Monday 25 June 2012

Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and the Pleasure of What Cannot be Taught

The Corrections tells the story of the Lamberts, a traditional Midwestern family led by a patriarchal railway engineer named Alfred and his neurotic wife, Enid. Their children, Chip, Gary, and Denise, have all moved to the East Coast in order to escape the constraints of their traditional Protestant upbringing. When Alfred suffers a rapid decline from Parkinson’s Disease, however, Enid begs her three children to return home for what she knows will be their last Christmas together.

On his or her own, any one of the Lambert children provides enough fodder to support an entire book. Chip is a Marxist academic who ruins his life by having an affair with one of his students. Once fired from his tenure-track job, he spirals into a deep depression and ultimately finds himself working for a Lithuanian crime boss defrauding American investors. Denise is a type-A chef living in Philadelphia who, in addition to being the lover of her business partner’s wife, is a latent sadist. Gary, the eldest son, is a successful but depressed and alcoholic banker whose marriage to an emotional manipulator named Caroline is nothing short of a penectomy occurring in slow motion.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Zadie Smith’s White Teeth offers an excellent example of the pleasure of being told rather than shown, and this pleasure is something you also get from the work of Jonathan Franzen. Like Smith, Franzen unabashedly breaks the golden rule of “show; don’t tell” by filling the majority of his pages with lengthy (and often, purely expository) accounts of characters. Just look at the following passage, which begins one of the latter sections of The Corrections:

Robin Passafro was a Philadelphian from a family of troublemakers and true believers. Robin’s grandfather and her uncles Jimmy and Johnny were all unreconstructed Teamsters; the grandfather, Fazio, had served under the Teamsters boss Frank Fitzsimmons as a national vice president and had run the biggest Philly local and mishandled the dues of its 3,200 members for twenty years. Fazio had survived two racketeering indictments, a coronary, a laryngectomy, and nine months of chemotherapy before retiring to Sea Isle City on the Jersey coast, where he still hobbled out onto a pier every morning and baited his crab traps with raw chicken.”

Following this paragraph, we never again hear about Fazio, Frank Fitzsimmons, or Jimmy and Johnny. In this passage, Franzen wants to introduce us to Robin Passafro, and does so with several pages’ worth of what you just read. Most writing instructors would fill Franzen’s pages with red pen, writing the phrase “too much exposition” all over them, and would do so for one very clear reason: Franzen’s skill cannot be taught. Like Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, or Alice Munro (of whom Franzen is an enormous fan), Franzen can tell you a thousand facts about a single character without ever becoming repetitive or indexical (in other words, reciting a laundry list of details that don’t seem to cohere into a realistic person). And it’s because of this skill that the four authors I just mentioned can instantly identify themselves as superior writers of fiction.

Franzen can be (and has been) criticized for failing to give discernible thematic unity to his novels. This is largely because he does not work in terms of theme, defined as “a unifying or dominant idea.” He rather works through motif, meaning “a subject elaborated upon through recurrence.” The titular subject of The Corrections, for example, lies far more within the realm of motif than theme. In this novel, "the corrections” refers to the economic “corrections” that swept through America following the dreamlike financial boom of the late-90s. It also refers to the neurological corrections that an experimental therapy called Correktall is supposed to give to Alfred Lambert’s damaged brain. Further still, The Corrections can refer to the corrections that a younger Alfred thinks he must constantly enforce in order to raise obedient children. Like the details that bring Franzen’s characters to life, these diverse meanings of the “corrections” motif never fully come together. What gives Franzen’s book such an incredible force is the way it seems as though things are always about to come together. It is in this way that Franzen seduces our desire, and we are more than happy to be seduced.

Finally, Franzen’s ability to dance between satire and sympathy shows a mastery of tone that is profoundly enjoyable. For much of the text, he is satirical in his depiction of how family dysfunction is transmitted and entrenched across generations. Yet every so often, he will light upon a character like a butterfly resting on a blade of grass, showing a sympathy so fragile and fleeting that it seems like a miracle of human experience. Take for example the following passage, in which Enid discovers that her deteriorating husband has defecated in his bed during the night:

Life as she knew it ended with her squeeze through the half-open door. Diurnality yielded to a raw continuum of hours. She found Alfred naked with his back to the door on a layer of bedsheets spread on sections of morning paper from St. Jude. Pants and a sport coat and a tie were laid out on his bed, which he’d stripped to the mattress. The excess bedding he’d piled onto the other bed. He continued to call her name ever after she’d turned on a light and occupied his field of vision. Her immediate aim was to quiet him and get some pajamas on him, but this took time, for he was terribly agitated and not finishing his sentences, not even making his verbs and nouns agree in number and personEven now she couldn’t stop loving him.

