Something about Adam’s “Brevity, Part 1” of two days ago, which serves up Duras’s The Malady of Death, and Ryan’s punky post of yesterday has me thinking about things diseased, broken, and, ironically, totally fresh. Probably this is all related to the hunk of cancerous flesh a petite doctor took out of my arm this morning. But I digress.
I’ve got in my nimble fingers but have barely begun to read Ann Finger’s story collection, Call Me Ahab, winner of Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction out of U of Nebraska Press. It’s a collection filled with a new vision of “disability.” Finger herself knows a little something about this, as she contracted (strange word this, no?) polio as a child just a few months before Salk’s vaccine became widely available. Her life-altering condition may be pharmakon indeed–for her and us.
The stories here envision literary figures and characters we may have met but never really knew–Helen Keller and Frida Kahlo (in the first story, which I’m loving), and Vincent Van Gogh, Goliath, Ahab, more (I’ve not yet met any of these fellas, but based on the first story’s setup and style, I’ll get to them).
But Helen and Frida. They’re sexy, feisty, knowing. Strange that I find them so utterly surprising this way. Shame on me. These are not freaks or pitiable creatures lingering, as Finger writes, “on the border between death and cure (the only two acceptable states).”
And so, before I sink deep into Finger’s very able pages, I try to call up all the broken, bent, diseased main characters of stories past. Characters–more: people–I’ve loved but whom I’ve never reassembled off the page, never (re)envisioned fully or wholly. Until now.
Here are just a few (and, please, add your own here!): Keyes’s Charlie of Charlie, Steinbeck’s Lennie of Of Mice and Men, Bronte’s Rochester of Jane Eyre (who can’t actually count because he’s an overt stud throughout the novel and only in the end becomes maimed and blinded), and James Kelman’s blinded Sammy of How Late It Was How Late (but I’m thinking he may not count because it’s by his own stupidity he’s blinded at the book’s outset).
Then again, Kelman’s How Late… took the 1994 Man Booker Prize in a flurry of controversy. It was called “crap” by one of the year’s judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger. And The Times columnist Simon Jenkins called the award “literary vandalism.” I recall Kelman countering the criticism in his acceptance speech, saying, “A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether.” At the time that was heady enough stuff for me. I was blind then to how blindness worked in and throughout the book. Sure, I understood that Kelman used it as a metaphor: Sammy is unaware and frightened of all facets of life that make it valuable or worth living. Not to stress the point overmuch, here’s one line wherein Sammy shows rather unequivocally where blindness puts him: “lonely, just fucking lonely, lonely, lonely, fucking lonely, lonely; that was his life, lonely” (61).
The beauty of reenvisioning the work right this second, thanks to the power and reality and complexity of Finger’s topic (and we’re not even talking yet about the stories or writing outright), is that I realize (real eyes?) it’s Sammy’s blindness that allows him to open his vision–and ours–so we see, literally, all that we, in our mighty ocularity, are missing.
That’s something I’d bet the late great Flannery O’Connor, or V.C. Andrews–and Anne Finger herself could be proud of.
Can’t wait to meet the rest of her mind-bending, perspective-shifting lame-os.
13 thoughts on “Super Lame!”
Great post. I’m buying some books because of it.
I love this post. Many of my favorite stories are about intersections of sexuality and disability. I need to order this book.
…Do you think the goal is to reimagine the figures “wholly,” or rather to question the very concept of wholeness beyond a “normal” vs. “disabled” binary (and also “cure” vs. “death” as above) such that we acknowledge all bodies as variably abled and existing along a continuum of ability ….Perhaps your conception of “wholeness” above allows for disability, the word “wholly” just rose red flags for me, b/c wholeness is so often conflated w/ normal, “able” bodies in our culture.
…I think you’re missing the Jane Eyre figure most in need of re-envisioning as someone complex, w/ agency, etc… it isn’t Rochester, but Bertha.
Other literary figures I’d add to your list include the wife’s blind friend in Ray Carver’s “Cathedral” (I actually find the dynamic between the two men in that story gloriously non-sexually erotic) and the son in Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Drummond and Son.”
Thanks, Paula. Stop back in, toss about other stories.
Tim, thanks “wholly” to you for pointing out the word choice. I meant “wholly” to knife our very definition of “whole” and “wholeness.” I meant to just get in there quick, press around, to indicate “full, as is” and “full of flaws”–like anyone, like everyone. And, too, to use and indicate the poles our language helps us erect. That’s why I mentioned pharmakon earlier… the poison AND cure. How we see what we see. How we treat what we treat. That it’s all the same wad of gauze.
Plus, I didn’t understand my own missing parts when I first read these stories. I didn’t feel myself the same, which allowed for my pity (many of authors intended this). So you’re right, I did not read myself in them, of them, at the get-go. I observed before I believed. Call it ego. Culture. Something.
You’ve hit it–Bertha! She’s so chillingly present for being so hidden and ghostly in that attic. Until the fire that is. She’s who I think to when I think “Eyre.” Ire. No doubt, wouldn’t you be pissed? Irony that it could have been Rochester who totally f’d her up with the Syphilis. Hm. Anyway, she gets an entire book of her own (think prequal) with Rhys’s _Wide Sargasso Sea_.
