September 8: “How Aliens Think” by Judith Grossman

Hello, Story366! It’s a beautiful Thursday in Springfield, and before I pick up my boys from school, I wanted to get this post up (but looking at the clock, I know I won’t, so I’m only starting it early … sigh).

Today’s big news is Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson asking on a TV interview what Aleppo is when the interviewer asked what he’d do about Aleppo. So, so bad for a presidential candidate, even a Libertarian, to not know about major foreign policy issues and for that to be revealed on national television. How embarrassing for him, and as Joy Behar suggests, this might be a disqualifying comment (and yes, that’s the first Joy Behar allusion I’ve made in Story366 … but will it be the last?).

Sadly, I have to admit: When I saw the replay of the interview: I was thinking the same thing as Johnson. Ugh. And not only was I thinking, What’s Aleppo? I was thinking what Johnson said in his follow-up interview: Acronym. As I watched this for the first time and I heard “Aleppo,” I was, too, trying to unravel the acronym, but an acronym for what? American? … Leauge?  … Liberty? Engagement? Then the interviewer said Syria and I immediately remembered.

So, am I saying you should vote for Gary Johnson? No. Does it matter as much that I thought Aleppo was an acronym as it matters that he did? No, as I’m not running for President of the United States.

Despite my shame, I still managed to read a couple of stories from Judith Grossman’s How Aliens Think, out from The Johns Hopkins University Press. Because Grossman signed and dated this book for me when I got it, I was able to recall that I saw her read in Provincetown at the Fine Arts Work Center in 2003, when Karen was a Fellow there over the summer. I met a lot of writers there that summer—Pam Houston, Matthew Clam, Martha Rhodes, etc.—as the FAWC brings someone in every week. Grossman was one of those writers.

The collection’s title story, “How Aliens Think,” is a story about Susan, a British woman who moves to America for grad school, who has different relationships with different people as she makes her way, all the time reminding us that she’s not an American, but an alien, an outsider attempting to adjust to life in her new home. She travels with her friend, Keith, who will attend grad school with her in Boston. She befriends Lili, with whom she’s arranged lodging with in New York until the semester begins. Overall, she’s in America to be with Jim, a man who is married and lives in Texas—he’s going to work on his divorce while she works on a degree in seventeenth century American literature.

The story’s pace is particularly interesting, as we start on the deck of the ship, New York City approaching across the sea in the distance, Grossman making allusions to the mass migrations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (“How Aliens Think” is set in the 1960s, by the way), the optimism these two people feel as they start their lives anew. The pair quickly separate—Keith’s staying with someone else before they head to Boston—and we focus on Susan and Lili for a while—the story seems like it’s going to be about that, Susan in New York, Lili as her guide, but then suddenly, it’s time for school, Keith returns, and we’re in New England.

That’s about a third of the story, these New York scenes, and from there, the pace really picks up. Grossman starts jumping forward in time at an accelerated rate. We experience Susan and Keith’s first semester in grad school, when the two adjust to studying “Brit lit,” take a weekend trip back to England (Keith is wealthy, by the way), and Susan has an affair after a holiday party. It’s okay, though, because when she tells Jim, he tells her that he’s fallen in love with someone else, so that relationship ends.

After that, Grossman skips ahead, or maybe montages is the word, Grossman finishing school, getting a job at Mt. Holyoke, visiting New York to see Lili and Keith (he got a job at Fordham), losing touch with them, reconnecting, etc. I won’t go any further into the plot—life-changing things occur—as I’ll leave it for you to discover.

What Grossman really wants to relay here is how much Susan feels like an outsider, like an alien, how she doesn’t fit in, which is perhaps her dominant character trait. Grossman plays with that word, “alien,” as the first line of the story is “Green is the color that defines them, of course,” as a reader taking the word literally would think she’s going to be talking about something more sci-fi—she does it again a couple of paragraphs later, describing someone’s wave as a spaceman’s. It’s the theme of the story, being from somewhere else, though the other story I read, “The Two of You,” has something else in common with “How Aliens Think,” both of them about English professors and their failed relationships.

Overall, I admired the character sketch in “How Aliens Think,” to see how a writer defines a character, then carries that trait through many years, watching it define her, even control her. Both stories I read in How Aliens Think have these distinct characters, developed so intricately by Judith Grossman, they are some of the most multi-dimensional people I’ve read this year.

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