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1. Into the Tillmanverse You never quite realize what Lynne Tillman’s done until it’s too late. She takes formal adventures in flavors of novels that had never before welcomed them. She carefully embeds details deep in her texts that others would dutifully (and dully) trot out up front. She crafts what feels like one distinctive, coherent fictional reality without explicitly connecting any of her long-form stories to one another. Published over two decades, her five novels so far build and explore what I call the “Tillmanverse” through the eyes and ears of worldly, culturally keen women (and one man), shapen or misshapen by their undeniable compulsions, obscure fixations, and grimly complex senses of humor. The Tillmanverse now has one more extension in the form of Someday This Will Be Funny, a collection of short stories newly published by Red Lemonade. Their women (and occasional men) write copious communiqués, trust and distrust their memories, trust and distrust their imaginations, don’t quite reconnect with the cast of their past, see themselves in their relationships, move ahead at the behest of odd desires, and stake out patches of the cityscape all their own. What’s more, they do it in text that knows just what to tell and what to leave completely untold. Tillman tends to lay out her novels and stories in pieces, but with piece-curation skills like hers, who needs wholes? Indeed, the latest book’s 22 tales showcase Tillman’s abilities in microcosm; what you find in them, you find in even greater depth and quantity in her novels. What better time, then, to take a look back at all her full-length novels to date? The more detailed your map of the Tillmanverse, the richer you’ll find your own wanderings through it. 2. Would you really call it agency? Haunted Houses, Tillman’s debut novel, braids the stories of three women growing up in and around New York. The epigraph “We are all haunted houses” seems to bode ill, as if predicting for the protagonists 208 pages of playing receptacle for assorted traumas. While none of the trio endure quite so rough a time as that, they nonetheless live apparently shapeless lives pocked by impulse, inertia, and confused frustration. They display flashes of agency, whether about the places they live, the books they read, or the fellows they let in, but the book’s overall form never stops asking whether agency is really what you’d call it. Jane, constantly struggling with her weight, desperate to shed her virginity, and genuinely close only to her hokey, obese uncle Larry, ultimately loses that virginity to a dopey co-worker at Macy’s. The bookish Emily — “Why can’t you be more normal?” laments her mother — grows into a sloppy, lackadaisical culture vulture who attaches herself to English rockers and married Austrians. Grace, spooked in childhood by periodically tussles with her erratic mother and the sight of a blank-eyed farm boy tossing a bag of kittens off a bridge, drifts to Providence and becomes the spitefully reluctant muse of her gay, Oscar Wilde- and Marilyn Monroe-worshipping best friend Mark who stages plays at bars. Tillman sketches the three childhoods in gritty enough detail to let you assume that, having established the wrongs foisted upon these ladies in youth — isolation, imagined frights never corrected, groundless disapproval, dead friends, freaky dads — she’ll proceed to deterministically follow the reverberations into three disappointing adulthoods. Yet she plays it just craftily enough to throw that interpretation into question while also avoiding the obvious move of getting these three together. From start to finish, Jane, Emily, and Grace remain united mainly by the late-mid-20th century in which they come of age and the geographical territory they do it in. Even when one breaks away, as when Emily takes a proofreading job in in Amsterdam, none shake their vague existential claustrophobia. 3. What we call personality The travel bug bites Motion Sickness’ unnamed American heroine harder, so much harder that she never stops traveling — indeed, barely pauses in any one place — rendering normal whatever “motion sickness” she suffers. This twitchy peripateticism offers Tillman the chance to structure the novel both in fragments and geographically: you read a shard of narrative in Paris, then one in Istanbul, then one in Agia Galini, then one in Amsterdam, then another in Istanbul, and so on. The protagonist’s financial support? A bit of savings and a small loan from Mom — no wandering aristocrat, she. Her cultural armory? Copies of The Interpretation of Dreams, The Quiet American, and My Gun is Quick, and a love of Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel. Despite her intriguing taste in books and films and merciless drive toward perpetual flight, this woman reveals remarkably little about herself. Yes, we’ve all read narrators who do and say much while concealing even more, but Tillman somehow casts aside even our standard desire to get further into her interior. A swirl of secondary characters, almost all compulsive