Monday, November 18, 2013

George Saunders: "The Barber's Unhappiness" and "I CAN SPEAK!"

On an Eight-Part Fantasy Romance, and a Letter to a Dissatisfied Customer:

George Saunders has published four books full of short stories, and I have read all of them like a cat at the water bowl.  I drink up the disfigured, misogynistic, abused, middle-aged man lusting after a younger woman.  I absorb the harried, foolish, sycophantic employee sympathizing with the furious customer and defending the company that exploits and employs him.  Saunders's stories poke at the hurting places, at the sadness of our little lives, and in these stories, we are all small, we are all victims of the system.

However, in addition to reminding me of pain and smallness (my own and others'), the stories also make me feel the largeness of the suffering individual.  The suffering individual is everywhere: in driving school, getting drunk at the wedding, coming every week to the Altar and Rosary Society, employed by KidLuv.  We are all there, and in this union we can sometimes rise above our limitations.  We can laugh, for one thing.  Laughter releases us for periods of time.  We can also learn to read the stories (perceive the forms) that trap us.  In "The Barber's Unhappiness" Saunders shows me that the form of a "fantasy" is perhaps an invisible trap.  In "I CAN SPEAK!" Saunders reveals the corporate language, or any jargon embraced by a power-hungry group, as another kind of trap.  If there is any hope at the end of the barber's story, it is that he is making an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of fantasy.  Ironically, in expressing himself in the form of a letter, Mr. Rick Sminks both puts on the mask of the LuvKid company and he also reveals himself as the unhappy baby that he is.

I'd like to point out two craft elements involved: both stories are based on innovative formal structures and a point of view that is very close, embarrassingly close, to the painfully small-minded protagonist.  The structures are innovative, but we can easily recognize them.  The barber's story is patterned almost like a fairy tale.  The letter, while ridiculous, is very much a letter.  In both stories, the protagonist is distanced from us by being so small-minded, but then Saunders gives each such specific language that his magnified small desires become our own.  We ogle, too.  We picture the pretty girl rubbing corncobs. We sit stiffly.  We wet our comb, flex our chest, dance around our nubs.  We sit at our own (cluttered!) desk.  If you have a story that wants to critique the world we live in (a magic trick a.k.a. satire), you might take your cue from Saunders's playful structure and his specificity.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" and "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World"

Marc Chagall's Clock with Blue Wing

A Woman Named Jeremiah Spavey

THE FIRST ASSOCIATES to arrive that day shivered like usual at the air blowing from the store’s cavernous break room, the constantly chilly backroom where no one liked to be found, and where the managers sent children who climbed steel shelving units or got caught loitering where they sold soda by the check-out registers. Children were not valued customers. When children got put in the break room, everyone gave them the evil eye until the parents arrived, tired and lost, to retrieve them. The room had been empty since Monday. Managers’ tempers were rising and their eyes held in them the mean small looks of potbelly pigs deprived of their bread, even first thing in the morning, so when the woman wearing heavy boots emerged from the ice-cold room, asking about the best washing machine in the store, Jim, a newish associate, rubbed his eyes and wondered which of the tricky managers had hired her to throw him off. Or maybe it had been his direct supervisor Glenda. She had written up Jim once several weeks before for laughing at a customer’s joke over in Plumbing, something that involved an old couple and some leaky pipes.
Other associates skittered from Appliances to Windows and Doors, waiting for the end of the Christmas season when they would return to their regular posts, longing for the quieter months, and the only occasional questions about how to install a water line for a refrigerator ice-maker, or about when you could solve an ant infestation with powdered charcoal or turmeric versus needing to bait with boric acid. Jim had joined just before the seasonal rush, so he did not have a strong preference for anything but getting home at night to tell his wife about his day, stories mostly about particular customers, such as the urban mother of two who had just moved to central Pennsylvania and needed someone to understand her, or the old man who came in once a week, wanting to talk about his dead wife. In a clean but threadbare shirt and wearing sturdy black workboots, this woman who had appeared as if from nowhere, exiting from the break room, seemed on closer inspection not to be an employee plant. Nor was she a petulant child, nor a person Jim had seen before. He would have noted her hair, a gray halo about her face like a windblown cloud, or her reddened eyes that suggested hours spent worrying over the state of the world, or reading the fine print of every written arrangement. She made Jim wish suddenly that he’d been a better son and taken his mother back to his house with his young wife rather than installing her in the home for elderly people. What he said out loud was a question: The best washing machine in the store?
Yes, she wanted to buy the best, and the best dryer, too, the ones that stacked and didn’t knock around like the devil in God’s pantry, could Jim lead her to them?
No, the managers would not stoop to planting this kind of person, but maybe Jim’s supervisor Glenda would do something like this, he thought. The store featured upward mobility in its training sessions held daily in front of a screen in a much warmer room, the training room, and Glenda, Jim’s customer service supervisor, had ambitions to become a manager. She had she ratted out associates for random acts of unworkmanlike behavior, such as keeping candy in service center drawers that were meant for pens, or being too casual with customers. Her steadfastness was why she now earned $10.42 an hour, more than two bucks over her starting point, and she had been with the store only four years. Jim did not want to be written up again, as his young wife loved that he had this job, and her pride was the stool where he rested his feet at night. He ushered the woman over to Glenda and then stood back to watch his supervisor’s eyebrows rise like arrows into her puffy brown bangs. The black-booted woman said again that she wanted to purchase the best washing machine in the store. Glenda shot a look at Jim that said: Is this some kind of joke?
Jim’s chin jerked. Both of them knew that in that old shirt and pants, in those old workboots straight from the farm, or the construction site, this woman did not fit a thousand-dollar washing machine. The boots and worn shirt indicated one problem, and there was also something uncooperative about her wispy white hair. Yes, the woman said, and she started flying toward Appliances, shuffling her legs like the wings of some heavy-bottomed insect. She hovered in front of the most expensive machines in the store and said, I want this one, to an associate named Robert. I have this unit, and it’s a good one. I’m buying it for my neighbor.
Robert, who had been at the store for even less time than Jim, a seasonal employee who might not even last until the end of the season, stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee.  He listened to the woman say that her neighbor’s washer and dryer had broken.  Her neighbor didn’t have anyone to take care of her. It’s what my dad would have done, the woman said. Your father? asked Robert, thinking that this woman's brain had been addled somehow by the years she'd spent alone on a farm somewhere, nothing but cows to warm her, and chickens for conversation. His name was Jeremiah, the woman said, and it’s my name too.

