Call Me Ahab: A Short Story Collection (Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction)
by Anne Finger
Reviewed by Alyssa Pelish
Presuppositions are inevitable when a new book's title refers to an existing work of fiction. Some degree of revisionism will be at play, one assumes: an alternative perspective, a modernized account. Or, it may be that the title proves a borrowed frame, a means of drawing attention to particular themes in the literary parvenu's own work. However the new text incorporates the old, it has acknowledged a standard that it will, in some way, be measured against. Anne Finger's Call Me Ahab, her new collection of short fiction, engages such inevitable expectations in the stories' larger preoccupations, which have everything to do with upsetting precedent -- in fairly unexpected ways.
"Pay no attention to the story told; mark the story not told!" blusters the Ahab of "Moby Dick, or, the Leg," the story that anchors the collection. His exhortation reiterates the title of the story itself, as it identifies first the familiar tale and then refocuses our attention on what's been overlooked (in this instance, Ishmael's abiding obsession with his captain's whalebone leg). In this collection, it is always the story of the leg that is told -- what's missing, what's never seen. These alternate histories parallel the alternate bodies and minds of their protagonists; here, the story not told is brought into focus, the marginalized view is revealed and magnified in full, even lurid, detail.
By locating her characters in figures that are already part of the historical or literary imagination, Finger's consideration of their disabilities becomes a revelation -- as if we are finally seeing what has long been obscured or ignored. And this obfuscation is clearly on Finger's mind. In the daydreams of a young girl, Frida Kahlo and Helen Keller are the fully humanized and sexualized subjects of a Hollywood movie that the young girl directs and momentarily stars in (and which affords us a terrifically sensual description of hand signing). Yet the 1960s narrator, peering into a future of cineplexes that are entirely handicap-accessible, complete with close captioning and infrared listening devices for the blind, "can't yet imagine a world where these two might meet."
These moments of capitulation to a more normative reality, in which the stories are retracted or denied, occur frequently in this collection, as if Finger is reminding us of their unlikelihood. One particularly revisionist story imagines a conversation between Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg -- both comrades limping, one hunchbacked -- at a crowded socialist congress of 1912. "It never happened. It could not have happened," the story begins -- as it also must end, acknowledging the reality. "Our Ned," which suggests a "simple" man in early 19th-century England as founder of the Luddites, envisions his life in the northern textile region up to the rise of industrialism's standardizing effects, only to write him out of existence as the story closes.
Finger's stories are full of small moments of chance, of alternate routes and reactions that end up making all the difference, as if to suggest the minute contingencies of birth or history that result in a missing leg or sightless eyes. In a history removed to 1980s New York, Van Gogh's brother decides to stop sending his elder sibling money, resulting in an often homeless Vincent whose canvases are inspired by the darkness of street life and painted in the air alone -- or burned by a vindictive landlord. In "The Artist and the Dwarf," the dwarf who now stares at us, "frank and ugly," from Velazquez's famous portrait of the infanta and her female companions arrives at the Spanish royal court only after she happens to be sold by her parents on the way to market in Germany.
By placing recognizable historical and fictional characters in contemporary guises and poses, Finger reminds us of the enduring presence of atypical bodies. "Gloucester," for instance, subtly echoes the unexpected turn of the relationship between Shakespeare's benighted earl and his two sons, but this patriarch is a long-closeted gay man, nearly blind from AIDS-related complications. The story's ending faintly recalls the dispossessed earl waking next to his ragged son on the heath, both exiled, save for one another. "Goliath," on the other hand, returns us to an anachronistic Israel, where the proverbial antagonist is a nervous adolescent afflicted with giantism. His aberrant size, exaggerated by the Philistines to spook their enemy, really only makes the sinews and joints of his body ache.
While Finger's subject matter never seems inconsequential, she often approaches it with an irreverence that, at its best, illuminates as it humanizes. One unexpected instance is Frida's delight in the sensation of signing j's and z's into Helen's hand, as she lines her new acquaintance's palm with a surfeit of these letters. Finger's style falls flat, though, when it veers too close to the depersonalizing kind of political correctness that she's trying to avoid (the exchange between Gramsci and Luxemburg has the didacticism of a public service announcement) or when it settles for the easy laugh (a psychiatrist predictably mispronouncing Vincent's last name, or the stale joke of contemporary slang inflected with archaic speech in "Goliath"). Fortunately, however, Finger's eye for the idiosyncratic mostly outweighs these unconvincing moments.
The subject matter of these stories might prompt a comparison with Amy Bloom, whose fiction has become something of the standard bearer for stories of psychological and physical outliers. Finger's approach, however, is significantly different. Whereas Bloom has been careful to present her terminally ill and transgendered characters in only the most ordinary of environments, her spare prose insisting on their ubiquity, Finger offers us scenarios verging on the fantastic and prose that is as capable of sensual description as it is of conversational asides. Her imagery and language can shift effectively from the dark, rich tones of a Velazquez canvas to the hectic composition of Van Gogh's paintings or the strident speech of Ahab. The latter likens himself to the so-called crippled letters of handset type that were considered unsalvageable: "Type with a cracked leg or missing serif . . . My 'A' is a crippled letter, with one leg cracked, dismasted, dead-stumped." He then declares, "But I refuse to be smelted. I am to write this text with crippled type." Finger, it could be said, has accomplished something similar. Refusing to smooth over the idiosyncrasies of history and human life, she has, instead, successfully written her text with them.