Thursday, April 20, 2006

Body Parts

This month's StoryGlossia brings us Benjamin Percy's short story "The Hand." This is the tale of a meek man whose life is changed when he finds a talismanic object--in this case a prosthetic hand--lying on the sidewalk. It's a familiar story form; if you don't think so, substitute "magic lantern" for "prosthetic hand" and "beach" for sidewalk. As in all such stories, the object is embued with magical properties (whether real or imagined) and changes the protagonist's life, perhaps for the better, perhaps not.

At just over 1500 words, the story is slight. It reads like a fairy tale, largely because of the genie-in-a-bottle premise, but also because of the wide-eyed, naive voice of the first-person narrator, notable for its simple syntax and its scarcity of contractions. The story begins:
I found it last week. At first I mistook it for a glove. But it was a hand – a prosthetic hand – just lying there on the sidewalk. When I bent over to get a better look at it, I heard a woman say, “Watch out. That man is going to be sick.”

“No,” I said, my voice coming out angrier than I intended. “I’m not going to be sick.”
A crowd gathers, and the narrator picks up the hand. "I had, after all, found it. If it belonged to anyone it belonged to me," he says. An "important-looking man in a business suit" appears and starts asking questions, but the narrator tucks the hand in his jacket and hurries away.

Up to this point in the story, the telling has been quite superficial. We have a childish narrator playing finders-keepers, relating his story (for the most part) in the language of a child, describing the other characters as stick figures. We might be listening to a grade-schooler's anecdote. But now Percy zooms the camera in and adds a touch of verisimilitude:
Someone had stepped on the hand, leaving behind the tan imprint of a waffle sole. And there was some chewing gum and a cigarette butt stuck to it. I splashed some soap in the sink and filled it with water and washed the hand along with a few cereal bowls glazed with old milk.
The imprint of the shoe sole, the cigarette butt, the chewing gum: these are gritty details that make us feel that we're in a real place, with a real person. And there's my favorite detail in that paragraph, the "cereal bowls glazed with old milk." More gritty detail, but also detail that underscores the childish nature of the narrator.

The narrator makes an unsuccessful effort to find the hand's owner (by going to the mall and looking for one-handed people; another childlike approach to a problem), but becomes more "attached" to the hand, carrying it with him everywhere. He buys a shirt with extra-long sleeves, and is surprised when his wife, with whom he has chilly relations, compliments him. This is the first indication of the hand's "powers."

And then the hand becomes assertive:
I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but yesterday I touched a woman. Specifically her rear end. I am not proud of this, and I don’t really know how to explain it except that I felt compelled to touch her, as if I didn’t have a choice. As if the hand wanted it to happen....
Here is the weird thing. Here is the thing I can’t get out of my head. She looked up, surprised, bewildered, and then smiled shyly, as if I had complimented her hairdo. This was an extraordinary moment for me. Normally women seem furious even when I look at them, whereas she seemed…empowered, somehow.
The story ends with the narrator in bed with his wife. Here Percy shifts from past tense to present tense, a little technique for heightening the tension. He puts the hand under his pillow (something a child might do with a lost tooth), and things turn a little creepy:
Sometime during the night I wake up to find the hand has crept from beneath its hiding place. It hovers above Emily, trembling, like some vulture riding an updraft. Then it descends.... At first she goes stiff, uncertain, but when the hand climbs up her waist, sliding up and down the dip of her hip, she kind of giggles and sighs and scoots her butt back until it touches me. The hand, encouraged, continues to explore her body, stroking her cheek, petting her hair. She breathes heavily. And though at first I don’t know whether to feel jealous or horrified or elated, I decide to feel good. I decide to let the hand take me where it wants to go.
This story evokes numerous associations for me, from a severed hand crawling across the floor in any number of bad horror movies to The Fourth Hand, by John Irving, in which the protagonist receives the first hand transplant (and in which the hand has a "mind of its own"). Percy's protagonist also reminds me of the timid narrator in Tobias Wolff's "Next Door," a story unforgettable for its use of Florida as a euphemism for part of the male anatomy. But more than anything, the flat characters, the fairy-tale quality of the narrative, and (of course) the manufactured hand itself remind me of a puppet show, with the prosthetic hand as the bewitched marionette that comes to life and entrances the puppeteer.

Yet, despite its familiarity, because of the carefully crafted voice and the well-chosen details that so ingeniously suit Percy's purpose, the story works. Percy's writing always evokes the juvenile; Mississippi Review published a story of his in which the narrator rants about his penis, as though it is some newly discovered outcropping on his bodily world. Perhaps with "The Hand" Percy has found a more tasteful body part upon which to dwell.