I feel like a piece of shit today. Self hatred is an interesting thing in that it allows oneself to feel a sort of disproportionate amount of self importance and partake in self involvement, albeit one of loathing. From this thought, I’ll segue into the issue of liking or not liking, hating or loving, characters in stories.
The fifth story I read in the fiction issue of The Atlantic was called “Furlough” by someone named Alexi Zentner. Although well published, he has not published a book yet so The Atlantic gets a tiny bit of credit for publishing him, I suppose. He has won a O’Henry and undoubtedly has an agent, so it’s no slushpile piece, but still. The story is told in third person from the POV of a man named Henry, whose wife goes to war in Iraq and he commences an affair with her sister, who we quickly learn he loves, and always has, more than his wife. The story entails what happens with all this, especially when his wife returns wounded. I liked the details of domesticity and the occasional creepy, dark aspects to the narrative. I am one who doesn’t think I need to like a character to like a story, nor do I need to relate to a character beyond the most basic human emotions. In fact, I love stories that take me far away from my own world and views. And I also like passive characters fine–passivity is just as interesting as activity and both bear responsibility for the results or consequences of the choice-but I didn’t like any of these characters very much and for some reason, I associate that dislike with my “eh” feeling about the story. It was a fine story, it was well written. It just left me a little cold. Maybe the subject of a man cheating on his wife with her sister seems so enormous to me and the story, in some emotional way, seemed not to live up to the drama of its subject.
The sixth story I read was my favorite. “Alba” by Kent Nelson (who I have never heard of, but apparently he’s written some novels) details the life of Ultimo Vargas, an illegal Mexican immigrant living in Hatch, New Mexico. I read this story while in the Dominican Republic and perhaps the latin culture and immigration themes resonated with me more than usual. “Alba” is a beautiful story, a rich, rich narrative, highlighting how difficult it is to be truly, deeply poor and how difficult it is, for anyone, to live morally on a daily basis, meaning, live morally in the minutia of our seemingly insignificant actions. In some ways, one could argue that Ultimo is not a realistic character. But that doesn’t matter. I believed in this story, in how it tells us that great reserves of strength are available to us all and that maybe magic does exist, even if it exists in simple things. After finishing this story, I sat quietly for some time. I didn’t read anything else until much much later, if not the next day. I often judge a story based on how long I must be alone with it after I finish reading it. Kent Nelson wins with this one.
Which is not to say that the final story I read, “Fish Story”, by Rick Bass, was not excellent. It was. I’ve read quite a bit of Bass, but not for a long time. I’ve always thought him an excellent storyteller but for some reason, I often get bristly with fishing, hunting, outdoor manly stuff stories. And honestly, that is why I read this story last, because I was thinking, oh great, a story about fishing. Well, I was terribly wrong to think that. Very similiar to “Alba”, Bass uses unrealistic (or so I think, I don’t know much about fish) bits to ponder on our humanness. Told in the first person, a man looks back on his childhood, on a specific, special night where a party was had in response to an enormous catfish his father was given. Bass is able to speak deeply to the strangeness of life and and how we –
wonder at the unseen and unknown and undeclared things tha are always leaving us, constantly leaving us, little bit by little bit and breath by breath.
And that concludes my cover to cover of The Atlantic. (Full disclosure: there are also three essays about fiction in the issue, but I wasn’t so interested in them.) As is obvious, I truly enjoyed almost every story. But I still get to hate them in a general sense. I’ll just not hate them once a year, when they put out their fiction issue. Maybe.