Monday, July 26, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Transparent Fictions

This is the third of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Transparent Fiction": all-American girls, scores of cousins and a life-giving cloak of feathers and scales. Spoilers inside, but none for after this story.

Previous reviews:

Meredith Zane seems to have it all, seems to be the perfect All-American girl: blonde hair, blue eyes, good degree, prominent family, promising future. She's also stuck in London, though, with a nerdish TV-writer boyfriend and an unaccountable malaise -- remarkably like the malaise a couple of her sisters felt before they disappeared into doomed European adventures. And at a dinner party thrown by television producer Fiddy Ross, she discovers the secret to eternal life.

Review: Let's read the first sentence together-- no, not even the whole thing. Let's just read the first few words: "Meredith Zane, twenty-five-year-old pharmacology postgrad from California..."

Don't you just know her? All about her? Take a moment and picture this woman. Now go read the rest of the paragraph -- you were spot-on, weren't you? I was. The whole thing could be clipped out and pasted into a satire, especially the last part: "Untroubled by death or history or love, Meredith was, in short, an all-American girl." It's an utterly, painfully generic image, but one that the rest of the story will chip away at bit by bit until you feel like a jerk even recognizing it.

It starts with the very next sentence: "These latter omissions -- love, history, death -- would, she presumed, be rectified during the course of her Grand Tour of Europe." Sure, Meredith's planning for said Grand Tour taking place in the travel section of a Borders at first seems to add to the satire (surely non-generic people frequent kitschy little uncorporate bookshops, right? And don't need travel books?); sure, she seems enamored with Europe mainly for its Romance language-derived names. Keep going. Be momentarily, but not lastingly disrupted by the Blade Runner reference -- surely dystopia isn't in the Designated Girl Canon. And then get to the part about how she's always borrowed others' personalities, read some family history, and begin to get an inkling of what's going on here.

There are dozens of Zanes, sprawling across states and continents, and Atkinson makes plenty of sweeping statements about them -- but always with exceptions, most of which are set aside by the phrase "all except for _____." The Zane sisters reach the top ten percent of their classes in school, all except for Debbi. They all have great teeth, all except for Vari. All of the Zane sisters-turned-aunts had children eventually, all except for Nanci. None of them are Christian, apart from the twice-born-again Debbi. When a group racks up this many caveats, it can't really be called generic anymore.

There are also Richard Cory-like hints of secret trauma -- Vari's father committed suicide; Adelaide's would-be future in Italian nobility disappeared into a doomed, romantic figure legend that isn't even true. (I should probably note here the Europe vs. America contrast, the mysterious vs. mundane one you'd expect. False? Probably. Still works.) False legend could sum up the entire family, in fact. To outsiders, they are larger than life, not quite real. The following exchange should illuminate things:

Fletcher found himself considering the possibility that the Zanes might actually be some form of extraterrestrial invasion. This would explain why they had such large families -- broadcasting their alien seed so that eventually everyone on the planet would be Zane clones, all blond and blue-eyed like the children in Village of the Damned.

'Would it help allay your insane fears if I told you that Sky and Storm were redheads and that Harry was fat?' Meredith offered.

'No,' Fletcher said, 'it wouldn't.'

That's all well and good for the aggregate, but what about Meredith? She isn't the one who shows up in the exceptions, but one by one, "Transparent Fictions" unravels every one of the assumptions you and I make about her. For example, her pharmacology degree has substance, and a substantial doctoral thesis, "The Conservation of Telomere Length in the Human Myocardium." In layman's terms, researching the lifespans of chromosomes. (Yes, this means irony is coming up, but we'll get to that. It also means the story will eventually prefer the supernatural to science -- where her research fails, a mystical cape succeeds -- but I don't have a problem with that.) Fletcher always tunes this out, preferring Meredith's "Air Stewardess Barbie" personality. But there's more.

