Friday, March 29, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 25

Jackie Gorman on Mary Clyde's SURVIVAL RATES

We are all survivors of some sort or another. That is a given. And there are as many types of survivors as there are types of events that tried and failed to destroy us, private wars with illness, grief, betrayal and loss. In Mary Clyde's superbly crafted collection of nine stories, Survival Rates, winner of the 1999 Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction, she uses the starkly beautiful desert landscape to sharpen the focus of upon this very cactus-like quality of resilience in the harshest of circumstances. She has equal compassion for both the lost and the found in these stories, observing that the difference between those who survive and those who don't may be one of the great mysteries of life and death.

In her first story, "Howard Johnson's House", the wealthy plastic surgeon takes inventory of his prized possession, this over-developed, overly decorated former home of the son of the hospitality mogul:
"Cecil's giving a tour. He's shown the saltwater fish aquarium, with its pulsing sea anemone and fluorescent pink starfish. Then the kitchen where the fireplace is large enough to roast a boar, according to a Southwest Home article. In the living room, Cecil motions toward the view, the cactus-studded mountains with their sudden bizarre rock formations. He feels daring living here, where the landscape doesn’t want to be inhabited and seems to wait patiently for him - for all of them - to go."
I read Survival Rates a decade ago, after hearing Clyde read, "in one sitting" as the saying goes, but sitting straight up in my chair and hardly blinking. And then, I read the collection again, right after attending a recent AWP session, where Alice Hoffman observed that she did not necessarily always follow the writers mantra "Write what you know" but changed it to "Write what you feel."

And my immediate thought was that Mary Clyde brilliantly ups the ante in her book. She writes exactly what her characters know and feel, but even more importantly, what they finally come to understand. In the aftermath of some sort of personal disaster, her characters painstakingly search for and eventually find a way to fit that jagged piece of despair into the rest of their lives, a fragile peace with a tragic past. It is remarkable to me that Clyde is able to accomplish this feat in each and every story.

When writer friends have found out that I was honored to be a co-winner of the Flannery O'Connor award, they tell me that they also have a collection of stories, as well. When I ask what makes it a collection, they may shrug and say that they are the best stories they have written put together in one file and sent to various contests. One thing I have learned about this award is that there must be as much attention to the structure of the collection as to the structure of each story itself. There needs to be more intensity of purpose holding them together than the writer's name. It may be a distinct yet consistent emotional tone, a pervasive landscape, or an underlying moral question that is explored, but it has to be clear to the reader that there is a careful architectural plan here that holds up until the end. For me, I often see the stories begin in darkness and literally tread forward to lighter, easier terrain.

Clyde's nine stories do exactly that, with the first story of an older man dealing with his mother's death from cancer, stories about teenagers dealing with stomach cancer, adults fighting crippling depression and disintegrating marriages, children losing parents and the parents losing children, and finally to the last one, "Jumpers" completing the cycle of life. A middle-aged woman is haunted by witnessing the death of a sixth grade friend and her favorite teacher on a church camp outing, and yet finds new comfort in the other survivor's memories at a high school reunion, thirty years later. The narrator remembers jumping from the ski lift that threw others off fatally, and graces herself with this tiny, perfect moment of revelation.
"Action won't always save you but it at least allows you to imagine you can be saved. Here is the difference. They fell to their deaths. We jumped to life."
Nine months to create a human life, and nine stories to deliver the miracle of the writing and reading life, the gift of human perspective. My story collection, The Viewing Room, shines a close-up camera upon shell-shocked survivors who are viewing the bodies of loved ones freshly dead. In Survival Rates, Mary Clyde takes that same scenario and expands it into a grander, panoramic shot, giving us the best view of all, the long view of life, that is gratifying beyond words.

Jackie Gorman is the author of the forthcoming THE VIEWING ROOM (2013). She is currently a mental health activist, training volunteers to speak to families whose loved ones are hospitalized in psychiatric centers and crisis centers. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and published a memoir about her family, The Seeing Glass, fifteen years ago. She has a law degree from UCLA School of Law and an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University in Louisville.