HOLLY TAVEL’S THE WEATHER IN FRITZ BEMELMANS PARK
Ever wondered which colour superheroes dream in?
Ever been struck by lightning and lived to tell the tale?
Ever tried cutting the wings off a fallen angel otherwise too heavy to lift?
Ever experienced the effects of the weather machine at work?
Ever spent a couple of days with a seal on an ice floe adrift in the Arctic Ocean?
All of the above (and much more) can be explored & experienced with Holly Tavel’s recently published story collection, The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park. Starting at the end, the back-cover description has it that “if the past is a foreign country, childhood is a vanished civilization filled with mysterious monuments and charming ruins, and always colored by our own wildly unreliable memories.” The sixteen stories collected here are said to provide “a kaleidoscopic view of childhood’s forgotten tropes and dizzying leaps of logic, and are by turns hilariously paranoid, discombobulated, claustrophobic, and filled with yearning.”
Not that there’s exactly a shortage of fictional explorations of the joint issues of remembering/desiring whilst revisiting/reconstructing childhood. Starting perhaps with Blake, and continuing with Carroll, Twain, Stevenson, Kipling, Joyce, Burgess, Golding, Brooke-Rose, Acker, all the way to the recent hits like Yann Martel and Mark Haddon (to name but a few), the “vanished civilization” of childhood has posed as an Atlantis of sorts, attracting writers’ imagination with the formal challenges it poses in terms of style, narrative technique, framing, and language. Some (like Carroll, Joyce, Burgess, Brooke-Rose, and Acker) have been drawn to the stylistic and linguistic concerns, refashioning their language to suit their protagonists, creating oftentimes non-linear, disorientingly fragmented narratives of a child’s bewildered grasping of the world, to be related to and relived in the reading process. Others (like Twain, Stevenson, Kipling, Golding et al.) have underlined the conceptual issues inherent in such undertaking – the limited p-o-v of the unreliable narrator & the irony resultant from the tension between the ignorant child & the “knowing” adult writer.
Now, the accomplishment of Tavel’s collection is that it forges its own unique style and mood out of the blend of these chief tendencies and concerns: that it performs some of the disorienting effects of the former in a relatively direct, straightforward language of the latter; that it engages in the narrative ironies of the latter while refusing, like the former, to pretend to assume an all-knowing, critical distance from them. Let’s start with the two stories that “frame” the collection by opening and closing it, “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S. in Other People’s Photographs” and “Expedition,” the one dealing with a technological “ghost in the machine” – the appearance of visual disturbances (“importunate, indelible, crepuscular, and radiant” ) in old black-and-white over- or underexposed photographs – the other with an air-balloon expedition to Franz Josef Land gone wrong and astray (“We’ve been stranded on this ice floe for two days… four days at the most. Perhaps a week.” ).
The glitches in photographs go under the name of “Philo S.” and ample visual material documenting all of the four categories is provided. Language, here, is not only amusingly pseudo-scientific, attempting to categorise the essentially uncategorisable, but also consciously failing – in passages such as
We could use words like invasion, encroachment, gradient, escalation; we may (not now, but at, perhaps, some future date) find that words like cranny and crepitation fit, as does slurry. Words we would not use to describe the manifestations of Philo S: lurk, lurking, loom, looming, crackerjack, bollix. (10)
What leaps to the eye are the conditional (“we could”, “we may”) and the negative (“we would not”): we could use these words, but we won’t – words are not enough & one photo in hand is worth words in the bush anyhow; and while the terms permissible to the narrator make some sense of sorts (the appearances seem invasive, crescent, crackling [if photos could reproduce sounds], and liquid [if photos could transmit the stuff their objects are made of]), try figuring out while “crackerjack” or “bollix”, of all words, are NOT to be permitted. And, as with all such lists, why these words and not others, synonymous or antonymous? As if language were to be stripped of all its evaluative / argumentative superstructure and confined to only its deictic & descriptive functions. But why, then, have this ekphrastic exercise couched in a dialogue between a “Q” & “A”, a questioner & answerer, who for all their impersonal scientificality seem to be pesky and bickering (“Q: for how long? A: We were just about to get to that. Patience! If you please.” ), making their own “mysterious appearance” in this otherwise depersonalised narrative.