I can almost promise that by the time you finish this book, you will no longer think of the Lamberts as fictional characters. As a younger and theme-oriented reader, I never would have suspected that I could love a book that was so patently realist and so much more interested in people than in concepts. But Franzen got to me, and he allowed me to change the terms in which I think about very important things like family and friends. To give an example: I used to shake my father’s hand after we’d gone a long time without seeing one another. Since reading The Corrections, I hug him.

This is what books can do.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Short Story: "Walrus and Seabird"

Walrus lay upon the pebbly beach, a flipper across his eyes and a ho-hum in his throat.  Lolling his bullhead, he dragged one of his tusks across a razor of rock. The vibrations traveled up into his skull and rattled behind his eyes, giving him a headache. So he stopped. Glancing inland, he settled on a cottage that rested just beyond the border of beach grass. The people living there would probably come down to the shore today for a nice little expedition with their child. The breeze was stiffening, that was true. But they would probably come. The tide lapped at his groin, reaching for the rest of him, trying to cradle his body back into the ocean. Snuffling, he felt a few pearls of seawater in his moustache and licked at them. They tasted of salt and snot, which was not a surprise because he had been sneezing a lot lately. Back out over the water, seabirds jabbered at one another. How did they always have something to talk about, Walrus wondered, without ever seeming to grow tired of one another? He tried a few other things to pass the time, but all of these doings gave him a headache in the end, and he soon grew suspicious of whether he was, in fact, trying to hurt himself.
            “Why, hello to you!” somebody squawked. Curious, Walrus rocked his body back and forth, back and forth until he finally threw his head to a place where he could see a little seabird hopping next to him. This was strange because the seabirds did not usually talk to Walrus, except to make fun of him. Yes, something was fishy. The bird’s friends must have been watching from nearby, stifling their laughter and gloriously pushing one another into the grass. Walrus closed his eyes and became as silent as he could. I am only a stone, he told himself.
            “You are not very fun or nice,” said the bird. “I know that you are awake, and you must know that you are being rude. You must know that, so then it’s your fault. You've decided not to say anything.”
            Walrus answered that he was very tired, snuffling again and exaggerating his floppy jowls so that they spread out over the beach stones. But the bird wanted to know what had made him so tired, and Walrus answered as honestly as he could—“Doing nothing and thinking everything.” The bird cocked her head to one side and hopped a few feet closer.
            “Then why don’t you do something?”
            “I already told you that I am too tired.”
            The bird thought about this for a few moments, glancing down at the stones, then back to Walrus, out to sea, toward the land, back to the stones, then again at Walrus. Finally, she admitted that his problem was very difficult indeed. “Maybe you need something to start you up again," she said. "Something from outside that will get you going.”
            Walrus opened his eyes. “Yes. I have been trying that today, looking around for something.”
            “Has it worked?”
            “I am afraid not.”
            “Then maybe this is your fault. Maybe you want to feel the way you do.”
            Walrus bristled at the suggestion and did not answer it right away. After he had thought about it, though, he replied that his situation was unpleasant, and that no one could ever want to feel the way he did. Seabird argued that maybe someone would if they enjoyed pain, and Walrus grew frustrated. He was not as quick as Seabird was, and the speed of her conclusions made it difficult for him to reply. But he was certain that this feeling inside him was his and not hers, and that she did not have the right to force any thoughts on him because she did not feel what he did. He told her this.
            “I am trying to help, and have not forced anything,” Seabird answered. “If you want me to go away, then say so.” Walrus wanted her to stay, but did not tell her this. “Maybe you are too fat,” she added. He argued that he was supposed to be fat. “That fat?” she asked, pecking at his wrinkled skin. He told her that there had been times in the past when he was much fatter, and yet he had never felt this way before.
            “Hmmmmm.” Seabird’s attention seemed to wander from the discussion for some time. Then she flew down the beach to another place, and began hopping about a piece of driftwood, inspecting it. Walrus wanted her to come back. A creak and a crack leapt from inland, and he rocked his body all over again, trying to see what had made the sound. The creak and crack sounded a second time, and by now he was able to see the cottage’s screen door swinging open and shut. The mother and child had come out first, and it was the man who had caused the second noises. Were they coming down toward the beach? It did not appear so. Instead, they seemed to be settling themselves on the back porch. The man looked like he was getting ready to cook some thick steaks on the barbecue, while the child tottered down the deck’s wooden steps in an outfit of precious corduroy. The mother watched with arms folded, but not because she was unhappy. She was cold. If she had worn something warmer, Walrus thought, she would be able to open her arms, and the child would no doubt be happier if she opened her arms. The man held a large tray in one hand and a knife in the other.