The beginning of something, to be continued…

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Post by Jessica Gilchrist, guest blogger: Fifty Shades of Mary Gaitskill: "The Secretary" and "A Romantic Weekend"

Over the summer, I traveled to Saratoga Springs, NY for a two week long writers workshop with Howard Norman (who we lovingly dubbed Howie just two days into the workshop). Many of my favorite authors were there: Jamaica Kincaid, Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, and even the dashing Rick Moody. One of the professors had to leave for the second week of the advanced fiction workshop, and we knew they were bringing in someone new. "Mary Gaitskill" was a name that echoed in the filing cabinet of my brain, tucked away in a folder somewhere either marked "Shit I Read in the New Yorker And Forgot" or "Stuff Silas Told Me to Read in Intermediate Fiction That I Didn't."

She appeared in a loose-fitting, dirty-gray pink cotton shirt, making her thin body look even smaller with the thick fabric holding her frail shoulders together. Gaitskill walked with her shoulders back. Though we were packed into the auditorium, touching thigh to thigh and using our free Skidmore College folders to fan ourselves under the domed fluorescent lights overhead, when she passed we shivered into each other. She had skin like bleached canvas stretched tight over her sharp cheekbones and giving way to two constantly pursed lips. Her eyes, almost as white as her straightened hair brushing the top of the loose t-shirt cowering around her neck, scanned us, leaving our spines shuddering from the ice in them. I thought I had a seen a ghost.

No many how many times I took her picture, it wouldn't quite come into focus. She floated down to the podium, and she settled, her body hunkering down among the desktop computer, her fingers pinching the stack of white papers she had brought with her. She glanced out as us as though she had asked a question, and we stared back at her with gaping faces as an answer.

Mary Gaitskill is creepy. She's creepy for taking the Fifty Shades of Gray style story of a secretary bending over a the wooden desk of her boss, letting him strike her until she is aroused by his own violent ejaculation. She takes what we read shitty fanfiction about, and she gives us a girl who is lying in bed with the covers pulled up, unable to summon the strength in her body to get dinner. Gaitskill exposes something about our own twisted bodies, our own twisted ways of reaching inside of others and taking something precious. In "The Secretary," maybe it's the sense that we can somehow do better for ourselves but not saying a word when someone metaphorically spanks us into submissions. Maybe in "A Romantic Weekend," we've had people who have gagged and tied us in stifling relationships. Gaitskill shakes out our dirty laundry onto the clothesline for the neighborhood to see, and when we try to slip back into our over-sized clothes, the air makes them as cold as I felt just watching her walk by.

Unpacking these stories is supposed to be emotional. I want to know what struck you. What was difficult to read about? How did you react? Gaitskill is brilliant, present, and detailed. Tell me what drew you in. More importantly, tell me what made you uncomfortable.

Also, here's a video of Peg Boyers and Mary Gaitskill reading at the program I went to over the summer: It's long. Don't watch the whole thing. Fun fact: The man introducing Peg Boyers is Howie. Gaitskill starts to read at 39:30. She laughs in the video. It's strange.