by Lee Upton

I love the 1964 novel The Garrick Year. It is stupefying to learn that Margaret Drabble wrote the novel (her second) when she was only twenty-four years old. I tell you, the book’s voice bears the intimate bitterness, the willingness to examine one’s basest impulses, the sheer energetic malice of a writer decades older.

Drabble was working on The Garrick Year while she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and felt not quite of the company—on the fringes, cast in small roles. The novel’s narrator, Emma, is a sort of Emma Bovary in reverse, participating in a rather desultory, unimpassioned affair, and evincing a ready ability to detect and deflate the vanities of every adult she encounters. Her husband, an actor who has insisted on taking his wife and their two small children away from London and out to a provincial theater, is unbearably self-centered, and Emma is expected to grin and bear it. In an interview Drabble referred to Emma’s “really very malicious and satiric view of actors.” Drabble’s prose carries that view to unexpected heights.

I admire the concision of the novel—nothing wasted, the plot narrated in a pitch-perfect voice, as the lid comes off the character’s self-censoring impulses. In a life where many of us spend considerable time trying to be kind, Emma is a bit of a relief.

Of all the twists and turns of The Garrick Year, it’s the ending that surprises me most. The ending reverberates, presenting a repellent vision of marriage, and suggesting the narrator’s sense that she is both fed upon by others and unable, partly because of the varieties of her own bodily experiences, to alter her circumstances. In other words, the ending is horrifying.

Emma, her husband, and their two children take a drive into the countryside and stop to enjoy a bucolic meadow. The baby rests with Emma and her husband while their little girl runs among a flock of sheep. Triumphantly, the baby makes sheep sounds. It’s an endearing moment. But one sheep that the little girl playfully runs toward doesn’t move. This is what Emma alone sees as she approaches the sheep:

“I looked more closely and I saw curled up and clutching at the sheep’s belly a real snake… I did not want to admit that I had seen it, but I did see it, I can see it still. It is the only wild snake that I have ever seen…. One just has to keep on and to pretend, for the sake of the children, not to notice. Otherwise one might just as well stay at home.”

Those are the novel’s last words.

That concluding visitation—one deadly animal attached to and poisoning the stunned other—de-sentimentalizes the ending of the novel in a way that’s harrowing, and opens the imagination to appalling thoughts about some of our human-ordered and biological arrangements, particularly in a novel about the love of children that prominently features breastfeeding in an early scene.

Another visitation in fiction that stuns me in another way, but with similar eruptive force, comes from Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway.” A little goat—the spirit of freedom, that visitor from a realm where a being might be liberated and uncontrolled, that outward manifestation of a young woman’s soul, returns in a visionary moment:

“[The fog] had thickened. It had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then it condensed itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, something like a giant unicorn rushing at them.”

Every time I read that passage my experience of the image keeps expanding. Munro provides us with moments of beauty, and a re-balancing of possibility, before we learn that, backlit by a car’s headlights, the “little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog” will meet a terrible fate.

I can’t resist, whenever I get the chance, to proselytize for Mrs. Caliban, a short novel by Rachel Ingalls, and so I’ll offer one more example of what amounts to a visitation. In the novel a woman is hurrying to make dinner for her husband and his colleague when a six-foot-seven-inch sea creature who has been abused in an experimental lab enters her kitchen:

“She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the place where she was standing; it was like a gap in time.”

Obviously, the woman must offer the creature a celery stalk and have satisfying sex with him on the floor, the couch, the kitchen chairs, and in the bathtub. (A cause for rejoicing: Long out of print, Mrs. Caliban is being reissued on November 28, 2017 by New Directions.)

Visitations: an eruption into consciousness, a fierce apprehension of alien being, the ordinary outflanked and upended. Such moments are more radically disorienting than epiphanies, less comforting, and don’t necessarily give way to new realizations but to awe.

As the stimulus to the vision in each of these works of fiction, non-human animals appear: a sheep (with attached snake), a goat, a sea creature. In fiction, animals may seem like bitten-off parts of the psyche and, simultaneously, like irreducible beings. They suggest endurance and strength as well as radical vulnerability—and they resist our understanding.

My second short story collection, Visitations, came out on August 16, 2017, and so perhaps it’s inevitable that I have found all three of these “visitations” inspiring— these apparition-like encounters, brimming with portents. In the stories in Visitations animals often arrive unexpectedly. A woman grows furious when a groundhog pops up. A woman reveals her pregnancy while introducing a friend to an eel infestation. The son of a therapist suddenly acquires his mother’s pug. Accused of stalking a co-worker, a woman endures repeated encounters with a ferret. A member of the world’s laziest book club has a vision of a mammoth frog and believes she’s breaking “through some membrane into another world.” She’s both “gratified…and undone.”

