23 January 2012

"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" by Rebecca Makkai

I've been reading through this year's Best American Short Stories, edited by Geraldine Brooks, little by little, almost randomly, not quickly, and mostly as a reward to myself when I get other work done. I got it as an ebook, because that's a nicely convenient way to read it. What ultimately attracted me to it was that this year's table of contents is more interesting to me than any in the last few years. (Finally, a BASS that isn't a Best American Rich White People!) My favorite story so far is Rebecca Makkai's "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", originally published in Tin House. For me this story alone is easily worth what I paid for the book.

Before saying a few things about "Peter Torrelli...", though, I want to recommend Geraldine Brooks's introduction to you. BASS is in many ways the old guard of the old guard when it comes to self-consciously literary fiction, and the regime seems to be enforced by the publishers and series editors, as the more adventurous guest editors of the past (whether John Gardner, Michael Chabon, or Stephen King) have politely hinted in their introductions, and as the tables of contents have amply demonstrated. BASS is rarely a book you go to to find out what's new and interesting in the realm of short fiction; it's a book you read because there is a generally consistent level of accomplishment and pleasure. (True, also, of the annual Pushcart Prize volumes.) It's a rare BASS story that makes me feel like reading it was a waste of time; it's also a rare BASS story that overwhelmingly awes, thrills, inspires, or challenges me. (In that sense, "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" is a rare BASS story; I'd happily employ all four words to describe it. Also, and perhaps most importantly: enchants.)

What's interesting about Brooks's introduction, though, is that while she seems to be a fairly traditional reader, she is also clearly more open-minded in her approach than quite a few past guest editors. Her introduction's first pages are similar to the openings of past introductions, and then she offers specific observations about many of the stories included in the book; the really interesting bit comes at the end, beginning when she writes about George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead" (originally in The New Yorker), calling it "that rare example of full-bore speculative fiction to make it through the literary magazines’ anti-sci-fi force field," and says that "Coming across this story elicited the same joyful surprise I once felt when offered a glass of wine after a dry week in Riyadh." This leads her to say, "I would like to raise a small, vigorously waving hand in favor of releasing more such stories out of the genre ghetto and into the literary mainstream."

(Please, fankids, don't jump on that sentence and start accusing Brooks of somehow wanting to steal your beloved genre and suggesting that she should read at least 50 years of back issues of Analog or F&SF. No. Just: no.)

This leads Brooks to offer six, as she calls them, "carps of the day". They are:
   1. Enuf adultery eds. Too many stories about the wrong cock in the wrong cunt/anus/armpit/Airedale.
    2. Eros ≠ thanatos necessarily. Not all love stories have to have bleak outcomes.
    3. Foreign countries exist.
    4. There’s a war on. The war in Afghanistan, in the year it became America’s longest, appeared as a brief aside in only two of one hundred and twenty stories.
    5. Consider the following: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul, Handel’s Messiah, Martin Luther King. Female genital mutilation, military-funeral picketers, abortion-doctor assassins. So why, if religion turns up in a story, is it generally only there as a foil for humor?
    6. Not that I want to discourage humor. There’s so little. Why, writers, so haggard and so woebegone...
This is a marvelous list, and though of course I'm sure for Brooks or anyone it could be longer or differently ordered on a different day, I was thrilled to see it in the introduction to BASS.

Now, to Rebecca Makkai.

(First, I should note that one of the reasons this story was among the first I've read from the book is that we reprinted Rebecca's story "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background" in Best American Fantasy 3 and I wanted to catch up with her work. [By the way, she has just published her first novel: The Borrower. I haven't seen it yet, but I have no reason to believe it is anything other than excellent.])

"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", begins with a first paragraph that could be a model for how to create an effective and intriguing first paragraph that is not gimmicky:
When Carlos asked why I would risk my whole career for Peter Torrelli, I told him he had to understand that in those last three years of high school, Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago. Because I really believed it, back then, and twenty-five years of experience proving otherwise was nothing in the face of that original muscle memory: me and Peter side by side on the hard pew during chapel, not listening, washed blind by the sun from the high windows, breathing in sync. It didn’t matter that we weren’t close anymore, I told Carlos. The point was, he’d been my first love. I’d never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there’s another kind of first love.
Let's look at exactly what's going on in those words and sentences. The first clause establishes three characters: Carlos, a narrator, and Peter Torrelli. In that first clause, we also know that the narrator wil risk a whole career for Peter Torrelli, and that Carlos wonders why this is.

This may not seem like a big deal to you. But remember that we are in the first clause of the first sentence of the story. The first thirteen words. In the first thirteen words of this story, we already know something about three characters. That's efficient and impressive, but more importantly, it's a darn good way to catch the reader's attention without resorting to the sort of desperate tricks you find in the first paragraphs of so many mediocre stories that clamor for attention, sentences like, "That was the day my dead sister had sex with the alien."

