A Short Story Can Ruin Your Life

April 25, 2015   •   By Susannah Shive

CHARLES BAXTER’S new story collection There’s Something I Want You to Do contains an epigraph, taken from Primo Levi:

It is common knowledge that nobody is born with a decalogue already formed, but that everyone builds his own either during his life or at the end, on the basis of his own experiences.

The original Decalogue comprised the Ten Commandments; an uncapitalized “decalogue,” informally, is a set of rules. Baxter has acknowledged that his writing of this collection was influenced by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1989 miniseries The Decalogue, which used the original as a framework. There’s Something I Want You to Do is closer to the latter, a small “d” decalogue: a book in which people wrestle with rules, devising, breaking, and living by them. Part One contains five stories titled after virtues, one of them cardinal; Part Two presents five vices, including a few deadly sins. Some of these stories illustrate their titles almost allegorically, while others scarcely touch on the titular vice or virtue. For example, the title of the opening story, “Bravery,” references an offstage act of courage almost entirely unrelated to the story’s main theme, which centers on a power struggle between husband and wife. Alone, the story’s title offers an interesting puzzle; as the companion to “Loyalty,” “Chastity,” “Charity,” and Forbearance,” it arouses suspicion: how seriously should we take this structure? How much should we tax ourselves to uncover the significance of each title? Baxter’s stated ambition was to construct a (secular) decalogue that refuses to impart any moral lessons. Instead, the collection (as is fiction’s imperative) offers us 10 glimpses of the human soul, exposed in poses and contortions that feel all too familiar. Baxter draws his characters with as much tenderness as accuracy, weighting their strengths fairly and their flaws kindly as they struggle to invent a moral authority that will guide them through life’s every test, but the results suggest a warning, not a recommendation.

Baxter has stated that he’s “always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred.” Accordingly, dreams, visions, and chance encounters grant his characters fleeting escapes from the confines of their everyday lives. True to his decalogue’s lack of an established moral system, these erratic moments resist classification: some bring clarity to the characters’ difficulties; others befuddle. There’s Something I Want You to Do is both title and theme: in each story, a character makes this request. One character requests drugs, one a home, another wishes his friend to get rid of a fetishized curl of hair, yet another desires a companion as she dies, and so forth. However significant or trivial, these requests convey a hope that some kind of transcendence can be realized. Often, the request can be fulfilled only momentarily, if at all, but that’s the ordinary miracle of these stories, as it is the ordinary miracle of our lives: sometimes what these characters are capable of doing, for themselves and for one another, is enough.

But most of these stories go on to dispel or qualify the miracle: usually what Baxter’s characters are capable of is not enough, or not welcome, or not very impressive after all. At best, a character’s attempt to bring about his own miracle achieves temporary success, which is to say, the temporary escape of failure. This outcome leaves characters in a sort of safe house, provisionally shielded from their ability to cause or sustain injury. In “Charity,” chronic pain has forced Matt Quinn into dependence on illegal painkillers and left him without home or income. Quinn mugs a man in a public park (Benny Takemitsu, the hero of the preceding story “Chastity”) for the cash that will bring him a few days’ relief, and then he disappears. His boyfriend, the generous-hearted and gentlemanly Harry Albert, walks the streets until he finds the love of his life huddled on a bench. Permanently damaged in body and spirit, Quinn no longer inspires love in Harry, and Harry, though grieved by his own superficiality, doesn’t hesitate to deal out pragmatic charity and pragmatic vengeance. He shepherds Quinn into rehab, and then he tracks down Quinn’s dealer and beats him to a pulp. As the ex-couple sits down to a meal at the story’s end, Quinn invokes an Ethiopian ceremony they once witnessed together, pouring his glass of Scotch onto the floor. Harry narrates:

It felt like a toast to our former selves. You’re supposed to do it outside, on the ground, not in a building, but I followed along, inverting my beer bottle. The beer gurgled out onto the dining room floor, and I smiled as if something true and actual had happened, this imported ritual, imagining that he would probably be all right after all. Quinn smiled back, triumphant.

If the spiritual lives of these characters were mapped onto The Pilgrim’s Progress, this ending would leave Harry and Quinn within the uneasy and temporary peace of the House Beautiful. Great pain and danger have been endured, but that’s all over now. Even if, along the way, love has been lost and charity must substitute, that’s not such an unacceptable price for peace. But I doubt either Quinn or Harry (or Baxter) would bet that even such a modest victory will hold: eventually life will force them out of the safe house and produce new threats to their hard-won equilibrium.

