“Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” by Margaret Hawkins
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her taut and witty story “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian,” Margaret Hawkins sketches the evolving friendship between a very elderly former English teacher and her former student. Along the way, we discover that both women have surprising pasts and long-held secrets.
Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian
by Margaret Hawkins
Joan stood behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man was wearing flip-flops and a stained sweat suit that looked like it doubled as pajamas.
The library, in the small Illinois town where Joan had grown up and to which she’d recently returned alone and without a plan, was full of hairless men on weekdays now. Shaving was cheaper than a haircut.
The man slid his books sideways across the counter to make way for the elderly woman behind him. They were chatting, holding up the line. The woman thumped the man on the chest and said something that made him laugh and blush.
Now the woman stood in front of Joan. Or rather, she leaned, bent so far over her walker that the belt of her trench coat trailed on the floor. She pushed a little pile of audiobooks across the desk. “Do you know Donnie?” She gestured stiffly with her head toward the pajamaed man who was now making his way toward the exit. She didn’t wait for an answer. “What a promising boy he was. Excellent speller.”
Joan smiled. They weren’t supposed to gossip. She picked up an audiobook and passed it under the scanner. Poetry—that was unusual. Kay Ryan. Underneath were two more, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. She took the woman’s card.
“I find myself gravitating to the lesbian poetesses these days,” the woman said, as if she were making a public announcement and wanted to be sure to reach the hard-of-hearing in the back row. She made the lez in lesbian last for three beats. “They go for the gut,” she added, spitting out the t. “Don’t you think?”
Joan looked up from her screen. “Miss Cates?” She hadn’t seen her high school English teacher in over thirty years.
Which of them had changed more? Joan wondered, sitting at Miss Cates’s kitchen table two days later. Her former teacher was making tuna salad. Joan kept offering to help, but Miss Cates insisted that Joan remain seated, clanking her walker against the cupboards so she could lean her elbows on the sink.
She’d torn open a foil pouch. Dumped the tuna in a bowl. Slopped in a forkful of mayonnaise, some pre-cut celery. Squeezed lemon over the bowl without removing the seeds. Shaken some grayish flakes out of an ancient-looking jar. Dill, possibly, Joan thought. Whatever it was had long ago lost its nature.
“Family recipe,” Miss Cates said, dealing a few broken potato chips onto paper plates. She eased herself into the vinyl seat of her walker. To drink, there was tap water, with a generous glug of gin. “We call this a Presbyterian martini,” she said, not explaining the “we”. She clamped her glass with two hands and took a gulp. “A Presby, for short.”
At the library, Joan had had to tell her who she was. “Well, well,” Miss Cates had said, peering over her glasses. “Little Miss Joan of Arc arises, like the Phoenix I always suspected you were.” Thirty years earlier, there had been an incident involving a quasi-accidental brushfire behind the garage of a quasi-boyfriend named Robert that had garnered Joan unwelcome notice as an arsonist. Joan had hoped it was forgotten.
Me, Joan thought now, watching Miss Cates scoop a glob of tuna salad with a potato chip and ferry it shakily toward her mouth. I’ve changed more. Though Miss Cates looked different, that was true. Her queenly posture was a mere memory. She’d shrunk a foot, at least. She wore big white gym shoes now instead of those staccato-sounding spectator pumps. Her hair was a fuzzy, thinning mat, no longer the elaborately teased and frosted nest Joan remembered.
Miss Cates had descended from the wide, arid plateau of late middle age, where she’d dwelled when Joan had last seen her and which seemed from the outside to have no antecedent or borders, into the mysterious, frankly decrepit valley of end times. The body she inhabited now called to mind one of her beloved ruins, the very stones of which had crumbled. She had to be over ninety. Still, she, the essential Miss Cates, was exactly the same.
After Joan had gone for lunch three times at the tiny apartment—the menu was always the same—she got Miss Cates to agree to let her bring the food next time. Joan packed a picnic. Actually, she already had packed it, had in fact been driving around with the slightly obscene collection of imperishable delicacies in her trunk for over a month, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Robert. A pretty basket held a tin of smoked oysters, a bar of the darkest chocolate, a bottle of champagne. Linen napkins, a tablecloth. She’d pictured herself spreading the cloth on a motel bed or, if need be, across the seat of his reclining dental chair. She’d tucked bungee cords in the basket, imagined affixing Robert to a stationary object and force-feeding him, or lighting a match.
On her way to Miss Cates that day she drove out of her way to buy bread, soft cheeses, raspberries, a pot of liver mousse, one ripe quince, a lemon tea cake. Joan wondered if it was too much, or too obviously a lunch intended for a different sort of rendezvous. But food was food, she reasoned. Miss Cates would never notice.
“A meal fit for a king,” Miss Cates proclaimed, sitting up as straight as she could on her walker seat, smoothing a bright napkin over her lap. “Or fit for a concubine, I should say.” She patted her stiff, sparse hair.
“Though if you’re planning to seduce me with this sumptuous repast”—she smeared a huge glob of Roquefort on a water cracker—“you’ll have to produce a time machine from that cunning basket of yours.”
Joan poured fizzing wine into two juice glasses and held hers aloft. “To Cass,” she said.
Miss Cates had insisted that Joan call her by her given name, though Joan would have preferred to continue calling her Miss Cates. “All my friends call me Cass,” she’d said. “Or did. They’re all dead now.” She’d plucked a crumb off her blouse, flicked it on the rug. “Except for Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite was an enormous white cat whose strangely loud purr could be heard through closed doors. The cat’s fur was everywhere in the small apartment, especially in the sinks, which were coated. Aphrodite liked wet places, Miss Cates said. Often the cat lounged under the kitchen faucet, staring at the drain, expecting, it seemed, something to rise from it.
Miss Cates adored Aphrodite, despite her louche ways, perhaps because of them. For a while there’d been two cats, Miss Cates said, stroking a little metal tool through Aphrodite’s thick coat. Littermates. The other cat, Athena, had died of leukemia seven years before. Athena had been quieter, better behaved.
“You notice which one survived.” Aphrodite, spread possessively across Miss Cates’s lap, emitted a loud, somewhat threatening purr. “Miss brainy was brittle. Didn’t know what to do with herself once she’d proved she was right. But love—that’s you, my crumpet,” she said to the old cat. “Little miss love and beauty here is a tough cookie. Fickle. Gets what she wants and moves on. Don’t you?” She massaged the cat’s head. “You selfish hussy.”
Aphrodite sprang from repose to land a quick bite, then dropped to the floor. Departing the room, she raised her tail. The small, dark eye of her anus winked at them.
A month later, in the fading light of an October afternoon, they ate cheese cubes and sipped the gin Miss Cates had splashed in their glasses, not bothering with water. (“When you drink it neat, it’s a Methodist.”) Aphrodite lay heavily in Miss Cates’s lap, pinning her to the seat of her walker.
“I’d freshen your drink,” Miss Cates said, during a lull in which Joan thought she’d fallen asleep. “But, as you can see, I am a prisoner of love.”
Robert notified Joan he would be spending Thanksgiving with his family and that she was not to call him. Joan roasted a turkey breast and drove it to Miss Cates. There, she mashed potatoes at the tiny stove. Later Miss Cates talked her through a brandied cranberry compote, inexactly. (“How much brandy?” “Gobs.”)
“What should we call this?” Joan was sloshing the glistening red jumble into chipped punch cups. She wanted to be inducted into whatever society owned this joke. “A Mennonite?”
Miss Cates looked thoughtful. “A Sufi,” she said.
Late Christmas afternoon, after waiting all day for a sign from Robert, Joan took the coffee cake and peppermint ice cream to Miss Cates. She presented her with a wool shawl, a CD player, an assortment of recorded books. Miss Cates gave Joan a shot of bitters over ice (a Cold Catholic), and her father’s Aeolian harp, wrapped in two stale-smelling pillowcases tied with the sash of her bathrobe. She’d kept it under her bed for forty years, she said.
“Named after Aeolus, Greek god of the wind.”
“I know,” Joan whispered. She was trying not to weep.
“It suits you,” Miss Cates said. “Passive instrument that it is. Put it in an open window. Aeolus will strum it for you.”
In January, Miss Cates stopped going out. Joan made regular deliveries of tuna in pouches, lemons, jars of Nutella, cat food in assorted flavors, extra-strength aspirin, jumbo flagons of Tanqueray. One day, after Joan had opened the cat food cans and stacked them in the refrigerator, then loosened the caps on the gin and the aspirin, while they were having what Miss Cates called tea—pound cake with their usual Presbyterians–Miss Cates told Joan about Francie Jane.
“Who’s this?” Joan had said when she noticed the photo on the bureau. She’d been folding Miss Cates’s laundry and seen the tarnished silver picture frame behind a stack of unpaid bills. There were other photos—Miss Cates as a lanky child straddling a horse, a studio portrait of what must be her parents, unsmiling long-jawed Yankees in Victorian wedding regalia—but here was a face that bore no family resemblance.
Miss Cates took the photo from Joan and held it in her lap. The picture showed a square-faced young woman in a jacket with military epaulets holding two koala bears.
“My WAVE.” Miss Cates drew out the vowel. “Frances Jane Harper Hunt. Served in the South Pacific, before I knew her.” Miss Cates clicked her yellow fingernail on the glass. Francie was older, she said. The photo was from her frisky youth.
“Gone many years. Cancer of the womb.” Miss Cates fluttered her fingers as if to rid herself of something. Turned to Joan. “Do you recognize her?” She had that look she’d got sometimes in class, posing a tricky question.
“Think, now.” Her voice had gone teacherish. “Mrs. Hunt.”
Joan did remember someone, but Miss Cates couldn’t mean that Mrs. Hunt. Could she? The art teacher, that small plump angry woman with the tight gray curls who wore too-snug plaid skirts with sweater sets and shiny nylons and little high-heeled shoes that pitched her whole body forward? The frowsy one whose slip always showed, who threw temper tantrums and gave detentions, and smelled of stale sanitary napkins, whom Gail Pastorius called Mrs. Cunt? Joan tried to sneak another look, but Miss Cates’s big hand covered the picture.
“We were great friends for many years,” Miss Cates said. After a while, she added, “Once we took my Aunt Cecelia to lunch at the Walnut Room.” She chortled at the memory but didn’t explain.
“Francie’s fellow—husband I should say, though I hate the word—had a position with some financial outfit. Something like what you used to do, I suppose.” Miss Cates sniffed. “Nice fellow, in his way. Good provider.” She chucked the photo toward a chair and missed, then stuck her spoon in the Nutella and spread an undainty dollop on her cake.
“Tell me about your fellow,” she said, another afternoon. When Joan hesitated, Miss Cates prompted her, as if to jog her memory. “Your hubby?”
Joan slogged in, trying to simulate the impression of an answer while saying as little as she could, not mentioning Robert and coming up with a garbled nonstatement about two possible, sort of, fellows, if you counted almost-exes, then gave up. “Really, probably there’s none.”
“Good girl. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end.” Miss Cates had taken to quoting The Elements of Style in a pinch, without citation. Her bible, she said—comfort to the old.
