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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Mona Simpson story that is beyond controversial

Mona Simpson's story from the 1980s "Lawns," in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, may represent an aspect of the anything-goes thinking of its era but today it feels nothing but disturbing and unsettling. The story is narrated in the offhand, cool style of the time by a student at UC Berkeley who tells us in the arresting opening paragraph that she steals - particularly jewelry, from passers by and strangers, and then she describes her systematic robbery and violations: she works in the campus mailroom (yes, in those days people communicated by letter) and she steals letters and packages meant for students - in particular seeking parcels of snacks and cookies, but sometimes cash - and then she gets into targeted stealing, taking letters directed toward her high-school classmates, particularly the popular, in-crowd kids. It looks as if Simpson has something good going here - perhaps the narrator will discover something in one of the purloined letters that will place her moral thicket: a planned crime, perhaps? But around mid-way through the story Simpson veers off onto another tack, as the student's dad comes to visit her at college and at first he seems a little creepy and clingy - he wants to hold her hand as they walk across the campus, and she rebuffs him - and then the creepiness really starts as we learn that he abuses her sexually and has done so since her early childhood - with everyone else, the wife/mother - a high-profile attorney - and the kid brother oblivious. OK maybe this explains the narrator's loneliness and spiteful criminality - but there's something so alarmingly breezy and cool about the Simpson's tone and attitude throughout. No consequences for the horrendous father, for example - the mother's reaction, when the daughter informs her of this lifetime of abuse, is: How could he do this to me? I'm not saying the story should lead to a B-movie act of murder or vengeance, but seriously there should be more to this rather than having the narrator go on with her life, a chapter closed and a new one opened. She is, or should be, a terribly troubled and alienated young woman and the story just does not come to grips with that. She seems so unharmed, and there's no moral outrage at the dad or at the mom who's been worse than oblivious - perhaps complicit. I'm sure this was a controversial story in its day; today, I think it's beyond controversy - it's just reprehensible.

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