Short Fiction Week 9: Lahiri

It’s been a long two weeks. We’re deep into the semester now: we’re tired and harried but we’ve still a long way to go.

I still can’t figure this group out. It’s one step forward, one step back with them. Some days I feel heartened: the vibe in the room is different, a little looser. The class feels like a group. But then the next time we meet we’re back to silence, hesitancy, the students’ heads down, their expressions silently shouting, “Don’t ask me anything!”

I even took the step of giving out a pop quiz last week to check if they’re reading the stories. Judging from the results almost all of them are. So it’s not that they’re slacking. It’s more that they still don’t seem sure how to do it, how to read a text. Admittedly, it’s not easy. One thing I’ve noticed these past two weeks, however, is that the class has started to stratify: there are those who are really starting to get it, and there are those who aren’t. Usually that separation happens sooner in the semester. I don’t know what it says about this group, or about my teaching of them, that they’ve either stayed together this long or that it’s taken some this long to pull away.

I thought for a while about writing about a bad class. But then I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So here is a good one instead. In week 9 of the course, we considered three stories. One was Mansfield’s “A Cup of Tea” (a winner every time I’ve taught in, no matter what the context—but not this year). One was Joyce’s “Eveline,” though we hardly said anything about it since at the last minute I substituted a writing exercise that took a long time but that I think was worth it—we went over a strong student paper, highlighting each sentence as either description or analysis: the arrangement of the different colours offered visual learners a way to think about structure. I’d taught both of those stories many times before. But we also considered one I hadn’t: the week’s third story was Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.”

I confess that although I’ve read most of Lahiri’s books, I haven’t cared for them much beyond her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, which is where “Bibi” can be found. Peparing the class this summer I decided I wanted a story told in the first-person plural—a google search led me to “Bibi.”

Since it was the first day after Fall Break, I started by reminding students of some of the things we’d learned about narrative voice.

We had studied Lawrence’s use of third person narration in “The Last Straw,” noting how he privileged first one character’s point of view and then another’s, and sometimes a point of view attached to no character at all. This served his interest in conflict between individuals.

We had studied Pearlman’s use of first person in “Binocular Vision,” noting how this technique limited our perspective so that we knew only what the narrator knew (which, we learned, was quite different from what her parents knew). First person narration gave us intimacy with the character but consigned us to her blind spots. Only with difficulty could we read “against” her.

Bibi Haldar is a woman, no longer so young, who lives near Calcutta at an unspecified time—I place it in the 70s or 80s but the story doesn’t tell us for sure. She suffers from a mysterious illness that sounds like epilepsy but that has resisted every attempt at a cure. Bibi lives on sufferance with her cousin and his wife in an apartment above their small cosmetics shop, but she is most often found in the storage room on the roof of the building, where she records inventory for the shopkeeper. The narrators are an unspecified group of neighbourhood women, who have known Bibi since she was a child. Unlike her, however, they are married with children.

It seems at first that Bibi wants nothing more than to be like them. As she says, in a voice that “was louder that necessary, as if she were speaking to a deaf person, “‘Is it wrong to envy you, all brides and mothers, busy with lives and cares? Wrong to want to shade my eyes, scent my hair? To raise a child and teach him sweet from sour, good from bad?’”

Everyone seems to want this for her too. An exasperated doctor, finding nothing wrong with Bibi, dismisses her with a classic chauvinist prescription: “a marriage would cure her.” “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” is an odd story in that not much happens for a long time, and then a lot happens quickly right near the end. For most of the story, Bibi bemoans her fate, suffers debilitating spells of illness, is consoled or advised, more or less, by the narrators. I say more or less because already in that early claim that she “spoke louder than necessary” we see that the narrators might be ambivalent about Bibi. When the cousin’s wife gets pregnant, she becomes convinced that Bibi is bad luck, eventually banishing her to the rooftop. The narrators respond with indignation and take their “only revenge”: they boycott the cousin’s store. This tactic is successful enough that before long the cousin and his wife and child move away, leaving only an envelope with 300 rupees.

The narrators try to look in on Bibi but their attention fades: they send the children by to make sure she hasn’t had a seizure; they leave plates of rice and glasses of tea at her makeshift door. But they no longer see much of her, catching only occasional glimpse of her walking the perimeter of the rooftop. Months pass and not until vomit is found by the cistern several days running do the women search out Bibi: “We found her lying on the camp cot. She was about four months pregnant.” Bibi refuses to explain what happened. She has the baby, a son, and with the money left by her cousin she reopens the shop to great success. The story ends:

In this manner she raised the boy and ran a business in the storage room, and we did what we could to help. For years afterward, we wondered who in our town had disgraced her. A few of our servants were questioned, and in tea stalls and bus stands, possible suspects were debated and dismissed. But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured.

I began by asking the class to write for a few minutes about the first-person plural narrator. What is the effect of this choice? How does it ask us to read the story? They had to reference at least one passage from the story in their writing. I gave them five minutes or so to work on this—some time I’ll write an essay about what it feels like in those peaceful but also rather guilt-inducing moments (I always feel like I should be doing something) when I’m wandering the aisles, looking out the window, watching them turn pages and scribble furiously and stare blankly—before making them exchange their writing with a partner. They discussed their writing for a few minutes, an exercise that brought a lot of energy into the room. Hoping to sustain the vibe I decided not to take up the specific questions I’d asked: sometimes students have a hard time returning to a group discussion after talking in small groups, even though they usually have lots to say to each other there, it’s as if they feel they’d said all they had to say already to their partner. Instead I asked something much more general: What is Bibi like?

