Foreword | July 22, 2017
Foreword: Mischief Makers
Escape, empowerment, and liberating energy are primary subjects of much of post-Victorian children’s’ fiction (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz), while common themes of serious adult fiction are often the opposite: alienation, purposelessness, and existential angst. In children’s stories, protagonists can float the river, fly in the air, and kill the witch, while in serious adult fiction they often can’t quite decide what to do, or, even when they try, their expected social or gender roles and their perennial human weaknesses may doom them to failure. One could almost prefer children’s or escapist fiction to the annoying serious adult stuff. The best-selling controversial right-winger Ayn Rand played with those same ideas—the active vs. the passive and the destructiveness of the passive. Much of the attraction of her work was her idea that there are always a few people who can overcome the weakness within themselves, choose to act, and by doing so rule the world. When I first read Ayn Rand at age sixteen, I thought she was the greatest. Maybe I could be powerful, like John Galt! It was even more fun than children’s fiction.
One can remember significant reading experiences from quite long ago, almost as if they were personal events. I recall, for example, first reading Othello and being frustrated at how suggestible the Moor is to Iago’s lies about Desdemona and how submissive she herself is. Eventually adding insult to murder, Othello claims that it was, after all, his altruistic duty to kill Desdemona, “else she’ll betray more men.” Reading Hamlet, I felt the same frustration with the passivity of both Ophelia and Hamlet. At least I could imagine Hamlet’s mother Gertrude to be a plain villain, but while Hamlet dithers and her brother and father are killed, Ophelia can only go helpless and crazy. Whether Shakespeare was a feminist of his day will be forever debated, but there is no question that he was aware of the assumptions about the behavior of men and women and that those assumptions are ripe material for tragic disaster or comic misunderstanding. In many moments in his comedies, he openly plays with the presumed roles of the sexes. In Twelfth Night, for example, the shipwrecked Viola dresses as her twin brother Caesario and ends up in a love triangle in which Olivia has fallen in love with her. Imagining her to be her brother, she cannot express her love for Orsino.
No matter how limited Shakespeare may have been by his own time and culture, he was certainly playing with broader truths of human life and could hardly avoid some degree of feminism. Perhaps he was more openly interested in the effects of action versus inaction or choice versus uncertainty, a subject he looked at quite often and which is also a favorite among Modern authors. “Man is born free but everywhere in chains,” said Rousseau in 1762, and by a century later, this had become an enduring theme in the writing of Kate Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekov, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and many others. This issue’s contents remind me of this classic subject of serious Modern literature: the destructive and the comic potential of passivity and passive malice, of people without purpose or direction causing trouble or at least mischief for themselves and others.
Megan Blankenship’s “No Shadow of Turning”—a first-published story by this emerging writer—is told from two points of view: Bonny, the granddaughter of a preacher, and her grandfather’s neighbor, an out-of-state transplant to this rural area. It recounts the quiet but grounded faith of the old preacher and the steady hold he gains over both his granddaughter and neighbor, a hold that deepens after the suicide of one of Bonny’s classmates and former friends. Bonny has long been curious about and naturally attracted to the boy, although she later rejects him. While it is his own inner conflict, not her rejection, that causes him to do what he does to himself, she is never able to shed a sense of guilt for having put him off in childhood.
M. G. Stephens’s story “Hampstead Road” is the third story in TMR from his sequence about Eileen, expatriate from Ireland, once a beauty and the wife of a famous Cuban musician but also a junkie. She is now widowed and living in relative poverty in sheltered housing in London. In the course of a day, Eileen has bloodwork done by a phlebotomist, who can hardly find a usable vein, due to her years of drug use. Eileen also deals with conflicts in her apartment building, attends an AA meeting and jokes crudely with old friends and acquaintances. Hovering over the day is the specter of her dead husband, Santiago, who at the end of the evening seems to speak to her and remind her of her mortality. Eileen is a rich character whose colorful, profane personality leavens her destructive alcoholic and addict past. Michael Byers’s protagonist, Paul, in his story “A Good Breath” is at the other end of life—fully grown but still young. Due to uncertainty and inertia, he has remained with his old girlfriend and wandered into teaching elementary school in a poverty-stricken area of Texas. As a fifth-grade teacher he’s a failure—uninterested, unsympathetic to the students, and uncommitted. He comes to dislike it so much that he is deliberately mean to the students, yet the guilt he feels doesn’t moderate his behavior. Stricken by panic attacks and thinking that he is dying, he quickly starts to change his life. Byers’s distant narrator is piercingly honest about Paul’s bad behavior, but at the same time sympathetic, suggesting that youthful selfishness may partly be a life stage that one may eventually grow out of.