             The child was coming toward the beach. But the mother, Walrus could see, was ready to descend the wooden steps and stop the child if it wandered too far. He found it a very complicated way of doing things, and for a moment, he almost felt another headache coming on. Why live in a way that required so much thinking all the time? Why teach a little one this way? Walrus groaned and slapped a flipper over his eyes. But he did not know how smart people were. No, he did not know that. After all, look at Seabird. She could think much faster than him, and perhaps she would be the one with a headache if he forced her to slow down. Yes, thought Walrus, things must be different for different creatures, with some exceptions. Like hurt, for example. Pain was always a mean thing to inflict upon someone else. Seabird had told him a moment ago that he was mean—no, not very nice—back when he was feeling suspicious and would not answer her hello. She had been right, and he had not been very nice. He must not have been paying attention, because the mother by the cottage had already stepped forward and retrieved her child. When he realized that this had happened without his noticing, he felt startled. He should have paid more attention to the outside because that’s what was wrong with him—he was trapped with a bunch of inside things.
            It felt as though he were thinking too much. But no, that was not necessarily it. Trapped with inside things was a better way of putting it. He was not thinking any more than usual. Rather, it was because he was not conversing with outside things anymore. Things had stopped speaking to him. He badly wanted things to speak to him again so he could feel that something was worth doing. Was it because he had been mean to the outside things? Had he hurt them in some way, in the way he looked at them? Was it because he spent too much time looking instead of listening?
            The man had begun speaking to the mother about something, pointing at the child and raising his voice. What could he be upset about? Walrus did not know how smart people were, or how they thought about things. Something ruffled next to his head and he could tell without looking that Seabird had come back.
            “I just remembered that we have not yet solved your problem,” she said.
            “No we have not,” he answered without taking his eyes from the people by the cottage. Seabird was quick to notice his gaze, and followed it up the beach. The two of them watched without speaking. Then Seabird, cocking her head, said that it looked as if the people were angry with one another. Walrus answered that they almost certainly were, and that the disagreement seemed to involve the child.
            “Did you see the child do anything unusual? Did the woman do anything unusual with the child?” Seabird asked. Walrus closed his eyes and groaned, for he had not been paying enough attention.
            “This is all your fault, I think,” Seabird continued. “You have gotten stuck inside yourself.” Walrus did not know what to say, other than that he was sorry. Seabird turned her eyes on him, adding, “I would like to know what might be going on, but you weren’t paying enough attention. So now I can’t.”
            “Well, maybe we will hear what they are talking about if they continue raising their voices like that.”
            “Should we do something? Should I fly over there?”
Walrus shook his head. If Seabird did this, the man and woman might go arguing into the cottage where no one could see them. Walrus often felt uncomfortable about the houses people lived in because no one else could see what happened inside. No, houses were not very nice. 
            “Look!” squawked Seabird. “Are you watching?!”
            Walrus looked and saw that the woman had taken a step backward and was now holding her face. Had the man hit her? He asked Seabird, but she was too focused upon what was happening to answer. Why did he not pay more attention to things? He was missing everything! Walrus fell into a fit of barking. But the man and woman stared at each other as if he did not exist.
            “Look again now,” Seabird said, hopping around him. “Look at what she has done!”
The woman had run over to the barbecue and grabbed the man's knife. Now she was slowly moving toward him, screaming loud enough for anyone to hear.
            “Do you think this sort of thing just happens to someone like me, David?! What fucking decade do you think you’re living in?” She waved the knife at him. “Just because you hate your goddamn life and don’t care about anything doesn’t mean that I want any part of your bullshit! You’re fucking pathetic. Why don’t you go find a place where you can be alone and write your dumb-ass stories about animals on the beach?!”
            She had not used the knife, but it was clear that she had stabbed the man, who hesitated for only a second before he lowered his head, brushed a tear from his eye, and retreated into the cottage.
          At this moment, a chill cut through Walrus’ body, and he became worried that he was just like the man. He did not want to be trapped with inside things, missing all that went on around him. He called for Seabird. But she had gone away without telling him — no, without his noticing. 
           Was he mean for not noticing the outside things? He could not bear the thought. After all, wasn’t he trapped? Wasn’t he trying his best to get back to the outside things? By now, the tide had lifted him from the beach and was easing him back into the warm shallows. Eventually, he would need to swim to the deeps to look for food; but right now, the thought of that place frightened him. The tightness mounted inside his head, and then it burst from his eyes. He drifted back into the sea, weeping. He looked one last time toward the cottage, and hoped that the woman would never forgive the man for hitting her.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

