When I first read them I loved Ellen Gilchrist’s stories in Victory Over Japan—especially the stories about Rhoda and Nora Jane—and the stories set in and around New Orleans, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams.
As even the New York Times reviewer said in 1984, “If we’re lucky, there will be yet another, with yet more overlapping tales, of Rhoda at 50 and Nora Jane in a new wig; of new and old versions of Lady Margaret Sarpie and Devoie and of King Mallison and Crystal.” And yet, now that I’ve gotten older myself and read about Rhoda at 67, she’s not half as much fun as I thought she would be. Instead of the antics of Crystal and Traceleen, in Gilchrist’s new collection of stories we get Louise Hand, the niece of a character in one of Gilchrist’s novels, stuck at an airport with her rich friends.
Most of the characters in Gilchrist’s new story collection, Acts of God, are old, and many of them are dying, although on their own terms. There are small delights, like the 80-year-old-couple telling their daughter they do not want a hired woman watching what they do all day because “we do not deserve this unkindness” and “who would have such a job, watching old people to keep them from driving their car?” But, as with old age, the delights are outnumbered by the tedium.
There are a few stories about New Orleans, from the point of view of characters who were there during Katrina and afterwards, and there’s a little of Gilchrist’s characteristic abrupt monologue, but it sounds more preachy than quirky now:
“most of my conversations are with people who work for me one way or the other. I have two houses, and a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I spend half my time talking to housekeepers, plumbers, roofers, painters, drapery hangers, window-blind installers, lawyers, or certified public accountants. I like them. I like people who work better than I like people like myself, which is why I do volunteer work. It’s better than not working at all, which is the most boring thing in the world and why old people become morose.”
None of the old people in these stories are morose. In addition to the couple who object to having a watcher, there’s Cecilia and Jimmy, who are both aware that Jimmy would rather kill himself than succumb the way his fatal illness would dictate. Cecilia says to him
“if you get it into your head to go to the deadening and kill yourself with a gun or hang yourself like Mr. Allen did on Hopedale, then I will kill myself the next day, too, without bothering to bury you or burn you up in the cremator’s oven or do a thing to help your children or grandchildren cope with losing you. That’s a promise, Jimmy, so you can believe it. So be sure and get all those papers right for them.”
Jimmy’s response is to think that “he had to think of a way to do it that really seemed like an accident, or maybe murder. It was going to be hard as hell to do because she was on the scent.”
Then there’s Philipa, who in a story titled “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath,” jumps off of a cruise ship rather than wait to die of her illness. Her daughter Caroline later asks her psychiatrist “how will I ever die in peace when my own mother couldn’t do it?” and the doctor “sighed, wanted so much to leave the room. No one dies in peace, he wanted to say, unless they are on morphine, which is not that much better than jumping off a boat.”
Although I tend to agree with the notion that it’s better to die on one’s own terms, I’m no longer quite so charmed by Gilchrist’s trademark wacky off-handedness about, for instance, whether when people die they could be “walking around heaven either thinking about things or hungry or not hungry or busy watching us to see what we are doing.”
Crystal’s off-hand remarks, the fierceness of Rhoda, and the daring of Nora Jane might have come to more than this.
Starting in September during Walker’s first year of college, Ron sent both children and me a daily e-mail entitled “This Day in Middle Earth,” to tell us what was going on in the story that day and sometimes to fill us in on details that we could appreciate particularly in light of where the fellowship was or what kinds of battles they were fighting. Today those days ended with the shire being restored and the mallorn seed planted.
I feel that a lot of days are ending. It gets dark early now, as it does in the Reynolds Price play and the story “Araby.” Whatever my endeavor, I always seem to end up like the boy talking to Mangan’s sister as dark falls on the street, longing to go to Araby and promising to bring her something. She doesn’t care that much whether he brings her anything or not, which makes his ardency that much more ridiculous.
In the past few months I’ve become too ardent about everything, trying to find something to settle on. From the outside, I know, it appears ridiculous. Walker laughs at the way my stories get reduced to the gist, the part I have zeroed in on with pinpoint intensity, so that the bigger sense of the story is lost. Eleanor rightly points out that even though I can often put my finger on what is missing from a story, I’m not enough of a creative writer to suggest what should be there. My friends share a long conversation with me, but the breadth of it has narrowed because their paying work is so interesting and they are so essential.
