Thursday, June 14, 2012

Today, I offer a review of Ann Bogle's short story, "Exchange Rates for Zynga." This story can be read at Fictionaut, where Bogle has been a steady and provocative presence since 2009.

I read "Exchange Rates for Zynga" a couple days ago and immediately linked people to it through my Facebook wall, with the lead: "Love this story by Ann Bogle." One other friend, another writer, "liked" the post. Bogle messaged me via FB and asked me to elaborate on why I love it. Here is my elaboration.

Like so many of Bogle's stories, "Exchange Rates for Zynga" weaves its meaning covertly.  Nevertheless, the strong writer Bogle is, she sets up the story's conflict overtly in the opening sentence. It is similar to the way a Jane Austen story might begin.  For example, 
 It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  --Jane Austen
I had intended to spend $110 at FarmVille but have spent $250—$110 because that is how much I won playing blackjack outside Hinckley, Minnesota (across the border into Wisconsin) where I went with Peter for a weekend in '96 or ‘97.   -- Ann Bogle
Austen's opening to Pride and Prejudice suggests that the story is about pursuit of marriage and the conflicts therein ("must be," Austen's clue that the stated "truth" is not necessarily true);  Bogle's story is about gambling and the risks therein ("intended," Bogle's clue that the "risks" might win out).  Both stories, it turns out, are about marriage and gambling. And I'm not going to detail the ways they are. I'm just pointing potential, or re-, readers in those directions.

Both stories arrest us. Austen intrigues us with her ensuing dialogue. Bogle seduces us with her incipient music. Both offer us a precise sound, an engaging voice to follow. But these two writers diverge in that Austen draws us along with dramatic plot turns for the remainder of her story, and Bogle draws us -- not along, but in, or maybe down -- with her compact, lyrical layering of symbols and motifs.

Both stories are deft reflections of their time and place: in Austen, the personal troubles of Lizzy mirror the social issues of her time (the law of primogeniture; the disadvantages of intelligence in women; the "traps" inherent in the British class structure in the early 1800s, etc.) The same is true for Bogle -- the personal troubles of the narrator are reflections of our larger American troubles (addictions; the dangers of isolation and sedentary lifestyles; a childlike insatiability for "more," achieved through buying and gaming; a hunger to resume control in a proliferating and baffling social "playing field," still dominated by men). At second glance, the two time periods -- Austen's and Bogle's -- are remarkably alike.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Bogle's story is decidedly postmodern. It employs meta-moments, drawing attention to itself self-consciously. Its motivation is more unconscious than conscious -- attend to the details, it seems to say: They are related the way a dream's symbols are related. Just as when I listen to an individual's dream and at a certain point get lost, so this happens for me in "Exchange Rates for Zynga" when I encounter the narrator claiming that "she can track all four kinds of currency" used in the Zynga universe. I'm unclear about what Zynga is, although I'm pretty sure it's the company that makes FarmVille. Even though I have only the vaguest sense of what Bogle's talking about at this point in the story, I listen to her the way a psychologist might listen to a patient's dream: though the details are hyperpersonal, the motifs and themes are universal. This is one of the qualities of Bogle's fiction that I love -- the stories seem to occupy a liminal space where the personal and the universal meet, hold hands, press against one another and push each other away. 

Hoodwinked by a (tinny) promise -- the slot machines, the value of her rubles, the shadow marriage she's settled for -- the narrator longs for recourse. Seen this way, the reader can go back and understand that the motifs of being cheated, taken advantage of, and the impatience for justice, for fruition are being woven into every detail one can grasp. 

Bogle, the writer, is always true to her vision and her condition. A Midwesterner who hails from the "land of understatement" (a quote from another story of hers), she will opt to "reveal bias" rather than state an overt opinion. To her mind, she is a traditionalist in that she prefers discretion to advertising. In a country where, more and more, everything is an advert for something else, something not ours (the farm, the future), her fiction is a protest against the obvious demise that looms. And hers is a beautiful protest, a smart protest, a incisive protest at that.

