Brian George Reviews ‘Curtains’ A Short Story.
( If you want to read the story itself first sign up to follow and I’ll email it to you)
This restorative generous response to a short story illustrates what readers do for writers. Times have been hard recently and this story was a way to ‘write the wrongs’ like taking a soap scrub to the mind. That any reader found literary survival, more, literary merit in this hose down was beyond redemptive. You never know. It may be an augury that this writer will revive.
Review of Short Story ‘Curtains’ by Brian George ( March 2016)
I have just finished reading “Curtains,” a sad and wonderful piece, in which the author’s stoic reserve portions out all of the twists and turns of the drama, transforming what should be a simple landlord/tenant conflict into something far more primal and lifting the reader to a plane of both empathy and detachment. This stoic reserve exists as a kind of free-floating presence. At one moment it appears as an attribute of the semi-autobiographical protagonist in the story, at another, as a quality of light, and at another, as an encircling awareness of the inevitability of loss. The protagonist of the story, Battered, lives with her husband in one part of a remodeled farm and former music center. She is old, although much younger than her husband, who is ancient, with one foot in this world and the other in the next. If they live in a state of steadily diminishing expectations, this does not relieve them of the need for finding a paying tenant. The antagonist of the story, a supposed New Age therapist and writer, called Curtains, is not quite what she seems. The rhythm of the piece is fascinating, in all of its permutations. Drowsy reminiscence will suddenly give way to crackling confrontation..
At the beginning, the story reads like a haunted pastoral, with a sense of many things left unsaid. The music of the prose is hypnotic, like waves lapping on a darkening shore, with the rumble of thunder in the background. All looks to be serene, but we sense that some form of tragedy will be not long in arriving. To some, the events that follow might better be described as “tragicomedy.” This would be true as far as it goes, yet each event in the story can be read in terms of what is there and what is not there, as an object that is simultaneously its own shadow. As the tenant moves in, we take note of the many warning signs not heeded, and even the most commonplace objects and exchanges take on an ominous cast. The first small conflicts with the tenant are like the first few raindrops of a storm, the first thin flashes of lightning. Then, when the full extent of the conflict emerges into view, the effect is hyper-real, with details taking on a painful immediacy, as in the aura that precedes an epileptic seizure, with ever stronger flashes of light illuminating a dilemma that is at once both horrifying and absurd.
The story also reads as an editorial comment on the beloved New Age cliché that WE CREATE OUR OWN REALITY. While magic may be real, and a positive attitude can have some sort of a measurable effect, there are also hard, external limits to our actions, beyond which even the most determined may not push. I do not feel that this story is “frivolous” at all, as the author, in an email, argued. If anything, “Curtains” reads like a rural English version of “The Old Man and the Sea.” There is a mournful poetry as well as a mordant humor to the author’s descriptions that transforms the apparently mundane details of events. The modest surface both conceals and reveals the tragic undertow. There is a visceral sense of the scale of the dreams that have been frustrated. There are no grand gestures; there is only matter-of-fact resolve.
Lies are resolutely uncovered and confronted. Much effort is required to remove the worm from the garden. It is something of a mystery, perhaps, that it should have been so difficult to spot a prostitute who had been delivered to the renovated cowshed by her pimp. After so much disillusionment, both personal and cultural, Battered should have been well positioned to spot such a deception. Then again, the most obvious things are often the last ones to be noticed. We remember how as children we put our full trust in the world. Such trust dies hard. However idiotic our judgments, this desire points to a truth which should not be second-guessed. The conflict with the New Age Angelic Hooker Therapist ends with no more and no less than the reestablishment of the normal. If the Genius Loci do not cooperate in the showering of any obvious form of wealth, they are nonetheless relieved. Having struggled with the temptation of bitterness, having exited beyond the noise that had obscured the inner music of the landscape, Battered’s quiet courage returns her to the home that was always hers.