In short, it looks like Meredith in her own way is a "side shoot of the Zane family tree," one that twists a different way into the sky. One of the pioneering Zanes, the Zanes whose stories might not end up perfectly, but whose stories eventually merit vignettes. It's reminiscent of "Backwater" by Joan Bauer; the protagonist, Ivy, is not a lawyer, unlike almost everyone else in her centuries of Breedlove relatives. The whole book tracks her attempts to find, and subsequent finding of, her aunt Josephine. Josephine is a hermit who lives in the Adirondacks with birds for friends, is decidedly not a lawyer, and isn't even sure she wants to be found. Ivy thus discovers that she too is a side shoot of the family -- and that is why she is truly human. So does Meredith, one night at about 3:30, in a semi-"Story of an Hour" epiphany as she realizes that there is life out there, that her telomeres won't sustain it forever, that she too is meant to be one of the traveling, wayward, doomed, human Zanes.

So this is in part another family story. I've posted about how the family elements of Behind the Scenes at the Museum resonated with me, and this story is no exception. But to focus solely on that is to sell the story short. Let's move on, to Fiddy Ross's dinner party. The scene's a brilliant satire, full of sulking or haughty or order-barking guests, "overly conversational vultures" who either social-climb, raid the buffet table, or both at once. None of them ever really forge connections with one another, unless it's to try and forge a hookup in the conservatory like Fiddy's husband.

And then we meet Merle, hidden behind the party, alone; if this were a movie the camera would zoom in. On one level she's just another plank in the satire -- look, it's the aging wife of the producer who's trying to screw around with younger women -- but of course she's more. Continuing the book's Greek-mythology motif, she's the Lamia. Much prose is expended upon her cloak and its nature detritus:s feathers, scales, even butterflies. She's framed by a peacock-like chair, hidden by a grapevine. In short, she's vaguely timeless, not-as-vaguely reptilian, someone to be awed by and feared. Barely human, and yet the most human character in the story. And it's her who gives Meredith the knowledge of "tombs as gorgeous of palaces, palaces as grand as kingdoms... intrigues and exiles, revolutions and wars... sleigh journeys wrapped in wolf skins." Love and death and war; everything she lacked before, and everything she could become:

Meredith looked into Merle Goldman's eyes. Meredith Zane's blue, all-American-girl eyes looked deep into Merle Goldman's glittering old European eyes and a cold horror should have gripped her heart. But it didn't.

I'm always going to be a sucker for stories about becoming extraordinary, and I'd love to think I'd choose to run laughing into the future in a reptilian, immortal cape. And if not, we have stories.


- "Transparent Fictions", incidentally, is also where the parallels among the stories really start to take shape. It's subtle here. Meredith is a clerk in a department store where she hawks accessories. Fletcher -- and this is one of the few points that I am spoiled on -- is a devoted Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and there are a few more explicit references to the show here. I bring this up because they will recur, even though they mean nothing to me as a non-viewer. I suppose that when I get around to watching it, I'll be able to tell you whether sleeping Fletcher's resemblance to a vampire means anything.

- I know this was unintentional, Atkinson being a British woman who wrote this in the early-early 2000s, but I can't read "Fiddy" without thinking of 50 Cent. Admit it: neither could you. (If I was more of a hack I'd tie that too into the breaking-expectations theme, but, well, no.)

Name Report: Aside from the aforementioned Fiddy, we have the gamut. Most of the Zanes have male names (as the author acknowledges), even though I'd classify Meredith as something more akin to Beverly these days than, say, Avery. At the party, you have even more: the Telegraph trio of Arietty, Hugo and little Nell; the Russian-nicknamed Masha; Will, of all things. But, well, Fiddy. And "Missy"'s the oddly named one. I'm a horrible American.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Tunnel of Fish

This is the second of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story: Greek gods, geek gods, and a fish made of blue-and-white marble.

Again, spoilers for this particular story, retroactive spoilers for everything before (that'd be only "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping" at this point, though.) I'm unspoiled on everything afterward, which is getting me a bit antsy.

Previous reviews:

Eddie wants to be a fish, his latest obsession (after shells, coins, stamps and flags.) It's completely mystifying to his mother, June, who worries things: that he's autistic, that he's gay, that he's being bullied, but most of all, that she's a poor parent. As it turns out, Eddie has a very good reason for wanting to be a fish. He's a son of Poseidon, conceived on a trip to Crete in the way that the Greek gods generally go about such things, and he's destined to be King of the Fish. June is merely destined, it seems, to worry.

