Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Karen Bender's Refund

Karen Bender's collection Refund, upon publication in January of this year by Counterpoint Press, received wonderful reviews from a score of highly admired publications, including LA Times and NY Times. I'd had the privilege of working with Karen during my time at Narrative, and so particularly looked forward to reading this collection. Just before Bowie was born, in writing the following, I came to think of Refund through the lens of the title story as a post-9/11 book.

To calculate the financial costs of the September 11 attacks, economists begin with the obvious: $40 billion in claims to insurance companies. This incredible number skyrockets when we add the losses on the stock exchanges, the impact on the travel and entertainment industries, on jobs and business in New York City, the subsequent costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dramatic increase in the military budget. And yet, judging by the prose we’re seeing today, the financial costs are likely minor compared to the long-lasting psychological impact terrorism and the Bush-era recession and fear-mongering have levied on the nation.

In the past decade, several notable works of fiction addressed the events of 9/11, from Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children to novels by Don DeLillio, Jonathan Safran Foer, Francine Prose, short stories by Martin Amis and Deborah Eisenberg. In Karen E. Bender’s collection Refund, only the title story looks directly at the events of 9/11, yet most of the thirteen pieces feel as though they emerge from the wreckage. Bender has a way of focusing her gaze on the periphery of the main event, the view that allows her to capture the nuance of complex and lingering drama. Reflecting on “Refund” in an interview, she said, “I wanted to write about September 11 in a way that wasn’t ‘noble’—there was a lot written about the way people were heroic, which was true and moving, but there was also the fact that people were living by the site and trying to figure out how to live in the face of this surreal and horrible destruction.”

A particular brand of desperate resilience marks the characters of Bender’s third book that follows on the wings of her two novels, A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press, 2013) and Like Normal People (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). The adults as well as the children can achieve happiness as long as it’s “weighted by resignation.” The collection opens with the story “Reunion,” in which Anna Green’s twentieth high school reunion is interrupted when one of her former classmates opens fire at the crowd. Anna drives home, unscathed, but has to wait until the morning to share the experience with her husband. More pressing problems demand her attention at home: the two young children constantly bicker, her daughter throws tantrums at bedtime unless Anna’s husband sleeps on the floor of her bedroom. When Anna does tell the husband of the shooting, he seems unsure how to react. “Are you okay?” he asks, and “What did you do?” The conversation—and the brief hug—are quickly interrupted by their children. Her husband, while caring deeply, is overtired and lacks the emotional resources to comfort Anna in any substantial way.

What is a reasonable reaction to intense and, worse, chronic fear? In a more optimistic, forward-looking time of American history, desire for safety might have been seen as a cowardly response. Benjamin Franklin wrote once, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.” Bender’s characters are not above looking for temporary safety, the problem is that their world, circumscribed by responsibilities to family and children, allows neither safety nor liberty. Looking for bonding with somebody who shared the traumatic experience with her, Anna contemplates an affair with a former classmate but doesn’t go through with it because the man turns out to be a swindler. The protagonist of “Free Lunch,” afraid for her future after getting laid off, does have a brief fling with a former colleague, and she evaluates the affair as “protection against a falling into a chasm that went on and on.” Naturally, this protection is fleeting, and nothing can save her from the future of “numbness and [job] résumés,” moving her family to a smaller city, downsizing.

Another survivor—the teacher protagonist of “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” after the second lockdown at school in a week—escapes by trying to help her charge, an underprivileged student, to fulfill a dream (or a momentary fancy) of seeing a sea turtle. On impulse, after the lockdown is lifted, she takes the student to the hospital where the animals are treated. What they find is a blind turtle, doomed to spend the rest of his long life in a small tub at an underfunded, volunteer-run facility. “This wasn’t in the book,” says Keisha, the student, and demands of the teacher, “Save him.” The best the teacher can do is to offer her a dream of a bigger tub for the turtle, “a mile long even, with . . . special pools with rocks so that he could imagine he was in a tide pool.” The turtle would remember how to swim, and experience the sensation of floating again. Floating—the dream of floating—carries this and other characters in this collection forward.