I am not essential. When I walk through the college campus in the later afternoon, on my way to see that the student service I run gets off to a good start and to meet anyone who might have a question, I feel like the boy appearing at the bazaar:
“Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.”
What is the purpose of lingering to overhear the conversations? My attempts at kindness at work and nurturing at home come to whatever such attempts usually come to, at best a lessening of some of the cruelties that the college-aged necessarily suffer.
Only W.H. Auden can sum up the ridiculousness of such a position.
The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell.
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime
Though this might take me a little time.
If you can’t be a star, learn to put their importance in perspective, I guess. Let yourself be ridiculous in your regard for something that has no discernible affect on anyone’s life. This is what I get out of this poem, but it hardly seems enough to be going on with.
A young person gaily trooping off to seek his fortune asks the mother he leaves behind “why don’t you write a book or get a dog?” Because all the interesting stuff has happened already; all she has to work with are memories and the habits of kindness. Unless there’s some other possibility for what can happen after the happy ending.
I got a copy of Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters from Henry Holt and Company last Saturday, and I immediately opened it up to sample one or two, maybe the title one, about Jane Eyre. Later that day I picked it up again, thinking I would read another one or two, and before I knew it I had giggled my way through the entire book.
Among my favorites were Achilles and Hamlet sounding like teenagers. Someone standing outside the tent of Achilles says “what’s this about, buddy?” and this is the ensuing exchange:
“he took that girl I liked”
I can’t say his name
the guy with the long name and the sun helmet”
“yeah that guy
he took that girl I like”
“I DON’T REMEMBER
what is this
name remembering day”
Hamlet, similarly, is in his room and his mother is asking if he wants to come down to dinner. When he indicates that he is not coming out of his room, his mother offers to bring him a sandwich, which initiates the response “I wish I was dead.” She persists, though:
but do you want a sandwich first”
“what kind of sandwich?”
“we’re having tuna fish”
“okay you still want to die?
or okay you want me to bring you a tuna fish sandwich?”
you don’t get it”
The texts from Lord Byron also have an adolescent feel:
nothing’s any good”
“what’s the matter”
do you realize I’m never going to be able to have sex with the rain”
Because, as I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of Jo marrying Mr. Baer at the end of Little Women, I enjoyed the text exchange between Jo and Laurie when she tells him her decision:
“his mustache is enormous
bushy and gray and covered in crumbs
all of him is covered in crumbs
he’s filthy haha”
“well that’s just”
“oh and he just hates my writing
criticizes my work unceasingly”
“I really cannot overemphasize
how much he disapproves of my voice as a writer
wants me to change everything about it”
how can I compete with that”
please don’t blame yourself”
Like the texts from Hamlet, there are texts about Daisy Miller sprinkled throughout the book, each one from someone else who disapproves of Daisy’s polite responses to invitations. The Daisy Miller texts begin with:
there’s a castle just up the hill I want you to see
it’s absolutely beautiful this time of year
please say you’ll come
we’ll walk the ramparts together and find lilac growing in the walls”
“oh how lovely
I’d be so pleased to come”
“oh my god
you were really going to do it
you were going to go to a castle alone with me”
“I don’t understand”
and the Daisy Miller texts end with:
“look have you seen Daisy
I need to talk to her”
“oh my god
you haven’t heard”
“that Daisy diiied”
“oh my god
“she went for a walk outside
with an Italian
under the MOON”
“oh god of course”
One of the best exchanges in the volume is from William Blake. This is a small part of a much larger whole:
“I drew you something”
is it horrifying?”
“do you promise?
do you promise me that it’s not horrifying?”
“I drew you something”
you know what I mean”
“what do you mean by horrifying”
“is anyone being
flayed alive in it
or committing suicide
or does something have eyes that shouldn’t have eyes
you know what I mean
sorry I bothered you”
it isn’t that
you know I like your drawings”
“I just already have so many watercolors of flayings already
I wouldn’t know where to put another one”
The best part of the whole book, at least for me, is an exchange in the middle of a long series of texts between Cathy and Heathcliff, from Wuthering Heights:
“I love you so much
let’s break each other’s hearts”
“oh my god let’s
I love you so much I’m going to marry edgar”
“I love you so much I’m going to run away”
“I love you so much I’m going to make myself sick”
good that’s so much love”
“I love you so much I’m going to get sick again
just out of spite
i’ll forget how to breathe”
“I’ll be your slave”
“I’ll pinch your heart and hand it back to you dead”
“I’ll lie down with my soul already in its grave”
“I’ll damn myself with your tears”
“I love you so much i’ll come back and marry your sister-in-law”
“and i’ll bankroll your brother’s alcoholism”
“i always hoped you would”
This exchange goes on to even greater heights of passion, and surely you want to read the rest.
