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.

Miscellany:

- "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.

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