Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sheila Schwartz, "Finding Peace"

Sheila Schwartz’s “Finding Peace” (One Story 127, October 10, 2009) worked after page 21 (of 29). Before that, it ran into all sorts of trouble.

Details were clumsily slipped in (something I’ve already mentioned with two previous stories in this One Story streak). It was obvious that we were being served the backstory in conspicuously planted morsels. Also, the opening was awful: “Why I am doing this? Sally asks herself.” Note the trite question, the italics, the useless attribution. There were dozens of ways to start the story; the one Schwartz chose is among the worst.

The story plays with capital letters and punctuation (e.g., “As if Mr. Peanut is climbing with them. M-R. P-E-A-N-U-T: A tall, monocled representative for Planter’s Peanuts…a much kinder leader than Ellikka” (12). Sometimes it works: there’s a funny bit on page 13, for instance. Often it just makes the page look weird, especially with the capital-letter-cum-dash device. And there are moments that are punctuationally naïve, such as starting episodes with an ellipsis. As readers, we would understand that the section is beginning on edge; no need for the ellipsis.

At times, the language goes haywire. Simple phrases are repeated to the point of making them meaningless and bland. Some comparisons work (the ropes and ladders become “mere scribbles in all that wind” [3]). But some are stuck, like hiccups, to weird effects: on a couple pages (19-21), we get a rush of similes involving dogs, horses, and geese.

Several of these faults, especially those concerning language, could be justified by pointing to the plot, which I haven’t mentioned. Could be, but not really. The plot: Sally, a woman who survived cancer, agrees to climb Mount Everest as a way to show people that major obstacles can be beat. She is part of a group of cancer survivors who are led by an annoyingly cheerful and optimistic leader called Ellikka. As she suffers the climb, Sally remembers her sister, her chemo, her husband Lenny (who left her when she decided to tackle Mount Everest), her friends. Her exhaustion and the harsh conditions at 28,000 feet make her thoughts drift away, mostly dissociated from reality.

The story, as I said, gets good on page 21. At that point, there is a tragic accident, and Sally’s jagged thoughts and blurry sense of reality spin out of control. Did the accident really happen? By the end, I was almost persuaded it didn’t. People blink in and out of Sally’s mind, time collapses. Start just a little before page 21, compressing the first twenty into a few paragraphs of descriptions intertwined with action, and we would have an arresting piece.

I’ve tried to evaluate the story as a story. But it’s tough to leave the author’s bio entirely out the picture: Sheila Schwartz died in 2008, after years of battling cancer. This story vibrates with her own experiences and her struggles, and I don’t mean to belittle those when criticizing “Finding Peace.” Here’s something I was amazed to learn when reading the One Story interview (her husband was interviewed): Schwartz never climbed Mount Everest. The story is so well researched that you get a crisp and brutal sense of the mountain. Something else of interest: when the story ends, you really don’t know what happened to Sally. But the story forms part of a forthcoming collection, In the Infusion Room, where we are going to be told the outcome.

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