“A Bright and Pleading Dagger” by Nicole Rivas

Hello there, Story366! As always, I’m excited to be posting. It’s Wednesday, I’ll be traveling today, but still, wanted to get this one in before I left (more on that in a bit).

On Monday, in my Helen DeWitt post, I started by discussing my slip on Facebook, how I got baited into a political argument, which I swore, about ten years ago, that I’d never do. It was a pretty simple discussion and everyone involved seemed rational, but most of all, I had a pretty clear and intelligent and undebatable point to make. Because it’s FB and people are people, it soon turned into another stupid debate, with base pile-on, reaching lows in racism and human intelligence. It was a slip: Never would I make that mistake on social media again.

Then, in the last couple of days, I got overly active on FB, taking part in discussions, liking things at an abnormal rate, and yes, posting points of my own. I made a comment about a silly response on my summer teaching evaluations, which kind of backfired, as people interpreted it as me feeling bad/sorry for myself because a single student didn’t like me—I was really just pointing out a silly thing someone said. This morning I noted that a lot of my friends’ kids were starting school today, how weird that is—I always started the day after Labor Day—and that started a really interesting discussion on year-round schools. So much activity after swearing off activity. You can track me down on FB if you want in on those obviously inspiring topics.

My interest in FB comes and goes in waves. Sometimes I think it’s silly, to share my thoughts, to seek out opinions, or have the desire to be a part of a community. Weeks will go by, me working through life’s ups and downs, through its anecdotes, in my own head. On other days, like this week, I want to check in with the world and for the world to count me as present. I’m glad I’m not the person who posts everything that comes into his head (One of my favorite Simpsons quotes: “Do you say everything you think?” Reverend Lovejoy’s daughter to Bart), but if I’m going to be on social media and expect my friends to like posts about Story366, Moon City Press/Review, and the cute things my kids do and say, I need to be more of a citizen. I need to play the game. Or at least say, “Present” when my name is called during attendance.

Nicole Rivas’ chapbook, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was released today from Rose Metal Press and since I’ve had this for a week, I’ve been looking forward to posting on it on its release date. I don’t get to do that too often—I usually find out about books when I see them in stores or talked about on FB—and it makes me feel like I’m current, like I’m doing the book its greatest service, like I’m playing the right way. I also like to think it adds something to the book birthday experience for the author, to pile on the event with some kind words, to add something, even if it’s tiny, to the phenomenon of having a book released. I think a lot of that was sucked up by the five-star review Roxane Gay gave to A Bright and Pleading Dagger this past Monday—Story366 is neat, I think, but I’m not Roxane. Yet here I am, ready to give it a go.

Roxane Gay is of course spot-on with her review, too, as Rivas’ book is outrageously good. I don’t do a lot of fiction chapbooks—there aren’t a lot of fiction chapbooks—but I do like reviewing them here because I’m giving ink to these smaller projects. Plus, I can usually read the whole book, give a more comprehensive write-up. I indeed read all of A Bright and Pleading Dagger this morning and can say without hesitation that Nicole Rivas is truly a gifted writer, one of the best new voices I’ve discovered for this project, and instantly one of my favorite short-short writers in the history of the world. It’s like the first time I read Lindsay Hunter or Amelia Gray or J. David Stevens—authors who changed me as a reader and writer. Rivas is among these authors for me now.

Like all good short writers, especially the narrative type (which Rivas certainly is), the real key to success is establishing a plot or theme, a conflict, and a setting right away, hooking the reader in with the conceit, then just going with it. It’s what Stevens does so well and what Rivas is equally as good at, cinching the rope around my neck in the first sentence or two. The opening story, “Death of an Ortolan” does it, setting up a date between a nineteen-year-old woman and her fifty-year-old gynecologist, Penny. In “The Comedienne,” the speaker regales of being booed off stage at a formal brunch after an unsavory shellfish-on-genital barb. “The Staring Contest” pits its protagonist on a speed-date with the oldest man on earth. In each one of these stories, Rivas just takes off from these first lines and goes, the premise out there, Rivas running with it, everything established that needs to be established.

Oh, and all three of those starts? All of them are fantastic ideas for stories, aren’t they?

