Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Infinite Loop of Lives: Conjugations of the Verb To Be by Glen Chamberlain

In her debut collection of short stories, Conjugations of the Verb To Be, Glen Chamberlain stakes out her own distinct, well-imagined parcel of Montana land.  Set in the fictional town of Buckle—“an informal little dot on the map”—these stories are populated with salt-of-the-earth ranchers, schoolteachers, nurses, lovers and dreamers.

The book begins and ends with a Mobius strip, a twisted slip of paper stapled together at the ends so that it forms an infinity loop.  It hangs from the ceiling in Miss Brethwaite’s classroom and is the center of the book’s first story, “Amongst the Fields,” in which the 16-year-old narrator spends physics class thinking about the loop of eternity, butchering steers with her father, and ways to ward off the attentions of Phillip Steen, the dentist’s son, who has something wrong with his eyeballs (“All the time they jiggle and bounce like they’re attached to miniature rubber bands springing from the inside of his skull.”)

Throughout the book, Chamberlain runs the reader along her own literary Mobius strip, often bringing plot threads full circle in different stories separated by dozens of pages.  You could make the case that the stories are “linked”—the favorite buzzword publishers and agents use these days to convince short-story-resistant readers that what they’re holding might, if held at a certain angle, resemble a novel.  But they’re not linked in the noticeable way of, say, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.  In fact, the ties are so subtle you may reach the end of the book before you start putting the pieces together, realizing how characters make crucial reappearances throughout different stories.  In this way, Conjugations of the Verb To Be practically begs to be re-read for pleasure and insight.

And there is a lot of pleasure to be found on these pages.  “Pleasure,” one character notes, “is what makes life valuable.”  Later, that same narrator comes to understand “the ease of silence,” where “words were inaccurate and unnecessary.”

As readers, we would be bereft without the words Chamberlain very accurately uses to describe her characters and their way of life in the 20th-century West (the period when most of these are set).  Her descriptions of the natural world are particularly fresh and beautiful.  Here, for instance, is a moment from “The Tracks of Animals” when Ada, the main character, wanders out into the “monochrome of a Montana winter” in search of her lover and finds instead evidence of Nature’s life cycle:
Coming out of the lodgepoles were small tracks—a vole, probably, whose rounded nose, propelled by its strong little hindquarters, had plowed the snow in front of it. Ada could follow the wake of its movement from shadow to diamond-studded light. She imagined the tiny engine driving forward in all this blank coldness, the heart firing so fast that it hummed, it purred, as with one little foot at a time it clawed itself right to its destiny, a destiny that was fulfilled right where Ada now stood. For at her feet, the lifeline stopped, just like that, and imprinted in the snow, lighter than air, was the swoop of feathers, the spread of wings and tail, the fossil of an owl.

The chandelier story of the collection—dominant, exquisitely-jeweled and brightly-lit—is “Stacking.”  This miniature saga charts three generations of two families, their farms divided by the Buckle River and their lives marred by a series of tragedies. It’s a long story with a difficult character genealogy, but it’s as satisfying as any fiction I’ve read—short or long—this entire year.  “Stacking” begins in 1949 with a tender and tragic scene between Holden Awn and Emma Orchard (don’t let the awkward names throw you) atop a haystack.
If he had seen Emma at all through the years, Holden had seen her as tough—tougher than her brother—and her arms around him confirmed that, but how small they were, thin ropes draping a portion of his ribs and knotted at his belly button; and then her chest, against his back, gave heat, but so tentatively that he felt if he leaned back to try to gain more, he would break her. She was like one of their kitchen table chairs, so fragile and rickety that he was afraid to move. And so he didn’t, and slowly, he felt two points of heat, but whether they came from his shoulder blades or her breasts, which he could now tell pressed against him, he was unsure. This awareness—that Emma had breasts and that he was confused—made him even more still. And so they remained, like statues whose bits of exposed flesh turned marble in the failing day, neither able to think of a thing to say.
What happens in the next few minutes determines the fated course of three generations of Awns and Orchards—high drama on the order of a Rocky Mountain Shakespeare.  It’s a testament to Chamberlain’s concision that what could be a full-fledged novel of love and loss is winnowed down to 53 pages.