“Expedition,” the other story lusciously accompanied by visual images, features a similarly “intrusive” presence & consciousness of language – which in perfect agreement with the modernist concept of “expressive form” performs what it describes, telling a “story” of its own to narrate the tale of polar expedition – pun intended – gone south. Thus, its opening section, Ascent of the Skylark, performs a quasi-countdown preceding the take-off of the balloon in its descriptive enumerations:
Nine sails fanned open counterclockwise. Eight burghermeisters in Harris tweed consulted eight
golden pocket watches on fobs […] Seven sea lions slid on velvet haunches into the foam-flecked
sea […] Six starlings pierced a low-lying bank of cumulonimbus clouds. Five hundred yards of varnished yellowgray Chinese silk bloomed upward […] Four hundred spectators pressed along the iron railings, surging forward to a great doffing of hats […] as three shadows were ripped from their moorings and slipped away into the vanishing day, and two words uttered aloud were sucked into a great white silence: [141-2, my emphasis]
Followed by a half-page blankness – an emblematisation of the “white silence” in question. This rich & ornate language corresponding with the pomp & circumstance of the festive take-off quickly gives way to a much sparser style of laconic diary entries (setting the story in November, 1899), half-raised questions, full-uttered silences… and so at the end, after an eerie lecture on why “a body plunged into water is acted upon by two forces” (148)—a topic all-too-topical for polar explorers stranded on a floe—we get the ultra-minimalist conclusion: “The Geophysicist: ‘Crystallography! Plate tectonics!‘ he cried, and promptly drowned,” followed by a near-abstract landscape image, whose mimetic function seems to have disappeared together with the linearity of the plotline and coherence of the narrative.
Think Kafka’s undecideable parables without the religious symbolism and existential angst, or Borges’s fantastic tales sans the metafictional impulse and labyrinthine preciousness. But their quirkiness, magic, mystery, evasion of neat conclusions combined with the ability to satisfy reader curiosity nonetheless – all that Tavel’s stories offer in abundance.
Let’s take a third example, “Last Words,” a story told by the “Hyacinth Macaw” that takes us to a “Great Conference of Vanishing Birds” (21) whose keynote, the Dodo, warns of “the mark of the Dodo” (23) – “neither ghost nor memory, but a palimpsest upon which is printed, in darkest red ink, a likeness of myself in profile, and a mark that spreads beyond my boundaries and consumes, like a rot, the heart of the bird it has chosen.” For “When the last bird of its kind has vanished from the earth, […] the mark will be all that is left of it” (23). Think of Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer” – or closer to home (although Prague was, once & for a while, Tavel’s home, too), of any person’s childhood – which, when vanished, is only ever present in the mark left of it, the mark made of it, through memory & desire. So sure enough, halfway through the story, the Hyacinth Macaw informs the listener (who’s “beginning to believe [his] lies” ) “I died soon afterwards” (30), but the story carries on – down to the last “mark,” the last full-stop or, rather, question mark:
When I looked down at the sheer surface of the island, all that was left of the Slaty-Crowned Bulbul was a very white bone and its slaty crown, all tufty. From the sky I called down to it: The mark of the Dodo is upon you! The bone said nothing. The crown gave a little twitch and called back: who? (32)
What is wonderful and special about these and other texts is that Tavel manages to play some highly sophisticated games with topics such as narrative, textuality, writing, presence & absence, while at the same time keeping the reader entertained through the sheer diversity & compulsiveness of her stories. After all, in a recent interview, Tavel herself described these as “a highfalutin riff on the “fractured fairy tale conceit” which undercuts “fairy-tale narrative structures, or childlike/whimsical/silly ideas with something quite dark and ominous.”
