Can't and Won't: Stories

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The Strange and the Divine: On Rita Bullwinkel’s ‘Belly Up’


Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up is as exquisite as it is absurd. The real glides so closely against the imagined that when a grieving widow hears her neighbors through their shared wall, she finds it necessary to check that they are real people and not younger manifestations of herself and her husband. She wonders whether she has invented them, and, as readers, we are not quite sure. We’re never entirely certain where these stories of recognition and reinvention are going to go, of what the rules are. What keeps us here is the intelligence and precision of Bullwinkel’s prose, which allows her to mine the deeply strange and deeply intimate with abandon and exactitude.

In a recent tweet, award-winning author Victor LaValle posited: ‘The last word of your first book was the theme of the whole thing…” If that is the case, the theme of Belly Up is “thread.” That seems apt. Belly Up is woven together with thick, peculiar strands. In the hands of a less-assured writer, these threads might feel loose, disconnected—under Bullwinkel’s guidance, they pull together to arrive at moments of profound revelation.

These stories are bound by their unwillingness to conform, by their insights into the human mind, by their wicked authenticity. Belly Up is full of reckoning, full of curiosity, full of characters attempting to pull themselves out of the mundane, out of what is expected of them. This feels akin to yanking a plant out of the soil from its root; the experience is intensely odd and simultaneously invigorating.

Belly Up is perhaps best described by a moment in one of the collection’s best stories, “Arms Overhead,” in which two adolescent girls imagine themselves as plants:
As Mary read from several psychology journals that posited theories about why one might have the desire to eat oneself, Ainsley put her head in Mary’s lap and listened.
At the close of the collection’s first story, “Harp,” about a woman whose day, and perhaps, life, is upended by having witnessed a car crash, I jotted down the word: curious in the margins, followed by a cascade of my thoughts: unexpected, unsettled, unusual. Then I paused, indented my pencil and wrote: But, something opens, something begins. All of Bullwinkel’s stories unlock something. The strongest pieces fling the whole thing open. Burn the house down. Others are a mere suggestion of what lies outside, a hint that things are not as they appear. That is like life. Sometimes blaringly loud and other times alarmingly silent.

That silence was most deeply felt in the collection’s shorter pieces, which serve as interludes between the more traditional narratives. In their brevity, the often dreamlike vignettes create a gulf between the reader and the work. This may be, in part, because they pulse with intelligence, which can make the text feel inaccessible, or for the reader to feel unwelcome. In their condensed form, the stories were darker, the fantasies more unusual, the phlegm, phlegmier, but they lacked the emotional depth that is so propulsive throughout much of the collection. I was reminded of the ferocious Lydia Davis, whose Varieties of Disturbances dips into philosophical introspection that resists traditional narration. Reading Bullwinkel also called to mind the work of Diane Williams, specifically, her most recent collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, in which the prose is equally poignant and exacting.

These stories are populated with the strange: a child with a black tongue, an insatiably hungry church, the commingling of the dead and the living. It is in this strangeness that we are reminded of our humanity; while we are enchanted by the elaborate conceits, we become vulnerable to Bullwinkel’s talent for emotional wounding. She crafts unexpectedly tender scenes that are ripe with revelation.

Bullwinkel finds herself in a lineage of authors who won’t conform. To borrow the title from Lydia Davis’s most recent collection: they Can’t and Won’t. Perhaps what sets Bullwinkel apart is her willingness to fling her narratives off a cliff and to have her characters land, not on stable ground, but on something closer to hot lava than to dirt. The surrealism that floats through these stories feels in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which transcends genre and vibrates with emotional intensity.

Belly Up’s standout is “What I Would Be if I Wasn’t What I Am,” an epic narrative of marriage, of identity, of grappling with whom we become in the face of both marriage and loss:
It is difficult for me to distinguish which parts of myself are the original me, which parts of myself predated [my husband], and which parts were developed while I was with him. And, for those parts of me that were developed while I was with him, how am I to tell which parts I would have developed on my own, without him, and which parts of myself never would have come to pass if I had never met him?

Embedded within all of these surreal narratives are similar moments of contemplation, of reckoning, that sting with incredible precision.

