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.
"If a Stranger Approaches You about Carrying a Foreign Object with You onto the Plane,"
by Laura Kasischke
Bill Bukovsan: The yearning for transcendence has a dark twin: a craving for destruction. After all, there’s not much daylight between “awestruck” and “horrorstruck,” and violence is a pretty surefire way to generate amazement. And, crucially, an amazed mind is one to which the world seems simple; in the grip of the sublime, the countless, quotidian details of ordinary life have a way of making themselves scarce.
And so it’s fitting that the slightly bored and more than slightly detached protagonist of our next piece, “If a Stranger Approaches You about Carrying a Foreign Object with you onto the Plane,” is deeply fascinated by the macabre. She’s very polite about it, of course, in the way good Americans of conscience (again, literary fiction’s readership) tend to be—violence frightens and repulses her, but she can’t stop thinking about it. The turning wheels of her luggage remind her of a pig roasting on a spit; the absurd hair-do of an airline employee recalls to her an encounter with a corpse she had many years before; and, for no apparent reason (and just before the story makes a huge U-turn), she spends a few woolgathering moments remembering that her father died suddenly when she was nine years old from a disease that “announced itself first as bleeding gums, then paralysis, and then he was just gone.”
Most relevantly, like nearly every fictional character of the last six years, she had an ambivalent reaction to September 11, 2001.
The baby was crying (eight weeks old), so she’d had to stand and pace with his hot little face leaking tears onto her shoulders as those Towers collapsed at her feet. The front door had been open, and it had smelled to her as if the stone-blue perfect sky out there were dissolving in talcumish particles of dried flowers—such a beautiful day it horrified her. An illusion dipped in blue. She could have walked with her baby straight out the front door or right into the big-screen TV of it, and they might have turned themselves into nothing but subatomic particles, blue light, perfume.
Here we have a lovely collision of the sublime and the horrific: a beautiful late summer’s day, described in purely sensual terms (note how sight, smell, and touch are all invoked), enfolding an event which is not only a tragedy but a cinematic public spectacle. The author, Laura Kasischke, is canny enough not to tell us directly that her protagonist would in fact have liked to have undergone that final transformation into dust and light, but the fantasy, even if it’s only a negative fantasy, is right there in the last sentence. So—though it would appear he would have no way of knowing it—the handsome, dark-skinned stranger picks the right person to approach and ask whether she might be willing to carry an object which might or might not be a bomb onto a plane.
Kasischke handles their interplay perfectly—he’s apologetic, charming, a little bit awkward, sexy as all get-out, while she’s attracted, nervous, worried about giving offense on account of his dark skin, anxious to reassure him that she doesn’t believe he’s a terrorist. (I can’t resist noting that Kasischke’s handling of what we’ll delicately call diversity questions is many times subtler and more revealing than John Clayton’s in “Voices.”) What we have here is a seduction, pure and simple, a seduction to which Kathy Bliss willingly succumbs, though it’s unlikely that the mysterious stranger would have been so successful had he simply tried to tempt married, bourgeois Kathy into the arguably less risky activity of joining him in a quickie.
If this seduction were all there were to the story, it would be enough—I was mightily impressed by how deftly Kasischke handled her two characters’ respective navigations of the post-9/11 culture of airports, the way they both could and could not speak of the underlying issues of trust, and especially how skillfully she imagined the stranger turning the situation to his advantage. But the seduction isn’t all—underlying everything is Kathy’s fascination with violent death, which is of course the real reason she takes the package from him. She doesn’t exactly want it to be a bomb—she is not overtly suicidal—but she wants to run a real risk. The question is why: why would this successful, thoughtful young woman who seems to have what most people want—a loving husband, an adored young son, a future full of promise—want to jeopardize it all (not to mention guarantee going down in history as one of the biggest idiots of all time)? Kasischke gives us a couple of metaphorical hints in the guise of coffee and career goals. When we first meet Kathy, she’s sipping at a latte so hot it’s burnt her tongue numb; indeed, she characterizes her coffee’s heat as “thermonuclear,” and worries that she’s done so much damage to her tongue’s nerve-endings that she can no longer tell whether she’s scalding herself. Shortly after this we learn that, though she doesn’t think much of the non-profit for which she currently works, she is looking to make a move to another, “one devoted to curing a disease (or at least publicizing a disease) which no one knew about until it was contracted, at which time the body attacked itself, turning the skin into a suit of armor, petrifying the internal organs one by one.” Now, perhaps there is such a disease, but there’s clearly a symbolic point here: Kathy wants to cure (or at least publicize) this petrifying disease because she feels like she’s contracted its spiritual analog—she feels like she somehow doesn’t feel enough, that it is her own skin that has turned to armor. She fears this so much, in fact, that after everything is over, after she has experienced her own week-long episode of genuine, unrelated, terror, she returns to the item that might be a bomb, drags it out of her luggage and begins to open it up while her baby lies “napping in a patch of sunlight,” knowing (though Kasischke never says it directly) that there remains the possibility that when she does so the package will explode, blowing both her and her son to Kingdom Come. And that’s where the story ends, with the threat of sudden destruction hovering over a scene of tranquil domesticity, or—if you like--with the possibility of supreme amazement hovering at the edge of the mundane.
