January 11: “Beanstalk” by Tessa Mellas

It seems like I should add a link here, or a side bar, whatever, that explains this project’s rules. One reason I don’t have this already is because I don’t know how to do that (Karen thinks the “widget” tool may be the answer). Another reason is because I don’t know what the rules are yet. Just eleven days in, I know I want to read a story every day and then post about it. I know I want the stories to be stories I haven’t read before. I know I want a diverse selection of stories, be they older or newer stories, by famous writers or by beginners, from marquee collections or the most obscure lit journals. I want to explore stories by writers of every age, gender, race, sexuality, and origin. I want to have fun with it, too, have themed posts, like reading Jean Thompson on her birthday, maybe even special weeks, stories with the word “hemlock” in the title, stories by women named Judy. That sort of thing.

But I’m also not going to fear nepotism. I’m not publishing anyone, judging a contest, or selecting a job candidate. Jean Thompson is an old friend, a former teacher, and while nobody said anything like, “Is that what this is going to be, him just writing about his friends?” I hesitated to choose her so early in the project, just three days in. It’s likely because I’ve been trained for so long as an editor to be aware of that kind of bias, and more importantly, the appearance of that bias. Because writers know every other writer, however, it’s impossible to not run into your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances at every turn. For every journal I’ve edited, I’ve both accepted and rejected people dear to me, basing my decisions solely on the merits of their work.

But this blog isn’t like that. I can really do whatever I want with it, write about the same author every day, write about authors I’ve published, even write about my own stories. No one’s career is on the line here. I could poop on the wall of a cave and write about that. Long live blogging!

With that in mind, I’m writing about a former student for the first time, Tessa Mellas and her story “Beanstalk.” It’s from her collection Lungs Full of Noise, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award a couple of years ago. I never had Tessa in a workshop, but she took my editing and publishing class at Bowling Green several times—of course, I was ecstatic to find out that she’d won this prestigious award, but not at all surprised.

I’d read a bunch of stories from Lungs Full of Noise when I first got the book, but like with a lot of books, I didn’t finish. It’s probably because I got it at AWP in Seattle in 2014, along with dozens of other books. But I liked every story I’d read, and have shared “Marisopa Girls” and “Bibi From Jupiter” with my students. I’m happy to have gotten deeper into the book now, and “Beanstalk” is another really nice story.

The action starts with a baby being born, born green, “face splotched with yellow like variegated leaves, hairs wispy white, corncob silk.” It’s a plant baby, born to human parents, in a normal hospital, in the regular world that we know. All the characters—the mom, the dad, the nurses, family and friends—certainly notice that the baby, Jack (as in the beanstalk planter), is different, but not to the point where they’re like “Oh my God! That baby’s made of plants! Call a botanist! Call The Enquirer! Kill it!!!” Jack’s oddities are noted, but this isn’t science fiction—things go on like the would in the real world. “Beanstalk” is just pure magical realism.

All good magical realism really isn’t about the magical elements, but about the characters; we need to empathize for them and believe in them just the same as we would in a realistic story. A former not-Tessa student once told me he/she wrote magical realism, and when I read his/her work, it felt more like an acid trip (or what I assume an acid trip, in words, would be like). I asked him/her to define magical realism, and his/her answer was something to the tune of, “It’s when a bunch of crazy shit happens.” I think that’s a pretty common misconception, but not one Tessa makes or ever has. Her story is about character, mainly Lucy, Jack’s mom, told from her limited third-person point of view. Immediately, the bond between her and Jack radiates, as she defends her offspring against every raised eyebrow, every inhuman suggestion. I don’t love the baby Jack like she does—he’s a fictional plant baby—but I understand that Lucy loves him unconditionally. She would do anything to take care of him, to protect him, and perhaps most importantly, understand him. Her unquestioning and limitless love bursts with emotional resonance, and I felt it in every paragraph, on every page.

“Beanstalk” also features some great supporting characters. Jack’s dad, a neighbor, is addicted to polling, as in, he works for a census bureau and lives it. Lucy’s live-in mom is losing her capacities. Lucy’s sister, with two kids of her own, proves judgmental and worthless. Everyone here is well drawn in their roles as minor cast members, their depictions effortless and real.

At the heart of every magical realism story lies a metaphor—another part of the definition—and Jack’s unique condition can certainly stand for any perceived imperfection in any baby. Sometimes that’s a goofy smile, sometimes a weirdly-shaped head, or, too often, something much worse, an actual medical deficiency. Jack has special needs, but most of all, just isn’t what anyone expects. Lucy’s love of him is a testament to the kind of response only a mother, and the staunchest idealist, could muster. Along the way, we get some really great descriptions and details, Jack sprouting every which way, sometimes as a vine, sometimes as a flower, sometimes as a seed pod. Tessa is as adept at making us see something as she is with developing her concept.

I know Tessa Mella’s influences include Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, Karen Russell, and Stacey Richter, writers who all contribute here, especially Bender, from the get-to-the-point first line to the logisitical details, e.g., Jack’s nurse offering Miracle Grow pellets as a gift. “Beanstalk,” and all the stories in Lungs Full of Noise, offer something new, a variation as fresh and gorgeous as one of Jack’s flourishes. I’m so happy for my friend, proud of how good at this she has clearly become.

Tessa Mellas