Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Kate Maruyama

In Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell’s  characters all have something more going on than they are telling us. The stories are revealed in intimate detail, but in careful increments. Schappell is brilliant at ensconcing the reader in place, a teenage bedroom with Jacques Cousteau playing in the background, a drunken college campus, a quiet well-to do home, a starving artists’ view of New York City–then she starts peeling back the layers. By the end of each story, we are left as changed as the characters, with more to think about.

In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” Our heroine Beth, later B, later Lizzie, is in a mutually destructive self-aggrandizing artistic relationship with Ray, a painter. In his discovery of Beth’s “earlier self,” Ray creates her as playwright, as artist, as someone important, but can’t cope with her growth. He leaves her, but haunts her in later years and when Beth, now Lizzie runs into him again, she tries writing their story into a play. The problem is that in her version of the story, Ray dies. He’s a likely candidate, as he is now a junkie waiting for a heart donor. But when Ray doesn’t die, our narrator is left choosing the story over the reality. Within this one short story, Schappel creates a many-layered nostalgia littered with objects and random bits of art. Nothing is placed in this story accidentally. A stolen tube of cadmium red, and a Navajo blanket—one of the only things Ray takes with him when he leaves Lizzie–turns up at the end. Schappel also portrays the layers of love as seen through different ages and varying degrees of nostalgia. Lizzie’s view of Ray goes from starstruck and smitten, to re-smitten and nostalgic, to barely tolerant. Lizzie grows up, but Ray stays the same.

I am constantly investigating the various stages of love in my stories and novels, and Schappel is deft with managing love in its stages, fickleness and wistfulness. She has inspired me to peel back at least one more layer in what’s going on in my stories, to try to have things happening on different levels. So often I am stuck in the moment in front of me; pulling wires to get each moment to resonate through the others will take some work.

In “Are You Comfortable?” Schappel gives us Charlotte, home from college, knee deep in her WASP life. When her mother tells us that she has mono, we are pretty sure something more is going on with this girl. Charlotte is instructed to take her once intimidating and intelligent grandfather out for lunch—only now he suffers from dementia. He is the only one to whom she can come clean; she tells him of her date rape and how it’s destroyed her. Schappell is so careful in setting up this story, that we are lost with Charlotte in her day and her inability to get motivated to do much of anything. Schappell recreates the malaise of depression and jams it up against an old folks’ home and a pip of an old man who used to be intimidating. Things slide sideways as a simple trip to the diner becomes a mess and by the time we are delivered to the reveal, it is devastating.

Schappel has a way with final lines. So much has been written about opening lines, but the final line of a short story, once it has dragged you through the wringer, is every bit as crucial, if not more so.  We are left with Charlotte’s grandfather’s non-reaction to her enormous reveal. Her grandfather: “Peering out at the woods, hands pressed against the glass, he watched as the sun, red and round as a rubber ball, dropped behind the trees.” It was an enormous thing for Charlotte to tell her grandfather—but did it do any good? We are left to mull things over.

Another story’s last line:

“I wonder, when we’re done, what will be left of us.”

And:

“They stayed like that, not moving at all, until the streetlights began to come on.”

It is what our readers are left with, in short stories, that creates that final note. And that is seriously something I need to work on. Schappel had me going through my short stories and seeing those last lines as a missed opportunity. She has a facility with that last moment or image. That fade to black.

The characters in her stories overlap each other’s lives in a lighter way than in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but in a way that’s quite enjoyable and useful in each story where it happens. I didn’t recognize the repeats in character until halfway through, but they bump up against each other’s lives, each living on the periphery of another’s story. In “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” Belinda is a friend of Charlotte’s and worried about her after her rape, but doesn’t quite get around to helping her–directly. The story itself creates the deep-feeling, yet reckless college life; Charlotte’s being in that story shows the careless hold our well-intentioned selves have on the big things that happen at that age. And Charlotte’s predicament and Belinda’s concern over it forces Belinda’s paramour, Andy, onto a path he may not have otherwise taken.

I am always so eager to get onto new characters and new situations, I hadn’t thought of connecting them or repeating them other than to take characters in my novels out for a walk, hoping to jar something I couldn’t in the novel I was working on. But with Blueprints and Goon Squad, it is tempting to go back and ask some questions of these characters from other periods in their lives.

There are few short story collections I can read all in a row. So often I need to take a breather, a step away. The short story is a tricky medium and collections are trickier. But Blueprints for Building Better Girls was not only completely enjoyable, it was an absorbing page-turner that I finished within the week.

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Anagrams

book by Lorrie Moore

annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

What would happen if you took a classroom full of talented, witty MFA students (okay, very talented students) and told them each to write a short story about three characters named  Gerard, Benna and Eleanor; a Renoir painting, a lounge at the Ramada Inn and a diner named ‘Hanks’?

