THE KING'S COUNCIL
In which your Sovereign Majesty gets an earful on contemporary literature from your loyal councillors
[PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES], Bill Henderson, Ed.
This post almost began with this: ‘“Refund” is a lousy story.’ I really wanted to start that way—I had read the piece through three times, growing more irritated with each pass, and I was looking forward to being thoroughly nasty. But a strange thing happened as I wrote (or tried to write): I found that I could not—quite—make my case. “Refund” is not a great story, certainly—it’s no “The Lion’s Mouth,” and it may not even be a “The Odds it Would be You.” But there’s something to it nevertheless, something that doesn’t allow me to dismiss it out of hand, something that has caused me to struggle with it for the past two months. Therefore, I hereby crumple up my previous, saltier post and toss it back over my shoulder, hoping that doing so will bring me better luck.
It’s fun and easy to hate shallow, rich people, especially if you are neither
and believe this to be unfair
So then: I admit that “Refund” is not a lousy story, though there’s a lot about it that bugs me.
Take, for example, 9/11, the event that kick-starts the story’s plot: I freely confess that, were I somehow appointed the layer-down of literary law, I would issue an edict banning writers from using the date in any work of fiction for the next twenty years or so. Something started (or, rather, came to the attention of the American public) that blue September morning, but really—we have no idea what, and we won’t, I don’t think, for a long time to come. In the meantime, our love affair with the attacks has become horribly narcissistic; to my mind, it recalls nothing more than the skinned knee of a preschooler. “See my owie?” we ask anyone who will listen, rolling up one leg of our corduroys to show off our wound. We are so proud of it, in our self-pitying way—so pleased, I think, to have finally—finally!—had an experience that compares to what the rest of the world has been putting up with for the past hundred and fifty years, that we can’t stop talking about it.
So I was more than a little annoyed when I learned that the protagonist of “Refund,” a still-young-but-not-for-much-longer failing artist named Clarissa, has a husband named Josh, a toddler named Sam, and not much else—except, crucially, a rent-controlled apartment in Tribeca, which, in late summer of 2001, she sublets for $3,000 to a wealthy young woman named Kim, and Kim’s friend Darla. The star-crossed date arrives, of course, while Kim and Darla are Clarissa’s tenants, and the rest of the story traces Kim’s increasingly implausible attempts to get a refund from the well-meaning but impecunious Clarissa. The contrast between Kim and Clarissa is stark—ridiculously so. Kim is demanding, heedless, whiny, entitled; Clarissa is withdrawing, accommodating, easily bullied, always intimidated. Kim sends Clarissa e-mails with passages like this:
…I love many people. I love friends. I love good service in restaurants. I love people who bring me delicious things. I love the crème brûlée at the Four Seasons. I love the shoe salesgirl at Bendel’s. So you see I have a great ability for love. Maybe you could learn something about it. Love! Love! Love!
You owe me US $31,000 payable now.
Clarissa responds by writing a check for every cent in her checking account—$263.75—and sending it off to Kim.
We are meant to despise Kim, of course; she is the embodiment of materialism, a shallow, self-satisfied, Paris Hilton-esque creature, concerned only with pleasures of the moment and how she is perceived by equally superficial souls. Curiously, she is not American but a Canadian from Montreal, and it took me a while to realize that English was probably her second language, which would account (somewhat) for her deplorable prose. But she acts like an American (or at least all of the Americans in “Refund”): money and status rule her. Here is an exchange between two women (mothers, as it happens, of children at Sammy’s preschool) overheard by Clarissa:
“Have you gone out to dinner yet?” she heard one mother ask another. “You wouldn’t believe the good deals down here, plus you can get reservations. Prix fixe at Chanterelle, thirty-five-bucks, incredible, plus you have money for a good bottle of wine.”
“The Independence has a special, Eat American,” said another. “The wait staff is fast and gracious. They have the most exquisite apple pie.”
Fast and gracious?!? Does anybody really talk this way? As if they’ve lifted their speech from one of those city guides you find in a room in a Hyatt? This, as you may have gathered, is another one of my difficulties with “Refund”: no character, with the exception of Clarissa, is anything more than a stereotype in the service of author Karen Bender’s point—a point which she drives home with all the subtlety of a ball peen hammer. But almost everyone in the story is like this: obsessed with money, and speaking lines no one I’ve ever met (even those who’ve eaten dinner in Tribeca) would ever say. What we’re supposed to make of this is clear: we are to find Clarissa, the timid, sensitive artist, admirable, and Kim (and everyone else who happens to be rich and beautiful) deplorable. It’s obvious and simple—and it speaks volumes about the preoccupations of its readership. It’s fun and easy to hate shallow, rich people, especially if you are neither and believe this to be unfair. (It is unfair, most likely.) Moreover, if—like almost everyone, but don’t tell—you believe yourself to have a soul rather larger than average, it appears doubly unfair, an injustice of the broadest possible proportions. Display all this before a backdrop of national tragedy, and you have a neat little parable about the limitless wealth and mindless appetite of the United States. It’s very easy, a paint-by-numbers kind of fiction, and I find it terribly boring.