Now she indicated that Joan should pour more gin into her glass and not bother with water. “When you top it up like that it’s called an Episcopalian.” Recently she’d told Joan the drink names had been a private joke between her and Mrs. Hunt.
On Valentine’s Day, arriving with the heart-shaped cheesecake she’d made the night before, Joan found Miss Cates unable to get out of bed, impatient to talk about the time she’d given Francie a kitten. “I made her promise to keep his name. Gleipnir.” She caught Joan’s eye. “Rhymes with sneer.”
Joan knew she was supposed to get this reference, but she drew a blank. Miss Cates waved her hand. “Never mind. Never liked the Norse much, except for that bit.”
Gleipnir, she reminded Joan, was the name of the magic chain, made of the noise of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of stones, the breath of fish, and the spittle of birds. She gave Joan a look. “Impossible things, you see, to do an impossible job.”
Joan took a sip of her Episcopalian.
“Little Gleipnir was supposed to be our magic chain. But he ran into the street and was hit by a car. A Rambler, Francie thought. That boy of hers left the door open. The little thing got out.”
On the Ides of March, Joan broached the subject of vengeance. She didn’t mention Robert. Had she ever felt spiteful, toward Francie?
Miss Cates hooted. Oh, all the time, she said. All the time. The night Francie dropped by after returning from a three-week trip with her husband, she’d thought about poisoning her. They’d gone to Paris. She wasn’t even sorry.
“But how would I have disposed of that chubby little corpse?” Miss Cates said she’d settled for beating Francie with an umbrella.
“Did it help?”
Miss Cates closed her eyes. “A little,” she said. After a while she added, “I regret nothing.”
She took a long swallow from her drink and set her glass in the air a few inches beyond the edge of the table. By the time Joan finished sweeping up the shards, Miss Cates was gone. Soon, Aphrodite appeared at Joan’s feet and demanded supper.
Margaret Hawkins writes fiction, essays, and arts journalism. Her work appears regularly in Visual Art Source and the Democracy Chain. Her third novel (fourth book), Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, ARTnews, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Art & Antiques, The Perch (Yale), Fabrik, and many other publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.
“Relatable Influence” by Bradley Bazzle
Instagram, mom blogs, and the theme of the artist’s relationship to her art come together in Bradley Bazzle’s funny, strange fiction from TMR 41:4 (winter 2018). Bazzle says of his interest in writing about mom bloggers, “I was drawn to their language, and to the complicated situation they must find themselves in.” You can read our interview with Bradley here.
by Bradley Bazzle
I snapped away with our best camera while Caleb and Emma twirled within a shower of leaves thrown by my husband, Jason, who had spent the afternoon raking. The sun was high enough to give the children’s cheeks a warmth but low enough to avoid the flattening brightness of midday. And the air was just cold enough to justify our matching cable-knit cardigans. Jason, who had unbuttoned his cardigan, began hurling great two-fisted piles of leaves, grunting like a monster. The children laughed with what seemed like genuine delight, and why not? They loved our lazy days at home.
For my own part, I was heartened by the maturation of the landscape. The viburnums were beginning to fill out, and the old apple tree, which we paid an arborist to restore, had finally grown a few apples. The last of the shiny reddish balls still clung to its branches, and I took photos of Caleb as he reached up, smiling, to pluck one, then another. And another. He stuck the apples into a box we kept for our assistant. The big box contained other odds and ends like freebie clothing that didn’t quite fit me and extra cupcakes and pies. So many pies. But I refuse to take an old pie out of the oven for the sake of a shoot. The warmth of a freshly cooked pie gives the air a quality that gets captured in photos, I swear.
Anyway, we were having a lovely time in the backyard, and I was free of the queer feeling I had been getting. The problems started when we went in the house.
Our living room had been rearranged to accommodate the awful giant Cozy Family Chair. Caleb and Emma fit on the chair together, but their diminutive size made the chair look absurd, and adding Jason called attention to the chair’s awkward depth: too deep for him to bend his legs at the knees but not deep enough for a full recline, such that his rather large feet sort of drooped off the end. I asked him to take off his shoes, which he did, revealing plain white socks. I must have made a face, because he said, “Come on, Claire, they aren’t gym socks.”
“They might as well be,” I said.
“We got them from Archipelago. A freebie.”
I said nothing.
“They’re ivory,” he said.
“Ivory is white.”
“That’s like saying brown is black.”
“Ivory is a chromatic shade of white, like eggshell. See the walls?”
Jason looked at a wall.
“Is it white?” I asked.
“Of course it’s white.”
Jason began to rise from the Cozy Family Chair. He would go to the bedroom, I knew, and change socks without a word. But we had been arguing recently about how often I gave him commands in front of the children, and I had decided to start picking my battles.
“Sit down,” I said. “The socks are fine.”
“Yes. I’m being ridiculous.”
He sat down, pleased, and the kids piled onto his chest. We tried several different positions, all of them unnatural and highlighted by Jason’s giant ivory feet, which protruded from the gray Cozy Family Chair like tusk stumps. Finally Jason curled into a sort of feline position with Emma reading in his lap, and I snapped a few photos I knew we wouldn’t post.
Next we turned our attention to the game of Settlers Junior that had been set up in the center of a white plush rug from Moderni. Jason scooted the coffee table against the couch to make room for us. He studied the low wooden table, topped with vintage tile coasters and lifestyle magazines.
“Think I should strike the table?” he asked.
“Leave it,” I said. “Less contrived.”
Jason mounted the camera on the tripod while I arranged Emma and Caleb.
“I’m hungry,” Caleb said.
“It’ll only be a minute,” I said. “The game is already set up.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Which color is mine?” Emma asked. “I want green. That one’s winning.”
“Can’t I have just a nibble?” Caleb whined. “Some focaccia?”
“You have to toast focaccia,” Emma said.
“We don’t have time. The lighting’s good right now. Isn’t it, Mom?”
The lighting was excellent—evening sun through the French doors—but I didn’t want to let Emma show up Caleb. “Let’s just get it done,” I said, “so we can strike the game and eat dinner in here.” This was meant as a sop to Caleb, who loved to eat in front of the TV, but Caleb didn’t seem to hear me. He was resting his head on the coffee table, staring listlessly at nothing. His tongue was slightly lolled.
“How’s the shot?” I asked Jason, while Emma rearranged the green pieces to improve her position.
Jason said, “Caleb? Bud? Need a juice break?”
“Juice,” Caleb muttered.
“Can we just get these shots please?” I said.
In the confusion, I failed to notice that Critter had entered the room and was shambling toward us. Emma had the presence of mind to stop the sickly cat with an arm-bar before he trod across the game, but by then he was close enough that his next sneeze splattered the resource tiles.
“Critter!” Emma yelled.
“Shh, be nice,” I said, even though I wanted to grab Critter by his neck and fling him through the French doors. “He can’t help it.”
“But the rug,” Emma said.
I hadn’t noticed the rug.
The luxurious, almost pearly white rug bore a grayish dollop of Critter slime that was oozing into a cluster of fibers. Even before it set, the revolting substance would require warm soapy water to remove. Then, to finish the shoot anytime soon, the damp spot would have to be blown dry with a hairdryer.
“Aw, Crit,” Jason said, taking the cat into his arms.
“Fuck,” I whispered. Then I stood up and walked quietly to the bathroom.
Sitting on the closed toilet, I fantasized about overnighting Critter to my sister, who had dumped him on us when she moved to Brooklyn after college. But we had to feature Critter in the occasional lazy-day-at-home photo or fans would ask if he was okay. And anyway the problem wasn’t Critter. The problem wasn’t any one thing, not even the business. Business was good. Despite my age, I was still considered a relatable influencer. Women I didn’t know still trusted me as a friend. I had half a million Instagram followers, ninety thousand YouTube fans, and an average of seventy-four thousand blog readers per month, even though my blog entries were longer than those of my competitors, more like letters than breezy texts. I capitalized. I employed the occasional paragraph break. That was my niche, in addition to living in the South. My followers tended to have finished college. They skewed slightly older, with an average age of thirty-two instead of the usual twenty-nine. So yes, business was good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was changing; or maybe what had changed was that I thought something was changing. Doubt had crept in. I had lost some of my decisiveness. The sponsors didn’t seem to have noticed, thank goodness, hence the Cozy Family Chair, the matching cardigans, Settlers Junior. But it was only a matter of time before they did. I had to right the ship. We were adding a home gym.
I first heard about Kaarlo from another blogger, a woman in Santa Barbara whose friend, also a blogger, hired him for an expensive resort vacation. The photos had to justify the vacation, my friend explained, and Kaarlo was considered a true artist. My impression was of a prima donna European type, probably gay, who would see himself as injecting artistic sensibility into the workaday photos of American women like my friend and me. I was suspicious, naturally. And when my agent, Ron, mentioned Kaarlo, apropos of nothing, I was insulted. We were lunching at Homegrown on the little patio they have there. I asked Ron if he thought my photos were slipping.
“The photos are tops,” Ron said, slurping wine, “but he’s in town for this other thing. I hear he’s very good.”
“I don’t need a photographer.”
“He’s not really a photographer. He’s more of a—I don’t know.”
“Well, what’s the thing he’s in town for?”
“This African charity deal.”
“A fundraiser? Is he a publicist?”
“Sort of. He’s helping them with their site, how they reach out to people.”
Despite my annoyance at Ron, who had ordered a pulled pork sandwich, the least healthy thing on the menu, and was gobbling it, the “African charity deal” made me curious about Kaarlo. One thing my followers may not know about Atlanta is that it’s full of Africans. Not African Americans, but actual Africans from Africa. Some of them come from dire situations, like in Sudan, and various excellent charities help support them. Jason and I have been to several fundraisers.
So days later, when Ron forwarded me the link to Kaarlo’s update of the African charity’s site, I perused it with interest. There were none of the usual trappings of such sites: men in dashikis, women with baskets on their heads, smiling children, goats. Rather, there were many close-ups, some of them quite brooding. There were snatches of first-person narrative, beginning and ending with provocative ellipses. A boy described holding a friend who was dying from exhaustion. I found myself getting emotional, but not with the cloying emotions elicited by Save the Children and sites like that. It was something deeper and somehow tangled up in my feelings about my own children, or rather in my guilt about those feelings. Recently, I had gotten angry with Emma because her smile in a photo I liked had a smirk-like quality. I hadn’t noticed the smirk when I shot the photo, only when I blew it up to tinker with it, soften the colors, brighten our teeth. The smirk was understandable. The photo was posed, possibly the sixth or seventh try at the same shot. What annoyed me was that she was capable of smirking. Emma, nine, was old enough to smirk. But later the same day, Emma had put her hand on my arm and asked why I “seemed sad.” A two- or three-year-old, chubby cheeked and smiling though she may be, doesn’t care like that.
After the meeting with Ron, I asked Jason how he would feel about bringing someone in.
