It’s Thursday, Story366, and that means it’s Thursday!
My family and I do a lot of things to occupy ourselves at home during this crisis. A lot of involves working and doing schoolwork. We have settled into patterns, have accomplished a lot, and for the most part, are living productive lives.
But it can’t be all work, as we’d go rather mad. I’ve extended our chores to the outside and I must say, our property is looking better than it has since we moved in. We’ve also been cooking a lot—the oldest boy has taken to that task—and we try to go for walks every day. The Karen is uncommonly good at coming up with new ideas, though, preoccupations that occupy us together, as a family unit; it’s easy for us, even in confinement, to spread ourselves out, be alone. Karen has us, for one, out on the front porch or back deck, howling at the moon every night at eight. I’m not sure where she got this idea, but for over a week, we’ve gone outside, pointed our gullets at the sky, and made like wolves. It’s pretty funny when someone’s walking by or out on their own front porch, the looks on their faces, wondering what the weirdos at 723 are doing now. Now, we’re howling.
The oldest boy is reading Tom Sawyer for English so we’re all reading it together, a chapter a day, out loud—I’ve never read it before somehow, so it’s about time. We have dinner, every night, together at the table. At the outset, sort of in the place of grace, we all have to say what our favorite part of the day has been—it’s easy for everyone to say, Right now! Dinner, together! We’ve outlawed that response, though, making everyone declare their second-favorite moment. (Mine often involve naps.)
So, we’re not only coping, we’re becoming a better family (and better canines, too). I’m not sure how long we can keep this up, especially when the stay-at-home order is lifted and we get back to the former normal. I’m not in any hurry, though. At least not for that reason.
Today I read from Mary South‘s brand-new collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. South’s work has been all over lately, the title story, today’s focus, having appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. It was time for me to see what all the buzz was about, so here we go.
I would never accuse a writer, especially not one with a published collection, of being a slacker. I don’t think any story, be they super-short or relatively straight-forward, is easy to write. I can, however, recognize when someone’s work is the opposite. That’s the feeling I get from reading the stories in You Will Never Be Forgotten. There’s a lot of research put into all these stories, firstly, unless South has an encyclopedic memory for intricate, bizarre facts. Next, South is thorough, as thorough as any writer I’ve come across, in exploring each of her characters whims, instincts, and feelings. These stories, high in concept, could easily have been three-to-four-page shorts, the conceits revealed and expended in a flourish (like I would do). South, however, leaves no personal stone unturned, exhausting every possible notion. I really loved settling into her prose, which eloquently and completely examines each of her characters, each of her ideas.
The lead story, “Keith Prime,” presents a world where infants are kept in departments at a corporation, sorted by their first names and cared for by specialists until they are chosen to move on. Is this the beforelife South is describing? Her own version of the stork myth? Where babies come from? She never goes that far or makes it that simple. We just know our protagonist works in Keiths, and after decades, finds herself particularly fond of one Keith, one with a mole, one that—uh-oh—wakes up before he is chosen. The rest of the story is an examination of parenthood, society, and the self; it is both tragic and clever at the same time. What an opener.
“Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” presents itself as an information pamphlet, exactly the kind indicted by its title. It starts off straight forwardly, presenting legitimate questions (in bold), followed by long answers that work to inform the average brain surgery candidate. Eventually, South derivates from the expected and the questions become less about surgeries and more about the “speaker” of the questions and answers, taking on the persona of a widowed mother coping with her existence. It’s absurd and fun and makes me want to have my head cut open, too.
This led me to the title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten.” This story is about some unnamed characters, specifically “the woman,” our protagonist, and “the rapist,” her antagonist. The woman has been raped by the rapist, after meeting up on a dating app, the rapist not taking no for an answer. He forced his way onto her on his bed, then threw her torn panties in her face before kicking her out. The woman, however, did not turn him in, did not seek out help, and did not get a rape kit, decisions she soon regrets.
The story focuses on a couple of different fronts. Firstly, there’s the woman’s obsession with the rapist, as she begins to more or less stalk him. She follows him around, monitors his social media, and makes casual contact with his acquaintances. He’s a suave, rapist-type, it seems, a guy who has a lot of one-night stands—be they rapey or consentual—and drinks craft beers with his bros at kitschy pubs in-between. The woman gets to know him almost too well, torturing herself with the details of his life, which are, obviously, not affected by his having raped her.
The other storyline involves her job. She works for the world’s largest search engine as a ninja, a hacker who eliminates distasteful, graphic content from the web. She specializes in public mass shootings, so she spends a great deal of her day watching the most awful things on her computer, people killing other people, then usually, themselves. She doesn’t even know her coworkers’ names, as they go by their handles, monikers like BabyJesusUpchuck and Cunty. Her boss calls himself Shady Dave. For a person with extensive psychological baggage, the woman has perhaps chosen the least-chill occupation imaginable.
Most of the story has the woman following the rapist, and eventually, the rapist’s girlfriend. It’s appalling to the woman that the rapist can have a girlfriend, let alone one that’s as beautiful, successful, and as smitten with the rapist as the rapist’s girlfriend appears to be. The rapist’s girlfriend is the gateway to confrontation, the woman decides, and corners her in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant. What starts off as a friendly warning to the rapist’s girlfriend backfires, leading the woman to make an even riskier move to confront her rapist.
I won’t go any further into the plot: You can click the link to the story above and find out what happens for yourself. What’s interesting, though, is how it becomes questionable as to what the woman’s motive is. Surely, she wants the rapist to get what he deserves. Yet, nothing she does particularly inhibits him in any way. Mostly, she becomes a true stalker rather than a righteous victim, her obsession switching from revenge to undeniable fascination. It’s a sick sort of Stockholm syndrome, a fascinating and thorough explanation of one particular reaction to such a violent atrocity. Maybe it’s how the woman’s PTSD has manifested itself—I think that’s a likely answer—or maybe that’s an oversimplification. In any case, I sped through this story, all thirty pages, South compelling me to do so with her thoroughness and endless creativity.
I immensely enjoyed this debut, Mary South’s stories complicated, well executed, and ultimately, undeniably entertaining. You Will Never Be Forgotten is one of my early entries for best books of 2020, a collection that I want to finish, want to teach from, want to revisit again. I highly recommend you get on board.