“Interstellar Space” by Scott O’Connor

What a great day this is, Story366!  I say this because it’s sunny outside, but not hot. I say this because during that twenty-five minutes between the Karen leaving in the morning with the older boy and me having to wake the younger boy and get him ready for school, I took out all the garbage and did all the dishes, meaning I don’t have to do that the rest of the day. I say this because I have the entire day to myself, the boys at school, even though I know it’s the last day of summer school and tomorrow I’m a dad all day again, for two weeks. I say it’s a great day because I got to read from another collection today and write about it.

I mainly say that because today is the non-waiver trade deadline day for Major League Baseball, one of the best and most exciting days of the year for any baseball fan. It’s a great day, in particular, if your team is a buyer—i.e., they’re having a good year and are looking to add someone for the playoff run—as opposed to being a seller—your team’s season is over and they’re trying to unload dead weight in exchange for prospects. Since the Cubs have been competitive in the last four years, I’ve been on the buyer side of the experience,  watching some pretty pivotal guys suddenly added to the roster. It’s been a good four years to be a Cub fan, the true salad days, and things should play out like this for at least a couple more years, most of the Cubs’ talent still young and, well, talented.

I have to say, though, that I’ve taken a tiny bit of guilty pleasure in watching the Cardinals start their dismantling today, trading what was going to be a key piece of their present and future—OF Tommy Pham—for basically a bag of balls. It’s been coming all year, the Cardinals hovering just above .500, but in all my years of watching baseball (every year I’ve been alive), the Cards have never been sellers. Not really. Sure, I know that this is because the Cards have never been bad enough to be sellers, that they’re a top-notch organization who is almost always competitive. It’s the burden I live with. So that makes a day like today even more special, to see them moving on for the year while the Cubs try to reload for another title run. Again, a tiny bit of pleasure. These are, after all, the fans who bandy the “Completely Useless By September” acronym around like a motto.

I won’t even get into how entertaining it was to listen to Cardinals sports talk radio on my way to and from Chicago last weekend, to hear the frenzy in their voices, the disgust, paired with the resentful admiration for what the Cubs have going. I don’t smile a whole lot—those of you who know me will attest—but I think I smiled all the way through that broadcast range, both directions.

For today’s post, I read from Scott O’Connor‘s new story collection, A Perfect Universe, out this year from Scout Press, a new Imprint of Simon & Schuster. O’Connor has written three successful novels, A Perfect Universe being his first collection. Since I don’t read all that many novels, I haven’t read O’Connor’s work before, but as always, I find that a treat, to find new authors (kind of why I do this blog).

The first story in A Perfect Universe is “Hold On,” about the sole survivor of a building collapse in LA, a guy who spent several days in the rubble, holding on to a voice on a bullhorn yelling “Hold on!” and reading the names of the people inside. The guy is pretty messed up after the event, increasingly so, and O’Connor does a nice job in showing how his PTSD unfolds as time moves on (the first-person present narrative helps with that, too). The next story, “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” puts a person in another traumatic event, this one unfolding in real time: A robbery at a coffee shop were the protagonist (and again, first-person present speaker) is fetching coffee for her office superiors. Two stories in, we had two people dealing with trauma, with life-altering moments; not to reveal too much, but in each story, people react to the stress and pressure by screaming, which, hey, seems understandable. Both are fast-moving stories and I liked them both.

I moved into the middle of the book to find “Interstellar Space,” which sounded like it might be the sort-of title story … you know, because space … universe … okay, I was wrong and it’s not. But it is my favorite of the three stories, a bit different than the other two, but in some ways, carrying the same themes.

“Insterstellar Space” is told in the past tense from Cate’s point of view, clearly as an adult relaying the goings-on of her childhood (without having an uber-present narrator or anything like that). Cate relays the story of her and her sister, Meg, who is two years younger and her best friend. The girls play all kinds of morbid role-playing games as kids—the description of which opens the story—games like Dead Man’s Float, where they float facedown on the surface of the backyard pool, looking like drowning victims, until their mother yells out the window in a panic. Another game is Prisoner, where they take turns duct-taping each other’s wrists to a pole in the shed, duct-taping their mouths, too, playacting some kind of hostage situation. Weird, creative kids, to be sure, the kind of kids who populate this story.

Things become less of a game when Meg starts hearing voices. They start, one afternoon, during a game of Prisoner, Meg taped in captivity, tiny, tinny children’s voices calling out to her. At first, she thinks the voices are coming from somewhere specific, maybe a new part of Cate’s Prisoner routine, some sort of auditory torture. That’s not it, however. Meg continues to these voices, and worse, she starts to listen to them.

Added into the voices and Meg’s delicate age—she’s 13 when they start—the girls’ dad is an engineer for a astronautical corporation and during the story, sees one of his rocket projects launched into space. The family hosts a celebratory party in their backyard, one that doesn’t go particularly well for Meg: She immediately associates the voices with the rocket, with space in general, and believes that the voices are coming from outside our atmosphere. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make the relationship between Meg and her dad very smooth.

The story moves on from there, jumping ahead through Meg’s teen years, revealing her decline, which kind of peaks at the police finding her on a corner, handing out flyers that warn everyone about the voices, about the aliens’ dastardly plans. This causes a big change for the family, but I won’t go into that here, leaving you something to find for yourself.

I like, by the way, how O’Connor tells this story, from the first-peripheral perspective (Cate), as that’s how he more or less has to. I talk about this POV with my students, from intro level to grad, how it’s often used to describe someone whose head you really don’t want to go into—I often cite the Sherlock Holmes stories, how Watson tells those, because really, how do you write the transcript of that brain? And sure, O’Connor could have chronicled Meg’s condition through her own thoughts, actually depicted the voices, her stream of consciousness. That would have made it a much different (not to mention more difficult) story. Using Cate, the best friend and confidante and sister, just lets the story unravel, gives it a more solid perspective instead of something like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman’s telling makes for a great story, surely, but just a different piece, which O’Connor obviously chose not to approach.

I like the stories in A Perfect Universe, stories where Scott O’Connor finds people in a bad way, going through some intense moments, telling us how they react, in both the short term and long. It’s a really interesting and effective approach to character, to put them through such extremes, then watch as they unravel. I smell a writing assignment coming from this, students reading O’Connor’s work, then trying to craft an O’Connoresque tale (Scott … Flannery … Carol?!). In any case, good collection, both intense and thoughtful, one I enjoyed.