Sunday, June 21, 2015
Short story by Lauren Groff, "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners"
Lauren Groff has a story called "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" in Best American Short Stories, 2014. You might have read her novel The Monsters of Templeton, or her other short story from a previous Best of collection, "Delicate Edible Birds" (also the name of her book of short stories), I have a vague recollection that that story was about World War II or possibly World War I and a dinner party where the people invited are living it up . I seem to also remember a line about the crunching of tiny bird bones. The Monsters of Templeton is about a town (Templeton) where a giant creature washes up in the pond one day and the town starts to unravel. For someone like me, with a long-term memory about three days long before the reset button is set, to remember these details at all says something about the writing--it sticks in your brain.
This story is apropos for Father's Day, because it's about a dysfunctional family--a racist, cold, reptile-loving dad, a vague, ineffectual mother who runs away to save herself, and Jude, a confused boy who finds solace in mathematical equations. Its set in Florida (Groff teaches in Gainesville) and you should just go ahead and set every story in Florida that needs a hot, closed, bug and alligator-filled backdrop; a setting that allows your characters to live in fear of deadly snakes or cockroaches dropping into your hair from the branches of palm trees. Also, you have the sandy beach and the ocean and its secrets and slippery creatures capable of biting, saving you and beaching themselves in despair. Plus, the fishy smells of low tide, swarms of mosquitos and big-billed pelicans to offer comic relief. But never move there to live for real.
The story spans the boy's entire life, from age two to middle-age. His mother abandons him and he learns to live with his father, who collects snakes for the university and brings them home. His father dies later from a snake bite and he leaves Florida and he goes deaf at one point for no real reason. He is reunited with his mother and his uncle, he gets into a car crash, he meets a woman, they have a son, he almost dies in a car wreck, and his main problem is that he cannot connect, not to his wife or his son or anyone, and you can see why, given his childhood. When his wife leaves to take his daughter to college, he takes to a row boat onto the pond and loses the oars. Underneath the surface, he knows alligators lurk, waiting for the chance to gobble him up. He sits in the hot sun with no water, knowing he might die. He hallucinated that his dad comes back to him, a ghost and he tells him how much he hated him and also how he didn't completely hate him. The boat eventually is pushed by the wind to shore and his wife comes rushing at him, and he can't hear what she's saying, but he "puts his head in the crook of her neck. He breathed his inadequacy out there, breather in her love and the grease of her travels and knew he had been lucky; that he had escaped the hungry darkness, once more."
Best character description: "The boy walked three miles to school where he told nobody he already knew numbers better than the teachers. He was small, but nobody messed with him. On his first day, when a big ten-year-old tried to sneer at his clothes, he leapt at him with a viciousness he'd learned from watching rattlesnakes and made the big boy's head bleed. The other avoided him;. He was an in-between creature, motherless but not fatherless, stunted and ratty-clothed like a poor boy but a professor's son, always correct with answers when the teachers called on h8im, but never offering a word on his own."
About writing the story, Groff says, " A story arrives in me either as a flash or as a slow underground confluence of separate fixations. This story was of the second type. I have lived in north-central Florida for eight years and have struggled with the place the whole time: my overwhelming love for aspects of Florida is balanced with an equal and opposite dread."
I still don't understand the title. You have to read a short story four or five times before it all coalesces.