October 20: “Word Problem” by Margaret Luongo

Happy Thursday, Story366! Here I am again, writing about stories and the Cubs as I watch the game. As of now, the Cubs are up 1-0 in the bottom of the third, so, so far, so good. Still got lots of nerves, as there’s so many innings to go. I’ll keep you updated—and again, I realize this blog isn’t live—as that’s how I work through the tension.

Today I had the pleasure of reading from Margaret Luongo‘s collection History of Art, out from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Series, edited by the super-cool Michael Griffith. I’ve read some stories by Luongo before, plus got to meet her when I was a weeklong guest instructor at Miami University back in 2012. I’ve always liked Luongo’s work and was glad to get my hands on this collection, which is a really eclectic mix of stories, featuring all kinds of forms and themes and lengths. There’s definitely a strong mixture of both art and war, as a few of the stories I read mixed the two, including the title story, “The War Artist,” and “The War Artist Makes God Visible.” It’s an interesting mixture, or maybe dichotomy, beauty melded with death, soldiers and their instruments of war made precious and lasting. Instead of writing about any of those stories, though, I’m going to write about “Word Problem,” the first story I read, so let’s go.

“Word Problem,” like a word problem in a fifth grade math book, poses its variables in its first sentence: “Ten students attend the conservatory at a nationally acclaimed school of music.” That’s the first sentence, first paragraph. From there, Luongo starts listing facts about these students, several of them overlapping for their introductions, all of them having bolded capital letters for names: and do this in the next paragraph, then CD, and are like that, FG, and all get their own paragraphs, and finally we meet and J. Each student/letter gets a few sentences of description, an index card’s worth of notes, all of them having their own ambitions, talents, hangups, and flaws. Someone’s overconfident. Someone has zero confidence. One student is self conscious about her breasts. Another grew up with alcoholic parents. Two are obsessed with John Cale. While all of these people have found themselves in this prestigious school, they all come with different baggage, different ambitions, and will, of course, get different things out of the experience at the school. So, like any group of ten students majoring in anything at any school.

Once we meet these ten students, Luongo poses a list of questions. The first several questions relate to how the students will succeed in the world of music upon graduation (if they graduate), how many of them will do what they want, how many will have an enviable career, and how many will settle for something beneath their pedigree, less than their dreams had prescribed. As the list goes on, the questions get more and more satirical, even a little snarky, drifting off into politics, parenting, and sexual proclivity. After, and for the rest of the story, Luongo gives us the Answer Key (the story’s three sections are separated by Roman numeralled headers), where each of the students’ futures are revealed, in great detail.

Cubs and Dodgers tied at 1.

So that’s the structure of “Word Problem,” pretty clever and definitely well excecuted. On top of that, though, each of these characters, named only with a dark black letter, become real characters with real problems. Those first descriptions kind of made cliches or maybe even tropes out of them, but the story really builds on each person, making them stand out, making them real, and by the end of the story, I’d forgotten that none of them had actual names.

What “Word Problem” is really about, in a way, is music study, a satire of majoring in music, at the best institution in the country, and what typically happens to its students. Somebody, in a given group of ten students, with a particular background and attitude, will go on and be first chair violin in a major city’s orchestra. Another student, with a similar talent and similar ambitions, but perhaps a different background, might end up the choir director of their hometown church. Somebody’s going to make a lot of money writing music and lyrics for Top 40 radio. Another person is going to have an accident, preventing them from performing ever again. Someone else is going to give up music, tired of it after a lifetime of practice.

Had I gone to a conservatory and studied music, maybe all of this would have had a somewhat greater impact, as I would have been able to not only empathize with what Luongo had created, but I could have named friends and classmates who fit each role—and would have been one myself. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, some in-joke for music school grads. I was on board the whole time. I think this setting, this vocation, is a metaphor for anything and everybody. Take ten people in any field, not just academic music studies, all of their individualities are going to send them in vastly different directions, even if they start out with similar opportunities and talent levels. Someone’s going to excel. Someone’s going to fail. Someone’s going to leave. And then there’s a whole bunch of in-betweens, the unpredictable that Luongo so elegantly sketches out for us in “Word Problem.” All wrapped up in her tiny little math book format. Genius, or a stroke of it, anyway.

3-1 Cubs, headed into the top of the seventh. That’s a little better.

I admire Margaret Luongo for her characterization, ingenuity, and dry, dark sense of humor. History of Art is a really solid collection, a pleasure to read and write about.