This is one of my favorite poems ever, and since it's pubic domain (published 1917), I thought I'd post it! This site is here to promote the enjoyment of all that is beautiful in the written word, and I think this poem can speak for itself to that end. If you get a chance, take two minutes to revel in this beautiful piece of literature. I had a professor once who told the class that he would literally give his right arm to write a poem like this; then he paused, looked us all dead in the eye, and repeated, "literally."

If you get a chance to post, I'd love to know which is YOUR favorite way of looking at a blackbird. You can choose one of Stevens' options, or create your own!

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
By Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" and the Text of Empathy Vs. Sympathy

“Estha and Rahel had no doubt that the house Chacko meant was the house on the other side of the river, in the middle of the abandoned rubber estate where they had never been. Kari Saipu’s house. The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had ‘gone native.’ Who spoke Malayam and wore mundus. Ayemenem’s own Kurtz. Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness. He had shot himself through the head ten years ago, when his young lover’s parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school.”

The God of Small Things centers on the lives of Rahel Ipe and her brother Estha, displaced fraternal twins who are thirty-one years old in the narrative present, but who cannot stop revisiting the traumatic events that took place in 1969 in their home town of Ayemenem, situated in India’s southwestern Kerala state. Rahel and Estha are the children of Ammu Ipe, a woman who elopes with a man from Calcutta to escape her overbearing father, only to discover that her husband is an abusive alcoholic who wants to advance himself by forcing her to become his boss’s mistress. Choosing the lesser of two evils, Ammu returns home in disgrace to raise her children on her family’s estate. While living in Ayemenem, twins Estha and Rahel form a close bond with Velutha, an employee of the Ipes and a lowly “untouchable” in the Hindu caste system. A forbidden romance soon develops between Velutha and Ammu, precipitating the events that will haunt Rahel and Estha for the rest of their lives.

When I first read The God of Small Things in my precocious undergraduate years, the experience redefined the way I approached the misfortunes of other people. Before reading this book, I reacted to the pain of the world with sympathy, which is to say that I thought caring for others meant “feeling bad” for them. The God of Small Things, though, helped me distinguish how empathy was something different – not the pity of sympathy, but a shared suffering; the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” that Atticus Finch would encourage us all to practice. In short, the book had a pretty darn meaningful impact on my life. (Note: whether or not true empathy is actually possible is a debate I leave to my undergraduate years; the discussion will tell you little more than who’s cynical and who isn’t).

Thematically, The God of Small Things delves into the crushing institutional prejudices that persisted in 1960s India and historically stemmed from British colonialism, patriarchal gender conventions, and the Hindu caste system, to name only a few. The book gives harrowing accounts of injustice, but makes its strongest impact when it speaks of forbidden love, whether it be through the devotion that Ammu and Velutha feel for one another, or the controversial bond that forms between siblings Rahel and Estha, who are so emotionally close that the novel often speaks of them as the same person.

