BWBC 21: A Bit of Meh
Two stories this week, one okay, one meh.
The okay story is “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa. The meh story is “Home” by Hilaire Belloc. I didn’t mind reading the former, but the latter annoyed me. If Hilaire Belloc were alive today he’d be one of those tut-tutting conservatives who write op-eds for the New York Times. A David Brooks or Bret Stephens.
“The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa
This story is another in the Something Is Wrong With Dad genre. We’ve seen the type before in Bruno Schultz’s story. It goes like this: for some reason dad’s not right and it’s up to the son to make sense of this while everyone else reacts. In Rosa’s story, dad buys a canoe, renounces the land, and goes to live permanently on the river. The family is thrown into turmoil, and after many harangues to dad, who refuses to relent, the family each make’s some accommodation to their new reality. Years pass. Dad stays on the river. And slowly the family changes with everyone moving away except for our narrating son who stays behind out of loyalty to his father.
In the end the son sets on the idea that he will take his father’s place on the river. But when the time comes the reality of the task proves too great and the son flees his faith in the world shattered because he’s betrayed his father.
I wonder if TVTropes has an entry for Strange Dads? This story also dabbles in that other genre I enjoy: Devotion to the Incomprehensible and/or Futile Task. See my read of the Tartar Steppes.
“Home” by Hillaire Belloc
This isn’t Belloc’s first time in these parts. Awhile back I read The Footpath Way his whole Edwardian paean to English Eco-Fascism.
In “Home” Belloc indulges in the classic “it was all a dream or was it?” bit of corn. The story goes like this: one day while sketching some trees Belloc meets an eccentric man who tells him a story of finding paradise in a French manor house, the “home” of the title. This occurred while on a hiking trip and when the man went to bed in paradise, he woke later on a train and has now been trying to find paradise ever since.
Don’t get me wrong, the story is written well and Belloc can turn a phrase, but he’s a smarmy prick and I find I prefer different smarmy pricks.
Make of that what you will.
Next week, HG Wells!
BWBC 20: Certain Distant Suns
This story is great. That’s it. You can go on about your business now. I don’t know if it’s my favorite in the collection*, but it’s certainly a standout.
Joanne Greenberg might be most famous for I Never Promised You a Rose Garden a semi-autobiographical novel about teenage schizophrenia she wrote in the early 1960s under the pen name Hannah Green. I’ve read it. It’s good. I mention it briefly here in this post where I misspell the author’s name. This story is completely different from that novel. It’s also very funny and reads like a Kelly Link story.
“Certain Distant Suns” by Joanne Greenberg
“Certain Distant Suns” is set in 1970s USA among the Jewish American community around New York City. It’s told from the POV of a nineteen year-old girl and the chaos that results when her Aunt Bessie declares that she no longer believes in God. For the first two-thirds of the story nothing fantastical happens. The family first has to deal with Bessie’s apostasy, then with her increasingly more eccentric decisions. She stops believing in Capitalism, germs, and electricity. And with every decision the family panics and wonders how Bessie can possibly survive. But she does, and she becomes an inspiration to the narrator, who notices how much happier Bessie is now that she’s given up all these things.
But this is a fantasy collection, and we’re in a stretch of stories dealing with faith and belief. A cosmic backlash brews against Aunt Bessie. And when it arrives it’s not just a single thing, but two-pronged. I don’t want to give too much away, because you should read this story. I will say that it involves a magic TV among other things.
Greenberg’s style is wry and observant, and it’s fun to see her mix the cosmic scale with the intimately personal. I’m not sure when I’ll again have the chance to read her work, but to stumble at random onto a story like this is exactly what I wanted out of this collection.
* At the end of this project I’ll likely do a Top 20 favorite stories list. And this story will definitely be there.
BWBC 19: Wishes and Regrets
Three stories this week. No apologies. We’re all living in this world, and the past few days have been decades. If you’re out protesting you have my admiration. Please donate to what causes you can.
All three stories are “classics” in that they’ve filtered into the culture in some way, and at least one of them is one of those stories so ubiquitous you already know it without even having to read it. They’re the kind of stories a friend or colleague will reference and you’ll nod your head like you know what they’re talking about, and in a vague way you really do, but only because the story’s seeped into the culture.
Case in point, “The Monkey’s Paw” (by WW Jacobs), somewhat less in point, “The Bottle Imp” (by RL Stevenson) and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (by DH Lawrence). All three have to do with wishes, and the problems that arise when those wishes come true.
This entry’s also one of the longer ones at close to 1700 words.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs
Manguel introduces this story by saying Jacobs wrote a lot of mediocre junk, but struck gold with this story, and wisely sat on his laurels and never wrote anything else again. You can google for yourself whether that’s true or not. The story itself delivers even if it is annoyingly 19th century British. There’s an old duffer who says stuff like “guvnor”, a quaint older couple, and their irreverent hard working son. The old duffer tells them the story of the monkey’s paw, outlining its properties (three wishes) while hinting at its curse (you’ll regret them). The couple doesn’t take it all seriously, but buy the thing as a gag. The father wishes for money. The paw startles him by twitching. But nothing else happens. The family goes to bed and forgets the thing until the next day when the son’s killed at the mill and the family’s given compensation in the exact amount the father wished for. The wife then wishes for the son to come back, and in the middle of the night they hear someone trying to open their front door. The wife, distraught, wants to open the door. The husband, terrified, wants nothing to do with whatever’s returned. They tussle in the dark. The husband falls. The wife reaches the latch. The door gets stuck. The husband finds the paw, and before his wife can open the door he uses the third wish to send the son back to the grave. There’s only the night and the empty street beyond.
It’s short and neat and hits all the right notes. But you don’t have to read it, because you already know the story.