Today, I’ll write a little about the title story, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” as I like to write about title stories, yeah, but this story, at the end of the chapbook, is also a bit different. Rivas uses a lot more dialogue in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”—most of her stories are made up of summarized prose—and it’s a page or so longer than the other pieces as well. There’s also a bit of a frame around the story, which is hard to pull off in a short. So, the title story probably a bit more like a short story than a short, but since those clear definitions don’t exist, not in any text, who cares, right?

“A Bright and Pleading Daggers” is about a teenage girl who works with her friend Jada at the local grocery store, cashiering and bagging and such. The story starts with Jada not showing up for work one morning and the narrator feeling nervous about it, taking breaks to text her, worried something’s happened. From there, we break backward from the frame to the night before, where the girls are walking home from a movie and are picked up by a couple of older men, men who just want to have some fun … men who promise to take them home, but only after they’ve “spent some time.”

As you might guess, getting picked up by older guys—30 and 26—them dictating such conditions for safe return, doesn’t head down any positive direction. Since it’s only four pages long, I really won’t go into the plot any more, leaving you something to discover, letting your imagination to wander. As you might guess, he story picks back up with the frame, which is equally important to the piece’s success. An interaction between our hero and her store manager—and older guy named Dennis—is perhaps as telling as anything that happened to the girls on their encounter, fitting in with the strong feminist themes Rivas uses throughout her collection. It’s a scary and telling story about women who don’t have power. In the end, it’s as much about friendship as it is about any of the nastier business Rivas includes.

I would expect we’ll see a lot more from Nicole Rivas in the future, this small sampling revealing a talent that so obviously demands an audience. I look forward to seeing what’s next, but in the meantime, hope I’ve inspired you to click that link above and read A Bight and Pleading Dagger ASAP.

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“Brutto” by Helen DeWitt

Welcome to Monday, Story366. Good to be writing for you today, summer dwindling, but summer nonetheless. I’m at the point where the remaining days of my break are all accounted for, between obligations, home improvement projects, traveling, and … departmental meetings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of fun and adventure packed in there, but two weeks from now, I’ll be working my way down a roster and reading through a syllabus. How I long for the days when the school year started the day after Labor Day.

Since I wrote last week, I can’t say there’s been too many memorable events, nothing I haven’t written about dozens of times before. This morning, however, I got irked, and hey, if I’m going to write a bunch of blog posts over the course of the year, covering the irksome moments seems apropos.

I never really get into fights on Facebook, get too deep into replies, or post on strangers’ walls. I certainly never reply to people’s opinions in a post feed, never try to argue with them, and certainly never try to persuade them. I don’t think that’s an effective use of time, as too many people are stupid trolls and what they think or what I think doesn’t matter. I use FB to connect with friends and family, making silly comments that are meant to be friendly and snarky; I also use FB to promote Moon City Press and Story366. And that’s it. Twenty-three-year-old Mike would be battling every dumbass that he came across, but forty-four-year-old Mike is more chill, letting the ignorant wallow in their stupidity.

Today, however, I ran across a post by a high school friend, a guy I like and respect, who posted this past weekend’s Chicago shooting/killing statistics, which are, without a doubt, grim and depressing. That’s the one huge drawback of my home city, the city I love, all those people shooting and killing each other, something I cannot deny or explain. My friend opined that violence is generally centered in big cities, and big cities are traditionally run by Democrats, including Chicago (though it’s the anti-Democrat, teacher- and union-hating Rahm Emanuel). My friend’s point was how maybe it’s time to let someone else take a crack, i.e., the Republicans, see if they can end the gun violence.

I broke my personal FB policy and noted that crime is about poverty and crime isn’t eliminated by crime policy, but instead, by eliminating poverty. People commit crimes because they have no other options, because they have nothing better to look forward to, no hope. He agreed, and like I said, I like this guy, think he’s smart and reasonable, even though he often disagrees with me.

It was the trolls, though, that took over. Here, by trolls, I mean his other friends, some of whom I know from high school, some of whom I don’t know at all. Some people liked my response, others replied. One guy in particular pointed out how the city just put a bunch of millions into further Chicago river renovation, and I countered with how many jobs that project creates, how many tax dollars, and how it beautifies the city; I made a comparison to Detroit, how that city seems to have stopped trying (at least until recently). In the end, I noted, we don’t want to become Detroit, at least not the Detroit of the turn of the century. Good conversation, what FB is capable of on its best day.

Then others jumped in a started with less intelligent reactions and opinions, bottoming out with some person—from our high school, though unfamiliar to me—who pointed out that the gun violence was positive … because once the gang members killed each other off, the problem would be solved.

