February 20: “Galatea” by L. Annette Binder

As much as I love the Story366 project, I have serious blog envy for Karen’s Better View of the Moon. In her blog, Karen discusses what we used to call the “nuts and bolts” of writing and publishing, more often than not, covering the ins and outs of how writers try to find audiences. Mostly, her posts investigate the literary magazine world, a world she and I have been a part of for over twenty years. People love it. She destroys me, day in and day out, with hits, with glowing comments, with energy. Karen’s blog is a year older, sure, but I swear I was in an elevator in the Grand Hotel Villa de France in Tangier last week and heard the operator and a woman who looked like Audrey Hepburn in Charade discussing Better View of the Moon, in Vietnamese, joking about simultaneous submission policies; the woman then pulled a pistol with a silencer out of her purse and shot the elevator operator three times in the chest, a guy who turned out to be an assassin, there to murder the king of Prussia. The woman then kissed my on the forehead and said, “Like Karen says, you gotta withdraw from the other magazines the second your piece is accepted elsewhere.” Then she was gone.

We’d always found that writers were super-interested in the inner workings of lit mags. Every AWP panel we’ve ever proposed that was made up of editors, talking editorial policies, was snatched up for the conference, then was standing room only. In fact, it was pretty much the same panel every year, for like five straight years, rotating our editor friends in and out, so many attendees eager to ask questions, hear what we had to say, a peek behind the curtain. Specialized writing topic panels I’ve proposed instead? Zilch, nada, no interest, only to go to AWP and see editorial panels similar to those I used to propose, seemingly in every timeslot. Might be that this year, I propose another editorial panel. After all, who doesn’t like to see their name in the AWP program?

What this has to do with L. Annette Binder, her book Rise, or her story “Galatea,” I’m not sure. But as I start to prep for AWP, and keep going with this blog, my intros might not always have a direct lead to the story discussion. I’m thinking that by the end of this post, I’ll pull some strange connection out, but in the meantime, let’s get down to “Galatea.”

I’ve read a lot of L. Annette Binder before, right before Rise, and winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize, came out in 2011. There was a period there where she was seemingly in every literary magazine that would come in to the Mid-American Review office, where every story she wrote and sent out was gobbled up immediately. That’s a very encouraging notion, I think, almost as if Binder, all of a sudden, just figured out how to be a great writer, and within a couple of years, went from unknown to someone with a stories all over and a major book prize. I can’t really track how long Binder had been writing or sending out, or when exactly all her stories appeared, but it just seems that way, that one minute a writer is wading their way through the submissions piles, trying to get noticed, and the next, she’s whom everyone is talking about, everyone is reading.

At whatever rate Binder’s success came, she is talented, and “Galatea” is just one example from Rise that proves that. It’s the story of Carol, told in third person, a woman absolutely obsessed with plastic surgeries. This is a character we’ve seen before, often a cartoonish Frankenstein’s monster of a person, someone who ends up on those click bait lists you see at the bottom of Internet articles, ballooned lips and stretched eyes. Carol’s not that kind of obsessed. She seems to be more about the process than the result, quoting surgeons’ names and specialties like baseball fans can cite their favorite players’ stats. This doctor in Denver came up with this procedure, while this guy in Nepal, he revolutionized that. If Carol could have plastic surgeon cards to trade with her friends, she’d be all over that (but would probably just throw out the chalky little rectangle of gum, chewing horrible for frown lines).

Carol is a like a lot of other procedure addicts in that she wants to halt time. Most others, however, are trying to maintain youth, or the appearance of it, the kind of person for whom aesthetics are everything. Carol’s not concerned with how other people see her, just one person: her daughter, Jenny. Jenny disappeared, years earlier, on a trip to the mall, Carol looking away just for a second. Decades later, Jenny is still gone, but Carol has frozen that moment in time: Jenny’s clothes remained unwashed, her bed unmade, and hairs from her bristle brush have become sacred keepsakes. Carol, out of ways to capture that Jenny, moves on to freezing herself; enter the tucks, the nips, and pulls, and the bleaches.

Binder never says this outright, Carol wanting to remain 1980s Carol, just in case Jenny comes back and needs to recognize her, but it’s obvious. That’s one of Binder’s skills, it seems, to just let her characters be, or do, letting the audience fill in the rest. A lot of other variables populate Carol’s story, an ex-husband, an aging (willingly) mother, her bookkeeping job from which she’s been stealing for years. “Galatea” is complex and sad and beautiful, just like a lot of Binder’s stories, each one completely different, but coming from the same bank of empathy, of perception, of skill.

Maybe the publishing/AWP angle on L. Annette Binder is “Writers Who Suddenly Were Everywhere,” something like that, five writers who had no publications one year, then before they knew it, were beating off publishers with a stick. Again, I can’t say for sure if Binder really experienced the meteoric rise that I’m describing, but it would be fun to hear such a tale, writers describing years of frustration, then suddenly, an embarrassment of riches. Audience members would have to keep in mind that this wasn’t some magic trick, because of some in, some connection, but because of pure talent, the kind of talent Binder obviously has. Thankfully, many editors recognized when it came across their desks.

L Annette Binder