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The Paris Review Book of People with Problemsby Paris Review
A BRIEF NOTE
The big problem, the one that keeps popping up in every story, is: missing women, or missing missing women, and in Charlie Smith?s ?Crystal River,? even missing missing missing women. It seems everyone needs a mother, including a mother; instead, everyone has an ex. Torn from somewhere (always mother?) or somebody (always mother) we are left in the cold with a stick, some intoxicants, and maybe a ﬂuffy animal. With never enough clothing, we have to express our bootless rage not through the second skin of fashion (it?s too cold) but through the third skin of our decor.
Among this book?s treasures of dreadful decor we ﬁnd the contemptuous psychoanalyst?s ofﬁce in Joanna Scott?s ?A Borderline Case,? a nightmarish room full of objects chosen for their symbolic weight, yoked in the service of proving the therapist?s superiority to his patient. At the climax of a page-long description of this ofﬁce, we learn that it is presided over by a bronze statuette of Galatea with a clock in its belly, as if the analyst means to say: You are mine, you exist only in relation to me, I will make of you what I want, as I watch time passing inside you, aging you toward death and the end of the session, when you will pay me.
The forty-dollar monthly rental on a single-wide trailer in Annie Proulx?s ?The Wamsutter Wolf? is more than such a room is worth to any self-respecting tenant, but if our hero had any more self-respect there would be no story. The trailer has pathetically insufﬁcient utilities and comes furnished with sofa, table, bed, and a ﬂimsy exercise bicycle. Everything is discolored, and tacky to begin with, and looking out on it all is an oversize elk?s head. Nothing good could ever happen here, so someone has painted religious slogans on the walls ?Love God, Love God, Love God,? as if anyone could love anything in such an ill-decorated place.
In ?The Dream-Vendor?s August,? Ben Okri?s description of his protagonist?s room is entirely negative. Ajegunle Joe has woken to ﬁnd he has been robbed, so all we ever know of his room is what is missing from it: paper, ink, radio, pornography, and his favorite book, The Ten Wonders ofAfrica. For contrast we visit the dark shop of an herbalist, which is literally crawling with life, blurring the line between pets and decor: the walls are covered with snakeskins, spiderwebs, snails, and a lizard. A turtle putters around the ﬂoor. In the corner is a juju with feathers stuck to it, glistening. It is a place from which one might run screaming.
Wells Tower tells the story of a dilapidated cinderblock house in ?The Brown Coast,? but the story is so intertwined with the architecture that I don?t want to give it away.
Julie Orringer?s ?When She Is Old and I Am Famous? cuts between a dreamlike Florentine villa, in which one can stretch out on a yellow chaise longue, and our heroine?s own apartment, described in shorthand as never having any hot water, for anyone, ever. The cabin described in the framing device of Rick Bass?s ?The Hermit?s Story? is snug and cozy, warmed by ﬁres and lanterns and dogs, ﬁlled with hope and pleasant smells, all of which makes quite a contrast with the setting of the body of the tale: a dangerous alien landscape under ice, from where there seems to be no possible escape. We have brought ourselves there by accident, and we may not all return.
James Lasdun?s ?Snow? is seen from the eye of a child on Christmas Eve, who concentrates on whatever glitters (silver picture frames, golden hair tangled in a silver braiding device, melting snow) and so remains unperturbed at being surrounded by terrifyingly dangerous machines, including one that conclusively demonstrates the profound unknowablity of the world.
The heroine of Malinda McCollum?s ?The Fifth Wall? can?t even stay inside her home because the walls, ceiling, and ﬂoor are moving closer. The alternative is Sam?s Tackle Box, crammed with merchandise and stinking of bait, brine, and methamphetamine.
Norman Rush sets up his ?Instruments of Seduction? mostly through interior design. His female seducer sets the scene with an erotic atmosphere of death achieved through lighting, the absence of timepieces, and government-issue furniture that makes her apartment look like a bordello.
?Random things, dolls and mirrors and bridles, all waterlogged,? are all the townsfolk have left after the town burns in Denis Johnson?s ?Train Dreams.? The house becomes just a highly undesirable campground where nothing will grow, and you can?t really breathe, and everyone else is dead.
The ironically named Buddy, of Mary Robison?s ?Likely Lake,? lives in a typical suburban house except that no one else ever enters it. Those he once loved are dead or gone, his girlfriend Elise never makes it, and the Connie woman has to stay in the yard. And what good are the cats? Buddy can?t even tell them apart.
Charles Baxter?s bleak blue-collar Detroit suburb ?Westland,? named for its shopping mall, is nearly greenless, with interchangeable houses. The garage is full of junk, and there is a ?play structure? in the yard that hasn?t been used for years. Activity at the house consists of tearing the play structure down, and drinking a great deal of beer. In Miranda July?s ?Birthmark,? ?there were empty rooms in the house where they had meant to put their love and they worked together to ﬁll these rooms with high-end, consumer-grade equipment.
It was a tight situation.? And the only action involves shattering glass. Richard Stern decorates the lonely Malibu house in ?Audit? with a bedside telephone used for speed-dialing the broker, and on the terrace, blue bottles hung by the deceased wife to be ﬁlled with sugar water for the hummingbirds. But the house?s main feature is its distance from downtown Los Angeles, an anxiety-ﬁlled hour on the freeway.
The large Victorian houses in Elizabeth Gilbert?s ?The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick? only matter as far as they either contain or do not contain Bonnie the rabbit, who is too big to be used in magic tricks (or is she?).
Frederick Busch?s miniature ?Widow Water? features a house that is all basement, a house where lives a little old lady (maybe the one missing from the other stories?) with her clogged old pipes. This basement is ﬁlled with junk and old ﬁrewood, ?whatever in her life she couldn?t use.? The view from outside is of a house all dark except for one window showing a weak yellow light. It won?t be long now.
In Charlie Smith?s ?Crystal River,? a house is made for leaving. The train track runs just across the fence. The bed is a place of awkwardness. And even food preparation takes place outside anyway, apparently facilitated by a sink on the back porch. This house might as well not be there at all, and soon, it?s empty. There is no indication that anyone ever comes back.
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