Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Appeal of Breathing


Lydia Peelle first published the story “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” in One Story back in 2007. The story was picked up by Pushcart Prize XXXII. It then became the title story in Peelle’s debut short story collection, published this year by HarperCollins; it’s gotten good reviews. Peelle was recently named one of the five writers under 35 by the National Book Award (a distinction celebrated by One Story). All of these seemed like good reasons to read the story. I couldn’t get it from One Story (it’s sold out), so I read it in her book.

The story is narrated by a hopeless woman whose life has turned rather messy. Her husband left her recently; we find out he had been cheating on her for years (looking for fun women, he said), and even then they still see each other on occasion and have meaningless sex. She has an office job, which dully consumes her days.

The story is kick-started by a chance encounter with a herpetologist in a crowded, cold bus. The herpetologist is a university professor, and he invites her to visit him at his office. She does, and her interest in reptiles blooms. She is drawn to them, to the heat, to the professor’s dark basement. She helps him feed all sorts of reptiles. He gives her a copy of his book (published thirty years back). She is intrigued by reptile adaptation, by the struggle for survival, by the way human beings are destroying reptile habitats. At one point, deep in her awe for these creatures, she tells the herpetologist she loves him; he says no, she doesn’t. We hear no more about the herpetologist after that, and so we don’t know if, say, he refused to see her anymore because of that incident.

Through her fascination with reptiles, the narrator starts to grasp transcendental matters. “I’ve witnessed,” she says, after a snake dies in her hands, “a slight parting of the curtain that hangs over the unknown” (110). A little later, she catches “a glimpse of the infinite. Then I am inside of it, for one suspended moment—tiny, inconsequential, and utterly free” (113).

That’s the story. The title is admittedly weird—and admittedly catchy. It comes from a chapter on evolution in the herpetologist’s book (105). The struggle to breathe bobs up thrice in the story: the narrator says she was “holding [her] breath” (99), she was seized by a “sudden desire to breathe” (107), and she manages to “catch [her] breath” when staring a dark pool filled with salamanders (112). And there’s something else: the narrator says that years ago she tried to commit suicide by drowning in a river.

The herpetologist gets some great lines. For instance: “Trust the body, not the mind […]. The body loves itself” (103). (Speech is italicized in the story, sans quotation marks.) And here’s one of the most revealing lines of the story, also said by the professor: “All these diverse adaptations, with one common goal […]. To live to see tomorrow” (101).

Peelle slaps biological facts thickly on some pages, without ruining the pace or smothering the story. In fact, all that information is justified (because the narrator is interacting with a herpetologist and she’s also reading his book). Besides, those tidbits are quite interesting. The story has no explicit literary allusions (none of that “make it literary” that the older Pynchon —in Slow Learner— criticized of the younger Pynchon). There may be at least one reference burrowed deep in the text. At some point, the herpetologist says this about a toad: “She knows no such word as ‘should.’ She knows only ‘can’ and ‘do’” (106). Okay, this might be a stretch, but that last sentence brought me directly to a line I love in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great I: “‘will’ and ‘shall’ best fitteth Tamburlaine” (3.3.41).

The text plays effectively with its layout. The story is divided into twenty-two titled sections, with names like “Shell,” “Navigation,” and “A Raft.” These sections move the story along well, but the very fact of having these divisions is significant; the narrator tells us that, in her bouts of insomnia, “I lie in bed and page through my list of dread and regret, starting with my childhood and ending with polar ice caps. Everything in between I file into something like schoolroom cubbies, marked with labels like disaster and desire” (96). And that is more or less what we get in the story, sections with labels like “Deficiency” and “Perpetuation.” In her One Story interview, Peelle says she was inspired by the categories of biology textbooks, and thus with the thrill of the “organization of chaos.” The playfulness also comes through when the narrator takes a field guide page about a frog and assembles it into a poem (109).

The language is rich and evocative. I liked, for instance, the “voices tinkling” at a party (104), and the array of sensuous descriptions of snow and the weather. (Was this why the book was shelved under Poetry at the bookstore where I hunted it down?) Then again, there are some glitches in the language that left me puzzled. For instance, the word “looms,” such a particular and descriptive word, looms twice in a same paragraph (97-98). And “the wind slicing through my clothes” (97), a description I liked the first time around, came back to my disappointment a couple pages later: “The cold air is slicing through my clothes” (100). A friendly reader could’ve suggested making such simple changes.

All in all, I liked the story. I wasn’t awestruck, but it was good. The narrator seemed like a somewhat muffled and dampened Lorrie Moore character (leave it to Moore to pull off glittering lines and so much humor from despairing characters such as Peelle’s). Also, Peelle’s story reminded me a lot of Claire Vaye Watkins’s story “Graceland,” published recently in Hobart 10 (its narrator is also keenly concerned with animal life and environmental disasters, and floats on feebly through the narrative). Of course, Peelle published her story first, which makes me think Watkins’s piece used Peelle’s as its inspiration. Even then, I still find Watkins’s story brilliant, all of it so elegantly woven together, its narrator’s inner conflicts masterfully projected on an entropic world.

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