by Karen Marron
gold Line Press, 52 pp.
Reviewed by Marcela Sulak
I should not be writing this review (or “reading”) of Karen Marron’s BASS 1998 because I have known Karen Marron for 12 years and I consider her a close friend. On the other hand, after you read BASS 1998 you will probably feel you have known Karen Marron all your life, and you, too, will consider her a close friend. Nevertheless, Karen Marron and I met through our work at the Ilanot Review. And if this were not enough to disqualify me from reviewing BASS 1998, Karen Marron is also a graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program, which I direct. Despite all of this, I agreed to produce a “reading” of this book, because what makes Marron an extraordinary friend and colleague are the same things that make her an extraordinary writer.
The second most notable characteristic of BASS 1998 is its title, which is an acronym for the Best American Short Story anthology. Each year stories are chosen from literary journals and magazines by a well known writer; in 1998, it was Garrison Keillor. The story titles in Marron’s collection bear the original titles from the Best American Short Stories 1998, and are introduced with a line from the original story.
The first most notable characteristic of the book is its tremendous empathy. Like extremely good manners, empathy is a remarkable thing. It makes every contact a delight because it honors you as an interlocutor/reader; it affirms, reassures, and entertains you—often by assuring you that you are entertaining. And yet, empathy and manners exist in the first place because life is messy and complicated. We need rules to govern the distribution of the world’s material resources, its food, books, and shelter, and rules for the wearing of clothes, for handling poker chips, knives (which you should use at table), and guns (which you may not). Empathy disarms us—“The polished shield deflects the blade,” or something to that effect, is how one early writer of etiquette and manners phrased it--because the empathetic person trusts us, believes in us, and cares about us.
BASS 1998 exhibits radical empathy in the opening piece called “Foreword,” by blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, the world of the book and that of the reader/author. Usually a foreword is not written by a narrator or an author of a book, unless these folks are fictional characters. Narrators write prologues (which take place within the world of the story). So with a single word, Marron creates a world in which her role as biological author and fictional narrator seem to be identical. She has written this book because she is worried about you, about us, about all the first-time writers whose work was chosen for the Best American Short Story anthology of 1998 by Garrison Keillor:
How would they top “best”? Especially if their best was equivalent to John Updike’s best, and to Lorrie Moore’s?
It seemed cruel to leave them behind.
Feelings, obsessions, our own, the feelings of others, are the focus of this book, and under Marron’s caring consideration, we needn’t be ashamed of our secret fear that we are ridiculous and inadequate, and terribly flawed. In fact, we, and the anthologized stories with which Marron’s flash pieces converse, often are. Marron notes this about the stories of Keillor’s BASS 1998:
So many stories of molestation. An unusually high prevalence of tongues being cut out and dropped onto the ground.
It’s unfair, maybe, to consider them in hyper-focus. Nothing withstands this level of scrutiny. Garrison Keillor certainly doesn’t.
I read this as really funny. Not the prevalence of awfulness in the world—that isn’t funny—but our often-questionable taste is.
Victims of real horror and violence are few in Marron’s collection, and they are treated with extreme sensitivity, unlike how they are probably treated in the original stories selected by Keillor. For example, the child victim is only referred to obliquely in “The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue” in Marron’s 187-word meditation on the possibility of pink beef stroganoff. While discussing various recipes the author has tried to achieve the color of stroganoff she has read about in Poe Ballantine’s story, Marron shelters the child victim under a sleight of hand, covering the child’s stained night dress with her verdict on Ballantine’s stroganoff: “The mushrooms may be real, but the beef is not.”
Some of my favorite stories ponder whether a hero (or writer) whose sartorial taste does not align with the rest of society’s can be worthy of their title. Must they always disappoint as symbol? One occasion for this question appears in “Cosmopolitan” (originally by Akhil Sharma) which begins with an examination of what Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was wearing when Hamas returned him after five years of captivity:
Some people made fun of the shirt, saying that he was dressed at the height of Gaza fashion. Others expressed outrage at the terrorists, saying that they had made him look silly on purpose. But I believe that the person who chose the shirt chose it carefully, believing it looked nice, worthy of the momentous occasion.
