“Our town is famous for its deep, beautiful mountain gorges spanned by one-lane bridges, and it is from these bridges that local would-be suicides typically jump.” So begins “Copycats,” the sixth piece in J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes, published by Graywolf Press in 2005. The swerve that occurs in this first sentence—we are lulled by tourism-brochure language only to be slapped by the word “suicides”—is a microcosm for the story, in which a college student’s painfully brief suicide note (“can’t/go on”) is revealed to have been torn from a larger, far less devastating note: “Midterms over, dude! I totally can’t/wait for this party. You can go on/without me if I’m late.—B.” The student’s “suicide” is now understood to have been an accidental death, a drunken fall to the bottom of a gorge, rather than an intentional act—but not before there have been “a rash of copycat suicides.” We move from the shock of the suicide, to the shock of the non-suicide, to the shock of the copycat suicides, all in the course of a page and a half. There’s plenty of horror in these shocks—and also some very black humor.
Pieces for the Left Hand is all about the swerve. In these hundred brief pieces (are they micro essays? Flash fictions? Prose poems? Who cares?), the assumptions set up at the beginning are overturned by the end. Every time I return to this book, I’m struck by Lennon’s ability to achieve this movement, and in so few words.
The swerve is used to different effects throughout the book. In “Twilight,” a coffee shop clerk is puzzled when some French tourists inquire: Where is twilight? The clerk politely explains that the end of the pier is the ideal place to view the sunset, only to realize that the tourists were seeking the toilet, not the twilight. Still, walking home from work, the clerk witnesses the tourists standing at the end of the pier.
The swerve here is not the whiplash of “Copycats,” but rather the pleasure of noticing, perhaps for the first time, that “toilet” and “twilight” are word-sisters; the universal humor of a linguistic misunderstanding; and the final beat, in which the awkwardness of the mistake has led to a moment of beauty unachievable but for the mistake. In a role it plays throughout the book, humor undercuts potential sentimentality.
Reading this book reminds me of running into a beloved and witty friend on the street, hearing their latest piece of bizarre gossip. Retelling these stories—which are not much longer in the summary than in the original—I feel the same charge I experience when some strange little thing happens to me, a coincidence or mix-up, that I’m eager to share with someone.
Yet it doesn’t do these pieces justice to dwell on their wry charm, for that trait is entwined with profound darkness, the ever-presence of death, a disconcerting eeriness that pulls back the veil on the illusions of daily life. In “Tea,” the narrator calculates the quantity of tea that his mother drank “in the twelve years between my father’s death and her own.” He concludes: 21,000 cups of tea, 1,300 gallons of tea, “a measure of loneliness.”
After I recommended Pieces for the Left Hand to a student of mine who often chafes at the contrivance of fictional narratives, he came to my office lit from within by the reading experience. Each of the stories, he said, has a perfect “it-ness” to it: it is what it is, no more and no less. Just the most efficient possible presentation of narrative.
I agree with my student; there is a straightforwardness to the delivery that plays potently against the many minor epiphanies in the book. At the same time, there’s a decided surreality to these stories: the narrator sees “giant yellow machines, bought by the city for the purpose of clearing wet leaves from the gutters” moving down the street with no drivers in them. In “Get Over It,” a town is in mourning for a fire that killed eleven children … forty years prior. These are the surrealities of life itself: surrealities created by dreams, by memory, by emotion.
Lennon elevates the mundane moments in life—or unveils their shadow side. These pieces deal in the minute instants when you mis-see, mis-hear, mis-interpret something. They point to the inherent absurdity of being a human moving through the world. I love the book for both its irony and its generosity.
I first read Pieces for the Left Hand over a decade ago, when I was making my own forays into narrative brevity. Weary after writing and then throwing out three full-length novels, I was craving—as a writer and as a reader—narratives that could be contained in one hand. Narratives that were more like doorways than like castles. Other books and writers helped me at that time: Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, Jorge Luis Borges, Lydia Davis.
Pieces for the Left Hand, along with these others, served as a critical permission book. It raised questions for me: What constitutes a narrative arc? How concise can a story be? Does genre matter? How does it help—if at all—to label things?
These books emboldened me: A book can contain whatever it is that you need to say. It can take whatever form you want it to take. Evade definition, and you free yourself.
As I learned from Lennon’s “The Mary,” an arc can consist of a person walking past a statue of the Virgin Mary every day—only to realize that the holy statue is actually an umbrella that was closed for the winter.
With this in mind, I began what would later become my first published book, And Yet They Were Happy, comprised entirely of stories that are each precisely 340 words. Within that arbitrary numerical constraint, I allowed myself to experiment with many different sorts of arcs.
Pieces from Lennon’s book arise randomly in my mind, almost like memories from my own life. I’m thinking now of the one in which the narrator spies garbage trucks at night, sprinkling cinnamon on the streets rather than collecting trash. When I was having trouble locating this particular story amid the hundred anecdotes, I wrote to J. Robert Lennon, asking if he could remind me of its title.
He replied: “Ha! No, I don’t think that’s me, actually, though it easily could be.”
Our exchange—and my surreal misremembering—made me feel like a character in Pieces for the Left Hand.
I could have sworn that story existed in the book. But maybe better yet that the book created enough space for the story to exist in me.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Our mother worried we would be seen as sluts. My friends were blessed with less direct mothers — the ones who believed in gentle shaming, who cajoled their daughters into less revealing clothes or hummed their disapproval when they found out that boys would be at the movie their daughters were attending with friends. “Be careful,” they’d say, when they really meant “don’t do anything stupid with a boy.”