travelers with a tendency to turn up in several different nations, offers a distraction: our heroine helps an aged eccentric assemble her memoirs, signs on to a tour of aggressive sightseeing with a pair of English brothers, drinks with an ill-fated ex-cop, separately encounters a Buddhist American single mother and her runaway husband, and falls for a Yugoslavian who argues, with increasing strenuousness, for the melancholic weight of history that supposedly hunches all Europeans. But does this supporting cast counterbalance the failure to probe of the narrator’s deeper character, or do the countless, always-developing nuances of her various relationships with them constitute her deeper character? Haunting cafés with one, momentarily shacking up in a rented room with another, writing postcards to many others but tearing most of them up — these actions, and nothing else, could prove enough to make a human being. “In a sociology course I took the professor said that what we call personality doesn’t exist except in relation to others,” Tillman, with an uncharacteristic explicitness, has her protagonist say toward the book’s end. In Cast in Doubt, Tillman creates Horace, another traveler whose gender alone makes him feel at first like a stark departure. But his homosexuality emerges in the early chapters, either bringing him closer to or distancing him from his lady colleagues in the Tillman oeuvre. The relevant question: what do male homosexuality and female heterosexuality have in common — a lot, or nothing? If Horace doesn’t approach this issue directly, he at least takes on questions in its orbit when he develops a controlling aesthetic-intellectual infatuation with a girl who one day lands in his tiny Greek town. Horace, you see, has long since gone expat. At 65, shacked up on Crete with a surly twentysomething local, he tosses off crime potboilers while avoiding work on a hazy magnum opus called Household Gods. When Helen — surely the most loaded possible name, given the Greek context — enters his life, his hypertrophied fictionalist’s mind builds around her a towering mystique. Though the objective details portray Helen as nothing more than a callow, flighty psychiatrist’s daughter with a loopy scrapbook in hand, Horace looks at her and practically gets vertigo. Needless to say, her disappearance, which comes as suddenly as her arrival, only intensifies his obsession. Beneath Cast in Doubt’s stolidly un-flashy surface, Tillman uses Helen’s draw on Horace to perform a fascinating act of genre subversion. Horace funds his self-imposed exile by writing the surprisingly inventive yet still groan-inducing exploits of detective Stan Green, and Horace looks to Green as his model when he resolves to drive across the island in pursuit of his quasi-muse. But Tillman very nearly sets the issue of whereabouts entirely aside, focusing instead on who-abouts. Soon after dedicating himself to his investigation, Horace comes to realize how little he ever knew about Helen. This doesn’t stop him from speculating, sometimes wildly, which enriches the inevitable collision of his imagination and reality — reality coming in the form of that diary in which Helen scribbled so purposefully. Parts of the book play as a detective tale; other parts play as a standard psychological narrative; most parts play as a genre less easy to pin down. Horace’s way with stories, the remote setting to which he relegates himself, the hodgepodge cast that surrounds him — a South African provocateur; a black New York “scenemaker”; a former opera star, a limp, cynical aesthete; a hirsute English hermit — and the reigned scowl underlying even his happier moments all remind me of David Markson’s Going Down. What can we call this tiny genre? I suggest “oblique, vaguely menacing narratives of fictional complacent expatriate writers.” Barnes & Noble can start building that shelf any day now. 4. What every malcontent needs If it weren’t for all the jokes, No Lease on Life would read as yet another story of crushing rent-controlled New York squalor. When Tillman writes squalor, she writes squalor: layer upon layer of grime; collapsed, immobile junkies; heaping piles of human waste; slashed bags of garbage; spreading pools of milk. And that’s just inside Elizabeth Hall’s building! In the first half of the book, Tillman recounts Elizabeth’s battles to nail down an apartment in New York, to fight a minute rent increase, to get her drunken superintendent to clean anything at all, to convince the guy across the street to quite revving his car so early in the morning — all in the course of one night. Transfixed by the sweep of street chaos on her block, Elizabeth stares out the window instead of sleeping, fantasizing about taking up a crossbow to murder the “morons” and “crusties” vomiting and knocking over trashcans all night long. Tillman evokes an almost farcically shambolic New York familiar to anyone who enjoys the literature and film that came from the city in the seventies, but she sets this novel in 1994 — you can tell by the O.J. trial references — thus illustrating that the place