B. Nathanial Steelman
Dare I say, my Laurel Edition of Anna Karenina provokes as much by the epic narrative as by the former owner’s liberal, however often derisive, edits. Before one even opens this classic, “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST HEROINE” on the cover has been revamped (or revitalized? vandalized?) into “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST
HEROINE flop.” And on the first page of the front matter, “LEO TOLSTOY” has (d)evolved into “Leo the Lion.” Sure, these two possibly droll, certainly cheap alterations are of the ilk you’d suspect to find, insofar as they are legitimately juvenile, lurking in the stacks of a high school library. That said, there is a platter of amendments housed inside my copy and many of them steam with bona fide, if nihilistic, cultural criticism. Here is the crème de la crème: etched into the very sentence among those in the pantheon of story-starters, the reader observes that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” has, indeed, become “Happy families are all alike sick; every unhappy family is unhappy dead in its own way.”
Touché? For better or worse, family is, as a fountainhead, a framework, that experience and structure we humans can neither shake nor escape, if only on the procedural—that is, subconscious—level. It’s too deft and deep. Even if a family has absented from a person’s life, a boy’ll still stretch into those voids to feel, as he yearns, for attachments. Family makes us who we are. Take Brenna Gomez’s debut short story, brilliant and tragic. Published originally in print by Prairie Schooner in Spring 2017 and republished online by The Dark Magazine in May 2019, “Corzo” is about nothing other than a family struggling to find equilibrium. Specifically, you could say it is about heart.
I may never forget the opening scene. I had thought it was a dream, at first, or a sort of horror that Fuckhead gets himself into in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. A young daughter, yet one matured by the dint of parental dysfunction, arrives home after school and sees in her father “a ragged chest wound the size of a plum”; he asks her to help him cut out his heart. After mija refuses, her father, Eduvigo Herrera III, implores her, “‘Please do this for me. I never ask you for anything.’” Accordingly, mija—Sara—identifies the falsity of this claim, inasmuch as she, being the daughter and the big sister, frequently is asked to do too much by and for her parents who religiously partake in “epic screaming matches” and methods of self-destruction; incumbent upon her is, too, the pressure to get “straight As, to never be in trouble.” But—because she is, precisely, the daughter—she relents and seizes her father’s heart: “It was soft around the edges and firm in the center. Every so often it shuddered like it didn’t know it wasn’t being used anymore. It was a deep purple so dark it looked black.” And if the premise thus far hasn’t compelled me to see what happens next, this specificity of imagery convinces me of the narrator’s rectitude, and the author’s, to boot, which I oblige to trust and honor by reading.
Flannery O’Connor ascribes such images to so called “anagogical vision”: “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” In her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from the collection Mystery and Manners, the storied writer banishes the notion that fiction is predicated upon the abstract, and rather champions the notion that the art form is “about everything human and we are made out of dust.” The form is about, in other words, a human’s experience through her senses; and the form achieves any meaning by the overall medley of these senses as they experience circumstances over time. And so, when Eduvigo requests, additionally, that mija cut his heart up like dinner meat, to squeeze the pieces through the mouth of the empty Corzo tequila bottle—and when the mother, Izzy, arrives home and declares that Eduvigo shouldn’t have made the daughter do it, and when the knowledge is made known that Eduvigo’s grandfather had taught him the ancient cultural practice of excising a heart to punish loved ones—and so on and so forth goes the medley—the image of the heart inside the Corzo bottle embodies, literally and metaphorically, the heart of Gomez’s story: an Hispanic family centered around patriarchy and its pathology. Don [Somebody], the former owner of my copy of Anna Karenina, wouldn’t, I imagine, be astonished.
Subsequently, the Herreras are haunted by a man who loiters both alive and dead. Izzy begins to habitually recite the Hail Mary; suddenly, to Sara, she looks old; and she painstakingly attempts to tip off those bygone screaming matches with her husband, however great with rage they had been. Freddie, the little brother—whose name is poignantly close to Ed, as if to insinuate an Herrera III will, of course, pass on to an Herrera IV—prattles on at school about zombies. While Sara, the point of view and the narrator, imagines pressing a hot iron to her father’s face—“Would he even feel it?”—and she cannot concentrate at school; and the trauma could explain why she misreads a boy’s foul intentions for fair. Meanwhile, Eduvigo, heartless, bleeds through his work shirts; he no longer laughs, yells—in a word, feels. Subtle but sure, the irony regarding masculinity plays convincingly. In America, we have inculcated an archetype of masculinity, that a man is austere, stoic, among other things. In “Corzo,” a man has to die—in a manner of speaking—to become this way; and his wife wants the former—we suppose volatile—man back, because she does not know who, nor what, this other man in her kitchen is, nor doing, the fountainhead of familismo having now been compromised.
On a yellowed notecard, scrawled in faded blue cursive, Don holds forth two inquiries re: the following cultural constructs: What is a successful marriage? and Why love? Honest questions, to be sure, no matter intonation. There are certain regions of the mind made gray, we know, by altogether bewildering, embattling percepts in our everyday lives. Nurses who smoke like chimneys, for example, or spouses who berate, but who “love,” each other—as in “Corzo”—epitomize the conundrum of not practicing the preaching. Why upkeep institutions, such as marriage—even love—if their abuse dwarfs reward is a premise always worth writing about, insofar as wellbeing hangs in the balance. Gomez owns it. She’s shaped a short fiction through the sensibilities of a young narrator whose upbringing by all means substantiates O’Connor’s zinger that “anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
“Corzo” is, ultimately, a reflection. Set in the past, over approximately a couple of weeks, mija—which means daughter in Spanish—still at this late date needs to know just what happened. To her father, sure. But more to her little brother, Freddie, it seems. Toward the end of the story, after she and Freddie arrive home during another screaming match, Freddie takes the bottled heart to his father and says the he still wants his dad. Freddie hurls the artifact over the apartment’s railing, the glass—a motif—shatters, as glass iconically does when it collides with just enough stubbornness. His father does not react. The most striking line of all the story: “‘Dad,’” Freddie says, “‘didn’t even get mad and nothing happened to him. He’s like invincible.’” And the most striking response of all the story, from Sara: “‘Damn it, Freddie!” she screams, “‘Just eat your dinner.’” Because trauma, so easily and cunningly, is transmitted generation to generation at some, and yet every, point.