Jason’s excitement surprised me. He said he thought a professional photographer (I couldn’t disabuse him of the notion that Kaarlo was simply a photographer) would help us “take it to the next level.” I wasn’t sure what the next level was, since we were doing about as well as could be expected for a couple in their thirties with two non-baby children, but I told Jason I completely agreed. Really, I only sort of agreed. I remained suspicious of Kaarlo. But I wanted Jason to stay excited in case Kaarlo proved difficult. Jason found artistic people baffling. We had a friend at the High Museum who made dry jokes at such a clip that Jason would literally sigh from exhaustion in the middle of conversations with the man.
I called Ron to tell him we wanted to meet Kaarlo.
Ron told me Kaarlo didn’t take meetings, which was awkward, but the upside was that Kaarlo didn’t charge for his first consult. And he was still in Atlanta, so we wouldn’t have to pay for his travel.
“Then tell him we’d like to try him out,” I said, “at his convenience.”
“I’m on it. Exciting stuff.” Ron paused. “The thing is, though?”
“He’s kind of trying you out.”
I had never been to Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, even though it was only an hour north of Atlanta, and in my embarrassment over this fact I might have given Kaarlo the impression that we went to Brasstown Bald all the time. He wanted to meet at a trailhead someplace called Young Harris, which was very hard to find. We were half an hour late by the time Caleb yelled, “There! There!” and pointed at a dapperly dressed man sitting on a stump near a trail sign. Jason swung the SUV around, kicking up gravel, and parked illegally by the side of the road.
The man had his legs crossed and was reading a small paperback. Noticing us spilling out of the SUV, he shoved the book into the inside pocket of his blazer and rose, bowing slightly. Then he shook all our hands, including the children’s, and introduced himself as Kaarlo. Jason addressed him as “Mister Kaarlo,” but I was pretty sure Kaarlo was his first name.
Kaarlo was of average height but quite slim, with closely cropped hair that was mostly gray but had been black at one time. He wore glasses with frames made of what looked like bone or ivory. I knew at a glance that the frames cost thousands of dollars. The lenses were tinted slightly yellow.
Jason tried to make chitchat about what a beautiful spot it was, but Kaarlo only nodded. I wondered if his English was poor.
“Maybe we should get started,” I said, to put Jason out of his misery.
“I will bring up the behind,” Kaarlo said. Then he brushed back one side of his blazer in the manner of a gunfighter, to reveal a small camera hanging from an unusual strap.
“Should we pretend you aren’t with us?” I asked.
He smiled. “How could you pretend this?”
“I just meant,” I said, wondering why I sounded nervous, why I felt nervous, “that maybe we should pretend we’re on a normal family outing?”
He was still smiling. “Is there such a thing?”
Jason laughed. Then he buckled the chest strap of his backpack and rustled the kids onto the trail ahead of him. I followed closely, my own camera hanging around my neck. I didn’t dare glance back at Kaarlo but assumed he was following close behind. So imagine my surprise when, fifteen minutes later, we stopped for water and saw no sign of him.
A confused silence settled over us.
Jason unzipped the backpack and handed out Hydro Flasks.
“Maybe it was some kind of test,” Jason said, sipping from a Hydro Flask, “to see if we were willing to do this. To get out of our comfort zone, you know?”
“How would he know our comfort zone?” I asked.
“Maybe he reads the blog.”
I dismissed the idea, but as we started back up the narrow, rocky trail, I found myself imagining Kaarlo with a look of amused disdain on his face as he flicked his thumb across an expensive phone, scrolling through our photos and posts. I felt embarrassed, which annoyed me. Embarrassment was for when your child throws a tantrum at the grocery store, not this, whatever this was.
It was less than fifteen minutes before Caleb wanted to stop again. Jason offered to carry him, even though Caleb was being a baby, but I didn’t say anything. I decided it would be better to be seen by Kaarlo—whom I imagined watching us unseen from the top of a tree, commando style—as having a weak child than having a strained marital dynamic.
Within the hour, my feet were hurting. I had owned the day hikers I was wearing for two years but never wore them. I said nothing, lest I encourage the children to whine and complain, but to persevere took enough concentration that I wasn’t able to take photos. I had taken a few at the trailhead, and some of Caleb looking at a pinecone, but that was it. I hoped Kaarlo was getting something, wherever he was. Or maybe he had turned around? He had been wearing stylish walking shoes, almost like loafers.
Emma was the first to smell cigarette smoke, but it was Caleb, on Jason’s shoulders, who saw Kaarlo standing in a clearing up ahead where the trail began to switch back and forth for the last of its ascent. Kaarlo had an elbow propped on the back of a wrist, his cigarette hand cupped near his face. There was no sign of the camera.
“Lovely,” he said as we approached.
“Thank you,” I said, thinking he meant our family, but then he started talking about the scenery. He said it reminded him of home. Jason asked where home was, and Kaarlo said something that sounded like gibberish.
We walked for a time in silence before Kaarlo scampered ahead of us. Emma sped up, following him. I felt a surge of panic and called her name, but Jason put his hand on my arm.
“It’s cool,” Jason said.
“Letting our daughter follow a strange man into the wild is cool?”
“I can see them. And the top’s right up there.”
He was right. Just ahead of us was an oddly shaped viewing structure, a sort of tower like the forecastle of a ship. A narrow asphalt path led from its base down to a parking lot.
I was stunned. “We could have driven the whole way?”
“I’ll be damned,” Jason said, chuckling.
My surprise gave way to annoyance. We had spent two hours walking when we could have driven in ten minutes, and the photos wouldn’t be any better for it. Worse, probably. If we had driven, my hair wouldn’t have been matted to my face. Jason wouldn’t have sweated through the armpits of his shirt. Caleb wouldn’t have been so tired he looked drunk.
We found Kaarlo at the north-facing side of the viewing tower, near a family in matching UGA gear, pointing at something in the distance. Emma stood next to him, nodding. Neither spoke. When he noticed us, Kaarlo smiled in his steely way and told us again about the lovely scenery.
“Couldn’t help noticing the parking lot,” Jason said, cresting a wheelchair ramp. By this point, he had hunched beneath Caleb’s weight such that Caleb appeared to be riding his neck instead of sitting on his shoulders. “I guess they don’t drive where you’re from?”
Kaarlo made a single guttural sound that might have been laughter. “There is always an easier way,” he said.
While Jason doled out snacks and I took a few photos, Kaarlo circled the viewing tower. At some point I noticed him speaking animatedly to an elderly couple in wide-brimmed golf hats. They were laughing. Soon Kaarlo came around to tell us that the couple, Beau and Nelda, would drive us back to our car.
Jason thanked them profusely, but all I could manage was a tight smile.
As we wound along country roads, crammed in the back of Beau and Nelda’s stinky RV, Jason made a point of making admiring comments like “This couch really feels like a regular couch” and “What kind of mileage do you get in this rig?” Beau was all too happy to answer at length. Caleb, for his part, fixated on the sink and toilet.
“Where does it all go?” he asked me.
“Who knows,” I said, staring out the large window at the passing trees. Tree after tree. Who knew there was such a desolate wilderness so near our comfortable home?
Based on the Brasstown Bald experience, I wanted nothing to do with Kaarlo. Jason, in contrast, wanted to hire him immediately. That night in bed, where we conducted most of our business after the children went to sleep, Jason told me again about his comfort-zone theory. I said, “If by ‘get us out of our comfort zone,’ you mean make us uncomfortable, then yeah. He nailed it.”
“The element of surprise goes a long way,” Jason said.
“Maybe next time he’ll brandish a gun.”
“I’m serious. It was so beautiful up there, and so close, but we had no idea.”
“Fine, we’ll do more wilderness shoots.”
Jason was staring dreamily into the space above our bed. “It’s like, by showing us something new, he made us see ourselves as new.”
“Hmm,” I said. The whole ordeal hadn’t made me see myself as anything but a sweaty and haggard parent.
“The man is a genius,” Jason said, “clearly.”
“It was a stunt meant to give the impression of genius.”
“But how can we be sure? What if we go to our graves wondering if we had a brush with genius?”
I hadn’t known Jason was so interested in the phenomenon of genius. As a compromise, we agreed to suspend judgment until we saw whatever photos Kaarlo sent us.
He sent none.
Instead he sent a message, through Ron, that he had to think about “what it would mean to work with such people.”
“Such people?” I bristled. It was the next night, and I was reading Ron’s e-mail in bed on my phone. Jason was nodding as though the message confirmed his idea of Kaarlo-as-genius. “Of course he has misgivings about us,” Jason said, “just like you have misgivings about him. Clash of the titans, you know?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, turning my attention to the laptop on my thighs. I had been scrolling through our yield from the lazy day at home. Despite the drama with Critter, there were several promising family shots from brunch on the patio, and a nice full-body of Jason raking leaves, really showing off his jeans and work boots. The boots were part of a sponsored campaign exclusively for him. The prize, though, was a shot of me and Emma lying on our bellies in the grass near the koi pond, gazing into each other’s eyes. You could even see the reddish top of a fish. The photo was emotional, or at least it made me feel emotional. I wondered if I should blur it heavily, like a wedding photo, or leave it alone to preserve the delicacy of the moment. It was an important decision. The photo had the quality I was always looking for: the sweetness, for lack of a better word, that caused highest engagement in our followers. If I got the text right, it might go viral, especially if it was the first post to mention the cable-knit sweaters. I had been having doubts about the sweaters, but the photo made me see just how Pinnable they were. The photo wasn’t perfect, though. While Emma’s smile didn’t have the smirk-like quality that so annoyed me, there was something odd about her expression. Or maybe it was my expression. Or some strange new alchemy between the two. Photos had been much easier back when Emma had a babyish face that screamed “Cute! I’m cute!” so loudly that no one bothered looking at mine. I have a blogger friend who’s thinking of having a third baby, and I swear it’s only because of the blog. She’s worried her kids are getting too old. Maybe they are, maybe mine are too, but that’s too much. Kids aren’t props. Besides, there’s my body to consider. It was much harder getting back into shape after Caleb than after Emma, and there’s only three years’ difference between them. I’m thirty-seven, already on the old side for a lifestyle blogger. Much older, and photos of me holding a newborn could be distasteful.
I shut the laptop. Beside me, Jason had turned off his lamp. His loud breathing filled the room. I closed my eyes and did a thing I do to relax, which is to imagine my body spreading thinner and thinner, like a puddle, until it disappears completely. But the koi-pond photo kept popping into my head, only in my head Emma looked about twenty and I looked sixty, like my mother but thinner and unfriendly.
By the time Kaarlo related, again through Ron, that he would like to work with us, it was two days later and my temper had settled. I had come around to Jason’s way of thinking: that a change of pace might be good for us. After all, we didn’t have to use whatever Kaarlo came up with, and he had explained that he wouldn’t require payment unless he came up with something we liked. It was an unusual setup, almost as though Kaarlo were an independently wealthy flâneur, not a working photographer or publicist or whatever he was.
It was arranged he would meet us at Pinocchio Park, with its photogenic playground and miraculously scum-free duck pond. He had chosen Pinocchio from a list of places where we often did shoots, a list that had included the busier Inman Park and the wilder Grant Park, where the zoo and good farmers market were. It was a surprising choice. Pinocchio was so suburban. So American.
