Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nothing happened... (Books - The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio)

Appropriately enough, my entire day off yesterday was spent very laboriously - setting up my sleek new laptop. Just a little over 4 pounds and very slim, it required nearly five hours on the phone both with technical support of both the computer and my wireless router -we're a multi-laptop household with one internet hook up and a dislike of wires going every which way - and I'm still not finished figuring out Vista, and the new restrictions Microsoft has put on managing your email. I still have a few hours to go adding all of the technical programs I need for the lab. What price beauty?

That's put me seriously behind where I wanted to be in reading for classes (and we're just starting the second week). I know I will catch up but I like front loading my year to keep stress at bay. I was studying until about 11 last night. No Middlemarch for me, under those circumstances I wanted something short and sweet, so that I could feel like I had completed something. So thank goodness for C. B.'s short story challenge and Charles D'Ambrosio's The Dead Fish Museum. I have never seen such gushing quotes on a volume of stories - you would think the man had cured the common cold. He's compared to Raymond Carver. He's "consummate," he's "complex," he's a "paparazzo of the unguarded moment" for god's sake (according to a reviewer in Buffalo). Even Elle magazine was forced to use the word chiaroscuro. Good grief. Well I will say this. The guy writes well. His sentences feel like poems, only poems about rusty metal signs, smashed pop bottles, and wallpaper peeling off walls - not those of the "She walks in beauty like the night" variety. He reminds me a little of the sensibility of James Wright, one of my favorite poets ever. I'm just realizing I have never done a post on his poems - what's with that?

Anyhoo, reading one of his stories, I had the feeling I had been dropped into a world that already existed completely and somehow, although I had just gotten there, I knew everything about it.

At the Home I'd get up early, when the Sisters were still asleep, and head to the ancient Chinese man's store. The ancient Chinese man was a broken, knotted, shriveled man who looked like a chunk of gingeroot and ran one of those tiny stores that sells grapefruits, wine, and toilet paper, and no one can ever figure out how they survive. But he survived, he figured it out. His ancient Chinese wife was a little twig of a woman who sat in a chair and never said a word. He spoke only enough English to conduct business, to say hello and goodbye, to make change, although every morning, when I came for my grapefruit, I tired to teach him some useful vocabulary.

I came out of the gray drizzle through the glass door with the old Fishback Appliance Repair sign still stenciled on it, a copper cowbell clanging above me, and the store was cold, the lights weren't even on...

That's from the first story, The High Divide. It's the opposite, of reading Eliot's Middlemarch. Here I don't so much get the idea he is paid by the word as that he pays for them, through the nose, and will make every last one count. Each sentence is as lean as an alley cat, but so much information accumulates, having read them. In it an orphaned boy who is trying to teach himself Latin and is right on the divide between childhood and adolescence, befriends a boy who bullies him. That boy also has some problems of his own, it turns out. These stories are not heavy on plot, but life changes nonetheless for the people in them. This story is like the life of a ten or eleven year old boy. You asked him what happened this week and the answer is "nothing," and then you ask him the next week and he still says "nothing," because that's how he experienced it. Nothing happened to him and life is boring. Only at the end of those two weeks, you look at him and can see he's grown up.


Anonymous said...


Another book for the TBR list. This sounds too interesting to pass up. I would join the Short Story challenge, but I don't think I need to give myself any more encouragement than I already have to buy more books.

After that article in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, I more suspicious than ever of the glowing quotes they put on the back of books.

Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

Those ancient Chinese grocery stores are still around here. The woman who sits behind the counter is usually shriveled, wrinkled, and half-deaf. She doesn't seem to know where anything is, but damn sure about how much everything costs! This particular joint in Chinatown is the only one that carries my favorite ice cream sundae bar!

I spent the weekend reading Alan Benett's The Uncommon Reader, curling up with Middlemarch, and writing journal entries on Sense and Sensibility.

Ted said...

JSP - That's what I said too, and now look at me.

Matt - Did you ever visit a town about an hour and a half north of SF that is this old Chinese village - just one street raised on a boardwalk, an old general store, a one room school house and a Chinese restaurant. I'm not remembering the name. It reminds me of that story!
I really want to read the Alan Bennett memoir too, but it's just going to have to wait.