“Then everything was everywhere. Lowell walked through broken bags, airline seats, curls of fuselage, electronic devices, baseball caps, broken Duty Free bottles of whiskey, peanut packets, an inordinate number of tampons. Columns of steam moved away into the night from scattered hot bits of plane. The co-pilot stood on a rock and shouted through a rolled up magazine. Lowell stepped through the hole and looked up the luggage hull. Small fires burned some suitcases and chests inside. “I’m ruined,” Lowell said.”
This is one of those stories that pretentious literary criticism groups, or workshop writers, would subject to a series of elaborately obfuscating vivisections, all the while sipping french press, fair trade coffee, and lamenting the demise of whatever formerly hipster trend had gone sourly into the mainstream. Let’s not, here at Novel Niche, be pretentious about what we like, and about what discomfits us—and “Still Life, With Wreckage” prompts both reactions, though not necessarily in equal measure.
The narrative is divided into three sections, each of which features Lowell as its principal character. In the first section, he is trapped on board an airplane whose housing has been perforated, resulting in devastating consequences for its human cargo. He takes stock of the loss of human life as well as material properties, and notes the varying reactions of other passengers. As his box of official inquest documents flies further and further out of his reach, he remembers the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of his son, Carlos. In the second, Lowell returns to his home in the aftermath of the aircraft fiasco. He recounts the loss to his apparently glib, socially preoccupied wife, Fern, then heads to bed, where he falls sideways into a labyrinthine reminiscence (or is it a foreshadowing?), before being jarred out of it by Fern’s insistence that he remove his shoes. In the final section, Lowell is being carted off to an unnamed penitentiary (where the heavily implied promise of torture awaits him and his fellow prisoners), when he believes he recognizes his son Carlos, the last prisoner to be brought out for shipping to the new facility. Whether or not this sighting becomes a true reunion of father and child remains obscured by the forceful intervention of a nearby guard.
So many things are happening in this story that, once it doesn’t turn you off with its considerable (and, for me, much-appreciated) weirdness, you’ll want to reread it at least twice, slowly, so that its full effect can sink in. I’ve read it five times now, and I’m not sure that I can claim to a comprehensive understanding of every arc and sub-arc, every veiled plot suggestion or hidden character conflict. Once the prospect of rereading excites, rather than elicits groans of frustration, then you’re usually on to a piece of good writing. What makes the story worth each reexamination is the way it isn’t afraid to grow non-normatively. I think it’s safe to conjecture that if you liked watching Synecdoche, New York, you’ll enjoy reading this. It’s plausible, too, that even if you didn’t like Synecdoche, but you respected what its internal circuitry attempted to say, then you’ll appreciate what turns and ticks within the software of “Still Life, With Wreckage”.
There are several tiny treatments in the detailing of the narrative that demand our focus, and our consideration. There’s the way in which Lowell’s second son’s sunglasses are light blue, the same colour used to describe Carlos’ eyes. There’s the deliberate loss of Carlos in proximity to the People Eater installment at the amusement park, a detail that renders as injected with painful irony, until it’s repeated by the security guard who tends to their case, so that it becomes both literarily ironic and bitterly humorous. There’s the muted horror of never knowing the fate of the woman who, hysteria-stricken, rips her breathing mask from its panel, to stare at it uselessly in her hands. There are stories within the minutiae begging to be told. Not telling them, but hinting at them with just enough detail to be maddening, suits the short fiction form eminently, and Campos employs it in full force here.
What moves the most, ultimately, is Lowell’s muddled, conflictingly articulated self-perception. Everything around him, every event he absorbs by being a part of it, from losing Carlos by the happenstance of his arachnophobia, to confronting his financial ruin through a candid confessional with the portrait of a plantation owner in his bedroom, holds the uncomfortable quality of being easily applicable to events we’ve each of us faced or fled from. What is most upsetting, and rewarding, to consider, is that Lowell’s life, its most colossally tragic, ludicrously uncertain structure, is our combined existence. His life has no backspace button, just like ours, and just like him, we march on irredeemably, resolutely, with as much grace as we can muster when our own fuselage tears loose.
You can read “Still Life, With Wreckage” by Paulo Campos here. (The Incongruous Quarterly)
This week, the lovely Jennifer of Books, Personally, shares her thoughts on “Sinners” by Edna O’Brien, here. Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, proprietress of Fat Books and Thin Women, is currently on blogging hiatus.
Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.