Table of Contents
Three or four stories into Michael Jeffrey Lee's
Something in My Eye
âI believe it was right after I read the phrase “The motel had complimentary toilet paper”âthat I became aware of feeling what I can only describe as a rush of gratitude, pure and simple. Specifically, I felt grateful that a press like Sarabande exists, so that this remarkable story collection will be able to go out in the world and find other grateful readers.
Mavis Gallant, who is among the very greatest short-story writers of this (or any) century, has said that stories should not be read one after another, but one at a time, with pauses in between. In the pauses between reading the stories in
Something in My Eye
I was reading them, because they held my full attentionâI had begun to imagine a conversation. This fantasy discussion seemed to be taking place between a literary editor at a mainstream publishing house, a real reader who admired the singular voice of a writer, let's say Michael Jeffrey Lee, and a person from the marketing department, who had a very different opinion. I kept hearing what the marketing person would say, the adjectives predicting why this book might have an especially difficult journey from the point of origin to the point of sale and into the hands of the consumer.
Here's how that side of the conversation might go: Too dark. Too strange. Too disturbing. Too many of the characters are not automatically sympathetic. You certainly don't want to date them or go out for a beer with them after yoga class or working out at the gym. Worse still, it's hard to find another bookâanother book that made moneyâthat one can compare this to, another book that this collection more or less exactly resembles.
All of which is true, and all of which is why I so admire
Something in My Eye
. Of course I would eliminate the “too” in front of dark and strange and disturbing. The other objectionsâexcessive originality and characters about whom we may have mixed feelingsâare in my opinion major recommendations. I myself don't read to meet more people I'd want to date or have a beer with.
I was drawn to Michael Jeffrey Lee's lineup of loners and drifters, imperiled children, and haunted psychos neither because I want to hang out with these bad boys, nor because I plan to cross the street when I see them coming, but because the invitation to inhabit their minds, to see the world through their eyes, and to watch their often unsettling stories play out in space and time enables Lee to do all sorts of extremely interesting things with consciousness and language. If I failed to mention the marketing person's discomfort with the loopy off-key humor, perhaps it's because I wasn't sure if he or she would even register how funny these stories frequently are.
Allow me to quote from the passage that, for me, sealed the deal. It appears in the story “If We Should Ever Meet,” which is narrated by a man who had been fired from his job for reasons unrelated to the private hell he's been inhabiting because he semi-lied about seeing a man jump from the roof of his office building. Even as our hero goes through the motions of moving to a new town and “starting over,” he is haunted by memories of a brother who, before he was redeployed and killed in battle, used to lead the family in a “vague and kind of ominous” song he'd written about
meeting strangers, a song which the family found “controversial” because they weren't strangers but close relations.
In the mornings I would shower and shave with a disposable razor and soap, which was sometimes tricky because I tend to grow hair inconsistently, at inordinate speeds along different parts of my face. The motel had complimentary toilet paper, so I was able to staunch any of my cuts with little folded scraps before I left my room. One day though, I was in such a hurry that I cut myself under my nose, bad enough that I had to ask the manager nicely for a Band-Aid. People gave me nasty looks on the bus that morning, and I only figured out why, when, after I had filled out an application at a coffee shop and was using the bathroom in the back, I noticed that I had a pretty sizable amount of blood in my teeth, which I wasn't able to taste because of the cinnamon gum I was chewing. My brother's song went something like:
If we should ever meet, I will kindly take your hand. If we should ever meet, I will cudgel every lamb. If we should ever meet, I will wear my cleanest gown. If we should ever meet, I will set fire to this town. If we should ever meet, I will deny those close to me. If we should ever meet, I will feign to disagree.
It's hard to explain precisely why I found this passage thrilling. Either you get it or you don't. But it did make me wonder why my imaginary person from marketing didn't seem to consider the existence and tastes of readers like myself, who are drawn a literary experience that sends one's brain on a sort of roller-coaster joy ride careening from sentence to sentence. I enjoy the suspense of not knowing where a phrase or a thought will end up, let alone an entire story. I like trusting that the destination to which I'll be taken will be rewarding, and that it won't be anywhere I would have thought to go on my own.