When we arrived on that Friday afternoon, Kaarlo was already there, pacing. At first I thought he was pacing to pass the time, and I felt badly. We were late again. But then it became clear from the way he was studying the ground that he was measuring distances: from the pond to the play structure, from the play structure to the wooden bench under the pecan tree, from the bench to the duck food dispenser. When he noticed us, he gave a single crisp wave and approached.
“Caleb,” he said, ignoring the rest of us, “do you play on this play fort?”
“Sometimes,” Caleb said.
“Please play now.”
Caleb stood there uncertainly.
“Go ahead,” I said, gently shoving Caleb from behind.
Caleb began a tentative walk toward the playground, periodically glancing back at Jason and me. Upon arrival, he pushed a swing a couple times, dug his foot into some bark dust, then eyed the wooden play structure as though considering whether to brave it. Finally he walked up a ramp to the second level of the structure. He waved.
“Sorry,” I said to Kaarlo, who hadn’t even raised his camera. “It’s because we’re staring at him.”
“Caleb!” Kaarlo yelled.
Caleb came running back to us.
Kaarlo sank to one knee. “Caleb,” he said softly, eyeing the play structure, “confronted with this ghastly perversion, neither nature nor house, you may feel fear. This is understandable. But surely the animal instinct stirs within you. Embrace it. Make your wild and carefree mark.”
I was confused by this pep talk, if that’s what it was, but Caleb nodded seriously. Then he hollered like a wild man and charged toward the playground.
Kaarlo lunged forward with one foot, as though beginning a deep quad stretch, and suddenly he had his camera in both hands and was snapping photos. I felt a flash of pride, but the feeling dwindled as Caleb tried, and failed, to shimmy up a post.
Kaarlo turned his attention to Emma, who was watching Caleb.
“She is too old to play in this manner,” Kaarlo said.
Was he talking to Emma? To me?
“She regards it with disdain,” Kaarlo continued. “Seeing her brother in this way, she is reminded of past embarrassment and filled with loathing for her child self, as well as dim expectancy for what she is becoming.”
Again I was confused. Was Kaarlo giving Emma some sort of direction, or was this his insane guess at what my nine-year-old daughter actually felt?
Emma, for her part, seemed to be internalizing his remarks. “I think I can do that,” she said. “I think I can feel that.”
“But why?” I asked.
They ignored me.
Emma positioned herself near a tree and leaned against the trunk with her arms crossed over her chest. She glared at her brother, who had successfully shimmied up the post and was now monkeying around on the steep gabled roof of the structure.
“Whoa there, buddy,” Jason said.
“This,” Kaarlo said, crossing his arms like Emma, “only indicates what is meant to feel this way. Feel it.”
Emma’s arms fell to her sides. Her mouth wrinkled in a way that made me wonder if she was about to cry. I felt a confused rush of emotions. Emma wasn’t used to being criticized, but I didn’t want to embarrass her by saying something. And what if she wasn’t acting? What if she really did feel those feelings? And even if she was acting, did that make the feelings any less powerful?
“Whoa there,” Jason repeated. He was next to the play structure now. Kaarlo had followed him, camera in hand.
“Command him,” Kaarlo said.
“What?” Jason said, turning to Kaarlo. Jason seemed annoyed, which pleased me; he was so composed all the time, even around Kaarlo, who seemed to be needling him. Jason turned back to Caleb, who had balanced on the peak of the play structure and was now trying to stand on one foot. “I don’t think it’s good to be on the roof,” Jason said.
“You don’t think it’s good?” Kaarlo asked, raising his camera and crouching behind it. “Is it good or isn’t it? Is he allowed this or is he not?”
“Get down,” Jason said, ignoring Kaarlo.
“No!” Caleb screamed.
Jason stood as though stunned. Kaarlo was snapping away. Then Caleb leaped insanely from the play structure toward Jason, who opened his arms and caught Caleb but stumbled backward, nearly falling.
“What the fuck was that?” Jason asked.
Caleb ran to me.
“Brilliant,” Kaarlo said, holstering his camera. “I am finished here.”
“That’s it?” I asked, holding Caleb’s head against my stomach. In retrospect, I’m not sure what surprised me most: the brevity of the shoot, Caleb’s wild leap, Jason’s curse, or the fact that Kaarlo hadn’t, as far as I knew, taken a single shot of me. It was my blog. I mean, it was my family’s blog, but I was the face of it. The voice.
“For me, yes,” Kaarlo said, “but you’re welcome to continue playing. The ducks are eager.” He waved toward the pond, where some green-headed ducks were eyeing us.
Because leaving the park so soon would be a tacit acknowledgment that we were only there for a shoot, not a family outing, I told Emma and Caleb to swing in the swings. They did, a little tentatively, while Jason stewed in guilty silence. I should have told Jason he had nothing to feel guilty about, and neither did Caleb; it was Kaarlo who had commanded them to do what they did. Though I suppose it could be argued that Kaarlo had simply teased out what they themselves wanted to do. Either way, Kaarlo was to blame. He was decisive and powerful.
Presently Kaarlo had wandered over to the ducks and produced a wadded-up piece of bread, which he began to tear and fling into the water.
“He’s not supposed to do that,” Caleb whispered. Then, when no one responded: “Because of pollution.”
“It’s probably different where he’s from,” Jason said.
“A cultural difference,” Emma confirmed.
“Is that true, Mom?” Caleb asked.
I didn’t answer. I was busy watching Kaarlo, who had taken out his camera and was photographing the ducks.
We hung around for ten or fifteen minutes, to keep up appearances, then told Kaarlo we were driving home.
Kaarlo came toward us. It was then that I noticed a small suitcase sitting on a park bench. I got a sinking feeling.
“Where are you staying?” I asked.
“With you,” Kaarlo said. “I told your man, Ron, to ask this of you. He did not?”
“He must have forgotten,” I said, not sure why I was covering for Ron, who might have left it out on purpose, knowing I would have come up with an excuse. “But it’s no problem. We have a guest room.”
“For two nights, then home.”
Kaarlo picked up his suitcase, and we headed for the SUV.
During the short car ride, I started to worry that Kaarlo had detected my annoyance about his staying with us. It was hard to tell, though. He was staring out the window at the refurbished Craftsman bungalows gliding past. I tried to make chitchat: “So, I take it we have a busy weekend ahead?”
“Not busy this way,” Kaarlo said, turning to me and wafting his hands as though directing an orchestra. “This way.” He placed both fists near his heart and twisted, as though wringing the blood from it.
Kaarlo was very complimentary of our home, which pleased me more than I cared to show. He said it was less cluttered than he expected and more tastefully decorated than the homes on American TV. Still, it wasn’t long before he lit upon the Cozy Family Chair. He called it “an American behemoth, like the Bigfoot.” He wanted to get rid of it, but when I told him it was from a sponsor, he seemed to understand. Or I thought he understood.
Moments later he took a sort of razor out of his pocket, like a small box cutter, and began slashing the back of the chair. We stood back, stunned, as he slashed again and again with flamboyant Zorro-like swings of his arm, all the while muttering about “unmasking” the chair to show its “chairness.”
“What the heck?” Jason said, turning to me. “Won’t they be mad?”
Kaarlo grunted. “Tell them a madman broke into your home.”
“But what about our followers? Claire, is this okay?”
Jason was clutching the children to his body as though to protect them from the madman, but I only shrugged. In that moment, I didn’t care about our followers. I couldn’t take my eyes off Kaarlo. My arm tensed with each slash of his blade, as if I were defacing the chair myself.
In contrast to the shocking if not unwelcome slashing of the chair, the shoot that followed was surprisingly tame. Kaarlo had the four of us share a bowl of microwave popcorn while Jason, sitting in the disfigured Cozy Family Chair, read aloud from a collection of fairy tales that Kaarlo produced from his suitcase.
That night in bed, Jason spent a long time lying on his back with his eyes open. Beside him, I checked my e-mail and pretended not to notice his conspicuous silence.
“Maybe it was a mistake,” Jason said.
“Maybe what was?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“This whole Kaarlo thing.”
“I thought he was a genius.”
“An evil genius.”
I laughed. “Except for the chair, which had it coming, frankly, the rest of the shoot was perfectly normal.”
“What about the part where Caleb damn near broke his neck?”
“Kaarlo didn’t tell him to jump.”
“And those fairy tales were totally weird.”
“Because the character names had umlauts?”
“There was incest, Claire. And in the one, they pretty much dismembered that poor witch.”
“She was dismembered by bears. It happens. Maybe fear of bears is an important childhood lesson where Kaarlo comes from.”
“The magician guy sent the bears, though. He pretty much murdered her.”
“He was an evil magician.”
“He was the hero of the story!”
We went back and forth like that long enough that I considered creeping into the guest room to retrieve Kaarlo’s fairy tales and prove to Jason that the “magician guy” was not, in fact, the hero of the story but rather that the story had an ambivalent position on good and evil, which was the whole point, if you ask me. But instead I said I was tired and turned over. I was about to get my face mask, but Jason turned off his light.
Honestly, I found Jason’s complaints bourgeois. And that was the exact word that went through my head: bourgeois. It wasn’t a word I ever used, and Kaarlo hadn’t used it, so it was as if the word had popped into my head in response to Kaarlo. Was Kaarlo the first un-bourgeois person I’d ever met? I tried to think back to college. I had majored in literature and was sure at least a few of my professors or TAs had been Marxists, but which ones? The memories were fuzzy. All of college was fuzzy. There wasn’t much to remember about studying, of course, but I couldn’t remember what I did for fun, either. I had hazy memories of Jason’s dirty frat house, of cavernous beer bars, and of long drunken walks in the middle of the night, but there must have been long sunny days, too. Days without children and jobs. But whatever we did with those days was, is, lost to me now. For me, ten years has always represented a sort of cutoff, at which point memories begin to lose their fidelity. Now even college, those beloved college years everyone waxes nostalgic about, has wandered off into the cruddy recesses of my crowded mind. Soon Emma’s babyhood will do the same. Sometimes I wonder if the blog isn’t just a way to stave that off: a way to catalog the present so that later, when I’m old and alone, I can cling to the past.
Though Jason found reasons to grumble, the next two days of shoots were uneventful. Yes, Kaarlo had some outlandish ideas that had to be quashed, such as when he wanted snow for a shoot and, after being told we couldn’t fly to Vermont, proposed buying six hundred pounds of salt and crushed Styrofoam. And yes, to get us in the mood for shoots he made us listen to dissonant, sorrowful music by composers with Russian-sounding names. And yes, he conducted shoots at dawn. But Kaarlo roused the children himself with a small wooden whistle he had, the sound of which was so high-pitched that Jason couldn’t actually hear it. Kaarlo said that where he came from it was called a “child whistle” or “youth whistle.” All teachers had them. Anyway, I was glad to let Kaarlo direct us in his series of shoots, guiding us throughout the house, in and out of the backyard. The break from supervising made me realize just how much of the responsibility I bore, how many of the choices I made. So when, at the end of his time with us, Kaarlo came striding into the kitchen to announce he wanted to direct Caleb and Emma in a “drama pathétique,” I didn’t ask questions.
