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.

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