On "The Indweller's Aversion" and other selections from WONDERFUL INVESTIGATIONS by Dan Beachy-Quick

Right after college, my friend and I read Walden aloud as we hiked in the Sierra Neveda mountains.  It was a wonderbursting time of my life, and in my journal I wrote passages like the following: "The climb up--hard in snow and rock avalanche-damaged areas, but definitely do-able and not overwhelming.  The descent--smooth and easy.  We reached a warm, windswept little lake in no time and sat down on its bank for dinner andWalden.  After two pitiful brave Boy Scout boys passed, oblivious in their pain, we stripped down and strode into the rainbow blues for a chilly dip.  We were surrounded on all sides by peaks.  We lay in the sun to warm up our now-prickly and sensitive bodies, and read a bit more. Everything was so beautiful that I felt like I was drinking it in, swallowing greedily like I do water from the bottle after a hard climb.
This sometimes stark, sometimes lush natural beauty is like water for the soul.  Necessary element without which the soul dries up, becomes brittle, unseeing, dead.  The vital connection is gone.  I am so lucky to be here."  I also copied quotes in my journal such as: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.  I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains," and "I went to the woods there to learn what it had to teach."  In my youthful enthusiasm, I knew I didn't understand much of what Thoreau was writing, but I loved much of the book, almost as if it gave me language with which to see my life.

When I taught the book to high school students several years later, I had the sense that I understood less about Thoreau's project than I'd believed.  I was decent at living, but bad at reading.  I had no idea how to question thinking itself.  To date, I have not returned to the book.

Now through Dan Beachy-Quick's eyes, I see: borrow, buy, begin.  I want to read Waldenagain. "The Indweller's Aversion" sparks an exhilaration that I had when I was a young adult.  Yet now it feels centered on an achievable goal: to make of the Old Parsonnage in Freeburg (the home where Silas and I live) my own wonderful investigation.  To make it the center of the world.  To do the morning work, the work of song.  

In "Meditation in the Hut," Beachy-Quick investigates reading and says, poignantly, that "to read threatens the identity of the reader as directly as reading informs it."  Are you open to being double, being multiplied, to be the horde of eyes looking through your eyes?

Our final selection, the prose story of "The Children, The Woods," shakes me up.  This story of two children feels memorable although it is not my preferred style of short fiction.  It is about being the song, about becoming through your life many things: a boy, an outcast, a prey, a grandson, a wolf, a brother.  Note its heavy relationship to the essays.  E pluribus unum, people.

On Junot Diaz: "Miss Lora"

If you haven't read about Yunior before, you've just had a treat. This smart, sex-crazed, suffering man who narrates "Miss Lora" is one of the primary characters in Junot Díaz's first collection of short stories, Drown. He is also a member of the supporting cast in the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And finally, he appears prominently in Díaz's 2012 story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. Both "Miss Lora" and "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" appear in this latest book. In a New York Times book review, Leah Hager Cohen observes, "Junot Díaz writes in an idiom so electrifying and distinct it’s practically an act of aggression, at once alarming and enthralling, even erotic in its assertion of sudden intimacy." This is fiction in which voice dominates, no doubt. The narration is alternately insightful and helpless, regretful and furious, crude and erudite, and Díaz can switch lightning-fast between these personality traits and somehow make you utterly believe in the solidity, the wholeness, the reality, of Yunior, the narrator.

But voice aside, this story breaks my heart.  Its depictions of loneliness and pain are paired with the characters' compromised efforts to find respite from their loneliness and pain. Yunior and Miss Lora both concern themselves with apocalyptic films because life has "messed [them] up good" and they project their internal destruction into external destruction. Yunior and Miss Lora have many similarities: both are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, both physically muscular, both traumatized by family life, both sleeping with their teachers. The way things repeat in the story (e.g. Miss Lora wears her red dress at one graduation, and then another) is similar to the greater picture of how history repeats itself (like-father-like-son machismo, or more sweepingly, one answerless death like another). And "blood always shows," as Yunior tells his ambitious girlfriend. Miss Lora has enormous eyes, and she sees the pain in young Yunior, and he finds her need for him compelling. Sometimes, our response to being exposed to trauma is to seek it out in representations, such as movies, or books, or photographs in which we are smiling and blinking and keeping on keeping on.

On George Saunders: "The Barber's Unhappiness" and "I CAN SPEAK!"

George Saunders has published four books full of short stories, and I have read all of them, thirstily, like a cat at the water bowl.  I drink up the disfigured, misogynistic, abused, middle-aged man lusting after a younger woman.  I absorb the harried, foolish, sycophantic employee sympathizing with the furious customer and defending the company that exploits and employs him.  Saunders's stories poke at the hurting places, at the sadness of our little lives, and in these stories, we are all small, we are all victims of the system.

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