Review of I Know Some Things
At the end of the semester, one of my awesome professors e-mailed me and told me that there were stacks of books outside her office and I could help myself to whatever I wanted. That afternoon, I sat on the floor outside her office and pored over book after book, trying to decide which to take. In the end, I selected a few, and one of those was I know some things. I chose this book for two main reasons: it featured a story by Margaret Atwood, who Stuart got me into this past year, and it was an anthology of stories about childhood, which is a running theme in my own writing.
This collection of stories, edited by Lorrie Moore, is one of the most delicious things I’ve read in the past year. I never used to be a short story lover, but while in college, I began to really appreciate the skill it takes to compose something short that still packs a punch. I know some things is chock full of these sorts of stories; I don’t think there was a single one I disliked. A few of my favorites:
Lies, by Glenda Adams. A current obsession of mine is writing that is organized in a different, possibly non-linear way. Though Adams’ story is fairly linear, she divides the story into family members and friends: Father, Auntie Maxine, Joanne, Mother, Uncle Roger, Terence, Me. The best part about this story is that it makes one consider the truths that children tell and how adults often mold those truths into the lies they want to hear. The narrator, Josephine, tends to speak her mind, but will quickly tell an adult what they want to hear if she’s looked at with enough reproach. At one point, Josephine’s mother is sure that Josephine is being molested by her uncle. There is no evidence in the story that this is happening, and at first Josephine tells her mother, “But I like Uncle Roger. I don’t want him to go.” When her mother stops hugging her, Josephine amends, “I was kidding […] I don’t like him. And I want him to go away.” Later, Josephine composes a story about her family for school. She tells the absolute truth about her mixed-up family, but her teacher is adamant that Josephine made it up. Seeing that that’s what he wants to hear, Josephine lies that she made up every word, and her teacher is relieved.
Another writing that plays with style is Harold Brodkey’s His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft. Besides containing beautifully sad statements like “A child collapses in a sudden burst of there-is-nothing-here” and “Ah, there is a large rent in the nothingness,” he also perfectly gets across his narrator’s desperation to please his father and his sureness that he never can with odd punctuation choices like “I cannot look at him, as I said: I cannot see anything: if I look at him without seeing him, my blindness insults him: I don’t want to hurt him at all: I want nothing: I am lost and have surrendered and am really dead and am waiting without hope.”
In Spalding Grey’s Sex and Death to the Age 14, Grey’s narrator marks the passage of time based on which pet he had at the time and when and how they died. Grey’s strange mix of innocence and corruption portrays perfectly the overwhelming barrage of information and experiences children get as they age. In addition to using his various pets as time-markers, the narrator uses big events like the death of one of his friends and “soon after Judy Griggs pulled her pants down.”
One of my favorites was the story I almost skipped: Catherine Petroski’s Beautiful My Mane in the Wind. It is written so strangely that even my fascination with odd notation was confused. The main character is a little girl who is not a little girl, but a horse. She is a horse, and no one can tell her otherwise. Petroski portrays a child’s absolute belief in their imagination with passages like “[Mama] pays very little attention to me actually. She thinks I just read and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t realize about the change. To a horse. She acts as thought I’m still a girl. She doesn’t observe closely” and “Sometimes it’s hard not telling her what I really think, what I know. That sometimes I’m a girl, sometimes I’m a horse. When there are girl-things to do, like read, which a horse never does, or go in the car […] I have to be a girl, but when there are hillside of grass and […] secret stables in loquat trees, I am a horse.” At the end of this story, I wrote in the margin, “MAGICAL.”
