December 20: “Happy Birthday Grandma” by Daniel Grandbois

Hope you’re well, Story366! I am, as they say, not. Whatever flu’s been going around—what my youngest had last week, what Karen had on Sunday—has now struck me. From what we can tell, this has been a one-day thing, which I want to believe, eight hours to go. I’m already feeling a little better, capable of sitting and typing this—around 1 p.m. today, I was doubting the continuity of Story366, as I could not phathom me reading or writing anything. The worst thing about that 1 p.m. desire to die was that Karen and I had to go Christmas shopping, finish off the kids, as this was their last day of school for the year and if we wanted to go together—and we did—today was the day. Did I spend a good chunk of time in a Kohl’s bathroom, fully dressed, just sitting in a stall, my head leaning against the wall? Did I maybe doze off once or twice, waking myself with a snore, or because some guy wrapped on the door and asked me if I was okay? Do I need to get to today’s post so I can go to bed? I think you know the answers to these questions.

I’ve already lined up the books for the last dozen Story366 entries of the year, and fully planned to read from Anthony Marra‘s The Tsar of Love and Techno today. Late last night, however, I rethought. I knew I’d be busy with shopping, getting the kids to school, and finishing up some work around the office, so I switched in Daniel Grandbois‘ book, made up of shorts, for Marra’s, Marra’s stories all over thirty pages. And this was before I felt remotely sick (that happened around 6 a.m.)—serendipity. I don’t think I could have swallowed thirty pages of anything today, so I’ll do Marra right after Christmas, when I have my days totally free.

I also really like Grandbois’ book a lot, so I’m pleased about that angle. As I said, the collection, Unlucky Lucky Days, out from BOA Editions, is made up of shorts, seventy-three to be exact. The book is cut up into seven sections, each named after the days of the week, and I read most of “Sunday” and at least two stories from each of the other days. Many of the pieces are only a page, and all of them could be categorized a surreal, or at the very least, non-traditional in what they do, how they’re written.Grandbois doesn’t use recognizable characters, backstories, or plots, but instead proposes concepts and more or less lets it rip, taking everything in strange and unpredictable directions. Most of the stories feel allegorical—animals, as protagonists, factor heavily—but it’s not always simple to discern what stands for what, what Grandbois is going for; there’s no farm where the critters represent fascist regimes. Not necessarily.

The story that maybe best represents this approach, what is also the longest story I read today at four pages, is “Happy Birthday Grandma.” The story begins with a giraffe, a giraffe that is named Happy Birthday Grandma, even though she is nobody’s grandma and it’s not her birthday (plus, she’s a giraffe). She also hangs out with a dude by the name of Mr. Humperdink Hedgehog, curling around him as they sleep, and has problems with her socks.

By the end of that first page, we find out that this story takes place before anything existed, including time, birth, or, well, anything. That’s why Happy Birthday Grandma can’t be a grandma, because there’s no such thing, not mothers, grandmas, or family. There are, however, “unborn things” that want to be born, want time to start, so they hatch a plan: Putting sticks in the ground to attract lightning. This plan kind of works, but ends in death, marking the first deathday, followed, eventually, by the first birthday. More sticks are planted and before we know it, existence has begun, births happening left and right, which also means mothers, and eventually, grandmothers.

This leads us to the eventual birth of of Happy Birthday Grandma, who is named in a clever way, my favorite part of the story, as giraffes are called whatever is said first upon its birth, by whomever is watching, be it “Ewww! Gross!” or “Happy Birthday Grandma.” Once born, well, we know where we started, back with Mr. Humperdink Hedgehog and HBG’s sock problems.

That’s the gist of “Happy Birthday Grandma,” a story about how the world began and a giraffe got her funny name. Or kind of. To say one of Daniel Grandbois’ stories are “about” something is kind of a misnomer, a misdirection, because, well, you just read my description. The stories in Unlucky Lucky Days are like this, though maybe not all as complex because most aren’t as long. Grandbois is a poet, and as a fiction writer, it would be easy to write off the abstractions in these stories as some kind of poetic license, “poets being poets.” Again, it’s not that simple. The stories, as abstract as they are, have narratives, have situations, but don’t follow conventional paths. That’s what makes this book special, what made me enjoy it so much.