Now, it wouldn’t be a King’s Council entry if I didn’t find some aspect of the story to be disappointing. So here it is this time: I didn’t like the sick baby. It’s not the baby itself that’s the problem, I suppose—Kathy’s motherhood offers the mysterious stranger, who claims to be an expectant father himself, yet another avenue by which to approach her, and it’s clear that we’re supposed to see a contrast between Kathy’s general numbness and the pleasure she takes in the presence of her son (along with the pain she feels in his absence). The problem is that the baby’s sickness is a lousy plot device, designed to somehow get her off the plane before it takes off, to cause her to forget about the bomb she might be carrying, and, finally, to set up the final passage, in which she can’t resist opening it in his presence. It’s awkward; it feels forced, as if imagination had failed Kasischke at a critical moment, or (additionally) was writing against a word count. As a result, the last section of the story, the bridge to that ending so pregnant with destructive potential, is a little limp. (Baby’s sick, but then he’s better, all so fast that it’s nearly impossible to believe that the kid was ever in any real danger in the first place.) But this is a small criticism, a quibble, really—I’ve got to admit that it was nice to actually find a good story after wading my way through the last three.
Benjamin Chambers: Well Bill, I didn’t love this story when I first read it, but I came to, eventually. Kasischke demonstrates great mastery of tone here, and tackles a tough-to-render subject. And I think your reading of it is highly plausible, though I’m going to offer an alternate one.
Let me start with the fault line that runs through the entire story – Kasischke’s irony. She maintains an ironic tone throughout the first three-quarters of the story, until the “gigantic U-turn” you mention, after which it disappears. It’s not a coincidence that the story sags from that moment forward. Why? Because genuine emotion nearly always looks weak or insipid next to irony. Put the two in a room together, and irony sucks up all the air.
In the case of this story, the irony is both suitable and perfectly rendered, but it’s a problem right from the beginning. You read the title and your hopes for the piece wilt a little. It feels forced. You can’t help but imagine Kasischke sitting in the airport one day, stuck for an idea when – well, you know what happens next.
Kasischke, however, knows the risk she’s running, and comes at it head-on in her first sentence: “Once there was a woman who was asked by a stranger to carry a foreign object with her onto a plane.” As a way of acknowledging the triteness of the situation, this is brilliant. “Once there was a woman,” suggests in five words both a fairy tale and a limerick, yoking child-like wonder with ribald jokiness. Add the bureaucratic phrase, “foreign object onto a plane,” and we’re in the realm of the ironic. But starting out this way has – as Joan Didion would say in her ominous fashion – implications.
I won’t detail the
ways in which Kasischke establishes Kathy’s detachment and
self-consciousness, as you already noted it. But things get really
extreme when Kathy and the stranger finally start talking about that
“‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I think I may have heard an announcement pertaining to that. And I’ve always wondered to myself what kind of idiot would actually do such a thing, like carry a foreign object onto a plane.’
“‘Well,’ the stranger said, ‘here’s the object you’ve been waiting your whole life to carry with you onto the plane.’”
A little later, the stranger tells Kathy that he’s going to unwrap the package to demonstrate that it’s merely a necklace he’s bought for his mother. The possibility that he’s actually a terrorist seems unlikely to Kathy, and in any case it would be embarrassing even to imply that she doesn’t trust him, so she tells him not to bother. “‘I insist,’ he said. ‘This is too weird and too much of a … cliché! I have my dignity!’” [The ellipsis is Kasischke’s.]
This is pitch-perfect irony, and it’s funny on several levels at once. First, there’s the irony employed by Kathy and the stranger as they discuss a transaction that is iconic for being such a Bad Idea that it’s a cliché, however unfair, of stupidity. Second, it’s funny because it demonstrates that, even though Kathy has just thought to herself with mock solemnity that there is “nothing even remotely funny about terrorism,” it’s obvious that there is, there truly is. Finally, this exchange is funny because it’s not only the two of them who are embarrassed, but the author as well. She’s openly joking with her readers, as if to say, “Okay, yes, this is ridiculous, but you know I know it. Preposterous? Yes! Absurd? Certainly. What a hoot, huh?”