In addition to her insightful understanding of human emotion, Roy’s prose is superb, as is the masterful way in which she chooses to structure her novel. Using a third-person omniscient narrator, the novel is non-linear in its time scheme, following the associative routes of Rahel’s personal memories rather than reporting events in chronological order. The narrative returns to the past over and over, yet each time from a different angle. In doing so, it mimics the same movements our own minds make when we try to make sense of a profoundly upsetting experience. Such an experience flashes into our minds when we walk down the street and keeps us awake at night, provoking sudden cringes and quick breaths that seem to go unnoticed by the world around us. We replay this bad experience for ourselves over and over, hoping that we will hit upon some idea that will finally put it (and who knows, maybe our bodies) to bed.

“Blood spilled from his skull like a secret. His face was swollen and his head looked like a pumpkin, too large and heavy from the slender stem it grew from. A pumpkin with a monstrous upside down smile. Police boots stepped back from a pool of urine spreading from him, the bright bare electric bulb reflected in it.”

For many fans of the book, The God of Small Things is just as interesting for its publication history as it is for its content. In 1997, Roy was just 28-years old and a rookie to the world of novel writing. Yet after an enthusiastic HarperCollins agent named Pankaj Mishra became a champion for the book’s merits, Roy  received more than 500,000 pounds in advances alone! History would prove the publishers correct, as Roy’s novel would go on to win the 1997 Man Booker Prize and sell over 6 million copies. All in all, I would say this is as much of a feel-good story about the publishing industry as you will find anywhere. Yet the future would not be all roses for Roy, who would face severe criticism on many fronts, as well as criminal charges for obscenity in her home province of Kerala. If you haven’t read the book, I’ll tease you a little and say that it’s not for her portrayal of sex alone that  Roy faced these charges.

With all of this book’s profound empathy and its criticism of injustice, it should not be surprising to discover that Arundhati Roy has worked most of her life as an extremely influential human rights and environmental activist. I feel compelled to mention this, though I’m not quite sure how to follow it. What can I say? An incredible person wrote an incredible book. 

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Mark Blagrave's "Silver Salts" and the Pleasure of the Vivid City

I do not feel the cuts on my hands until all the pieces [of the mirror] have been cleaned up, but this doesn’t surprise me; fear has a way of focusing my mind. What’s a little sting beside what my father will do if he finds the broken glass? I would like to stop to admire the new patterns on my palms, red streets on a map made just for me, but I must erase all traces right away. The blood would only lead them back to the glass, and the glass to the mirror. It is the way their minds work. In lines. So I find one of my mother’s cloths – the ones only she uses. I am pretty sure she doesn’t have them counted out. I know he doesn’t.

Silver Salts follows the life of Lillie Dempster, a young woman from Saint John, New Brunswick (my home town!) who is orphaned at a young age by an outbreak of Spanish Influenza. As Lillie grows up, she eventually moves into an apartment with an alcoholic journalist and struggles to make her way in the world. Lillie’s life changes forever, though, when movie producer Ernest Shipman comes to town and “discovers” her as a perfect body double for silent film starlet Norma Shearer. After accepting Shipman’s offer, Lillie eventually travels to Hollywood, California to work for another native of Saint John, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. The ensuing story volleys Lillie between the euphoric highs of movie stardom and the despair of realizing that by becoming a body double, she has potentially sacrificed her very existence in the eyes of the world.

In Silver Salts, Mark Blagrave gives sustained poetic attention to Saint John, New Brunswick, capturing the cityscape in the midst of a brief golden age between World Wars I and II. His enthralling descriptions of specific streets and buildings brings the city to life in a way that the parsed, prosaic writing of David Adams Richards does not. And Blagrave not only gives Saint John sustained poetic attention, but sustained high-quality writing as well:

The cabbage smell hits her like a wall when she opens the street door. Some things never change, she thinks, no matter how many times you move. She counts the stairs. The light is burned out on the landing, but she can feel the lock easily enough, and the key slides in. Cabbage gives way to dust. She hears a mouse – no, bigger than a mouse – scutter across the floor. The electric power has been cut off, but the windows are not so dirty as to block out all light. Lillie tries the bedroom door. It still won’t open. How, she wonders, could it possibly be locked from the inside?

On many occasions, I have begun to read books that make similar literary promises as the opening sections of Silver Salts, but these books often seem terribly winded after their first 50 pages. Blagrave’s book, on the other hand, maintains its vitality and keeps the reader rapt until its final pages. Along with its compelling overall arc, Silver Salts also showcases Blagrave’s keen abilities as a short story writer by including several (often humorous) mini-plots that create a beautiful balance for the reader’s short and long-term desires. This is not an easy balance to achieve, but Blagrave nails it.

