Foreword | October 21, 2016
Before and After
On a visit to New York, my wife and I happened to see Alec Baldwin pacing back and forth talking on a cell phone outside a Fifth Avenue apartment building, which led me to wonder aloud what his most memorable acting role was. The first movie I thought of was one of his less celebrated, early ones, Prelude to a Kiss (1992). In it, a conservative man working in publishing falls in love with a woman bartender, who at their wedding kisses an elderly man and magically swaps souls with him. It’s a seriocomic melodrama in which the old man (played by Sydney Walker) with the soul of the young woman, ends up living with the Alec Baldwin character, who learns to love and accept his wife in her new body. The movie is memorable because it bravely holds on to its high concept. It does so despite the awkwardness of young Alec Baldwin loving and kissing and recognizing as his soul mate someone who looks like an old guy on the verge of death. The film is about the inevitability of change, the paradoxical immutability of the ongoing before and after of our lives, and the fact that to live happily, we must learn to accept the relentless, indeed sometimes sensational, realities of change.
Like all the themes of literature and art, mutability is fascinating because it is both a perennial reality and something of a mystery. Beth Ann Fennelly’s micromemoirs in this issue are studies in the fact that the significance and meaning of life events—whether they seem important or not at the moment—can only be discovered in hindsight. A conversation on a plane, a bad college job waiting tables, a small splinter of gravel in the author’s hand: all are occasions first observed in oddly precise detail and afterward remembered in ways that convey a deeper, veiled significance. Elizabeth Rogers, in her essay “One Person Means Alone,” experiences the power and even threat of moment-to-moment observation when she teaches English in China. The experience for her was a “new phase of my life, where I felt exposed all the time.” Living and teaching in Taigu, she has to adjust to a culture in which solitude is looked at with suspicion, and the living quarters make personal space and time hard to come by. China, she finds, is ferociously social. “Very little prepared me for the level of social responsibility and interconnectedness that came with moving to Taigu,” she writes. Her feeling of exposure is only heightened by her worry that students and colleagues will discover that she is a lesbian.
The fiction in this issue includes two stories directly about change, one comic and the other serious, one about sudden transformation and the other about long-term unfolding and evolution. Gabe Herron’s comic story “The Oracle of Denny’s” asks whether a traumatic shock or injury might actually turn us into somebody better. The narrator’s neurologist friend Rob falls from a rock-climbing wall and receives a brain injury. Old Rob, a scientist, becomes New Rob, believer in past-life regressions, reincarnation, jam bands, and yoga. When New Rob convinces the narrator to consult a soothsayer who waitresses at Denny’s as her day job, the two friends eventually get an interesting answer to that question, but it’s one that still leaves them wondering. Siobhan Phillips’s “War” is an elegant and powerful story about a driven young scholar at the cusp of the millennium who divides the chronology of her life into a clear before and after. “Before” is the year spent on a fellowship at Oxford. There she meets Seth, a talented graduate of the Naval Academy, whose commitment to work matches her own, though he fits more smoothly into the group of mostly affluent scholars on fellowship. The “after” is the years following 9/11, when reports of the Iraq war carnage paralyze her work and make her conclude that war “destroys people, even those who live” and “makes work and faith and effort meaningless.”
In Maria Anderson’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize finalist story “Kalispell,” Craig is a drug addict in recovery, living in Montana in a home lent to him by his boss and advocate, a Christian dog breeder intent on giving Craig one last chance because “a man as good with dogs as he [is] should be able to stay clean.” The story takes us from Craig’s last bout with rehab, where he meets and becomes involved with another addict, to the aftermath of a tragedy that forces him into long-term responsibility. Jane Gillette’s story, like all of her fiction, is smart and tinged with irony. It juxtaposes spiritual conviction with the worldly matter of family relationships. Having experienced in her young adulthood “a moment of utter conviction that someone had put her on earth to perceive herself as a conscious being bearing witness to the universe,” Priscilla never quite discards this idea, though she doesn’t always live by it. Years later, the family’s attendance at the christening of her grandson helps her realize that such ceremonies matter partly because they give spirituality a chance, even for those who remain skeptics about God.
Anthony Aycock’s interview with nonfiction writer Erik Larson focuses on the origins of Larson’s ideas and his love of research. Larson’s books explore big transitions in history, often by dramatizing incidents that held clear importance at the time alongside characters and events that would later gain historic significance. In In the Garden of Beasts, for instance, Larson tells about the family of an American ambassador to Germany in the mid-Thirties, William Dodd, whose marriage begins to fall apart when his wife gets caught up in the glamor of Berlin’s social scene, causing them both for a while to be apologists for the Nazis. In the interview, Larson talks about the origins of his ideas for nonfiction and his research for The Devil in the White City, concerning serial killer H.H. Holmes, and Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. “I will go where the story takes me,” says Larson. “I am totally driven by story.”
In this issue’s Found Text we are happy to present John Cheever’s previously unpublished early story “Troop Train,” the manuscript of which resides at the Morgan Library. Like so much of his fiction, it is partly autobiographical. In 1941, Cheever had just volunteered for the army, gotten his typhoid shot, and ridden in a troop train to Camp Croft in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There he sat on a bunk, wrote this story by hand (normally he used a typewriter) and sent it off to his new wife, Mary Cheever, hoping to sell to the New Yorker. While he’d already had considerable success with the magazine, it had been an on-and-off relationship until he learned to write a New Yorker story: brief, ironic, dramatic rather than narrative, and heavy on the dialogue. “Troop Train” fits that prescription, as he describes a group of young soldiers going to training camp, obviously without the slightest clue what awaits them. The piece is short, intriguing, and tinged with irony. A decade later, tired of such stylistic limitations, he would writer fuller, more complex pieces such as “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Swimmer,” which solidified his reputation as one of the greatest short-story writers of the twentieth century.
Jessica Jacobs’s poems take us inside a marriage that faces the sudden agonizing specter of illness. They balance the uncertainty of the present with the charged memories of the past. Morri Creech’s sonnet-like poems explore the concept of a still-life painting. Part of a larger sequence, these philosophical poems wonder about time and identity in relationship to this form of art. Elegantly porous to the aesthetic experience, they provoke such questions as how a still life captures a moment, how that moment exists through the passage of time, and what a viewer confronts in that very stillness. Poet Bill Glose, a veteran of the Gulf War, writes about experiences of combat. Whether noticing intricate similarities between weaponry and artwork or comparing his childhood religious experiences to the often troubling responsibilities of a soldier, these poems recall “everything that came before / and everything that follows” that time.
In her omnibus review “Love Me Tender: Five Books about Our Turbulent Relationship with Money,” Kristine Somerville looks to the past for insight into the present state of money. For example, much like us, the Romans were quiet familiar with credit crises fueled by booms in private lending. She also introduces the works of economic scholars, historians, and behavioral scientists who explore our present dealings with money. One of them argues that we have moved from a market economy to a market society, while another contends that in order to lead a good life we need to jump off the work-spend treadmill. The Greeks invented the first monetary system and almost immediately warned, “Money is the serpent in the garden.” It’s a warning that still needs to be heeded today.
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