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What We’re Reading: Inappropriate Behavior

2014 July 10

What We're Reading

Inappropriate Behavior

Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions, 2014)

Consider all the reality shows available on television today, and it’s not difficult to conclude that viewers love people behaving badly. Now bookish sorts can turn off the tube and still get a dose of deviant deeds in Murray Farish’s new collection of short stories, Inappropriate Behavior. From strikingly realistic portraits of people struggling to maintain their sense of self in difficult circumstances to the fractured worlds of people barely holding on to reality, Inappropriate Behavior offers a range of stories that are just as voyeuristic as any reality TV show.

Farish distills the stresses facing many families today and illustrates them with shocking clarity in the title story. “Inappropriate Behavior” follows what could be considered a typical forty-something couple—George has been unemployed for months, Miranda’s struggling to keep the family afloat with her salary, and their son, Archie, has inappropriate behavior neither the school nor medical community can properly diagnose.

The strongest section of the story is a pages-long string of unrelenting questions mimicking the constant loop that must run through the minds of those who have less money coming in than going out.

Why does an American CEO earn 350 times the salary of the average worker? Because that’s what the market will bear? What are we going to do? If my child’s new school doesn’t notice that his classmates have locked him in a broom closet for three hours, does that constitute neglect? Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle? What are the effects of homelessness on children?

You can just hear the voice-over going into commercial: “Will George find a job? Can Miranda hang on to hers? Will the money run out? Will things ever get better? Stay tuned!” “Inappropriate Behavior” could easily be a reality show on the now profoundly misnamed TLC.

In other stories, Farish uses the immediacy of the first-person POV to create the confessional atmosphere so popular on reality TV. “Mayflies” is a particularly poignant story about Ms. Willet, a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose life is filled with heartbreak and shattered dreams. She married her high school boyfriend because she got pregnant and is stuck in the same small-minded small town she grew up in. Her older son shot and killed her younger son before joining the Marines, and her husband is slowly drinking himself to death. She works at a diner with Sandy, a “melodramatic girl who claims to have big dreams,” and Royce, “a twenty-four-year-old child already well past the apex of his powers,” who vaguely reminds her of her husband. Although she distances herself emotionally from everyone now, she still feels protective of Sandy. “I’d like to be able to tell her things. I’d like to tell her to go away, farther than Auburn. Go states away, countries away. Go and don’t come back.”

The story takes place over the course of one night, a summer night in the midst of the annual mayfly spawning season when mayflies fill the air and the surfaces of the town. Ms. Willet is restless, and when she sees Sandy kiss Royce after an apparent date, she uses her car to exact an act of self-redemption and protection for Sandy. She’s caused considerable damage but feels no remorse.

I can think in this moment, but I cannot seem to feel, so I think about what I should feel, and I don’t know. I think I should go get help. I think about the times I let Royce sleep with me. . . . I think about Buck, and how we stayed together all those years even though we only got married because of Ronnie, and then how, years later, here comes little Ford, the boy I wanted, the boy we actually made love to make. I think, Royce is someone’s child too—but she’s dead. I think I know why I did this to him, and I think it’s almost a good enough reason.

I say, “If you don’t die, you’d better by God stay away from that girl.”

But inappropriate behavior isn’t limited to actions. As Farish illustrates in “The Passage,” inaction also qualifies as inappropriate behavior. “The Passage” imagines Joe Bill, a naïve young man, sharing quarters with Lee Harvey Oswald on an ocean voyage in 1959. Joe Bill eventually reads the mysterious journals of his cabin mate and confronts him on the contents. Lee warns him that one day Joe Bill will have to deny knowing him or what was in his journal. After the Kennedy assassination, Joe Bill tells the reporters and investigators what Lee told him to say. But Joe Bill has questions of his own.

And of course, there was the biggest question of all. . . .It’s been with him every day since and will be forever, and it’s the one question he has an answer for: What did you do about it, Joe Bill? And the answer is, nothing.

Farish has a strong debut with Inappropriate Behavior. As with all short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, but even the weaker stories here don’t slow down the momentum. Inappropriate Behavior is an engaging, quick read. It’s summer, folks. Turn off the television, head outside, and sate your own voyeuristic appetite with material that’s just as juicy but much more substantive than the standard reality show fare.

Where do you prefer to get your inappropriate behavior — reality television or books? Does fictionalized inappropriate behavior work better in small doses (short stories) or big doses (novels)?