In an earlier post, I wrote that Michael Crummey’s Galore is the sort of book that Newfoundland has always deserved, and I equally feel that Blagrave’s Silver Salts is the kind that Saint John has always deserved. This is not to say that his book is stylistically similar to Crummey’s. It wouldn’t be suitable to summon Crummey’s outport mythologies and send them howling through the streets of The Loyalist City. No, Saint John’s character is found less in its local legends than in the stone of its buildings, less in its folkloric magic than in its dwellers’ buried anguish and flickering hope. Mark Blagrave’s Silver Salts conveys these latter elements wonderfully, and for my money, it sets the standard for anyone striving to capture my beautiful home town in fiction. 

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Poem: "The Grief Stone"

Grief can be perfect, you know
Free of the psychic bureaucracies
And twisted compensations
Of mourning and melancholia.

It's a little stone, diamond even,
That lodges at the base of your trachea
And yanks your innards, one and all 

You will never be more human
Or alive
Than when you feel that stone settle
Into its proper place, and call you, 
Sternum and throat,                  
Back to the faces of the dead,

So that you might finally know
Something of this world
With a stone's certainty:

That in the time they were given,
These people were loved.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Short Story: "Sam & Dédé"

Boris gripped the hammer with calloused fingers and drove another nail into the roof’s cobalt blue shingling. Sweat pearled down his forehead and tickled his eyebrows. From his vantage, he could see nearly the entire town of Ussy-sur-Marne, and beyond that, the road that led three kilometres north to his home in Molien.
“We’ll be up here for some time,” said his brother-in-law Achym, who knelt and tapped at the roof alongside him.
Boris drove another nail.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes, Achym.”
Achym rose to his feet and stretched, inhaling deeply through his mouth. He lifted his eyes toward the horizon and cupped his lower back with both hands, elbows out. “Tell me, Boris,” he said. “How is your family?”
“Fine,” Boris answered.
“And what of Dédé’s situation?”
Boris shrugged. Achym parted his lips to speak again, but the sound of an approaching motor drew his eyes to the road. Boris turned with him and spied a grey pickup truck approaching the site, its flatbed filled with oak boards, drills, and a clattering toolbox.
“It’s the man himself!” said Achym, who waited for a response, but hearing none, glanced back at Boris. “Do you know who owns this place?” 
“He is a famous writer, and his new play is a big hit in Paris. I’ve read all his books, you know. Very challenging stuff. Certainly not for the weak of mind.”
The workers on the ground circled the truck as it pulled into the driveway. Achym edged toward the ladder that leaned against the cottage’s façade. After watching him disappear over the roof, Boris glanced down to a nail that was pinched between his fingers, and drove it before moving to the ladder himself.
On the ground, a group of labourers had clustered around the cottage’s owner. The man’s hair was streaked with grey and cut closely to the sides of his head. On top, it was long and spiky – a colourless pineapple. Boris could tell that beneath the man’s white shirt and navy blue suspenders, he was very, very thin.
The cottage’s owner shook hands with the workers, greeting each of them with a rapid succession of personal questions. The men, however, soon learned to parry his manoeuvres and jabbed him with their own queries whenever he paused for breath.  Achym asked him about Waiting for Godot and Murphy. Only the inflection of his voice told Boris that these were the titles of books. The famous writer responded to all of these questions with a wan shrug.
When he had greeted every other man on the site, the writer stepped toward Boris and offered his hand.
            “The roof is nearly finished,” Boris said.
The comment instantly rekindled the man’s features. “Do you approve of the colour?” he asked.
Boris surveyed the bright blue roof and nodded. “Very suitable for something on the Marne.”
“Yes. And is the Marne suitable for swimming?”
“I have never tried it myself,” Boris said, “but I have heard people say that the water is agreeable.” He noticed that the other workers were skulking back to work. Except for Achym, who lingered at his side.
“I’m Monsieur Beckett,” the author said, reaching for a second handshake. “But you can call me Sam.”
“Boris Roussimoff.”
“Do you live in Ussy?”
“No. Three kilometres north of here, in Molien.”
“Wife and children?”
“Yes, my wife is Marion, and she just gave birth to Jacques, our fifth.”
“Excellent, and do your older children go to school in Molien?”
Boris told Monsieur Beckett that his two eldest daughters, Bilyana and Hristina, had finished their schooling and were living with relatives in the nearby town of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. His fourth child, Rayna, attended school in Ussy and travelled there by bus.
“And what of your third child?” Beckett asked, catching the omission.
After a brief pause, Boris told Monsieur Beckett of André – or Dédé, as the family called him. The boy had a condition of some kind. He was only eleven years old, but stood six-and-a-half feet tall and weighed more than a small barn. Two weeks earlier, district officials had told Boris that “little” Dédé was no longer allowed to ride Molien’s only school bus. They said the boy did not know how to control his girth around his smaller schoolmates, and reminded Boris that the gravel road to Ussy contained more than half a dozen sharp corners. The news had struck Dédé like a slap across the face, but Boris did not utter a word of protest. His son had been dealt a strange lot, and there was little to be gained by causing further annoyance on his behalf.
Throughout the explanation, a look of wonder drew Monsieur Beckett’s ears backward. After Boris had finished, the two men became silent and dropped their eyes to the earth.
“Well how about this,” said Monsieur Beckett. “I will come past your house and take your son to school in my truck.” He swept a hand toward the large vehicle. “I’m sure it can accommodate him.”
Boris was astounded, and considered the offer slowly. Frankly, he had not thought it a terrible shame that his son, who had been a great help around the farm these past two weeks, might do away with school altogether. But he could not motivate himself to resist the new direction that Beckett had given to their conversation. It was soon settled that every morning, Monsieur Beckett would come to the Roussimoffs’ home in his truck and take Dédé to school. Boris thanked the man for his generosity, and Beckett thanked Boris for his work on the cottage before he returned to his vehicle.
“What an honour.”
Boris glanced to his right to find Achym still standing beside him. “Yes, it’s incredible,” he answered as Beckett’s truck pulled away.
“One could say that the arrangement sounds a little too good to be true.”
After a slight hesitation, Boris shrugged and turned back toward the cottage.

