Overloaded with Wasps

James Wood

  • The Secret Goldfish by David Means
    Fourth Estate, 211 pp, £14.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 00 716487 4

A controlling symbol or organising detail or image can be sensed fizzing away like a lozenge of meaning in most contemporary short stories. The delicate art of these stories allows the writer to draw our attention to such symbols or images without pressing too hard on the connection. Suppose that a man and woman are getting married. The bride feels that she may be making a mistake, that she will be swamped by her more successful husband-to-be. Weeks ago, she had been reading about a new dam being built in China, which had involved the flooding of entire villages and the obliterating of the evidence of hundreds of lives. At the wedding, the bridegroom’s mother knocks over the punchbowl, sending liquid all over the polished floors. The story can now expire into figurative ellipsis, the mere assemblage of careful parts having done its subtle work of implication and connection.

That is my own crude sketch, but it might stand as a template of the essentially poetic strategy of the short story (and this poetry of construction is the reason novelists and short-story writers are often quite distinct breeds). The American writer David Means will have none of this. His highly original stories are coats that have been reversed to show their linings. Rather than lightly hint at an exquisite pattern or organising symbol, he likes to accentuate the pattern, to dash it in the reader’s face. His stories wilfully resist the formal tidiness of most contemporary short fiction: they drift, fragment, expand, change perspective, and then run out of steam. (And not all of them are successful, even on their own terms.) They seem always to be asking of the reader: is this the right pattern? What can you make of it? In the title story of The Secret Goldfish, Means describes a nasty divorce in a comfortable Connecticut family. As the family is disintegrating, so the family goldfish is being neglected: the water becomes cloudy, ‘stringy green silk’ is blooming, the filter clogged. What would be the merest dab of implication in another writer – one fouled cosmos gently twinned with another – is here turned into a frank split-screen narrative: the two stories almost run alongside each other and the narrative is briefly turned over to the fish, from whose sunken perspective we sense family events. ‘A few times the downstairs door slammed hard enough to jolt him awake. Or there was a smashing sound from the kitchen. Or voices, “What in the world should we do?” “I would most certainly like this to be amicable, for the sake of the kids.”’ The divorcing wife remembers the fish she had as a child, and drifts into piscine theology as Means wittingly overloads the story with a crooked abundance of fishy material: ‘Did Fish remember that he had passed that way before? Was he aware of his eternal hell, caught in the tank’s glass grip? Or did he feel wondrously free, swimming – for all he knew – in Lake Superior, an abundant, wide field of water, with some glass obstructions here and there?’

Sudden expansions and contractions of perspective, jumps in time and place, and a generous flexibility with the formulas of realism characterise the stories of this singular writer. He seems never to have met a convention he likes. But he is not an American surrealist, nor even a postmodernist, really: all his tales are tied to human beings, to motive, desire, terrible restlessness. The oddity of the stories emanates from human oddity, not from authorial freakishness or ludic obstructionism (as in, say, David Foster Wallace). For one thing, Means has a geography and a landscape, to which he ceaselessly returns, and which grounds much of his work: the Michigan where he was born and raised. Again and again he hovers over the appalling emptiness of the Midwestern plains: the freezing, snow-seized fields of Michigan, the hot, brittle wastes of Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are described and redescribed with thrilling lyricism, from ‘the lacklustre flow of the landscape’, to the ‘husk-dry afternoons of the Central Plains’, and ‘the long-simmering nothingness of the fields beyond the edges of the towns … bluegrass and timothy and planted hay and corn dried to a brittle song; the endless, almost needless horizon’.

Literally grounded, the best of these stories are also securely founded on Means’s language, which offers an exquisitely precise and sensuous register of an often crazy American reality. Sentences gleaming with lustre are sewn throughout the stories: a man just shot and dying is seen as ‘trembling softly on the pavement, as if he were trying to limbo-dance under an impossibly low bar’; a broken nose has its ‘small shift of cartilage’; an ‘old battered practice piano – soft from years of pounding – produced a dog-eared tone, slightly yellow’; ‘the sun sits in the sky with acetylene brilliance, chalky and pure’; the wife in the title story remembers how her father insisted on returning her pet fish to a lake: ‘She did not forget the sight of her beloved fish as he slipped from the lip of the bucket and rode the glassine tube of water into the pond.’

