February 22: “Line of Questioning” by Monica McFawn

Monday’s here and your Story366 blogger has survived an traumatic experience, some kind of awful flu/virus/food poisoning. For a few minutes there, I thought my fifty-two-day streak was in serious danger, that I would be found in the men’s room of the MSU English Department offices, over ten months of story explorations left unfulfilled. 314 stories would just be out there, existing, read by other people, no photo of its book cover taken next to the family ivy plant. What would contemporary literature do?

Luckily, I pulled through. I story on. Today is the second installment of my Bowling Green alum week. In yesterday’s Anthony Doerr post, I think I used the term “MFA,” and really, I’d meant all BG alum, including grad students and undergrads. This is key, as in the spotlight today is Monica McFawn, a BG BFA alum. When I was in Bowling Green, BG bragged that they had one of seven BFAs in creative  writing in the country; maybe it was five, or maybe nine. I’m sure there’s more now, but BG would get students from all over the country for this program, including McFawn, who is from the last Aleutian Island off the coast of Alaska, where her family fished and sold fake Russian passports. Actually, I have no idea where McFawn is from, but that seems really exotic and far, and I’m going with it.

McFawn won a Flannery O’Connor Prize a couple of years ago, meaning that last year, the University of Georgia Press put out her fine collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else. It’s a beautiful book (see the ivy-surrounded picture below), panels of bright colors stacked like roof shingles. If this book didn’t have short stories in them, I might have bought it, anyway, as it’s really gorgeous. Kudos to the UGA design staff (who made Saturday’s book, by E.J. Levy, as well). Who wouldn’t want a book that looks like this?

The inside is pretty great, too. McFawn’s stories, at least the few I read, are mostly interior dialogue, long passages of introspection, description, and summary. I never had McFawn as a student at BG, and if I had, I might have said something like, “Hey, break these big paragraphs up with some dialogue. Give your readers some quotation marks, so they get their money’s worth.” Good thing she avoided me, too, because McFawn has developed her own style, a deep, unique feel to narrative. Characters are broad, developed, multi-dimensional. It’s a particular way to tell stories, and McFawn is a budding master.

The story I’m writing about today, “Line of Questioning,” features a guy who thinks a lot, a university poetry-writing professor accused of raping and murdering one of his former students. This unnamed protagonist is super-self-aware, thinking through every moment of the night in question, as well as his relationship with the victim and his own disappointing life, his books not well reviewed and his wife long since gone. This poet, like a lot of poets, is a ball of angst, but at this stage in his career, it’s not translating into genius. John Keats he’s not, and he never will be.

Details about the victim, and the crime, seep out as the professor is brought in for questioning, the major suspect in the case. As deep as McFawn goes into her guy’s head, she wisely controls her rate of reveal, as we don’t find out what really happened that day. The interview incites flashbacks and explorations, the professor investigating every facet of his life, his failures, and his run-in with his now-dead former student, an iconoclast who never like him and has quit poetry in favor of writing angry letters to the newspaper. They meet on his jogging trail, where he maintains his physique and she walks her dog. Did this sad poet kill this girl, merely because she didn’t like his class? Was their disdain just thinly veiled sexual tension? McFawn doesn’t tell us—the story’s not about that, but instead about the process by which this guy examines his life.

The stakes of the poet’s introspection is taken to another level when he reveals that the victim came back to his apartment with him the night she was killed. Still contemptuous of each other, the seem to carry the same sadness, the same kind of crazy. They have drinks and play Scrabble, not exchanging a word. The police who are questioning the poet—they pop up, now and then, to remind us the occasion for all this telling—and are at the edge of their seats. They want a confession, yeah, but they also want the sordid details—they’re aroused, clearly, a twisted twist to McFawn’s narrative.

Bright Shards of Someplace Else is a wickedly creative new collection. Monica McFawn has made Bowling Green proud with this debut, and she has since taken a post as a writing prof at Northern Michigan’s MFA program. She  is probably telling people to b skimpy with dialogue—that wonderfully written prose doesn’t need breaking up—but hopefully not murdering anyone who argues with her. We’d probably take her off the program’s website for that.

Monica McFawn