The first answers—tellingly: this story is all about how women look—were about her appearance. The narrators flatly say she isn’t pretty, and even their ostensibly neutral descriptions feel unpleasantly judgmental: “her shins were hairless, and sprayed with a generous number of pallid freckles.” (“Sprayed” and “pallid” undo the work done by “generous.”) Then came other answers: she’s not like everyone else, she’s not part of the group, she’s an outsider.

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But she wants to be part of the group, someone piped up. She’s conventional, I said, summarizing tendentiously. How do you know? I pursued. The student replied by pointing to this passage: “Like the rest of us, she wanted to serve suppers, and scold servants, and set aside money in her almari to have her eyebrows threaded every three weeks at the Chinese beauty parlor.” (The students could even tell me what an almari is—Hindi for a free-standing wardrobe—which given my earlier struggles in this regard I regarded as a victory.) Notice, though, that the narrators are the ones providing this information. They judge her to be “like the rest of us.” (Incidentally, that phrasing suggests the narrators might themselves want this—that is, they might not have attained the life they think they ought to have.) We are back in Pearlman territory, I said, where people see only what they want to see, only what confirms their world-view: Bibi must want to be like us.

What’s wrong with her? I asked. Why does she need to be treated? No one knows, the students said. She’s sick, they said. She’s tried all kinds of cures and been to all kinds of doctors. Nothing works. Then, something more interesting: she doesn’t know how to be like everyone else. The narrators try to teach her, though: they “began to coach her in wifely ways,” preparing her for a suitor that never comes, not least after her cousin, having been pestered by Bibi and the narrators, puts her on the marriage market, even arranging to have her photo taken, ready to be circulated in the homes of eligible men, a process that culminates in a terse advertisement in the town newspaper designed to repel rather than attract: “GIRL, UNSTABLE, HEIGHT 152 CENTIMETERS, SEEKS HUSBAND.” We didn’t linger over this ad as much as we might have: had we considered the cataloguing function of its absurd specificity about her height we might have been able to connect this moment to a lengthy passage later in the text, which we only came to late in the class period and couldn’t do justice to, a wonderful and enigmatic and disturbing description of Bibi’s late father, a math teacher, who, we learn, had “kept assiduous track of Bibi’s illness in hopes of determining some logic to her condition,” but who is able to find out nothing more than the number of attacks and that they were more likely to happen in summer than in winter: meager conclusions considering his near-constant monitoring. In this he is rather like the narrators, who watch her all the time, it seems, but don’t know her very well.

Needless to say, the ad gets Bibi nowhere, but what I wanted the students to see was the way the story was showing us, here as elsewhere in the story, how being a woman in the world of this story (as, of course, in our own) is learned rather than natural. Bibi’s “unnatural” qualities are not outliers to a norm, but rather evidence of that norm, of behaviour that all women in the story must undergo. In this way, every woman in the story is unnatural.

If Bibi really is the exception that proves a patriarchal rule, then you might be able to guess where I was going with my next question, Do the narrators like Bibi?

This proved to be a good question: easy enough for students to access, but not that easy once we got talking about it. Some students said yes, pointing out how the narrators cared for Bibi when her relatives didn’t, how they took her under their wing, how they worked with her apparently unprepossessing material to shape her into a form some man might find acceptable. Most pertinently, they pointed to the scene of solidarity where the women run the cousin out of town by boycotting his business. These students seized on the text’s use of the word “revenge” to support their belief that the narrators care for Bibi—assuming, of course, that it is Bibi, and not themselves, their status as women, that they are avenging.

But other students disagreed. (How nice to have a disagreement! Hendrix students don’t much like disagreeing with each other.) These students argued that the narrators don’t really like Bibi at all, that they treat her like a kid sister or a doll that they grow tired of, as we see in this sentence: “Some days, after siesta, we combed out her hair, remembering now and then to change the part in her scalp so that it would not grow too broad.” A lot depends on how we read that “now and then”—is it normal to change the part only once in a while or are they giving us a sign that they’ve forgotten or can’t be bothered? Most triumphantly, these students pointed to a passage about the narrators’ relief at not being like Bibi: “We consoled her; when she was convinced a man was giving her the eye, we humored her and agreed. But she was not our responsibility, and in our private moments we were thankful for it.”

“In our private moments we were thankful for it.” I’m interested in this phrasing because it seems contradictory. In what way can a group, a “we,” have private moments? Only by excluding others, of course. One of the paradoxes of the first-person plural narrative, I noted, returning to my opening questions to the class about what effect the story’s narrative voice has on our understanding of its events, is that first-person plural suggests solidarity and unity but often ends up presenting separation and discord. (It’s also not much good at presenting single or individual events—things that happen once; it’s much better at presenting representative or general events—things that happen repeatedly. One of the most brilliant investigations of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides (1993), which makes much of the tension between its first-person plural narration and its detective-like investigation of a series of deaths. I hadn’t really thought this distinction through before class—still haven’t now, in fact, so I didn’t bring it up, and anyway our conversation went in a different direction. But maybe someone here has something smart to say about it.)

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The question of whether the narrators like Bibi is best answered by looking at the end of the story. When her cousin exiles her to the rooftop to keep her away from his child, Bibi tries to reassure the narrators: “‘The world begins at the bottom of the stairs. Now I am free to discover life as I please.’” We’re led to believe—because the narrators do—that this is plaintive, unconvincing bravado. For as soon as she says it, Bibi shuts herself off from the world. All the more shocking, then, to the narrators and to us when Bibi gets pregnant. What they say when they discover the state of things is quite revealing.

