Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Short-a-Day: Leslie Jamison's "Quiet Men"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 82.

We sat like grade-schoolers, barely touching. Neither one of us spoke. I pointed out the couple and we watched them change their baby's diaper against the fallen lights of the city. I felt the summer break into things I could hold in one palm: a bent cigarette and a steaming sweet-corn pie, my own tombstone carved in fog-chilled chocolate. A note saying: Slut. A note saying: So? There were ash-speckled jackets all over those days, and Coke bottles collecting rain. I had a glass and it broke. I crushed a moth and it died. I had a month, but it ended. I had a heart. It remained.

That quote right there is the story, and it makes for a terrific punchline of an ending. I'm not sure it needed all twenty-six preceding pages, but Jamison's writing is romantic enough that I'm willing to cut her some slack. For better or worse, Jamison's chosen a sort of prose pantoum form, mirroring that of the first lonely man, the poet who breaks her character's heart at the start of the story. Though lines don't literally repeat (save a few), the themes do -- our character meets a man, one of them treats the other poorly, their relationship ends -- and that quoted ending is a collection of images and memories from each of the men encountered in that month (and in this story). The dialogue is snappy and the observations are original; the story's only real flaw is in feeling bloated or, occasionally, too clever (though considering that that's one of the reasons for breaking up, perhaps it's justified).

Some of the men come across like sketches of vignettes:

My inventions were like sketch-marks, connecting dots to form a made-up life. But his inventions! They were different, as if he'd taken the vast surface of a childhod, an entire loneliness, and distilled it into a single object. Something almost invisible. Something inevitably sad.

On the flip-side, some of the story does a fine job of distilling these various encounters into that sad loneliness, and, by the ending, succeeds in converting it away from laughed-at encounters with cat ladies to something hopeful; our protagonist takes an action and stops looking out windows and at the euphemistic fire-escapes that her poet writes of. "Love is terrible," she insists to the final man in the chain, a mechanic named Maurice. "Terrible," he replies. "That's one of those words that sounds strange once you say it too many times. Terrible, terrible, terrible." The spell is broken as the story comes around full circle to the idea of nonsense introduced earlier by the poet: "Maybe that's what we need nonsense for . . . a sort of broken language for joy."

It's not easy to write about love, or even around love, so kudos to Jamison for playing around with the form; the lengthy lumps that remain are all so easily forgiven.

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