Sena Jeter Naslund’s The Disobedience of Water

by Jess

The last story in this collection ruined it for me.  The book starts out strong with the lovely “I am Born,” and then moves unevenly through eight stories and novellas to the title piece, which I detested. A decent meal with a sour final bite.

I have to give Naslund credit for her range.  She can speak with many voices, evidenced by “Burning Boy,” a story about a young black boy in Birmingham, Alabama, set in 1962, which is followed by “The Death of Julius Geissler,” a story about a world-renowned violinist.  Here, it’ll be easier to show you.

Here’s an excerpt from “Burning Boy”:

“Skeet-baby, how old are you?”

“I six, Mama,” he said promptly.

“Come here, baby.”  She put a big arm around Skeet, and he put his skinny child’s arm across her shoulders.

“Skeet, you can’t be six any more.  You eight.”

“Why, Mama?” he said softly.  Skeet felt no surprise at all, just the sort of drowsy, hypnotic pleasure that he felt in church.  He looked close into her scalp and at the skin on her forehead and on the top of her ear.  Mama was different from these, but they were Mama.  He must say, “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.”  He must not be afraid.  The little gully in her ear ran down in a hole and inside that was Mama.  But Skeet had not thought of being afraid.

“Boss-man, he need a boy to work — straightening and picking up — in the grocery store in Birmingham.  He say he want a boy ten-years-old, but I say I got a boy — he ain’t but eight.  And he say bright him up next Saturday.  And I say yes sir, I see ’bout it.”

Skeet leaned up close to his mama.  His mind was quiet and blank.

And from “The Death of Julius Geissler”:

The sparkling whiteness of the bathroom seemed suddenly fierce to Julius.  He knew he was quite cut off from his youth.  The dark forest, Lotte, the river, himself and Alex seemed as safely past as a painting, framed and dim.  The Julius remembered how he and Alex had dozed off to sleep on the plane, leaving California, like old dogs or old lovers, with the blankets across their knees.  And they had floated high above the earth, quietly speaking German, covered with Alex’s humble gratitude and Julius’s magnanimity.  The sentence floated over him — the tail of conversation at a cocktail party: the human relationships that should have been beautiful to him, he has turned into obscenities.  And he felt at once the rush of Lotte’s cow-like dance, with flowers dropping from her hair, and the old dog-like breath of Alex, worn out and flaccid, slumbering next to him on the plane.  Julius brushed the towel across his lap with the palm of his hand, idly.  Then he put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.  He sobbed and sobbed.

I found the story “How Do You Do, Mister Cat” a bit more engaging because it’s so very strange, about a woman who returned to live at her parents’ farm with a bunch of disabled children they have adopted.  It has a very sinister tone, and you get the feeling that the narrator may be a touch unhinged.  But the end disappoints: Naslund doesn’t really take the story anywhere, and it ends quietly.

This is typical of all the stories in this book, though; Naslund is intensely interested in the interior of things.  The Publishers Weekly review says, “Plot matters less to Naslund than voice, sympathy, setting and tone.”  I think the addition of “sympathy” to that list is an intuitive one, because there is a quality to Naslund’s writing that shows she sees and understands a great deal about the human heart.  She also has a good eye for certain images, like “a gray forsythia bush, tangled on itself like a pile of coat hangers.”

I don’t mind stories like this generally, but, perhaps because some of these pieces are novellas, they began to plod as I worked through the book.  There was enough tension to keep me reading, but not enough to keep me well and truly interested, I suppose.

And then I came to “The Disobedience of Water,” a letter written by a woman to a lost love.  She becomes sort of a Scheherazade and tells stories about her past.  It.Is.So.Boring.  If I met this woman in real life, I would not be able to stand her company.  She says things like this, toward the very end of the piece:

Can grief itself sublime, transcend this carpeted study, this winter moment?  The shapelessness of thought is the same as that of feeling, and the confluence of their wild flowing — what is its name but story?

This reminds me of some touchy-feely set-in-wintertime melancholic crap that I wrote in college.  And no, the shapelessness of thought and feeling does not a story make.  A story needs things like plot, or if not plot, then at least movement, character development, tension.

So now that’s done, and I’ve got to find something delicious to cleanse my palate.