At worst, because Baxter is no fan of epiphanies, a request moment serves as an opportunity not to reaffirm a character’s vision of deliverance, but to destroy it. In “Forbearance,” Amelia struggles to translate a poem aptly titled “Impossibility.” She is a specialist in the poet’s obscure dialect, but her translation is so awkward that she’s sure it will torpedo her professional reputation. Her son Jack and his girlfriend canoodle in the kitchen as she cringes at the literal meaning of the word she is stuck on: “love-glue.” Here, as in every story, there’s a highly satisfying wit to Baxter’s ordering and timing of his sentences; Jack and Gwyneth’s cheerful endearments intersperse with the poet’s posturings until Amelia is driven to decide that she will take up smoking.

A call from Amelia’s brother breaks up this comedy of frustrations: in a hospital in Minneapolis, her niece Catherine is dying. She joins her brother and his wife in the ICU, where they watch Catherine struggle for breath, and then she sits by the Mississippi River and cries. In her hotel room, she dreams of her intractable poet, who tells her to give up on “Impossibility.” “This is the poem you should be translating,” he says. “Also, and I don’t mean to be rude, but it would be better if you did it right now.” She awakes and sits down, and the translation comes to her instantly, and a few days later, she reads it at Catherine’s funeral. This quiet and even cherished success enables her to cope with despair at her niece’s unlucky fate and the unlucky fates of so many others. At the story’s conclusion, Amelia, at a translators’ conference, approaches the man she thinks of as the grandfather of literary poetic translation. She tells him the story of the dream in which the poet guided her to the poem that gave her the strength to face Catherine’s memorial service: “Forbearance.” The elderly translator’s face is astonished; he takes her hand, and as he opens his mouth, Amelia waits:

He seemed momentarily incapable of speech. “Are you seriously telling me that that’s the first time that such a thing has ever happened to you?”

“Well, yes.”

“My dear,” he said, his voice coming out of eternity. “Oh, my dear.” He opened his mouth and exhaled, and his breath smelled of Catherine’s grave, and then, as Amelia drew back, the grave started to laugh at her.

This closing brings to mind Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s comment, “One thing that's great about short stories is how quickly they can ruin your life.” Amelia’s role model strands her in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, robbing her of the gift of safe passage — the small miracle that she had thought would guide her out. Harry Albert, returning in “Vanity,” is handled with similar roughness: on a bumpy flight to Las Vegas, a self-described “Schindler Jew” in the next seat lures him into proclaiming his faith in love and happiness, then rewards his optimism with a contemptuous punch line. Baxter excels at illustrating our reflexive habit of philosophizing about our own lives; one of the great pleasures this collection offers is the resonance of its characters’ perceptive self-observations. In “Charity,” for example, while describing his resignation to Quinn’s debilitated state, Harry speaks with a clean eloquence that acknowledges both the sincerity and the shallowness of his love: “It seems a shame to say so, but because the light in his soul is diminished, the one in mine, out of sympathy, is diminished too. I cry occasionally, but unsentimentally, and we still take pleasure in bickering, as we always have.” But as Baxter gradually exploits his characters’ limitations to play on our knowledge of our own failings, this repeated resonance becomes punishing. He uses Amelia’s and Harry’s optimistic faith to maneuver them into defenselessness, and when the blows fall on each character’s carefully tended self-regard, they fall on ours as well.

This is the trouble with a collection that depicts so precisely the inadequacy of the human psyche’s defenses: one story can ruin you. In an essay written for A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, Baxter explores the danger of overemploying “lushness” in writing:

A single alto saxophone can say, “I have never been so lonely.” If you give the same melody to the strings, the effect is like saying, “We are all lonely, in exactly the same way.” What is wrong here is not what is being said, but the way it is being said. […] This is where lushness turns to the overripe — when the claim is being made that everyone must believe or feel a particular emotion and we are all agreed about that.

These stories bring a painful familiarity to each character’s determined invention of his or her own guiding lights, and to his or her shamed disappointment in their failure. In any one story, the lushness of Baxter’s prose beguiles us into such thorough enjoyment of these themes that the “ruination” we feel is the flattering shock of hearing what Hemenway calls “a voice that colonizes your thoughts.” Our pleasure in the skill with which Baxter reflects our flaws eclipses the pain of looking at the reflection itself. But as a whole, There’s Something I Want You to Do gives the melody to the strings. As story after story insists on the same effect, their vivid individual adversities blur into a collective enforcement of dismay and even despair. “Ruination” comes to feel like ruination.

