“A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man.” Yet another brilliant collection of short stories from the master. I caught myself thinking of ways his stories could help me finish one of my own – sparse dialogue but enough weird bits to keep you interested in what’s going on with the characters. The Train is very similar to something I’m working on, a woman eavesdropping on a couple, so I might employ some similar devices to see if I can’t get my own story worked up in a frenzy. Reading Carver is like being lucid in a dream.
Some of my favorites from the collection:
* Feathers – a couple has dinner at another couple’s house, with the ugliest baby and a peacock that makes itself comfortable inside the house.
* A Small Good Thing – I feel like I’ve read this somewhere else; perhaps it was also included in shorter form in the other Carver book? A woman orders a personalized birthday cake for her son who then gets hit by a car and goes into a coma. The baker starts harassing them by phone to pick up the cake. Once the boy dies, the woman goes with her husband to confront the baker, they all end up eating cinnamon buns and talking until dawn.
* Careful – A husband kicked out of the house, sits around his apartment drinking champagne all day, a surprise visit from his wife finds him disheveled, hiding bottles in the bathroom.
* The Train – A woman has a man on the ground, cowering from her gun. He’s hurt her badly in the past. She lets him grovel, then walks to the train station. Another couple enters, the man is without shoes. The first woman eavesdrops their conversation, the other woman belligerently trying to draw her into it. The three of them get on the train late at night, the other passengers assuming they are a party of three.
* Fever – A man is left with two children when his wife leaves him for a colleague of his. Scrambling for a babysitter, he eventually finds an older woman who cooks and cleans and cares for the kids. He gets sick, high fever, finds out she’s moving away, then he sits and talks about his failed relationship, and talks himself healed.
Reading this in the context of also slogging my way slowly through Joyce’s Ulysses, I can’t help but notice similarities. Both texts are a landmine of Shakespeare, Milton, Dante references. Both create a character paying homage to Greek mythology. Prometheus is the wily hero who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans, then was punished by having his liver eaten by an eagle while the liver grew back every day and the eagle once again set upon it. Similarly, the daemon that Frankenstein creates inflicts constant pain on his creator.
Sea captain Walton kicks off the story, with letters to his sister detailing his voyage into the north seas, bemoaning the lack of an intelligent companion. Suddenly, Frankenstein falls into his lap, his dogsled trapped on a floating ice pack, rescued into the boat. Walton encourages Frankenstein to tell the story of how he came to be in this situation, and Walton captures this tale for us. Bookending this tale, Walton appears at the end of the book to relay that Frankenstein’s health faltered, he dies, the daemon appears on the ship to announce his reign of terror over. Walton’s men demand that the ship turn south towards safety, and so he heads back to London.
The story of Frankenstein is one most are familiar with- he creates life out of inanimate body parts, infusing them with breath by torturing animals and sending that energy into the lifeless human. Obsessed with this creation, he is horrified by it when it comes alive, and runs away. The creature then hides itself in a shelter where it spies on a family for a year, learning language and manners and how to read. When he attempts to reach out to the family eventually for their love, they reject him, sending him spiraling out into the woods where he rescues a girl from drowning and is rewarded with gunshots. This turns his heart to evil, and he resolves to stalk Frankenstein, making his way to Geneva to find him. In a fit of fury, the daemon kills Frankenstein’s brother, which is then blamed on a very close friend of the family, Justine.
Frankenstein returns to Geneva to find his family in mourning, sees the shadow of the daemon lurking and realizes who the real killer was. Much gnashing of teeth. On a holiday, he hikes away from the family and finds himself face to face with the daemon, who urges F to make a companion for him, so that he won’t be so lonely. F agrees. Then, away for a year’s travel with his pal Clerval and F continues to create a companion, but destroys his work one night when he realizes the folly of bringing another awful creature into the world. The daemon then kills Clerval and pins the blame on F when he washes ashore in Ireland after his boat whirls out of control. The daemon also threatens to see F on his wedding night to cousin Elizabeth, and stupidly F thinks that this is a threat toward him not Elizabeth, who is then killed on their wedding night. At that point, F retreats from the world and goes in search of the daemon to kill it. He chases it into the icy wilds, where he loses sight of it, and his sled is floating helpless on the ice pack when rescued.
I’ve been curious about the intimate dinners hosted around a huge wooden table with long benches in a nondescript storefront on Guerrero Street. 18 Reasons is an organization bringing local community together over art and food, and when an event with the topic of food, pleasure, and MFK Fisher came up, I happily solo’ed my way to the dinner. At these types of events, it’s critical to make a wise decision on seating. I gravitated to two women who looked to be having a grand time and settled in beside them.
Dinner was heaping plates of couscous-asparagus (gluten free and vegan, oh San Francisco!) along with goat cheese, bread, and unending bottles of white wine. Our two “moderators” were the author of a recent biography of MFK Fisher and a zen priest. After their short presentations, we were encouraged to eat and discuss the topic of pleasure with our dining companions.
Fortunately, my companions were not wedded to the idea of sole focus on this topic, and we covered ground from The Wire to owning the OED on microfiche with several mental canoe rides along the way. At some point I exclaimed, “Some women dream of their wedding day… I dream of having a ladder in my library!” I felt guilty about having my back to the gentleman on my right, preferring the company of my ladies, but every time I turned to politely engage him, he was droning on about pleasure in such an unpleasurable way that I quickly turned back.
I left the venue after a few delightful and intellectually stimulating hours, with contact details for new friends in hand.
After months of feeding an obsession with 30s and 40s movies, I finally decided to dip into original source material, starting with the master, James M. Cain. Mildred Pierce (1945) is a nearly perfect movie– rain-drenched noir at its finest. The book is also a gem, and it was delightful to see what made the cut for the movie, and what was axed or embellished or re-written.