Review: "Tunnel of Fish" pulls a familiar trick: taking a mythological situation and grafting it into the real world to see what repercussions sprout up. In this case, it's what would happen if Poseidon lived now, not in the classical era. As you'll see, Greek mythology shows up again here in a big way; there are dribs and drabs of it in "Charlene and Trudi" but nothing more. "Tunnel of Fish" puts it front and center, with Poseidon taking a mate. The bowdlerized books of Greek myths you get when you're a kid (not that I have anything against them; it's really handy later on in your studies when you're not encountering all these things for the first time) call this being carried away. Reality calls it rape.

This is, as anyone who's read a non-bowdlerized book of Greek myths knows, pretty standard as far as the gods' liaisons go. I've always thought bowdlerizing them doesn't do anyone favors. Our culture has an endless appetite for taking innocent stories, etc. and making them dark and grown-up. This can lead to wonderful stories, of course, but it also makes teachers and other people charged with grabbing teens' attention away from their text messages or media drips latch onto something, anything that works. The sordid side of history often works for a few minutes, and myths happen to have plenty of sordid sides. This is one of them.

This is something different, though. This isn't the "Guess what REALLY happened to Europa?" kind of transplant. It's not for sensationalism, but for realism. So we have June, who dwells upon things; when her parents found out she was pregnant, it was the same disappointed "Oh, June" that'd accompany getting a piercing. Teachers see her at conferences and wonder just how old she was when she had the baby. It doesn't help that Eddie's drawn to the sea. The tragedy is that the greatest disappointment she gets, both from her parents and herself, is the one that wasn't her fault. It's even worse when you consider that in real life, it happens all the time.

Just about the only thing June dwells upon more than her own sense of disappointment is her hopes for Eddie, hopes that more often than not aren't fulfilled. At times, it seems that all she does is worry. Near the end, there's a scene that's telling. Nothing happens; June, Eddie and Hawk -- and the baby, the book treats it as a living thing already -- are stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge. Eddie's rapt, watching the water, addressing in his mind the fish he knows are his subjects. Hawk is utterly bored. The baby is utterly happy, "leaping for the joy of leaping." June worries whether they'd survive if the bridge collapsed.

That might seem pathological, but I don't quite think it is. As you know if you've been following me for the past few months, I adore Irish singer-songwriter Cathy Davey's new album The Nameless. There's a song on there, "Happy Slapping," that's simultaneously among the funniest and most heartbreaking things I've ever heard. The context isn't quite the same; she's talking about a lover, not a child. But the impulse is: when you love someone, all you do is -- well, let's let Cathy say it:

"When I'm alone, all I do is worry, worry worry worry -- worry about a heart attack, wondering who's got your back, if you had a healthy lunch, if somebody spiked your punch? Do the boys take care of you, or do they leave you home to brew?

All this is sung in the most plaintive voice. It's devastating. And it might as well be June: she worries that Eddie's autistic, or being bullied, that a policeman's going to come by the door to tell her he's dead. She worries that he'll never find a job, never meet anyone. Most of all, she worries that it'll be her fault for being a bad parent.

It hits too close to home. A few weeks ago, my sister, mother and I were at a friend's house for dinner, and somehow the conversation turned to parenting -- how we were raised. the sort of silly sarcasm -- "Well, when we were growing up, our mom would lock us in the closet without food!" And it escalated: the closet developed bugs, then spikes, until it resembled nothing more than the Chokey from Roald Dahl's Matilda. We were having fun. She wasn't. I don't think either of us realized just how hurt she was. Maybe we still don't, even after we stopped and apologized, tried to make a joke of that too, realized that was again the wrong thing to do. For all I know, she's still hurt and it was one of those horrific, unintentional cruelties kids commit. Like in Peter Favaro's Alter Ego where the neighborhood kids taunt a lonely woman who lives by herself, calling her a witch, singing "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead," and it's what she dies remembering.

Probably it isn't, I reassure myself. It does get me thinking, though, because there's another aspect to this, a gendered aspect. Parent policing happens so much more to mothers -- fathers get it too, but more in aggregate: the deadbeat dads, the inept sitcom men. Individual fathers are spared the nitpicking, the mommy wars, all of it.