“Cathedral”! I forgot!
I’m looking for “Drummond and Son” now…
“Plus, I didn’t understand my own missing parts when I first read these stories. I didn’t feel myself the same, which allowed for my pity (many of authors intended this). So you’re right, I did not read myself in them, of them, at the get-go. I observed before I believed. Call it ego. Culture. Something.”
Totally. I think we are very accustomed to narratives that situate disability as something to be pitied. Or else use disability as a metaphor or symbol rather than lived experience, or else use disabled bodies as something against which the protags, as in Jane Eyre, are defined. This is a tendency I find in D’Ambrosio’s story… in practically every story in “Dead Fish Museum,” actually, I feel like D’Ambrosio’s protags’ arc are inscribed against the bodies of objectified subalterns. It’s kind of troubling/gross. Er… not a big D’Ambrosio fan.
Some stories that are super awesome that I think resist this tendency are Matt Bell’s “Girls of Channel (I always forget the number)” from Monkeybicycle 6, where the conjoined twin narrator and her sister both feel very fleshed and dynamic, Suzanne Burns’s “Tiny Ron,” where the titular character, a little person who, while not the protag/narrator, is incredibly compelling and three-dimensional; and Nicholas Montemarano’s stories about working as a personal assistant to folks with disabilities, which are primarily about the extreme flaws of his caretaker narrators but where the characters w/ disabilities definitely feel like something more than objects (another favorite book of mine abt a healthcare worker is Rebecca Brown’s “Gifts of the Body.”) …I don’t think the goal should necessarily always be to make characters w/ disabilities “sympathetic,” (at least not the way a lot of people narrowly define this term as someone who does things considered “good” or “positive”), but rather to allow them to exist in many dimensions and participate actively in the narrative. The character of “Tiny Ron,” for instance, physically abuses his wife (the narrator). But there are also really gorgeous moments where it is impossible not to empathize with him.
I also love the Flannery O’Connor story… is it “Good Country People” ?? With the girl w/ the artificial leg?
That’s the O’Connor story. All of her work does wonders pinning up able-bodied people in all their hateful and hilarious disabilities, too, which makes F.O. so big. Even if she herself wasn’t taking any trophies for arm wresting or foot races.
Och, and what about strange and beautiful and who-the-hell-knows-what-all Boo Radley and even Tom Robinson of Montgomery’s _To Kill a Mockingbird_? And American Book Award finalist collection _American Salvage_ has a self-silenced character, a la _I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings_. And, oh, if drug- or alcohol-addled characters count, let’s start by mentioning Johnson’s Fuckhead of _Jesus’ Son_, Ben of O’Brien’s _Leaving Las Vegas_, and a few characters scattered throughout Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American ’09 Book Award finalist collection _American Salvage_.
I like it.
one of my favorite Paul Di Filippo stories used “real eyes realize real lies” always thought that was funny
Call Me Ahab sounds pretty cool. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!
Sure thing, Ryan.
Ah, I forgot about this one because I haven’t yet read it: the anti-war _Johnny Got His Gun_, by Dalton Trumbo, a novelist and screenwriter–and later director (of a film by the same title). For those of you who also haven’t read it, the story features Joe Bonham, a young soldier serving in WWI, who wakes up in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. He gradually *realizes* that he has lost his arms, legs, and face, but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.
It’s a different kind of disability, but it disables him. As well as enables him to write some mind-blowingly beautiful prose.
And re: Tim’s above comment about how “we are very accustomed to narratives that situate disability as something to be pitied”—check out Bill Veeck’s argument “I’m Not Handicapped, I’m Crippled”:
Adam, truth hurts. Thanks for the Veeck excerpt.
He argues that he’d grown up in a world when men were judged almost solely on their physical abilities. And the women? And we’ve come how far from this? Far enough to make laws of ‘equal opp’ and wheelchair ramps, but where there is law there is also inequity that needs law. Pharmakon again.
I love when he says, emphatically, “And so, far more important, although I am crippled, I am *not* handicapped. / Most important of all, by making no apologies to anybody else, you are debarred from making them to yourself. By saying, ‘All right, I am a cripple,’ and accepting it, you can go on and say, ‘But I will function as before.’ You are giving yourself no out, no excuses. The opposite is true. It can act as a spur.” (This reminds me of Abraham Lincoln, who admitted (in diary or letter, I can’t recall which), that his deep depressions acted as a spur to him to be an understanding and spirited leader, a better and stronger human being.)
Veeck goes on to say here, also, “When you act small and helpless, you feel small and helpless.” A good lesson for us all.
Humbert Humbert, a clever stretch.
Baseball books are where all the truth is. It’s been a long time since I read VEECK AS IN WRECK, but I remember it being a beautiful piece of writing. “Not that I would hesitate for a moment to use a little legmanship when the moon is low and the cause is just.”
As for his comment about men and their physical abilities: I think he’s making it solely within the context of professional baseball. His father was a sports writer, and little Bill Veeck grew up around the Cubs. He planted the ivy at Wrigley! (Or so the legend goes.)
As for Humbert Humbert: he was a clever stretch, wasn’t he?
One final wonder: