Tuesday, April 02, 2013

30 days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 29

Catherine Brady on Molly Giles' ROUGH TRANSLATIONS

The stories in Rough Translations are delicate, wry investigations of what it means to struggle for personhood—how that performative act sometimes mistranslates the essential fiber of someone’s being, sometimes wildly affirms it, and sometimes teeters, hopefully or precariously, between these two possibilities. In “Peril,” these concerns are vividly set forth as Joan, a character we’ve seen in two earlier stories, rescues a stray cat, which triggers an excruciatingly heightened awareness that “disaster… is always out there,” threatening to topple her into despair over the fragility of her seemingly settled life. In the opening story, “Old Souls,” a determinedly anti-romantic narrator skewers her mystically inclined family, only to be haunted by the voices of the dead in the night, demanding to know “Who’s there?”: Who are you, then, if you define yourself by a hollow defiance? In “A Jar of Emeralds,” a woman makes a match with a man who seems to want to “see the someone” in her, and as the two of them flounder at this essential act of love, her husband wakes up one night to exclaim, “I feel like a jar of emeralds!” An anomaly, utterly untranslatable, as one person can be to another, and yet it tantalizingly encapsulates the truth of their impasse.

Re-reading these stories, I was captivated by their lightness, which seems paradoxical when you consider that most of them are situated at the lip of the existential abyss. That sense of lightness owes a great deal to Giles’s gift for storytelling, her ability to generate cumulative complexity from the simple materials of straight-ahead narrative. The stories are structured to snare the reader immediately in anticipation of literal outcome, whether it’s the possibility that in watching her husband bargain for a used piano, a wife will grapple with or deny the mounting evidence of his untrustworthiness, or the anticipation that antipathy-at-first-sight will transform into some genuine connection between a woman and a man who meet in a bar and then get mugged.

Giles’s stories startle you first and persuade you second. Her often anthologized story, “Pie Dance,” illustrates just how artfully she welds dissonant literal circumstances to their potent implications. Here are the story’s opening lines: “I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife. She won’t come in.” These sentences crackle with compressed tension, presenting us with a dramatic discrepancy between what we can assume old wives feel about the new and the seeming proffer of hospitality and intimacy. We quickly learn that the new wife, Pauline, has been making a habit of coming to the old wife’s house, and “just dropping by” to chat on the porch is only the first of the lies that bind them together. We’re compelled by the story first because of the unexpected reversal of the usual power dynamic between old (discarded) and new (younger) wife and then because we witness the unexpected emotional intimacy generated by these lies. What does that new wife want here, anyway? And what should we make of the irony that a man whom neither woman can trust provides the literal connection between them? The old wife, “beginning to realize that there isn’t much to love in this world,” struggles not to betray to Pauline her passionate feelings for her dog and disguises as maternal concern a possibly vengeful satisfaction at whatever has driven Pauline to her door. Pauline, isn’t, in fact, allowed in: she stays on the porch the whole time, where the narrator deploys the standard feminine camouflage of housewife-and-mother to keep Pauline in her miserable place. When her three daughters come home from blackberry picking, smeared with juice, they rush to embrace Pauline, and their instinctive, unclouded affection presages the toppling of the narrator’s defenses. As Pauline leaves, she looks at the house, and then the narrator turns to look too: only a curtain fluttering at an upstairs window. Behind which their shared man, Konrad, is hiding, waiting for Pauline to leave so he can make his own escape. What’s perfect about this kind of storytelling is how the plot throws off the shadows of the whole story for us to imagine rather than illuminating in detail what lurks there: a dissatisfied Konrad has been showing up for reliable sex with his old wife, a fact Pauline suspects but cannot prove, and he’s just as quick to abandon his old wife this time as he has been in the past. As he rushes to dress and go, his ex-wife tells him, “it seems I’ve grown morals.”

These are stories written in an era—the mid-eighties—when women were struggling to live out newly won freedom from oppressive conventions, but they are in no way dated, because through a feminist lens, they pursue the truth of our conflicted understanding of ourselves in relation to others. Throughout many of these stories, music and other art forms constitute a recurring refrain—a hopeful one. However the characters struggle in these stories, there’s always the chance of some genuinely truthful and essential self-expression, some connection that, even if tenuous, affirms the importance of their striving, the value of fully opening one’s eyes in the ephemeral present moment.

Catherine Brady is the author of CURLED IN THE BED OF LOVE (2003), as well as three story collections. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2004 and numerous journals and anthologies. She is also the author of a biography of a Nobel laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA, and has a forthcoming book on the craft of fiction.