The Nature of Secrets and Lies in Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories

 

“If the study of words has taught Peter—and therefore me—anything it’s the ease of lying. Each word is a sham, a small, meaningless collection of sound that pretends to be not: cat, house, husband. All fops at a costume bowl. And everyone accepts this banter as if words, dressed in their masks and cloaks of consonants, were not pretending. We are all complicit, Peter once told me: Just by saying good morning to a neighbor, one participates in the great lie. And then, of course, there’s the pun on lying, But maybe you know this.”

-From “Traces,” (Page 72)

 

In Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories, the reader is given the privilege to observe and explore the structure of lies and deceptions. Composed of fourteen stories, published by Harper Collins, it is a debut collection that renders masterfully the labyrinth of lies and presents how, inevitably, overtime, all secrets are uncovered, all lies are unleashed, only to invade and alter the lives of its keepers and all those who are part of the great design.

In “Vanishing,” the protagonist, Tabitha, looks to her childhood and her adolescent years to make sense of why her father, Nathan, suddenly disappeared from her family’s life. Constantly haunted by Nathan’s memory, through the volumes of plays that he wrote before his departure, Tabitha revisits the moments she spent in the attic of their home, in her father’s study, while he wrote, and the prevalent presence of Lev, a friend and colleague of Nathan, in their lives. Years go by, and Tabitha is reunited with Lev, for a few seconds, in a street, in the middle of buying groceries. And in the short time spent exchanging greetings, Tabitha arrives at a realization, which is withheld from the readers. The story concludes in a very beautiful ambiguous note, hinting that Tabitha may have already found out why her father disappeared years ago and the heartbreak behind it. But she goes on, without having to deal with the grand epiphany, participating in a lie which altered the way her life unfolded.

In “The Weather,” the broken life of a single father is given light. Left by his wife, the protagonist,  is left to take care of Edith, his only daughter. When Edith begins bringing home one of her friends, the beautiful Rae, the loneliness that he has kept at bay for so long begins to weigh down on him, strangely producing an attraction and affinity for the rebellious guest that sits at his table and wears his wife clothes. As the relationship deepens, the readers are given the remnants of the man who drove his away, and the emergence of a newer man, one that the family needed in the past.

The third story in the collection, “Escape,” we are told of the moving tale of a doctor, Tom, who just lost his wife to a terrible disease. In his attempts to deal with the tragic loss, he finds himself enthralled by the lights and the thick air of thrill and excitement inside a casino. There, Tom meets a woman in her late-forties, a black jack dealer, a woman who “runs her table with serious efficiency,” which he finds mysterious and captivating. The protagonist, as he spends night-after-night in the casino, in the black jack table, losing all his money, losing control over his life, is enamored by the woman’s hands, which to him is, “not a young woman’s hands: the skin is creased, and veins reach down her wrists like dark ropes.” Pretty soon, his addiction deepens, and spirals out of control, only to realize that the gambling and his obsession for the woman is simply nothing more but a denial of the reality he has to come to grips with after his wife’s death.

“Traces,” on the other hand, is a 2nd person point-of-view narrative that focuses on the protagonist, Mimi, directly addressing the woman who’s having an affair with her husband: us, or more appropriately, the “narrative-you.” Highly reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s short story from Self-Help, “How to be An Other Woman,” the story follows Mimi’s attempts to discover the identity of the woman sleeping with her husband. Assisted by her neighbor and dear friend April, she visits the home of the “other woman,” observing the surroundings, immersing herself in the normality of things. Mimi steals one of the woman’s kitties, a petty revenge, just so she could feel how it is to have something stolen from her. At the end of the story, she encounters an even greater deception as she looks over towards April’s house, and returns to the other woman’s home to give the creature she stole back.

And in the poignant “Sky Theatre,” the fleetingness of beauty and youth is explored as a young woman explores her own life and future when the most popular and beautiful student in her school is suddenly put into a wheel chair after a horrible accident.

It is a debut collection enjoyable, and at time, utterly heartbreaking. The language Willis’ employs is precise and clear-cut. It does not play games nor does it reel in anguish and pain to invoke a cathartic reaction from the readers. All it intends to do is to tell the story and that is what it does. Although I appreciate this authorial gesture, this also becomes one of the minor problems of the stories. In some parts, in its strong desire to simply tell us the story, it robs us of the sensual experience we can get from the text, like the poetic feel of the locale, the seething heat of hatred or of passion or the coldness of loneliness and solitude. It sometimes run through, and does not, in the words of Umberto Eco, “linger in the fictional woods.”

