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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Finding the strange in the familiar: irreal stories by women writers

by Alice Whittenburg

Martha Cerda. Señora Rodriguez and Other Worlds. Trans. Sylvia Jimenez-Anderson. Duke University Press, 1997.

Joyce Carol Oates. The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. Dutton, 1998.

Carol Shields. Dressing Up for the Carnival. Viking, 2000.

Domestic life--its simple details and monotonous routines--can be the stuff from which intensely realistic stories are woven. Many women writers, in particular, pay close attention to the matters of daily life--things some people consider mundane and tend to take for granted--because women, past and present, have spent so much time caught up with the demands of organizing and running a household. But not every woman writer who gives respectful attention to the commonplace takes a consistently realistic approach. One example would be Mexican author Martha Cerda, whose Señora Rodriguez and Other Worlds I luckily discovered on a recent trip to the library. Though published as a novel, this work is really more a collection of stories interspersed with a number of episodes from the life of Señora Rodriguez. Some of the stories are vignettes of domestic life and realistic glimpses of Mexican society, while other stories undermine reality in a way that could be described as irreal. In addition, nearly everything that happens to Señora Rodriguez is fantastic in one way or another.

Most of the things we learn about the Señora are connected with her purse (the one she received from her mother-in-law on her thirtieth birthday). This simple device enables the author to pull various narratives out of a "bag of tricks," but it also establishes the fact that Señora Rodriguez comes from a comfortable economic background. The Señora remembers a childhood in which she was "always called 'the queen,'" and in middle age she has begun to grow fat on candies and peanuts. What ties these episodes to the other stories about women who are not so fortunate and makes Señora Rodriguez more than an object of satirical scorn is a careful focus on the minutiae of domestic life - things which, with their mysterious familiarity, resonate for women of any social class. Even so, the Señora's life is more than a little absurd. She is a woman whose life history can be found in her handbag. She carries everything in it from birth and marriage certificates to party favors and a full-length mirror. (This mirror, when asked who's the fairest in Mexico and other lands, gives a pre-recorded answer, citing the wife of the president and other powerful women. Señora Rodriguez, disgusted, keeps the mirror "as a souvenir of her assumption of political standing" and joins the opposition. Señor Rodriguez, however, has no purse and so is apolitical.) Señora Rodriguez, who must hide her pregnancies to placate a mother-in-law who's obsessed with her son's purity, finds out that she is pregnant on a trip to the dentist, just as she learns that she still has one of her baby teeth on a trip to the gynecologist. When she cleans out her purse, she no longer remembers who or where she is until the contents are replaced. And one day when she goes out for a walk and finds herself in the Paris of 1912, it's because she has taken the wrong purse; only by overseeing the manufacture of her as-yet unreceived birthday present, can she set things straight again. Yet, in spite of the whimsical nature of many of these episodes, we come to see Señora Rodriguez as a woman who must manage a domestic situation as complex and frustrating as any other; in addition, she must come to terms with complex questions of existence. First, she is confused because, though she finds everything in her purse from a recipe for bread pudding to Carlito's pacifier, she never finds herself. For a while she solves this problem by deciding to be Mrs. Smith, who then finds the recipe for apple pie in her purse, along with Charlie's pacifier. Unfortunately, another crisis occurs when she finds a manuscript of Señora Rodriguez in her purse and begins to wonder if she actually exists at all. "I have to paint myself on my own," she decides after a while, but this solution only goes so far. We then find her "in the grip of an existential crisis," asking herself who she is and where she came from. As with everything else in the Señora's life, her purse figures prominently in the outcome.

In addition to the stories about Señora Rodriguez, Cerda presents us with a number of short fictions that alternate between the real and the irreal. These include straightforward stories about love affairs and unwanted pregnancy and the stress and unfairness of discrimination, as well as more fantastic pieces. "The City of Children" is about a young boy who is taken from his parents at the age of ten so he can be raised at the supermarket because his lot in life is to bag groceries. "In the Dream Clock" tells about a man who begins a love affair in a dream and has a great deal of difficulty returning to the woman he desires on succeeding nights. In "With Respect to the Sky" a virtuous stranger is caught up in a deadly web of vice and birdsong. "The Congregation in the Park" is about a woman who becomes the center of a cult of readers; and in "The Same Stock" a beautiful and privileged couple prosper at the expense of the others who attend the same strange meetings. Such stories often stray from the kinds of homely experiences that make up Señora Rodriguez's life, but what holds these varied narratives together are the shifts in perspective that take place as Cerda encourages us to see the familiar in new and unexpected ways.

The prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates is another author whose work is anchored in real experience but sometimes moves beyond it. Oates' novels are, for the most part, realistic depictions of the lives of believable characters; sometimes she even writes fictionalized accounts of real events, as in Blonde and Dark Water. She has also published a horror novel and collections of macabre short stories. The most recent of these is The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. (The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, tells us that grotesque can mean: "characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre, quaint," and that this term can refer to literary style.) Though most of the stories in the collection follow the conventions of supernatural or horror tales, a few have a dreamlike quality and undermine reality in such a way that it's possible to call them irreal.

In "The Sepulchre," a woman receives a phone call from her angry mother who loudly says, "Come home! Your father has hidden himself from me, I can't find him." The rest of the story tells of a nerve-wracking search through the narrator's family home, her mother insisting that her father is playing a cruel trick, and the narrator wondering, "And what if he has died, he has crawled away to die and it's Death she can't acknowledge." In "An Urban Paradox" a comfortable and self-satisfied scholar begins to notice an influx of desperate people into the old densely populated city where he lives. From time to time, he sees unmarked vans come to dispose of these unsightly and unwelcome people--once a young girl whose hair is on fire, another time a group of scavengers--and watches horrified as they are whisked away, leaving scarcely a trace behind. Such events conflict so strongly with the way he believes the world ought to be that he is forced to convince himself that the unmarked vans and the events surrounding them simply don't exist. "That which is not imagined as existing cannot exist," he theorizes in order to comfort himself.

A story that gives even more careful attention to the reality it undermines is "Valentine," which takes place on Valentine's Day in 1959 in Buffalo, New York. There has been a fierce snowstorm, and fifteen-year-old Erin, who lives with her aunt and uncle, has finished the dishes and gone upstairs to her austere attic room for the night. Around midnight she looks out the window at the huge snowdrifts and reminds herself that it's good to have a room of her own, no matter how desolate her life sometimes seems. Up to this point, "Valentine" seems like a straightforward realistic story, but then Erin sees a car stop in front of the house and watches, amazed, as Mr. Lacey, her algebra teacher and the recipient of her largest anonymous Valentine, gets out of the car and proceeds to climb up a snowdrift. She helps him as he struggles to open her icy window and is delighted when he invites her out into the night. She quickly dresses and goes off with him. Oates describes the couple's drive along deserted icy streets, lined with snow-covered buildings, in careful realistic detail. But other aspects of the story undermine this realism, such as the large numbers of "humanoid figures frozen in awkward, surprised postures--hunched in doorways, frozen in midstride on the sidewalk." Erin wonders if they might be snowmen, but who could have made so many so quickly after the storm? And then Mr. Lacey takes her to an ice rink where many familiar people--mothers and fathers, children and grandparents--are skating under bright lights in elegant costumes, despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that the storm has knocked out power. The story constantly alternates between vivid descriptions of commonplace experiences and things that can only represent wish fulfillment at its most obvious; yet Oates successfully cobbles these alternating views into a coherent whole. Black Rectangle (the title is actually a solid black rectangle) is a similar story, though its outcome is not so pleasant, and it is less clear how much of what is described is a result of the narrator's psychological pain and how much is actually supposed to have occurred. In any case, the narrator tells that one Sunday in 1969 when she was eleven years old she visited her Uncle Rebhorn and his family. What she remembers about the day is her uncle's beautiful house; what she can't remember is what actually happened there: "I see the house shimmering before me and then I see emptiness, a strange rectangular blackness, and nothing." As the story progresses and we see Uncle Rebhorn as an obnoxious bully, capable of violence and sexual abuse, we are not surprised that something might have occurred that the narrator has tried to block out. What makes this story more effective than it would have been if it were a realistic depiction of abuse, however, is what June does recall about that day--Uncle Rebhorn's home, his interactions with his family, and the outing on his boat, all of which are described in precise yet horrible language. Though his pink sandstone mansion seems huge and beautiful as she approaches it in Uncle Rebhorn's car, once she begins to walk toward the door it seems to shrink to the point where the whole family has to crouch and squeeze and push their way in. The house that seemed so spacious on the outside is "cramped, and dark, and scary on the inside." The rooms contain stacks of lumber and tar pots instead of furniture; the food served at dinner is half-raw and nearly inedible. Dessert, when it comes, looks like apple jelly, but is, in fact, a jellyfish. "Each of us had one, in our bowls. Warm and pulsing with life and fear radiating from it like raw nerves." After dinner, everyone goes out for a sail on Uncle Rebhorn's sailboat, but when they get out on the water, it is "dark, metallic-gray and greasy, and very cold," and entirely unlike the beautiful aqua lake the narrator had seen from shore. Nothing in Uncle Rebhorn's world is what it seems to be, including his attempts to be kind to June, and, though her vision is distorted by black rectangles, June communicates by the story's end something of what happened to her that day. We are left wondering how much of the way she remembers Uncle Rebhorn's home and life was a product of her experience and how much was actually and dreadfully true, but we also realize how important this uncertainty is, both in making the story irreal and in making it an effective presentation of the aftermath of trauma.

