Book by CHARLES BAXTER
A new Charles Baxter book is always cause for celebration. As a writer, I always learn a thing or two about craft while being provoked, moved, entertained, and unsettled. Baxter’s latest collection of stories, There’s Something I Want You To Do, serves his usual range of social commentary, humor, wisdom, and good yarn in multiple structures.
Baxter begins this one with an epigraph from Primo Levi’s The Reawakening about the Ten Commandments, also known as The Decalogue:
“…Nobody is born with a decalogue already formed… everyone builds his own… everybody’s moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography.”
Baxter has called this ten-story collection his decalogue, and it feels like his own deeply personal digest of experience.
The collection features ten stories titled after sins and virtues which the Ten Commandments pretty much covers: Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity,Forbearance (Part One) and Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Vanity (Part Two). In each story, the title vice/virtue is mentioned at least once. Though swept up in the telling, I kept pausing to locate the hot-button words, identify recurring characters (who aren’t always explicitly named), and/or anticipate whose story might be next.
As a rule, I love it when a writer makes me join his or her game. Still the book’s layout frustrated me at first. The story titles are printed only on the first page. As I read, I found myself flipping back to the beginning of a story to recall which vice or virtue we were concerned with. I even thought of sending the publisher or Baxter himself a note suggesting that the story titles be printed at the top of the page in a future edition.
I’ve since changed my mind.
The story titles are significant, the way road signs are significant. Yet they are not the point, at least not entirely. Story and title inform and infuse one another in a manner that does not require exact translation.
What does appear at the top of every righthand page is the collection’s title. There’s Something I Want You to Do. The words preside over the whole, and the reader never quite forgets their presence. There’s something I want you to do.
In May, at Grub Street’s Muse & The Marketplace 2015 conference in Boston, Baxter spoke about “request moments,” as “forces in narrative that make characters do what they do.”
Think about it. You’ll see how right he is. Parents, children, siblings, employees, employers, teachers, students, friends, spouses, the government, television ads, the UPS delivery person, the DMV clerk, Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door want something from us. And we want something from them.
“There’s something I want you to do” appears overtly or covertly in each story. Some requests are met, others not. In “Charity,” a man gets a request for shelter from his ex-wife, Corinne, who has become homeless, unkempt, and whose hair gives off “a fast-food odor.” “We have these obligations to our human ruins. What happened to her could’ve happened to me or to anybody,” Wes says.
The librarian Dolores in “Avarice” imagines that after she dies, there will be two rooms, one a place of “perpetual twilight” and “shabbiness,” where she “feels like a beggar,” and senses that “Something wants something” from her.
I believe this vague, abstract request should be read as a distillation of all the requests in the book, as well as the truly important requests people make of one another. Dolores comes to understand that in this room “all that is asked of [her] is love.” Each of the stories seeks the love or need for love behind the request and the response.
Baxter, the author of five novels, five short story collections, three collections of poems, two essays collections, and a craft book, also plainly, spins a damn good yarn.
There is humor. In “Chastity,” architect Benny Takemitsu views the young couple in the apartment next to his: “During the summer, when their windows were open, their prideful love-yelps acquired carrying power. One of these days, she’d get pregnant, and then her baby would do all the screaming.” In “Loyalty,” we learn from car mechanic Wes that his mother Dolores, a retired librarian, has tried to keep him from knowing that she in fact “was and is interested in extraterrestrials (although she is a registered Republican) and believes that Jesus will be back any day now.”
There is eloquence. In “Sloth,” pediatrician Elijah, ruminating on the aunt of one of his patients, a dying child, knows from years of experience that:
she, the aunt, was eager to assign blame to someone, starting with the pediatrician (himself), and then advancing up the scale of responsibility, to the radiologist, the surgeon, and at last God. With each new step the accusations would grow more unanswerable. Nevertheless, the arias of blame would soon begin, and they would have their predictable and characteristic melodies of resentment, rage, and malpractice… The lawyers would accompany her and provide the harmonizing chorus.”
Baxter examines the human animal through its environment, particularly, the American human animal. Thus, commenting on the rich woman who drove drunk from a gathering, struck and killed her husband, and then fled the scene, Dolores catalogues all the things the woman stood to lose if she’d taken responsibility for her actions. “… the blue Mercedes, and the big house in the suburbs, and the Royal Copenhagen china, and the Waterford crystal, and the swimming pool in back, and the health club membership, and the closet full of Manolo Blahnik shoes.”
Dolores observes that God’s name for all this love is avarice, which also happens to be the story’s title. “We Americans are running a laboratory for it, and we are the mice and rats, being tested, to see how much of it we can stand.” She further notes that “Jesus doesn’t believe in those glittering objects that hypnotize you. Hypnotized, you drive away from a dying man stretched out bleeding on the pavement.”
In “Gluttony,” there is a trippy depiction of expert denial. In this scene, Elijah is in his car, consuming beef jerky and potato chips.
