June 2, 2014: “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce
I’m still getting caught up on the 2014 stories and hadn’t read this one yet, so it was a funny coincidence that last night in a class that I teach in Charlottesville, VA, one of the students said that she had seen Thomas Pierce earlier in the day in a coffee shop. Pierce lives in Charlottesville, but I don’t think I’ve met him. I discussed his previous story in TNY here: Shirley Temple Three. So this afternoon I opened up this issue of TNY and there is the story by Pierce.
And I liked the story very much. One reason I liked it is that we are dropped right into the action without any explanation. We figure it out eventually, with the aid of some brief flashbacks, but we’re on our own at first. Brooks and Mary are in a pantry. Why? Because there are some dogs they’re hiding from? Brooks is a little slow? Why? Because he’s had some kind of traumatic brain injury (which we learn, in a flashback, was the result of a random act of violence). And as the story progresses we learn also that Mary has come here to her ex-lover’s home to retrieve a sex tape that she foolishly let him film.
Will they find the tape? Will they escape the dogs? Will Brooks recover? Will Mary recover from the embarrassment of the tape? Some of those questions are answered, at least. (Hint: the title is the code word to stop the dogs from attacking.)
In the Q&A with Thomas Pierce we hear more about the idea of personality changes, which Brooks has undergone because of his injury. There also has been a change in roles between Brooks and Mary, with the latter now taking care of the former, where once it was the other way around.
Pierce’s story collection came out not long ago, including both of his New Yorker stories: Hall of Small Mammals: Stories
May 26, 2014: “Camilo” by Alejandro Zambra
In this story, the narrator is a young boy when his father’s godson comes to visit for the first time. The godson, Camilo, is the son of Big Camilo, an exile from Chile who is estranged from the narrator’s father. (As it turns out, the estrangement is because of an argument about soccer, about which everyone seems quite passionate, except the younger Camilo.) Young Camilo visits often and also saves money so he can go visit his father in Europe.
Camilo is like an older brother to the narrator, helping him to overcome his shyness, teaching him about girls. Eventually, Camilo does go to Europe.
Many years pass, and now the narrator is visiting Europe. He meets up with Big Camilo, who sends his apologies to the narrator’s father concerning their old argument. It is then that we learn that Camilo, soon after his visit to his father, was killed in an accident in Chile.
The story makes frequent reference to the political situation in Chile. Big Camilo had been arrested, beaten, and then allowed to leave the country. Everyone seems unable to really express themselves, which perhaps is why they are so passionate about soccer, and why young Camilo, who has no trouble expressing himself, doesn’t seem to care about the sport.
From the Q&A with Alejandro Zambra we learn that the character of Camilo is based on the author’s father’s actual godson, and that he really admires the character—an interesting way of speaking of a fictional creation.
May 19, 2014: “The Waitress” by Robert Coover
The Q&A with Robert Coover doesn’t help.
I’m just not a fan of these reimagined fairy tales of Coover’s. I find them lacking in significance, to put it mildly. I’m sorry if that offends you Coover fans out there.
This one involves a waitress who serves some soup to a bag lady. When she wishes out loud that she like for people to stop looking at her—another customer has ogled her behind—suddenly her wish is granted. Everyone’s head snaps away from her and no one can look at her. The waitress suspects the bag lady, who has disappeared.
The waitress knows not to squander her wishes, so her last wish is for wealth, which arrives in the form of the abandoned loot from a bank robbery. She’s afraid taking the cash will result in more problems for her, but the security cameras can’t look at her (thanks to the first wish), so she grabs the bags of money and jumps into a cab.
The end, more or less.
May 12, 2014: “The Fugitive” by Lyudmila Ulitskaya
Q&A with Lyudmila Ulitskaya
It’s unfair, I suppose, to apply American standards of story-telling to a piece of Russian fiction, but I didn’t care for this at all. The story being told is fine; it’s the method, which is mostly telling and very little showing, that bothers me.
Boris is a dissident artist and his anti-government cartoons have become well known. As a result, the KGB comes to arrest him, but he is able to slip away and escape to the countryside, where he takes refuge in a friend’s dacha. He’s bored and begins to draw pictures, including those of the local women who help him. He continues to avoid arrest for several years, but he becomes reckless and is eventually caught. Instead of being charged with sedition, though, he is jailed for pornography. He’s out in two years, emigrates, and remarries.
I suppose the story is a commentary on Soviet absurdities and the deprivations of the Russian people during the Soviet era. Unfortunately, the way it’s written makes it difficult to enjoy whatever the message might be.
May 5, 2014: “The Naturals” by Sam Lipsyte
Caperton is a consultant (in what area isn’t exactly clear—landscaping?) but is on his way from his home in Chicago to Newark because his father is dying. He is seated on the flight next to a professional wrestler who says that his sport is all about storytelling, which is similar to something another consultant had said to him in a recent meeting, and Caperton finds this odd. Caperton’s father has claimed to be on his death bed before, but it seems to be true this time, according to Stell, the father’s current wife. Caperton meets his stepmother at the door when he arrives. They have a good relationship—his own mother is dead—but she has a problem with his rooting in the refrigerator, so of course he likes to do that just to get to her. The fact that the father really is dying, now seems to affect Caperton, and everything is about storytelling, which seems to be the point of the story. He tries to contact his ex to talk to her after the father does in fact die, but her current lover protects her from him. On the return flight, he is comforted by the pro wrestler.
Huh? There are some funny lines in the story, although I’m not sure the theme of “storytelling” really comes through for me.
