The middle section of stories in the Glimmer Train Spring/Summer 2015 issue all deal with an unstable situation. Topics include the frailty of human mortality, the risks of a hostile environment, and the hormones of a teenage girl. Ok, that last comment was unfair. In that story’s case, it’s the plot that drove a boat into a whirlpool and took its main character with it. As opposed to the other way around.
Now that I’ve hinted at the third story’s insanity, it’ll be hard to interest you in the other, basically functional pieces of fiction that come before it. Well, as I said in my last Glimmer Train roundup, we can learn from any critical and emotional response a story elicits. And the soberness of “Caretaking” and “Civil Affairs” will reveal, in comparison, how exactly “Museum of Me” snorted Cocoa Puff powder stolen from a hack screenwriter. Let’s begin!
“Caretaking,” by J.P. Lacrampe
The protagonist of “Caretaking,” a high school boy with divorced parents, is learning how to drive. He’s also caring for his older brother Jorma, who underwent severe mental damage after he crashed his car and almost drowned. The story ends on a powerful note, describing the protagonist’s first time driving on a highway, thinking “about how with one swerve I could plunge us over the guardrail, sending the car down into the cool, deep water below,” (Lacrampe, 104).
That observation is some great thematic context. It adds tension to a slow-moving and, up to that point, aimless story. I can’t say that tension is present until the end, though. “Caretaking” begins with the protagonist driving to the beach. The viewpoint focuses on passing pedestrians, conveying no risk at all. I’ve read enough Glimmer Train to not expect pulse-fluttering action from an issue. But if, as the ending suggests, this is a story about how you can lose everything in a mere moment, then there’s no impression of that dread until the author point-blank tells us to dread. Instead of being climactic, that “one swerve” realization comes off as an “Oh, so that’s what this was about!” moment. In place of highlighting life’s precariousness, “Caretaking” focuses on the relationship in the family. There are well-written scenes here, but you could take out any of them and change little. Something’s wrong in a story about family dynamics (if that is what it’s about) where the mother receives next-to-no description. Although she does get a killer final line in the story’s last sentence.
It’s a sign of my reading habits that I find Lacrampe’s articles on McSweeney’s much cooler than his university work, or his other short stories. I like his Tour of San Francisco article. It’s comforting that Glimmer Train authors and I share a similar, silly sense of humor. Even if I didn’t have strong ideas about what “Caretaking”’s about (what snobby critic would I be otherwise?), the story’s fine.
“Civil Affairs,” by Peter Sipe
“It was safe in the capital,” (Sipe, 115) remarks our narrator, the embassy intern shadowing a defense attaché in Rwanda. Indeed, the danger in “Civil Affairs” comes not from clichéd “war-torn Africa,” but from being in a different country with no idea about what’s going on. Our protagonist, the intern, is tasked to carry his superior’s hidden guns for reasons somewhat vague. Matters heat up when a disposal specialist needs E.R. attention, and the Americans threaten local soldiers to clear a roadblock.
Unlike the previous story, “Civil Affairs” lets the audience know what exactly is at risk, and has tension derive from what’s unknown instead of what’s know. The stakes get established. It’s that we don’t care about them. “Civil Affairs” centers on the intern’s relationship with Larry, the standoffish, bitter, yet reliable and polite naval officer letting the intern stay at his place. As you can tell by the amount of adjectives I gave him, Larry has character. But neither he nor the intern has a desperate need to get along. Our protagonist only planned to stay in Rwanda’s capital (Kigali) for two months. I suppose his goal is to “survive”… but avoiding a vague something is not a compelling goal compared to “wanting something.”
Sipe has worked as a teacher for decades. He outlines a noble and ambitious obituary project on his website. It’s worth checking out. Like its principal character Larry, “Civil Affairs” knows what it’s doing, and can get the job done. It’ll also leave you cold.
“Museum of Me,” by Sean Bernard
All right, you’ve been patient. Let’s get into the craziness.
it comes at night
The beginning of “Museum of Me” connected with me on a personal level. Maggie’s stuck at an all-girls L.A. boarding school, avoiding her obnoxious R.A. and trying to forget her dementia-addled mom. She takes on the silliness of her English teacher, and her life, in ironic stride. “…that people say The Old Man and the Sea is great gets Bryce [the English teacher] so pissy. I mean who cares what people think?” (Bernard, 140) Maggie’s insight there is a sympathetic example of teenage apathy.
After her mom sends Maggie some artifacts from her childhood, our protagonist ditches all her classes to construct a “Museum of Me,” in an attempt to control her past and present. Rejecting school responsibilities to work on personal projects designed to soothe your mental and emotional demons? That sounds exactly like my second semester of college. Even if I didn’t share life experiences with Maggie, I would love how she cuts right to how shallow most teenage interests are, how depression feels like you’re underwater, and that museums can remind you of how you used to be better… and museums can lie. For a story that takes pains to point out how phony everything is, “Museum of Me” argues for an artificial concept as profound, succeeding with empathy and humor to boot.
And then it all goes to shit. In the space of a page. From pages 144-145, Maggie gets rescued by her roommate’s boyfriend, sleeps with her roommate’s boyfriend, and then drugs her English teacher as he hits on her. The story does not calm down from there. It’s at this point that Maggie starts metaphorically placing events and people into her Museum cabinet, and that’s the sanest thing happening in this bizarre, feckless, breakneck, fantasy wish-fulfillment finale. I suppose this tale’s turn into FuckItville did keep me engaged, but it’s the same engagement I have when I watch a friend swerve off a bridge to avoid traffic.
“Museum of Me” is precarious in the sense that it throws everything it set up for itself out the window at the halfway point. It’s a fun way to surprise the reader, jumping the shark. The final Snowpiercer book evolved into a mad scientist dystopia novel while still exploring human nature and the futility of life. But “Museum of Me” betrays any thoughtfulness it had before, turning into a madcap adventure that ends when Maggie just happens upon her mother on the freeway. The first-person present viewpoint adds an extra layer of weirdness to the affair, especially when Maggie travels through roughly three different places in one paragraph.
I’ve read worse stories in Glimmer Train. In fact, given the choice between reading this, “Caretaking,” or “Civil Affairs,” I’d revisit this one again, even if I approach it like a detective visiting a morgue. I’ve never been more disappointed by a Glimmer Train story than “Museum of Me.” Bernard’s website appears appropriately chaotic and loaded, given his story. His About Me section is, unlike the story, crazy in the right way. I’m certain to check out his other stuff, because unlike the other authors in this post, Bernard did connect with me on an emotional level. He broke my heart.
How do you establish a precarious atmosphere in your story?
Here’s my takeaway from the middle of this issue:
• Make whatever danger threatens your characters immediately present. You don’t have to mention it all the time. Establish how shit will go down if shit goes down.
• What characters don’t know is just as important as what characters do know.
• You shouldn’t betray your original premise with your twists. Your story’s beginning defines the rest of it, for good or ill.
The first two stories are pretty standard. As much as I wish I could, I don’t think I’ll forget the third one.
Interested in these stories? Buy them and many others here!