My sisters and I were not blessed with such a mother. At the first sign of breasts, my mother would begin her campaign about the dangers of descending into promiscuity. They were sermons about the fragility of a woman’s will and the uncontrollable libido of men. Neither women nor men could help themselves, my mother would tell us.
My sisters were unbothered by these sermons, listening with pretend patience as my mother tried to make ladies out of them with a Victorian zeal she had acquired living under British colonialism in Ghana. I, on the other hand, would fight with my mother every single time. Why didn’t my brothers get lectures about guarding their virtue? And why should what I wear matter? “Because boys are different,” she would say, “and men will get the wrong idea if you wear something provocative.”
Once, the words my mother and I said to each other were like the blunted edge of a knife: sharp enough to cut, but too dull to leave a lasting wound. But when I sprouted breasts, and my mother worried about all these changes entailed, and I chafed at her attempts to make me into a “proper” woman, our relationship, once bound by love, turned into a battle in which we both needed armor. I retreated further into books.
I’m not sure how I discovered At the Bottom of the River (1983), Jamaica Kincaid’s collection of short stories, but I do remember that the moment I read “Girl,” it echoed throughout my body. Ah, so it’s not just my mother with a mouth full of fire, I thought to myself. It felt like Kincaid had found a crevice in our home, entered unnoticed, and written down everything she heard (never mind that “Girl” was published before I was born).
“On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” the unnamed mother tells her also unnamed daughter. “Walk like a lady,” was a favorite phrase of my mother’s when we were growing up. Likewise the mother instructs her “how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well” so they “won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” This was so close to my mother’s accusation that I was too “friendly” with boys that I felt Kincaid was speaking directly to me. No story or book, no matter how much I had loved it, had ever done that before. So often, when my mother and I would fight — when I hadn’t lived up to her expectations of how a girl should behave — I would take out At the Bottom of a River and reread the story of my life.
The girl’s story was not my story because we had a lot in common. After all, she’s poor and lives in the Caribbean, while I grew up in a well-heeled town in America. I also didn’t have to learn how to grow my own food, fish, or make my clothes to survive. But what we both had in common was a mother who feared her daughter would descend into promiscuity, not unwillingly.
“This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” the mother in “Girl” tells her daughter. When I read this as a teenager, I imagined the mother saying this to her daughter had the face of my mother and I was the daughter protesting what her mother thought of her; that mother didn’t know her daughter any more than my mother knew me. “But I don’t sing benna [an Antiguan folk song] on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school” the girl says when her mother tells her not to sing benna in Sunday school. But the mother continues, unwilling to hear her daughter’s protests. My mother would also ignore me when I would insist to her that I wasn’t trying to give boys the wrong impression when I spoke to them.
At some point my mother must have decided she didn’t like fighting with me about how I behaved, or perhaps she thought I was a lost cause, since my tongue had been made even sharper by the feminist writers I had recently discovered, and she stopped her sermons. And since I no longer needed “Girl,” I stopped reading what I had once declared was the story of my life.
Years later, in one of my periodic fits of cleaning, I found a bruised and battered copy of At the Bottom of the River at the bottom of a box. I opened the book to “Girl,” but I hesitated before reading it. To love something when you’re young is to love it with reverence. I was afraid if I reread “Girl,” I would find myself a disillusioned devotee. Despite these misgivings, I sat down on a pile of clothes and read “Girl” for the first time in probably 15 years. After I finished, I was sorry that I had waited so long.
Rereading the story, I was struck by Kincaid’s ability to say so much with a mere 681 words, how she created a world with as much detail and depth as short stories far longer than “Girl.” The story manages to convey to readers some of the food eaten in Antigua (pumpkin fritters, tea, salt fish, okra, doukona, bread pudding, dasheen, and pepper pot), the family’s socioeconomic standing and cultural beliefs (“don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all”), the connection between respectability and domestic knowledge, and the tense relationship between a mother and her daughter. It is a sweeping list, yet it still doesn’t cover everything Kincaid addresses in the story.
In my rereading of “Girl,” I also realized that I never noticed how transgressive the story is. The mother’s liturgy about behaving well so people won’t think you are a slut is partly about pretense; about maintaining a public facade in a culture that demands prudishness from its women. “This,” the mother tells her daughter casually, “is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” before she immediately moves on to how to “catch a fish.”
Derek Walcott once said of Kincaid: “As she writes a sentence, psychologically, its temperature is that it heads toward its own contradiction. It’s as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels.” “Girl,” one long sentence interrupted by commas and semicolons, heads toward its own contradiction from its very first word.
The story begins with the mother telling her daughter how to behave so as to not be considered a slut, then veers to the mother teaching her daughter what to do if her sexual transgressions catch up with her. The story then ends with the mother’s dismay that her daughter will become a loose woman even after all the instructions she’s been given. “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?”
I was young when I first read “Girl,” so I’ll partially absolve myself for reading the story as if I were reading my own diary instead of seeing it as a complex, arresting story that should be read for its own sake. But I also think that it’s just how many (most?) of us are taught how to read and appreciate books. When my father gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice he told me, “You’ll like this story; the main character is feisty just like you.” We always look for connections to our own lives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that part of the beauty of literature was that “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” I believed this once. Passionately. But reading in hopes of finding yourself reflected back now feels like a barren endeavor. It is mistaking solipsism for intimacy. A gaze that looks only for itself will never see anything else but its own reflection. If literature serves any purpose, it’s to take us outside of ourselves. But the young girl I was remains grateful to Jamaica Kincaid for those blissful moments when it felt like I wasn’t alone.