Paper Chains and Lace: Lessons on Linked Stories from Love Medicine

Monday, March 12, 2012

I linked my own book of stories by accident.

I began with a girl named Leah, age eleven. It was my first story, and the goal was simply to write one. The action, a theft, took place in the basement of Leah’s building in New York. “Restitution” won a prize, got published, and gave me a cast of characters.

I had no MFA, no idea yet how to learn from reading. Instead, I had an unfinished novel manuscript, also starring Leah Levinson. Not once did it occur to me to invent a new character.

So the second story was about Leah, too. This time she was twelve and up against a mean girl named Rainey, whom she feared and worshiped.

Then I wrote about Rainey, thirteen, lying beneath her father’s best friend at dusk in Central Park.

Then Leah again, fifteen, watching her best friend’s sister lose her virginity on a roof. More prizes, more publications. By now I’d had some terrific mentors, and saw that if Leah just kept growing up, I’d have a manuscript with a coming-of-age arc about troubled girls and their mothers. Normal People Don’t Live like This took five years to write, chronologically, and when I called it a novel-in-stories, no one said otherwise.

* * *

When Anne Sanow invited me onto an AWP ’11 panel on linked stories (with Clifford Garstang and Cathy Day), I knew I’d confess that my own links were due to a failure of imagination. But then what?

When I am in dire need of a craft lesson, one book invariably opens itself up like a flower. My job is to find it. I began close-reading linked collections I had loved previously, among them Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Elissa Schappell’s Use Me, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. It was Love Medicine that showed me how little I knew. It revealed that stories can be tatted together so intricately that they form a kind of three-dimensional lacework.

My own links, in contrast, began to feel like a neatly made paper chain.

Here are a few things Erdrich’s book revealed. Tiny red Post-its, like the kind lawyers use that say “sign here,” were useful each time a link appeared and recurred, though the book came to resemble a porcupine. I also wrote in the margins, cross-referencing page numbers, so I could track one link across several stories. Most of the book occurs on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, so I did not apply stickies for characters or place.

Put the “Umbrella Story” Up Front

Let the first story contain the underlying or dominant link of the collection, making it what Cliff Garstang on our panel calls the umbrella story. In Love Medicine, the dominant link is the death of June Kashpaw, “aged hard in every way except how she moved.” She dies on page 7 in the first story, leaving a vacuum—a legitimate family, husband Gordie Kashpaw and son King; and an illegitimate family, lover Gerry Nanapush and their son, Lipsha, who doesn’t know who his parents are; everyone else does, though.

This first story, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” also contains broad swaths of backstory, paragraphs that don’t try to hide their purpose. Here is information you need in order to read this book, these paragraphs say. This, too, creates the umbrella. If Erdrich needs a long paragraph to sketch out family ties and some tribal history, she just writes it. She’s not afraid of losing the reader; she’s afraid of not orienting him.

Her umbrella story also sets up future links. Erdrich rubs at them, like bottles from the bottom of a lake, until they shimmer with meaning and we sense that something will fly out of them much later.

For example, the secret of Lipsha’s parentage is set up as a link in story 1 when the narrator, Albertine, tries to tell him about June. Here, Lipsha rebuffs her. He sticks to the version he’s been told: that his “real” mother tried to drown him at birth. (In the final story, Lipsha’s identity is resolved.)

Imagery of water, used throughout the book, begins here. So does the more potent image of crossing water, a metaphor for both dying and coming home, which can be the same thing. In the umbrella story, June freezes to death and the imagery link is launched:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

Tim O’Brien does this too, in The Things They Carried, introducing all the soldiers and showing us their stuff—the physical, the psychological—in the first and title story. So does Harriet Doerr in the umbrella story of Stones for Ibarra. We watch the Evertons drive through Mexico toward the town they are to inhabit, the mine they will reopen, the place where Richard Everton will die in six years.

In this way, certain pacts with the reader are made.

Compiling Normal People Don’t Live Like This, I acted intuitively, and launched with Rainey Royal being molested. It’s a compelling story. It’s won prizes, been anthologized. But there’s no umbrella. Rainey reappears once, as a bully in story 2, then vanishes. Some reviewers found this disorienting, and at readings I’m invariably asked if I plan to write more about Rainey. (I think now I owe her a novel of her own.)

Make Links Kinetic So They Grow in power, Increase Tension, and Further the Plot

Here is how Erdrich takes an object—a car—and reloads it with emotional freight every time she picks it up:

In the first story, June’s legitimate son, King Kashpaw, uses the insurance money from her death to buy a sports car. Her relatives keep their distance, as if the car might be a ghost:

Nobody leaned against the shiny blue fenders, rested elbows on the hood, or set paper plates there while they ate. Aurelia didn’t even want to hear King’s tapes. It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched. Later, when Gordie came, he brushed the glazed chrome and gently tapped the tires with his toes. He would not go riding in it either, even though King urged his father to experience how smooth it ran.

Erdrich, never afraid of a good fight, picks the link up eleven pages later in the same story and drives it hard. King drinks, becomes abusive, and chases his wife, Lynette. She runs outside and locks herself in the sports car. King wrenches off a side mirror and beats the car until Gordie, his father, wrestles him to the ground and holds him.

“It’s her car. You’re June’s boy, King. Don’t cry.”

For as they lay there, welded in shock, King’s face was grinding deep into the cinders and his shoulders shook with heavy sobs. He screamed up through dirt at his father.

“It’s awful to be dead. Oh my God, she’s so cold.”

