Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Katie Williams’s “Bone Hinge”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Katie Williams’s “Bone Hinge” gives us, early, the image of the piece of bone that connects Sylvie to her sister Hattie: a “bit of bone and skin that joined Hattie and me at the base of our spines.” With Hattie pulling Sylvie along to meet her boyfriend behind a dye vat at their father’s company, it’s easy to expect some level of farce to come from all this. Sylvie is forced to “take quick tripping steps” to keep pace with her sister, who is always the one walking forwards, and when Hattie meets her boyfriend Matthew there are awkward and unintended touches, Sylvie there as an unwilling witness and participant in the couple’s romance.

Williams’s story is really, though, about the relationship between the two sisters, as it plays out through Hattie’s relationship with Matthew. Hattie and Matthew are hoping to elope, and to do so they have to find a match for Sylvie; the suggestion that Sylvie be a forced member of their marriage, with no husband of her own, would be enough to put an end to the whole relationship.

There are elements in this story that feel weakly presented. When describing their early life, Sylvie writes of a town that believes itself touched, in some mystical way, by the birth of these conjoined twins. “The night of our birth, a thunderstorm had cracked a tree in the courtyard of the new church, setting the building afire until it was no more than a charred sliver of steeple and smoking pews.” For years, the sisters would wake up to a yard full of dead crows, or even flocks of live crows, sent to fly at their heads. This image of the crows is briefly touched upon and reads as a half-completed gesture towards another side of this story. As easily as Sylvie might dismiss the idea that her birth was an event of some mystical importance, there are suggestions that she views her relationship with her sister as having some meaning beyond the physical.

The more fully explored side of this story is the relationship between Hattie and Sylvie, formed in such large part by the secret place that joins them, where the “skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird’s wing does to its body – a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base.” Sylvie allows Hattie to lead as they walk, preferring to see the world after its passed by her sister; here, there is the first hint of how divided Sylvie feels them to be, her sense that Hattie got the good and she the evil.

Sylvie doesn’t want to be pulled into her sister’s relationship with Matthew; nor does she have much interest in a relationship Hattie and Matthew have dreamed up for her and Matthew’s brother, Toby. To see how she reacts to her sister’s desire to elope, and to see her growing understanding of the ways sisters can be divided even when they are, physically, so close, is an almost painful thing; almost as much as Sylvie’s realization that the place where she and her sister are joined may not have as much meaning as she has assigned to it.

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Story Sundays: Etgar Keret’s “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

A while back I read a critique of flash fiction that singled out Etgar Keret as one writer who actually does flash well. As a fan of flash fiction I was a bit averse to the central idea of the article (that a lot of people think they can write flash fiction because it’s short, and that the internets publishes a lot of flash fiction that is truly terrible [ok, I can kind of agree with that]), but sold on reading Keret. I am a busy girl, though, and also lazy, so it took me a few months to get around to it. And, holy crap guys, I wish I had read something by him earlier! His story “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” is so good that I believe it makes up for the months without any Story Sunday posts.

What is so great about this story (and I am going to try and skip over summary – it’s short enough that you can read the story in only twice the time it would take me to tell you about it) is that Keret fits entire lives into this short piece. There’s not a word wasted, and in following two friends as they eat a meal, talk money, and visit a brothel, Keret captures the course of their friendship, the defining elements of their personalities, their marital problems, and their divergent hopes for the future. Unlike so many pieces of flash fiction, “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” doesn’t take one scene and milk it for whatever small revelation can be found; it takes these moments from one day and spools out, in either direction, all of the lives that we see in this moment.

The story’s title references something the narrator’s friend, Uzi, keeps saying about the stock market – he is planning to put money into a NASDAQ option, the QQQQ (or “cuckoo,” as Uzi calls it), and is insistent that they have to grab on to the QQQQ and hold on as it lifts them up. But Keret is so exacting in this story, and what makes this such a great piece of flash fiction is how everything, right down to the title, matters and can matter in more than one way. At story’s end, there’s the sense that the title references not just Uzi’s wordplay, but the way these two men are, in so many ways, holding on to each other in the expectation that they will lift one another up.

Read “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail”

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Review: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an extraordinary book, the sort that despite its occasional stretching of boundaries and definitions of what fiction is and can be (a powerpoint presentation, anyone?) is ultimately satisfying for Egan’s sheer good storytelling.

Goon Squad is full of gaps, spaces between stories that go unexplored until a hundred pages later, years of characters’ lives that are never explained or are only obliquely hinted at. It’s a powerful work for the ways Egan involves the reader in the text; details that would in other works be major plot points are here only gestured at, pushing the reader to do the work of filling in the lives that Egan has plotted for us. Following Sasha, who is at various times presented as wayward youth, assistant to the record producer Benny Salazer, a woman with more skill for picking up parts of other people’s lives than for understanding her own, and wife and mother. Sasha’s life doesn’t appear chronologically, though, and neither do those her story intersects with; Benny appears at one point through his wife’s eyes, as she struggles to fit in with the country club community they are trying to become a part of, at another time peripherally as a young man meeting the producer who will be his mentor, at another as his career falters and he’s taken to drinking hundreds of dollars of gold leaf with his coffee in the hopes it will return to him some of his former virility. Benny’s mentor, Lou, is a dying man being visited by the middle-aged women he once entertained as teens, standing by his bed and “unsure what to do” because they knew “him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying” (85), a success with a good car and something appealing to offer a teenaged hitchhiker, a father on a safari failing, in some way, to connect with his children, and in another falling into the life they push him to lead.

