Shall we take a cook's tour of my latest reading? Oh yes, let's!
From Calling the Wind:
Soldiers by Ellease Southerland: A young man enlists for the Vietnam War so he can get that GI Bill and spare his mother the cost of college. She'd rather pay for college and be spared the loss of her son, but he's deaf to her tears. The tale is told in 4 pages of fragments, sometimes elegant, sometimes plainspoken, reflecting the young man's ability to code-switch (a teacher accuses him of plagiarizing a paper because it contains such advanced vocabulary, but the young man demonstrates that he knows the words, and shouldn't be evaluated purely on his casual conversational style). He survives the war, but Southerland suggests how badly it's all going to work out for him. She gives us all the clues, and lets us figure out that his mother will die while he's away, and losing a hand is going to lead him into a morphine addiction. It's some of the deftest and loveliest storytelling I've enjoyed lately; as editor Charles Major dryly notes in Ms Southerland's bio note, "her satires and poems appear primarily in black periodicals."
Roselily by Alice Walker: A young African-American woman in a repressive small town marries a sophisticated Black Muslim guy from the big city, hoping he'll open her world up, but suspecting that he'll just replace one kind of repressiveness with another. I can't help wondering if Alan Moore read it once upon a time, because its clever framing device is reminiscent of the structuring gimmicks he would employ a decade later: each phrase from the "Speak now or forever hold your peace" portion of the marriage ceremony is paired with one of the bride's corresponding thoughts or memories in ironic juxtaposition. The tightness of the structure reinforces the bride's fear that she is bound, whichever way she goes in life, by gender and race in ways that will forever restrict her.
From Best American Short Stories:
Gesturing by John Updike: A marriage "consciously uncouples" so that both partners can spend more time with their lovers, but since they, with decades and children to their marriage's credit, know one another better than their lovers do, they tend to gravitate back to one another. We follow the man, who takes a lonely apartment overlooking a controversial new skyscraper that keeps dropping windowpanes. The man comes to think of the skyscraper as his lonely companion, a similarly promising yet disfunctional figure, and contemplates it often. Have you ever fixated upon some inanimate fixture of your life, and found layers of meaning and beauty in it that were part of some singular equation, you times the object of your contemplation? Updike renders just such a connection between the man and the building. His apartment's own windowpane is stable but has a nearly invisible message of love, "With this ring I thee wed," evidently scratched in the glass with a wedding ring by a previous tenant. It floats there tauntingly in the man's vision, flickering in and out of his awareness just as his relationships flicker in and out like uncertain candleflames.
The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick: A woman and her two daughters, one of them a baby, are marched into a Nazi concentration camp. The 3 of them must share a shawl to keep warm. That shawl's going to be called upon to serve many aching needs.
Nazi cruelty creates death and suffering even when it doesn't actively try to kill; terrible conditions are enough to ruin lives, and the threat of repressive violence prevents a mother from openly responding to a child's death. Everyone knows the death camps were monsterous and awful, but Ozick forces us to consider the particulars with vivid emotional immediacy and intensity. She writes with such terse beauty that we have some aesthetic cushioning, which makes it possible, and even desirable, to follow her woeful narrative to its conclusion.
From Plays in One Act:
Prodigal Son by Garrison Keillor: The Prairie Home Companion auteur retells Jesus's parable of the young man who abandons his family for a life of dissolution, then returns, expecting to be treated as he deserves, but receiving loving forgiveness instead. Keillor's retelling employs a whimsical anachronistic style that will be instantly familiar to his fans, and in a surprising last move, ends the story with a hilarious tantrum from the virtuous brother who did everything right and received only token appreciation, compared to the prodigal's celebratory banquet. Still, this play is punctuated by some of the worst doggerel song lyrics ever published by an editor of Halprin's stature.
