Life lessons

Ann Harleman's ordinary people
July 17, 2007 5:14:31 PM

We can fairly presume that Ann Harleman has learned as well as taught in her capacity as creative writing instructor to visual artist students at RISD. All we have to do is read the first paragraph of the opening short story in her latest collection, Thoreau’s Laundry:
“At the hospital I take my husband — he was demoted yesterday from forearm crutches to a walker and so hates himself slightly more — to the solarium. We proceed down the second-floor corridor, with its smells of pine and urine, at a bridal pace. From time to time Daniel casts an envious glance at my feet, though at this speed — the speed of the rest of his life, and that’s if he is lucky — they might as well be bound.”
We get the picture. We get so much more, but first we’re given the image we might have perceived ourselves, as though an artist is holding up a photograph that was a departure point, next to the painting that brought out more. In that brief paragraph, Harleman brings us there physically, with a contrast of smells as unpleasant as the unspoken mixed feelings of the narrator. Three sentences into this story, “Meanwhile,” a pair of ironic gender references have established a stifled wife frustrated to bursting — note the interjected thoughts — with a need to reverse power roles. We’re hooked, whether the woman goes on to display guilt, justification or behavior more surprising.

Thoreau’s Laundry | By Ann Harleman | Southern Methodist University Press | 208 Pages | $22.50
In the title story of Harleman’s 1994 debut collection, Happiness, she has an incidental character conclude: “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” In this collection, there is also a recurring motif that happiness is too much to expect, that contented resignation is ambitious enough. In “Sharks,” a story barely five pages long, a mother waiting for a bus with her young daughter finds satisfaction in the continuing prospect of simple, wordless proximity, triggered by the child’s observation that sharks sleep with their eyes open. Yes, the mother observes, they are asleep “but still connected.”
Harleman might appropriately have named this collection after those razor-toothed denizens that must keep moving in order to breathe. Most of these characters seem to be in apprehensive motion out of the sheer, hapless momentum of having been born. In “The Angel of Entropy,” a young girl, Claire, thinks of growing up “as looking sure.” Envy of her maniacally charismatic sister keeps her believing this despite having to continually pick up the pieces as Evvie elbows her way through the china shop of life. Yet, when Claire finally breaks into certainty, angrily telling off her sister for the first time in their lives, the consequence is awful. Claire clamps up again, emotionally, terrified of doing further harm. “Fear, like a river in winter, embraced her and soaked her through; she had to keep moving or freeze.”
Echoing that chill note, three of these stories take place in Russia, where the author taught in the 1990s. Repression within or without, each is corrosive. In “Stalin Dreaming,” through “a nimble imagination” an artist has depicted the dictator as a “sweet, pensive boy,” as the male protagonist has difficulty imagining his angry son, a teenager furious over his textbooks being “full of lies,” ever calming down. In “Street of Swans,” the anxious narrator, an American translator of Russian poetry, fears that her arrogant ex-husband back in the States will get custody of her daughter.
The title story, by being singled out, should offer the most direct evidence of the author’s overarching intention here. Its title refers to the usually overlooked fact that Thoreau visited home weekly during his year at Walden Pond, so his mother could do his wash. The central character, Celia, has guiltily taken a lover because her husband is confined to a wheelchair, but even a mother encouraging recreational adultery can’t make her feel better.
In one of the Russian stories, a proverb-spouting babushka observes that “life is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all of its students.” Like Chekhov, whose short stories similarly paint pictures of ordinary people in defining circumstances, Harleman describes without judging. Since life’s useful lessons are all ultimately fatal, we are shown, happiness is a matter of accommodating to what is, rather than concluding what should be.

Ann Harleman | Westerly Library, 44 Broad St, Westerly | July 25 at 7 pm | 401.596.2877


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