I spent a long time close reading this passage with the class:

She said she could not remember what had happened. She would not tell us who had done it. We prepared her semolina with hot milk and raisins; still she would not reveal the man’s identity. In vain we searched for traces of the assault, some sign of the intrusion, but the room was swept and in order. On the floor beside the cot, her inventory ledger, open to a fresh page, contained a list of names.

The first two sentences are presented as near synonyms. But they’re not the same. How are they different? I asked. One is about what she couldn’t do, and the other about what she wouldn’t. What difference does that difference make? The first is about inability, the second about refusal. In both cases, the narrators assume Bibi has been raped, and of course that is a strong, depressing possibility. Yet we mustn’t overlook how much the narrators want that to be the case. They can’t imagine any other possibility: the only suggestion that there might be another way to read the situation lies in how strongly they refuse to countenance that possibility. They simply can’t imagine that a man might have wanted Bibi, and that she might have wanted him. So intent are they on confirming their lurid speculation that they even try to bribe her, preparing her a dish presumably intended to soothe her morning sickness—but “still she would not reveal the man’s identity” (my emphasis).

They want assault, intrusion, violation, but they search for it in vain; they find only cleanliness and order. The ledger, “open to a new page,” offers an image of a fresh start, a new kind of inventory to replace the cosmetics that were so unsatisfying to Bibi.

The doctor, it turns out, was wrong. Bibi didn’t need a man; she just needed some sperm. Or, she did need a man, but a son rather than a lover or husband. The narrators pass over Bibi’s newfound success rather hastily in the story’s final paragraph, preferring to harp on what they admit they will never find: the identity of the man they insist has disgraced her. But in the final sentences they admit defeat: “But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured.” The qualifying clause inserted into the last sentence holds out the possibility—the hope, even—that they might be wrong. Not to mention the conviction that something was wrong with Bibi. But to be right, in the world of this story, at least for women like our narrators, is to be reduced to a sameness, to live through the expectations and desires of others.

An interesting thing about this story is that there are almost no men in it. It’s a sign of how insidiously patriarchy works that women can do their own policing. We see, then, I said in the last minute of class, that the story’s title must be read in two ways. The treatment of Bibi Haldar refers to the various medical and cultural and psychological treatments she undergoes, especially, ironically, the “treatment” of becoming pregnant, having a child, and becoming a person for whom there are no other models in this story, and therefore a person decidedly at odds with the “we” who narrates it. But the treatment of Bibi Haldar is also the attitude or disposition of those narrators to Bibi. And the way they treat her is ultimately not very pleasant. It seems, however, that by refusing to be “like the rest of us,” Bibi finds a surprising escape from that treatment.

This wasn’t a story I knew well before I taught it. I’d read it once, years ago, and then skimmed it when I put it on the syllabus. Re-reading it the night before class I was sure I had nothing to say about it. But it proved more surprising than I’d credited. In the end I don’t love this story, it doesn’t have a hold on me the way many of the course texts do. And the reading I came to with the students is perhaps not the most sophisticated. But it worked for them, it hit a kind of interpretive sweet spot: they were left understanding the story in a new way, but that way wasn’t so difficult or abstruse that they couldn’t find a point of entry into it.

Sometimes, on good days, a class period ends with a tangible feeling of appreciation and accomplishment. That’s what happened on that Monday, and not even the let down of the Wednesday that followed can take that feeling away.

Next time: Malamud!

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Short Fiction 2015 Week 8: Pearlman

As I mentioned last time, after discussing Lawrence we launched into three days of writing workshops, in advance of the first paper, due yesterday. Of course this isn’t the first writing they’ve done: they’ve each turned in two (of four) two-page reading responses.

I use these writing workshops to force students to start writing earlier—and to recognize that writing means rewriting. Most Hendrix students did very well in high school, often with minimal effort. My students regularly admit—and this group is no different—that they typically wrote their high school papers the night before, and that worked out just fine for them. But it doesn’t work any more.

For this first paper, I’d given the students prompts to choose from. (The next one will be quite different.) Before the first workshop, I asked students to do two things. First, find five passages from the story they had chosen to write about that they thought they might use in the paper. Second, complete a timed writing exercise adapted from the writing guru Peter Elbow. The instructions were: write for fifteen minutes without stopping about whatever comes to mind about your topic. Then revise lightly for five minutes. Set the writing aside for a day. Read it over, open a new document, write again for fifteen minutes, and revise again for five.

Students emailed me the second document by midnight the day before class, and brought their quotes to class. I organized the class into pairs (putting stronger and weaker students together where possible) and instructed students to arrange their partner’s passages in different combinations to suggest different interpretations. In addition they had to choose one passage to close read (to mark up with suggestions about how the way something is said affects what it says). Even though we do nothing but close read in our class discussions, students still struggle with this task. I sat in with a couple of groups who seemed to be finished far too quickly and worked through a passage with them.

In the last third of the class, I passed out one of the fifteen-minute writing paragraphs students had sent me, one that seemed representative of where most students were at in their writing process (having removed the author’s name, of course). What advice would they give the writer about how to proceed? My first question in such exercises is always the same: What is the best moment in this piece of writing? Where is the writing most alive, most compelling? Students are usually pretty good at pointing that out. They just need help knowing what to do with it once they’ve found it. I teach students how to extract the kernel of their writing—the key idea, invariably confused and under-developed at this point—and make it the basis for their draft.

A draft is what they needed for the next class, which wasn’t a class, but an individual meeting with me. (That took most of one day and part of the next.) Those meetings are quite draining for me—although at least I’ve managed to train myself to read the draft in the meeting itself: I used to do all that beforehand—but the results are worth it. At a certain point, students need individual attention to their writing, and they’re not good enough yet to peer review each others’ drafts usefully.

