January 2, 2020: “Oceanography” by Jeremy Griffin

Hello, Story366! I hope this second day of the year finds you well. I am excited to be posting again today, as I have to admit, getting this blog going again and posting on Zadie Smith yesterday left me rather exhilirated. Me and the Karen and the boys headed out for a walk right after, but I just as easily could have read another book and dashed out another Story366 essay. Hopefully, I can continue that enthusiasm for another 365 days—which in most years is a year … though not this year.

Yesterday, I noted that I wanted to get a Twitter account going for myself and this blog, to enter into that world a dozen or so years too late, but to enter into it nonetheless. A good project last night would have been setting up that account, but when I went to the Twitter page, I backed out. Or freaked out. Or got cold feet. Or whatever. Part of me just wanted to watch the last two episodes of The Boyswhich is excellent, by the way, probably the best thing I watched from 2019—and part of me just didn’t want to open up another can. I mean, once I get into Twitter, commit myself to an account, to using it to market myself and <gulp> communicate with people, there’s not turning back, right? It’s just another thing to check, another thing to post on, another step in finishing the gotta-do list every day. It’s not that big of a deal, but since I’m the kind of writer who’s gotta do the gotta-do list before he can write, that means something. So, tell me Story366 readers, is breaching the Twitter gap worth it? Of course, if you say something like, If but one reader finds your blog because of your Tweets, then of course it’s worth it! I’ll probably dive right in and commit. So I suppose this is all a rhetorical question: I should get on Twitter and do it soon.

As I and the boys (mine, not the ones in the show) are off this week for break, it’s the kind of simple question that plagues me. I also should do some dishes. I also should shower. I should go on another walk. The boys got a Nintendo Switch from Santa this year, so I should try to find the Level-5 dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Sooner or later, I might shave again. Is today garbage day?

Before any of that, let’s get to Jeremy Griffin‘s fine collection Oceanography, out last year from Orison Books as winner of their 2018 fiction award. I’ve been familiar with Griffin’s work for a while, as I published one of the book’s pieces, “Robo Warrior,” in the last issue of Mid-American Review I edited back in 2012. In fact, Jeremy asked me to blurb this collection, but I wanted to visit it more intimately here for the blog, to share what I’ve read and enjoyed with readers here.

Like always, I read a few stories, revisited “Robo Warrior,” and am settling on the title story, “Oceanography,” originally appearing in Green Briar Review, for today’s entry. I liked all the other stories I read, including “Birding for Beginners” and “In the Jungle,” and see some common themes and approaches to “Oceanography.” I’ll get to those a little later, when I try to sum things up.

“Oceanography” is the story of Brianna Copeland, a fifteen-year-old girl on a weeklong vacation with her family at Myrtle Beach. She’s there with her mom, stepdad, and little brother, Phillip, who falls squarely on the autism spectrum. The story opens with Brianna’s mom trying to coax the terrified Phillip into the water—there have been shark attacks, so who can blame the kid? Brianna, meanwhile, is lamenting the green bikini she’s wearing, bought from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue just before the trip. Wouldn’t you know it? It’s not looking the same on her as it did the catalogue model. Right away, Griffin establishes one of the story’s main themes, that of self-reflection and revulsion, even if Brianna’s kind of being a typical teenager—her second-guessing sets the tone for what the story will be, what Griffin wants us to know about her.

On top of her dealing with body image and the usual beach, arcade, and outlet-mall adventure, Brianna is missing Jump, her nineteen-year-old boyfriend, who hasn’t returned any of her calls or texts. Part of it is because Jump thinks that Brianna’s iPhone is a moral global disaster (and he’s probably right), but more so because Brianna sprung a pregnancy scare on him right before she left. Jump, an unemployed former tagger who’se been committing some “light” statuatory rape with Brianna, doesn’t react all that maturely, claiming the baby must be someone else’s because “… I always pull out. You know that.” Not exactly the encouragement Brianna had been seeking. So, Brianna isn’t just missing Jump—she’s wondering if the father of her possible child is going to bail.

Griffin makes a wise move by not bringing up the pregnancy again—we never do find out if Brianna’s pregnant; I really enjoy that type of MacGuffin, the briefcase we see but is never opened. Still, the revelation hangs there as Brianna takes on the rest of the vacation, including a visit to a boardwalk leather shop, where she wants to buy Jump a souvenir wallet. Interesting choice for a guy who doesn’t have a job and just accused her of cheating on him and carrying some other dude’s baby.

This is all part of Brianna’s characterization: She’s a smart, introspective, and curious teenager on most accounts, but when it comes to Jump, she’s got a blind spot. Before, I accused Brianna of being a typical teenager, and maybe that’s obtuse. But she is obsessed with a boy who she should drop like a wet sack, whether she’s pregnant with his kid or not: Jump simply isn’t father material. Still, I don’t blame this character, in this story, for  not giving up on him. She’s fifteen. He was her first and only sexual partner. He’s older and seems like an adult. She might be carrying his kid.

And her mom, who should be her counsel, is more than preoccupied with Phillip. Really, only part of the story is about Jump or being pregnant. Griffin gives us a masterful scene with Brianna and Phillip that defines Brianna as much as any of her thoughts about Jump. I don’t want to reveal too many details, but in short, she has a chance to really take care of her brother, be the adult, but instead, she completely wets the bed. What kind of sister is she? What kind of mother would she make? Is she really any better than Jump?

Again, Brianna is at times unusually mature for her age, introspective about her life, surrroundings, and every move she makes. The close third-person narration allows Griffin the delve into her thoughts, which sometimes paint her as the type of kid who’s going to pull out of this, but sometimes depicts her as an unreliable perspective who’s about to receive an extra-large dose of reality. That’s what makes her such an intriguing character, the perfect creation to move around in this setting, plot, and predicament.

The other characters I met in Jeremy Griffin’s Oceanography share a lot with Brianna. From what I’ve seen, Griffin is really good at coming up with intriguing predicaments, but also molding the perfect characters to deal with the situations. And by perfect, I mean the most fictionally sound. The recently widowed protagonist of “Birding for Beginners” has to deal with his vandlizing Goth neighbor kid. The failed CFO at the center of “In the Jungle” has to confront an active shooter. Griffin creates people then sets them loose in conflicts, some pretty basic storytelling skills. He’s particularly good at it, making me enjoy his stories quite a bit.