My final favorite was Sheila Schwartz’s Out-of-the-Body Travel. Laced with beautiful lines like “I had already seen nowhere the day my father drove up to New York City for a Yankee’s game, then called to say that he wasn’t coming home” and “the flurry of handprints that was left upon my skin,” Schwartz’s Suzanne deals with the departure of her father, the arrival of her depressed cousin, her overbearing mother, and her own clumsy foray into the real world. “I hated most the way I felt,” she says. “The moments that swelled between my question and her answer.” To deal with her confusion in growing up and also to defy her mother, Suzanne follows her father’s girlfriend into the girlfriend’s world of drugs. As she slowly gets far in over her head, we readers watch, unable to warn her about the things she can’t see because she’s too busy trying to achieve contentment with drugs and sex, a state she’ll never reach in her life.
What caught my attention most was the perfect way many of these stories managed to capture a child’s perception of the world. A child’s reasoning is caught in D.J. Durnam’s I Know Some Things:
Pretty soon a short bald guy walks up and smiles. Noticing my coat, I think, and I smile back until I see him wave at the guy work the cash register.
“Hey, Wally, how’s tricks?” the guy at the register says. He’s bald, too, so it’s no wonder they like each other.
Durnam also shows that even in their innocence, children can inherently know what is acceptable physical conduct:
…When she kisses him she does it with her eyes closed and her mouth wide open. But when I kiss him I keep my lips pressed tight together over my teeth and I keep my eyes open because hey, I know some things.
Toni Cade Bambara reminds us of the intense betrayal we felt when an adult broke a lie that only they saw as minor; her main character was told by an uncle that the two would be married when she got older. When he laughs, “For cryin out loud, Hazel, you just a little girl. And I was just teasin,” she cries that he’s a “lyin dawg,” though what she means is treacherous but she can’t get her tongue around the world. “And Baby Jason cryin’ too. Cause he is my blood brother and understand that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playing change-up and turning you round every which way so bad. And don’t even say they sorry.”
In her contribution, Hiding, Susan Minot makes us re-realize how we can read our parents: “Mum’s face means that it’s time to go.”
This book perfectly gets across children’s pureness in everything: their newness in every experience, their feelings of love, anger, hatred, fear, loss, happiness, and their equal ability and inability to describe what’s happening to them as they figure out life.
From The Point by Charles D’Ambrosio, Jr.
“This really isn’t a question of beauty or not beauty […] I know your husband doesn’t love you, Mrs. Gurney. That’s the problem here […] Like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t have a beholder anymore, Mrs. Gurney.”
From I Know Some Things by D.J. Durnam
The girl knows how to say fuck you real good with just her eyes.
Signs and Wonders by Max Garland
I never felt the awkward weight of that love.
You only had to read the headlines in the papers to see what could happen to a boy who wandered too far in the world.
The recognizable part of her, the Agnes, began to hide in the farthest corners of her body until it became clear to Uncle Kevin which way his prayers for her were going to be answered.
From Sex and Death to the Age 14 by Spalding Grey
My mother forbade [war games] on Sundays and discouraged them on weekdays, so Saturdays were usually pretty intense.
Tim’s death was a strange kind of relief because we’d always heard that one in four would have to die of something- cancer, tuberculosis, polio, whatever-so I always wondered who would be the ONE of the four of us who hung out together. That was often on my mind.
I used to imagine that the naked people in the pictures were very old or dead by the time I was looking at them, and somehow that added some spice to it.
From My Mother’s Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame
The world halved with a cleaver: “masculine,” “feminine.” In these ways was the plainest ordinary love made complicated and grotesque. And in these ways was beauty, already confused with “feminine,” also confused with shame, for all these longings were secret.
He wanted, as I did, to become something he’d neither yet seen nor dreamed of, something he’d recognize the moment he saw it: himself.
Perhaps our shame derived not from our having killed but from our having created.
The Turkey Season by Alice Munro
This is the first drink I have ever had […] Except for an odd taste, and my own feeling of consequence, it was like drinking Coco-Cola.
From Out-of-the-Body Travel by Sheila Schwartz
I hated all those implications of suicide, especially because my mother tried to speak of them in fables. As we prepared dinner together, she recited from a menu of thwarted dreams.
From Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
So the movie come on and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff. So I am mad.