All of this took us through the end of last week. On Monday we met as a group to talk about citation and line editing. I addressed a few recurring mistakes and stylistic issues before passing out a sheet with sample sentences from the writing they’d already done that semester. I asked students to revise these sentences for clarity. Some of the sentences had grammatical mistakes, but that wasn’t the real problem with most of them. These students don’t struggle with mechanics; they struggle with having something to say. The sample sentences either (a) didn’t say much of anything at all, which became clear when we cut the redundancies and wordiness or (b) weren’t sure what they wanted to say. Most problems in writing, I explained, are problems in thinking.

I’ll find out soon whether these workshops helped: I have the stack of papers in front of me. Even at first glance, though, they look better than the drafts. Undoubtedly many will still be mediocre. But I’ll be happy if none of them are terrible, and even happier if one or two of them are great.

Yesterday, then, was the first time in a while that we talked about a story. I knew the students wouldn’t be good for much: their papers were due that day, they had assignments or papers or exams in most of their other classes too, and it was the day before Fall Break. That’s why I had scheduled a very short story by Edith Pearlman called “Binocular Vision.”

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For some reason every semester I usually assign one text I’ve never read before. Mostly this habit is self defeating, forcing me to scramble madly to get up to speed on something I know little or nothing about. But sometimes it’s helpful: when my knowledge isn’t that much greater than my students’ I tend to be a more accepting teacher, and there’s also the thrill of pulling off a pedagogical high wire act.

So it was for me with “Binocular Vision.” I’d read about Pearlman when she broke through into mainstream critical acceptance a few years ago (she’d published a few collections with small presses before that, but interestingly didn’t begin publishing until quite late in life—she’s born in 1936, and I think the first published stories are from the 1980s). Learning that she was Jewish only made me more interested. But I still hadn’t read anything by her.

When I made the course syllabus I was drawn to this story because it was the title story of the collection, because it was short (five pages), and because it was in first person (something I wanted to focus on, and that I would compare to the unusual second person address of an upcoming story by Jhumpa Lahiri). My hunch paid off. “Binocular Vision” is terrific, and a good story to teach on a difficult “last class before break” day.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a ten-year-old child living with parents and sibling in Connecticut at an unspecified time that is probably the late 1950s, for we learn “There was no television, of course—only rich show-offs had televisions then.” In addition to giving us a clue about setting, that sentence also tells us that the time of the telling is later than the time of the events (“only rich show-offs had television then”). In a few weeks I’ll remind students of Pearlman’s use of a narrator who reflects on life, for this strategy will recur in our unit on the theme of childhood. For reasons that will become clear in a minute, Pearlman stays quite close to her narrator’s child perspective, seldom pointing out the disparity between then and now.

The story takes place in December over the school holidays. The narrator’s father, an ophthalmologist, has been given a pair of binoculars as a fortieth birthday present but he never uses them. One day the narrator idly takes them up and begins spying on the Simons, the neighbours in the apartment next door. Mrs. Simon is at home all day without much to do beyond tidying, running errands, and cooking supper. (“Serious cleaning was done once a week by a regal mulatto woman.”) The narrator sometimes runs across Mrs. Simon in the neighbourhood and shyly whispers a greeting but the elderly woman never replies. The most exciting part of Mrs. Simon’s day, and, before long, the narrator’s, is Mr. Simon’s return home from unspecified work. The narrator can’t see their greeting; the door is blocked from view. But after dinner, the child watches as Mr. Simon reads the newspaper with great deliberation and Mrs. Simon knits and talks and laughs without pause.

School starts again. The narrator has less time to watch the Simons, even starts to lose interest a little. But it comes as a shock when two policemen knock at the door one February morning to ask that the doctor accompany them next door. When he returns he explains to his wife and children that Mr. Simon has committed suicide in his car. Here’s the end of the story:

“Did he drive it off a cliff?”

My parents exchanged frowns and shrugs. Such a child, their looks said, all curiosity and no sympathy—and this the teachers call gifted? Then, still in a patient voice, my father explained that Mr. Simon had driven into his garage, closed the door from inside, stuffed the cracks with newspapers, reentered his car, and turned on the motor.

The next day, in the obituary section, I could find no hint of suicide, unless suddenly was the code word. But the final sentence was a shocker. “Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.”

I raced to my own mother. “I thought she was his wife!”

“So did she,” my mother said, admitting me abruptly into the complicated world of adults, making me understand what I had until then only seen.

I began class by making the students move to different seats (they always sit in exactly the same configuration). They couldn’t sit in the same place on the opposite side of the room, and they couldn’t sit next to someone they always sit next too. This went exactly as it always does: first it livened them up, but before long it quieted them down. I think it was worth doing because I’m hoping that what has happened in the past will happen again this time: some students will be bold enough to start sitting in different places, which means they are more comfortable in the room, which is good for group morale. We’ll see. Today I was able to add that the exercise was relevant to our impending discussion, since the story is about how we think differently about things depending on the position we see them from.

Once the students had shuffled, half-grumpily, half-excitedly, to new seats, I had them work with their new neighbours to find passages from the story that they understood differently now than they did when they first read them. There were plenty to choose from. One group pointed to the description of the Simons’ apartment. When the narrator sees “a double bed with an afghan at its foot, folded into a perfect right triangle” we assume the Simons sleep in it together—but that must not be the case, unless things are even stranger between mother and son than the story otherwise suggests.

Another group mentioned the narrator’s description of what happens when Mr. Simon comes home at night: “He’d pass a hand over his gray hair, raise the door of the garage, get back into the car, and drive it into the garage. He usually sat there for a while, giving me a chance to inspect his license plate.” (This scene brought back childhood memories of having to get out of the car, always, in my memory, in deepest winter, to open the garage door for my parents. I refrained from forcing this sepia-toned Canadiana on the class.) Once we know how Mr. Simon dies, his choosing to sit for a while in the car seems ominous.

