“Keller’s Ranch” discusses a lot of things, yet hardly anything at all. The story shares a lot of traits with Glimmer Train’s other occasional meandering, self-indulgent, plotless offerings. But, in contrast, there’s no pretentiousness in this one. “Keller’s Ranch” does tap into a truth about life, as sloppy as this truth ends up on the page.
I summarize this story as, “Three college-age siblings and their mother cope with their father’s death.” If you read its 30 pages, you wouldn’t get much else. There are little tales within—Ruthie abandoning college, Nate struggling with alcoholism, Katydid comforting her other siblings, Cat (the mom, not the animal, I got confused at first as well) reflecting on previous loves. None of these mini-arcs add up to a development or even a twist. They’re just different mixings in this undressed salad. If you took any ingredient out, it wouldn’t be “less” salad or anything. Likewise, the arrangement doesn’t matter. It’s as if these characters each had a meeting with a grief consoler, and we’re reading a few transcripts mixed in a salad spinner. Even that situation’s too much to assume. There’s no telling where these characters are in the present. We only see their memories (more on that later). Couple that artistic choice with a lack of distinct character voices, abrupt scene changes layered on abrupt time changes, several name-dropped characters with little to no development… and spread out this flavorless paste over 30 goddamn pages. Yeah, this was not a good read. When critics describe this kind of art as “a meditation on (blank),” it’s a half-compliment at best.
And yet… as a meditation, there’s some solid stuff sitting inside. I talked about how each character only shares memories, never what’s going on wherever they are now. That’s the thesis of “Keller’s Ranch,” or at least its beginning. “My suspicion is that we live inside memories, inside the cocoons of our future minds,” (Holden, 164) muses Cat. This story has a lot to say about memory: how it anchors us, connects us, disconnects us. How it’s all we have to go on. How little of it we can trust. All these characters’ tales relate to the death of their father/husband. Their awful memory of his death will one day slip away, alongside everything else about him. This theme also has a satisfying resolution, hooray! Unlike the story, that is.
You know what? If I were workshopping a draft of this, I would’ve complained about how much of the story gets told in memory. I would’ve completely missed the mark. I’ll never like this story, but Holden does know what she’s doing with it.
Ming Holden engaged in several artistic projects in the past few months. Despite her poetic and theater accomplishments, Holden’s most amazing contributions arose from her humanitarian work. She brought aid in the slums of Nairobi, as an International Relations advisor in Mongolia, for community development in Russia… I kinda feel like a chump, talking shit about her story here. Still, I don’t have to depend on memories to notice what a slog “Keller’s Ranch” became. This story took several attempts to finish, and it kept me from the great novels I’ve read these past few weeks. I can never recommend it. All I can recommend (other than checking out the website for The Survival Girls) is for you to take your mind somewhere beyond reading this week. Talk with your family members about your childhood memories. See which ones you got wrong… and if those wrong recollections helped you make the right choices.
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