Friday, August 22, 2014

Six Short Stories About Different States of Mind

Title: The Balloon of William Fuerst
Author: Lowell B. Komie
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

A short, funny story but one with a familiar pang in it, the feeling of life getting wasted on triviality. The main character is an attorney who starts to hear air escaping from his ears - "a hiss of all the useless acts." He imagines his head is a balloon, with air leaking out. How does he think he can fix the problem, without leaving a job he feels trapped in? Maybe helium is the answer! If nothing else, at least he'll sound like a new person...

Title: Bitter Grounds
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things

Before reading "Bitter Grounds," I hadn't come across any zombie fic that interested me. But this story is further proof that it's never the subject matter that's the problem, but the way it's handled. Any topic can be written about in an interesting way.

This isn't a typical zombie fic. There are no rotting corpses staggering around - no brain-eating, post-apocalyptic monsters. It's more a confusing and fascinating story of escape and loss of identity, of blurred boundaries between people and between the living and the dead. It begins with a man who can't deal with his life anymore:
"In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving."
One day, he drives and just keeps on driving, with no particular destination or purpose. And then starts to move between different identities. Through circumstances described in the story, he steps into the shoes of an anthropology professor invited to give a talk in New Orleans about tales of undead Haitian coffee girls. Nothing in this story is as it seems, and by the end, you have to wonder who is this man, and who has he met along the way? Not sure if this is a nightmare, or if he's ripped through the fragile tissues that life's made of.

Title: Cold Snap
Author: Thom Jones
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

A man with bipolar disorder is sent home from a medical job he'd taken with a charitable organization overseas. His only family is an adult sister, currently in an institution for her own psychological issues; she's less able to function out in the world, but he has days when he isn't in much greater shape than she is. He checks her out for a day, takes her to his home. They hang out. He has a deliberate brush with death that seems to bring him some greater clarity and appreciation of life. The story in general sways between moments of unsentimental sweetness and beauty, and a feeling of someone staggering through life on the verge of blowing apart.

What he aims for at the end is making an "island of stability" for him and his sister. And maybe doing the only thing people can guarantee themselves, which is to live moment by moment, savoring as much as possible and not adhering to a rigid overarching plan. Maybe this is what life is made of:
"I'm thinking that I'm gonna be all right, and in the meantime what can be better than a cool, breezy, fragrant day, rain-splatter diamonds on the wraparound windshield of a Ninety-eight Olds with a view of cherry trees blooming in the light spring rain?"

Title: Judith Castle
Author: David Mitchell
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

Ouch. That's what the story ends on - a big ouch moment. It's a funny but also painful look at a woman who's deeply self-absorbed and desperate to be loved. It starts when she gets a phone call from the brother of a man she's fallen in love with, and then spins off from there. She sees herself as a dramatic figure looming large and irresistible in other people's lives. And you also see, after she visits home at one point, that she was probably never loved. Maybe that's why she had to build up and fervently believe in a fake version of herself (and cling to plausible-sounding delusions for why people do their best to avoid her).

Title: The Redneck Way of Knowledge
Author: Blanche McCrary Boyd
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The human body does not believe it can fall thousands of feet and survive, but the mind devises a method.
The narrator of "The Redneck Way of Knowledge" is from South Carolina, and in the story explores various ways of pushing the boundaries of herself and her mind. She's been to other places, including Berkeley, CA, but finds that exploring the unfamiliar can occur on familiar ground, on home turf.

At one point she's at a stock-car race (so far, this story has come closest to helping me understand why people like watching cars race). She conveys the heat and noise of the cars and crowd, thick with sensations; at one point, she grabs a railing close to the tracks and feels like a "tuning fork," as she writes, "The noise ran up my arms, through my shoulders, past my neck…" It reminds her of a trance she went into during yoga. The strong link between the mental and the physical comes out in this story.

When people grow up in a certain culture, it stays with them. They can redefine and expand themselves, but the home of their childhood is part of their character. In the story, the narrator reclaims her home, explores what's new and familiar in it.
Porpoises rolled in the placid water. Everything was bluish - the sand, the water, the sky. Then the sun came up like an opening, a brilliant tear in the horizon, and for a second I thought I could glimpse through it to another place.

Title: Train
Author: Joy Williams
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

There's a weird feeling you get when you've been traveling for hours on end. Loopy and groggy, prone to disjointed thoughts and fragmented conversations with strangers. In the story, a girl travels by train with her friend and her friend's parents. Everyone's rattled and a little off. There's no such thing as polite small talk; there are soul-baring conversations and fascinating, sometimes frightening digressions. Nothing is comfortably familiar.