In other visitations, a shadow flies through a window and orders a child to commit an act of violence. A woman believes she sees her dead friend among the prisms dangling from a magnolia tree. In another story, Venus and her young son float in a field toward a desperately lonely woman.

Visitations are, by their nature, sudden, and won’t be contained or prolonged. Disrupting our assumptions, they bring us a sense of the wild livingness around us—what we didn’t expect and thus didn’t have a chance to control. A crack in the world has opened and a mystery rises, imposing itself. We may be visited for only a short time in the flesh, but the initial shock reverberates in the imagination. That flashing apparition, that sense of shock, that uncanny approximation of life, that’s one of the experiences I read for.

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Lee Upton photoLee Upton’s most recent book is Visitations: Stories, just released this August in the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series (LSU). Other recent books include Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015), and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Award, finalist for The Paterson Prize, and named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.


Test Your Writerly Skills!

by Lee Upton

Part I: Plots!

Creating dramatic tension: Can it be done? Yes! or: No! Choose one of the following plot summaries and escalate the initial conflict while creating a mysterious subtext about your own life which, while seemingly dull, is secretly fascinating—because it is so dull in such detail! Like these plots. Ready, set, go!

After ten years, lost man finds way home and discovers wife has pulled up and shredded entire wall-to-wall carpeting.

Hot dog escapes bun but discovers he’s “better” with bun.

Philosopher faces conundrum: skipping rope with murdered lover’s intestines. Ethical?

Woman refers to friend as “barn cat.” Friendship blows up inside—irony!—a barn.

Man who learns to purr overwhelmed by marriage proposals.

Stovetop Stuffing longs to enter actual turkey. But it’s only July!

Penny can’t understand why it’s not popular. Nor can come to terms with those who say it has “another side.”

Man rolling stone uphill succeeds only to have achievement perpetually doubted.

Generic painkillers become lovers until one declares the other “not special” and “cheap.”

Shoe for right foot keeps falling in love with other shoes for right foot. Must forever walk alone?

Wolf suckled by twins pens autobiography. Blasts misguided maternal instinct and founding of Rome.

Towel on towel rack slowly drying. For what insane purpose?

Part II: Characters!

Creating characters: Can it be done? Yes! or: No! Fiction thrives not only on plots. Characters are in fiction too! But there are so many. How can you make room for your own characters when there are so many other characters in literature? Below please find a list of candidates for expulsion. After you read the list, it’s your turn to purge! What six characters from literature would you bounce?

1. Professor Bhaer in Little Women! Think of old cigars and intestines: Professor Bhaer! Sad, crumbly guy. What was wrong with Louisa May Alcott to devise such punishment? Turned good-natured Jo into frowsy helpmate in school for boys. Poor Jo. Married to you, Professor Bhaer! Plus must take unpronounceable new last name. Like marrying mean grandpa with secret second family composed entirely of mice!

2. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Less sentimental without Tiny Tim! Would make Bob Cratchit’s family not so sickeningly lovable. New idea: Let Mrs. Cratchit hurl goose in Scrooge’s face. Only gradually allow family to accept creepy employer’s stunted effort at self-redemption. One goose cannot make up for decades of abuse. Add scene where small ugly Cratchit children tell Scrooge he can go to H_LL!

3. Gentleman driver in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” Let Dickinson take ride by self in countryside. If can handle Protestant hymnals can handle horse. Choose another travel itinerary. Avoid graveyards. Ghoulish. Also eliminate Fly from “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” Morbid. Let her hear anything but. Maybe angels or radio or….

4. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Here’s a song lyric I just made up:

Better pink shirts never thrown.
Better Daisy never shows.

Notice I did not write “Better parties never thrown.” No! Because parties = best part of novel. Fire dancers! Pigs roasting until hooves unwrap like pink tissue paper! Ludicrous Hollywood people titillating each other on Gatsby’s lawn! Every night is New Year’s Eve. Then Daisy comes around and blows up partying. Why not elevate Myrtle instead of Daisy: more depth, more persistence, more reverence for real money? Plus, without Daisy would not be run over.

5. Everybody except Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Did I mention she loves her own cousin? A future parson? So wrong. But she’s loyal—like Heathcliff without a temper or the talent for strangling dogs. Every character in novel should not survive except for loyal almost-ready-to-faint Fanny. Drop-dead boring matrons should be first to go. Then Fanny could change her idiotic first name and move. Anywhere. Especially Australia.

6. Hamlet in Hamlet. I know. Not original suggestion. Everybody wants to get rid of him. All that whiny backstory and pointless self-help. Why not sideline him and bring Gertrude onstage more often? She lives for FUN. Would empty out hotel mini bar in a snap. Let her loose and ready to avenge first husband when she finds out dastardly plot by second husband! Possible new titles: Gerty! Or I Cheated on a Ghost! Or This Play Is a Tragedy for Every Woman in It So I’ll Change That!