In a review she wrote for The New York Review of Books last year, Joyce Carol Oates commented on a number of recently published short story collections. One of these was Carol Shields' Dressing Up for the Carnival, which Oates said was "bristling with ideas" and contained intelligent and entertaining stories, "both conventional and unconventional." An American writer living in Canada, Shields has published several novels, and I am only familiar with one of them - The Box Garden, a pleasant, largely realistic work with at most an occasional nod toward the absurd. Intrigued by Oates' description, however, I decided to take a look at Dressing Up for the Carnival. A number of the stories in the collection are quite realistic, but even these have such an odd perspective on the details of daily living that it's sometimes a little hard to tell the conventional stories from the unconventional ones. In the collection's title piece we glimpse a variety of people in an unnamed Canadian town as they dress, shop, go on errands, yet seem to take a dramatic approach to everyday life, as if their clothing were costumes and the objects around them (a mango, a baby carriage, an armful of daffodils) were props. In the beginning of "Soup du Jour" a columnist is quoted as saying, "The quotidian is where it's at," and, at least in the world of this story, familiar objects and experiences are appreciated intensely. Here we again glimpse the lives of a number of people who live in a world like our own, yet all of them have such a heightened awareness that it's almost as if they were experiencing an altered state of consciousness. In fact, a walker who stumbles over a fallen log appreciates its rich scent and muses "how the smell of history rises from such natural decay, entropy's persistent perfume, more potent than the strongest hallucinogen and free for the taking."

Shields' careful attention to the world around us, to which we are so acclimated that we are often blinded to it, comes out of an appreciation of the mystery and seeming intractability of simple objects and phenomena. This can, in turn, lead in the direction of the irreal. In "Weather" the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike and, at least for a while, there is no weather at all. This fanciful idea isn't handled as a bit of satire or a running joke. Instead, the narrator, a middle-aged married woman, speculates on the reasons for the strike (maybe they want a better pension plan), tells how the lack of weather affects her garden (the tomatoes refuse to ripen because of the gray weather), and gently complains about "hour after hour of featureless, tensionless air," adding that life is "without seasonal zest." Her husband goes off his food because nothing tempts him, neither summer nor winter fare, and the narrator can't decide how to dress. "To live frictionlessly in the world is to understand the real grief of empty space," she says, and when the strike is settled and they finally hear "the ballet-slipper sound of raindrops on the garage roof," something satisfying and essential is restored to their lives. In "Windows" light is the commonplace phenomenon that is given careful scrutiny; the story's narrator is an unnamed painter who is increasingly deprived of natural light because of a Window Tax. To save money the painter, who shares a house and studio with a partner called M.J., must board up window after window and attempt to work in artificial light. This interferes both with art and domestic harmony until the narrator decides to paint windows in the places where the real windows have been boarded over. It's difficult to get the details right, but the two painters work together and are rewarded with a "window" through which they receive not real light but the idea of light. "Illusion, accident, meticulous attention all played a part in the construction of a window that had become more than a window, better than a window, the window that would rest in the folds of the mind as all that was ideal and desirable in the opening, beckoning, sensuous world."

There are other irreal stories in the collection, which, while they are not quite so complex, also entrance us with their fanciful way of regarding the commonplace. "Flatties: Their Various Forms and Uses" is a careful description of the different ways a traditional small, flat cake is baked on the islands of a mythical archipelago; "Reportage" tells how a Roman ruin was discovered in Manitoba, then focuses on the inconvenience to the residents that the influx of tourists has created; and "Invention" is the success story of the narrator's grandmother, the woman who invented and successfully marketed the "steering wheel muff." Each of these stories makes something arresting out of the most mundane details of everyday experience, showing that a story can undermine reality, not just by creating a bizarre or imaginative scenario, but also by pointing us toward the strange implications that lie right below the surface of what we take for granted.

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