By Rio Liang
As you try to beat the summer heat, find some solace in the four “cool” fiction pieces in the current summer issue of “The Gettysburg Review.”
Jacob M. Appel’s “Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets.” A delightful piece. Rather incredible, given the fact that the story more or less revolves around the pro-life/pro-choice issue. The piece manages to be lighthearted without making light of its subject matter. Zigfrids Imants Lenc, aka Red Ziggy, has settled down in Lummings, Alabama in the guise of a Latvian restaurateur. It’s the perfect cover, as no one around him would know much about Latvian food, or Latvian anything for that matter. And did I mention that he’s an alien? Yes, he’s come to earth as a neutral observer from a planet where most of the squabbles humans engage in do not make sense. One of these is the abortion issue, which is made relevant by the fact that his restaurant sits adjacent to an abortion clinic. Back home, “both abortion and childbirth were equally unthinkable,” which is the reason why he is so puzzled when Erin Gwench, one of the pro-lifers protesting a certain Dr. Schnabel, befriends our hero with the hope of converting him to her way of thinking. But Ziggy, who heretofore had remained neutral (both for the sake of not alienating any of his customers from either side, as well as for not blowing his cover), finds himself increasingly drawn to Erin, which is a big no-no for his mission and considered a taboo back home. He has every intent to break it off with her when things get a little too deep, but instead it’s her who does it, reasoning that she can’t be with someone so doggedly neutral. In a “To hell with it” moment (“it” being his mission and his home planet’s views on immorality), Ziggy, acting on a very humanly impulse, seeks to reclaim her love by chivalrously confronting Dr. Schnabel, who had just disrespected her (at which point I actually thought the guards would shoot Ziggy mistakenly for accosting the doctor!). Ziggy forces on Schnabel the book Erin had earlier foisted on Ziggy, and demands he apologize to Erin, an act that spurs Erin to kissing him. It’s a happy ending, the wonder of which is perfectly captured by the last line of the story: “To anyone else watching the reflection, of course, the two of them looked like ordinary human beings in love.” …The story is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, nor even neutral for that matter, which is a wondrous feat. Readers from either side of the argument might find themselves surprisingly empathizing with characters from the other side, all of which is probably not a bad thing at all. A great opening story to this summer issue.
Reid Menees Wegner’s “The Ikebana Club.” Barbara is a mother so invested in her two children’s cultural enrichment that she buys them Indian food, then Japanese, and hires the daughter of an acquaintance to give the kids Japanese lessons. This would be how one would perceive her from the outside, but being afforded a look into her mind we find out that her motivations are purely cosmetic, concealing prejudice. We learn that a ride for her to pick up Indian restaurant take-out is an ordeal, as she is squeamish about the eating habits of the Indians she encounters (and she attributes that disgusting quality to the entire Indian race). Her attempts at exposing her kids to other cultures are more assurance that her kids are not deprived of any opportunity, rather than any genuine desire for them to expand their understanding of the world. Spurred on by jealousy of her children’s education, she seeks to make a sincere effort to learn more about Japanese culture. Her kids’ tutor Ayumi suggests she join her mother’s ikebana club, an idea she pursues at her own expense. Instead of being welcomed into the group, she finds herself largely cast out by the women in the club. She finds only humiliation in the end when she realizes that she had been snubbed by the women, who had no intention of inviting her to a public display of their flower arrangements at the local botanical garden. She returns home, dejected, and in her exhaustion overlooks Ayumi, who is supposed to be babysitting, smoking a joint with two uninvited male friends. Whereas before she sought out the exotic, now she finds solace in the familiar: a slice of a very American pizza pie. …My first impression of this story was not all that great. I initially wondered how justifiable the length was (nearly 40 pages) relative to its content. I also thought that as a whole the piece reads like a novel and ends like a novel excerpt; the ending lacked resonance in the way of excerpts. But after thinking about it, I would actually now, much like Barbara, overlook and even discard those initial qualms. I grew to understand what I believe to be Mr. Wegner’s intent at evincing the artifice of inclusivity. It’s a brilliant stroke how Barbara receives her comeuppance when she, the one who on the outside seemed inclusive but really harbored a desire to exclude, ends up being accepted into the Japanese women’s ikebana club, but not really accepted. Her inclusion is only for display, much like their flower arrangements. Much like her attempts at cultural enrichment. She gets a taste of her own medicine and takes a walk in their shoes, being made to feel like the “foreigner.” (This is earlier set up by her trying to eat sushi but looking a fool doing so; her daughter finds her disgusting, just as she had found the Indians disgusting). A high recommend from me for this one. Long piece but worth it.