Popular psychology describes fear as one of humanity’s basic emotions, and in this collection Bender exposes many facets of fear. It not only drives her characters to adultery and rage, toward opportunities for escape, but also illuminates their passions and beliefs, encourages greater empathy, forces them to push through the immediate troubles to desperately “count their riches, over and over.” In one of the most apocryphal stories of the collection, “Anything for Money,” Bender shows fear to be the defining human emotion. Aurora, a preteen granddaughter of a Scrooge-like Hollywood producer, Lenny Weiss, arrives to his mansion after her mother is committed to a rehab facility for alcoholism. Lenny gives her a room in his house and reluctantly begins developing a relationship with the girl. In one of the pivotal moments of their cautious friendship, Aurora asks Lenny, “What are you afraid of?” She deems his first answer, “Nothing,” unsatisfactory. He promises to think of something better, and the rest of the story becomes a kind of cosmic reprisal for his arrogance. By the time Lenny comes up with a good answer, fear has gotten the better of him.

Navigating the dangers of a post-9/11 world is but one of the themes in Bender’s collection. Fear and sadness are alleviated by the inner strengths of her characters and the suspenseful, fable-like plots of several stories. The day she eliminates an unwanted pregnancy, the protagonist of “The Third Child” finds relief in helping her son and a neighbor girl to make a magic potion out of vinegar, mayonnaise, and seltzer water to transform themselves into a cheetah and a princess. In the middle of getting a biopsy, the terrified protagonist of “This Cat” interviews her surgeon about her pet iguana. “There was the needle, and there was pain; I was sweating. . . . ‘What did the iguana do?’ I asked between breaths.” The sublime humor of this passage deftly highlights just how much backbone the woman has.

Humor and the grand sense of cosmic irony drive the plots of several stories. In “Candidate,” we catch Diane Bernstein at a particularly trying moment in her life. A transplant to the Southeast from Seattle, she’s at odds with the politics of most of her neighbors, colleagues, and students at the college where she works. Her son has been diagnosed with autism; her husband left to confront his own fear of mortality; she cannot keep a babysitter because of the boy’s growing rages. But driving the story is a completely off-the-wall incident: a local far-right politician, Woody Wilson, shows up at Diane’s footstep looking for contributions to his campaign, and as soon as she questions his politics, he collapses onto her living room floor. He comes to quickly enough, and assures her the incident is due merely to fatigue. He begs Diane not to tell anyone, for the fear of ruining his chances, and she, afraid to be blamed for causing harm, complies. As he stays in her house to recover with an icepack, their conversation grows unexpectedly intimate and honest, and potentially healing to both parties.

“Refund,” the title piece, is, perhaps, the best example of a story with a profound theme developed in an unorthodox way, through fable-like irony. Josh and Clarissa, both artists, get themselves in financial trouble when they decide to send their three-year-old son to a private school they cannot afford. Luckily, they’re both offered temporary jobs teaching art in Virginia, and for the duration they decide to sublease at market rates their rent-subsidized apartment in Manhattan. At first, the transaction goes smoothly, and then 9/11 happens. The tenant reacts emotionally, demanding all of her money back, and when Clarissa tries to negotiate, the tenant increases her demands. “I am requesting $3,000 plus $1000 for every nightmare I have had since the attack, which currently totally twenty-four. You owe me $27,000 payable now.”

But what sum of money could be sufficient as compensation for 9/11? The ensuing exchange throws light onto the emotional journey that Josh and Clarissa follow as they return to their beloved city to witness the lasting damage, as well as on the tragedy that their tenant has lived through. Through this unlikely negotiation Bender skillfully leads the reader on the journey from frustration and disbelief to horror and pathos, avoiding a shred of sentimentality.

In the interview about the origins of this story, Bender added, “I felt the city was truly starting to heal the moment I heard someone yell, ‘You idiot!’ out of a car.” Kindness and empathy are important responses to tragedy, but in Bender’s world, they’re not sufficient without the open expression of accompanying fear, anger, and pain. Through the stories in Refund, she impressively shows the value that these typically negative emotions play in our lives, the strength, comfort, and beauty we derive from them.

Two stories from this collection appear on the site of Narrative Magazine, where they are accessible for free (registration required). The book is available for purchase in your neighborhood bookstore, on Amazon, and on IndieBound