didn’t go completely minty-fresh in the nineties. Or at least Elizabeth’s block — her world — didn’t. When I talk about No Lease on Life’s “jokes,” I don’t necessarily mean that Tillman or Elizabeth, despite the grit-toothed resolve evident in the both of them, lighten these circumstances with the cynical wit every educated lowish-class urban malcontent needs. Besides the line between the book’s two days, which bear the titles “Night and Day” and “Day and Night”, only jokes break up the text. Common, punchline-y, sometimes tired, often sexual or racial jokes, none of which, miraculously, have an explicit relationship to the narrative. I happened to laugh the loudest at this one, which also bears an unusual thematic relevance: A man who lived in New York City couldn’t stand it any more. So he moved to Montana. His closest neighbor was ten miles away. The first month was great — he didn’t see anyone. It was quiet. After three months he started to get restless. After six months he was so bored, he thought about moving back to the city. A neighbor called. He invited him to a party. The neighbor said, get ready for a lot of drinking, fighting, and fucking. Great, the man said. Who’ll be there? You and me, the neighbor said. In American Genius: A Comedy, Tillman brings strands of Elizabeth, Emily, Grace, Jane, and the others into a single consciousness, allowing us unprecedented entry. But do we enter it, or does it entrap us? Not until a hefty chunk of pages has passed does Tillman reveal the name of Helen, the novel’s central character and one who has voluntarily entrapped herself in some sort of colony or low-security institution. Though she rarely roams far from wherever it is she lives, her thoughts spread, soar, and loop — especially loop — through subjects and variations on the industrial technology of textiles, the Zulu language, former Manson acolyte Leslie van Houten, and dermatology — especially dermatology. Helen: we’ve heard that name before. Could the mind of this middle-aged American History PhD. exiled from the greater social sphere belong to the very same Helen of Cast in Doubt, thirty years on? Or to one of the now very much grown girls of Haunted Houses? Or to the traveler of Motion Sickness, who finally learned a way to stay put and then some? Tillman prevents us from firmly believing or rejecting any or all of those possibilities. I can imagine any of her main characters at home here, wrapped in this oversensitive skin and oversensitive consciousness, reacting in vast paragraphs to this community of disparate eccentrics, ready at any moment to see and build upon the patterns in the seemingly yet deceptively formless play of data, ideas, and recollections that combination sparks.
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Toward the middle of Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut collection Insurrections, in a story called “Juba,” a black man in Cross River, MD, is arrested on the way to a job interview. He is later released with a tepid apology. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity: the police are looking for a drug kingpin named Juba, to whom our protagonist bears a slight resemblance. As angered as this man is for the inconvenience (he misses his interview and doesn’t get the job), he is also intrigued. He makes it his mission to track down the near-legendary drug dealer, upon whom he begins to project a preternatural significance. He is right to do so: when he finally meets Juba, the famous fugitive is living an unexpectedly monastic existence, trading bags of weed for snippets of slang that he uses to translate the Bible into the local vernacular. Juba explains that the people of Cross River are losing their distinctive patois as they try more and more to sound like white people. “We done lost our tongue,” he tells the narrator. “Some shit I got to say to you, I won’t even try to say ‘cause there ain’t no words for it. I got to use more words than I would have to use if we had our language back. I got to speak slowly so you understand me, even though we from the same place. Ridiculous, but it ain’t your fault. I’m trying to complete the Cross River tongue.” It is tempting to read Juba’s explanation as an ars poetica of sorts for Scott, who goes to great lengths to establish the anomaly that is the fictional city in which his stories are set. Cross River exists at that intersection of reality and alternative history. It was founded by the survivors of the only successful (and yet curiously obscure) slave revolt in American history, led by a man known only as Ol’ Cigar. It remains predominantly black to this day, divided into the bougie Northside and the more impoverished Southside, the latter of which is subject to routine and extreme flooding whenever the rains fall heavy. The city is home to the historically black Freedman’s University, as well as three notorious crime families (the Jacksons, Johnsons, and Washingtons). It boasts its own local sound, called Riverbeat, as well as its own local demonyms (either “Cross Riverian” or “Riverbaby,” depending on who you ask). It sits