Except—except. That’s not quite right, because “Refund” is not quite a neat little parable. Or perhaps it is, but not of the sort I just described. What crept up on me in later readings was the notion that Clarissa is tainted as well, that she is just as greedy in her own way, just as consumed by the idea of possessing as Kim. Yes, she is supposedly an artist, but it’s notable that we never get much of a sense as to what her art actually consists of. She’s not a writer or a musician or a performance artist of some kind—we know this much, at least, because at one point she and Sam stop by a gallery where “…one member of the staff had expressed interest in her work, but had then vanished in an abrupt, unexplained departure.” Thus we know that she’s a visual artist, but that’s all. On the other hand, we do know that her lack of success as an artist has made her terribly bitter: one of the instances of her actually standing up to Kim revolves around precisely this bitterness:
…Do you know how close I came to getting a review in the Times? The guy came and loved my work. The words he used were “ground-breaking.” Then along came this woman who videoed her own vagina and played the video to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. There was room for just one review and she got it. It was a good one.
So we don’t know a thing about Clarissa’s art except that she’s angry and disappointed that it hasn’t been noticed (and that it probably doesn’t involve a combination of genitalia and Rodgers and Hammerstein.) In other words, as far as we can tell (and make no mistake—it’s Bender who has decreed that we should live in this particular ignorance), she’s not interested in art at all, but only in being a successful artist. The drive to create, the wrestling with questions of form or color or meaning, a pleasure in working with paint or clay or some other material, even a visual artist’s gift for noticing the sights around her—none of these are evident in Clarissa. What she’s after is status and fame and the rest of the trappings of success—precisely the things that Kim, in her own crude and obvious way, is all about.
But there’s even more to it than that. Clarissa’s yearning for recognition is part of something deeper, something very old and very sad. The subplot of Sam and his preschool is, I think, Bender’s most successful attempt at laying out what exactly this ancient, helpless desire is: in a few brief scenes, Bender is able (as she is everywhere else unable) to explore, without cliché or artifice, exactly what she’d like “Refund” to be about. As we know, Josh and Clarissa have no money; they can’t afford Tribeca-style child-care. But Clarissa overhears other, wealthier, mothers talking about Rainbows, “the most expensive preschool in the area,” and then another mother, who sends her own child there, tells Clarissa that Rainbows is “the only place where they truly treat the children like human beings.” This statement drives (indeed, the verb Bender chooses is “propels”) Clarissa to enroll little Sam at Rainbows, even though there’s no way in hell she and Josh are going to be able to afford the tuition. Well, nothing wrong with that, you might say: parents everywhere are overly optimistic as far as their children are concerned. But the thing about Rainbows, the thing that makes all the wealthy mothers love it and Clarissa take such wild financial risks in order to get Sam into it, is the very opposite of what the woman who sent her own child there said: they most emphatically do not treat the children like human beings. Instead, they treat them as super-humans, as blessed creatures to whom pain and death will never come. Looking through the one-way observation window at the children in their Halloween costumes, this is what Clarissa sees:
The teacher read them a Halloween story, speaking to them as though she believed they would live forever. The children listened as though they believed this too. Clarissa pressed her hands to the glass window that separated the parents from their children; she wanted to fall into the classroom and join them.
Put simply, Clarissa does not want to die—but she will, and so will her husband, and so will her son. Sam does not know it now, but in time he will come to, perhaps when he too is in his late thirties and has failed at his own life’s work. Indeed, “Refund” can most successfully be read as a sort of coming-of-old-age story: it is the story of Clarissa realizing that everything she has ever wanted has turned to dust, and that for this there is no remedy. Just a few lines after the section I quoted above, Clarissa buys Sam a blue helium balloon, which he insists his mother set free.
“Let it fly away!” he shouted. “Let it!”
She took the balloon and released it. The wind pushed it roughly into the air. Her son laughed, an impossibly bright, flute-like sound. Other people stopped and watched the balloon jab into the air. They laughed at Sammie’s amusement, as though captivated by some tender memory of themselves. Then the balloon was gone.