It was Sunday evening. I was washing dishes, and Caleb and Emma were sitting at the kitchen table in their pajamas. The shoot Kaarlo had in mind seemed fairly straightforward. Caleb was to slip into the kitchen in the dead of night for glass of milk and then to “emerge from the kitchen bearing this milk with solemnity.”
After explaining to Caleb what solemnity meant, Kaarlo followed Caleb into the family room, where Jason was watching poker on TV, and then followed Caleb back into the kitchen. Kaarlo held his camera at the ready while Caleb opened the fridge, took out the gallon jug of milk, and poured four or five gulps into a giant plastic Atlanta Braves souvenir cup.
Kaarlo lowered his camera. “Do you have glasses?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“But I’m not supposed to use them,” Caleb said.
“Surely this once,” Kaarlo said, barely disguising his annoyance.
The milk was funneled back into the jug, whereupon Caleb went back to the family room and repeated the process. Kaarlo followed closely behind, snapping away as Caleb took out the milk, took out the glass, and began pouring the milk into the glass. I watched the glass closely. It was one of a set of eight from Glass Haus. The big jug of milk teetered in Caleb’s unsteady little arms, and the mouth of the jug kept bumping against the rim of the glass. Then, when the glass was filled to its brim, Caleb grabbed the glass one-handed and sort of winged it off the counter and around his body toward the door. Kaarlo, who seemed to share my misgivings, stopped the shoot.
“Who carries milk this way?” he asked.
Caleb said nothing.
“The milk is precious. Yes?”
“Caleb,” I said sharply, not because Caleb was being rude (he was) but because I didn’t want him to tell Kaarlo that we often poured out milk after letting it spoil. “It isn’t good to waste food.”
“Even milk?” Caleb asked.
“Especially milk,” Kaarlo said. “This is special milk. This glass of milk is for your lovely sister. A profound inner sickness has left her bedridden.”
“In bed? But she’s right there.”
Emma sighed. “Use your imagination, Cale.”
“From the top,” Kaarlo said, and the milk was funneled back into the jug.
After the third, fourth and fifth failed attempts, by which point Caleb’s hands and arms seemed to have lost coordination, Kaarlo announced we would watch a mood-setting movie. He went to the gues troom and emerged with an unmarked DVD. [“guest room”!!!]
“Please forgive the quality,” Kaarlo said, watching Caleb load the DVD into the player.
Jason, who had turned off his TV poker without a word, went to the kitchen to pop popcorn.
What the three-hour Russian sci-fi movie about a sentient ocean had to do with our photo shoot, I still have no idea. I fell asleep almost immediately. The little I saw of the film was strange, full of long silences. There was an astronaut alone on a space station. He had a love interest, who was either his dead girlfriend or an extraterrestrial apparition of her produced by the ocean. Or something. Anyway, I assumed the children had fallen asleep too, but at one point I awoke to the sound of Emma’s voice.
“Maybe the woman is in his imagination,” she was telling Kaarlo, who was nodding. Emma seemed to be referring to the love interest, who at that moment was standing naked in a brightly lit corridor of the empty space station, facing forward. Abruptly she began to fade, or dissolve, and then to rematerialize facing the other direction. Was I dreaming? “Or maybe she’s the alien thing,” Emma sad, “from the ocean . . .”
“Hmm,” Kaarlo said. “Go on.”
“But the symbolism is unmistakable. She’s two women. The question is if he ever really knew her.”
The inscrutable conversation gave me a panicked feeling. Kaarlo seemed to be indoctrinating my children, or at least Emma, into something I didn’t understand, but what? At the very least, the same man who had slashed the Cozy Family Chair with a box cutter was now showing my children a foreign movie with full-frontal nudity. Not that I had a problem with nudity, done tastefully. But I remembered a story that a blogger friend told me about one of her friends (also a blogger) losing her nanny unexpectedly and hiring a fan, out of desperation, only for the fan to turn out to be deranged. One day, the woman came home to find the new nanny taking photos of her children playing Sorry! in the nude.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Emma didn’t say what I remember her saying. She was only nine. Did she really know words like symbolism? Maybe she said some version of what I remember, and her words were warped by my half-dreaming mind. Anyway, I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember, the credits were rolling and Kaarlo had turned his attention to Caleb. “Well,” he said to my son, “what did you think?”
“It was kind of scary,” Caleb said, which surprised me. I would have guessed that Caleb, if he had managed to stay awake, would be too bored by the movie to be scared.
“Do you like scary stories?” Kaarlo asked.
“I as well. I find them reassuring.”
“How so?” Emma asked.
“The ghosts,” Kaarlo said. “To see a ghost means our loved ones survive death. Time, though it marches like Russians across the Karjala, cannot snatch them from us. This is optimistic, don’t you agree?”
Emma and Caleb nodded.
“Back to the milk,” Kaarlo said.
After poking around in the kitchen for a plastic TV tray, Kaarlo instructed Caleb to place the glass in the center of the tray and then bear the tray with proper solemnity to Emma’s bedroom.
“Should I be in bed?” Emma asked.
“Yes,” Kaarlo said, “feeling weak, dispirited. You appreciate the gesture of the milk but know that milk cannot cure you. Not even your mother’s milk.” Kaarlo glanced at me, which made me uncomfortable in conjunction with the mention of my milk, but I was too tired to give any indication of this. Instead, I followed wordlessly, almost zombie-like, as the procession of the milk was shot three times. After each cut, Kaarlo reassured Caleb he was doing nothing wrong, but the shot was so important that we needed several versions.
“I’m pretty tired,” Caleb said.
It was after midnight. Jason was snoring on the couch. I wondered if I was losing control of my family, and if so, did I care?
“Tired is good,” Kaarlo said. “Your soul must be tired.”
By the time we got to Emma’s bedroom, I expected her to be sound asleep, but she had the covers tucked up to her chin and was staring listlessly at the door. By the dim light of her horse-shaped bedside lamp, her face had a pallor.
“Sweetie?” I said.
“The milk . . .” she intoned.
Caleb bore the tray of milk into the room with the slowness and gravity of an orthodox priest. He sank to his knee beside his sister, who raised the glass in a trembling hand and let the rim touch her lips. But she didn’t actually drink.
“The milk itself would turn my stomach,” Emma said, “but to feel the coldness of the glass against my lip reminds me that I’m alive.”
Kaarlo circled the bed, shooting photos faster than I had ever seen him shoot them. “Keep talking,” he told the children from behind his camera.
“Let me watch you drink it,” Emma told Caleb.
“What?” Caleb said.
“If I can’t drink it myself, that’s the next best thing.”
Tentatively, Caleb raised the glass of milk and began gulping it. His throat moved up and down with each gulp, almost sensuously, and there was the faint suggestion of an Adam’s apple on his throat. Emma seemed transfixed by this. Kaarlo got very close to them, snapping away. “Thank you,” Emma said.
“No,” Caleb said, “thank you.”
The words were among the most civil they had ever exchanged.
“Again,” Kaarlo said, and Caleb went back for more milk, followed by Kaarlo. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to follow them but found myself unable to rise from the old nursing chair we kept in Emma’s room. Emma’s chair, unlike the one in Caleb’s room, had a big stain on the ottoman. If I’d known we would be shooting in her room, I would have swapped the chairs.
Emma was sitting up in bed, staring at the closed door.
“Aren’t you tired?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I feel too alive.”
Kaarlo orchestrated three or four more takes. Or maybe it was five. I had closed my eyes in the nursing chair and was enjoying the sound of my children’s voices and even of Kaarlo’s voice. There was something pleasing about the way he gave his succinct and cryptic directions. I wondered if he was approximating something that defied language, and for a moment, as sleep overtook me, I pictured the children and me, and Kaarlo too, as planets orbiting a mysterious celestial body whose properties we had just begun to understand.
When I woke up, the lights were off and the dark room was filled by Emma’s loud breathing. A blanket had been tossed over my legs. I stood up from the nursing chair and watched Emma’s chest rise and fall. Orange light from a streetlamp outlined one side of her face.
On my way down the hall to my own bedroom, I noticed light glowing beneath the door of the guest room. I resisted the urge to knock and ask Kaarlo what he was doing, if he was going through the day’s photos or planning something for the morning, as well as other, more difficult questions I had just begun to formulate, such as what is the nature of your art? What is the role of the artist in general? How do you feel about Jason’s sponsored clothes? Too much denim?
The procession of the milk was our last shoot with Kaarlo, but it wasn’t my last experience of his methods. That came the next morning. I woke up around five, as usual, figuring I would have at least two hours alone; the kids had stayed up so late the night before, and Jason always slept as late as the kids would allow. But at some point, as I sat at the kitchen table fiddling with the photo of Emma and me by the koi pond, wondering again what was off about it, Kaarlo wandered in. Instead of opening cabinets and drawers to inspect our belongings, as he usually did, he observed me from a distance. Maybe he thought I hadn’t noticed him. So I pretended to notice him—“Hey there,” I said—and angled the laptop as though to invite him to take a look at what I was working on. He did so almost greedily, hunching from a standing position to examine the photo.
“Beautiful,” he murmured.
I experienced what had become a familiar succession of emotions: pleasure, then embarrassment for feeling so much pleasure. “I think I’m going to post it,” I said.
“You hesitate, though?”
“There’s something about it I don’t quite like, but I can’t figure out what.”
“The eyes,” Kaarlo said without hesitation. “Her eyes are unlike yours. Really, she is not much like you at all.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. It was something parents said about their own children in a joking way but was rarely said to them by someone else.
“Have I offended?” Kaarlo asked.
“Not at all,” I lied. “I appreciate your honesty.”
“In my study of your medium,” Kaarlo said, “I see that members of a family must all be similar to each other, especially the children, with the exception of small quirks such as one child with freckles or red hair.”
I thought about that. It was true none of the prominent bloggers had partners of other races, or even partners with different-colored hair. Pale Mormons were prominent.
“Consider changing them,” Kaarlo said.
“Her eyes? Like, with contacts?”
Kaarlo shook his head and gestured at the computer, as if to say “May I?”
I nodded, and Kaarlo’s thin fingers began spidering all over the keys in the way I imagined a computer programmer’s might have done. Soon my own irises were duplicated, reversed, shrunk, and set on my daughter’s open eyeballs. The effect was strange. Next, Kaarlo began brightening my hair using the same tool I used to lighten teeth. As he did all this, he muttered confusingly about the doppelgänger and how it is taken as sinister in many cultures and must be avoided. Then he made a few more keystrokes and stepped back from the laptop.
I leaned forward to see the arresting results: my daughter and I gazing at each other as though on two sides of a warped mirror, or a sort of time-machine mirror, with me looking into the past, her into the future. That this dynamic was the appeal of the original photo seems obvious now, but it hadn’t been clear to me until that moment. Though it was to Kaarlo, of course. Kaarlo was maddening in that way. When I looked up at him, meaning to ask about this or that technique—to sound smart, basically—he had gone across the room and was opening a drawer beneath the cabinet where we kept the crystal.
“This is impressive,” I said, a little hesitantly.
Kaarlo took a bottle opener out of the drawer. “But?”