Three Things: The Vintage Crime Edition

2014 July 7

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I recently re-watched His Girl Friday, and now I’m thinking about criminals and crime scenes… set in black-and-white. Care to dive into the murky waters with me? This week I’ve pulled together three scenes sure to get you going.


Two Offenders in the Paddy Wagon.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Two Offenders in the Paddy Wagon, 1942. Photograph.



Marc A. Hermann, 497 Dean St., Brooklyn – March 19, 1942, from The Daily News – Then & Now series. Digital composite photograph; original photo by Charles Payne.



New South Wales Police Dept., Mug shot of William Stanley Moore, 1 May 1925, Central Police Station, Sydney. Photograph. Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Australia.


Three Things: The Mirrored Edition

2014 June 30

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Using a mirror as a storytelling device is hardly a new idea. But when was the last time you wrote a mirror into your work? This week let’s—ahem—reflect on the object (yes, I know, that was pretty terrible), and then write some words. Go!



Edward Gorey, Untitled, from The West Wing. Pen and ink illustration. Published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1963.



Markus Åkesson, Rites of passage (The big night), 2010-2011. Oil on canvas.



Duane Michals, The Vanity of Animals, 2004. Photograph. 


What We’re Reading: Faces in the Crowd

2014 June 26

What We're Reading


Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2014)

A mother in contemporary Mexico City writes a novel about her past. A young translator living in New York City, obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, finds traces of him in Harlem and on the subway. Owen loses weight, loses sight, and is slowly disappearing in 1950s Philadelphia, dreaming of his past and his prime in New York City.

Luiselli’s first novel (translated by Christina MacSweeney) tells a story of love and loss. Her writing blurs the line between life and death across three narratives that overlap in content and time, leaving much up for the reader to accept or dismiss as reality.

We read the novel that the unnamed (and unreliable) narrator in Mexico City is writing about her youth in New York. We are introduced to the eclectic acquaintances who pass through her otherwise nearly empty apartment with keys she’s given away. We watch her follow the Gilberto Owen’s past and convince her boss at a small publishing house to publish translations of Owen’s poems.

As she writes in Mexico City, she claims the novel is a “horizontal novel, told vertically”, or perhaps a “vertical novel told horizontally”; she tells her young son it’s a ghost story. Her husband asks questions about the book, revealing that she has imagined some pieces of her past, leaving it to the reader to decide what to believe is fact or fiction, who is a ghost or who is a living memory.

Eventually, Gilberto Owen joins as a narrator, and while he’s disappearing in Philadelphia, he’s remembering his past in New York City, He sees a young woman with sad, tired eyes, often on a subway train running momentarily parallel to his. Then one speeds up, and they’re no longer locked in synchronicity. This image is repeated from the perspectives of both Owen and the young translator, who impossibly meet each other at the same time and place.

The narrator reflects:

The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time scheme for this other novel.

The stories and memories span nearly 100 years and take place in New York, Philadelphia, and Mexico City for all narrators, unhinging the reality of time and place that we understand. If you’re able to let go of that reality and follow the story the way it wants to be told, you’ll fall into the pages and believe the connections between people—ghosts or not—to be true.

At times I had to re-read pages to be sure I knew who was speaking, and most importantly, when they were speaking. Luiselli crafts her narrations to flow so seamlessly together that sometimes the last word spoken by one will be the first spoken by the next. Certain objects reoccur in many scenes, from the narrator’s red coat that Owen catches her in, to the dead tree he left in his Morningside apartment that she later discovers and attempts to revive.

The female narrator lives with the dead tree at her writing table. Based on the narratives overlapping in different time periods, you might start to believe the unreliable narrator when she says she’s writing a ghost story. She happens to find comfort in death:

In a way, I was living in a perpetual state of communion with the dead. But not in a sordid sense. In contrast, the people around me were sordid… The dead and I, no. I had read Quevedo and internalized, like a prayer, perhaps too literally, the idea of living in conversation with the dead. I often visited a small graveyard a few blocks from my apartment, because I could read and think there without anyone or anything disturbing me.

The narratives inch closer and closer together, until they meet in the same present, which was satisfying after feeling them slowly connect, piece by piece. Through the carefully crafted sentences that make up each intriguing shift in narration, the novel ends up telling just one story (where space and time are irrelevant): a story about poetry, mortality, memory, and about writing a story, the themes of which appear slowly—then all at once—in each perspective.

How does a story change when time and place are no longer relevant? When reading a novel with unreliable and shifting narrators, what can you gleam as “truth” for the story, when in our reality it’s all truly fiction?