Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn’t want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Violence of the Lambs”
I purchased You Deserve Nothing a few days before the troublesome Jezebel story broke: it’s not fiction, it’s true! Alexander Maksik had an affair with a student in Paris! Let outrage ensue.
Truth is a tricky thing. Maksik, Europa Editions (his publisher), and the American School of Paris, from which Maksik was dismissed as a teacher in 2006, declined to comment on Jezebel’s story. What we have are the words of some students, and, after reading the article’s accusations, I wonder why we choose to trust these youths as reliable journalistic sources but do not trust that they can make informed sexual decisions. When the school administration uncovers the student-teacher affair in You Deserve Nothing, they assume that the teacher “took advantage” of his impressionable (weak) student. The school therapist meets with Marie, the student, who remembers their sessions as such:
She kept saying it, He needed to assert his power. He took advantage of you. Do you understand? You must understand that. You have to understand it for you to heal.
Marie does not understand it, and the author makes it difficult for the reader to understand either. We are aware that Will loves the power of teaching. “All that attention, it’s hard to resist,” he admits. “You know that the subject you teach isn’t nearly as important as how you use it.” If Will, or Maksik for that matter, took it upon himself to teach more than English literature to a student, is it possible to judge whether that was an assertion of power or an extension of teaching or simply a man caring about a younger woman?
Frederic Tuten, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March
From the December 4th marathon reading of Tuten’s novel.
It is difficult to read Biblical stories unattached, without religious sentiment—positive, negative, ambivalent—creeping in. But, Christian or not, they are stories and great ones. In college, I took a Religion class titled “The Genesis Narrative,” the name implying a kinship with my English Literature studies. In it, we studied the Book of Genesis as a text, a semester of Biblical exegesis. Narrative structure, character consistency, the potential of each story to represent some Greater Truth, which reliably seemed to be: death, destruction, damning.
Like the Book of Genesis, Bradford Morrow’s first story collection contains a lot of pain. Trials and tests, fratricide, incest. Vengeance, theft, an Ark. Morrow’s stories sing a tune of isolation. In “The Hoarder,” the first story in the collection and one of the strongest, a young man catalogues his habit of hoarding objects, beginning with seashells and butterflies and ending with furtive photographs of his brother’s girlfriend. Our narrator remarks that, in observing his brother and the object of his obsession,
…I learned how lovers speak, what kind of extravagant lies they tell each other, the promises they make, and all I could feel was gratitude that my brand of intimacy didn’t involve saying anything to anybody.
His “brand of intimacy” being lurking about town and the mini-golf course where he works, observing others’ emotional and physical intimacy, and (yes) hoarding his own potential for human affection until a critical moment.
—Bradford Morrow, “The Hoarder”
Currently reading Morrow’s story collection, The Uninnocent (Pegasus, December 2011).
What is fiction if not the language of possibility? An older man lusts after a girl and seduces her, possibly. A group of ghosts visit a miser and convince him to amend his ways, possibly. A wealthy young woman and the son of a servant fall in love and are betrayed, possibly. Similar to the “willing suspension of disbelief”—Samuel Coleridge’s notion, which contemporary culture now deems necessary for any fiction—belief in love insists on belief in possibility: that one day we will be at the grocery store or a bookstore or a public swimming pool, meet eyes with one other person, and learn to say no to other possibilities.
In Q: A Novel, Evan Mandery unravels all of these ideas. Love, possibility, fiction, time, they are no longer static. The book’s narrator asks his titular lover, Q, this heavy question: “If you were going to die, would you want to know?” In other words, would you want to reduce one of life’s foremost possibilities to knowledge?
The narrator inquires because he must face, rather unwillingly, a similar conundrum. His future self, nicknamed I-60, has arrived in the present to declare that the narrator “must not marry Q.” What precedes this revelation is nothing short of the ideal, New York City love story. The narrator and Q meet at the Anjelika Theater during a double-feature of Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam. Q introduces him to the secret, organic garden that she is fighting to save. Q is mystical, beautiful, and life-affirming. We never know quite what the narrator offers besides love and, when his future self gives this devastating decree, even that falters.
Mandery’s book inspires me to ask a lot of questions because it is a question. If you knew when and how you would die, perhaps you would benefit from knowing. You could make plans. See Morocco. Find a home for your cat.