She Talks to Beethoven by Adrienne Kennedy: An African-American woman is in Ghana during a time of political unrest. Her husband has been kidnapped, and she's dealing with it by interacting with her imaginary friend, the composer Beethoven. She's fascinated by him and his work. This fits snugly into her multicultural artistic interests; like Countee Cullen, she's enriched by Europe without being Eurocentric. Her reimagining of Beethoven's life, and the friendship the two of them might have, is counterpointed by radio broadcasts about her husband's predicament, and performances of African poetry and music. It's a very rich stew, and I suspect it would be terribly challenging to pull off a production. There's lots of potentially deadly exposition, and transitions from one layer of reality to another. I'd love to see a richly imagined and finely controlled production, but keeping a dramatic energy coursing through it would be quite a hill to climb.
The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe by Angela Carter: Carter's famous blend of Gothic Postmodernism puts Poe's mother in the spotlight, a position she would find familiar, since, according to this narrative essay, she was a traveling stage actor. Carter considers the effect that a theatrical mother might have had on Poe's understanding of women, love, and reality. The switch from person to performance; the costumes, wigs and greasepaint rewriting one's appearance; the nursing mother abruptly exiting, stage right.
From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:
Whoreson by Donald Goines: A streetwalker tutors her son, a teenage pimp aspirant, in the finer points of pimping. For example, never trust a woman, EVEN YOUR OWN MOM. Also, pimping your own mom has certain drawbacks. It can affect your social standing, and complicate familial relations. The story's written with a verve and directness that you will not find in this paragraph about it, so if you like stories about smart but woefully underprivileged people trying to make it on the street, you need to check out David Goines. I suspect some of the smarter gangsta rappers have highlighted copies of Goines' writing on their bookshelves. (He also wrote Never Die Alone, which I considered here.)
Shock Value by John Waters: The elder statesman of goony, cartoonish independent film spins (tall?) tales of his juvenile delinquency that will thrill anyone who has enjoyed his colorful, bratty movies. For someone like me this might as well be Conan the Barbarian-style wish-fulfillment adventure. The origins of The Filthiest People Alive start here!
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: A narrator returns to his home town of Chicago, "ghosts in pocket," haunted by the cold and the distant death of his parents and all the weirdness that scrubs up against you when you return to the old hometown after the distance of years.
I've experienced something like that, since I returned to my hometown of Signal Mountain recently, for the first time in the 21st century, but it was a different experience because it was beautiful on the old hiking trail, and my parents are, thankfully, alive.
Anyway, since the protagonist's parents left their bodies to science, he imagines confronting the doctor who oversaw science's use of them, demanding to know, in a most unscientific way, what secrets the surgery unlocked. Grief and childhood memories and self-mockery and fantasies of self-aggrandizement ruin this guy's trip. Intense, long, lustrous sentences enact, as well as relate, the agonized obsessiveness that bedevils this guy.
Monkey Girl by Beth Lisick: a short excerpt about a young woman who grasps onto Chinese horoscopes to craft some focused identity for herself (year of the naughty Monkey) and her current (clever but gross, unreliable, invasive Rat) boyfriend. Her dissatisfaction (she prefers pretty much any other animal of the set) finds no solace in this superstitious solution, though. Bawdy and anxious.
Dogeaters by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn: A boy is held hostage by his Uncle, who pimps the boy out and uses a guard dog to keep him in place while Uncle's away. Inch by inch, the boy tests an escape plan while, in unadorned, informational language, contemplating the boundaries of his imprisonment. Caution: although the dog doesn't get eaten (the title probably references some slur on the boy's (and author's) Philippine heritage) it meets a similarly grisly end. Doglover that one may be, though, the boy's horrible predicament makes this murder understandable, and it's unlikely that he'll lose many readers sympathy.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn: The children of a pair of circus owners beg for familiar family stories, and Mom and Dad are happy to oblige. The stories are horrifying tales of abuse, but presented as beloved tales that fill parents and children with delight. Dunn's cult novel encases the most grotesque body horror in equally grotesque sentimental narrative forms. It's an ironic attack on the misuses of storytelling to justify historical horrors, unless it's a plea for making do with the imperfect family one's got. Or both. Word on the street was that Tim Burton wanted to film it; he probably would have turned it into quaint circus kitsch with all its fangs pulled and replaced with artfully decayed, bent and broken joke teeth.