Next entry in this INTHotHotC series is on “Mrs. Mean,” which is what our narrator designates the mean ol’ lady across the street, who cusses at and beats up her four kids who run riot on her lawn and those of the neighbors. That’s almost all that physically happens. There are some portraits on other members of this vapid, geriatric community, as well as anecdotes within anecdotes and multiple digressions. Remembered stories intrude themselves, as they often do. Our narrator is an educated man who casually uses literary allusions, and has many nasty contemptible thoughts — perhaps he’s a rehearsal for THE TUNNEL. Once again we seem to be squarely in late modernism: it reeks of the classics, emphasizes internal psychology, no plot but a playful cascade of images. It has interesting ideas about how we speculate on the lives of others from what is truly an extremely limited set of information, and so much the better for the narrator, he prefers his imagined constructions to whatever the “reality” could be; a comic dance with solipsism.
Once again it’s really well written, and a world away from the despairing roughness of “The Pedersen Kid.” i can see why many would like that story best out of the collection; i would have if my tastes were the same as when i was a teen, and Faulkner and McCarthy were god. Nowadays i gravitate to the funny suburban oddness of “Mrs. Mean.” It has an appealing, dare i say Joycean? lyricism. Who else can write something like: “The lane looks empty of all life like a road in a painting of a dream. I am a necromancer carrying a lantern. The lamp is lit but it gives no light,” and it somehow pulls off?
Idle speculation: If Gass is big on the “music” of literary prose, and with this story being in four parts of roughly equal length, i wonder if the formal model of the piece is an 18th century symphony.
First we start on Mrs. Mean chasing her kids (Sonata: exposition) but quickly divert into a memory and then a profile of Mr. Wallace (development) before one last highly figurative paragraph on Mrs. Mean (recap/coda)
Then we take a long, hard look at Mrs. Mean, the things she yells as the kids, the way the kids evade her switch (Adagio) which triggers a handful of other memories of women in the narrator’s younger life.
Then the tone relaxes and the narrator and his wife (never named) speculate on the Mean household, how the children feel about things, what “rules” govern their games. There’s a funny (if you like violence) little poem towards the end, and this section is definitely the easiest going (Minuet).
Finally Mr. Wallace returns, there is much talk about omens and symbols, and the story ends with a comic incident in which the narrator finds himself sneaking around the neighbor’s houses, and sees a private moment between one of Mean’s brood and Mrs. Cramm (Rondo).
Literary allusions aside, this isn’t a wild narrational performance even though plot progression is minimal. It’s hard to say what it is about the style that makes it so good. The word id use is the “rhythm” of the prose, which is especially striking to me in the sequences on Mr. Wallace. There are also unique and interesting word choices, such as Mrs. Mean’s “careful” lawn, or the girl “sleeving” dust off the table. And how the rhythm serves a precise streamlining in some sentences, like the dinner hostess (with the missing beans) who “went on a word or two,” before halted by a triggered memory. i dont really have any insights on this piece, so im dropping some choice quotes in lieu of a long excerpt.
He turns at last and I relax. His eyes are anxious for a friend to cry at, to bellow to a stop. he squints up the street, and if, by any chance, someone appears, Mr. Wallace grins and howls hello. He inches forward, pounds the walk, roars reports of weather for the middle of the night. “Know what it was at one? Eighty-seven. June, not hell we’re in, but eighty-seven. I ain’t even eight-seven. There was a cloud across the moon at two. It rained alongside five but nothing cooled.” And the dawn was gray as soapy water. Fog lay between garages. A star, almost hidden by the morning light, fell past the Atlas sack and died near Gemini. The friend is fixed and Mr. Wallace closes, his face inflamed, his eyeballs rolling. He describes the contours of his aches, the duration, strength, and quality of every twinge, the subtle nuances of vague internal hurts. He distinguishes blunt pains from sharp, pale ones from bright, wiry from watery, morning, night. His brown teeth grin. Is it better, he discourses, to suffer when it’s hot or when it’s cold, while standing or sitting, reading or walking, young or old?
Mrs. Mean, too, dumbfounds her opposition. There have been complaints, I understand. Mrs. Mean, herself, has been addressed. The authorities, more than once, have been notified. Nothing has come of it. Well, this is wisdom. Far better to do nothing than act ineptly. Mrs. Mean could out-Christ Pius.
