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Gryphon: New and Selected Stories

by Charles Baxter

Pantheon | 2011 | 416 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

charles baxter

Sleight of Hand:  The Enigmatic Stories of Charles Baxter

If you go to Charles Baxter’s website, you will be invited to ask the author a question—any question.  It seemed so perfectly “Baxter-ish” (at least the Baxter I knew from his stories and novels) so I set about formulating my question.  I think of Baxter as a heady writer, not lofty exactly, but sometimes his intelligence (or rather his characters’ intelligence) gets them in trouble.  (Their laziness/dreaminess gets them in trouble, too.)

Finally I decided on a rather bland question, although Baxter is far from a bland writer.  I asked him how his writing had changed since he’d gotten older.  I fired my e-mail into the “great void” and wondered how long it would take for a response.  Maybe there would be no response.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I checked my e-mail a couple of hours later and there was a reply.

I wondered briefly, but worriedly if perhaps Charles Baxter shouldn’t have been doing something better with him time instead of answering e-mail, but then I just got excited that an author I admired had written me back.

If this were a Baxter story that e-mail would lead to something mysterious--perhaps an unnerving encounter or at least a perplexing kink in the consciousness of the protagonist (me).

As it was, Baxter replied with a straightforward enough answer about how his writing has evolved, yet a trace of the mischievous, quixotic writer was there in the e-mail.  Thank goodness.  That’s what I expect from a writer who makes me stew over his writing to a ridiculous degree.  I know I shouldn’t be thinking about one of his characters when I wake up at night, but that’s how “under the skin” his stories can get.  I want to solve the puzzles in his stories, to reach some sort of Keats-ian “truth,” but there is no truth in these slippery stories.  Or rather the truth is always just out of reach.

The stories in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories are varied in the respect that they are told from different perspectives—the elderly, teenagers, women, men—but they have some elements in common.  Most of the stories are unsettling, slightly jarring, although it is often hard to pinpoint exactly why they are jarring and what is unsettling about them. 

The stories can start simply enough—a blossoming romance, working in the garden—but “reality” soon shifts and cracks within the characters’ lives.  Rather than being scared by an event or person the characters should probably be scared of, the characters seem to crave an erosion of boring, choking normalcy.  For example when a man stalks a woman who has a newborn (he actually breaks into the woman’s house), rather than being frightened, the woman is intrigued and begins to date him.  As readers we feel that what she’s doing is foolish, but she is lonely enough to want this, and in fact, the dating results in a much-needed change for the woman. 

The stories may seem to be heading towards a catastrophic ending, only to have Baxter pull back and leave the ending hanging.  Often it is hard to determine whether characters are “good” or “bad.”  No story fits this bill more acutely than “Kiss Away.”  I read this story ten or so years ago and it gave me the creeps (but in an oh-so-good way); I read the story again to review this collection and I swear I was unnerved all over again, though I knew the ending.

The plot of the story is fairly simple.  A girl named Jodie falls in love with a guy named Glaze.  Glaze is a typical Baxter male--a kind of reckless, unambitious “dude.”  By thirds, magician, clown, and young child, Glaze is the perfect anti-hero, and unapologetic about being a “drop-out.”  Jodie who is craving a “big love” falls madly in love with him.  They start making plans together and Jodie finds herself happier than she’s ever been. 

The only oddity is a trickster character who lurks in the shadows (a fat guy with hideous eyes) who says he can grant Jodie’s wishes.  Jodie basically ignores him, but then gets a message from a distraught female, an ex-lover of Glaze’s who insists on meeting up with Jodie.  When they meet at a restaurant, a very pregnant woman soon claims that Glaze was abusive—that he would binge drink and then beat her up. 

Although Jodie is certain that the woman is making it all up, there is enough in the story to make her question her relationship.  In the end, Jodie is left with her lover, but the relationship has become tenuous.  Why she believes the woman is hard to say.  Or maybe she doesn’t, but the reader does.  In any case, I leave the story feeling disoriented—much like the character of Jodie—confused about what I think I know.

Also on Baxter’s website, is a series of questions and answers (by Baxter) about his short story “Gryphon,” the title story in the collection.  Like my feelings in “Kiss Away,” my reaction to the story was visceral.  In this case, a substitute teacher named Miss Ferenczi comes in to the narrator’s class and virtually turns the children’s perception of reality on its head.  Instead of relying on history, she uses myths to educate the children.  Instead of giving the children “rules,” she makes suggestions.  She goes pretty far with her musings and stories, yet when the children learn from Miss Ferenczi, they are fully engaged with the world and full of wonder. 

At one point in the story, Miss Ferenczi reads the children’s fortunes.  She tells the class that one of the children will die (the narrator’s future is also read, yet we never learn what she tells him).  Needless to say, this causes quite a commotion and Miss Ferenczi is dismissed.  I feel that many authors would end the story, perhaps in the last paragraph, with a pithy explanation that the boy’s fortune does come true—that he does eventually die.  In that case, the reader may feel more compelled to appreciate Miss Ferenczi.  However, we do not learn the fates of the students or of how the knowledge (misknowledge?) will affect them.  Rather they return to “normal life” and “normal schooling,” perhaps irrevocably altered.

