Anton Chekhov and Jo Ann Beard
These are beautiful stories about death. Much of their beauty comes from the authors’ matter-of-fact gentleness regarding the subject, the way they come to it with humility rather than horror or even much drama. Although Chekhov was ambivalent about traditional spirituality and Beard is an atheist, both stories quietly revere life and celebrate its phenomena, even when it is absurd, painful and starkly impersonal at the end.
Gusev was written in 1890. It is named after it’s main character, a poor, deeply ignorant soldier sick with consumption, on his way back to Russia in the hold of a ship with other dying men. Much of the story is taken up by his comically cross-purpose dialogue with another poor but educated man from a higher class. Although the style is realistic, the story blends mundane events and memories with literal dreams and fanciful images as the solid, understandable structures that create human meaning and sentiment (family, work) begin to internally break apart in inchoate pieces dominated by a powerful, implacable image wreathed in smoke. The story opens with Gusev musing about a boat “running over” a fish so big it destroys the boat, introducing the element of fantasy that, by the end, will have given way to a real fish situation. I won’t say more now in case you (hopefully) want to read the story before going further—it’s only 13 pages!
What I especially love: the way an intimate memory of Gusev’s family riding a sleigh through a familiar scene with a pond, a village and a factory becomes a whirling abstract, no close-ups of laughing children, yet it’s the same sleigh riding through black smoke with an “eyeless bull’s head” that appears “out of nowhere.” The bull’s head seems beyond symbolism; that it is has no eyes is absolutely right to me though I can’t say why. I don’t love it because it’s horrible; I love it because it isn’t horrible. It could be read as hellish, but it seems rather some kind of formless, igneous life element that Gusev’s dream-mind has innocently translated into a recognizable form. In any case Gusev is not perturbed by it. He doesn’t even think about it, he is just glad to have seen his family.
I also love the beginning of the II section which is introduced with an elemental shape (a circle) plus color which is then revealed as a porthole (a functional object) which casts light on a human described first by his physical characteristics, then layered with who he might be according to the social system; the images in this case work from basic and abstract to refined and socially particular. Then begins the social dialogue which is unthinking and brutish on Gusev’s end vs. conceited and moralistic from Pavel (“when I see a bigot and a hypocrite I protest, when I see a triumphant pig I protest”) unaware that however socially right his opinions are they no longer matter in the hold of the ship. Meanwhile men play cards “with passion and cursing,” Gusev’s family rides and laughs, “here again the eyeless bull’s head, the black smoke.” Life slurs into death and Gusev looks obliviously out the window onto the piercing beauty of the sea; the sight of Chinese vendors selling canaries makes him idly wish he could punch a merchant enjoying his lunch. (A big part of Gusev’s brutishness is race-hate.)
When Gusev realizes his death is imminent, a new intuition awakens in him; he wants to go up on deck, yearning for something he can’t identify. He and the two soldiers who help him up look out upon human power (the ship) and inhuman power (the sea), two ruthless worlds moving in tandem, the ship with “a cruel and senseless expression.” They speak of Gusev’s impending death with a simplicity that strikes a miraculously gentle note, counter-pointed by the dull-witted racism which Gusev voices, which is then further counter-pointed by his overriding care for his family. The soft machine of his human personality is comically, repulsively, touchingly asserting itself even while it is on the verge of dissolving.
In the end, Gusev is immersed in the impersonal beauty to which he was oblivious, a beauty that is heartless in the human sense—but in the end, playful and ecstatic. His corpse is thrown into the sea like the object it is, but Chekhov refers to him by name until the point of view switches to that of the fishes, emphasizing his transformation from a human with a social identity to matter that may be eaten; in between, the author gives his character serendipitous dignity, wrapping him in sea foam that looks for a second like lace. Gusev, dispersed in natural beauty, has become beautiful too.
If the story stopped there, under the water, with the delighted pilot fish (“swift as arrows”) and the lazily playing, basking shark it would already be great. But the sudden upswing in vision, tilting like a camera from the bottom of the ocean into the “magnificent, enchanting sky,” with “tender, joyful, passionate colors” beyond human language—I’ve never read a more fully realized end to a story. It makes room for everything. It invites you to read the scene very simply, as an ascent into heaven. Or even more simply, as just another day on planet earth. Or in some way beyond human language, each as a palimpsest for the other.
Jo Ann Beard is a remarkably modest writer, a kind of literary celebrity that very few people have heard of. That would seem a contradiction in terms; what I mean by it is that readers who become fans of her work view it with the kind of amazement associated with human and literal stars.
She attained this unique celebrity in 1996 when the New Yorker published her essay The Fourth State of Matter, an unclassifiable narrative that includes a mass shooting which happened at the University of Iowa where she worked as the managing editor for a journal put out by the Department of Physics and Astronomy. I wrote “includes a mass shooting” as opposed to “is about a mass shooting” because one of the striking things about this account is that while it culminates with the brutal scene of the massacre and its terrible aftermath in plain, meticulous language—Beard does not for a moment try to elide the horror of it—it situates the event in a world of quotidian life, work, tender care, irritating problems, the vulnerability of feeling and the necessity of it. The massacre is horrible and stunning. Also stunning (in a very different way) is the juxtaposition of the horror with ordinary life in all of its density and depth, the rare evocation of humility and wonder.
