Monday, November 11, 2019

Eight Short Stories Dealing With the Complexities of Gratitude and Good Deeds

Title: The Advocate
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

Ted is super helpful. On a busy street, he assists people with disabilities or kids separated from their mothers. He puts in extra time at work. And he keeps referring to the many friends he has, and the people at work who like and value him.
Then why was he so alone? Why does he go to bed each night hoping for immediate sleep to ward off his loneliness? Why does he go every Sunday afternoon to the pictures and sit alone in the dark through two showings of the programme, and then return to his deserted flat and once more go to bed, trying to evade the loneliness?

He hasn't a friend in the world, and he knows it.
Ted is super helpful, or at least that's how he sees himself. Behind his back, people call him unflattering things, like "conceited" and "overbearing." But what happens after his death? They say nicer things about him at his funeral - that he was "helpful," "courteous," "a noble and good man." Has the way he died influenced how they choose to remember him (or how they say they remember him)? His attempts at helpfulness form a shell around his hollow life, and the way people speak of him after he departs from that life doesn't change how isolated he was. His helpfulness never meant as much as he wanted it to.

Title: The Comforts of Home
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Fear, anger, and self-hatred are often directed outward. Good deeds may be twisted by a lack of self-awareness and a poor understanding of other people. Gratitude is easily overshadowed by resentment and contempt.

Thomas, the main character, is in his 30s and lives with his mother, who supports him and tends to him. When she extends her generosity to an unstable young woman, Thomas finds the situation intolerable. His life is shaped by his mother serving him, and by the voice of his deceased father, a man with a rotten character; his father's voice is in his head, corrupting him and rendering him powerless to be his own man. Thomas shares some similarities with the young woman he hates, namely the fact that neither shows much gratitude to his mother. They're also both stunted people. Instead of fighting to understand himself better and push against the demons in his head, Thomas makes the fight external, so that his mother's home becomes a battleground where he pits himself against a female demon. He can't see or admit to himself that he's stuck in a state of immaturity or that (horrors) he may even find this woman sexually attractive.

Title: The Embassy of Cambodia
Author: Zadie Smith
Where I Read It: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2014

Fatou is an undocumented African immigrant who currently lives in England and works for the Derawals, a wealthy Indian family. She considers whether she's their slave, as they withhold her wages for food and board and keep hold of her passport. However, they don't keep her locked up, maybe because there are few places she can go. One exception - that Fatou makes an exception for herself - is a local health club; she sneaks into the club using one of the Derawals' guest passes that they've forgotten about. And she makes one friend, another immigrant studying part-time in England and working as a night guard.

The story highlights sharp divisions. A street, even in a first world and supposedly liberal country, can be carved up among different ethnic groups who keep to themselves. There are also divisions based on wealth and on one's status as an immigrant. Fatou can't declare to the wider world who she is and where she lives. Back home, she worked at a resort and was raped by a guest who afterwards pleaded with her not to tell anyone, as if the authorities would have helped her. So she's in England, working for a family that despises her and would respond to accusations of injustice by insisting that she feel grateful for their employment. However, when she saves one of the Derawals' children, they find that they can't live with gratitude towards her. To feel grateful to her would mean seeing her as a fully fledged human, and the position in which they've placed her doesn't allow for her full humanity.

What on Earth does the embassy of Cambodia have to do with any of this? Fatou passes by this embassy. She can't see past its walls or know who is playing a game of badminton on its grounds. The idea of Cambodia is an abstract one. She's as of little concern to them as they are to her. People can live a short distance from each other and know nothing of each other.

Title: A Gift from Somewhere
Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The story starts with an encounter between two people: a wandering religious man who scrapes together a living offering spontaneous prayers and placebos, and a woman who's afraid her baby is dying. Her other babies have died, and this one looks like he's going to follow. The man, who didn't anticipate having to work miracles with a nearly dead baby, is terrified the child will die in his arms; as soon as he has handed out an injunction to the mother for preserving life, he gets out of there and leaves the child to its almost inevitable death.

The story then shifts perspective to the mother. Her baby, named Kweku Nyamekye, unexpectedly survives and becomes a thriving boy. Was it a divine miracle, worked through the religious man? What happened exactly to cause the reversal in her fortunes and her child's? It's a mystery. There's also another mystery that the mother can't understand - the hatred that her husband feels towards Nyamekye. Maybe he envies the extent of her devotion to the child, what she's willing to sacrifice for the boy and the bright hopes she holds for his future - an adult life that will maybe offer more possibilities and broader horizons than his father's. The characters seem to live in an invisible, complex system of weights and balances, where the calculations are made just out of sight.