The true gem of the collection can be seen in the character that inhabits its stories. Willis’ characters have the capability to become inviting, despite their mysterious and elusive nature. At the beginning of story, even with all my attempts to try and look at the text critically, I cannot help but invest in these characters. They are simple, normal, average even, therefore understandable. But their secrets, their secrets that anyone could keep, that anyone could possess, emotional, deadly, shallow, traumatic or otherwise, complicates them, makes them complex and infinitely interesting, We go along for the ride and hope we share the secrets with them. And we learn a thing or two about secrets, about how, even in the quietest of moments, in the presence of stillness, the greatest secrets, one that could destroy lives and relationships, are created. We learn that there are some truths which are better abandoned as secrets, that there are some people, like the protagonist of “Vanishing” and “Traces” who would rather feign indifference rather than face the terrible implications and repercussions of fact and reality. And we learn that, worst of all, secrets are done not just by action, but by thought. These are things that we are already aware of, of course, but to feel it, relate to it, is a gift that Willis give to us, and for this, we are grateful for her exposition.

Vanishing and Other Stories is what any author could hope for in his/her first book. It is touching, poignant, unafraid to showcase talent and explore subjects that are compellingly difficult, and most of all, adequate enough to hold the readers in her thrall, excited at the next book she will write and publish.

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There’s Nothing Like the “Narrative-You” and I: The 2nd Person POV in Lorrie Moore’s How to be An Other Woman

(Okay, let’s get this blog rolling again. And, by the way, this was originally a report I presented in Fiction Class, edited, of course, for this blog)

Over the course of history, literature has always invited its readers to be mere voyeurs, via the use of the 1st Person POV and the 3rd Person POV, in all of its incarnations and variations. These two have been the most-over used techniques in presenting a narrative and they continue to be the most effective. They are efficient, easy to use, flexible and manageable .The 2nd Person-Point-of-View subverts this voyeurism, for it doesn’t make readers mere watchers, mere members of the audience, it coerces them to be an active part of the text. From this, a whole new dimension is created. Through a different perspective, combined with language, authors no longer simply convey the thoughts of the protagonist, and explain, or “show,” their ordeals and victories, their failures and losses. No longer do fictionists just present the world and the experience that the narrative revolves in. Using the 2nd POV, the fictionist allows its readers to become the protagonist. They influence/coerce them to wear the shoes of our character and to be in the midst of all the drama. The narrative becomes about them, so to speak. Such as in the case of Lorrie Moore’s story, How to be an Other Woman.

The story revolves around Charlene and her sexual affair with a married man. The story presents to the readers the entire relationship, beginning with their chance encounter outside a shoe store in the middle of a cold evening, up to their first conversation, towards the realization of their wanton longing and desire, and down to the degradation of their relationship. It is a meditation on infidelity, a once frowned upon concept that has gained normality during our times. It is a discourse on desire and betrayal, from the point-of-view of the reason, of the woman, which led to the betrayal. It is a celebration of Barthe’s discourse, conveying clearly and interestingly the semantics and semiotics of wanting and loss, that unwavering descent towards emotional destruction, trauma and separation.  And it is written in a manner which characterizes Lorrie Moore’s fictional stylistics: a story where humor is juxtaposed with tragedy, where the thin line between grief and bliss is explored, a narrative brimming with wit, with an astounding and breathless vitality in the telling of the story, a tale that heavily uses cultural references and  irony, whether it be verbal, situational or dramatic.

Much has already been written about infidelity. In the exploration of the erotic world, of the reality of eros, it cannot be help. Betrayal is second-nature to men and women. Desire lurks in the recesses of our mind. Deception is a drug that reaffirms our mortality for pursuit of it gives us both pleasure and fear. From Homer to DH Lawrence to James Joyce to Anais Nin to John Updike to Milan Kundera and even up to Allan Moore, we have been given the privilege to know how it feels to betray, to be betrayed and, to be the reason for the betrayal. Lorrie Moore, in her short story, takes the writing of this subject one notch higher by making the readers the mistress themselves.

The 2nd Person POV works in a way that it deceives its readers into believing that the reader is the protagonist. Once the reader embraces this dishonesty, once we “put (our) shoes in the wrong feet,” the performance soon begins. The play of the imagination settles. The plot begins to move forward.  At the beginning of Lorrie Moore’s story, it is not Charlene who stands “in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-Seventh Street window.” It is us. And pretty soon, we begin to abandon our awareness of ourselves and just become the narrative itself. In Lorrie Moore’s words, we begin to “…walk differently. In store windows, (we) don’t recognize (ourselves); (we) are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms, (we) sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into our bluing thighs: ‘Hello, I’m Charlene, and I’m a mistress.” But of course, this particular point of view has its downfalls and faults. For one, the reader might resist it. The reader might find it unappealing, the reader may not possess the necessary interest to continue reading the work, and in some scenarios, it might appall the readers. It takes precision and caution to make the 2nd POV effective in a work of fiction. In the story, Moore gives us five ways that make it effective.

