Sunday, August 15, 2010

Short-a-Day: Maile Chapman's "Bit Forgive"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 45.

I like lyric magical realism, but for that reason, I am perhaps overly critical of the liberties it takes with its foundations. The grounding Chapman gives for his story is in the icily friendly rivalry between two Finlanders, Bennet and his friend Niklas, over the flirtatious Ninne. Right off the bat, he excuses himself: "This morning I received a letter ostensibly from my friend Niklas Nummelin, fifteen years almost to the day since the accidental sinking of his ship and his presumed death by drowning...." Disclaimers like "ostensibly" and "presumed" allow for the following structure, in which Bennet reads more of Niklas's letter, then responds to it. By the end, we are led to believe that a suicidal Ninne is the one who has written this letter, what with the anniversary of the Bit Forgive's sinking right around the corner. This is a good choice, but the steady revelations of their shared past are far from absorbing, and Ninne remains too much of a cipher for us to understand her mourning for the dead man (nor "his" for her).

"There is a tension between the past and the present. It is a cruel fact, easily recognizable whenever someone new picks up the unfinished work of someone who has gone before, completing it in their absence." This marks the turning point in Chapman's short story, where he goes from descriptive sequences to a sort of introspective moralizing. It's too early for this shift, though. The life of Bennet's memories and descriptions are the balance for Niklas's deadening dreamscape: "She tapped her foot first against my leg, and then against Niklas's, and every few minutes she stole a sip of my drink and swallowed a whole mustard herring from a shining silver dish." That's the last we'll see of the lively Ninne; from here on out, she is treated as a prisoner, and so is the reader.

I am drawn to the creepy originality in Chapman's work, and he's got rich talent for horrid parallels, such as the way in which the dead Niklas recounts how he went about transforming Ninne's sunken house (don't ask) into a home of fragments and possibility, a mirror the world he set out on the Bit Forgive to earn. But although he states that "I didn't know whether I was just above the water or just under it--the surface looks the same from either side," the story doesn't show enough of the similarity between the men and the worlds they possess; the entirety of the fiction turns to death, which chokes the remaining possibilities.

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