In fact, the narrator herself might have chosen a similar fashion failure for Gilad Shalit:
If, like me, you are living in Israel at age eighteen, you no longer need to know the way to dress. You stand in a line behind hundreds of other girls and get three uniforms that fit you or that don’t. Some girls don’t accept that right away; they try to take the knowledge they gained in their previous lives and apply it to this new environment. They take their uniforms to tailors and make their pants low-rise, tight, get it so the pockets don’t ride up on their butts and make them look huge, get it so the belt is not too high up, so their stomachs don’t pouch underneath. I am not one of those girls. Still, eventually, we will all look equally ugly.
Marron achieves an incredible feat in this paragraph—it is as if she and the ill dressed soldiers of her battalion have symbolically gathered around Gilad Shalit and walked him out of the public view, where he can recover in privacy. The story also reminds me of all the times victims of crime are asked what they were wearing, as if fashion taste were a question of ethics.
Indeed, Shalit occupies a special place in this collection, which is set mostly in Israel, in a society Marron depicts as hungry for positive symbols of strength and unity, hungry for role models. The more Shalit fails to be a symbol, the more the narrator defends him. In “Wayne in Love” (originally written by Padgett Powell) Shalit’s post-prison profession is inappropriate—he’s now an investment advisor at Discount Bank, the third largest bank in Israel. (Here we might suspect the narrator of stalking—and who hasn’t once stalked just a tiny bit?) When the narrator discovers Shalit was gotten a job in a bank in her neighborhood, she notes: “Which is funny because I recently found myself in need of an investment advisor at Discount Bank.”
Like the unknown authors mentioned in the “Foreword,” who have had the misfortune of having their stories deemed “the best” in 1998, Gilad Shalit has had the misfortune of becoming an emblem of a nation. Marron notes:
We expected more from him. For five years, he was “everyone’s son.” For five years, families throughout the country put an extra chair at the dinner table anticipating his return. We did not expect that chair to be occupied by just another investment advisor! At the very least, as thanks for our concern, we expected Gilad, upon his release, to spend his days sitting cross-legged and emitting an incandescent glow. But those assholes are all wrong. I believe in Gilad. I believe he will advise the shit out of everyone’s investments.
A tidy way to parse this is that Marron invests the shit out of our readerly investments. Her persona shares our secret fears and shame with immense humor—she herself has let herself go at times; she’s neglected to follow doctor’s instructions for caring for her daughter’s burn wound; she’s been invisible to her coworkers, and sometimes she drinks too much diet coke. And though there is a very strong cathartic element in laughter, many of these stories have an unsettling edge.
Probably the most generous act of this book, though, is the vulnerability with which the narrator portrays her own victimization. Terrible things can happen to anyone--poverty, rape, unseemly family members, unfashionable sweaters, being ghosted (sometimes literally). These stories do not feature saviors, but they feature something better: models for giving others the space and the trust they need to save themselves. Or something even more refreshing, models for creating distractions that allow others privacy and the benefit of the doubt.
This, of course, requires empathy, with oneself, for sure. But also empathy with those who don’t really deserve it. Kindness is a discipline as much as writing, and Marron’s stories make kindness a kind of heroic feat. They make kindness interesting. And, as we all know, interesting kindness requires great writerly skill, a sense of timing, a surprising turn, and immense emotional intelligence.
This book inspires me to practice flashing my polished shield of manners and empathy with the same diligence others daily practice krav maga or martial arts in the Park Hayarkon. If done right, it’s just as entertaining to watch and a lot less bloody.
Marcela Sulak’s most recent publications are Mouth Full of Seeds and City of Skypapers.