Arcadia by Emma Cline

The month of May is short story month and because of that, and because I recently turned in my final grades, I’ve been lately reading a lot of short stories. Namely, those stories included in the most recent Best American series, edited by Meg Wolitzer. There’s a lot to admire in the anthology — slices of life on display that show characters at their most urgent, desperate, and vulnerable moments.

One story I’d like to discuss is “Arcadia” by Emma Cline. It’s a story of orphaned siblings, Otto and Heddy, and Heddy’s boyfriend, Peter. All three live together in a rural area of orchard country. The orphans are not orphans in the traditional Orphan Annie sense, but rather, they are older, more mature, and running the farm/business like they know what they’re doing. Their father died four years ago and their mother had left for the east coast with a new boyfriend, so Otto had “pretty much raised” Heddy.

“Arcadia” is told from the perspective of Peter. The outsider, the boyfriend. We learn early on that Heddy is pregnant, presumably with Peter’s child, and when Peter moves in with them he immediately starts working on the farm. There are others who help too: hired hands who live in a series of trailers on the edge of the farm.

The entire situation — the characters’ isolation, the mystery of the parents, and Peter moving into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, “still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages…”– is fascinating, but what takes center stage is the relationship between Heddy and Otto.

Peter notes, early on, “Otto kissed [Heddy] goodbye, making a lazy swat at her ass…” And on the next page, “[Otto and Heddy] carried on long, sober conversations… that trailed off whenever Peter came into the room.” And later still, “[Peter had] been surprised that neither Heddy nor Otto cared that much about nudity, Otto striding naked down the hall to the shower…”

All of which adds texture and mystery — who the hell are these people? — to this eerie, backwoodsy story featuring this trio of characters. If you haven’t already, check out the Best American Short Stories 2017. Along with Cline’s story, you’ll find several more that entice and tantalize readers with their precision, language, and compelling — and sometimes slightly perverse — situations.

“Texas” by David Gates

To my knowledge, “Texas” by David Gates (January 22nd issue of the New Yorker), is the first short story published by the venerated fiction writer since the release of his latest collection A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (Knopf 2015). The collection is comprised of stories and a novella that were published over the course of a twelve year period, in places such as the aforementioned New Yorker, but also Tin House, GQ, Ploughshares, Paris Review, and Granta. There’s a reason for Gates’s consistent inclusion in these top-tier literary journals and magazines. Simply put, he’s one of the best. And “Texas” is a much anticipated follow-up for those of us who know — and love — his work.

“Texas” takes place in upstate New York, and features a man, Garver, whose “children had left home” and his wife had “made her escape to Italy.” Garver is alone, an artist, and enjoys a host of pleasures — music, cannabis, baseball, and whiskey. But he’s alone, and in need of money, and when a nice, unsuspecting artist-couple, with a kid, are searching for a place to rent/live, away from the City, Garver acknowledges to himself, about the couple, “You’ll do.”

The couple: Ben is a composer with an NEA grant and a weakness for weed. Lois is a writer with an MFA from Columbia. The couple have a daughter who has “pudgy legs” and still uses a car seat. The family takes a liking to Garver, but their affections are short lived.

What unfolds is a host of complications between the threesome, starting with Garver’s and Ben’s mutual affection for weed, and Lois’s motivation to keep Ben off of it. But it becomes more than that, and as Garver’s intentions are subtly revealed, the story takes on a needling kind of menace. Only the kind that Gates can create through sharp details and pitch-perfect dialogue — all rolled out for us in a timely, nuanced fashion.

We do eventually get to Texas, the actual state, and it is there, at the end of the story, where Garver confronts his daughter, “the only one of the kids who still kept in touch” to find out what she thinks of him. It’s a poignant moment for Garver who, after this brief conversation with Emma, his daughter, resorts back to what has always comforted him.

Read the story here.

And a great interview with Gates, about the story, here.

The Smell by Ruth Mukwana, reviewed by Lina Rodriguez

Lina Rodriguez is originally from Colombia. She is currently a student at Lincoln Memorial University, where she is studying Veterinary Health Science, and will be attending LMU College of Veterinary Medicine next fall.

Ruth Mukwana’s story, The Smell, was orginally published in Solstice, and can be read here.

 

Ruth Mukwana addresses the issue of women’s rights in her fictional story The Smell. The author uses this story as a way to bring awareness about women’s rights in other countries or, to be more precise, the lack of them. She does so by narrating the story of Rose, a woman who not only suffered from domestic violence but also suffered horrific consequences when she decided to stand up for herself.

