Sunday, February 17, 2013

Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline #24-29

George Saunders
Civilwarland in Bad Decline
Stories and a novella
Riverhead Books, first published 1996
#24-29  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
Absurdist and violent, the narrator recounts the decline and fall of a simulated Civil War park, replete with gangs, ghosts, a hired killer, and the narrator's own bloody death. The story follows the narrator's conscience; he starts out as a functionary, a yes-man, but by the end, as more innocent people are targeted and killed, he sees what he has helped destroy. There is a scene where one of the ghosts gets caught in some kind of violent loop and must reenact the murder of his own family, a ghost killing ghosts and the narrator himself will soon be a ghost. There is horror all around.

Isabelle
Some terrible people cope with special needs, murder, and love. Poverty, miseducation, and despair are the undertones.

The Wavemaker Falters
The ghost of a boy who was killed at a water park of some kind (mermaid shows and fake Basques who pretend to speak for the customers) haunts the man, the wavemaker, who was responsible for his death. The Wavemaker sinks deep into depression as his wife has an affair with a supervisor. The boy, Clive, speculates on all the things he'll miss, and as he meets ghosts from other times and realms, is introduced to words like 'nosegay' without understanding what they mean. These characters could sustain a full novel.

The 400-Pound CEO
Jeffrey, an abused, obese invoice clerk in a raccoon-killing, false-hope to its customers company, suffers at the unending cruelties of his co-workers and boss. In a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally killing the boss who was going to do grievous harm to a reporter ready to expose the firm's lies. There's a lot of misery in this story, and a meditation on God and a possible subGod who has been torturing the world's weakest, most needy humans, those who need the most and are ineligible for love and dignity.

Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz
The narrator owns a failing franchise for allowing people to upload holographic scenarios and live alternate realities. He also can offload real memories from brains onto hard drives, thereby transferring experiences and knowledge from one person to one or more others. He finally runs out of people from whom he can take memories, so he writes himself a detailed note and erases much of himself, all in sacrifice for an elderly woman who needs constant nursing care.

Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror
Mary is a very old woman, around 92, who is still working, under the thumb of a petty tyrant. Pickled babies (all her own stillborn children) haunt her from their jars and she is under constant surveillance and retribution for the bad behavior of the customer. Her whole bad luck history is woven into the story, and in the end, she can't even triumph in her own suicide. Oh, and there are genetically altered see-through cows.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Heathcock, Volt #23

Alan Heathcock
"Volt" from the collection, Volt
#23  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Sheriff Helen is back a few weeks after the flood of the story, "Peacekeeper." I'm not sure "Volt" would entirely hold up without the previous story. Or, perhaps it would stand alone, but knowledge about Helen and what she'd recently endured certainly adds a rich layer to this story. There's another big storm and the already damaged town is further wrecked by too much rain. Helen is asked by law enforcement from the county seat to pave the way for an outstanding warrant arrest. So Helen has to approach the suspect's home and encounters stiff and violent resistance. In the meantime, she also has to grapple with her own guilt about keeping her slowly-deteriorating mother in a nursing home. Sheriff Helen deserves her own novel.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Hadley, "Married Love and other stories" #11-22

Tessa Hadley
Married Love and Other Stories
2012 Harper Collins
#11-22
 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Married Love
A young girl, 19, has an affair with a much older professor of theology. He leaves his 2nd wife and marries Lottie, against the wishes of her bohemian, non-married parents. It's a Casaubon situation, though the husband is patient but unhappy. Lottie has a number of children and is very unhappy. She tells her brother that "my life is so grey." Edgar takes up with his second wife for the comforts of marriage that Lottie is unable or unwilling to bestow on him.

Friendly Fire
Shelly and Pam sometimes do cleaning jobs together. In this story, they are cleaning the mess of men who work in a plant. The story is about Shelly, her worry over her son fighting in Afghanistan, the loss of her sexual drive. Hadley's gorgeous descriptions of the outdoors is juxtaposed with the filth of the warehouse. And she paints the scene of these hard-working women quietly: "They sat there for a few minutes, too tired to move, giving the car time to recover...While they waited, their breath began to fog up the car windows."

A Mouthful of Cut Glass
Sheila and Neil introduce each other to their parents. Sheila is cut to the bone when she hears Neil's mother discuss how much she does not like Sheila. The ending leaves an ambiguity about whether or not she and Neil stay together. As he sits in her father's study and she spies him through the window, "She was taken aback by this stranger of hers...The shock of it was voluptuous; she felt with a shudder that the closer Neil came to her, the less familiar he was."