There's a ferris wheel feeling to the story, sinking and rising in one's chest, only the ferris wheel is an unstable one; it wobbles more than is safe and might tumble and roll away. Despair rises to hope and joy; hope and joy sink to anger and defensiveness, before rising again to hope. One person's fortune might feel to another like a curse. Throughout the narrative, there's a bewilderment about why people behave the way they do, and why events unfold as they do. The characters are religious, but ascribing events to divine will still leaves them uncertain and reeling, shaken with gratitude and joy or staggering with loss. There's little they take for granted.

Title: Good and Bad
Author: Lucia Berlin
Where I Read It: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Set in 1950s Chile, the story is narrated by a teenaged girl attending a school for English speakers from American families. The girl talks about the time she spends with her history teacher, Miss Dawson, who wants to change the world for the better. Miss Dawson has the best of intentions. She brings food to destitute people and visits orphanages. She also considers herself a political activist, though she doesn't understand the political landscape or culture in Chile and how much she's held up as a figure of ridicule for the way she behaves.

I like the nuance in this story. Miss Dawson could have been written as a pure caricature, a silly English-speaking Westerner whose so-called goodness is rooted in personal rebellion or psychological issues. But Miss Dawson, however ridiculous she sometimes is, does accomplish some good and can be interesting to talk to. The narrator even admires her to some extent - "her dogged naive commitment, her hopefulness." Even if many of Miss Dawson's efforts are futile, she at least seems to care and tries to show the narrator more of the world beyond teenaged frivolities. At the end, a careless remark from the narrator results in Miss Dawson getting fired. Where she goes, who knows; the cruel world churns on and covers up traces of her.

Title: Insulation
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

During an economic downturn, when companies speak about the "shedding of some of our workers," the narrator observes a man who has been laid off. Unsuccessful at getting hired anywhere, he tries in desperation to start a business installing insulation. No one responds to his ads, so he goes door to door, already looking defeated ("a great lid sinking over his life, putting out the flame").

Initially, the narrator turns him down when he turns up at her door, but after a strange dream, she calls him back and requests that he install insulation in her home. By asking for insulation she becomes less insulated from the misfortune of another person.

Title: Stars and Saints
Author: Lucia Berlin
Where I Read It: A Manual for Cleaning Women

That day on the playground I knew that never in my life was I going to get in. Not just fit in, get in.
A young girl's attempts to be good at her Catholic school stem from her need to be accepted somewhere, to be loved and valued. Her home life is terrible, and the kindly attention she initially receives from one of her teachers, Sister Cecilia, encourages her to be a model student. However, the mistreatment at home and the taunting from other girls still undermine her, and ultimately she leaves the school in disgrace over the result of a misunderstanding and an inward collapse into silence. (Berlin has written another story, "Silence," that connects to this one, and which I plan to write about at some point.) What can outwardly look like misbehavior or a lack of gratitude is sometimes a complete loss of words, a speechlessness in the face of trauma and pervasive unfairness.

Title: The Virgin’s Gift
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

A gentle autumn had slipped away, sunny to the end, the last of the butterflies still there in December, dozing in the crevices of the rocks. The lingering petals of the rock flowers had months before faded and fallen out from their stems; the heather was in bloom, the yellow of the gorse had quietened.
The story's gorgeous language is a key reason to read it. For instance, here's a description of a religious vision:
Colour came from nowhere, brightening to a vividness. There was a fluttering of wings closing after flight, scarlet birds of paradise, yellow-breasted, green. Archways receded into landscape; faint brown and pink were washed through the marble tracery of a floor. Rays of sunlight were like arrows in the sky.
Moments of struggle are also rendered vividly:
The thorns tore at his legs and feet, drawing blood, until he came upon a clearing where the vegetation had failed. It narrowed, then snaked on ahead of him, like a track.
The main character has let religious visions guide his life. Once, a vision drove him to an abbey, and a second one to a remote island where has lived as a hermit and found peace. Now, a third vision shows him that he needs to move again. He's frustrated, chafing at the message he has received, because he thought he could finally settle down and wouldn't need to uproot himself anymore.

Struggling with doubt and anger, he nevertheless obeys the path he perceives is laid out for him, and his wanderings bring him back home to his now elderly parents.
So often he had considered the butterflies of his rosy fastness his summer angels, but if there were winter angels also they were here now, formless and unseen. No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendor, only limbs racked by toil in a smoky hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air. Yet angels surely held the cobweb of this mercy, the gift of a son given again.
Would his parents' home have become a hovel had he never left them to begin with? That remains unanswered. The story isn't about what-ifs. The character's journey is much more than physical. His deep frustration transforms into gratitude, insight, and love.