Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

50StatesWriters_MainThe staff at PASTE MAGAZINE kindly included me in their new project “50 States,” in which they celebrate “the geographic diversity of writers by creating a list series dedicated to featuring incredible authors from every state in the country.”

Thanks to PASTE and Mark Hayden for the kind words. Also, thrilled to be amongst friends and other local writers like Jamie Iredell, Sheri Joseph, Josh Russell, Susan Rebecca White, and John Holman, further testament to the thriving lit scene happening here.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Rebecca Lee’s wonderful story collection Bobcat and Other Stories for the Chattahoochee Review (33.2-3).

OF DUST AND EROS: A REVIEW OF REBECCA LEE’S BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES
lee_bobcatBobcat and Other Stories. Rebecca Lee. Algonquin. 2013. 212 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

One of my favorite poems is George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” in which he speaks of the “glass of blessings” God bestowed upon man at his creation. God imparts strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, but withholds “rest,” believing that if he gives him everything, man would “adore my gifts instead of me.”  As Herbert writes,

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

 The characters that populate Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories experience the same restlessness of Herbert’s poem. Lee’s characters are all propelled by desire: for love, connection, recognition, understanding, and a place in the world. Their desire as perpetual restlessness drives Lee’s stories and their characters, most of them academics, artists, and students.

The book opens with “Bobcat,” a big story in a small setting, and perhaps my favorite, about a dinner party between friends and narrated by a pregnant lawyer questioning the authenticity of her friends’ troubled relationships, as well as her own. I had just read the title story when I visited a friend one night while his wife and daughter were away. Over dinner we caught up on the routines of our lives. My friend spoke about a recent outing with his family he described as “nearly perfect” if not for an ongoing disagreement with his wife that left him frustrated and weary. He believed they would never settle the issue, and the constant friction troubled him. It was then that I fully understood Lee’s story, particularly the sentence in which the protagonist’s husband is seen squatting in an Irish field: “This field grew out of not dirt, but pebbles really. It surprised me that anything could grow out of those stones, but there was a bright-green grass that seemed to be thriving, and a lot of bluebells” (16).

Lee guides us through the cozy but extravagant dinner party with friends and colleagues, in which the French dessert, a terrine the protagonist attempts, the “perfect melding of disparate entities,” reflects how relationships survive and fail in similar states (3). Such an assembly of ingredients, such care and effort to create a dessert barely contained in its own wobbling shell. The volatile mix of components feels like the marriages we witness in the story—a chaotic splendor, each one on the verge of collapse. It’s what they, and, by association, we do with this potential for collapse that keeps us invested and going forward. When a friend of the protagonist declares she wants none of it and asks why people fall in love and get married, the narrator rationalizes that “nobody really knows. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to do it” (12). It’s in the doing, in the attempt at order, that we find the answer. Lee reminds us, “You would no more expect to find peace within a family than you would expect to find it in yourself” (16). We are all chaos barely contained. Though the protagonist’s marriage will not survive infidelity and a miscarriage, she recognizes, like her client, a Hmong immigrant on trial for allowing his wife to die when he refused to seek Western medical treatment, that sometimes God requires “a living sacrifice in place of a person, to balance out the forces of life and death” (19).

I found familiar territory in the other stories too, as Lee evokes nostalgia for an academia cradled in perpetual autumn, when professors were wrapped in “elaborate historical” (65) selves, comfortable and imposing in offices overlooking campus color, when “murderous innocence” (63) and youthful desire were offered in exchange for knowledge and distinction. Her nostalgia is steeped in an appreciation for art and language, its limitations and possibilities, musical descriptions affectionately rendering scenes on college campuses, across elegant dinner tables with colleagues, and at rural artistic residencies. There were so many lovely passages that my copy of the book is dyed in yellow highlighter. This review could easily have been a collection of those lyric moments. Lee’s characters allude to Ovid, Rilke, Auden, and Wharton. Readers outside academia or the arts might find the nostalgia isolating. But academia merely gives Lee’s characters a setting in which to struggle with the universal desire for permanence and order. Lee finds particular wealth when she mines the relationships between student and teacher, as told from the student’s point of view, reflective, often whimsical, first person recollections that probe the mysteries of relationships, art, and language.

In “The Banks of the Vistula” we witness a relationship borne of deceit when a freshman plagiarizes her first linguistics paper in order to stand out. Her professor recognizes the plagiarism, stolen from a rare text of Soviet propaganda, and they embark on a game of cat and mouse in which the young woman’s professor befriends and eventually coaxes her to own the text she has stolen at a university symposium, despite its outdated and shocking content. The student Margaret says:

He was my teacher… and [he] stood in front of the high windows, to teach me my little lesson, which turned out to be not about Poland or fascism or war, borderlines or passion or loyalty, but just about the sentence: the importance of, the sweetness of. And I did long for it, to say one true sentence of my own, to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows. (65-66)

The beautiful “Fialta” explores a similar student/teacher dynamic when an architecture student discovers the incongruities between desire and fulfillment at an artistic residency (Fialta) hosted by the fabled mentor Franklin Stadbakken, whose single restriction is that residents not sleep with each other. The protagonist finds his longing for Sands, another resident, is complicated by Stadbakken’s own problematic interest in the student. He asks Sands if Stadbakken is in love with her. “‘Not in love, no,’ she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love” (169). Like many of the other stories in this collection, underneath the narrative tension we find that life is like “the simplest buildings,” which ought to be “productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth… an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity” (178).

