In this issue of Glimmer Train, there is an interview with Andrew Porter by Trevor Gore. Porter is the author of The Theory of Light and Matter, a collection of short stories, recently published by Vintage/Knopf that won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. He’s also won far too many accolades for me to mention here, except to say that he’s a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which put him up a notch in my view.
When asked by Gore, “All of the stories in your collection […] are written in the first person. What advantages do you feel first person affords you?” Porter’s response is revelatory. He answers, in part, that
Of course, sometimes your best advantage comes from keeping everyone in the dark. In my story “Coyotes,” you have a situation where the narrator’s father goes on extended trips. I deliberately kept it ambiguous as to what the father is doing. Because the narrator’s longing for him comes across even stronger as a result of this ambiguity. […] that deepest sense of longing that we can all relate to, that feeling that transcends the story itself.
I found Porter’s words so affecting that I resolved to try to convey this sense on my own.
Rivka Galchen’s “Jake’s Rib” is a standout amongst these stories. The unnamed narrator, who works at a restaurant, after her parents’ argument about restaurant owner Jake’s hanging a spoon on his nose, and what it means, speaks;
No simple reason, except for the that simplest reason of all reasons, just because they’re there, hanging out in my mind like the way copper pots dangle decoratively uselessly, in some kitchens, sun glinting off them chaotically, leaving mysterious light prints on the wall […] What Jake was allegedly “talking about” though, I still don’t know, and frankly I don’t think my mother knew either. Sometimes you just get this uncomfortable feeling and you hang it on whatever’s available.
Further, she observes of her mother’s two dollar-bill tips, her father handling the bills she’s kept separately in a clip because she thinks it’s somehow wrong to put them in a wallet. The father, “held them to his ears and thrummed the stack of them and said, ‘Oh, this makes me happy. This sound makes me happy as a kitten.’” The narrator’s response: “As a kid, I know. But what’s the difference – kitten works too.” Galchen’s writing shines with an inherent understanding of a daughter frustrated by her parents, and the general ennui of her life.
Kim Brook’s wonderful story, “A Difficult Daughter,” has a glint of its own. When a man, who spent years adoring his boss’s daughter, Zada, now his wife, comes home to find her murdered, his reaction was to slump to the floor and wait for the police. He tries to explain to the police that her father must have murdered her because she never slept with her husband, had a foul mouth, and a desire to wander toward other men.
“She was a difficult daughter.” he says to the police inspector. “Aren’t they all difficult?” is the policeman’s response. “She embarrassed him.” He tries to explain, “His family. People talked. People gossiped. Are you listening to a word I’m saying? I’m telling you, he killed her.” Later, at the police station, he wonders to himself: “I saw how ridiculous I must have looked in this office, this city. How ridiculous I must have looked even to Zada, wanting to save her. I’d only just begin this story, but he was signing his name across a paper, closing the file on his desk.”
The reader is left to wonder why, but like Andrew Porter’s response to Trevor Gore’s question about writing in the first person, we do know, in a vague sense, that we will never know. We will have only a longing to know, and that’s what makes this story so compelling.
There are plenty of other jewels here, between the pages of Glimmer Train, like Marjorie Celona’s “Family Stories.” This story is paired with a photo of the author sitting on an elephant in the circus, and explains that
One summer my mother and I worked as circus performers for an itinerant Mexican circus, Circo Bell. “There were four acts: my mother, “Princess Tzarina” doing flip-flops on a white Andalusian; twin wolf-boys somersaulting off motorcycles around a circular cage; three trapeze girls with ripped fishnet stockings and gilt batons; and me, tooling around the ring atop Monty with a couple of aging clowns in tow.
It’s the photos attached to each of these stories that make this issue so enjoyable to read. Sometimes the photos have nothing to do with the story, and some fit with the writing splendidly, but they are all entertaining. And this issue can be compared with Ken Barris’s story “Puff Adder,” when one character says to his hiking partner, “You know, this is a magnificent journey.”