fellowship so that she can write. And fiction about writers can sometimes be a little much. I’d actually never read a story expressly about trying to get a writing fellowship or grant, but I assumed I wouldn’t like it because, well, it’s a peculiarly and narrowly unglamorous premise.

3. I thought that because it referenced the process of applying for a fellowship it would be exclusionary and, um, MFA-y. Not that that’s so bad, but I’m very conflicted about the role of the MFA program, of academic models in general,  in literature. I’ll tell you about it some time.

Reasons I liked it a lot:

1. The gimmick dissolves under the surprising strength of the language Sheehan uses. There is an internal wavering, and near-repetitions in each of the false starts. These repeititive re-workings are a view on the conflict between the desire to create art and the need to have not only the art but your desire itself meet with recognition.

2. The core metaphor involves the book that the narrator wants to write, a fiction book full of novelistic and life like truth!, the one she needs the fellowship for, being actually a box. But it’s not that she’s actually engaging in conceptual writing, here, she’s not literally making a box, it’s not quite that formal. The narrator is obsessed with containing truth and life in words, boxing in details and experiences, and pinning down ephemera. She’s trying to figure out a structure for that could actually distill life into a solid  and knowable thing. The false starts really speak to the absurdity of this tortuous and necessary desire in the artist, in the writer, looking to get a little something to stay put on the page.

3. The last false start, where things kind of cohere for our narrator, is so lovely and rewarding after you’ve seen the wavering, the agony over form, the insecurities bound up in asking for money and time. While the whole thing is a successful short story, this is the part that gets close to our narrator’s purpoted aims, solidifying a feeling and a tone with words. Gorgeous.

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You can read “Recognitions” here. I borrowed the photo above from Guernica, who in turn borrowed it from Flickr user Grievous Angel. I’m still working out how I wanna do images for the Thursday stories.

We So Seldom Look on Love, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

How come no one told me to read Babara Gowdy before now?

This story, oh God, this story. So, the narrator is a woman who gets off on cadavers, and death. She’s a necrophile, and it’s about the joy of extremes, heat and chill, life and death, and the primacy of blood as a thing that signifies both beginnings and ends, as a real thing that’s inside of us and inside of others, blood as intimacy–as elemental and animal and private and desirable.

While the subject matter may be affecting enough as it is, the little twists and structuring of “We so Seldom Look on Love” make this story into a small dark space, all weird angles and corners. The narrator reminds you occasionally that she’s pretty, blonde and everything, and that only dead men can break her heart. She talks to you like someone trying real hard to control what they reveal, but is too unsure of where they are on the sliding scale of human being<—->monster that she’s got to back track and defend and try to figure out how to tell her personal truth in a way that will be exactly the one and only way to tell you about it without you getting all freaked out and crying out ‘Oh god you’re a monster.’ That Gowdy could pull off this slippery feat is totally mind blowing. That I found myself oscillating between disgust and recognition probably says more about me than about this story. Oh God, this story.

She talks about her childhood fascination with dead things, and the scene that describes the moment of her menarche is absurdly powerful. Of course, here’s blood again, here made into that womanly thing, that potential to bear yet more life inside of your body. It happens to her while she’s whipped up into a fever over a dead thing, a chipmunk, and she’s been howling and dancing and rubbing the small dead animal all over her body, and she gets covered in blood, but it’s hers, this first time, this first time it’s her blood, and it’s extreme and compelling because what other way can you possibly describe the obsession, the compulsion, to be wild in your body and so morbid in your desire?

Oh God, this story.

It was while I was going through my Emily Dickinson phase a few years ago that I first clued into the womanliness of the house and the garden in literature. These are domestic, private and semi-private places,  and as such have been part of the psychic landscape of a certain kind of womanhood for some time. Francine Prose wrote, in a 1998 issue of Harper’s, that perhaps some of the trouble with reading and critically evaluating  woman writers is that we as a culture are still learning how to read the metaphorical significance of the house, of the garden, where we’ve long been able to understand the deeper meaning of metaphors drawn from the traditionally masculine experiences of battles, boyhood, and quests.

Which is why I’m interested in what Amanda Ackerman is doing in the her story “Weed Course,” from the most recent issue of Incongruous Quarterly.The story is pretty inventive in its structure, incorporating a questionnaire and a multistranded narrative. The questionnaire, part of which appears above, asks some pretty leading questions, but it’s unclear exactly where the narrator is leading you.  “Weed Course” is about the tension between the love of growth and the need for death, about killing weeds to the root. There are two beginnings to the story, one where the reader is told the “[l]ocation from which this story is being told: Gardens. Domestic, Public, Professional and Otherwise (e.g. forests, library stacks, courts, airplanes of all kinds)” and one that exhorts the reader to “Beware of what I am afraid to say.” What a way to start a tale, instructing us to read between the lines, to tease fear out of this “expert gardener (killer, grower).”

Ackerman is playing with the idea of the garden as a place of personal development, which is complicated in that the garden is an exterior place. While the garden as metaphor remains womanly, there are some things about womanliness that have changed since Dickinson, since Prose’s essay from nearly 15 years ago. The garden too has changed.  Throughout “Weed Course” Ackerman repeats the phrase “what I really want to say is” and the effect is a subtle invocation of the intellectual and emotional struggle of trying to discern and express your desires when you’re coming from a place of contradiction. And of course, when we say something we’re trying to build a bridge, we’re trying to connect. The wavering in this story reflects the constant doubling back, the shadowy fear that accompanies intimacy. How much growth and how much killing? What kind of bridge do you want to build, when it’s the thing taking you to another person? Where’s the balance when privacy is eroded while alienation becomes steadily reinforced? Should a garden be a thing of beauty, should a life, should a woman be a thing of beauty, when there’s just so much killing involved?

Emily M Keeler , Bookside Table, The Paris Review

Clarice Lispector’s “A Story of Great Love,” translated here from Portuguese by Rachel Klein, is about a young girl who loves chickens. It’s about love as an obsessive and one-sided thing.

This very short story describes the relationship that a young girl develops with two hens, how they sustain her and give meaning to her life, how she smells beneath their wings to see if they are sick, and how her love for the birds is bigger than what she can possibly know about them: “The girl did not yet understand that it’s impossible to cure humans of being humans and hens of being hens, insofar as a human, like a hen, has miseries and splendors (the hen’s consist of laying a perfectly shaped white egg) inherent to its species.” It’s a lonely thing, this early and deluded love, and when it comes time for her family to eat one of these chickens the girl rages at her father for liking the taste of chicken flesh. Her mother makes it a little better by telling her how eating the hen is a way for humans to show respect, even love, for the animal. By making it a part of your body, you elevate the loved one, you commune with it when you take it inside you.

That this piece of advice comes toward the end of the story, and as something handed down from mother to daughter makes strange the power of feminine love. The hens are incapable of loving the girl, of loving in any human manner, and so the feeling can only ever rest with the girl; the ability to literally incorporate the body of her loved one into her own, to love with a bodily and an emotional interiority constitutes the height of this early suffering, this early love. The point Lispector may be grinding here is the loneliness, the solipsism and consumption, of that feeling that occasionally destroys us. Love.

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This story is one of two that appeared in this Winter’s Paris Review. The other one, “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” is available online.