In “Min,” Sarah, a restless American college student in the late 1980s, accepts an invitation from her classmate to spend a summer in Hong Kong working for his father at an overcrowded and politically sensitive refugee camp. She also agrees to interview prospective brides for Min’s arranged marriage, using the notes his grandmother took when fulfilling the same duty for Min’s father years before. While Sarah wrestles with her own desire, for both Min and a clearer understanding of a world out of balance and suffering “compassion fatigue,” she discovers that longing does not always lead to fulfillment (102). In the grandmother’s notes, she finds a formula for women: “two-thirds contentment, one-third desire,” a principle that “seemed to capture the entire world in its tiny palm” (117). Summer ends and Sarah concludes her interviews, introducing Min instead to an unlikely prospect she meets in a street market: an outspoken Filipino amah whose background would be “a lot to overcome” (125). As Sarah witnesses Vietnamese refugees preparing to be deported, she realizes that desire can sometimes become a liability, an ache that will never be satisfied.

Lee unearths beauty in every landscape whether in a post-dinner party bliss and the fantasy of timelessness that resides there to the “collection of mangled bones” that “every man stands before as he declares life good.” Like the husband in the title story, Lee believes words are “fascinating—their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately,” and shades each story as a “collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy.” Her characters long for fulfillment professionally and personally, but find that human relationships are thorny and happiness is elusive. In this transformation of desire into art Lee finds life in the “little treats—little chocolates and liqueurs, after the meal, so that as the night decelerates there is no despair” (28).

Kent waited for the telephone to ring with a miracle, for the call that said it was just a mistake, that’s all, an accident, but he’s all right and she’s coming home. And then. That divine shaft of light would illuminate his loss, when that bullet of good fortune struck—struck with all the mystery and extravagance of Oh my God! The reported dead and missing called. Hey, I’m alive. It was a mistake, it really was. Thank you, God, thank you.

Would it save him from the future if he just accepted there was nothing he could do to change the past? They either lived or they died. We were there, just there, was all he could think. And that he should’ve been there in the middle of the Great East Japan Earthquake. He should’ve been amidst the rubble and dust, the toxic wreckage caught between water and fire that brought the cities down. Maybe he would be. Maybe he’d call his mother and father, and tell them, Yeah it’s me, I’m here, yep, right here in the middle of disaster central, buried under a pile of rubble in the dark, air running out, cell phone battery fading, legs crushed, sipping water that drips from the ruins of concrete and steel: The Tohoku Earthquake. 

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Illustrated by Max Fucking Currie

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Illustrated by Max Currie

Whether dreaming or not, he recognized the theme song from The Strange Bonanza. He’d kept up with his old show, hoping it would fail without him. But it maintained its top-two ranking in the 8 to 9 p.m. slot. He recognized a few of his old cast mates.

Petite Plum screamed at the camera, a string of absurdities Kent couldn’t follow. Joe Three-toe with his pencil-thin moustache and his famous foot was there.

Reina Morioka, the elder matron of Japanese soap opera, who he believed had come on to him in his dressing room one evening after a shoot.

Nami Panda sat smiling, her white-white teeth gleaming against the J-pop star’s carroty makeup.

Kokoro Kodo’s magnificent tits nearly popped from her shiny satin top, squeezed into a rising bubble of soft flesh.

On each end of the talent console a young woman in bloated blue satin dress, oversized bloomers underneath, and colossal blue bow atop her head roosted like a sexy Alice blown up while high on magic mushrooms. Around them set designers had created a wonderland of giant monitors with images to satisfy any ADHD audience: blinking lights, and varieties of Styrofoam kanji and patterned shapes, all in vivid colors as if Alice had fallen not into a rabbit hole but a Tokyo department store display window. The console girls beamed and giggled on cue.

Kent watched the show, but spent most of the episode thinking of Midori in her red leather cosplay suit. He’d seen her in a new way, the glistening fabric, wide-eyed mask, pale yellow cups, and magnificent leather V. The plumping tummy. Just as Ozman had gone trance with his katana, Midori had disappeared inside an interior terrain, a place where Kent Richman didn’t exist or matter. And he wanted in, wanted to peek inside, find out what the big deal was. For Midori, Oji-san and his friends, their costumed life was home. Kent Richman could be happy with that.