In The Smell, Rose is literally ironed by her husband as punishment for spending money for their baby’s formula. After murdering her husband, Rose is incarcerated in inhumane conditions and subjected to abuse from the guards at the prison. She mentions how she tries to “understand what pained [her] the most, [her] broken body or spirit.”

Author Ruth Mukwana has experienced what it is like to live in a society where women are considered to be less than men. She was born in Uganda, a country where women’s rights, especially in rural areas, are practically nonexistent. Although fictional, The Smell is based on a society that she has been a part of. She has witnessed firsthand the suffering of women in her home country. This is perhaps one of the main reasons she has taken upon herself the mission to bring awareness of this situation.

When she narrates the story of Rose, a woman who murdered her husband after years of abuse, she is narrating the life of hundreds of women who are being mistreated. The reality portrayed in this fictional story is common among developing countries, especially those countries that live in extreme poverty. Women are treated as property, and their families marry them off young to obtain a dowry. Young women do not go to school. They do not have a childhood. Getting married, having kids, working, and taking care of the home is the future countless girls have accepted as their only option. These girls submit to this future as part of their cultural beliefs sometimes without questioning it or even realizing that they have other opportunities.

The author, although living in a society where this situation is common, did not have to go through this situation herself. In fact, Ruth Mukwana holds an MFA from Bennington College, works for the United Nations and has lived for an extensive period of time in New York City. She is a well-educated woman who was able to have a successful career in a country where this is an exclusive privilege.

In The Smell, there is a successful female lawyer who fights for Rose’s freedom. This lawyer represents a sign of hope for all young women. This young lawyer shows that, although it is not common, a woman can have a successful career. This figure represents a powerful woman capable of helping others. The lawyer represents someone who stood up for herself. She fought against her culture and succeeded. In the story, Rose admires this woman: “she was older than [her], but she looked much younger.” Rose is aware of how “her face exuded youth, but it didn’t have any of the physical scars and the haunted look wedged in [her] eyes.”

By juxtaposing Rose and her lawyer, Mukwana is showing two possibilities. Not every woman suffers from domestic abuse. Not every woman has to follow the cultural belief that their job is to take care of the house. Rose’s story is not exceptional. This is a situation that has been going on for multiple generations. Rose remembers how her mother “married [her] at the age of fourteen to a maternal uncle much older and twice [her] size.” This is the same situation her mother went through when she “was married at the age of twelve and had her first child the same year.” Perhaps this pattern is why young girls do not fight for their rights. In most cases, they are not even aware that they have rights. They have lived in a society that has belittled them for so long that they believe this is the way it is supposed to be. Through the lawyer’s character, the author is also providing these young women a role model—someone they can look up to. This does not literally mean that young women should become lawyers. What the author is trying to do is inspire young women to stand up for themselves. She is showing them that it is possible to be successful. Mukwana is showing little girls that they have something to fight for, and they should do so.

Women around the world suffer from discrimination. It is true that some women such as Rose face far more challenging types of discrimination than women living in wealthy countries. That being said, according to Lenora M. Lapidus, Director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, “today, women at all income levels are still facing barriers to advancement, and in some ways, these challenges are harder than ever because there are some people who think that discrimination against women no longer exists. Sadly, that’s just not true.”

Wings, 1989 by Robin MacArthur, published in Shenandoah

I’ve been reading — and loving — Robin MacArthur’s debut collection, Half Wild. So far, the stories are set in rural locations (log cabins, gardens, meadows) and feature women and kids (or young women) battling husbands, fathers, lost loved ones, strangers moving to town, and, most poignantly, the notion of what they might have been. Stories that explore this kind of regret could easily slip into miserable histories which in turn could drag the reader into a kind of fitful, disoriented daze (where are we in the story?). But not so with MacArthur. Her stories move steadily forward showing through sharp details and subtle action her characters’ ongoing conflicts. For instance, the story linked here, Wings, 1989, is about a girl who observes the melancholy movements and actions of her mother while her husband, the girl’s father, is away for work. They are not well-to-do financially, and their need for cash keeps the father away for days at a time — building houses and enjoying the excesses of being away from home/family (getting drunk and stoned with a co-worker), while the mother and daughter are at home picking an insurmountable weed patch threatening the garden, along with the constant pile up of household/cabin chores (the mother’s hands always smell like dish soap). The details in this story, so subtle and perfectly wrought (the 1/2 inch gap in the door frame that the father patches with duct tape) and we get so completely wrapped up in this place and its run-down loneliness, that, by the end of the story, we understand the kind of compounded stress of a woman (the mother) whose dreams and hopes have been dashed by an absent husband, housing developments wiping out the wilderness around her, and, really, a family with whom she does not readily identify, along with the stifled dreams of her past. What might have been.