Yes, I tend to come back to gender, but Kate comes back to it, too. Part of why June sees herself as a failure is that instead of coming out as "a loud, rude, shouting boy who ran around football pitches and had no fear," he's an obsessive cataloguer of fish. She wants a girl for her second child, a girl with ribbon-plaited hair who plays with dolls and ice skates and takes ballet, who reads and knits and bakes, made of sugar and spice and everything nice. It makes me cringe a bit to say this, but I can't say I blame her. Who wants a loud, rude, shouting boy anyway? The female stereotype is so much more civilized! But it's a stereotype, of course; ballet trips up your feet and ribbon plaits get mussed.

Besides, you can't choose your children; they choose you. This can either be depressing -- "I'm stuck with these people?" or amazingly reassuring -- "These people, through accidents and genetics, love me when they might never have before." These are the family values we need, and the most heartwarming moment of "Tunnel of Fish" speaks to them. It's near the end, after we learn that this family was forged through, at turns, trauma and convenience. Eddie asks, nonchalant, "What shall we call the baby?" And in spite of herself, June hears the word "we" and is drawn into the strange family circle: herself, Eddie, the baby. For a split second, it doesn't matter whether she left Eddie a handwritten sign at the aquarium. It doesn't matter whether that bridge collapses or not; it won't. And the very last bit of the book shows Eddie putting his tiny hand into June's larger hand, all three family members together, saying it's all going to be OK.


- I'm sure it's unintentional, but I laughed anyway: "'Eddie,' his maths teacher ruminated, 'he's quite the comedian, isn't he?'"

- "Eddie knew he wasn't important enough in the school hierarchy to be bullied." This needs to be underlined, highlighted, bolded, all of it, and sent to every policy-maker ever, because they all address bullying like it's a teen movie. Not even one of the good ones. One of those bottom-feeding hack jobs, the kind the early 2000s were littered with, where schools are run by one stuck-up cheerleader. Things aren't like that.

Name Report: Eddie is a fine nickname if ruined by a certain vampire stalker (in fact, I propose that everyone refer to him as such from now on. Eddie, that is, although the latter will also do.) June is excellent even though she doesn't think so: "June, because she was born in June. If she'd been born in November would they have called her November?" (It's interesting how opinions seem to be split on this -- is it cheesy to name somebody June who's named in June, or is it just awkward to name somebody June any other time? You get this more with April and August.)

And then: "June was a name for women in sitcoms and soap operas, the name of women who knit with synthetic wool and follow recipes that use cornflakes." And then there's Hawk, which is its own thing altogether, although if you're going to name your kid after something violent I suppose a bird is better than cutters or gauges or misguided repurposings of Gunnar. His real name is Alan, anyway.

As far as June's other daughter, she wants to name her a "nice, old-fashioned, middle-class name like Sarah or Emma or Hannah." I'd forgotten how much of a class issue names are in the United Kingdom. (They are in America, too, but in a different way.) I'll not wade far into those waters, being an outsider, but I will note that my sister and I are both represented in that list.

And Jordanella Floridae does sound like a name! Just, you know, no.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping

This is the first of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story: goat cheese farming, exploding ATMs and mirrored-glass globes where nothing but the sky is reflected.

Spoiler warning in effect, obviously. I'm reading these one story at a time, though, so this goes both ways; if there's anything that happens in future stories that will reflect on this one, I don't know about it yet.

I finally made it to the library last week. There's no excuse for this; I work literally blocks away from one, and the library in my hometown isn't that far away itself. Commuting, however, can sap your will to do anything but collapse into a chair and watch YouTube videos. I don't even mind it as much as everyone expects me to.

And when I got there, I couldn't take my eyes off The Courage Consort, which I read last summer. I walked by it a few times, took it from the shelf, put it back, took it again, turned it over a few times in my hands, flipped through some of the pages. Books rarely affect me this way, after the fact, without even re-reading. Why now? Great cover design, perhaps. Amazing writing, certainly. But most of all, I think, is the fact that there are small worlds in there, gorgeous worlds, worlds that haven't quite been resolved like a novel would.

Lately I've been eying a couple short story collections, too, so I figured I'd get a head start and read a few.

I'll be reading them individually, not moving on to the next until I've posted. From what I can tell, and the few comments on the Internet I've read until I started getting spoiled and stopped, the stories are interconnected. For instance, the last story's called "Pleasureland," one of the motifs in today's story: "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping."