One will go a long way with a writer possessed of such skills, which is just as well, because Means can be both bewilderingly original and bewilderingly inconsistent. He has favourite themes – violence is one, and the murderous ravenousness of the criminal – but he does not have favourite scenes, or types of character, or even ways of storytelling. In ‘Lightning Man’ a man is struck eight times by lightning, and becomes a local legend. His presence ‘made you aware of the great desolate span of the Central States, of the empty space that still prevailed’. In ‘Elyria Man’ a male corpse is accidentally found in an Ohio field by a farmer, who, it is gradually revealed, murdered a girl when he was a younger man, and buried her miles away. The farmer confesses his crime to the corpse, and guiltily covers him up again. The story is narrated by the corpse. ‘A Visit from Jesus’ is a moving fable, only six pages long, about a young woman who starts dating an older man. Deeply devout, she is visited in her prayers by Jesus (‘She floated up to heaven and he was there, seated in an armchair’), who warns her that her lover is a consumer of paedophiliac porn. She stabs him to death, flees the town for Lake Superior, and two years later is found in a hotel room, raped and murdered:

The good doctor, shining his penlight into her eyes to check her pupils, made note of beauty – ice white and blue mixed in the dead non-movement of her eyes; he thought of his 15-year-old daughter who still gave him hugs and seemed protected by his love, but he wasn’t a stupid man, and he knew the world, this world, this great country of his, could eat anything, absolutely anything, up.

There are stories that don’t work, that fizzle away. ‘Counterparts’, about an affair on Cape Cod, is told in the second person present (is there an example in literature of a success in this mode?) and in 26 alphabetised paragraphs that move from the man to the woman; the aggregate of these strategies never finds its affecting shape. ‘Petrouchka [With Omissions]’, which tells of a pianist whose fingers suddenly seize while he is performing, starts wonderfully – it is a fine premise for a story – and then weakly drifts, and for once the drift feels formulaic rather than radical. Sometimes the prose – as in that last paragraph from ‘A Visit from Jesus’ – can get a little too spacious and sentimental. ‘Sault Ste Marie’ is narrated by a member of a criminal gang on the run from the police. But it is so exquisitely written, and its language so writerly and fundamentally uncriminal – ‘Our river of luck was deep and fed by an artesian well of fate’ – that it becomes incredible, and trembles on the edge of parody; it might be a homage to the murderous aestheticism of Bonnie and Clyde. ‘Lightning Man’, an exercise in folkloric tall-tale-telling, struggles to find a stable tone, moving between brisk, almost satirical report (the fourth lightning bolt ‘had his name on it and was a barn burner, the kind you see locking horns with the Empire State Building’) and over-fed lyricism: ‘the pliant flexible nature of lightning itself, the dramatically disjointed manner in which it put itself into the air, the double-jointed way it could defy itself’. In general, Means seems to have absorbed Isaac Babel’s advice about the killing importance of a perfectly placed full-stop. So it is a sure sign that he is foundering when he falls, as here, into the general failing of contemporary American sentences – DeLillo, Lethem – which often seem to find it difficult to know when to stop, always curling around at their tails, as if with outstretched bowl and a ‘please sir, I want some more.’ ‘Lightning Man’, whose last page is set in a barber-shop, also dares the nice hazard of this phrase: ‘the concise irreversible nature of cutting hair’, words nicer in sound than meaning, for if haircutting were indeed irreversible there would presumably be no need of barbers.

But there are plenty of lovely stories in this collection, if fewer than in Means’s prize-winning last book, Assorted Fire Events.[*] ‘A Visit from Jesus’ has a quality of consummate desolateness. ‘Hunger’ is a menacing and sad story about a man and woman who decide to burgle an old man’s house. Here, as in ‘Carnie’, about two disturbed drifters who work at a fairground, Means demonstrates an eerie ability, reminiscent at times of the early McEwan, to enter the minds of violent criminals, to picture their obliterating desires and rages. In ‘Hunger’, Jimmy and Janet, the house-breakers, are surprised when the old man whose bedroom they have entered turns out to have no larynx, and needs to use a device held to his throat in order to buzz out his words. They are briefly frozen, and then Jimmy takes the object into the bathroom:

Expand the misery of the world by spreading it around; double your pain. Triple it. Help it build upon itself. He raised his boot up high over the buzzing device, which shivered on the tile floor. He held it there. He waited. He wanted something, a grunt, a small sigh. Raised boot heel, all potential havoc, two feet over the device. The old man moved, started to jump for it, but before he could get there – just a finger around the base of the thing – Jimmy stomped down and felt the glorious crack of the shell, aluminium-coated plastic with rubber nubs. He ground his heel into the mess of parts.

Then, sorry to say, he pretty much did the same to the old man.

