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Sunday, April 22, 2012

George Saunders: "Sea Oak"

Photo copyrighted by Robert Birnbaum
"...And also. Don't remember me like this. Remember me like how I was that night we all went to Red Lobster and I had that new perm. Ah Christ. At least buy me a stone."
     I rub her shoulder, which is next to her foot.
     "We loved you," I say.
     "Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?" she says. "Why? Why was that?"
    "I don't know," I say.
    "Show your cock," she says, and dies again.

My past couple of evenings have included watching a couple episodes of Portlandia, a pretty funny, satirical, episodic show with settings that range from a women's bookstore to a cult of organic farmers to the office of the mayor of Portland. I'm going to adopt Alex Guarco's comments on George Saunders here: like Saunders, the show is "simultaneously fucked up, hilarious, realistic, and way-unrealistic"; it's also "fascinating" and "chaotic/sad/depressing." Yet for me, Portlandia is not in any way able to accomplish what George Saunders accomplishes in "Sea Oak" and other stories (please also read the other two in 3x33 to prepare for our discussion tomorrow). Portlandia elicits humorous groans and giggles, but "Sea Oak" actually makes me feel bad. Saunders makes me imagine a world in which raccoons nibble on rusty bikes and we take our kids to a car wash "to look at the last remaining farm." Saunders makes me imagine a world in which my sister and cousin (I have no real sister, but I'm able to imagine one) confuse "optometrist" with "optimist." Saunders makes me imagine a world in which some people get paid to be sex objects and others work meaningless jobs taking phone polls and being Greeter at DrugTown...wait, that last world is not, like, so dissimilar to our own....  Not to knock Portlandia, because it is a great TV show, but it only moves me mildly. It's not that the show is far-fetched, it's that it's cold, whereas Saunders burns with love when you get too close.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Richard Bausch: "Tandolfo the Great"

From University of Memphis Website
According to his twin brother Robert Bausch who provides the introduction in 3x33, Richard Bausch comes to his work with "serious intent" which is not to say "somber" but rather "not frivolous." I want to use this space to urge folks to read Robert Bausch's essay on his brother's work. Robert B. says something about the difference between literature and entertainment: literature investigates "the truth," while entertainment aims to be "a delightful and diverting lie." He asserts that literature brings us "the human news," a quote by John Updike.

I'm not saying I agree with this distinction, and of course this has something to do with my lack of belief in "the truth" but rather just a series of human choices of what to believe. But I don't have a better explanation of a difference that I feel when I'm reading and therefore believe in.

In my opinion, the best story of these three is "What Feels Like the World."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Robert Olen Butler: "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot"

Photograph by Joshua Butler
In this story, we see a depiction of paralysis, that condition of being stuck behind or inside language, which is differently realized than although similar to Alison Enzinna's ambitious double dialogue in "Artificial Lighting." Also similar to Alison's story: the narrator's interpretations of his "wife" may or may not be accurate. Is getting outside our misconceptions so difficult that it takes dying and being reborn in another life form? Or are our paradigms stronger even than death and rebirth?

"Jealous Husband" runs into Charles Baxter's essay on "Stillness" at an angle. Not a right angle. More like obtuse. There are moments between the bird/husband's actions when he retreats to stillness, contemplation, and he escapes, momentarily, his need to "thrash."  For example: "I sidestep down to the opposite end of the cage and I look out the big sliding glass doors to the back yard. It's a pretty yard. There are great placid maple trees with good places to roost. There's a blue sky that plucks at the feathers on my chest. There are clouds. Other birds."

In accordance with Charles Baxter's observations, these brief moments are sandwiched between violent actions. Is this what Alex Guarco has in mind with "Going, Going"?

Robert Olen Butler keeps it going, at least for this reader. From the bird-husband's conversation with his wife, the one where he feels just for a minute that he and his wife are intimate, all the way to the end of the story, I am in the trance of stillness and believe, albeit briefly, that everything is possible.