Mildred is described as a plain woman with a glint in her eye and great gams, mother of two daughters, her husband Bert suffering the Depression by moping about and carrying on with another woman. Daughter Ray is all light and energy and happiness, contrasted with daughter Veda, a snobby brooding older sister with musical talent and the ability to make Mildred’s heart skip. To keep her family afloat, Mildred bakes pies and obtains a job at a restaurant as waitress (this, after several weeks of job hunting, turning down a job as a tea room hostess and a housekeeper). She hides her uniform from Veda, not wanting her to know that her mom has taken such a lowly position. When Veda ultimately finds the uniform, Mildred quickly explains it’s background work to owning her own spot so they can be rich again, which sets a whole plan in action.
Ray’s death doesn’t stop her from opening her restaurant on time. The chicken joint is wildly successful, and she opens up another two spots once Prohibition eases. She hooks up with Monty Baragon, ultimately feeding him $10s and $20s once he goes broke. Veda’s arc rises and falls with music, the sudden death of her piano teacher sending her into a spiral from which she emerges with a plan to hook a wealthy boy (pretend pregnancy). Mildred throws her out of the house when this fraud transpires. Months later, she hears Veda on the radio, a gorgeous voice, and begins plotting to bring Veda back into her life. This entails buying the house from Baragon and then marrying him. She begins hemorrhaging money, footing the bill for Veda and Baragon’s extravagances. Finally, she’s nearly dead broke, and after reviewing her options she realizes she must ask Veda to chip in for living funds. The night she attempts to talk to Veda, she finds her in Monty’s bed. A scuffle, and Mildred throttles Veda’s throat. After the fight, Veda dashes to the piano and pretends no sound comes out as she tries to sing. This leads to the final deception, where Mildred spends six weeks in Reno to divorce Monty then remarry Veda’s father. Veda comes and has a very public reunion with her mother that the newspapers cover with photos. This was all for show, and as Christmas day unfolds, Veda grabs a taxi to the airport where she’ll meet Monty to fly to New York and start her life all over.
There’s a lot more morally loose behavior in the book than 1940 Hollywood would allow, and the ending was decidedly different from the shooting in the movie. Great writing.
Conducting focus groups of three hours over a variety of topics, Rapaille listens not to what people are saying, but what they mean. Distilling responses, he uncovers what he calls the Code that is built into our society’s genetics. It’s what makes Americans eat fast & in bulk while the French linger for hours over dinner. It’s why Eskimos prefer chubby ladies while the rest of the world likes a slender lass. It’s why Americans put a man on the moon while France kvetched that they should have done it.
America’s code for:
* work: Who you are
* money: Proof
* food: Fuel
* love: False Expectation
* sex: Violence
* alcohol: Guns
* seduction: Manipulation
* being fat: Checking Out
* beauty: Man’s Salvation
* youth: Mask
* dinner: Essential Circle
* Germany: America is John Wayne, Germany is Order
* France: America is a Space Traveller, France is Idea
* England: America is Unabashedly Abundant, England is Class
Years ago, Tufts University invited me to lecture during a symposium on obesity…
Lecturer after lecturer offered solutions for America’s obesity problem, all of which revolved around education. Americans would be thinner if only they knew about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, they told us. Slimming down the entire country was possible through an aggressive public awareness campaign…
When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t help beginning with an observation. “I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”
There were audible gasps in the auditorium when I said this, quite a few snickers, and five times as many sneers. Unsurprisingly, Tufts never invited me to lecture again.
At the Ferry Building last Friday, I sat through multiple hours of other writers reading their stories so that I could emerge from my chrysalis and do my own reading of original work, in a public space, on purpose, for the first time. The first half of the readers pre-intermission were decent, the search for a Chinatown apartment, Lucille Ball’s Where’s My Ethel at the White House, a tiny piece of Ramshackle Days describing the scene at the bar where if you even looked like you were going to say more words than it took to order a drink you’d be kicked out. Intermission should have started after Where’s My Ethel, which got such tremendous applause that it was a natural stopping point. However, one of the facilitators thrust her student onto us “because she has to leave”, whose story was about as interesting as an old shoe. The variety of styles and talent levels was a bit shocking. I know the instructors were told to encourage everyone to participate, but seriously? Some of those kids should be told to put down the pen and walk away.
Intermission was a welcome break from the heat of the room on an unnaturally warm SF day, and then my cheering section arrived, thinking it was over since everyone was milling about. Unfortunately, it was not over, and I punished my friends by making them sit through at least twenty stories, most of which should be deleted from their author’s harddrive immediately. No one wants to hear about you popping a blister before your hike up Mount Masada. You don’t really look like Hugh Grant, so your story about being his doppelgÃ¤nger is confusing. You’re an ex-nun and you love Jesus and yet your words make me want to burn some religious texts. You are making fun of the Chinese language by pretending to speak it. Wave upon wave of bad writing washed onto the podium. The audience dwindled. A story about a stripper somehow was uninteresting. There was a good piece about being a nanny for a French family. And a bad piece about not being able to go to an uncle’s funeral (written by someone my friend later described as “the gay dude who went and sat by his wife after he was done. She patted his hand.” Ah, beards.) Also a brief scuffle where a homeless gent joined the party (hey, free booze!) and was the only heckler of the evening, snickering as he listened.
The agony of the evening was nearly over. But first, the worst introduction of the evening, saying that I was going last because it was alphabetical (it wasn’t) and oh hey I work at BlahBlahBlah. I put the shaking paper on the podium (a godsend!) and read this. It got laughs from some nitwits in the crowd, and then it was over, and applause, mainly because good lord this night of literary terror was over and everyone was free to disperse to their real Friday evenings.