The Q&A with Sam Lipsyte doesn’t shed much light on it, but there are some interesting comments.
April 28, 2014: “The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson
It’s a pleasure to read a previously unknown Shirley Jackson story. Here, a young man, Christopher, is leaving his previous life and takes the road through the forest, accompanied by a cat. But the road ends at a great stone house in the middle of the forest. The residents of the house welcome Christopher and the cat and he dines with Phyllis, Aunt Cissy (Circe), and Mr. Oakes. The house cat, Grimalkin, is defeated in a brief skirmish with Christopher’s unnamed cat, who then inherits both the name and place as house cat. The next day, Oakes shows Christopher the house’s vast records and the roses he has planted. Then, as the evening meal is prepared, Oakes sharpens his knife and goes outside. The women send Christopher after him with instructions.
The Q&A with Shirley Jackson’s son, Laurence Jackson Hyman is quite interesting because it talks more generally about Jackson’s work and also the cache of unpublished and uncollected stories Jackson’s family discovered after her death. As for this story, the interpretation is relatively straightforward when one realizes its mythic and fairy tale origins.
April 21, 2014: “Hubcaps” by Thomas McGuane
Owen’s parents drink and fight a lot. He plays baseball and steals hubcaps. He also is nice to the handicapped kid across the street, Ben. Stuff that happens in the story: the mother starts a grease fire in the kitchen and then the parents calmly inform Owen that they’re separating. The officious safety kid on the school bus discovers Owen has pet turtles stashed in his lunchbox and, because that’s a violation of some rule, takes them and throws them out the window where they explode on the pavement. And Ben, who is being teased by a couple of mean girls, does something that gets him moved to a different school. That’s it. Not much of a story, in my view.
I assumed that it’s an excerpt from a novel but there’s no indication in the Q&A with Thomas McGuane that this is the case. It’s a real puzzle why this story is in the magazine.
April 14, 2014: “Box Sets” by Roddy Doyle
Q&A with Roddy Doyle
After three months of unemployment, Sam is feeling the strain. He and his wife goes to the homes of friends for dinner parties at which the menu features ethnic “street food” and the conversations revolves around “box sets” from mostly American television series. Sam, partly because of his job situation, I suppose, feels behind the times, as he has not seen these programs. One day he and Emer argue. He doesn’t want to go to yet another dinner, feeling the stress of unemployment, although he doesn’t quite admit it. Angry, he takes the dog for a walk when he is slammed into by a cyclist. The cyclist is hurt, although Sam in his anger thinks only of himself. He even manages to get home, without a thought for the dog. In the end, he has concluded that everything will be fine.
The story lacks depth, I think. Although the metaphor of the box sets is interesting, it isn’t really utilized fully, or at all, and the main story of Sam’s stress and epiphany is pretty shallow.
April 7, 2014: “Pending Vegan” by Jonathan Lethem
Paul, weaning himself from an anti-depressant, takes his family to SeaWorld. His daughter, Deirdre, is afraid of everything. On the way to the orca show, the main event, they see flamingos and the shark exhibit. But Paul is worried about what he might see, because his [politically incorrect] psychiatrist has warned him that the drug might have some lingering effects: “In withdrawal from Celexa some patients have described a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edges of the everyday world, a thing no one but they can identify.” This is the “grub-in-meat syndrome,” and Paul is wary. He’s wary because of his secret name for himself—Pending Vegan.
Paul has been reading about sustainability and the evils of factory farming. He now believes it’s wrong to eat animals, but it’s difficult to explain to his twin girls. While looking at the sharks, the girls ask if they can get a pet. (A shark brings this to mind?) Which causes Paul to flashback to the Jack Russell terrier he and his wife had had before the girls were born, a dog that had been so possessive of his pregnant wife that Paul had to take him back to the shelter. The dog, named Maurice, isn’t mentioned until half way through the story, but as we’ll see he is what brings the story to a somewhat satisfying end. Because Bingo, a Jack Russell terrier who is part of the pre-Orca show entertainment, turns out to be Maurice, all these years later.
The Q&A with Jonathan Lethem suggests that Lethem is thinking about the situation of starting down a path—such as becoming a vegan, but there are other themes in the story, too, like being a husband and father—and then getting stuck.
There are some great concepts and ideas in this story, but I’m not sure they’re working well together. Paul’s pending veganism is a great thought. So many of us, I think, having read the books Paul has read, realize that veganism is the way to go, but just can’t take the necessary steps to get there. Also, being stuck—and Paul is stuck deep—is connected to the anti-depressants he’s been taking and from which he’s beginning to emerge. But that part of the story is less clear to me. Is SeaWorld in a different light because of the drug? And how does this relate to the dog who is reunited with the family in the end? Not sure.
March 10, 2014: “A Sheltered Woman” by Yiyun Li
This is a terrific sketch of a character in a unique situation, but not much of a story.
The woman, Auntie Mei, is a nanny to newborns and their mothers, only sticking around for the first month of the baby’s life. One gets the sense that she doesn’t want to get too attached. In this story, she’s in service to a particular young mother, Chanel, who is difficult. Married to an older man who is away on business, Chanel has, or claims to have, post-partum depression. In the course of the story we learn about Auntie May’s past, and we also see her allow herself to be courted by Paul, the dishwasher repairman who also helps rig up a contraption to keep an egret from eating the goldfish in the husband’s pond.
The writing is lively and Auntie Mei is a great character, but the story itself doesn’t go anywhere. What’s the real conflict here? What’s the outcome?
Be sure to read the Q&A with Yiyun Li for insights into her thinking about this story and also about her recent novel.