In the sixteenth and final story, “Crossing the Water,” Erdrich brings that car back. She almost doesn’t have to: The car did its job in “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” bringing out all the grief and rage in King. But Erdrich’s got that battered sports car so deeply identified with June, she can’t just leave it parked.

In “Crossing the Water,” she creates a crucible: King’s windowless apartment. (Okay, there’s a window, but it’s on an airshaft and draws no light.) She traps three men here: Gerry, escaped from prison and seeking revenge on King. The terrified King, his former cellmate, who ratted him out to the police. And Lipsha, hated by King for being the ill-gotten son of June.

Lipsha’s just learned his parentage. He’s dying to declare himself to Gerry. And as tension builds, he’s handling a deck of cards, quietly nicking the edges.

The men play poker for the car—a car that King desperately wants to keep, having bought it with his mother’s insurance money. But the cards are marked. Lipsha deals himself a winning hand.

Done? Not yet. Erdrich freights the link again, bringing the police to the door. Gerry vanishes out that tiny window. Lipsha drives off in his prize car, pulling over when he hears a knocking sound. It’s his father, hiding in the trunk.

Lipsha drives Gerry all the way to Canada, crossing water to safety at the end with his newly discovered father—in the car that represents his newly claimed mother.

Make Links Kinetic So with Each Alteration, Character Is Revealed

Post-its really helped here.

For example, I followed the repeating link of the crimped cards, because there are no accidents in Love Medicine. They first turn up in story 15, “The Good Tears,” where Lulu Lamartine is nearly blind. She’s still spirited and sexual, even in the senior center where she lives and where Lipsha works. Lulu Lamartine has borne eight sons to quite a few fathers. She’s Gerry’s mother and Lipsha’s grandmother.

She sounds impressively intuitive when she tells us: “Sometimes I played cards with a magnifying glass and sometimes I just played by feel and what I could hear.”

Can she divine things through her fingertips? She’d like us to think so. But in story 16, “Crossing the Water,” we learn that what Lulu “feels” are crimps and nicks she makes in the cards with her nails. We know this from Lipsha, who picks up King’s cards and does the same thing. Lulu taught him, he says, when he worked in the senior center. “She’d learned to crimp, that is, to mark your cards with little scratches and folds as you play, when she started losing her eyesight.”

We also know what Lipsha doesn’t: Lulu taught him because he is her grandson.

Erdrich reveals character with those crimps whenever they arise. The first time, we learn that Lulu is proud of her heightened sensitivity. The second time, we learn that Lulu’s not above lying.

Now watch Erdrich make the link shimmer as Gerry starts handling those cards in King’s apartment. Gerry’s never met his son—he was in prison for the birth. But here’s Lipsha, a young man of the right age, with Gerry’s nose, and with something else, too:

[Gerry’s] fingers moved around the paper edges, found the nail nicks. His wolf smile glinted. There was a system to the crimping that he recognized. Those crimps were like a signature—his mother’s.

Erdrich’s telling us so much about Gerry with those cards. She’s saying that he trusts signs; he trusts intuition. He trusts the kinds of signatures that can’t be found on the contracts of men.

When an Event Is the Link, Change the Retelling

Consider Henry Lamartine Jr.’s suicide.

Henry comes home from Vietnam depressed and explosive, a grenade with the pin gone. In story 10, “The Red Convertible,” his brother Lyman tries hard to engage him with the red Olds convertible they’d bought together, but that plan fails. When they’re out together, Henry leaps into a rain-swollen river. It looks playful, but Henry lets the current take him, and drowns.

Lyman then pushes the car into the water. The writing gets poetic here. Lyman seems to be giving the car to his brother, as if unable to own it alone.

Five stories later, in “The Good Tears,” their mother, Lulu Lamartine, recalls a calculated, unpoetic Lyman coming home that day.

“It was an accident,” Lyman said, coming in the door. He looked half gone himself. I threw an afghan on his shoulders.

“Don’t say nothing.” I led him over to a chair. He sat in shock.

“The car went in,” he said. “Out of control.” There was a false note in his voice and I knew he had planned to say this. I also knew that no accident would have taken Henry Junior’s life.

Look at what Erdrich does with ten sentences!

She alters the account of Henry’s death—that’s what makes the link kinetic.

She deepens our understanding of all three characters. We see that Lyman is a man who manages a crisis rather than being governed by it; that Lulu can wordlessly read her sons; and that our sense of a suicide was correct—the river could not have killed Henry without his consent.

That’s a lot of information in ten sentences.

It results partly from the fact that Erdrich controls the gap between the first and second appearances of the link. She knows what information to reveal, and when, and what to withhold.

Engineer the Gap between Links; Make It Shapely

I would love to resculpt one of the gaps in Normal People Don’t Live Like This.

When my character Leah is fifteen, she dissects a frog in “Rana Fegrina.” Her father’s dying, and she’s thinking about how he smells in his hospital room and about her lab partner’s BO, and fragments of Walt Whitman poetry, and her sexual fears, and crucifixion imagery. Another prizewinner; what could be missing? Four years and several stories later later she’s nineteen, sniffing a potential lover’s shirts and remembering the elegance and scent of her late father’s shirts.

A couple of reviewers said, Wait—her father died? Really? They felt stranded in the gap. At first I didn’t get it. Were they asking for a funeral scene? After close-reading Love Medicine I realize it’s the impact of the death that was lacking, a kinetic link that would help readers imagine, for themselves, the scene that takes place in the gap, much the way I imagine Lyman framing the story of Henry’s death.

Because there is always a story that takes place in the gap. Our job is to shape the links around it.