Guest Review: Julie Benesh
The Apple’s Bruise
Simon & Schuster, 2005
The title of this collection, taken from an incident in its lead story “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car” hints at the Genesis story of the fall from innocence and the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. In Glatt’s story a bully steals hungry Hannah’s sandwich, just as Hannah is about to bite into it. She is left with only a bruised apple “and chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” In Hannah’s act of pride and deception are the seeds of empowerment, seeds which take root by the story’s end. Thus Glatt’s protagonists cross lines, extend their established moral boundaries, resulting in personal consequences comprising a refreshingly realistic amalgam of remorse, defiance, and inevitability. The stories are honest without being brutal, sensitive and subtle without sentimentality.
Fans of Glatt’s striking debut novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, about a young female professor, her terminally ill mother, a female student of the professor, and a social work client of that student, will find these stories equally compelling. While Comma‘s biggest (and perhaps only) drawback is a somewhat stitched together quality that imperfectly unites its various threads, The Apple’s Bruise, conversely, combines unity and diversity to the best possible effect, making it a great introduction to Glatt’s sensibility for readers new to it.
In many of these stories, Glatt’s emotional landscape evokes that of Mary Gaitskill: girls and women get drawn into shame-infused encounters that leave them emotionally devastated, bereft, empowered, and wise in varying combinations and proportions. In the aforementioned “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” abuse and damage transform (as Nietzsche long told us) into strength and pride. “Body Shop” presents a wife understandably compelled to investigate her husband’s inexplicable act of disloyalty; this “research” inevitably leads her into her own. In “Eggs,” a series of pressures drives a somewhat judgmental professor to acts once off limits and beyond her recent comprehension. The young widow in “Soup,” drawn to her son’s hoodlum friend, must confront the darkness in herself, and, far more distressing, in her son.
The lines where proximity becomes collusion and where collusion becomes culpability are most closely examined in the two stories with male narrator-protagonists. In “What Milton Heard,” a man endures police questioning about his serial killer neighbor and is called out on his stalker-ish obsession with the wife of the new neighbor. The narrator of “Animals,” the head veterinarian of a zoo where animals are dying at an inexplicable rate, must navigate his complicated relationship with both his wife and his wife’s seductive teenage sister who is living with them.
In several stories, a quality of abjectness startlingly similar to that exemplified by minimalist icon Raymond Carver fairly shimmers up from Glatt’s lucid prose. Glatt’s story “Waste,” while covering quintessential Gaitskill S&M territory ends: “…I am leaving him. I will leave him. It’s sure as anything” strikingly reminiscent of the close of Carver’s story “Fat.” Two other stories demonstrate the frequent minimalist technique of projection. In “Bad Girl on the Curb,” a couple, estranged as a result of the wife’s recent mastectomy, contemplate earthquakes and speculate on the precise culpability of the accident victim outside their window, a subtle Rorschach test for their views on the intersection of fate and will in their own lives. Similarly, in “Tag,” the morning after their one night stand a couple witnesses a childhood game as it devolves into violence. As Carver often juxtaposed the mundane with the psychologically agonizing, so Glatt does in her harrowing “Grip,” where a couple coldly and without explanation abandon their three year old daughter amid domestic arguments about coffee-making and conciliatory discussions of auto maintenance. The story is made emotionally bearable by its shifts in perspective from the man to the girl and finally to the girl’s fireman rescuer who is named, perhaps significantly, “Adam.”
Many stories use humor to good effect, and at least one, “Ludlow,” is unabashedly comic, complementing its poignancy.
But Darlene Tate is persistent…I shot up from the couch and went to the kitchen, where I opened a drawer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. “Make a list for me…I’m all about self-improvement. Darlene wants to better herself,” I told him.
The first thing he wrote down: It bugs me when you talk about yourself in the third person.
The last story in the collection, this is one of many that ends in a gesture of reconciliation as Jimmy says “No music…let’s just talk. I want to hear everything you have to say, Dar. You’re my wife.”
As readers we might hope to have better luck than these characters in extremis, may hope to escape from having to make similar choices. But, deep down, we suspect there is no escape, and that when our time comes we might well not exercise any better judgment than they do, either. The consolation of this insight is that it connects us to our flawed culture, our flawed humanity, just as it binds Glatt’s characters to one another. In all of these stories, there’s a strong element of comfort, even cheer, in the attitude that it’s never to late to ‘come of age.’ The chance to embrace the wisdom that is gained as innocence is lost can happen to any of us, at any moment, and any time of life, whenever we choose to wake up, bite, and savor the apple’s bruise.
Julie Benesh’s fiction has appeared in Tin House and Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, and many other magazines. She is completing an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College and teaches creative writing at the Newberry Library in Chicago.