That rare evocation is present in her newer story Cheri, a genre-bending blur of narrative essay and fiction about a real woman, Cheri Tremble, who suffered from a particularly ghastly case of terminal cancer (among other things, all pain medication made her vomit). A crucial difference between this and the earlier story as I read them is the absence of horror; after two years of living as best she could with the loving support of her daughters and friends, Tremble sought a way out via Dr. Kevorkian; her girls and friends drove her to him, a surreal cross-country trip with a rapidly depleting oxygen tank. The story is profoundly sad, it is poignant, it is filled with the flabbergasting abundance of life. (“The sullen face of a beautiful girl framed in a Dairy Queen window; the chrome-and-tan dashboard of an old Beetle, a rearview mirror draped with Mardi Gras beads; a gnarled and mossy live oak standing in the middle of a chicken-scratched red-dirt yard; and once, amazingly, what had to be her own tiny feet, grasped and lifted into the air in the classic pose of a diaper change.”) But it is not horrible.
Cheri was first published in the literary magazine Tin House; it is no longer available online. Because of that, I am only embedding a few pages. But it can be found in Beard’s latest collection (of stories and essays) titled Festival Days.
On the first two pages, I thought of Gusev. Because of the snake which, like the bull’s head, “comes from nowhere.” It is only one random image from Cheri’s past; the story is saturated with bits of memory-images that increasingly saturate Cheri’s present tense. But because the snake opens the story, and because, like Gusev’s bull, it is completely removed from a typical context, it has a transfixing quality.
Beard did not know Cheri Tremble. She interviewed her friends and one of her daughters for the essay/story, and, given the level of detail, she must’ve had excellent instincts regarding what questions to ask and when. By necessity she made parts of the story up; her instincts there were excellent too. Chekhov’s story is likely also invention blended with what he saw and heard while tending the mortally ill; he was a doctor and people must’ve talked to him (or to others in his presence) about their fever dreams and intimate memories. Chekhov’s style is evocative and spare, with intense, repetitive use of a few details that strike piercing deep notes, creating a subtle dynamic contrast with the wide-angle, theatrically detached view we are given of his characters. (I don’t use the term “theatrically”in a negative way here). Beard’s style is almost overwhelmingly detailed, but appropriately so given that her character’s perception has been torn open and scrambled, allowing too much to come through at once—or what would be too much for what we consider “normal” life. If the tone could be called emotionally distant it is perhaps because there is just too much to react to. Beard’s narrative view is the opposite of Chekhov’s: she is so close in to the half-imagined, half-actual Cheri that we believe her intuitive narration even at the moment of death—an extraordinary achievement.
In terms of character, Cheri is nothing like Gusev. She is complexly self-aware and proactive in all that she does. Gusev’s bursts of violence are anomalous in his passive acceptance of his low social position, social norms and injustices, even his own death. Cheri is a mother, an activist who leaves her marriage to go live in a different state; on discovering that she is sick, she first fights to live and then to die. She is intensely aware of the world around her, and dazzled by its beauty even in moments of excruciating pain. What the characters have in common are moments of matter-of-fact courage and innocent creaturely-ness that is increasingly felt under their developed personalities.
Cheri goes through the first round of treatment and, after a mastectomy, gets a new breast—but something goes wrong with the operation resulting in nerve damage that cripples her to the point that she can barely walk. She loses her job as a railway conductor along with her pension and benefits. She moves back to her hometown and finds peace for a time. Then the cancer comes back. She is told that she will likely become paralyzed, if she doesn’t die first. She reminds the doctor that she can’t hold down any pain medication. He looks down, writes in her chart and, as if closing an inevitable deal, offers to shake her hand.
“And this, of course, is when the world turns glamorous. Her daughters look like movie stars in their low-slung pants and pale autumn complexions. The trees on her street vibrate in the afternoon sunlight, the dying leaves so brilliant that she somehow feels she’s never seen any of this before—fall, and the way the landscape can levitate with color, and even her simple cup of green tea in the afternoons, with milk and honey in a thick white mug. Warm. Her hand curled around it, or the newspaper folded beside it, or a halved orange on a blue plate sitting next to it….
“Even the pain has a sharp, glittering realness to it, like a diamond lodged in her hips. She ignores it, gardening, pruning the dead foliage, sorting out the pumpkin vines, and still she walks each day, abandoning the stone cemetery for the dazzling woods at Hickory Hill.”
Although both stories have plots that move inexorably in one direction only, they both have tonal cross-currents that create shape and tension; humor is strong in both of them, but particularly in Cheri. This is because, while the characters in Gusev are seemingly unaware of how ridiculous their dialogue is, Cheri and her family are in on the harrowing joke. After a nerve-wracking journey to the doorstep of Doctor Death, when he finally appears “peeking out from the attached garage..with a military crew cut and an animated expression, he gestures for them to pull inside and then hops nimbly out of their way. Jack Kevorkian, as seen on TV. Relieved and terrified, everyone bursts out laughing, even Cheri.”
In the end, the pain is gone and Cheri feels herself carried, “legs bent the way they were in the womb, flannel feet cupped in the palm of a hand.” She gazes into her young mother’s eyes as someone takes her arm. One last fleeting memory comes and goes.
While I was re-reading Beard’s story in order to write about it, I kept hearing a seemingly nonsequiteur song by East River Pipe in my head: Shiny Shiny Pimpmobile. I think it came to me because something I can’t describe about the sound describes something in the story, in both the stories. Even though nobody in Cheri or Gusev is remotely pimp-like or fancy, even the lyrics make a kind of sense. Because they refer to traveling somewhere in a strangely outfitted conveyance, for example a body. Or a self. All alone.