Monday, March 28, 2011

Fiction Review: "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," Rebecca Makkai

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This superbly written short story is a hilarious and moving tale of bad luck run amok in a young English professor's life

Rebecca Makkai’s “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship” is a sleekly written and beautifully developed short story. It’s part comedy-of-errors tale, and part character study. The protagonist, a young English professor named Alex Moore, suffers one mishap after another--most of it the fault of her own insecurities--until it seems her life is an irredeemable shambles. The experience, though, forces her to reassess everything about herself: her attitudes, her relationships, even her views of her scholarly project. She comes out the other end wiser--more aware of her own faults and what’s worth holding onto in her life. As luck would have it, her misfortune sets the stage for a more professionally and personally fulfilling life. Makkai catches the reader up in the rather farcical runaway train of Alex's travails, and most impressively, she manages the happy ending of pulling that train safely into the station without it feeling contrived.

The story opens with an article in a campus alumni magazine about Alex’s misadventure over the summer. While duck-hunting with her half-brother in Australia, she accidentally shot and killed an albatross. It’s a misadventure with special meaning to a professor who teaches English-lit survey courses. As all readers of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner know, such a deed is a harbinger of misfortune. And Alex gets hit with it right off the bat: the albatross is a protected bird, and she has to spend a good deal of her vacation time dealing with the Australian authorities. She ends up having to pay a hefty fine. Her troubles are only beginning, too. A thoughtless remark in which she mistakes a fifth-generation Chinese-American woman for a Korean exchange student turns into a full-blown campus scandal. To add to that, her doubts about her impending marriage overwhelm her, leading her to put her engagement in jeopardy. The life one can spend years building for oneself is a fragile thing, and Alex’s is splintering and shattering. Like Coleridge’s mariner, she’s got the albatross around her neck, and the reader can’t help but wonder how she’ll ever get it off.

What pushes the narrative beyond rather dark farce and into the realm of character study is that Makkai treats these mishaps and other aspects of Alex’s life as consequences of a weakness in Alex’s personality. She’s a control freak, determined to impose her perceptions and attitudes on everyone and everything around her. The remark to the Korean exchange student is prompted by her frustration with the young woman, a student who will not speak up even when Alex demands it in an after-class meeting. Alex is both rationalizing the student’s behavior, and using that rationale to browbeat the woman into doing what she wants. Alex jeopardizes her engagement largely because her fiancĂ© can’t be bothered to reinforce her vanity about her looks. She can’t even read the alumni magazine article without complaining that the punctuation in her quotes is inappropriate and doesn’t reflect her intended tone. Makkai doesn’t have Alex whine about why-oh-why couldn’t that albatross have been the goose she thought it was when she shot it, but there would have been no surprise if it had been included.

Makkai weaves everything together with an outstanding sense of both construction and pace. She breaks the story down into a collection of succinctly written episodes, all of which are crafted to end on a note of epiphany, irony, portent, or even shock. The story’s momentum comes from the rollercoaster-ride structure created by the use of the latter three, but the use of epiphany is what gives it resonance. I was especially struck by the meditation on the relationship between poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model/muse Jane Morris. (In the story, this is the subject of Alex’s dissertation, and a focus of the seminar she teaches on the Pre-Raphaelites.) Alex contemplates the discrepancy between Morris’s actual appearance and Rossetti’s idealized portraits, and she wonders if confidence and happiness is found in acceptance of another’s idiosyncratic views of oneself. This ties into Alex’s thoughts in the story’s coda, when she looks back on all that happened and concludes that the moral is not to jump to conclusions. She senses that this isn’t adequate, and the Rossetti meditation highlights what’s she’s missing. The point to be gleaned is to just accept things, whether it’s the irritating behavior of a taciturn student, or happiness from the attention of a lover who sees you as more beautiful than you feel you are. It’s what gets one through the rough spots, including the hassles that come from killing a protected animal. Accepting things is necessary for them to fall into place, and it’s Alex’s ultimate embrace of this that gets the albatross off her neck and allows her luck to turn.

Tying her ending to the realization that one should deal with things through acceptance is what helps Makkai contrive a happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived. Another aspect of what makes the ending work is that it isn’t entirely happy. More specifically, Makkai includes discords. Alex’s confusion over how to make sense of what happens during the course of the story is one example; the recalled suicide of a sympathetic supporting character is another. (Alex doesn’t understand why it happened, but a reasonably attentive reader won’t be.) The ending emphasizes that life is chaotic and organic, and I rather enjoy the irony that Makkai’s extraordinary craft and control are what make it so vivid.

"Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," by Rebecca Makkai, was originally published in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of Ploughshares. It is featured in The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor.

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