By showing her characters in glimpses, by having them appear only for a second in the story of another life and later in a light different than we ever could have imagined them, Egan illuminates the whole of a life, of many lives. One of her characters, the possibly off-his-rocker reporter Jules Jones, writes of the movie star Kitty Jackson that he feels “surrounded by her, blundering inside her life without having moved” (177), and that’s how the reader of this novel (or collection of stories, whatever you want to call it) should feel. Egan arrays these lives around her readers, and there’s a wonderful freedom in the way she allows her reader to blunder into the lives of her characters; there may be gaps, there may be unknowns, there may be times when we enter a character’s life at the “wrong” time, chapters before we will really know them as they once knew themselves, but in those blank spaces and stumblings from one time and one person to another there is a sense of immersion. Egan’s characters are everywhere, all at once, because she never limits where or when or how they can be.

The powerpoint chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (by Alison Blake, Sasha’s daughter) has received an amount of attention that might seem exorbitant to anyone who hasn’t yet read Goon Squad. It’s this chapter, though, in which Alison charts her brother Lincoln’s obsession with pauses in rock songs, that provides a structure and way of viewing the rest of the novel. Lincoln’s description of the pause in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops acts as an explanation for his obsession with great rock pauses: “’You think, Hey, the song didn’t end after all – but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end’” (244). It’s the pleasure, in these stories, of knowing that a story isn’t over although it appears to be over; it’s the pleasure of rediscovering a character before the marriage fell apart, or of reentering their lives and finding that they’ve managed to collect themselves in a way that seemed impossible when they first appeared. And, sometimes, the opposite pleasure, or pain, of having nothing more:

“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” (281)

The worlds of Egan’s characters revolve around music: people who make music, who produce music, who date people involved with music, who listen for the great pauses in music, who try (and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, and sometimes do both) to one degree or another to form their lives around music. We keep hearing that “time’s a goon,” and Lincoln comes closer than any of Egan’s other characters to explaining why: sometimes it pauses, sometimes we think it’s stopped, sometimes we think it’s over, but it isn’t; but we know, the whole time, that it will be over, and that eventually, that end will. be. for. real.


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My Writing, Other Places
September 15, 2011, 11:17 pm
Filed under: short stories | Tags: , , , ,

Look, I have got to be the most awkward self-promoter there is, but I’m gonna give it a shot. I have two new stories out today from the fantastic magazine Anomalous. You can read the magazine online (all stories are available for reading right away, though we’re split into different “promotional periods” [mine is October 27 – my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, hey!]), download it as a pdf or an ebook for your Kindle, even as an audiobook.

“The Return of Rain” is one I’ve been working and reworking for years now, so a giant relief to see it published at last. “Public Monuments” got its title, if nothing else, from some of the weird statues in Macedonia.

So! Go forth, read my stories, even listen to me read them if you’re feeling brave. And if you missed it on Monday, head over to the Book Blogger Appreciation site to read my essay, “Why Book Blogs Matter, and Why They Should Matter to More People.”

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Story Sunday: Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Growing up, nothing disturbed me as much as the passage of time. For one, time is just different when you’re young (I remember sometimes wanting to cry out of boredom and time going so slowly), and for two – when you’re a kid, death, the irrevocability of things, our inability to retrace time, can be unimaginably disturbing for their sheer newness. (Remember the first time you realized you were going to die?)

Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” is about a family trip to a river, but more than that it’s about the ways his main character thinks about time and tries to reshape it in ways that he think of as more acceptable, more lasting. This is a boy who’s really good at “standing around doing nothing”, and that’s what he spends most of the story doing. He stands, he moves slightly, he stands, he says a few words to his Grandmother, he continues standing. Millhauser lets us into this boy’s mind, though, and here reminds us of another thing we may lose as we grow older, the rich interior world of the child, in which every minor detail of the world is worthy of exploration.

He likes the picture of himself in his own mind as he stares out sternly over the river, frowning in sunlight, his fingertips resting on top of the inner tube, his other hand on his hip, Huck Finn on the shore of the Mississippi, an Indian brave with a quiver of arrows on his back, getting ready to go down to the canoes.

Millhauser is one of those writers I always mean to read. I’m good at buying his books, less good at actually opening them up. This is a gorgeous story, though, and has me convinced I should devote a little less time to so-so mysteries, more time to his short stories. He never falters in “Getting Closer”; he captures perfectly the feel of summer and being a kid who holds himself always slightly apart from the world.

Read “Getting Closer” online

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