I didn’t even mention the all-cap texts from Sherlock Holmes or the lines from Emily Dickinson as she is declining to come out. The whole book is a joy; it brightened up a dark November day.
The end of October in Ohio brings dark skies and quiet mornings. The last of the cicadas have died. Geese sometimes fly over, a chorus of honking that makes the silence afterwards more noticeable. More and more often I have to close the windows and the only sound is the furnace.
Both Eleanor and Walker have gone back to college after their October breaks. The house is quiet. The deaf cat stalks around for a few minutes, howling to see where I’ve gone, and then finds me and curls up to sleep beside my desk. I am listening to the music in my head, the Mendelssohn we’ve been playing at symphony rehearsal.
I’m thinking about an aubade and find one new to me, Peter Everwine’s “Aubade in Autumn.” It makes me aware of what I’m listening for, alone in a quiet house.
My grandmother used to hum the hymn “Rock of ages, cleft for me” as she made her way through the house each morning, from her double bed spread with chenille, to the bathroom sink, through the pine-panelled room with bookshelves and sofa, and into the sunny, white-curtained kitchen.
My mother always knows at least one more verse of a song than anyone else. Years ago, when we were sitting in her yard after dark on the fourth of July, singing every patriotric song we could think of, she led my father through more verses of “Remember Pearl Harbor” than anyone else knew existed.
My brother and I gleefully sang the disco cookie song from Sesame Street Fever over and over throughout our childhood.
Ron and I sang about 50 verses of “Froggie went A Courtin’” to Eleanor and Walker when they were babies.
Walker sang “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin and Eleanor sang “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent when they were practicing for auditions for high school musicals. (Walker sings even more beautifully now, but his baritone isn’t suited to “Corner of the Sky” the way his voice was before it began to change.)
Those are the songs I’m listening for.
Aubade in Autumn
This morning, from under the floorboards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is love
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don’t want to think about sadness;
there’s never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves—slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
Oh come to the church in the wildwood…
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long ascending syllable of wild
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him…
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled back-yard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh to the wiiildwood, as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven—
hey sweetie sweetie hey.
When I was at Hendrix College, we used to clap when a flock of grackles passed overhead, for fear of bird poop on the head and the fun of watching them disperse for a moment. I think of the whimsy of that, applauding for birds, at the end of the aubade, in the silence.
What songs are you listening for?
Prism, by Roland Allnach, is a collection of short stories that have appeared in various literary magazines, one a Pushcart Prize nominee. I thought the collection sounded interesting when TLC Book Tours brought it to my attention, so they sent me a copy. True to the title’s promise, each story is visible through a different genre lens, and turning that lens on the characters reveals sides of them that they might not have meant to show.
The Pushcart Prize-nominated story, “Creep,” is quite short, about a little boy whose mouth is dry with fear going on the journey from his bed to the bathroom to get a drink, only to find, on his triumphant return to the bed, that his mouth is as dry as ever. Young enough to suck his thumb, the narrator is simultaneously old enough to realize that “it’s just his imagination, yet his imagination comes from him. He knows enough to be sure he can’t deny it, can’t separate it, from himself. The monsters may be everywhere, but they come from him.”
While some of the stories, like that one, have literary themes, others have a heroic fantasy turn, like “After the Empire” and the long story of “Titalis” and his sword-wielding enemies, led by a female character referred to as “She of the Plains.” The volume also includes an epic poem, “Of Typhon and Aerina,” and a four-page poem in rhyming couplets entitled “Tumbleweed, or An Ode to a Well Endowed Gunslinger.”
I was intrigued by the amnesiac-seeming opening of what turns out to be an alternate reality story called “Return,” in which a man decides not to follow the white light but to return to his body, which has been severely injured in a car accident.
My favorite of the volume, in a totally creepy way, is “Flowers for Colleen,” a story about two serial killers initially sizing each other up as victims but then meeting each other as something like professional colleagues:
“He flipped the lid up. Two severed legs rested on a sheet of plastic in her trunk.