Congratulations! You’ve completed Parts 1 and 2! Next week, Part 3: Symbols in Literature! Do they mean anything? Yes! or: No!

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Lee Upton photo Lee Upton’s sixth collection of poetry, BOTTLE THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES, recipient of the Open Book Award, appeared in May 2015 from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Poetry, and in numerous other journals and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the ”best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews, received the BOA Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for the Paterson Prize. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Writing Sequel to War and Peace While Friends Paddleboard in Autumn as if Summer Isn’t Even Over!

by Lee Upton

First, must read War and Peace. No, first, must put tea kettle on stove so can drink tea while working on novel like best-selling novelist I am!

Determine after much research: War and Peace written in Russian! Why is that? What’s the point? Will not read War and Peace, given commitment to authenticity and English language.

Why not simply write new book and call it War and Peace? Titles cannot be copyrighted!

Decide to call novel Peace and War for sake of originality and to give Peace a chance. Ha ha. Very clever.

Focus on page length. Chapter book? Why not? Contemporary attention span: show compassion toward.

Research: check on Amazon. Forty books with title Peace and War. How to make mine stand out?

Desirous of glass of beer with slice of lime, like in commercial. Desirous—is that even a word? If so, use in Peace and War. Or perhaps call manuscript Peace War. Because of attention span. Better yet: PeaceWar.

Look out window for inspiring ocean view and see Stephen paddleboarding. Feel virtuous, disciplined. I am a writer in my study, writing PeaceWar. (Possible new title: Peace. Remember: attention span.)

Sunlight sparkles on ocean and on Stephen, standing on his paddleboard and paddling. Ponder: Purpose of paddleboarding? Why exists? Is sport? No, not on Olympics roster (?). Is means of travel? No, slower than bus. Is physical exercise? No. Although leg tension heightened, thus enhanced muscle control?

Paddleboarding: means to exercise sense of superiority!

Does Stephen think he is slow motion surfer?

Does Stephen think he is canoer without canoe?

Does Stephen think he is brave survivor of shipwreck, left alone with only paddle and driftwood slab?

Is Stephen upright because he’s giving self standing ovation?

Must return to Peace. Possible title could be P.?

Consider new plot: apocalyptic future. Ocean overruns land. Smart survivors construct sturdy sea-faring vessels. Those about-to-die construct flimsy devices upon which they stand.

Must concentrate harder. P. will not write itself.

Conflict. Does novel require dramatic conflict? Perhaps reconsider and return to earlier, longer title: Peace. Therefore give readers what’s expected: no conflict.

Oh—there’s Erica! Erica on paddleboard, padding toward Stephen. Paddling and paddling. Believes she is South Seas maiden about to cause mutiny? Bikini so small it is not even string! More like sloppy cobweb. But I must laugh! In contrast to near-naked Erica, Stephen I now realize is in super funny orange swim trunks wide as toddler short pants worn by future king of England (toddler son of Kate Middleton and Prince Whoever). Not impressed.

Back to work. Characters are created by means of gestures, dialogue, interior thoughts, actions, and, especially, wardrobe. Perhaps simplify: No clothing in future world of Peace. No sex either in Peace because of genetic mutations. Punishment on humankind for hubris. Nice one! Creates conflict for sex addicts. And some others.

Stephen and Erica off boards and without paddles. Staggering on beach. Pointing to house, to window, to me. Waving. Waving and pointing and running and screaming. What is wrong?

Giant plume of smoke billowing behind me!!!!!! Forgot tea kettle and hand towel on burner!

Firefighters! Bless them! Smoke damage confined to kitchen. “Aren’t you author of that novel called E?” firefighter asks, throbbing with respect and hose wrapping around his leg.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes I am.” Big guffaw from firefighter. Erica and Stephen, impressed, ask if I will go paddleboarding with them tomorrow. Say they don’t mean to tempt me. Say they know I’m busy writer. Then I tell them about P. It’s about paddleboarding, I lie. To make them feel less stupid about their stupid lives and the way they spend lives paddleboarding for months upon months.

“Let’s drink to that!” says Stephen. “A toast to your new novel!”

“A toast to paddleboards!” I say. Then feel queasy. What happened to original inspiration—an ambitious sequel to War and Peace? How could I be corrupted so easily? How could I loosen my hold on reality and abandon all principles? How could I cheapen myself? By that I mean: How did I suddenly have the makings of a memoir!

The End

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Lee Upton photoLee Upton’s sixth collection of poetry, BOTTLE THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES, recipient of the Open Book Award, appeared in May 2015 from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Poetry, and in numerous other journals and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the ”best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews, received the BOA Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for the Paterson Prize.