Saturday, February 5, 2011

Between Two Places - #10

STORY: "Two Kingdoms" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

FROM: THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR'S BABY: SCARY FAIRY TALES by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers (Penguin, 2009) – Here's the review I read a year ago that made me buy the book. Good stuff!

BASICALLY: A sick woman's dreamy experience of transmigration. Lina travels from the hospital with her new "husband" Vasya to an oddly tranquil land, a kind of holding zone where all her needs are met, but she cannot contact her young son or her mother. A foreign kingdom awaits her on the other side of a sparkling river.

Have you ever gotten to take a fiction workshop? That's where you write a short story, and then the whole group reads it (or sometimes listens to you read it) and then they give you feedback. Your characters are flat, I don't understand the part where the hero starts rollerblading, maybe three scenes of ground-up fire ants being snorted is excessive—that sort of thing. There's simply nothing like hearing a roomful of honest-ish advice about your art to open your eyes to your own failings. I actually love workshopping, but here's the crucial thing to know: only some of the enormous value of the process comes from what's actually said by other workshop members.

That's because, while feedback can range willy-nilly from the quite genuinely insightful to the batshit-crazy-did-you-even-READ-it? bad, most falls somewhere in the unexceptional middle. You've got your people who maybe want to say something useful, but don't know what they're doing, and the kids who are just learning the power of Disdaining Others as a route to self-love, and a whole lot of people who remember little rule-nuggets (whether from teachers, magazine articles, blog posts, writing books, or This One Writer Friend Who Really Deserves to Be a Lot More Famous But It's All About Who You Know Anyway) and then apply them, like a yardstick, to everything they meet. (…I'm not knocking the rules, by the way, just their one-size-fits-all application.)

So, anyway, all this is a long-winded way to say that I sometimes like to amuse myself by imagining what fiction workshop types might say about any given published short story. I think this one's a good candidate because its otherworldliness makes it appear simplistic. Throughout, symbols seem at first obvious, but then a little confused. Culled mainly from my own pessimistic worldview, with perhaps a sprinkle of Amazon reviews thrown in, here's a handy workshop-style breakdown of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "Two Kingdoms":

I like how your story was kind of like a fairy tale about how someone died.There's certainly a simplicity to the prose, and a dreamlike procession of events, so calling this fairy-tale-like is reasonable. Of course, it's not structured like a fairy tale—we begin with the protagonist Lina on a plane, and then we move backwards and find out how she got there from the hospital, and then forwards until the story ends with Lina progressing to the beautiful but remote kingdom on the other side of the river. So that's kind of interesting, right? To lend the feeling of a fairy tale, you don't have to match the style in every regard—a modern version needn't start with the equivalent of Once upon a time and move in a straightforward path.
The reveal that Lina is dead didn't surprise me at all.This was my first impression, too, until I went back and re-read the opening. It turns out that I am not incredibly clever for realizing right away that Lina's airplane trip is some sort of transitional journey between life and afterlife; the author clearly wants this to be understood. Assuming the translation is faithful, the title alone—"Two Kingdoms"—suggests the connection, and also the very first line: "In the beginning they flew through a celestial paradise, through a glorious blue landscape and over thick curly clouds." If Petrushevskaya isn't trying to surprise us, she must have another purpose.

Not that most people in a workshop would ever go back and read a story for a second time. Heavens no. If you find someone who does, be nice to them. Seriously. People who pay attention are invaluable.
Some of the imagery didn't seem to fit, or it's too obvious. Like when you said, "But later, later [Vasya] would take them away, her and her son, and her honorable mom, too, to an earthly paradise far far away, somewhere on the shores of a warm sea, amid marble columns, where they had—was it little elves?—flying about. In short, she'd live like Thumbelina from the fairy tale." So first you beat us over the head with the fairy tale aspect, but then what does Thumbelina have to do with it?What are cherubim if not little fat flying elves? I take this as sly reference to the way in which our conceptions of the afterlife tend to rely on fairy tale tropes. Lina accepts what is happening to her, but she filters it entirely through the lens of her earthly life. That's why she thinks of Vasya as her "new husband," though "no one noticed him," and when she realizes on the plane that nothing hurts, she figures that "they must have given her some painkillers." It's also why she reaches for what to call the beings of "an earthly paradise" that just happens to be nothing like Earth.

As for Andersen's fairy tale, Wikipedia mentions some interesting potential connections, like Maria Tatar's analysis that Thumbelina seeks transfiguration and redemption through the lens of Christian suffering, resurrection, and salvation. Similar themes, very different treatments. But Petrushevskaya creates a connection outside of the world of the story that both ties it to the real world and adds depth.

Some folks in fiction workshops have a hard time telling the difference between the random noise of an unhoned draft and the difficult but deliberate details of a textured story. (I mean, it's actually really hard to tell, sometimes. If we already know a story is good—because it's published, because it's covered with about a million laudatory quotes, whatever—it's not that hard to find some justification. It's quite another to see the shimmery bits in a pile of classmates' Xeroxes.)
Is Vasya supposed to be an angel? How is it that he works in a bookstore he inherited from his aunt? If Lina's supposed to be dead, how come she worries about dying in the hospital and thinks, "This way I'll live" and then she can bring her son to her? If these are symbols, I'm not clear on what they're supposed to mean.As readers, we want to understand what's going on. We want the writer, if not to make everything plain, then at least to provide all the necessary clues for us to figure it out. Even if we're readers of literary fiction, all highbrow, we still want to GET IT when it comes to a story.

But of course, the stories that stay with us, the great literatures, are the ones that hold back just enough, the ones that make us think and wonder. Petrushevskaya doesn't provide us with easy answers, but it's not the scattered mish-mash of student writing—there's simply no one-to-one correspondence between symbols and the thing symbolized. Everything is suggestive rather than definite, but there's also nothing missing. You can come up with a hypothesis about the meanings of Vasya and the airplane and the hospital and everything else by using only what you find in the story itself. It's only poorly-executed symbolism that requires the reader to help make it up. And then someone else can come up with a differing hypothesis, and maybe there's something to back it up, as well. But the story bears up.

And that's why I'm doing this blog. To figure this stuff out. Not that "Two Kingdoms" is the awesomest bestest story I've ever read, but it's good. It bears up well under poking. And it's got something to show us about creating a story with the universality and lightness of a fairy tale, but that reflects our modern preoccupations in an almost childlike language.