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Beautiful review by the bountiful Brian … I’d love to read it Philippa thank you … will follow instructions.
Goodness, Philippa. I read “Curtains”. Should I feel guilty for being so delighted? But that was only at the beginning. I was snickering fiendishly at your vivid descriptive language – you’re a magnificent caricaturist, able to suggest much with just a few strokes – and then before I knew it I found myself in the midst of a nightmare. I wasn’t snickering anymore but feeling, along with the protagonist, perturbed, agonized, furious. At the end after Curtains is exposed for what she was really doing, I was left, not surprised, but confirmed in the darker view I already generally have of human nature, when all the veils are torn away.
To a very great extent, individuals are not as they first appear. We don’t even know ourselves, really. “Know thyself.” I know there are things deep in me which lie dormant, which, with the right pressures, with a certain confluence of elements which got into me and “caught” like a virus, would spread and at a certain point, bursting open into fever, would have me behaving in a way that might shock or surprise others who think they know me.
Likewise, increasingly distressed and dismayed, the protagonist of your short story finds herself in her growing suspicion of Curtains behaving in a way that she never before imagined she had in her. A kind of virus is caught and a fever breaks out in her.
A short story like this makes me pause and reflect on the nature of evil, whether or how it exists, and what purpose it serves. Is anyone who has had such an experience as the protagonist bettered or enriched in any way? What is the lesson or moral of the story? Despite any moral or lesson which may be come up with, or preceding such formulations, one is deeply marked and significantly changed by any direct contact with an evil manifestation or embodiment. Once it happens, it can’t be wished away. So many prayers are like an act of denial, futile and in instances childish. A staining occurs that shall never be washed out completely, no matter how hard one tries. A mark is left forever, a permanent scar. A callousing forms, a toughening where the wound once was. Maybe too the heart hardens and one henceforth uses it to pummel others as if it were a fist. Law of retribution. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It’s one thing to philosophize about evil, but quite another to be actually stung by an encounter with it, wounded, and deeply marked.
The world is crawling with individuals like Curtains, who long ago were driven into the subterranean world. Something traumatic may have happened to them when they were young, or they were simply born into it and never learned any better; and now, grown up, I hesitate to say they are intrinsically evil but they’ve become the carriers of it like a virus. They do what they can in this dog-eat-dog world to scrape by and survive, putting up false facades, lying and manipulating, and maybe largely unconsciously, knowing not what they do, they infect others and make them sick.
Well, so much in your reaction to celebrate- the strength of it for a start, and the vehement identification of fellow fury! That to a writer is pleasurable, to one scarred ( as you say ‘wounded and scarred’) is compassionate also. I agree absolutely about the ‘unwash-off-able’ injury and having to guard against the callous or hardened heart in every next encounter. Others cannot be accused before proven guilty.
Re Evil I have a deep belief that we are all capable of it, and whether the virus infects us requires our consent. But I also believe ( contrary to received ‘spiritual’ opinion) that getting infected is more likely if one does not deal with it appropriately at the time- not with self interest, except the self interest of the future. Dealing with it invariably involves loss, often money, sometimes image, and sometimes sinking low enough to speak a language that is understood unequivocally. No. This will not be tolerated, and sometimes saying it in tones inharmonious. F.U.! Only such does not make for subtle literature.
Why this story was satisfying to write was for all those reasons and as Brian spotted, the restoration of what was defiled ( albeit briefly- defiled in intent.) Yet it had also required a knife edge traverse of self control, which I suppose gave the story its tension.
Thanks for a Dockovian comment!
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Excellent reply, Philippa. Thank you. “Dockovian” – ha ha.
Yes, acting on the evil is key. It can’t be prayed away; not even vigorous thought upon the subject does the trick: it must be decisively acted upon in physical space. Letting it go allows it to burrow in and lay eggs. Then down the line there would be much worse hell to pay. An infestation, a takeover.
