Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Carrying Ashes to Newcastle

A writer friend asked what I thought of "Ashes", a story by Cristina Henríquez (posted July 4, 2005 at The New Yorker).

This is the story of Mireya, a young Panamanian woman. The story begins with news of her mother's death. Although she refuses to cry in front of the surviving family members, Mireya is distraught over her loss. During the course of the story Mireya also loses her job and her boyfriend and squabbles with her brother over who will assume the care of their father, always a womanizing drunk and now apparently senile. The story ends after the mother's funeral and Mireya's appropriation of her mother's ashes with Mireya sitting with the urn, gazing out to sea.

There's much exploration of familial relationships: how, despite our protestations, children have a favorite parent and parents have a favorite child; how a daughter can love her father and seek his attention and approval even though he has been a distant, never present drunk for her whole life; how a woman can be unhappy with her husband for decades, but never leave him.

There are also many opportunities for melodrama. In addition to the phone call about the death, the funeral, the getting fired from the Casa de la Carne, and the gazing out to sea, there is a knock-down-drag-out fight in the street between Mireya and her (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend.

Yet, the story succeeds, I think. As Charles Baxter says in his book Burning Down the House, melodrama is one of those things that everyone despises but no one can define. But what I mean by melodrama (to risk a definition) is the staging of canned, predictable, and often unearned emotion. Every story worth reading has fodder for melodrama, because good stories all have emotional content, and the more the merrier (or moroser, as the case may be). Emotional moments mishandled wind up being melodramatic. It can be so tricky that most writers, including very good ones, choose to dodge the bullet by leaving the most emotional scenes off-camera, or quickly summarized and dismissed. They write instead about aftermath, and backstory, and repercussions. We all do that.

So how does Henríquez handle this? With humor, for one thing. The story begins with a phone call (a time-honored device in itself):
[I]t’s my older brother, Jano, telling me I might want to sit down because he has upsetting news.

“Tell me,” I say.

“Do you have a chair?”

“Just tell me.”

What I have is a hollow feeling in my stomach the size of a coconut.

“Mamá’s gone,” he says.

“What?” My heart seizes.

“Señora López found her today.”

“Found her? Where was Papi?”

“Are you sitting down?” he asks again.

“Stop asking me that. Why can’t you just answer my questions?”

“It’s a little bit complicated, O.K.?”
Here we have the protective brother, indulging in his own melodrama by reciting the traditional lines ("Are you sitting down?"), and Mireya, refusing to play along. She is saying "Don't be such a drama queen!" Much as Tobias Wolff does when he has a character critique his own trite behavior, Henríquez has Mireya rebuff her brother's attempt at sentimentality.

Later, when Mireya confronts her boyfriend, who she has caught with another woman in broad daylight, she releases her pent-up emotion by attacking him bodily. After she has thoroughly pummeled him, and also after it is clear that they are finished as a couple, she flings a final dagger:
“My mother was the only one in my family who liked you,” I finally say. It’s a petty impulse—wanting to hurt him because he hurt me—but I don’t care.

He looks like I just slapped him. “Your mother?”

I grab my bag from the ground and start walking away.

I hear his shoes shuffle behind me for a second and then stop.

“What about you?” he yells. “Didn’t you like me?”

It’s such a heartbreaker. Because here’s the answer: “Yes, I did. Who knows why, but I did.” But right then I can’t do it. I just walk away.
This line, "Didn't you like me?" is quite comic on its own, but also heartbreaking, as Mireya says. But the craft is seen in the next line, when she acknowledges what the melodramatic response would be, and then walks away without saying it. Henríquez eats her cake, yet still has it, right there in the little pasteboard box with the plastic window.

And so the emotion is modulated throughout, without dodging the big scenes. It's actually quite impressive.

The final scene, of Mireya looking out at the water, urn at her side, echoes an earlier flashback in which Mireya, as a girl, slipped on some beach rocks and hit her head, leading to a tender moment with her mother (in turn defused when her mother pinches her). I do think this final shot is melodramatic, but by then, it's well earned. And after all the deflected melodrama earlier in the story, it's almost a relief to finally sit and have a good cry.*

There is one thing in this story that clanks for me, and that is the father's "big line" at the funeral:
“How are you?” I ask. I feel none of the anger I usually do around him.

“I tried to save her,” he whispers, leaning sideways.

“I know, Papi,” I say.

“Human beings can’t save each other from anything, though.”
After being portrayed as addled throughout the story, barely aware of his surroundings, Papi comes up with "Human beings can't save each other from anything, though." Sorry, Cristina, you have turned Papi into your puppet with this line. The "I tried to save her" I could buy, maybe, but that's it.

Incidentally, the title of this post means nothing. Go figure.
*(Figuratively speaking, of course.)