The results would be likely to look like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore.  This book, which has been loosely called a novel, is closer to some of the permutations, or anagrams, if you will, that you would get from the writing assignment above.  This book is made up of various short stories about these same three characters:  Gerard, Benna and Eleanor, as well as Benna’s “imaginary” daughter, Georgie, which are told in different POVs and in different voices.   From first to third person point of view, from Gerard to Benna’s voice, Moore interweaves the various combinations available to tell the potential stories of these characters, offering a glimpse into the options that we have as writers when we approach a project with a given set of parameters.

In each of the stories, the relationships change, the character’s backgrounds and life choices change, yet there is enough consistency in the thread between the stories that they truly illustrate the vast array of possibilities which a writer has available when choosing to create her fictive world, even with a set of given parameters.  To the reader, the various situations and outcomes the book presents mimic  the world of life possibilities which we all at times ruminate over:  what would my life looked like if I had married him; if I hadn’t married him; what if he died; what if we had a child; if we didn’t?  Moore’s various stories play out varying scenarios across the lives of these three characters with different details, twists and relationships.

The thread of consistency which Moore offers is her sharp wit, her keen eye for detail and her borderline anguish over the constant small (and large) disappointments which life offers.  She ably interweaves a topic of grave seriousness, (e.g., a lump found in Benna’s breast) with laugh out loud humor:

“These are the words they used:  aspirate, mammogram, surgery, blockage, wait.  They first just wanted to wait and see if it was a temporary blockage of the milk ducts.

‘Milk duds?’ exclaimed Gerard.

‘Ducks,’ I shouted.  ‘Milk ducks!’

Moore’s rhythmic sentence structure contains the necessary cadence and use of metaphor that are necessary for good writing and excellent comic timing.  In one story, Benna’s best friend, Eleanor, just admits that she has slept with the man Benna is involved with:

“”Don’t you see, sisterhood has to be redefined,’ she [Eleanor] was saying.  ‘There are too few men in the world.  It’s a heterosexual depression out there.’

What I finally managed to say, looking at the Heimlich Maneuver poster, was, ‘So, this is sociobiology?’  She [Eleanor] smiled weakly, hopefully, and I started to laugh, and then we were both laughing; teary-eyed, our faces falling into our arms on the table, and that’s when I took the ketchup bottle and cracked it over her head.  And then I got up and wobbled out, my soul numb as a crossed leg, and Hank yelled something at me in Greek and rushed out from behind the counter over to Eleanor who was sobbing loudly and would probably need stitches.”

During this scene, Benna happens to be pregnant with Gerard’s baby (which she later aborts), and is also waiting to see the progression of a suspicious breast lump.  After the confrontation and the abortion, and the benign resolution of the breast lump drama, Benna offers a glimpse into the wisdom which will pull her through these experiences:

“But I believed in starting over.  There was finally, I knew, only rupture and hurt and falling short between all persons, but, Shirley, the best revenge was to turn your life into a small gathering of miracles.

If I could not be anchored and profound, I would try, at least, to be kind.”

Anagrams was written in 1986, when Moore was about 28 years old, and I so I wondered how her work and her voice had changed since that time.  Then, I remembered reading the short story, “People Like That are the Only People Here,” Moore’s semi-autobiographical short story about a young child’s bout with cancer, during my recent writing classes at the local community college (coincidentally, this type of educational institution was another topic which Moore addresses with great angst).

Moore has honed her skills of dealing with life’s seemingly random cruelties with sardonic wit as she addresses one of the most dreaded scenarios to face a human being:  a child experiencing a life-threatening illness and the apparent meaninglessness of it.    Upon review of this short story, I noted that Moore uses a distant third person, naming her characters by their roles rather than names:  the Mother, the Baby, the pediatrician, the nurse, the Radiologist, the Surgeon, the Husband (using capitalization as noted herein).  As the piece progresses, so do first names:  given to a couple nurses, then some of the other pediatric patients, their parents.   I see Moore’s distancing as both a means to emotionally disconnect from the rawness of the subject matter as well as a way of expanding the universality of the experience.

Both of these pieces by Moore show her incredible facility with language, her rare sense of timing, and her ability to explore the commonalities of human vulnerability.  While Moore seems to be wrestling with a deep underlying sense of disappointment with the events of  life that can never be understood, she demonstrates that these experiences can, at least, be profoundly be revealed—and processed– through the process of artistic expression which illustrates the human events that connect us all.

Erasure

book by Percival Everett

annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal

In his 2001 novel, Erasure, Percival Everett makes brilliant and sophisticated use of satire to examine questions of race, family and the vagaries of the publishing business in contemporary U.S. society. The author creates a compelling and conflicted protagonist, Thelonious Ellison (“Monk”), who functions as both the vehicle and the purveyor of the satire. The author uses his protagonist and his predicaments, the novel’s structure, and the parody Monk writes to convey different aspects of Everett’s incisive rage at the crippling nature of prejudice on individuals and society.

