Monday, August 23, 2010

short-a-day: dagoberto gilb's "please, thank you"

originally published in harpers, june 2010. personal enjoyment rating out of 100: 99.

stunt writing can be a dangerous thing. drop down to short declarative sentences and strip out everything but full-stop punctuation and commas and you had better have something to back your writing up. especially since it will be harder to read. but what if the narrator is a stroke-victim who is having difficulty communicating and is at first tragically unaware of that fact?

if i tried to say something, they started asking the same questions. what is your name? what is the date? where were you born? like that. or sometimes, como te llamas? que es la fecha de hoy? like im from mexico and just crossed, not american like them. im from here! ill bet my familys been here longer than yours! i was semper fi, cabron, and then i was an ironworker for ten years, were you? always, always has made me so mad, even if i dont say it out loud to these people here.
thats some good indignation right there. this is hardly deconstructionalist fiction and its actually easy to follow on account of this strongly opinionated voice. if at times the repetition feels indulgent or the grammatical choices frustrate the reader, you need only read a little further for a clear-true line like this: "night, that is, early, early morning. nobody can really be feeling good to be awake, to be alive, then.... they turn on a light when it is supposed to be sleep-time dark." the perspective is unique and its also humbling, which is fiction firing on all cylinders:
i have to move my right leg right. bend it, pick up my toe. pick up my toe. dont hyperextend. she grabs my knee. now go on. go. pick up my toe and put it out in front and dont do this. thats good. thats good. dont go so far back. dont try to go so fast. step. step. step. not like that. stop that. dont hyperextend. better. better.
this is language that you can feel. if this is not what it feels like to be trapped by a stroke but also hopeful of pulling through it then it is at least a good approximation of it for the layman. and so every detail counts, like the insistence that he buckle up in the wheelchair and that he keep his hands on the armrest lest he lose his fingers: "my right arm often hangs too limp and casual near the spoke wheels of the rolling chair." and gilb is careful not to make it all technical details on the different types of rehabilitation. we get glimpses of our narrators racism when he tries to assess the number of anglo people in the hospital. we see his jealousy when he hangs out with his two children but cannot help noticing the far more popular woman across the hall.

if gilb has a weakness, it is that he overexplains his concept. near the end, the narrator explains the format of this manuscript because as a one-handed typist, he cannot hit shift and a letter, and he will not have someone else correct it because he is proud. but this goes a little too far: "even by staring right down at the keys, i type y for t often, for instance, or o for p. i make extra letters where they dont belong, or i forget letters or spaces. i could make caps. not easy, bt i could. and apostropke.s. see those mistakes? im noy fixing them to show my point." but let me tell you, just transcribing that for my own purposes here? that conveys a lesson in patience just as well as the laborious reading of this story, and it is a lesson well worth learning.

as for the ending, well, there's a learned acceptance in the once gruff narrator too. where he once felt prodded and used like meat, he will now miss "sleepy stephanie." and he recognizes now that "were all moving onward. tomorrow someone else here." gilb has taken anecdotes, facts, experiences, and feelings and he has synthesized them into a complete whole; fiction, but not really. i love this one, flaws and all.

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