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Illustrated by Max Currie

Ozman resurfaced much the way Kent had played his own revenge scene in a made-for-television drama that never made it to the television. He starred as the twin brother of a New York English teacher working in Japan who goes missing after a run-in with high-level yakuza. Kent played both twins, the dead one in flashbacks. The protagonist has come from the United States to get to the bottom of his twin’s mysterious disappearance. Upon discovering the yakuza connection, Kent’s character tracks down the people responsible for what he discovers is his brother’s death and exacts his revenge with violent ferocity. But not before his character meets and subsequently falls in love with his dead twin’s Japanese girlfriend. Kent recalled staring down into the camera (or the face of the yakuza baddie), his own face filling the frame, just as Ozman’s mug filled the frame as he peered down at Kent in a POV shot: maniacal sneer, rain dripping from his face, eyes wide with zeal, head shaved to a wet sheen. Except for the shaved head, Kent too had sneered and dripped and gone Jack Nicholson in The Shining all over the scene. A film critic for Tokyo Journal who had been invited to a preproduction rehearsal wrote: “Mr. Richman plays the vengeful brother like community theater on steroids.” Soon after the article ran, the movie lost its greenlight status.

Kent suspected he was dreaming again, lost in some series of cause-and-effect fantasy, his paranoia and ill state producing hallucinations bred by his worst fears. He’d thought of little else since he learned of Ozman’s escape. Until he noticed the black-handled chisa katana in a lacquered scabbard around Ozman’s waist, Kent believed he was safe in his reverie, if still on the ground outside Cedars and in a stupor.

Bullet

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Illustrated by Max Currie

 

Now, how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Ozman said, as he applied lipstick to Kumi’s celebrated pouty lips. Her efforts at resistance only smeared the makeup across her cheeks and over her chin, until she looked like an inept clown. She laughed weakly. The defiance that had been there died, fear growing like the dark rose around Kent’s eye. Ozman gently lifted Kumi’s hair from her eyes, inspected his work, then stood and turned to include Kent, opening his arms. Now, for my final and most magnificent trick.

A ghostly Middle Eastern rhythm played on the stereo, its spell maintained by an electronic hum, hand slaps against a drum, and the drone of vaporous voices. Outside, the sun sank beneath dark scattered clouds, as if somewhere in Tokyo an oil fire burned. Sunlight reflected off the skyscrapers’ glass. A stormy autumn evening was on its way.

Your husband ruined my marriage. Do you understand that? My one and only. Something you people don’t seem to know anything about. Ozman pulled Kumi up by her arms to her knees and bent to kiss her, more a caricature of a kiss than anything. You think I didn’t love her, is that it? That it was just some made-for-TV thing? A part of the act? Ozman stared at Kumi. His eyes watered and he shook his head. I loved her, you stupid, stupid people.

Kent struggled harder against the duct tape but couldn’t free himself. Kumi had turned her head up to the ceiling, away from Kent’s. He was grateful; he had nothing to offer her but panic and regret. Ozman stepped away. He touched his hands to his lips, muttered as if in prayer and stared out at the darkening sky. He didn’t speak again for at least a minute. Kent thought Ozman might have changed his mind, seen the folly in his revenge scenario. He thought Ozman might forgive him if he asked.

Bullet

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Illustration by Max Currie

Kent scanned Midori’s face for some hint of motivation. What drove this woman to want to know so much about him? To care when he was no one to care about? The concentration required all of his energy, the last of which was fading fast, motivation to move replaced by an odd euphoria. A Beatles song came to him. Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you— Kent had sung the song in a crooner’s tempo for an outdoor benefit, the host organization lost on him now. The Beatles song was upbeat but the producers didn’t think Kent could pull it off and asked him to slow it way down until it became a ballad. As did most of his live numbers, the song barely rose above karaoke. The producers had even dressed him in a satin blue jacket and black slacks, a white shirt with an open collar. Somewhere along the way Tony Bennett had subverted his association with John Lennon, but he didn’t care.

More than the details of his bizarre performance, Kent remembered the way he felt that evening under hot lights on an outdoor stage, rain falling over a festival audience. Nothing in his life compared with the moment he looked across a sea of swaying arms, some wrapped in parkas, others braving the steady drizzle that had fallen all afternoon leaving the sports field a muddy mess. Midway through the song, Kent felt the lyrics rising out of him mechanically, like his feet moving under him across the stage, and his arm wave to the crowd, acknowledging their cheers, their camera flashes and applause. Kent had never felt more like a hero. And he’d been straight for the performance, though afterwards he beelined for the green room and the bottles of whiskey lined up for the talent, the only thing he found that helped him contain his good feeling before it lifted and vanished. Kent watched the rest of the benefit from a corner just off stage, marveling at the life he’d come in to and happy to be alone in his bliss. He found he needed nothing more from the moment. He declined invitations to do drugs and skipped the after party, happy to head home where he hoped Kumi waited for him in bed, a book in her lap, the soft glow of lamplight warming the room. He felt that way again, with Midori, a blissful, painless satisfaction.

Kent had closed his eyes, for how long he didn’t  know, when Midori kissed him gently on the mouth. Her lips were warm and soft, so soft that Kent felt as if this was the first time they’d ever kissed, then remembered that it was.

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