Everett embeds satire in the character of the protagonist himself. The novel is ostensibly the private journal of Monk, a highly intellectual professor and writer of fiction. Everett gives Monk a trenchant, mocking wit. When the professor presents his predicaments, the author simultaneously uses them to illustrate larger social problems he wants to mock in order to change. Monk does not match many of our society’s stereotypes. He lists his “failings” as follows: he’s relatively athletic, but not good at basketball; he listens to “Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder”; he’s good at math, but he can’t dance. As Monk puts it:

“Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I’m not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.”

In particular, Monk is told he’s not black enough by editors, who have rejected his novels, and by reviewers, whom he has perplexed with his work. One reviewer compliments the excellence of one of Monk’s novels, but ends by saying,

“…but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.”

It’s both funny and pathetically off point that this brilliant man is questioned because what he wants to write about isn’t considered “appropriate,” and Everett extracts every satirical gem from Monk’s perpetual “wrong in every context experience.” The professor’s quandary also illustrates an underlying irony of prejudice.

Everett also uses the novel’s structure to heighten the satire and ensnare the reader in the experience of prejudice itself. Everett employs the frame story structure in an audacious way. In the outer frame, Monk grapples with the issues of race and stereotyping which make it difficult for him to publish the sort of academic work and fiction he writes. Simultaneously, he is caring for his mother with Alzheimer’s, who is being “erased” by the disease, just as Monk’s individual self is being erased by society.

Enraged by the three million dollar sale of a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk writes a parody. My Pafology, later renamed Fuck, is a hilarious, but deeply disturbing send up of what Monk calls “the shit that’s published” as authentic black writing and the public that gobbles it up. The inner frame is that story.

Everett takes the familiar device of the frame story structure, and uses it in an audaciously humorous way to expose and criticize the mostly unconscious prejudice and stereotyping most of us fall into despite our best efforts. Monk won’t sign his own name to Fuck and instead credits it to “Stagg R. Leigh.” When his agent asks if he’s serious about sending it out and it if should have an explanation, Monk replies,

“Send it straight,” I said. “If they can’t see it’s a parody, fuck them.”

Ironically, Fuck becomes a huge success, and Monk is embroiled in an ever more complicated scam in which he pretends to be the elusive, barely literate author, Stagg R. Leigh. The reading public can’t tell it’s a parody and gives the fictional Stagg R. Leigh the kind of fame and respect that continue to elude Monk. Readers of Erasure are put in the very uncomfortable, but edifying position of reading the inner story, Fuck. Everett holds this uncomfortable mirror up to us until we are forced to confront our own limitations and biases. We come to care for the inner story’s central character, Van Go, no matter how exaggerated a character he is. Everett employs this ancient story form, the frame story structure, to take his readers, laughing uneasily all the way, to a more profound and disturbing understanding of the pervasive and destructive nature of unconscious prejudice – and their own unwitting participation in its perpetuation.

It’s brilliant and effective satire, channeling Everett’s considerable rage into a biting and effective call for change. By employing his incisive anger as subtext, as the emotional through-line that underpins the story’s plot (and the novel within the novel), the author transmutes into a far more powerful and effective tool than if the rage had been simply stated.

The novel also stands out for the inventive, subversive way the author uses language in this story. Everett confidently claims a wide range of linguistic territory – from formal, academic diction to informal, colloquial speech. He moves in and out of these linguistic counties with elegance and savoir-faire. His approach in this novel also clearly illustrates the difference between the limited power of a polemic versus the far greater persuasive power of an experiential novel.

In fiction it is often hard to communicate raw, yet nuanced ideas about race, injustice, or persecution without offending or alienating the very audience the author wants to persuade. Erasure succeeds brilliantly because Everett embeds his sophisticated satire in a form that both amuses and challenges, enticing us to do what none of us really want to do: confront our own ignorance and unconscious prejudices. He never lets us off the hook, but he takes us on a wild, bracing ride before he catches us and kills our old, more primitive selves so that we can be reborn in a new state of greater awareness and enlightenment.

After reading Erasure, I am inspired to play with the frame story structure to see what can be achieved within that particular narrative form. Like Everett, I’d like to experiment with embedding one narrative inside another, especially if they’re told in distinctly––if not jarringly—different voices, points of view, and tones. What effects can be achieved through such juxtaposition? How would the strictures of this particular narrative form limit and torque the story? I’d like to figure out how to use this nesting structure to make my novel more potent and emotionally resonant for my readers. Finally, I’d like to steal Everett’s tactics for transmuting rage, through wit and raw intelligence, into biting satire with the capacity to take readers beyond understanding to actual change. How do you make your writing crack open someone else’s brain and heart so that they finish your novel bigger, better and more humble than they were before? Now that’s art.