Amber Sparks already wrote a fantastic and comprehensive review of Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase for Big Other, which you can read here, but I want to dedicate a post to “Something About Maxine,” which is a short chapter in three tiny parts, and “Something About the Rest,” another short chapter in three parts. I read The Orange Suitcase last night, but when I woke I realized that these two chapters were still with me, and I wanted to write a post to attempt to answer why.
“Something About Maxine”
Here’s the opening:
They didn’t look like baby rabbits. More like pink balls of unbaked dough with caper eyes. [. . . ] My grandfather gathered up the five or six of them. Max, their shaky mother, wrinkled her nose again and again and again and again in the corner of the cage. There’ll be rabbits everywhere, he grumbled.
I didn’t notice the “again and again and again and again” when I first read this; I must have skimmed right over all four “agains,” but when I typed it here I realized how many there are. I think this is important. As I typed, I wondered, “Why so many agains?” And as I type this now, I think, “Well, sure, they help to show the narrator’s focus, show how long the narrator stares at Max.”
Here’s the second section in its entirety:
I stood on the toilet and watched through the open window; my grandfather was at the end of the dock tossing globs of dough into the lake. Ducks stirred the water in a rush; they thought he’d thrown bread. He wiped his big hands on the side of his jacket and watched the frantic mallards dive after the sinking things. Shiny green heads popped up wet, smacking orange beaks.
This is the part that made it difficult for me to go to sleep. I kept seeing those ducks. I’m not sure if they actually eat the newborn rabbits, but the image is sickening, to me at least. It is interesting that the two opening sections to this chapter really have a lot to do with looking, with who is seeing what. But what we don’t get is what the narrator feels or thinks about what he’s seeing. That’s an interesting trick, I think, that Riippi pulls on us. We see what the character sees, but we’re not quite sure what the character is thinking. The same happens in section three:
I took some pieces of lettuce to the garage and held one into the near-empty cage. C’mere Max, I called, extended my hand further. We didn’t know you were a girl, I said. Mom says we should call you Maxine. Maxine wrinkled her nose again and again and again. I remembered the time she bit my cousin and pulled my hand back. I tossed the lettuce onto the pink towel we laid down the night before for the babies. I wondered if we would throw that towel away.
Here we get a bit more of the narrator, but not enough to really get a sense of what he’s thinking or feeling. I know I want him to feel sad, and it is easy for me to project that onto him, that he is sad to think that the towel would get thrown away, much like the babies were thrown into the lake. But there’s no proof of this here. For all I know, the narrator is cold and unfeeling, more curious about the Max/Maxine issue than anything else, more interested, perhaps, in watching Maxine now, in this moment of having had her babies taken from her. Either way, the chapter allows the reader to feel, even though there is no proof of what the main character is feeling.
“Something About The Rest”
This chapter also seems to be about watching and seeing and not seeing. Here’s an excerpt from the first section:
My grandfather used to say he built this house with his bare hands. He laid these shingles and hung this gutter. Beyond the wooden peak and weathervane the sky is a dripping scrim. Are you watching me? I pull the green string of Christmas lights and hook the final length around a bent nail and wipe my face again.
It’s easy to assume he’s wiping his face because he’s crying, but I’m not convinced. He’s up there on a ladder hanging Christmas lights, and it could be snowing or raining. He could be sweating. There’s no sure way of knowing why his face needs wiping. I’m not sure it matters too much, other than to say, again, that it’s interesting we know what the character is doing, what he’s thinking, but not how he’s feeling.
Section two takes place inside the house. After asking his grandmother if he should go get new lights because the lights he hung aren’t all working:
She pretends not to hear me and flicks ash on a dinner plate. How often does she pretend? Maybe the aids are just for show. Maybe she smoked even when my grandfather was alive and this isn’t so new. Maybe she’s nothing at all like the grandmother I remember. I stand in the doorway and kick my feet some more, watch her not watching me.
At this point, I wonder if watching equals all the emotion we want this character to feel. Maybe watching is not just passive seeing but active, fully loaded seeing. Taking in all that surrounds. I think this reading is granted because of the question, “Are you watching me?” When the narrator asks this of his dead grandfather, the idea of watching becomes more interesting. And, too, with this section ending on “watch her not watching me,” we understand that there is, perhaps, too much pain in making eye contact, too much emotion involved in seeing each other in this place.
The final section opens with:
She pretends not to see me take her car keys. She pretended not to notice when I took a cigarette from the pack hidden in the junk drawer. An hour later she pretended not to hear me ripping lights from the roof, replacing them with a brand new set.
Here, not seeing is ignoring. Which means that seeing is acknowledging. In this case, then, the little boy in “Something About Maxine” is acknowledging Maxine’s loss, observing the babies being tossed into the lake, and afraid, at the end, of being bitten (perhaps punished). To throw away the towel where it will no longer be seen is to forget, and his wondering might be a symptom of wanting to forget, or wanting Maxine to be able to forget.
The Orange Suitcase
This book has an all-star lineup of blurbers: Laura van den Berg, Adam Robinson, Michael Kimball, Matt Bell, and Roxane Gay. Any book blurbed by these five together would make me buy and read it. And I’m glad I did pick this one up.
As others have said elsewhere on the Internet, this book offers a series of snapshots, a collection of tiny moments that make up a life touched by so many other lives. It is, in the end, the many other lives that I enjoyed reading most of all, but they are tethered together by the narrator’s, whose life is interesting because as he is witness to it so are we. And whatever he is feeling, we are left to wonder.
One thing’s for sure: the narrator is always watching, always observing, and even if we don’t know exactly how he’s feeling, we can probably guess, given the context.
And this kind of reading experience is refreshing — to be asked to do some legwork of our own, to be given choices, to figure for ourselves just how, exactly, the narrator of this book feels about these many something(s) that make up his life.