February 11, 2016: “The View of Me From Mars” by Lee K. Abbott

Today’s a very happy day for your Story366 blogger: Today I’m finally done with an impossible stretch of intense, full-attention stuff I had to deal with, all at the same time. It started last Friday with a visit from Steve Yates to Missouri State, and as I’m in charge of the reading series, I had to make sure that went off. I enjoy the reading series very much, and loved having Steve, but I also had some major projects going on in my classes, plus my youngest son turned three that day—birthdays are important, and this was the first year he truly understood it was his birthday, that the cake and the presents were for him, and there for a reason. It was a hectic, but fun day. At 11 the next morning, I had to be at an elementary school gym, as I was in charge of organizing and administering my other son’s Pinewood Derby, an event for a Pack of thirty-five kids. Again, the most fun thing ever, but I still had to do it, not to mention build our own Pinewood Derby car, and actually try not to lose (we made the semis, but lost). Then there was the huge reappointment application binder I had to construct, due Monday (and I still had to teach my classes that day, including some workshopping). Finally, we hosted a cookout at our house last night, also Cub Scout-related, which was fun and great, but in the wake of all that other stuff, we’d destroyed our house, so Karen and I spent all of Tuesday and yesterday cleaning, both inside and out. A rough patch of life, to say the least.

Knowing I had all that crap to do, Story366 became a series of blog entries I knew I could write easily, that I had an angle on. I spent all of last week writing about Missouri State authors, meaning I could write about Missouri State and themed weeks in general. I threw Steven Millhauser in there because he’s the writer whose work I’ve read the most of in the world, and then I started this week with three writers for whom I had easy anecdotes: having met R.M. Kinder recently (Monday’s choice), Stuart Dybek’s Polishness on Pączki Day (Tuesday), and my shameful song-and-dance tale leading into Madeline ffitch yesterday. So (except for these two paragraphs summing all of it up), I’m back to normal posts, being inspired by the stories themselves.

Lee K. Abbott is our subject today. Abbott’s a writer I’ve admired for a long time. I’ve read a bunch of Abbott’s story collections—Strangers in ParadiseDreams of Distant LivesLiving After Midnight—but don’t think I’ve read a story of his since “The Talk Talked Between Worms” won First Prize on the O. Henry Awards in 1997. Nineteen years?! That can’t be true, can it? Even if I read that anthology after 1997, which is possible, it’s still be a long time, too long for a writer whose work I like as much as his.

Today I’m writing about “The View of Me From Mars,” a great story that’s about a lot of things, has different angles to discuss. Firstly, it’s about fathers and their children, which I always like, being a dad and having a soft spot for those relationships. It’s also about reliability and bias, topics that I teach a lot, examples for which I’m always looking for (this story should consider itself shared with the general MSU fiction-writing populace). Most interesting, though, is that it’s about a story within a story, or even more accurately, a story within a story within a story. What do I mean by that? “The View of Me From Mars” features a protagonist, this middle-aged guy, who starts talking about a story he recently read—that’s the first story. He talks about reading the story, the experience of which is a story in itself, the middle story. All of it is part of the entire thing, “The View of Me From Mars,” so that complets the tri-leveled structure that exists in Abbott’s work. It’s not really as complex as all that—Inception it’s not—but more or less just a guy talking about a short story he once read. In that way, it’s like Story366 come to life!

The guy who read the story relays what he read: It was about a dad who takes his daughter to a carnival, a small-time deal, and enters the house of oddities. Inside, unfortunate souls of this and that description wait, more birth defects and genetic truths than anything, including The Human Torso. What The Human Torso really is is a woman with no arms and legs, a woman who sits in a box and performs basic tasks with her mouth and her chin, like apply make-up and write her name. The daughter, too innocent to recognize how sad this is—and that they paid money to help propel her exploitation—asks her dad how they (the carnival) did it. In other words, what’s the trick? She really does have arms and legs, doesn’t she? The dad, unwilling, at that moment, to tell his daughter the ugly truth about this woman’s misfortune, lies instead, tells her, “Mirrors, it’s done with mirrors.” But that’s not the point—the daughter, smart enough to know he’s lying, decides to go along with it, not really wanting to go there, either. It’s a big moment between father and child, a silent understanding they reach, a zenith in their relationship. It’s easy to see why the narrator in “The View of Me From Mars” likes it so much—it sounds like a great story.

But back to the actual story, “The View of Me From Mars,” where the protagonist is remembering this carnival story he read because, more or less, he needs to have that kind of moment with his own kid. Desperately. He’s a middle-aged guy with middle-aged guy problems, stemming from the fact he made middle-aged guy mistakes. He has a kid of his own—a boy, a senior in high school—and he has a wife, a wife who needs to be lied to. This short story he read, just a couple of days earlier, has become a model for his life, and more so, for his unwitting cohort, a son who has to help him with the lie. The son has never read the story, and therefore, is not in the moment with him, not like the dad and his daughter and The Human Torso. I won’t reveal the hows and the whats here, but it’s a fantastic concept for a story: Abbott catches a human at such a time as this, a human who has erred, big time, and tries to apply an unrelated minor detail from his life as diversion, reluctant to own up to his guilt. Abbot’s so good at that, catching people at low points, detailing how they try to worm out of it, making things worse. I love this story, as it teaches me a lot about human nature, sure, but about voice and tense and point of view and all those other things that I need to be reminded of, always.

“The View of Me From Mars” is part of the “new” in All Things, All at Once: New and Selected Stories, a collection I’ve been reading all day. Isn’t that the pinnacle of a short story writer’s success, getting a new and selected out? It’s on Norton, to boot, and is a nice tribute to this great figure in the genre, Lee K. Abbott. I’ve never read a story of his that I didn’t like, didn’t want to share with other readers. I’m sharing him with you now. Go get it.

Lee K. Abbott