That’s not the only ominous thing here. The narrator’s voyeurism gave the students pause. He’s just watching him doing nothing, one said, indignantly. Why do you say “he,” I asked? Is the narrator a boy or a girl? A boy, the class chorused, or, rather, mumbled. Why do you say that, I asked? Does the story ever tell us?

It’s because he’s staring at them all the time, one student said, a student whose work has improved recently and who I have great hopes for. Why, is staring something boys do? I asked. My little brother likes to do it… she said, before faltering amid general laughter. There’s a reason we say Peeping Tom, not Peeping Tina, said another student, valiantly keeping us on task. But we know she’s a girl, said a third student, the one who, I recently learned, had been planning to be an English major until he took a class he really disliked last year and who I am desperate to return to the fold. Aha! I said. How do you know? It says so, he answered, on the second last page.

We turned to the passage:

How I yearned to witness Mr. Simon’s return. Alas, it always took place in that inner hall. It must be like my father’s homecoming: the woman hurrying to the door; the man bringing in a gust of weather and excitement; the hug, affectionate and sometimes annoyingly long; and finally the separation, so that two little girls rushing downstairs could be caught in those overcoated arms.

I tried to keep the narrator’s gender a secret when I summarized the story, though my contorted phrasing probably gave it away. But the story seems to want to keep it a secret too. How strange, I observed to the class, that the narrator narrates this scene almost in third person. Only the possessive phrase “my father’s homecoming” tells us that this scene is reality rather than fantasy. (There is fantasy here: but it’s of something the narrator can’t see: Mr. Simon’s homecoming.) As a class, we didn’t decide why Pearlman makes this choice, although seeing how she plays with expectations in this story, I’m inclined to think she wants us to assume the narrator is a boy and then to have to reverse our expectation.

If I’m anything to go by, though, Pearlman might not succeed in this. I assumed the narrator was a boy, too, even after having read this passage. (I was taken in by its odd phrasing.) It wasn’t until I read an article that referenced the ten-year-old girl who narrates the story that I even imagined it could be otherwise. Perhaps I’d succumbed to sexism (assuming male as default gender). Or perhaps like my students I too unconsciously gender voyeurism male.

When I teach the story again next semester—and I will, it’s a keeper—I’ll try to make more sense of its reticence in this regard. What I concentrated on this time was the first part of the sentence describing the narrator’s father’s homecoming. “It must,” she says. Crucially, these words reveal the narrator’s assumption that other people’s lives must be like her own. If she thought about it for even a second, though, she’d know that couldn’t be right. After all, the Simons don’t have any children. They’re not even, she learns, the Simons.

I said before that the story doesn’t emphasize the difference between the time of the events and the time of the telling. I returned to this topic by turning us to the story’s final paragraphs. I’m not sure how to understand that description of the parents silently communing over their daughter’s head when she asks whether Mr. Simon drove his car off a cliff—“Such a child, their looks said, all curiosity and no sympathy—and this the teachers call gifted?” There is no indication here that the narrator is retrospectively making sense of that moment, bringing her adult experience to bear on a fleeting but meaningful moment. But how could the child get all that from a single look? She doesn’t seem preternaturally acute. The reference, however ironic, to her being gifted is the first we are invited to see her as particularly sensitive. I’m also interested in the ventriloquism of what the parents are imagined to have been thinking to each other—“and this the teachers call gifted?” The syntax and that idiomatic use of “this,” surely spoken with a rising emphasis and intonation, is the only place in the story that Jewishness makes itself felt. But I’m already worried the class is finding the class too Jewish, so I let these observations pass unspoken.

But the oddness of this moment—in which we can’t pin down whether the child or the adult narrator is speaking—might make more sense when we think about the story’s conclusion. I observed that in reading the obituary the child makes her own use of the newspaper, less devastatingly than Mr. Simon, perhaps, but no less dramatically. Suicide isn’t mentioned, unless through the code word “suddenly.” The reference to code reminds us that the child has been playing detective, and in this sense acts even more than any first person narrator would as a stand-in for readers. “But the final sentence was a shocker.” Pearlman’s joke is pretty neat: the same could be said for this story’s (almost) final sentence.

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“‘Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.’” There’s another code word in this sentence, I said to the class, maybe the real code word. What’s a bachelor? An unmarried man, someone was kind enough to answer. I briefly sketched the difference between denotation and connotation. What does “bachelor” connote, I asked, convinced it would be obvious where I was going. I can’t even remember now how they answered, but nothing they said was remotely in line with what I was thinking. What about the way people might have said, “He’s a bachelor, wink wink, nudge nudge”? Blank stares. Exasperated, I said, People used to use “bachelor” as code for gay. Haven’t you ever heard that? They hadn’t. I told them I considered that a great victory but the difference between their experience and my own suddenly seemed dispiritingly vast. It made me doubt my reading. But for me this story takes place in Todd Haynes territory, tragically closeted life in the 50s.

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Unnerved by the failure of this last gambit, I attempted to forge ahead. Look what she says next: “I raced to my own mother.” Note how that phrasing, that use of “own,” suggests how abruptly she has been shown to be like Mr. Simon in ways neither she nor we could have anticipated just moments before. Indeed, the word “abruptly” appears in the story’s final sentence, naming a mode, a change, an experience the story performs as much as describes.