in close proximity to Port Yooga, Virginia, but also to the Wildlands, a swathe of undeveloped wilderness populated by madmen, wolf hunters, and escaped zoo animals. That all might sound like worldbuilding worthy of Karen Russell, but Scott’s fiction is mostly absent of fabulism and whimsy. A few of the stories operate as satire -- “Party Animal” describes the reverse evolution of a young man from the debate team to a state of forest-dwelling ferality, and the very brief “Klan” involves a surreal psychology experiment on the campus of Freedman’s -- but most of the book exists firmly within the realm of naturalist fiction. In “202 Checkmates,” a young girl learns to play chess from her unemployed father, who patiently instructs her in the application of the game’s lessons to real life, even as he celebrates every victory with pentecostal zeal: “He jumped and shuffled across the floor like the Holy Ghost had slithered up his pant leg.” The girl’s losses quickly reach triple digits, but she nevertheless manages to figure out those life lessons, even some that her father has yet to realize. Another story, “Confirmation,” follows thirteen-year-old Bobby in the weeks leading up to the sacrament which will (as he understands it) usher him into adulthood. He isn’t devout so much as curious, with questions regarding Jesus’s whiteness (“Damn negroes want to make everybody black,” opines his mother) and the true sinfulness of his masturbatory habits. His pastor and parents are unwilling to offer him many answers, though that doesn’t save him from having to make a Christ-like sacrifice for the sake of his sober father. These stories, told from the viewpoint of children, are among the strongest in an uneven collection. The pieces that deal more directly with the mythology of Cross River generally do so to their own structural detriment. Stories like “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone” and “Razor Bumps” are derailed by their interest in esoteric local lore or power structures. In the latter, an amusing piece about a barber who has lost his ability to cut hair is subsumed by a subplot about a rapper, who relates to the rest of the story only in that he’s currently being blamed for the death of a police officer that the barber once knew. The text of the story features recurring excerpts from an interview with that rapper which, while echoing some of Juba’s ideas about Cross River’s exceptionalism, do nothing to elucidate the central mystery of the story. By the time a conclusion is reached, the plot has moved so far away from its principle tension that it elicits no emotion from the reader. Similarly, the final story, “Three Insurrections,” forces a rather opaque Cross River-centric framing device over what is otherwise a story about a Trinidadian immigrant’s experience with the King assassination riots in Washington, D.C. Its Cross River material -- which involves a mysterious book, a prophecy, and some unlikely family migration patterns -- is the story’s weakest aspect, distracting from an otherwise compelling rumination on racial resentment and political violence. Scott is an impressive ventriloquist, adopting a number of disparate narrative voices over the course of the book. He offers many brilliant lines (“I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. It’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes”), and writes about race, fatherhood, lust, and envy with estimable candor. Perhaps he is stuck, like nearly every artist, between what he knows how to do and what he hasn’t yet mastered. He knows how to write a small, realistic, domestic story. Neither chess nor the sacrament of confirmation are terribly fresh metaphors in 2016, but he can work them into narratives that satisfy. And yet his prose feels most alive when he’s pursuing those images and plot twists tied to the minutia of his created world, even if their thematic importance to the story at hand remains cloudy. What does it mean to rewrite the Bible in slang? And how does that redress the sting of police profiling? An answer is there, perhaps, though it has yet to find its fullest articulation. The world of Cross River feels larger than one book, and Scott may intend for Insurrections to be the first volume in a long investigation of that city. For now, the collection feels like a miscellany of early works grafted imperfectly onto a rigid frame. (Which is fine. Many debut collections are made this way.) Scott’s imaginative capacity is prodigious, and his fictional world feels vast and riotous with potential, but Insurrections is ultimately less successful, perhaps, than the rebellion from which it takes its name.