“It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Because it is unreal.” Kaarlo inspected the bottle opener, which was pewter and shaped like Texas. “Have you ever reached out for a handshake only to feel the cold rubbery touch of a prosthetic limb?”
I told him I hadn’t.
“You must use the photo,” he said.
“But you just called it unreal.”
“The artist destroys his materials.” Kaarlo waved the bottle opener vaguely, almost dismissively, and it occurred to me, with some discomfort, that by “materials” he may have meant my children.
“Some say I photograph victims,” Kaarlo continued, “but they are only people. Flawed people, oftentimes. What I create is a fantasy of victimhood.”
“Are you saying my children are victims?” I asked, a little stunned. But I shouldn’t have been stunned. It was a criticism I had heard many times. One that simmers beneath the surface of the whole lifestyle blog endeavor. In response, I say that professional lifestyle blogging allows us to spend time together. We go somewhere every weekend. We visit family, even family Jason and I don’t particularly like and wouldn’t otherwise make a point of visiting. But Emma and Caleb like our families. One day they may tire of it, but by then they won’t be little kids anymore and the whole thing will be over anyway. It’s already on its way. It’s ending.
I heard myself saying some version of all this to Kaarlo, which wasn’t like me. I barely knew the man. I expected him rebut me in some way. I had come on too strong, and in doing so suggested that maybe there was something unsavory about what I did, or at least that it bothered me.
“You misunderstand me,” Kaarlo said. By now he was sitting in one of the six vintage Pollock executive chairs we had reupholstered to put around the kitchen table. “I meant the photos.”
“You should edit them more liberally. To say ‘an artist destroys his materials’ was perhaps overly dramatic. I simply meant you should not tether yourself to reality. The blog, it is a fantasy, yes?”
“I’m sorry. I just thought . . .” I trailed off, embarrassed.
“You do not exploit your children,” he said. “Your art gives their lives a shape.”
“I guess so,” I said, flattered he thought of me as an artist.
“You had an unhappy childhood, yes?”
“What? No. I mean it wasn’t particularly happy, I guess, but not unhappy. Just busy. Both my parents worked. There were three kids. I was the oldest.”
“You were poor?”
“I don’t think so. But I guess I don’t know, really.” I told Kaarlo about our cluttered ranch-style house in Marietta and the deafening inside of our Dodge Caravan and the way Eric, my little brother, would go all day with big smears of yogurt around his mouth. “My parents didn’t take photos, that’s for sure,” I said, with a feeble laugh. “Jason’s mother has entire albums full of photos of him breastfeeding.”
Kaarlo nodded. “A great writer once said the only worthwhile art is the art of living. It was this idea that drew me to your medium. Why not make an art of the art of living, yes?”
“Sure,” I said, not really following.
“It is much harder than I anticipated.” Kaarlo shook his head ruefully. “Taking on your case was meant to be a break, can you imagine? I believed that to package lifestyle, life, would be simple. I see now that this was naïve. The artist gives life a shape, as I said, but you must do this in the literal sense as well.”
“With my family, you mean?”
“Yes, and you do this now, elegantly, but as their lives grow in complexity, as the perversions of adulthood begin to simmer beneath the surface, will your hand remain steady?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was startled to hear him detect, and diagnose, my insecurity and also to hear the word perversion in reference to my children.
“Family,” Kaarlo murmured, squinting. There were more wrinkles around his eyes than I expected, which made me wonder if I had ever looked closely at his face. After a pause he said, “My father butchers reindeer. He packs their meat into tiny sausages that are sent all over Europe. Can you imagine this?”
I shook my head.
“He has three stores. Two in Helsinki, one in Turku. But mail order, that is where the sausage money is. For many years I boxed sausages in the back room with other part-time boys and sausage men. There was much rough joking.”
I tried to imagine Kaarlo butchering reindeer, but it was hard to imagine anyone butchering reindeer, let alone a young Kaarlo with his stylish glasses and thin, pale hands. Presently, one of those hands came across the table and rested on the back of my own. In his other hand, Kaarlo was holding his small camera. He began to raise the camera to his squinting eye.
“Oh, come on,” I said, but it was too late.
In the weeks that followed, I posted several of Kaarlo’s photos. I rolled them out slowly, as Kaarlo suggested, mixed in with some of ours. I wish I could say we had the breakthrough we had hoped for, but the numbers stayed steady: the same number of readers, a modest increase in Instagram and Youtube followers. In the latter case, a lack of increase would have been conspicuous. And no readers sent anything but the usual feedback about Kaarlo’s photos. This, for example, from Taylor in Tampa: “Caleb is such a helpful kid! Hope Emma’s feeling better!!!”
Jason took the lack of a breakthrough as evidence that Kaarlo was a waste of money, that he wasn’t a genius after all. Jason was annoyed, moreover, that the weekend had screwed up the children’s sleep schedules and that the catch-as-catch-can meals had left Caleb expecting Gogurt pouches every two hours.
“The best thing we’ve posted,” Jason said, “is the shot of you and Emma by the fish pond. And I took that one!”
I was surprised Jason hadn’t noticed the changes Kaarlo had made to that photo, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to reaffirm Jason’s role in our process.
For my own part, I hadn’t looked at the photo since posting it. Nor did I intend to. But one night I came upon Emma browsing our site, which she often did, only she wasn’t scrolling through it quickly, as was her style; she was staring at the doctored koi pond photo, sitting up in bed. Jason and I had come in to say goodnight. I asked Emma what she thought about the photo. She didn’t answer. Instead, she looked up from her tablet and asked if we would ever see Kaarlo again.
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “It will depend on whether his photos and blog ideas increase traffic over time.”
Emma nodded, but I wondered if she cared about things like site traffic, or if she only pretended to in order to please me.
“When you were at the top of Brasstown Bald with Kaarlo,” I said, “what was he telling you?”
Emma shrugged. “He was talking about the hills.”
“Like their history and stuff?” Jason asked.
“No,” Emma said, “he was just describing them. He used lots of words. He said they were like a thousand breasts.”
Jason made a face, glancing at me, but I managed not to make a face back at him for being a prude. I liked the idea of hills as breasts. I remembered something like that from a book I’d read in school, and the allusion, intended or not, put me in a reflective mood. The wilderness had been kind of beautiful, I decided.
Bradley Bazzle’s first novel, Trash Mountain, won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by Steve Almond. His short stories can be found in the Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Web Conjunctions, Bad Penny Review (as Dirk Morgus), and online at bradleybazzle.com. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.
Blurred Words: Weird Al & Colliding Worlds
By Allison Coffelt
If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost. Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations. He’s iconic. Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up. Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”
Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed. Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”
1. Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.
Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began. I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar. He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head. I, too, do this. When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick. I’m not sick. And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.
Let’s not look too closely at that logic.
2. Your Dad sends you the video.
Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.
There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says. This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious. If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.
An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince. As they should.
An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”
3. The music video is in kinetic text.
Man, I love the design of this video. Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting. Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?
Well Weird Al, you got me.
Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world. One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life. It can be great and it’s its own thing. Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music. It takes time. But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.
I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.
The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep. It takes a lot of resources and time. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.
I think there’s room for both. Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad). It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.
So, the question becomes one of sourcing. Who will provide each? Can some outlets provide both? What will be the effect on and for readers? We’re still trying to figure out the answer. I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching. In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.
Public Readings and Fractured Voice in New Media
My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured. At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera. When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal. I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal. Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers. This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur. These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.
However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings. These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses. First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few. Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series. And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events. This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words. At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way. You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.
Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature. Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”. However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates. When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”. Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”. In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet. This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.
What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature. I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.
This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature. The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more. Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.” In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all. Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else. In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself. These go beyond words: they are more than words. That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.
In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity. Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way. Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird. Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)? Both? But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter? Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”
Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity. “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.
Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings. A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking. It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it. However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental. Nor are live readings. Likewise, some other “true” may emerge. Live reading culture could wane. If this happens, what will be lost?
1-2-3-4, I Declare a Form War
I had a conversation with a writer friend a couple weeks ago about the discrepancies between the mediums of literature and film—and, more specifically, adaptations bridging the two forms. The conversation developed from my mention of a mental_floss article about well-known authors who hated their work’s well-known film adaptations. My friend quickly jumped to the defense of those authors, elaborating further on her own inspired favor of the original literature over the film. Remaining loyal to the novel or short story is overwhelmingly the publically virtuoso stance: the most immediate debate, without fail, when film adaptations are announced is how the film can possibly match the original, and then, after release, how the movie industry ruined yet another good book. Maybe it’s the insipid exposure to product films (movies clearly made for similar motivations as one would make a Nerf gun) we gather as a mainstream society, but a distinct collective psyche exists in which the norm is to, without remorse, denounce film adaptations as rarely anything more than cheap attempts to capitalize on a proven commodity.
While the cynicism withstands, to greater effect, in regards to a Hollywood culture currently preoccupied with remakes and reboots, I cannot begin to sympathize with the criticism of adaptations. The aforementioned complaints, when further prodded, stem from the idea that a novel can do so many things film can’t, or at least to a more thorough extent. Character development and direct insight, cast, narrative arc, and the power and experience of the actual words on the page are commonly cited as fundamental gaps between the meduims’ capacities. The adventure of the prose and the direct insight, for example, were the two inspired drawbacks my friend offered. Wherever detractors come from, the creative form of literature being superior to that of film is the if unintentional suggestion. Unfortunately for literature enthusiasts, this assertion is simply not true.
I understand where the author’s discussed in the mental_floss article come from: a fiction writer myself, it would be an incredibly difficult process to hand over, as most adapted authors do, the creative responsibility of something so personal to a relative stranger. However, their complaints are irrelevant. The best you’re going to get out of a writer, concerning an adaptation of their work, is an I’m happy with the choices [the director] made. Translation: they didn’t butcher my child. What else could we expect? Nothing. While I find stories of P.L. Travers sobbing because the Disney machine of the sixties whitewashed Mary Poppins impulsive-big-lip-inducing, there is little credence in the displeasure of creative alpha dogs such as Stephen King and Ken Kessey (though the later eventually came around). All of these anecdotes vindicate fans of the original and of books in general, little more. Kubrick’s The Shining is a horror masterpiece, using ingenious scale and symmetry to weave thick atmosphere and dread. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the second ever film to sweep the five major categories at the Oscars. (Both of these, of course, feature tour de force turns from Jack Nicholson.)
To favor a version is immune to criticism. That’s the freedom of art. To presume one medium’s superiority based on those biases is not. A film can’t characterize its cast as well as a novel? So, then, Nicholson’s Randle is an outright lesser character than Kessey’s?—Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood doesn’t surpass (let alone meet) any character in Upton Sinclair’s original Oil!?—Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector? The list could easily continue. A film may not have as readied access to direct perception or insight as literature, but I don’t think an argument can be made saying the nuance and depth of an actual human being stepping into the flesh and mind of another is incapable of capturing the same—or greater—profoundness of its prose counterpart.