I should mention to you that I’m a renter in an apartment building of sixteen units. I live in a modest studio, second floor of four floors and facing the street, and not in a bad area. It’s an old building with minute sealed up cracks in the ceiling and along walls, mostly corners, caused by tectonic plate shifting in the deep earth. The apartment next door was recently retrofitted, which took close to a year, but this building isn’t. I fear this place is going to collapse on me during the next Big One. Anyway, I still feel I lucked out getting this place. With the tech boom and influx of specialized tech workers, the rental market in San Francisco here has since gone insane, has gone through the roof. New condos are being built, but little new affordable housing. It’s a contentious issue in this city. Groups have formed and are fighting each other. I live in a rent-controlled apartment, the rent only allowed by law to be increased by about one percent a year, so, I’ve heard, other apartments in this building, when they open, are pulling in rent payments now twice, even three times more than what I’m paying. When I first moved in the landlords were warm and social, fundamentally nice people, but now when I occasionally come across them I feel this chill distance, though on the surface things are still kept polite. I get a different vibe from them now, though I’ve always been a good tenant, on time with rent, and considerate of my neighbors. No doubt, if push came to shove, they’d like me out, not for anything personal, but plainly and simply so that a new tenant could move in with a higher rent paid to them in keeping with the rental market value at the present time. It’s a crazy situation but a reality.
I’m capable of objective thought, so I also see the side of the landlords. It’s gotta suck being a landlord in this city. Rent control might be considered a necessary evil, instituted at a time when things got wildly out of control, forcing an exodus of the kind of working class people needed to sustain an economy; but through time it has also become counter-productive. Landlords can’t really upkeep with renovations and improvements the entirety of their property. Parts fall in disrepair; weird tensions arise under the surface between the landlords and longer-term tenants who are protected by rent-control, and certain things normally which would be taken care of are avoided, or when they no longer can be ignored become seriously contentious, and if not handled rightly could end up in court.
You touch on this in your short story. The protagonist never thought, ever in her life, that she’d snap into playing that hard and rather unpleasant role of Landlord so stereotyped in popular culture.
Wonderful passage (you’re an incredible writer, Philippa, saying so much so vividly and economically):
“Atmosphere carries no signature. Absence imposes as much as presence does. A possibility that will occur is like pressure heralding a wave, a memory receding while the threat advances. It is ephemeral to define, but atmosphere is as distinctive as a thumb print, and now it was indelibly smudged. At a stroke she was now a Landlady of ‘premises’. The breath had gone out of that place that of all the places in the world was hers, hers to untidy, hers to prune or let run rampant; hers to offer and to share, but not to yield. Hers to return to after being awash in the tides of other places: No other wrapped easy arms about her; coming home was always just that. Restored to herself.
Home had been hijacked as surely as if she had received a compulsory purchase order from the railways, with a wrecking ball to follow.”
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Interesting your ‘take’ on the dilemma of Landlords and tenants in S.F. The affordable housing shortage in S.F. even finds its way to the UK. In England it is hugely exacerbated by petty legislation and regulations ( Legionaires Risk Assessments, carbon monoxide alarms, electricity clearance inspections, fire proof furnishings) as though tenants are all children and cannot be expected to do for themselves what owner occupiers have to. This leads to a resentful gulf between those who must be tenants and those who provide the housing.
On top of that there is a very left wing organisation called Shelter whose intention is to make life such hell for landlords ( by advising tenants on their rights, including the right not even to heed the court’s rulings until evicted by the bailiff- which will make them eligible for social housing) so that every tenancy is a game of dare. We face it again, as we speak!