You can hear the influence of Flannery O’Connor in Means’s prose: in the scintillating shiver of the beautiful imagery, in the lack of sentimentality, in the interest in grotesque violence and gothic tricksterism. (Stephen Crane may be another influential predecessor, the Crane of gorgeous phrases and wide Western skies.) Where O’Connor had her Catholicism to account for depravity, Means can seem belatedly bereft of explanation, and there are moments when his stories seem to lavish themselves without purchase on violence or on the memory of violence. In general, his characters appear to have been driven mad by America (his book has an epigraph from William Carlos Williams – ‘the pure products of America go crazy’), to have absorbed from the Midwest a massive loneliness and restlessness. Before killing her lover, the woman in ‘A Visit from Jesus’ feels that the ‘isolation of this part of Michigan took hold of her’. The paedophile criminal who works at the carnival in ‘Carnie’ is driven insane by the boredom, the sun and the proximity of little children: ‘All day pitching the ride and smoking and looking up into the hard, ungiving eye of the sun while kids got on the Romper and rested their little rumps to be flung up and down.’

In a story from Assorted Fire Events, Means described a man walking ‘with great purpose and no purpose’. He is very good at conveying an aggravating amalgam of aimlessness and restlessness. ‘Lightning Man’ has a powerful paragraph about lost ex-farm boys:

Boarding in the rooms around him were exiled farm boys who sniffed glue from brown bags, listened to music, and whiled away days writing on the walls with Magic Markers. There was nobody as deviant and lost as an ex-farm boy, he would come to learn. They were depressed from knowing that the whole concept of the farm – the agrarian mythos of land-human love, not to mention the toil and tribulation of their own kin, who had suffered dust bowls, drought, and seed moulds – had been reduced to a historical joke. Industrial farms ruled. Left perplexed in their skin, they listened to hip-hop, attempted more urbane poses … smoked crack and jimsonweed, stalked the night half naked in their overalls, carved tattoos into their own arms.

This kind of deep expansion – not quite a riff, but the heavy plucking of a low string – is typical of Means’s work, which is often at its best in moments of parenthesis. ‘Michigan Death Trip’ opens out this way. It seems disappointing at first, a mere paragraph-by-paragraph itemising of the various ways people can die in that state: a car crosses the meridian line late at night; a man on a snowmobile is decapitated up near Muskegon; a van full of stoners drives out onto frozen Walloon Lake and sinks on a fragile piece of ice. Then there comes a longer paragraph about a group of boys who are throwing around stolen fluorescent lightbulbs in a supermarket parking lot. Since we know that one of these bulbs is going to kill one of these boys, a horrid tautness attends the narrative. Just as things turn ugly, Means inserts this pungently ironic paragraph:

(Remember, these guys are all good friends and only trying to orchestrate some way deeper into the boredom, uniquely Michigan in quality, and to serve themselves up a dose of testosterone to go with the speed they ingested. Earlier that evening they went on a rampage to the fish hatchery, dumped yellow cartons of rat poison into a holding tank, and waited for the fish to float to the top, which they did, turning wide-eyed, betrayed, on their sides until the top of the tank – in the soft gentle starlight – was a sequined quilt of dead scales.)

All the different modulations of Means’s narrative voice are here: the jaunty start (‘Remember, these guys are all good friends’), the controlled irony, the weirdly angled compassion (the fish turning wide-eyed with betrayal), and the deliberately sickening aestheticism – that quilt of fishy sequins.

One of the best stories in the book appears to be one of the least unconventional. In ‘The Nest’, a surgeon who has recently separated from his wife after 18 years together, is spending time with his daughter in his Cape Cod summer house. He becomes fascinated with a wasps’ nest that has lodged itself into one of the storm windows. Hour after hour he studies the comings and goings of the wasps, delighting in their beauty. Finally, he plunges his fist into the structure, is soundly stung, and then returns to kill the wasps with insecticide. One wasp is not killed, a Lone Survivor (as he dubs it) that flies away from the window:

The Lone Survivor searches the yard – the high cirrus clouds sweeping in from the Atlantic. A milky sky holds a single gull swooping over the three pines and the maple … The Lone Survivor is mulling the vista, jittering his wings tight to his beautiful thorax, his glistening black body, adorned with a single red stripe, quivering. A soft inland breeze has worked through the dune head. He flutters lightly, gives a twitch with his feelers, and then – while the doctor mutters, Please wait, hold it right there, don’t move, my little friend, I have something to say to you – launches skilfully into the air, dipping slightly until he becomes just one more bit of fuzz lost in a sea of chaff.

Perhaps the tale is not as conventional as it seems. As in ‘The Secret Goldfish’, Means flushes the story’s controlling symbol out of hiding, so that we can see the story’s strategy for what it is. He overloads the story with the wasps, as the other story was overloaded with the fish. The old-fashioned effect of this newfangled self-exposure is a rather unexpected simplicity. The wasps’ nest is … what? The surgeon’s now broken family? His life? His wife? Liberated from soft implication, it brazenly exceeds these questions rather as the Lone Survivor also flies away, and we are left instead with only the doctor’s tender plea: ‘Please wait, hold it right there, don’t move, my little friend, I have something to say to you.’

[*] Reviewed by Daniel Soar (LRB, 8 August 2002).