Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

Review:  Midge Raymond. Forgetting English. Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59766-046-4  $16.95 116 pps

These eight stories won the 2007 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and prevailed, one suspects, in part because of the integrity of each combined with the degree to which they amount to a single coherent reflection on nearness and distance, on the possibility and impossibility of human connectedness. 

The lead selection, “First Sunday,” treats of the ambivalence of stranger-hood, its freedoms and its loneliness. “The language barrier helps more than it hinders,” the protagonist says, and she means that it maintains “a distance between us.” We will spend the rest of the collection working out why that should be desirable, and whether people like Melanie are right in taking that view. Most of us, I imagine, would be inclined to think not, that believing so is the mark of the selfish or emotionally disabled, that the protagonist has something to learn about herself (she does, but it’s not that). Raymond is not the sort of writer whose stories lose their interest once the plot has been revealed, but there are strategic surprises here as Melanie moves from thinking herself quite different from her sister to discovering they’re not so unlike, to coming near to the understanding (whether she ever quite gets there or not) that their similarities overlie differences even deeper than those originally imagined. While her sister has to some extent gone native, Melanie cannot grasp the Tongan concept of ‘ulungāanga kovi – “completely unacceptable behavior,” with the consequences one might expect of such a crucial obtuseness. She “[never saw] the need to waste time on ceremony, tradition,” a generalization warranted by her having tossed away her virginity at fourteen “to get it over with.” The self-assuredness however, is belied by the facts, slowly and inadvertently revealed, of just how poorly that posture has served her.

The story is structured according to a series of Tongan terms, some of which have what seem to be straightforward English equivalents. Moa, for example, is rendered “boyfriend,” but the person supplying the translation seems to mean something rather different from what Americans mean by it; the looseness of the equivalence may mark cultural difference in a Sapir-Whorf sort of way, or it may be idiolectal (that is, he’s a jerk who does not mean what he says). Linguists, and anyone who has done serious literary translation might have another approach. I have always felt that, paradoxically, a good translation should read like a bad translation. It should provide a window onto the target text and culture, but by no means should the reader be allowed to forego the experience of the irreducibly alien and other. Given the ideological dynamite with which the profession of literature and literary studies has loaded the multicultural train, we must never lose sight of the fact that any grand universalizing of humanity and human nature is always going to be suspect, always has the tendency of reducing the colonized to terms convenient to the colonizer, and even where it avoids that vice, can only be intelligible where the Other is simultaneously acknowledged as its own independent thing, not a botchwork cobbled together from a series of observed contrasts to the describer’s own culture.

Pause. Deep breath. I didn’t say all that in order to set up an assessment of the book as if it were a collection of anthropological essays to be judged primarily by its adherence to ideologically-based ethics and etiquette. The cultural gaps are a metaphor for something more personal, human and, yes, universal. In “The Ecstatic Cry,” a narrator – quite possibly an extremely high-functioning autistic -- who has very literally gone to the ends of the earth in order to get the hell away from people (or to distance herself from the pain of her relations with them, not at all the same thing) finds that her mere presence increases the pulse of the penguins. That seems not to be a good thing. One’s very existence contaminates the world. A more sanguine way of putting it is that it is impossible to live without having an effect on others.

We ring changes on the theme as we move from Oceania to Antarctica to Asia and Africa. The stories in the collection, like the Tongan terms of “First Sunday,” are a kind of archipelago of concepts and perspectives among which we go island-hopping. In “Rest of World,” the protagonist moves from one locale to another, seeking a spot from which she can make sense of the wreck she’s made of her life (how exactly?). What she collects in each is the voice-mail message left for a previous occupant of the room she’s passing through, an electronic version, in effect, of the same problem in translation which we encountered before. In fact, the key term of “Translation Memory” covers both categories: people throughout these stories do meet, do connect, but at best in a “fuzzy match.” It isn’t about language, or even the old theme of the failure of language, but about the distance between language and the things which it partially accesses. To point with satisfaction to the utterly unbridgeable ontological gulf separating signans from signatum, as deconstruction does, and to smugly say that the failure to  grasp that fact is the trouble with a deluded world, is to submit to a yet more impoverishing delusion. Those who have intuited a vision of the integral signum know very well that it’s a vision, thank you. That’s what makes it hurt so damn much.

Raymond manages her readers. Just as in “First Sunday” we are led along with the narrator on a psychagogic journey (to nothing so tediously literary as an epiphany), so in “The Road to Hana” we are presented, quite overtly, with a revelation-to-come. Not all writers know how to do that, by the way; it really ought to be part of the curriculum in cw workshops. But it’s not coyly delayed until the end; it’s suspended just long enough for us to sense how much it weighs, to turn it into a question about questions, the need for secrets, for things that we keep from intimates.  Perhaps we hold back in order to have intimacies left, or perhaps in dread of the moment when we do finally reveal them, and of the question which must inevitably follow: what else have you been keeping from me? In that moment, we see that we are the Alien in the eyes of those closest to us.

But perhaps there is one further threat: confronting the secrets we have kept from ourselves, confronting someone alien even to our own self-understanding. This is the way I understand the setting of the penultimate but climactic “Beyond the Kopjes:” the bush-resort where the characters stay is surrounded by deceptively docile cape buffalo, who themselves are trying to find a resting place safe from yet more dangerous creatures, further out there in the darkness. It is another story about people who are very close and yet do not know one another. It contains the single genuinely erotic episode in the book, though intimacy is neither sought nor found. Throughout the collection, all the deceptions, thefts and petty adulteries seem tedious and sad rather than titillating. They do not even attain sordidness. That would at least imply the possibility of something better. Integrity is regularly lost to inattention rather than to a more spectacular and compelling assertion of self. 

“Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” is good advice, and it concludes the collection. I have always had a powerfully negative reaction to movies about actors (as I do to stories about writers writing, especially when those second-order writers are writing about writers…). But this is an imaginative exploration in which a potentially self-indulgent protagonist has convolved herself in so many layers that no amount of cleverness can manage the machinery (is she an actress pretending to be a nanny who is an actress pretending to be a nanny?) that the only salvation, in the end, is to chuck the whole thing and let concern for others take the place of pre-occupation with self – which is what the concern with sincerity always amounts to.

These are pretty ordinary people, with pretty ordinary problems, which they carry with them into a great many exotic places. Their virtue, when it emerges, consists in using their strangerhood to see themselves from without. There is an arc here, from “First Sunday” to “Ocean,” from a protagonist who has pretty definitively failed to learn much of value (though the “tolerant red pig,” who serves as a sinister, snuffling chorus, seems to understand something) to one who has achieved an accommodation, if not a triumph. It is better than nothing, better than nothingness.

 Adam Brooke Davis