Kasischke’s self-consciousness about her subject matter mirrors Kathy’s about everything else. Even Kathy’s last name is a joke, as Kasischke makes the obligatory reference to Joseph Campbell’s dictum about following one’s bliss. And all the instances of violence that you cited, Bill, are also instances of melodrama and cliché, even – no, especially the twin towers falling. When we learn that Kathy grew up “in a little stone house at the edge of a deep forest,” Kasischke all but visibly turns to the reader with the sentence that follows: “‘Honest to God,’ [Kathy] always had to say after giving someone this piece of information about herself for the first time.” If that’s not the author talking, I don’t know what is. Of course, it’s only then that we learn that Kathy didn’t just grow up in a little stone house next to a deep forest. No, the house was also next to a minimum-security prison, and her father died in a macabre way.
The piece is riddled with similar details (most of them delivered with a wink from Kasischke), so that even those things that should be freighted with real emotion don’t seem quite real. When Kathy finally does take the package from the stranger, she is overwhelmed with sentiment: “…her part in this sweet small drama moved her deeply, too – this gesture she was making of pure human camaraderie, this nonprofit venture, this small recognition of the cliché We’re all in this together. That it mattered. Love. Family. The stranger. The favor. The bond of trust between them.” But Kathy knows she’s only making a gesture of kindness, and that it cannot move her while it remains in the realm of the cliché. This is Kasischke again, of course, making sure that, like Kathy, we don’t get too comfortable, that we don’t quite trust our feelings – the position, finally, of irony.
The problem is, though, that Kasischke wants to take us further, onward into the realm of the real, non-detached world that Kathy inhabits after the week of terror she spends with her son in the hospital, hoping he will live. Kasischke passes lightly over that week, which is as it should be. To do otherwise would grind the gears. Yet the transition is needed to indicate why and how Kathy has changed – for changed she is:
“The silence swelled and receded in a manner that would have been imperceivable to her only two weeks before, but which now seemed sacred, full of implication, a kind of immaculate tableau rolled out over the neighborhood in the middle of the day when no one was anywhere, and only the cats crossed the streets, padding in considerate quiet on their starry little paws.”
Kasischke may still be in the realm of cliché here, but it’s not the cliché of melodrama, it’s the cliché of life’s simple pleasures. And if this were a cheaper story, or one written before irony became coin of the realm, it might end there, squarely in the sentimental. It doesn’t, of course. Instead, Kathy remembers the package and the whole just-averted horror of what might have been if it had really been a bomb and it had gone off on the airplane, detonated by her curiosity, and Kasischke leaves us in suspense as Kathy begins to open it. We’re left wondering (again), “Is it a bomb, or isn’t it?” And voílà! We’re saved from the sentimental.
Or are we? Kathy recognizes the package “only vaguely, as neither a gift nor a recrimination, a threat, or a blessing.” She realizes, in other words, that the package is not a bomb, and never was. It’s true we’re given a clear indication that the plausible stranger lied to her, but what sort of terrorist would give her a bomb that she would have to open in order to set it off? Are we seriously supposed to believe that a terrorist would spend all that time establishing a bond of trust while banking on the hope that Kathy will eagerly open the package while on the plane, thereby triggering an explosion? Of course not. No terrorist is going to trust his bomb to human curiosity. Perhaps it was meant to be detonated remotely, but if so, it’s likely inert. It sits safely in Kathy’s house for a week after that. There’s nothing in it except drugs, perhaps, or stolen goods. It’s perfectly safe for her to open it while (simple things again!) her child sleeps in his patch of sunlight. Whatever the stranger’s game was, it wasn’t to scam her into taking a bomb on the airplane.
So what’s Kasischke’s game? Through her use of irony, she’s talked us into accepting this absurdly unlikely scenario; in trusting her, we, like Kathy, have taken a foreign object onto a plane with us (a wonderful metaphor for what writers do to readers all the time, by the way). But when we get home to the end of the story and irony deserts us, we discover that we’re not holding a bomb after all. We’re not even holding a stolen necklace.
The sick baby works, I think, because I can’t imagine a better way to get Kathy off that plane and distracted for a week from her detachment and the mysterious package she’s accepted from the stranger. I think the only reason you didn’t like it, Bill, was that Kasischke’s irony worked too well – by that point in the story, it’s difficult for a reader to accept anything as entirely serious. Which is also why, when Kathy does change, it’s hard to trust. It’s so sweet and homey a transformation that it falls a little flat, without the armor of irony. It’s the old problem of having an actor take out a gun on stage: if it doesn’t get used, there’s a sense of letdown, a sense that the playwright has manipulated us. Kasischke tries to avoid this problem with the suspense of the final act, in which Kathy rediscovers the package and decides to open it. Just like that, we stop thinking about Kathy’s new outlook because we’re back to wondering what’s in the package. Is it a bomb, or isn’t it? The suspense is a brilliant distraction, as is the rhetorical question posed in the story’s final lines, but that’s all it is. Irony is the bait, but what we’re given is something that’s actually sort of sweet.
Like you, I don’t think in the least that this is a fatal flaw. “Stranger” is an impressive high-wire act, no question, and well worth reading.
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