Oh, I do so hate all this, Philippa. I’m the simplest, low-maintenance guy imaginable. I take care of things myself when I’m able. Like you, I just want to read my books, do a little writing, draw and paint. I even have an aversion to luxuries. I was appalled at that section in your short story where Curtains expects a light to be rewired and fixed, taking on this entitled attitude, like the protagonist, the Owner, is there to serve her. It’s outrageous. I could tell you stories about tenants in this building which run along the same lines, with this entitled attitude. I’m not rich, but if I were I wouldn’t buy property and lease it out and become a landlord. Seems more of a drain and headache than it’s worth. I keep wondering what I’m going to do when my luck runs out here. I’ve tossed around in the back of my mind the idea of buying an R.V. and living off the grid. All these bitter and resentful tensions induced by all this makes me sick and want to run for the hills, building a cabin like Thoreau, or to live in a cave.
To me food, shelter and clothing are fundamental human rights. If only greed could be reined in, there are enough resources to go around. There’s something so out of whack when there’s an epidemic of homelessness on the one hand and on the other these bitter tenant/landlord disputes, which turn so dirty and hateful, each seeing the other as the mortal enemy. I’m not a parasite but am often lumped in and made to feel like one because of what we both allude to, something indeed which happens in fact, the entitled attitude which many tenants adopt, outrageously expecting landlords to take care of them and serve them.
Greetings, Philippa. I lost touch with you for a while, my attention almost wholly absorbed attending to the slow-growing odd and curious specimens in my garden of drawings and paintings, but I have perused your last posts at your older site when they’ve appeared in my email in-box. I feel somewhat that I’ve failed you as a friend, especially those words you posted there of intimate disclosure, delving into your familial relationships. Such frankness and honesty I know requires personal courage.
Brian alerted me to this newer blog you started. We exchanged some emails recently but I’m afraid I’m not the best correspondent. As you know, he’s hard to keep up with when he gets going, filled with so many rich insights, one after another. He seems to toss them off effortlessly now. One feels boundless gratitude toward him, but also this guilt creeps in that one can’t return the favor. Only yesterday did I actually click on the link he forwarded to me, and found this marvelous review by him of your short story. He didn’t mention this review he wrote, so I’m pleasantly surprised. You bring out this quality in his writing when he directs his great gift toward you, more grounded, more shall we say, pregnant in restraint. Your presence helps reel him in a bit from his farther-out explorations, giving him, perhaps, some much needed relief from his own creative labors. In your interaction with each other something truly wonderful and genius happens! I’m sincerely gladdened witnessing it.
Warm heartfelt regards,
Good to be reacquainted John! HOpe all is relatively well with you.
Meant to say (at then end of a celebratory day yesterday) that Brian’s support and identification over the past two years has been unwavering and wise. This review was one of his many unexpected gifts when confidence was at a very low ebb.
Yes, Philippa. I understand this. In his own way toward me, Brian has been unwaveringly considerate and sympathetic, even when I’ve been a pest or more average and unimpressive in my responses. His equanimity is very striking and indeed wise in its tone. As much as a thinker and artist he blows my mind and really challenges me, I’ve also come to love Brian the human being. And I have love for you too. One could find it very easy to encourage you and voice support for you because of your own incredible artistic gift, which is a reality, not an illusion. Your story-writing and your poetry is wonderfully original and powerful. But I know quite well how racked with self-doubt one can become, how flagging in self-confidence, debilitating oneself so much that the true creative ability one possesses seems to recede from one’s grasp.
I have a sense you and I are alike in this: too hard on ourselves! Brian has politely but frankly stated this to me about myself, and I’m sure in so many ways he’s stated the same to you, maybe bristling toward you more and goading you more because you’re so much more gifted and important as an artist, and such a gift shouldn’t be wasted but exercised, worked out and sent into the world.
I signed up to read this short story “Curtains”, which I’d really love to read because, on some level, I think we share in outlook in human affairs a certain mix of compassion and misanthropy, but I haven’t received it. Is there anything more I need to do?
Would love your opinion. Would you like a copy? ( on side right blog top page to find email address or follow PHI lippa top menu). I should get notified by Mailchimp and will send PDF.
Excellent review, Philippa. You certainly intrigued me.