Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: T. C. Boyle's "The Silence"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

I've long since stopped trying to guess what sort of story T. C. Boyle's going to tell me. You can pick up his marvelous collection of a hundred stories and mistake it for an anthology of writers; it's only in comparison to the teaching anthology he edited, Doubletakes, that you realize it's not. But enough about my admiration of his craft: "The Silence" is another winner, a strange, exotic (and erotic) story of reinvention, with the fantastically named Jeremy Clutter, 43, giving up his life (and his first marriage, wife, twins, and all) to become Ashoka (Sanskrit for "Without Sadness"), the newlywed husband of Karuna ("the former Sally Barlow Townes of Chappaqua, New York"). How bland and ordinary their names and lives seem, compared with this--their three year, three month, and three day meditative sojourn in the desert, a "retreat, under the guidance of Geshe Stephen O'Dowd andlama Katie Capolupo." No, for a moment his choice is totally logical, especially with the first section "Dragonfly" (each has a one-word title) promising such a poetic reunderstanding of the world: "I am the karmic representation of the insect world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba!"

Boyle has so much to work with, in fact, that the bits of exposition are not only welcome, but seem just as mystical as anything else, and that's a storytelling skill well worth savoring. Also, his choice to title each section helps him compact the message of each: it's not just a section about a yurt or the cooking of chickpeas: it's about a man's attempt to find a new truth and communication with his wife, and the abstinent lengths he will go to in order to maintain and preserve that unspoken ideal. Especially as the outside world threatens to break in: Ashoka almost breaks his oath upon scalding his hand; Karuna almost gives up after seeing a mocking tarantula. When Ashoka is instructed to greet the bimonthly water truck ("Geshe Stephen repeated the performance, putting a little more grit and a little less holiness into it.... Finally, exasperated, the Geshe pulled a notepad and pencil from his pocket and scrawled his redemptive message") , the young delivery boy's casual chatter isn't just alien--it's painful. It's a reminder, too, that being alien is entirely subjective:

In that moment, rising, he caught a glimpse of himself in the big blazing slab of the truck's side-view mirror and it was as if he'd been punched in the chest. What he saw reflected there was the exact likeness of one of the pretas, the restive spirits doomed to parch and starve because of their attachments to past lives, his hair white as death and flung out to every point of the compass, his limbs like sticks, his face seared like a hot dog left too long on the grill.
Most remarkable, of course, is that Boyle's able to accomplish so much doubling in such a short story. Ashoka has a second encounter with the outside world when his twins come to visit (twice a year); Karuna has a second encounter with nature (a rattlesnake, this time). Ashoka encounters literal aliens (the immigrant kind) crossing the desert; he also has a second run in with that dragonfly, which, this time, carries quite a different message after all the "enlightenment" he's gotten so far. And, despite all the facts, this ending carries quite a bit of ambiguity, too, leaving us to decide what Ashoka does with this wisdom. Will he open his mouth and scream? Will he carry that silence inside him, somehow stronger, at least to himself? We have struggled through the story with this man, and Boyle has made us care enough to feel that the journey is, in some way, our own. Especially in conjunction with the medium: for where else do you find meditative, reinventing silence other than in the contemplative reading of a short story?

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