Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Lawns" (1984)

Read story by Mona Simpson online.

Mona Simpson's story turns out to be about a searing topical social issue at least as much as fictional technique, perhaps because the subject matter—incest—is so alarmingly vivid ("prejudicial," they would say in a courtroom). I can't tell from a quick perusal of Simpson's Wikipedia biography how much this might be rooted in real-life events. Not much, I suspect, though it was interesting to find out she and Steve Jobs were full siblings, unknown to anyone until both were full-grown. The first half of "Lawns," in fact, before the reveals start coming big time, is much more like a Carver episode. Jenny, the first-person narrator, is a high-strung chattering college girl, who seems a little neurotic but reasonably normal, even as she opens the story with various tell-tale symptoms. She's a kleptomaniac, working in the student post office part-time, stealing letters, cash, and cookies. It's bad enough that university officials have opened an investigation. Jenny knows she probably won't get caught if she stops now and never admits it to anyone. She is also a high achiever, attending Berkeley and making high marks. Gradually, her strange relationship with her father starts to clarify. It's masked by the chaotic times in her life, leaving home for the first time for college, by her mother's strange character, and more than anything by Jenny's continual minimizing and denying. As the details come out in the second half it's heartbreaking and sickening at once. It looks like an epiphany story but doesn't exactly behave like one, which creates a powerful tension. The plot hinges on her steps to detach permanently from her father, by going public and telling everyone. She loses a boyfriend, though her roommate steps up in significant ways. Her relationship with her mother undergoes the biggest change, in seemingly positive directions. Among other things, the news instantly ends that marriage. But Jenny is only starting to grasp the realities. There's so much we can see that she can't, and most of it hurts. We wouldn't be inclined to attempt to clue her in even if she existed in real life and were a friend. She still has so far to go. So this story is actually very powerful and well done. Yet the Lifetime movie flavor of it—or perhaps just the issue of incest itself—also works to undermine it a little. On one level it feels absurdly easy to reach for it to pump up the drama. On another level the story feels perfectly true to that issue and to reality both. Yet the extremity feels just a little reached for as a matter of effect. Dorothy Allison's "River of Dreams," from earlier in this volume, makes an interesting companion piece perhaps.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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