In the collection’s opening story, the narrator muses: “I wondered if maybe I should suggest that my husband and I stop talking. Perhaps we should only communicate through touch and feel. Maybe that is a truer way to be with someone.”

At their most profound, the stories in Belly Up name and subsequently interrogate states like adolescence, marriage, self-identification, motherhood. When a mother stares at her son who has just arrived home after driving drunk, she is unable to separate the possibility of what could have happened to him, from what actually did: “…All I could see was a corpse, [my son] dead, an alternate history that had been so close to happening that it drove me mad. People should be driven mad, temporarily, when they see things like that, their son in a near-miss state.”

By the time we are two stories into Belly Up, when the dead return, we are expecting them; if we flinch, it is not from disbelief, but from the thrill of finding out what it is they’ve come to tell us.

In thinking about Bullwinkel’s debut, I found myself returning to the work of the great writer Augusto Monterroso, particularly his collection, Complete Works and Other Stories. Monterroso’s stories venture similarly into absurdity, joy, and exuberance, while also being wedded to philosophical rumination. The juxtaposition of the surreal and the introspective strikes a remarkable a balance that is alive and well in Bullwinkel’s collection.

The characters in Belly Up demand our attention, they demand to be seen, to be recognized. What is perhaps most moving are the moments in which these characters learn to know themselves better. Throughout our reading, we accompany them on their journeys for truth and in the wake of each discovery, we begin to question our own lives, our own interpretations of reality.

A Year in Reading: Thomas Beckwith

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I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government’s history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it’s difficult not to conclude they’ve researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency.

I read a lot this year, enough so that I’m not embarrassed about it, but I didn’t read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I’m contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I’m some kind of super fan but because I’m sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I’m wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you’ll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I’m the only one who’s struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit — one book in my pile is a doorstop.

When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity’s Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you’ll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant.

All this explains why, around the the time Can’t and Won’t came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. “Hi there, douchebag,” said the teen, his posture terrible. “Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?”

“Okay,” I said. “Please learn to shave and use deodorant.”

I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it?

Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it’s worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it’s worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that.

For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can’t and Won’t is any indication, she’ll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like “French Lesson No. 1” are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent “Idea for a Sign.” There is, I think, no “bad” Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind.

The problem with reading huge books is it’s hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That’s why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I’d read a few already, among them “Home” by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed “Going for a Beer” shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there’s the 78-word-long “Men,” a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can’t and Won’t.

I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don’t know. Do you like Jameson?

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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The Power of the Ordinary: On Lydia Davis and Twitter

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Lydia Davis writes very short stories. Short enough that a collection like Can’t and Won’t, recently out in paperback, can be comfortably picked up and put down in between refreshing whatever feeds or blogs are part of your daily reading rituals without interrupting your focus. They can all begin to feel like extensions of each other. I noticed this after I read one of her particularly brief stories and felt my eyes drift instinctively down the page to check how many retweets and favorites it’d received. I thought I was still on Twitter.

I was embarrassed by this. I was worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job of keeping these mediums separate in my mind, or that I wasn’t properly appreciating the differences between them and was instead allowing everything I read or watched to become an intellectual mess. I imagined talking to someone about a great new essay collection I’d found, only to realize halfway through the conversation that I’d actually read all of this stuff on Tumblr instead (I’ve already done this, too).

I’m not sure Davis is as concerned with these delineations. Her collection places dry observation next to dream journals and Gustave Flaubert translations. There is a long piece that simply describes the movements and behaviors of a few cows she watches every day. Her meals and train rides are depicted in minute detail. Among all this, she shares stories of grief and hardship. It is a finely curated tangle of silly and serious, and it encourages a freely associative approach in reading.

Davis’s stories often range between a sentence and a page in length. Some take on aspects of poetry, others incorporate clippings from newspapers or other texts, and many of them involve close observations or commentary on all of the ordinary things that populate her life. Many are cleverly designed to prompt the reader into more closely considering statements that are plain at first glance, whether for humor or poignancy or something else. Here’s the full text of “The Language of the Telephone Company,” for example:

“The trouble you reported recently
is now working properly.”
And here’s all of “Housekeeping Observation:”

Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean.