“Where is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Her child looked at her.
“Get it,” he said.
The empty white line that follows is the best piece of writing in the story.
It is too bad, then, that Bender feels the need to press on after this. It is too bad that she felt the need to wrap the piece in the bang and flash of 9/11, too bad that she did not feel comfortable with her miniature evocation of time and age and failure. Because, in the end, this would have sufficed. It would have been enough simply to tell the story of a woman who lives surrounded by success but cannot partake of it, enough to tell the story of a woman slowly coming to grips with the fact that her son is most likely doomed to a mediocrity similar to her own. This would be a sad story, and, more than that, it would be true: for most people, life is precisely this. But Bender did not think this was enough—or, rather, did not trust her small, simple story to tell itself. So she decided to blow it up, to punctuate it with the most reverberant explosion in recent memory. She brought in Darla, and she brought down the World Trade Center, and her story became a caricature of itself.
Clarissa’s story ends with a call from Kim, and over the course of this call we learn the horrible fact that is supposed to tie all the thematic strands of the story together and slap us back in our recliners, devastated. Because, you see, Kim’s traveling companion Darla was on the observation deck of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, and so she died. She died, and so now Kim wants a refund—she wants to somehow put a price tag on the loss of her friend and have Clarissa reimburse her. There are (at least) two problems with this: first of all, once you introduce 9/11 into a story, somebody has to die—it’s like putting a loaded gun on a table in Act I of a play. All along we’ve known that this was probably coming, that there was another shoe to drop, and its effect is therefore muted: it does nothing to humanize Kim, to make us feel that she, too, has suffered. Second of all, the revelation gives Bender occasion to write:
What did one owe for being alive? What was the right way to breathe, to taste a strawberry, to love?
This is awful, a platitude smeared thick as mayonnaise on a cliché. (Strawberries? Where’d they come from? There’s no mention of them anywhere else in the story, but now they’re introduced as one of the reasons life is worth living.) It diminishes “Refund”; in attempting to stretch the proportions of Clarissa’s small tragedy into something larger, Bender turns her story into a mindless tear-jerker, or, better, a cartoon. There is the kernel of something true and universal struggling to get out of this piece, but I have the feeling that its author didn’t recognize it when it started shifting and twisting beneath her words, didn’t quite trust that what she was up to was not, in the end, a matter of simple, Reader’s Digest style sentiment, and so she sabotaged it. So no: “Refund” is not a lousy story—but it could have been a hell of a lot better.
J. Todd Gillette: Well, Bill, if “Refund” wasn’t over-thought by Bender—I’d argue it was—it certainly has been by us. In the end, though, it seems we have a consensus. The story is singularly disappointing. But, if we arrived at a similar conclusion, it couldn’t have been from more disparate first impressions. Fact is, I liked the story very much on first read. Far from lousy, I thought the writing very sharp indeed, and was intrigued by what Bender appeared to be doing with the thematic structure.
Until I turned to that last page, of course.
I do beg to differ with you on one particular, though: your disdain for the story’s framing in the 9/11 context. Bender’s story is very clearly a parable, as you pointed out, but not a simplistic one, nor, at its core, a new one. Every generation since Job has had its own circumstances in which to wrap the questions, “Why do the righteous suffer?” and, “Do the wicked suffer for their sins?” and the suffering of the “righteous” is the theme of “Refund,” with 9/11 serving as this generation’s Jobean apocalypse, its whirlwind from the desert.
That said, I’ll share a few thoughts on what I found interesting, and sadly undone, about the story.
Bender, in the first four or five paragraphs, gives a brilliantly severe (yet funny) summation of the dire lot befallen a disenfranchised tribe, and does so with a distinctly Old Testament flair (if O.T. and “flair” can be so linked):
“They were about forty years old, children of responsible middle-class parents, and had created this mess out of their own sordid desires.”
“The residents were on edge because they were doomed; the building would soon be privatized, rents hiked, and they would all end up on the street. Josh and Clarissa now skulked through their neighborhood with the cowed posture of trespassers.”
I like in particular this augury of doom:
“They lay in bed at 5:30 in the morning, listening to their three-year-old son, Sammy, hurtling toward the first sunbeam with the call: ‘More fun. More fun.’ The wistful, hopeful cry made their blood go cold.”
The resonance of this image, so clearly and I think purposefully reminiscent of a disembodied hand writing, “Mene, Mene,” on Balshazzar’s palace wall, is chilling and hilarious at the same time. This is great stuff.