The first one, of course, is the captivating premise and plot, which actually, according to Henry James in his essay, The Art of Fiction, is the first task of any work of fiction. The title itself takes form of a self-help manual, readying the reader that this is a narrative that teaches us “How to be An Other Woman,” an idea that is both intriguing and interesting. The title also prepares the reader to expect its authorial, controlling and rather imperative nature, as in its very core, How To’s have these characteristics, as their main purpose is to instruct and guide. Through this first way, the reader’s disbelief and resistance to the text is already suspended.

The second one is directly related to how the text was written and the rendering of the details. Seeing that the readers’ participation is very important to how effective the whole work is, Moore employed details which are clear-cut, precise and accurate. This is not the narrative that depends on the readers to make sense of the place. There are no vague or unclear images here. There are no hints or clues. In the story, exactitudes are presented. Take into consideration the opening of the story. Immediately, it begins by giving the place, and all its characteristics, including the date and time, the name of the store, the atmospheric conditions and even what they are wearing. Even the matches borrowed by the married man are given a name, something which the readers can hold on to. I believe that this preciseness is one of the reasons why, despite the story’s length, the readers are kept in the thrall of the text. Doing this gives the readers something palpable to hold on to, unlike minimalism and those hinting statements, which makes the reader work too much.

The third one is Moore’s conscious attempt to fuse humor in the telling of the narrative.  Humor here is used in two ways: to entertain and captivate. Humor balances out the heaviness of the text and its subject. After the emotional turbulence that is being a mistress, the laughs in the text acts out as a relief. Humor here also works in the same way as the Alienation/Distancing effects Brecht employed in his plays, “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (Willet 91). The humor here distances us from the emotional turmoil that is the text through sheer laughter and gives us a momentary breather to critically approach the narrative, while keeping us inside its world.

The fourth one is the vitality of the text. The whole affair is not depicted in the narrative. It would seem that most of the scenarios shown are those that are the most relevant to the story. They are the most pertinent plot points, the most that contribute to the overall thought and tension of the narrative and its conflict. And Moore tells it, in a run. It is fast. It does not linger. It is direct. It does not bother or slow down the text. Moreover, each scene presented ends on a suspenseful note, making certain that the reader has something to look forward to.

Finally, there is a sense of the present in the telling of the text. Seeing that the 2nd Person POV works on the reader’s performance (at least, in his or her head), the sense of the present must be observed. The past would have been to far gone for the reader to accept it. The future may be too distant for the reader to embrace it. An active narrative voice happening in the present time has to be utilized so the readers can take the necessary “performative” stance to completely know how it is to be another woman. Any other way would prove to be problematic in the reading and writing of the text.

The short story, in the words of Nobel Prize Winner Nadine Gordimer, “as a form, must be better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality at a time when we are drawing nearer to the mystery of life or are losing ourselves in a bellowing wilderness of mirrors, as the nature of that reality becomes more fully understood or more bewilderingly concealed by the discoveries of science and the proliferation of communication media outside the printed world” (264). Through How to be An Other Woman, Moore successfully captures the “ultimate reality” that Gordimer speaks of as it not only provides the experience in the narrative but makes us a part of it. It is for this sole reason why Moore’s short story is a personal favorite of mine.

Citations and References:

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Ed and Trans. Willet, John. New York: Hill and Wang 1964

Gordimer, Nadine. “The Flash of the Fireflies.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. May, Charles. Athens: Ohio University Press 1994.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Essentials on the Theory of Fiction. Ed. Hoffman, M. and Murphy, P. Durnham and London: Duke University Press 2007.

Moore, Lorrie. “How to be Another Woman.” Self Help: Stories. New York: Vintage Books 2001 (Reprint).

On Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

I have been in love with Lorrie Moore for the past two years. Ever since I purchased Self Help: Stories (Vintage Books 2007), I have been a devoted fan of her short and long stories. I read Self Help at least once every six months. I read the short stories, “How to be Another Woman,” “How to Talk to your Mother (Notes)” and “How to be A Writer” every two months or whenever I’m in a writing rut. I even can quote some of its most beautiful and lyrical sentences from memory. As a tribute to my love for her, the collection I mentioned is one of the few books that I brought along with me in my three-week fellowship at the Silliman University National Writer’s Workshop. Her two other collections, Like Life (Vintage Books 2002) and Birds of America (Picador 1998) are equally stunning works. Agnes, from “Agnes from Iowa,” still remains to be one of the most memorable characters I have read in all my years of reading American short fiction. The dialogue from “Charades” still makes me giggle whenever I reread that story. And honestly, who can forget the onomatopoeic laugh that lasts one-and-a-half pages at the beginning of “Real Estates”?  She is one of my favorite American short story writers. In my shelf, at home, her books sit beside those that I consider masters in that fictional form, right between John Cheever and John Updike, near the likes of Raymond Carvel, Lydia Davis, Stephen Milhauser and Ernest Hemingway.

My relationship with Lorrie Moore is not perfect though. Though my love for her short fiction is one that is eternal and unbreakable, her novels, on the other hand, puts me in a sullen and sour mood. Anagrams was a bore. It was an ordeal. The language was beautiful, the imagery was evocative, the writing was masterful, but there just something that lacked when I was reading the text. How to Run the Frog Hospital was also the same for me. It bored me to bits. There were moments during my reading when I would just put down the book after ten pages and pick up another title just to get my momentum running again. There were even instances when I fervently wished that she stop writing novels and just continue and concentrate on writing short fiction, like what Alice Munro does. The plots of the two novels just didn’t work for me. It lacked something. It was insufficient for a form of such magnitude like the novel. The characters, I felt, could have done so much more if the narrative went to a different direction.  I was not a big fan of her novels and I doubted I could be. Then A Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Books 2010) came along.

A Gate at the Stairs, her third novel and her longest work to date, tells the story of the young Tassie Keltjin, a farmer’s daughter, who finds herself in need of a job while attending college in Troy. She presents herself as a babysitter to several families until she is hired by Edward and Sarah Thornwood, a married couple seeking to adopt a baby so they could finally have the family that Sarah has always yearned for. Edward and Sarah, with Tassie’s assistance, finally adopts Mary, a half Caucasian, half African-American two year old, born out of wedlock, a child who has been in circulation in foster care ever since her birth. As she deals with taking care of the child who’s perenially under the scrutiny of the public due to her difference in color and appearance, she also comes to grips with her life outside the Thornwood residence, which consists of her classes and the pressure of being a college student, her relationship with Reynaldo, a classmate who eventually is revealed to be part of the Jihad against America, and his brother, who at senior year in high school, decides to enlist himself in the army and fight the war in the Middle-East. What comes is a beautiful, thought-provoking and evocative initiation story of a young woman, who finds her self trying to comprehend the idea of living in a world a year after the horrible events of 9/11.

What I find most brilliant with the novel is the narration and language used by Lorrie Moore in giving life to Tassie Keltjin and the reality she lives in. The language and narration, for me, resembles that of a precocious child. Every image and every sound is always a discovery. Always, a new light is thrown into the scenery and events that constantly surround the character, making each sentence something utterly breathtaking and beautiful. The emotional intensity of each word said can go from tender and sweet and effortlessly shift to pure anger and revulsion, without it being unusual and awkward. The narration is warm and evocative. It’s witty, it’s ridiculously funny without it being unnatural or over-the-top, and it is surprising. It is pleasantly surprising. During the course of my reading, I literally had to slow down and backtrack several chapters for fear that I may have missed the elegance of the language and so I can fully immerse myself in the narration of the book. Of course, due credit has to be given to Tassie Keltjin, who without her, that which I adore most about the book would not be achieved.

Tassie, in herself, is another gem in the novel. She now stands beside the likes of Holden Caulfield, Oskar Matzerath, Colonel Aureliano Buendia and Huck Finn, beside the others who I consider to be the best characters I have met in literature. Here we have Tassie, who is at the cusp of adulthood, on a literal level because in a few months time she is going to turn 21, and on the figurative level because she is at that exact point in her existence where every decision she pursues will contribute greatly and gravely to whatever future she will possess. Problem is she’s severely ill-equipped at handling problems, always choosing to take the sarcastic and cynical outlook in each attempt to understand the problem, repeatedly choosing to ignore and be indifferent at whatever threatens the stability of her existence. Suddenly, she experiences a deluge of moral and ethical dilemmas which challenges her idealistic and impenetrable views on reality. Her plight and her ordeals are relevant to each and every reader of the book. Her ordeals are sympathetic. Her motivations for the actions she take are so palpable that one will not question her for the actions that she eventually took. She is a very powerful character, unforgettable for all her wittiness, her humor, her pains, her sorrows and her utter foolishness. Her sheer inadequacy makes her memorable.