Without showing off with writerly trumpets or neon signs, Chamberlain offers new ways of seeing the world.  Birth, for instance, gets a fresh look.  Here are the opening paragraphs of “Horse Thieves”:
      A birth is full of magic. It’s like the empty box the magician closes up, taps with his wand, and spins round and round. When the spinning stops and he opens it, out comes something that wasn’t there before—a beautiful lady or tiger or dove, and all of a sudden you realize that you were waiting, knowing the space would be filled just right. The magic’s in the just-right part.
      But there’s always a smaller part of the magic I like as much. It’s when the new baby takes something for the very first time from the world, and nothing’s telling it to, but everything is. It’s that first stolen breath, a big, startled one, the biggest one ever because the baby’s lungs have never had anything in them before. Nothing at all. After that, all the other breaths will be married up in pairs of in and out, except the last one where the body comes full circle and gives back what it took when it was born, and nothing’s telling it to, but everything is. And that last breath out is magic like the first breath in. The show reverses itself, and the space that was filled with something big is emptied out again. Poof…all gone.

Chamberlain wrote these stories over the span of more than a decade, publishing most of them in Montana Quarterly (a magazine I happen to admire very much).  She didn’t rush to publication, didn’t feel compelled to write a more marketable novel.  Instead, she devoted time and care and very close attention to her craft.

Only one story feels out of place here—“Late Evening, June 14” which follows a cat as it prowls a nursing home on the graveyard shift.  Compared to what surrounds it, this brief tale feels weak and thin.

A story like “Twin Bridges, Montana” more than makes up for the shortcomings of “Late Evening, June 14.”  The titular small town in southwest Montana was for years the site of the state orphanage and Chamberlain uses the setting to pointedly illustrate the sadness of parent-less children waiting for happy homes.  Desperate for an escape into an imaginary world, some of the orphans venture out onto the ice of a skating pond to peer down at a boy trapped underneath, frozen and suspended in death.  He’s first discovered by a young girl skating alone on the pond:
Though the ice blurred him, she could tell that his hair was blond and that his eyes, which were wide open as if he looked on the scene above him with both shock and wonderment, were blue. The red came from his coat (wool, she supposed, and she was envious) that in the bite of some recent day had kept him cozy.

Without telling the mistress of the orphanage about the boy, the rest of the children secretly slip away, day after day, to go stare at the boy, inventing stories about his life, giving him the rich, sunny childhood they all long for.  They name him Joey and pretend he comes from “a three-story house with twelve-foot-tall ceilings and flowered wallpaper and a fireplace in every room and two front doors that open onto the wraparound verandah where wicker chairs sit.”   There is no sadder moment in the book than when Spring arrives and Joey melts into the depths of the pond.

Conjugations of the Verb To Be is filled with recurring themes and images: an old wooden kitchen table scarred by an infinity figure scratched there by a disfigured man with hooks for hands, the date June 14th, ice skating and Miss Brethwaite’s Mobius Strip—the latter two which coalesce in the final story, “The Skater” (a direct nod to John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”).

Leaving a community bonfire at the skating pond, Miss Brethwaite decides to take advantage of the full-moon, winter solstice night and skate her way home following Buckle’s slough.  She’s exhilarated by her icy quest—“she felt clean, clean and pleased, pleased to be by herself alone, pleased by everything”—and is determined to overcome obstacles as she makes her way along “the ribbon of slough now like the ribbon of a Mobius strip she had hung in her class to show students how confused space and time were.”  Chamberlain mirrors Cheever’s masterpiece, right down to the final image of a locked house refusing entry after the athletic trek across the county.

It’s a fitting way to end a stunning debut collection of short stories.  Reading Conjugations of the Verb To Be made me feel, like Miss Brethwaite, “clean and pleased, pleased by everything."

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