Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino (Brooklyn, New York State, USA) won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her debut collection of short fiction. I really really enjoyed this collection! It was so creative, laugh out loud funny over some terribly sad things, beautifully written with real wisdom about lost lives, isolates.
I do not especially like posts on anthologies of short stories that just rave on about them in general. When I visit a forest I do not just like to see the trees, I like to see the moss that grows on them, the vines that climb them and listen to the birds that make them their home. I like to peel the bark from the trees to see the insects that bore into the trees, I like to study their roots. Sometimes I like to climb to the top of the trees and survey the environment, once in a rare while I build a tree house and stay a while. That is just what this collection motivated me to do. As you read Safe as Houses be sure to be on the watch for feral pigs roaming the forest, especially the ones that quote Ovid in Latin, and for sure don't say anything about free ham to them.
I will post on most of her stories, my normal procedure and then generalize as to why I like it and who should read it. I will probably never post on a whole anthology of short stories if I do not at least like it a good bit.
"Growing up, I have dreams that my father sets our house on fire. When our house actually does catch on fire, my first thought is Get the Dog Out"
"Free Ham", the lead story, really made me smile at the wonderful strange wackiness of it. I laughed out loud when I met the father in the story. I have to quote another line of a conversation the narrator has with a firefighter the first time their house burnt down: "The firefighter begins. "Who was in the house?" We answer as a family " We were". "Are you still inside the house?" "No", we say. "We're here now". I really am inclined to rave on to the point where no one will believe me when I say this story beautifully captures the feel of living in a totally absurd culture, a place where there is no unspeakable stupidity. I thought the best part of this story was when she went to visit her father. Her parents are no longer together. The man is obsessed with dogs, he has pictures of them all over his place. When the girl presents him with a real dog if you don't at least smile, have your pulse checked. This is a subversively funny, never mean spirited gentle tale about trying to cope with the absurdities of life. This story reminded me of Kenzaburo Oe's very early masterpiece, "When He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears". There is also a lot of fun strange plot action about some issues over a free ham that nobody seems to want.
"The Idea of Marcel"
"In Wise Love each divines the high secret self of the other, and refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life"-W. B.Yeats
"The Idea of Marcel" is a very creative story perfectly developed. It is a kind of coda to the Yeats quote above. Emily broke up with Marcel three months ago. She has arranged to meet her date for the evening at a cafe Marcel liked. The Marcel shows up but it is not the real Marcel, it is her ideal Marcel, Marcel at his best. As I read this I could not help but imagine my wife having a dinner out with the ideal Mel. One who listens sympathetically to her account of the inevitable problems of raising three teenage daughters and offers intelligent suggestions or is it the one who says, "I don't know, you handle it". Then Emily see another Marcel having lunch with another Emily. Only it is one who hangs on his every word, is a bit fitter, laughs at all his jokes and never presents him with a problem. To make it a bit worse, the other Emily is better looking. Emily begins to wonder why she could not accept the real Marcel and comes to hate the ideal Emily. This is a very perceptive story of what happens in relationships when the people in them do not live up to their best side. It is very funny and there is lots of great plot action.
Guess who is coming for Thanksgiving dinner with you, your Mom and your brother getting ready to ship out to join the American expeditionary forces in Iraq? It is the ultimate counter-culture icon of the American 1960s, Bob Dylan. This is an odd story, Bob Dylan is just kind of there for people to react to him and try to figure out who the now elderly man is. There are just three people at the dinner, besides Bob, the 15 years a widow mom, her daughter who now lives and works in New York City, where she somehow met Bob Dylan and the youngest one in the family, the brother getting read to ship to Iraq. He is very into the USA government view that the troops in Iraq are doing something wonderful for the country, just the sort of view that Bob Dylan defied during the Vietnam war. I am taking it also that the fact that the brother is going to Iraq to fight is a mark of lower-middle class origins. He does not quite know what Bob Dylan represents but he knows he does not like him. The mother invites Bob to pray before the meal then on learning he is Jewish asks "do Jews pray?" The mother inadvertently elbows Bob in the mouth, he gets taken to a local market where someone asks him, seriously, if he is Vincent Price. This is a funny imaginative story that makes very off beat use of a towering cultural figure.
"This Is Your Will to Live"
"This salesman came to my house. He was my age, thirty or so, but seemed to have a better life, a life that lead him into pressed pants and a sharp-looking button-down, or at least a job"
A door to door salesmen plays a big part in one of the most famous short stories by Flannery O'Connor, one of the many famous graduates of the University of Iowa's Masters in creative writing program. They were once a stock figure in the American short story, a stranger who brought the outside world to rural isolates, themselves often marginal people, not to be trusted, cousins to the Irish Travelers. You knew they were sort of like you but that is all. I really liked this story, it kind of combines the elements of magic realism and southern Gothic. A salesman shows up and the woman against her better judgement, invites him in to demonstrate his wares without knowing what he is selling. She is prudent enough to at least ask him if he plans to murder her! She, obviously lonely, finds out his name and offers him coffee and cookies. He opens his sales case and something magic happens. The plot of this story is so well told and so much fun I do not want to spoil it for anyone. This story left me stupefied.
"Safe As Houses"
"Safe As Houses", the title story, is my favorite piece in the collection. The basic idea of it is just so unique and creative I was amazed no one else had ever written this story. It has been out there waiting to be told for a very long period of time and Bertino has finally done it. As I was reading this collection I was also reading Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda. I was really struck by a quotation from William Pater in which he attempts to define the critical act: "What is this song or book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? And if so, what sort of degree of pleasure?" I think the very powerful sense of pleasure this story gave me came firstly just from seeing how flat out brilliant and somehow inevitable this story was. Somebody should have written this 150 years ago so it could be one of the classics of the short story. I will just tell you the concept as I do not want to deprive you of the pleasure of reading this story for the first time. An English professor breaks into people's houses when he thinks they will be gone and he robs them. Only he does not steal their laptops, the money, jewelry or the normal stuff. He steals their keepsakes, their treasured family pictures, he slashes with a knife the stuffed animals in their kid's rooms, he smashes up obviously treasured record collections and the sort of art works people bring back from family trips. If you want to understand why, read this story. It is a brilliantly, beautifully written (the professor has an accomplice who you will really dislike) it is flat out hilarious and gave me a great deal of pleasure to read.
There are two more very good short stories in Safe as Houses. I think Marie-Helene Bertino has the potential to join the ranks of the major contemporary American short story writers. I cannot quite explain why but I think her stories are very American. The people in her stories are isolates, not dysfunctional but mutli-functional in a time of transition into a yet to be understood landscape. Her stories cut deep but they do not hurt unless you are already in enough pain that they will make you laugh instead of cry. Her stories will make you smile and laugh which is enough alone to make me like them, anything else they offer is a bonus.
Also some may find it of cultural or academic interest to see what sort of short stories are highly regarded at the University of Iowa.
|"At least 2013 seems to be starting with|
an exciting book" Carmilla
There is a really good interview with Marie-Helene Bertino here
Interview has a fascinating interview
There is an in depth interview on the blog of Rob Mclennan
I look forward to seeing her develop her great talent and reading a lot more of her work.
The Nervous Breakdown has a very creative self-interview
Paris Review Interview -added Jan 16, 2013