“The Bottle Imp” by RL Stevenson
I know this story from the card game based on it. If you like trick-taking games (and I don’t, but I still like this game) and want a game that requires exactly three people, then you might want to track it down. It’s the perfect game for the start or end of a board game night when you’re waiting for the stragglers to show up or go home. And if you look at the cards, you won’t have to read this story. Which is a shame, because it’s good.
Keawe is a young sailor from Hawai’i. While in San Francisco he finds himself chatting with a curious old man. This old man tells Keawe about the magic bottle he owns that has a demon in it that grants wishes. Of course there are rules to its use. First, if you use the bottle you’re doomed to hell. Second, if you want to get rid of the bottle you have to sell it for less than you paid for it. Keawe decides to buy the bottle at its current price of fifty dollars, and after a couple of tests realizes the old man told him the truth. Of course, his first wish is for money enough to build the house of his dreams. This occurs by the death of a wealthy uncle, and realizing the bottle’s power Keawe vows never to use it again and sells it to his friend.
After that Keawe’s happy, even more so once he sees the beautiful Kokua and convinces her to marry him. She agrees, and everything seems to be going great until Keawe finds a spot on his flesh and realizes he has contracted leprosy. This sends him off to find his friend and the bottle, and through a series of stages he learns the bottle has changed hands many times since he had it, and it’s price has gone down to a single penny. Despite knowing that if he buys it he’ll be damned to hell, the thought of earthly happiness with Kokua makes him take the deal. He uses the bottle to cure his leprosy, and he and Kokua wed. Except now he’s full of despair, because he’s going to go to hell since there’s no way to sell the bottle. Kokua fears everything is her fault and becomes nearly as despondent as Keawe. Finally, Keawe reveals the truth about the bottle and what fate now has in store for him because he can’t sell it. Except he can, Kokua tells him. She smart and figures a way to out-maneuver the curse. All they have to do is go to a French island where they use coins with values less than a cent. Keawe’s delighted and the two set off for the French island in the South Seas I’m too lazy to look up.
But when they get there, no one wants the bottle and everyone thinks Keawe and Kokua are witches.
The depression returns.
Distraught, Kokua decides to save her husband by buying the bottle herself. This she does by using a proxy and then buying the bottle from him. Of course, Keawe’s delighted to be rid of the bottle, only now it’s Kokua’s turn to be depressed. Keawe realizes what happened and goes off drinking. While away he falls in with an old villainous boatswain and he tells him about the bottle. The boatswain doesn’t believe it, but agrees to buy the bottle from Kokua and sell it to Keawe. Except when the time comes to sell it to Keawe, the boatswain refuses to give up the bottle, figuring he’s already going to Hell so why not have some fun before he gets there. The End.
One thing about this story, and I am likely splitting hairs here, but one thing this story does that I find so interesting is that it’s steeped in exoticism for Hawai’i and the South Seas, but it manages to avoid othering Keawe and its other characters. They’re definitely Hawaiians, but Stevenson makes them mundane and familiar. This isn’t to say they could be Welsh or whatever, but they’re portrayed with the same stolid familiarity.
All in all, a good story.
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” by DH Lawrence
Okay, it’s a stretch to say this story has seeped into our culture, but I do remember a friend mentioning it back in university and it had a profound effect on them. This one starts kind of like a fable, but then slips into a more familiar Edwardian setting.
It’s also a mean and depressing story, and I both like it and don’t like it.
There’s a family. They’re Upper Middle Class and living well beyond their means. The father’s a useless dandy. The mother’s desperate to keep up appearances and wishes they had more money. They have three kids, a son and two daughters. The mother realizes she doesn’t much love her children. This makes her anxious and guilty and she over-compensates by worrying over them. But the children know their mother doesn’t love them.
If only they had more money, the house whispers to the children.
The mother tells the son all their problems would be solved if only they had better luck. This idea of luck grows into an obsession for the son, where does it come from and how does one get it?
The son discovers his luck when he realizes his rocking-horse can predict the winning horses at races. So he and the gardener take to betting and soon start amassing a small fortune. The boy’s uncle (the mother’s brother) gets involved and soon the three of them (the boy, the gardener, and the uncle) are making piles of money. The catch is that the rocking-horse doesn’t predict every race and sometimes stays silent. No problem. They will only bet when they’re certain to win.
The son finds a way to give the money to his mom anonymously through the family lawyer, but his plans to provide a yearly income are dashed when the mother demands all the money from the lawyer in one lump sum.
If only they had more money, the house keeps saying.
For the next while the rocking-horse goes silent, and in that time the mother learns all about her son’s gambling. (The kid’s like ten years old and placing bets through the Uncle and the gardener.) The mother gives him a stern talking to about the perils of gambling, which the son doesn’t heed because there’s a big race coming up and they need more money. So the night before the race, the mom’s out, the dad’s somewhere being useless, and the boy’s up in his room on the rocking horse riding away with abandon. The mom comes back and decides to check on him, and hearing strange sounds coming from his room, she opens the door and there her son is “rocking” his “horse” with such force he collapses in a fever. But not before saying the winning horse’s name, which the uncle duly notes and bets on. The horse wins. The family makes a load of money. But, the son dies. His last words telling his mom how “lucky” he is. The Uncle’s last words to his sister telling her she’s better off now because she’s both richer, and rid of a poor devil of a son who had to rock his horse to find a winner. The Ambiguous End.
What a fraught piece of work this was. Would I be wrong to think DH Lawrence novels are nothing but 300 pages of strapping young stablehands vigorously polishing their boots while the women of the household watch in secret?
Next week… Joanne Greenburg will be making a return trip to this blog.