This Week in Short Fiction
Story|Houston published a beautiful story this week in their Fall 2014 issue, all of which centers around the theme of family, functional or otherwise. “Termites” tells the story of Tamara, aka Tam or Tam-Tam, a youngish woman living in and trying to take care of/sell her family’s childhood home on Staten Island. As you might guess from the title though, Tam is failing at keeping the house together. The cards are stacked against her from almost every angle. She’s working two jobs—one at Sears and the other as a temporary Census taker. She is sick with an illness she doesn’t tell her father or brother about or fully go into, though a quick Google search of her meds suggests HIV or AIDS. Also, the back end of the house butts up against a cemetery. Also, the house might be haunted.
There is great sadness and a shadow of death in this story—the word “die” appears eight times. Yet, still, there is Tam’s father on the phone, fabricating stories of his own beginnings coupled with Tam’s sassy, straight man replies that are guaranteed to make you laugh. The whole story sings because of the voice that speaks it. The narrator carries her father’s laughter like violence within but also bears witness to the crumbling house and feels the full weight of losing her past. When her father gives her shit for her negligence, we get this:
“It’s embarrassing the way you take care of that house. Ever think about that?”
“All of the time,” I said.
And I did.
I thought about the carpet my father had laid with his own hands, and the wainscot he’d nailed into the walls, and how now when I tapped them they sounded hollow.
Here and throughout, Clemente lays down her words from a tight purse, like coins on a candy counter. And Clemente’s voice grips readers as we bear silent witness, hoping there’s enough to see Tam through to something sweeter.
As writers though, can we say what voice is? Can we define it? It’s one thing that MFA programs seem unable to bottle and prescribe for their writers. Graywolf Press’s brilliant The Art of craft series has promised a book for years from ZZ Packer on The Art of Voice that might one day help us try to explain it better. For now, let’s try this from a recent essay at The Millions where Darcey Steinke relays a path to voice that Barry Hannah had shared with her: “finding your own past, your people and the conditions you’ve observed close to you, valuable.”
In “Termites” Clemente seems to have sung right in line with her tuning fork by Hannah’s definition, and while this looks to be Clemente’s first publication, hopefully it’s just the beginning of stories to come from this exciting new voice.
On Tuesday, the New Yorker finally pulled the plug on their quarter-year all-you-can-read buffet of archives back to 2007. Moving forward, Internet cruisers get access to clicking and reading 6 stories, articles, blog posts, editorials, etc. per month. After that point, access will be denied unless you pay the subscription fee, which currently runs at 12 weeks of print issues and full online access for $12.00, a rate that feels extremely fair considering all that you get, as Matt Buchanan further explains at The Awl.
If you want to use one of your freebies or already happen to be a subscriber, The New Yorker archives just happen to house an important story about a soldier returning home that seems appropriate this Veteran’s Day week. We’re speaking of George Saunders’s “Home,” also in his New York Times bestselling collection, The Tenth of December (2013). Saunders puts us in the mind of Mikey, a Silver Star soldier returning to a life that has mostly moved on without him. As he does, Saunders flaunts the absurdity that comes at Mikey, absurdity we only wish weren’t quite so true. Saunders also delivers a line that tears right out of the story and grabs us by the throat with its conviction, “…you sent me, now bring me back.”