August 1: “Van Gogh Dreams” by Traci O Connor

Welcome to August, Story366! This is the last full day of Karen’s writing retreat, and actually, I’m in her hotel room, looking out the window, while she’s down in the pool with the boys. This is a small part of the retreat life that Karen enjoys, getting a local hotel so that we can come visit for a couple of hours, get the boys some pool time, then separate again so she can do her thing. Today, as I finished grading my summer classes, cleaned the house, and took care of the boys, Karen offered the option of swimming with the boys by herself while I write this post and relax a bit, so here I am, in a Springfield Hampton Inn, watching baseball trade analysis, and bringing you your daily Story366 fix.

Since I have limited time, I’ll get right into Traci O Connor’s story “Van Gogh Dreams” from her excellent collection Recipes for Endangered Species from Tarpaulin Sky Press. I published one of the stories from this collection, “The Flying Cardonas,” in Mid-American Review a while back, so I knew Connor’s work. Recipes is more than just a bunch of her stories strung together; it’s a cohesive collection of creepy/horror/grotesque/gothic stories, and in-between, we get recipes for cocktails, the name of which seems to, in my limited reading, relate to either the preceding or succeeding story, perhaps both. After “The Flying Cardonas,” we find out how to make a Ghost, which has cream soda, meaning I’m in. Before “Van Gogh Dreams,” we get the makings of a Psychopath, which definitely applies. Not only do we get the recipes, but Connor, or more likely, her designer at Tarpaulin Sky, wrote out the recipes by hand on little cards and placed them in interesting photo settings, such as

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Fancy. Pretty. A nice touch.

I read a few stories from the book and liked them all. Connor’s got a pretty twisted sense of story, of character, and that shows up best, I think, in “Van Gogh Dreams.” Back in grad school, I saw my first Van Gogh painting in person at The Toledo Museum of Art, Houses at Auvers, and got kind of into Van Gogh for a few years, purchasing a few prints and getting them framed. All of that culminated in seeing a Van Gogh/Gauguin traveling exhibit in Chicago, a show that included Starry Night and Sunflowers. I’ve been to some face-melting concerts, have heard some inspiring speeches, and have been to more fiction and poetry readings that have moved me than I deserve. But seeing those iconic paintings, up close and live, in the same room, is something I’ll never forget. If you’ve seen them in person, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then you should try. They’re up on a wall somewhere right now.

Still, I liked Van Gogh, but not as much as the unnamed central character in “Van Gogh Dreams.” She thinks about Van Gogh an awful lot, so much so, before long, it’s hard to tell whose head the third-person narration is occupying: our protagonist’s or Van Gogh’s. Complicating this is the fact that the story is split between some of Van Gogh’s letters, some stream-of-consciousness thought from Van Gogh (I’m guessing his diaries), some stream-of-conscious narration from our protagonist (or possibly dreams, as the story’s title suggests, if we takes that literally), and the frontstory, where our protagonist and her neighbor, Denny, share discussions about her zinnias and Denny’s black-and-white cat.

Structurally, “Van Gogh Dreams” is pretty complicated. The whole thing reminds me of Cunningham’s The Hours, as part of that is told from Virginia Wolff, part of it is about the reading of her Mrs. Dalloway, and part is about a woman who is a lot like Mrs. Dalloway as a person. Connor covers all the bases here, though our hero doesn’t paint flowers—she plants them. And she thinks of Van Gogh. And Van Gogh shows up, in mind and in letters. So, pretty neat.

It’s possible that our protagonist is getting the wrong messages from Van Gogh’s diaries and letters, the part, perhaps, where Van Gogh lost it (one of instances when he’d done this) and cut off his own ear. She makes nice with Denny, become affectionate toward his cat, and gives him some gardening advice. Without going too much further, that’s mostly what goes on in the story, as a lot of the fourteen pages here is dedicated to Van Gogh’s thoughts and words, which do indeed gray up with our protagonist’s. Why she’s so obsessed with this painter? Why are they both so obsessed with flowers, with landscapes? How can the same people, then, be so obsessed with death?

Like all the stories in Recipes for Endangered Species, “Van Gogh Dreams” is beautifully wrought, but surprisingly twisted at the same time. I like Traci O Connor’s work, like that her “O” doesn’t use a period after it, like that she wrote a book about people and events that are outwardly disturbing, and like that a press gave this book a chance. This is one I’m looking forward to finishing.

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