Sunday, March 17, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 13

Tom Kealey on Lori Ostlund's THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD

I’ve known my friend David Roderick for fifteen years, through graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, into the Stegner Fellows Program at Stanford University, and on to the University of North Carolina Greensboro where he teaches and I visit. If there’s a person who knows my literary likes and sensibilities more than David, they are probably working too hard. So, when he sticks a book in my hand and says “This author is from your tribe,” I tend to pay attention.

A couple of years ago he gave me the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Prize winner, The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund. I was immediately taken by the two children in the opening story (the title story), especially by their precociousness and their fascination with their caretaker, Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, who quotes from Oscar Wilde, holds proudly to her older world values, and who, unknowingly, helps shield the children from their mother’s forthcoming financial calamity and scandal. Characters throughout the book are often on the verge of calamity, or nestled deeply within it, yet they maintain a plucky, often Midwest courage and determination that sees them through.

You could choose almost any character in The Bigness of the World and you would find some combination of charming, quietly passionate and frightened; curious and perceptive about the world; certainly quite intelligent; and most notably with that remarkable calmness in the midst of turmoil and crisis. One teacher in the book enters her classroom to find the sentence “MISS LUNDSTROM & MISS SHAPIRO ARE LEZZIE LOVERS!!” scrawled on the blackboard. The sentence is meant to degrade, expose, and humiliate, and certainly not to celebrate, yet to our delight Ms. Lundstrom leads her class of teenagers on a grammatical and composition lesson, challenging the use of exclamation points and ampersands, and especially the redundancy of ‘lezzie’ or even ‘lesbian’ in a sentence about two women. After a full lesson and collaborative discussion, they very maturely arrive at the clarifying and satisfying final edit of “Ms. Lundstrom and Ms. Shapiro are lovers.”

What a joy this collection is, especially in its exploration of characters that take on challenges and setbacks not head-on, but by a step to the side first, a moment to consider and decode, and then a reengagement. Why be outraged, when there is a teaching moment available? Why be defeated when you can subvert? In “All Boy,” our character Harold is shockingly locked into a dark closet by a strange babysitter. But instead of being overwhelmed, he actually learns to enjoy the time alone and seems to agree with his mother who later observes, “it could not hurt to learn how the sightless got by.” If there is tragedy and fear in these situations, and there almost always is, the characters acknowledge but do not bow to that fear.

There are world travelers aplenty in this collection, and we get to see much of the bigness of the world. We arrive in or just back from Belize, Hong Kong, Spain, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and Ostlund infuses her characters with a patience, curiosity, and resignation that may be international but is shared with her native Minnesotans. This is perfectly captured when a Mr. Narayanasamy reflects about a troublesome Malaysian colleague “the way that one would refer to laundry on the line several minutes after it has begun to rain.” In their travels, Ostlund’s characters find the unique but also the familiar.

The children though stand out to me in particular, especially six year old Annabel from “The Day You Were Born.” Ostlund has a wonderful knack for capturing the dispositions, humor, and world-building of children, as when Annabel observes a collection of yard tools in a garage:
‘Why do they need a dozen rakes?’ She was six and had just learned in school that twelve was also called a dozen, and she thought about this often, wondering why there were two words for the number twelve. It seemed unnecessary, unnecessary and odd, for if a number were going to be given two names, the number ten seemed more deserving.
Yet, to the reader, Annabel is in the midst of a terrifying situation with her father, who is possibly schizophrenic and certainly unable to care for her. He spends days with his shirt off because of perceived maggots under his skin, makes her disturbing lunches such as celery sticks with mayonnaise and chocolate sprinkles, and fiercely decries the behavior of Annabel’s much saner mother. Annabel takes these things in stride, and yet another of the great strengths of The Bigness of the World is how these suppressed emotions and reactions will eventually burst forth, as when our teacher Ms. Lundstrom breaks down in front of her class on a seemingly normal day. Deep meanings and connections are excavated and explored throughout these stories.

And who can resist a book with such lovely dialogue, situations, sensibility, and original characters who insist upon the delightfully specific: “Nobody walks to the Mennonites. And the Mennonites, for their part, do not walk to us.” And who can resist the polite, yet determined response: “Well, we’re walking. So if you would be kind enough to point us in the right direction, we would be grateful.”

Tom Kealey is the author of the forthcoming THIEVES I'VE KNOWN (2013). He is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow from 2001-2003. He is also the author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook. His stories have appeared in Best American NonRequired, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Poets and Writers. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award in 2001.