Elizabeth McCracken, “Something Amazing”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A grieving mother is haunted and irritated by the ghost of her daughter. Meanwhile, the Mackers boys are in danger.

(from Thunderstruck & Other Stories)

The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn’t a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.

Who wants to, anyhow?

Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, keep the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don’t fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads. Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours. Sneeze. Itch. Gasp for breath. Seal the windows. Replace the sheets, then the mattresses. Pry the mercury from your teeth. Buy appliances to scrub the air.

Even so, the smell of the detergent from the sheets will fall into your nose. The chili your nice son cooks will visit you in the bedroom. The sweat from his clothes when he runs home from high school, the fog of his big yawping shoes, the awful smell of batteries loaded into a remote control, car exhaust, the plastic bristles on your toothbrush, the salt-air smell of baking soda once you give up toothpaste. Make your house as safe and airtight as possible. Filter the air, boil the water: the rashes stay, the wheezing gets worse.

What you are allergic to can walk through walls.

Is that too long an excerpt? Don’t care. I love the way Elizabeth McCracken writes. If I could link to this story for you, I would. I took the book out of the Philadelphia Free Library, so you might have to wait until I return it. This story is a strange one, as I expect they all are. It concerns an obstinate ghost named Missy Goodby who wears ectoplasmic dungarees and haunts her mother like an allergy. Her mom, Joyce, is going nuts. And there’s the two brothers, Santos the older, mean one and Mackers the young, impressionable one. They’re weird, and everybody in this story’s weird. All the sentences are tight and mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. Love it.

Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode”

140908_r25408-887Ray forces cow insemination guru David to drive him to Morsel’s place at gunpoint. Even after he finds out the gun is fake, David sticks around.

(from The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2014)

Two of the ranchers had finished eating and, Stetsons on the back of their heads, chairs tilted, they picked their teeth with the corners of their menus. As David put his wallet in his pocket and headed for the door, he realized he was being followed. He didn’t turn until he was halfway across the parking lot. When he did, the gun was in his stomach and his new friend was smiling at him. “Name’s Ray. Where’s your outfit?”

My Uncle Bob recommended I check out this story, and that was a good call. I enjoyed this strange, sometimes funny rural crime story. Do I completely understand what’s going on here? No I do not. I’m thinking I’m not supposed to have this whole thing figured out. I scoured the pages and listened to the audio version, to see if I’d missed clues that made the ending make more sense. I found only the stuff I liked when I read it the first time: blood, weirdness and intrigue, the kind of thing the Coen Brothers are good at. You can read the story here or listen to it here, where it’s read by the author, apparently, and not John Goodman, as it sounds to me.

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Words This Story Taught Me:

  • chignon (n) a popular type of hairstyle generally achieved by pinning the hair into a knot at the nape of the neck or at the back of the head
  • marcelled (v) styled with deep regular waves 

Karin Tidbeck, “Jagannath”

Jagannath-Karin-Tidbeck-PortadaTough times for the little creatures who live inside Mother.

(from Jagannath)

“What is Mother?” Papa would say. “She took us up when our world failed. She is our protection and our home. We are her helpers and beloved children.” Papa help up a finger, peering at them with eyes almost lost in the wrinkles of his face. “We make sure Her machinery runs smoothy. Without us, she cannot live. We only live if Mother lives.”

It’s hard to say whether we’re dealing with passengers on a sort of bio-technological ship, or an anthropomorphized interpretation of something more recognizably earthly, like parasites living inside a host. I’m leaning toward option one, since the description on the back of the book says this story’s about “a biological ark in the far future.” Yeah, I guess that settles that. The point is, maybe, that the systems at work here are not so alien that we don’t recognize the insectish parts, or the host-parasite bits. Mother isn’t a man-made ship like Mother from Alien, but she’s still a ship. This is the title track, so it makes sense that “Jagganath” is the most daring and alluring story in this collection. Real grim, self-contained sci-fi.

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Primo Levi, “The Fugitive”

9780393064681_custom-91d401ecc86e59b281202d6e8c8a88ba207821f3-s6-c30A man writes a poem he thinks is nearly perfect. If only it would sit still.

(from A Tranquil Star)

To Pasquale, too, if had happened only a few times, and the awareness of having a poem in his mind, ready to be caught in flight and fixed on a page like a butterfly, had always been accompanied by a curious sensation, by an aura like that which precedes epileptic fits: each time, he had heard a faint whistle in his ears, and a ticklish shiver ran through him from head to foot.

This story gave me a kind of writerly agita, an itchy feeling that I should be writing instead of reading at that moment. There’s a certain dread I think everybody has, that an idea which pops into our head seemingly from nowhere will disappear before we can memorize it or put good it to good use.