Disclaimer: Ann Bogle and I both earned our MFAs together at the University of Houston in the early 90s. We were best friends then. On the Fictionaut blog, June 13, 2012, I read this from Caroline Leavitt (a writer, previously and mostly still unknown to me):
You can’t depend on your friends or loved ones [to tell you the absolute truth about your work], because tender feelings often get in the way of the kind brutality writers need in order to get better or to solve problems.
I just want to put that out there. Please read Ann Bogle's story yourselves, especially if you don't know Ann, and post your responses to it on Fictionaut or here in the comments.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Summer Plans?" or "Residency Envy" or "How Many Times Can I Link to Something Else?"

A friend of mine has been at the MacDowell Colony for two months. I've been trolling her Petersborough pics on FB, leaving motivated-by-jealousy, snarky remarks in the comments, Googling the names tagged to faces of artists and writers who are in residence with her there so that when she comes home to Houston, TX, I'll be able to relate to her again. I'm sure she's changed, been changed, because 1) I know others who have been changed by MacDowell and 2) because I stumbled upon this quote yesterday about
an artist who was suffering a serious bout of depression because she was transitioning from MacDowell to her “real life.”

So far, my research has revealed that the majority of artists Laura's befriended at MacDowell hail in one way or another from California, like Chloe, Caitlyn, and Hyla. I've never met these women, but I suspect my friend Laura believes they are super-cool. Judging from their sites, I have no reason to suspect otherwise. In real life, I hail from California. There: we're related again already.

The next sentence after the quote above is
It's not that our "real lives" are so horrible....
The article these quotes come from appeared on Gwarlingo, linked on FB by my friend Andrea. It snags my attention this morning, as I sit bedside at St. Luke's Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, waiting as a nurse named Bong preps my husband for neck surgery. The patient from Humble in the bed one curtain over has been repeating that his blood pressure is so high because he "HASN'T HAD HIS COFFEE TODAY."  No. Yes. My real life is not horrible. I have (Inshallah) a husband, two young children, a salaried job with benefits teaching English at an Independent Day School.


Yesterday, when my brother Carlos called from San Francisco to chat, he asked me what I planned on doing with my summer vacation -- was I going to write or just goof off? -- I dripped   "I'm just gonna dick around," my sarcasm so thick, I could have stuck a fork in it. For what? Who, but myself, wants to eat this sarcasm? For the rest of the conversation, I struggled to stave off fat, confusing tears.

"What are you going to work on?" he asked.

"Not sure. It depends on how much I can outwit my self-esteem."

"What IS your problem?" he asked. "Have you figured it out?" Besides being a successful musician, my brother is also a therapist.

"I don't know." Now is not the best time to ask me probably, because of the student Google Docs  bursting my bandwidth, waiting to be graded.

I used to say "I am a writer who sometimes teaches." In fact, I quit my first job teaching at Rushmore Academy because I wanted to stay a writer who sometimes taught, instead of turning into a teacher who sometimes wrote.

So I quit that job at the school where Wes Anderson went, but then I had two kids, boom boom. Then -- and now -- I have had a family, one I made. Now, I'm precipitously close to being a teacher (and a mother, and a wife) who sometimes writes. 

I wrote something last summer, a play commissioned by my friend True Songs to premiere in three small venues in Kosovo. The play, called "Rock v. Threads," is about meeting my dead brother Marco in a parallel universe. Apparently, the play affected the Kosovars more than we could have forseen, because they are still reeling from the losses they suffered in the Kosovo War.  I didn't go to Kosovo to see it, but when I let my mom, sister and brother read it, they sobbed; so I considered it a success.

I don't know what I'm going to write this summer; maybe I'll just write on this blog, up my digital footprint. Test things. Make soup. Steep some stuff. Run up that hill that leads to a residency at the MacDowell Colony, so that I, too, can change, be changed.