In a different sort of story—one of the last ones in the collection—a writer is sent on assignment to interview a millionaire recluse for a men’s magazine.  The writer finds himself ensnared by the Idaho wilderness and entangled in a complex domestic situation—the millionaire has not only a wife and girlfriend, but possibly a love relationship with his kids’ tutor as well.  The feel of the story is creepy, cinematic, full of innuendo.  One feels that the narrator could easily slip from his life into the exotic world offered in the story.  Perhaps we are always one step away from a different reality, a life that could be ours if we made even the smallest move.

Although I enjoy Baxter’s novels, his short stories seem especially suited for his peculiar style.  Sometimes the play between dreaminess and reality doesn’t hold in his longer works, but in short stories the tension between the two makes the stories crackle with energy and intensity.

There are stories where ambiguity is not wanted.  But then there are stories like Baxter’s where the mystery is part of the beauty.  There are some lines from poems and songs that have puzzled me for years.  Sometimes I return to these words in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.  I want to know what they mean—a line from a Neal Young song, a line from the poets Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson, a line from Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana.

It may seem a silly thing to puzzle inscrutable words and phrases deep into the night and whenever I mention the lines I wonder about to other people, they look at me like I’m a fool for spending so much time on something that is indeed unknowable, but I cannot help myself. 

Baxter’s like this—though I’ll never know whether Glaze is good or bad—evil, in fact, or just a happy-go-lucky hippie kid, I still like to form my brain around the question.  Maybe it just relates to human need to make sense out of the unruliness around us.  After all, we often possibly choose to ignore the mysteries that are right in front of us.

Novelists sitting down to work inevitably face two important decisions. The first concerns the content of the novel and the second concerns the form that that content will take, or the framework on which the story is hung. Human imagination is virtually boundless and the world is full of strange and fantastic stories, so the generation of cohesive and compelling content is itself no small feat—but it is the way in which an author approaches the second task of determining structure that distinguishes the storyteller from the artist.

The artist realizes that half or more of the story is its framework, in the same way that the poured concrete of a house’s foundation sets firm its shape, size, atmosphere, and proportions. The perspective that an author takes, how narration will proceed, what will be revealed and what concealed are all issues of equal importance with a book’s who, what, when, and where.

Form brings drama and depth to content, and content gives form humanity, beauty, and a reason to exist at all. These elements are co-dependent: novels that rely too heavily on form bog down in academicism and pedantry, and novels that are completely driven by content veer toward the journalistic. An artist allows the two to inform each other, and it is this unity that produces the truth and understanding that characterize our best literature.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is a brilliant example of this fusion of form and content. The story is gripping, and in the hands of a less sensitive author could easily have become a standard thriller. Its main character and narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, is a 65-year-old former hand surgeon who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Some eight months after her diagnosis, already suffering from significant loss of memory and unexpected bouts of aggression, Dr. White’s neighbor and friend Amanda is found dead in her house with four fingers neatly cut off.

Luckily, LaPlante is not content to merely focus on the process of the murder investigation; rather, she allows this story to shape and unfold jointly with the account of Dr. White’s illness.

The most unique aspect of this unusual novel is its strong and complete narrative voice. It would have been simple for LaPlante to use a third-person narrative or assign that role to one of White’s children or her caretaker. But by placing White in this position, the reader gains a whole new level of investment in the story, as well as great insight into its characters and themes. The portrayal of White is nothing short of masterful.

Early in the novel, the doctor explains that she keeps a notebook in order to maintain control of a life that is increasingly slipping away from her—an explanation that is entirely in keeping with a character who is often controlled and clinical to the point of coldness.

The narrative slips smoothly between the present and the past, aligning with White’s mental degeneration. The opening line of the book—“Something has happened”—perfectly sets the course of the novel, which demands that the reader also undergo the painful process of facing increasingly incomprehensible situations. Certain details are repeated again and again as the gaps in the doctor’s mind grow wider, but the lapses permit long-buried memories to resurface, fleshing out the complicated relationships between the characters and illuminating their present situations.

The other characters are consistent and finely drawn as well, with careful attention paid to the rhythm and tone of their interactions with the narrator. White’s daughter, Fiona, a somewhat unstable girl juggling great responsibilities, leaves her mother several long, self-involved stories in the notebook. (who?) requests are shorter, more aggressive, less pleading.

What ultimately emerges from Turn of Mind is a profound account of dying and, particularly, the process of human corruption. Hands are critically important to this story and to the character of Dr. White. They appear not only in her surgery and as missing fingers on Amanda’s dead body, but in the many religious icons that Dr. White cherishes. When the detective in charge of the murder case asks Dr. White why Amanda’s fingers may have been cut off after death, she proposes that the severing might be a symbolic gesture of stopping corruption and rot from spreading to the more vital parts of the body.

Tellingly, the doctor identifies corruption as her greatest fear, defining it as “the act or process of tainting or contaminating something. To cause something that has integrity to become rotten.” And, as the doctor’s reserve and barriers break down over the course of the novel, she muses on her decision to focus on hands as a career: “I want the hands, the fingers, the parts that connect us to the things of this world.” Coming from a woman whose relationships are mostly based on power dynamics, her words strike a surprising note of longing and vulnerability.

Turn of Mind is essentially a tragic novel. For all of its characters’ striving toward purity and ethical behavior, LaPlante seems to gently be reminding her readers that corruption—whether it be spiritual, emotional, or physical—is unavoidable for human beings. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the novel, I was reminded of the great words of T. S. Eliot, crying out at the conclusion of The Wasteland: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” In the face of ruin brought by life and death, the fragments offered here by LaPlante are indeed worth much.

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