Why, I wanted to know, is the story called “Binocular Vision”? Silence, that eternal silence of this class! I tried a left-field approach. I asked, Is anyone taking anatomy? Alas, the answer was no. So I explained what I had just learned the night before: binocular vision results from eyes with overlapping fields of view, which allows for depth perception. Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads, which means they have a wide field of vision (almost 360 degrees) but little depth of vision (their eyes’ visual fields barely overlap). Predator animals have eyes in the front of their heads. Their visual field is narrower, but their depth perception is much better.

How can you use that information to make sense of the story? More silence. I waited. But time was running short and I was losing faith in myself. Is the question too obvious, is that why you don’t want to answer? Amazingly, a student said yes. I’ve been thinking about her reply ever since. Maybe my problem with this class is that whenever I’ve been asking what I think are real questions they’ve been hearing nothing but rhetorical ones. Since I pride myself on asking good questions, I was hurt. And I wasn’t so sure the question was that obvious. Quietly I said, Tell me anyway. The student obliged: She learns how to see with depth. She learns what’s really going on.

Yes, I said, that’s right. But that’s only half the story. The title has another meaning too. Binocular vision also means the vision you get through binoculars. In principle that means better vision—I referred to a passage early describing the girl’s difficulty in getting objects into focus—but it also means narrow vision, blinkered vision. The narrator sees only what she wants to see, doesn’t see what the story allows us to recognize, that she is confusing real lives, presumably rather desperate ones, for a show. She has no television, but she has the Simons. After all, she calls the evenings in the living room—the man with his newspaper, the woman with her knitting, his silence, her talk—her favorite scene. The narrator marvels at how unceasingly the woman can talk, the same woman who won’t even greet her when they pass on the street. “Talking. Laughing. Talking again.” How desperate, even hysterical those actions seem once we re-read them in light of the story’s final events.

But before we condemn the narrator too quickly, before we judge her for projecting her own experiences on to others, before we conclude that the difference between understanding and seeing offered in the story’s final sentence is the difference between adults and children, and that this child has seen everything but understood nothing—before doing so, I warned, let’s think about ourselves. Let’s remember our experience of reading the text. Let’s be mindful that we too made assumptions and saw only what we wanted to see.

We’re adults. Yet we read the story, we saw everything, and we didn’t understand a damn thing.

Class dismissed. Enjoy your break.

Short Fiction 2015 Weeks 6 & 7: Englander & Lawrence

I’m writing weekly about my Short Fiction class this fall. The first installment is here.

The semester has more than caught up with me, and I’ve fallen behind with the Short Fiction project. In the past weeks, I did manage to complete a writing project, assemble and file my dossier for my first post-tenure review, advise a pile of students on their Fulbright and Watson applications, teach my classes, and more or less keep up with my grading. So it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything. But I’ve missed keeping up with this blog. In the interest of catching up, I’ll combine the last two weeks into one post.

Last week, we discussed three stories: Kay Boyle’s “Life Being the Best” (I actually haven’t been figure out the exact year of publication, but it’s late 20s or early 30s), Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” (1945), and Nathan Englander’s “The Wig” (1999). These are wonderful stories: I’m particularly under the sway of the Boyle, which I only discovered this summer. Although its milieu—a community of poor refugees from Mussolini’s Italy in Southern France in the late 1920s—was completely foreign to the students, the subject matter—an orphaned child, an erudite, sensitive, but clueless teacher—seemed to resonate, and we had a reasonably lively discussion about the subtle ways the story undermines its teacher protagonist. I definitely have more to learn about this story, but it’s a keeper and I look forward to doing more justice to it next semester.

After that, though, the week went downhill fast.

I adore Bowen’s ghost story set during the Blitz, and I’ve taught it successfully many times. This time, though, I had a hard time getting the students to say anything useful about it. I even tried some group work, since we hadn’t done any in a couple of weeks, but, unusually, that tatic only took the air out of the room even further. Things reached a low point on Friday with the Englander story, another one I’d not taught before. I was lucky enough to host Englander on a visit to campus last year, and found him as funny and intelligent as his stories. I actually usually dislike meeting writers, it usually makes me like the work a little or even a lot less. But Englander was different: a total prince, and a smart reader of his own work. (Also, incredibly manic and charmingly neurotic.)

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One of the reasons I assigned “The Wig” is that it is written in present tense, a tic of contemporary fiction I usually despise, but tolerate here because the story is so interesting. It’s about Ruchama, an Orthodox Jewish sheitel macher, a wig maker, who meets a Manhattan deliveryman with the most exquisite hair, hair she buys with money a client has given her and uses to make, in secret, a wig for herself, the wig of her dreams. I don’t have much interesting to say about first person narrative—it increases our sense of immediacy, I suppose—but what I like in Englander’s story is the way that immediacy, that connection with the reader, is undone by the story’s careful distancing techniques.

I started by asking students to look at the description of Ruchama’s frustration with her husband’s grudging performance of even the most modest household chores: “He trayfs up her kitchen to spite her. He is forever putting meat silverware in the dairy sink.” What does trayf mean, I asked? Only one student knew it meant food that doesn’t conform to Orthodox dietary laws (he had looked it up). I half-threatened, half-pleaded with the class to do the basic diligence required of them as students and look up words they don’t understand. (I’m about ready to assign some kind of basic vocabulary exercise to this class: they simply refuse to look words up). I continued by asking the students how they could have come close to knowing what the word meant by using its context. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I eventually got them acknowledge that the sentence about the meat silverware and the dairy sink could provide a clue, though admittedly one that is more meaningful if you know about the prohibition on mixing meat and milk.