Jay Neugeboren’s “The Debt.” Seven months after the passing of his wife Lorraine, Paul receives out of the blue a check for “$2,500 and a letter from an old lover, Margaret, suggesting a reunion. They had been together for a little over three years many decades past, ended by her after a mutually-decided abortion paid for by him (hence the check, which is repayment for her debt). It becomes clear through the course of an ensuing lunch date that her intentions are motivated more by making an “overture,” as opposed to gaining some “closure.” She, too, had lost her significant other (albeit, seven years compared to Paul’s seven months) and, being on the market, is trying to rekindle an old fire (switching metaphors a bit: the woman’s leaving no stone unturned). But what becomes even clearer is how too soon this all is for Paul. He still has wounds, not yet scars, from the death of his wife, who had multiple sclerosis. This is compounded by the scars he’d borne from being a caregiver earlier in his life to his brother Mort, who had muscular dystrophy. He is not ready for closure; “Not yet,” as Paul and Margaret both say. We come to realize that this whole meeting for them has been more “Speed Eating” than “Speed Dating.” They’ve settled their accounts, so to speak, and will never meet again. …Some might find the Bellow speak cloying, but I actually rather like the nuances between the lofty language of Margaret the lawyer and Paul the English professor; he’s the more adept at his words (he corrects her at one point, “discreet” not “decorous”) and her attempt at conversation is more imitative of him, a result of mild intimidation. Through even just their speech we realize how futile rekindling their old relationship would be.
Andrew Peery’s “Imago.” What an enigma this one is. For some reason, butterflies congregate at the air shaft outside seven-year-old Raphael’s apartment, a phenomenon he and his secret friend Mrs. D’Angelo from the apartment across the air shaft witness from their respective windows. Raphie is gentle, wondering what these creatures eat and how they can survive in the sunlight-deprived air shaft, curiosities he cannot indulge because he is shackled by many house rules. Yet there is no parenting in this house. He has an alcoholic father who works as an auto salvage yard worker, and seemingly no mother. In their broken household, his older brother Ortiz, a fifth grader, takes on the responsibility of being in charge (it might be a lack of English that unmans their father from a leadership role). Ortiz, we gather, is the one who writes all the rules on the refrigerator door dictating what Raphie can and cannot do. He plants the idea in Raphie’s head, maybe out of jealousy, that their father will give him a beating if he doesn’t take care of a lunch box that their father had bought Raphie. (A style of parenting sadly not unlike the styles of many adult parents). This is particularly topical since the fifth graders at school (Ortiz’s “friends”) had destroyed Raphie’s box at the onset of the story. Still, despite the strictures imposed on him, Raphie seeks out the teacher whom Ortiz had told him earlier knew about butterflies. But in his search, he accidentally encounters Ortiz’s friends/bullies, whom he fortunately escapes. But this incites the bullies to retaliate against Ortiz, who comes home furious at Raphie, smashes all the butterflies that have been the seven-year-old’s source of wonderment (“Dressed up roaches,” Ortiz calls them), and creates more arbitrary rules for the seven-year-old to follow. In the end, with thoughts of running away, Raphie finds his father covered in butterflies and examining his lunch box. Again, the thought of the beating he will get (which is more a scare tactic by Ortiz) returns to haunt him. …Mr. Peery’s odd story here, in its almost too-dogged inscrutability, captures the seeming nonsensicality of the world and its rules to the eyes of a little boy. As a child, you don’t know why the world operates the way it does. A companion to that uncertainty is fear. On the topic of uncertainty, not everything in the story is clear to me, i.e. I’m unclear as to why exactly the boys are the target of bullying (is it because of their father?). But the story works in that it sounds echoes that you will be compelled to seek out and form fully in your mind, to grasp just like those enigmatic butterflies to Raphie. The butterflies are such a surreal device in this story; it’s so particularly resonant how gentle and sensitive Raphie is to them compared to Ortiz’s unthinking and brutal treatment of the “bugs.”