Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When

I've been trying to decide just why I am so put off by Karen Shepard's short story, "Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" in the current issue of Tin House (Vol 12, No 4). Shepard is no amateur; she's published three novels (An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy's Wife, and Don't I Know You), short fiction in a number of literary and other magazines, and she teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

"Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" is set in lower Manhattan (I think) in November 2011 (I know). The POV character is Zizi. "She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch. She dresses East Village—extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her compexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage. Her body is Japanese-teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt scotch are an everyday thing. It's unclear how she makes a living.... Her father lives in a faraway country and is vaguely famous, but no one can remember for what. Her mother is kind and easy to deceive." She lives in an apartment directly below that of her married lover who bought it for her.

The morning of 9/11 she and the lover have sex (Zizi took his finger, "wrapping it with hers, putting both inside her"); he goes to work at one of the upper floors in the World Trade Center; and Zizi and his wife spend the day together watching television news, "the falling men and women, their business suits flapping like vestigial wings, and both tried silently to pick him out of the flock."

I'm not sure why I found the story so disagreeable. I didn't find Zizi cute or charming or sympathetic or tragic or very interesting. If the author were a man, I would suspect Zizi is the writer's wet dream: passive, compliant, always ready for what she wants. We're told she's twentysomething, but she lives off the lover, allows him to set her up with other men so he can watch them have sex, and, once he's dead, she takes up with another guy.

And what is the story trying to tell us? "...she apologizes silently to the world. She's sorry, she doesn't know any better. She knows this to be both the truth and its opposite." A good trick that. She doesn't know any better but she does know better? I think she should pick one.

And "...if Mabel asks, she'll tell her we can mourn the flawed; we can, and we do." I am afraid that by the time I reached this line, the story's final sentence, I did not even believe such a self-evident truth.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I just finished reading this story and found you while Googling around for other reactions to it. I can appreciate taking a dislike to a story for no clearly defineable reason. Sometimes they just don't sit well.

    My own reaction was much more positive than yours, but I have to admit I wanted to like the story: I've been on a Jim Shepard kick for several months and I was looking forward to seeing Karen's work. But I've been disappointed before by stories I wanted to like. This one worked for me, in spite of reasons it shouldn't have. Such as: 9/11 stories. I suppose some day I'll be able to read one without the "sigh, another 9/11 story" reaction. And I have to admit, I've liked, sometimes loved, more than I've disliked. But it still puts me on guard. And cute twentysomething girls with names like Zizi who get by on sex and Suddenly Seeking Susan imitations. Bleh.

    But I still fell for this story, maybe because of what ended up in the line: "Poor Zizi. Spends her life being the tower, when all she's ever wanted is to be the plane." I love the camp counselor incident, though I have to admit it doesn't quite fit into the narrative totally absolutely completely seamlessly. I love the distance swimmer metaphors. I love Mabel. Maybe that's it. Mabel makes the story, lifts it from cuteness. I love the condemned-to-repeat-it-ness of it all. And I love the writing, smooth, readable, rich but contemporary – I love that she uses adverbs in dialogue tags. How do you get to the point where you're allowed to do that?

    I haven't posted my comments yet (I think I just started them here) but I wanted to say hello and introduce myself.