“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” by Gabriel García Márquez

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“But I’m going to die,” Erendira said.
“My mother says that people who die in the desert don’t go to heaven but to the sea,” Ulises said.

“I never saw the sea,” she said.
“It’s like the desert but with water,” said Ulises.
“Then you can’t walk on it.”
“My father knew a man who could,” Ulises said, “but that was a long time ago.”

I’ve struggled to come up with an angle with which to write about Gabriel García Márquez’s story “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” My lack of familiarity with the work of Márquez (this is just the second piece of his that I’ve read) and with the history of Latin America puts me at a distinct disadvantage when trying to come up with any thoughts regarding this 16,000-plus-word novella. That’s not to say that it’s not an engaging story without the background; it’s just that it takes some getting used to this “magical realist” world in which women are changed into spiders for disobeying their parents, oranges are grown with diamonds inside, and those in love can change the color of glass with just a touch.

Despite such whimsy threaded through the story, “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is ultimately quite bleak. You could say that it finishes with a happy ending, but Eréndira experiences more than her share of misfortune throughout. Portentous omens and harsh treatment fill the piece with an overwhelming sense of sadness and darkness. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story with such a perfectly descriptive title (except for maybe the only other Márquez story I’ve read, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”). Just as Márquez imbues his story with solemn fantasy, the character of Ulises is told that he liked for “the serious way” he “make[s] up nonsense.” In my ignorance, I suppose that part of the author’s genius is his ability to weave a story together with threads of shadowed myths and half-remembered fairy tales. This allusive effect serves to mesh the familiar with the strange, the real with the fantastic. And this is where I found my approach to write about “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”—it’s a world of extremes circling back on themselves, opposites joining in space.

To my untrained mind, the main extremes of the story are the desert and the sea. It can hardly be an accident that the name of Ulises (according to him, “a sailor name”) recalls that of perhaps the most mythic sailor of all. But while Odysseus spent much of his story out at sea, the myth is ultimately one of escaping the sea—just as Eréndira (and her grandmother) are both desperately seeking to escape the desert. While the surface of this tale exposes a love story between the two star-crossed youths, the deeper undercurrent is one of two ships passing in the night.

Though the sea is presented as respite from “the impunity of the desert” (which “belongs to no one” except, perhaps, God), the imagery Márquez presents of the sea can be confounding. This starts with description of the grandmother as a “handsome white whale” with shoulders “so mercilessly tattooed as to put sailors to shame.” Furthermore, it is unclear if Márquez is equating the sea with heaven in the quotation that preceded this post, and the issue is even further muddied by the “envoy from the eternal life who announced the imminent coming of the fearsome astral bat, whose burning brimstone breath would overturn the order of nature and bring the mysteries of the sea to the surface.” What mysteries are these? Would this be the Second Coming or would it be Armageddon? Most evocative is the grandmother’s description of Eréndira’s father celebration of Eréndira’s birth:

[he] was so happy that afternoon that he sent for twenty carts loaded with flowers and arrived strewing them along the street until the whole village was gold with flowers like the sea.

This is all not to mention the angelic qualities of Ulises (the son of a Dutchman), who is described as having “an unreal aura about him and he seemed to be visible in the shadows because of the very glow of his beauty.” Additionally, apparently his grandfather had wings (was his grandfather an angel? Was he the old man from “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” who disappeared and became “an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea”?). This story brings up more questions than it answers.

“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” continues its dreamlike admixture of opposites with language that at times contrasts the waking life and dream life, the world of animals and the world of humans, civil authority with military authority, religious power with temporal power, light and dark, Guajiro Indians with those with Spanish ancestors, and so much more that you begin to feel the story is a clear-cut fable of good and evil. The ending is problematic, however, as Eréndira, freed from “the spell that had dominated her since birth,” escapes both her dead grandmother and Ulises, heading away from her misfortune:

Without turning her head she ran past the salt-peter pits, the talcum craters, the torpor of the shacks, until the natural science of the sea ended and the desert began, but she still kept on running with the gold vest beyond the arid winds and the never-ending sunsets and she was never heard of again nor was the slightest trace of her misfortune ever found.

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“Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” by Yo La Tengo

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It’s easy to be quiet
But harder than it seems

The band Yo La Tengo is no stranger to long songs, or to this blog. This 10-minute-plus mix of pop hook and distortion-filled drive finds the band reaching its maturity. I probably say this about a lot of songs, but it’s very hard not to get caught up in the marching rhythm section of this song, overlaid as it is with noisy guitar licks and half-mumbled lyrics. I think the lyrics posted above present not only a thesis for this song, but Yo La Tengo itself (as well as many similar bands, such as Short Reads and Long Songs favorite Low). I scheduled this post to publish in the morning, because there are few other songs I can think of that can kickstart your day and give you the confidence to take on any waterslide in your way. Enjoy.

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“The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender

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“Ben,” I whisper, “do you remember me? Do you remember?”

In one of those sublime coincidences that can only occur by picking books randomly off the shelf, today’s story picks up nicely where Robert Coover’s “Going for a Beer” left off. The lead story in Aimee Bender’s debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, “The Rememberer” explores memory, time, and love in only a few pages, just as Coover’s story does. Where Coover collapses a single life into itself and blends the past and future into a single moment, Bender takes this conceit even further, compressing all of human evolution into a few months. In a poignant twist, however, Bender reverses the evolution, but for just one half of a loving couple.