I couldn’t find this story online for ya. I do recommend this collection. Most of the stories are quick, idiosyncratic and vaguely informed by science if not sci-fi. By the way: I think I learned “agita” from my late Aunt Angie, who used to Italianicize my name to Pasquale.

John Steinbeck, “Saint Katy the Virgin”

newst-katy-1wpAn evil pig raised by cruel man is converted to Christianity.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

When you think of the low, nasty kind of laughter it was, you’ll see what a bad man this Roark was, and you’ll not be surprised that he didn’t pay his tithes and got himself talked about for excommunication. You see Roark didn’t have the proper kind of a face for a laugh to come out of. It was a dark, tight face, and when he laughed it looked as though Roark’s leg had just been torn off and his face was getting ready to scream about it. In addition he called people fools which is unkind and unwise even if they are. Nobody knew what made Roark so bad except that he had been a traveler and seen bad things about the world. You see the atmosphere the bad pig, Katy grew up in, and maybe it’s no wonder.

What the hell did I just read? This did not at all remind me of the John Steinbeck whose Grapes of Wrath bored me and Of Mice and Men puzzled me in grade school. I don’t remember those books being funny, or much fun. Those well meaning teachers would have done better to start with this story, ’cause there’s no way I wouldn’t have enjoyed this (parodic? satiric?) story of a vicious pig converted and anthropomorphized by the two priests she chased into tree as a last ditch attempt to save their lives. Insane. This story is insane.

This is from McSweeney’s Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven issue, in which old genre fiction collected by Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury are reprinted, along with some recent, likeminded works. “Saint Katy the Virgin,” of course, is an example of the pig-finds-religion genre. Other examples are forthcoming. Most bad pigs stay bad. Learn more about the story, and see where I found that amazing book jacket art, here. I could not find a place to read “Saint Katy” online, which is pretty remarkable for a story first published in 1936.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, “América”

9781938073854_custom-d451a4446e029f235d8be2a90293af423e92dcb9-s99-c85Mexican police have some murders and accidental deaths to clean up.

(from McSweeney’s 46)

The candidate is talking to the chief, but the chief in turn has a boss. The structure is limitless, police hierarchy is like the Himalayas. The candidate communicates with the chief, and not with the chief’s boss, because the chief is the only person in the police force in whom he has complete confidence. The chief and the candidate were at primary school together. Of course, if the candidate wins the election, the chief will become the chief of chiefs.

Maybe I’m just not used to the way crime stories work, but I had read this one twice to make sure I had a handle on what was going on. Some people are murdered. Some are killed accidentally. There are old guns and interesting pens (most of which are describe as being what they are “nothing more”). There’s a really dirty part, and some political machinations I’m pretty much in the dark on. And there’s a bit of soccer. A goalie scoring a header is about as rare as a litblog embedding a soccer video. I believe this is the goal mentioned in the story:

This is from a semi-recent McSweeney’s issue collecting “crime stories from Latin America” that’s been sitting on my desk for a little while. I’m intrigued. I liked this story. It surprised me on every page. Sorry, couldn’t find a link. Here’s more on Juan Pablo Villalobos.

Elizabeth McCracken, “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey”

1013x1500xspring-2014-cover.jpg.pagespeed.ic.FN-UokmRN3An economist dying of cancer comes to visit his estranged friend, the filmmaker whose documentary cast him in an unflattering light so many years ago.

(from VQR, Spring 2014)

He still didn’t know whether the film had caused his downfall or simply pointed out that the downfall was inevitable.

He mocked Iowans and he mocked Mississippians. In Nevada he wanted to visit a brothel so he could mock both the prostitutes and their customers. He patted waitresses on their behinds as they walked past—​that was part of the joke. He was a young man who acted like a daft rich uncle from a 1930s movie. He sang along to the dirty songs on the tape deck. He joked. He was funny. Ask anyone! Ask Ian Casey, who—​Peter Elroy was sure of this—​scrubbed the soundtrack clean of his own laughter at Peter’s jokes.

Even when Ian showed him the movie—​screened on a sheet in his New York apartment, the spring after the trip—​Peter didn’t get it. Surprised, yes, to see that Ian had edited himself out of every frame, that he’d turned a conversation into a monologue. But he still thought it was good, he believed (as he’d believed for some time) that he would become the most famous economist in America. Talk shows, news hours, op-​ed pages. The movie would get him there faster, and when he watched it he saw himself saying wonderful, shocking things.

Later, he tried not to be too hard on himself for not understanding. There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.

Just a completely gorgeous story. The kind whose sentences demand instant repeat readings to admire their elegance and efficiency. So, so, so much fun to read this story. Here’s another part I liked:

Another thing technology had ruined, the ability to dial a number, let it ring, hang up. How often had he done that, only wanting to change what a girl was thinking, without her knowing he was the one who’d done it.

