Friday, August 13, 2010

Short-a-Day: Corinna Vallianatos's "A Civilizing Effect"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 57.

"You haven't had a civilizing effect on me," says the ex-husband of our fifty-five-year-old protagonist, Edith, and the theme of the story is in her response to that unfairness: "as if there existed in men a special, tangled kind of wilderness that women were bound to unknot." So it is that Edith finds herself with Pete, who does a weird sort of sleepwalking called "confusional arousal," and which--at its wildest, shirt-cutting moment--leads him to sink into a depression, an irritation that he cannot inhabit his own wildness. Between these two men, Edith also sees her daughter, Cassandra, and her premie granddaughter, Titan. (The names are terrific.)

There are many good observations made in this vein by first-time writer Valliantos, and she handles the flashes between past and present (and Edith's own self-conscious close-third person narrative--"Her nipples looked like trammeled acorns") rather well. But then Pete starts openly talking about the "pitiful love" he has for her, and as he drives in circles around the bank where she works, Edith steps in front of the car. There's a rushed jump cut to the next day: Edith's leg in a cast, and she talks to the "aroused" part of the sleeping Pete, wondering if she should leave. There is an undercurrent, in the story, of the need for sudden movements, for the unexplained gesture, but the idea's a little raw in execution. Vallianatos is juggling too many other sub-normal things to really nail any of them.

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