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1. When I was three, I got a pet wolf. This is a story I like to tell. “Did you grow up on a ranch or something?” the listener might ask in the beginning. “I grew up in Florida,” I tell them. “Orlando.” Strip malls, chain restaurants, 24-hour diners, highways with burning hot asphalt. Oaks draped with Spanish moss. Palm trees heavy with dates. The scent of orange peel. Avocado pits. Alligators hovering on the still surfaces of lakes (from a distance, they looked like logs). Hurricanes. Garden lizards. Water parks. 7-Eleven Slurpees, flavored Coke or blue raspberry. Gatorland. This will always be Orlando to me. What a place to bring a wolf. The story begins in 1986. Winter, a family ski trip to Park City. I was only three, too young for Utah, but oh have I heard the stories. Before returning home, they -- my parents, two half-brothers, half-sister, and her husband -- spent a few nights at a grand old hotel in Salt Lake City. My father remembers the ground being dusted with snow and that the width of the downtown boulevards had been determined by how much room was required to turn a team of horses. In a new place, my father likes to read the classifieds, and the Salt Lake newspaper was littered with advertisements for “cross-wolves.” Apparently it was illegal to advertise a full-blooded wolf, but these “cross-wolf” puppies were suppose to be 99 percent, as close as you could get. My father picked out an address an hour west of Salt Lake City. The family set out on an adventure. In the rental van, they hugged the edge of the Great Salt Lake, unfrozen due to the high salt content, then followed a road that led to a small town. Out there the snow was heavier, so deep that many of the street numbers were blanketed in white. They passed a doublewide on a hill, a cedar tree in the yard, a heavy chain looped around the trunk. From the grooves in the snow it was clear an animal had been tethered there. Sagebrush. A constellation of plastic toys on the ground. A woman standing outside, tall and pale. Severe as the weather. This woman brought out the mother, who was unmistakably wolf: huge and silver-coated. Her manner was cowed, a once wild animal made low and afraid. As the woman chained the wolf to the cedar, it occurred to my father that the Sierra Nevadas, a habitat for the gray wolf, lay to the west. If selling wolves was a lucrative business, the opportunities to dig up a burrow or trap a pregnant female would be plentiful. In an outdoor pen, there were two puppies, both eight weeks old: a reddish male and a silver female. The woman wanted $100 per wolf. Soon it was time to go. No one felt good about leaving the cubs behind, but bringing a wolf back to Florida seemed out of the question. In the van, they started toward Salt Lake City and didn’t get far before my mother called out to my father, “Look at your son!” My half-brother, the youngest of the two on the trip, was desperate for a wolf and sobbing in the back of the van. That was all my father needed to turn around. Armed with this wolf, they returned to their elegant hotel. The elder brother slipped the soft, squirming cub inside his orange ski jacket and smuggled her up to their suite. Already my father had come up with a name: Natasha. Natasha spent the night in a claw-footed bathtub. Her eyes were just like wolf eyes, or what everyone imagined wolf eyes to be: a bright, piercing blue. My mother slept on the bathroom floor to keep her from crying. The next day, Natasha was in a crate and Florida-bound. Around this time the listener’s face usually clouds with concern. “Exactly what kind of people are your parents?” I can see them thinking. Who brings a wolf to Florida? Who allows a wolf and a toddler to occupy the same space? When I press my parents on these points, they admit to having not spent much time pondering the complications. They are quick to mention my brother’s tearful outburst. My father says he was moved by the plight of the chained-up mother, who would likely spend her days being bred and bred, and was struck by a desire to save Natasha from a life chained to a tree. My mother points out that she and my father were newly married; it was her first marriage, his third. Aligning herself with the child who longed for the wolf seemed like a chance to earn the affection of her stepchildren. In my version, the truth is simpler. My parents are Animal People and Animal People, when faced with the predicaments of the furry and the feathered, cannot be counted on to behave rationally. My mother grew up on a farm in Tennessee. She rode ponies, nursed baby rabbits, reared calves for 4H. At 70, she can recall the trauma of losing her favorite childhood cow to slaughter as though it happened yesterday. My father spent his formative years in D.C. and was known as a “nature boy” at school, partly due to having raised a baby buzzard to maturity in his backyard. The Buzzard of Glover Park. My childhood pets included: dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, ferrets, and chickens. The stray cat that occasionally turned up mewling on our doorstep was readily absorbed into the household, including a beautiful black cat riddled with leukemia, who we named Midnight and nursed until his death. In 2006, my parents would divorce, bitterly, and a love of animals is one of the only things they would continue to have in common. Case in point: last summer, I called my mother with the news that my father’s beloved Jack Russell terrier had died. By then my father had remarried. My mother had returned to Tennessee. They spoke only when it was unavoidable, except on that day, when I called with news of the dog and she wept and she wrote to him, offering her condolences. 