Another story, “The New Year,” takes place on the bank of a river where an even further down-on-his luck narrator is living on a couch that literally fell off the back of a truck and over the side of a bridge in the course of a catastrophic auto wreck. As the story opens, our hero is bathing in the river and listing all the things he has to be thankful for.
1. The recent return of my health.
2. The range of my mobility.
3. The fact that there was always someone listening to my prayers.
4. The fact that I had not been murdered at any time the past year.
5. My couch.
At the end of the story the narrator explains why he has troubled us with this narrative that involves (among other things) his odd manner of life, a meeting with a stranger, a suicide, and what may strike us as a uniquely dada approach to political campaigning. “I want to end this positively . . . because I know that these kinds of moments are the only things people remember from the stories that they hear. I want to leave you feeling good. But however you feel, good or bad, for some reason, right now, I feel the need to tell you that, selfish as it might seem, the most important reason why I am telling this is because I want you to remember me.”
Reading the stories in
Something in My Eye
, you will want to tell this character and his creator: Don't worry. I do feel better. And I won't forget you.
was seated comfortably in a bright room, surrounded by cameras and microphones and the people who pointed them. On a table before me, just as I had requested, they had placed a glass of spring water and a plate of decadent cheeses. I had contacted every major news outlet I could find the day before, telling themâshould they offer enough moneyâthat I would consent to a taped interview on the subject of the perpetrator. Normally I would have tried to abstain from capitalizing on an atrocity, but I was unemployed at the time, and a bit frustrated with the direction my life had recently taken, and so, after considering the exorbitant sums that they offered, and imagining all the ways in which the money would help me get back on track, I decided that it would be an act of incredible pride to turn them down, and so complied.
“It's hard to believe that only twenty-four hours have passed since the incident,” they said.
“Yes,” I said, “when I close my eyes, all I see are the faces of the dead and missing.” This was true. I had found it difficult to sleep the night before.
“It will haunt us all for many years to come,” they offered.
“It?” I said.
“The event yesterday,” they said.
“Something new will replace it,” I said. I ate a piece of cheese.
“Tell us how you knew Buddy.”
“Buddy was my roommate.”
“We understand that you and Buddy had other roommates. . . .”
“Oh yes,” I said. “But they lived in different parts of the house. Have you spoken to them?”
“They've agreed to talk,” they said, “but you're our first, among those who knew him. We were told you knew him best.”
“I knew him fairly well,” I said. “We had different schedules.”
“So you shared a room with Buddy?”
“Yes,” I said. “Our beds were on opposite sides of the room, next to our desks.”
“Was it your decision to arrange the room this way?”
“I suppose. I guess that it was.”
“Did you see Buddy yesterday morning?”
“Do you mean the morning of the atrocity?” I asked.
“It will be difficult for us to continue this interview if the word âatrocity' is repeatedly used. Many of us have friends who have friends who have friends who perished in the . . . yesterday.”
“I'll try to work around it,” I said.
“You seem a bit detached, given the trauma of the last twenty-four hours.”
“My grief and anger are packed so tightly inside me,” I said, “they might take a few minutes to loosen themselves.”
“Take us through yesterday morning.”
“Well,” I said, “when I opened my eyes from sleep, Buddy was performing jumping jacks in the middle of the room. He liked to do them very slowly. He would raise his pale arms and clap them together. He was very steady. Are you familiar with the paleness of his skin?”
“It is very pale,” they said. “What else did you perceive?”
“Sometimes, during his jumping jacks, his hands wouldn't meet each other and his wrists would slap together.”
“There seems something symbolic in that action,” they said. “A circle closing, then reopening. The hands slapping against each other, eager for something to do. The very hands that would later that day. . . . How did you fail to pick up on it?”
“I suppose you have a point,” I said, “but I focused on the beauty of his movements, nothing more. Is that acceptable? I feel as if I'm on the witness stand.” I was trying to stretch the interview as long as possible, because several of them had offered to pay me by the minute instead of a single lump sum. At this point in our conversation, beneath the table on which my water and cheese lay, I had uncapped my pen and begun scribbling on the palm of my hand.