Since I’d been expecting the students wouldn’t have looked up unfamiliar words, I had already prepared the next exercise. I had the students take out their phones and look up six words from the story. One side of the room took narishkeit, sheitel, and macher, and the other took gabbai, bimah, and Pesach. We discussed how Englander gives just enough context to help readers basically understand these words, as when he describes the fashion magazines Ruchama surreptitiously studies: “The magazines are contraband in Royal Hills, narishkeit, vain and immodest, practically pornographic.” The phrase “vain and immodest” modifies “narishkeit” as much as “magazines”; even if we don’t know the Yiddish word for foolishness, we sense it means something disreputable. Note that Englander doesn’t italicize these words. Why, I asked the class, are these foreign words in the story? For authenticity, one student finally replied. (Actually, she said: It makes it more real. I translated to the concept I wanted.) What, I continued, is the relationship between authenticity and comprehensibility, a question I had to rephrase as, Why doesn’t Englander give us a translation of the word or a glossary or something? I imagined they would say something like: The people the story is about would know the meaning of the word. To which I would say two things: (1) those (Orthodox) people wouldn’t read this (secular) story and (2) what about you—you don’t know the meaning. But the class couldn’t get there, and so I was left simply to assert my idea, namely, that these words make it clear that the story might not be for every reader. (Who the ideal audience for this story might be is an interesting question: I think the answer is, Jews, more particularly, Jews like Englander himself, who have grown up Orthodox (especially Hasidic) but aren’t any more—a small audience indeed.)

My point was that literature isn’t in any simple or straightforward way universal. One of its pleasures is its ability to offer us a glimpse into a world very different from our own. In other words, the story deliberates sets out not to be relatable, that term so beloved of students today. I suppose the students picked up on the implied chastisement in this reading, and maybe I was unconsciously assuming they wouldn’t get the story and had put myself in the position of being the only one in the room who knew the right answers. (Generally, I prefer to arrange our discussions so that I can pretend they have come up with answers of their own—which, in fact, on good days they do.) At any rate, that’s the most generous reading I can give of the discussion that followed, which was halting and stilted and left me frustrated at the students’ apparent inability to appreciate the story’s ambivalent but not defensive or accusatory portrayal of its Orthodox world. I like, for example, that Ruchama is a savvy and successful businesswoman, and that the vanity she ultimately succumbs to is evident in the story’s secular characters too. Ruchama is an enamored with fashion advertisements that depict a world so shallow and ridiculous that we’re led to ask: isn’t that world—of laughing models bobbing for apples or hailing taxi cabs, with star-struck men at their feet—much more preposterous than the Orthodox one? But the story isn’t holding Orthodox society up as better than a secular one. It’s not even that the woman who wears a wig to protect her hair from the eyes of anyone other than her husband is less oppressed than the woman who has to model her sense of self on impossible standards of beauty—because the Orthodox woman is herself under the sway of those standards.

I thought this accessible but not simplistic story about the relationship between the secular and the religious as figured through ideas of female appearance and empowerment would be a hit with students. But I was wrong. And so I approached the next class, this past Monday, with trepidation—especially because one of my colleagues would be coming to observe me.

I was also excited because we would be reading D. H. Lawrence, the writer closest to my heart. But mostly I was nervous, because I’d never taught the story before, and because I’d been so disappointed with the students’ performance the past few days.

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler - now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler – now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lawrence initially called the story “Fanny and Annie” (1922), but at the last minute asked his agent to change it to “The Last Straw.” The agent responded that it was too late, he’d already sold the story. And for decades the story went under the original; only with its publication in the authoritative Cambridge Edition in the 1990s was it finally published under Lawrence’s preferred choice.

Here are the quintessentially Lawrentian and very striking opening paragraphs:

Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fire. And the nostalgia, the doom of the home-coming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now! The pulse and darkness of red fire from the furnace towers in the sly, lighting the desultory, industrial crowd on the wayside station, lit him and went out.

Of course, he did not see her. Flame-lit and unseeing! Always the same, with his meeting eyebrows, his common cap, and his red-and-black scarf knotted round his throat. Not even a collar to meet her! The flames had sunk, there was shadow.

The woman arriving at this phantasmagorically lit train station in the English midlands—the flames are from the local industry, an iron foundry—is Fannie, returning home after twelve years as a lady’s maid. The job is no more, for reasons we never learn, as are Fanny’s hopes to have married her dashing cousin. The man meeting her at the station is her first love, a foundry worker named Harry, who she has strung along for all the years she’s been gone.

After having a student read these paragraphs, I had us list the oppositions that structure the passage. I’ve found this a pretty fail-safe exercise for generating conversation and for forcing students to think more abstractly and analytically. We began with light and dark, of course, and eventually managed to add seeing/blindness, expectation/disappointment, individual/crowd (Fanny v the throng), and him/her—I used that last opposition as a way to think about the class differences evident in the passage and the story as a whole. Here industry is implicitly contrasted to gentility, an opposition made even clearer on the next page. That allowed the class to note Fannie’s superiority. Yet it’s hard to know what the story thinks about that superiority.

From this initial exercise, I asked students to look at characteristic elements of Lawrence’s style, particularly his use of those more or less unusual compound adjectives “flame-lurid” and “flame-lit” and the sentence fragments, all of which place us firmly within Fanny’s perspective. (We’ll return to this moment when we think about free-indirect narration in a few days.) The class really struggled to make sense of these attributes, though, and I had to drag every piece of information from them. I asked them what lurid meant and what its presence at the very beginning of the story suggested. Eventually we got to the shocking or sensational connotations of the word, which allowed me to ask whether Harry was in fact lurid in any way. That didn’t go anywhere, but when I asked what Harry looks like, thinking now about things we learn elsewhere in the story, students admitted he is repeatedly described as physically attractive. Fanny’s superiority clashes with her frank admiration for that beauty but her equally insistent shame at those feelings.