So, a fourth and final riff, emblematic of the crucial concerns of the collection as a whole – a story from roughly the middle, titled “The Truth About Wayne.” Tavel opens in good ole medias res:
I’ve been stranded on this ice floe for a couple of days now. Four days at the most. Maybe a week. All around me are other, more or less identical, ice floes. It’s possible that I have frostbite because
I haven’t been able to feel my hands and feet for a while now and I think frostbite causes that. Also a mild case of hypothermia. Four days. I’m certain of it. (79)
And on and on – brief flashes of thought, sensory perception of the surroundings, itemisation of the scarce belongings, etc. The occasional flashback:
Prior to being stranded on this ice floe, I was generally happy in my life, leading a normal, if somewhat boring, upper-middleclass existence as husband, father, and Assistant Executive Manager of Compliance Strategies at OmniGloboCom, Mid-Atlantic Division. Although, maybe happy is too strong a word. Content. Yes, content sums it up pretty well. (79)
Husband/father/Manager not any more, the solitary narrator’s only present companion is, of course, the eponymous Wayne the sea lion. Whose existence in turn brings forth another flash(further)back, into childhood TV shows, particularly the series “My Friend Woody”, a sea lion. The plot thickens:
This was the mid-Sixties, you understand, when any number of popular movies and television shows featured improbably close, if delightful, relationships between human beings and exotic creatures: lions, tigers, bears, raccoons, whales, giant pandas, zebras, elephants. Now, my sister Vi would have something smart to say about this. Something about Cold War apprehension, and how deep down every American sincerely believed that the world would at any moment be totally obliterated by an atomic blast, and how this fear of nuclear catastrophe was compensated for, in the collective American psyche, by a return to childhood fantasy, to a world colored by fanciful notions of flying cars and beach parties and wild animals mugging for the camera while banjos and harmonicas twanged in the background. (80)
Here we have, writ large across the page, perhaps the underlying ideological point of Tavel’s stories: childhood TV shows & fables & stories of cross-species rapprochement as “compensation” for current socio-political distress, as “a return to childhood fantasy.” Now, Tavel’s Wayne is nothing like Woody, its fairy-tale paradigm: he’s “aggressive and curious” (a scholarly definition from a “Time-Life” book ), noisy, nosy, and although a “good listener” at times (despite preferring the radio to the narrator), he’s also no qualms about eating the narrator’s reading matter when bored or angry.
The narrative goes down the sea-lion hole, detailing Wayne’s idioms & whims so much that it nearly forgets about the teller of the tale & his present predicament. He even starts entertaining the notion that in the future, when back home (but how?), Wayne will be placed in a zoo or a marine park and the narrator will take a position as an assistant zookeeper, so the two can continue intertwining their lives. It’s only at “one of the rare moments when Wayne is completely still and alert,” when there’s nothing to relate about him, that the narrator bethinks himself again of his own life – and the text ends by repeating itself, in a mise-en-abyme arrangement of summary, retelling:
I tell him about my life. I tell him about my sister Vi, the smart one, and about me, the successful one, and about Marsha and our class president daughter and our other pale, bookish, apparently miserable daughter, who seems to hate me for reasons I can’t fathom. I tell him about Tommy Dawkins and his best friend Woody, and I’ve even taken to recounting to him every episode of the show, in as much detail as I can remember […] It amazes me that I can recall almost every line of dialogue, can even remember all the words to the theme song, and yet I can’t remember what the last words were that I said to my wife, or to my sister when I went to visit her in the hospital. (83)
This last summary baffles with its astonishing off-hand details and remarks re remembering & forgetting – again raising the questions, why this? rather than all that? And pointing directly toward a more pressing concern: what is compensated for in the narrator’s psyche by his own story of evasion, by his own “return to childhood fantasy”? Why does he never pass a word on how he got on the floe in the first place? Why mention the rather troubling topsy-turvy family dynamics without providing any sort of rationale? Why not at least try to come to terms with the present predicament?
More generally, Tavel’s stories seem to ask: why do we all tend to remember a childhood TV series better than the last words of our loved ones? Why is memory always inevitably in the service of preserving mental homeostasis through suppression, displacement, concealment? Last but not least, why do we find past memories always already, as it were, pre-processed and re-programmed by present desire?
Of course, Tavel’s stories do not & cannot give definite answers to any of these – for good storytelling has far more to do with raising questions than giving answers. But they each ask these questions and think through and around them with sophistication, wit & skill – and together their view is indeed, “kaleidoscopic,” however “paranoid, discombobulated, claustrophobic” each may be individually. The whole, as with all great story collections, ultimately larger than the sum of the parts.