Charlene and Trudi do in fact go shopping -- at a gift store, clothing store and sewing store, as well as multiple cafes and bars. There's also an apocalypse. Most writers have commented upon how the protagonists utterly disregard this. Trudi envies the 9mm submarine gun the blonde TV-station receptionist has at her desk. Charlotte calls Trudi to talk about bonbonnieres with sugared almonds as she's hiding from sniper fire.

Review: What struck me first is that it takes a good few pages (in a short story this length, that's ages) for Charlene and Trudi's ages to register. They're adults, but I'd be surprised if most readers placed them above eight years old. A few things cause this. The title, "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping," mimics the title of a children's book -- substitute, say, Betsy and Tacy. The descriptions do too, filled with childlike wonder and lush prose describing honey and fountains and soap. It's as sumptuous as anything from Goblin Market. It's what children's book characters talk about when they imagine being grown-ups.

But then you get to "Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine" and go "wha?" And it's telling that my next thought wasn't "Wait, she's an adult?" but "Wait, bridal magazines are hiring five-year-olds now?" I suppose you could argue for the tequila reference, but Trudi talks about it in the same breathless reverie as anything else. Besides, that's just one paragraph earlier.

So Charlene and Trudi are infantilized, but it's odd; infantilism doesn't normally work this way, at least not the way our culture does it. Nobody, no societal force, is going to turn someone into a Frances Hodgson Burnett child. It's just not done. There's no profit in it. No, people are turned into commercial children, the kind of kids who'll turn around and try to sell you on this wonderful new insurance policy that is so much better than that lousy old one, please Mom, please? And can you buy me a side of sugar cereal served in a glitter tiara?

Which brings me to my next observation, although it should be fairly obvious given the title: everything in this story is commercialized. At first it doesn't seem so, but read closely and you'll find a lot of what might as well be product placement. The exact brand of cell phone. Clothing brands. You also have paragraphs full of food-porn about honey, dog breeds, wedding supplies, and even though there aren't any brands or anything there, everything that's mentioned is for sale, often in the same place the characters are. Chrysanthemum tea, golden needle tea, hubei silver tip -- they're all boxes sitting on the shelf waiting for purchase.

It's absolutely seductive. Advertising works less by selling you products than by selling you lifestyles, and that's exactly what happens here. Charlene and Trudy, and by extension the reader, are reveling in this gorgeous lifestyle, full of rustic pastoral beauty. Kind of like what's going on in this New York Times article, with the cottage. I'd love to live there, and I'd love to live the beautiful lives that drip off the page. And then I realize I'm caught, and it's unnerving.

You'll notice another thing about that NYT story, or at least how it's been blogged about: the gender politics. Woman: frilly white cottage; man: burly man-cave. (Or burly-man cave; hyphenate it however you want.) They're a bit complicated here. Sure, pretty much everything in this story is coded feminine: the weddings, the clothes, the decorations, and of course the shopping. That's part of what makes it so jarring when the guns and the riots show up. Looking at it a certain way, you could argue that both Charlene and Trudi are pretty much stereotypes, obsessed with babies and shopping and body image and weddings. The mere mention of -- well, pretty much anything -- is enough to make them swoon.

I don't think it'd be a valid argument, though. Keep in mind: there are no men in their imagined lives. In fact, there are barely any men in the story, certainly none with major roles. Trudi outright dismisses marriage when it comes up. As you've probably gathered by now, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. And of course it does: at heart, this is a story about friendship. The world might be crumbling around Charlene and Trudi, everything might be going to hell, and all their elaborate dreams might never be realized, but they have each other.

Miscellaneous: I absolutely love the following exchange:

"I've got an article to write." Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine. "Ten Things to Consider Before You Say 'I Do.'"

"Saying 'I don't'?" Trudi suggested.

Name Report: (I'm a name nerd. You'll see these for every story.) Could be better! Although I will note that Trudi hates her name, thinking it and Heidi should belong to milkmaids or hookers:

She had a twin sister named Heidi and neither Trudi nor Heidi liked her name. They were the names of goatherding girls and American hookers, of girls who wore their hair in plaits and drank milk or had sex dressed as French maids and nurses. Of girls who never grew up.

The jury is now out.