2. We are a family rich with adventure. With my parents, I have gotten lost in the wilds of Poland and ridden a horse along the edge of a ravine in a driving rain and survived a mudslide. I have shared a house with a wolf. Each of these adventures gives way to a story. Of our many family stories, Natasha is one of the most legendary. I spent years absorbing the way her story was told to me, the details that brought her to life. Her rapid growth from a cub to a creature that resembled the chained-up mother in Utah. Natasha slinking around our brick-walled backyard, head low. The black dot at the base of her tail. The long canine teeth. The enormous paws. Her prodigious pacing, which created trenches so deep, she was only half-visible when inside them. There was something lonely, something searching, about her pacing. A pack animal looking for her pack. I remember hearing about her silence. Movements so stealth, footsteps so light, you would look up and be surprised to find her there. She was at once gentle and aloof, submitting to affection without seeking it. She lived with us, in this land of heat and palm trees and slithering reptiles, but never became part of the family, like an international student pausing in our home to observe the curious habits of Americans. My own memories of Natasha are like a blur of light in the corner of a photograph, at once insistent and vague, but here is one thing I remember about her with true clarity: I can see myself kneeling on a blue sofa and looking out a window, small hands pressed against the glass, and watching Natasha skulk around the backyard, her coat gleaming silver under the Florida sun. I remember being mesmerized by this huge, beautiful creature that had been dropped into our world. I don’t recall ever being afraid. 3. Ask most writers about their literary education and there’s a good chance you’ll be regaled with stories of voracious childhood reading, of rapturous early encounters with Judy Bloom or C.S. Lewis, of the thoughtful teacher who was the first to notice their innate facility for language. My husband, a novelist, embarked on the writerly path after falling headlong for “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford while studying English at a New England boarding school. Reading saved me. Reading made me feel less alone. These are the familiar refrains. For me, these are curious conversations. They tend to make me feel alienated from the very people -- fellow artists -- who might, in theory, help relieve the feeling of outsiderness that tend to plague most writers, a feeling that has certainly plagued me. I was not a literary child. I felt very alone, but I did not read. I was a poor student and, though I must have read something, I can’t remember a single work of fiction from high school. My educational trajectory included a GED and night classes for college, where I had the great fortune of stumbling into a fiction workshop, and because of that there is a part of me that will always feel undereducated, intellectually unrefined. I still, for example, burn with shame when I remember the time a writer I admired, at a dinner with other writers I admired, laughed loudly before correcting my pronunciation of “beaux arts.” I am 31. I currently teach at a highly-ranked liberal arts college. The “beaux arts” incident was several years ago and I still am not over it and that is entirely my own hang-up. I used to think that, until I began reading and writing in college, I had no literary education, but I was wrong. I had Natasha. I was, as a storyteller, raised by a wolf. Natasha is the first family story I remember hearing and the first story I started telling myself. She is my earliest experience with the construction of narrative. In both the listening and the telling, there was much to learn. As a listener, I noticed how the details shifted from teller to teller. In one version, her coat was silver. In another, it was the color of oatmeal. In one version, the neighborhood she came from was near water. In another, it was inland. In my brother’s version, he denied being the instigator, the one who cried for the wolf. My parents’ versions focused on the grand adventure of Natasha’s acquisition and glossed over what happened after. Everyone was telling a true story. Everyone was engaging in their own acts of invention. As the teller, I watched people brighten, lean in, when I started talking about my pet wolf in Florida. I learned the importance of contrast and surprise, the pleasure in finding the unexpected in the familiar. Depending on the details I selected, the story could be comic or sad. My parents could be painted as reckless or heroic. I could accept one teller’s version over another. I could create my own. Fiction, through fabrication, finds the truth that real life tends to cover up. 4. “So what ever happened to Natasha?” the listener always asks. Like my parents, I, depending