One of the lovelier scenes is a brief flashback of how the protagonist’s mother and father met; a story that the protagonist can play, “like a movie in my mind.” It’s a skinny dipping scene, but as the mother is jumping in, the reader is interrupted by the mother’s commentary about her future, the kind of knowing that she suspends — or ignores — for an adventuresome spirit (the father) who eventually moves her to a pine log cabin in the woods to start a life and a family.

Wings, 1989 isn’t the only gem in the collection, though it might be the only story found online. If you enjoy rural landscapes filled with back-to-the-land types who can’t seem to get ahead, while fighting substance abuse or absent family members, pick up a copy and enjoy. If you’re not convinced, start with this story here.

Lincoln Michel’s story, Things Left Outside, reviewed by Denton Loving.

Lincoln Michel must be one of the world’s busiest young writers.  In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com, he is a founding editor of Gigantic, a literary magazine dedicated to flash fiction, and he co-edited Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. He’s also a pretty great writer.  

One of my favorite stories from his 2015 collection, Upright Beasts, is Things Left Outside, which you can also read online at Weird Fiction Review. I liked this story so much that I decided to share it with my students during our section dedicated to literature. I teach mostly college-level first-year students, and it’s often difficult to get these students excited about fiction. The Michel story, however, generated a great deal of excitement and discussion.  

The story begins when the narrator’s husband (Gerald) discovers a dead body. The woman was apparently shot, and she died crawling halfway under the fence onto the narrator’s property.  The woman has no identification, but she is about the same age and appearance as the narrator (Carol). She’s wearing a green shirt similar to one Carol owns, and her bag contains objects that Carol also owns.

The mystery of this dead woman is at the core of the story, but the story is about so much more. Carol becomes obsessed with discovering the woman’s identity. She wants to know who killed the woman. She even begins to suspect Gerald may know more than he’s letting on. Is he involved? The reader must work like a detective to pick apart the text in finding clues. The question that looms most is whether Carol suffers from mild paranoia and temporary obsession or does her imbalance cross a line into deeper madness?

A couple of my students felt dissatisfied because the murderer is never revealed. I suppose that is to be expected when you grow up in a world with eighty-seven different versions of Law & Order. But the real debate about this story spawned around a surprising interpretation of the story that was theorized by more than one student. Their theory was that the dead woman was really Carol.  

After reading a short story in class, I typically ask my students what they think in general terms. Someone’s first response is inevitably that the story is “weird.” I’ve been trying to break my students from using this catch-all expression, but in the case of Things Left Outside, they might be right. Things Left Outside really is weird, especially if your interpretation of the story hinges on Carol also being the dead woman that Carol becomes obsessed with. (Further evidence of the story’s weirdness can be found in its publication at Weird Fiction Review.)

There’s a surprising amount of evidence to support this “weird” theory, although some of the same pieces of evidence could support a more conventional interpretation, which is simply that Carol identifies with the dead woman. One of my goals in discussing this story was to emphasize that your theory is only as strong as the evidence you can find in the text to support it. And to my students’ credit, they got more and more excited each time something pushed the scale in their favor. When class conversation reached the verge of civil war, a few students demanded that I tell them which theory was right. Imagine their frustration when I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) give them an answer.

The truth is that I don’t know what Lincoln Michel’s intention was in writing this story. I see arguments for both views. But whether Carol is looking at some version of herself lying under the barbed wire fence or merely another human being who reminds her of her own mortality isn’t really the point. More importantly, I find the character, Carol, to be interesting, and the situation Michel has created in Things Left Outside is so dynamic that I want to sink into the story and think about what it all means. I want to live with Carol for a while, or with her on the page at least, and I’m okay with it even if I can’t definitely answer all the questions that might arise. I’m more than okay with it.

This open-ended view of literature is exactly what some of my students find frustrating. One of my students (a pre-med student whom I can already tell will one day make a very fine doctor) explained to me that chemistry is easier than literature because there’s always a right answer in chemistry. With literature, there is no one right answer. This very idea is what is so frightening to so many of my students. They’re unsettled by the uncertainty. I don’t know if this is a symptom of their age, or the times we live in, or that they just haven’t been exposed to enough good literature. All I can tell them is that I love how a good story can imitate life by exposing our uncertainties. Some of them accept that answer. Other students are tracking Lincoln Michel at this very moment, determined to extract an explanation of his intentions. That’s okay with me, too. At least they care enough about this story to want to understand it.

 

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag).  He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks).  His fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and interviews have been appeared in over 80 publications including River Styx, CutBank, [PANK] and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

 

Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories (Coffee House Press, 2015). He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @thelincoln.