Which leads to the other glaring form difference: language. Why did an otherwise beautiful and adequate film in the adaptation of The Road pale in comparison to McCarthy’s Pulitzer winner? Because the gorgeous and redemptive prose, more than any other element of the novel, communicated the transcendence of the narrative. However, to suggest that literature is the inherently better form, one would have to be able to make the case that a film could be expounded and improved upon in a novel adaptation. This, frankly, has never happened. Film-to-literature novels exist solely for fans of the film who also want the experience in literary form. An adaptation field without respect, quality writers rarely venture there, and little new ground is ever explored. If literature was in fact superior, even without efforts from the most talented writers, film-to-literature novels would still be more encouraging than what we have.
Now, what I have to say next may seem blasphemous, but it is true: film can depict with its imagery, mise en scèn, and editing visuals that do not translate to literature (literature we’d actually want to read, that is). Some quick recent examples: There Will Be Blood, Inception, Pan’s Labyrinth, City of God, Brokeback Mountain—each film possesses a visual quality either not found in their literary predecessor or irreproducible in appealing literature. A film can capture in a single moment scope and vastness or minute detail that in a novel would require unpleasant length, or the reduction of what exactly is described—but then, the product is no longer the same and therefore incomparable in any way so as to give one form advantage over the other. Or, in terms of spectacle, anything can be written into being. Not anything is supposed to be able to reside onscreen—what’s there, at some point in time, is supposed to have been tangibly real. Breaking that rule of real is film’s magic. By no means does the visual language of film trump the written language of literature. The only claim I make is that both are equally transfixed in their own medium. The visual is film’s prose.
Distinction for distinction’s sake is a time waster, so let’s put a point to all this rhetoric. The distinctions boil down to literature holding a greater level of intimacy with its audience. No matter a novel’s girth or density, the majority of its resonance is dependent upon the reader’s imagination. The novel may guide, but the reader is the one who executes the novel’s imagery, details, and characters—the fundamental reason people fall in love with reading, the classic “escape.” In film, on the other hand, everything is in front of you. A film can be ambiguous: we don’t know if Deckard in Blade Runner (based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) is human or android by film’s end, but we sure as hell know that he chased down in the rain an intellectually captivating robot and had some sort of moment as the machine died.
Here’s a brief list:
- United 93
- Brokeback Mountain
- The Road (novel)
- A Separation
- Schindler’s List
The long-winded point: Read the book, it’s always better is so inaccurate it offends me as an equal parts writing and film enthusiast. I’ve been writing fiction for five years now, plan on applying to MFA programs in the fall, and this coming semester will, for the first time, attempt screenwriting. I have aspirations to, one day, be writing consistently for both fields, understanding fully the odds of finding success in one, let alone both.
I have a deep and unique affection for each medium, and such an affection is why I find the cliché adaptation bashing by literature loyalists problematic. The mediums are completely different in process, but aim for similar ground in experience. We should anticipate changes (after all, it is an “adaptation”) from one medium to the next, not begrudge them. Repudiating adaptations based on the merit of the adapted form is invalid. Not only that, it is self-defeating. Remember when the novel emerged as a commercially viable literary form? (You do? Wow, that’s a damn good memory, some three hundred years strong.) It was tarnished as trash. The intellect rested in poetry (Eh eh, poets?). Even the short story initially shunned long-form prose. So, keep your noses high, loyalists, you are not the first to label an enterprising genre as bloated and cheap. The publishing world has long felt the economic presence of film and, now, various other digital forms. Why wage medium war? If so determined to thumb your nose at film, I ask you, how do you think that will end? In fact, better yet. Ask poets.
*If either you’re cruel or wish to test your staunch emotional heartstrings too, feel free to ask about them, though they aren’t the most eclectic choices.
True Film posted in November last year a slideshow of their 50 favorite film adaptations. The rankings are a bit odd, but it’s an overall solid collection. The Gaurdian, to a much less interactive extent, did the same in 2006.
On the flipside, the A.V. Club listed their worst film adaptations. If it hadn’t been written almost five years ago, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would have to rank near the top.
Some notable films I find, again off the top of my head, outright better than their notable source material:
- Kubrick’s The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange (and I’d imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I haven’t read the loose source story “The Sentinel”)
- Brokeback Mountain
- Let the Right One In (the American Let Me In is in equally favorable standing for me)
- There Will Be Blood (also a loose source, but Oil! is so commonly associated with the movie that it counts)
- The Prestige
- Shutter Island
- Schindler’s List
- American Psycho
- Stand By Me
- Silence of the Lambs
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleBurton9106
The Plight of Weird Fiction
Good writing, I posit, is like pornography: you know it when you see it. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s not that good, well, at least you’re reading. As a child, I devoured crap sci-fi and Dragonlance novels like they were a precious commodity of laser-guns and sorcery that might one day dry up like a salted slug. Even when I was taught that good writing was about character and feeling and that hard to grasp, tenuous human condition – not entirely plot or concept driven – I still wanted something to happen in the story; someone, please, die, or kill someone, or take up arms against your oppressor. Move, people. Get frightened by that ghost that actually is a ghost. Is that guy sleeping with your wife? You ought to punch him in the face.
I find it odd that I enjoy the works of Jane Austen, because very little happens in her novels besides, gasp, Mr. Wickham being naughty again and Mr. Darcy is scowling and everyone whispering behind their lace-gloved hands, but I chalk up the affection to a middle-school obsession with gossip. Or maybe I’m a product of years of schooling that have ingrained in me appreciation of things I normally would not seek out on my own. Though I still hate Great Expectations with a furor normally reserved for child-murderers, I can see why it’s in the canon, and why I was forced to read it in five different classes.
In March, Michael Nye wrote a blog for TMR that defined, I think very well, the MFA story: they’re often character sketches, and they avoid “cinematic plots” and “violence and melodrama”. I suppose we see enough of that on our screens and, as literary writers, we are supposed to avoid what is un-real. Our lives, to make a generalization, are not bodice-ripping romances, noir detective novels, or boogey-man-under-the-bed nightmares (if yours is, congratulations! And call me – I’m bored). I’m not entirely sure what literary fiction is “supposed” to be, and a definition would be disastrous, but it is something that we can recognize when we read it, and in terms of speculative stories, it’s a suggestion of internal struggle; the ghost is not a real ghost, it’s the narrators mind slipping off its shelf.
I was really pleased when reading The Missouri Review’s 2011 Winter issue to see an interview with one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, whose novel Perdido Street Station was a whirlwind of weird, steampunk and drug culture that I devoured one pleasant weekend and have not forgotten the thrill. The interview is smart, not least because Mieville tackles the question that speculative, genre-defying authors have to face when lit mags and publishers question their target audience: is this for the dum-dums who just like to read about explosions and blood, or is this a language piece? Does it have a deeper meaning once we’re done wading through the bodies?
To be frank, it’s patently unfair that writers who indulge strangeness have to justify their work to either audience as if it was something new that had not been done before, something that has to carve its face into the Mount Rushmore of ‘acceptable’ literature. The world, after all, is a very strange place, and we think and speak in metaphor, calling on the abstract to better understand the real. Thank heavens we don’t have to dig up Mary Shelley’s body and have her defend Frankenstein to us: After all, Mary, did you really need to use a man made of dead parts? Couldn’t you have had your infamous doctor give his wife some bad medicine, and have a baby come out deformed? It would probably make more sense if the kid grew up, instead of the well-articulated five year old monster with greater powers of self-reflection than I can never hope for. Yet it’s that monstrous body we imagine, sewn up of dead parts, that sticks with our imagination and frightens us still today, that same body that could not be so dreadful, so pitiful, unless that gruesomeness is there.
I always wonder about the lyrical pieces, which I confess to enjoy and even dabble in, but when nothing happens except the movement of language I feel somewhat cheated at the end. An entire story of a man staring at a ketchup packet thinking about the thrill of hum-dummery in what is prose-attempted blank verse? Sure, it’s a neat exercise, but I’d probably remember it more if he got up and talked to someone. Or punched someone in the face.
To say that the literary world is crossing its fingers to ward away the evil of fantasy and science fiction is a gross misrepresentation, of course, since many fine magazines will publish weird fiction, and some are entirely dedicated to stories of princess and princes, witches and magic (Thanks, Fairy Tale Review!). But there is an unspoken backing away, a narrowing of eyes, a baited breath when the stories come up: Is this the kind of thing we publish? And, if so, will we be defined by the weird, open up the floodgates of myth and violence and hyperbolic romance.
The one writer I not-so-secretly adore but whose name is something of a dirty word in certain communities, best-selling writer of weird Stephen King, is at the crux of my debate. For some reason or another, possibly because the literary writer should not be enjoyed by the masses but only for a select few trained to understand good work, and because literary fiction just isn’t supposed to sell that much, he is that throw-away author we avoid when looking at one another’s dating profiles: “He READS, best-girlfriend Suzie-Q! And not trite like Stephen King!”. I always wonder if people who revile him have actually sat down and read one of his stories or if they know he’s the go-to bad writer they can easily tick off and everyone knows who you’re talking about. And why does everyone think he’s terrible? I think he’s a pretty damn good writer with attention to language and lyricism, tempered by a masculine Americanism that is fearless and unapologetic, and a sense for the weird, that the ghost can be our internal struggles to overcome trauma. But dammit, the ghost is often still a ghost, and it might tear out your spleen if you don’t struggle against it. And let’s face it, it’s fun.
Lately, the big sellers have been Vampire romances, werewolf romances, boy-wizard-against-thinly-veiled-Nazism, and a girl with a bow caught between two boys and a dystopian future that seeks to destroy her. And yes, most if not all of them are poorly written because we don’t give children enough reading comprehension credit, but the stories themselves, taken at face value, are pretty good. Not so much the vampire romance, but the others have merit. People love these things, and it’s not because it’s anything new, but there has always been a place in our imagination for weird, for wary science fiction and romance and overly-masculine brutes spitting tobacco while holstering their old-timey pistol. I’m hoping the popularity of these stories bleeds upward, that this trend continues, and we, with our steady pens and quick minds, can take these stories further, muddle them, and make something better than high school girl can’t decide between brunette or blond, oh, and one of them happens to have fangs. But he doesn’t bite, no. Not before marriage.
Not Measuring Up
I have not read Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, but it’s been recommended to me twice, once by Slate and once by a friend who used a less convincing method than Slate’s accolades. The week that she was assigned Veronica by her fiction teacher, my friend would come to my apartment, sit on the hardwood floor with her backpack over her head, ask for a protein bar, weep, eat her own chapstick, and shout, “I will never be as good as Mary!” I would say, “I don’t have protein bars. Do you want popcorn? Who is Mary?” She would respond, “Veronica!” I searched for snacks while our Abbott and Costello misunderstanding continued until she exhausted herself or found her way out of her backpack. When I finally understood that her distress stemmed from the feeling that she would “never be able to write like Mary,” I responded without hesitation, “Well, yeah.”
I was not insulting my friend or commenting on her ineptitude in any way. If I wanted to do that I would have mentioned the chapstick. I wanted to know how she could stand to get through any book trying to compare it to her own writing. I had a moment that I have often as a creative writing student where I wonder if what I’m saying is not a thing that good writers say. It seemed like I should be in trouble or that maybe I had missed the point of four years of English assignments for suggesting that a writer read other literature without considering their own. I said, “You can’t read a book like that. It will drive you insane” to a backpack with limbs.