Not all of her stories are this wry or slim, though. Many use the same observational tools in service of the depiction of loss and distress, like “The Dog Hair,” a paragraph about a family’s relationship with its recently-departed pet. It notes the ways the dog’s absence is felt, particularly in the hairs the family discovers around the house. It ends on a melancholy note: “We have a wild hope — if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.”

The stories intermix, and Davis’s curation becomes as important as the stories themselves. In placing the routine next to the tragic, the sarcastic next to the reportage, in pulling quotations out of context for continued consideration, and in all of the other tactics she uses, Davis recreates a phenomenon that occurs daily on social media. She is attempting to make a document of the ways in which we experience life, with the banal and the catastrophic all lined up next to each other. Much like the way we do, unassumingly, every time we hit “share” or “tweet” or “post.”

Casting an anthropological eye toward Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook can be a pretty revealing enterprise. Pictures of breakfast and lunch live next to birthday parties and graduations; thoughts on TV shows, movies, or books sit alongside breaking news as it rolls in; casual conversations interrupt pictures of outfits and new music being shared, and all of it is presented through a personal lens. It is weird and kind of a mess, but its linearity represents something true about how we experience all of these things in real life.

I think this is what Davis aims for, as well, and this is what made it so easy to believe I was still browsing Twitter while reading her collection. Davis and the rest of us share some similar impulse to try and make sense of, and appreciate, the strangeness of a totally ordinary life.

This becomes especially representative and especially meaningful in Davis’s candid discussions of grief, like in “The Seals,” one of the longest stories in the book. This story explores elements of the narrator’s history with her family, particularly with her sister, who died a number of years ago. While there is no clear narrative thread, the story recounts their complicated relationship and describes the heartache the narrator feels in her sister’s absence. The story takes the form of someone revisiting different memories and regrets while on a train ride, and Davis makes further use of her observational toolkit to show the ways sorrow can manifest.

As the narrator discusses her past and her relationship to her family, her memories are filled with the tiny details that make remembrance so vivid (“the shiny dune grass growing in the sand beyond the cars, the gray shingle of the roof in the sun”), and she makes note of the items that still remind her of what she has lost (“Now I can look at that same bed where she slept and wish she would come back at least for a little while.”). Even in addressing a profound sadness, Davis recognizes the power of the ordinary. I think we do, too.

About a year ago, a friend of mine from elementary school died suddenly and unexpectedly. For at least a week after, his Facebook page and the pages of all of our mutual friends became impromptu memorials as people shared photos and memories and grief. And then, at some point afterward, the mundane posts began to trickle in again as people returned to sharing their job updates, traffic frustrations, political jokes, and workout plans. Maybe this is crass. I think, somehow, it might also be necessary. At some point, whether we are prepared or not, the daily concerns that seemed so distant during the depths of a tragedy begin to crowd our routines again. It can take a great deal of time, but eventually, these tiny, cumulative considerations allow us, or maybe force us, to conceive of a life after the despair.

Davis reminds us that the pain is never quite gone. “The Seals” makes repeated mention of how many years it’s been since the narrator’s sister died and how fresh the grief still feels despite that length of time. But the next story has her studying medieval history, without any connection to the pain just discussed, and its brevity — three lines — means that we’ll probably read a few more stories after it in quick succession. We might land, a few pages later, on one called “Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings,” which is a 3-page list of facts about a stray cat, including details like “broken tooth: upper right canine,” “sometimes cries after nap,” and “urinates inappropriately at home in 2-3 places per day.”

This is how we experience life, anyway. One day into the next. This cat will keep pissing inappropriately in our house whether we know how to cope or not. So Davis’s work, and maybe social media at its best, becomes a sort of celebration of the ordinary, the boring, the totally expected, the regular. They both identify and even welcome the power granted by our taking stock in those things we might otherwise overlook. And they implicitly acknowledge the ability of our boring lives to help us recover after tragedy; they know that persistence can be resilience.

This might be too generous a portrayal of what social media actually accomplishes. Maybe it really is just a waterfall of nonsense and a travesty as far as privacy and security are concerned, but in the Facebook age we all at least understand the motivation behind curating one’s life for others to see. I think Davis understands it, too.

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