Chimera Song Mosaic
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
I just finished Oscar Casares’s new collection of stories, Brownsville. He’s from Brownsville, which means he’s from the Valley, if you don’t know where Brownsville is. Its mirror city is Matamoras, Mexico, and I’m sure everybody’s heard of that.
(Brownsville is about an hour east of me toward the gulf, but I rarely go there except to go a bit further to get to the beach, although my office mate, Jenny, lives in Harlingen (this side of Brownsville). Damn, I need to call Jenny and find out what she’s been up to.)
But I really wanted to mention the stories. They are good and pretty exciting to read. However, the most interesting ones are (strangely enough) not about interesting things but about very normal, day to day things, like borrowing tools from your neighbor and forgetting to return them (one of my favorite stories, “RG,” is about this specifically). In fact, he has a couple of neighbor stories, and my absolute favorite has to be “Charro,” which is about a dumb and happy dog that becomes the neighborhood nuisance (this is especially relevant to me because I have started walking my dogs three times a week early in the morning, and somebody is soon going to figure out who is responsible for those massive piles. I’m going to have to start bagging it).
I would say, then, that the stories explore the dark side of normalcy, but I don’t want to make them sound clichéd because they are better than that. But that’s exactly what happens as the stories unfold slowly (their pace is slow, sometimes deliciously and perfectly so and sometimes frustratingly so) and each regular guy character discovers that the life that he thought was so acceptably average is actually falling apart, dissolving just under the surface, like the way rust forms over time in a rain bucket.
Casares is really good at capturing these guys in the precise moment when they realize this about themselves. Expect lots of introspection, but of a quiet, gentle, numbing kind rather than the sharp and painful epiphany. He even made me think about myself and what kind of person I am—more than once, but especially in the story about the neighbor who borrows the hammer: Are you the kind of person who loans things out with the expectation they will be returned promptly and prides him/herself on retuning borrowed things before the lender has to ask for them? Or are you the type of person who is free with his or her material things, loaning and borrowing without a moment’s thought, rarely returning what is borrowed (perhaps establishing a degree of personal possessiveness over the object) and forgetting what is given away? I would label these two types of people as: nervous/uptight/responsible & careless/inconsiderate/generous. I feel like I have been both in my life so far.
I don’t want to give much away about the collection because I hope people read these stories. They are from small-town America, with a twist—not many stoires out there come from the border (at least not the Texas border). I’m not going to claim that reading this collection will let you know what it’s like to live in the Rio Grande Valley—in fact, with most references to environment a side note rather than a main course, it’s not exactly what I would call regional writing. Which is refreshing. I don’t think that good stories have to be regional or that the author should feel like he or she has the burden of providing the reader with all the tools and exposition necessary to understand ever singal phrase or nuance just because he or she is writing from a perspective that is underrepresented in the literary world. It’s nice, but not necessary, to have footnotes.
In fact, Casares’s approach to the use of Spanish in his writing is one that I approve of. He throws some Spanish words and South Texas slang in there liberally, especially in dialogue, and he neither translates it nor explains it. You get it from context. Or at least, I think readers get it from context; I was able to understand all but a few words and phrases, and those that I didn’t understand I got from context. Maybe this approach is a little more frustrating for non-Spanish readers, but since Spanish is so widely spoken in the U.S., most people are at least familiar with the sounds of it if not the actual meanings.
Also, Casares does not italicize the Spanish words, so this could potentially annoy readers, but I think it’s a good idea, too, because who wants to read every Spanish word with dramatic emphasis? As long as a second language is scattered throughout the story or poem (and not just one word, for example), I say just leave it in regular type.
Marisa and I saw Casares read at Barnes & Noble about two months ago, and I’m not afraid to mention that he is a cutie. Unfortunately, readings at our new Barnes & Noble are so poorly planned that they are difficult to enjoy or even understand. The readers and audience are crammed into a tiny section with a few chairs (always fewer than required) right next to the children’s books section. This is a problem because, like Pat the Bunny, there must be books called Sound the Fire Alarm because that’s what kept happening throughout the whole reading—some kid kept slapping the fire truck button on a silly book. It was very noisy.
One other thing that I wanted to say about the collection is that it is arranged perfectly. There are three sections, and each one has a title that sounds a little too dramatic and fortune-cookie-like at first, but the titles deliver in a big way. They provide an arc for the three stories contained within each title, and this gives the book a hip, cohesive feel. I haven’t read many ultra contemporary short story collections, so I wonder if this is a new trend in story collections. I have noticed that many of the poetry collections recently winning prizes tend to have a very cohesive feel rather than a loose collection of poems of various forms and impetus. So, is it essential that poetry (and story) collections today have some kind of thematic or substantial arch? I wonder who can answer this question. Who to ask. I pose it to the general readers!