I never thought too in depth about how I manage, or think I manage, to appreciate the craft of a work without allowing it to get in my head or interrupt the development of what I hope will be a distinct voice. I have always attributed any initial talent I had for writing to the osmosis of reading all the time and eating family dinners with some good storytellers. I knew that the value of assigned readings in school was to hone critical thinking and motivate new art. I could see where my own desires to be a writer fit into a larger literary world, but I never wondered how I measured up. I tried to think of an analogy to describe the way that I read–a comparison to explain why I don’t compare my writing to real authors.
I think “real authors” hints at my psyche when I read. My warped view of celebrity has become a useful way to describe the unattainable, don’t-even-think-about-it attitude I have toward published, bound, essay collections versus my own Microsoft Word printouts. Mary Gaitskill is famous and I know that she is famous because she has written a book and she must be really famous if that book is assigned in school. Fame is odd and mostly fictional, but it is a separation. There is reality where I am and then there is a cloud of celebrity that I can wander around in when E! News is on or when I read a Sarah Vowell book. She’s been on Conan and the radio. I can’t aim for Conan or the radio when I write an essay. It’s with this same reasoning that I don’t end up rolling on the floor with shoes on my hands and a clutch in my mouth every time I try to get dressed and realize I won’t be able to do it as well as Mila Kunis.
It’s probably an unhealthy, somewhat destructive, and a very un-The Secret way of living life to suggest not shooting for the moon. So aim for your personal best or whatever, but everyone already knows that. From what I can tell, a writer spends the rest of their life developing a style and a voice that is distinct. I want my distinctions to remain fresh, not end up muddied by taking every good work of prose as a suggestion.
The Algorithm Inside
Last Friday, on the New Yorker‘s excellent daily blog, The Book Bench, there was a brief post on Goodreads acquiring Discovereads, “a site that uses an algorithm to recommend books to people based on their preferences and on the preferences of users with similar tastes.” It sounds like a more mathematical version of Goodreads, a better “system” for selecting books. More from the New Yorker on this:
What I like about it is the updates I get telling me what my buddies are reading. The recommendations (and the ads) don’t matter so much to me, but if they are going to be there, I would like them to be the result of the best algorithmic cocktail known to mankind.
It all got me thinking about how book and movie recommendations work in the offline world. I have one buddy whose taste in movies I trust completely, because in twelve years of friendship he has never once failed me; and I have one buddy whose taste in books I trust completely, for a similar reason. Whatever algorithm God put inside these two people is the right algorithm for me … I wonder … about my dimwitted Netflix buddy and the new-and-improved Goodreads buddy I’m about to meet: Will they one day grow so good at reading my mind that they’ll be interchangeable with my real-life friends?
This is probably supposed to be funny, but this makes me feel a little cold. Ratings and lists are everywhere now. Overrated. Underrated. Top ten. Top five. Etc. Driven by the need for revenue, websites have gotten very good at trying to determine our preferences and giving us ads that we want. This is good: you get information relevant to you, the advertiser gets the audience it wants, costs are more efficient, we’re all happy. And we all get to participate. This is good. I guess.
Over on Ploughshares, the poets Weston Cutter and Bob Hicok (who we love!) discussed the word “random” and its use, often poorly, in workshops and the classroom. Cutter quotes cultural critic (and hoops fan) Chuck Klosterman:
People are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention but because they feel as if they deserve to be asked.
Which is sorta how I’m feeling about this rating system game that Amazon, Huffington Post, Facebook, ESPN, and every other company (frankly, some conversations with real live people, too) under the sun has decided to play. I’m not sure I really want my book choices, or others, fully automated, an algorithm. Even tongue in cheek, I don’t like thinking of my friend’s as a math formula (aren’t we all water? neurons? souls? I have no idea). Sure, it’s nice to have recommendations for a book. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read and loved a book that Amazon or Powell’s or whatever recommended to me because of my buying history. The books I love are not products. The recommendations of friends matter to me, at least in part, because they can be wrong. They can be intimate, vulnerable, widely off the mark. And that’s why it means so much.
Step back: it’s rare, but sometimes, a person I don’t know well has asked to read my work. This someone, whoever it is, cares enough to want to experience what I do and take my writing seriously. Phrases like “I write literary realism” or “I’m like Richard Yates, only I don’t make you want to kill yourself” don’t really do justice to my fiction. The best way to know what my stories are about is to, well, read my stories. Sure, I want readers. Who doesn’t? But the anonymous reader is not the same as a person, probably a new acquaintance or friend, who I know on some personal level, asking to read my work. That’s a different connection and it is, in many ways, one of the most important things someone can ask of me.
Recommending a book to a friend is not, to me, a small gesture. It probably isn’t a small gesture to passionate readers either. Passing a book I love is one more thing in this world I don’t want to “outsource” to a company. I’d rather have someone showing me why he/she loves a book to mean something. Really mean something.
Two friends have recently been kind enough to mail me books. It wasn’t so much the books that matter – though both were terrific – but that the books came from friends. These were small gifts, unsolicited, unexpected, and totally loved.
One of the books was South of the Big Four, the first novel by Don Kurtz. I was delighted to received a hardcover book, the dust jacket laminated; for a wonderful moment, I hoped my friend had actually stolen this from a library in some sort of maniac desire to share. Kurtz writes with a prose style that reminded me of William Maxwell, and even had the same qualities of isolation and buried loss. The narrator, Arthur, has returned home to live on his deceased father’s old farm, and begins to work for this new businessman/farmer, Gerry Maars. It’s a patient, moving, skillful novel of the farming community in the modern world. But it has extra meaning to me because of who it came from, and that it came with a handwritten letter tucked into the pages.
The other book is a chapbook published by Catenary Press: “Houses” by Elizabeth Benjamin. It’s a series of short stories that are loosely linked as images of people and place in various stages of movement and waiting, images that became clearer and stronger the more I reread it. One of my favorites followed a man walking through the woods, and stumbling into a hunter, who warns him to be more careful. After the hunter leaves him, the man follows by stepping in her footprints. And these stories, even with all their movement, have a strong sense of physical possession. I’d never have heard of it Benjamin without my friend mailing me the book, and this mailing too had a small personal note inside.
The letter/inscription combined with the slightly battered text that was read slowly, maybe even with some margin scrawls, pages stained by wine or coffee, rounded corners, cracked spines, all of which gets sent to me as something much greater than its individual parts: there’s no algorithm in this. Instead, there is something else, not so much a recommendation but a gift. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review
look at them intensely, until they disappear
There are few things that can get me as excited about reading as the prospect of sharing a book that I loved as a kid with children. They don’t even have to be my children; a few years ago a friend’s daughter had recently learned to read and was very patient with me when I starting grilling her about which books she’d read and saying things like “ooh, you’re just going to love this one, I know it’s around here somewhere,” sending her home with what must have been a rather intimidating stack of reading material. As a fiction writer and recent graduate student, I sometimes feel like I’ve trained myself out of being able to read with the same level of total absorption, the same pure pleasure that was such an important part of my early life. Occasionally a book will still draw me in and the world around me will crumble, but that world is a lot more complicated now and it’s a rare book that can make it vanish. Helping someone else experience the kind of pleasure I derived from book as a child thrills me.
Now that my own daughters are eight and five, and their attention spans have moved well beyond Goodnight Moon, we can read together, which, it turns out, is even better than sending my books home with other people’s children. Recently, I was scanning the bookshelves in the living room, trying to decide what we should read next. Should it be Ramona the Pest or A Wrinkle in Time? The Egypt Game? Something – anything – by Roald Dahl? Part of me knows we’ll get to them all eventually, but it’s harder to choose the right now book than one might think. Then I found it. A book that, when I read it as a child, made me realize that there were things people could do. Things children could do, that no one ever talks about, like running away and having adventures in a grown up world without anything terrible happening.
First published in 1967, E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the story of Claudia Kincaid, and her younger brother Jamie, who run away from their suburban home and spend a week ducking guards, sleeping in enormous, antique beds and bathing in fountains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While they are there, Claudia and Jamie discover a mystery surrounding one of the museum’s latest acquisitions, a small angel statue that may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo. Their investigation eventually leads them to the slightly eccentric and elusive narrator of their story, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who sold the piece to the museum.
What I remember most about the book from my first read – probably more than twenty years ago – was the feeling of awe that Claudia inspired in me. At eleven years old she is a planner. She thinks through every detail of their escape, from packing their clothes in their musical instrument cases, to how they will hide during those dangerous early morning hours when the museum staff have arrived, but the museum is not yet open. Claudia had a plan for everything.
Okay, I admit it; I still think Claudia’s pretty cool, and her compulsion to correct her brother’s grammar even when it could get them in trouble makes me smile every time. But as I’ve read it chapter-by-chapter to my girls this past week, what I really noticed is the subtlety with which Konigsburg reveals the inner lives of her characters. Claudia leaves home because she feels underappreciated, but through the novel she develops a complex relationship with her brother and learns not only what she’s capable of doing but in some way she also learns how to be herself. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those children’s books with a terribly obvious lesson; I’ve never liked those. But I think that the reason it feels as fresh and remarkable now as it did when it won the Newbery Medal in 1968, is that learning how to be yourself is something that everyone has to figure out on their own, and it doesn’t get any easier.
Rereading this novel with my daughters is a way of not only sharing the books that I loved with them, but also of revisiting another kind of reading. There is a character in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler who has trained himself not to read. He explains that
It’s not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them intensely, until they disappear.
I’ve worked so long and so hard at becoming a “better” reader, a more critical reader, that it’s easy to forget why I started doing it in the first place. How can you achieve that intensity, that level of absorption in a book that makes everything else disappear, when you’re trying to pay attention to so many different things? Reading once-loved books with my daughters is my way of unlearning – just for half an hour before bedtime – all the other ways of reading and reclaim reading for the love of reading.
The Infinite Library
I was riding my electric bike through the neighborhood last evening at the quiet hour. No wind, no traffic, no hard pumping up the hills. A few people gardening in their front yards looked up and smiled as I tooled by. And what was I thinking about?
The meaning of the suffix “-ate.” Yes, that’s right. Riding my magic bicycle at the perfect hour of the perfect day of the year, I was thinking not about love, not about vacations, not about the price of real estate, but about suffixes, particularly the one deriving from the Latin that means to cause to happen-expectorate, recreate, congregate, stimulate, cogitate, fornicate, mediate, associate–one could go on forever with the -ates.
What a wonderful thing the mind is. It is as free flowing and unpredictable as the weather. If a hundred experts sat in a room working hard for a week, they could never guess what I was thinking about on my ride. Or if they did, they could certainly never guess both that and what I thought about next. And to guess three successive thoughts? No way, except with the help of Borges’s infinite library.
I think that’s why fiction and poetry are potentially more amazing than every other art form. It’s not a single moment, not a work of static art or of the awkwardness of moving pictures, powerful or not, but an unpredictable process of unfolding which a good story or poem can follow with the ease and naturalness of the miraculous weather of the mind.