He didn’t remember buying either one, but he must have purchased them when he stopped at the gas station. There, under the buzzing fluorescent lights, everyone had the doughy complexion of figures in a Hopper painting. Now, lying voluptuously on the front seat next to him, the bag of potato chips had been slit open in a kind of physical invitation into which he inserted his hand and withdrew food. Who had opened these packages? Someone had. He had, the doctor, Elijah. Who else? He didn’t remember opening them; they had commanded him to make the first move, like the cake in Alice in Wonderlandwith the note attached: “Eat me.” The food carried some responsibility for his excesses. It had desires, especially the desire to be consumed.
Some of the stories in this collection have been published individually; one was chosen for Best American Short Stories 2013, another for the 2014 edition. They read just fine on their own. But I think the best way to appreciate their depth, scope, purpose, and achievement is to read them in order, together. Baxter makes readers feel as if they’ve come to this sort of preference by themselves, by working it into the linkings: characters reappear, themes repeat, definitions accrue; everyone is in Minneapolis at one time or another. But it is perhaps in the rendering of time that the stories are most acutely connected. If time is constant, it is also fluid and prone to idiosyncrasies. Children born in one paragraph are teenagers in the next; wives leave and return seventeen years later; lovers reconnect after ravaging illness and addiction.
In “Forbearance,” translator Amelia is living in a villa in Italy. Amelia tells the woman who owns the villa the wall clock that fails to keep time should be adjusted. The woman pushes back. The clock, she insists, “thinks it’s on Mars… It tells you what time it is there. And you, an American, want to argue with it? …the clock was senile and delusional like everyone in the village and must never be adjusted. Adjusting it would hurt its feelings.”
Late one night, pediatrician Elijah meets the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock. The two sit on a bench and converse.
…a silhouette had materialized next to him, the famous outline of the old filmmaker encased in layers of fat. The director’s sadness and loneliness drifted up from his bulk like a corpulent mist in the still air. In his right hand he held a ghost cigar that produced ghost smoke. He wore a spotless dinner jacket, although he gave the impression of having been in the park for years, sitting there exposed to the elements… Good evening, the director said, bending slightly toward Dr. Jones out of a habitually polite formality. His voice had the familiar sonorous rumble, mixed with audible memories of his Cockney upbringing. His face had an odd phosphorescence.
Hitchcock’s ghost takes a puff from his cigar and “the inhaled smoke formed itself into the shape of a cat, which sauntered away in the night air.” We get the feeling we’re finally seeing the real Hitchcock, the one we sensed we knew but now that sense is at last confirmed.
We learn that the film director is there because he owes an apology to “the Girl, the one at whom I threw all those birds.” Tippi Hedren was born in Minneapolis, and “one’s spirit always naturally returns to the place where one was born,” the director matter-of-factly explains. Hitchcock says he must remain on that “bench of desolation until [his] penitence and contrition are complete… [He] must feel the apologies inwardly. That is the hard part,” he says, “the inward contrition.” The appearance of Hitchcock and his confession are what I call a characteristic grand Baxterian gesture, a startlingly original moment that illuminates a vital facet of a story.
This story is titled “Sloth.” Without true contrition, time stops and we are stuck in a stagnant forever that is like death, only worse.
In the course of their conversation, Hitchcock, that master of suspense, makes sure to tell Elijah suspense is “All that caring about what happens next.” The last story seems to serve as both invitation and warning.
In “Vanity,” Harry Albert, a good-looking gay medical equipment rep and narrator of the earlier story “Charity” meets David, old, ugly, with dyed black hair and dandruff that makes its way onto his “rumpled suit” and “soiled and unpressed lime-green necktie.” David, like Primo Levi, is a holocaust survivor, one of “Schindler’s Jews.” Harry has a paperback copy of Schindler’s List. As seat partners on a turbulent flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, the two men strike up a conversation. Their talk touches on survival, love, sexual preference, fighting, and vanity.
David’s request is that Harry write him to let him know he’s okay. From his hotel room some time later during his stay in Vegas, Harry complies. He writes, as if typing his own mini-decalogue, that his trip has been successful and that he is happy and hopes to be old and in love one day but for now he is in fact young and as vain as David has intimated and that his vanity befits how handsome he is. He receives an unsigned, three-word email in response.
“Don’t kid yourself.”
Tongue in cheek? Kidding a kidder? A wry commentary on all efforts to create our own decalogues, Baxter’s included? A Coda following the last story mitigates, some, this terse response.
In April 2015, I interviewed Baxter for the Tin House blog. In that interview, he noted that “Dogmatic Christians seem to be disturbed by the stories, but generally the stories have been received pretty well. When I started the book, I didn’t have an overall plan for it, apart from creating an informal decalogue of sorts.” Baxter has shown crafting a decalogue to be an intricate, deeply personal exercise. You can try your hand at it, and I hope you do. First, there is something I want you to do. Read Baxter’s, to see how it should be done.
Susan Tacent has been published in Dostoevsky Studies, The Keats-Shelley Journal,The MacGuffin, Ontario Review, Blackbird, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. Her interview with Charles Baxter is forthcoming in Tin House blog.