Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Story Month - B.R. Smith

Reality + Magic = Art. Thrity Umrigar wrote this on the board during a workshop I took with her a few years ago. I don’t remember if she attributed this to a source or if it is simply something she concocted. Either way it has stuck with me. B.R. Smith’s stories have a lot of magic – that indefinable element that elevates a story from the mundane to the sublime - to go with the lonely, confusing realities of his characters.

In “The Cortege” (Mississippi Review, vol. 36, no. 3), the story begins with the narrator and his sister discovering their father has gone missing from his apartment. The elderly father doesn’t leave a note or any clue of where he has gone; rather he has left a man made out of gold ribbon. He leaves his children an approximation of a man, not the real thing. The issue of real vs. fake becomes very important to the story. As the characters search for their father, the narrator thinks he sees him around town. When the narrator follows the man into a Laundromat, it turns out the man the narrator thought he saw isn’t there at all. In fact, every time the narrator thinks he sees his father, it turns out not ob e him. Early in the story it is easy to discount this confusion as caused by the stress of the situation. However, as the story progresses and on subsequent rereads, it becomes clear that much more is at work for the narrator. In many ways, the narrator is fed up with reality. At one point the narrator says, “there was this whole world we weren’t a part of, a whole imaginary world.” He says this of his father, but it really applies more to him.

The narrator is disconnecting from the actual to make things as he wants them to be. He thinks about a theatre playing a movie about hermaphroditic angels. The movie is about an angel that has fallen to earth and needs to be saved by her friends. The narrator relates to this character, “I’d gone to the theatre alone and found it difficult to pretend that I wasn’t this angel, that I wasn’t in need of rescue.” The narrator longs for connection, so when a man touches the back of his head after a viewing of the film the narrator follows him to his car. He watches the man and concocts a life for him. “I thought maybe he could take me there, that he could give me something. It didn’t matter what. It could have been anything. He could have been anyone.” There is a very interesting tension in wanting to find connection to a fantasized version of someone. The narrator also wants to be someone else. One of the very first things we learn about him as he watches his sister walk around the apartment is “….when I was alone I could never picture her face without looking in a mirror and imagining myself as a girl.” This raises the question of identity. Not only gender identity, but just identity in general. He struggles with who he is and also with recognizing who others are as well. He feels something is amiss. Several times throughout the story the narrator reestablishes that the story is taking place in Philadelphia. This repetition is essential because it allows him to ground himself and shows his struggle with reality. This self-awareness is shown again when he has difficulty feeling anything over the loss of his father, “I was unhappy about not being unhappy.” Through the course of the story, the narrator feels on the cusp of change, but he doesn’t quite know how to get there.

“The Cortege” is a very intimate story with the narrator spending most of the time with his sister in various enclosed spaces. However, at the same time it feels epic. I attribute this to the characters being so alive on the page that it opens the story up in surprising and satisfying ways.

The same could be said for another B.R. Smith story “The Countrymen” published in Ninth Letter's vol 5, no. 2 issue. The story is set during the Haitian Revolution in 1798, which is, of course, very different from modern day Philadelphia. Yet, all the elements that make “The Cortege” so enjoyable to read – lush language and engaging characters struggling with identity - are present here as well.

In “The Countrymen,” Petri is a Haitian solider under the command of General Dessalines. It starts with this beautifully visceral sentence. “It’s when the blood moves over the battlefield that I’m in and out of love, swooning, and cowardly, wanting to run while my sword feels its way around their guts, searching, keening when it hits bone, the ocean air like a whip across the plain, and me turning sideways, looking out of politesse, the bile rising to my throat.” This is perhaps one of my favorite things about this story, the contrast between the beauty of the language and the harsh realities of battle.

Very early in the story it is revealed that Petri and Dessalines are lovers. Sort of. Physically they are. However, psychologically it is more complex. Petri can be inhabited by a woman, Guillemette, “…my eyes roll in my head when I feel the possession coming, and when I look to Dessalines he’s already beside me, his voice impatient, saying her name like a question to see if she’s here, prodding me toward sleep as I become her.” The General whispers her name and Petri says he is still himself. Dessalines tells him that he’s another person now. The next sentence is, “and then I am.” It is never clear if this is an actual possession or if Petri pretends to be this woman to please Dessalines. Either feels possible, which makes the story more complex and exciting. We are given enough information to support the possession side of the argument. Petri remembers that his mother also had the ability to channel spirits and like her, he doesn’t remember what happens during that time.

Ultimately the concern of the reality of the possession is secondary to Petri’s caring for Dessalines. After taking on the guise of Guillemette, Petri asks The General what she does for him. They read and dance. Petri imagines this, “I try to place myself in the scene, held without waiting, knowing I’m his.” Later when things go badly for Dessalines, Petri’s love for him will remain.

Rereading B.R. Smith’s stories are a must. They are so layered that the details become richer with meaning on each read. B.R. Smith takes issues of identity, transformation and abandonment, combines them with gorgeous sentences and fascinating characters to make remarkable, haunting stories.

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