Once I went to a lavish dinner party given by a most particular and most obstinate lady. The maid forgot to serve the beans and my most particular dear friend, rapt in a recollection of her youth that lasted seven courses, overlooked them. I did not nor did the other guests. We were furtive, catching eyes, but we were careful. Was it asparagus or broccoli or brussels sprouts or beans? Was she covering up the maid’s mistake like the coolest actress, as if to make the tipped table and the broken vase a part of every evening’s business? She enjoyed the glory of the long hours of her beauty. The final fork of cake was in her mouth when her jaws snapped. I would have given any sum, then, performed any knavery, to know what it was that led her from gay love and light you to French-cut green beans and the irrevocable breach of order. She had just said: “We were dancing. I was wearing my most daring gown and I was cold.” She went on a word or two before turning grim and silent. By what Proustian process was the thing accomplished? I suppose it was something matter-of-fact. She shivered — and there in her mind were the missing beans. She rose at once and served them herself, cold, in silver, before the coffee. The hollandaise had doubtless separated so we were spared that. But only that. We ate those beans without a word, though some of us were, on most occasions, loquacious, outspoken, ragging types. Our hostess neglected her own portion and rushed sternly back to glory. Of her sins that evening I never forgave the last.
It would almost seem that Mrs. Mean is worse for witnesses. She grows particular. What passed unnoticed before is noted and condemned. The wrestling that was merely damned suddenly broken by violence. The shrill commands rise to shouts and change to threats. It is as if she wished to impress her company with the depth of her concern, the height of her standards. I knew a girl in college who spent her time, while visiting with you, cleaning herself or the room, if it was hers: lifting lint from her skirt or the hairs of her Persian cat from sofas and chairs; pinching invisible flecks of dirt off the floor, sleeving dust from tables, fingering it from the top edge of mirrors; and it never mattered in the last as far as I could discover whether you came unexpectedly or gave her a week of warning or met her at a play or on the street, she tidied eternally, brushing her blouse with the flickering tips of her fingers, sweeping the surrounding air with a wave of her hand.
I waited. The ankles were painful. I said I had a mole that itched. A bad sign, Mr. Wallace said, and I saw the thought of cancer fly in his ear. Moles are special marks, he said. I was aware, I said, of how they were, but the places of my own were fortunate and I divined from them a long life. Moles go deep, I said. They tunnel to the heart. Mr. Wallace grinned and wished me well and with great effort turned away. It was a good start. Wonder and fear began in him and twitched his face. When again he came he thought aloud of moles and I discoursed upon them: causes, underflesh connections, cosmic parallels, relations to divinity. There was a fever in him, dew on his lip, brightness in his eye. Moles. Every day. At last there was no art in how he brought the subject up. I spoke of the mark of Cain. I mentioned the deformities of the devil. I talked of toads and warts. I discussed the placing of blemishes and the ordering of stars. Stigmata. The world of air is like the skin and signs without are only symbols of the world within. I referred to the moles of beauty, to those of avarice, cunning, gluttony and lust, to those which, when touched, made the eyes water, the ears itch, or caused the prick to stand and the shyest maid to flower. My fancy soared. I related moles and maps, moles and mountains, moles and the elements of interior earth. Oh it was wondrous done! How he shook and warmed his lips like an old roue and trembled and put anxiety in every place! I was everywhere specific and detailed. This may correspond to that. The region of the spine is like unto the polar axis. But i was at all times indeterminate and vague as well. A certain horn-shaped mole upon a certain place may signify a certain spiritual malignity. I informed him of everything and yet of nothing. I moved his sight from heaven to hell and drew from him the most naive response of bliss, followed first by a childlike disappointment as our viewpoint fell, then a childlike fright. His cane quivered against the pavement. He was in the grip. To be so near, continually, to dying; to feel within yourself the chemistry of death; to see in the glass, day by day, your skull emerging; to rot while walking and to fear the sun; to pick over the folds of your loosening flesh like infested clothing; to know, not merely by the logician’s definition or the statistician’s count that men are mortal, but through the limpsting of your own blood — to know so surely so directly so immediately this, I thought, would be a burden needing, if a man were to bear up under it, a staff of self-deceiving hope as sturdy and leveling as the truth was not: an unquenchable, blasphemous, magical hope that the last gasp when it came would last forever, death’s rattle an eternity.