Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

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Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings

September 25, 2012

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.

If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.

Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.

Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.

That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.

Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.

About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.

Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.

The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?

So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.

And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.

My favorite Darcy and Elizabeth – Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – at their static, happy ending

Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?

And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?

Throwing stuff at the wall

January 28, 2011

There’s that old saying about “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.”

I’m not quite sure what is being thrown there —  mud? spaghetti? Jackson-Pollock-style paint? a toddler’s mashed peas and carrots?

But whatever it is, that’s what I feel like I’m doing with literary agents.

A little background: I’m just starting to send out query letters for Novel # 2.  With Novel # 1, I queried about 15 agents. They were carefully selected, almost all of them people with whom I had a second-degree connection. So I could say in my query letter, “Hi, I was referred by your client so-and-so.” And almost all of them gave me personalized responses. They asked to see a full or partial manuscript. When they rejected it, they sent me nice rejections. Sometimes they offered constructive criticism. A lot of the time it was simply, “I didn’t fall in love with this.”

Novel # 1 is now sitting in the corner, nursing its wounds and sulking. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put the final touches on Novel # 2 so it too can go out into the world. And this time I’m trying a different approach.

This time I’m sending query letters to a larger number of agents — some that I queried before, but a bunch where I don’t have a personal referral. This is more of a long-shot effort. Because email makes it so easy to submit queries these days, agents often receive 50 or more unsolicited queries per day. Fifty per day! This is known in the industry as the “slush pile,” and the vast majority of such submissions go unanswered or get form-letter rejections.

But one thing I’ve learned over the past year is that fiction publishing is subjective — more subjective than non-fiction. Editors won’t buy a novel unless they are really in love with it. Agents won’t represent a novel unless they are in love with it. And love is famously subjective — one person’s Romeo is another person’s Caliban.

I am hoping that Novel # 2 is more marketable and doesn’t have some of the structural issues that made life hard for Novel # 1. But even so, even if it is a perfectly viable novel, there may be 24 agents who simply aren’t grabbed by it. Then there may be the 25th who “clicks” and loves it.

Finding an agent and publisher has always been a bit of a numbers game, as attested by those wonderful rejection stories like Gone With the Wind being turned down by more than 25 publishers.

But the current economics of fiction publishing — where publishers are reluctant to take chances on anything that doesn’t look like a blockbuster — make it even more of a numbers game.

So…. out comes the mud/paint/spaghetti/peas. 

She winds up, pulls her arm back, releases the pitch — no, make that a dozen pitches —  no, two dozen pitches….

Will it stick?

Spenser, orphaned

January 20, 2010

One of my favorite writers died unexpectedly on Monday – Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective novels. 

Parker didn’t fit the pattern of authors I typically like. For one thing, I don’t usually read crime fiction. And most of my favorite authors tend to write nuanced psychological novels: The rare detective novels I like are by people like David Liss who offer so much fascinating historical and psychological detail that the crime part seems almost incidental. 

Parker’s Spenser novels, on the other hand, are pure noir detective. They’re pretty predictable and formulaic. And they are light: I used to marvel at how much white space his publisher let him pad his pages with. His chapters are only three or four pages long. You can get through a Spenser novel in about 87 minutes.

But what a wonderful 87 minutes! 

Parker’s books were like a welcoming, dependable friend. I could count on a moderately interesting plot, amusing dialogue, a smidgen of social commentary, but most of all the familiar and very engaging voice of Spenser as narrator.

Spenser was a classic insider-turned-outsider – onetime cop who couldn’t live with the rules and hypocrisy of the system, and so struck out on his own. He was both arrogant and self-deprecating at the same time. For instance, Spenser describes trailing a suspect in the most recent novel, The Professional:

I went every day to Pinnacle Fitness.  I had to be careful. If I improved my body further, the paparazzi would begin following me. So I worked out sparingly and spent a lot of time watching the snugly dressed young women, looking for exercise tips.

Spenser was cynical about institutions, politicians, the rich and pretentious, the young and beautiful, to name just a few. He was happy to diss his own clients to their face – often with such deadpan wit that they didn’t even realize they were being mocked. Yet under that cynical surface he carried a strong personal code of ethics.

I loved the repartee. I loved the point in nearly every book where Spenser would do something risky, ill-advised or economically self-destructive to follow his code of ethics. I loved the spare writing: For aspiring writers seeking a vaccine against verbosity, Parker is right up there with Hemingway.

I also loved Spenser’s continuity and evolution through the 37 novels Parker wrote about him, starting in 1973. Spenser developed friendships with Boston police and gangsters who learned to respect his peculiar integrity. He settled into a deep unmarried monogamy with psychologist Susan Silverman.

But I wanted him to evolve more. After all these years, Spenser was getting middle-aged. Maybe more than middle-aged. Occasionally there were hinted references at this: He didn’t have the physical stamina that he used to have. But I kept waiting for age to hit him seriously – the detective who could no longer detect.

What would that mean for his self-identity? His life? I was tired of the same romantic routines with Susan, the same joking conversations with his tough killer buddy Hawk.

I was ready for Spenser to grow up, by which I meant grow old.

I thought it was coming. I thought Parker would face up to it, just as Spenser always faced up to the dark side of things. I hoped Parker would bring the series to an end – a conscious, plotted, controlled end.

And now he won’t. Spenser is effectively orphaned, a creation without a creator. The New York Times obituary said that there are two more Spenser novels in unspecified stages of the publishing process. But Parker wasn’t anticipating his own death; he was apparently in excellent health. So I suspect these two last novels will be more of the same. Which will be lovely, for the 87 minutes it takes me to read each one, but will leave things feeling unfinished.

Spenser the lost boy. Remaining 65 – or whatever age he is – forever.

I am so sad that Robert Parker is gone. Because I love the books, and there won’t be any more after these next two. Because Parker was so talented and productive: The Times said that he died of a heart attack at his desk, where his routine was to write five pages every day except Sunday.

And because I won’t get to see Spenser grow old. We lost two people this week – both Parker and Spenser. And I won’t get to travel any further down the road with either of them.