Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives seems a fitting follow up to last week's "Louisa, Please Come Home". It's another story written in the Seventies; it was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1976 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Short Story. Although not quite as unsettling as a story by Joyce Carol Oates, it shares the same terrain in some ways. It's one of those repressed memories sorts of stories where bad things happen to good/unsuspecting people (but then isn't that always the way with crime stories?).
In last week's story it was the unusual perspective, the telling of the tale not from the family's/victim's perspective rather from the missing girl's vantage point, that gave the story its twist. This time it's a childhood memory slowly remembered that creates the tension in the story. Nasty people doing nasty things yet it's all very commonplace, too, which reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates's work.
The "Lavender Lady" is a song that the narrator of the story is urged to sing at each concert she gives. It's a well known and wildly popular song, but one with dark memories attached to it that she would prefer to forget, or rather, leave forgotten in her memory. She tries to avoid singing it to the disappointment of her fans, but her manager bullies her into keeping it in her musical repertoire. Every time it drains her, but no one understands just what it means to her.
"In a review of my concert in Philadelphia a critic wrote: 'Miranda Smith focuses on a fragment of space that becomes quite real to her. Perhaps lavender-colored ectoplasm materializes somewhere below the first balcony. The golden-haired folk singer becomes a medium for the expression of love offered and then terror unleashed. She begins Lavender Lady with a radiant smile and ends it with a sadness so overwhelming that it annihilates her. The last note of the song is like the final beat of her heart. Her arms slide limply over her guitar, her golden hair tumbles over the cold surface of the instrument. She becomes still, terribly still. Then the dark-haired prince, her manager, Milo McGee, comes to carry his Sleeping Beauty away."
If only it were so simple for her. The meaning behind the music is revealed with each bit of song that she sings throughout the story. It all goes back to a woman in her life when she was just a child. While everyone believes the Lavender Lady is the narrator's mother (and the song all warm and fuzzy for that reason), she is a figure who was of some importance to her but not a relative. She took care of Miranda, who recollects her with great fondness. But memories are tricky things and hazy at best the greater the distance between history and reality. What the Lavender Lady did, her complicity in an act of violence is where the Joyce Carol Oatsian feel comes into play. It's the revelation so subtly revealed that is so shocking.
[Insert here reminder to self to read more Joyce Carol Oates].
Next week a longer story by another new to me author: Vera Caspary.
A story by Indian-American author Akhil Sharma is the January 20th issue of The New Yorker's offering. Interestingly "A Mistake" is another story dealing with childhood memories though entirely different in tone and outcome. The story is adapted from Sharma's forthcoming novel, Family Life. I'm relieved to know there is more to learn about the young narrator of the story and his older brother and parents, as the story had a feeling of having been cut off without a proper ending despite a high polish to the storytelling. It's only in reading the description of Sharma's book that the title of the story begins to make sense to me. The story begins in India and moves quickly to New York where the narrator and his family have emigrated where everything is so new and unusual. The family, poor in India, is by comparison rich in America--a mistake?
You can read about the story and forthcoming book here. I love these "This Week in Fiction" blogs by the New Yorker as they are so revealing when it comes to author's thoughts and intentions--very illuminating. I will share just one 'question' and 'answer' as it quite reverberated with me:
The story and the book as a whole capture moments of extreme crisis and emotion in your family. Were these things very difficult to write? Or did the process of fictionalizing allow you some distance?
Writing about what happened to my brother and to my family was awful. It was hard to look back at how much suffering there was and at how certain bad situations were made worse by our decisions.
Writing the book changed my interpretation of events, but what has really changed it is growing older. In the twelve and a half years since I began the book, I have got to know enough people who have had troubles in their lives—a woman whose mother committed suicide, a man whose child is a drug addict—that I can now see my own suffering as ordinary, just part of what it means to be a human being. I no longer think, Why me? Instead I think, Why not me? The one thing that I gained from writing this book is that it made me intolerant of unhappiness. When I am unhappy now, I often think, How much more of your life can you spend being sad? Go and find some joy.
I've added Family Life to my wishlist and am now in line for a copy at the library. Dangerous as it may be I am thoroughly enjoying my weekly New Yorker short story reading. I like that is it completely random and that so far all the authors have been new discoveries for me.