The Trojan Prince
A young man, James, in 1920 has decided to become a seaman and in the interval before he is to go off to his training, he kills time with his girl cousins, one who is rich and the other, motherless and a ward of the family. Connie, the ward, is brash, and doesn't have the refinement of Ellen,who is more cautious. James idolizes Ellen, but identifies with Connie. James's father has always told a story of being shipwrecked and how he eventually escaped; James knows that the story is probably untrue. But at the end, James really is involved in a shipwreck and a harrowing escape on a rope over the churning sea and he is competent and ablebodied. In the end, it is Connie's company he wants, not Ellen and a house full of furniture.

Because the Night
A story about the chasm between childhood and adulthood. The frame pivots between the wild parties her parents host; in the beginning, the event of a party riles up the children, Kristen and her brother Tom; they see themselves as enemies of the partygoers even though they deeply love their parents and their parents love them. But as they grow up and the brother Tom pulls away from the family, an interloper neighbor boy spends more and more time at the house as he moons over Kristen's mother. The story is rich in detail and especially emotion. The darkness of the night, a well, and parents who become more mainstream, conventional, and middle-aged. Kristen craves the comforts of home and her room even as she begins to mature.

Journey Home
A brother, stranded at the Paris airport for several days during a snowstorm, can't reach his sister, who has a history of self-harm and has facebooked to the effect that she has broken up with another boyfriend. He leaves messages, his phone dies, he tries to get a friend to intercede, all to no end. This isolation gives him time for his worry to build and build. He is an art historian and spends time looking at Titian's Pieta. The worry culminates when he thinks, "Worse is always possible past the worst thing you're afraid of."


In the Country
Julie is Ed's wife. They gather with Ed's family at the country house to celebrate Ed's mother's sixtieth birthday. Julie has a sort of love for the family, but always feels like an outsider, and she consciously holds back things about herself from them to maintain a level of reserve. It's not clear if this is for self-protection or to maintain a sense of self that she feels she might lose if she were to reveal it. One of Ed's sisters has a new boyfriend, an actor, Seth. The bones of the story are that Julie and Seth have an illicit encounter in one of the guest cottages. No one ever finds out, and Julie does not feel guilt for it later. The filler details around the encounter make the story rich. There's lots of discussion about the mother-in-law's past, how she was as a young woman, apart from this family she and Ed have borne and built. And Julie's secret, which she shares with Seth alone, that she was voluntarily part of a Christian sect when she was seventeen, that she ran away from home and submitted to this group, then walked away and made her own choices. Julie shows Seth the way she dressed, the way she prayed, and tells him about her sexual encounters in the cult. She becomes the actor, and the pantomime brings them to their own moment of physical tryst. There is a pulse in the story, and it's summed up by the line, "The understanding came to her that these alternating moods were two pulses in life, opposite and yet related, like the expansion and contraction of a heartbeat: one diffusing sensation and sending it flying apart, this one gathering it in the living centre."

The Godchildren
Three non-related middle-aged people who were all once godchildren of a now-dead somewhat scandalous woman meet in her home to divvy up possessions. The story's climax is in a flashback when the teenagers had gathered to visit and be given a liminal space in which to get away from home and school at Vivian's house. On that night, they all leave together, only to sneak back and watch Vivian through her bedroom window, where she puts on a show, either for them or for an imaginary audience, it's unclear. There were the usual complications and entanglements of girls and a boy, and the present versions of each remind me of the 7-Up (now 56-Up) series that shows a set of British people from the time they were small children to the present day.

She's the One
Ally and her family are grieving over the loss of her brother. She works in a writing centre and makes an awkward friendship with a failed novelist, Hildy, who had given up on writing about something that happened to her when she was a girl. Storytelling is a theme, books as an unsuitable salve to our hearts' deepest wounds.

In the Cave
A woman, post-coitus, considers the moment when her inflated hopes for love were burst. Her lover had explained that cave paintings, thought to have been "the product of induced shamanistic hallucinations...for the people who painted [the ones he was studying in South Africa], the rock face may have seemed only a skin stretched between them and another order of reality." So the woman had lots of time to consider this idea while he was away, and on the night in question, he bursts this by attributing it all to neural impulses, "telling you something's happening when it isn't...There is no ineffable."

Pretending
A woman who has lived a troubled adult life recalls an odd friendship with a girl who had been marked as "trouble" and "naughty" when they were girls. Roxanne was a ward of the state and even though she tried very hard to redeem herself--because she was very smart and capable--we are told that she never even had a chance to make it into the good school. The time the two girls spent together was spent pretending, intense playacting, completely immersive stories and practice for adulthood, and Roxanne did all the planning and directing. The narrator of the story claims that she herself was normal and limited. The story is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's A Cat's Eye and a Robin Black story about a girl called Harriet.

Post-Production
A rich movie producer drops dead suddenly in front of his wife; the story follows her life for a year afterward.