Monday, May 25, 2015

'There's Something I Want You to Do': Tales from the Story Garden


            In the short story collection by Charles Baxter, "There's Something I Want You to Do," stories interconnect, but not in the sense of tying up loose ends. Loose ends are everywhere, like the fraying fabric of the human world, which is everywhere knitting itself up and pulling itself apart.
            The setting is Minneapolis, where people cross bridges over the Mississippi and walk along its banks. In one of the collection's opening stories a man with a Japanese name comes upon a woman who climbs over the railing to stand above the river -- and do what? He thinks he must intervene. Things develop from there, though not smoothly. He breaks up with a long-distance girl friend. His bridge-lady eventually tells him her real name, plays the piano for him not quite professionally, won't let him kiss her, but eventually agrees to marry him. What was the bridge episode about? Is the marriage a success? Not all the riddles are ever answered.
            We have already met the doctor friend of the man with a Japanese man (who doesn't "look Japanese" to other Americans). The author depicts him as a perfectly lovely and loving man, a devoted pediatrician snared by the young woman who sets her cap for him; but after she gives birth to their perfect, wonderful child (the number of births, marriages and divorces in these stories testify to the author's goal of depicting the 'whole of life'), she suddenly develops what appears to be a wholly irrational opposition to her husband's holding their child. He's mine, she seems to say. You have the rest of the world's babies. Why does she do this? Some evil compulsion? Are we heading toward a new take on 'Rosemary's Baby'? No such worry. Nothing that fantastic happens in Baxter's frankly realistic, middle-class American world, a world quite like our own, but gnarled with little oddities whose origin, or meaning, are never exactly explained.
            Does this disturbing fixation on the part of the pediatrician's wife undermine their relationship? We don't know. But in subsequent stories, the good, humanity-loving doctor's life-satisfaction score goes downhill -- he grows sad and obese -- though whether this early glitch in his married life is responsible is left to us to decide.
            Among the other stars in Baxter's firmament we can't forget Wes, yet another good, loving  man, but a fixer, not an intellectual. This entire stretch of the Midwest -- a region his characters frequently reproach for being bland, superficial, root-bound; a standard complaint -- is peopled by good men and sympathetic women. Yet nobody is getting off easy. On the surface Wes's predicament is the most challenging, and potentially interesting, of all the book's characters. He is raising a son by his first marriage (after his wife ran away) with his second wife along with their younger daughter when the first wife, Corinne calls up out of the blue and asks him to pick her up at the bus station. Oh my god, he thinks when he sees her; my ex-wife has become a bag lady.
            One reviewer, whose piece in The New York Review of Books convinced me find this book, contends that Wes actually loves this first wife more than the second precisely because her inability to take care of herself summons the nurturing side of his humanity. In fact, the story does not actually say this, but the situation the author places Wes and his new family in is a fertile one. How does he cope? How do the other family members cope when Wes finds no alternative to taking this helpless woman into his household?
            We see this dynamic in a later story, but this tale centers not on Wes, but on his mother, who also lives in his home. A deeply religious and orthodox Christian, she sees Corinne as God's way of providing someone who, despite her inability to take care of herself, will care for her in her last years. The mother may be the most convincing character in the book, her personality consistent with her world view, her religious interpretation of life presented without any authorial commentary or undermining by her story's events.
            But Wes's mother is bookended by another orthodox, but more evangelical believer whose crude rigidity of mind strikes me as a mistep. Remember our pediatrician friend? Now a fat middle-aged mess -- in a story called "Gluttony," though what he suffers from is more eating disorder than sin -- he's forced to meet the parents of the girl his son impregnanted after the young couple's decision to abort the pregnancy. The girl's ideologically "pro-life" mother is presented in such a relentlessly unsympathetic, life-hating fashion -- Baxter's narration keeps telling us how cold and nasty and hypocritical she is -- that we seem to have abandoned the nuanced, messy, realistically complicated world the rest of Baxter's book has taken pains to hold up to us. That famous "mirror to nature" that Shakespeare and others are famously said to have achieved.
            All in all these stories pass the major test of serious literature: You think about them after you've put the book down. Other works, engaging and fascinating while caught in their web, have released me from their clutches sooner. I don't rate "There's Something I Want You to Do" quite as highly as Baxter's fervent admirers do -- the book is called "a stunning and unique work from one of the living masters of the story form" by a back cover reviewer -- though perhaps I will come in time to be convinced.