Without moving an inch, Josh and Clarissa find themselves wandering and lost. Their lives of aesthetic devotion have failed. They are exhausted, spiritually and materially bankrupt. Their art—their faith in ideals, in the pure essence of life (we get no clue from Bender about Clarissa’s art because it is purely symbolic)—is dead. Yet Bender’s analogy is fundamentally ironic and its subject totally American: when Josh and Clarissa behold the Promised Land in the form of a nursery school named “Rainbows,” “‘...the only place where they truly treat the children like human beings,’” it proves a mirage, pure vanity, a costume party without purpose or consequence beyond social status. Yet, in order to partake in this absurdity, even for just a little while, Josh and Clarissa, heretofore ostensibly “righteous,” commit something of a first sin—a step outside their ideals into the netherworld of commerce--by subletting their apartment at an inflated rate to a wealthy foreigner and something of a devil, Kim.
Whereupon all hell breaks loose.
Clearly, Josh and Clarissa (Clarissa more particularly), with their spiritual vacuity and worldly ardor, are set up to embody a version of America attacked on 9/11. And Bender, while posing the Jobean questions, is not offering answers. She offers, instead, the spectral, incoherent, inappeasable voice of Kim:
“My pet peeves are injustice and dishonesty. I know when I’m not being treated fairly. You did not tell me certain facts about the apartment, which was, I am sorry to say, filthy. Black goo all over the refrigerator. I had to wear plastic gloves to keep my hands clean.
“Darla and I planned our vacation for a long time. We are best friends. We were going to buy the same clothes, go to the newest restaurants. People would admire us and say who are those glamour girls. Her hair is red and more beautiful, but I will admit I have nicer legs, we wanted to start a commotion.
“I expect to receive payment of US $3000 within a week.”
In Kim’s rants we see a fun-house-mirror image of Clarissa (and ourselves), distorted and insanely materialistic, with the bottom line, the last word, always about the money. Clarissa’s measured, pious responses to Kim’s demands prove incendiary; and from the terra incognita of Kim’s world, a Gucci Jihad is declared:
“You left hairs in your hairbrush. I have your hairbrush. I have your Maybelline mascara. It is a horrid color. Who would put Maybelline on her eyelashes? Who would look good in navy blue? Are you trying to be younger than your age? You do not look so youthful in the snapshots on your refrigerator. You dress as though you think you are. You should not wear jeans when you are in your late thirties. I don’t care if it is a bohemian sort of thing. It is just sad.
“I am requesting $3000 plus $1000 for every nightmare I have had since the attack, which currently totals 24. You owe me US $27000, payable now.”
Things escalate from there, and Kim’s messages, attacking Clarissa as filthy, pretentious, and corrupt, take on the formulaic and inane quality of diatribes broadcast on Al Jazeera. Yet there is truth in Kim’s accusations. Promises of beautiful dreams fulfilled have turned, literally, to ashes. And Clarissa does not need to be told that her fashionably bohemian Tribeca existence has been a sham. Again, the concurrence with the story’s 9/11 context is inescapable. On both levels, chickens are coming home to roost, and the reader is confronted with questions of personal and societal culpability, versus purely righteous victim-hood. That’s as good a purpose to engage 9/11 images as I can think of. (I’ll add that Bender’s descriptions of living in the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero are astonishingly good.)
It is at this point in the story that Sammy insists Clarissa release the blue helium balloon, only to demand that Mommy retrieve it from heaven. It’s a neat scene, a nice counterpoint to all the enveloping, accelerating darkness, and in very few words comments on so much: our zealous confidence in ourselves, our actual impotence, the evanescence of innocence and the freedom such innocence imparted, and our desperate wish to retrieve both. It would have been a good point to end the story, had the story been the clever parable I thought I was reading.
Kim’s Darla dies, and Kim tumbles from the sublime into the too-accessible banality of a head-case—and the story, for me, falls utterly to pieces. What a shame. Yet, in her last lines, Bender does not seem to have given up on her holy war analogy:
“‘Do you know how long I’m going to charge you?’ Kim said, her voice rising.
“Clarissa closed her eyes.
“‘Do you know?’ asked Kim.”
The implied answer is, of course, “Forever.” How Bender’s last lines would have reverberated without the dissonant noise of poor Darla and strawberries and all that.
All content on this site is protected by copyright laws. Unauthorized use of any material, graphic or literary, is strictly prohibited. All work © by the artists: all rights reserved.