Just as the narrator of “Going for a Beer” seemed to experience a mounting anhedonia as hours became days and days became years, the reverse-evolver of “The Rememberer”, Ben, “was always sad about the world.” This ever-present sadness seems to precipitate his regression from man to ape to turtle to salamander and beyond; his all-too-human overthinking ends up preventing pure enjoyment of the moment. Unable to stay in the present and ignoring his “out-of-print special-ordered book on civilization”, Ben reverts to the thoughtlessness of biology, the primalness of being. The primary tension in “The Rememberer” is between living in the moment and remembering the past. Are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? If so, what do we lose by choosing one over the other?

These two poles are neatly represented in the story by Ben, choosing thoughtless experience of time (in reverse), and his lover, the narrator, Annie. In contrast to Ben’s frustration with human ideas and expression (“He said he hated talking and just wanted to look into my eyes and tell me things that way”), it takes effort and concentration for Annie to let go. She tries hard to “to dream up to the stars, but” she doesn’t “know how to do that.” She strives to remember her and Ben’s shared past just as he is bypassing it through devolution. “The Rememberer” investigates, in just over 1300 words, what it means to be a human animal and whether it is possible to embrace your conclusion without giving up that which matters most to you. What are the limits of love, of memory? How does one resolve the inherent conflict between the ephemerality of love and human life with the timelessness of evolution and memory? Can love be eternal in a world where our lives are a string of half-remembered shared moments that appear meaningless compared to march of time?

Enough questions. Despite the ambivalence inherent in the story, narrator Annie expresses her goals explicitly: “I review my memories and make sure they’re still intact because if [Ben’s] not here, then it is my job to remember.” We’re left to grapple with the conundrum of remembering direct engagement with the present. We, as humans, have minds evolved to remember and contemplate our lives as containers, ready to fill with memories. But are memories without context just “ingredients but no container”? And alternatively, is life without memories simply the opposite, an inert skull waiting to be filled?

The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender, published in the Missouri Review (Fall 1997) and in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) by Anchor Books

“The Sun Roars Into View” by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld

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Last night I heard a fantastic long song while listening to Q on the radio. Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld were interviewed and played “The Sun Roars Into View”. Both musicians collaborate frequently with Arcade Fire in addition to their solo work.

This particular song drones and cycles, but it ends up taking you to unexpected places. Give a listen.

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“Going for a Beer” by Robert Coover

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I went for a beer, Dad, things happened.

Time and memory go hand in hand. Time seemingly exists mainly as we remember the passage of it; we fill the empty spaces of the past with memories, which contract as our past expands. Just as the universe is apparently expanding into the infinite, so does time. Both our past and our future recede into the distance, the gaps between events growing longer at the same time as our lifelines collapse upon themselves. The days are long and the years are short…

In Robert Coover’s “Going for a Beer”, which appeared in The New Yorker in 2011, time is not so much played with as compressed into a single, cycling moment. Just as important, however, is the narrator’s conflation of remembrance and anticipation. As discussed by Deborah Treisman and Joshua Ferris on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, the mixing of past and present significantly reduces the narrator’s agency. Not only has he lost agency, he seems to have lost memory.

Without agency, without memory, what is time? Coover deftly and magnificently examines time in “Going for a Beer”, folding a single life into just over 1000 words. The key to the story is one-step-back-two-steps-forward repetition of the story that creates the inevitability found solely in hindsight. The story’s treatment of time is laid out in the first sentence:

He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one.

As the first beer becomes the third, a second date becomes a fourth, and a young man becomes old, we are reminded of all the fence posts that demarcate our lives.

The child she bears him, his or another’s, reminds him, as if he needed reminding, that time is fast moving on.

At the same time, however, the obliteration of context–both by the length of the story and the fogginess of the narrator’s memory–renders these life events both mundane and tragic. The most poignant question that the story raises is, What happens to pleasure and satisfaction if anticipation and memory are blurred together? As Deborah Treisman says,

When I read it, I experience deep anxiety…At the same time, I think there’s this very pervasive cynicism or nihilism to this story. This portrait of life as a stream of beers and orgasms that you can’t remember.

While “Going for a Beer” hinges on a formal experiment, it really is unpacking the idea “that life is short and brutal.” According to Treisman, the author said that “basically every life could be shrunk down to a few words and you find yourself on your death bed saying, ‘Where did the time go? How did I get here so fast?'” And Treisman and Ferris epigrammatically sum up the moral of the story: “Remember your beers, remember your orgasms, stop and smell the roses. Pay attention. Be present.”

A story about time and the collapse of a life upon itself is a great way to mark my return to blogging about short fiction. In little more than 1000 words, Robert Coover has, as Joshua Ferris puts it, written a story that “because of its brevity and because of the breadth of its subject you almost get a kind of painterly effect [with] everything…contained at almost only a glance.” I feel this is the highest praise for the short short story. An image, in a fog, beginning to dissipate as soon as you start to take it in.

Read “Going for a Beer” by Robert Coover at The New Yorker‘s website.

Listen to “Going for a Beer” by Robert Coover read by Joshua Ferris and discussed by Ferris and The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.