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Is it wrong to post a paragraph from someone’s essay for no real reason other than to share it? I’m not sure. This passage in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Colorado” chapter in State by State is so killer, though, that I’m going to risk it. I’ve had it in my head since reading it about two weeks ago. Maybe by putting it down here, I’ll get over it and feel like it’s okay to write something of my own even though it will be less lovely. Or maybe I’m just copying it to know what it feels like to type these words!
…”in the pure light like a bright, immaculate wound.” I don’t know why this language of hurt should attach to alpine Colorado, or why, in the best-known version of the traditional song, the man of constant sorrow (“I seen trouble all my days”) should be bound for Colorado (“where I was born and partly raised”). Unless I do know why: The pure light and gin-clear air can’t be matched by your life. They will only put a hurt look into your eyes, whether you stay or go.
I read this line–“The pure light and gin-clear air can’t be matched by your life”–about fifteen times before I was sure I understood. Now that I do, I think I would be too scared to ever venture west to Colorado.
As I was reading Personal Days by Ed Park, I found myself remembering The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. The two books have next to nothing in common, so it took me a second to come up with the link, memory being somehow a step ahead of consciousness.
What it is, I finally discovered, is that each novel is divided into three distinct parts. In The Patron Saint of Liars, related characters each narrate their own third of the book. In Personal Days, the first section is a collective first person / omniscient third person account of the drudgery and drama of office life. The second chunk is not incredibly different from the first except in terms of organization–rather than being structured under subheadings, its mini-sections are presented in outline form: II (A) iii:. The last third is a more radical departure. It is one long narrative presented as an email from one coworker to another.
After reading her last gratuitously miserable story in the New Yorker, I vowed never to read Annie Proulx again. But when I made this vow to Dan’s mom, she mentioned that she’d already lent me her copy of The Shipping News. I had no choice but to amend my vow and so set out to find that copy. It took me a while because I’d put it in the wrong spot on my bookshelf (which is arranged in a strange, intuitive manner, that makes sense only to me, and only sometimes). But then I found it and started it and was completely transported.
Vow broken–Ms. Proulx is on my triple gold star list now.
I almost had to stop reading her again, from sheer envy, when I hit this, on page one, a paragraph full enough to constitute an entire flash fiction story:
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
And, at the top of that page, as at the start of every chapter, an image from The Ashley Book of Knots:
There are three stories I have trouble discussing without choking up, which is rough, because they are three stories I practically evangelize about every chance I get. “Age of Faith” by Alice Munro is one, “Anniversary” by Daphne Kalotay is the second, and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel is the third. The endings of these three stories absolutely slay me. In the case of “In the Cemetery…” I know I am not alone–it is widely anthologized and a friend who recently read it on my recommendation cried a little when she thanked me for the suggestion.
My dad does not understand why a person would want to read a story, or watch a movie, or see a piece of art, that is upsetting. There is enough of that in real life, he says. This is a hard position to argue with, I think. There is too much of that in “real” life! But then how to explain why I go back and read, re-read, re-re-read “In the Cemetery…”?
First, it is very funny before it is sad. There are details living inside of this story you will never see anywhere else, except, perhaps, everywhere. Amy is the queen of making the specific universal. The friendship between the two women characters is alive in every line. Each sentence works in a hundred different directions, giving us the fullest picture of two lives inside of only eleven pages. Several elements–a fear of flying, a fear of dying, useless trivia, a talking chimp and California earthquakes–are braided together, weaving in and out of each short paragraph, carrying the reader along, until, inevitably, the chain they form comes to an end.
Maybe I read it over and over to figure out how Amy makes me feel so much, and so strongly. I start the story with the intention of dissecting, of analyzing her every move, but then I find myself at the end, swallowing hard, staring blurry-eyed at the page, concluding as I had every time before that there was no method, no trick, no system that could be pulled apart–the story was created by magic.
Amy was my professor a couple of years ago, and in the past month, I’ve run into her three times. Seeing her yesterday made me think of this story again, but also makes me worry a little because Dan suggested she might think I’m stalking her–if you happen to see this post, Amy, I swear, I’m not! I just love this story and New York is a small place sometimes.
Notice, by the way, I didn’t give much away about the actual story here. It is really important that you all go out, read it yourselves and let me know what you think!
This Friday, as part of the New Yorker Festival, Alice Munro will be reading. For me, this event ranks right up there with another I attended last October–Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden. I’ll bet that, unless you know me very well, you’ve never heard these two artists mentioned in the same breath before. So let me tell you why I admire each of them, and why the comparison makes so much sense.