Ugh.

I started a huge reply about how racist and assumptive she was, how she was basically human garbage, and how she made our town, and privileged white people, look like monsters.

Then I deleted that comment, removed myself from conversation, and turned off alerts.

I do realize that stupid, racist shit like this goes down all the time, millions of instances of it on social media every day. What gets me here, and why I’m spending seven hundred words discussing it, is that I got sucked in. Hard. I saw the bait, tried to share my opinion, take part in a discussion, maybe educate people on their dangerous lines of thinking. It devolved, though, and before long, the worst Mike emerged, the Mike who uses shocking (but creative) profanity, paints dissenters as subhuman creatures, and feels his blood pressure rocket past boiling point.

It’s not a good Mike. Hence, I’m not active on FB that much: too much bad Mike.

For today’s post, I read from Helen DeWitt‘s new collection, Some Trick, recently out from New Directions. DeWitt is the author of a couple of well received novels, The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods, though I hadn’t read any of her work before this morning. I dove into Some Trick, not knowing what to expect. Like usual, I was treated to a new, pleasant voice, one with her own take on fiction.

And it’s a good take. DeWitt and I seem like we would be friends, and I’m basing that on how we have similar aesthetics, look at the world in the same way, and, you know, are both writers. Her style, approach, subject matter all sing my favorite songs. She’s insightful and weird, doesn’t approach characters or story from traditional angles, and overall, tells stories nobody except her would probably tell. And that’s giving me a lot of credit, to say I can play in her yard, as I probably can’t. But I’m intrigued by her brain, for sure.

The stories in Some Trick seem to all conquer the lives of artists, successful ones. The stories aren’t about how they make their art, nothing like, say, Topsy-Turvy, one of my favorite movies, depicting the creation of The Mikado by the Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. DeWitt’s stories aren’t necessarily about the creation of the art, but about what happens after the art, or the business of selling the art, or what happens to artists once they become successful. One story, “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto,” is about pianists and their teachers, who they choose to work with and emulate, who they choose to dis. Another, “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16k Having Once Been Young,” is about an aging British rock band, touring the U.S. for the first time, and the hijinks they run into—there’s a particularly hilarious passage about autographing memorabilia, one of the funnier passages I’ve read in a story in a long time.

Today I’m writing about the lead story, “Brutto,” which probably encapsulates this theme better than any story I read in the collection. “Brutto” is about a woman whose painting exhibition has just opened in the UK, one that she (and her rep) are hopeful will bring her fame, but especially fortune. She’s a pretty typical artist: brilliant but broke. DeWitt includes a lot of stories of such artists and their success stories, people creating ridiculous projects, discovering an audience, and suddenly finding themselves both rich and part of the cannon. Will the unnamed hero of “Brutto” turn into one of these successes?

Her chance at this notoriety comes in the form of Adalberto, an Italian art rep and gallery owner who wants to commission our painter for a huge project. The joke here is that it’s not her paintings (another hilarious passage: how it takes months sometimes for the paintings to completely dry, meaning hungry artists can’t sell them now and pay rent); Adalberto wants her outfit, a sixties era wool suit that she just happened to wear to her opening. Adalberto is willing to pay her five grand each for twenty replications, which he wants to turn into an exhibition in Milan. So, hoping to become a rich genius with her painting, our hero suddenly finds herself a seamstress, on the clock to mass-copy an outfit she didn’t design, that she doesn’t own and cash in.

What comes next is indeed a little more process-orientated, but not in the way of detailing genius. The art is already made—our hero already knows what she has to do—but it’s more about finding the right fabric, the right buttons. It becomes more a scavenger hunt and time-management comedy than anything about inspiration or genius.

Eventually, the show does go on, and from there, the story of this artist gets even more bizarre and absurd. I won’t detail any of that here, leaving you something to discover, but it’s highly representative of what’s happened so far, as well as what DeWitt’s doing in her book.

As an artist and art producer, Some Trick presses the right keys. I’m always happy to share how art is made with others, others who have no idea how a book is made, because I know that and people always seem to find that interesting. When I need a barcode, I know the website to go to to buy a barcode, which people don’t think of until you tell them someone has to buy the barcode when you make a book: Students sit in awe of this fact. That’s not as interesting as anything that happens in DeWitt’s stories, but that’s why we read, to see exaggerated versions of ourselves. Isn’t it?

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