First of all, thanks to Fictionaut and the lovely Sara Lippmann for their shared excitement about last week’s start of this series. The whole point of this is to get newer writers in front of the eyes of readers, and we’re honored to join forces with you to do just that.
This week, I sunk my teeth into a juicy nugget from Jack Swenson. “Evil Humors” is a museum of helplessness: The narrator focuses on one thing after another over which he has no control. The opening paragraph, the narrator receives a phone call about a friend who’s hurt his leg pretty seriously. So often there is nothing we can do, and Swenson captures that familiar intersection of wanting to help but not knowing how. “I tell him I will call him later,” he says.
Swenson’s sequences are seamless: The narrator’s projections of his own personal shames and self-doubts onto his cat are made even more tangible when he talks about his wife.
She still smokes, so when she gets up in the morning she coughs and coughs. She can’t sleep, and she’s tired all the time. I worry about her health. I do as many of the household chores as I can, but there are certain things I can’t do. I can’t cook, for example. And I can’t wash and dry her clothes. I have no idea what combination of settings she uses for the washer.
He is not simply helpless. It’s the narrator’s desire to make a difference, to help out in some way, to make up for what is lacking in his world that makes his realization that he is also lacking that much more heartbreaking.
In the final three paragraphs, the narrator raises the stakes from mere day-to-day ills to a grander, world-wide (or at least, nation-wide) pathology. And while some of us would empathize with the narrator’s fear of nutcases, Sarah Palin and armed Southern militia, there is the unmistakable sense that this narrator has gone a little too far off his rocker. Though there are innumerable variables in the world over which we have no control and barely any influence, Swenson’s cautionary tale shows us the priceless necessity of picking and choosing the battles we lose.
The final sentence is haunting; the narrator creates a scenario, so specific as to seem unlikely, over which he can make a difference. His tiny action assuages all that he’s spent the story being unsettled about, demonstrating our silly albeit necessary superstitions. Sometimes they’re all we’ve got.
Check out more of Jack Swenson’s writing at his scribblings blog. And check back next week for another fiction nugget!