The first sentence works so well because though it doesn't feel like it's grasping for our attention, it nonetheless is full of information, energy, and, in the end, a bit of oddity: not "Peter and I were the only two gay boys in our tiny small town in the middle of nowhere," but "Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago." Obviously, this is a statement that we suspect the narrator does not actually believe, but it nonetheless offers a light surprise and also leads to the rest of the paragraph. The next sentence builds off it while also expanding the time-frame of the story even more. The first sentence gave us "those last three years of high school" as a past event, and the next sentence broadens our sense of the narrative's time with "twenty-five years of experience proving otherwise". By the end of the second sentence, the story is both specific in its details and expansive in its chronology, using time and memory as tools to bring depth to the details.

Now imagine that the paragraph had ended with the penultimate sentence. It would have worked, but it wouldn't have been very interesting and might have felt clichéd, empty, and sentimental (which, in fact, wouldn't be terrible if the writer wanted to show that the narrator's emotional life was basically clichéd, empty, and sentimental). It's the last sentence that makes it all work: "I’d never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there’s another kind of first love." It works not just because it complexifies the previous sentence, but also because it's distinct from the other sentences in the paragraph in being much more speakerly than writerly. Three words create that effect: "listen, believe me". Cut them out, and it's a much more ordinary, writerly sentence. With them in, it creates a tone of testimony, a sense of improvisation and contingency. It also reveals a bit about the narrator, because there's a certain pleading in those words. Without those three words, the sentence is an assertion: "I’d never actually loved him, but still ... there’s another kind of first love." Add those three words, and the sentence becomes an assertion that is trying to convince itself of what it says. And that makes it a far more interesting sentence to read than the alternative. It gives us, the readers, something to think about, and it helps develop the character.

What we get in this first paragraph is a lot: characters, relationships, memory, and voice. None of it is forced, though. Compare the way Makkai deftly and subtly creates a narrative voice and a sense of intimacy between that voice and the reader with, for instance, some stories in any random anthology aimed at the Young Adult market. Even in the best such anthologies, I find, there are at least one or two writers struggling hard, hard, hard to sound like teenagers, and the results are, to my ear, jarring. (Of course, there are countless non-YA examples of writers working too hard to establish a narrative voice, but YA short fiction especially seems to bring it out even in writers who are otherwise quite skilled.) A little goes a long way, and a three-word divergence from the established tone can create a powerful effect.

"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" is not just about its words and sentences, however. Stuff happens. We get a view of the friendship between Peter and the narrator over the course of many years, encapsulated by a particular event. After high school, Peter became a relatively successful actor in the Chicago theatre scene, while by the time of the story, the narrator, Drew, works as an events manager for National Public Radio. (Carlos, by the way, is Drew's boyfriend; the relationship isn't working out.) In the past of the story, Peter had a failure of confidence on stage, and basically lost the ability to act. Eventually, he did some regional theatre work, but his old confidence was gone. The narrator hires him for a reading at the Chicago Art Institute, which is the event for which he is risking his whole career, because he knows as well as anyone that Peter could completely fall apart during the reading and ruin an important fundraising event.

Thus we have a specific moment around which an entire friendship and history can be elaborated, which is a great structure for a short story: the single event gives the story focus, but it also allows a great breadth of remembered experience to come into play.

But that's not all. Little details create resonances, and by the last paragraphs, the story is not just about this difficult, complicated friendship, but also about its setting. This is a story about Chicago, and more broadly, about change and cities. Peter quite literally embodies the changes in the city over the narrator's lifetime. The last two paragraphs of the story make it explicit, and so we have an ending that isn't merely epiphanic, but that adds new depth to what we've already read.

The story would have still been wonderful even if it were only about Drew and Peter, because their relationship is interesting and compelling. (I was probably especially interested because Peter reminded me of some actors I have known, and there is, overall, a melancholy tone to the friendships and relationships in the story that I find truthful. It's not eros = thanatos so much as eros = huh, well, that wasn't quite how I hoped things would turn out.) The relationships between the characters gain depth and power because Drew is confused about a lot of what he feels and understands. His desires are in conflict with his experiences, and that's a particularly fertile path for exploring characters.

The story is, obviously, straightforwardly realistic in its approach, but it is not merely realistic, and that is why I love it. I don't respond to a story because its content is realistic or fantasic, mundane or bizarre, familiar or exotic. (Sometimes, yes, I'm in the mood for one or the other, the way sometimes I'm in the mood for a Jean-Claude van Damme movie and sometimes I'm in the mood for something that's not a Jean-Claude van Damme movie.) I respond to a story because there is a complexity to it, a complexity that makes it more than just what it is: aspects that create resonance or provoke thought, images and structures that linger in memory. In that respect, Chekhov's "Gusev" and Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" are, for me, as magical as any fantasy story. In "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", it is the richness of the memory-narrative, the uncertainty of the immediate events, the efficiency and specificity of the sentences and paragraphs, and the power of the ending to broaden and recontextualize the story that enchants me.

Enchant, it seems to me, is the best word to describe the best stories.

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