Instinct drove him down, just as the tire iron whistled over his head. He had no time to contemplate how his killer’s instinct just served to save his life; rather, he moved on her, grabbing the iron in one head [sic] and whipping his handgun free with the other.
Her eyes locked on the simple plastic cylinder of his gun. The open trunk, with the severed limbs, lingered in his peripheral vision. They stared at each other, both befuddled in the realization that dawned between them.
She forced herself to swallow as rain dripped from her hair.
He tipped his head. ‘You should cauterize the stumps, Blade patterns. They won’t be able to identify them.’”
There’s a Walter Mitty-type story about a kid picking his nose, a story about the discovery of alien life and who the discoverer rushes to tell, a lost city story that initially reminds me of the beginning of a Jack McDevitt novel but ends up exposing the secrets of its creators (unlike McDevitt’s usual m.o.). Each story is a bit unsettling—always for the readers, sometimes for the teller, and often for the characters who are being examined closely from one side of the lens or another.
October is darkening Ohio. The leaves are turning colors and wind and rain spread them across the lawns and street. It’s the time of year some people like to read darker books, and if you’re one of them, have I got a book for you.
Eleanor brought home Alexi Zentner’s Touch from a “Writers after Grinnell” event and gave it to me to read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was hooked by the first chapter, which is the story of what happens to narrator Stephen Boucher’s father and sister, told as he returns to the town of Sawgamet to see his dying mother. Sawgamet was founded by Stephen’s grandfather Jeannot, and as the novel continues, it unfolds the stories of the lives of Stephens’ family and the inhabitants of this isolated small town deep in the frozen wastes of what seems to be British Columbia but is also the manifestation of its early settlers’ dreams and fears. Mythical Realism, Zentner calls this style, and it draws on some of the same myths and legends as Supernatural did in its early seasons—wendigo, shape-shifter, werewolf.
Often the spooky part frames the stories:
“In later years, when he told the story to Pearl and other men, and they told it to each other and passed it around the way that men do, some men argued that Jeannot had simply been young and scared, or that he had been dreaming. That in the moonlight and his tiredness he had mistaken a bear or another animal for some perversion. Other men, particularly men who had spent more time in the woods or who had dealings with Indians, men who understood that there were things that they had yet to see, believed him. It was a wehtiko—a man turned into a monster as punishment for cannibalism—come to eat the flesh from my grandfather’s bones. No, it was a shape-shifter, it was the loup-garou, the mahaha, it was an adlet, come to drink his blood.
When my grandfather told me the story, however, he insisted it was none of those things. The creature, he said, was a qallupilluit, a sea witch, who felt the greed for gold running through Jeannot’s body and had come to claim him.”
The stories about Jeannot, Stephen’s grandfather, and his wife Martine tie the other stories together, starting with the one about how Jeannot discovered gold in Sawgamet at the age of 18 and then spent the long winter in a house he built himself with only his dog for company. The story of the winter they got snowed in together with only Jeannot’s dog and another starving traveler for company, with Martine pregnant, includes the story of the tunnel they built from the mill where they were sheltering to the firewood stacked beside the burned-down cabin where they used to live:
“Though he was afraid it might collapse, he carved the tunnel out big enough so that he could stand in it….One of the days, Martine took some of the extra water, wet down a rag, and glazed down the walls of the tunnel between the cabin and the mill. It was pitch-black because of the snow above, but she pulled Jeannot in with her, carrying a lantern, just so that he could see the gleaming in the ice. The reflection made it seem like they were walking through the stars.”
While telling this story, Stephen, whose mother is still in the act of dying, says “I think that the tunnel that my grandmother washed down with water, ice smooth enough to make it seem like they were among the stars themselves, is close to heaven.”
Jeannot shows his son and another child how to defeat a mahaha, saying “they pan out on the dumb side. They’re a kind of snow demon. They tickle you until all your breath is gone. Leave you dead, but with a smile.” He comes back to Sawgamet “to raise the dead,” he says. Stephen comments that he does not “have the faith, or the strength, to raise the dead—but I have come to believe what my mother began to believe soon after my father and Marie went through the ice on the river: memories are another way to raise the dead.”
These stories can raise the fictional dead, the monsters of Canadian myths, the hopes of a reader who wants to see someone in Stephen’s family win through the dangers of the northern wilderness, and possibly the hairs on the back of your neck.