Jane Gillette’s “Norfolk” depicts two old classmates who attended one of the Seven Sisters colleges in the 1960s. Ruth has taken on the role of class correspondent for the alumnae magazine and is catching Hettie up on her life since college. In the tradition of the unreliable narrator, Ruth reveals how she’s changed from her college days, when all the young women were vigilant social climbers. She sees herself now as a happily cynical, older version of herself. The story takes us through several incarnations or stages of Ruth, as it relates her conflicts with another classmate, also named Ruth, who used her more privileged background to essentially trample all over our ironic correspondent. The second Ruth runs people around because she’s a person of privilege, until the latter finally sets her straight.
In May-lee Chai’s “The Witness,” the teller of the tale is the daughter of an American mother, married to a Chinese man during a period when ethnically mixed marriages were not accepted. Now, her father is ill and the daughter is in the position of nurturing and encouraging her mother, who is something of a basket case—desperate about aging and losing her looks, and full of bitterness about the difficulties her mixed marriage caused her. Chai’s narrator alternates between sympathy and frustration as she tries unsuccessfully to build up her mother. Finally, over the top with frustration, she suggests that they visit a plastic surgeon and look into facelift surgery. Nothing is really resolved in the end, but the narrator realizes that all she can do is listen, that some lives and situations just aren’t fixable.
The nonfiction in this issue includes a second appearance of Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers in TMR with her essay “The Magic Show,” a vivid and perfectly rendered account of the awkward territory of middle-school relationships and girls’ parties. Rogers evokes the perspective of a sensitive, intelligent pre-teen as she tells the story of her invitation to a birthday party with a group of girls she was peripherally friends with. The culminating event of the party is a magic show that morphs into something else entirely. The evening’s experience makes her acutely aware of her own separateness. She goes home and reads Richard Adams’s classic Watership Down, finding in its story of community and heroism something truly spiritual. The essay affirms the intelligence and sensitivity of youth and reminds us that adults don’t have a corner on wisdom or epiphany.
“The Cataclysm of My Mother’s Spine” by Jamison Rankin was written when Rankin was a high-school senior, making him (we believe) the youngest essayist TMR has ever published. The essay is a lyrical evocation of his relationship with his mother, who began to present with symptoms of MS when he was eleven. In the years since then, he has been her advocate and comforter, while his father, burdened with supporting the family, has proved less able to handle the strain of the illness. Though the prose is beautiful and poetic, the perspective is quite frank, as Rankin acknowledges the limits to how much he can help his mother, even while he is emotionally bound to her. He is both aware of his father’s difficulty of coping with the later stages of the illness and yet does not condemn him.
This issue’s feature, a translation of the short story “The Child Bride” by Jyotirmoyee Devi Sen, is presented by translator Apala G. Egan. Devi (1896-1988) began to write after her husband died in the 1918 flu epidemic and she was forced to return to her parents’ home with her children and follow the restrictive rules for Hindu widows. Reading widely in her parents’ library awakened her interest in literature and writing, as well as feminist ideas. “The Child Bride” is the story of a young beauty of the Rajasthan whose grandmother arranges for her to help the story’s narrator, a Bengali wife and mother. Through the eyes of the narrator we discover the outcome of the girl’s arranged marriage and her eventual tragic betrayal by her in-laws.
All three poets in this issue capture the ambivalence with which we navigate our lives. Rebecca Macijeski combines lyric meditations on nature with a quiet, searching philosophy. What does the world remember? How do we fill our own inner fields? She interweaves domestic scenes with breathtaking imagery and deeply felt observation. Joyce Schmid’s work investigates time and the shaping forces of our past and future selves. Childhood, aging, and death are her subjects. Whether delving into the lives of ants or recollecting a day at the beach, these empathic snapshots house small events that ripple outward. Katie Bickham’s poems are historical character studies, ranging from a nameless German woman pregnant at the turn of the century to Elizabeth Graves, a pioneer in the field of physics. Dramas of pregnancy, family relationships, and womanhood play out against the larger backdrops of war, science, and religion.
In her omnibus book review “Life Studies: Changing Ideas on Adolescence, Adulthood, and Aging,” Kristine Somerville looks at five books that revisit our concepts of the phases of life. From the new developmental concept of emerging adulthood to the evolution of ideas regarding adolescence—what author Jon Savage calls the pre-history of the teen—Somerville’s review highlights authors who introduce groundbreaking thinkers such as genetic psychologist G. Stanley Hall and geriatrician Robert Butler and their revolutionary ideas about the phases of life.
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