Thursday. A leaden sky hovered over the French hamlet of Molien, glowing with the sort of luminous grey that stings the eyes. Boris stood in his front yard, hands buried in the pockets of his overalls. He peered in the direction of Ussy-sur-Marne, seeing no sign of the dust that would indicate an approaching car.
A much larger man, standing nearer the road, glanced back at him. A crop of gnarled, jet-black hair sat atop his head. His frame was muscular, his posture unencumbered. All in all, he struck the pose of a man nearing thirty. Except for his face, for no man had skin so smooth. Not with such a thick nose and brow.
Dust rose in the distant air as Monsieur Beckett’s truck came into view. Boris stepped to his son’s side as the grey pickup pulled into the Roussimoffs’ yard, its paint as ashen as the sky that loomed above it. When Beckett stepped out of the vehicle, Dédé shifted from foot to foot, unsettled by the man’s grave and wiry figure.
“Swims three times a day,” Boris said.
            Dédé nodded as his father shook hands with Monsieur Beckett.
            “How is Marion?” the man inquired.
            “She is well,” Boris answered. “Inside with Baby Jacques at the moment.”
            Monsieur Beckett turned to Dédé. “Pleased to meet you.”
            “You too, Monsieur.”
            Sam took the man-child’s massive hand for only a moment, then turned back toward his truck.
“I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about,” Boris said. “Dédé is a very strong football player. Try to guess his position.”
            The writer opened the truck's passenger door for Dédé, and began to work at the seat, forcing it as far backward as possible. When finished, he straightened away from the vehicle.
            “La détresse,” he said. “La détresse.”
            Dédé shrugged and moved to climb inside. He gripped the metal roof as he ducked through the door and pulled himself into a foetal position. Beckett entered from the other side and took a long look at the boy’s pose.
“Is everything sufficient?” he asked.
Dédé drew a seatbelt across his chest and nodded. Monsieur Beckett started the truck and pulled away from the Roussimoffs’ home.
            “Right fullback,” the man said.
            “Your father. He told me to guess what position you play in soccer, and I am guessing right fullback.”
“Goalkeeper,” Dédé replied.
“Ah. And how often do your friends knock the ball past you?”
“Never ever.”
“And you don’t ever let one through to please them?”
            The repetition of this word left a wake of silence. Dédé glanced at the man, sensing a singularity of purpose in the way he peered through the windshield.
             “Mama says you were a hero in the war,” he said.
            “Did she?” Beckett answered.
“She says you hid bombs, and that the Germans almost caught you, and that you almost got killed by the firing squad.” Dédé paused once more before adding, “She says you were very brave.”
“That was all boy scout stuff,” Beckett said. Dédé could see the man’s knuckles whiten against the steering wheel.
“You got a special prize from the President.”
“Silly things, Dédé.”
The truck fell silent once more. Dédé lowered his eyes and pressed his feet into the truck’s floor until he heard its metal groaning. When he glanced back up, he found Monsieur Beckett staring at him with a deeply apologetic expression. Dédé held the man’s eyes for several seconds, and turned again to peer at the surrounding fields.
            “Your father tells me you’re a fine student,” said Beckett.
            “A lot of good it’ll do.”
            “Why do you say that?”
            “I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on some other man's farm,” Dédé said. “There is no point to school.”
“Have you never thought about what you want, then? If you could have anything in the world?”
