Tuesday is upon us, Story366!
Today is the second day of a Bowling Green alum mini-marathon. Yesterday, I covered my old student, Eric Schlich, and today, I’m covering Liz Breazeale. Unlike every other person from BG that I’ve covered in this blog so far, Breazeale’s tenture came after my time there. In fact, Breazeale and I literally exchanged zip codes, as she did her undergrad here at Missouri State, where I took a job in 2012, the same year she graduated and moved to Bowling Green. So, we know all the same people, but were never in the same place at the same time. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever met. I think I saw her in a crowd when I did a reading for Winter Wheat in 2015, and then I saw her read at a local bookstore this past fall, one I had to leave as soon as it ended. I’ve corresponded with her a little, as she’s supposed to come to MSU for a reading this fall (fingers crossed on that event). This makes Breazeale a double-homer.
That books, by the way, is Extinction Events, and came out in 2019 from the University of Nebraska Press as the winner of its Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. I’d read a few stories of Breazeale’s before today, but this is the first time I’ve sat down with her book. Here we go.
The first story in the collection is “Un-discovered Islands” about the world’s islands disappearing, one by one, starting with the smallest and working up. It’s told through the lens of a woman, an erosion expert, who becomes a talking head trying to explain the phenomenon on TV. Along with the islands disappearing, this woman deals with constant disbelief by every man in the story, and that’s what this story is really about, I think, how so many men, including her own husband, won’t believe her simpy because it’s her, a her, saying it.
Next I read “Four Self-Portraits of the Mapmaker,” a story, told in four parts, about a woman and her career as a cartographer, from the drawings she made as a child all the way through her job, her greatest maps. This story is full of symbolism and metaphor (kind of like a map, if you think about it …), the woman’s life made more complex by her desire to sketch it out, keep track of where she is.
“Survival in the Plague Years” proves similarly metaphorical. This story is cut up into different parts, each with a different heading, all of these headings horrible diseases, from the plague to leprosy to HIV. The story focuses, mainly, on a village where men have gone to sea and how the women left behind cope, adapt, then move on in their absence.
That led me to the semi-title story, “Extinction Events Proposed My Father,” about a woman, a paleontologist, who lives in the shadow of her father, also a paleontologist. Like “Survival in the Plague,” this story is divided into sections, but instead of diseases, this one is titled by the father’s different theories. Sadly, the dad’s reputation is somewhat tarnished because his first paper, his first proposed extinction event, was how natural emissions polluted the air, killing everything; i.e., the dinosaurs farted themselves to death. The dad goes on to have many other theories, all accepted to varying degrees, but he’s known, overall, for the fart theory.
As the protagonist grows up, follows in her father’s footsteps, this reputation follows her. She’s brilliant in her field—no other student in her classes has her pedigree—but she also faces this curse, the assumption that her father, a tireless and brilliant man, is an idiot.
Yet, the story’s not really about that, but instead about her relationship with her dad in every other sense. For one, early in her life, she lives with her overly Catholic grandparents, her mother passed (which isn’t a small thing here, either) and her father always on site. She grows up believing like he does, in science and theories, making it a rough go with Gramps and Grams. Eventually, she convinces her father to take her with him on digs, where their relationship transforms, but doesn’t necessarily improve. Before long, the closer she is to him, the closer she is to being him, the further apart they drift.
Eventually, there’s a point at which our hero surpasses her father, what should be her crowning achievement, what makes him pay attention to her, respect her, treat her as an equal, even as a superior. Does that happen? You should read the story and figure that out, as I won’t reveal it here. The ending carries the abandonment theme to its logical end, however, making this a tight, solid story.
Liz Breazeale tackles a lot in her debut collection, Extinction Events. Her stories, firstly, are obsessed with the world ending—if I hadn’t made that clear enough before—but her goals don’t seem to end with her chosen topic. The books also succeeds at exploring the relationship between its female protagonists and the men they encounter, be it their bosses, colleagues, teachers, or quite often, their fathers. Breazeale wisely leaves the connections between the two—the end of the world and female/male relations—to the reader, never heavy-handing anything to us as we enjoy her tales. This debut really impresses me for that reason, to see a writer of her her age and experience seem so wise, so patient and restrained, so advanced at such an early stage. This is an excellent book, the pride of two places I’ve called home.