You can read it here and you should. And tell me what you think. Also, here’s some more about Elizabeth McCracken. She seems to be hilarious.

And now it’s time once again for the first time for…

Word This Story Taught Me:

aspic (n) a dish in which ingredients are set into a gelatin made from a meat stock or consommé

14857fish_in_aspic

Yeah, that’s not pleasant.

(Personal challenge: 117 days/94 stories to go)

John Chu, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”

full_waterthatfallsA guy tries to work up the nerve to come out to his parents despite a lack of support from his sister and, you know, that thing where it rains when you lie.

(from Tor.com)

The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn’t matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.

Uttering “this sentence is false” or some other paradox leaves you with such a sense of angst, so filled with the sense of an impending doom, that most people don’t last five seconds before blurting something unequivocal. So, of course, holding out for as long as possible has become the latest craze among drunk frat boys and hard men who insist on root canals without an anesthetic. Psychologists are finding the longer you wait, the more unequivocal you need to be to ever find solace.

This story won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and that’s a good call, I say. Hugo = sci-fi/fantasy; here the sci-fi is not subtle, but not integral either. It’s a device so absurd and so natural it doesn’t feel exactly like a device. The new normal is that it rains icy cold indoors when you lie (or when you say something know isn’t true?). Not sure why. It’s weird, but you get used to it, or accept it. I want to know more about the science or the scientific guesswork about this emotional precipitation, but I’m left wanting because this is really a story about man trying to be honest about who he is with his family. That stuff is a lot of why this story works, and it’s not at all sci-fi.

Read it here. 

 

 

César Aira, “Picasso”

140811_r25317a-320A visitor to the Picasso Museum encounters a genie who offers two option: own a Picasso or be Picasso.

(from The New Yorker, August 11, 2014)

There are no records or reliable precedents on which to base a decision, because this sort of thing happens only in stories or jokes, so no one has ever really thought about it seriously; and in the stories there’s always a trick, otherwise it would be no fun and there would be no story. At some point, we’ve all secretly imagined this happening. I had it all worked out, but only for the classic “three wishes” scenario. The choice the genie had given me was so unexpected, and one of the options was so definitive, that I needed some time to weigh them up.

Nine times out of 10, genies are jerks and I knew that going in. But still I paused midway through reading to consider the conundrum. I would choose the painting. I won’t tell you what the narrator chose. (The story’s only a few pages, so almost everything’s a spoiler.) This is a fairly simple yarn, fast-paced and funny. It’s aware of the genie trope while sticking to it. My question is: Is the final twist the final twist, or is narrator less reliable than we know? I mean, can we trust somebody who sees a genie? Read it here.

(Personal challenge: 121 days/96 stories to go)

Karen Russell, “The Bad Graft”

140609_r25122-320Angie and Andy visit Joshua Tree and something sinister gets into her blood.

(from The New Yorker, June 9, 2014)

The trip was a kind of honeymoon. The boy and girl were eloping. They weren’t married, however, and had already agreed that they never would be—they weren’t that kind of couple. The boy, Andy, was a reader; he said that they were seafarers, wanderers. “Ever unfixed,” a line from Melville, was scraped in red ink across the veins of his arm. The girl, Angie, was three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land. On their first date they had decided to run away together.

Andy bought a stupidly huge knife; Angie had a tiny magenta flashlight suspended on a gold chain, which she wore around her throat. He was twenty-two, she had just turned twenty-six. Kids were for later, maybe. They could still see the children they had been: their own Popsicle-red smiles haunting them. Still, they’d wanted to celebrate a beginning. And the Mojave was a good place to launch into exile together; already they felt their past lives in Pennsylvania dissolving into rumor, sucked up by the hot sun of California and the perfectly blue solvent of the sky.

Read the story before I spoil you.

Karen Russell remains one of my all-time favorites. It’s not just her sentences, though they are so, so pretty. (And it’s not that she let me interview her twice in two weeks when my digital recorder failed me a few years back.) It’s the way she surprises me all the time by sneaking hints of horror and sci-fi into what otherwise might be called high and mighty literary fiction.

“Hints” seems like the wrong word for a story about a malicious, sentient toxin entering the bloodstream through the pricking of a finger and corrupting its new human host/biological cul de sac. But, really, though the toxin appears to exist, and I feel like Scully just saying this, but what do we actually know about it? What evidence do we have?

Did it change Angie’s behavior? I dunno, man. She was probably pretty moody/flaky long before she got to Joshua Tree.

Yeah, but murder? Far as I know, she hasn’t murdered anyone. Sorry, Mulder.

And sorry, Andy. You just might need to die for me to believe this is an X-File. But I want to believe. When I read The Ruins I was rooting for the vines.

122 days left in 2014. 97 more stories for me to read. And that’s not even counting what Mary “All Killer/No Filler” Miller is up to.

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