            “I want to be cheered.”
When the grey pickup reached the schoolhouse in Ussy-sur-Marne, several children stopped to watch as Dédé hauled himself out. One girl called to him:
            “That man driving the truck must find you quite the specimen!”
            Sensing derision in the girl’s voice, Dédé flushed with confusion. He glanced over his shoulder, but found that Monsieur Beckett was already pulling away.
            Boris bent in the wheat field, his scythe hissing through the golden strands. From the corner of his eye, he could see a male figure approaching.
            “I am sorry to interrupt,” said the visitor, “but there is something I neglected to tell you yesterday.”
            Boris rose from his crouch. “What is it, Achym?”
            “I’ve been thinking about Monsieur Beckett, and the generosity he shows to you and your son.” 
            Achym scratched the back of his head and moistened his lips. “The man’s books, Boris. Do you know what they are about?”
            “ I do not.”
            “His books are about misfits, Brother. Deformed people.”
            It had been several hours since Boris’ last drink of water, and it took him many seconds to work down a thick ball of saliva. He glanced at the tool in his hands and exhaled through his nose. When he lifted his eyes again, his chest tightened at the sight of Achym’s attentive stare.
            “And how does that concern me?” he asked.
            Achym furrowed his brow and thrust his head forward like a bird. “Can you not see it, Boris? The man is only interested in your son because the boy is a physical oddity.”
            Boris closed his eyes and shook his head as though he were trying to ward off a buzzing insect. “You don’t know Monsieur Beckett, Achym. You think you do, but you are mistaken.”
            “I do know him. Through his books.”
            Boris laughed and spat into the soil.
            “Listen, Boris. I know you neglected to speak when your son was banned from the school bus – ”
            “Careful, Achym.” Boris raised his scythe and traced a deadly arc through the wheat.
            “But you must be prepared to break with habit if it means protecting the boy’s dignity.”
            “You are a pretentious, jealous fool, Achym.”
            “And you are nothing but an ostrich out here in the field. Head in the sand, head in the sand.”
            “Are you finished?”
            With a shake of his head, Achym stepped back and turned away. Boris gripped his scythe tightly, hoping he had managed to conceal the trembling in his hands.
            It was nearly suppertime when he passed his daughter Rayna and Baby Jacques playing behind their home. He entered the house through the back door. Inside, Monsieur Beckett was sitting with Marion at the kitchen table. Both were smoking. Boris could hear Dédé fumbling about in the front sitting room.
“Boris!” said Monsieur Beckett. “I was just speaking to Marion, and we both agree that the three of us should get together sometime for cards. Your son could join in as well.”
Behind the famous man, Dédé stumbled into the front hallway, struggling to doff his collared school shirt. He pulled the white garment over his head, but neglected to unfasten the buttons that were shackling his wrists.
“So Boris,” added Monsieur Beckett. “Will I see you and Dédé again tomorrow?”
Mr. Roussimoff stared at his son.
He sighed as the boy failed to jerk his meaty hands through the sleeves. The shirt was inside out now. Dédé had no chance of freeing himself without pulling the whole thing back down and starting over. Wearied by the sight of him, Boris glanced toward Monsieur Becket. The man had twisted around in his chair, and was watching Dédé through a veil of blue smoke.