One story, “Avarice,” plays a different tune. Its narrator Dolores suspects that she has breast cancer, and she doesn’t delude herself as to how that will go: she envisions surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation, and then, she says, the cancer will come back. To her great relief, she receives a vision: Jesus has brought her son’s long-missing ex-wife Corinne home to help her through this. Dolores will say to Corinne, who is bipolar and currently squatting in the family basement, “There’s something I want you to do,” and that something is for Corinne to accompany her through the end of her life. Corinne will walk her, and later wheel her, through the parks and lakes of Minneapolis; Corinne will read to her in the hospice, and then she will die, and then she’ll come to a fairy-tale choice of two fates:

I’ll be in a chamber of perpetual twilight. No one predicted this twilight, or the shabbiness, the feeling of a beggar. How richly plain this all is! Something wants something from me here. My attention. My love.

Now I’ll enter the second room. And all at once I’ll be dazzled: because here on the richest of thrones, gold beyond gold, sits this beautiful man, the most beautiful man I have ever seen, smiling at me with an expression of infinite compassion. His hair will be curling into tendrils of vibrating color. He will be holding up his palm, facing toward me, and in that hand I will see the world, the solar system, and the universe, rotating slowly. Behind him somehow are the animals, the great trees, everything.

It will be a test, the last one I will ever have. Which room do I choose?

These two beautifully drawn possibilities evoke deeply familiar and welcome ground for Christian readers. The second room suggests The Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps the best-loved retelling of Christian mythology: all the animals of the world arrayed behind the creator, the great (talking) trees — surely only God can convene them. And don’t biblical stories tell us that in heaven, Jesus is throned and radiant? Only on earth does the Christian faith challenge its adherents to walk with God through a twilit room, where the shabbiness we perceive is our own. The joy of heaven, as it’s usually described, is that there we will see God in his full glory. If even the gates are pearly, what lies beyond them surely must shine as “gold beyond gold.” But here, the first room is the right one:

The beautiful man clothed in light will ask me, “Do you admire me? Care for me?”

And I will say, “No, because you are Lucifer.” And I will return to the room where it is always twilight, where all that is asked of me is love.

Baxter concludes the story here, allowing Dolores to keep the comfort of her miracle: that her suffering will lead to salvation. If “Avarice” were narrated by the reliable and relatable Harry, we would know to take this ending seriously; and I suspect we would at least hope, if not agree, that he was right to believe. Instead Baxter has designated Dolores, whom we know from a preceding story to be an End-Times Christian with a side interest in extraterrestrials, as the only character permitted to suggest — uncontested — that faith will conquer all. In doing so, he leads us into an untenable position: if we’re not willing to assert that faith will conquer nothing, we must align ourselves with an eccentric zealot.

If There’s Something I Want You to Do contains a lesson, it is that inventing one’s own decalogue — one’s own set of rules, one’s own morality — carries quite a risk, not of damnation, which isn’t on the table, but of existential exhaustion. When faced with conflict, each character consults his principles, but because those principles have essentially formed themselves — having been stumbled upon through personal experience, as per the epigraph — they tend not to apply to every situation; frequently some stressful improvisational restructuring is required. When a character is confronted with pain, sometimes a vision or a flash of insight appears to ease his mind, but because there is no reason, in this secular world, for visions to exist, such help is a fragile and provisional aberration. No sooner does another character point out its unlikeliness than it disappears. Navigating by such variable markers produces intense emotional vulnerability; to live in the world of this collection, with one’s wife and children (and self) hostages to fate, is to live perpetually crossing and recrossing one’s fingers.

Unless, of course, one is Dolores. Hers is the only story that delivers the hero from unnavigable terrain, and in doing so, delivers the reader. It’s a relief. But should we allow ourselves to feel relieved?

Maybe what we’re meant to deduce is this: for those who embrace a religious faith, its promise of eventual sanctuary will insulate them not from harm but from fear of harm — provided their peace of mind is not threatened by lack of proof of the guarantor’s existence. Meanwhile, those without a faith cannot contrive a decalogue that will be equal to every attack on their emotional stability; they will have to hopscotch from one short-term solution to another as their problems demand. This will likely prove to be a dispiriting approach, but, Baxter proposes, it will enforce a delusion-free existence. Religious readers may think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but the collection concludes with an ominous brush-off: “Don’t kid yourself.”


Susannah Shive is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Tufts University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.