Thursday, March 3, 2011

Girls Is Crazy! - #17

STORY: "The Reaper" by Rachel Sherman

FROM: THE FIRST HURT (Open City Books, 2006)

BASICALLY: An ostracized teenage girl hopes her parents won't find out about the bizarrely sexual letters her soldier penpal crush keeps sending her.

For some reason, I feel tiptoe-y around this story. Like I don't want to hurt its feelings. Like perhaps my heart isn't actually made of pumice and carbolic acid! Maybe it's because a lot of the authors I've covered are dead, or they're so great/established that it feels like anything I have to say about them can't possibly be of any consequence, whereas Rachel Sherman's bio reveals her to be just a year older than me (yes also about a billion times more accomplished but don't worry it's not like I'd be jealous of an MFA from Columbia, I mean really) and her writing makes me think I could have a marvelous conversation with her should we run into one another at the drug store. But I have to say it truly: "The Reaper," while a pretty good story, is not a great one.

I do absolutely love Sherman's subject matter: Beth is such a teenage girl. She hides stuff from her parents, and has a ridiculously romantic fixation on a married soldier who writes her up to 3 letters a day from Iraq, and studiously ignores the warning signs of his inappropriate questions and transparent lies because she feels ignored and misunderstood in every other aspect of her life.

But I have trouble believing the individual bits of the story and I think it's because of a lack of development. All the necessary elements, maddeningly enough, seem to be present, but they feel unripened; it is conceivable that I would believe any individual detail of "The Reaper" if only Sherman had provided just a little bit more to go on.

Take the basic assumption, for example: Beth started writing to a soldier to receive extra credit in her high school psychology class. Okay, this is something that students do maybe do. But her soldier writes things like this: "I'll tell you mostly there is just a lot of sitting around here doing nothing. I play cards and THIS IS THE REAPER! WHEN I AM BORED I MASTURBATE AND THINK ABOUT YOU. BELOW IS A LIST OF QUESTIONS. YOU MUST ANSWER THEM ALL." And then he apologizes about the intruding personality, and then he asks crude questions, and then he apologizes again.

I would like to think that any high school program that involved minors having contact with strangers would have some sort of control to make sure that nobody gets, you know, abused. Now, Sherman could provide some details to show how Beth avoids the notice of authorities other than her parents (from her parents, she just hides the letters in a drawer under her bed and protects them from her mother's snooping with a note that says, "STAY AWAY YOU FUCKING DIRTY BITCH I DON'T GO THROUGH YOUR THINGS!!!!!", which I think is hilarious), or she could give me something else to latch onto to make it more plausible that the school just isn't paying attention. But instead of solidifying details, the only other glimpse we're given of this psychology class involves the teacher videotaping students walking across the classroom, and then showing the footage and describing to the whole class what the student's body language says about them. Does this happen? I guess maybe? But it strains credulity for me.

Again, it could be made believable. It's very close to believable. But it's not quite there.

I've got questions about the guy who's writing to Beth, too. An early, brief scene that appears to be a flashback shows Sergeant Daniel Burkhart in the psychology classroom, but it's not totally clear why—maybe like an ambassador for this letter-writing program? Someone whispers, "Creeper," which is the cruel nickname Beth's classmates have given her because of some unattractive birthmarks on her face, and "It is as if Sergeant Daniel heard him." Though this scene shows us that we're dealing with one man's fuckwittery rather than, say, actual demon possession, it's just barely sketched in. Whatever's happening seems deliberately obscured. We do understand that Burkhart chose "Reaper" as the persona for his mindgames because it's just enough but not too much like "Creeper," but anything else about the mentality that would make such a choice is left out completely. And if this is the reason, why is it only "as if" Burkhart heard the whisper?

Beth does manage to make one friend, a girl who "is older and boys like her." But the friend's only purpose, it seems, is to show that Beth's soldier friend is lying when he says he can't send her a picture of himself. (The friend, Sandra, is actually getting sexy photos from her own soldier, which kind of maybe a little bit supports the idea that the school has this program but otherwise doesn't give a crap… but it still seems really weird and hard to believe. And when Beth's parents inevitably find out, they don't gather up the damning letters and shove them under the nose of a school official; they destroy them in the garbage disposal.) The two girls sneak off and talk and smoke cigarettes together, but their interaction remains superficial. It's not clear why Sandra decides to take Beth under her wing, because Sandra is a totally flat character, and there's no major effect from their friendship, either. Certain possibilities suggest themselves, but they're so unfocused as to give me the feeling, if I try to connect them, that I'm the one writing the story that I think I'm supposed to be reading. It's not a case of multiple interpretations—instead, it's one of interpretations having to be made on incomplete evidence.

A while back, I saw this quote by James Wood (author of HOW FICTION WORKS) on the Tin House Books blog and it seemed worth writing down: "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." As far as I can see, this applies equally to short fiction. "The Reaper" isn't problematic because it's inherently impossible to believe or because Beth isn't a fascinating character; instead, it doesn't quite manage to "teach us how to adapt to its conventions." The distinction is subtle, and can be a matter of just a few sentences, a few brushstrokes here and there, but it ultimately makes all the difference between a great story and a story that leaves us wanting.

Sherman has blended several interesting ingredients into an unsatisfying stew with "The Reaper." Is this typical for her, or did I just happen to read the weakest story in the collection? I think I'll have to return to her sometime this year and find out…