Eventually we turned to the final sentence of this opening passage. How does its tone compare to what’s come before? It seemed more ordinary to them, less strange and exalted than the earlier sentences. Absolutely right, I agreed, though I noted that even here Lawrence wasn’t giving us an entirely simple sentence: the parataxis (a fancy way of describing the comma splice) places the two clauses on equal footing, even though the register of the first is more literal than the second. (“There was shadow” comes to seem metaphorical or symbolic, in the absence of an article or modifier that we might have expected: a shadow or some shadow, or the shadow of the now darkened train station. That “there was” makes shadow into a kind of entity or force.) But the final sentence is less dramatic than earlier ones, and I argued that this suggests Fanny’s exalted life is coming to an end, as she returns to the ordinariness of home repeatedly and ominously described as a kind of doom.

Whereas the opening passage sticks closely to Fanny’s perspective, the final sentence doesn’t, or at least much less obviously so. This change is representative of the story’s trajectory which privileges Fanny’s voice less and less as it goes along.

To show students what I meant, I had us look at a later passage, one of the more dramatic moments of the story. Harry is a soloist in a concert at the local church:

But at the moment when Harry’s voice sank carelessly down to his close, and the choir, standing behind him, were opening their mouths for the final triumphant outburst, a shouting female voice rose up from the body of the congregation. The organ gave one startled trump, and went silent; the choir stood transfixed.

‘You look well standing there, singing in God’s holy house,” came the loud, angry female shout. Everybody turned electrified. A stoutish, red-faced woman in a black bonnet was standing up denouncing the soloist. Almost fainting with shock, the congregation realized it. “You look well, don’t you, standing there singing solos in God’s holy house—you, Goodall. But I said I’d shame you. You look well, bringing your young woman here with you, don’t you? I’ll let her know who she’s dealing with. A scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done.” The hard-faced, frenzied woman turned in the direction of Fanny. “ That’s what Harry Goodall is, if you want to know.”

And she sat own again in her seat. Fanny, startled like all the rest, had turned to look. She had gone white, and then a burning red, under the attack. She knew the woman: a Mrs Nixon, a devil of a woman who beat her pathetic, drunken, red-nosed second husband, Bob, and her two lanky daughters, grown-ups as they were. A notorious character. Fanny turned round again, and sat motionless as eternity in her seat.

I’d seized on this passage because of this careful reading that I’d found in my class preparation. It’s such a rich passage, but this post is already too long and class-time was getting short. So I had to move quickly past the ironic replacement of one outburst (the choir’s) with another (Mrs Nixon’s), past the passive voice that defers naming her and offering any sense of her subjectivity for a long while, past the seemingly unnecessary description of the congregation “realizing it,” a redundancy that performs for us the very shock of belatedness that the scene is describing, and past the oblique suggestion that Fanny and Mrs Nixon might not be as different as Fanny, at least, would like to think, given that both, whether in direct dialogue or in indirect speech, use “as” to introduce a modifying or characterizing clause (“a scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done,” “ground-ups as they were”), thereby suggesting Fanny is indeed of this place she has spent so long keeping away from.

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Instead I focused on the topic of perspective. Where, I asked, is Fanny’s perspective here? Only in the sentence beginning “She knew the woman” and the one following (the clearest indicator of her perspective, and a return to the fragments of the opening.) But why would we get less of Fanny’s perspective the further we get into the story?

Another way to ask that question, I said, is to ask about the story’s two titles. What’s the difference between them? Is one better than the other?

Annie, it transpires, is pregnant and has named Harry as the father. Harry doesn’t deny having been involved with Annie, but won’t admit to being the father, saying that it’s no more likely to be him than six or seven other men. The title “The Last Straw” suggests frustration and final consequences. And at the end of the story, Fanny decides not to return to the second concert but to stay at home with Mrs. Goodall, who she calls “mother” for the first time. She will, it seems, marry Harry. But when we say that something is the last straw, we are usually talking about something that pushed us over the edge, into an extreme position. What then would it mean to say: That’s it, you were involved with another woman and maybe are the father of her child, I’ve had it, it’s the last straw—I’m going to marry you”? How does that make any sense? Wouldn’t “The Last Straw” work better if Fanny were going to leave Harry?

And what about Lawrence’s first title, the one the story was saddled with for so many years? To me it’s just as intriguing. It promises a relationship that we never see. Annie, in fact, is only spoken of, and then only in the last few pages; she never appears directly. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call the story “Fanny and Harry”? As one of my better students pointed out, the title “Fanny and Annie” makes Harry the most important figure: these women are linked only through him. That would be yet another way of undermining Fanny’s importance. In both cases, Fanny is made lesser. Perhaps the story’s use of “doom” to describe her feelings at coming home isn’t as exaggerated as it might first appear.

Even after having been a teacher for more than ten years, I don’t find it easy to have someone else in my classroom, especially someone who is evaluating me. My colleague was very nice about the class, in the brief conversation we had on our way to our next obligations (we’ll talk more at a formal meeting with my Area Chair in a few weeks). “It’s really like pulling teeth with these kids,” she noted. And that has absolutely been my feeling the whole semester. My colleague was kind enough to say, “It makes me feel better to know that you have classes like this too.” The class wasn’t a disaster, we got through some useful material, and they warmed up by the end, a little, when we talked about the different titles. But I’m really not used to having to coax so many observations out of a class, so my mood as we arrive at the midway point of the semester is a little bit somber and a whole lot discouraged.

The rest of the week’s classes were devoted to writing exercises in preparation for the first longer paper, due next Wednesday, just before Fall Break. I’ll say more about that next time.