on the kind of story I have decided to tell, sometimes avoid this part. Natasha never took to Florida, or at least not our suburban incarnation of it. Her dense coat was a misery in the tropics. With her huge paws, she dug burrows in the backyard and coated herself in dirt, searching for cool. My mother says the holes were large enough for a person to crawl inside. The longer Natasha stayed with us, the more she grew hot, isolated, bored. My parents employed a landscaper to help with yard work, a tall, obliging man in his 30s. This man took a special interest in Natasha. He was always quick to remind my parents that he had a place in the country, plenty of land, and one day he took her home. For a while, there were updates, Natasha was faring well in the countryside, but eventually we lost track. No one knows how her story ended, but the ghost of her never left me. 5. “What ever happened to you?” the listener never asks. And why would they? I’m right here, telling the story. One winter, when I was 15, I made a half-hearted attempt at running away from home. I bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Tallahassee, a university town near the Georgia border. This was a few days before Christmas. I was restless and depressed and thoroughly sick of Florida. A “Natasha” in my own right. I felt myself sliding into a dark hole and I didn’t know how to climb out. I had spent time studying the northern contours on maps. The hook of Massachusetts, the wedge of Vermont, the wild frontier of Maine. The Greyhound bus to Tallahassee was my first attempt at going north. I don’t remember what I took with me or what even prompted my leaving. I came back right after Christmas, head hung, ashamed to have caused my family such grief. What I do remember is staring out the window as the bus rolled down a gray Florida highway, my own dull reflection trapped in the glass, and feeling the shattering loneliness of not knowing who I was or why I was doing what I was doing. And suddenly Natasha was there in my memory, big and silver and pacing circles. I had not seen her in over a decade, but on that bus I thought back to the image of her in the backyard and wondered if she ever looked up from her digging and glimpsed her own reflection in a window. If she recognized what she saw. What happened was this: the girl on the bus grew up. She went to college. She started to read, learned about different kinds of stories. She enrolled in a graduate program and moved to Boston, that chilly long-desired north. She rode the subway. She tasted snow. On the outside, she was changing, but that loneliness she felt on the bus, that Natasha space, would always be the place from which she would write. 6. In my current life, I spend my days in classrooms, talking about stories. At the start of the semester, I ask my students to tell me a true story and together we take these stories apart. We seek out the contradictions, the surprises, the unexpected in the familiar. We interrogate the gaps. We note the parts the teller seems most eager to perform. We confront the rough edges that have been smoothed. We talk about the secret story we can see taking shape, like shadows flickering on the smooth surface of a lake. A story is different from an event, I tell them. The event is what happens. A story is the mythology that rises from what happens. Often this mythology is where the real story, the truest story, lives. When my students want a story from me, Natasha is always the one I offer. The first time I participated in this exercise, I reached for her story without thinking, and without exactly meaning to, I never tell the story the same way twice. “Why do you tell the wolf story?” a student has yet to ask. If they did, I would say it is because Natasha contains so many different kinds of story: she tells a story about a wolf who went to Florida and a story about a family and a story about how I learned to tell stories. The story I have to tell about her is a true story and it is a fiction. It has achieved the level of myth. I might even say that I still long to talk about her. To remember that silver coat, that relentless pacing. I still wonder what ever became of her, dream up the different versions. Alice Munro once described a story as a house and each time I speak of Natasha, I feel another window in the house of that story open. I feel the air come in. I am permitted the illusion of a story without end. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Enlightenment comes in many guises, and though we usually think of it as arriving in a koi pond or a distant mountaintop, we can also find it, as the protagonist of Year in Reading alum Tom McCarthy’s new novel attempts to do, on Staten Island. In The New Republic, David Marcus reads the book.
Recommended reading: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the new modesty of literary criticism and the complicated relationship between texts, critics, and politics. For more on the balance between art and politics, look no further than Jonathan Clarke's Millions essay, "Alive with Disagreement and Dissent."